MARK TWAIN IN NEW YORK.
(SPECIAL CORRESPONDENCE OF THE ENTERPRISE)
NEW YORK, January 20
I have run up here every now and then to get rid of the dullness of Washington; but I cannot tarry long, for I have to clear out again to keep from being crazed by the terrible activity of New York. They complain that New York is excessively dull, now, and so it must be, compared to the bewildering energy it displays in its busiest seasons - but even as it is now it is able to make provincial brains grow dizzy with its noise, and bustle, and excitement. It is a wonderful city. Two persons died last night of hunger, cold and exposure; they were people who could get nothing to do, and could not make a living begging. The bodies were displayed at the Morgue to-day, and among the idle spectators was a man who has nothing in life to accomplish but the spending of four hundred thousand dollars a year. I was in a tenement house yesterday which contained two hundred persons, all crowded together in little cramped chambers, where was lack of everything but dirt and rags; there were remnants of hats for window-panes; doors hung by one hinge; fragments of quilts and blankets, bestowed in corners, did duty as beds; there were a few battered pots and pans, but nothing to cook in them, and no fire to do it with, either; there was occasionally a broken chair and part of a table, but as a general thing these rooms were not so sumptuously furnished; there were small ridges of snow on some of the floors - it had blown in through cracks and broken windows; the human occupants were cadaverous, and pale, hollow-eyed and savage with hunger, or dumb with a misery that was next of kin to despair. One woman with five children (it is proper to call her a woman, I suppose, though she would have averaged very well as rags, all through), said she washed for a living formerly, but she got sick and lost her custom; then she peddled apples and oranges until a general financial crisis that prostrated all commerce and broke up many a staunch old firm reduced her to peanuts; but trouble still followed her; an investment of four dollars at the very top of the market, followed immediately by an unusual business depression, compelled a sacrifice of the whole venture and she went to protest. She retired from commerce, a bankrupt. She struggled on, doing what she could to make a livelihood by begging, but she was very nearly discouraged. For 24 hours she had not eaten. She swore to it. One of the philanthropists in our party advanced funds enough to set her up in business again.
There was want and suffering all about us. There was a man there - a poor decrepit starveling of 60 - who had been the clown in a circus in his palmy days - had been royally tricked out in paint, and brilliant spangles, and ribbons and gold lace, instead of the gunny sack he wore about his shoulders now and the shredded latticework of rags that hung about his legs. He had been the admiration of the school-boys; had been the man of all men they envied most and most longed to be like. But nobody envied him now; nobody admired him; the day of his greatness was over. He mentioned it with feeling, and sighed when he spoke of it. He told how the audience used to applaud when he capered into the ring and made his bow; he said he was the "star" of the troupe, and his name alone on the bills was a sufficient guarantee for a full house. He compared himself with the "celebrated" clowns, Messrs. So-and-So, whom we had not heard of before, and pointed out wherein he had been superior to them. Then he piped out some execrable jokes in the old familiar clownish way (I was not aware before that they were so old), and told how boisterous the laughter and applause used to be. The fact is he had forgotten for the moment that he was a mendicant, and imagined himself a clown again, in the zenith of his glory. He even got so carried away with his happy reminiscences as to attempt his favorite comic song for us, but his poor reedy falsetto broke down and his splendid day-dream vanished. He was an unspangled mendicant again. He told how he came down gradually but surely from the dizzy height of his prosperity to be a magic-lantern exhibitor, then a door-keeper, then a Roman soldier in a theatre, then a mere "supe," afterwards a vendor of cheap soap and ballads, and finally a rag-picker and a searcher after old bones and broken bottles. He was hungry, but he was not thinking of that; he was cold, but he was not thinking of that, either; his friends were all gone, years ago, and it was plain that he had no home - but none of these things stood first in his mind. All he wanted was to shine once more in the ring, in glittering spangles, and get off some more of those infernal jokes, and hear the blessed music of applause, and then die. But we could not give him an engagement, as we had no circus, and so we left him to his want, his rags and his dreams.
There was a girl in that house, about fourteen years old, who supported her father and mother and two young sisters by her work. She sold newspapers about the streets in the daytime, and played the tambourine and collected the pennies for an organ grinder at night. She was prosperous, and full of ambition. She reveled in her gorgeous dreams, and dared to look forward to a day when she should rise to the dignity of peanuts, and have a regular stand on the corner. This girl had a good deal of human nature about her. Straightened as her circumstances were, she kept a Sunday dress - a dress that must have cost as much as three or four dollars, years ago, when it was new. She took it down from a nail and showed it to us. She had had a waterfall once, she said, but the rats got it. There was considerable human nature in some of those small children, too. They got out some rusty rag dolls - wretched affairs with arms pulled out, and features defaced, and bran oozing from their legs - they got these melancholy monstrosities out and flourished them about where we could admire them, but pretending all the while that they had no such end in view, and were even unconscious that those dolls were in any respect proper objects of admiration. I have seen other children go through the same fraudulent performance with costlier playthings, pretending all the while that they were not courting notice and commendation.
Ah, the want and suffering that we saw yesterday! We passed from the tenement house to a mansion up town where one of our party had a call to make, and there we saw human misery in its saddest form. Here was a poor devil living in a vast brownstone front, whose income had suddenly come toppling down from six thousand a month to four. He was consequently in deep distress, and all that he said was touched with melancholy. Trouble never comes singlehanded. One of his finest horses had gone lame, and his most precious dog was very sick and like to die. His champagne and his sherry did not suit his taste, and his tailor was so slow with his work as to drive him to the verge of distraction sometimes. This heart bowed down by weight of woe, wrought upon my sympathies as suffering never did before. And yet no man can fully appreciate misery like his until he has tried it. Unhappily, I had never tried it, and I was obliged to compassionate him only in a degree far inferior to the magnitude of his grief. The ex-clown suffered, but I could not see that he suffered as much as this man.
But this distressing subject suggests a fact. In this city, with its scores of millionaires, there are to-day a hundred thousand men out of employment. It is an item of threatening portent. Many apprehend bread riots, and certainly there is serious danger that they may occur. If this army of men had a leader, New York would be in an unenviable situation. It has been proposed in the Legislature to appropriate $500,000 to the relief of New York poor, but of course the thing is cried down by every body - the money would never get further than the pockets of a gang of thieving politicians. They would represent the "poor" to the best of their ability, and there the State's charity would stop.
New York is always bustling and lively, but there are degrees in even its liveliness. In that net-work of great business streets that occupies the section between Broadway and the Brooklyn ferries, and the City Hall and Castle Garden, one may cross and recross the thoroughfares, now, with hardly a fear of being run over, and may make a reasonable progress along pavement still crowded, but not crammed. But a year ago it was so different. To attempt to cross one of those streets then, with its long array of massed and struggling vehicles, was to take your life in your own hands; and to get anywhere on foot along the sidewalks necessitated an exasperating elbow-fight for the whole distance you wished to go. The used to talk of dull times then. What do they think of it now?
[photocopy available in Mark Twain Papers, University of California, Berkeley, CA]
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