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PinkMonkey Digital Library-Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser


Chapter XLVII
THE WAY OF THE BEATEN: A HARP IN THE
WIND


In the city, at that time, there were a number of charities similar in
nature to that of the captainís, which Hurstwood now patronised
in a like unfortunate way. One was a convent mission-house of
the Sisters of Mercy in Fifteenth Street-a row of red brick family
dwellings, before the door of which hung a plain wooden
contribution box, on which was painted the statement that every
noon a meal was given free to all those who might apply and ask
for aid. This simple announcement was modest in the extreme,
covering, as it did, charity so broad. Institutions and charities are
so large and so numerous in New York that such things as this are
not often noticed by the more comfortably situated. But to one
whose mind is upon the matter, they grow exceedingly under
inspection. Unless one were looking up this matter in particular,
he could have stood at Sixth Avenue and Fifteenth Street for days
around the noon hour and never have noticed that out of the vast
crowd that surged along that busy thoroughfare there turned out,
every few seconds, some weather-beaten, heavy-footed specimen
of humanity, gaunt in countenance and dilapidated in the matter of
clothes. The fact is none the less true, however, and the colder the
day the more apparent it became. Space and a lack of culinary
room in the mission-house, compelled an arrangement which
permitted of only twenty-five or thirty eating at one time, so that a
line had to be formed outside and an orderly entrance effected.
This caused a daily spectacle

which, however, had become so common by repetition during a
number of years that now nothing was thought of it. The men
waited patiently, like cattle, in the coldest weather-waited for
several hours before they could be admitted. No questions were
asked and no service rendered. They ate and went away again,
some of them returning regularly day after day the winter through.

A big, motherly looking woman invariably stood guard at the door
during the entire operation and counted the admissible number.
The men moved up in solemn order. There was no haste and no
eagerness displayed. It was almost a dumb procession. In the
bitterest weather this line was to be found here. Under an icy wind
there was a prodigious slapping of hands and a dancing of feet.
Fingers and the features of the face looked as if severely nipped
by the cold. A study of these men in broad light proved them to be
nearly all of a type. They belonged to the class that sit on the park
benches during the endurable days and sleep upon them during
the summer nights. They frequent the Bowery and those down-at-
the-heels East Side streets where poor clothes and shrunken
features are not singled out as curious. They are the men who are
in the lodging-house sitting-rooms during bleak and bitter weather
and who swarm about the cheaper shelters which only open at six
in a number of the lower East Side streets. Miserable food, ill-
timed and greedily eaten, had played havoc with bone and muscle.
They were all pale, flabby, sunken-eyed, hollow-chested, with
eyes that glinted and shone and lips that were a sickly red by
contrast. Their hair was but half attended to, their ears anaemic in
hue, and their shoes broken in leather and run down at heel and
toe.

They were of the class which simply floats and drifts, every wave
of people washing up one, as breakers do driftwood upon a
stormy shore.

For nearly a quarter of a century, in another section of the city,
Fleischmann, the baker, had given a loaf of bread to any one who
would come for it to the side door of his restaurant at the corner of
Broadway and Tenth Street, at midnight. Every night during
twenty years about three hundred men had formed in line and at
the appointed time marched past the doorway, picked their loaf
from a great box placed just outside, and vanished again into the
night. From the beginning to the present time there had been little
change in the character or number of these men. There were two
or three figures that had grown familiar to those who had seen this
little procession pass year after year. Two of them had missed
scarcely a night in fifteen years. There were about forty, more or
less, regular callers. The remainder of the line was formed of
strangers. In times of panic and unusual hard-ships there were
seldom more than three hundred. In times of prosperity, when
little is heard of the unemployed, there were seldom less. The
same number, winter and summer, in storm or calm, in good times
and bad, held this melancholy midnight rendezvous at
Fleischmannís bread box.
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PinkMonkey Digital Library-Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser



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