“The fat man put his foot slap over my fifty cents…”

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, November 2, 1935.

“What,” asked Jimmie Frise, sarcastically, “are you wearing that particular expression for?”

I was driving. We were bowling along Bloor street.

“What expression?” I inquired.

“An expression,” stated Jim, “of abject humility. A disgusting, lowly, Uriah Heep expression.”

“You saw that speed cop, didn’t you?” I demanded.

“Yes, I did,” said Jim. “And that is what I am getting at. You are driving along, perfectly natural. Suddenly, you see a speed cop standing on the curb. And you deflate yourself like a toy balloon. You fairly sag with humility. You cringe like a dog. You actually fawned in your seat. You did it so glaringly that the cop couldn’t help but see it.”

“I intended the cop to see it,” I explained. I did it for him.”

“Disgusting,” said Jim.

“Disgusting nothing,” I retorted. “That is how you don’t get summonses.”

“Absurd,” snorted Jim. “A cop is a hired official. We hire them. They work for us. The way you act, you’d think they were our masters.”

“A cop,” I expounded, “has a greater sense of majesty than anybody else in the world. No king left on earth has as much sense of personal majesty as a cop.”

“What of it?” cried Jim. “I’d take more pleasure in puncturing their sense of majesty than in contributing to it. The way you do.”

“Listen, Jim,” I begged. “Use your common sense. How does a cop select those to whom he will send summonses?”

“Why,” exclaimed Jim, “he selects those that speed or otherwise break the law.”

“Now it is you who are absurd,” I triumphed. “How many people in this city don’t break the speed laws every day?”

“Oh, well, I suppose there are a good many that do,” admitted Jim.

“A good many!” I cried. “Listen, Jim, the only people who don’t go faster than 20 miles an hour in Toronto are those who can’t. There is a certain type of wooden-jointed man, the kind of man who has to stop and think for a minute before he even picks up his knife and fork at the dinner table; and there is a certain kind of timid, middle-aged lady; but those are the only people in the city who don’t every day, every time they go driving, in short, every block they drive, exceed the speed limit.”

“I know. I know,” cut in Jim, “but the cops use a little reason. They only pick out the excessive speeders.”

“Aha,” I derided, “but did you ever get a summons for going thirty-one miles an hour?”

“Oh, yes,” agreed Jim.

“Yet you know thousands of your fellow citizens go more than thirty-one every day all around you?”

“Sure,” confessed Jim.

“Very well,” I inquired, “how did the cop pick on you out of all the thousands that were doing the same thing?”

“Er,” said Jim.

Why Does a Cop Pick You?

“Exactly,” I stated. “Exactly. He didn’t like your looks, that’s why he selected you. Every day a cop has to pick up so many people for speeding, see? He has thousands to pick from. Therefore, who does he pick?”

“Er,” said Jim.

“I’ll tell you,” I interrupted. “A cop is a human being, just like us. But he has a sense of majesty. The ones he picks, out of all the pickings, is the one that offends his sense of majesty, first. Or the one that, for some reason or another, he doesn’t like the look of.”

“This is awful,” gasped Jim.

“Sure, it’s awful,” I agreed. “It puts the whole problem of right and wrong back where it was in the middle-ages or in the time of Pontius Pilate.”

“How can we escape being selected?” asked Jim.

“By kow-towing,” I stated promptly. “By paying reverence to his majesty the cop. By slowing down when you pass him, even if you are only going as fast as all the other cars in the line. That little sudden slow down you do when you see a cop is a salute to him. A genuflexion. It is a bow to his majesty. He can’t help but love it. You and me, if we were cops, we’d love it. It would tickle us.”

“It won’t come very easy to me,” said Jim.

“All you have to do is look impressed,” I said. “People use the same expression whenever they meet the boss on the street. So what’s the difference? They don’t mean it then and they don’t mean it with the cop. It’s just a little social device. Treat a cop with reverence and you’ll never get a summons.”

“To hell with it,” suddenly Jim shouted. “To hell with it. I won’t do it. I’ll kow-tow to no cop. To nobody. To no bishop or king. To nobody. I won’t do it.”

“Dear me,” I said, for Jim was sitting up straight and glaring about, and I knew full well there would be a cop pretty soon, just along past that rise by High Park.

“What’s more,” said Jim, “I’m going out of my way to stand erect in the presence of all these artificial majesties. The majesty of wealth, pah!”

“Wait until we get past High Park,” I cautioned him.

“Pooie,” shouted Jim, “pooie to riches and power and authority. I’ll stand on my own two feet. I’ll curtsey to no cop.”

“Rich men,” I said, laughingly, “give me a pain, Jim. There has always been a trick I’d love to play on rich men. Did I ever tell you about it?”

“Cops,” sneered Jim. “Majesty.”

“My trick,” I said, “is to stand outside some club downtown, one of those rich men’s clubs, and hold a fifty-cent piece in my hand. Just as some of these big shots come down the steps of their club and step on to the sidewalk, looking very well fed and important and chatting together, I drop the fifty-cent piece on the pavement behind them.”

“And what?” said Jim, a little interested.

“See these big shots wheel as if they had been stung,” I crowed, “snatching at their pockets and all poised to make a grab for the coin.”

“It would be fun,” confessed Jim, somewhat mollified. We were now passing High Park, and the cop wasn’t there.

“Let’s do it,” I said. “For half an hour we could have more fun than a picnic.”

Which was the birth of our idea, and the next day, at noon, we hurried lunch and went and stood at a certain club where many wealthy citizens take their midday repast.

It was my fifty cents. A big, new, tingling one. I dropped it a few times, and it made a loud, rousing ring on the pavement.

The Ring of a Coin

I recommend this trick to you. You can make anybody in the world wheel around like a shot. You can make old and young, the deaf, the halt and the blind1, millionaires and bums – everybody stop in their tracks and grab for their pockets or purses. All with the merry ring of a coin dropped on the pavement. I wonder if it isn’t the saddest fact left in the world, today?

We took up our stand, as if we had just met on the street and were chatting about the weather.

The first citizens to emerge from the club were two tall, tweedy-dressed men in their late forties, keen-looking, bronzed, alert. As they turned on to the sidewalk, clink went the coin.

Both wheeled, the shorter one taking at grip on the arm of the other, as if to prevent him from getting there first. With a smile I picked the coin up; and blushing furiously, the two general managers straightened and hastened down the street.

The next was a large and lonely individual, troubled with his feet. He lowered himself down the steps with great care, one step at a time. Groaning and grunting, he reached the sidewalk.

He turned away. I dropped the coin.

“Ah!” gasped the decrepit chairman of the board, slapping both hands to his pockets, and turning with obvious difficulty. His eyes were popping from his head, and his soft mouth was wide open in the expression of one who has been clubbed on the head.

I picked up the coin with a smile. The gentleman stood, staring coldly at me for a long moment, doubtful, suspicious, his wrinkled fingers softly feeling the outside of his pockets.

At last, while Jim and I chatted briskly, he seemed to reach a decision. He turned away and walked down the street. I suppose he entered it in the books as a loss.

The next lot were three youngish men. The next after them, two very severe-faced gentlemen, pale and bony-jawed, their expression one of unrelaxed vigilance. When they die, it will be hard to get their eyes shut. All these wheeled, as everybody wheels. As you and I and Jimmie, as all the world wheels, to the siren jingle of a coin.

“I’m getting a little tired of this,” I said. “It makes me want to cry, not laugh.”

“Just one more,” gloated Jim. “Let’s try to knock off at least a president of something. Somebody. who is always having his pictures in the papers.”

But the next one that came out was another single. He was a short, stoutish gentleman in a bowler hat. He had a walking stick. He moved with short, waddling steps. His face, though round, was all shut up like a nut cracker. His eyes seemed shut. His mouth was tight shut, and walled in between little round pouchy cheeks. His ears were small and shut up close to his head. Down the steps he trotted briskly, carefully.

I dropped the coin.

The little man, never pausing, wheeled like a polo pony and before I could even start to stoop, down came a large, flat shoe, a shoe with no toe caps2, a square toed, well made shoe, slap on top of my fifty-cent piece.

“Pardon me,” I said, half stooping.

But the stubby little man himself stooped, carefully slid his boot to one side, until the edge of the coin was visible, and then with a cleverly bent finger, he released it, snapped it up and popped it in his pants pocket.

“Ah,” he sighed, comfortably, and started to move off, without even so much as looking at Jim or me. He seemed utterly unaware of us.

To Torment the Rich

“Just a minute, there,” said Jim, taking hold of the gentleman’s sleeve.

“What do you want?” demanded the gentleman crisply.

“That was my friend’s fifty cents,” warned Jim, standing close to the gentleman.

“It was nothing of the kind,” said the gentleman, not unkindly, but very finally, “I dropped it myself.”

“Now, just a minute,” said Jim, still gripping the gentleman’s sleeve, and drawing himself up. “I say I saw my friend drop it.”

“Why,” said the gentleman, pulling his arm free, “you two cheap thieves, trying to… Why, the very… I’ll call a policeman at once, the very…”

“Call a cop,” agreed Jim, loudly.

“No, no,” I cried. “Jimmie, no, no.”

The gentleman, pausing to stare us grimly up and down, turned and walked proudly down the street.

“Why not let him call a cop? Let us call a cop,” cried Jim.

“Don’t be absurd,” I pleaded. “Would a cop believe us against an obviously wealthy gentleman?”

“Gentleman,” sneered Jim. “I never saw anybody so quick with his feet in my life. And I bet he was sixty.”

“He’s been stamping on dimes and nickels and quarters all his life, Jim,” I said. “He’s had practice.”

“I’ve got a new idea for hell,” said Jim, as we went slowly back to work, I jingling twenty cents left in my pocket. “A special hell for rich men.”

“Let’s hear it,” I said.

“It will be a vast chamber, immense,” said Jim, raptly. “It will be entirely of black basalt or chalcedony3. Jet black. Its floor will be polished and hard. Its walls will be filled with little cubby holes and niches in which the spirits of rich men will hide at night. But all day long, the Devil, sitting in a balcony up above and armed with a big scoop shovel, will keep shovelling scoopfuls of dimes and nickels out, and flinging them so that they will scatter all over that polished onyx floor, jingling and dancing and ringing and running and spinning. And there the spirits of the rich men, millions of them, bereft of all their earthly passions except their greatest one, will crawl and scramble and fight and claw like maniacs after the dimes and nickels. To all eternity, forever and ever, chasing madly, furiously, after the dimes and nickels.”

“I’m glad you’re just Jim Frise,” I breathed.

“And they will all have little overalls on, with leather-lined pockets,” said Jim. “And every night they take the dimes and nickels into the little caves in the vast walls of chalcedony or onyx. But every morning. when they wake, all the dimes and nickels will be gone.”

“Oh, Jimmie,” I protested. “That is the cruellest thing I ever heard of.”

“Sure,” said Jim. “But it’s just a human little fancy. I’m human. Cops are human. Rich men are human. Everybody’s human. So let me have my fancies, the same as everybody else.”

So we went to the Morgue, as we call a newspaper filing room, and we hunted all through the clippings and pictures of the local rich men, but we couldn’t find any trace, even in the Morgue, of the little man with the shut face who got my fifty cents.

So that made it possible for us to write this story. Because if we knew who it was, we probably wouldn’t dare.

Editor’s Notes: This story appeared in both Which We Did (1936) and Silver Linings (1978).

  1. This is from the King James Bible, Luke 14:21: “So that servant came, and shewed his lord these things. Then the master of the house being angry said to his servant, Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind.” The “halt and the blind” would now be translated as the “blind and the lame.” ↩︎
  2. This was likely the style at the time. ↩︎
  3. This is just a type of stone, that can come in black. ↩︎