The singing that reached us from the house gave evidence of the fact that at this very moment this sole condition was being fulfilled. We went in.
Previously, about twenty-five years ago, there was a Chinese opium smoking den in this dwelling. It had been a dirty and dismal den of iniquity. Since then it had become cleaner, but, while losing its erstwhile exoticism, it did not become less dismal. The upper part of the former den of iniquity was devoted to prayer meetings, while below, the sleeping quarters consisted of bare walls, a bare stone floor, and canvas folding cots. That odour of coffee and dampness, which is always a part of hospital and charity cleanliness, permeated all. In a word, this was an American staging of Gorky’s Lower Depths.
In this bedraggled hall the night lodgers sat stiffly on benches that came down in an amphitheatre toward a small stage. As soon as the singing stopped, the next number on the programme began.
Between an American national flag, which stood on the stage, and Biblical texts, which hung all over the walls, a pinkish old man in a black suit jumped like a clown. He talked and gesticulated with such passion that he gave the impression of selling something. Yet he was merely telling the instructive history of his life, telling about the beneficent crisis when he turned his heart back to God.
He had been a tramp (“as frightful a tramp as you, old devils!”), he had carried on horribly, had used profane language (“remember your own habits, my friends”), he stole – yes, all of that happened, too, alas! But now it was all done with. Now he owned his own home and lived like a decent man (“Hasn’t God created us in his own image, in his own manner?”). Not long ago he had even bought himself a radio receiving set. And all this he had received directly with the help of God.
The old man talked with extraordinary facility; it seemed therefore I hat he was now appearing for at least the thousandth time. He clicked his fingers, laughed hoarsely, sang religious ditties, and ended up with great enthusiasm, shouting:
“Let’s sing, brothers!”
Again the dull, humdrum singing began.
The night lodgers were appalling. Almost all of them were no longer young. Unshaven, with lustreless eyes, they swayed on their crude benches. They sang submissively and lazily. Some of them could not overcome the fatigue of the day, and slept.
We vividly imagined to ourselves the wanderings through the frightful places of New York, the days passed at bridges and warehouses, in the midst of garbage, in the everlasting nebulousness of human degeneration. To sit after that in a night lodging and sing hymns was sheer torture.
Then before the audience appeared a fellow as hale and healthy as a policeman. He had a lilac-coloured vaudevillian nose and the voice of a skipper. He was as bold and jaunty as anyone could possibly be. Again began a tale about the benefits of turning to God. The skipper, it seemed, had also been quite a sinner at one time. His fantasy was not great, however, and he soon ended up with the declaration that now, thanks to God’s help, he, too, had a radio receiving set.
Again they sang. The skipper waved his arms, displaying considerable experience as an orchestra leader. Two hundred men ground to powder by life again listened to this conscienceless twaddle. These poor people were not offered work, they were offered only God – a God as spiteful and exacting as the Devil.
The night lodgers did not object. Any god with a cup of coffee and a slice of bread was fairly acceptable. Let us sing then, brothers, to the glory of the coffee god!
And the throats, which for half a century had belched forth only horrible oaths, drowsily began to blare now the glory of the Lord.
We again walked through some slums and again did not know where we were. With thunder and lightning, trains raced overhead along the railroad stockades of the elevated railway. Young men in light-coloured hats crowded around drug-stores, exchanging curt phrases. Their manner was exactly like that of the young men who in Warsaw populate Krakhmalnaya Street. In Warsaw a gentleman from Krakhmalnaya is not considered exactly God’s precious little ewe lamb. It is sheer luck if he turns out to be merely a thief, for he might be something much worse than that.
Late at night we returned to our hotel, not yet disappointed with New York nor elated over it, but rather disturbed by its hugeness, its wealth, and its poverty.
3. What Can Be Seen From a Hotel Window
OUR FIRST hours in New York – the walk through the city at night and then the return to the hotel – will always remain with us as a memorable event.
Yet, as a matter of fact, nothing unusual had occurred.
We walked into the very ordinary marble vestibule of the hotel. To the right, behind a smooth wooden railing, worked two young clerks. Both of them had pale, smoothly shaven cheeks and black little narrow moustaches. Beyond them sat a girl cashier at a calculating machine. On the left was located the tobacco stand. In its glass case open wooden boxes of cigars stood next to each other. On the white gleaming surface of the inside covers of the boxes were displayed old-fashioned handsome men with thick moustaches and pink cheeks, gold and silver medals, scutcheons, green palms and Negresses gathering tobacco. In the corners stood the prices: 5, 10, or 15: cents apiece, or 15 cents for two, or 10 cents for three. Even more tightly than the cigars lay small packages of cigarettes in soft covers, also wrapped in cellophane. Americansseem to smoke mostly “Lucky Strike,” a dark green package with a red circle in the middle; “Chesterfield,” a white package with a gold inscription; and “Camel,” a yellowish package bearing the picture of a brown camel.
The entire wall opposite the entrance to the vestibule was occupied by spacious elevators with gilded doors. The doors opened on the right, on the left, or in the middle, disclosing inside the elevator the Negro who held on with his hand to the iron steering-gear and who was dressed in bright coloured trousers with gold braid and in a green jacket with ornate twisted shoulder straps. Just as at the Northern Railway Station in Moscow the train announcer loudly informs people going to summer resorts that the next train is bound without stops for Mytishchi,but beyond that will make all the stops, so here the Negroes announced that the elevator was going to the sixteenth floor, or to the thirty-second floor, with the first stop likewise at the sixteenth floor, Eventually we fathomed this little ruse of the management’s – on the sixteenth floor was located its restaurant and cafeteria.
We walked into the elevator, and it rushed up. On the way the elevator stopped, the Negro opened the door, cried “Up!” and the passengers called out the numbers of their floors. A woman entered. All the men removed their hats and travelled on without hats. We followed suit. That was the first American custom we learned. But acquaintance with the customs of a foreign country is not so easy and is almost always accompanied by confusion. Several days later we were going up in an elevator to our publishers. A woman entered, and with the expeditiousness of old experienced New Yorkers we took off our hats. The other men did not follow our knightly example, however, and even regarded us with curiosity. We learned that hats should be taken off only in private and hotel elevators; whereas, in buildings where people transact business one may keep one’s hat on.
At the twenty-seventh story we left the elevator and walked along a narrow corridor to our rooms. The large second-rate New York hotels in the centre of the city are built very economically. Their corridors are narrow, their rooms, although expensive, are small, and their ceilings are of standard height – that is, rather low. The client poses before the builder the problem of squeezing into a skyscraper as many rooms as possible. These small rooms, however, are clean and comfortable. They always have hot and cold water, a shower, stationery, telegraph blanks, postcards with views of the hotel, laundry bags, and printed laundry blanks on which you merely place figures indicating the number of pieces of soiled laundry being sent out. Laundering is done quickly and unusually well in America. The ironed shirts look better than new ones on display in a store window. And each one of them is placed in a paper pocket, around which is a paper ribbon with the trade-mark of the laundry, and all of it is neatly pinned together, with pins even around the sleeves. Moreover, the laundry is brought back mended and the socks darned. In America such comforts are not at