Friday, November 13, 2015


Walt McDougall's This is the Life: Chapter Four, Part One

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall


The Bowery of the ancients ... The confiding bank robber ... The coming of the Can Can ... My closest call ... To Albany and back for a quarter ... The making of artificial eggs ... Joys of canoeing ... A humiliating experience

In New York they used to strut and brag in a manner that infuriated their bucolic visitors about their towering six and seven-story buildings. Then came A. T. Stewart's Store at Chambers Street. Over in New Jersey it was mentioned with a gasp. Followed the Elevated Railroad, the Brooklyn Bridge, Grant's Tomb, the World Dome and the Flatiron Building, and the capacity for awe was exhausted. Began then the greatest tearing-down and building-up that any city has ever seen, the end of which is not in sight. Today the towers of Babel climb so fast that soon the only conspicuous building will be a church. Our thoughts, like the woodchuck's, are now below ground.

The only part of town that shows any resemblance to the city of my boyhood is the Bowery, and even there the eager hands of Progress pluck at the grimy crumbling walls. The "Bowerie," still believed by youthful sailors from Oklahoma and citizens of Orange County to be a seething crater of variegated vice, was, most likely, a four-flush and a humbug from the start. Probably it never, even in old Dutch days, had a bowerie anywhere along its whole length, but had the alluring title, as the "Old Grapevine," in Sixth Avenue, from a tavern-keeper's fancy. Washington Irving hints at something naughty, but side-steps in time; evidently even in his days its allure was tinged with impropriety.

A populous, rowdy, rough-house place filled with reasonably sober volunteer firemen in the "Roaring Forties," the White Light District of the city, it had become in three decades a Sodom and Gomorrah to be prayed over by pious folk in Erie, Pa., and Schenectady, N.Y., as a festering plague-spot utterly beyond human cure, inviting the lightning of Heaven, and every hick made straight for the spot from the Erie and the New Haven "depot" the minute he arrived, praying to be on time to see the heavenly pyrotechnics begin. The early students of Realism nibbling on the tender leaves of Howells's novels, flocked to the Bowery for snappy material, city editors thanked God for one spot that could be depended on to furnish at least one daily story of murder, mayhem, suicide or rape, the industrious crimp, a baggage-smasher by day, toiled all night carting the bonnie sailor laddies and their loads down to ships they never had heard of, bartenders passed out stronger whiskey for five cents a slug than the bootlegger gives now for fifty, and Expectation stood on tiptoe day and night—and often got a jolt. All the city's crooks drifted to the Bowery as today they all drift into the taxicab business.

Odd things happened often enough. It was the meeting place—and too, for ages, the manufacturing place—of freaks. Here were made the dime-museum monsters, and here the human monstrosities congregated. Some saloons were frequented by these, others had a clientele of fake cripples, still others were patronized only by panhandlers or pickpockets or pugilists. Andy Horn's, for some reason, was the favorite stopping-place for the newspaper men. I dropped into Andy's one day with Lew Dockstader for a glass of beer. We were followed by a slim young fellow who, nodding pleasantly, seated himself at our table. A moment later Dan Rice, the famous old clown, came in with Tom Powers and joined us, and during the general conversation the young stranger asked me if I had seen the account in the papers of the bank clerk who had stolen sixty thousand dollars a few days before. When I nodded, he whispered:

"I'm the guy. They've been looking for me everywhere except down here. They think I'm too tony to hang out in the Bowery. I'm going to give it up. It isn't worth all the trouble."

In my admiration of this novel form of attack, for I supposed it was a mere preliminary to an attempt to borrow some money, I smiled and jokingly asked him where all the money was.

"That's the funny part!" he said, grinning. "It's in my girl's washstand away uptown. She doesn't know it's there, and I don't dare go near her, for the cops are watching her house, expecting me to come there. I've only got about fifteen hundred dollars of it."

He then revealed bills enough to paper a hennery, and I was convinced. Calling the attention of my confreres to this very unusual young man, we extracted the full particulars of his crime, a simple tale of putting sixty one-thousand-dollar bills in his coat pocket and absenting himself from the bank. When we had recovered our composure in some measure, being full of romance, we escorted the light-fingered moron to a young lawyer named Paterson, who had just opened an office in the new World Building, the same being now, through industry and thrift, a great legal light shining only for large corporations and banks. He so managed matters that when I happened to meet the young man a month or so later in the Hoffman House I was not surprised to hear that he had escaped prosecution, but I was almost bowled over when he informed me that he now had a much better position in the very bank he had robbed.

The theaters halted in the Bowery for a brilliant period on their uptown march to Fourteenth Street, where they lingered long. They were all up there when I began to frequent the town. It now seems as absurd to think of fashionable theaters, all the glitter and flash of gems, silks and feathers, shiny carriages and stiff footmen, here in this squalid street as it would have seemed silly to imagine them in Columbus Circle in 1890. Even yet the drabbled shells of some of these Bowery show houses still remain.

To me the most striking feature of the whole precinct was the bewildering number of saloons infesting it. Perhaps a third of the basements on Park Row held beaneries or saloons, but on the Bowery every other building, and often every building, harbored a more or less disreputable gin mill where liquor could be bought for from three to ten cents a glass. They thrived on the street's ill fame. The Bowery Girl and the Bowery Tough were, even in my day, nearly as distinct a type as were the Whitechapel costermongers. He wore "spring-bottom pants" long after they had been abolished elsewhere.

Beyond the Palisades and to points far West, the jovial Old Hoss Hoey had sung: "They do such things, and they say such things, on the Bowery!" until the name was the synonym for the one wide-open, rip-snorting vestibule of hell and the show window of Vice.

It may have been such in the prehistoric days when it was the first place visited by the hayseed in search of thrills, but it had long since lost its gilding and its tingle.

To be sure, there still was Billy M'Glory's Armory Hall at Hestor Street, seemingly doing a rushing business as late as '86. An extensive establishment, dingy and sour-smelling, cut up with numerous small narrow rooms and passages always crowded with noisy, tawdry girls, tough citizens rushing about with trays frantically asking: "Who wants the handsome waiter?" semi-pickled sailors, dope-peddlers and half-scared hicks, all the flotsam and jetsam of night life ebbing and flowing to and from the big barroom and dance-hall.

The Can Can was the name of the particular Parisian abomination just then undermining the morals of the Nation. On the theatrical stage it consisted mainly of altitudinous kicks at chandeliers or high hats, but in Armory Hall the kick was accompanied by indelicate bacchanalian gyrations and licentious cavortings, usually assisted by such a generous removal of clothing that the hilarious and abandoned dancers exposed their persons almost as freely as do our present-day flappers on the streets.

Nice girls in the privacy of their bedrooms practiced the steps of the devilish Can Can; it, very likely, was the cause of the first loosening-up of feminine muscles since the corset was invented in the time of Henry VIII, yet somehow it was never really popular in good society. One never saw it break out sporadically at a dancing party as we have become used to seeing novel features like the shimmie introduced of late years, for, after all, it was rather strenuously exercising, besides being somewhat hard on silk hats, and the athletic girl had not arrived. They were already on the way, however. One could not expect much of the steel-corseted girls when the men were still skating in plug hats, hunting in long melton overcoats, and rowing racing-shells in pea-jackets! Thousands of cultured persons wore their red-flannel three-ply BVD.'s all summer.

Along about this time I had a curious experience which strongly affected my view of circumstantial evidence and its value, as well as effectually diminished my natural bumptiousness. I had been away for a year, and during the interval John had married and taken up a residence on the top floor of No. 32 St. Mark's Place, a locality with which I was unfamiliar. One evening, finding myself in that neighborhood, I decided to visit him. On reaching the corner of Fourth Avenue and Eighth Street, I asked a passer-by where St. Mark's Place was.

Now I was unaware that these two streets converge at Fourth Avenue, and therefore when he pointed westward into a black gulf lit only by a few dim street lamps, I saw merely the sidewalk of Eighth Street before me, so I proceeded to number 32 and rang the bell. A shrewish, hatchet-faced woman opened the door and, when I inquired for my brother, raspingly informed me that he did not live there. "This is 32 St. Mark's Place, is it not?" I asked.

"No, it isn't! It's 32 Eighth Street," she snapped, and slammed the door in my face.

Returning to the corner, I asked two different men for direction. Each of them pointed out St. Mark's Place, but to me they appeared to point up Eighth Street, which convinced me that the woman of number 32 must be drunk or crazy. I decided to beard her again. Just as I was about to ring her bell, the door opened, a man came out, and politely stood aside for me to pass in. I had never been in an apartment house; had a notion, in fact, that they were like tenement houses. Knowing that John lived on the fourth floor, I started up the carpeted stairs. I was rather surprised at seeing many of the room doors open, but my confidence was undisturbed. I imagine that I was in a rather high-class boarding house. I felt assured when I reached the top floor that I had found John's apartment.

The light from the hall revealed numerous photographs arranged along the walls, as was his custom in his studios, and upon a table were piled many large "art" books, apparently. I rummaged around a bureau, upset a powder jar, found matches, and lighted the gas. I almost instantly discovered that the photographs were all quite unfamiliar to me, and as a chill of doubt assailed me I hastily examined some of the art books. These were inscribed with strange, Spanish names. In a flash I realized that the furniture, hangings, pictures, everything about the room were not my brother's and that the woman knew what she had been talking about.

Turning out the light, I hastened downstairs. A fat Negro woman passed me, regarding me curiously, but she said nothing. As my shaking hand reached for the door-knob, it turned, the door opened, and once again a polite man stood aside for me to pass, but outside I heard a shrill voice and turned to face the irate landlady, who demanded to know what I wanted. I felt safe, for I saw that she thought I was about to enter instead of escaping. I suavely inquired if she was certain that a Mr. John McDougall, the eminent painter, did not there reside, as several persons had assured me this was number 32 St. Mark's Place.

Her swift access of irascibility was remarkable. She pushed me from the doorway with energy and uttered some biting words anent my sanity and sobriety as I fled down the steps. Outside, in the dark street, a great throng was moving with eyes directed aloft. Wondering, I asked a boy what was causing all the excitement.

"They are hunting a burglar up on the roofs," he explained. "They caught one over the saloon on the corner and the cops are after the other, but I guess he's got away from them."

Before I reached Newark I had thoroughly canvassed all the possibilities of the dramatic situation. Had that peppery old woman caught me red-handed—or at least, powdered—on her top floor and called the police, it may be conjectured that a few years of my life might have worn a vastly different aspect.

The funny thing is that I never did get to No. 32 St. Mark's Place and never wanted to.



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