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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). The Battle with the Slum. 1902.



I USED to think that it would have been better for Jim if he had never been born. What the good bishop said of some children—that they were not so much born into the world as they were damned into it—seemed true of Jim, if ever it was true of any one. He had had a father, once, who was kind to him, but it was long since. The one he called by that name last had been sent to Sing Sing, to the lad’s great relief, for a midnight burglary, shortly after he married Jim’s mother. His back hurt yet when he thought of the evil days when he was around. If any one had thought it worth while to teach Jim to pray, he would have prayed with all his might that his father might never come out. But no one did, so that he was spared that sin. I suppose that was what it would have been called. I am free to confess that I would have joined Jim in sinning with a right good will, even to the extent of speeding the benevolent intentions of Providence in that direction—anyhow, until Jim should be able to take care of himself. I mean with his fists. He was in a way of learning that without long delay, for ever since he was a little shaver he had had to fight his own way, and sometimes his mother’s. He was thirteen when I met him, and most of his time had been put in around the Rag Gang’s quarters, along First Avenue and the river front, where that kind of learning was abundant and came cheap.

His mother drank. I do not know what made her do it—whether it was the loss of the first husband, or getting the second, or both. It did not seem important when she stood there, weak and wretched and humble, with Jim. And as for my preaching to her, sitting in my easy-chair, well fed and respectable, that would come near to being impertinence. So it always struck me. Perhaps I was wrong. Anyway, it would have done her no good. Too much harm had been done her already. She would disappear for days, sometimes for weeks at a time, on her frequent sprees. Jim never made any inquiries. On those occasions he kept aloof from us, and paddled his own canoe, lest we should ask questions. It was when she had come home sobered that we saw them always together. Now it was the rent, and then again a few groceries. With such lifts as she got, sandwiched in with much good advice, and by the aid of an odd job now and then, Mrs. Kelly managed to keep a bit of a roof over her boy and herself, down in the “village” on the river front. At least, Jim had a place to sleep. Until, one day, our visitor reported that she was gone for good—she and the boy. They were both gone,—nobody in the neighborhood knew or cared where,—and the room was vacant. Except that they had not been dispossessed, we could learn nothing. Jim was not found, and in the press of many things the Kellys were forgotten. Once or twice his patient, watchful eyes, that seemed to be always trying to understand something to which he had not found the key, haunted me at my office; but at last I forgot about them too.

Some months passed. It was winter. A girl, who had been one of our cares, had been taken to the city hospital to die, and our visitor went there to see and comfort her. She was hastening down the long aisle between the two rows of beds, when she felt something tugging feebly at the sleeve of her coat. Looking round, she saw on the pillow of the bed she had just passed the face of Jim’s mother.

“Why, Mrs. Kelly!” she exclaimed, and went to her. “Where —?” But the question that rose to her lips was never spoken. One glance was enough to show that her time was very short, and she was not deceived. The nurse supplied the facts briefly in a whisper. She had been picked up in the street, drunk or sick—the diagnosis was not clearly made out at the time, but her record was against her. She lay a day or two in a police cell, and by the time it was clear that it was not rum this time, the mischief was done. Probably it would have been done anyhow. The woman was worn out. What now lay on the hospital cot was a mere wreck of her, powerless to move or speak. She could only plead with her large, sad eyes. As she tried to make them say that which was in her soul, two big tears rolled slowly down the wan cheeks and fell on the coarse sheet. The visitor understood. What woman would not?

“Jim?” she said, and the light of joy and understanding came into the yearning eyes. She nodded ever so feebly, and the hand that rested in her friend’s twitched and trembled in the effort to grasp hers.

“I will find him. It is all right. Now, you be quite happy. I will bring him here.”

The white face settled back on the pillow, and the weary eyes closed with a little sigh of contentment very strange in that place. When the visitor passed her cot ten minutes later, she was asleep, with a smile on her lips.

It proved not so easy a matter to find Jim. We came upon his track in his old haunts after a while, only to lose it again and again. It was clear that he was around, but it seemed almost as if he were purposely dodging us; and in fact that proved to have been the case when at last, after a hunt of weary days and nights through the neighborhood, he was brought in. Ragged, pale, and pinched by hunger, we saw him with a shock of remorse for having let him drift so long. His story was simple enough. When his mother failed to come back, and, the rent coming due, the door of what had been home to him, even such as it was, was closed upon him, he took to the street. He slept in hallways and with the gang among the docks, never going far from the “village” lest he should miss news of his mother coming back. The cold nights came, and he shivered often in his burrows; but he never relaxed his watch. All the time his mother lay dying less than half a dozen blocks away, but there was no one to tell him. Had any one done so, it is not likely that the guard would have let him through the gate, as he looked. Seven weeks he had spent in the streets when he heard that he was wanted. The other boys told him that it was the “cruelty” man sure; and then began the game of hide-and-seek that tried our patience and wore on his mother, sinking rapidly now, but that eventually turned up Jim.

‘“Oh, mother! You were gone so long!”’

We took him up to the hospital, and into the ward where his mother lay. Away off at the farther end of the room, he knew her, the last in the row, and ran straight to her before we could stop him, and fell on her neck.

“Mother!” we heard him say, while he hugged her, with his head on her pillow. “Mother, why don’t you speak to me? I am all right—I am.”

He raised his head and looked at her. Happy tears ran down the thin face turned to his. He took her in his arms again.

“I am all right, mother; honest, I am. Don’t you cry. I couldn’t keep the rooms, mother! They took everything, only the deed to father’s grave. I kept that.”

He dug in the pocket of his old jacket, and brought out a piece of paper, carefully wrapped in many layers of rags and newspaper that hung in dirty tatters.

“Here it is. Everything else is gone. But it is all right. I’ve got you, and I am here. Oh, mother! You were gone so long!”

Longer—poor Jim—the parting that was even then adding another to the mysteries that had vexed my soul concerning you. Happiness at last had broken the weary heart. But if it added one, it dispelled another: I knew then that I erred, Jim, when I thought it were better if you had never been born!