Hints To The Traveler by Bill Nye

Story type: Literature

Every thinkful student has doubtless noticed that when he enters the office, or autograph department, of an American inn, a lithe and alert male person seizes his valise or traveling-bag with much earnestness. He then conveys it to some sequestered spot and does not again return. He is the porter of the hotel or inn. He may be a modest porter just starting out, or he may be a swollen and purse-proud porter with silver in his hair and also in his pocket.

I speak of the porter and his humble lot in order to show the average American boy who may read these lines that humor is not the only thing in America which yields large dividends on a very small capital. To be a porter does not require great genius, or education, or intellectual versatility; and yet, well attended to, the business is remunerative in the extreme and often brings excellent returns. It shows that any American boy who does faithfully and well the work assigned to him may become well-to-do and prosperous.

Recently I shook hands with a conductor on the Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad, who is the president of a bank. There is a general impression in the public mind that conductors all die poor, but here is “Jerry,” as everybody calls him, a man of forty-five years of age, perhaps, with a long head of whiskers and the pleasant position of president of a bank. As he thoughtfully slams the doors from car to car, collecting fares on children who are no longer young and whose parents seek to conceal them under the seats, or as he goes from passenger to passenger sticking large blue checks in their new silk hats, and otherwise taking advantage of people, he is sustained and soothed by the blessed thought that he has done the best he could, and that some day when the summons comes to lay aside his loud-smelling lantern and make his last run, he will leave his dear ones provided for. Perhaps I ought to add that during all these years of Jerry’s prosperity the road has also managed to keep the wolf from the door. I mention it because it is so rare for the conductor and the road to make money at the same time.

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I knew a conductor on the Union Pacific railroad, some years ago, who used to make a great deal of money, but he did not invest wisely, and so to-day is not the president of a bank. He made a great deal of money in one way or another while on his run, but the man with whom he was wont to play poker in the evening is now the president of the bank. The conductor is in the puree.

It was in Minneapolis that Mr. Cleveland was once injudicious. He and his wife were pained to read the following report of their conversation in the paper on the day after their visit to the flour city:

“Yes, I like the town pretty well, but the people, some of ’em, are too blamed fresh.”

“Do you think so, Grover? I thought they were very nice, indeed, but still I think I like St. Paul the best. It is so old and respectable.”

“Oh, yes, respectability is good enough in its place, but it can be overdone. I like Washington, where respectability is not made a hobby.”

“But are you not enjoying yourself here, honey?”

“No, I am not. To tell you the truth, I am very unhappy. I’m so scared for fear I’ll say something about the place that will be used against me by the St. Paul folks, that I most wish I was dead, and everybody wants to show me the new bridge and the waterworks, and speak of ‘our great and phenomenal growth,’ and show me the population statistics, and the school-house, and the Washburn residence, and Doc Ames and Ole Forgerson, and the saw-mill, and the boom, and then walk me up into the thirteenth story of a flour mill and pour corn meal down my back, and show me the wonderful increase of the city debt and the sewerage, and the West Hotel, and the glorious ozone and things here, that it makes me tired. And I have to look happy and shake hands and say it knocks St. Paul silly, while I don’t think so at all, and I wish I could do something besides be president for a couple of weeks, and quit lying almost entirely, except when I go a-fishing.”

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“But don’t you think the people here are very cordial, dawling?”

“Yes, they’re too cordial for me altogether. Instead of talking about the wonderful hit I have made as a president and calling attention to my remarkable administration, they talk about the flour output and the electric plant and other crops here, and allude feelingly to ‘number one hard’ and chintz bugs and other flora and fauna of this country, which, to be honest with you, I do not and never did give a damn for.”


“Well, I beg your pardon, dear, and I oughtn’t to speak that way before you, but if you knew how much better I feel now you would not speak so harshly to me. It is indeed hard to be ever gay and joyous before the great masses who as a general thing, do not know enough to pound sand, but who are still vested with the divine right of suffrage, and so must be treated gently, and loved and smiled at till it makes me ache.”

Mr. Cleveland was greatly annoyed by the publication of this conversation, and could not understand it until this fall, when a Minneapolis man told him that the pale, haughty coachman who drove the presidential carriage was a reporter. He could handle a team with one hand and remember things with the other.

And so I say that as a president we can not be too careful what we say. I hope that the little boys and girls who read this, and who may hereafter become presidents or wives of presidents, will bear this in mind, and always have a kind word for one and all, whether they feel that way or not.

But I started out to speak of porters and not reporters. I carry with me, this year, a small, sorrel bag, weighing a little over twenty ounces. It contains a slight bottle of horse medicine and a powder rag. Sometimes it also contains a costly robe de nuit, when I do not forget and leave said robe in a sleeping car or hotel. I am not overdrawing this matter, however, when I say honestly that the shrill cry of fire at night in most any hotel in the United States would now bring to the fire-escape from one to six employes of said hotel wearing these costly vestments with my brief but imperishable name engraven on the bosom.

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This little traveling bag, which is not larger than a man’s hand, is rudely pulled out of my grasp as I enter an inn, and it has cost me $29 to get it back again from the porter. Besides, I have paid $8.35 for new handles to replace those that have been torn off in frantic scuffles between the porter and myself to see which would get away with it.

Yesterday I was talking with a reformed lecturer about this peculiarity of the porters. He said he used to lecture a great deal at moderate prices throughout the country, and after ten years of earnest toil he was enabled to retire with a rich experience and $9 in money. He lectured on phrenology and took his meals with the chairman of the lecture committee. In Ouray, Colorado, the baggageman allowed his trunk to fall from a great height, and so the lid was knocked off and the bust which the professor used in his lecture was busted. He therefore had to borrow a bald-headed man to act as bust for him in the evening. After the close of the lecture the professor found that the bust had stolen the gross receipts from his coat tail pocket while he was lecturing. The only improbable feature about this story is the implication that a bald-headed man would commit a crime.

But still he did not become soured. He pressed on and lectured to the gentle janitors of the land in piercing tones. He was always kind to every one, even when people criticised his lecture and went away before he got through. He forgave them and paid his bills just the same as he did when people liked him.

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Once a newspaper man did him a great wrong by saying that “the lecture was decayed, and that the professor would endear himself to every one if some night at his hotel, instead of blowing out the gas and turning off his brains as he usually did, he would just turn off the gas and blow out his brains.” But the professor did not go to the newspaper man’s office and shoot holes in his person. He spoke kindly to him always, and once when the two met in a barber shop, and it was doubtful which was “next,” as they came in from opposite ends of the room, the professor gently yielded the chair to the man who had done him the great wrong, and while the barber was shaving him eleven tons of ceiling peeled off and fell on the editor who had been so cruel and so rude, and when they gathered up the debris, a day or two afterward, it was almost impossible to tell which was ceiling and which was remains.

So it is always best to deal gently with the erring, especially if you think it will be fatal to them.

The reformed lecturer also spoke of a discovery he made, which I had never heard of before. He began, during the closing years of his tour, to notice mysterious marks on his trunk, made with chalk generally, and so, during his leisure hours, he investigated them and their cause and effect. He found that they were the symbols of the Independent Order of Porters and Baggage Bursters. He discovered that it was a species of language by which one porter informed the next, without the expense of telegraphing, what style of man owned the trunk and the prospects for “touching” him, as one might say.

The professor gave me a few of these signs from an old note-book, together with his own interpretation after years of close study. I reproduce them here, because I know they will interest the reader as they did me.

This trunk belongs to a traveling man who weighs 211 pounds. If you have no respect for the blamed old fire-proof safe itself, please respect it for its gentle owner’s sake. He can not bear to have his trunk harshly treated, and he might so far forget himself as to kill you. It is better to be alive and poor than it is to be wealthy and dead. It is better to do a kind act for a fellow-being than it is to leave a desirable widow for some one else to marry.

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If you will knock the top off this trunk you will discover the clothing of a mean man. In case you can not knock the lid entirely off, burst it open a little so that the great, restless, seething traveling public can see how many hotel napkins and towels and cakes of soap he has stolen.

This is the trunk of a young girl, and contains the poor but honest garb she wore when she ran away from home. Also the gay clothes she bought after a wicked ambition had poisoned her simple heart. They are the gaudy garments and flashy trappings for which she exchanged her honest laugh and her bright and beautiful youth. Handle gently the poor little trunk, as you would touch her sad little history, for her father is in the second-class coach, weeping softly into his coarse red handkerchief, and she, herself, is going home on the same train in her cheap little coffin in the baggage car to meet her sorrowing mother, who will go up into the garret many rainy afternoons in the days to come, to cry over this poor little trunk and no one will know about it. It will be a secret known only to her sorrowing heart and to God.

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