By Greg Clark, February 15, 1936
“Personally,” said Jimmie Frise, “I have never been in jail.”
“Were you never in the clink,” I inquired, “in the army?”
“The worst I ever was,” said Jim, “was paraded before the battery commander.”
“What for?” I demanded sternly.
“Late on parade,” confessed Jimmie.
“I, too,” I admitted, “have had a colorless life.”
“Some of the world’s greatest men,” said Jim, “have spent part of their lives in jail. Socrates, for instance.”
“Who, in your opinion, was Socrates?” I inquired.
“He was famous,” said Jim, simply. “Then take Galileo. He was put in jail for inventing arithmetic. St. Paul and John Bunyan, Sir Walter Raleigh…”
“Mussolini,” I added, “Hitler, Lenin, Tim Buck.”
“That spoils it,” cried Jim. “I was just going to point out the curious fact that in modern times no great men were ever in jail.”
“Mussolini was in jail plenty of times,” I stated. “And Lenin was jailed, banished, exiled and everything else. He was quite a man, you must admit.”
“It is odd,” mused Jim. “that in all our adventures we have never been in jail. You would think we would have taken up prison reform amongst our other works of mercy.”
“It isn’t as easy to get into jail as you think,” I warned him.
“I suppose not,” agreed Jim. “You really have to do something in order to get into jail. You can’t just go along through life doing nothing and expect to get into jail.”
“Still,” I sighed. “it would be something to have been in jail. When you think of all the funerals passing along the streets, and you say, ‘there goes nobody.’ When you think of all the millions of us there are in the world who make no difference whatever. If we had lived or hadn’t lived it doesn’t matter as far as anything or anybody is concerned.”
“Our wives,” muttered Jim, “could have married somebody else and moved away to some other city, but their children would have been just like ours.”
“And our parents,” I moaned, “might just as well have married somebody else and we’d be here just the same.”
“Ah, it’s a queer thing, life,” agreed Jim, heavily. “It seems to matter so much at times. And yet when you stop to think, what does it matter?”
“What difference would it make to the Georgian Bay,” I demanded, “if we had never fished there and never seen its mauve rocks and its jade green water and its hardness? It would be there just the same.”
“Or the horses I’ve bet on,” breathed Jim sadly. “Suppose I hadn’t been here to bet on them? What difference would it have made?”
“You’d have had a few hundred dollars you haven’t got,” I declared.
“I’d have bet them on some other horse,” retorted Jim.
“Not if you weren’t there,” I pointed out.
Planning a Misunderstanding
“We sound like a couple of professors,” said Jim. “That’s the way highbrows talk.”
“What we were talking about,” I recalled, shifting my weight to another part of Jim’s spare chair, “was jail.”
“I think it would do us good to go to jail,” said Jim. “Not for anything serious, you understand? But just for a visit. We could write a lovely story about it. People would be interested in an unbiased account of jail. The only account of jails that people can get is from the point of view of those who go reluctantly there.”
“It’s an idea,” I exclaimed, almost sitting up.
“I think of jails,” went on Jimmie, trimming his nails with his big shears, “as dark, cruel, gloomy places. They smell of strange things. Big, cruel warders prowl about, glaring through bars at prisoners flung, like old sacks, on to the far corner of the cement floor.”
“Probably,” I stated, “they are really like hospitals.”
“Quite likely,” Jim agreed. “Wouldn’t it be great to get into jail on some misunderstanding, and be able to tell about it without prejudice?”
“What kind of misunderstanding could we think of?” I begged.
“Suppose,” said Jim, “we threw a rock through a store window?”
“In these clothes?” I asked.
“I hate dressing up.” said Jim.
“We’d go to the mental hospital instead of jail,” I snorted. “I tell you, it is very hard for well-dressed man to go to jail.”
“Then,” said Jim, “how about false pretenses? That is a well-dressed man’s job.”
“Too serious,” I cautioned. “Even if we pretended it was only a joke, we might get one year indefinite. Too many respectable people have tried that game lately.”
“Then,” said Jim, “how about this? Let’s go into some restaurant, not a swell restaurant, but a common little cafe and eat a big meal and then refuse to pay for it.”
“That’s not bad,” I admired.
“We’d take all identifications off,” said Jim, “empty our pockets of everything, including money. And then, when we couldn’t pay, we will just sit there and wait. When the cops come all we do is say we are broke and starving.”
“Maybe the cops,” I said, “will take pity on us and pay the bills themselves?”
“That will be a story in itself,” cried Jim. “No matter what happens, it will be a story.”
“Jim,” I said, “I think we have got something.”
“Listen,” cried Jim, leaping up and putting on his coat. “We’ll explain to our families that we will be away all night. We’ll seek out some little cafe in an out-of-the-way street and eat a whale of a meal. Then we pull our act. They call the cops. We get taken to the police station overnight. In the morning the wagon calls and takes us to the police court. Our own reporters will recognize us.”
“If we do it on a Saturday night.” I explained, having myself been a police court reporter when young, “they take you to the jail until Monday morning. They don’t keep anybody at the stations over a week-end.”
“Saturday night all the better,” said Jim enthusiastically. “because we can tell our families we are going rabbit hunting over the week-end.”
Seeking Unprejudiced Truth
And Saturday noon we left home with our guns and bags ostensibly to go to Simcoe, Ontario, for jack rabbits, but instead went downtown and parked our stuff at the garage, went to a movie to while away the afternoon, and at supper time set forth on our great adventure.
“This idea,” I explained to Jim, “opens up a new vista. Think of all the great social service we can render! Visiting, incognito, not only jails and prisons, but hospitals, hostels, refuges, missions. We should draw up a list of all the institutions in the country, and by hook or crook, get taken into them and then do a story on each one. A cold, dispassionate story, revealing nothing but the unprejudiced truth.”
“Suppose,” said Jim, “this restaurant keeper just beats the stuffing out of us, instead of calling the cops?”
“We’ll pick a poor little restaurant,” I said, “where the loss of a big meal will be too important. And then, when we’re out of jail, we can call around and pay the bill and give them a handsome tip besides.”
Up Yonge St. we strolled, amid the Saturday night throng.
We passed dozens of restaurants but they were all too smart and glowing. We passed a couple of Chinese restaurants, but Jim and I had no intention of trying to explain anything to a Chinese. Along one of the cross streets we turned and passed through alternate belts of darkness and light, as little islands of commerce clustered together.
At length, away over near Sherbourne St., we found the very place we had in mind. Through the steamy windows we beheld the proprietor, a mean-looking man, huddled over the cash register and cautiously counting coins in his palm. The place was small, slightly shabby, with two woebegone waitresses hurrying about with immense piles of dirty plates in their arms.
“That little bird,” said Jim, as we looked in the window, “wouldn’t even try to beat us up.”
We went in. The proprietor looked at us eagerly and led us to a table. He scooped the crumbs off with a menu and replaced the sugar bowl and salt cellars to hide the stains on the thin cloth.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “gentlemen, be seated.”
We hung up our coats and hats and spread ourselves down at the table. We studied the hand-written menu.
“If you don’t see nothing you like,” said the proprietor, bustling about us, “I could send out for lamb chops, maybe, or a nice big sirloin steak, eh? How about a sirloin steak?”
The menu started with bean soup and ended with rice pudding. In between was little else but macaroni, a stew and roast beef. No potatoes but mashed.
No vegetable but stewed tomatoes.
“A sirloin steak,” said Jim. “And mushrooms?”
“Yes, mushrooms,” said the proprietor, excitedly.
“Brussels sprouts,” I said.
“It would take a little time,” said the proprietor.
“We have plenty of time,” said Jim. darkly.
Twenty minutes we waited for the steak. An hour we spent over the meal, dawdling in high-class case over every mouthful, calling for this and that which included Worcestershire sauce and finger bowls. When the last scoop of fig syrup had coiled across our tongues and the last drag of coffee had gone from our cups and our cigarettes were butts, Jim signalled the beaming proprietor.
“Now, mister,” said Jim, clearly, for we were alone in the cafe, all other guests having long ago departed, “we have bad news for you. We are just fresh out of money.”
The proprietor beamed.
“But you got swell overcoats,” he cried.
“But we won’t give up our coats,” I declared
“Sure you will,” said the prop. “Sure you will. It’s the law.”
“Call the police,” I shouted.
“Sure I call him,” said the prop. “All he does is kick you guys out and tell me to keep the coats until you come back and collect them with cash.”
Jim looked at me flushed.
“Anybody can eat on me,” beamed the proprietor with kindliness and affection, “who’s got such nice coats.”
“But we can’t leave our coats,” I protested. “We’ve got a long way to go and it’s a bitter night.”
“That brown coat,” said the proprietor, examining mine, “would fit me swell. Or maybe I could sell it for ten dollars.”
“The bill,” said Jim, ‘is only a dollar forty.”
“Good-looking fellows like you.” said the proprietor, “could get a dollar forty easy. You could get it in a week, easy. And I got to keep the coats thirty days before I can claim them.”
“Suppose,” I inquired, grimly, “suppose we just grab our coats and walk out of here? Then what do you do?”
“Hey,” called the proprietor sharply.
The door to the kitchen burst open and two men in stained white aprons walked rather lithely into the cafe. One was very large with a large stomach and a large brown moustache and a large chef’s cap, but his bare arms were hairy as a wolfhound, and looked very solid. The other was a small man, damp looking and steamy. I took him for the dish washer. He was a humble-looking little man, but his humbleness was the humbleness of a bulldog. Whatever he was asked to hang on to he would hang on to. His eyes had a humble expression.
“Boys,” said the proprietor, “these two thugs try the old l-ain’t-got-any game, see? But they got good coats.”
The chef picked my coat off the hook briefly, and the little man housed Jim’s respectfully off the peg.
“Jim” I said, “I’ll go and get the money, if you wait here. You’d trust me, mister, to wear my coat if my friend stay’s here?”
“You got the meal inside of you, I keep the coat,” said the proprietor. “How do I know you two guy’s ever saw each other before to-night. I can only hold this guy for his own meal.”
“But his coat is good for two?” I argued.
“Not in law,” said the proprietor. “It’s good only for what he ate. I keep your coat until you get back, that’s a good boy.”
“Phone,” said Jim dully.
So we telephone to the garage where we left our car and all our money and papers in the care of the night man. And for fifty cents, he got one of the boys to run our car up for us, bringing our letters and cash.
When the car drew up and the lad came in with the cash, the proprietor was much surprised. He called in Otto and Paul, which were the names of his chef and dish washer, to see the marvel.
“Lookit,” said the proprietor, who at heart was a genial and friendly soul, much Interested in human nature, “see, they got a car. And look at the money and the wallet. What did I always tell you? People will do anything for a free meal, these days. Even millionaires won’t stop at trying to gyp a poor guy like me.”
“You don’t understand,” I stated, counting out my eighty cents, which was the bill plus ten cents for a tip.
“Sure I understand,” said the proprietor. “I know how hard it is to get rich. You don’t get rich by paying for all your meals, that’s a cinch.”
“Sir,” I said.
“Sure, sure,” said the proprietor. “You do your best, I do my best. That’s life.”
And with all heartiness and good-will, he and Otto and Paul ushered us out and waved good-by as we drove off.
Editor’s Note: Among the notorious people Greg mentions who have been to jail, is Tim Buck. He was the leader of the Communist Party of Canada at the time of this article.
This story appeared in “So What” (1936).