By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, March 17, 1934
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Jimmie Frise, “if the effects of the recent depression…”
“Recent depression?” I asked.
“The late depression,” amended Jim. “I wouldn’t be surprised if its effects had not permanently changed human nature.”
“How?” I inquired.
“As all profound experience changes anything,” went on Jim. We were out walking off the ill effects of a luncheon which, in its insidious fashion, starting with the pie, backs you into a meal the wrong way on and stuffs you fuller than a bargain chesterfield. “The great ice age changed the whole animal and vegetable kingdom. Millions of species were wiped out. The species that survived that drastic experience were so altered and hardened they could stand anything. The big depression was like the ice age.”
“It was chilly,” I admitted.
“Now for instance,” went on Jimmie, as we walked along the Harbor Building park, looking at all the steamers being unprepared for a late spring, “millions of people have found out that they can get along with far less than they ever thought they could. I think, from now on, petty ambition is not going to be so great a factor in human life.”
“What will that mean?” I asked.
“It means that all this bunk about hard work will be ended,” said Jim. “Look at the way the whole human race had toiled and slaved during the past fifty years. And look at the way it was all ended in a colossal war and a perfect big smear of a peace.”
“You mean life will be more easy-going?” I said.
“The big depression was a blessing,” said Jim, “if it put an end to all that silly fury of work that the whole human race engaged in during the past half a century. Nobody loafed any more. Even when they tried to loaf, they worked like fools at it. Look at golf, the great popular pastime of the last quarter century. It grew up in this period of insane work. Look at people motoring. Another invention of the era of toil. People motoring are working, jittering, all the time. There is no rest. No idleness, pure and simple. No leisure. No loafing.”
“God,” I explained to Jimmie, “made all things to toil.”
“What rot!” cried Jimmie, as we strolled up Bay St. “Look about you! He made everything to be idle. Look at the cattle, the deer, the goats, eating and loafing. Look at the tigers and lions, taking an occasional easy meal and loafing the rest of the time. Look at the trees, the flowers! The only animals that are working are the ones man has bulldozed. The only plants doing more than was intended of them are the ones enslaved by man. Man is the demon. And all his troubles he deserves!”
Is Ambition Dead?
“But get back,” I said, “to what you were saying about that era of insane toil we have just come out of.”
“It ended in the Big Smash,” explained Jim. “We beheld the humorous, the ironic spectacle, of half the world being out of work and forced to be idle while the other half of the world works doubly as hard, like fools, to support the first half. If that isn’t the grand finale to an era of folly, what is?”
“With good times coming back again,” I pointed out, “there is not an unemployed that won’t glory in the chance to work.”
“Don’t you believe it!” cried Jim. “People have learned to get along with less. They find life pretty good without always busting themselves in an endless chase after things they don’t need. Ambition is dead. Thrift is dead. People aren’t going to go greedily rushing themselves into the grave or the hospital, and what little they do get, they are going to waste cheerfully.”
“I wish it could be so,” I said.
“Wait and see,” said Jim. “Nature always wins. And nature made man an easygoing, lazy, happy-go-lucky creature. From now on, we are going to see men being natural. They’ve had their lesson. They are going to go through life enjoying it as they go. Golf is going to be a game in which you sit down whenever you like. Motoring is going to be a pastime in which you drive, at a snail’s pace, to find some pleasant place to lie down and go to sleep.”
As we came out of the subway up Bay to Front St. we saw a bum ambling slowly toward us, and he was looking at us with that curious hovering bird of prey expression that told us we were next.
“Psst!” said Jim. “Let’s offer this guy a good job and see what happens.”
The bum slid over to us.
“Could you spare the price of a bed?” he asked.
“You’re a good-looking fellow,” said Jim. “Strong and husky. How would you like a good job?”
“I sure would, mister,” said the bum. “I haven’t had a job now for four years. Not a steady job.”
“How would you like to come with us right now and take a job in a shipping room loading crates of stoves on to trucks?” asked Jim.
“Stoves,” said the bum. “Say, mister, I couldn’t lift a stove. I got hurt years ago and it makes me kind of useless at heavy lifting.”
“Well we need a man nailing up the crates, then,” said Jim.
“I never was any good at hitting nails,” said the bum. “I always seem to hit my thumb.”
“Listen here,” cried Jim sternly, “you don’t want a job at all!”
“Well, as a matter of fact,” said the bum, suddenly losing all the hang-dog look and straightening up into as handsome and pleasant-looking a young man as you would ever want to see, “I am just stalling along until the first spring, and then I’m lighting out for the west. I’ve got a lot of friends along the railroads out west, and I figure on joining them just as soon as the weather permits.”
Army Tank Methods
“In fact, you’re a bum!” said Jim.
“In fact, I am,” said the bum. “And a happy one, too.”
“Here,” said Jim.
And he handed him a dollar and shook his hand warmly.
“Hully gee!” said the bum.
“There you are,” cried Jim as we walked up Bay. “There is the new style man. He has got sense.”
“But you offered him a tough job,” I cried. “Lifting stoves!”
We stamped up Bay, past King, past Adelaide.
“Let’s go once through the big stores,” said Jim, “and see if they have their fishing tackle on display yet.”
We went in the big stores. They still had skis on display.
We went up the escalator to wander amongst all the bright fabrics and dress goods. We like to see the tartans every once in a while. It makes us feel Scotch, which is a nice feeling, even if you are Canadian of unknown origin.
“Take a look at that,” said Jim, who sees farther in a crowd than I do.
It was a sale.
About a hundred and fifty women were attempting to get at some gorgeous bolts of dress goods marked “98 cents a yard, while they last.”
They were blue, red, yellow, green.
In the dense pack, of which you could only see the rear views of the ladies, young and old, the bright cloth was billowing and flying above their heads. Every moment some woman would back, by sheer army tank methods, thrusting, from side to side with her anatomy, as they say, out of the throng, clutching a bolt of cloth, and she would look wildly about for a clerk, while other women came and seized the ends of the bolt. Pulling-matches, shoving-matches.
And five excited and frightened clerks were flipping their books agitatedly, and wetting the tips of their pencils in their mouths.
A small, bald-headed man in a gray suit, one of those calm small men, was standing to one side pressing his fingertips to his lips. As we passed him, we heard him saying:
“Oh, dear; oh, dear; oh, dear!”
“Are you the manager?” I asked.
“Yes,” he whispered.
Women Always Acquisitive
“A fine fight you have got here,” I said.
“Terrible, terrible,” said the man. “I hope none of the directors come along this way.”
“What will you do?” I asked.
“It will soon be over,” said the manager, anxiously.
But the women were still boring in. We saw two elderly ladies fighting over a bolt, and suddenly the larger of them started unwinding the material, and it was torn before anybody could come between them.
“Keep out of this,” warned Jimmie, a he saw me start to puff up. I always puff up when I am going to do something I deem to be my duty.
The manager said: “Oh, sir!”
I stepped amidst the ladies. I took firm hold of the bolt of bright cloth. I shouted in the army voice: “Ladies, if you please!”
But one lady went one way on a clerk, and the other lady went another way, and I was wound up and mummified and lost to view not only in the cloth but in the crowd.
It was some time before I was rescued. The sale was practically over when Jim and the manager and one of the directors undid me and stood me up.
The director expressed regret on behalf of the firm. The customer, he said, is always right, but in this instance I was not a customer. The manager expressed regrets on behalf of the department, also adding that the customer, etc.
“Have you anything to say?” I asked Jimmie, as he led me toward the escalator.
“Only that I wish you would not interfere in things that are, after all, purely phenomena for us to observe.”
“I hate injustice,” I said.
“What was unjust about that bargain sale?” demanded Jim.
“The way those big women we trampling all over the little women,” I said. “But how about the big depression, Mr. Frise? How about ambition being dead? How about nobody wanting anything anymore?
“I was afraid you’d notice that,” said Jim. “But I was speaking of men. Not of women. Women will always be acquisitive.”
“They are the stronger sex,” I said. “And they will give birth to those who will be just as acquisitive as men ever were. You can’t change human nature. Not when women have something to do with it.”
“If it weren’t for the women,” said Jim, as we went down the escalator, “what wonderful bums us men could be in a couple of generations!”
Editor’s Notes: It seems premature to call the depression the “late depression” in 1934. Unemployment did reach it’s peak in 1933, but it was a slow decent to get back to 1929 levels. This would not occur until the War economy started in 1940.
When Greg speaks of coming “out of the subway up Bay to Front St.”, he means the part of Bay Street under the rail lines next to Union Station.
It seemed odd to me that the young bum would exclaim “Hully Gee”, which was a saying in the 1890s, and the catch phrase of the Yellow Kid.