New York (Abdullah)

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New York  (1917) 
by Achmed Abdullah

Extracted from Smart Set magazine, July 1917, pp. 75–80.


NEW YORK

By Achmed Abdullah

SHE neither saw nor sensed that other New York: banal even in its novelties, frigid even in its lust, calculating even in its intoxication. She did not see the essential conception, partly strength of desire, partly weakness of desire, which governed its pulse beats. In so far she was untouched by the great city about her that she never learned how to laugh at nothing, how to grieve about nothing, how to be indignant over nothing—” … and more of the same kidney.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Sort of cynical, you know, without being high-brow; with a tang of homespun psychology—and so typical of New York: bully to memorize and quote to the folks back home in Boston or Norfolk or wherever you happened to buy your round-trip ticket.

Makes you think of Gouverneur Morris and Henry Hutt and Robert Chambers and Montgomery Flagg and the author of “Marion”; perhaps, too, of an editorial announcement, just across from the expensive advertisement where a lady who looks half Eastman Kodak and half Mary Garden turns to a majestic Zulu garsong and says: “There’s a Reason—Instant Postum, George!”—the editorial announcement which promises for the next number “delightfully frank autobiography of Mrs. *****, whose beauty has won tribute from royalty, Wall Street, Rabbi Wise and Billy Sunday, from sculptors, painters and gents of fashion, and who has been induced to overcome a hitherto persistent objection to disclosing the story of her spectacular career …” and so forth; story of her spectacular career, as well as the editorial announcement, being written by a red-haired Mick with a stubble, a corncob pipe, and an overdue boarding house bill.

But—Gouverneur Morris, Henry Hutt, Robert Chambers, or plain field-and-garden Mick—it is a tale of New York. It is not the tale of a New York which is intrinsically decent, hospitable, clean and square, and which tries to do its best, somehow, though it is pinched between the geographical limitations of Hudson and East River, the political limitations of enthusiastic, youthful Democracy and old-world British party government, the ethnological limitations of Sicilian and Syrian and Russian Jew—not to mention native-born immigrants from the, of course, chivalrous South and the, of course, big-bulking, manly, Stetson-hatted West, the climatic limitations of a biting winter and a scorching summer. But it is the tale of a cocotte of a New York, sired by a Nero, damned by a Messalina and bar-sinistered by a Tammany Grand Sachem.

It is the tale of an innocent slip of a girl not a day older than thirty as far as people could see, reared in the gently innocuous atmosphere of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast or Hy Gill’s Seattle or the soothing Levee of New Orleans, come to the Big City to earn her living, and of the various typical New Yorkers who chase her across three hundred pages of copy.

Typical New Yorkers, they! Fellows who at the tender age of four showed, by the way in which they drag their g’s, that there was Knickbocker blood in their family. Fellows whose conscience had been hard-boiled by chronic impecuniousness. Heartless, indifferent fellows who, when Mother gets mixed up with the hind wheels of a motorcar, drawl: “I say—what are you doing?” and who, when the waiter empties a coffee pot over their shirt fronts, remonstrate mildly with: “Hang it—you’ve forgotten the cream!” instead of immediately arranging for an old-fashioned lynching bee—as they would do were they blessed with the chivalry of the South or the big-bulking manliness of the West.

Fellows who take no interest in Chautauqua and Max Eastman and Shakespere Pageants and Communal Playhouses and who, instead of discussing with their clubmates the home policy of the ancient Peruvians, the transcendental Puritanism of Nietzsche, and the influence of the dry law on the manors and manners of Virginia, ask them to “come over to my diggings and have a look at my new autumnal socks.” Fellows who wear spats!

Fellows who prove in speech and morals and dress that, in New York at least, the good old days of clean Americanism are gone—that vanished are the bully old props of burgess respectability.

Gone green tea and intolerance and rep curtains; cases of polished cornelians and horsehair sofas and home-made jams and plumbing; obelisks of granite, wax fruit, shell ornaments, and alabaster angels under glass! Gone piano stools and hand-painted fire-screens and enlarged crayons of Civil War ancestors in whiskers and volunteer uniforms!

Gone the knife-dogs on the table; the tooth-picks; the spittoons; the windsor chairs to right and left of the fireplace—the fireplace itself!

Gone all—by the many hecks!—and nothing left except hectic rubbish and flummery: Broadway—Fifth Avenue—Tango Toots; a New York—“banal even in its novelties, frigid even in its lust—”… and so forth.

I myself wrote these lines as the beginning of a novel, with New York as background, foreground, basis, plot, and final curtain.

Wrote it. Couldn’t sell it.

So I switched the scene to Paris. Couldn’t sell that—switched scene to London. Same result—switched scene to Braintree, Mass.,—sold it—sound, coddy, whiskered, Cabotted New England dope.

Nor was the switching of scene and local color hard. Took about two minutes. Just a change of a word or two.

Observe:

She neither saw nor heard the other NEW YORK—or PARIS—or LONDON—or BRAINTREE, MASS—banal even in its novelties, frigid even in its lust…” et cetera.

Nothing to it, don’t you see. Just a few stock phrases and, with the same amount of truth, you can apply them to any town from Dawson City to Brindisi.

Add a few snakes, a couple of assorted Rajahs and elephants, heat, fever, and Tagore—and you'll have a corking tale of India.

Add a nuance of whale blubber, a few equinoxes, a dog sled, and an igloo—and you'll get a realistic novel about modern Eskimo life.

But, sticking to New York, such a tale would take the heroine—and the reader—through divers adventures, beginning with the domestic scene in which, reclining in her palatial suite at the Martha Washington Hotel on a bed of bright red lacquer, the sheets and pillows of purple charmeuse, she rings the bell for her maid, breakfasts on a Jack Rose cocktail, a Royal Smile, a filet of terrapin à la Escoffier, and a grain of heroin, scans eagerly the while through the news columns of the Police Gazette, Zippy Stories and the Chronicle, bathes—bully chance here for the illustrator!—puts on her magenta openwork stockings, her ankle watch, and the rest of her Annettekellermannesque winter costume, and sprays herself with her private brand of perfume, made for her by a certain little shop not far from the Ritz, and which is a secret concoction of Virginian tobacco, Wriggley’s spearmint, and eau de quinine—a dainty fancy labelled Fleur de Subway.

She then sallies forth to take her early afternoon tango at—wait—I am not sure if I can get away with this.

For at this point of the narrative a really clever fellow, fearing neither censor nor libel law nor the blue pencil of the editorial Torquemada, would ring in a peach of a scene laid on the roof garden which tops one of New York’s great amusement houses.

Fresh air and all that—fresh waiters—fresh Greek hat-check boys. Specially built for the working girl. Music and dances and nourishing food: sandwiches containing the proper mixture of carbohydrates and calories and protein and garlic and all the other life-sustaining units.

Here the visitor to Gotham can—or could—see the very pick of the lower middle and the lower lower classes, with here and there a Bohemian millionaire or a lady Knickerbocker with a vagabond taste come in search of—protein sandwiches, of course!

Here prize. dogs of every color dye gaze out of muffs or gambol about the dance floor, playfully nipping legs as high as they can see—never above the knee.

Here young men with cleft chins, noticeable for their fine lack of ruddy health, talk with equal condescension to working girl and lady Knickerbocker, borrowing money with equal condescension from both,

Here grandsons—(admonition to Editor: “Please let this stand; I mean something by it!”)—yes—grandsons teach their grandmothers to suck eggs.

And here, too, comes our heroine—she enters—she checks her ankle watch—she clasps a comparative stranger around the chest, and threads the higher mathematics of the dance with a noble resolve to do or die.

The popping of protein sandwiches! The vicious crackle of ginger ale bottles! The harsh squeal of a toy pom as a number seventeen flattens its curly tail! The wicked, metallic hiss of the Parisian major domo: “Là-bas, Anatole—la petite blonde—elle est bien, ah boug de saligaud!” The anxious tango expression on every face! The sinister, staccato bang of the drums which changes a German folk song into a Nubian ragtime—the whole so typical of New York!—and, given yet another sidestepping of blue pencil, we could work in here the great scene—a very epitome of New York’s purple wickedness!

For our heroine is pinched by the bulls of the Vice Squad. A Greek hat-check boy, regrettably unfamiliar with the vices of ancient Greece, but shocked at those of modern New York, calls in the police.

Excitement—screams—hysteria! A toy pom weeps piteously! The crease of a chorusman’s trousers, fades with pain—and a bully scene at detective headquarters round on Madison Avenue in which Sergeant O’Leary learns for the first time in his life the American equivalent for a certain French term:

Switch, fade-in or whatever the movies call it, to another typical bit of New York.

Washington Square! Neverwashington Square—with apologies to Nathan-Mencken—(I forgot from which of the two I swiped the merry quip!) the Village—and by calling it the Village, with an infinitesimal appoggiatura on the the, you prove at once that you have a nodding acquaintance with the Albanian lad who stands on guard in the lavatory of the Café Brevoort so that Bohemia doesn’t make away with the towels and the soap and the exposed plumbing, and with the newspaper vendor on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Washington Place, who—guess the reason!—keeps five pounds of brick on top of his paper pile.

Past the Square, down Macdougal Street, and into the basement restaurant near a certain club; a club of Seventh Avenue Welts mers and Sixth Avenue tricoteuses, of mental salve-puffers and super-Pyrrhonian sceptics, of painting Scaramouches and writing Yahoos. Fellows filled with Weltschmerz and Whiskey! Fellows who believe in the Masses, in Max Stirner, in Houston Stewart Chamberlain, in Free Silver—and in the non-tipping system!

Here the heroine—and the reader—talk about …

Why, old chap, here you can talk about anything at all … Really!

You can talk about—That? Sure!

And—That? You bet you can! Why, it’s wicked, plumb wicked. They’ve got no limit whatsoever. Except—you must not call them normal. You must not doubt their degeneracy. They would never forgive you. It’s the one thing of which they are proud.

Of course there is other talk, too. Talk about the Seven Arts and a couple of brand-new arts—refreshing talk, piping-hot-modern, great. Oodles of nutty epigrams rustling in the groves, and you can cull them and take them to your people back home and pass them off as original dope.

Here are a few. I made them up all by myself:

There is more poetry in the new realism than in the old romance.

Culture doesn’t mean an answer to every question—it means a point of view in every situation.

There are men who can keep nothing to themselves—not even their wives.

And more of the same sort—and—get it once more—“frigid even in its lust, calculating even in its intoxication.”

And so the tale proceeds. The heroine passes unscathed—more or less—through the orgies of Jack’s, the saturnalia of Childs’, the phallic worship of Ziegfeld’s Follies, the Durga-Puja of Brown’s Chop House, the bacchanalia of Churchill’s, the wicked deviltries of Terrace Garden and Lüchow’s, where Patria—Mrs. Vernon Castle, disguised by W. R. Hearst and a French aviator’s uniform—encompasses the ruin of the grim caucus of evil—(deleted by Editor because of muddled local color, split infinitives, and the danger of political allusions in these parlous times) …

The heroine has done New York—and, believe me, she has done it, since New York is an easy town.

She knows Fifth Avenue, all the way from Fifty-ninth Street to Washington Square. She knows Broadway, the right side, all the way from Forty-seventh Street to the McAlpin. She has even invaded the precincts of Avenue A in search of Hungarian food.

Wicked New Yorkers footing the various bills, she has spent a fortune at Madame Céleste’s, where she learned the oddly attractive trick of shaving her left eyebrow and of wearing a purple wig with one lonely crimson curl resting on her low forehead like a flame, and she has spent another fortune at Madame Lucile’s, where she acquired a simple little costume consisting of Jemima side-elastic boots, a bell-shaped crinoline hat and a Leghorn skirt with whalebone wottya’callems sticking out left and right.

She has emptied her cup of wicked New York down to the last drop of gall, down to the last yellowback—already her stocking legs look terribly disfigured—and cometh now the hero from her home town in the West or maybe the South. He rescues her. He takes her away from wicked, wicked New York; back home, where the lambs gambol in the greensward, where rock cod and wild hibiscus send their morning lilts to heaven, where the buckwheat cakes hum soothingly in the grate.

Back home!—where heroine and rescuer and reader will find, should they happen to be honest, that things are exactly the same as they are in New York. For—Boston or Norfolk or Seattle—a little search, search as easy as in New York, will divulge the fact that the home town, too, has its vagabond Knickerbockers, its tango-lads with white-topped dancing shoes, its débutantes with the up-all-night look on their innocent faces. The home town, too, has its Vice Squad and, just like Washington Square, its “little group of serious thinkers,” calling itself the Athenæum or Lotus Club or Elbert Hubbard Association.

It is not these things, superadded characteristics, negligible details, which cause one to cry or to laugh—which mark the difference between town and town. It does not matter how one sees a town—but how one feels it, the soul, the meaning, the reason of it.

And one can feel New York as one can feel no other town—not even London.

One feels it first when one sails past Staten Island and up toward the North River.

The great, man-clouted, man-eating riddle of stone and steel and concrete looms out of the morning mists, with screaming lungs of brass—the dull rubbing of tackle and rope and crate, the whirr of the Elevated, the metallic rattle of street-cars and motor-cars, the symphony of more tongues than Babel ever knew of; with the pulse-beat of its immense, foolish, ridiculous, generous heart, bidding welcome to all the world, the dreamers and doers of all the world; thoroughly human—human in its virtues, its sins, its snobberies, its vagaries, its fetid aroma of tar and sewer-gas and petroleum.

A colossus! A huge, crunching, breeding animal of a city, straddling the bay on massive legs, head thrown back, shoulders flung wide; proud, defiant. And wicked. Why not?

Ashore then, up through evil, reeking streets and slimy with food crushed under foot, with tobacco juice and a thousand unclean abominations; with a sooty rain dropping and the thick, brown mud swishing up in streams; with foul invective in English, Irish, Yiddish, and Italian spotting the air; with crude posters grimacing the faces of the houses—a teeming macrocosm of a city, horrible, incompetent, inefficient, graft-ridden; but—again—human, and being human, groping, somehow, toward an ideal.

Across to Sixth Avenue and north, cuts the heart of New York. It is early; but already the great beast is stirring its limbs. Trucks rumble past. Trolley cars shoot south and north, clanking shrieking. Trumpeting automobiles whirr by with gleaming brasses. An odor rises from the pavement as of sweat and blood and singed shoe leather.

The sun breaks through the rain and mist, shedding an iridescent glow over the pavement and the few stunted, dusty trees; cloaking the façades of the towering business blocks with purple and violet—purple and violet as beautiful as the shadows of the Grand Canyon, the shadows of Egypt.

Men pass in all directions, brokers and bankers, clerks and lawyers, workmen—intent, serious, purposeful. There are also women. Some are young girls hurrying to the shops. Others are dressmakers, milliners, businesswomen of all sorts.

Workers all.

Then, crossing over to Fifth Avenue, there is an occasional swift gleam of silk and lace as a woman passes by, bent on an early shopping trip.

Back again to Sixth Avenue. A pawnbroker’s place is at the corner; a squat building, mouldy, acrid, red-bedaubed, the show cases garish and pathetic with the cheap luxuries of the poor, and here and there the hard flash of a good diamond, often in an old-fashioned setting. The place looks like a lonely, crouching thing of prey in its frame of sober, workaday buildings.

And men everywhere, men by the million, true men: swearing, cheating, slaving and enslaving; trying to pile gold on gold for things that are not wanted, things that hurt, things that maim and kill. There are gambling places with grey faces about them; and the other, greater gambling hell—the screaming forum of Wall Street. There is the pandemonium of station and Elevated and cosmopolitan hotel. There is the lust of men, the greed of women, and pale children panting for air—and pity …

All that is New York. A poignant city, shivering, again scorching. A city around whose neck hangs the demon of civilization and progress. A city far removed from Greece’s Doric soul, from the soft peace of the Elysian Fields.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.


The author died in 1945, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 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.