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THE CONTRIBUTORS' CLUB
SHELL-SHOCK IN A SHOESHOP
This small exposition of a social phenomenon is presented to the sorority of shoestore sufferers merely in the hope that it will be diagnosed as correct, and not condemned as another extravagance of an embittered shopper.
Things are seldom what they seem. The other day I went to what I supposed to be a mark-down sale of boots and shoes, but found instead that I was attending a reception; or perhaps it would be more correct to call the social function at which I found myself a leapyear party, because, in a shoestore, it is apparently always leap year.
Women in bevies were crowding and jostling each other just inside the entrance, shrilly demanding some particular clerk, the name of the coveted salesman rising above the steady stream of feminine chatter with flattering insistence. I was deafened by the Babel of tongues among which various phrases crashed through into my consciousness.
'Where is Mr. Johnson? I must have Mr. Johnson. He's the only man that knows just what I want.'
'Is Mr. Jackson here? Say, Edna, do you mind just catching hold of that gentleman that's talking to the fleshy woman in blue? He's my special friend. All the others make me get shoes that are too big for me.'
'Oh, Mr. Sampson, here I am! You know you told me to be sure and always ask for you.'
'Good morning, Mr. Benson. How are you this morning? Popular as ever, I see! I want you to show me the very latest thing in tango-slippers. I think everything of Mr. Benson,' the speaker
then announced to all whom it might concern. And the mountain of flesh from whom this flattering declaration emanated forced her way toward her coveted idol, Mahomet being utterly unable to go to the mountain.
I looked around me in despair. Each clerk was either surrounded by a group of ladies, or having a confidential chat with one alone on some cushioned sofa. Broken bits of conversation continued to assail my ears; sometimes the subject-matter was such as would be tossed to and fro between any two people meeting at an afternoon tea; sometimes there was an interchange of personal gossip concerning the large world of society in which the majority of the shoe-purchasing and shoe-selling world seemed to move side by side. The feminine confidences to which I found myself listening were the more astounding in their intimacy from the fact that often they were evidently being poured into the ear of a total stranger. A young girl in fur coat and pearl necklace bent confidentially toward a swain in whose blacking-stained palm her silk-stockinged foot was temporarily reposing, and exchanged ballroom badinage. Stout matrons repeated the latest mots of their grandchildren, or deplored the manners of the new generation, sure of a sympathetic listener at their feet. Somehow
* the intimacy implied by an appeal for sympathy always seems of the closest possible brand.
'Among the confusion of faces, I suddenly detected the puzzled one of a rather deaf contemporary of my own. I made my way to her side, and indicating a confidential confessional that was
, in progress at a little distance.I shouted, 'Don't you admire shoe-men's sympathy?'
She looked alarmed for my reason. 'Schumann's Symphony?' she murmured vaguely. 'Why, yes, I think it's beautiful, if you mean the one in D minor.'
This would never do. 'It's no use trying to talk in a shoeshop,' I yelled, backing away.
'Did you say you had shell-shock?' my deaf friend inquired again.
I nodded violently and withdrew to continue my observations.
'Is this the new democracy?' I asked myself in a daze. But no. I had been to other mark-down sales. I have traveled from automatic attics to bargain basements, and everywhere the old order prevailed to the extent of the purchaser and the dispenser of wares being separated by that imaginary equator which divides the seller and the sold. Perhaps the absence of that symbol of separation, the counter, explains the greater freedom of intercourse in the shoestore. But as I had come to buy boots and not to moralize, I decided to be very up-to-date and 'cut in' on some confidential couple. Accordingly I boldly placed myself beside a seal-skinned siren who was discussing with her chosen partner a movie she had seen the night before, and said firmly,'I have come to buy some boots. Will you please wait on me when you are quite through talking to this lady?'
My sarcasm passed unheeded. Without glancing my way, the clerk merely pointed to a distant corner and replied, 'I am busy. Perhaps one of those other gentlemen can attend to you.'
It was in that corner, neglected and alone, that I evolved the theory that the shoeman is as yet in a state of transition. He is an unclassified animal, a sort of social Soko, or missing link. Perhaps eventually he will arise from his' probably arboreal' crouch, and will
stand upright on two legs and proclaim himself either a man or a gentleman! Perhaps he will have a consulting parlor, in which ladies may lay bare their souls (I repudiate the obvious pun) less publicly than at present. But for the moment the shoe-specialist is certainly in an anomalous position, into which he has been pushed by the incredible intimacy of his rich and common ladypatronesses. Perhaps there is some psychological reason why, in removing the shoe, one removes also a shell of reserve (perhaps shell-shocked sensibilities have caused it to disintegrate) while a new sole-protector is being tested.
It always establishes a pleasantly cordial relation to find one's self hand and glove with a courteous clerk on the other side of the counter; but it is almost startling to find one's self foot and boot — so to speak — with an impassioned salesman kneeling at one's feet!
THE HIGH COST OF TALKING
Speech lightens toil, and soothes the arduous day
It is a difficult problem, but if the cost of labor continues to increase, a point will be reached at which the employer must seriously consider how much irrelevant conversation between employees, or between an employee and friends or acquaintances who share his society but not his toil, he can afford to pay for; and, having so decided, he must find a way to make his decision operative. Already, for example, it is with an indescribable emotion that the smaller employers of labor — we who need the carpenter, the plumber, the man-who-takes-care-of-the-lawn, the scrub-lady, or other members of the newest new rich — listen to the conversation of our nominal hirelings, and figure in our troubled minds how much it is costing us a minute. We are not mean: we are desperate — and the fact that we, too, are now and again insidiously lured into conversation with these nominal hirelings makes us more so. Labor is scarce; the deaf and dumb unobtainable, — even if we employed them they would stop work and talk with their fingers, — and the habit of speech, as we cannot but recognize in ourselves as well as in others, is older in history, far more widely practised, and far more difficult for the victim to get rid of, than any other.
Many thousand years ago this was a dumb world — a world that we may only faintly picture by trying to imagine ourselves living naked in trees. Judged by all modern standards, it must have been an odd life; but it had its pleasures, it was not dull. Primeval man (so I read in my Science History of the Universe) 'romped and frolicked with his fellows.' 'There were rhythmic beatings of the hands and arms, and some approach to song'; but it would have been a song without words, and what you or I, good reader, might have thought we were trying to sing about, even the Science History of the Universe does not know. The wisest of us, I judge, would have been mentally inferior to the average modern baby; but this is perhaps unjust to the sage; for whereas the baby learns to talk in an environment already provided with teachers, a vocabulary, and topics of conversation, this worthy fellow in the tree had to start with a single word of his own making, and could talk about nothing whatever until he had invented a name for it.
The idea staggers imagination, but so it was. Out of these rompings and frolickings, these mad, glad games of tag and hidey-go and leap-frog in the sunflecked glades of prehistoric forests now turned to coal, came the first words. Thus it may have happened that one of us sometimes got, as we now say, too
'gay' with another; a friendly tussle became too strenuous, and a protesting squeak meaning 'Don't bite my ear' came by repetition to be generally recognized as definite speech, meaning, as the Dictionary now says, 'the apparatus of audition,' not intended for biting. And having thus named his e-e-ee-e-e-yahl primeval man went bravely on and tried to name everything else — a tremendous task not yet completed.
Nor, for that matter, have his descendants done much to perfect the instrument of communication which he thus sketchily invented, and which still remains sadly limited. 'Many words,' said Stevenson, 'are often necessary to convey a very simple statement; for in this sort of exercise we never hit the gold; the most we can hope for is by many arrows, more or less oft' on different sides, to indicate, in the course of time, for what target we are aiming, and after an hour's talk, back and forward, to convey the purport of a single principle or a single thought.'
Yet it is something if the arrows thus indicate the target; for so dependent is speech upon the receptivity and state of mind of the hearer, that many an honest sentence fails to describe its meaning, and many an honest thought gets distorted in the hearing beyond the subsequent recognition of the mind that thought it. Here, indeed, is a cumulative tragedy, the incalculable total of countless human misunderstandings, for which our ancestor prepared the way when he named his ear. And whether or not it would have been better if his ear had remained nameless is a question for individuals to answer according to their faith in the ultimate intention of evolution.
However it started, and to whatever humanly incomprehensible purpose, the practice of speech and the pursuit of labor have long been inseparable: one may even argue that, with the development of self-consciousness and conventions, speech has taken the place of romping and frolicking whenever two or more human beings get together. The literary-minded reader will recall the poet Thompson's fine pastoral: —
Soon as the Morning trembles o'er the sky.
And, unperceived, unfolds the spreading day;
Before the ripened fields the Reapers stand.
In fair array, each by the lass he loves.
To bear the rougher part, and mitigate,
By countless gentle offices, her toil.
At once they stoop and swell the lusty sheaves;
While through their cheerful band the rural talk.
The rural scandal and the rural jest.
Fly harmless, to deceive the tedious time,
And steal unfelt the sultry hours away.
And although the poet was thinking of agriculture in a coeducational phase that is no longer common, the most casual observation must realize that urban and suburban scandal equally well deceive the tedious time, that reaping is here symbolic of many another occupation, and that neither sex is reduced to noticeable taciturnity by the absence of the other. I have seen, and heard, ten or a dozen men, nominally busy at mending a highway outside my window; and, although neither the so-called gentler sex nor the social beverage was present, the affair sounded, and was in effect, very much like a tea-party — except that now and again one of the guests stopped talking, and scattered a shovelful of gravel, with a free, graceful, and generous gesture, over the roadbed. This they did in rotation, so that usually one guest was scattering gravel,, and the function was progressive. It came leisurely into view far down the road to the east; it went leisurely out of sight far down the road to the west, leaving a pleasant impression of human companionship, though less romantic than the reapers made on Thompson. It may yet happen, as things are going, that such toil as this will become coeducational also, that towns will recruit their street departments impar
tially from the new electorate, and that these sturdy highwaymen, each by the lass he loves, will bear the rougher part and mitigate her toil. There were, to be sure, contingencies that did not occur to the superficially observant poet: one member of the cheerful band might have set himself to mitigate the toil of a lass whom some other member loved, and then, as Mr. Thompson might (more ably) have put it, —
Across the ripened field the Reaper leaps.
This, however, would be an extreme case, and fruitless efforts to kill with a pointed look would be more likely.
Under conditions that are still with wistful optimism referred to as' normal,' no essayist with a heart could have wished to change an industrial convention by which conversation has been accepted (and paid for) as the companion of toil. It has been taken for granted that carpenters on a roof or plumbers in a cellar would deceive the tedious time, that the man-who-takescare-of-the-lawn would hold informal receptions for all passing friends and acquaintances, and so on through various employments, male, female, and mixed. The tongue of man and the tail of dog, it has been tacitly agreed, have this in common — each wags when the owner is happy; and well it would be if the tongue, like the tail, ceased wagging under other temperamental conditions. Talk and toil, it has been held, go together, separate yet inseparable, like the Siamese twins; nor is it remarkable that this phenomenon should have been taken as a matter of course; for each human repeats in his or her own personal experience the history of humanity, is born speechless, discovers with surprise and wonder the pleasure of conversation, and never wearies of practising it.
Words, moreover, are the only currency in which the poorest can afford to be 'extravagant: each has a Fortunatus's purse, and, however he plays the spendthrift, the purse is as full as ever.
Yet it must be admitted that a widower who does not dance, though he may with equanimity once a year purchase a ticket for himself and wife to the Policeman's Ball, would be disturbed if policemen, summoned at night to capture a burglar in the second story, stopped on the way for an informal dance in the dining-room. The case is not so radically different from that of carpenters who pause in their carpentering for a pleasant chat, or of the manwho-takes-care-of-the-lawn who uses his rake to lean on while he discusses the political situation with the ashman. In all justice it becomes more and more evident that only the industrial occupation of his premises should be paid for by an employer, and that the social occupation should be paid for by the employee. In the case of the highwaymen's party that I have mentioned, a distinction should be made between gossiping and graveling. But unfortunately this sound truth is not likely to be recognized by the conversationalists in soviet.
NEW LIGHTS ON BROADWAY
It is queer how you can meet old familiar wayside acquaintances day after day, for weeks at a time, and then, suddenly, some little incident will pop out of the unexpected and reveal to you their whole personalities, setting, and responsibility to the universe.
I went down to mail a letter and get a paper, and walked back through the woods. I turned off the lane at a place that is n't usual, going over the wall instead of through the legitimate gap and walking through wet wild asters and poison ivy, and by way of various outcroppings of rock, on which I sat
down experimentally from time to time, to open my paper, combat the mosquitoes briefly, and withdraw. This departure from the path may have been the reason for the general change in the face of things, although I came back before long to the usual open spot, and found the usual two horses grazing there, went up the little hill past them and through the usual sagged place in their wire-fence. On the edge of the sunny open space on top of the hill, in the fringy edge of the sumach and the shade of a tree, with goldenrod adorning the prospect, I recognized the destined ledge of rock on which to read my paper; so I sat down to consider Cox and Harding in parallel columns.
Other voices not political began to get my attention, but I did n't listen much. They were well away on the other side of the trees, and it was n't my business. After a while the two horses came plunging out of the thicket and across the lower edge of the grassy space and into the thicket on the other side, shouts pursuing; and then a man in a whitish shirt and no-colored trousers, with a long stick in his hand, came after. He'd been 'chasing those horses all morning, lady,' he explained as he went by. 'It's hard to catch horses. You think you have them cornered and they get away from you.'
I wished him success this time, and thought he had it; but he had n't. Then another man appeared — a long, lean man who left an impression of blue gingham shirt in the general color-effect of the landscape as he went across it. Had the horses gone up by here? he wanted to know. No, not up by here; they had gone dawn by here, I told him, with the other man after them, but they had n't passed again. So he went off to beat the woods.
From that time my reading-room was the scene of crossings and recrossings, of pursuit, escape, bewilderment,