By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, February 24, 1945.
“Careful,” warned Jimmie Frise, “you’ll burst a blood vessel!”
“I’ve never been so mad in my life,” I gritted.
“Well, what do you expect,” Jim soothed, “trying to shop on Saturday afternoon?”
“I have as much right to shop on Saturday afternoon,” I enunciated, “as anybody else. Anyway, all I want is a bottle of olives. And by golly, I am going to get them!”
“Aw, we’ve been in three stores already,” said Jim, “and you’ve lost your temper and barged out of all three of them empty-handed.”
“Can you imagine,” I demanded bitterly, “such manners in a decent residential district like this? They are like a pack of wolves.”
“If you don’t step up and assert yourself,” declared Jim, “you can’t expect to be waited on. These little grocery store people can’t pay attention to everybody that comes in the store. They take it for granted that the customers will offer themselves in their proper order.”
“Like heck they do,” I cried. “The decent people stand and wait their turn. And while they’re standing waiting, in marches some big bulging dame or some lean rat of a man. And he sidles and sneaks his way through the rest of us and gets waited on ahead of eight, 10, 15 people!”
“That’s initiative,” explained Jimmie. “That’s enterprise.”
“So that’s what they mean,” I crowed, “when they say that we shouldn’t do anything to hamper initiative and private enterprise, eh? Well, I’m going to do something about hampering this kind of initiative. The worst type of people are the only people with enough gall to deliberately walk into a crowded little store and weasel their way in ahead of 10 honest citizens.”
“It’s the same in everything,” said Jim. “You can see it better in a little corner grocery store. But it’s the same all through life. The guy with the initiative is the one who crowds
“It’s the same in everything,” said Jim. “You can see it better in a little corner grocery store. But it’s the same all through life. The guy with the initiative is the one who crowds his way in ahead of everybody else.”
“But it doesn’t look as horrible in the business world as it looks out shopping on Saturday afternoon,” I protested. “In the larger world, it is admired and honored. A man with initiative and enterprise is held in esteem above all his fellow men.”
“But the same guy,” said Jim, “pushing in and buying a couple of heads of lettuce is a lousy so-and-so.”
“In that last store,” I recollected with sudden anger, “we came in and there were seven people ahead of us, weren’t there? The three helpers were waiting on three of them. While the rest of us are standing looking around at the groceries and figuring what we would buy, in comes that big, important looking dame.”
“She was well dressed,” said Jim.
“I bet she’s chairman of the ladies aid society,” I said. “Well, she did it very skillfully.”
“Just the way her husband does it, probably,” said Jim, “in whatever business he’s in.”
“She came in,” I recalled, “and stood at the back of us all, sizing up the layout. Then she moved over to one side and picked up a couple of things, rhubarb and a can of something. This brought her level with the front of the crowd. She kept watching out of the corner of her eye and sidled over to the counter. She gave the lady who was really next to be waited on a sort of quick appraising look, to see if she was likely to make a row. No. She was just a nice, decent soul. So the big dame takes the initiative. She holds out the can. The busy helper accepted it. And the job was done. From there on, cheerfully ignoring the angry glowers all around her, she gave the helper the rest of her order. With the utmost brass, she finished her order, paid her bill and sailed out with a haughty smile at the rest of us, as much as to say -‘business is business’!”
“Exactly the way her husband would,” explained Jimmie, “if anybody complained about the way he butted his way through a deal.”
Not Always the Rich
“One bottle of olives,” I said. “That’s all I want. Here on this lovely Saturday afternoon, we go for a walk in the shopping district, using a bottle of olives as our excuse. And what do we get? Apoplexy.”
“Well, I’d like to call your attention to one little fact,” said Jim. “You may have noticed that in the three stores where we have been gypped by butters-in, it was not always the best dressed or the most privileged-looking person who did the sneaking up. In fact, in the other cases, it was a rather ordinary looking individual. In the first store, it was that guy in the peak cap.”
“And in the other,” I admitted, “It was that thin, sour looking woman who certainly wasn’t a member of the upper classes of this district.”
“That’s a very important point to note,” went on Jim. “When we think of social reform and socialism, we always think of the rich, the big industrialists, the bankers and the moneyed classes.”
“That’s true,” I said a little startled.
“We imagine that if we can only dispossess the rich,” pursued Jimmie, “all will be hotsy-totsy. But there are many things besides greed that make a man rich. Some men get rich without any effort at all. They are born with a gift of some kind. You wouldn’t say Paul Robeson or Toscanini is greedy. Yet they are rich. Every time they use their natural gifts, money showers on them like rain.”
“But I bet Paul Robeson would still sing, and Toscanini would still create music,” I inserted, “even if they didn’t get paid. It isn’t that kind of gift the social reformers complain of. Who they are after are the guys who won’t do anything except at a colossal profit.”
“What I’m getting at,” said Jim, “is these people in the grocery stores. The quality of initiative and greed and disregard of other people’s rights, which you complain of is, in the business, professional and financial world, regarded as the highest quality of all. And is so rewarded.”
“Exactly,” I cried.
“No, you miss my point,” corrected Jim. “Give these men and women in shabby clothes who sneak ahead in the grocery store the managership of a business, and they would be big business successes. Take away from the big executive of business their money and position, and send them out shopping on a Saturday afternoon, and they would push and sneak and scheme their way to the head of the line every time. What I am getting at is that there is a defect in human nature that has to be cured. And you’ve got to cure it among the common people just the same as in big business. You’ve got to beat it into the heads of the common people, the workers, the middle class, the professional class, everybody, that there is justice, just the same as you have to take away from the leaders of business and Industry that they can’t use their powers, against the common welfare.”
“But let’s start at the top,” I submitted.
“No,” said Jim, “let’s start at the bottom. We’ve been chasing the powerful now for centuries, limiting them, narrowing their sphere of influence, cutting down their powers. And all the time, we forget that there is an endless crop of greedy, pushing people down in the masses of us who, uncorrected, will push themselves into preferred positions the minute a gap occurs.”
“There aren’t many kings left on earth,” I agreed.
“But any awful lot of initiative,” smiled Jim, “and private enterprise.”
The People to Watch
“You can’t behead little guys in peak caps,” I pointed out, “the way you can a king.”
“And besides,” said Jim, “it isn’t the kings, like George of Greece and Peter of Yugoslavia we ought to keep our eyes on. It’s the people around them, who lose their jobs and privileges the minute the king goes. Those are the babies, we ought to watch. It’s the same in big business. It isn’t the head man who is the busiest trying to keep his position secure. It is all the gang around the head man, the vice-presidents, the managers, the superintendents and foremen, all the people with special jobs, who are most anxious that their boss doesn’t get curtailed any.”
“H’m,” I cogitated.
“After man has spent 20 years of his life,” Jim explained, “working day and night to get in right with the president of a firm, do you think he is going to join any socialistic movement that might change his boss on him? No fear. So when you think of social reform, don’t centre your thoughts on a few big shots in business and finance. Think about all the thousands of managers and department heads, foremen and privileged workers with secure jobs…”
“And their wives,” I added.
“And their grown sons and daughters,” said Jim, “all of whom are 100 per cent in favor of keeping things the way they are.”
“Or even the way they used to be,” I offered.
“It isn’t a king that loses a throne,” concluded Jim. “It’s hundreds of thousands of retainers, from the nobles down to the nobles’ butlers, who lose the throne.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m going to get a bottle of olives if it takes me the rest of the afternoon.”
“Aw,” said Jim, “telephone for them.”
“No, sir,” I asserted, “it’s a matter of principle. And if any of these kings in disguise, if any big bulging woman with the manners of a sow, or any chairman of the board dressed in a peak cap and shabby coat, tries to pull his initiative and private enterprise on me, there is going to be a scene.”
“Look,” pleaded Jim, “the crowd is bigger now than it was when we started. Leave it. Telephone for the olives.”
“Telephone be darned,” I said, setting my eye on a nice little combined fruit and grocery shop. It was sure to have olives. And besides, it was beautifully crowded for purposes of social reform.
“Come on,” I said.
“Aw,” said Jim, following.
The little shop was indeed crowded. Three rather rattled and disarrayed women were waiting on the customers. And the customers, instead of lining up from the door, which would be a good idea, were scattered all over the little store, studying the shelves, exploring the bins, stepping over crates and boxes on the floor – the usual Saturday afternoon shopping scene.
Jim and I took our stand in rear of the half dozen women and men ranged in front of the counter.
“Take careful note,” I murmured, “of these other people scattered around so we won’t make any mistake. They were in ahead of us, so we’ll see they get waited on before us.”
“Aw,” muttered Jim, “go and take a bottle of olives off the shelf, there, lay your money down and come on.”
“Not me,” I declared, turning to see someone just entering the door.
But she was not likely to prove anti-social. She was just a pleasant old lady who, with her arms full of Saturday parcels, took her place patiently behind us and gazed speculatively about the shop.
Two of the people ahead of us finished and paid and elbowed their way out. We moved up. One of the ladies out exploring the shelves found what she wanted and moved over towards us.
“Step right in here, lady,” I said. “You were ahead of us.”
“Oh, thank you,” said she, surprised.
The door opened, and three people came in. One of them took position behind us, in her proper spot, and the other two, a man and wife, began to wander around the shop, exploring. I kept one eye on them and one eye on the door.
“Seems very social,” murmured Jimmie.
“Watch those two,” I replied out of the corner of my mouth. “That woman looks like the kind who would pull a flanking movement.”
Another left the counter and went out, and another woman came from searching among the bins.
“Right in here ahead of us, madam,” I said. “You were ahead of us.”
“Thank you,” said she, also surprised.
And several of the crowd turned and had a look at me. I felt they were admiring my sense of order, my sense of social justice. I winked at Jim. The door opened again.
The Bum’s Rush
This time, it was a man. A dark, anxious looking man, who looked as if he might be a mechanic or a storekeeper by his clothes. He paused and looked around.
And then, to my astonishment, he started to push his way straight through us all for the counter.
It was the most brazen thing I had ever seen. He was not even crafty or stealthy about it. He just adopted a proprietorial air and started to tap people on the arm or shoulder and proceed to butt his way right to the front.
When he reached me, I was ready for him. My blood was boiling.
Seizing him by the shoulder of his coat, I snarled:
“No you don’t, my man!”
And I grabbed him firmly.
“Eh!” he said, startled.
It is curious how unconscious of their own acts these butters-in are.
“No you don’t,” I repeated loudly, the crowd drawing back.
And I started to shove the intruder back towards the door where he belonged.
“Hey,” shouted the intruder, struggling in my grip. But I shoved and Jimmie lent a hand.
Then pandemonium broke loose.
A lady with a bunch of rhubarb in her hand suddenly brought the rhubarb down, not on the intruder’s head, but on mine.
One of the men ahead of me at the counter took a quick look, dashed up and grabbed me by the collar – me! -and started giving me the bum’s rush. Women screamed. The store helpers screamed and came running armed with vegetables, crate openers and grapefruit.
In no time at all, both Jimmie and I were bounced out of the door of the shop on to the street while the dark man who had caused the trouble cupped his hands around his mouth and began to bellow, “Police, police!”
Jimmie and I picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off and moved a couple of doors north to catch our breath again.
“You see,” said the lady who had hit me with the rhubarb not once but several times, and who followed us out, ready to do more, “the gentleman you were trying to prevent from coming in is the store owner. He was just out getting a hair cut.”
“Ah,” I cried, “then why didn’t he say so?”
“You didn’t give him a chance,” said the lady. “You just suddenly grabbed him and all thought – we’re all regular customers, you see – we all thought you were hold-up men.”
“But what I thought …” I said; and tried to explain to the lady about initiative and enterprise and bad manners low down in the social scale as well as up among the robber barons.
But she had shopping to do and wasn’t very interested.
“See?” said Jim, as we proceeded up the street. “There is one good rule to follow in life. Buy your olives and do your social reform – over the telephone.”
Editor’s Notes: This was still in the era of small grocery stores where the clerk might also get items for you as not everything would be self-serve.
“The Bum’s Rush” was a slang term to mean forcible ejection or abrupt dismissal. The phrase came from throwing drunks or vagrants out of bars, on the assumption that they would not be able to pay.