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The Bread Line








From: A Deal In Wheat And Other Stories

The street was very dark and absolutely deserted. It was a district on
the "South Side," not far from the Chicago River, given up largely to
wholesale stores, and after nightfall was empty of all life. The echoes
slept but lightly hereabouts, and the slightest footfall, the faintest
noise, woke them upon the instant and sent them clamouring up and down
the length of the pavement between the iron shuttered fronts. The only
light visible came from the side door of a certain "Vienna" bakery,
where at one o'clock in the morning loaves of bread were given away to
any who should ask. Every evening about nine o'clock the outcasts began
to gather about the side door. The stragglers came in rapidly, and the
line--the "bread line," as it was called--began to form. By midnight it
was usually some hundred yards in length, stretching almost the entire
length of the block.

Toward ten in the evening, his coat collar turned up against the fine
drizzle that pervaded the air, his hands in his pockets, his elbows
gripping his sides, Sam Lewiston came up and silently took his place at
the end of the line.

Unable to conduct his farm upon a paying basis at the time when Truslow,
the "Great Bear," had sent the price of grain down to sixty-two cents a
bushel, Lewiston had turned over his entire property to his creditors,
and, leaving Kansas for good, had abandoned farming, and had left his
wife at her sister's boarding-house in Topeka with the understanding
that she was to join him in Chicago so soon as he had found a steady
job. Then he had come to Chicago and had turned workman. His brother Joe
conducted a small hat factory on Archer Avenue, and for a time he found
there a meager employment. But difficulties had occurred, times were
bad, the hat factory was involved in debts, the repealing of a certain
import duty on manufactured felt overcrowded the home market with cheap
Belgian and French products, and in the end his brother had assigned and
gone to Milwaukee.

Thrown out of work, Lewiston drifted aimlessly about Chicago, from
pillar to post, working a little, earning here a dollar, there a dime,
but always sinking, sinking, till at last the ooze of the lowest bottom
dragged at his feet and the rush of the great ebb went over him and
engulfed him and shut him out from the light, and a park bench became
his home and the "bread line" his chief makeshift of subsistence.

He stood now in the enfolding drizzle, sodden, stupefied with fatigue.
Before and behind stretched the line. There was no talking. There was no
sound. The street was empty. It was so still that the passing of a
cable-car in the adjoining thoroughfare grated like prolonged rolling
explosions, beginning and ending at immeasurable distances. The drizzle
descended incessantly. After a long time midnight struck.

There was something ominous and gravely impressive in this interminable
line of dark figures, close-pressed, soundless; a crowd, yet absolutely
still; a close-packed, silent file, waiting, waiting in the vast
deserted night-ridden street; waiting without a word, without a
movement, there under the night and under the slow-moving mists of rain.

Few in the crowd were professional beggars. Most of them were workmen,
long since out of work, forced into idleness by long-continued "hard
times," by ill luck, by sickness. To them the "bread line" was a
godsend. At least they could not starve. Between jobs here in the end
was something to hold them up--a small platform, as it were, above the
sweep of black water, where for a moment they might pause and take
breath before the plunge.

The period of waiting on this night of rain seemed endless to those
silent, hungry men; but at length there was a stir. The line moved. The
side door opened. Ah, at last! They were going to hand out the bread.

But instead of the usual white-aproned under-cook with his crowded
hampers there now appeared in the doorway a new man--a young fellow who
looked like a bookkeeper's assistant. He bore in his hand a placard,
which he tacked to the outside of the door. Then he disappeared within
the bakery, locking the door after him.

A shudder of poignant despair, an unformed, inarticulate sense of
calamity, seemed to run from end to end of the line. What had happened?
Those in the rear, unable to read the placard, surged forward, a sense
of bitter disappointment clutching at their hearts.

The line broke up, disintegrated into a shapeless throng--a throng that
crowded forward and collected in front of the shut door whereon the
placard was affixed. Lewiston, with the others, pushed forward. On the
placard he read these words:

"Owing to the fact that the price of grain has been increased to two
dollars a bushel, there will be no distribution of bread from this
bakery until further notice."

Lewiston turned away, dumb, bewildered. Till morning he walked the
streets, going on without purpose, without direction. But now at last
his luck had turned. Overnight the wheel of his fortunes had creaked and
swung upon its axis, and before noon he had found a job in the
street-cleaning brigade. In the course of time he rose to be first
shift-boss, then deputy inspector, then inspector, promoted to the
dignity of driving in a red wagon with rubber tires and drawing a salary
instead of mere wages. The wife was sent for and a new start made.

But Lewiston never forgot. Dimly he began to see the significance of
things. Caught once in the cogs and wheels of a great and terrible
engine, he had seen--none better--its workings. Of all the men who had
vainly stood in the "bread line" on that rainy night in early summer,
he, perhaps, had been the only one who had struggled up to the surface
again. How many others had gone down in the great ebb? Grim question; he
dared not think how many.

He had seen the two ends of a great wheat operation--a battle between
Bear and Bull. The stories (subsequently published in the city's press)
of Truslow's countermove in selling Hornung his own wheat, supplied the
unseen section. The farmer--he who raised the wheat--was ruined upon one
hand; the working-man--he who consumed it--was ruined upon the other.
But between the two, the great operators, who never saw the wheat they
traded in, bought and sold the world's food, gambled in the nourishment
of entire nations, practised their tricks, their chicanery and oblique
shifty "deals," were reconciled in their differences, and went on
through their appointed way, jovial, contented, enthroned, and
unassailable.





Next: The Wife Of Chino

Previous: The Belt Line



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