An American Tragedy Chapter 5

The imaginative flights of Clyde in connection with all this—his dreams of what it might mean for him to be connected with so glorious an institution—can only be suggested. For his ideas of luxury were in the main so extreme and mistaken and gauche—mere wanderings of a repressed and unsatisfied fancy, which as yet had had nothing but imaginings to feed it.

He went back to his old duties at the drug-store—to his home after hours in order to eat and sleep—but now for the balance of this Friday and Saturday and Sunday and Monday until late in the day, he walked on air, really. His mind was not on what he was doing, and several times his superior at the drugstore had to remind him to “wake-up.” And after hours, instead of going directly home, he walked north to the corner of 14th and Baltimore, where stood this great hotel, and looked at it. There, at midnight even, before each of the three principal entrances—one facing each of three streets—was a doorman in a long maroon coat with many buttons and a high-rimmed and long-visored maroon cap. And inside, behind looped and fluted French silk curtains, were the still blazing lights, the à la carte dining-room and the American grill in the basement near one corner still open. And about them were many taxis and cars. And there was music always—from somewhere.

After surveying it all this Friday night and again on Saturday and Sunday morning, he returned on Monday afternoon at the suggestion of Mr. Squires and was greeted by that individual rather crustily, for by then he had all but forgotten him. But seeing that at the moment he was actually in need of help, and being satisfied that Clyde might be of service, he led him into his small office under the stair, where, with a very superior manner and much actual indifference, he proceeded to question him as to his parentage, where he lived, at what he had worked before and where, what his father did for a living—a poser that for Clyde, for he was proud and so ashamed to admit that his parents conducted a mission and preached on the streets. Instead he replied (which was true at times) that his father canvassed for a washing machine and wringer company—and on Sundays preached—a religious revelation, which was not at all displeasing to this master of boys who were inclined to be anything but home-loving and conservative. Could he bring a reference from where he now was? He could.

Mr. Squires proceeded to explain that this hotel was very strict. Too many boys, on account of the scenes and the show here, the contact made with undue luxury to which they were not accustomed—though these were not the words used by Mr. Squires—were inclined to lose their heads and go wrong. He was constantly being forced to discharge boys who, because they made a little extra money, didn’t know how to conduct themselves. He must have boys who were willing, civil, prompt, courteous to everybody. They must be clean and neat about their persons and clothes and show up promptly—on the dot—and in good condition for the work every day. And any boy who got to thinking that because he made a little money he could flirt with anybody or talk back, or go off on parties at night, and then not show up on time or too tired to be quick and bright, needn’t think that he would be here long. He would be fired, and that promptly. He would not tolerate any nonsense. That must be understood now, once and for all.

Clyde nodded assent often and interpolated a few eager “yes, sirs” and “no, sirs,” and assured him at the last that it was the furtherest thing from his thoughts and temperament to dream of any such high crimes and misdemeanors as he had outlined. Mr. Squires then proceeded to explain that this hotel only paid fifteen dollars a month and board—at the servant’s table in the basement—to any bell-boy at any time. But, and this information came as a most amazing revelation to Clyde, every guest for whom any of these boys did anything—carried a bag or delivered a pitcher of water or did anything—gave him a tip, and often quite a liberal one—a dime, fifteen cents, a quarter, sometimes more. And these tips, as Mr. Squires explained, taken all together, averaged from four to six dollars a day—not less and sometimes more—most amazing pay, as Clyde now realized. His heart gave an enormous bound and was near to suffocating him at the mere mention of so large a sum. From four to six dollars! Why, that was twenty-eight to forty-two dollars a week! He could scarcely believe it. And that in addition to the fifteen dollars a month and board. And there was no charge, as Mr. Squires now explained, for the handsome uniforms the boys wore. But it might not be worn or taken out of the place. His hours, as Mr. Squires now proceeded to explain, would be as follows: On Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, he was to work from six in the morning until noon, and then, with six hours off, from six in the evening until midnight. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, he need only work from noon until six, thus giving him each alternate afternoon or evening to himself. But all his meals were to be taken outside his working hours and he was to report promptly in uniform for line-up and inspection by his superior exactly ten minutes before the regular hours of his work began at each watch.

As for some other things which were in his mind at the time, Mr. Squires said nothing. There were others, as he knew, who would speak for him. Instead he went on to add, and then quite climactically for Clyde at that time, who had been sitting as one in a daze: “I suppose you are ready to go to work now, aren’t you?”

“Yes, sir, yes, sir,” he replied.

“Very good!” Then he got up and opened the door which had shut them in. “Oscar,” he called to a boy seated at the head of the bell-boy bench, to which a tallish, rather oversized youth in a tight, neat-looking uniform responded with alacrity. “Take this young man here—Clyde Griffiths is your name, isn’t it?—up to the wardrobe on the twelfth and see if Jacobs can find a suit to fit. But if he can’t tell him to alter it by to-morrow. I think the one Silsbee wore ought to be about right for him.”

Then he turned to his assistant at the desk who was at the moment looking on. “I’m giving him a trial, anyhow,” he commented. “Have one of the boys coach him a little to-night or whenever he starts in. Go ahead, Oscar,” he called to the boy in charge of Clyde. “He’s green at this stuff, but I think he’ll do,” he added to his assistant, as Clyde and Oscar disappeared in the direction of one of the elevators. Then he walked off to have Clyde’s name entered upon the payroll.

In the meantime, Clyde, in tow of this new mentor, was listening to a line of information such as never previously had come to his ears anywhere.

“You needn’t be frightened, if you ain’t never worked at anything like dis before,” began this youth, whose last name was Hegglund as Clyde later learned, and who hailed from Jersey City, New Jersey, exotic lingo, gestures and all. He was tall, vigorous, sandy-haired, freckled, genial and voluble. They had entered upon an elevator labeled “employees.” “It ain’t so hard. I got my first job in Buffalo t’ree years ago and I never knowed a t’ing about it up to dat time. All you gotta do is to watch de udders an’ see how dey do, see. Yu get dat, do you?”

Clyde, whose education was not a little superior to that of his guide, commented quite sharply in his own mind on the use of such words as “knowed,” and “gotta”—also upon “t’ing,” “dat,” “udders,” and so on, but so grateful was he for any courtesy at this time that he was inclined to forgive his obviously kindly mentor anything for his geniality.

“Watch whoever’s doin’ anyt’ing, at first, see, till you git to know, see. Dat’s de way. When de bell rings, if you’re at de head of de bench, it’s your turn, see, an’ you jump up and go quick. Dey like you to be quick around here, see. An’ whenever you see any one come in de door or out of an elevator wit a bag, an’ you’re at de head of de bench, you jump, wedder de captain rings de bell or calls ‘front’ or not. Sometimes he’s busy or ain’t lookin’ an’ he wants you to do dat, see. Look sharp, cause if you don’t get no bags, you don’t get no tips, see. Everybody dat has a bag or anyt’ing has to have it carried for ’em, unless dey won’t let you have it, see.

“But be sure and wait somewhere near de desk for whoever comes in until dey sign up for a room,” he rattled on as they ascended in the elevator. “Most every one takes a room. Den de clerk’ll give you de key an’ after dat all you gotta do is to carry up de bags to de room. Den all you gotta do is to turn on de lights in de batroom and closet, if dere is one, so dey’ll know where dey are, see. An’ den raise de curtains in de day time or lower ’em at night, an’ see if dere’s towels in de room, so you can tell de maid if dere ain’t, and den if dey don’t give you no tip, you gotta go, only most times, unless you draw a stiff, all you gotta do is hang back a little—make a stall, see—fumble wit de door-key or try de transom, see. Den, if dey’re any good, dey’ll hand you a tip. If dey don’t, you’re out, dat’s all, see. You can’t even look as dough you was sore, dough—nottin’ like dat, see. Den you come down an’ unless dey wants ice-water or somepin, you’re troo, see. It’s back to de bench, quick. Dere ain’t much to it. Only you gotta be quick all de time, see, and not let any one get by you comin’ or goin’—dat’s de main t’ing.

“An’ after dey give you your uniform, an’ you go to work, don’t forgit to give de captain a dollar after every watch before you leave, see—two dollars on de day you has two watches, and a dollar on de day you has one, see? Dat’s de way it is here. We work togedder like dat, an’ you gotta do dat if you wanta hold your job. But dat’s all. After dat all de rest is yours.”

Clyde saw.

A part of his twenty-four or thirty-two dollars as he figured it was going glimmering, apparently—eleven or twelve all told—but what of it! Would there not be twelve or fifteen or even more left? And there were his meals and his uniform. Kind Heaven! What a realization of paradise! What a consummation of luxury!

Mr. Hegglund of Jersey City escorted him to the twelfth floor and into a room where they found on guard a wizened and grizzled little old man of doubtful age and temperament, who forthwith outfitted Clyde with a suit that was so near a fit that, without further orders, it was not deemed necessary to alter it. And trying on various caps, there was one that fitted him—a thing that sat most rakishly over one ear—only, as Hegglund informed him, “You’ll have to get dat hair of yours cut. Better get it clipped behind. It’s too long.” And with that Clyde himself had been in mental agreement before he spoke. His hair certainly did not look right in the new cap. He hated it now. And going downstairs, and reporting to Mr. Whipple, Mr. Squires’ assistant, the latter had said: “Very well. It fits all right, does it? Well, then, you go on here at six. Report at five-thirty and be here in your uniform at five-forty-five for inspection.”

Whereupon Clyde, being advised by Hegglund to go then and there to get his uniform and take it to the dressing-room in the basement, and get his locker from the locker-man, he did so, and then hurried most nervously out—first to get a hair-cut and afterwards to report to his family on his great luck.

He was to be a bell-boy in the great Hotel Green-Davidson. He was to wear a uniform and a handsome one. He was to make—but he did not tell his mother at first what he was to make, truly—but more than eleven or twelve at first, anyhow, he guessed—he could not be sure. For now, all at once, he saw economic independence ahead for himself, if not for his family, and he did not care to complicate it with any claims which a confession as to his real salary would most certainly inspire. But he did say that he was to have his meals free—because that meant eating away from home, which was what he wished. And in addition he was to live and move always in the glorious atmosphere of this hotel—not to have to go home ever before twelve, if he did not wish—to have good clothes—interesting company, maybe—a good time, gee!

And as he hurried on about his various errands now, it occurred to him as a final and shrewd and delicious thought that he need not go home on such nights as he wished to go to a theater or anything like that. He could just stay down-town and say he had to work. And that with free meals and good clothes—think of that!

The mere thought of all this was so astonishing and entrancing that he could not bring himself to think of it too much. He must wait and see. He must wait and see just how much he would make here in this perfectly marvelous-marvelous realm.