Stepping Westward – American Travel

“What, you are stepping westward?”—”Yea.” —’Twould be a wildish destiny,

If we, who thus together roam In a strange Land, and far from home, Were in this place the guests of Chance: Yet who would stop or fear to advance, Though home or shelter he had none, With such a sky to lead him on?

-WORDSWORTH.

FOR some time I have desired to travel over the United States—to ramble and observe and seek adventure here, at home, not as a tourist with a short vacation and a round-trip ticket, but as a kind of privateer with a roving commission. The more I have contemplated the possibility the more it has engaged me. For we Americans, though we are the most restless race in the world, with the possible exception of the Bedouins, almost never permit ourselves to travel, either at home or abroad, as the “guests of Chance.” We always go from one place to another with a definite purpose. We never amble. On the boat, going to Europe, we talk of leisurely trips away from the “beaten track,” but we never take them. After we land we rush about obsessed by “sights,” seeing with the eyes of guides and thinking the “canned” thoughts of guidebooks.

In order to accomplish such a trip as I had thought of I was even willing to write about it afterward. Therefore I went to see a publisher and suggested that he send me out upon my travels.

I argued that Englishmen, from Dickens to Arnold Bennett, had “done” America; likewise Frenchmen and Germans. And we have traveled over there and writ-ten about them. But Americans who travel at home to write (or, as in my case, write to travel) almost always go in search of some specific thing : to find corruption and expose it, to visit certain places and describe them in detail, or to catch, exclusively, the comic side. For my part, I did not wish to go in search of anything specific. I merely wished to take things as they might come. And—speaking of taking things—I wished, above all else, to take a good companion, and I had him all picked out : a man whose drawings I admire almost as much as I admire his disposition; the one being who might endure my presence for some months, sharing with me his joys and sorrows and collars and cigars, and yet remain on speaking terms with me.

The publisher agreed to all. Then I told my New York friends that I was going.

They were incredulous. That is the New York attitude of mind. Your “typical New Yorker” really thinks that any man who leaves Manhattan Island for any destination other than Europe or Palm Beach must be either a fool who leaves voluntarily or a criminal taken off by force. For the picturesque criminal he may be sorry, but for the fool he has scant pity.

At a farewell party which they gave us on the night before we left, one of my friends spoke, in an emotional moment, of accompanying us as far as Buffalo. He spoke of it as one might speak of going up to Baffin Land to see a friend off for the Pole.

I welcomed the proposal and assured him of safe con-duct to that point in the “interior.” I even showed him Buffalo upon the map. But the sight of that wide-flung chart of the United States seemed only to alarm him. After regarding it with a solemn and uneasy eye he shook his head and talked long and seriously of his responsibilities as a family man—of his duty to his wife and his limousine and his elevator boys.

It was midnight when good-bys were said and my companion and I returned to our respective homes to pack. There were many things to be put into trunks and bags. A clock struck three as my weary head struck the pillow. I closed my eyes. Then when, as it seemed to me, I was barely dozing off there came a knocking at my bedroom door.

“What is it ?”

“Six o’clock,” replied the voice of our trusty Hannah.

As I arose I knew the feelings of a man condemned to death who hears the warden’s voice in the chilly dawn : “Come! It is the fatal hour!”

When, fifteen minutes later, doubting Hannah (who knows my habits in these early morning matters) knocked again, I was moving about my room, my hands full of hairbrushes and toothbrushes and clothes brushes and shaving brushes; my head full of railroad trains, and hills, and plains and valleys, and snow-capped mountain peaks, and smoking cities and smoking-cars, and people I had never seen.

The breakfast table, shining with electric light, had a night-time aspect which made eggs and coffee seem bizarre. I do not like to breakfast by electric light, and I had done so seldom until then; but since that time I have done it often—sometimes to catch the early morning train, sometimes to catch the early morning man.

Beside my plate I found a telegram. I ripped the envelope and read this final punctuation-markless message from a literary friend:

you are going to discover the united states clout be afraid to say so

That is an awful thing to tell a man in the very early morning before breakfast. In my mind I answered with the cry,: “But I am afraid to say so!”

And now, months later, I am still afraid to say so, because, despite a certain truth the statement may contain, it seems to me to sound ridiculous, and ponderous, and solemn with an asinine solemnity.

It spoiled my last meal at home—that well-meant telegram.

I had not swallowed my second cup of coffee when, from her switchboard, a dozen floors below, the operator telephoned to say my taxi had arrived; whereupon I left the table, said good-by to those I should miss most of all, took up my suit case and departed.

Beside the curb there stood an unhappy-looking taxi-cab, shivering as with malaria, but the driver showed a face of brazen cheerfulness which, considering the hour and the circumstances, seemed almost indecent. I could not bear his smile. Hastily I blotted him from view beneath a pile of baggage.

With a jerk we started. Few other vehicles disputed our right to the whole width of Seventy-second Street as we skimmed eastward. Farewell, 0 Central Park ! Farewell, 0 Plaza! And you, Fifth Avenue, empty, gray, deserted now; so soon to flash with fascinating traffic. Farewell ! Farewell !

Presently, in that cavern in which vehicles stop beneath the overhanging cliffs of the Grand Central Station, we drew up. A dusky redcap took my baggage.. I alighted and, passing through glass doors, gazed down on the vast concourse. Far up in the lofty spaces of the room there seemed to hang a haze, through which —from that amazing and audacious ceiling, painted like the heavens—there twinkled, feebly, morning stars of gold. Through three arched windows, towering to the height of six-story buildings, the eastern light streamed softly in, combining with the spaciousness around me, and the blue above, to fill me with a curious sense of paradox: a feeling that I was indoors yet out of doors.

The glass dials of the four-faced clock, crowning the information bureau at the center of the concourse, glowed with electric light, yellow and sickly by contrast with the day which poured in through those windows. Such stupendous windows ! Gargantuan spider webs whose threads were massive bars of steel.. And suddenly I saw the spider! He emerged from one side, passed nimbly through the center of the web, disappeared, emerged again, crossed the second web and the third in the same way, and was gone—a two-legged spider, walking importantly and carrying papers in his hand. Then another spider came, and still an-other, each black against the light, each on a different level. For those windows are, in reality, more than windows. They are double walls of glass, supporting floors of glass—layer upon layer of crystal corridor, suspended in the air as by genii out of the Arabian Nights. And through these corridors pass clerks who never dream that they are princes in the modern kind of fairy tale.

As yet the torrent of commuters had not begun to pour through the vast place.. The floor lay bare and tawny like the bed of some dry river waiting for the melting of the mountain snows. Across the river bed there came a herd of cattle—Italian immigrants, dark-eyed, dumb, patient, uncomprehending. Two weeks ago they had left Naples, with plumed Vesuvius looming to the left; yesterday they had come to Ellis Island; last night they had slept on station benches; today they were departing; to-morrow or the next day they would reach their destination in the West. Suddenly there came to me from nowhere, but with a poignance that seemed to make it new, the platitudinous thought that life is at once the commonest and strangest of experiences. What scenes these black, pathetic people had passed through—were passing through ! Why did they not look up in wonderment? Why were their bovine eyes gazing blankly ahead of them at nothing? What had dazed them so—the bigness of the world? Yet, after all, why should they understand? What American can understand Italian railway stations? They have always seemed to me to express a sort of mild insanity. But the Grand Central terminal I fancy I do understand. It seems to me to be much more than a successful station. In its stupefying size, its brilliant utilitarianism, and, most of all, in its mildly vulgar grandeur, it seems to me to express, exactly, the city to which it is a gate. That is some-thing every terminal should do unless, as in the case of the Pennsylvania terminal in New York, it expresses something finer. The Grand Central Station is New York, but that classic marvel over there on Seventh Avenue is more : it is something for New York to live up to.

When I had bought my ticket and moved along to count my change there came up to the ticket window a big man in a big ulster who asked in a big voice for a ticket to Grand Rapids. As he stood there I was conscious of a most un-New-York-like wish to say to him: “After a while I ‘m going to Grand Rapids, too !” And I think that, had I said it, he would have told me that Grand Rapids was “some town” and asked me to come in and see him, when I got there, —”at the plant,” I think he would have said.

As I crossed the marble floor to take the train I caught sight of my traveling companion leaning rigidly against the wall beside the gate. He did not see me. Reaching his side, I greeted him.

He showed no signs of life. I felt as though I had addressed a waxwork figure.

“Good morning,” I repeated, calling him by name.

“I ‘ve just finished packing,” he said. “I never got to bed at all.”

At that moment a most attractive person put in an appearance. She was followed by a redcap carrying a lovely little Russia leather bag. A few years before I should have called a bag like that a dressing case, but watching that young woman as she tripped along with steps restricted by the slimness of her narrow satin skirt, it occurred to me that modes in baggage may have changed like those in woman’s dress and that her little leather case might be a modern kind of wardrobe trunk.

My companion took no notice of this agitating presence.

“Look!” I whispered. “She is going, too.”

Stiffly he turned his head.

“The pretty girl,” he remarked, with sad philosophy, “is always in the other car. That ‘s life.”

“No,” I demurred. “It ‘s only early morning stuff.”

And I was right, for presently, in the parlor car, we found our seats across the aisle from hers.

Before the train moved out a boy came through with books and magazines, proclaiming loudly the “last call for reading matter.”

I think the radiant being believed him, for she bought a magazine—a magazine of pretty girls and piffle: just the sort we knew she ‘d buy. As for my companion and me, we made no purchases, not crediting the statement that it was really the “last call.” But I am impelled to add that having, later, visited certain book stores of Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit, I now see truth in what the boy said.

For a time my companion and I sat and tried to make believe we didn’t know that some one was across the aisle. And she sat there and played with pages and made believe she didn’t know we made believe. When that had gone on for a time and our train was slipping silently along beside the Hudson, we felt we couldn’t stand it any longer, so we made believe we wanted to go out and smoke. And as we left our seats she made believe she did n’t know that we were going.

Four men were seated in the smoking room, Two were discussing the merits of flannel versus linen mesh for winter underwear. The gentleman who favored linen mesh was a fat, prosperous-looking person, whose gold-rimmed spectacles reflected flying lights from out of doors.

“If you ’11 wear linen,” he declared with deep conviction—”and it wants to be a union suit, too—you ’11 never go back to shirt and drawers again. I ’11 guarantee that !” The other promised to try it. Presently I noticed that the first speaker had somehow got-ten all the way from linen union suits to Portland, Me., on a hot Sunday afternoon. He said it was the hottest day last year, and gave the date and temperatures at certain hours. He mentioned his wife’s weight, details of how she suffered from the heat, the amount of flesh she lost, the name of the steamer on which they finally escaped from Portland to New York, the time of leaving and arrival, and many other little things.

I left him on the dock in New York. A friend (name and occupation given) had met him with a touring car (make and horsepower specified). What happened after that I do not know, save that it was nothing of importance. Important things don’t happen to a man like that.

Two other men of somewhat Oriental aspect were seated on the leather sofa talking the unintelligible jargon of the factory. But, presently, emerged an anecdote.

“I was going through our sorting room a while back,” said the one nearest the window, “and I happened to take notice of one of the girls. I hadn’t seen her before. She was a new hand—a mighty pretty girl, with a nice, round figure and a fine head of hair. She kept herself neater than most of them girls do. I says to myself : `Why, if you was to take that girl and dress her up and give her a little education you would n’t be ashamed to take her anywheres.’ Well, I went over to her table and I says : `Look at here, little girl; you got a fine head of hair and you ‘d ought to take care of it. Why don’t you wear a cap in here in all this dust?’ It tickled her to death to be noticed like that. And, sure enough, she did get a cap. I says to her : `That ‘s the dope, little girl. Take care of your looks. You ‘ll only be young and pretty like this once, you know.’ So one thing led to another, and one day, a while later, she come up to the office to see about her time slip or some-thing, and I jollied her a little. I seen she was a pretty smart kid at that, so—” At that point he lowered his voice to a whisper, and leaned over so that his thick, smiling lips were close to his companion’s ear. The motion of the train caused their hat brims to interfere. Disturbed by this, the raconteur removed his derby. His head was absolutely bald.

Well, I am not sure that I should have liked to hear the rest. I shifted my attention back to the apostle of the linen union suit, who had talked on, unremittingly. His conversation had, at least, the merit of entire frankness. He was a man with nothing to conceal.

“Yes, sir !” I heard him declare, “every time you get on to a railroad train you take your life in your hands. That ‘s a positive fact. I was reading it up just the other day. We had almost sixteen thousand accidents to trains in this country last year. A hundred and thirty-nine passengers killed and between nine and ten thousand injured. That ‘s not counting employees, either-just passengers like us.” He emphasized his statements by waving a fat forefinger beneath the listener’s nose, and I noticed that the latter seemed to wish to draw his head back out of range, as though in momentary fear of a collision.

For my part, I did not care for these statistics. They were not pleasant to the ears of one on the first leg of a long railroad journey. I rose, aimed the end of my cigar at the convenient nickel-plated receptacle provided for that purpose by the thoughtful Pullman Company, missed it, and retired from the smoking room. Or, rather, I emerged and went to luncheon.

Our charming neighbor of the parlor car was already in the diner. She finished luncheon before we did, and, passing by our table as she left, held her chin well up and kept her eyes ahead with a precision almost military—almost, but not quite. Try as she would, she was unable to control a slight but infinitely gratifying flicker of the eyelids, in which nature triumphed over training and femininity defeated feministic theory.

A little later, on our way back to the smoking room, we saw her seated, as before, behind the sheltering ramparts of her magazine. This time it pleased our fancy to take the austere military cue from her. So we filed by in step, as stiff as any guardsmen on parade before a princess seated on a green plush throne. Resolutely she kept her eyes upon the page. We might have thought she had not noticed us at all but for a single sign. She uncrossed her knees as we passed by.

In the smoking room we entered conversation with a young man who was sitting by the window. He proved to be a civil engineer from Buffalo. He had lived in Buffalo eight years, he said, without having visited Niagara Falls. (“I ‘ve been meaning to go, but I ‘ve kept putting it off.”) But in New York he had taken time to go to Bedloe Island and ascend the Statue of Liberty. (“It ‘s awfully hot in there.”) Though my companion and myself had lived in New York for many years, neither of us had been to Bedloe Island. But both of us had visited the Falls. The absurd humanness of this was amusing to us all; to my companion and me it was encouraging as well, for it seemed to give us ground for hope that, in our visits to strange places, we might see things which the people living in those places fail to see.

When, after finishing our smoke, we went back to our seats, the being across the way began to make believe to read again. But now and then, when some one passed, she would look up and make believe she wished to see who it might be. And always, after doing so, she let her eyes trail casually in our direction ere they sought the page again. And always we were thankful.

As the train slowed down for Rochester we saw her rise and get into her slinky little coat. The porter came and took her Russia leather bag. Meanwhile we hoped she would be generous enough to look once more before she left the car. Only once more!

But she would not. I think she had a feeling that frivolity should cease at Rochester; for Rochester, we somehow sensed, was home to her. At all events she simply turned and undulated from the car.

That was too much ! Enough of make-believe ! With one accord we swung our chairs to face the window. As she appeared upon the platform our noses almost touched the windowpane and our eyes sent forth forlorn appeals. She knew that we were there, yet she walked by without so much as glancing at us.

We saw a lean old man trot up to her, throw one arm about her shoulders, and kiss her warmly on the cheek. Her father—there was no mistaking that. They stood there for a moment on the platform talking eagerly; and as they talked they turned a little bit, so that we saw her smiling up at him.

Then, to our infinite delight, we noticed that her eyes were slipping, slipping. First they slipped down to her father’s necktie. Then sidewise to his shoulder, where they fluttered for an instant, while she tried to get them under control. But they were n’t the kind of eyes which are amenable. They got away from her and, with a sudden leap, flashed up at us across her father’s shoulder! The minx ! She even flung a smile ! It was just a little smile—not one of her best—merely the fragment of a smile, not good enough for father, but too good to throw away.

Well—it was not thrown away. For it told us that she knew our lives had been made brighter by her presence-and that she did n’t mind a bit.

Pushing on toward Buffalo as night was falling, my companion and I discussed the fellow travelers who had most engaged our notice : the young engineer from Buffalo, keen and alive, with a quick eye for the funny side of things; the hairless amorist; the genial bore, whose wife (we told ourselves) got very tired of him sometimes, but loved him just because he was so good; the pretty girl, who could n’t make her eyes behave because she was a pretty girl. We guessed what kind of house each one resided in, the kind of furniture they had, the kind of pictures on the walls, the kind of books, they read—or didn’t read. And I believed that we guessed right. Did we not even know what sort of underwear encased the ample figure of the man with the amazing memory of unessential things? And, while touching on this somewhat delicate subject, were we not aware that if the alluring being who left the train, and us, at Rochester possessed the once-so-necessary garment called a petticoat, that petticoat was hanging in her closet?

All this, I mention because the thought occurred to me then (and it has kept recurring since) that places, no less than persons, have characters and traits and habits of their own. Just as there are colorless people there are colorless communities. There are communities which are strong, self-confident, aggressive; others lazy and inert. There are cities which are cultivated; others which crave “culture” but take “culturine” (like some one drinking from the wrong bottle) ; and still others almost unaware, as yet, that esthetic things exist. Some cities seem to fairly smile at you; others are glum and worried like men who are ill, or oppressed with business troubles. And there are dowdy cities and fashionable cities—the latter resembling one another as fashionable women do. Some cities seem to have an active sense of duty, others not. And almost all cities, like almost all people, appear to be capable alike of baseness and nobility. Some cities are rich and proud like self-made millionaires ; others, by comparison, are poor. But let me digress here to say that, though I have heard mention of “hard times” at certain points along my way, I don’t believe our modern generation knows what hard times really are. To most Americans the term appears to signify that life is hard indeed on him who has no motor car or who goes without champagne at dinner.

My contacts with many places and persons I shall mention in the following chapters have, of necessity, been brief. I have hardly more than glimpsed them as I glimpsed those fellow travelers on the train. There-fore I shall merely try to give you some impressions, from a sort of mental sketchbook, of the things which I have seen and done and heard. There is one point in particular about that sketchbook : in it I have reserved the right to set down only what I pleased. It has been hard to do that sometimes. People have pulled me this way and that, telling me what to see and what not to see, what to write and what to leave out. I have been urged, for instance, to write about the varied industries of Cleveland, the parks of Milwaukee, and the enormous red apples of Louisiana, Mo. I may come to the apples later on, for I ate a number of them and enjoyed them; but the varied industries of Cleveland and the Milwaukee parks I did not eat.

I claim the further right to ignore, when I desire to, the most important things, or to dwell with loving pen upon the unimportant. Indeed, I reserve all rights even to the right to be perverse.

Thus I shall mention things which people told me not to mention: the droll Detroit Art Museum; the comic chimney rising from the center of a Grand Rapids park; horrendous scenes in the Chicago stockyards; the Free Bridge, standing useless over the river at St. Louis for want of an approach; the “wettest block”—a block full of saloons, which marks the dead line between “wet” Kansas City, Mo., and “dry” Kansas City, Kas. (I never heard about that block until a stranger wrote and told me not to mention it.)

As for statistics, though I have been loaded with them to the point of purchasing another trunk, I intend to use them as sparingly as possible. And every time I use them I shall groan.