Difficulties Of A Deacon by Jacob A Riis

Story type: Literature

It is my firm opinion that newspaper men should not be deacons. Not that there is any moral or spiritual reason why they should abstain–not that; but it doesn’t work; the chances are all against it. I know it from experience. I was a deacon myself once.

It was at a time when they were destroying gambling tools at Police Headquarters. I was there, and I carried away as a memento of the occasion a pocketful of red, white, yellow, and blue chips. They were pretty, and I thought they would be nice to have around. That was the beginning of the mischief. I was a very energetic deacon, and attended to the duties of the office with zeal. It was a young church; I had helped to found it myself; and at the Thursday night meetings I was rarely missing. The very next week it was my turn to lead it, and I started in to interpret the text to the best of my ability, and with much approval from the brethren.

I have a nervous habit, when talking, of fingering my watch, keys, knife, or whatever I happen to fish out of my pocket first. It happened to be the poker chips this time. Now, I have never played poker. I don’t know the game from the smallpox. But it seems that the congregation did. I could not at first account for the enthusiasm of the brethren as I laid down the law, and checked off the points successively on a white, a red, and a yellow chip, summing the argument up on a blue. I was rather flattered by my success at presenting the matter in a convincing light; and when the dominie leaned over and examined the chips attentively, I gave him a handful for the baby, cheerfully telling him that I had plenty more at home.

The look of horror on the good man’s face remained a puzzle to me until some of the congregation asked me on the train in the morning, in a confidential kind of way, where the game was, and how high was the ante. The explanation that ensued was not a success. I think that it shook the confidence of the brethren in me for the first time.

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It occurs to me now, looking back, that the fact that I had a black eye on that occasion may have contributed in a measure to this result. Yet it was as innocent an eye as those chips; in fact, it was distinctly an ecclesiastical black eye, if I may so call it. I was never a fighter, any more than I was a gambler. Only once in my life was I accused of fighting, and then most unjustly. It was when a man who had come into my office with a hickory club to punish me for a wrong, as he insisted upon considering it,–while in reality it was an act of strictest justice to him,–happened to fall out of a window, taking the whole sash with him. The simple fact was that I didn’t strike a blow. He literally fell out. However, that is another story, and a much older one.

This black eye was a direct outcome of my zeal as deacon. Between the duties it imposed upon me, and my work as a newspaper man, I was getting very much in need of exercise of some sort. The doctor recommended Indian clubs; but the boys in the office liked boxing, and it seemed to me to have some advantages. So we clubbed together, and got a set of gloves, and when we were not busy would put them on and have a friendly set-to. It was inevitable that our youthful spirits should rise at these meetings, and with them occasionally certain lumps, which afterward shaded off into various tints bordering more or less on black until we learned to keep a leech on hand for emergencies. You see, what with the spirit of the contest, the tenderness of our untrained flesh, and certain remembered scores which were thus paid off in an entirely friendly and Christian manner, leaving no bad blood behind,–especially after we had engaged the leech,–this was not only reasonable, but inevitable. But the brethren knew nothing of this, and couldn’t be persuaded to listen to it; and, in fairness, it must be owned that the spectacle of a deacon with a black eye and a handful of poker chips expounding the text in prayer-meeting was–well, let us say that appearances were against me.

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Still, I might have come through it all right had it not been for Mac. Mac was the dog. It never rains but it pours; and just at this time midnight burglars took to raiding our suburban town, and dogs came into fashion. Mac came into it with a long jump. He had been part of the outfit of a dog pit in a low dive on the East Side which the police had broken up. Sergeant Jack had heard of my need, and gave him to me for old acquaintance’ sake, warranting him to keep anybody away from the house. Upon this point there was never the least doubt. We might just as well have lived on a desert island while we had him. People went around the next block to avoid our house. It was not because Mac was unsociable; quite the contrary. He took to the town from the first, especially to the other dogs. These he generally took by the throat, to the great distress of their owners. I have never heard that bulldogs as a class have theories, and I am not prepared to discuss the point. I know that Mac had. He was an evolutionist, with a firm belief in the principle of the survival of the fittest; and he did all one dog could do to carry it into practice. His efforts eventually brought it down to a question between himself and a big long-haired dog in the next street. I think of this with regret, because it was the occasion of my one real slip. The dog led me into temptation.

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If it only had not been Sunday, and church time, when the issue became urgent, and the long-haired one accepted our invitation for a walk in the deep woods! In this saddening reflection I was partly comforted, while taking the by-paths for home afterward,–with Mac limping along on three legs, and minus one ear,–by the knowledge that our view of the case had prevailed. The long-haired one troubled us no more thereafter.

Mac had his strong points, but he had also his failings. One of these was a weakness for stale beer. I suppose he had been brought up on it in the dog pit. The pure air of Long Island, and the usual environment of his new home, did not wean him from it. He had not been long in our house before he took to absenting himself for days and nights at a time, returning ragged and fagged out, as if from a long spree. We found out, by accident, that he spent those vacations in a low saloon a mile up the plank road, which he had probably located on one of his excursions through the country to extend his doctrine of evolution. It was the conductor on the horse-car that ran past the saloon who told me of it. Mac had found the cars out, too, and rode regularly up and down to the place, surveying the country from the rear platform. The conductor prudently refrained from making any remarks after Mac had once afforded him a look at his jaw. I am sorry to say that I think Mac got drunk on those trips. I judged, from remarks I overheard once or twice about the “deacon’s drunken dog,” that the community shared my conviction. It was always quick to jump at conclusions, particularly about deacons.

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Sober second thought should have acquitted me of all the allegations against me, except the one matter of the Sunday discussion in the woods, which, however, I had forgotten to mention. But sober second thought, that ought always and specially to attach itself to the deaconry, was apparently at a premium in our town. I had begun to tire of the constant explanations that were required, when the climax came in a manner wholly unforeseen and unexpected. The cashier in the office had run away, or was under suspicion, or something, and it became necessary to overhaul the accounts to find out where the office stood. When that was done, my chief summoned me down town for a private interview. Upon the table lay my weekly pay-checks for three years back, face down. My employer eyed them and me, by turns, curiously.

“Mr. Riis,” he began stiffly, “I’m not going to judge you unheard; and, for that matter, it is none of my business. I have known you all this time as a sober, steady man; I believe you are a deacon in your church; and I never heard that you gambled or bet money. It seems now that I was never more mistaken in a man in my life. Tell me, how do you do it, anyhow? Do you blow in the whole of your salary every week on policy, or do you run a game of your own up there? Look at those checks.”

He pointed to the lot. I stared at them in bewilderment. They were my own checks, sure enough; and underneath my name, on the back of each one, was the indorsement of the infamous blackleg whose name had been a byword ever since I could remember as that of the chief devil in the policy blackmail conspiracy that had robbed the poor and corrupted the police force to the core.

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I went home and resigned my office as deacon. I did not explain. We were having a little difficulty at the time, about another matter, which made it easy. I did not add this straw, though the explanation was simple enough. My chief grasped it at once; but then, he was not a deacon. I had simply got my check cashed every week in a cigar-store next door that was known to be a policy-shop for the special accommodation of Police Headquarters in those days, and the check had gone straight into the “backer’s” bank-account. That was how. But, as I said, it was hopeless to try to explain, and I didn’t. I simply record here what I said at the beginning, that it is no use for a newspaper man, more particularly a police reporter, to try to be a deacon too. The chances are all against it.

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