When Babbitt was first published in 1922, fans gleefully hailed its scathing portrait of a crass, materialistic nation; critics denounced it as an unfair skewering of the American businessman. Sparking heated literary debate, Babbitt became a controversial classic, securing Sinclair Lewis’s place as one of America’s preeminent social commentators. Businessman George F. Babbitt loves the latest appliances, brand names, and the Republican Party. In fact, he loves being a solid citizen even more than he loves his wife. But Babbitt comes to resent the middle-class trappings he has worked so hard to acquire. Realizing that his life is devoid of meaning, he grows determined to transcend his trivial existence and search for greater purpose. Raising thought-provoking questions while yielding hilarious consequences, and just as relevant today as ever, Babbitt’s quest for meaning forces us to confront the Babbitt in ourselves—and ponder what it truly means to be an American.
BYSINCLAIR LEWISAUTHOR OF “MAIN STREET”
NEW YORKHARCOURT, BRACE AND COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1922, BYHARCOURT, BRACE AND COMPANY, INC.
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
ToEDITH WHARTONChapter: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII, XIX, XX, XXI, XXII, XXIII, XXIV, XXV, XXVI, XXVII, XXVIII, XXIX, XXX, XXXI, XXXII, XXXIII, XXXIV
The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-buildings.
The mist took pity on the fretted structures of earlier generations: the Post Office with its shingle-tortured mansard, the red brick minarets of hulking old houses, factories with stingy and sooted windows, wooden tenements colored like mud. The city was full of such grotesqueries, but the clean towers were thrusting them from the business center, and on the farther hills were shining new houses, homes—they seemed—for laughter and tranquillity.
Over a concrete bridge fled a limousine of long sleek hood and noiseless engine. These people in evening clothes were returning from an all-night rehearsal of a Little Theater play, an artistic adventure considerably illuminated by champagne. Below the bridge curved a railroad, a maze of green and crimson lights. The New York Flyer boomed past, and twenty lines of polished steel leaped into the glare.
In one of the skyscrapers the wires of the Associated Press were closing down. The telegraph operators wearily raised their celluloid eye-shades after a night of talking with Paris and Peking. Through the building crawled the scrubwomen, yawning, their old shoes slapping. The dawn mist spun away. Cues of men with lunch-boxes clumped toward the immensity of new factories, sheets of glass and hollow tile, glittering shops where five thousand men worked beneath one roof, pouring out the honest wares that would be sold up the Euphrates and across the veldt. The whistles rolled out in greeting a chorus cheerful as the April dawn; the song of labor in a city built—it seemed—for giants.
There was nothing of the giant in the aspect of the man who was beginning to awaken on the sleeping-porch of a Dutch Colonial house in that residential district of Zenith known as Floral Heights.
His name was George F. Babbitt. He was forty-six years old now, in April, 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.
His large head was pink, his brown hair thin and dry. His face was babyish in slumber, despite his wrinkles and the red spectacle-dents on the slopes of his nose. He was not fat but he was exceedingly well fed; his cheeks were pads, and the unroughened hand which lay helpless upon the khaki-colored blanket was slightly puffy. He seemed prosperous, extremely married and unromantic; and altogether unromantic appeared this sleeping-porch, which looked on one sizable elm, two respectable grass-plots, a cement driveway, and a corrugated iron garage. Yet Babbitt was again dreaming of the fairy child, a dream more romantic than scarlet pagodas by a silver sea.
For years the fairy child had come to him. Where others saw but Georgie Babbitt, she discerned gallant youth. She waited for him, in the darkness beyond mysterious groves. When at last he could slip away from the crowded house he darted to her. His wife, his clamoring friends, sought to follow, but he escaped, the girl fleet beside him, and they crouched together on a shadowy hillside. She was so slim, so white, so eager! She cried that he was gay and valiant, that she would wait for him, that they would sail—
Rumble and bang of the milk-truck.
Babbitt moaned, turned over, struggled back toward his dream. He could see only her face now, beyond misty waters. The furnace-man slammed the basement door. A dog barked in the next yard. As Babbitt sank blissfully into a dim warm tide, the paper-carrier went by whistling, and the rolled-up Advocate thumped the front door. Babbitt roused, his stomach constricted with alarm. As he relaxed, he was pierced by the familiar and irritating rattle of some one cranking a Ford: snap-ah-ah, snap-ah-ah, snap-ah-ah. Himself a pious motorist, Babbitt cranked with the unseen driver, with him waited through taut hours for the roar of the starting engine, with him agonized as the roar ceased and again began the infernal patient snap-ah-ah—a round, flat sound, a shivering cold-morning sound, a sound infuriating and inescapable. Not till the rising voice of the motor told him that the Ford was moving was he released from the panting tension. He glanced once at his favorite tree, elm twigs against the gold patina of sky, and fumbled for sleep as for a drug. He who had been a boy very credulous of life was no longer greatly interested in the possible and improbable adventures of each new day.
He escaped from reality till the alarm-clock rang, at seven-twenty.
It was the best of nationally advertised and quantitatively produced alarm-clocks, with all modern attachments, including cathedral chime, intermittent alarm, and a phosphorescent dial. Babbitt was proud of being awakened by such a rich device. Socially it was almost as creditable as buying expensive cord tires.
He sulkily admitted now that there was no more escape, but he lay and detested the grind of the real-estate business, and disliked his family, and disliked himself for disliking them. The evening before, he had played poker at Vergil Gunch’s till midnight, and after such holidays he was irritable before breakfast. It may have been the tremendous home-brewed beer of the prohibition-era and the cigars to which that beer enticed him; it may have been resentment of return from this fine, bold man-world to a restricted region of wives and stenographers, and of suggestions not to smoke so much.
From the bedroom beside the sleeping-porch, his wife’s detestably cheerful “Time to get up, Georgie boy,” and the itchy sound, the brisk and scratchy sound, of combing hairs out of a stiff brush.
He grunted; he dragged his thick legs, in faded baby-blue pajamas, from under the khaki blanket; he sat on the edge of the cot, running his fingers through his wild hair, while his plump feet mechanically felt for his slippers. He looked regretfully at the blanket—forever a suggestion to him of freedom and heroism. He had bought it for a camping trip which had never come off. It symbolized gorgeous loafing, gorgeous cursing, virile flannel shirts.
He creaked to his feet, groaning at the waves of pain which passed behind his eyeballs. Though he waited for their scorching recurrence, he looked blurrily out at the yard. It delighted him, as always; it was the neat yard of a successful business man of Zenith, that is, it was perfection, and made him also perfect. He regarded the corrugated iron garage. For the three-hundred-and-sixty-fifth time in a year he reflected, “No class to that tin shack. Have to build me a frame garage. But by golly it’s the only thing on the place that isn’t up-to-date!” While he stared he thought of a community garage for his acreage development, Glen Oriole. He stopped puffing and jiggling. His arms were akimbo. His petulant, sleep-swollen face was set in harder lines. He suddenly seemed capable, an official, a man to contrive, to direct, to get things done.
On the vigor of his idea he was carried down the hard, clean, unused-looking hall into the bathroom.
Though the house was not large it had, like all houses on Floral Heights, an altogether royal bathroom of porcelain and glazed tile and metal sleek as silver. The towel-rack was a rod of clear glass set in nickel. The tub was long enough for a Prussian Guard, and above the set bowl was a sensational exhibit of tooth-brush holder, shaving-brush holder, soap-dish, sponge-dish, and medicine-cabinet, so glittering and so ingenious that they resembled an electrical instrument-board. But the Babbitt whose god was Modern Appliances was not pleased. The air of the bathroom was thick with the smell of a heathen toothpaste. “Verona been at it again! ’Stead of sticking to Lilidol, like I’ve re-peat-ed-ly asked her, she’s gone and gotten some confounded stinkum stuff that makes you sick!”
The bath-mat was wrinkled and the floor was wet. (His daughter Verona eccentrically took baths in the morning, now and then.) He slipped on the mat, and slid against the tub. He said “Damn!” Furiously he snatched up his tube of shaving-cream, furiously he lathered, with a belligerent slapping of the unctuous brush, furiously he raked his plump cheeks with a safety-razor. It pulled. The blade was dull. He said, “Damn—oh—oh—damn it!”
He hunted through the medicine-cabinet for a packet of new razor-blades (reflecting, as invariably, “Be cheaper to buy one of these dinguses and strop your own blades,”) and when he discovered the packet, behind the round box of bicarbonate of soda, he thought ill of his wife for putting it there and very well of himself for not saying “Damn.” But he did say it, immediately afterward, when with wet and soap-slippery fingers he tried to remove the horrible little envelope and crisp clinging oiled paper from the new blade.
Then there was the problem, oft-pondered, never solved, of what to do with the old blade, which might imperil the fingers of his young. As usual, he tossed it on top of the medicine-cabinet, with a mental note that some day he must remove the fifty or sixty other blades that were also temporarily piled up there. He finished his shaving in a growing testiness increased by his spinning headache and by the emptiness in his stomach. When he was done, his round face smooth and streamy and his eyes stinging from soapy water, he reached for a towel. The family towels were wet, wet and clammy and vile, all of them wet, he found, as he blindly snatched them—his own face-towel, his wife’s, Verona’s, Ted’s, Tinka’s, and the lone bath-towel with the huge welt of initial. Then George F. Babbitt did a dismaying thing. He wiped his face on the guest-towel! It was a pansy-embroidered trifle which always hung there to indicate that the Babbitts were in the best Floral Heights society. No one had ever used it. No guest had ever dared to. Guests secretively took a corner of the nearest regular towel.
He was raging, “By golly, here they go and use up all the towels, every doggone one of ’em, and they use ’em and get ’em all wet and sopping, and never put out a dry one for me—of course, I’m the goat!—and then I want one and— I’m the only person in the doggone house that’s got the slightest doggone bit of consideration for other people and thoughtfulness and consider there may be others that may want to use the doggone bathroom after me and consider—”
He was pitching the chill abominations into the bath-tub, pleased by the vindictiveness of that desolate flapping sound; and in the midst his wife serenely trotted in, observed serenely, “Why Georgie dear, what are you doing? Are you going to wash out the towels? Why, you needn’t wash out the towels. Oh, Georgie, you didn’t go and use the guest-towel, did you?”
It is not recorded that he was able to answer.
For the first time in weeks he was sufficiently roused by his wife to look at her.
Myra Babbitt—Mrs. George F. Babbitt—was definitely mature. She had creases from the corners of her mouth to the bottom of her chin, and her plump neck bagged. But the thing that marked her as having passed the line was that she no longer had reticences before her husband, and no longer worried about not having reticences. She was in a petticoat now, and corsets which bulged, and unaware of being seen in bulgy corsets. She had become so dully habituated to married life that in her full matronliness she was as sexless as an anemic nun. She was a good woman, a kind woman, a diligent woman, but no one, save perhaps Tinka her ten-year-old, was at all interested in her or entirely aware that she was alive.
After a rather thorough discussion of all the domestic and social aspects of towels she apologized to Babbitt for his having an alcoholic headache; and he recovered enough to endure the search for a B.V.D. undershirt which had, he pointed out, malevolently been concealed among his clean pajamas.
He was fairly amiable in the conference on the brown suit.
“What do you think, Myra?” He pawed at the clothes hunched on a chair in their bedroom, while she moved about mysteriously adjusting and patting her petticoat and, to his jaundiced eye, never seeming to get on with her dressing. “How about it? Shall I wear the brown suit another day?”
“Well, it looks awfully nice on you.”
“I know, but gosh, it needs pressing.”
“That’s so. Perhaps it does.”
“It certainly could stand being pressed, all right.”
“Yes, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt it to be pressed.”
“But gee, the coat doesn’t need pressing. No sense in having the whole darn suit pressed, when the coat doesn’t need it.”
“But the pants certainly need it, all right. Look at them—look at those wrinkles—the pants certainly do need pressing.”
“That’s so. Oh, Georgie, why couldn’t you wear the brown coat with the blue trousers we were wondering what we’d do with them?”
“Good Lord! Did you ever in all my life know me to wear the coat of one suit and the pants of another? What do you think I am? A busted bookkeeper?”
“Well, why don’t you put on the dark gray suit to-day, and stop in at the tailor and leave the brown trousers?”
“Well, they certainly need— Now where the devil is that gray suit? Oh, yes, here we are.”
He was able to get through the other crises of dressing with comparative resoluteness and calm.
His first adornment was the sleeveless dimity B.V.D. undershirt, in which he resembled a small boy humorlessly wearing a cheesecloth tabard at a civic pageant. He never put on B.V.D.’s without thanking the God of Progress that he didn’t wear tight, long, old-fashioned undergarments, like his father-in-law and partner, Henry Thompson. His second embellishment was combing and slicking back his hair. It gave him a tremendous forehead, arching up two inches beyond the former hair-line. But most wonder-working of all was the donning of his spectacles.
There is character in spectacles—the pretentious tortoise-shell, the meek pince-nez of the school teacher, the twisted silver-framed glasses of the old villager. Babbitt’s spectacles had huge, circular, frameless lenses of the very best glass; the ear-pieces were thin bars of gold. In them he was the modern business man; one who gave orders to clerks and drove a car and played occasional golf and was scholarly in regard to Salesmanship. His head suddenly appeared not babyish but weighty, and you noted his heavy, blunt nose, his straight mouth and thick, long upper lip, his chin overfleshy but strong; with respect you beheld him put on the rest of his uniform as a Solid Citizen.
The gray suit was well cut, well made, and completely undistinguished. It was a standard suit. White piping on the V of the vest added a flavor of law and learning. His shoes were black laced boots, good boots, honest boots, standard boots, extraordinarily uninteresting boots. The only frivolity was in his purple knitted scarf. With considerable comment on the matter to Mrs. Babbitt (who, acrobatically fastening the back of her blouse to her skirt with a safety-pin, did not hear a word he said), he chose between the purple scarf and a tapestry effect with stringless brown harps among blown palms, and into it he thrust a snake-head pin with opal eyes.
A sensational event was changing from the brown suit to the gray the contents of his pockets. He was earnest about these objects. They were of eternal importance, like baseball or the Republican Party. They included a fountain pen and a silver pencil (always lacking a supply of new leads) which belonged in the righthand upper vest pocket. Without them he would have felt naked. On his watch-chain were a gold penknife, silver cigar-cutter, seven keys (the use of two of which he had forgotten), and incidentally a good watch. Depending from the chain was a large, yellowish elk’s-tooth—proclamation of his membership in the Brotherly and Protective Order of Elks. Most significant of all was his loose-leaf pocket note-book, that modern and efficient note-book which contained the addresses of people whom he had forgotten, prudent memoranda of postal money-orders which had reached their destinations months ago, stamps which had lost their mucilage, clippings of verses by T. Cholmondeley Frink and of the newspaper editorials from which Babbitt got his opinions and his polysyllables, notes to be sure and do things which he did not intend to do, and one curious inscription—D.S.S.D.M.Y.P.D.F.
But he had no cigarette-case. No one had ever happened to give him one, so he hadn’t the habit, and people who carried cigarette-cases he regarded as effeminate.
Last, he stuck in his lapel the Boosters’ Club button. With the conciseness of great art the button displayed two words: “Boosters—Pep!” It made Babbitt feel loyal and important. It associated him with Good Fellows, with men who were nice and human, and important in business circles. It was his V.C., his Legion of Honor ribbon, his Phi Beta Kappa key.
With the subtleties of dressing ran other complex worries. “I feel kind of punk this morning,” he said. “I think I had too much dinner last evening. You oughtn’t to serve those heavy banana fritters.”
“But you asked me to have some.”
“I know, but— I tell you, when a fellow gets past forty he has to look after his digestion. There’s a lot of fellows that don’t take proper care of themselves. I tell you at forty a man’s a fool or his doctor— I mean, his own doctor. Folks don’t give enough attention to this matter of dieting. Now I think— Course a man ought to have a good meal after the day’s work, but it would be a good thing for both of us if we took lighter lunches.”
“But Georgie, here at home I always do have a light lunch.”
“Mean to imply I make a hog of myself, eating down-town? Yes, sure! You’d have a swell time if you had to eat the truck that new steward hands out to us at the Athletic Club! But I certainly do feel out of sorts, this morning. Funny, got a pain down here on the left side—but no, that wouldn’t be appendicitis, would it? Last night, when I was driving over to Verg Gunch’s, I felt a pain in my stomach, too. Right here it was—kind of a sharp shooting pain. I— Where’d that dime go to? Why don’t you serve more prunes at breakfast? Of course I eat an apple every evening—an apple a day keeps the doctor away—but still, you ought to have more prunes, and not all these fancy doodads.”
“The last time I had prunes you didn’t eat them.”
“Well, I didn’t feel like eating ’em, I suppose. Matter of fact, I think I did eat some of ’em. Anyway— I tell you it’s mighty important to— I was saying to Verg Gunch, just last evening, most people don’t take sufficient care of their diges—”
“Shall we have the Gunches for our dinner, next week?”
“Why sure; you bet.”
“Now see here, George: I want you to put on your nice dinner-jacket that evening.”
“Rats! The rest of ’em won’t want to dress.”
“Of course they will. You remember when you didn’t dress for the Littlefields’ supper-party, and all the rest did, and how embarrassed you were.”
“Embarrassed, hell! I wasn’t embarrassed. Everybody knows I can put on as expensive a Tux. as anybody else, and I should worry if I don’t happen to have it on sometimes. All a darn nuisance, anyway. All right for a woman, that stays around the house all the time, but when a fellow’s worked like the dickens all day, he doesn’t want to go and hustle his head off getting into the soup-and-fish for a lot of folks that he’s seen in just reg’lar ordinary clothes that same day.”
“You know you enjoy being seen in one. The other evening you admitted you were glad I’d insisted on your dressing. You said you felt a lot better for it. And oh, Georgie, I do wish you wouldn’t say ‘Tux.’ It’s ‘dinner-jacket.’”
“Rats, what’s the odds?”
“Well, it’s what all the nice folks say. Suppose Lucile McKelvey heard you calling it a ‘Tux.’”
“Well, that’s all right now! Lucile McKelvey can’t pull anything on me! Her folks are common as mud, even if her husband and her dad are millionaires! I suppose you’re trying to rub in your exalted social position! Well, let me tell you that your revered paternal ancestor, Henry T., doesn’t even call it a ‘Tux.’! He calls it a ‘bobtail jacket for a ringtail monkey,’ and you couldn’t get him into one unless you chloroformed him!”
“Now don’t be horrid, George.”
“Well, I don’t want to be horrid, but Lord! you’re getting as fussy as Verona. Ever since she got out of college she’s been too rambunctious to live with—doesn’t know what she wants—well, I know what she wants!—all she wants is to marry a millionaire, and live in Europe, and hold some preacher’s hand, and simultaneously at the same time stay right here in Zenith and be some blooming kind of a socialist agitator or boss charity-worker or some damn thing! Lord, and Ted is just as bad! He wants to go to college, and he doesn’t want to go to college. Only one of the three that knows her own mind is Tinka. Simply can’t understand how I ever came to have a pair of shillyshallying children like Rone and Ted. I may not be any Rockefeller or James J. Shakespeare, but I certainly do know my own mind, and I do keep right on plugging along in the office and— Do you know the latest? Far as I can figure out, Ted’s new bee is he’d like to be a movie actor and— And here I’ve told him a hundred times, if he’ll go to college and law-school and make good, I’ll set him up in business and— Verona just exactly as bad. Doesn’t know what she wants. Well, well, come on! Aren’t you ready yet? The girl rang the bell three minutes ago.”
Before he followed his wife, Babbitt stood at the westernmost window of their room. This residential settlement, Floral Heights, was on a rise; and though the center of the city was three miles away— Zenith had between three and four hundred thousand inhabitants now—he could see the top of the Second National Tower, an Indiana limestone building of thirty-five stories.
Its shining walls rose against April sky to a simple cornice like a streak of white fire. Integrity was in the tower, and decision. It bore its strength lightly as a tall soldier. As Babbitt stared, the nervousness was soothed from his face, his slack chin lifted in reverence. All he articulated was “That’s one lovely sight!” but he was inspired by the rhythm of the city; his love of it renewed. He beheld the tower as a temple-spire of the religion of business, a faith passionate, exalted, surpassing common men; and as he clumped down to breakfast he whistled the ballad “Oh, by gee, by gosh, by jingo” as though it were a hymn melancholy and noble.
Relieved of Babbitt’s bumbling and the soft grunts with which his wife expressed the sympathy she was too experienced to feel and much too experienced not to show, their bedroom settled instantly into impersonality.
It gave on the sleeping-porch. It served both of them as dressing-room, and on the coldest nights Babbitt luxuriously gave up the duty of being manly and retreated to the bed inside, to curl his toes in the warmth and laugh at the January gale.
The room displayed a modest and pleasant color-scheme, after one of the best standard designs of the decorator who “did the interiors” for most of the speculative-builders’ houses in Zenith. The walls were gray, the woodwork white, the rug a serene blue; and very much like mahogany was the furniture—the bureau with its great clear mirror, Mrs. Babbitt’s dressing-table with toilet-articles of almost solid silver, the plain twin beds, between them a small table holding a standard electric bedside lamp, a glass for water, and a standard bedside book with colored illustrations—what particular book it was cannot be ascertained, since no one had ever opened it. The mattresses were firm but not hard, triumphant modern mattresses which had cost a great deal of money; the hot-water radiator was of exactly the proper scientific surface for the cubic contents of the room. The windows were large and easily opened, with the best catches and cords, and Holland roller-shades guaranteed not to crack. It was a masterpiece among bedrooms, right out of Cheerful Modern Houses for Medium Incomes. Only it had nothing to do with the Babbitts, nor with any one else. If people had ever lived and loved here, read thrillers at midnight and lain in beautiful indolence on a Sunday morning, there were no signs of it. It had the air of being a very good room in a very good hotel. One expected the chambermaid to come in and make it ready for people who would stay but one night, go without looking back, and never think of it again.
Every second house in Floral Heights had a bedroom precisely like this.
The Babbitts’ house was five years old. It was all as competent and glossy as this bedroom. It had the best of taste, the best of inexpensive rugs, a simple and laudable architecture, and the latest conveniences. Throughout, electricity took the place of candles and slatternly hearth-fires. Along the bedroom baseboard were three plugs for electric lamps, concealed by little brass doors. In the halls were plugs for the vacuum cleaner, and in the living-room plugs for the piano lamp, for the electric fan. The trim dining-room (with its admirable oak buffet, its leaded-glass cupboard, its creamy plaster walls, its modest scene of a salmon expiring upon a pile of oysters) had plugs which supplied the electric percolator and the electric toaster.
In fact there was but one thing wrong with the Babbitt house: It was not a home.
Often of a morning Babbitt came bouncing and jesting in to breakfast. But things were mysteriously awry to-day. As he pontifically tread the upper hall he looked into Verona’s bedroom and protested, “What’s the use of giving the family a high-class house when they don’t appreciate it and tend to business and get down to brass tacks?”
He marched upon them: Verona, a dumpy brown-haired girl of twenty-two, just out of Bryn Mawr, given to solicitudes about duty and sex and God and the unconquerable bagginess of the gray sports-suit she was now wearing. Ted—Theodore Roosevelt Babbitt—a decorative boy of seventeen. Tinka—Katherine—still a baby at ten, with radiant red hair and a thin skin which hinted of too much candy and too many ice cream sodas. Babbitt did not show his vague irritation as he tramped in. He really disliked being a family tyrant, and his nagging was as meaningless as it was frequent. He shouted at Tinka, “Well, kittiedoolie!” It was the only pet name in his vocabulary, except the “dear” and “hon.” with which he recognized his wife, and he flung it at Tinka every morning.
He gulped a cup of coffee in the hope of pacifying his stomach and his soul. His stomach ceased to feel as though it did not belong to him, but Verona began to be conscientious and annoying, and abruptly there returned to Babbitt the doubts regarding life and families and business which had clawed at him when his dream-life and the slim fairy girl had fled.
Verona had for six months been filing-clerk at the Gruensberg Leather Company offices, with a prospect of becoming secretary to Mr. Gruensberg and thus, as Babbitt defined it, “getting some good out of your expensive college education till you’re ready to marry and settle down.”
But now said Verona: “Father! I was talking to a classmate of mine that’s working for the Associated Charities—oh, Dad, there’s the sweetest little babies that come to the milk-station there!—and I feel as though I ought to be doing something worth while like that.”
“What do you mean ‘worth while’? If you get to be Gruensberg’s secretary—and maybe you would, if you kept up your shorthand and didn’t go sneaking off to concerts and talk-fests every evening—I guess you’ll find thirty-five or forty bones a week worth while!”
“I know, but—oh, I want to—contribute— I wish I were working in a settlement-house. I wonder if I could get one of the department-stores to let me put in a welfare-department with a nice rest-room and chintzes and wicker chairs and so on and so forth. Or I could—”
“Now you look here! The first thing you got to understand is that all this uplift and flipflop and settlement-work and recreation is nothing in God’s world but the entering wedge for socialism. The sooner a man learns he isn’t going to be coddled, and he needn’t expect a lot of free grub and, uh, all these free classes and flipflop and doodads for his kids unless he earns ’em, why, the sooner he’ll get on the job and produce—produce—produce! That’s what the country needs, and not all this fancy stuff that just enfeebles the will-power of the working man and gives his kids a lot of notions above their class. And you—if you’d tend to business instead of fooling and fussing— All the time! When I was a young man I made up my mind what I wanted to do, and stuck to it through thick and thin, and that’s why I’m where I am to-day, and— Myra! What do you let the girl chop the toast up into these dinky little chunks for? Can’t get your fist onto ’em. Half cold, anyway!”
Ted Babbitt, junior in the great East Side High School, had been making hiccup-like sounds of interruption. He blurted now, “Say, Rone, you going to—”
Verona whirled. “Ted! Will you kindly not interrupt us when we’re talking about serious matters!”
“Aw punk,” said Ted judicially. “Ever since somebody slipped up and let you out of college, Ammonia, you been pulling these nut conversations about what-nots and so-on-and-so-forths. Are you going to— I want to use the car to-night.”
Babbitt snorted, “Oh, you do! May want it myself!” Verona protested, “Oh, you do, Mr. Smarty! I’m going to take it myself!” Tinka wailed, “Oh, papa, you said maybe you’d drive us down to Rosedale!” and Mrs. Babbitt, “Careful, Tinka, your sleeve is in the butter.” They glared, and Verona hurled, “Ted, you’re a perfect pig about the car!”
“Course you’re not! Not a-tall!” Ted could be maddeningly bland. “You just want to grab it off, right after dinner, and leave it in front of some skirt’s house all evening while you sit and gas about lite’ature and the highbrows you’re going to marry—if they only propose!”
“Well, Dad oughtn’t to ever let you have it! You and those beastly Jones boys drive like maniacs. The idea of your taking the turn on Chautauqua Place at forty miles an hour!”
“Aw, where do you get that stuff! You’re so darn scared of the car that you drive up-hill with the emergency brake on!”
“I do not! And you— Always talking about how much you know about motors, and Eunice Littlefield told me you said the battery fed the generator!”
“You—why, my good woman, you don’t know a generator from a differential.” Not unreasonably was Ted lofty with her. He was a natural mechanic, a maker and tinkerer of machines; he lisped in blueprints for the blueprints came.
“That’ll do now!” Babbitt flung in mechanically, as he lighted the gloriously satisfying first cigar of the day and tasted the exhilarating drug of the Advocate-Times headlines.
Ted negotiated: “Gee, honest, Rone, I don’t want to take the old boat, but I promised couple o’ girls in my class I’d drive ’em down to the rehearsal of the school chorus, and, gee, I don’t want to, but a gentleman’s got to keep his social engagements.”
“Well, upon my word! You and your social engagements! In high school!”
“Oh, ain’t we select since we went to that hen college! Let me tell you there isn’t a private school in the state that’s got as swell a bunch as we got in Gamma Digamma this year. There’s two fellows that their dads are millionaires. Say, gee, I ought to have a car of my own, like lots of the fellows.”
Babbitt almost rose. “A car of your own! Don’t you want a yacht, and a house and lot? That pretty nearly takes the cake! A boy that can’t pass his Latin examinations, like any other boy ought to, and he expects me to give him a motor-car, and I suppose a chauffeur, and an aeroplane maybe, as a reward for the hard work he puts in going to the movies with Eunice Littlefield! Well, when you see me giving you—”
Somewhat later, after diplomacies, Ted persuaded Verona to admit that she was merely going to the Armory, that evening, to see the dog and cat show. She was then, Ted planned, to park the car in front of the candy-store across from the Armory and he would pick it up. There were masterly arrangements regarding leaving the key, and having the gasoline tank filled; and passionately, devotees of the Great God Motor, they hymned the patch on the spare inner-tube, and the lost jack-handle.
Their truce dissolving, Ted observed that her friends were “a scream of a bunch—stuck-up gabby four-flushers.” His friends, she indicated, were “disgusting imitation sports, and horrid little shrieking ignorant girls.” Further: “It’s disgusting of you to smoke cigarettes, and so on and so forth, and those clothes you’ve got on this morning, they’re too utterly ridiculous—honestly, simply disgusting.”
Ted balanced over to the low beveled mirror in the buffet, regarded his charms, and smirked. His suit, the latest thing in Old Eli Togs, was skin-tight, with skimpy trousers to the tops of his glaring tan boots, a chorus-man waistline, pattern of an agitated check, and across the back a belt which belted nothing. His scarf was an enormous black silk wad. His flaxen hair was ice-smooth, pasted back without parting. When he went to school he would add a cap with a long vizor like a shovel-blade. Proudest of all was his waistcoat, saved for, begged for, plotted for; a real Fancy Vest of fawn with polka dots of a decayed red, the points astoundingly long. On the lower edge of it he wore a high-school button, a class button, and a fraternity pin.
And none of it mattered. He was supple and swift and flushed; his eyes (which he believed to be cynical) were candidly eager. But he was not over-gentle. He waved his hand at poor dumpy Verona and drawled: “Yes, I guess we’re pretty ridiculous and disgusticulus, and I rather guess our new necktie is some smear!”
Babbitt barked: “It is! And while you’re admiring yourself, let me tell you it might add to your manly beauty if you wiped some of that egg off your mouth!”
Verona giggled, momentary victor in the greatest of Great Wars, which is the family war. Ted looked at her hopelessly, then shrieked at Tinka: “For the love o’ Pete, quit pouring the whole sugar bowl on your corn flakes!”
When Verona and Ted were gone and Tinka upstairs, Babbitt groaned to his wife: “Nice family, I must say! I don’t pretend to be any baa-lamb, and maybe I’m a little cross-grained at breakfast sometimes, but the way they go on jab-jab-jabbering, I simply can’t stand it. I swear, I feel like going off some place where I can get a little peace. I do think after a man’s spent his lifetime trying to give his kids a chance and a decent education, it’s pretty discouraging to hear them all the time scrapping like a bunch of hyenas and never—and never— Curious; here in the paper it says— Never silent for one mom— Seen the morning paper yet?”
“No, dear.” In twenty-three years of married life, Mrs. Babbitt had seen the paper before her husband just sixty-seven times.
“Lots of news. Terrible big tornado in the South. Hard luck, all right. But this, say, this is corking! Beginning of the end for those fellows! New York Assembly has passed some bills that ought to completely outlaw the socialists! And there’s an elevator-runners’ strike in New York and a lot of college boys are taking their places. That’s the stuff! And a mass-meeting in Birmingham’s demanded that this Mick agitator, this fellow De Valera, be deported. Dead right, by golly! All these agitators paid with German gold anyway. And we got no business interfering with the Irish or any other foreign government. Keep our hands strictly off. And there’s another well-authenticated rumor from Russia that Lenin is dead. That’s fine. It’s beyond me why we don’t just step in there and kick those Bolshevik cusses out.”
“That’s so,” said Mrs. Babbitt.
“And it says here a fellow was inaugurated mayor in overalls—a preacher, too! What do you think of that!”
He searched for an attitude, but neither as a Republican, a Presbyterian, an Elk, nor a real-estate broker did he have any doctrine about preacher-mayors laid down for him, so he grunted and went on. She looked sympathetic and did not hear a word. Later she would read the headlines, the society columns, and the department-store advertisements.
“What do you know about this! Charley McKelvey still doing the sassiety stunt as heavy as ever. Here’s what that gushy woman reporter says about last night:”
Never is Society with the big, big S more flattered than when they are bidden to partake of good cheer at the distinguished and hospitable residence of Mr. and Mrs. Charles L. McKelvey as they were last night. Set in its spacious lawns and landscaping, one of the notable sights crowning Royal Ridge, but merry and homelike despite its mighty stone walls and its vast rooms famed for their decoration, their home was thrown open last night for a dance in honor of Mrs. McKelvey’s notable guest, Miss J. Sneeth of Washington. The wide hall is so generous in its proportions that it made a perfect ballroom, its hardwood floor reflecting the charming pageant above its polished surface. Even the delights of dancing paled before the alluring opportunities for tête-à-têtes that invited the soul to loaf in the long library before the baronial fireplace, or in the drawing-room with its deep comfy armchairs, its shaded lamps just made for a sly whisper of pretty nothings all a deux; or even in the billiard room where one could take a cue and show a prowess at still another game than that sponsored by Cupid and Terpsichore.
There was more, a great deal more, in the best urban journalistic style of Miss Elnora Pearl Bates, the popular society editor of the Advocate-Times. But Babbitt could not abide it. He grunted. He wrinkled the newspaper. He protested: “Can you beat it! I’m willing to hand a lot of credit to Charley McKelvey. When we were in college together, he was just as hard up as any of us, and he’s made a million good bucks out of contracting and hasn’t been any dishonester or bought any more city councils than was necessary. And that’s a good house of his—though it ain’t any ‘mighty stone walls’ and it ain’t worth the ninety thousand it cost him. But when it comes to talking as though Charley McKelvey and all that booze-hoisting set of his are any blooming bunch of of, of Vanderbilts, why, it makes me tired!”
Timidly from Mrs. Babbitt: “I would like to see the inside of their house though. It must be lovely. I’ve never been inside.”
“Well, I have! Lots of—couple of times. To see Chaz about business deals, in the evening. It’s not so much. I wouldn’t want to go there to dinner with that gang of, of high-binders. And I’ll bet I make a whole lot more money than some of those tin-horns that spend all they got on dress-suits and haven’t got a decent suit of underwear to their name! Hey! What do you think of this!”
Mrs. Babbitt was strangely unmoved by the tidings from the Real Estate and Building column of the Advocate-Times:
Ashtabula Street, 496—J. K. Dawson toThomas Mullally, April 17, 15.7 × 112.2,mtg. $4000................ Nom.
And this morning Babbitt was too disquieted to entertain her with items from Mechanics’ Liens, Mortgages Recorded, and Contracts Awarded. He rose. As he looked at her his eyebrows seemed shaggier than usual. Suddenly:
“Yes, maybe— Kind of shame to not keep in touch with folks like the McKelveys. We might try inviting them to dinner, some evening. Oh, thunder, let’s not waste our good time thinking about ’em! Our little bunch has a lot liver times than all those plutes. Just compare a real human like you with these neurotic birds like Lucile McKelvey—all highbrow talk and dressed up like a plush horse! You’re a great old girl, hon.!”
He covered his betrayal of softness with a complaining: “Say, don’t let Tinka go and eat any more of that poison nut-fudge. For Heaven’s sake, try to keep her from ruining her digestion. I tell you, most folks don’t appreciate how important it is to have a good digestion and regular habits. Be back ’bout usual time, I guess.”
He kissed her—he didn’t quite kiss her—he laid unmoving lips against her unflushing cheek. He hurried out to the garage, muttering: “Lord, what a family! And now Myra is going to get pathetic on me because we don’t train with this millionaire outfit. Oh, Lord, sometimes I’d like to quit the whole game. And the office worry and detail just as bad. And I act cranky and— I don’t mean to, but I get— So darn tired!”
To George F. Babbitt, as to most prosperous citizens of Zenith, his motor car was poetry and tragedy, love and heroism. The office was his pirate ship but the car his perilous excursion ashore.
Among the tremendous crises of each day none was more dramatic than starting the engine. It was slow on cold mornings; there was the long, anxious whirr of the starter; and sometimes he had to drip ether into the cocks of the cylinders, which was so very interesting that at lunch he would chronicle it drop by drop, and orally calculate how much each drop had cost him.
This morning he was darkly prepared to find something wrong, and he felt belittled when the mixture exploded sweet and strong, and the car didn’t even brush the door-jamb, gouged and splintery with many bruisings by fenders, as he backed out of the garage. He was confused. He shouted “Morning!” to Sam Doppelbrau with more cordiality than he had intended.
Babbitt’s green and white Dutch Colonial house was one of three in that block on Chatham Road. To the left of it was the residence of Mr. Samuel Doppelbrau, secretary of an excellent firm of bathroom-fixture jobbers. His was a comfortable house with no architectural manners whatever; a large wooden box with a squat tower, a broad porch, and glossy paint yellow as a yolk. Babbitt disapproved of Mr. and Mrs. Doppelbrau as “Bohemian.” From their house came midnight music and obscene laughter; there were neighborhood rumors of bootlegged whisky and fast motor rides. They furnished Babbitt with many happy evenings of discussion, during which he announced firmly, “I’m not straitlaced, and I don’t mind seeing a fellow throw in a drink once in a while, but when it comes to deliberately trying to get away with a lot of hell-raising all the while like the Doppelbraus do, it’s too rich for my blood!”
On the other side of Babbitt lived Howard Littlefield, Ph.D., in a strictly modern house whereof the lower part was dark red tapestry brick, with a leaded oriel, the upper part of pale stucco like spattered clay, and the roof red-tiled. Littlefield was the Great Scholar of the neighborhood; the authority on everything in the world except babies, cooking, and motors. He was a Bachelor of Arts of Blodgett College, and a Doctor of Philosophy in economics of Yale. He was the employment-manager and publicity-counsel of the Zenith Street Traction Company. He could, on ten hours’ notice, appear before the board of aldermen or the state legislature and prove, absolutely, with figures all in rows and with precedents from Poland and New Zealand, that the street-car company loved the Public and yearned over its employees; that all its stock was owned by Widows and Orphans; and that whatever it desired to do would benefit property-owners by increasing rental values, and help the poor by lowering rents. All his acquaintances turned to Littlefield when they desired to know the date of the battle of Saragossa, the definition of the word “sabotage,” the future of the German mark, the translation of “hinc illæ lachrimæ” or the number of products of coal tar. He awed Babbitt by confessing that he often sat up till midnight reading the figures and footnotes in Government reports, or skimming (with amusement at the author’s mistakes) the latest volumes of chemistry, archaeology, and ichthyology.
But Littlefield’s great value was as a spiritual example. Despite his strange learnings he was as strict a Presbyterian and as firm a Republican as George F. Babbitt. He confirmed the business men in the faith. Where they knew only by passionate instinct that their system of industry and manners was perfect, Dr. Howard Littlefield proved it to them, out of history, economics, and the confessions of reformed radicals.
Babbitt had a good deal of honest pride in being the neighbor of such a savant, and in Ted’s intimacy with Eunice Littlefield. At sixteen Eunice was interested in no statistics save those regarding the ages and salaries of motion-picture stars, but—as Babbitt definitively put it—“she was her father’s daughter.”
The difference between a light man like Sam Doppelbrau and a really fine character like Littlefield was revealed in their appearances. Doppelbrau was disturbingly young for a man of forty-eight. He wore his derby on the back of his head, and his red face was wrinkled with meaningless laughter. But Littlefield was old for a man of forty-two. He was tall, broad, thick; his gold-rimmed spectacles were engulfed in the folds of his long face; his hair was a tossed mass of greasy blackness; he puffed and rumbled as he talked; his Phi Beta Kappa key shone against a spotty black vest; he smelled of old pipes; he was altogether funereal and archidiaconal; and to real-estate brokerage and the jobbing of bathroom-fixtures he added an aroma of sanctity.
This morning he was in front of his house, inspecting the grass parking between the curb and the broad cement sidewalk. Babbitt stopped his car and leaned out to shout “Mornin’!” Littlefield lumbered over and stood with one foot up on the running-board.
“Fine morning,” said Babbitt, lighting—illegally early—his second cigar of the day.
“Yes, it’s a mighty fine morning,” said Littlefield.
“Spring coming along fast now.”
“Yes, it’s real spring now, all right,” said Littlefield.
“Still cold nights, though. Had to have a couple blankets, on the sleeping-porch last night.”
“Yes, it wasn’t any too warm last night,” said Littlefield.
“But I don’t anticipate we’ll have any more real cold weather now.”
“No, but still, there was snow at Tiflis, Montana, yesterday,” said the Scholar, “and you remember the blizzard they had out West three days ago—thirty inches of snow at Greeley, Colorado—and two years ago we had a snow-squall right here in Zenith on the twenty-fifth of April.”
“Is that a fact! Say, old man, what do you think about the Republican candidate? Who’ll they nominate for president? Don’t you think it’s about time we had a real business administration?”
“In my opinion, what the country needs, first and foremost, is a good, sound, business-like conduct of its affairs. What we need is—a business administration!” said Littlefield.
“I’m glad to hear you say that! I certainly am glad to hear you say that! I didn’t know how you’d feel about it, with all your associations with colleges and so on, and I’m glad you feel that way. What the country needs—just at this present juncture—is neither a college president nor a lot of monkeying with foreign affairs, but a good—sound—economical—business—administration, that will give us a chance to have something like a decent turnover.”
“Yes. It isn’t generally realized that even in China the schoolmen are giving way to more practical men, and of course you can see what that implies.”
“Is that a fact! Well, well!” breathed Babbitt, feeling much calmer, and much happier about the way things were going in the world. “Well, it’s been nice to stop and parleyvoo a second. Guess I’ll have to get down to the office now and sting a few clients. Well, so long, old man. See you to-night. So long.”
They had labored, these solid citizens. Twenty years before, the hill on which Floral Heights was spread, with its bright roofs and immaculate turf and amazing comfort, had been a wilderness of rank second-growth elms and oaks and maples. Along the precise streets were still a few wooded vacant lots, and the fragment of an old orchard. It was brilliant to-day; the apple boughs were lit with fresh leaves like torches of green fire. The first white of cherry blossoms flickered down a gully, and robins clamored.
Babbitt sniffed the earth, chuckled at the hysteric robins as he would have chuckled at kittens or at a comic movie. He was, to the eye, the perfect office-going executive—a well-fed man in a correct brown soft hat and frameless spectacles, smoking a large cigar, driving a good motor along a semisuburban parkway. But in him was some genius of authentic love for his neighborhood, his city, his clan. The winter was over; the time was come for the building, the visible growth, which to him was glory. He lost his dawn depression; he was ruddily cheerful when he stopped on Smith Street to leave the brown trousers, and to have the gasoline-tank filled.
The familiarity of the rite fortified him: the sight of the tall red iron gasoline-pump, the hollow-tile and terra-cotta garage, the window full of the most agreeable accessories—shiny casings, spark-plugs with immaculate porcelain jackets, tire-chains of gold and silver. He was flattered by the friendliness with which Sylvester Moon, dirtiest and most skilled of motor mechanics, came out to serve him. “Mornin’, Mr. Babbitt!” said Moon, and Babbitt felt himself a person of importance, one whose name even busy garagemen remembered—not one of these cheap-sports flying around in flivvers. He admired the ingenuity of the automatic dial, clicking off gallon by gallon; admired the smartness of the sign: “A fill in time saves getting stuck—gas to-day 31 cents”; admired the rhythmic gurgle of the gasoline as it flowed into the tank, and the mechanical regularity with which Moon turned the handle.
“How much we takin’ to-day?” asked Moon, in a manner which combined the independence of the great specialist, the friendliness of a familiar gossip, and respect for a man of weight in the community, like George F. Babbitt.
“Fill ’er up.”
“Who you rootin’ for for Republican candidate, Mr. Babbitt?”
“It’s too early to make any predictions yet. After all, there’s still a good month and two weeks—no, three weeks—must be almost three weeks—well, there’s more than six weeks in all before the Republican convention, and I feel a fellow ought to keep an open mind and give all the candidates a show—look ’em all over and size ’em up, and then decide carefully.”
“That’s a fact, Mr. Babbitt.”
“But I’ll tell you—and my stand on this is just the same as it was four years ago, and eight years ago, and it’ll be my stand four years from now—yes, and eight years from now! What I tell everybody, and it can’t be too generally understood, is that what we need first, last, and all the time is a good, sound business administration!”
“By golly, that’s right!”
“How do those front tires look to you?”
“Fine! Fine! Wouldn’t be much work for garages if everybody looked after their car the way you do.”
“Well, I do try and have some sense about it.” Babbitt paid his bill, said adequately, “Oh, keep the change,” and drove off in an ecstasy of honest self-appreciation. It was with the manner of a Good Samaritan that he shouted at a respectable-looking man who was waiting for a trolley car, “Have a lift?” As the man climbed in Babbitt condescended, “Going clear down-town? Whenever I see a fellow waiting for a trolley, I always make it a practice to give him a lift—unless, of course, he looks like a bum.”
“Wish there were more folks that were so generous with their machines,” dutifully said the victim of benevolence.
“Oh, no, ’tain’t a question of generosity, hardly. Fact, I always feel— I was saying to my son just the other night—it’s a fellow’s duty to share the good things of this world with his neighbors, and it gets my goat when a fellow gets stuck on himself and goes around tooting his horn merely because he’s charitable.”
The victim seemed unable to find the right answer. Babbitt boomed on:
“Pretty punk service the Company giving us on these carlines. Nonsense to only run the Portland Road cars once every seven minutes. Fellow gets mighty cold on a winter morning, waiting on a street corner with the wind nipping at his ankles.”
“That’s right. The Street Car Company don’t care a damn what kind of a deal they give us. Something ought to happen to ’em.”
Babbitt was alarmed. “But still, of course it won’t do to just keep knocking the Traction Company and not realize the difficulties they’re operating under, like these cranks that want municipal ownership. The way these workmen hold up the Company for high wages is simply a crime, and of course the burden falls on you and me that have to pay a seven-cent fare! Fact, there’s remarkable service on all their lines—considering.”
“Darn fine morning,” Babbitt explained. “Spring coming along fast.”
“Yes, it’s real spring now.”
The victim had no originality, no wit, and Babbitt fell into a great silence and devoted himself to the game of beating trolley cars to the corner: a spurt, a tail-chase, nervous speeding between the huge yellow side of the trolley and the jagged row of parked motors, shooting past just as the trolley stopped—a rare game and valiant.
And all the while he was conscious of the loveliness of Zenith. For weeks together he noticed nothing but clients and the vexing To Rent signs of rival brokers. To-day, in mysterious malaise, he raged or rejoiced with equal nervous swiftness, and to-day the light of spring was so winsome that he lifted his head and saw.
He admired each district along his familiar route to the office: The bungalows and shrubs and winding irregular driveways of Floral Heights. The one-story shops on Smith Street, a glare of plate-glass and new yellow brick; groceries and laundries and drug-stores to supply the more immediate needs of East Side housewives. The market gardens in Dutch Hollow, their shanties patched with corrugated iron and stolen doors. Billboards with crimson goddesses nine feet tall advertising cinema films, pipe tobacco, and talcum powder. The old “mansions” along Ninth Street, S.E., like aged dandies in filthy linen; wooden castles turned into boarding-houses, with muddy walks and rusty hedges, jostled by fast-intruding garages, cheap apartment-houses, and fruit-stands conducted by bland, sleek Athenians. Across the belt of railroad-tracks, factories with high-perched water-tanks and tall stacks—factories producing condensed milk, paper boxes, lighting-fixtures, motor cars. Then the business center, the thickening darting traffic, the crammed trolleys unloading, and high doorways of marble and polished granite.
It was big—and Babbitt respected bigness in anything; in mountains, jewels, muscles, wealth, or words. He was, for a spring-enchanted moment, the lyric and almost unselfish lover of Zenith. He thought of the outlying factory suburbs; of the Chaloosa River with its strangely eroded banks; of the orchard-dappled Tonawanda Hills to the North, and all the fat dairy land and big barns and comfortable herds. As he dropped his passenger he cried, “Gosh, I feel pretty good this morning!”
Epochal as starting the car was the drama of parking it before he entered his office. As he turned from Oberlin Avenue round the corner into Third Street, N.E., he peered ahead for a space in the line of parked cars. He angrily just missed a space as a rival driver slid into it. Ahead, another car was leaving the curb, and Babbitt slowed up, holding out his hand to the cars pressing on him from behind, agitatedly motioning an old woman to go ahead, avoiding a truck which bore down on him from one side. With front wheels nicking the wrought-steel bumper of the car in front, he stopped, feverishly cramped his steering-wheel, slid back into the vacant space and, with eighteen inches of room, manœuvered to bring the car level with the curb. It was a virile adventure masterfully executed. With satisfaction he locked a thief-proof steel wedge on the front wheel, and crossed the street to his real-estate office on the ground floor of the Reeves Building.
The Reeves Building was as fireproof as a rock and as efficient as a typewriter; fourteen stories of yellow pressed brick, with clean, upright, unornamented lines. It was filled with the offices of lawyers, doctors, agents for machinery, for emery wheels, for wire fencing, for mining-stock. Their gold signs shone on the windows. The entrance was too modern to be flamboyant with pillars; it was quiet, shrewd, neat. Along the Third Street side were a Western Union Telegraph Office, the Blue Delft Candy Shop, Shotwell’s Stationery Shop, and the Babbitt-Thompson Realty Company.
Babbitt could have entered his office from the street, as customers did, but it made him feel an insider to go through the corridor of the building and enter by the back door. Thus he was greeted by the villagers.
The little unknown people who inhabited the Reeves Building corridors—elevator-runners, starter, engineers, superintendent, and the doubtful-looking lame man who conducted the news and cigar stand—were in no way city-dwellers. They were rustics, living in a constricted valley, interested only in one another and in The Building. Their Main Street was the entrance hall, with its stone floor, severe marble ceiling, and the inner windows of the shops. The liveliest place on the street was the Reeves Building Barber Shop, but this was also Babbitt’s one embarrassment. Himself, he patronized the glittering Pompeian Barber Shop in the Hotel Thornleigh, and every time he passed the Reeves shop—ten times a day, a hundred times—he felt untrue to his own village.
Now, as one of the squirearchy, greeted with honorable salutations by the villagers, he marched into his office, and peace and dignity were upon him, and the morning’s dissonances all unheard.
They were heard again, immediately.
Stanley Graff, the outside salesman, was talking on the telephone with tragic lack of that firm manner which disciplines clients: “Say, uh, I think I got just the house that would suit you—the Percival House, in Linton.... Oh, you’ve seen it. Well, how’d it strike you?... Huh?... Oh,” irresolutely, “oh, I see.”
As Babbitt marched into his private room, a coop with semi-partition of oak and frosted glass, at the back of the office, he reflected how hard it was to find employees who had his own faith that he was going to make sales.
There were nine members of the staff, besides Babbitt and his partner and father-in-law, Henry Thompson, who rarely came to the office. The nine were Stanley Graff, the outside salesman—a youngish man given to cigarettes and the playing of pool; old Mat Penniman, general utility man, collector of rents and salesman of insurance—broken, silent, gray; a mystery, reputed to have been a “crack” real-estate man with a firm of his own in haughty Brooklyn; Chester Kirby Laylock, resident salesman out at the Glen Oriole acreage development—an enthusiastic person with a silky mustache and much family; Miss Theresa McGoun, the swift and rather pretty stenographer; Miss Wilberta Bannigan, the thick, slow, laborious accountant and file-clerk; and four freelance part-time commission salesmen.
As he looked from his own cage into the main room Babbitt mourned, “McGoun’s a good stenog., smart’s a whip, but Stan Graff and all those bums—” The zest of the spring morning was smothered in the stale office air.
Normally he admired the office, with a pleased surprise that he should have created this sure lovely thing; normally he was stimulated by the clean newness of it and the air of bustle; but to-day it seemed flat—the tiled floor, like a bathroom, the ocher-colored metal ceiling, the faded maps on the hard plaster walls, the chairs of varnished pale oak, the desks and filing-cabinets of steel painted in olive drab. It was a vault, a steel chapel where loafing and laughter were raw sin.
He hadn’t even any satisfaction in the new water-cooler! And it was the very best of water-coolers, up-to-date, scientific, and right-thinking. It had cost a great deal of money (in itself a virtue). It possessed a non-conducting fiber ice-container, a porcelain water-jar (guaranteed hygienic), a dripless non-clogging sanitary faucet, and machine-painted decorations in two tones of gold. He looked down the relentless stretch of tiled floor at the water-cooler, and assured himself that no tenant of the Reeves Building had a more expensive one, but he could not recapture the feeling of social superiority it had given him. He astoundingly grunted, “I’d like to beat it off to the woods right now. And loaf all day. And go to Gunch’s again to-night, and play poker, and cuss as much as I feel like, and drink a hundred and nine-thousand bottles of beer.”
He sighed; he read through his mail; he shouted “Msgoun,” which meant “Miss McGoun”; and began to dictate.
This was his own version of his first letter:
“Omar Gribble, send it to his office, Miss McGoun, yours of twentieth to hand and in reply would say look here, Gribble, I’m awfully afraid if we go on shilly-shallying like this we’ll just naturally lose the Allen sale, I had Allen up on carpet day before yesterday and got right down to cases and think I can assure you—uh, uh, no, change that: all my experience indicates he is all right, means to do business, looked into his financial record which is fine—that sentence seems to be a little balled up, Miss McGoun; make a couple sentences out of it if you have to, period, new paragraph.
“He is perfectly willing to pro rate the special assessment and strikes me, am dead sure there will be no difficulty in getting him to pay for title insurance, so now for heaven’s sake let’s get busy—no, make that: so now let’s go to it and get down—no, that’s enough—you can tie those sentences up a little better when you type ’em, Miss McGoun—your sincerely, etcetera.”
This is the version of his letter which he received, typed, from Miss McGoun that afternoon: