(Copyright, estate of Gaillard Hunt)
CITY OF MASTERLESS MEN
It was three in the morning, and the broad Plaza back of the United States Capitol was devoid of life. Street lamps cast long dull bars of light on the wet asphalt and the dimly floodlit dome rose ghostlike into oblivion in the mist above the shadow-smeared building. The statues on either side of the massive steps were shapeless monsters in the gloom standing sentinel against the sleeping city and empty streets muffled in damp silence -- a silence broken only by the laboring chug of a model A Ford with a knock in one cylinder coming up the hill in high.
The Ford recovered speed when it reached the Plaza -- it swung in a wide arc and turned head-on toward the steps. There it stopped, the knocking motor clicked dead, and two men got out, slammed the doors, and started up the steps. Their overcoats were turned up against the chill and they kept their hands in their pockets as they approached the one entrance where a light glowed. The sleepy guard started up when they pushed through the door but they told him what they wanted and he let them go in. This was in 1931.
They walked across the wide reverberating rotunda with flagstones worn uneven by generations of tourists and turned into a corridor, their footsteps echoing sharp as the shadows cast by the infrequent lights. They passed between statues --scowling busts, staunch statesmen in frock coats -- and it occurred to Ed Collins that this was Statuary Hall and he would be here some day, It was his avowed ambition to be a Senator and he had his course all mapped out and he knew all the ins and outs of the game. He would never pose for a statue in a frock coat though -- it wasn't democratic.
They finally reached their destination -- an elevator before which a young man sat at a table with a book. It was his job to run the elevator at hours during which no one ever rode on it but that was all right because it gave him a chance to study Law. His name was Costello; he was a student at Georgetown and his father stood quite high in K. of C. circles in a strongly Catholic district in Ohio. The two young men were Costello's fraternity brothers -- one was named Dupree and he was sober, the other was Ed Collins who was not sober and he draped himself in the chair that Costello had vacated while Dupree leaned against a column. Costello sat on the edge of the table and said, "Well, what can I do you follows for?"
"To get right to the point," said Collins. "We came to talk to you about patronage. We came to talk to you about patronage."
"What do you fellows think I am, Chairman of the Patronage Committee? Everybody comes to me. I can give you all the information you want, in fact I think I know as much about it as anyone, but that's all the good it's going to do you. Now you take this job I've got, and all us guys in the Capitol. This job is under the di-rect control of Senator Smoot. Smoot's been in the Senate for over thirty years and has his patronage built up into a powerful organization. Controls over four thousand jobs. That's because he's chairman of the Parks and Buildings Committee."
"You don't know Smoot," said Collins.
"No, but I've got friends that do, and that's what it takes."
"I've got friends too, and some damn influential ones," said Collins.
"In the know," said Dupree.
"You're damn tootin' I'm in the know," said Collins, leaning back in the chair and extending his arm to give that palmdownward gesture which when used by an umpire means safe. When used with slight variation by other types it means fixed or in the bag, and that was the way Collins used it.
"Anyhow I thought you were working for your uncle, Collins," said Costello. "Why should you be looking for a job?"
"Had a fight with his girl, that's why," said Dupree.
"Comes up to the house all steamed up and wants me to drive him down here. Won't want a job after he makes up."
"Nuts to you, Dupree. Yeah, nuts to you. And nuts to her and nuts to Uncle Ben, too. I'll have you know I can stand on my own feet.
"If that's all he wants a job for he'll never get it," said Costello. "This is 1931. You got to need a job nowadays."
"I don't care if it's 1776, I can stand --
"Can't hardly stand on 'em, you can't," said Dupree.
"Couldn't stand on 'em long enough to get to mass this morning."
"This morning. It's been Monday three hours now. Besides you can't talk. You didn't even know New Year's was a Holyday of Obligation until I told you."
"If you know so much," said Costello, "what feast is it?"
''Feast of the Circumcision, '' said Collins triumphantly.
"He would know that," said Dupree. "On account of because of the subject--matter."
"Pretty good," said Costello.
"Lousy, I call it," said Collins. "Well, looks like I can't get any help outta you guys. Pals, that's you. I try to find out something about patronage and you take me for a ride. Nice fellows. Fine brothers you turned out to be. Yeah, nice guys. Swell guys."
He lurched up, walked across the corridor and pushed open a door. "Hey, don't go in there," called Costello. "That's the Chamber."
"Yeah? So what?"
"It's my duty to protect government property and you're not allowed in there."
"Nuts. I'm a citizen of this country, I am."
He did not go in, but stood holding the door and peering into the darkness. Somewhere in there was where LaGuardia stood when he made fiery speeches against Prohibition. Not many good speakers like Fiorello in Congress, though, and not much prestige either -- that was why he intended to go into the Senate even though it was sort of dull and lacked pep. It would take him to stir it up.
He went back to the elevator. Costello was saying, "Patronage is the life blood of a political party."
"Yeah," said Collins, "Yeah. When you have a man like Hoover patronage won't help you. I happen to know that Hoover and Mellon both make a blanket short sale of the entire stock list in 1929. They're making millions. This was told me by a reliable source in strictest confidence."
"Yeah? Well just tell me this: Why is it that every time Hoover makes a speech stocks go down. Let's see you answer that one."
"In the know," said Dupree.
"You're damn tootin'", said Collins. Furthermore you notice who's going to be elected Speaker when the session starts this week -- Jack Garner the Democrat. They're coming in next time and that's why I am going to get my bread buttered on the Democratic side."
"Wall Street will give you eight to five."
"Nuts. Just you wait, Anyhow I can stand on my own feet --
As they went out the guard at the door remarked that it was a nasty night and Collins said, "You're damn tootin'." When they started the car and headed down the hill the mist had grown thicker but the streets were deserted and the traffic lights out and the trip across town to the fraternity house was uneventful. Dupree told a story of an alumnus named Murphy who had been in town and stayed at the house, and he was fed up with something Congress was doing and didn't care who knew it. At two in the morning he had taken a taxi all the way to the Capitol and got out and pissed on the steps just so he could tell people when he got home that he had pissed on the steps of the Capitol. Collins countered with a story of an alumnus named Warren who had been in town and had got lit and he and Warren had gone to the ball game. They sat in a box right on the first base line and Warren had started to ride Whitehead, yelling, "Hey, Old Man Whitehead why don't you stay home with your grandchildren your re no good you're too old," and so forth and finally in the sixth inning when the Yanks started to hit Whitehead this guy Warren had the attention of everybody in the grandstand and was yelling, "That's it, send him to the showers it'll help his rheumatism," and Whitehead was just frantic and finally the ump stopped the game and came over to the box and asked them to leave. Yes, no fooling, and it's something you seldom see happen, but the umpire actually called time out and came over to the box. So this guy Warren yells, "Sure, who wants to watch an old guy like Whitehead," and the manager or somebody gave them passes and they went out. Collins thought this story topped Dupree 's about the man who pissed on the steps of the Capitol. That one was pretty good, though -- he would have to remember it.
A kick in the sole of the shoe awakened Anderson out of a drugged early-morning doze, and he sat up. One of the mission stiffs, a small man with that worried-about-the-soul look, was going down the line rousing the men and with rustling of newspapers, stomping, and slapping of clothes the crowd of vagrants on the mission floor was getting up. Anderson was not rested, he had lain awake most of the night breathing the rancid air and listening to the noise the men made -- under the influence of sleep the bars were down and they filled the room with a low murmur of sighs and groans, words and phrases of despair. But now, with another day of bucking a hostile world staring them in the face, their sound was harder -- tough griping and grim humor.
The man next to Anderson, who the night before had said that things were tough in West Virginia and there might be some work starting up in Philly soon, sat up and stretched and said, "Like to know what their idea is, turning us out this early."
"Write to the management about it," grinned a very young boy close by. "Tell 'em you don't like the accommodations,"
As Anderson got to his feet he realized there was something wrong with him. He did not feel well. Then he understood what it was -- it was his tooth. For the last few days it had been aching dully but now it was burning. This was a hell of a thing to happen to a man when he's out of work and on the road and broke. He would have to do something about it -- he did not know what could be done but he would have to do something. He walked slowly over and got in line to use the wash basin, shaking his head as if trying to throw out the pain.
Outside it was damp and chill and the dawn had barely made a dent in the darkness. Anderson walked along Pennsylvania Avenue with the man who was going to Philly and another man in a Navy pea-jacket -- he was the only one with an overcoat; the other two shivered. Anderson's tooth was hurting and also had nothing to eat since the mission. He was hungry -- he had had nothing to eat since the mission breakfast the day before. The man who was going to Philly said, "Wasn't enough food to feed us because they had to feed the Hunger Marchers, the man said. Sounds like some bull to me."
"Aw, those god damn Hunger Marchers are just a lot of foreigners from New York," said the man in the pea-jacket. "If you sent 'em all back where they come from there might be some jobs."
"Send Hoover back to England at the same time if you want to do some good," said the man who was going to Philly.
"Make him leave his money over here," said Anderson. "Damn, I got a tooth that's giving me holy hell. Wonder if there's any place I could get it pulled out."
"If we were in Chicago I could tell you right where to go. They got a good dental clinic in that city but I don't know of any in this damn town," said the other man. "Any gold in that tooth that's hurting you?"
"Well, sometimes if you got a lot of gold in a tooth a dentist will pull it out just to get the gold, but I don't know what you can do if there's no gold in it."
"Guess I better be getting on out here to the highway and see if I can make a truck or something for Philly," said the man who was going to Philly.
"I'm going north, too," said the man in the pea-jacket.
"Well, so long," said Anderson.
"So long," said the two men, and they walked off down the Avenue together. They did not know each other's names, probably never would.
Anderson turned up a side street. He must get away from the center of town, then try a restaurant. Maybe if he had some food his tooth would not hurt so much. He had felt too low to bum anything yesterday but now he just about had to.
He knew it was no good as soon as he opened the back door. The cook was a Greek, and Greeks never give you anything. The cook looked at him in a hard, inquiring way and he had to ask him anyhow although he knew it was no good. The cook just shook his head.
There seemed to be a chance at the next one. The cook looked as if he might, but he said he would have to ask the boss, go around front and ask the boss. He went around front and the boss said, "Can't do it."
Another one. The cook said, "Whaddya mean. You guys keep coming here all day. Think we ain't got nothing else to do? Get ta hell outta here, ya god damn bum." That was it. He was too close to the main stem. Too many guys played these places.
He must get further away from the center of town - - any side street would do it if he went far enough. He walked several blocks up an empty street away from the Avenue, past dingy store fronts and rusty iron steps, then he realized something was wrong with his walk. His feet were hitting the pavement sometimes sooner and sometimes later than he expected -- why? The sidewalk was rocking, that's why. Just two more blocks, two more blocks and hurry. But keep steady -- follow this crack in the sidewalk. He could follow the crack but it was still rocking, it was rocking fore and aft; fool 'em --turn off at the next corner. That's it -- that stopped the sidewalk. Now go along here looking for some place.
He peered through the yellow-gray light down the street, and a thin line of black specks trickled across the scene. He had seen them before and knew what they meant so he shut his eyes tight, willed them away, and looked again. There it was -- a white front place next to an alley. But the specks were back, a thin line running from right to left. Now it was two lines, they gained headway, it was a steady stream from both sides. They gang up and rush you, stop them. Here's the alley. But they wouldn't stop, now they were oozing up from the ground and down from the sky, converging and swirling in the center. Here's the back door, it opens outward, push down and pull.
The cook was standing in the middle of the floor of the kitchen. He was a skinny man who needed a shave and when Anderson probed his face through the specks he felt a ray of hope. He pulled the door closed, let go of it, and said, "Got any work around here I could -- do to pay for a meal?"
"Are you a dishwasher?" asked the cook.
"Want a job."
"No fooling, did you ever wash dishes?"
"I believe you're lying to me but I can learn you if you'll listen to me and follow directions."
"Sit down over there and I'll feed you." He looked sharply at Anderson. "Want some milk?"
He poured out a tall glass of milk. It was not too cold and Anderson drank it slowly and steadily. He could feel his insides unfold and suck it in, it flowed in rivers of strength throughout his being, and banished the specks. Then the cook brought him cereal, bacon, eggs and coffee. When he had finished the cook said, "Do you know what this job pays? Four bucks a week, and you get all your chow. There's plenty would like to have it."
"Still want it?"
The cook went to the window and called, "Hey, Frank, I got us a dishwasher."
Anderson could hear someone leave the cash register and come toward the back, then a man with a fat face and slick black hair stared through the window at him and said, "How do you know he's a dishwasher? How you know what he is?"
"If he ain't, I can make him one. I pulled many a man off a freight and made a dishwasher."
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