An American Tragedy Chapter 6

And as conditions stood, the extraordinary economic and social inexperience of the Griffiths—Asa and Elvira—dovetailed all too neatly with his dreams. For neither Asa nor Elvira had the least knowledge of the actual character of the work upon which he was about to enter, scarcely any more than he did, or what it might mean to him morally, imaginatively, financially, or in any other way. For neither of them had ever stopped in a hotel above the fourth class in all their days. Neither one had ever eaten in a restaurant of a class that catered to other than individuals of their own low financial level. That there could be any other forms of work or contact than those involved in carrying the bags of guests to and from the door of a hotel to its office, and back again, for a boy of Clyde’s years and temperament, never occurred to them. And it was na├»vely assumed by both that the pay for such work must of necessity be very small anywhere, say five or six dollars a week, and so actually below Clyde’s deserts and his years.

And in view of this, Mrs. Griffiths, who was more practical than her husband at all times, and who was intensely interested in Clyde’s economic welfare, as well as that of her other children, was actually wondering why Clyde should of a sudden become so enthusiastic about changing to this new situation, which, according to his own story, involved longer hours and not so very much more pay, if any. To be sure, he had already suggested that it might lead to some superior position in the hotel, some clerkship or other, but he did not know when that would be, and the other had promised rather definite fulfillment somewhat earlier—as to money, anyhow.

But seeing him rush in on Monday afternoon and announce that he had secured the place and that forthwith he must change his tie and collar and get his hair cut and go back and report, she felt better about it. For never before had she seen him so enthusiastic about anything, and it was something to have him more content with himself—not so moody, as he was at times.

Yet, the hours which he began to maintain now—from six in the morning until midnight—with only an occasional early return on such evenings as he chose to come home when he was not working—and when he troubled to explain that he had been let off a little early—together with a certain eager and restless manner—a desire to be out and away from his home at nearly all such moments as he was not in bed or dressing or undressing, puzzled his mother and Asa, also. The hotel! The hotel! He must always hurry off to the hotel, and all that he had to report was that he liked it ever so much, and that he was doing all right, he thought. It was nicer work than working around a soda fountain, and he might be making more money pretty soon—he couldn’t tell—but as for more than that he either wouldn’t or couldn’t say.

And all the time the Griffiths—father and mother—were feeling that because of the affair in connection with Esta, they should really be moving away from Kansas City—should go to Denver. And now more than ever, Clyde was insisting that he did not want to leave Kansas City. They might go, but he had a pretty good job now and wanted to stick to it. And if they left, he could get a room somewhere—and would be all right—a thought which did not appeal to them at all.

But in the meantime what an enormous change in Clyde’s life. Beginning with that first evening, when at 5:45, he appeared before Mr. Whipple, his immediate superior, and was approved—not only because of the fit of his new uniform, but for his general appearance—the world for him had changed entirely. Lined up with seven others in the servants’ hall, immediately behind the general offices in the lobby, and inspected by Mr. Whipple, the squad of eight marched at the stroke of six through a door that gave into the lobby on the other side of the staircase from where stood Mr. Whipple’s desk, then about and in front of the general registration office to the long bench on the other side. A Mr. Barnes, who alternated with Mr. Whipple, then took charge of the assistant captain’s desk, and the boys seated themselves—Clyde at the foot—only to be called swiftly and in turn to perform this, that and the other service—while the relieved squad of Mr. Whipple was led away into the rear servants’ hall as before, where they disbanded.

“Cling!”

The bell on the room clerk’s desk had sounded and the first boy was going.

“Cling!” It sounded again and a second boy leaped to his feet.

“Front!”—“Center door!” called Mr. Barnes, and a third boy was skidding down the long marble floor toward that entrance to seize the bags of an incoming guest, whose white whiskers and youthful, bright tweed suit were visible to Clyde’s uninitiated eyes a hundred feet away. A mysterious and yet sacred vision—a tip!

“Front!” It was Mr. Barnes calling again. “See what 913 wants—ice-water, I guess.” And a fourth boy was gone.

Clyde, steadily moving up along the bench and adjoining Hegglund, who had been detailed to instruct him a little, was all eyes and ears and nerves. He was so tense that he could hardly breathe, and fidgeted and jerked until finally Hegglund exclaimed: “Now, don’t get excited. Just hold your horses, will yuh? You’ll be all right. You’re jist like I was when I begun—all noives. But dat ain’t de way. Easy’s what you gotta be aroun’ here. An’ you wants to look as dough you wasn’t seein’ nobody nowhere—just lookin’ to what ya got before ya.”

“Front!” Mr. Barnes again. Clyde was scarcely able to keep his mind on what Hegglund was saying. “115 wants some writing paper and pens.” A fifth boy had gone.

“Where do you get writing paper and pens if they want ’em?” He pleaded of his instructor, as one who was about to die might plead.

“Off’n de key desk, I toldja. He’s to de left over dere. He’ll give ’em to ya. An’ you gits ice-water in de hall we lined up in just a minute ago—at dat end over dere, see—you’ll see a little door. You gotta give dat guy in dere a dime oncet in a while or he’ll get sore.”

“Cling!” The room clerk’s bell. A sixth boy had gone without a word to supply some order in that direction.

“And now remember,” continued Hegglund, seeing that he himself was next, and cautioning him for the last time, “if dey wants drinks of any kind, you get ’em in de grill over dere off’n de dining-room. An’ be sure and git de names of de drinks straight or dey’ll git sore. An’ if it’s a room you’re showing, pull de shades down to-night and turn on de lights. An’ if it’s anyt’ing from de dinin’—room you gotta see de head-waiter—he gets de tip, see.”

“Front!” He was up and gone.

And Clyde was number one. And number four was already seating himself again by his side—but looking shrewdly around to see if anybody was wanted anywhere.

“Front!” It was Mr. Barnes. Clyde was up and before him, grateful that it was no one coming in with bags, but worried for fear it might be something that he would not understand or could not do quickly.

“See what 882 wants.” Clyde was off toward one of the two elevators marked, “employees,” the proper one to use, he thought, because he had been taken to the twelfth floor that way, but another boy stepping out from one of the fast passenger elevators cautioned him as to his mistake.

“Goin’ to a room?” he called. “Use the guest elevators. Them’s for the servants or anybody with bundles.”

Clyde hastened to cover his mistake. “Eight,” he called. There being no one else on the elevator with them, the Negro elevator boy in charge of the car saluted him at once.

“You’se new, ain’t you? I ain’t seen you around her befo’.”

“Yes, I just came on,” replied Clyde.

“Well, you won’t hate it here,” commented this youth in the most friendly way. “No one hates this house, I’ll say. Eight did you say?” He stopped the car and Clyde stepped out. He was too nervous to think to ask the direction and now began looking at room numbers, only to decide after a moment that he was in the wrong corridor. The soft brown carpet under his feet; the soft, cream-tinted walls; the snow-white bowl lights in the ceiling—all seemed to him parts of a perfection and a social superiority wich was almost unbelievable—so remote from all that he had ever known.

And finally, finding 882, he knocked timidly and was greeted after a moment by a segment of a very stout and vigorous body in a blue and white striped union suit and a related segment of a round and florid head in which was set one eye and some wrinkles to one side of it.

“Here’s a dollar bill, son,” said the eye seemingly—and now a hand appeared holding a paper dollar. It was fat and red. “You go out to a haberdasher’s and get me a pair of garters—Boston Garters—silk—and hurry back.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Clyde, and took the dollar. The door closed and he found himself hustling along the hall toward the elevator, wondering what a haberdasher’s was. As old as he was—seventeen—the name was new to him. He had never even heard it before, or noticed it at least. If the man had said a “gents’ furnishing store,” he would have understood at once, but now here he was told to go to a haberdasher’s and he did not know what it was. A cold sweat burst out upon his forehead. His knees trembled. The devil! What would he do now? Could he ask any one, even Hegglund, and not seem—

He pushed the elevator button. The car began to descend. A haberdasher. A haberdasher. Suddenly a sane thought reached him. Supposing he didn’t know what a haberdasher was? After all the man wanted a pair of silk Boston garters. Where did one get silk Boston garters—at a store, of course, a place where they sold things for men. Certainly. A gents’ furnishing store. He would run out to a store. And on the way down, noting another friendly Negro in charge, he asked: “Do you know if there’s a gents’ furnishing store anywhere around here?”

“One in the building, captain, right outside the south lobby,” replied the Negro, and Clyde hurried there, greatly relieved. Yet he felt odd and strange in his close-fitting uniform and his peculiar hat. All the time he was troubled by the notion that his small, round, tight-fitting hat might fall off. And he kept pressing it furtively and yet firmly down. And bustling into the haberdasher’s, which was blazing with lights outside, he exclaimed, “I want to get a pair of Boston silk garters.”

“All right, son, here you are,” replied a sleek, short man with bright, bald head, pink face and gold-rimmed glasses. “For some one in the hotel, I presume? Well, we’ll make that seventy-five cents, and here’s a dime for you,” he remarked as he wrapped up the package and dropped the dollar in the cash register. “I always like to do the right thing by you boys in there because I know you come to me whenever you can.”

Clyde took the dime and the package, not knowing quite what to think. The garters must be seventy-five cents—he said so. Hence only twenty-five cents need to be returned to the man. Then the dime was his. And now, maybe—would the man really give him another tip?

He hurried back into the hotel and up to the elevators. The strains of a string orchestra somewhere were filling the lobby with delightful sounds. People were moving here and there—so well-dressed, so much at ease, so very different from most of the people in the streets or anywhere, as he saw it.

An elevator door flew open. Various guests entered. Then Clyde and another bell-boy who gave him an interested glance. At the sixth floor the boy departed. At the eighth Clyde and an old lady stepped forth. He hurried to the door of his guest and tapped. The man opened it, somewhat more fully dressed than before. He had on a pair of trousers and was shaving.

“Back, eh,” he called.

“Yes, sir,” replied Clyde, handing him the package and change. “He said it was seventy-five cents.”

“He’s a damned robber, but you can keep the change, just the same,” he replied, handing him the quarter and closing the door. Clyde stood there, quite spellbound for the fraction of a second. “Thirty-five cents”—he thought—“thirty-five cents.” And for one little short errand. Could that really be the way things went here? It couldn’t be, really. It wasn’t possible—not always.

And then, his feet sinking in the soft nap of the carpet, his hand in one pocket clutching the money, he felt as if he could squeal or laugh out loud. Why, thirty-five cents—and for a little service like that. This man had given him a quarter and the other a dime and he hadn’t done anything at all.

He hurried from the car at the bottom—the strains of the orchestra once more fascinated him, the wonder of so well-dressed a throng thrilling him—and made his way to the bench from which he had first departed.

And following this he had been called to carry the three bags and two umbrellas of an aged farmer-like couple, who had engaged a parlor, bedroom and bath on the fifth floor. En route they kept looking at him, as he could see, but said nothing. Yet once in their room, and after he had promptly turned on the lights near the door, lowered the blinds and placed the bags upon the bag racks, the middle-aged and rather awkward husband—a decidedly solemn and bewhiskered person—studied him and finally observed: “Young fella, you seem to be a nice, brisk sort of boy—rather better than most we’ve seen so far, I must say.”

“I certainly don’t think that hotels are any place for boys,” chirped up the wife of his bosom—a large and rotund person, who by this time was busily employed inspecting an adjoining room. “I certainly wouldn’t want any of my boys to work in ’em—the way people act.”

“But here, young man,” went on the elder, laying off his overcoat and fishing in his trousers pocket. “You go down and get me three or four evening papers if there are that many and a pitcher of ice-water, and I’ll give you fifteen cents when you get back.”

“This hotel’s better’n the one in Omaha, Pa,” added the wife sententiously. “It’s got nicer carpets and curtains.”

And as green as Clyde was, he could not help smiling secretly. Openly, however, he preserved a masklike solemnity, seemingly effacing all facial evidence of thought, and took the change and went out. And in a few moments he was back with the ice-water and all the evening papers and departed smilingly with his fifteen cents.

But this, in itself, was but a beginning in so far as this particular evening was concerned, for he was scarcely seated upon the bench again, before he was called to room 529, only to be sent to the bar for drinks—two ginger ales and two syphons of soda—and this by a group of smartly-dressed young nen and girls who were laughing and chattering in the room, one of whom opened the door just wide enough to instruct him as to what was wanted. But because of a mirror over the mantel, he could see the party and one pretty girl in a white suit and cap, sitting on the edge of a chair in which reclined a young man who had his arm about her.

Clyde stared, even while pretending not to. And in his state of mind, this sight was like looking through the gates of Paradise. Here were young fellows and girls in this room, not so much older than himself, laughing and talking and drinking even—not ice-cream sodas and the like, but such drinks no doubt as his mother and father were always speaking against as leading to destruction, and apparently nothing was thought of it.

He bustled down to the bar, and having secured the drinks and a charge slip, returned—and was paid—a dollar and a half for the drinks and a quarter for himself. And once more he had a glimpse of the appealing scene. Only now one of the couples was dancing to a tune sung and whistled by the other two.

But what interested him as much as the visits to and glimpses of individuals in the different rooms, was the moving panorama of the main lobby—the character of the clerks behind the main desk—room clerk, key clerk, mail clerk, cashier and assistant cashier. And the various stands about the place—flower stand, news stand, cigar stand, telegraph office, taxicab office, and all manned by individuals who seemed to him curiously filled with the atmosphere of this place. And then around and between all these walking or sitting were such imposing men and women, young men and girls all so fashionably dressed, all so ruddy and contented looking. And the cars or other vehicles in which some of them appeared about dinner time and later. It was possible for him to see them in the flare of the lights outside. The wraps, furs, and other belongings in which they appeared, or which were often carried by these other boys and himself across the great lobby and into the cars or the dining-room or the several elevators. And they were always of such gorgeous textures, as Clyde saw them. Such grandeur. This, then, most certainly was what it meant to be rich, to be a person of consequence in the world—to have money. It meant that you did what you pleased. That other people, like himself, waited upon you. That you possessed all of these luxuries. That you went how, where and when you pleased.