The approach of actual want was such an insidious thing that I really did not perceive how far I was getting into the depths before I was fairly caught and unable to extricate myself. I had always been accustomed in the past to make some arrangement with a magazine or publishing house to do some work which would pay me fairly well and this hope was now all the time acting like a will-a’ -the-wisp leading me thoughtlessly over the meadows of idleness and meditation to the slough of despond. Day after day I would get up and sit at my desk a little while feeling that this morning surely some ray of inspiration would arrive, but finding that it did not I would get up and go out, wandering around and saying to myself that if I could but rest a bit it would all come back to me. I was not really sick in the sense that anyone is prostrate in bed. I could walk and run and laugh and read, but I could not write, and worst of all I could not sleep. This latter difficulty was gradually undermining me though it did not seem as bad at first as it did later. I used to go down to the water’s edge of the East River, which was only a few blocks below me, and there in the neighborhood of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Wallabout Bay sit and enjoy the wonderful panorama which the river invariably presented. It seemed to me that when I came within the vicinity of these great warehouses and factories, with their tall black stacks that gave the water’s edge so varied and picturesque an aspect, I could lounge and dream forever. Not to worry, not to haste, not to be caught in the great turmoil of the city beyond from whose distant shore came subdued echoes of the clangor and strife that was always there–that seemed heaven to me. I sat and looked into the soft green waters gurgling and sipping about the docks and the stanchions below me and listened to the crying of the boats, until my heart was full to overflowing with it, but alas my purse was empty. And that was where the love of beauty undid me.
The approach of actual want was such a terrible thing however that whenever I thought of it distinctly I would get up and return to my room, or would hurry out into the streets almost in a cold sweat, saying, “I must do something.” Frequently I would start out and after walking the streets trying to think of some business that would likely offer me a means of making a living I would fix my eye on some distant shop and say to myself that when l came to it l would go in there. I would walk toward it, my feeling about life and labor wonderfully heightened for the moment, but as I drew near a cold fear of inability would lay hold of me. What would they think, I would begin to ask myself. What could I do in there? Sometimes I would see someone looking at me from one of the windows, a man or girl, or from the houses about and I would say to myself, “Pshaw, they see me coming. They think I am someone who is above that kind of work. They will not believe that I need it and tum me away. And how will I look to them anyhow?” And I would turn away carrying myself as if the thought of that sort of labor was the farthest thing from me imaginable. Or I would stand about and parley with myself, weighing the pros and cons until I had harrowed myself into the belief that I would not be acceptable. Always I would think of my own work, and hard as it was, would contrast my appropriateness to that with my inappropriateness to this and then I would weaken and hurry away. Dozens upon dozens of times have I stood outside of all sorts of institutions wondering, debating, saying that I was unsuited to it or the business was unsuited to me and in the end turning back disconsolately to my room, there to brood and worry over my fate.
The remembrance of this weakness has proved a great wonder to me since. I am not naturally afraid to face people and these sentiments do not as a rule rule me, but I was so rundown nervously that I did not have my usual feeling about things. Sickness had apparently made a coward of me.
As these reflections did not relieve my situation any I would after a night of sleepless tossing usually pull myself together again and make another effort. Once in these early days I went to a great sugar refinery far down on the water’s edge where many a day I had stood looking at the wagons and the men and the evidence of industry inside and wondering at the complicatedness of it all. (What a mystery the life we lead is. How strangely we divide this problem of sustenance, how narrowly some of us work in small dark comers all our days and never think or at least never attain to the heights of our thinking.) On this day however my mind did not busy itself with this larger spectacle. I was anxious to get something to do there and I was wondering how I could persuade the foreman or the management to accept me. Once I had read a long account of the labor struggles of another writer who had dressed himself to look the part of a laborer and I had always wondered how he would have fared if he had gone in his own natural garb. Now I was determined or rather compelled to find out for myself and I had no heart for it. I realized instinctively that there was a far cry between doing anything in disguise and as an experiment and doing it as a grim necessity.
However I went in after hanging about for some time and asked for the manager. As I expected he was busy but a clerk who came over to me wished to know what my business was. I cold him I wanted work. He looked at me in a quizzical way as much as to say, “You?”
“What kind of work is it you wish to do?” he asked.
I tried to explain as quickly as I could that I wished to do any kind of work, manual or mental, but he did not seem to understand me. “You couldn’t do the physical work here,” he said. “All our clerical positions are filled. We don’t change very often.”
“Is there something you could give me to do out there?” I said, motioning with my hand toward the great dark mass behind.
“Nothing at present,” he said. “We are not taking on men at this time of year. I’m quite positive you couldn’t do the work if you had it. It’s very hard.”’
He turned with a brusque manner to his work again and I fell back abashed. His loud voice had attracted the attention of others, who looked at me curiously. I felt as if he might have been a little more quiet and a little more considerate, but I found here as everywhere what seemed to me the old indifference to the underdog. People do not see–I said–they have not the faculty to grasp what it means to be the other man. Otherwise they would never do such things.
My next effort was in search of a motorman’s or conductor’s position, a place I had long had in mind as I was sure it was something that I could do. It was not a thing that I could get quickly, for I knew that unless I had a “pull” or could bring some extraordinary pressure to bear I would have to go through the usual formality of enrolling my name somewhere and then waiting patiently for my turn to be called. I had vivid dreams of forcing my way into the office of the president, who I conceived to be a man who could tell by my appearance that I was not exactly of the ordinary run of men, and who on my putting the matter before him would understand and give me something to do. I went down to the section where this great railroad building was located but as usual when I reached there my heart failed me. It was an hour before I raked up courage enough to go in.
This building was a mass of little offices devoted to different phases of the street railway and when I looked over the immense directory painted on the wall I could scarcely tell which office it was at which I wished to inquire. I saw the name of the president posted as being in room one hundred and something, on the fourth floor, but now my idea of going in and talking to him looked awfully foolish and hopeless to me. The idea of intruding on a man with endless affairs weighing on him and the financial end only of the great company before his gaze struck me as exceedingly useless. He would have nothing to do with me. All he would do would be to refer me to the department which handled such cases as mine and they would not dare to make an exception. It seemed impossible and yet I went up.
In an ante-chamber I was met by a clerk. As I expected he told me the president was busy and asked me my business. When I explained to him, he looked at me curiously also and said the president never attended to such details–that I would have to go to the regular department, mentioning the number. I saw how hopeless it was of making a boy see–an inexperienced youth who knew nothing of the world, and went away. I could have written an essay that morning on how nature meets want with inexperience and pain with those who cannot see. Blind! Blind! Blind!
The office of the Superintendent of Something, who hired men, was on the floor below and there I went. It was a small room filled with motormen and conductors who were there being measured for new suits or answering to complaints of various kinds. All of them looked at me with curious eyes as I came in, for I was still comparatively well-dressed, and some of them stood aside in so deferential a way that I felt that I was sailing under false colors. I went up to the counter where the official was standing and stated my business. When I had come in he had looked at me with so much consideration that I felt he mistook me for someone who had important business with him. When I finally explained that I wished to know where applications for positions were made his face changed immediately and he told me in brusque tones where to go. I felt like an imposter slinking out for it seemed to me I had in some indefinable way misrepresented myself to him. I had not turned out to be what he took me for.
This phase of my reception discouraged me greatly but I went down to the little office on a side street near the East River, in a one-story red brick building, where I found a room containing a few old benches and an inner door marked “Applicants” but no persons. A sign hung up over a window informed me that those who wished to register should come between the hours of seven and nine A. M. on Tuesdays and Fridays, which I confess was a great relief to me. I had anticipated another such ordeal as I had just gone through and the mere fact that it was postponed was something. I turned on my heel, temporarily relieved from the ache that inquiring under such conditions gave me, and promised myself that I would come back on Tuesday. I then wandered about saying that I must look for something elsewhere but, being out and moving, I did nothing. It was the old story of the previous days. I could not find the heart to go in.
That such a quest would soon prove disastrous I was constantly seeing and yet I could not get anything. I went back to the newspapers–they had nothing. I came over to New York and thought to put an application in over there, but I did nothing but walk the streets. On Tuesday I returned to this little office again, desperately clinging to the fatuous belief that having managed to go so far, something would come of it. I had dressed myself carefully to make as good an impression as possible but when I got there, or rather in the vicinity of it, I was sorry that I had done so. At a distance of three blocks I saw quite a crowd standing around so early as seven o’clock and in the vicinity, at distances of from one to two blocks, other individual stragglers, who impressed me at once as people who like myself were anxious to register but were ashamed to go up. They were a little better dressed than those who were gathered about the door–not so strong-looking and not so coarse. They pretended to be doing anything but heading for this particular institution though one could see by their averted glances that that was just the thing they were trying to do. I encountered two or three of them three or four times in a radius of as many blocks and each time they exchanged that shamed look of understanding with me, which convicts one of ulterior designs. It was all very painful.
What interested me on this occasion was my own wretched attitude. For the life of me I could not summon up sufficient courage to join that crowd. Three or four times I went toward it, getting as close as the corner, but each time I would see some of those at the door looking up toward me and I would say to myself, “They see what I am coming for,” and would turn off. Once I did go down absolutely determined to stop and take my place among them, but the keen conception of the difference between them and me which flared up in my mind as I approached drove me on by. They were so young, most of them, so raw and so inexperienced. They looked at me as though they thought I was some critical business man or other citizen merely passing on my way to my office. They had such sharp eyes which seemed to say, “Now let us see what he does,” that I could not bring myself to stop.
For this feeling–vanity or weakness as it may seem to some, I have now no excuse to offer. I will say that the difference I felt was not based on a sense of superiority–far from it. I was only conscious that I was out of place and they knew it. It was more like the case of an old man who would like to play with children on their own basis, but who has lost the how of it.
My first visit to this registering room was a failure as was my second, but on the third time I managed to go in and put down my name, which brought me nothing. I left my address, the chain of which has never been broken, but I have never heard a word.
— Theodore Dreiser, An Amateur Laborer (1904, published in 1983)
It is customary to blame everything on the war. I say the war had nothing to do with me, with my life. At a time when others were getting themselves comfortable berths I was taking one miserable job after another, and never enough in it to keep body and soul together. Almost as quickly as I was hired I was fired. I had plenty of intelligence but I inspired distrust. Where ever I went I fomented discord–not because I was idealistic but because I was like a searchlight exposing the stupidity and futility of everything. Besides, I wasn’t a good ass-licker. That marked me, no doubt. People could tell at once when I asked for a job that I really didn’t give a damn whether I got it or not. And of course I generally didn’t get it. But after a time the mere looking for a job became an activity, a pastime, so to speak. I would go in and ask for most anything. It was a way of killing time – now worse, as far as I could see than work itself. I was my own boss and I had my own hours, but unlike other bosses I entrained only my own ruin, my own bankruptcy. I was not a corporation or a trust or a state or a federation or a polity of nations–I was more like God, if anything.
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 bis 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, … 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 modernistic 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 bad any use for me, except to exploit me. In met, 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.
— Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1939)
See also my post:
“Henry Miller and Dreiser”
— posted by Roger W. Smith