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FOUR YEARS IN THE UNDERBRUSH ***




Produced by KD Weeks, ellinora and the Online Distributed
Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net (This file was
produced from images generously made available by The
Internet Archive/American Libraries.)






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Transcriber’s Note:

This version of the text cannot represent certain typographical effects.
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Minor errors, attributable to the printer, have been corrected. Please
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the handling of any textual issues encountered during its preparation.




FOUR YEARS
IN THE UNDERBRUSH




FOUR YEARS
IN THE UNDERBRUSH

ADVENTURES AS A WORKING WOMAN
IN NEW YORK

[Illustration: colophon]

NEW YORK
CHARLES SCRIBNER’S SONS
1921




COPYRIGHT, 1921, BY
CHARLES SCRIBNER’S SONS

- -

Published October, 1921








PRINTED AT
THE SCRIBNER PRESS
NEW YORK, U. S. A.




=To=

SISTER WEE WEE

TAMPA, FLORIDA
March 8th, 1921




CONTENTS


CHAPTER PAGE

I. FOR POLLY PRESTON’S SAKE 3

II. MY FIRST STEPS IN THE UNDERBRUSH 11

III. SLIMY THINGS THAT WALK ON LEGS 24

IV. AGAINST A RUSH OF THE HERD 37

V. HUMAN COOTIES 51

VI. GOOD HUNTING-GROUND 77

VII. FEMALES OF THE SPECIES 86

VIII. ST. ROSE’S HOME FOR GIRLS 101

IX. RODMAN HALL: CHILDREN’S HOME 114

X. TRUSTED WITH BILLIONS, PAID IN MILLS 129

XI. I AM SICK IN THE UNDERBRUSH 143

XII. JACKALS FIGHT TO KEEP FROM FIGHTING 157

XIII. “MORE DEADLY THAN THE MALE” 174

XIV. STAMPING-GROUND OF THE MONKEY-PEOPLE 185

XV. THE HEART OF THE JUNGLE 201

XVI. BURROWING IN 207

XVII. THE SCOURGE 225

XVIII. JIST DOGS! 235

XIX. FAITH OF JUNGLE-MOTHERS 246

XX. A PEST HOUSE? 256

XXI. FORCING THE GOOSE TO LAY MORE DOLLARS 265

XXII. WOLVES AS SOCIAL LEADERS 275

XXIII. LEADERS OF THE HERD 288

XXIV. THE GALL OF THE YOKE 300

XXV. THE END OF THE TRAIL 311




FOUR YEARS IN THE UNDERBRUSH




FOUR YEARS IN THE UNDERBRUSH




CHAPTER I
FOR POLLY PRESTON’S SAKE


The evening of November 8, 1916, I walked out of the National Arts Club
and into the underbrush of the greatest jungle of civilization—I entered
the world of the unskilled working woman of New York City. Though a
sudden move, such an adventure had been in my mind for weeks. When
thinking over the plot of my fifth novel my conscience had demanded:

“Why don’t you go out and get first-hand experience for Polly Preston?
She is a child of your own brain. You know her temperamentally as well
as mentally and physically. You should be able to judge how she would
react under given conditions. Come, be a sport! Get out and see what
Polly will really be up against.”

When the opportunity presented itself on the above-mentioned date my
reason for accepting it was for the single purpose of getting material
for my novel—not because of any special interest in working people,
either men or women, as a class. Indeed, it had always been my faith
that they who scrub floors or dig ditches are only fit to scrub floors
or dig ditches—humanity, like water, finds its own level.

The clock over the main entrance of the Grand Central Station was on the
stroke of twelve when I passed under it on my way to the woman’s
waiting-room. Glancing around to select the most desirable of the
unoccupied chairs, my attention was caught—a woman with a strong Slavic
accent was giving a group of immigrant girls a lesson in—not
English—American.

“’Ello!” the woman exclaimed, and smiling broadly she extended her hand.

“’Ello!” each girl responded in her turn, and she stolidly allowed her
hand to be pumped up and down by the woman.

“Sure,” cried the woman, nodding her head vigorously.

“Zuer,” the girls repeated, and they also nodded vigorously.

“No, no,” was emphasized by a shake of the head.

“Nun, nun,” the girls grunted, but they shook their heads so violently
that there could be no doubt of their understanding.

“Goo’-by,” the teacher said at the end of the lesson, as, rising, she
held out her hand.

“Goo’-by?” the five questioned in chorus. Then they struggled to their
feet and made an awkward attempt at shaking hands.

While the woman was in the lavatory, the girls, glancing around, saw me.
Their prolonged stare was followed by an animated discussion. What was
there about my appearance to cause anyone to single me out for special
comment? The quickest way to settle the question seemed to be to drag my
chair across the floor and join the group.

“Hello!” I greeted the five as I planted my chair facing them.

“’Ello!” was their relieved chorus, and cordial smiles flashed over the
five faces which an instant before had reflected surprise with a glint
of fear.

“’Merican?” the girl nearest asked, and before I could reply the others
questioned in chorus “’Merican?”

“Sure, I’m an American,” I assured them, and very gravely I shook, in
turn, five surprisingly large hands.

This rite finished, the girl next me reached over and stroked my muff.
It was so evident that the others wished to do the same thing that I
handed the muff over. It was passed around the circle, each girl
stroking it and pressing it for an instant against her cheek—a movement
too distinctly feminine to need explanation. Once the muff was back in
my possession their interest shifted to my shoes.

“Did they expect me to pass my shoes around for inspection?” was the
query that flashed through my mind.

Fortunately the woman returned at that instant. She explained that the
girls could not understand why an American woman with mink furs should
wear such unfashionable shoes. The girls, all five of them,
understanding her explanation, stuck out their feet evidently sure of my
approval. They wore silk stockings with the latest cut of low shoes—high
French heels with needle-pointed toes. The woman informed me that silk
stockings and American shoes were always the first purchase made by an
immigrant woman on landing in this country.

My reason for spending the first night of my adventure in the Grand
Central was because Polly Preston would not have money enough to go to a
hotel and, being a stranger in New York, would know nothing of the
municipal lodging-house for women. It was far from a disagreeable
experience—that night in the woman’s waiting-room. Indeed, my attention
was so absorbed by watching the persons around me, that the announcement
of an early train for the West came as a distinct surprise. By the clock
it was within a few minutes of five—a new day had come.

Passing through the great concourse of the station I entered a
subterranean passage, and, on again coming to the surface of the earth,
found myself near the corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street.
Halting I gazed around in surprise. A dream city stretched around me—the
city whose dimly realized beauty we all cherish in the depth of our
soul. The wide avenue, the buildings, every object in sight, even space
itself, was done in soft, luminous grays. There was not a sound—no clang
of surface-car, no honk of automobile, no rumble of elevated, no muffled
growl of subway, not even the pad of a horse’s hoofs on the velvet
asphalt. I was alone in the heart of a great sleeping city—wonderful,
mysterious, superb!

The realization of the marvellous beauty of the scene was so unexpected
and acute that it hurt. In the pain there was an exaltation that lifted
me above the problems of every-day life. Struggling to realize myself as
Polly Preston I called to mind the lone five-dollar bill in my purse.
Then I sternly reminded myself that my only other worldly possession was
the scanty change of underwear folded about my tooth-brush and
dressing-comb in the pockets of my coat. Contemplation of my poverty
failing to lessen my enjoyment of my surroundings, I focussed my
thoughts on my people—my sisters and my brothers and my cousins. How
they would shake their heads could they know of my wandering around New
York at night and alone!

“Thank God!” I heard them exclaim in chorus, “your dear mother didn’t
live to see it.”

Instead of being overwhelmed by a feeling of forlorn loneliness I felt
myself grin. Not even one small pang for setting at naught the
conventions of my class! A longing to stop the clock possessed me, to
hold back dawn, to keep the people asleep, that I, like a disembodied
spirit, might wander over the city and drink my fill of its enchanted
loveliness. With this wish filling my mind I stood staring along Fifth
Avenue—down in the dusk toward Washington Square, up, up between the
tall buildings that seemed almost a tunnel, to the faint luminousness
which I knew marked the beginning of Central Park.

Yet, excited as my imagination was, it did not warn me that the
adventure begun so carelessly would extend over four years instead of a
few weeks—and those four years the most eventful in all history—that the
war then going on between a few nations in Europe would convulse the
world and threaten the very foundations of civilization. No premonition
whispered to me of the host of khaki-clad young men whose tramp, tramp,
tramp along the wide avenue would be echoed in millions of breaking
hearts throughout the length and breadth of our country. Nor of the
return march of those same boys—yet were they the same?—in battle-marred
uniforms whose faces, though alight with the joys of home-coming and the
conscious knowledge that their strength had put an end to the world
nightmare, seemed strangely old and still.

In the soft gray dawn touching with silver the still-life scene about me
there was no suggestion of Fifth Avenue ablaze with silk flags, its
asphalt strewn with flowers, its sidewalk packed by millions of people
come to honor the famous personages who would pass, as in review, before
the lions guarding the public library—a marshal of France, a
general-in-chief of Italy, a king and his queen, and the future ruler of
a great empire—each sent by a grateful country as an expression of
gratitude and friendship to the people of the United States. And more
thrilling perhaps than any of these parades was that at the head of
which marched the President of our country, followed by thousands of
women, soldiers who know neither nationality nor creed, and the red
cross whose banner symbolizes universal mother love.

Then last of all a horde of Jewish children swept along the historic
thoroughfare singing psalms of praise, rejoicing over the rebirth of the
nation of their fathers—Jerusalem, wrested from Turkish rule, had after
centuries again become the capital of the Jewish race.

Nor, standing there in that mild November morning, did I dream that
within sound of the human voice almost under the eaves of the public
library, as it were, I would find superstition more rampant than among
the negroes in the Dark Corner of my native State—a county untouched by
railroads and cut off from the rest of the world by turbulent rivers,
and in which the white children never have more than three months public
schooling during a year and negro children much less. No guardian angel
warned me of the plague of influenza that, sweeping around the world,
would hover over our great city, touching alike with the finger of death
those who dwelt in palaces and they who huddled in tenement homes. No
suspicion of the coming of nationwide prohibition was planted in my
mind, nor, more surprising still, the knowledge that at our next
presidential election men and women, equal as citizens, would cast their
ballots standing side by side.

All during those eventful four years I remained in the underbrush—the
world of the unskilled working woman of New York City. During that time
I held twenty-five different positions in almost as many different
fields of work. I directed envelopes for a large mail-order house, was a
saleswoman in one of the most advertised of metropolitan department
stores, addressed envelopes for a woman’s magazine, folded circulars for
one of the largest publishing houses in the country, acted as saleswoman
in the premium station of a large profit-sharing business, packed
cigarettes, served as waitress in one of the more fashionable hotels at
a popular winter health resort, was a packer in a cracker factory, an
assistant to a chocolate-dipper in a candy factory, head chambermaid in
the home of a millionaire, maid of all work in a two-servant family,
helper in a church home for small girls, gentlewoman maid of all work in
a philanthropic institution for dependent children, assistant in the
loan department of a Wall Street banking institution—one of the largest
in the world—and a clerk of the District Board for the city of New York.
I addressed envelopes for the same mail-order house, was paid canvasser
for the Woman Suffrage Party, proof-reader in that department of the
International Y. M. C. A. known as “the guts” of the organization,
inspector in a gas-mask factory. I folded circulars in a large printing
plant, stamped envelopes for yet another woman’s magazine, worked in the
Social Service Department of Bellevue Hospital, was a clerk in the
offices of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to
Animals, a license inspector for the same society, and finally
saleswoman in the Store Beautiful—perhaps the largest and most beautiful
store in the world.

Working shoulder to shoulder and living among my fellow workers on my
wages, I became in reality one of the class known as Labor. I shared its
misery during the months preceding the entrance of our country into the
World War—caused by the continued low wages after the enormous increase
in price of every necessity of life; and I suffered along with my
fellows the nerve-racking period when our plea for an increase of wage
hung in the balance. When finally the general increase was obtained I,
with all other inhabitants of the underbrush, drew a breath of relief.
When the trend of wages continued upward—judged by the reports in the
daily press by leaps and bounds, but by us, who had struggled to keep
body and soul together on six or seven dollars a week, or less—the
feeling of relief deepened.

With the coming of national prohibition the atmosphere in the tenement
districts of New York became almost that of contentment. Many
women—hundreds of them—told me:

“My children have shoes, now that the saloon don’t get the first pull at
my husband’s pay envelope. It’s grand!”

But that atmosphere of near-contentment did not continue long after the
close of the war. During my last year in the underbrush, the working
world—including office-workers—had become as one huge caldron simmering,
simmering, simmering with suspicion, fear, and hate. One of the chief
causes, in New York City, at least, is the housing condition. While the
homes of the rich in the Golden Zone remain untenanted the year round,
the tenements are so enormously congested that decent family life is
next to impossible. Children and young people are forced to spend their
leisure time outside their homes. One result of which is the rapid
increase in crime—the so-called “crime wave.”

Because I am convinced that these conditions in America are brought
about chiefly by lack of understanding, I shall write in the chapters
that follow my experience during my four years spent as a working woman
in New York City. And I shall earnestly try to show conditions as they
actually exist. The bits of conversations given will be taken directly
from my diary, and are as nearly _verbatim_ as I could write when each
incident was fresh in my mind.


How long I stood at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street,
on that November morning, which now seems both so near and so far away,
it is impossible for me to say. The spell that gripped me was broken by
a sound like a whisper of a roar that increased until, with a clanking
crash, an elevated train came to a halt at Third Avenue and Forty-second
Street.

Turning down Fifth Avenue I set out in search of Alice Tompkins. Across
Bryant Park a single lighted window near the top of a tall building
flared out. In the east the waning moon hung a silver crescent against
the purple-black curtain of fathomless space.




CHAPTER II
MY FIRST STEPS IN THE UNDERBRUSH


A note from Alice Tompkins had been among the batch of mail handed me
the night before as I left the National Art Club. She was in New York,
and particularly wished to see me, as soon as convenient.

“Had she given up her teacher’s position in the school for defective
children?” I wondered, on my way to look her up. “And why was she
stopping in such an out-of-the-way corner of the lower West Side?”

Though I loitered over the three miles and more of streets it was not
quite seven o’clock when I rang the bell at the home for working girls
which I found at the number given in Alice’s note. The stare of
indignant protest hurled at me by the woman who opened the door!

“No,” she snapped, without giving me time to speak, “we haven’t got a
vacancy. Everything’s filled up.” And she would have banged the door
shut had I not put my foot in the opening.

“I’m calling on a guest,” I hastened to say, and taking out Alice’s note
I offered it as proof.

“Oh! I mistook you for one of them laundry-workers,” she told me
apologetically. “They’re always ringing me up this time mornings, though
it do seem like they’d a-found out by now we ain’t goin’ to take ’em in
however often they come.”

“Then you have vacancies?” I asked in surprise as she led the way to the
reception-room of the home.

“Sure! Plenty of them for the kind of girls we want. What price was you
expectin’ to pay?”

She accepted, with a gracious smile, my promise to call on her in case I
decided to come there to live. While waiting for Alice my eyes wandered
speculatively about the bleak little room, and I wondered how much she
was paying.

“Four dollars a week for my room and two meals a day,” she told me,
replying to one of my first questions. “That is one reason I wrote
instead of waiting to call on you. I thought you might know of a better
place?”

“You don’t suppose you could find a place for less money?” Her
discontent nettled me, for I had more than half made up my mind to come
there to live.

“For less money!” Alice shrugged her shoulders. “It means paying four
dollars a week for my room. The meals are simply uneatable.” Then she
explained her presence in New York. Being disappointed in the teacher’s
position obtained immediately on leaving college she had given it up and
hastened to New York, confident that she would be able to get just the
place she wished.

“It’s the wrong season. All the agencies tell me they haven’t a thing in
my line.” Then she added, with a snap of determination in both her tone
and manner: “I’m not going back to Washington City—having people say
that I can’t hold down a job. I answered an advertisement in Sunday’s
paper and got a place with Jones Brothers directing envelopes and
folding circulars.”

My interest became personal. Polly Preston would be able to direct
envelopes and fold circulars.

“What do they pay you?”

Alice shook her head.

“When the manager heard that I had been getting twenty-five dollars a
week, he said he was ashamed to tell me what they paid. He asked what
was the least I would come for. I don’t see how any one can possibly
live on less than twelve dollars a week in New York. Do you?”

“He’ll give you more than that,” was my confident assurance. “He knows
you’re a college woman. He wouldn’t think of paying you less than
fifteen, maybe twenty. If you will let me pay for my breakfast——”

“Don’t you do it,” Alice interrupted, grabbing me by the arm. “The bread
is stale and cold, the butter is uneatable, the coffee is not coffee at
all, and the milk is skimmed until it is a blue-green. You won’t be able
to eat a thing, and they’ll charge you thirty cents for it.”

While thirty cents did not, at that time, seem to me a great price to
pay for a breakfast, stale bread and blue-green milk was not tempting.
Though my plans had never included a second person, it now occurred to
me that if Alice wished to join me she might be of real assistance as
well as a pleasant companion.

“Wonderful!” she exclaimed, on hearing my explanation. “If we can only
stick it out through the Christmas rush you’ll get material for no end
of stories. I’ve always wanted to see just what the Christmas rush is
like in a popular New York store.”

Alice was about twenty-three and small. Like many small women, she was
continually standing on her dignity. And like many men and more women,
the first of their family to attain a college degree, she was
perpetually bringing the fact of having that degree before her
associates. She was the best example I have ever seen of beauty without
symmetry. Her dark hair was stringy, her face was long, her upper lip
short, showing a glint of teeth, her brows were straight and dark, her
lashes short and dark, her nose long and her dark complexion blotchy.
She had but one really fine feature—eyes, blue-gray in color and
eloquently expressive. Because of her eyes she must always be a
noticeably attractive woman.

On leaving her I walked across town to the Central Branch of the Y. W.
C. A., and after getting a satisfying breakfast for fifteen cents I
asked the price of rooms. The cheapest rate was sixty-five cents the
night with two in a room. Clutching my pocketbook I hurried out—the
purchasing power of five dollars might not be so great as it had
appeared.

A subway train set me down at the entrance of a large department store
whose advertisement for salesladies in that morning’s paper had
attracted my attention. The advertisement read “experience unnecessary”
and I knew the head of the firm to be one of the most widely known
philanthropists in the country.

In the employment department of this great store I stared at the
voluminous application-blank given me to fill out. My age, color,
nationality, my mother’s maiden name, my father’s profession. Were my
parents living or dead. My own personal history for the past ten years.
The names and addresses of two property-owners who would vouch for me.

“Ah!” I congratulated myself, on reading this last item. “The
superintendent has his eye on you for a good position at a fat salary.”


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