October 27, 2008
A Story of Chicago by George Ade
It's easy to mentally picture old Chicago as the White City, or a cultured, literary city filled with millionaires and mansions. It wasn't. It was dirty, smelly and muddy and those that came to the city seeking their fortune were often quickly disillusioned.
Today I offer this little story from Chicago writer George Ade. It's just a small character snapshot, but later this week I'll tell you about a Chicago Tribune article that appeared in 1865, just before the end of the Civil War, that supports the accuracy of this fictional tale. Hope you enjoy the story...
The place known as "Larry's Lunch" is a narrow hole in the wall between two frame houses. The buildings are so old and weak that they lean toward each other in their decrepitude. The street in front is muddy and cobbled. Street-lamps are far apart. They burn low, as if this neglected air had not enough oxygen to feed a cheerful flame. The sunken and rotting sidewalk of wood is slippery to the foot. A kerosene lamp propped in the front window of "Larry's Lunch" showed as a mere smudge of light
behind the dirty panes.
John Franzen lifted the loose iron latch, and there came into his nostrils, like the breathing from a foul creature, the smell of poverty, frying grease, and bad tobacco.
But he had to eat. He had not eaten for twenty-four hours. A Jew dealing in pawns and junk had given him ten cents for his pocket-knife the last of his convertible property.
At "Larry's Lunch" he could get meat, bread, potatoes, and coffee for ten cents. He ordered and then leaned forward on the rough table, with his chin in his hands, while the meat sizzled in the pan and a rancid smoke filled the low room.
His uncle had been right.
"You take your share of the money and go to Chicago and you'll be broke inside of six months," the uncle had said. "You're a fool with money. Any man's a fool with money unless it's money he's made himself."
"I know my business," he had said to his uncle.
After which they parted, with the understanding that if John Franzen ever needed money he was not to come to his uncle for it.
Yes, his uncle had been right. A fool with his money! Diamonds that he had worn clumsily showy betting at the race-tracks loans to new-made friends experiments at the bucket-shops. Six months of it and he had sold his pocket-knife that he might eat a shred of carrion in this hole and be alive for another day.
Oh, what a triumph for those who had warned him those who had told him he was a fool with money! What rejoicing there would be at home when they heard of it and they would hear it, because in small towns they hear everything. They would be glad, to be sure all except Aunt Ella.
"She was the only one who ever understood me," he said, half aloud, grinding his fists on the table. "But I don't care."
Then, because he didn't care, he let his head fall into the angle of his right arm, and there in the darkness that he made for himself, he cried. He was only twenty-two.
The front door clicked and slammed. Larry, who was both cook and waiter (in a red flannel shirt chopped off at the elbows), brought the meat and coffee. John Franzen pulled himself up from the table. Before him, talking to Larry, stood a very
small young man, with square shoulders, a pointed nose, shifty eyes and mouth twitching into a smile whenever he spoke. This young man wore a plaid cap, with a short peak. His coat collar was turned up, and within it was a blue and white handkerchief knotted closely about his neck.
"If he comes around here, you tell him I want to see him," this young man was saying to Larry.
"All right, Eddie."
At that moment the young man named Eddie looked down and saw John Franzen's face, streaked with tears. Possibly he was surprised to know that a man may weep.
"What's the matter?" he asked. "Don't the steak suit you?"
"You'll have to excuse me," said Franzen, trying to laugh. "I'm hoeing a pretty hard row just at present. I s'pose I was kind o' weak from not eating or I wouldn't have " and he stopped.
"What do you think of that?" asked Eddie, speaking to the proprietor, who had gone back to his stove.
Larry nodded wisely and smiled. Eddie stood and watched Franzen tear at the fibrous strip of meat and take long gulps of the hot coffee.
"First to-day?" he asked.
"Yes," answered Franzen, who was divided between shame and hunger.
"How did you get the price?"
"I sold my knife."
"What if you didn't have any knife?"
"I don't know."
"How long you been in town ?"
"About six months."
"Nice town, ain't it?"
Franzen shook his head dubiously and made an effort to smile.
Eddie threw back his head and laughed aloud.
"This is one o' the cases," he said, calling to Larry. "Is it any wonder they start out?" Then to Franzen,
"Why didn't you stop some fellow and ask him to let you have a nickel or two?"
"Because I'm not a beggar."
"That's the way to talk !" exclaimed Eddie, and he laughed again. Franzen looked up at him, puzzled.
"Where you goin' to-night?"
"I don't know. There are two or three places where I'm going to call again to-morrow to see about a job."
"The job you stand a chance of gettin' to-morrow or next week ain't very much help to you to-night, is it?" asked Eddie.
"This is a new experience for me," said Franzen. "I've heard about fellows being up against it this way, but I never thought I'd come to it."
"You don't care much for it as far as you've got, do you?"
Franzen looked up again, undecided whether Eddie was sympathising with him or taunting him.
"I wish I had the money I had six months ago," he said bitterly. "They wouldn't take it away from me this time."
Eddie leaned across the table and gave Franzen a hard but playful blow in the ribs.
"You're all right," he said, laughing again. "I'll just stake you to a bed tonight."
When Franzen had eaten the last crumb of bread and drained the last drop of coffee he followed Eddie across the street and up a steep stairway into a room that held a bed, a table, a chair, and a zinc-bound trunk. The bed-clothes were in confusion.
"Roll in there next to the wall an' dream you've got all the cash you brought up from the country," commanded Eddie, who had squatted on the trunk, giving the only chair to his guest. Franzen slept with Eddie that night and went to breakfast with him next morning, at a fifteen-cent place.
"If you don't strike anything today, come around to-night," said Eddie.
Franzen did come back that night to get food and a resting-place. They were on their way to the room from the restaurant when two big men stood before them at a corner. One grabbed Eddie and the other held Franzen by the wrist before he had time to dodge or retreat.
"Hello, Mullen," said Eddie to the man who was holding him.
"Hello, Eddie," in a growling voice. "You can't stay away, can you?"
"Why should I? All my friends livin' here. What is this the drag-net?"
"I don't know. They told us to bring you in if we found you. Who's your friend here?"
"It'll do me a lot o' good to tell you, won't it? If I say he's a young fellow that's gone broke and that I just happened to meet him an' stake him for a day or two till he could pick up somethin', of course everybody over at the station '11 believe me?"
"They may, if you tell it without laughin'. Come on."
A few minutes later here were Franzen and the Good Samaritan bumping over the granite blocks on their way to the police station. Franzen was surprised to find himself indifferent.
"I'm sorry to get you pinched, young fellow," said Eddie, through the gloom of the covered wagon. "I ought to have told you you was takin' a chance when you went around with me. I'm a bad little boy, ain't I, Mr. Policeman?"
"Oh-h-h !" growled the wagon-man.
"I don't blame you" said Franzen. "What right did they have to arrest either one of us?"
Eddie laughed and remarked: "You don't half know this town."
The wagon-policeman, whose shape blocked the light coming in at the narrow window, gave a disgusted mumble, in token of the fact that he could not be deceived by their talk. He was possessed of a brutal unbelief, which he regarded as a fine quality of discernment.
At the station they were separated. Franzen gave his right name to the man in the cage, much to Eddie's amusement. The man in the cage did not have to ask for Eddie's name.
Franzen slept on a bench and he slept, too, lulled off with a mild impersonal wonder as to what his uncle and his aunt would say if they knew that their orphan charge was locked up in a police-station, and had not changed shirts for a week. Next morning he ate his heel of bread and drank his tin of coffee and looked out through the parallel bars at the bedraggled men and women who were being mustered for the morning session of court. He could not see Eddie anywhere. Some one was whistling at the other end of the corridor. He surmised that it was Eddie.
Then a turnkey in blue came and opened his cell-door.
"Come on," said the turnkey, and Franzen followed upstairs into a hot room, where a big captain with a grey moustache sat at the desk.
The captain looked at Franzen threateningly and said: "I don't know him."
Other men with moustaches came in and looked at Franzen. They didn't know him either, and they regretted to say it. It showed a lack of professional knowledge not to be able to identify any stranger as a professional crook.
"How long have you and Eddie been workin' together?" one of them asked.
"I've never worked with him," said Franzen. "I've been looking for work all week."
He told them his story the truth of it. Five big men smiled broadly and stared at him in contempt. They knew better.
"An' you didn't know Eddie was a dip?" asked the captain.
"A what?" (Laughter.)
"I don't know what you mean."
"Did you ever hear of pickpockets?"
"Well, a dip is a pickpocket. That's what Eddie is."
"I don' care what he is. He did me a good turn. I never saw him until night before last."
"This fellow can be vagged," said one of the big men. "He admits himself he's out o' money an' ain't got a job."
"That's why he ain't a vag," said the captain. "The vag has always got a job and plenty of money."
Then to Franzen: "You keep away from Eddie an' his crowd." This meant that Franzen was free to go.
He started to leave the station and was attracted by the buzz of the courtroom. He went in, hoping to see Eddie again. There was a noisy and jostling crowd around the magistrate's high throne. Cases were being tried, but Franzen could not follow them in the confusion of sounds.
At last he saw Eddie coming out of the throng, held by a turnkey.
He slipped forward along the wall and touched him on the arm.
"Hello there," he said.
Eddie turned and grinned.
"Did you fix it?" he asked.
"They let me go."
"It's a wonder bein' with me."
"Here, here!" growled the turnkey. "Come on!"
"I'm sent out," said Eddie.
"Where do you s'pose I won't be there day after to-morrow. Good-bye."
"Say, I want to thank you for "
"That's all right."
"You never told me your name."
"You ask here at the station. They'll give you all of my names."
"Come on!" said the turnkey, pulling.
Eddie winked and the battered door closed behind him.
From: In Babel: Stories of Chicago by George Ade
(Note: Internet Archive has an extensive list of available George Ade books. This is a great place to start if you are unfamiliar with his work.)