Home  »  The Making of an American  »  I go to War at last, and sow the Seed of Future Campaigns

Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). The Making of an American. 1901.


I go to War at last, and sow the Seed of Future Campaigns

AT sunset on the second day after my desertion of Pfeiffer I walked across a footbridge into a city with many spires, in one of which a chime of bells rang out a familiar tune. The city was New Brunswick. I turned down a side street where two stone churches stood side by side. A gate in the picket fence had been left open, and I went in looking for a place to sleep. Back in the churchyard I found what I sought in the brownstone slab covering the tomb of, I know now, an old pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church, who died full of wisdom and grace. I am afraid that I was not overburdened with either, or I might have gone to bed with a full stomach too, instead of chewing the last of the windfall apples that had been my diet on my two days’ trip; but if he slept as peacefully under the slab as I slept on it, he was doing well. I had for once a dry bed, and brownstone keeps warm long after the sun has set. The night dews and the snakes, and the dogs that kept sniffing and growling half the night in the near distance, had made me tired of sleeping in the fields. The dead were much better company. They minded their own business, and let a fellow alone.

“The dead were much better company.”

Before sun-up I was on the tow-path looking for a job. Mules were in demand there, not men. The drift caught me once more, and toward evening cast me up at a country town then called Little Washington, now South River. How I got there I do not now remember. My diary from those days says nothing about it. Years after, I went back over that road and accepted a “lift” from a farmer going my way. We passed through a toll-gate, and I wondered how the keeper came to collect uneven money. We were two men and two horses. When I came back the day after, I found out. So many cents, read the weather-beaten sign that swung from the gate, for team and driver, so many for each additional beast. I had gone through as an additional beast.

A short walk from Little Washington I found work in Pettit’s brick-yard at $22 a month and board. That night, when I turned in after a square meal, in an old wagon I had begged for a bed, I felt like a capitalist. I took to the wagon because one look within the barracks had shown them to be impossible. Whether it was that, or the fact that most of the other hands were Germans, who felt in duty bound to celebrate each victory over the French as it was reported day by day, and so provoked me to wrath—from the first we didn’t get on. They made a point whenever they came back from their celebrations in the village, of dragging my wagon, with me fast asleep in it, down into the river, where by and by the tide rose and searched me out. Then I had to swim for it. That was of less account. Our costume was not elaborate,—a pair of overalls, a woollen shirt, and a straw hat, that was all, and a wetting was rather welcome than otherwise; but they dubbed me Bismarck, and that was not to be borne. My passionate protest only made them laugh the louder. Yet they were not an ill-natured lot, rather the reverse. Saturday afternoon was our wash-day, when we all sported together in peace and harmony in the river. When we came out, we spread our clothes to dry on the roof of the barracks, while we burrowed each in a hill of white sand, and smoked our pipes far into the night, with only our heads and the hand that held the pipe sticking out. That was for protection against mosquitoes. It must have been a sight, one of those Saturday night confabs, but it was solid comfort after the week’s work.

Bricks are made literally while the sun shines. The day begins with the first glimmer of light in the east, and is not over till the “pits” are worked out. It was my task to cart clay in the afternoon to fill them up again. It was an idle enough kind of job. All I had to do was to walk alongside my horse, a big white beast with no joints at all except where its legs were hinged to the backbone, back it up to the pit, and dump the load. But, walking so in the autumn sun, I fell a-dreaming. I forgot claybank and pit. I was back in the old town—saw her play among the timber. I met her again on the Long Bridge. I held her hands once more in that last meeting—the while I was mechanically backing my load up to the pit and making ready to dump it. Day-dreams are out of place in a brickyard. I forgot to take out the tail-board. To my amazement, I beheld the old horse skating around, making frantic efforts to keep its grip on the soil, then slowly rise before my bewildered gaze, clawing feebly at the air as it went up and over, backwards into the pit, load, cart and all.

I wish for my own reputation that I could truly say I wept for the poor beast. I am sure I felt for it, but the reproachful look it gave me as it lay there on its back, its four feet pointing skyward, was too much. I sat upon the edge of the pit and shouted with laughter, feeling thoroughly ashamed of my levity. Mr. Pettit himself checked it, running in with his boys and demanding to know what I was doing. They had seen the accident from the office, and at once set about getting the horse out. That was no easy matter. It was not hurt at all, but it had fallen so as to bend one of the shafts of the truck like a bow. It had to be sawed in two to get the horse out. When that was done, the heavy ash stick, rebounding suddenly, struck one of the boys, who stood by, a blow on the head that laid him out senseless beside the cart.

It was no time for laughter then. We ran for water and restoratives, and brought him to, white and weak. The horse by that time had been lifted to his feet and stood trembling in every limb, ready to drop. It was a sobered driver that climbed out of the pit at the tail end of the procession which bore young Pettit home. I spent a miserable hour hanging around the door of the house waiting for news of him. In the end his father came out to comfort me with the assurance that he would be all right. I was not even discharged, though I was deposed from the wagon to the command of a truck of which I was myself the horse. I “ran out” brick from the pit after that in the morning.

More than twenty years after, addressing the students of Rutgers College, I told them of my experience in the brick-yard which was so near them. At the end of my address a gentleman came up to me and said, with a twinkle in his eye: “So that was you, was it? My name is Pettit, and I work the brick-yard now. I helped my father get that horse out of the pit, and I have cause to remember that knock on the head.” He made me promise sometime to tell him what happened to me since, and if he will attend now he will have it all.

I had been six weeks in the brick-yard when one day I heard of a company of real volunteers that was ready to sail for France, and forthwith the war fever seized me again. That night I set out for Little Washington, and the next morning’s steamer bore me past the brick-yard, where the German hands dropped their barrows and cheered me on with a howl of laughter that was yet not all derision. I had kept my end up with them and they knew it. They had lately let my sleeping-car alone in the old barn. Their shouts rang in my ears, nevertheless, when I reached New York and found that the volunteers were gone, and that I was once more too late. I fell back on the French Consul then, but was treated very cavalierly there. I suppose I became a nuisance, for when I called the twelfth or twentieth time at the office in Bowling Green, he waxed wroth with sudden vehemence and tried to put me out.

Then ensued the only fight of the war in which I was destined to have a part, and that on the wrong side. My gorge rose at these continual insults. I grabbed the French Consul by the nose, and in a moment we were rolling down the oval stairs together, clawing and fighting for all we were worth. I know it was inexcusable, but consider the provocation; after all I had sacrificed to serve his people, to be put out the second time like a beggar and a tramp! I had this one chance of getting even, and that I took it was only human. The racket we made on the stairs roused the whole house. All the clerks ran out and threw themselves upon me. They tore me away from the sacred person of the Consul and thrust me out into the street bleeding and with a swollen eye to rage there, comforted only by the assurance that without a doubt both his were black. I am a little ashamed—not very much—of the fact that it comforts me even now to think of it. He really did me a favor, that Consul; but he was no good. He certainly was not.

It is to be recorded to the credit of my resolution, if not of my common sense, that even after that I made two attempts to get over to France. The one was with the captain of a French man-of-war that lay in the harbor. He would not listen to me at all. The other, and the last, was more successful. I actually got a job as stoker on a French steamer that was to sail for Havre that day in an hour. I ran all the way down to Battery Place, where I had my valise in a boarding-house, and all the way back, arriving at the pier breathless, in time to see my steamer swing out in the stream beyond my reach. It was the last straw. I sat on the stringpiece and wept with mortification. When I arose and went my way, the war was over, as far as I was concerned. It was that in fact, as it speedily appeared. The country which to-day, after thirty years of trial and bereavement, is still capable of the Dreyfus infamy, was not fit to hold what was its own. I am glad now that I did not go, though I cannot honestly say that I deserve any credit for it.

All my money was gone, and an effort I made to join a railroad gang in the Spuyten Duyvil cut came to nothing. Again I reënforced my credit with my revolver and the everlasting top-boots, but the two or three dollars they brought at the pawnshop were soon gone, and once more I was turned out in the street. It was now late in the fall. The brick-making season was over. The city was full of idle men. My last hope, a promise of employment in a human-hair factory, failed, and, homeless and penniless, I joined the great army of tramps, wandering about the streets in the daytime with the one aim of somehow stilling the hunger that gnawed at my vitals, and fighting at night with vagrant curs or outcasts as miserable as myself for the protection of some sheltering ash-bin or doorway. I was too proud in all my misery to beg. I do not believe I ever did. But I remember well a basement window at the down-town Delmonico’s, the silent appearance of my ravenous face at which, at a certain hour in the evening, always evoked a generous supply of meat-bones and rolls from a white-capped cook who spoke French. That was the saving clause. I accepted his rolls as instalments of the debt his country owed me, or ought to owe me, for my unavailing efforts in its behalf.

Lunching at Delmonico’s.

It was under such auspices that I made the acquaintance of Mulberry Bend, the Five Points, and the rest of the slum, with which there was in the years to come to be a reckoning. For half a lifetime afterward they were my haunts by day and by night, as a police reporter, and I can fairly lay claim, it seems to me, to a personal knowledge of the evil I attacked. I speak of this because, in a batch of reviews of “A Ten Years’ War” which came yesterday from my publishers to me there is one which lays it all to “maudlin sensitiveness” on my part. “The slum,” says this writer, “is not at all so unspeakably vile,” and measures for relief based on my arraignment “must be necessarily abortive.” Every once in a while I am asked why I became a newspaper man. For one thing, because there were writers of such trash, who, themselves comfortably lodged, have not red blood enough in their veins to feel for those to whom everything is denied, and not sense enough to make out the facts when they see them, or they would not call playgrounds, schoolhouses, and better tenements “abortive measures.” Some one had to tell the facts; that is one reason why I became a reporter. And I am going to stay one until the last of that ilk has ceased to discourage men from trying to help their fellows by the shortest cut they can find, whether it fits in a theory or not. I don’t care two pins for all the social theories that were ever made unless they help to make better men and women by bettering their lot. I have had cranks of that order, who rated as sensible beings in the ordinary affairs of life, tell me that I was doing harm rather than good by helping improve the lot of the poor; it delayed the final day of justice we were waiting for. Not I. I don’t propose to wait an hour for it, if I can help bring it on; and I know I can.

There! I don’t believe I have read fifteen reviews of any of my books. Life is too short; but I am glad I did not miss that one. Those are the fellows for whom Roosevelt is not a good enough reformer; who chill the enthusiasm of mankind with a deadly chill, and miscall it method—science. The science of how not to do a thing—yes! They make me tired.

There was until last winter a doorway in Chatham Square, that of the old Barnum clothing store, which I could never pass without recalling those nights of hopeless misery with the policeman’s periodic “Get up there! move on!” reënforced by a prod of his club or the toe of his boot. I slept there, or tried to when crowded out of the tenements in the Bend by their utter nastiness. Cold and wet weather had set in, and a linen duster was all that covered my back. There was a woollen blanket in my trunk which I had from home—the one, my mother had told me, in which I was wrapped when I was born; but the trunk was in the “hotel” as security for money I owed for board, and I asked for it in vain. I was now too shabby to get work, even if there had been any to get. I had letters still to friends of my family in New York who might have helped me, but hunger and want had not conquered my pride. I would come to them, if at all, as their equal, and, lest I fall into temptation, I destroyed the letters. So, having burned my bridges behind me, I was finally and utterly alone in the city, with the winter approaching and every shivering night in the streets reminding me that a time was rapidly coming when such a life as I led could no longer be endured.

Not in a thousand years would I be likely to forget the night when it came. It had rained all day, a cold October storm, and night found me, with the chill downpour unabated, down by the North River, soaked through and through, with no chance for a supper, forlorn and discouraged. I sat on the bulwark, listening to the falling rain and the swish of the dark tide, and thinking of home. How far it seemed, and how impassable the gulf now between the “castle” with its refined ways, between her in her dainty girlhood and me sitting there, numbed with the cold that was slowly stealing away my senses with my courage. There was warmth and cheer where she was. Here—An overpowering sense of desolation came upon me. I hitched a little nearer the edge. What if—? Would they miss me much or long at home if no word came from me? Perhaps they might never hear. What was the use of keeping it up any longer with, God help us, everything against and nothing to back a lonely lad?

And even then the help came. A wet and shivering body was pressed against mine, and I felt rather than heard a piteous whine in my ear. It was my companion in misery, a little outcast black-and-tan, afflicted with fits, that had shared the shelter of a friendly doorway with me one cold night and had clung to me ever since with a loyal affection that was the one bright spot in my hard life. As my hand stole mechanically down to caress it, it crept upon my knees and licked my face, as if it meant to tell me that there was one who understood; that I was not alone. And the love of the faithful little beast thawed the icicles in my heart. I picked it up in my arms and fled from the tempter; fled to where there were lights and men moving, if they cared less for me than I for them—anywhere so that I saw and heard the river no more.

In the midnight hour we walked into the Church Street police station and asked for lodging. The rain was still pouring in torrents. The sergeant spied the dog under my tattered coat and gruffly told me to put it out, if I wanted to sleep there. I pleaded for it in vain. There was no choice. To stay in the street was to perish. So I left my dog out on the stoop, where it curled up to wait for me. Poor little friend! It was its last watch. The lodging-room was jammed with a foul and stewing crowd of tramps. A loud-mouthed German was holding forth about the war in Europe, and crowding me on my plank. Cold and hunger had not sufficed to put out the patriotic spark within me. It was promptly fanned into flame, and I told him what I thought of him and his crew. Some Irishmen cheered and fomented trouble, and the doorman came in threatening to lock us all up. I smothered my disgust at the place as well as I could, and slept, wearied nearly to death.

In the middle of the night I awoke with a feeling that something was wrong. Instinctively I felt for the little gold locket I wore under my shirt, with a part of the precious curl in it that was my last link with home. It was gone. I had felt it there the last thing before I fell asleep. One of the tramp lodgers had cut the string and stolen it. With angry tears I went up and complained to the sergeant that I had been robbed. He scowled at me over the blotter, called me a thief, and said that he had a good mind to lock me up. How should I, a tramp boy, have come by a gold locket? He had heard, he added, that I had said in the lodging-room that I wished the French would win, and he would only be giving me what I deserved if he sent me to the Island. I heard and understood. He was himself a German. All my sufferings rose up before me, all the bitterness of my soul poured itself out upon him. I do not know what I said. I remember that he told the doorman to put me out. And he seized me and threw me out of the door, coming after to kick me down the stoop.

My dog had been waiting, never taking its eyes off the door, until I should come out. When it saw me in the grasp of the doorman, it fell upon him at once, fastening its teeth in his leg. He let go of me with a yell of pain, seized the poor little beast by the legs, and beat its brains out against the stone steps.

The Fight on the Police Station Steps.

At the sight a blind rage seized me. Raving like a madman, I stormed the police station with paving-stones from the gutter. The fury of my onset frightened even the sergeant, who saw, perhaps, that he had gone too far, and he called two policemen to disarm and conduct me out of the precinct, anywhere so that he got rid of me. They marched me to the nearest ferry and turned me loose. The ferry-master halted me. I had no money, but I gave him a silk handkerchief, the last thing about me that had any value, and for that he let me cross to Jersey City. I shook the dust of New York from my feet, vowing that I would never return, and, setting my face toward the west, marched straight out the first railroad track I came to.

And now, right here, begins the part of my story that is my only excuse for writing down these facts, though it will not appear for a while yet. The outrage of that night became, in the providence of God, the means of putting an end to one of the foulest abuses that ever disgraced a Christian city, and a mainspring in the battle with the slum as far as my share in it is concerned. My dog did not die unavenged.

I walked all day, following the track, and in the afternoon crossed the long trestlework of the Jersey Central Railroad over Newark Bay, with my face set toward Philadelphia. I had friends there, distant relatives, and had at last made up my mind to go to them and ask them to start me afresh. On the road which I had chosen for myself I had come to the jumping-off place. Before night I found company in other tramps who had been over the road before and knew just what towns to go around and which to walk through boldly. Rahway, if I remember rightly, was one of those to be severely shunned. I discovered presently that I was on the great tramps’ highway, with the column moving south on its autumn hegira to warmer climes. I cannot say I fancied the company. Tramps never had any attraction for me, as a sociological problem or otherwise. I was compelled, more than once, to be of and with them, but I shook their company as quickly as I could. As for the “problem” they are supposed to represent, I think the workhouse and the police are quite competent to deal with that, provided it is not a Tammany police. It does not differ appreciably from the problem of human laziness in any other shape or age. We got some light on that, which ought to convince anybody, when under Mayor Strong’s administration we tried to deal intelligently with vagrancy. One-half of the homeless applicants for night shelter were fat, well-nourished young loafers who wouldn’t work. That is not my statement, but the report of the doctor who saw them stripped, taking their bath. The bath and the investigation presently decreased their numbers, until in a week scarcely anything was left of the “problem” that had bothered us so.

Four days I was on the way to Philadelphia, living on apples and an occasional meal earned by doing odd jobs. At night I slept in lonely barns that nearly always had a board ripped out—the tramps’ door. I tried to avoid the gang, but I was not always successful. I remember still with a shudder an instance of that kind. I was burrowing in a haymow, thinking myself alone. In the night a big storm came up. The thunder shook the old barn, and I sat up wondering if it would be blown away. A fierce lightning-flash filled it with a ghostly light, and showed me within arm’s length a white and scared face with eyes starting from their sockets at the sight of me. The next moment all was black darkness again. My heart stood still for what seemed the longest moment of my life. Then there came out of the darkness a quaking voice asking, “Is anybody there?” For once I was glad to have a live tramp about. I really thought it was a ghost.

The last few miles to Camden I rode in a cattlecar, arriving there at night, much the worse for the wear of it on my linen duster. In the freight-yard I was picked up by a good-hearted police captain who took me to his station, made me tell him my story, and gave me a bed in an unused cell, the door of which he took the precaution to lock on the outside. But I did not mind. Rather that a hundred times than the pig-sty in the New York stationhouse. In the morning he gave me breakfast and money to get my boots blacked and to pay my fare across the Delaware. And so my homeless wanderings came, for the time being, to an end. For in Philadelphia I found in the Danish Consul, Ferdinand Myhlertz, and his dear wife, friends indeed as in need. The City of Brotherly Love found heart and time to welcome the wanderer, though at the time it was torn up by the hottest kind of fight over the question whether or not to disfigure the beautiful square at Broad and Market streets by putting the new municipal building there.

When, after two weeks’ rest with my friends, they sent me on my way to an old schoolmate in Jamestown, N.Y., clothed and in my right mind, I was none the worse for my first lesson in swimming against the current, and quite sure that next time I should be able to breast it. Hope springs eternal at twenty-one. I had many a weary stretch ahead before I was to make port. But with youth and courage as the equipment, one should win almost any fight.