Unhealthy by Christopher Morley

Story type: EssayOn Saturday afternoons Titania and I always have an adventure. On Sundays we stay at home and dutifully read manuscripts (I am the obscure creature known …

Story type: Essay

On Saturday afternoons Titania and I always have an adventure. On Sundays we stay at home and dutifully read manuscripts (I am the obscure creature known as a “publisher’s reader”) but Saturday post meridiem is a golden tract of time wherein we wander as we list.

The 35th Street entrance to McQueery’s has long been hallowed as our stell-dich-ein. We meet there at one o’clock. That is to say, I arrive at 12:59 and spend fifteen minutes in most animated reflection. There is plenty to think about. One may stand between the outer and inner lines of glass doors and watch the queer little creatures that come tumbling out of the cloak and suit factory across the street. Or one may stand inside the store, on a kind of terrace, beneath pineapple shaped arc lights, looking down upon the bustle of women on the main floor. Best of all, one may stroll along the ornate gallery to one side where all sorts and conditions of ladies wait for other ladies who have promised to meet them at one o’clock. They divide their time between examining the mahogany victrolae and deciding what kind of sundae they will have for lunch. A very genteel old gentleman with white hair and a long morning coat and an air of perpetual irritation is in charge of this social gallery. He wears the queer, soft, flat-soled boots that are suggestive of corns. There is an information bureau there, where one may learn everything except the time one may expect one’s wife to arrive. But I have learned a valuable subterfuge. If I am waiting for Titania, and beginning to despair of her arrival, I have only to go to a telephone to call her up. As soon as I have put the nickel in, she is sure to appear. Nowadays I save the nickel by going into a booth and pretending to telephone. Sure enough, at 1:14, Ingersoll time, in she trots.

We have a jargon of our own.

“Eye-polishers?” say I.

“Yes,” says Titania, “but there was a block at 42nd Street. I’m so sorry, Grump.”

“Eye-polishers” is our term for the Fifth Avenue busses, because riding on them makes Titania’s eyes so bright. More widely, the word connotes anything that produces that desirable result, such as bunches of violets, lavender peddlers, tea at Mary Elizabeth’s, spring millinery, or finding sixpence in her shoe. This last is a rite suggested by the old song:

And though maids sweep their hearths no less
Than they were wont to do,
Yet who doth now for cleanliness
Find sixpence in her shoe?

A bright dune does very well as a sixpenny piece.

We always lunch at Moretti’s on Saturday: it is the recognized beginning of an adventure. The Moretti lunch has advanced from a quarter to thirty cents, I am sorry to say, but this is readily compensated by the Grump buying Sweet Caporals instead of something Turkish. A packet of cigarettes is another curtain-raiser for an adventure. On other days publishers’ readers smoke pipes, but on Saturdays cigarettes are possible.

“Antipasto?”

“No, thanks.”

“Minestrone or consomme?”

“Two minestrone, two prime ribs, ice cream and coffee. Red wine, please.” That is the formula. We have eaten the “old reliable Moretti lunch” so often that the routine has become a ritual. Oh, excellent savor of the Moretti basement! Compounded of warmth, a pungent pourri of smells, and the jangle of thick china, how diverting it is! The franc-tireur in charge of the wine-bin watches us complaisantly from his counter where he sits flanked by flasks of Hoboken chianti and a case of brittle cigars.

How good Moretti’s minestrone tastes to the unsophisticated tongue. What though it be only an azoic extract of intense potato, dimly tinct with sargasso and macaroni–it has a pleasing warmth and bulk. Is it not the prelude to an Adventure?

Well, where shall we go to-day? No two explorers dickering over azimuth and dead reckoning could discuss latitude and longitude more earnestly than Titania and I argue our possible courses. Generally, however, she leaves it to me to chart the journey. That gives me the pride of conductor and her the pleasure of being surprised.

According to our Mercator’s projection (which, duly wrapped in a waterproof envelope, we always carry on our adventures) there was a little known region lying nor’ nor’west of Blackwell’s Island and plotted on the map as East River Park. I had heard of this as a picturesque and old-fashioned territory, comparatively free from footpads and lying near such places as Astoria and Hell Gate. We laid a romantic course due east along 35th Street, Titania humming a little snatch from an English music-hall song that once amused us:

“My old man’s a fireman
Now what do you think of that?
He wears goblimey breeches
And a little goblimey hat.”

She always quotes this to me when (she says) I wear my hat too far on the back of my head.

The cross slope of Murray Hill drops steeply downward after one leaves Madison Avenue. We dipped into a region that has always been very fascinating to me. Under the roaring L, past dingy saloons, animal shops, tinsmiths, and painless dentists, past the old dismantled Manhattan hospital. The taste of spring was in the air: one of the dentists was having his sign regilded, a huge four-pronged grinder as big as McTeague’s in Frank Norris’s story. Oysters going out, the new brew of Bock beer coming in: so do the saloons mark the vernal equinox.

A huge green chalet built on stilts, with two tiers of trains rumbling by, is the L station at 34th Street and Second Avenue. A cutting wind blew from the East River, only two blocks away. I paid two nickels and we got into the front car of the northbound train.

Until Titania and I attain the final glory of riding in an aeroplane, or ascend Jacob’s ladder, there never will be anything so thrilling as soaring over the housetops in the Second Avenue L. Rocking, racketing, roaring over those crazy trestles, now a glimpse of the leaden river to the east, now a peep of church spires and skyscrapers on the west, and the dingy imitation lace curtains of the third-story windows flashing by like a recurring pattern–it is a voyage of romance! Did you ever stand at the front door of an Elevated train, watching the track stretch far ahead toward the Bronx, and the little green stations slipping nearer and nearer? The Subway is a black, bellowing horror; the bus a swaying, jolty start-and-stop, bruising your knees against the seat in front; but the L swings you up and over the housetops, smooth and sheer and swift.

We descended at 86th Street and found ourselves in a new world. A broad, dingy street, lined by shabby brown houses and pushbutton apartments, led in a gentle descent toward the river. The neighbourhood was noisy, quarrelsome, and dirty. After a long, bitter March the thaw had come at last: the street was viscous with slime, the melting snow lay in grayish piles along the curbs. Small boys on each side of the Street were pelting sodden snowballs which spattered around us as we walked down the pavement.

But after two blocks things changed suddenly. The trolley swung round at a right angle (up Avenue A) and the last block of 86th Street showed the benefit of this manoeuvre. The houses grew neat and respectable. A little side street branching off to the left (not recorded by Mercator) revealed some quaint cottages with gables and shuttered windows so mid-Victorian that my literary heart leaped and I dreamed at once of locating a novel in this fascinating spot. And then we rounded the corner and saw the little park.

It was a bit of old Chelsea, nothing less. Titania clapped her hands, and I lit my pipe in gratification. Beside us was a row of little houses of warm red brick with peaked mansard roofs and cozy bay windows and polished door knockers. In front of them was the lumpy little park, cut up into irregular hills, where children were flying kites. And beyond that, an embankment and the river in a dim wet mist. There was Blackwell’s Island, and a sailing barge slipping by. In the distance we could see the colossal span of the new Hell Gate bridge. With the journalist’s instinct for superlatives I told Titania it was the largest single span in the world. I wonder if it is?

As to that I know not. But it was the river that lured us. On the embankment we found benches and sat down to admire the scene. It was as picturesque as Battersea in Whistler’s mistiest days. A ferryboat, crossing to Astoria, hooted musically through the haze. Tugs, puffing up past Blackwell’s Island into the Harlem River, replied with mellow blasts. The pungent tang of the East River tickled our nostrils, and all my old ambition to be a tugboat captain returned.

And then trouble began. Just as I was planning how we might bilk our landlord on Long Island and move all our belongings to this delicious spot, gradually draw our friends around us, and make East End Avenue the Cheyne Walk of New York–we might even import an English imagist poet to lend cachet to the coterie–I saw by Titania’s face that something was wrong.

I pressed her for the reason of her frown.

She thought the region was unhealthy.

Now when Titania thinks that a place is unhealthy no further argument is possible. Just on what data she bases these deductions I have never been able to learn. I think she can tell by the shape of the houses, or the lush quality of the foliage, or the fact that the garbage men collect from the front instead of from the back. But however she arrives at the conclusion, it is immutable.

Any place that I think is peculiarly amusing, or quaint, or picturesque, Titania thinks is unhealthy.

Sometimes I can see it coming. We are on our way to Mulberry Bend, or the Bowery, or Farrish’s Chop House. I see her brow begin to pucker. “Do you feel as though it is going to be unhealthy?” I ask anxiously. If she does, there is nothing for it but to clutch at the nearest subway station and hurry up to Grant’s Tomb. In that bracing ether her spirits revive.

So it was on this afternoon. My Utopian vision of a Chelsea in New York, outdoing the grimy salons of Greenwich Village, fell in splinters at the bottom of my mind. Sadly I looked upon the old Carl Schurz mansion on the hill, and we departed for the airy plateaus of Central Park. Desperately I pointed to the fading charms of East River Park–the convent round the corner, the hokey pokey cart by the curbstone.

I shall never be a tugboat captain. It isn’t healthy.

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