The doors spread wider and wider as the ash cans rose higher…

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 14, 1935.

“How,” asked Jimmie Frise, “are your legs this year?”

“For what?” I inquired.

“For Christmas shopping,” said Jim. “If you recollect, you said last year you were never again going to get caught in this last terrible crush.”

“I’m glad you reminded me,” I said. “I must get busy at once.”

“It’s too late,” decreed Jim. “Too late. Already it is as much as your life is worth to go shopping. Yesterday, even I, big as I am, nearly got massacred trying to buy a leather book cover to send away to a friend in B.C. What a little man like you will do, when you get caught in the jam, I can’t imagine. It must be specially embarrassing at Christmas time to be small.”

“What do you mean, specially embarrassing?” I demanded. “I’m not embarrassed by my size. I find it an advantage just as often as you find your extra length an advantage.”

“Sorry,” soothed Jim. “But if there is any way I can be of assistance to you, this next few days doing your Christmas shopping, I’ll be glad to render it.”

“Thank you so much,” I replied.

“If I were you,” went on Jim, “I’d employ rugby tactics. In these hard times you could go to any employment agency and hire, say, four big huskies, ex-Varsity rugby players even, for three hours a day. At prevailing wages, say fifty cents an hour, there would be only $6 expenses additional to your Christmas bills. Yet, with two good line plungers ahead of you and two behind, with you in the middle like the quarterback, I bet there isn’t a department in the whole city that you couldn’t get to.”

“It’s not a bad idea, Jim,” I said. “Not a bad idea at all.”

“It is time that somebody thought up some practical use for rugby,” went on Jim. “Here are hundreds of our bright young men taking their academic degrees in rugby, yet when they get out into the world they find no practical use whatever for their learning. I suggest you get a bodyguard of four ex-rugby players, Varsity men preferred on account of their good manners. And with these before and aft you can finish up your Christmas shopping in one wild morning. The whole business. Just blast your way into the markets of the city.”

“I have half a mind to do it,” I declared.

“It would take just about half a mind,” agreed Jim. “Anyway, I don’t charge anything for bright ideas like that. You can have it free.”

“Thanks,” I said. “On the other hand, I don’t see why, in a free country, I have to go to extra expense to enjoy my rights. I have as much rights on the streets of this city as any man living.”

“Or any woman,” helped Jim. “It is the women that butt you around worst in Christmas shopping.”

“Quite right,” I confessed. “But what I am getting at is this business of freedom. All men are free and equal in this Canadian democracy. Then why do I have to hire four pug-uglies to help me do my Christmas shopping, just because people resort to violence? Must I meet violence with violence?”

“My Hard-Won Rights”

“Democracy is funny,” said Jim. “It is fine so long as everything is quiet and pleasant. But just let a little urgency come into the scene and in a flash of a second, phooie goes democracy and we are right back where we belong, that is, the victory to the strong.”

“It’s outrageous,” I stated. “For what have all my ancestors died, then?”

“Now don’t go dragging in your ancestors,” warned Jim.

“Well, I mean all our ancestors,” I explained. “For what have they fought and struggled all through the ages but to give us greater freedom? And yet, every Christmas, I get butted and bumped and elbowed and bellied, I get shoved and pushed and stepped on, I head for the glove counter and a stampede catches me and I end up at the neckwear counter. My hat is pushed over my eyes or knocked off altogether. I have several times lost my hat entirely during the Christmas rush. Why? Because people forget what our forebears bled and died for, and they resort to just plain brute force again.”

“I don’t see anything for it,” said Jim, “but for you to hire a gang of rugby scrimmagers.”

“I’ll be jiggered if I will,” I cried. “It would be surrendering my rights. My hard-won rights. Where do we get off if we all thus easily surrender the rights won for us by freedom-loving men? I tell you, we ought to start an agitation. We ought to remind people of their rights.”

“You mean,” said Jim, “that if we reminded everybody of their rights everybody would stop pushing.”

“I mean my rights,” I shouted. “I want to remind everybody of my rights, and then they’ll stop pushing.”

“Pushing you,” mused Jim.

“Exactly; it’s me I am worried about. I don’t care if they push one another. All I want them to do is stop pushing me. And I tell you I am not going to put up with it. I’m going to make a case of it. I’m going to stand my ground. And I’ll do it, by George, without any rugby players to help me. If there were a few more men like me in this world justice would not be so feeble. Robert the Bruce and Wallace who bled didn’t let people shove them around, by golly.”

“No,” said Jim, “but they had a few rugby players with them.”

In the afternoon, when I put on my hat and coat with grave determination, Jimmie looked up from his drawing board.

“Going shopping?” he asked.

“Right,” I said.

“I’ll come along,” said he. “I’ve a little to do myself.”

And we went north into the battle zone together.

At each intersection with lights, jams of harried-looking people massed to wait the crossing. At the first of these, Adelaide St., a large, shabby man, with an absent and faraway expression on his face, came from behind me, and with the utmost unconcern elbowed me aside and thrust himself to the front of the crowd.

“Here,” I shouted, “what do you mean, shoving me aside like that!”

And I seized his sleeve.

The crowd all went tip-toe to see. The big, shabby man turned a flushed and startled face to me.

“I’m sorry,” he said, really apologetic. “I didn’t even see you.”

“Haw, haw,” said the crowd. And then the lights changed.

I let most of them go ahead, and when Jim and I fell in the rear of the procession Jim argued:

“There you go; the poor chap really didn’t see you. And his retort was far more crushing to your dignity than the shove he gave you. Nobody noticed him shove you, but twenty people heard his come-back.”

“Skip it,” I requested.

Like Logs in a Wild River

 We proceeded up Bay St. By lingering as we came near the intersections we escaped the jams. But none the less, as we slowed down, no fewer than two men went by us with big, hurried strides, both of whom gave me slight but none the less impatient little butts with their shoulders or elbows as they went by.

“Maybe,” said Jim, “we are infringing on the rights of the public by walking so slow at this busy season.”

“Nonsense,” I said. But at the same instant an elderly man gave me a quite deliberate butt, as he passed, and he turned indignantly and growled:

“If you have no place to go, why clutter up the streets?”

“Thooop,” I instantly responded, being a raspberry I gave him. I find a raspberry from a middle-aged gentleman is the most surprising of all retorts, and I use it extensively on those more-middle-aged than myself.

The old man purpled and thrust ahead angrily.

Thus we came to the main corners and flung ourselves, without principle or belief, into the maelstrom and got across. In the store I let Jim go first, until he lost me. When I caught up to him he said I had better go first and he would defend the rear. But this was worse, as we now had no wedge or advance to crash our way into the throng. So Jim and I eddied along until we came to a sort of alcove, and we rested there.

“They don’t seem to be going anywhere,” I snarled as the mob surged by, like logs in a wild river. “Look at them. Just waddling along, with six-inch steps, and all craning their necks. They don’t even know where they are going.”

“Maybe this is the herd instinct we’ve read about,” thought Jim. “And nine-tenths of them aren’t doing any shopping at all, but just revelling in the fleshy thrill of being herded together with their kind.”

“Well, anyway,” I said, “I am not going to stand here like a fool. How humiliating, to be just eddied off into this alcove, like scum in a backwater. Let’s go.”

“Where?” asked Jim.

“Gloves,” said I.

“Hold to my coat tail,” called Jim, leading on.

Above me, I could see Jim towering, his head and shoulders weaving from side to side as he labored and toiled, like a man caught in deep snowdrifts. Beside me, I saw and felt a living, writhing mass of human legs, hips, elbows; I heard the frantic cries of unseen little children; the grunts of men, the groans of women. I felt us heaved, as in a volcanic eruption, far to the left; then, far to the right, I saw bits and glimpses of the tops of high piles of merchandize, colored cloths, handbags, kimonos; I heard the insistent din of a vast market place, with its hum, its roar, its high cries cutting across. I closed my eyes. I suited my pace to Jim’s, slow and fast, and clung to his coat tail.

We came to a stop.

“Gloves?” I muffled.

“Neckwear,” said Jim.

“Let’s,” I shouted, leaning back so my voice was clear of his enshrouding coat tail, “get the heck out of here.”

And after a few timeless moments of heaving, slowly waddling, shoving, pressing, we gained a door and burst out into God’s free air.

“Your face,” said Jim, “is purple.”

“Please,” I gritted. “Don’t speak.”

“Have you ever noticed any apoplexy in yourself?”

“Please,” I hissed. And we started back along for Bay St.

“Jim,” I said, in a voice quivering with emotion, “if this is civilization, I am through with it.”

“Do your shopping in November,” replied Jim.

“People,” I stated, “have no right to behave like that. It is inhuman.”

“I didn’t mind it,” said Jim, lightly. “I kind of enjoyed it. You should have seen some of the funny things. The faces, the expressions. One fat lady, talking to a salesgirl and being relentlessly shoved along the counter, farther and farther, until she was pushed right out of the department, and her yelling back at the sales girl.”

“Very funny,” I said.

“The general expression,” said Jim, “is one of abject resignation. A sort of dumb suffering.”

“To think that Adam and Eve have come to this,” I snorted.

“Look out,” said Jim.

“Look out,” sharply snapped young bit of a kid dressed in a white coat and apron.

“Look out what?” I demanded haughtily.

“Get off that,” shouted the boy, disrespectfully.

“Get off that,” repeated Jimmie, pointing at my feet.

Five or six people all stopped and looked.

I looked, too, and saw I was standing on a sort of iron double door set in the pavement. As I looked, I felt it quiver.

“Why,” I asked the saucy youth, “should I get off it? What right have you to ask me to get off …”

I felt the iron doors under me give a heave.

“Get off,” shouted Jim, snatching at my coat sleeve.

“I won’t get off,” I roared. “This is the pub …”

“Quick,” yelled the boy in white. “Snappy!”

It seems the man underneath the iron doors heard, through the small crack now widening, the command to make it snappy, and he thought it was meant for him. So whatever he was doing to make the doors open, he did faster.

With this result. The doors, on which I was standing, one foot braced firmly on each side of the crack, like any Britisher worth his salt would do, especially when his rights were being challenged, suddenly burst wide asunder, and a sort of elevator from below, laden with large ash cans, thrust powerfully upward.

Thus my two feet were spraddled rapidly farther and farther apart, the gap yawning enormously, until my legs could reach no wider, and as the ash cans rose up, I was dropped, heavily, on top of them.

And a vast cloud of dust rose up, as the elevator popped to street level with a clang, and it took Jimmie several seconds, fumbling about, to locate me and assist me to my feet.

By this time, there was a big crowd of people. The saucy youth was loudly demanding witnesses to the fact that he had warned me off the iron trapdoors.

“What is the matter with him?” asked two elderly ladies, as Jimmie dusted me off vigorously.

“Too much Christmas,” said Jim.

“I wondered,” said the kindlier-faced of the two ladies. “I saw him straddle that door. I have often been unable to sleep at nights for thinking of this very thing happening to me. But I understand. He’s such a nice-looking little man, too. Do you know his family? Can you get him home?”

“Madam,” I shouted, “mind your affairs.”

“Mercy me,” said the lady, and she and most of the others gradually lingered away.

We reached Bay St.

“I,” I stated, “am going to take this matter to law.”

“I think,” said Jim, “you will find there is a city by-law governing those trap doors. And it will provide that so long as a man is stationed above to warn pedestrians off the doors, they have a perfect …”

“Warn me off,” I laughed bitterly. “Order me off. Chuck me off the public highways. Push me about, shove me, elbow me, shout at me, and finally drop me into an ash can!”

“Christmas will soon be over,” soothed Jim.

“Liberty,” I laughed hollowly. “Justice. Freedom.”

“Just a few more days,” admonished Jim.

“Heh, heh, heh,” I sneered.

Editor’s Notes: Robert the Bruce and William Wallace were well known for their role in the First War of Scottish Independence.