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Tropic of Capricorn, Page 2

Henry Miller

  This went on from about the middle of the war until … well, until one day I was trapped. Finally the day came when I did desperately want a job. I needed it. Not having another minute to lose, I decided that I would take the last job on earth, that of messenger boy. I walked into the employment bureau of the telegraph company – the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America – towards the close of the day, prepared to go through with it. I had just come from the public library and I had under my arm some fat books on economics and metaphysics. To my great amazement I was refused the job.

  The guy who turned me down was a little runt who ran the switchboard. He seemed to take me for a college student, though it was clear enough from my application that I had long left school. I had even honoured myself on the application with a Ph.D. degree from Columbia University. Apparently that passed unnoticed, or else was suspiciously regarded by this runt who had turned me down. I was furious, the more so because for once in my life I was in earnest. Not only that, but I had swallowed my pride, which in certain peculiar ways is rather large. My wife of course gave me the usual leer and sneer. I had done it as a gesture, she said. I went to bed thinking about it, still smarting, getting angrier and angrier as the night wore on. The fact that I had a wife and child to support didn’t bother me so much; people didn’t offer you jobs because you had a family to support, that much I understood only too well. No, what rankled was that they had rejected me, Henry V. Miller, a competent, superior individual who had asked for the lowest job in the world. That burned me up. I couldn’t get over it. In the morning I was up bright and early, shaved, put on my best clothes and hot-footed it to the subway. I went immediately to the main offices of the telegraph company … up to the 25th floor or wherever it was that the president and the vice-presidents had their cubicles. I asked to see the president. Of course the president was either out of town or too busy to see me, but wouldn’t I care to see the vice-president, or his secretary rather. I saw the vice-president’s secretary, an intelligent, considerate sort of chap, and I gave him an earful. I did it adroitly, without too much heat, but letting him understand all the while that I wasn’t to be put out of the way so easily.

  When he picked up the telephone and demanded the general manager I thought it was just a gag, that they were going to pass me around like that from one to the other until I’d get fed up. But the moment I heard him talk I changed my opinion. When I got to the general manager’s office, which was in another building uptown, they were waiting for me. I sat down in a comfortable leather chair and accepted one of the big cigars that were thrust forward. This individual seemed at once to be vitally concerned about the matter. He wanted me to tell him all about it, down to the last detail, his big hairy ears cocked to catch the least crumb of information which would justify something or other which was formulating itself inside his dome. I realized that by some accident I had really been instrumental in doing him a service. I let him wheedle it out of me to suit his fancy, observing all the time which way the wind was blowing. And as the talk progressed I noticed that he was warming up to me more and more. At last some one was showing a little confidence in me! That was all I required to get started on one of my favourite lines. For, after years of job hunting I had naturally become quite adept; I knew not only what not to say, but I knew also what to imply, what to insinuate. Soon the assistant general manager was called in and asked to listen to my story. By this time I knew what the story was. I understood that Hymie – “that little kike”, as the general manager called him – had no business pretending that he was the employment manager. Hymie had usurped his prerogative, that much was clear. It was also clear that Hymie was a Jew and that Jews were not in good odour with the general manager, nor with Mr. Twilliger, the vice-president, who was a thorn in the general manager’s side.

  Perhaps it was Hymie, “the dirty little kike” who was responsible for the high percentage of Jews on the messenger force. Perhaps Hymie was really the one who was doing the hiring at the employment office – at Sunset Place, they called it. It was an excellent opportunity, I gathered, for Mr. Clancy, the general manager, to take down a certain Mr. Burns who, he informed me, had been the employment manager for some thirty years now and who was evidently getting lazy on the job.

  The conference lasted several hours. Before it was terminated Mr. Clancy took me aside and informed me that he was going to make me the boss of the Works. Before putting me into office, however, he was going to ask me as a special favour, and also as a sort of apprenticeship which would stand me in good stead, to work as a special messenger. I would receive the salary of employment manager, but it would be paid me out of a separate account. In short I was to float from office to office and observe the way affairs were conducted by all and sundry. I was to make a little report from time to time as to how things were going. And once in a while, so he suggested, I was to visit him at his home on the q.t. and have a little chat about the conditions in the hundred and one branches of the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company in New York City. In other words I was to be a spy for a few months and after that I was to have the run of the joint. Maybe they’d make me a general manager too one day, or a vice-president. It was a tempting offer, even if it was wrapped up in a lot of horse shit. I said Yes.

  In a few months I was sitting at Sunset Place hiring and firing like a demon. It was a slaughter-house, so help me God. The thing was senseless from the bottom up. A waste of men, material and effort. A hideous farce against a backdrop of sweat and misery. But just as I had accepted the spying so I accepted the hiring and firing and all that went with it. I said Yes to everything. If the vice-president decreed that no cripples were to be hired I hired no cripples. If the vice-president said that all messengers over forty-five were to be fired without notice I fired them without notice. I did everything they instructed me to do, but in such a way that they had to pay for it. When there was a strike I folded my arms and waited for it to blow over. But I first saw to it that it cost them a good penny. The whole system was so rotten, so inhuman, so lousy, so hopelessly corrupt and complicated, that it would have taken a genius to put any sense or order into it, to say nothing of human kindness or consideration. I was up against the whole rotten system of American labour, which is rotten at both ends. I was the fifth wheel on the wagon and neither side had any use for me, except to exploit me. In fact, everybody was being exploited – the president and his gang by the unseen powers, the employees by the officials, and so on and around, in and out and through the whole works. From my little perch at “Sunset Place” I had a bird’s eye view of the whole American society. It was like a page out of the telephone book. Alphabetically, numerically, statistically, it made sense. But when you looked at it up close, when you examined the pages separately, or the parts separately, when you examined one lone individual and what constituted him, examined the air he breathed, the life he led, the chances he risked, you saw something so foul and degrading, so low, so miserable, so utterly hopeless and senseless, that it was worse than looking into a volcano. You could see the whole American life – economically, politically, morally, spiritually, artistically, statistically, pathologically. It looked like a grand chancre on a worn-out cock. It looked worse than that, really, because you couldn’t even see anything resembling a cock any more. Maybe in the past this thing had life, did produce something, did at least give a moment’s pleasure, a moment’s thrill. But looking at it from where I sat it looked rottener than the wormiest cheese. The wonder was that the stench of it didn’t carry’em off … I’m using the past tense all the time, but of course it’s the same now, maybe even a bit worse. At least now we’re getting it full stink.

  By the time Valeska arrived on the scene I had hired several army corps of messengers. My office at Sunset Place was like an open sewer, and it stank like one. I had dug myself into the first line trench and I was getting it from all directions at once. To begin with, the man I had ousted died of a broken heart a few weeks after my arrival. He held out ju
st long enough to break me in and then he croaked. Things happened so fast that I didn’t have a chance to feel guilty. From the moment I arrived at the office it was one long uninterrupted pandemonium. An hour before my arrival – I was always late – the place was already jammed with applicants. I had to elbow my way up the stairs and literally force my way in to get there. Hymie was worse off than I because he was tied to the barricade. Before I could take my hat off I had to answer a dozen telephone calls. There were three telephones on my desk and they all rang at once. They were bawling the piss out of me before I had even sat down to work. There wasn’t even time to take a crap – until five or six in the afternoon. Hymie was worse off than I because he was tied to the switchboard. He sat there from eight in the morning, until six, moving waybills around. A waybill was a messenger loaned by one office to another office for the day or a part of the day. None of the hundred and one offices ever had a full staff; Hymie had to play chess with the waybills while I worked like a madman to plug up the gaps. If by a miracle I succeeded in a day of filling all the vacancies, the next morning would find the situation exactly the same – or worse. Perhaps twenty per cent of the force were steady; the rest was driftwood. The steady ones drove the new ones away. The steady ones earned forty to fifty dollars a week, sometimes sixty or seventy-five, sometimes as much as a hundred dollars a week, which is to say that they earned far more than the clerks and often more than their own managers. As for the new ones, they found it difficult to earn ten dollars a week. Some of them worked an hour and quit, often throwing a batch of telegrams in the garbage can or down the sewer. And whenever they quit they wanted their pay immediately, which was impossible, because in the complicated bookkeeping which ruled no one could say what a messenger had earned until at least ten days later. In the beginning I invited the applicant to sit down beside me and I explained everything to him in detail. I did that until I lost my voice. Soon I learned to save my strength for the grilling that was necessary. In the first place, every other boy was a born liar if not a crook to boot. Many of them had already been hired and fired a number of times. Some found it an excellent way to find another job, because their duty brought them to hundreds of offices which normally they would never have set foot in. Fortunately McGovern, the old trusty who guarded the door and handed out the application blanks, had a camera eye. And then there were the big ledgers behind me, in which there was a record of every applicant who had ever passed through the mill. The ledgers were very much like a police record; they were full of red ink marks, signifying this or that delinquency. To judge from the evidence I was in a tough spot. Every other name involved a theft, fraud, a brawl, or dementia or perversion or idiocy. “Be careful – so-and-so is an epileptic!” “Don’t hire this man – he’s a nigger!” “Watch out – X has been in Dannemora – or else in Sing Sing.”

  If I had been a stickler for etiquette nobody would ever have been hired. I had to learn quickly, and not from the records or from those about me, but from experience. There were a thousand and one details by which to judge an applicant: I had to take them all in at once, and quickly, because in one short day, even if you are as fast as Jack Robinson, you can only hire so many and no more. And no matter how many I hired it was never enough. The next day it would begin all over again. Some I knew would last only a day, but I had to hire them just the same. The system was wrong from start to finish, but it was not my place to criticize the system. It was mine to hire and fire. I was in the centre of a revolving disk which was whirling so fast that nothing could stay put. What was needed was a mechanic, but according to the logic of the higher-ups there was nothing wrong with the mechanism, everything was fine and dandy except that things were temporarily out of order. And things being temporarily out of order brought on epilepsy, theft, vandalism, perversion, niggers, Jews, whores and whatnot – sometimes strikes and lockouts. Whereupon, according to this logic, you took a big broom and you swept the stable clean, or you took clubs and guns and you beat sense into the poor idiots who were suffering from the illusion that things were fundamentally wrong. It was good now and then to talk of God, or to have a little community sing – maybe even a bonus was justifiable now and then, that is when things were getting too terribly bad for words. But on the whole, the important thing was to keep hiring and firing; as long as there were men and ammunition we were to advance, to keep mopping up the trenches. Meanwhile Hymie kept taking cathartic pills – enough to blow out his rear end if he had had a rear end, but he hadn’t one any more, he only imagined he was taking a crap, he only imagined he was shitting on his can. Actually the poor bugger was in a trance. There were a hundred and one offices to look after and each one had a staff of messengers which was mythical, if not hypothetical, and whether the messengers were real or unreal, tangible or intangible, Hymie had to shuffle them about from morning to night while I plugged up the holes, which was also imaginary because who could say when a recruit had been dispatched to an office whether he would arrive there today or tomorrow or never. Some of them got lost in the subway or in the labyrinths under the skyscrapers; some rode around on the elevated line all day because with a uniform it was a free ride and perhaps they had never enjoyed riding around all day on the elevated lines. Some of them started for Staten Island and ended up in Canarsie, or else were brought back in a coma by a cop. Some forgot where they lived and disappeared completely. Some whom we hired for New York turned up in Philadelphia a month later as though it were normal and according to Hoyle. Some would start for their destination and on the way decide that it was easier to sell newspapers and they would sell them in the uniform we had given them, until they were picked up. Some went straight to the observation ward, moved by some strange preservative instinct.

  When he arrived in the morning Hymie first sharpened his pencils; he did this religiously no matter how many calls were coming in, because, as he explained to me later, if he didn’t sharpen the pencils first thing off the bat they would never get sharpened. The next thing was to take a glance out the window and see what the weather was like. Then, with a freshly sharpened pencil he made a little box at the head of the slate which he kept beside him and in it he gave the weather report. This, he also informed me, often turned out to be a useful alibi If the snow were a foot thick or the ground covered with sleet, even the devil himself might be excused for not shuffling the waybills around more speedily, and the employment manager might also be excused for not filling up the holes on such days, no? But why he didn’t take a crap first instead of plugging in on the switchboard soon as his pencils were sharpened was a mystery to me. That too he explained to me later. Anyway, the day always broke with confusion, complaints, constipation and vacancies. It also began with loud smelly farts, with bad breaths, with ragged nerves, with epilepsy, with meningitis, with low wages, with back pay that was overdue, with worn-out shoes, with corns and bunions, with flat feet and broken arches, with pocket books missing and fountain pens lost or stolen, with telegrams floating in the sewer, with threats from the vice-president and advice from the managers, with wrangles and disputes, with cloudbursts and broken telegraph wires, with new methods of efficiency and old ones that had been discarded, with hope for better times and a prayer for the bonus which never came. The new messengers were going over the top and getting machine-gunned; the old ones were digging in deeper and deeper, like rats in a cheese. Nobody was satisfied, especially not the public. It took ten minutes to reach San Francisco over the wire, but it might take a year to get the message to the man whom it was intended for – or it might never reach him.

  The Y.M.C.A., eager to improve the morale of working boys everywhere in America, were holdings meetings at noon hour and wouldn’t I like to send a few spruce-looking boys to hear William Carnegie Asterbilt Junior give a five minute talk on service. Mr. Mallory of the Welfare League would like to know if I could spare a few minutes some time to tell me about the model prisoners who were on parole and who would be glad to serve in any capacity, even as messengers
. Mrs. Guggenhoffer of the Jewish Charities would be very grateful if I would aid her in maintaining some broken-down homes which had broken down because everybody was either infirm, crippled or disabled in the family. Mr. Haggerty of the Runaway Home for Boys was sure he had just the right youngsters for me, if only I would give them a chance; all of them had been mistreated by their stepfathers or stepmothers. The Mayor of New York would appreciate it if I would give my personal attention to the bearer of the said letter whom he could vouch for in every way – but why the hell he didn’t give said bearer a job himself was a mystery. Man leaning over my shoulder hands me a slip of paper on which he has just written – “Me understand everything but me no hear the voices.” Luther Winifred is standing beside him, his tattered coat fastened together with safety pins. Luther is two sevenths pure Indian and five sevenths German-American, so he explains. On the Indian side he is a Crow, one of the Crows from Montana. His last job was putting up window shades, but there is no ass in his pants and he is ashamed to climb a ladder in front of a lady. He got out of the hospital the other day and so he is still a little weak, but he is not too weak to carry messages, so he thinks.

  And then there is Ferdinand Mish – how could I have forgotten him? He has been waiting in line all morning to get a word with me. I never answered the letters he sent me. Was that just? he asks me blandly. Of course not. I remember vaguely the last letter he sent me from the Cat and Dog Hospital on the Grand Concourse, where he was an attendant. He said he repented that he had resigned his post “but it was on account of his father being too strict over him, not giving him any recreation or outside pleasure’. “I’m twenty-five now,” he wrote, “and I don’t think I should ought to be sleeping no more with my father, do you? I know you are said to be a very fine gentleman and I am now self-dependent, so I hope …” McGovern, the old trusty, is standing by Ferdinand’s side waiting for me to give him the sign. He wants to give Ferdinand the bum’s rush – he remembers him from five years ago when Ferdinand lay down on the sidewalk in front of the main office in full uniform and threw an epileptic fit. No, shit, I can’t do it! I’m going to give him a chance, the poor bastard. Maybe I’ll send him to Chinatown where things are fairly quiet. Meanwhile, while Ferdinand is changing into a uniform in the back room, I’m getting an earful from an orphan boy who wants to “help make the company a success’. He says that if I give him a chance he’ll pray for me every Sunday when he goes to church, except the Sundays when he has to report to his parole officer. He didn’t do nothing, it appears. He just pushed the fellow and the fellow fell on his head and got killed. Next: An ex-consul from Gibraltar. Writes a beautiful hand – too beautiful. I ask him to see me at the end of the day – something fishy about him. Meanwhile Ferdinand’s thrown a fit in the dressing room. Lucky break! If it had happened in the subway, with a number on his hat and everything, I’d have been canned. Next: A guy with one arm and mad as hell because McGovern is showing him the door. “What the hell! I’m strong and healthy, ain’t I?” he shouts, and to prove it he picks up a chair with his good arm and smashes it to bits. I get back to the desk and there’s a telegram lying there for me. I open it. It’s from George Blasini, ex-messenger No. 2459 of S.W. office. “I am sorry that I had to quit so soon, but the job was not fitted for my character idleness and I am a true lover of labour and frugality but many a time we be unable to control or subdue our personal pride.” Shit!