CHRISTMAS STORY: Christmas In The Tenements by Theodore Dreiser

Christmas In The Tenements by Theodore Dreiser

They are infatuated with the rush and roar of a great metropolis.  They are fascinated by the illusion of pleasure.  Broadway, Fifth Avenue, the mansions, the lights, the beauty.  A fever of living is in their blood.  An unnatural hunger and thirst for excitement is burning them up.  For this they labor.  For this they endure a hard, unnatural existence.  For this they crowd themselves in stifling, inhuman quarters, and for this they die.

The joys of the Christmas tide are no illusion with most of us, the strange exhibition of fancy, of which it is the name, no mockery of our dreams.  Far over the wide land the waves of expectation and sympathetic appreciation constantly oscillate one with the other in the human breast, and in the closing season of the year are at last given definite expression.  Rings and pins, the art of the jeweler and the skill of the dressmaker, pictures, books, ornaments and knickknacks – these with one great purpose are consecrated, and in the material lavishness of the season is seen the dreams of the world come true.

There is one region, however, where, in the terrific drag of the struggle for existence, the softer phases of this halcyon mood are at first glance obscure.  It is a region of tall tenements and narrow streets where, crowded into an area of a few square miles, live and labor a million and a half of people.  It is the old-time tenement area, leading almost unbrokenly north from Franklin Square to Fourteenth Street.  Here, during these late December evenings, the holiday atmosphere is beginning to make itself felt.  It is a region of narrow streets with tall five-story, even seven-story, tenements lining either side of the way and running thick as a river with a busy and toilsome throng.

The ways are already lined with carts of special Christmas goods, such as toys, candies, Christmas tree ornaments, feathers, ribbons, jewelry, purses, fruit, and in a few wagons small Christmas greens such as holly and hemlock wreaths, crosses of fir, balsam, tamarack pine and sprigs of mistletoe.  Work has not stopped in the factories or stores, and yet these streets are literally packed with people, of all ages, sizes, and nationalities, and the buying is lively.  One man, who looks as though he might be a Bowery tough rather than a denizen of this particular neighborhood, is offering little three-, five-, and ten-inch dolls which he announces as “genuine American beauties here.  Three, five, and ten.”  Another, a pale, full-bearded Jew, is selling little Christmas tree ornaments of paste or glass for a penny each, and in the glare of the newly-turned-on electric lights, it is not difficult to perceive that they are the broken or imperfect lots of the toy manufacturers who are having them hawked about during the eleventh hour before Christmas as the best way of getting rid of them.  Other dusty, grim, and raucous denizens are offering candy, mixed nuts, and other forms of special confections, at ten cents a pound, a price at which those who are used to the more expensive brands may instructively ponder.

Meats are selling in some of the cheaper butcher shops for ten, fifteen, and twenty cents a pound, picked chickens in barrels at fifteen and twenty.  A whole section of Elizabeth Street is given up to the sale of stale fish at ten and fifteen cents a pound, and the crowd of Italians, Jews, and Bohemians who are taking advantage of these modest prices is swarming over the sidewalk and into the gutters.  A four- or five-pound fish at fifteen cents a pound will make an excellent Christmas dinner for four, five, or six.  A thin, ice-packed, and chemically-preserved chicken at fifteen or twenty cents a pound will do as much for another family.  Onions, garlic, old cast-off preserves, pickles, and condiments that the wholesale houses uptown have seen grow stale and musty on their shelves, can be had here for five, ten, and fifteen cents a bottle, and although the combination is unwholesome it will be worked over as Christmas dinners for the morrow.  Cheap, unsalable, stale, adulterated – these are the words that should be stamped on every bottle, basket, and barrel that is here being scrambled over.  And yet the purchasers would not be benefited any thereby.  They must buy what they can afford.  What they can afford is this.

The street, with its mass of life, lingers in this condition until six o’clock, when the great shops and factories turn loose their horde of workers.  Then into the glare of these electric-lighted streets the army of shop girls and boys begins to pour.  Here is a spectacle interesting and provocative of thought at all seasons, but trebly so on this particular evening.  It is a shabby throng at best, commonplace in garb and physical appearance, but rich in the qualities of youth and enthusiasm, than which the world holds nothing more valuable.

Youth in all the glory of its illusions and its ambitions.  Youth, in whom the cold insistence of life’s physical limitations and the law have not as yet worked any permanent depression.  Thousands are hurrying in every direction.  The street cards which ply this area are packed as only the New York street car companies can pack their patrons, and that in cold, old, dirty, and even vile cars.  There are girls with black hair, and girls with brown.  Some have even, white teeth, some shapely figures, some a touch of that persuasive charm which is indicated by the flash of an eye.  There are poor dresses, poor taste, and poor manners mingled with good dresses, good taste, and good manners.  In the glow of the many lights and shadows of the evening they are hurrying away, with that lightness of spirit and movement which is the evidence of a long strain of labor suddenly relaxed.

“Do you think Santa Claus will have enough to fill that?” asks an officer, who is standing in the glare of a balsam- and pin-trimmed cigar store window, to a smartly dressed political heeler or detective who is looking on with him at the mass of shop-girls hurrying past.  A shop-girl had gone by with her skirt cut to an inch or two below her knee, revealing a trim little calf and ankle.

“Eee yo!  I hope so! isn’t she the candy?”

“Don’t get fresh,” comes quickly from the hurrying figure as she disappears in the throng with a toss of her head.  She has enjoyed the comment well enough, and the rebuke is more mischievous than angry.

“A goldfish!  A goldfish!  Only one cent!” cries a pushcart vendor, who is one of a thousand lining the pavements tonight, and at his behest another shop-girl, equally budding and youthful, stops to extract a penny from her small purse and carries away a thin, transparent prize of golden paste, for a younger brother, probably.

Others like her are being pushed and jostled the whole length of this crowded section.  They are being nudged and admired as well as sought and schemed for.  Whatever affections or attachments they have will be manifesting themselves tonight, as may be seen by the little expenditures they themselves are making.  A goldfish of transparent paste or a half-pound of candy, a cheap gold-plated stickpin, brooch, or ring, or a handkerchief, color, or necktie bought of one of the many pushcart men, tell the story plainly enough.  Sympathy, love, affection, and passion are running their errant ways among this vast unspoken horde no less than among the more pretentious and well-remembered of the world.

And the homes to which they are hurrying, the places which are dignified by that title, but which here should have another name!  Thousands upon thousands of them are turning into entry ways, the gloom or dirtiness or poverty of which should bar them from the steps of any human being.  Up the dark stairways they are pouring into tier upon tier of human hives, in some instances not less than seven stories high and, of course, without an elevator, and by grimy landings they are sorted out and at last distributed each into his own cranny.  Small, dark one-, two-, and three-room apartments, where yet on this Christmas evening, one, and sometimes three, four, and five are still at work sewing pants, making flowers, curling feathers, or doing any other of a hundred tenement tasks to help out the income supplied by the one or two who work out.  Miserable one- and two-room spaces where ignorance and poverty and sickness, rather than greed or immorality, have made veritable pens out of what would ordinarily be bad enough.  Many hundreds or thousands of others there are where thrift and shrewdness are making the best of very unfortunate conditions, and a hundred or two where actual abundance prevails.  These are the homes.  Let us enter.

Zorg is a Bohemian, and has a little two-room apartment.  The windows of the only one which has windows look into Elizabeth Street.  It is a dingy apartment, unswept and unwhitewashed at present, where on this hearty Christmas Eve, himself, his wife, his wife’s mother, and his little twelve-year-old son are laboring at a fair-sized deal table curling feathers.  The latter is a simple task, once you understand it, dull, tedious, unprofitable.  It consists in taking a feather in one hand, a knife in the other, and drawing the fronds quickly over the knife’s edge.  This gives them a very sprightly curl and can be administered, if the worker be an expert, by a single movement of the hand.  It is paid for by the dozen, as such work is usually paid for in this region, and the ability to earn much more than sixty cents a day is not within the range of human possibility.  Forty cents would be a much more probably average, and this is approximately the wages which these several individuals earn.  Rent uses up three of the twelve dollars weekly income; food, dress, coal, and light six more.  Three dollars, when work is steady, is the sum laid aside for all other purposes and pleasures, and this sum, if no amusements were indulged in and no sickness or slackness of work befell, might annually grow to the tidy sum of one hundred and fifty-six dollars; but it has never done so.  Illness invariably takes one part, lack of work a great part still.  In the long drag of weary labor the pleasure-loving instincts of man cannot be wholly restrained, and so it comes about that the present Christmas season finds the funds of the family treasury low.

It is in such a family as this that the merry Christmas time comes with a peculiar emphasis, and although the conditions may be discouraging, the efforts to meet it are almost always commensurate with the means.

However, on this Christmas Eve it has been deemed a duty to have some diversion, and so, although the round of weary labor may not be thus easily relaxed, the wife has been deputed to do the Christmas shopping and has gone forth into the crowded East Side street, from which she has returned with a meat bone, a cut from a butcher’s at twelve cents a pound, green pickles, three turnips, a carrot, a half-dozen small candles, and two or three toys, which, together with a small three-foot branch of hemlock, purchased earlier in the day, completes the Christmas preparation for the morrow.  Abra, the youngest, although like the others she will work until ten this Christmas Eve, is to have a pair of new shoes; Zicka, the next older, a belt for her dress.  Mrs. Zorg, although she may not suspect, will receive a new market basket with a lid on it.  Zorg – grim, silent, weary of soul and body – is to have a new fifteen-cent tie.  There will be a tree, a small sprig of a tree, upon which will hang colored glass or paste balls or red and blue and green, with threads of popcorn and sprays of flitter-gold, all saved from the years before.  In the light of early dawn tomorrow the youngest of the children will dance about these, and the richness of their beauty will be enjoyed as if they had not been so presented for the seventh and eighth time.

Thus it runs, mostly throughout the entire region on this joyous occasion, a wealth of feeling and desire expressing itself through the thinnest and most meager material forms.  About the shops and stores where the windows are filled with cheap displays of all that is considered luxury, are hosts of other children scarcely so satisfactorily supplied, peering earnestly into the world of make-believe and illusion, the wonder of it not yet eradicated from their unsophisticated hearts.  Joy, joy  – not a tithe of all that is represented by the expenditures of the wealthy, but only such as may be encompassed in a paper puff-ball or a tinsel fish, is here sought for and dreamed over, an earnest, child-heart-longing which may never again be gratified if not now.  Horses, wagons, fire engines, dolls – these are what the thousands upon thousands of children whose faces are pressed closely against the commonplace window panes are dreaming about, and the longing that is thereby expressed is the strongest evidence of the indissoluble link which binds these weakest and most wretched elements of society to the best and most successful.

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