America To-Day, Observations and Reflections/Letter X

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LETTER X

New York in Spring—Central Park—New York not an Ill-governed City—The United States Post Office—The Express System—Valedictory.

New York.

It is with a curious sensation of home-coming that I find myself once more in New York. Spring has arrived before me. The blue dome of sky has lost its crystalline sparkle, and the trees in Madison Square have put on a filmy veil of green. Going to a luncheon party in the Riverside region, I determine, for the sheer pleasure and exhilaration of the thing, to walk the whole way, up Fifth Avenue and diagonally across Central Park. What a magnificent pleasure ground, vast, various, and seductive! A peerless emerald on the finger of Manhattan! If I were not bound by solemn oaths to present myself at West-End Avenue at half-past one, I could loaf all the afternoon by the superb expanse of the Croton Reservoir, looking out over the giant city of sunshine, with the white dome of Columbia College and the pyramid of Grant's Monument on the northern horizon, and far to the eastward the low hills of Long Island.

Passing the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I am reminded, not only that I have never been inside it, but that in all the cities I have visited I have not gone to a single show-place, museum, or picture-gallery, save one remarkable private collection in Baltimore. Of course I must also except (a large exception!) the public libraries of Washington, Boston, and Chicago, which are, in a very eminent sense, "show-places." Still, it seems somewhat remarkable (does it not?) that in a country which is understood in Europe to be monotonous and unattractive to travellers, I should have spent two months not only of intellectual interest but of aesthetic enjoyment, without once, except in a chance moment of idleness, feeling the least inclination to fall back upon the treasures of European art which it undoubtedly contains. I have even ignored the marvels of nature. I passed within twenty miles of Niagara; I saw the serried icefloes sweeping down from Lake Erie to the cataract; and I did not go to see them plunge over. In the first place, I had been there before; in the second place, I should have had to sacrifice six hours of Chicago, where I wanted, not six hours less, but six weeks more.

Before saying farewell—a fond farewell!—to New York, let me supplement my first impressions with my last. The most maligned of cities I called it; and truly I said well. Here is even the judicious Mr. J. F. Muirhead of "Baedeker," betrayed by his passion for antithesis into describing New York as "a lady in ball costume, with diamonds in her ears and her toes out at her boots." This was written, to be sure, in 1890, and may have been true in its day; for it takes an American city much less than a decade to belie a derogatory epigram. Now, at any rate, New York has had her shoes mended to some purpose. She is not the best paved city in the world, or even in America, but neither is she by any means the worst; and her splendid system of electric and elevated railroads renders her more independent of paving than any European city. Fifth Avenue is paved to perfection; Broadway and Sixth Avenue are not; but at any rate the streets are not for ever being hauled up and laid down again, like some of our leading London thoroughfares. Holborn, for example, may be ideally paved on paper, but its roadway is subject to such incessant eruptions of one sort or another that it is in practice a much more uncomfortable thoroughfare than any of the New York avenues. For the rest, New York has a copious and excellent water supply, which London has not; it has a splendidly efficient fire-brigade; it has an admirable telephone system, with underground wires; and even its electric trolleys get their motive-power from underneath, whereas in Philadelphia the overhead wires are, I regret to say, killing the trees which lend the streets their greatest charm. Altogether, Tammany or no Tammany, New York cannot possibly be described as an ill-governed city. Its government may be wasteful and worse; inefficient it is not. Even the policemen seem to me maligned. I never found them rude or needlessly dictatorial.

In one of the essential conveniences of modern life, New York is far behind London; but the blame lies, not with the city, but with the United States. Its postal arrangements are at best erratic, at worst miserable. Letters which would be delivered in London in three or four hours take in New York anywhere from six to sixteen hours. It was a long time before I realised and learned to allow for the slowness of the postal service. At first I used mentally to accuse my correspondents of great dilatoriness in attending to notes that called for an immediate reply. On one occasion I posted in Madison Square at 3 P.M. a letter addressed to the Lyceum Theatre, not a quarter of a mile away, suggesting an appointment for the same evening after the play. The appointment was not kept, for the letter was not delivered till the following morning! To ensure its delivery the same evening, I ought to have put a special-delivery stamp on it—price fivepence—in addition to the ordinary two-cent stamp. No doubt it is the universal employment of the telephone in American cities that leads people to put up with such defective postal arrangements.

But it is not only within city limits that the United States Post Office functions with a dignified deliberation. The ordinary time that it takes to write (say) from New York to Chicago, and receive an answer, might be considerably reduced without any acceleration of the train service. It sounds incredible, but it is, I believe, the case, that the simple and eminently time-saving device of a letter-box in the domestic front-door is practically unknown in America. I did observe one, in Boston, so small that a fair sized business letter would certainly have stuck in its throat. One evening I was sitting at dinner in a fashionable street in New York, close to Central Park, when I was startled by a distinctly burglarious noise at the window. My host smiled at my look of bewilderment, and explained that it was only the letter-carrier; and, sure enough, when the servant came into the room she picked up three or four letters from the floor. The postman was somehow able to reach the front window from the "stoop," open it, and throw in the evening's mail—a primitive arrangement, more suggestive of the English than of the American Gotham. Even the gum on the United States postage-stamps is apt to be ineffectual. When you are stamping letters in hot haste to catch the European mail, you are as likely as not to find that the head of President Grant has curled up and refuses—most uncharacteristically—to stick to its post.

The conveniences of the express system, again, are, in my judgment, greatly overrated. It is often slow and always expensive. It seems to have been devised by the makers of Saratoga trunks, for it puts a premium upon huge packages and a tax upon those of moderate size. I speak feelingly, for I have just paid eight shillings for the conveyance of five packages from my room to the wharf, a distance of about a mile and a half. A London growler would have taken them and myself to boot for eighteenpence, three of the packages going outside, and two, with their owner, inside. It is true that had I packed all my belongings in one huge box the same company would have conveyed them to the steamer for one and eightpence, which is the regular charge per package. But I could not have taken this box into my state-room; I must in any case have had a cabin trunk; and for an ocean voyage, a bundle of rugs is, to say the least of it, advisable. Thus I could not have escaped paying four and tenpence for the conveyance of my baggage alone—rather more than three times as much as it would have cost to convey my baggage and myself the same distance in London. It must not be forgotten, of course, that the New York Express Company would, if necessary, have carried the goods much further for the same charge of forty cents a package. The limit of distance I do not know: it is probably something like twenty miles. But a potential ell does not reconcile me to paying an exorbitant price for the actual inch which is all I have any use for. This method of simplification—fixing the minimum payment on the basis of the maximum bulk, weight, and distance—seems to me essentially irrational. In some cases, indeed, it cuts against the Express Company. When I first had occasion to move from one abode to another in New York—a distance of about a quarter of a mile—I thought with glee, "Now the famous express system will save me all trouble." But I found that it would cost two dollars to express my belongings, whereas even the notoriously extortionate New York cabman would convey me and all my goods and chattels for half that sum. So the Express Company's loss was cabby's gain.

 

"The ship is cheered, the harbour cleared," and none too merrily are we dropping down by the Statue of Liberty to Sandy Hook and the Atlantic. (There is a point, by the way, a little below the Battery, from which New York looks mountainous indeed. Its irregularly serrated profile is lost, and the sky-scrapers fall into position one behind the other, like an artistically grouped cohort of giants. "Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise," while in the background the glorious curve of the Brooklyn Bridge seems to span half the horizon. I could not but think of Valhalla and the Bridge of the Gods in the Rheingold. Elevator architecture necessarily sends one to Scandinavian mythology in quest of similitudes.) It is with acute regret that I turn my back upon New York, or, rather, turn my face to see it receding over the steamer's wake. Not often in this imperfect world are high anticipations overtopped, as the real America has overtopped my half-reminiscent dream of it. "The real America"? That, of course, is an absurd expression. I have had only a superficial glimpse of one corner of the United States. It is as though one were to glance at a mere dog-ear on a folio page, and then profess to have mastered its whole import. But I intend no such ridiculous profession. I have seen something of the outward aspect of five or six great cities; I have looked into one small facet of American social life; and I have faithfully reported what I have seen—nothing more. At the same time my observations, and more especially my conversations with the scores of "bright" and amiable men it has been my privilege to meet, have suggested to me certain thoughts, certain hopes and apprehensions, respecting the future of America and the English-speaking world, which I shall try to formulate elsewhere. For the present, let me only sum up my personal experiences in saying that all the pleasant expectations I brought with me to America have been realised, all the forebodings disappointed. Even the interviewer is far less terrible than I had been led to imagine. He always treated me with courtesy, sometimes with comprehension. One gentleman alone (not an American, by the way) set forth to be mildly humorous at my expense; and even he apologised in advance, as it were, by prefixing his own portrait to the interview, as who should say, "Look at me—how can I help it?" Again, I had been led rather to fear American hospitality as being apt to become importunate and exacting. I found it no less considerate than cordial. Probably I was too small game to bring the lion-hunters upon my trail. The alleged habit of speech-making and speech-demanding on every possible occasion I found to be merely mythical. Three times only was I called upon to "say something," and on the first two occasions, being taken unawares, I said everything I didn't want to say. The third time, having foreseen the demand, I had noted down in advance the heads of an eloquent harangue; but when the time came I felt the atmosphere unpropitious, and suppressed my rhetoric. The proceedings opened with an iced beverage, called, I believe, a "Mississippi toddy," probably as being the longest toddy on record, the father of (fire) waters; and on its down-lapsing current my eloquence was swept into the gulf of oblivion. The meeting, fortunately, did not know what it had lost, and its serenity remained unclouded. But it is not to the Mississippi toddies and other creature comforts of America that I look back with gratitude and affection. It is to the spontaneous and unaffected human kindness that met me on every hand; the will to please and to be pleased in daily intercourse; and, in the spiritual sphere, the thirst for knowledge, for justice, for beauty, for the larger and the purer light.