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Ways and Means of Living in New York

The Howadji, or the Hajii, us people called his sort in the days of Home as Found, was prompt to the hour when his month's absence was up, and he began without a moment's delay: "But of course the lion in the way of my thesis that New York is comparatively cheap is the rent, the rent of flats or houses in the parts of the town where people of gentle tastes and feelings are willing to live. Provisions are cheap; furnishings of all kinds are cheap; service, especially when you mainly or wholly dispense with it, is cheap, for one maid here will do the work of two abroad, and if the mistress of the house does her own work she can make the modern appliances her handmaids at no cost whatever. It is ridiculous, in fact, leaving all those beautiful and ingenious helps in housework to the hirelings who work only twice as hard with them for more wages than the hirelings of countries where they don't exist."

"Don't be so breathless," we interposed. "You will only be allowed to talk three thousand words, whether you talk fast or slow, and you might as well take your ease."

"That is true," the Howadji reflected. "But I am full of my subject, and I have the feeling that I am getting more out, even if I can't get more in, by talking fast. The rent question itself," he hurried on, "has been satisfactorily solved of late in the new invention of co-operative housing which you may have heard of."

We owned that we had, with the light indifference of one whom matters of more money or less did not concern, and our friend went on.

"The plan was invented, you know, by a group of artists who imagined putting up a large composite dwelling in a street where the cost of land was not absolutely throat-cutting, and finishing it with tasteful plainness in painted pine and the like, but equipping it with every modern convenience in the interest of easier housekeeping. The characteristic and imperative fact of each apartment was a vast and lofty studio whose height was elsewhere divided into two floors, and so gave abundant living-rooms in little space. The proprietorial group may have been ten, say, but the number of apartments was twice as many, and the basic hope was to let the ten other apartments for rents which would carry the expense of the whole, and house the owners at little or no cost. The curious fact is that this apparently too simple-hearted plan worked. The Philistines, as the outsiders may be called, liked being near the self-chosen people; they liked the large life-giving studio which imparted light and air to the two floors of its rearward division, and they eagerly paid the sustaining rents. The fortunate experience of one æsthetic group moved others to like enterprises; and now there are eight or ten of these co-operative studio apartment-houses in different parts of the town."

"With the same fortunate experience for the owners?" we queried, with suppressed sarcasm.

"Not exactly," our friend assented to our intention. "The successive groups have constantly sought more central, more desirable, more fashionable situations. They have built not better than they knew, for that could not be, but costlier, and they have finished in hard woods, with marble halls and marbleized hall-boys, and the first expense has been much greater; but actual disaster has not yet followed; perhaps it is too soon; we must not be impatient; but what has already happened is what happens with other beautiful things that the æsthetic invent. It has happened notoriously with all the most lovable and livable summer places which the artists and authors find out and settle themselves cheaply and tastefully in. The Philistines, a people wholly without invention, a cuckoo tribe incapable of self-nesting, stumble upon those joyous homes by chance, or by mistaken invitation. They submit meekly enough at first to be sub-neighbors ruled in all things by the genius of the place; but once in, they begin to lay their golden eggs in some humble cottage, and then they hatch out broods of palatial villas equipped with men and maid servants, horses, carriages, motors, yachts; and if the original settlers remain it is in a helpless inferiority, a broken spirit, and an overridden ideal. This tragical history is the same at Magnolia, and at York Harbor, and at Dublin, and at Bar Harbor; even at Newport itself; the co-operative housing of New York is making a like history. It is true that the Philistines do not come in and dispossess the autochthonic groups; these will not sell to them; but they have imagined doing on a sophisticated and expensive scale what the æsthetics have done simply and cheaply. They are buying the pleasanter sites, and are building co-operatively; though they have already eliminated the studio and the central principle, and they build for the sole occupancy of the owners. But the cost of their housing then is such that it puts them out of the range of our inquiry as their riches has already put them beyond the range of our sympathy. It still remains for any impecunious group to buy the cheaper lots, and build simpler houses on the old studio principle, with rents enough to pay the cost of operation, and leave the owners merely the interest and taxes, with the eventual payment of these also by the tenants. Some of the studio apartments are equipped with restaurants, and the dwellers need only do such light housekeeping as ladies may attempt without disgrace, or too much fatigue."

"Or distraction from their duties to society," we suggested.

"It depends upon what you mean by society; it's a very general and inexact term. If you mean formal dinners, dances, parties, receptions, and all that, the lightest housekeeping would distract from the duties to it; but if you mean congenial friends willing to come in for tea in the afternoon, or to a simple lunch, or not impossibly a dinner, light housekeeping is not incompatible with a conscientious recognition of society's claims. I think of two ladies, sisters, one younger and one older than the other, who keep house not lightly, but in its full weight of all the meals, for their father and brother, and yet are most gracefully and most acceptably in the sort of society which Jane Austen says is, if not good, the best: the society of gifted, cultivated, travelled, experienced, high-principled people, capable of respecting themselves and respecting their qualities wherever they find them in others. These ladies do not pretend to 'entertain,' but their table is such that they are never afraid to ask a friend to it. In a moment, if there is not enough or not good enough, one of them conjures something attractive out of the kitchen, and you sit down to a banquet. The sisters are both of that gentle class of semi-invalids whose presence in our civilization enables us to support the rudeness of the general health. They employ æsthetically the beautiful alleviations with which science has rescued domestic drudgery from so much of the primal curse; it is a pleasure to see them work; it is made so graceful, so charming, that you can hardly forbear taking hold yourself."

"But you do forbear," we interposed; "and do you imagine that their example is going to prevail with the great average of impecunious American housewives, or sisters, or daughters?"

"No, they will continue to 'keep a girl' whom they will enslave to the performance of duties which they would be so much better for doing themselves, both in body and mind, for that doing would develop in them the hospitable soul of those two dear ladies. They will be in terror of the casual guest, knowing well that they cannot set before him things fit to eat. They have no genius for housekeeping, which is one with home-making: they do not love it, and those ladies do love it in every detail, so that their simple flat shines throughout with a lustre which pervades the kitchen and the parlor and the chamber alike. It is the one-girl household, or the two-girl, which makes living costly because it makes living wasteful; it is not the luxurious establishments of the rich which are to blame for our banishment to the mythical cheapness of Europe."

We were not convinced by the eloquence which had overheated our friend, and we objected: "But those ladies you speak of give their whole lives to housekeeping, and ought cheapness to be achieved at such an expense?"

"In the first place, they don't; and, if they do, what do the one-girl or the two-girl housekeepers give their lives to? or, for the matter of that, the ten or twenty girl housekeepers? The ladies of whom I speak have always read the latest book worth reading; they have seen the picture which people worth while are talking of; they know through that best society which likes a cup of their tea all the æsthetic gossip of the day; they are part of the intellectual movement, that part which neither the arts nor the letters can afford to ignore; they help to make up the polite public whose opinions are the court of final appeal."

"They strike us," we said, stubbornly, "as rather romantic."

"Ah, there you are! Well, they are romantic—romantic like a gentle poem, like an idyllic tale; but I deny that they are romanticistic. Their whole lives deal with realities, the every-other-day as well as the every-day realities. But the lives of those others who make all life costly by refusing their share of its work dwell in a web of threadbare fictions which never had any color of truth in this country. They are trying to imitate poor imitations, to copy those vulgar copies of the European ideal which form the society-page's contribution to the history of our contemporary civilization."

We were so far moved as to say, "We think we see what you mean," and our friend went on.

"Speaking of civilization, do you know what a genial change the tea-room is working in our morals and manners? There are many interesting phases of its progress among us, and not the least interesting of these is its being so largely the enterprise of ladies who must not only save money, but must earn money, in order to live, not cheaply, but at all. Their fearlessness in going to work has often the charm of a patrician past, for many of them are Southern women who have come to New York to repair their broken fortunes. The tea-room has offered itself as a graceful means to this end, and they have accepted its conditions, which are mainly the more delicate kinds of cookery, with those personal and racial touches in which Southern women are so expert. But there are tea-rooms managed by Western women, if I may judge from the accents involuntarily overheard in their talk at the telephone. The tea of the tea-room means lunch, too, and in some places breakfast and dinner, or rather supper, on much the plan of the several Women's Exchanges; but these are mostly of New England inspiration and operation, and their cooking has a Northern quality. They, as well as the tea-rooms, leave something to be desired in cheapness, though they might be dearer; in some you get tea for fifteen cents, in others a no better brew for twenty-five. But they are all charmingly peaceful, and when at the noon hour they overflow with conversation, still there is a prevailing sense of quiet, finely qualified by the feminine invention and influence. Mere men are allowed to frequent these places, not only under the protection of women, but also quite unchaperoned, and when one sees them gently sipping their Souchong or Oolong, and respectfully munching their toasted muffins or their chicken-pie, one remembers with tender gratitude how recently they would have stood crooking their elbows at deleterious bars, and visiting the bowls of cheese and shredded fish and crackers to which their drink freed them, while it enslaved them to the witchery of those lurid ladies contributed by art to the evil attractions of such places: you see nowhere else ladies depicted with so little on, except in the Paris salon. The New York tea-rooms are not yet nearly so frequent as in London, but I think they are on the average cosier, and on the whole I cannot say that they are dearer. They really cheapen the midday meal to many who would otherwise make it at hotels and restaurants, and, so far as they contribute to the spread of the afternoon-tea habit, they actually lessen the cost of living: many guests can now be fobbed off with tea who must once have been asked to lunch."

"But," we suggested, "isn't that cheapness at the cost of shabbiness, which no one can really afford?"

"No, I don't think so. Whatever lightens hospitality of its cumbrousness makes for civilization, which is really more compatible with a refined frugality than with an unbridled luxury. If every à-la-carte restaurant, in the hotels and out of them, could be replaced by tea-rooms, and for the elaborate lunches and dinners of private life the informality and simplicity of the afternoon tea were substituted, we should all be healthier, wealthier, and wiser; and I should not be obliged to protract this contention for the superior cheapness of New York."

"But, wait!" we said. "There is something just occurs to us. If you proved New York the cheapest great city in the world, wouldn't it tend to increase our population even beyond the present figure, which you once found so deplorable?"

"No, I imagine not. Or, rather, it would add to our population only those who desire to save instead of those who desire to waste. We should increase through the new-comers in virtuous economy, and not as now in spendthrift vainglory. In the end the effect would be the same for civilization as if we shrank to the size of Boston."

"You will have to explain a little, Howadji," we said, "if you expect us to understand your very interesting position."

"Why, you know," he answered, with easy superiority, "that now our great influx is of opulent strangers who have made a good deal of money, and of destitute strangers willing to help them live on it. The last we needn't take account of; they are common to all cities in all ages; but the first are as new as any phenomenon can be in a world of such tiresome tautologies as ours. They come up from our industrial provinces, eager to squander their wealth in the commercial metropolis; they throw down their purses as the heroes of old threw down their gantlets for a gage of battle, and they challenge the local champions of extortion to take them up. It is said that they do not want a seasonable or a beautiful thing; they want a costly thing. If, for instance, they are offered a house or an apartment at a rental of ten or fifteen thousand, they will not have it; they require a rental of fifteen or twenty thousand, so that it may be known, 'back home,' that they are spending that much for rent in New York, and the provincial imagination taxed to proportion the cost of their living otherwise to such a sum. You may say that it is rather splendid, but you cannot deny that it is also stupid."

"Stupid, no; but barbaric, yes," we formulated the case. "It is splendid, as barbaric pearls and gold are splendid."

"But you must allow that nothing could be more mischievous. When next we go with our modest incomes against these landlords, they suppose that we too want rentals of fifteen thousand, whereas we would easily be satisfied with one of fifteen hundred or a thousand. The poor fellows' fancy is crazed by those prodigals, and we must all suffer for their madness. The extravagance of the new-comers does not affect the price of provisions so much, or of clothes; the whole population demands food and raiment within the general means, however much it must exceed its means in the cost of shelter. The spendthrifts cannot set the pace for such expenditures, no matter how much they lavish on their backs and—"

"Forbear!" we cried. "Turning from the danger we have saved you from, you will say, we suppose, that New York would be the cheapest of the great cities if it were not for the cost of shelter."

"Something like that," he assented.

"But as we understand, that difficulty is to be solved by co-operative, or composite, housing?"

"Something like that," he said again, but there was a note of misgiving in his voice.

"What is the 'out'?" we asked.

"There is no 'out,'" he said, with a deep, evasive sigh.

William Dean Howells