Just Like Chelu'zim

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THE explorer was sitting in the club window, as stiff as an old wooden image. I went over on impulse and joined the poor devil. He seemed to need human companionship. It's not good for any man to live too much off in the wilds.

I tried him on a few civilized subjects, such as motor trips and psychoanalysis; but he remained unresponsive. I wondered what I could talk of. I could have asked, "Well, how are the wilds, eh?" but that wasn't my object. I wanted to get his mind off them.

Gary came in the room. I introduced him. The explorer stared at him and asked me:

"What are his tribal duties?"

"Mr. Gary is a real-estate man," I said.

The explorer looked puzzled.

"I build and sell apartments," Gary was amiable enough to explain. "My interest in life is in the proper housing of people."

And he went on to say that things were extraordinarily difficult nowadays. The demand for housing, especially in New York, was far beyond the supply. He described how every one was changing old four-story houses, that had been intended for the use of one family, into apartments that would hold several, and he pointed out, rather needlessly, that this had made an immense saving in space, but still the situation was serious. It was hard to know what to do.

"The same old story everywhere!" the explorer said, as if to himself. "Every group is so stupid. Won't adapt itself to its environment."

Gary observed him attentively. "Well, sir," he said, "there are some very intelligent men who are at work on this problem. They want to get things straightened out somehow, but no way has occurred to us. If you have any suggestions, I shall be more than glad to try to make use of them."

The explorer stared woodenly in front of him, and began talking—vaguely, as I thought—of some tribe he had once lived among. I hardly listened at first; it seemed to have nothing to do with the subject. He was describing their hats.

"In their own village," he was saying, "they wear hats made like up-turned umbrellas, and they have a quaint way of fastening to the ends of the ribs of these hats as many as possible of the little possessions they value. Little clay bowls of ochre, and the blowpipes they use to kill game, and a sesheke, or charm bag, and the instruments they use for tattooing. The idea is display. A man walks about with his objets d'art dangling all the way round his hat. When the wind is strong, as you can imagine, this makes his life difficult. Furthermore, the Waróws—a mean-natured bird of those regions—make swoops at him and scream disagreeably and snatch at his belongings. In short, it is inconvenient for him in every way. But it is the custom.

Just Like Chelu'zim 1--Harper's 1920.png

(The idea is display)

"Yet whenever these same men go to the Yash River and camp on the shore they do not wear these hats. The custom then is to wear small soft cloths or a leaf on their heads, and to carry their little possessions in their belts. This, of course, is more comfortable. The wind can blow all it wants then, but it does not disturb them.

"Yet fancy!" he continued. "This will amuse you. One of their head men once came to me, and asked, with the utmost seriousness, mind you, what remedy I could suggest for the terrible inconvenience they suffered through having to wear those umbrella hats when they were in their own village."

Just Like Chelu'zim 2--Harper's 1920.png

(a mean-natured bird)

Gary looked politely interested, but he did not seem to see what useful light this could throw on his problem.

"I ventured to suggest," said the explorer, "that it might be well to abandon the umbrella-style hats entirely, since they were not really fitted to the windy environment in which the tribe found themselves, and to wear at all seasons the hats and belts they wore on the Yash. Not unreasonable, was I?"

Gary said, Why, no; it seemed reasonable. More than reasonable. Obvious.

"Quite so," said the explorer, "but Chelu'zim, as this head man was called, did not take it that way. He said to me: 'This is strange talk. We could not wear Yash gear at home.'

"I replied diplomatically: 'Of course I should have realized that. And yet, since I am a foreigner and do not understand these things readily, perhaps you will explain to me just why it is so impracticable.'

"His answer was merely to repeat in a most patient way, as though he were talking to a child, that the idea was absurd. The umbrella hats were the only kind suitable for use in the village. The tribe had once reduced the width of them, he added, from five feet to three. This he considered a triumph of human intelligence. But to give them up—no. People would not be comfortable or happy, or feel at ease, living without them.

"And another chief, who had joined us, pointed out, after lengthy reflection, that one had to wear such a hat in order to hang his possessions on it. One couldn't always stow things in belts."

"In other words," said Gary, "they would not adjust themselves to their windy environment?"

"Although they supposed they were most anxious to," said the explorer.

"And you think we're like that?"

"All men are," said the explorer. "Wherever any difficulty or need of adjustment exists, there is always some obvious remedy, yet they will not adopt it."

Gary's eye twinkled incredulously.

"My dear sir," said the explorer, "this city's difficulty is lack of space. You have moved people out of separate houses and into apartments, but that is only reducing the size of your umbrella hats, and you still have the same kind of furniture and pictures and ornaments. Do you need more relief? Look about you. One solution lies no farther away than the piers on your water-front. See how men live aboard ship. A traveler will look at a space, six by ten, and say, 'What a large cabin!' On shore he would be discontented and call it a cramped little room. What is it makes such a difference? Why, it's just the idea. On shipboard men are willing to stow their bric-a-brac and live unencumbered. But when they come ashore they feel, somehow they should not live in cabins; they must then have apartments or houses. Nothing less would be 'suitable.'"

"And is that your great remedy?" I said, for I thought it far-fetched. "You led up to it so elaborately that I hoped it would be novel at least."

"No," the explorer replied, bitterly, "it's no more novel than my Yash River remedy. I see you feel just the way Chelu'zim did."

I felt slightly impatient, for the man didn't seem to be joking, and he looked ready to advocate his fantastic suggestion all night. As to Gary, I knew his good sense would tell him it was out of the question to confine New-Yorkers in little cabins or staterooms, as though they were on board ship! But he said seriously enough to the explorer: "I think I see your thought. This whole island of Manhattan, a man might well say, is a ship; it is shaped like a ship, and it is far more crowded with people. Hence, those who wish to live here should be content to live in about the same way and take up about as little space as they would on shipboard. H'm! Well, we could house ten times as many persons if we built skyscrapers full of small state-rooms, but I fear our prospective tenants would find the notion rather outlandish!"

"Pough!" said the explorer. "All notions seem outlandish at first. You must have had experience enough of that in your own business. Years ago good New-Yorkers lived in long rows of 'brownstone-front' houses. Each row or block was like a loaf of bread, and each house was a slice. The apartment idea was really nothing more than turning the loaf up on end and living in horizontal slices instead of vertical ones. Yet it was thought quite outlandish."

"Yes," said Gary, "but that objection was not rational. The new system gave people less room, perhaps, but still room enough; and it had other conveniences which more than made up for the change."

"True," said the explorer, "and the same will be true of buildings of state-rooms. There will be less room, but still room enough, and there will be new conveniences. Men who build ships have learned how to save space in hundreds of ways. They put in lockers instead of closets, for example, and place drawers under the bunks. Call such men to your aid. Tell them to design kitchens like a ship's galley—they'll be far more convenient. And a combination washstand and phonograph, and all that sort of thing."

Gary thought for a while. "I am afraid there are limits to crowding," he said. "After all, people need a certain amount of space. There is an irreducible minimum."

"If you are speaking rationally and not merely conventionally," the explorer replied, "I quite agree that some people need space. There are people with active legs, restless eyes, who want to move about, even at home. Very well, let them live in the country. Or, if they can afford it, let them pay for a palace in town. But others could learn to like coziness, quite as well as waste space. It would be easier to heat or ventilate state-rooms. And think of how low they might rent! If we wanted a place to stretch our legs, there could be promenade decks, on the roof. Steamer-chairs, and a view. There would be plenty of people who would like to live in buildings like that.

Just Like Chelu'zim 3--Harper's 1920.png

("Strange talk!" Chelu'zim said)

"We need not confine ourselves to suggestions from ships," he went on. "Go over to the railroad stations, and there you'll see another solution. Why shouldn't an apartment-house be erected on the Pullman-car principle? Nice, homelike upper berths, leased to bachelors, and whole compartments for families. And whenever a millionaire came along and wanted to make a great showing, he could lease a space equivalent to a private car. It would still be a saving."

Gary laughed. "Come, come!" he said. "Don't go too far! We could endure such an existence, but it is ridiculous to suppose we could like it. Civilization moves forward. The demand is for more comfort, not less."

The explorer was silent.

Gary felt he had scored. "You see, we builders are practical men," he continued, good-humoredly, "and we have to consider—"

Just Like Chelu'zim 4--Harper's 1920.png

(Pullman apartments)

But the explorer broke in. "If your business is to house human beings, I should think you would first learn something about them." He glared at poor Gary. "You will never learn by listening to their talk, sir. You must observe what they do. Comfort? Hah! That is one of the last things that any tribe on earth ever seeks. Human beings are not sensible, hard-headed creatures. Far from it. They are temperamental, sir. Any misbegotten notion can rule them. When the fashion here was to have a home perched on a tall flight of steps, they all wanted that kind. Lame or strong, old or young, the poor things climbed 'stoops' daily for years. When largeness is fashionable, they will sacrifice comfort to largeness. Look at the great mansion that that retired steel king built on upper Fifth Avenue. He was an elderly man when he built it, and a little man, too, yet he had it made so huge that the distance down the hall from his bedroom and then back around through the lower halls to the dining-room was a ten minutes' walk. If a law compelled rich men to sleep a quarter of a mile from their dinner-tables, or if—such an idea being new to them—you were to suggest it, they would call it a hardship. But they let themselves be governed by the idea that largeness is suitable."

Gary gave me a wink. "Ah, my dear sir!" he sighed, "if people would only associate compactness with fashion, and see the beauty of the smallest surroundings instead of the largest! But how can we builders ever get that idea in their heads!"

"The shoemakers have done it," said the explorer. "And the Japanese—miniature trees and things—"

He got up and walked off.

I looked over at Gary.

"An odd character," he chuckled. "I thought I'd best humor him. It's curious, isn't it, the way a man like that can make nonsense sound reasonable!"

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1933, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.