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


Working and Wandering

WINTER came quickly up by the northern lakes, but it had no terror for me. For once I had shelter and enough to eat. It found me felling trees on Swede Hill, where a considerable settlement of Scandinavians was growing up. I had tried my hand at making cradles in a furniture-shop, but at two dollars and forty cents per dozen there was not much profit in it. So I took to the woods and learned to swing an axe in the American fashion that had charmed me so at Brady’s Bend. I liked it much better, anyway, than being in the house winter and summer. It is well that we are fashioned that way, some for indoors and some for outdoors, for so the work of the world is all done; but it has always seemed to me that the indoor folk take too big a share of credit to themselves, as though there were special virtue in that, though I think that the reverse is the case. At least it seems more natural to want to be out in the open where the sun shines and the winds blow. When I was not chopping wood I was helping with the ice harvest on the lake or repairing the steamer that ran in summer between Jamestown and Mayville. My home was in Dexterville, a mile or so out of town, where there lived a Danish family, the Romers, at whose home I was made welcome. The friendship which grew up between us has endured through life and been to me a treasure. Gentler and truer hearts than those of Nicholas and John Romer there are not many.

I shared my room with another countryman, Anthony Ronne, a young axe-maker, who, like myself, was in hard luck. The axe-factory had burned down, and, with no work in sight, the outlook for him was not exactly bright. He had not my way of laughing it off, but was rather disposed to see the serious side of it. Probably that was the reason we took to each other; the balance was restored so. Maybe he sobered me down somewhat. If any one assumes that in my rôle of unhappy lover I went about glooming and glowering on mankind, he makes a big mistake. Besides, I had not the least notion of accepting that rôle as permanent. I was out to twist the wheel of fortune my way when I could get my hands upon it. I never doubted that I should do that sooner or later, if only I kept doing things. That Elizabeth should ever marry anybody but me was preposterously impossible, no matter what she or anybody said.

Was this madness? They half thought so at home when they caught a glimpse of it in my letters. Not at all. It was conviction—the conviction that shapes events and the world to its ends. I know what I am talking about. If any one doubts it, and thinks his a worse case than mine, let him try my plan. If he cannot muster up courage to do it, it is the best proof in the world that she was right in refusing him.

To return to my chum; he, on his part, rose to the height even of “going out,” but not with me. There was a physical obstacle to that. We had but one coat between us, a turned black kersey, worn very smooth and shiny also on the wrong side, which I had bought of a second-hand dealer in Philadelphia for a dollar. It was our full-dress, and we took turns arraying ourselves in it for the Dexterville weekly parties. These gatherings interested me chiefly as outbreaks of the peculiar American humor that was very taking to me, in and out of the newspapers. Dancing being tabooed as immoral and contaminating, the young people had recourse to particularly energetic kissing games, which more than made up for their deprivation on the other score. It was all very harmless and very funny, and the winter wore away pleasantly enough in spite of hard luck and hard work when there was any

With the early thaw came change. My friends moved away to Buffalo, and I was left for two months the sole occupant of the Romer homestead. My last job gave out about that time, and a wheelbarrow express which I established between Dexterville and the steamboat landing on the lake refused to prosper. The idea was good enough, but I was ahead of my time: travel on the lake had not yet begun. With my field thus narrowed down, I fell back on my gun and some old rat-traps I found in the woodshed. I became a hunter and trapper. Right below me was the glen through which the creek ran on its way to the sawmills and furniture-shops of Jamestown. It was full of musk-rats that burrowed in its banks between the roots of dead hemlocks and pines. There I set my traps and baited them with carrots and turnips. The manner of it was simple enough. I set the trap on the bottom of the creek and hung the bait on a stick projecting from the bank over it, so that to get at it the rat had to step on the trap. I caught lots of them. Their skins brought twenty cents apiece in the town, so that I was really quite independent. I made often as much as a dollar overnight with my traps, and then had the whole day to myself in the hills, where I waylaid many a fat rabbit or squirrel and an occasional bird.

“There I set my traps.”

The one thing that marred my enjoyment of this life of freedom was my vain struggle to master the art of cookery in its elements. To properly get the hang of that, and of housekeeping in general, two heads are needed, as I have found out since—one of them with curls and long eyelashes. Then it is fine fun; but it is not good for man to tackle that job alone. Goodness knows I tried hard enough. I remember the first omelet I made. I was bound to get it good. So I made a muster-roll of all the good things Mrs. Romer had left in the house, and put them all in. Eggs and strawberry jam and raisins and apple-sauce, and some sliced bacon—the way I had seen mother do with “egg pancakes.” But though I seasoned it liberally with baking-powder to make it rise, it did not rise. It was dreadfully heavy and discouraging, and not even the strawberry jam had power to redeem it. To tell the truth, it was not a good omelet. It was hardly fit to eat. The jam came out to better advantage in the sago I boiled, but there was too much of it. It was only a fruit-jar full, but I never saw anything swell so. It boiled out of the pot and into another and another, while I kept pouring on water until nearly every jar in the house was full of sago that stood around until moss grew on it with age. There is much contrariness in cooking. When I tapped my maples with the rest—there were two big trees in front of the house—and tried to make sugar, I was prepared to see the sap boil away; but when I had labored a whole day and burned half a cord of wood, and had for my trouble half a teacupful of sugar, which made me sick into the bargain, I concluded that that game was not worth the candle, and gave up my plans of becoming a sugar-planter on a larger scale.

It was at this time that I made my first appearance on the lecture platform. There was a Scandinavian society in Jamestown, composed chiefly of workingmen whose fight with life had left them little enough time for schooling. They were anxious to learn, however, and as I was set on teaching where I saw the chance, the thing came of itself. I had been mightily interested in the Frenchman Figuier’s account of the formation and development of the earth, and took that for my topic. Twice a week, when I had set my traps in the glen, I went to town and talked astronomy and geology to interested audiences that gazed terror stricken at the loathsome saurians and the damnable pterodactyl which I sketched on the blackboard. Well they might. I spared them no gruesome detail, and I never could draw, anyhow. However, I rescued them from those beasts in season, and together we hauled the earth through age-long showers of molten metal into the sunlight of our day. I sometimes carried home as much as two or three dollars, after paying for gas and hall, with the tickets ten cents apiece, and I saw wealth and fame ahead of me, when sudden wreck came to my hopes and my career as a lecturer.

It was all because, having got the earth properly constructed and set up, as it were, I undertook to explain about latitude and longitude. Figures came in there, and I was never strong at mathematics. My education in that branch had run into a snag about the middle of the little multiplication table. A boy from the “plebs” school challenged me to fight, as I was making my way to recitation, trying to learn the table by heart. I broke off in the middle of the sixes to wallop him, and never got any farther. The class went on that day without me, and I never overtook it. I made but little effort. In the Latin School, which rather prided itself upon being free from the commercial taint, mathematics was held to be in the nature of an intrusion, and it was a sort of good mark for a boy that he did not take to it, if at the same time he showed aptitude for language. So I was left to deplore with Marjorie Fleming to the end of my days the inherent viciousness of sevens and eights, as “more than human nature can endure.” It is one of the ironies of life that I should have had to take up work into which the study of statistics enters largely. But the powers that set me the task provided a fitter back than mine for that burden. As I explained years ago in the preface to “How the Other Half Lives,” the patient friendship of Dr. Roger S. Tracy, the learned statistician of the Health Department, has smoothed the rebellious kinks out of death-rates and population statistics, as of so many other knotty problems which we have worked out together.

But I am getting out of my longitude, as I did then. When I had groped about long enough trying to make my audience understand what I only half understood myself, an old sea-captain arose in his place and said that any man who would make a mess of so simple a thing as latitude and longitude evidently knew nothing at all. It happened to be the one thing he knew about. Popular favor is a fickle thing. The audience that had but now been applauding my efforts to organize the earth took his word for it without waiting for an explanation and went out in a body, scouting even the ichthyosaurus as a prehistoric fake.

I made a valiant effort to stem the tide, but came to worse grief than before. My only listener was a Swedish blacksmith who had attended the creation and development of the earth from the beginning with unshaken faith, though he was a member of the Lutheran church, with the pastor and deacons of which I had waged a bitter newspaper war over the “sin” of dancing. But when I said, on the authority of Figuier, that an English man-of-war had once during an earthquake been thrown into the city of Callao and through the roof of a church, between the walls of which it remained standing upright on its keel, he got up and went too. He circulated the story in town with various embellishments. The deacons aforesaid seized upon it as welcome ammunition, construing it into an insult to the church, and there was an end to my lecturing.

The warm spring weather, together with these disappointments, bred in me the desire to roam. I packed away my traps and started for Buffalo with my grip, walking along the lake. It set in with a drizzling rain, and I was soon wet to the skin. Where the Chautauqua summer school grounds are now I surprised a flock of wild ducks near the shore, and was lucky enough to wound one with my revolver. But the wind carried it out of my reach, and I trudged on supperless, through Mayville, where the lights were beginning to shine in the windows. Not one of them was for me. All my money had gone to pay back debts to my Dexterville landlady. The Danes had a good name in Jamestown, and we were all very jealous of it. We would have starved, every one of us, rather than leave unpaid debts behind. As Mrs. Ben Wah many years after put it to me, “it is no disgrace to be poor, but it is sometimes very inconvenient.” I found it so when, worn out with walking, I crawled into an abandoned barn halfway to Westfield and dug down in the hay, wet through and hungry as a bear. It stormed and rained all night, and a rat or a squirrel fell from the roof on my face. It felt like a big sprawling hand, and woke me up in a great fright.

The sun was shining upon a peaceful Sabbath when I crawled out of my hole and saw to my dismay that I had been sleeping in a pile of old hay seed that had worked through and through my wet clothes until I was a sight. An hour’s patient plucking and a bath in a near-by pond restored me to something like human shape, and I held my entry into Westfield. The people were going to church in their holiday clothes, and eyed the uncouth stranger askance. I travelled the whole length of the town thinking what to do next. My stomach decided for me. There was a house standing in a pretty garden with two little castiron negro boys for hitching-posts at the steps. I rang the bell, and to an old lady who opened the door I offered to chop wood, fetch water, or do anything there was to do in exchange for breakfast. She went in and brought out her husband, who looked me over and said that if I was willing to do his chores I need go no farther. I was tired and famished, and the place was so restful that I said yes at once. In ten minutes I was eating my breakfast in the kitchen, duly installed as Dr. Spencer’s hired man.

I think of the month I spent in the doctor’s house with mingled feelings of exasperation and amusement. If I had not learned to milk a cow there, probably Octavia Ely would never have come into my life, horrid nightmare that she was. Octavia Ely was a Jersey cow with a brass tag in her ear, whose attacks upon the domestic peace of my house in after years even now fill me with rage. In the twelve months of her sojourn with us she had fifteen different kinds of disease, every one of which advertised itself by the stopping of her milk. When she had none, she never once gave down the milk without grudging it. With three of us to hold her legs and tail lest she step in the pail or switch our ears, she would reach back and eat the vest off my back where I sat milking her. But she does not belong in this story, thank goodness! If she had never belonged to me or mine, I should be a better man to-day; she provoked me so. However, I cannot reasonably lay the blame for her on the doctor. His cow was friendly enough. It was Sport, the old dog, that made the heaviest and at the same time a most ludicrous item in my duties as hired man. Long past the age of sport of any kind, he spent his decadent years in a state of abject fear of thunder and lightning. If only a cloud darkened the sun, Sport kept up a ceaseless pilgrimage between his corner and the kitchen door to observe the sky, sighing most grievously at the outlook. At the first distant rumble—this was in the month of May, when it thundered almost every day—he became perfectly rigid with terror. It was my duty then to carry him down into the cellar and shut him in the wood-box, where he was out of the way of it all. Poor Sport laid his head against my shoulder and wept great tears that wrung peals of laughter from me and from the boys who always hung around to see the show.

One of these was just beginning the struggle with his Homer, which I knew by heart almost, and it may have been the discovery that I was able to steer him through it between chores, as well as to teach him some tricks of fencing, that helped make the doctor anxious that I should promise to stay with him always. He would make me rich, he said. But other ambitions than to milk cows and plant garden truck were stirring in me. To be rich was never among them. I had begun to write essays for the magazines, choosing for my topic, for want of any other, the maltreatment of Denmark by Prussia, which rankled fresh in my memory, and the duty of all Scandinavians to rise up and avenge it. The Scandinavians would not listen when I wrote in Danish, and my English outpourings never reached the publishers. I discovered that I lacked words—they didn’t pour; at which, in general discontentment with myself and all things, I pulled up stakes and went to Buffalo. Only, this time I rode in a railway train, with money in my pocket.

For all that, Buffalo received me with no more circumstance than it had done when I came there penniless, on the way to the war, the year before. I piled boards in a lumber-yard until I picked a quarrel with a tyrant foreman on behalf of a lot of green Germans whom he maltreated most shamefully. Then I was put out. A cabinet-maker in the “Beehive,” a factory building out in Niagara Street, hired me next to make bedsteads, and took me to board with him. In the top story of the factory we fitted up a bedroom that was just large enough for one sitting and two standing, so long as the door was not opened; then one of the two had to get out. It mattered little, for the only visitor I had was a half-elderly countryman of mine whom they had worked so hard in his childhood that he had never had a chance to go to school. We two labored together by my little lamp, and it was great fun to see him who had never known how to read and write his own Danish make long strides in the strange tongue he spoke so singularly well. When we were both tired out, we would climb up on the roof and lie there and look out over the lake and the city where the myriad lights were shining, and talk of the old home and old times.

Sometimes the new would crowd them out in spite of all. I remember that Fourth of July when the salute from Fort Porter woke me up at sunrise and fired me with sudden patriotic ardor. I jumped out of bed and grabbed my revolver. There was a pile of packing-boxes in the yard below, and, knowing that there was no one around whom I could hurt, I made it my target and fired away all my ammunition at it. It made a fine racket, and I was happy. A couple of days later, when I was down in the yard, it occurred to me to look at the boxes to ascertain what kind of a score I had made. A very good one. All the bullets had hit. The boxes looked like so many sieves. Incidentally I found out that they were not empty, as I had supposed, but filled with glass fruit-jars.

I had eventually to give that job up also, because my boss was “bad pay.” He was pretty much all bad, I guess. I do think his house was the most disorderly one I have ever come across. Seven ill-favored children clamored about the table, fighting with their even more ill-favored mother. She used to single out the one she wished to address by slamming a handful of string-beans, or whatever greens might be at hand, across the table at him. The youngster would fire it back, and so they were en rapport with each other. The father was seldom sober at meals. When he “felt funny,” he would stealthily pour a glass of water down the nearest child’s back and then sit and chuckle over the havoc he had wrought. There followed a long and woful wail and an instant explosion from the mother in this wise. I can hear her now. It was always the same:—


Whereupon, from sheer exhaustion all round, there was peace for at least five minutes.

Which reminds me of meeting Adler, my chum from Brady’s Bend, in Buffalo. He had come up to get a $1500 place, as he informed me. That would about satisfy him. That such jobs were waiting by the score for an educated German in this barbarous land he never doubted for a moment. In the end he went to work in a rolling-mill at a dollar a day. Adler was ever a stickler for etiquette. In Brady’s Bend we had very little of it. At meal-times a flock of chickens used to come into the summer kitchen where we ate, and forage around, to Adler’s great disgust. One day they deliberately flew up on the table, and fell to fighting with the boarders for the food. A big Shanghai rooster trod in the butter and tracked it over the table. At the sight Adler’s rage knew no bounds. Seizing a half-loaf of bread, he aimed it at the rooster and felled him in his tracks. The flock of fowl flew squawking out of the door. The women screamed, and the men howled with laughter. Adler flourished another loaf and vowed vengeance upon bird or beast that did not let the butter alone.

I have been often enough out of patience with the ways of the labor men which seem to me to be the greatest hindrance to the success of their cause; but I am not in danger of forgetting the other side which makes that cause—if for no other reason, because of an experience I had in Buffalo that year. In a planing-mill in which I had found employment I contracted with the boss to plane doors, sandpaper them, and plug knot-holes at fifteen cents a door. It was his own offer, and I did the work well, better than it had been done before, so he said himself. But when he found at the end of the week that I had made $15 where my slow-coach predecessor had made only ten, he cut the price down to twelve cents. I objected, but in the end swallowed my anger and, by putting on extra steam and working overtime, made $16 the next week. The boss examined the work very carefully, said it was good, paid my wages, and cut down the price to ten cents. He did not want his men to make over $10 a week, he said; it was not good for them. I quit then, after giving him my opinion of him and of the chances of his shop. I do not know where he may be now, but wherever he is, I will warrant that my prediction came true. There is in Danish an old proverb, “Falsk slaar sin egen Herre paa Hals,” which is to say that chickens come home to roost, and that right in the end does prevail over might. The Lord Chief Justice over all is not to be tricked. If the labor men will only remember that, and devote, let us say, as much time to their duties as to fighting for their rights, they will get them sooner. Which is not saying that there is not a time to strike. Witness my experience with the planing-mill man.

I struck not only against him, but against the whole city of Buffalo. I shook the dust of it from my feet and went out to work with a gang on a new railroad then being built through Cattaraugus County—the Buffalo and Washington, I think. Near a village called Coonville our job was cut out for us. We were twenty in the gang, and we were to build the line across an old dry river-bed at that point. In the middle of the river there had once been a forest-clad island. This we attacked with pickaxe and spade and carried it away piecemeal in our wheelbarrows. It fell in with the hottest weather of the year. Down in the hollow where no wind blew it was utterly unbearable. I had never done such work before, and was not built for it. I did my best to keep up with the gang, but my chest heaved and my heart beat as though it would burst. There were nineteen Irishmen in the gang—big, rough fellows who had picked me out, as the only “Dutchman,” as the butt for their coarse jokes; but when they saw that the work was plainly too much for me, the other side of this curiously contradictory, mischief-loving, and big-hearted people came out. They invented a thousand excuses to get me out of the line. Water was certainly not their daily diet, but they fell victims, one and all, to the most ravening thirst, which required the despatching of me every hour to the spring a quarter of a mile away to fill the pail. If they could not empty it quickly enough, they managed to upset it, and, to cover up the fraud, cursed each other roundly for their clumsiness. Between whiles they worried me as ever with their horse-play; but I had seen the real man behind it, and they might have called me Bismarck, had they chosen, without offence.

The heat, the work, and the slave-driver of a foreman were too much for them even, and before the end of a week the gang was broken and scattered wide. I was on the road again looking for work on a farm. It was not to be had. Perhaps I did not try very hard. Sunday morning found me spending my last quarter for breakfast in an inn at Lime Lake. When I had eaten, I went out in the fields and sat with my back against a tree, and listened to the church-bells that were ringing also, I knew, in my home four thousand miles away. I saw the venerable Domkirke, my father’s gray head in his pew, and Her, young and innocent, in the women’s seats across the aisle. I heard the old pastor’s voice in the solemn calm, and my tears fell upon her picture that had called up the vision. It was as if a voice spoke to me and said to get up and be a man; that if I wanted to win Elizabeth, to work for her was the way, and not idling my days away on the road. And I got right up, and, setting my face toward Buffalo, went by the shortest cut back to my work.

Our Old Pastor.

I walked day and night, pursued in the dark by a hundred skulking curs that lurked behind trees until I came abreast of them and then sallied out to challenge my progress. I stoned them and went on. Monday’s setting sun saw me outside Buffalo, tired, but with a new purpose. I had walked fifty miles without stopping or eating. I slept under a shed that night, and the very next day found work at good wages on some steamers the Erie Railroad was then building for the Lake Superior trade. With intervals of other employment when for any reason work in the ship-yard was slack, I kept that up all winter, and became quite opulent, even to the extent of buying a new suit of clothes, the first I had had since I landed. I paid off all my debts, and quarrelled with all my friends about religion. I never had any patience with a person who says “there is no God.” The man is a fool, and therefore cannot be reasoned with. But in those days I was set on converting him, as my viking forefathers did when from heathen they became Christians—by fire and sword if need be. I smote the infidels about me hip and thigh, but there were a good many of them, and they kept springing up, to my great amazement. Probably the constant warfare imparted a tinge of fierceness to that whole period of my life, for I remember that one of my employers, a Roman Catholic builder, discharged me for disagreeing with him about the saints, telling me that I was “too blamed independent, anyhow.” I suspect I must have been a rather unlovely customer, take it all together. Still, every once in a while it boils up in me yet against the discretion that has come with the years, and I want to slam in after the old fashion. Seems to me we are in danger of growing stale with all our soft speeches nowadays.

Things enough happened to take down my self-esteem a good many pegs. It was about this time I made up my mind to go into the newspaper business. It seemed to me that a reporter’s was the highest and noblest of all callings; no one could sift wrong from right as he, and punish the wrong. In that I was right. I have not changed my opinion on that point one whit, and I am sure I never shall. The power of fact is the mightiest lever of this or of any day. The reporter has his hand upon it, and it is his grievous fault if he does not use it well. I thought I would make a good reporter. My father had edited our local newspaper, and such little help as I had been of to him had given me a taste for the business. Being of that mind, I went to the courier office one morning and asked for the editor. He was not in. Apparently nobody was. I wandered through room after room, all empty, till at last I came to one in which sat a man with a paste-pot and a pair of long shears. This must be the editor; he had the implements of his trade. I told him my errand while he clipped away.

When I worked in the Buffalo Ship-yard.

“What is it you want?” he asked, when I had ceased speaking and waited for an answer.

“Work,” I said.

“Work!” said he, waving me haughtily away with the shears; “we don’t work here. This is a newspaper office.”

I went, abashed. I tried the Express next. This time I had the editor pointed out to me. He was just coming through the business office. At the door I stopped him and preferred my request. He looked me over, a lad fresh from the shipyard, with horny hands and a rough coat, and asked:—

“What are you?”

“A carpenter,” I said.

The man turned upon his heel with a loud, rasping laugh and shut the door in my face. For a moment I stood there stunned. His ascending steps on the stairs brought back my senses. I ran to the door, and flung it open. “You laugh!” I shouted, shaking my fist at him, standing halfway up the stairs, “you laugh now, but wait—” And then I got the grip of my temper and slammed the door in my turn. All the same, in that hour it was settled that I was to be a reporter. I knew it as I went out into the street.