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Chapter 11

XI

I could not make out whether Mr. Makely approved of his wife's philosophy or not; I do not believe he thought much about it. The money probably came easily with him, and he let it go easily, as an American likes to do. There is nothing penurious or sordid about this curious people, so fierce in the pursuit of riches. When these are once gained, they seem to have no value to the man who has won them, and he has generally no object in life but to see his womankind spend them.

This is the season of the famous Thanksgiving, which has now become the national holiday, but has no longer any savor in it of the grim Puritanism it sprang from. It is now appointed by the president and the governors of the several states, in proclamations enjoining a pious gratitude upon the people for their continued prosperity as a nation, and a public acknowledgment of the divine blessings. The blessings are supposed to be of the material sort, grouped in the popular imagination as good times, and it is hard to see what they are when hordes of men and women of every occupation are feeling the pinch of poverty in their different degrees. It is not merely those who have always the wolf at their doors who are now suffering, but those whom the wolf never threatened before; those who amuse as well as those who serve the rich are alike anxious and fearful, where they are not already in actual want; thousands of poor players, as well as hundreds of thousands of poor laborers, are out of employment, and the winter threatens to be one of dire misery. Yet you would not imagine from the smiling face of things, as you would see it in the better parts of this great city, that there was a heavy heart or an empty stomach anywhere below it. In fact, people here are so used to seeing other people in want that it no longer affects them as reality; it is merely dramatic, or hardly so lifelike as that—it is merely histrionic. It is rendered still more spectacular to the imaginations of the fortunate by the melodrama of charity they are invited to take part in by endless appeals, and their fancy is flattered by the notion that they are curing the distress they are only slightly relieving by a gift from their superfluity. The charity, of course, is better than nothing, but it is a fleeting mockery of the trouble, at the best. If it were proposed that the city should subsidize a theatre a which the idle players could get employment in producing good plays at a moderate cost to the people, the notion would not be considered more ridiculous than that of founding municipal works for the different sorts of idle workers; and it would not be thought half so nefarious, for the proposition to give work by the collectivity is supposed to be in contravention of the sacred principle of monopolistic competition so dear to the American economist, and it would be denounced as an approximation to the surrender of the city to anarchism and destruction by dynamite.

But as I have so often said, the American life is in no wise logical, and you will not be surprised, though you may be shocked or amused, to learn that the festival of Thanksgiving is now so generally devoted to witnessing a game of football between the elevens of two great universities that the services at the churches are very scantily attended. The Americans are practical, if they are not logical, and this preference of football to prayer and praise on Thanksgiving-day has gone so far that now a principal church in the city holds its services on Thanksgiving-eve, so that the worshippers may not be tempted to keep away from their favorite game.

There is always a heavy dinner at home after the game, to console the friends of those who have lost and to heighten the joy of the winning side, among the comfortable people. The poor recognize the day largely as a sort of carnival. They go about in masquerade on the eastern avenues, and the children of the foreign races who populate that quarter penetrate the better streets, blowing horns and begging of the passers. They have probably no more sense of its difference from the old carnival of Catholic Europe than from the still older Saturnalia of pagan times. Perhaps you will say that a masquerade is no more pagan than a football game; and I confess that I have a pleasure in that innocent misapprehension of the holiday on the East Side. I am not more censorious of it than I am of the displays of festival cheer at the provision-stores or green-groceries throughout the city at this time. They are almost as numerous on the avenues as the drinking-saloons, and, thanks to them, the tasteful housekeeping is at least convenient in a high degree. The waste is inevitable with the system of separate kitchens, and it is not in provisions alone, but in labor and in time, a hundred cooks doing the work of one; but the Americans have no conception of our co-operative housekeeping, and so the folly goes on.

Meantime the provision-stores add much to their effect of crazy gayety on the avenues. The variety and harmony of colors is very great, and this morning I stood so long admiring the arrangement in one of them that I am afraid I rendered myself a little suspicious to the policeman guarding the liquor-store on the nearest corner; there seems always to be a policeman assigned to this duty. The display was on either side of the provisioner's door, and began, on one hand, with a basal line of pumpkins well out on the sidewalk. Then it was built up with the soft white and cool green of cauliflowers and open boxes of red and white grapes, to the window that flourished in banks of celery and rosy apples. On the other side, gray-green squashes formed the foundation, and the wall was sloped upward with the delicious salads you can find here, the dark red of beets, the yellow of carrots, and the blue of cabbages. The association of colors was very artistic, and even the line of mutton carcasses overhead, with each a brace of grouse or half a dozen quail in its embrace, and flanked with long sides of beef at the four ends of the line, was picturesque, though the sight of the carnage at the provision-stores here would always be dreadful to an Altrurian; in the great markets it is intolerable. This sort of business is mostly in the hands of the Germans, who have a good eye for such effects as may be studied in it; but the fruiterers are nearly all Italians, and their stalls are charming. I always like, too, the cheeriness of the chestnut and peanut ovens of the Italians; the pleasant smell and friendly smoke that rise from them suggest a simple and homelike life which there are so any things in this great, weary, heedless city to make one forget.

William Dean Howells