THE MIDNIGHT PLATOON
William Dean Howells (from Literature and Life)
Compare this to Stephen Crane's "An Experiment in Misery" and Theodore Dreiser's "Curious Shifts of the Poor," chapter 45 of Sister Carrie
He had often heard of it. Connoisseurs of such matters, young
newspaper men trying to make literature out of life and smuggle it into print
under the guard of unwary editors, and young authors eager to get life into their literature, had recommended it to him as one of the most impressive sights of the city; and he had willingly agreed with them that he ought to see it. He imagined it very dramatic, and he was surprised
to find it in his experience so largely subjective. If there was any drama
at all it was wholly in his own consciousness. But the thing was certainly impressive in its way.
He thought it a great piece of luck that he should come upon it by chance, and so long after he had forgotten about it that he was surprised to recognize it for the spectacle he had often promised himself the pleasure of seeing.
Pleasure is the right word; for pleasure of the painful sort that all hedonists will easily imagine was what he expected to get from it; though upon the face of it there seems no reason why a man should delight to see his fellow-men waiting in the winter street for the midnight dole of bread which must in some cases be their only meal from the last midnight to the next midnight. But the mere thought of it gave him pleasure, and the sight of it, from the very first instant. He was proud of knowing just what it was at once, with the sort of pride which one has in knowing an earthquake, though one has never felt one before. He saw the double file of men stretching up one street, and stretching down the other from the corner of the bakery where the loaves were to be given out on the stroke of twelve, and he hugged himself in a luxurious content with his perspicacity.
It was all the more comfortable to do this because he was in a coup, warmly shut against the sharp, wholesome Christmas-week weather, and was wrapped to the chin in a long fur overcoat, which he wore that night as a duty to his family, with a conscience against taking cold and alarming them for his health. He now practised another piece of self-denial: he let the cabman drive rapidly past the interesting spectacle, and carry him to the house where he was going to fetch away the child from the Christmas party. He wished to be in good time, so as to save the child from anxiety about his coming; but he promised himself to stop, going back, and glut his sensibility in a leisurely study of the scene. He got the child, with her arms full of things from the Christmas-tree, into the coup, and then he said to the cabman, respectfully leaning as far over from his box to listen as his thick greatcoat would let him: "When you get up there near that bakery again, drive slowly. I want to have a look at those men."
"All right, sir," said the driver intelligently, and he found his why skilfully out of the street among the high banks of the seasonable Christmas-week snow, which the street-cleaners had heaped up there till they could get round to it with their carts.
When they were in Broadway again it seemed lonelier and silenter than it was a few minutes before. Except for their own coup, the cable-cars, with their flaming foreheads, and the mechanical clangor of their gongs at the corners, seemed to have it altogether to themselves. A tall, lumbering United States mail van rolled by, and impressed my friend in the coup with a cheap and agreeable sense of mystery relative to the letters it was carrying to their varied destination at the Grand Central Station. He listened with half an ear to the child's account of the fun she had at the party, and he watched with both eyes for the sight of the men waiting at the bakery for the charity of the midnight loaves.
He played with a fear that they might all have vanished, and with an apprehension that the cabman might forget and whirl him rapidly by the place where he had left them. But the driver remembered, and checked his horses in good time; and there were the men still, but in even greater number than before, stretching farther up Broadway and farther out along the side street. They stood slouched in dim and solemn phalanx under the night sky, so seasonably, clear and frostily atwinkle with Christmas-week stars; two by two they stood, slouched close together, perhaps for their mutual warmth, perhaps in an unconscious effort to get near the door where the loaves were to be given out, in time to share in them before they were all gone.
My friend's heart beat with glad anticipation. He was really to see this important, this representative thing to the greatest possible advantage. He rapidly explained to his companion that the giver of the midnight loaves got rid of what was left of his daily bread in that way: the next day it could not be sold, and he preferred to give it away to those who needed it, rather than try to find his account in it otherwise. She understood, and he tried to think that sometimes coffee was given with the bread, but he could not make sure of this, though he would have liked very much to have it done; it would have been much more dramatic. Afterwards he learned that it was done, and he was proud of having fancied it.
He decided that when he came alongside of the Broadway file he would get out, and go to the side door of the bakery and watch the men receiving the bread. Perhaps he would find courage to speak to them, and ask them about themselves. At the time it did not strike him that it would be indecent.
A great many things about them were open to reasonable conjecture. It was not probable that they were any of them there for their health, as the saying is. They were all there because they were hungry, or else they were there in behalf of some one else who was hungry. But it was always possible that some of them were impostors, and he wondered if any test was applied to them that would prove them deserving or undeserving. If one were poor, one ought to be deserving; if one were rich, it did not so much matter.
It seemed to him very likely that if he asked these men questions they would tell him lies. A fantastic association of their double files and those of the galley-slaves whom Don Quixote released, with the tonguey Gines de Passamonte at their head, came into his mind. He smiled, and then he thought how these men were really a sort of slaves and convicts --slaves to want and self-convicted of poverty. All at once he fancied them actually manacled there together, two by two, a coffle of captives taken in some cruel foray, and driven to a market where no man wanted to buy. He thought how old their slavery was; and he wondered if it would ever be abolished, as other slaveries had been. Would the world ever outlive it? Would some New-Year's day come when some President would proclaim, amid some dire struggle, that their slavery was to be no more? That would be fine.
He noticed how still the most of them were. A few of them stepped a little out of the line, and stamped to shake off the cold; but all the rest remained motionless, shrinking into themselves, and closer together. They might have been their own dismal ghosts, they were so still, with no more need of defence from the cold than the dead have.
He observed now that not one among them had a fur overcoat on; and at a second glance he saw that there was not an overcoat of any kind among them. He made his reflection that if any of them were impostors, and not true men, with real hunger, and if they were alive to feel that stiff, wholesome, Christmas-week cold, they were justly punished for their deceit.
He was interested by the celerity, the simultaneity of his impressions, his reflections. It occurred to him that his abnormal alertness must be something like that of a drowning person, or a person in mortal peril, and being perfectly safe and well, he was obscurely flattered by the fact.
To test his condition further he took note of the fine mass of the great dry-goods store on the hither corner, blocking itself out of the blue- black night, and of the Gothic beauty of the church beyond, so near that the coffle of captives might have issued from its sculptured portal, after vain prayer.
Fragments of conjecture, of speculation, drifted through his mind. How early did these files begin to form themselves for the midnight dole of bread? As early as ten, as nine o'clock? If so, did the fact argue habitual destitution, or merely habitual leisure? Did the slaves in the coffle make acquaintance, or remain strangers to one another, though they were closely neighbored night after night by their misery? Perhaps they joked away the weary hours of waiting; they must have their jokes. Which of them were old-comers, and which novices? Did they ever quarrel over questions of precedence? Had they some comity, some etiquette, which a man forced to leave his place could appeal to, and so get it back? Could one say to his next-hand man, "Will you please keep my place?" and would this man say to an interloper, "Excuse me, this place is engaged"? How was it with them, when the coffle worked slowly or swiftly past the door where the bread and coffee were given out, and word passed to the rear that the supply was exhausted? This must sometimes happen, and what did they do then?
My friend did not quite like to think. Vague, reproachful thoughts for all the remote and immediate luxury of his life passed through his mind. If he reformed that and gave the saving to hunger and cold? But what was the use? There was so much hunger, so much cold, that it could not go round.
The cabman was obeying his orders too faithfully. He was not only walking by the Broadway coffle, he was creeping by. His action caught the notice of the slaves, and as the coups passed them they all turned and faced it, like soldiers under review making ready to salute a superior. They were perfectly silent, perfectly respectful, but their eyes seemed to pierce the coupe through and through.
My friend was suddenly aware of a certain quality of representivity; he stood to these men for all the ease and safety that they could never, never hope to know. He was Society: Society that was to be preserved because it embodies Civilization. He wondered if they hated him in his capacity of Better Classes. He no longer thought of getting out and watching their behavior as they took their bread and coffee. He would have liked to excuse that thought, and protest that he was ashamed of it; that he was their friend, and wished them well--as well as might be without the sacrifice of his own advantages or superfluities, which he could have persuaded them would be perfectly useless. He put his hand on that of his companion trembling on his arm with sympathy, or at least with intelligence.
"You mustn't mind. What we are and what we do is all right. It's what they are and what they suffer that's all wrong."
"Does that view of the situation still satisfy you?" I asked, when he had told me of this singular experience; I liked his apparently not coloring it at all.
"I don't know," he answered. "It seems to be the only way out."
"Well, it's an easy way," I admitted, "and it's an idea that ought to gratify the midnight platoon."