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Mark Twain chatted with a SUN reporter at the Everett house yesterday about the possibility of a great reform in American common life. The humorist as a reformer may seem to be out of his role, but Mr. Clemens had put by the mask and spoke earnestly. In the course of conversation he was asked if in his last trip to France, from which he has just returned, he had noticed an new habit or fad of the people that differed from those at home.
"I don't recall anything startling just now," he said. "I am not one of those travelers who seek in a foreign country for something they do not like. So many people, especially in writing about other countries, seem to view them as if from an eminence, and look down upon and decry what they do not like. It makes not the slightest difference to the people of the country; your opinion is of no value to them. I do like to look for something wherever I go among foreign peoples that we can adopt at home with benefit to ourselves or advantage to America as a nation. In many years I think we are ahead of all, but I believe there may be good points found by careful observation of other people.
"In the last four years I have crossed the Atlantic fifteen times. Every time I get back to New York I see things on every hand that I think are better than what I have just been accustomed to. They keep coming up here, there, there again, and yonder. But every now and then I see something that isn't so nice. Did it ever occur to you to notice how discourteous we are as a people in our cities? In common life I mean. Yesterday I was in one of these great stores where they sell about everything one wants and where there are a thousand clerks. I was waiting for my purchase when a woman walked up to the counter--an American woman all over [he repeated in a gallant tone, and shaking his head in his peculiar manner by way of emphasizing his admiration of her kind while he deprecated the weakness he was about to report]. There stood the salesgirl behind the counter. With the air of one asking a favor the woman asked if she could see some article of apparel that goes about the waist.
" 'What's y'r size?' asked the salesgirl, brusquely.
" 'I don't know,' said the woman, mildly.
" 'Here, measure y'rself!' and the girl snaked a measuring tape from under the counter and handed it to the customer. A purchase was made, and then, from the salesgirl, abruptly: 'Payfe't now or send it home?'
" 'I will pay for it here.'
" 'Cash--cash--cash!' and that was all.
"Now, isn't that the case, over and over again? Are we not all that way? Doesn't a man do the same at a hotel? A stranger enters a hotel office. The clerk glances up, sees that it is not one of the regular patrons and goes on with his work. The man registers and asks--asks--if he can have such and such kind of a room. The clerk swings the register around, scratches a number opposite the guest's name, and yells: 'Front! Show the gentleman to X, 13.' There's the same discourtesy without a word. The man asked a question. The clerk said not a word except to summon a porter. It isn't always what is said to us; it's the way in which it is said, or the manner of the person that really offends us, and this when we have not been offensive in word or manner, but have been polite.
"There is none of us who relish such treatment as the woman received at the big store; yet we are silent. Or if we complain we do not complain in the right place, and so get little redress. Abroad people are not likely to be subjected to such treatment, and if they are they complain to the highest in authority and get better attention. Until this time I have latterly on my return from across the water put up at the Players' club, and I have always been impressed with the conversation of the men, who were telling each other of some trouble they had had during the day on the street car or elevated railroad lines. It seemed to me an odd thing that there should be such difficulties so frequently, and I asked if the sufferers had made complaint. Yes, they had, but I found it was only to some one above the offender, not to the responsible head. That is wrong. If we want courteous treatment we have got to see to it that complains of abusive treatment are made to the proper people."
"Do you hold, then, that discourtesy is to be reformed by complaint?"
"I do. Twenty-five years ago the general experience in this country was that if you addressed a railroad conductor you got an insolent or a gruff answer. At that time if you wanted to go from here to Hartford or to Boston, for instance, the chances were that you would have to stand up, and if you asked for a seat the conductor would either tell you disagreeably that there was none or he would not answer you at all. I have seen those cars with the aisles filled as those of your surface cars, and a request for a seat would be answered by abuse. One man--I ought not to have forgotten his name, but I do not just now recall it--stood for his rights. He demanded a seat, and insisted that one be given to him. They told him bluntly there were none. They matter was carried to the courts, and it was very promptly decided that a railroad company must give a man a seat or pay damages. Now you have no difficulty in getting a seat if you only insist quietly but firmly on having one, even if the company has to put on an extra car. And all over the country now the railroad conductors usually answer you civilly.
"Just lately, going down town on an elevated train, I stood under the eave of a car behind a car that was crowded. At one of the stations there were many people in the crowded car who wanted to get off, and although most of them followed one another as closely as possible it took them a long time to get off. When all were out, except two men and a woman, who carried a child, the guard pulled the rope and the train went ahead. The men jumped, but the woman could not, and had not the men caught her she might have been seriously injured. I was busy, but I noted the guard's number and the car's number, and the time. I had all the facts, and when we got down town I turned aside from my business and went to the Western Union building and sent in my card to George Gould. I told him I came to make a complaint, but not in malice, and that I wanted him to promise first that if the guard's record was good he would only be reprimanded. Mr. Gould did so. In three minutes he had done by telephone all that was necessary. The guard's record was good, and he was only reprimanded. I think that the guard will be more careful next time.
"A while ago I telegraphed to a friend in 174th street about 4 o'clock in the afternoon that Will Gillette and I would be up there at 8 o'clock. When we got there we found we were not expected. The dispatch was sent by telegraph and the next day I communicated with John W. Mackay, telling him that my complaint was not in malice, and that if the delinquent employee's record was good I hoped he would not be discharged. I got a reply with a full investigation of the case. The man at the up-town office had been guilty of similar carelessness and complained of before and warned, and so he was discharged. John W. Mackay is a busy man, but no man is so busy that he can afford to have his business improperly transacted or neglected, and he attended to this thing at once.
"The people should complain when they are oppressed by those who should be their servants to the highest authority. You have trouble with a gripman on a cable road and you go to a conductor or a superintendent, and you may receive no attention or the offender may be summarily discharged. The high subordinate does not always have time to work his thinking apparatus. He may not stop to think whether his employer has a capable employee in the person of the man complained of and the high subordinate may dismiss the man forthwith. The responsible head of the business thinks what is best for his business, himself and all. The people on the other side know this and make their complaints to the highest authority. It's time we learned to go with our complaints to headquarters--not to hindquarters. We could do it with more self-respect.
Mr. Clemens said his name gave him no advantage. "One of the men at the Players' club, whom I have referred to," he said, "who had complained to a high subordinate of a railroad company and received no answer, thought it was because he was unknown. I told him that was not true, and suggested his addressing the responsible head of the company. He did so and was answered immediately.
"I once had occasion to see the head of one of your surface railroad companies about a difficulty. I should have written to him, because, while a man may be too busy to talk to strangers, he reads his mail. But I tried to see him. I was turned off. I happened to go to THE SUN office just afterward, and told a friend there of my experience, and that I was just about to write to the President of the road. 'Never mind that. Just write a note here for THE SUN,' he said. I did so, and then I got at the President immediately.
"I am told that there is a noticeable improvement in the hearing of the porters on the palace cars between here and the West. I shall be glad to see it, for they used to be most impudent. A friend of mine, who made it a point always to stand up for his rights, had some trouble once, I remember, on one of these cars. In some way the small matter of 40 cents was involved. Most men would say that was too small a matter to bother about. Nothing is too small to complain about if you have been wronged. It was not too small for my friend, and he set out to see the President of the palace car company. He was turned off by any number of subordinates of various degrees, but he persevered. He passed clerk after clerk at doors or windows and by dint of pertinacity finally got his card sent to the President. On the car he had written that his errand was to make a complaint. In a few moments the President sent for him, received him most politely, and when my friend had stated his business the President thanked him warmly for bringing the matter to this attention. Forty cents was a small matter to the man who complained. You or I would have said, let it go. But it isn't the amount; think of the next man when you're wronged and kick for his sake."
"Then you would have us a nation of kickers?"
"Yes; let each man kick his neighbor and receive a kick in return, until we have peace with courteousness. Eliminate timidity and then kick. I suppose we are born timid. I was timid until somebody told me I ought to know better. Complain when you are not properly treated, and complain to the proper person. A complaint to a head waiter or a head usher may be without result. But if you go to the manager of a theater and say to him that an usher's language to you, or it may be only his manner toward you, was offensive, although your manner toward him had not been disagreeable, don't you supposed that manager would promptly call the usher to account? If the proprietor of a hotel were told of the treatment--or lack of it--a stranger receives from his clerk, he would not back up the clerk; he could not do so. The railroad companies employ 'spotters' to report conductors who knock down fares. The companies protect their pockets, and I believe the could be induced to protect their patrons. What could be the difficulty, for instance, in having these same 'spotters' report delinquencies in the conduct of the employees of the roads? I believe a reform can be effected along these lines, but the complaints must be made or sent to responsible heads of the various businesses."
"Do you not think that should the Presidents of the corporations be flooded with several hundreds of letters as a result of your suggestions they would think this one of your jokes?"
"If they were to be flooded with several hundreds of letters, I should not regret it at all," Mr. Clemens replied, still in his serious mood. "If the Presidents received several hundred letters of that kind, the necessity for the letters would soon cease to be."
Mr. Clemens will start in August for a tour of the world, reading and lecturing in the English-speaking countries. It is a trip he has long desired to make. He will sail from the Pacific coast and spend three months in Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand, and go thence to South Africa, and from there to England. On his return to this country he will make a final tour of the United States, going into the Southern States, where he has never been.
Mr. Clemens' gray hair is more bushy than ever, and the voluminous looks and his shaggy eyebrows make his head look like that of a man of a big frame rather than if they really belonged to a little man who, if he got himself up conventionally, would be called dapper.