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The Brownstone Front

From: Still Jim

"Coyote, eagle, Indian, I have seen countless generations of
them fulfill their destinies and disappear. I wonder when my
turn will come."


Jim and his mother did not feel like strangers when they reached New
York. Mrs. Manning knew the city well and Jim, boy-like, was overjoyed
at the idea of being in the great town.

Mr. Dennis' brownstone front was one of the fine old houses on West 23rd
street that are fast making way for stores. It was full of red Brussels
carpets and walnut furniture of crinkly design. It had crayon
enlargements of Mrs. Dennis and the two small Dennises in the parlor and
in the guest room and in Mr. Dennis' room. Jim wondered how Mr. Dennis
could be so genial when he had lost so much.

The third floor had two large rooms opening off a big central room, and
this floor, comfortably furnished, was for the use of Mrs. Manning and
Jim and the maid. Mrs. Manning solved the maid question by sending back
to Exham for Annie Peyton. Annie was about forty. Her mother had been
housekeeper for Mrs. Manning's mother and Annie was the domestic day
worker for the village. Up in Exham English customs still obtained among
the old families. Annie was "Peyton" to Mrs. Manning.

Jim guessed from his own feelings how her position as a servant hurt his
mother. She herself never said anything, but Jim noticed that she made
no friends. Mr. Dennis treated her with a very real courtesy and basked
in her perfect housekeeping.

Jim entered school at once. In his own way, he was a brilliant student.
He had the sort of mind that instinctively grasps fundamental
principles, and this faculty, combined with a certain mental obstinacy
and independence, made him at once the pride and terror of his teachers.
He was a very firm rock on which to depend for exhibition purposes, but
whenever he asked questions they were of a searching variety that made
his teachers long to box his ears.

It was rather a pity that all Jim's spare moments when not in school had
to be spent in janitor service. He missed the companionship of the boys
in the public school which, in America, is an almost indispensable part
of a boy's education. In his adult life he must meet and understand men
and methods of every nationality. New York public schools are veritable
congresses of nations and a boy who plans to go into business gets far
more than mere book learning from them. Jim's poverty cut him out of
athletics and clubs so that all his inherent New England tendency to
mental aloofness would have been vastly increased if it had not been for
his summer vacations.

The first day of his summer vacation, Jim applied for a job. A steel
skyscraper was being erected in 42nd street and Jim asked the
superintendent of construction for work. The superintendent looked at
the lank lad, who now, fifteen, would have appeared eighteen were it not
for his smooth, almost childish face.

"What kind of work, young fella?" asked the Boss.

"Anything to start with," replied Jim, "until we see what I can do."

"You're as thin as a lath. Ye can get down there with Derrick No. 2 and
get some muscle laid on you. A dollar fifty a day is the best I can do
for you. Get along now."

Jim's brain reeled with joy at the size of his prospective income. He
nodded, pulled off his coat, leaving it in the superintendent's office
and found his way to Derrick No. 2.

The structure was a big one, so big that the exigencies of New York
traffic were forcing the company to build in sections. A steel frame
nearly eighteen stories high was nearly finished at one edge, while
blasting for another portion of the foundation, five stories deep, was
going on at the other edge.

Derrick No. 2 was in the new foundation. Jim's foreman was a Greek. His
companion, with whom he guided the rock that the derrick lifted was a
Sicilian. The steam drillman whom Jim had to help was a negro. There
were ten nationalities on the pay roll of the company. Jim had grown
accustomed to feeling in school that New York was not in America, but in
a foreign country. Down in the five-story hole in the ground, with the
ear-shattering batter of the steam riveters above him, the groaning of
the donkey engines, the tear and screech of the steam drills beside him,
with the never ending clatter and chatter of tongues that he could not
understand about him, Jim often got the sense of suffocation of which
his father had complained. He detested foreigners, anyhow. There was in
Jim the race vanity of the Anglo-Saxon which is as profound as it is

Now, with his boyish sweat mingling with that of these alien workers on
the great new structure, Jim wondered how he was going to stand this,
summer after summer, until he had his education. They seemed to him so
dirty, so stupid, like so many chattering monkeys. To get to know them,
to try to understand them, never occurred to him.

Jim liked the darky, Hank, better than he did the others. To Hank the
others were foreigners as they were to Jim.

"Don't talk so much. I can't hear ma drill!" yelled Hank in Jim's ear
one afternoon when the din was at its height.

Jim flashed his charming smile. "I talk English, anyhow," he shouted
back, "when I do talk."

"You'se the stillest white man I ever see. I'se callin' you Still Jim in
my mind. Pretty quick whites and colored folks can't get no jobs no more
in this country. Just Bohunks and Wops and Ginnies. Can you watch the
drill one minute while I gits a drink?"

Jim nodded and glanced up at the red spider web that was dotted clear to
the eighteenth floor with black dots of workmen. He looked up at the
street edge of the gray pit. Black heads peered over the rail, staring
idly at the workmen below. Jim felt half a thrill of pride that he was a
part of the great work at which they gazed, half a hot sense of
resentment that they stared so stupidly at his discomfort.

Far above gray stone and red ironwork was the deep blue of the summer
sky. Jim wondered if the kids in the old swimming hole missed him. He
wished he could lie on his back and talk to Phil Chadwick again. As he
stared wistfully upward, a girder on the 18th floor twisted suddenly and
swept across a temporary floor, brushing men off like crumbs. Jim saw
three men go hurtling and bounding down, down to the street. He could
not hear them scream above the din. He felt sick at his stomach and
lifted his hand from the drill, expecting the steam to be shut off. But
it was not.

Hank came back, the whites of his eyes showing a little. "Killed three.
All Wops," he said. "Morgue gets a man a day outa this place. They just
sticks 'em outside the board fence and a policeman sends fer a
ambulance. The blood on these here New York buildings sure oughta
hoo-doo 'em. There, you Still Jim, you get a drink o' water. You look
white. The iron workers quit fer the day. They always does when a man
gits killed."

That evening Jim did an errand to the tobacco shop for Mr. Dennis. On
his return to the library with the cigars, Dennis looked at the boy
affectionately. Jim interested him. His faithfulness to his mother, his
quiet ways, his unboyish life, touched the Irishman.

"You look a little peaked round the gills, Still Jim. Better cut this
work you're doing and come to me office. I can't pay you so much but
I'll make a lawyer of you."

Jim shook his head. "The work is good for me. The gym teacher said I was
growing too fast and to stay outdoors all summer."

"What's the matter with you, then?" insisted Dennis.

"I saw three men killed just before quitting time," said the boy. Then
suddenly his face flushed. "Sometimes I hate it here in New York. Seems
as if I can't stand it. They don't care anything about human beings. I
can't think of New York as anything but a can full of angle worms, all
of them crawling over each other to get to the top."

"Sit down, me boy," said Dennis. "If little Mike had lived, he'd have
been just your age, Still Jim. I don't like to think of you as having so
little of a boy's life. Jim, take the summer off and I'll take you to
the seashore."

Jim smiled a little uncertainly. "I can't leave mama, and the money I'll
get this summer will buy my clothes for a year and something for me to
put in the bank. I'm all right. It's just that since--since you know I
saw Dad----" and to his utter shame Jim began to sob. He dropped his
head on his arm and Dennis' florid face became more deeply red as he
looked at the long thin body and the beautiful brown head shaken by

"Good God, Jimmy, don't!" he exclaimed. "Why, you're all shot to pieces,
lad. Hold on now, I'll tell you a funny story. No, I won't either. I'll
tell you something to take up your mind. Still, do you think your mother
would marry me?"

This had the desired effect. Jim jumped to his feet, forgetting even to
wipe the tears from his cheeks.

"She certainly would not!" he cried. "I wouldn't let her. Has she said
she would?"

"I haven't asked her," replied Mr. Dennis meekly. "I wanted to talk to
you about it first. Much as I think of her, Jim, I wouldn't marry her if
you objected. You've been through too much for a kid."

Jim eyed Mr. Dennis intently. The Irishman was a pleasant,
intelligent-looking man.

"I like you now," said the boy, his voice catching from his heavy
sobbing, "but I'd hate you if you tried to take my father's place.
Anyway, I don't think mama would even listen to you. What makes you want
to get married again, Mr. Dennis, after--after that?"

Jim looked toward the crayon enlargement above the mantel.

Dennis answered quickly. "Don't think for a minute I'd try to put anyone
in her place." He nodded toward the sweet-faced woman who was looking
down at them. "And I wouldn't expect to take your father's place. I
guess your mother and I both know we gave and got the best in life,
once, and it only comes once. Only it's this way, Still Jim, me boy.
When people pass middle age and look forward to old age, they see it
lonely, desperately lonely, and they want company to help them go
through it. I admire and respect your mother and I think as much of you
as if you were me own. But you'll be going off soon to make your own
way. Then your mother and I could look out for each other. I leave the
decision to you, me boy."

"I can't stand thinking of anybody in my father's place," repeated Jim
huskily. "I'm--I'm going out for a walk." And he rushed out of the house
and started north toward 42nd street, his mind a blur of protest.

The same instinct that sends the workman back to look at the shop on
his Sunday afternoon stroll, urged Jim up to the new skyscraper. The
night watchman was for driving the lank boy away until Jim explained
that he worked in the foundation, and was just back to see how it looked
at night.

"If you want to see a grand sight," said the old man, "get you up to the
top floor and look out at the city. Take the tile elevator at the back.
Tell the man Morrissy sent ye."

The work in the foundation was going on but not on the steel structure.
No one heeded Jim. He reached the 18th floor, where there was a narrow
temporary flooring. Jim sat down on a coil of rope. The boy was badly

No one, unless for the first time tonight, Mr. Dennis, realized how hard
a nerve shock Jim had had in seeing his father killed. He had kept from
his mother the horror of the nights that followed the tragedy. She did
not know that periodically, even now, he dreamed the August fields and
the dying men and the bloody derrick over again. She did not know what
utter courage it had taken to join the derrick gang, not for fear for
his own safety, but because of the dread association in his own mind.

At first, the sense of height made Jim quiver. To master this he fixed
his mind on the details of structure underneath. Line on line the
delicate tracery of steel waiting for its concrete sheathing was
silhouetted below him. The night wind rushed past and he braced himself
automatically, noting at the same time how the vibration of the steel
cobweb was like a marvelous faint tune. The wonder of conception and
workmanship caught the boy's imagination.

"That's what I'll do," he said aloud. "I'll build steel buildings like
this. In college, that's what I'll study, reinforced concrete building.
I've got to find a profession that'll give me a bigger chance than poor
Dad had, so I can marry young and have lots and gob-lots of kids."

The wind increased and Jim slid off the coil of rope and lay flat on his
back, looking up at the sky. It was full of stars and scudding clouds.
Jim missed the sky in New York. He lay staring, sailing with the clouds
while his boyish heart glowed with the stars.

"I'm not in New York," he thought. "I'm--I'm out in the desert country.
There isn't any noise. There aren't any people. I'm an engineer and I'm
building a bridge across a canyon where no one but the birds have ever
crossed before. I'm making a place for people to come after me. I'm
discovering new land for them and fixing it so they can come."

For half an hour Jim lay and dreamed. He often had wondered what he was
going to be as a man. He had planned to be many things, from a milkman
to an Indian fighter. But since his father's death and indeed for some
time before, his mind had taken a bent suggested by Mr. Manning's
melancholy. What was the matter with Exham and the Mannings? Why had his
father failed? What could he do to make up for the failure? These
thoughts had colored the boy's dreams. No one can measure the importance
to a child of taking his air castles away from him. Tragedy scars a
child permanently. Grown people often forget a heavy loss.

But tonight, inspired by the wonder of the building and the heavens,
Jim's mind slipped its leashings and took its racial bent. Suddenly he
was a maker of trails, a builder in the wilderness. He completed the
bridge and then sat up with an articulate, "Gee whiz! I know what I'm
going to be!"

It seemed a matter of tremendous importance to the boy. He sat with
clenched fists and burning cheeks, sensing for the first time one of the
highest types of joy that comes to human beings, that of finding one's
predilection in the work by which one earns one's daily bread. The sense
of clean-cut aim to his life was like balm and tonic to the boy's
nerves. Something deeper than a New York or a New England influence was
speaking in Jim now. For the first time, his Anglo-Saxon race, his race
of empire builders, was finding its voice in him.

Jim rode gaily down the tile elevator, his flashing smile getting a
vivid response from the Armenian elevator boy. He ran a good part of the
way home and burst into the house with a slam, utterly unlike his usual
quiet, unboyish steadiness. He was dashing past the library door on his
way upstairs to his mother, when he caught a glimpse of her sitting near
the library table with Mr. Dennis. He forgot to be astonished at her
unwonted presence there. He ran into the room.

"Mama!" he cried. "Mama! I'm going to be an engineer and go out west and
build railroads and bridges out where its wild! Aren't you glad?"

Mr. Dennis and Mrs. Manning stared in astonishment at Jim's loquacity
and at the glow of his face. His gray eyes were brilliant. His thick
hair was wind-tossed across his forehead. Mr. Dennis, being Irish,
understood. He rose, shook hands with Jim, his left hand patting the
boy's shoulder.

"You're made for it, Still Jim, me boy," he said, soberly. "You've the
engineer's mind. How'd you come to think of it?"

"Up on top of the skyscraper," replied Jim lucidly. "Don't you see,
Mama? Isn't it great?"

Mrs. Manning was trying to smile, but her lips trembled. She was wishing
Jim's father could see him now. "I don't understand, Jimmy. But if you
like it, I must. But what shall I do with you out west?"

Jim gasped, whitened, then looked at Mr. Dennis and began to turn red.

Next: Jim Finds Sara And Pen

Previous: The Old Swimming Hole

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