At about three o'clock of the February afternoon, the blizzard began to
swirl great clouds of snow along the streets, sweeping it down from the
roofs and up from the pavements until the faces of pedestrians tingled and
burned as from a thousand needle-prickings. Those on the walks huddled
their necks closely in the collars of their coats and went along stooping like
a race of aged people. The drivers of vehicles hurried their horses furiously
on their way. They were made more cruel by the exposure of their positions,
aloft on high seats. The street cars, bound up-town, went slowly, the horses
slipping and straining in the spongy brown mass that lay between the
rails. The drivers, muffled to the eyes, stood erect and facing the wind,
models of grim philosophy. Overhead the trains rumbled and roared, and
the dark structure of the elevated railroad, stretching over the avenue,
dripped little streams and drops of water upon the mud and snow beneath
All the clatter of the street was softened by the masses that lay upon
the cobbles until, even to one who looked from a window, it became
important music, a melody of life made necessary to the ear by the
dreariness of the pitiless beat and sweep of the storm. Occasionally one
could see black figures of men busily shovelling the white drifts from the
walks. The sounds from their labor created new recollections of rural
experiences which every man manages to have in a measure. Later, the
immense windows of the shops became aglow with light, throwing great
beams of orange and yellow upon the pavement. They were infinitely
cheerful, yet in a way they accented the force and discomfort of the
storm,and gave a meaning to the pace of the people and the vehicles,
scores of pedestrians and drivers, wretched with cold faces, necks and feet,
speeding for scores of unknown doors and entrances, scattering to
aninfinite variety of shelters, to places which the imagination made warm
with the familiar colors of home.
There was an absolute expression of hot dinners in the pace of the
people. If one dared to speculate upon the destination of those who came
trooping, he lost himself in a maze of social calculations; he might fling a
handful of sand and attempt to follow the flight of each particular grain.
But as to the suggestion of hodinners, he was in firm lines of thought, for it
was upon every hurryingface. It is a matter of tradition; it is from the tales
of childhood. It comes
forth with every storm.
However, in a certain part of a dark West-side street, there was a
collection of men to whom these things were as if they were not. In this
street was located a charitable house where for five cents the homeless of
the city could get a bed at night and, in
the morning, coffee and bread.
During the afternoon of the storm, the whirling snows acted as drivers,
as men with whips, and at half-past three, the walk before the closed doors
of the house was covered with wanderers of the street, waiting. For some
distance on either side of the place they could be seen lurking in doorways
and behind projecting parts of buildings, gathering in close bunches in an
effort to get warm. A covered wagon drawn up near the curb sheltered a
dozen of them. Under the stairs that led to the elevated railway station,
there were six or eight, their hands stuffed deep in their pockets, their
shoulders stooped, jiggling their feet. Others always could be seen coming,
a strange procession, some slouching along with the characteristic
hopeless gait of professional strays, some coming with hesitating steps
wearing theair of men to whom this sort of
thing was new.
It was an afternoon of incredible length. The snow, blowing in twisting
clouds, sought out the men in their meagre hiding-places and skilfully beat
in among them, drenching their persons with showers of fine, stinging
flakes. They crowded together, muttering, and fumbling in their pockets to
get their red, inflamed wrists covered by
Newcomers usually halted at one of the groups and addressed a question,
perhaps much as a matter of form, "Is
it open yet?"
Those who had been waiting inclined to take the questioner seriously and
become contemptuous. "No; do yeh think
we'd be standin' here?"
The gathering swelled in numbers steadily and persistently. One could
always see them coming, trudging slowly through
Finally, the little snow plains in the street began to assume a leaden
hue from the shadows of evening. The buildings upreared gloomily save
where various windows became brilliant figures of light that made
shimmers and splashes of yellow on the snow. A street lamp on the curb
struggled to illuminate, but it was reduced to impotent blindness by the
swift gusts of sleet
crusting its panes.
In this half-darkness, the men began to come from their shelter places
and mass in front of the doors of charity. They were of all types, but the
nationalities were mostly American, German and Irish. Many were strong,
healthy, clear-skinned fellows with that stamp of countenance which is not
frequently seen upon seekers after charity. There were men of undoubted
patience, industry and temperance, who in time of ill-fortune, do not
habitually turn to rail at the state of society,
snarling at the arrogance of the rich and bemoaning the cowardice of the
poor, but who at these times are apt to wear a sudden and singular
meekness, as if they saw the world's progress marching from them and
were trying to perceive where they had failed, what they had lacked, to be
thus vanquished in the race. Then there were others of the shifting,
Bowery lodging-house element who were used to paying ten cents for a
place to sleep, but who now came
here because it was cheaper.
But they were all mixed in one mass so thoroughly that one could not
have discerned the different elements but for the fact that the laboring
men, for the most part, remained silent and impassive in the blizzard, their
eyes fixed on the windows of the house, statues
The sidewalk soon became completely blocked by the bodies of the men.
They pressed close to one another like sheep in a winter's gale, keeping one
another warm by the heat of their bodies. The snow came down upon this
compressed group of men until, directly from above, it might have appeared
like a heap of snow-covered merchandise, if it were not for the fact that
the crowd swayed gently with a unanimous, rhythmical motion. It was
wonderful to see how the snow lay upon the heads and shoulders of these
men, in little ridges an inch thick perhaps in places, the flakes steadily
adding drop and drop, precisely as they fall upon the unresisting grass of
the fields. The feet of the men were all wet and cold and the wish to warm
them accounted for the slow, gentle, rhythmical motion. Occasionally some
man whose ears or nose tingled acutely from the cold winds would wriggle
down until his
head was protected by the shoulders of his companions.
There was a continuous murmuring discussion as to the probability of the
doors being speedily opened. They persistently lifted their eyes toward the
windows. One could hear little combats of
"There's a light in th' winder!"
"Naw; it's a reflection f'm across th'
"Well, didn't I see 'em lite it?"
"Well, then, that settles it!"
As the time approached when they expected to be allowed to enter, the
men crowded to the doors in an unspeakable crush, jamming and wedging
in a way that it seemed would crack bones. They surged heavily against the
building in a powerful wave of pushing shoulders. Once a rumor flitted
among all the
"They can't open th' doors! Th' fellers
er smack up ag'in 'em."
Then a dull roar of rage came from the men on the outskirts; but all the
time they strained and pushed until it appeared to be impossible for those
that they cried out against to do anything
but be crushed to pulp.
"Ah, git away f'm th' door!"
"Git outa that!"
"Throw 'em out!"
"Say, fellers, now, what th' 'ell? Give
'em a chanct t' open th' door!"
"Yeh damned pigs, give 'em a chanct
t' open th' door!"
Men in the outskirts of the crowd occasionally yelled when a boot-heel
of one of frantic trampling feet crushed
on their freezing extremities.
"Git off me feet, yeh clumsy tarrier!"
"Say, don't stand on me feet! Walk on
A man near the doors suddenly shouted: "O-o-oh! Le' me out -- le' me
out!" And another, a man of infinite valor, once twisted his head so as to
half face those who were pushing behind him. "Quit yer shovin', yeh" -- and
he delivered a volley of the most powerful and singular invective straight
into the faces of the men behind him. It was as if he was hammering the
noses of them with curses of triple brass. His face, red with rage, could be
seen; upon it, an expression of sublime disregard of consequences. But
nobody cared to reply to his imprecations; it was too cold. Many of them
snickered and all continued to push.
In occasional pauses of the crowd's movement the men had opportunity to
make jokes; usually grim things, and no doubt very uncouth. Nevertheless,
they are notable -- one does not expect to find the quality of humor in a
heap of old clothes under a snowdrift.
The winds seemed to grow fiercer as time wore on. Some of the gusts of
snow that came down on the close collection of heads cut like knives and
needles, and the men huddled, and swore, not like dark assassins, but in a
sort of an American fashion, grimly and desperately, it is true, but yet
with a wondrous under-effect, indefinable and mystic, as if there was some
kind of humor in this catastrophe, in this situation in a night of
Once, the window of the huge dry-goods shop across the street furnished
material for a few moments of forgetfulness. In the brilliantly-lighted
space appeared the figure of a man. He was rather stout and very well
clothed. His whiskers were fashioned charmingly after those of the Prince of Wales. He stood in an attitude of magnificent reflection. He slowly stroked
his moustache with a certain grandeur of manner, and looked down at the
snow-encrusted mob. From below, there was denoted a supreme
complacence inhim. It seemed that the sight operated inversely, and
enabled him to moreclearly regard his own environment, delightful
One of the mob chanced to turn his head and perceive the figure in the
window. "Hello, lookit 'is whiskers,"
he said genially.
Many of the men turned then, and a shout went up. They called to him in
all strange keys. They addressed him in every manner, from familiar and
cordial greetings to carefully-worded advice concerning changes in his
personal appearance. The man presently fled, and the mob chuckled
ferociously like ogres who had just devoured
They turned then to serious business. Often they addressed the stolid
front of the house.
"Oh, let us in fer Gawd's sake!"
"Let us in or we'll all drop dead!"
"Say, what's th' use o' keepin' all
us poor Indians out in th' cold?"
And always some one was saying, "Keep
off me feet."
The crushing of the crowd grew terrific toward the last. The men, in
keen pain from the blasts, began almost to fight. With the pitiless whirl of
snow upon them, the battle for shelter was going to the strong. It became
known that the basement door at the foot of a little steep flight of stairs
was the one to be opened, and they jostled and heaved in this direction like
laboring fiends. One could hear them panting and groaning in their fierce
Usually some one in the front ranks was protesting to those in the rear:
"O -- o -- ow! Oh, say, now, fellers, let up, will yeh? Do yeh wanta kill
A policeman arrived and went into the midst of them, scolding and
berating, occasionally threatening, but using no force but that of his hands
and shoulders against these men who were only struggling to get in out of
the storm. His decisive tones rang out sharply: "Stop that pushin' back
there! Come, boys, don't push! Stop that! Here, you, quit yer shovin'!
When the door below was opened, a thick stream of men forced a way down
the stairs, which were of an extraordinary narrowness and seemed only
wide enough for one at a time. Yet they somehow
went down almost three abreast. It was a difficult and painful operation.
The crowd was like a turbulent water forcing itself through one tiny outlet.
The men in the rear, excited by the success of the others, made frantic
exertions, for it seemed that this large band would more than fill the
quarters and that many would be left upon the pavements. It would be
disastrous to be of the last, and accordingly men with the snow biting their
faces, writhed and twisted with their might. One expected that from the
tremendous pressure, the narrow passage to the basement door would be
so choked and clogged with human limbs and bodies that movement would
be impossible. Once indeed the crowd was forced to stop, and a cry went
along that a man had been injured at the foot of the stairs. But presently
the slow movement began again, and the policeman fought at the top of the
flight to ease
the pressure on those who were going down.
A reddish light from a window fell upon the faces of the men when they,
in turn, arrived at the last three steps and were about to enter. One could
then note a change of expression that had come over their features. As
they thus stood upon the threshold of their hopes, they looked suddenly
content and complacent. The fire had passed from their eyes and the snarl
had vanished from their lips. The very force of the crowd in the rear, which
had previously vexed them, was regarded from another point of view, for it
now made it inevitable that they should go through the little doors into the
place that was cheery and warm with light.
The tossing crowd on the sidewalk grew smaller and smaller. The snow
beat with merciless persistence upon the bowed heads of those who waited.
The wind drove it up from the pavements in frantic forms of winding white,
and it seethed in circles about the huddled forms, passing in, one by one,
three by three, out of the storm.