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Cheapness of the Costliest City on Earth

"One of my surprises on Getting Back," the more or less imaginary interlocutor who had got back from Europe said in his latest visit to the Easy Chair, "is the cheapness of the means of living in New York."

At this the Easy Chair certainly sat up. "Stay not a moment, Howadji," we exclaimed, "in removing our deep-seated prepossession that New York is the most expensive place on the planet."

But instead of instantly complying our friend fell into a smiling muse, from which he broke at last to say: "I have long been touched by the pathos of a fact which I believe is not yet generally known. Do you know yourself, with the searching knowledge which is called feeling it in your bones, that a good many Southerners and Southerly Westerners make this town their summer resort?" We intimated that want of penetrating statistics which we perceived would gratify him, and he went on. "They put up at our hotels which in the 'anguish of the solstice' they find invitingly vacant. As soon as they have registered the clerk recognizes them as Colonel, or Major, or Judge, but gives them the rooms which no amount of family or social prestige could command in the season, and there they stay, waking each day from unmosquitoed nights to iced-melon mornings, until a greater anguish is telegraphed forward by the Associated Press. Then they turn their keys in their doors, and flit to the neighboring Atlantic or the adjacent Catskills, till the solstice recovers a little, and then they return to their hotel and resume their life in the city, which they have almost to themselves, with its parks and drives and roof-gardens and vaudevilles, unelbowed by the three or four millions of natives whom we leave behind us when we go to Europe, or Newport, or Bar Harbor, or the Adirondacks. Sometimes they take furnished flats along the Park, and settle into a greater permanency than their hotel sojourn implies. They get the flats at about half the rent paid by the lessees who sublet them, but I call it pathetic that they should count it joy to come where we should think it misery to stay. Still, everything is comparative, and I suppose they are as reasonably happy in New York as I am in my London lodgings in the London season, where I sometimes stifle in a heat not so pure and clear as that I have fled from."

"Very well," we said, dryly, "you have established the fact that the Southerners come here for the summer and live in great luxury; but what has that to do with the cheapness of living in New York, which you began by boasting?"

"Ah, I was coming back to that," the Howadji said, with a glow of inspiration. "I have been imagining, in the relation which you do not see, that New York can be made the inexpensive exile of its own children as it has been made the summer home of those sympathetic Southerners. If I can establish the fact of its potential cheapness, as I think I can, I shall deprive them of some reasons for going abroad, though I'm not sure they will thank me, when the reasons for Europe are growing fewer and fewer. Culture can now be acquired almost as advantageously here as there. Except for the 'monuments,' in which we include all ancient and modern masterpieces in the several arts, we have no excuse for going to Europe, and even in these masterpieces Europe is coming to us so increasingly in every manner of reproduction that we allege the monuments almost in vain. The very ruins of the past are now so accurately copied in various sorts of portable plasticity that we may know them here with nearly the same emotion as on their own ground. The education of their daughters which once availed with mothers willing to sacrifice themselves and their husbands to the common good, no longer avails. The daughters know the far better time they will have at home, and refuse to go, as far as daughters may, and in our civilization this, you know, is very far. But it was always held a prime reason and convincing argument that Dresden, Berlin, Paris, Rome, and even London, were so much cheaper than New York that it was a waste of money to stay at home."

"Well, wasn't it?" we impatiently demanded.

"I will not say, for I needn't, as yet. There were always at the same time philosophers who contended that if we lived in those capitals as we lived at home, they would be dearer than New York. But what is really relevant is the question whether New York isn't cheaper now."

"We thought it had got past a question with you. We thought you began by saying that New York is cheaper."

"I can't believe I was so crude," the Howadji returned, with a fine annoyance. "That is the conclusion you have characteristically jumped to without looking before you leap. I was going to approach the fact much more delicately, and I don't know but what by your haste you have shattered my ideal of the conditions. But I'll own that the great stumbling-block to my belief that the means of living in New York are cheaper than in the European capitals is that the house rents here are so incomparably higher than they are there. But I must distinguish and say that I mean flat-rents, for, oddly enough, flats are much dearer than houses. You can get a very pretty little house, in a fair quarter, with plenty of light and a good deal of sun, for two-thirds and sometimes one-half what you must pay for a flat with the same number of rooms, mostly dark or dim, and almost never sunny. Of course, a house is more expensive and more difficult to 'run,' but even with the cost of the greater service and of the furnace heat the rent does not reach that of a far less wholesome and commodious flat. There is one thing to be said in favor of a flat, however, and that is the women are in favor of it. The feminine instinct is averse to stairs; the sex likes to be safely housed against burglars, and when it must be left alone, it desires the security of neighbors, however strange the neighbors may be; it likes the authority of a janitor, the society of an elevator-boy. It hates a lower door, an area, an ash-barrel, and a back yard. But if it were willing to confront all these inconveniences, it is intimately, it is osseously, convinced that a house is not cheaper than a flat. As a matter of fact, neither a house nor a flat is cheap enough in New York to bear me out in my theory that New York is no more expensive than those Old World cities. To aid efficiently in my support I must invoke the prices of provisions, which I find, by inquiry at several markets on the better avenues, have reverted to the genial level of the earlier nineteen-hundreds, before the cattle combined with the trusts to send them up. I won't prosily rehearse the quotations of beef, mutton, pork, poultry, and fish; they can be had at any dealer's on demand; and they will be found less, on the whole, than in London, less than in Paris, less even than in Rome. They are greater no doubt than the prices in our large Western cities, but they are twenty per cent. less than the prices in Boston, and in the New England towns which hang upon Boston's favor for their marketing. I do not know how or why it is that while we wicked New-Yorkers pay twenty-five cents for our beefsteak, these righteous Bostonians should have to pay thirty, for the same cut and quality. Here I give twenty-eight a pound for my Java coffee; in the summer I live near an otherwise delightful New Hampshire town where I must give thirty-eight. It is strange that the siftings of three kingdoms, as the Rev. Mr. Higginson called his fellow-Puritans, should have come in their great-grandchildren to a harder fate in this than the bran and shorts and middlings of such harvestings as the fields of Ireland and Italy, of Holland and Hungary, of Poland and Transylvania and Muscovy afford. Perhaps it is because those siftings have run to such a low percentage of the whole New England population that they must suffer, along with the refuse of the mills—the Mills of the Gods—abounding in our city and its dependencies.

"I don't know how much our housekeepers note the fall of the prices in their monthly bills, but in browsing about for my meals, as I rather like to do, I distinctly see it in the restaurant rates. I don't mean the restaurants to which the rich or reckless resort, but those modester places which consult the means of the careful middle class to which I belong. As you know, I live ostensibly at the Hotel Universe. I have a room there, and that is my address——"

"We know," we derisively murmured. "So few of our visitors can afford it."

"I can't afford it myself," our friend said. "But I save a little by breakfasting there, and lunching and dining elsewhere. Or, I did till the eggs got so bad that I had to go out for my breakfast, too. Now I get perfect eggs, of the day before, for half the price that the extortionate hens laying for the Universe exact for their last week's product. At a very good Broadway hotel, which simple strangers from Europe think first class, I get a 'combination' breakfast of fresh eggs, fresh butter, and fresh rolls, with a pot of blameless Souchong or Ceylon tea, for thirty cents; if I plunge to the extent of a baked apple, I pay thirty-five. Do you remember what you last paid in Paris or Rome for coffee, rolls, and butter?"

"A franc fifty," we remembered.

"And in London for the same with eggs you paid one and six, didn't you?"

"Very likely," we assented.

"Well, then, you begin to see. There are several good restaurants quite near that good hotel where I get the same combination breakfast for the same price; and if I go to one of those shining halls which you find in a score of places, up and down Broadway and the side streets, I get it for twenty-five cents. But though those shining halls glare at you with roofs and walls of stainless tile and glass, and tables of polished marble, their bill of fare is so inflexibly adjusted to the general demand that I cannot get Souchong or Ceylon tea for any money; I can only get Oolong; otherwise I must take a cup of their excellent coffee. If I wander from my wonted breakfast, I can get almost anything in the old American range of dishes for five or ten cents a portion, and the quality and quantity are both all I can ask. As I have learned upon inquiry, the great basal virtues of these places are good eggs and good butter: I like to cut from the thick slice of butter under the perfect cube of ice, better than to have my butter pawed into balls or cut into shavings, as they serve your butter in Europe. But I prefer having a small table to myself, with my hat and overcoat vis-à-vis on the chair opposite, as I have it at that good hotel. In those shining halls I am elbowed by three others at my polished marble table; but if there were more room I should never object to the company. It is the good, kind, cleanly, comely American average, which is the best company in the world, with a more than occasional fine head, and faces delicately sculptured by thought and study. I address myself fearlessly to the old and young of my own sex, without ever a snub such as I might get from the self-respectful maids or matrons who resort to the shining halls, severally or collectively, if I ventured upon the same freedom with them. I must say that my commensals lunch or dine as wisely as I do for the most part, but sometimes I have had to make my tacit criticisms; and I am glad that I forbore one night with a friendly young man at my elbow, who had just got his order of butter-cakes—"

"Butter-cakes?" we queried.

"That is what they call a rich, round, tumid product of the griddle, which they serve very hot, and open to close again upon a large lump of butter. For two of those cakes and his coffee my unknown friend paid fifteen cents, and made a supper, after which I should not have needed to break my fast the next morning. But he fearlessly consumed it, and while he ate he confided that he was of a minor clerical employ in one of the great hotels near by, and when I praised our shining hall and its guests he laughed and said he came regularly, and he always saw people there who were registered at his hotel: they found it good and they found it cheap. I suppose you know that New York abounds in tables d'hôte of a cheapness unapproached in the European capitals?"

We said we had heard so; at the same time we tried to look as if we always dined somewhere in society, but Heaven knows whether we succeeded.

"The combination breakfast is a form of table d'hôte; and at a very attractive restaurant in a good place I have seen such a breakfast—fruit, cereal, eggs, rolls, and coffee—offered for fifteen cents. I have never tried it, not because I had not the courage, but because I thought thirty cents cheap enough; those who do not I should still hold worthy of esteem if they ate the fifteen-cent breakfast. I have also seen placarded a 'business men's lunch' for fifteen cents, which also I have not tried; I am not a business man. I make bold to say, however, that I often go for my lunch or my dinner to a certain Italian place on a good avenue, which I will not locate more definitely lest you should think me a partner of the enterprise, for fifty and sixty cents, 'vino compreso.' The material is excellent, and the treatment is artistic; the company of a simple and self-respectful domesticity which I think it an honor to be part of: fathers and mothers of families, aunts, cousins, uncles, grandparents. I do not deny a Merry Widow hat here and there, but the face under it, though often fair and young, is not a Merry Widow face. Those people all look as kind and harmless as the circle which I used to frequent farther down-town at a fifty-cent French table d'hôte, but with a bouillabaisse added which I should not, but for my actual experiences, have expected to buy for any money. But there are plenty of Italian and French tables d'hôte for the same price all over town. If you venture outside of the Latin race, you pay dearer and you fare worse, unless you go to those shining halls which I have been praising. If you go to a German place, you get grosser dishes and uncouth manners for more money; I do not know why that amiable race should be so dear and rude in its feeding-places, but that is my experience."

"You wander, you wander!" we exclaimed. "Why should we care for your impressions of German cooking and waiting, unless they go to prove or disprove that living in New York is cheaper than in the European capitals?"

"Perhaps I was going to say that even those Germans are not so dear as they are in the fatherland, though rude. They do not tend much if at all to tables d'hôte, but the Italians and the French who do, serve you a better meal for a lower price than you would get in Paris, or Rome, or Naples. There the prevalent ideal is five francs, with neither wine nor coffee included. I'll allow that the cheap table d'hôte is mainly the affair of single men and women, and does not merit the consideration I've given it. If it helps a young couple to do with one maid, or with none, instead of two, it makes for cheapness of living. Service is costly and it is greedy, and except in large households its diet is the same as the family's, so that anything which reduces it is a great saving. But the table d'hôte which is cheap for one or two is not cheap for more, and it is not available if there are children. Housing and raw-provisioning and serving are the main questions, and in Europe the first and last are apparently much less expensive. Marketing is undoubtedly cheaper with us, and if you count in what you get with the newness, the wholesomeness, and handiness of an American flat, the rent is not so much greater than that of a European flat, with its elementary bareness. You could not, here, unless you descended from the apartment to the tenement, hire any quarter where you would not be supplied with hot and cold water, with steam heating, with a bath-room, and all the rest of it."

"But," we said, "you are showing that we are more comfortably housed than the Europeans, when you should be treating the fact of relative cheapness."

"I was coming to that even in the matter of housing—"

"It is too late to come to it in this paper. You have now talked three thousand words, and that is the limit. You must be silent for at least another month."

"But if I have something important to say at this juncture? If I may not care to recur to the subject a month hence? If I may have returned to Europe by that time?"

"Then you can the better verify your statistics. But the rule in this place is inflexible. Three thousand words, neither more nor less. The wisdom of Solomon would be blue-pencilled if it ran to more."

William Dean Howells