Chips From The Maelstrom by Jacob A Riis

Story type: Literature

It is a good many years since I ran across the Murphy family while hunting up a murder, in the old Mulberry Street days. That was not their name, but no matter; it was one just as good. Their home was in Poverty Gap, and I have seldom seen a worse. The man was a wife-beater when drunk, which he was whenever he had “the price.” Hard work and hard knocks had made a wreck of his wife. The five children, two of them girls, were growing up as they could, which was not as they should, but according to the way of Poverty Gap: in the gutter.

We took them and moved them across town from the West Side to be nearer us, for it was a case where to be neighbor one had to stand close. As another step, I had the man taken up and sent to the Island. He came home the next week, and before the sun set on another day had run his family to earth. We found one of the boys bringing beer in a can and Mr. Murphy having a good time on the money we had laid away against the landlord’s call. Mrs. Murphy was nursing a black eye at the sink. She had done her best, but she was fighting against fate.

So it seemed; for as the years went by, though he sometimes stayed out his month on the Island–more often, especially if near election time, he was back the next or even the same day–and though we moved the family into every unlikely neighborhood we could think of, always he found them out and celebrated his return home by beating his wife and chasing the children out to buy beer, the girls, as they grew up, to earn in the street the money for his debauches. I had talked the matter over with the Chief of Police, who was interested on the human side, and we had agreed that there was no other way than to eliminate Mr. Murphy. All benevolent schemes of reforming him were preposterous. So, between us, we sent him to jail nineteen times. He did not always get there. Once he was back before he could have reached the Island ferry; we never knew how. Another time, when the doorman at the police station was locking him up, he managed to get on the free side of the door, and, drunk as he was, slammed it on the policeman and locked him in. Then he sat down outside, lighted his pipe and cracked jokes at the helpless anger of his prisoner. Murphy was a humorist in his way. Had he also been a poet he might have secured his discharge as did his chum on the Island who delivered himself thus in his own defense before the police judge:

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“Leaves have their time to fall,
And so likewise have I.
The reason, too, is the same,
It comes of getting dry.
The difference ‘twixt leaves and me–
I fall more harder and more frequently.”

But Murphy was no poet, and his sense of humor was of a kind too fraught with peril to life and limb. When he was arraigned the nineteenth time, the judge in the Essex Market Court lost patience when I tried to persuade him to break the Island routine and hold the man for the Special Sessions, and ordered me sternly to “Stand down, sir! This court is not to be dictated to by anybody.” I had to remind his Honor that unless he could be persuaded to deal rationally with Mr. Murphy the court might yet come to be charged before the Grand Jury with being accessory to wife murder, for assuredly it was coming to that. It helped, and Murphy’s case was considered in Sessions, where a sentence of two years and a half was imposed upon him. While serving it he died.

The children had meanwhile grown into young men and women. The first summer, when we sent the two girls to a clergyman’s family in the country, they stole some rings and came near wrecking all our plans. But those good people had sense, and saw that the children stole as a magpie steals–the gold looked good to them. They kept them, and they have since grown into good women. To be sure, it was like a job of original creation. They had to be built, morally and intellectually, from the ground up. But in the end we beat Poverty Gap. The boys? That was a harder fight, for the gutter had its grip on them. But we pulled them out. At all events, they did better than their father. When they were fifteen they wore neckties, which in itself was a challenge to the traditions of the Gap. I don’t think I ever saw Mr. Murphy with one, or a collar either. They will never be college professors, but they promised fair to be honest workingmen, which was much.

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What to do with the mother was a sore puzzle for a while. She could not hold a flat-iron in her hand; didn’t know which end came first. She could scrub, and we began at that. With infinite patience, she was taught washing and ironing, and between visits from her rascal husband began to make out well. For she was industrious, and, with hope reviving, life took on some dignity, inconceivable in her old setting. In spite of all his cruelty she never wholly cast off her husband. He was still to her Mr. Murphy, the head of the house, if by chance he were to be caught out sober; but the chance never befell. It was right that he should be locked up, but outside of these official relations of his, as it were, with society, she had no criticism to make upon him. Only once, when he dropped a note showing that he had been carrying on a flirtation with a “scrub” on the Island, did she exhibit any resentment. Mrs. Murphy was jealous; that is, she was human.

Through all the years of his abuse, with the instinct of her race, she had managed to keep up an insurance on his life that would give him a decent burial. And when he lay dead at last she spent it all–more than a hundred and fifty dollars–on a wake over the fellow, all except a small sum which she reserved for her own adornment in his honor. She came over to the Settlement to consult our head worker as to the proprieties of the thing: should she wear mourning earrings in his memory?

Such is the plain record of the Murphy family, one of the oldest on our books in Henry Street. Over against it let me set one of much more recent date, and let them tell their own story.

Our gardener, when he came to dig up from their winter bed by the back fence the privet shrubs that grow on our roof garden in summer, reported that one was missing. It was not a great loss, and we thought no more about it, till one day one of our kindergarten workers came tiptoeing in and beckoned us out on the roof. Way down in the depth of the tenement-house yard back of us, where the ice lay in a grimy crust long after the spring flowers had begun to peep out in our garden above, grew our missing shrub. A piece of ground, yard-wide, had been cleared of rubbish and dug over. In the middle of the plot stood the privet shrub, trimmed to make it impersonate a young tree. A fence had been built about it with lath, and the whole thing had quite a festive look. A little lad was watering and tending the “garden.” He looked up and saw us and nodded with perfect frankness. He was Italian, by the looks of him.

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One of our workers went around in Madison Street to invite him to the Settlement, where we would give him all the flowers he wanted.

“But come by the front door, not over the back fence,” was the message she bore, and he said he would. He made no bones of having raided our yard. He wanted the “tree” and took it. But he didn’t come. It was a long way round; his was more direct. This spring the same worker caught him climbing the back fence once more, and this time trying to drag back with him a whole window-box. She was just in time to pull it back on our side. He let go his grip without resentment. It was the fate of war; that time we won. We renewed our invitation after that, and, when he didn’t respond, sent him four blossoming geraniums with the friendly regards of a neighbor who bore no grudge. For in our social creed the longing for a flower in the child-heart covers a maze of mischief; and a maze it is always with the boys. No wonder we feel that way. Our work, all of it, sprang from that longing and was built upon it. But that is another story.

The other day I looked down and saw our flowers blooming there, but with a discouraged look I could make out even from that height. Still no news from their owner. A little girl with blue ribbons in her hair was watering them. I went around and struck up an acquaintance with her. Mike was in the country, she said, on Long Island, where his sister was married. She, too, was his sister. Her name was Rose, and a sweet little rose she did look like in all the litter of that tenement yard. It was for her Mike had made the garden and had built the summer-house which she and her friends furnished. She took me to it, in the corner of the garden. You could just put your head in; but it was worth while. The walls, made of old boxes and boards, had been papered with colored supplements. The “Last Supper” was there, and some bird pictures, a snipe and a wood-duck with a wholesome suggestion of outdoors; on a nicely papered shelf some shining bits of broken crockery to finish things off. A doll’s bed and chair furnished one-half of the “house,” a wobbly parlor chair the other half. The initials of the four girl friends were written in blue chalk over the door.

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The “garden” was one step across, two the long way. I saw at a glance why the geraniums drooped, with leaves turning yellow. She had taken them out of the pots and set them right on top of the ground.

“But that isn’t the way,” I said, and rolled up my sleeves to show her how to plant a flower. I shall not soon get the smell of that sour soil out of my nostrils and my memory. It welled up with a thousand foul imaginings of the gutter the minute I dug into it with the lath she gave me for a spade. Inwardly I resolved that before summer came again there should be a barrel of the sweet wholesome earth from my own Long Island garden in that back yard, in which a rosebush might live. But the sun?

“Does it ever come here?” I asked, doubtfully glancing up at the frowning walls that hedged us in.

“Every evening it comes for a little while,” she said cheerfully. It must be a little while indeed, in that den. She showed me a straggling green thing with no leaves. “That is a potato,” she said, “and this is a bean. That’s the way they grow.” The bean was trying feebly to climb a string to the waste-pipe that crossed the “garden” and burrowed in it. Between the shell-paved walk and the wall was a border two hands wide where there was nothing.

“There used to be grass there,” she said, “but the cats ate it.” On the wall above it was chalked the inevitable “Keep off the Grass.” They had done their best.

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Three or four plants with no traditional prejudices as to soil grew in one corner. “Mike found the seed of them,” she said simply. I glanced at the back fence and guessed where.

She was carrying water from the hydrant when I went out. “They’re good people,” said the old housekeeper, who had come out to see what the strange man was there for. On the stoop sat an old grandfather with a child in his lap.

“It is the way of ’em,” he said. “I asked this one,” patting the child affectionately, “what she wanted for her birthday. ‘Gran’pa,’ she said, ‘I want a flower.’ Now did ye ever hear such a dern little fool?” and he smoothed her tangled head. But I saw that he understood.

Chips from the maelstrom that swirls ever in our great city. We stand on the shore and pull in such wrecks as we may. I set them down here without comment, without theory. For it is not theory that in the last going over we are brothers, being children of one Father. Hence our real heredity is this, that we are children of God. Hence, also, our fight upon the environment that would smother instincts proclaiming our birthright is the great human issue, the real fight for freedom, in all days.

And Murphy, says my carping friend, where does he come in? He does not come in; unless it be that the love and loyalty of his wife which not all his cruelty could destroy, and the inhumanity of Poverty Gap, plead for him that another chance may be given the man in him. Who knows?

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