In an instant, the car was a screaming madhouse…. One mouse appeared on a lady’s shoulder.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 22, 1945.

“Watch that guy,” whispered Jimmie Frise.

I glanced around the street car and, observing Jim’s gaze, saw it fastened on a pleasant little elderly fellow opposite us

He had a cardboard box on his knees, which he held with both hands as if it contained the Holy Grail.

On his face was a sweet, faraway, tender look which he lifted above all the rest of us in the car, and his eyes twinkled and gleamed behind spectacles in an expression of intense anticipation.

“What about him?” I murmured to Jim.

“Watch,” said Jim quietly.

The car was fairly crowded but would be much more so at the next big transfer corner. I watched the little man.

He sat, lurching with the car, smiling to himself, a secret, proud smile. His eyes darted from side to side, unseeing, as he pictured something in his mind, something pretty nice.

Quietly, he bent down over the box on his knees. He seemed to be listening. His hands caressed the box.

Jim nudged me.

“So what?” I muttered to Jim.

“What do you suppose he’s got in that box?” demanded Jim softly. “Did you ever see so happy a man?”

“He’s been doing his Christmas shopping,” I suggested.

“Obviously,” agreed Jim, “but what has he got in that box?”

“Is this some new guessing game?” I inquired. “Riding in a street car and trying to guess what all the Christmas shoppers have got in their parcels?”

“He’s got half the people in the car watching him,” said Jim.

I glanced around. Sure enough, everybody who could see the little man appeared to be watching him.

Men with newspapers suspended before them were covertly observing him over the tops of their newspapers. Ladies, with that casual way they have, were fastening the little man with the corners of their eyes.

So I joined the party. I shifted my seat slightly to see around a man standing in the way.

With the fixed, faraway smile on his face, the little fellow let his gleaming eyes wander along the advertisement cards up along the car ceiling. Then, with a sudden recollection of his secret, he drew the box closer on his lap, bent slightly down, and shook the box ever so lightly.

Whatever response came from the box, the little man fairly glowed with joy. I glanced around, and saw that everyone watching him was nearly frantic with curiosity. They shifted their positions in an irritated fashion, and those immediately beside him leaned closer to him as if to try to overhear what he heard; or to peek.

“It wouldn’t be a pup?” I suggested to Jim.

“Box too small,” said Jim. “Might be a kitten.”

“He’d have air holes for a kitten,” I submitted. “Anyway, if it was a kitten, we could hear it meowing when the car stops.”

After a couple more blocks, the little man, cuddling the box close, leaned down and very cautiously raised one corner of the lid and peered within.

Then, lowering the lid, he lifted his radiant face in the same faraway expression and wrapped his hands around the box in a gesture of supreme possession.

Of All the Nerve!

“Darn it,” said Jimmie, “I wish we knew what was in there!”

“It’s none of our business, Jim.” I responded.

But the man sitting next to the little fellow couldn’t stand it any longer either. Leaning close, he spoke. The little man smiled happily at the questioner but did not open his lips. He just shook his head.

The baffled neighbor glanced around at the rest of us as much as to say, “Well, I did my best.”

Before we travelled another block, the little man, overcome with his own curiosity, bent down again, cautiously lifted another corner of the box lid and took a long, lingering peep in through the opening.

By this time, a regular fever of curiosity was in possession of the street car. Those standing began to shift down to the middle of the car in the hope of getting a closer look at the mystery. In fact, they shut off Jim’s and my vision of the little man, so we got up and gave our seats to a couple of ladies who moved down; and this enabled us to stand where we could keep the little man in view.

Oblivious to the excitement and curiosity he was inspiring, he let his absent gaze wander for an instant but immediately it returned to the box on his knees and he seemed to quiver with an inward delight.

“Why doesn’t somebody,” gritted Jim beside me “ask him straight out? A man shouldn’t be allowed to create all this curiosity.”

“It’s his business, Jim,” I asserted, leaning out so as not to lose sight of him. “Just look at this guy butting in in front of me. Of all the nerve!”

“Push him over,” ordered Jim.

I tapped the interloper on the shoulder.

“Pardon me,” I said, “but you pushed right in front of me.”

“It’s a crowded car,” replied the interloper.

“Yes, but you don’t have to jam right in front of me,” I insisted.

He reluctantly moved to one side, affording me a view under his elbow.

“Of all the vulgar curiosity,” I muttered to Jim. “Bulging in like that!”

“It’s the Christmas rush, you know,” reminded Jim. “Look! He’s peeping again!”

The little man was hunched down, lifting the box lid and taking another long, fascinated peep within the box.

The people beside him, behind him, in front of him, fairly coiled around in their desire to see what was in the box.

He restored the lid, patted the box tenderly and resumed his flushed and excited gazing at space.

“Aw, for Pete’s sake,” exclaimed Jim under his breath, “why doesn’t somebody do something about it? Just standing there!”

A lady standing over him hanging to at strap – I had seen her sitting farther down the car only a moment before – leaned down and spoke smilingly to the little man.

He smiled bashfully up at her and said:


The lady leaned down and said something more, but the little man simply shook his head, beamed and cuddled the box more closely.

“Four what?” Jim passed the question.

And from both directions, “Four what?” was eagerly passed to the lady who had done, the interrogation.

“He just said four,” the lady announced to us all generally. “He didn’t say four what.”

“Ask him four what?” called Jimmie.

“Ask him yourself,” retorted the lady, but not relinquishing her place directly over the little man.

“Maybe he’s hard of hearing,” suggested the gentleman who had crowded so vulgarly in front of me.

“Here,” said Jim, “let me in there! I’ll ask him.”

The car had stopped at the big transfer point and a heavy Christmas crowd was shoving from the front end. Jim got in next to the little man. Putting on his best salesman smile, Jim leaned down and said very distinctly:

“You’ve got a surprise there, eh?”

“Four,” replied, the little man gently beaming.

“Four what?” Jim said more loudly.

“Yes, SIR,” agreed the little man enthusiastically. “Beauties!”

The Christmas crowd was making it tough for Jim, shoving.

“I say,” cried Jim, leaning low, “what are they? Four WHAT?”

“Only two bits each,” replied the little man agreeably. “Two bits. It’s a bargain.”

“WHAT are they?” persisted Jim, though several newcomers had jammed their way this far down the car and weren’t aware of the mystery that had all the rest of us in its grip. They shoved Jim rather roughly.

“Don’t mention it,” replied the little man amiably. “It’s a pleasure, I’m sure.”

Jim was shoved three seats back.

And for about six blocks, I lost my view, and Jim, tall as he is, could not crane far enough to see the little man either.

But by the time enough people had got off the car to allow us to resume our vigil, even the newcomers had been caught in the spell, and very grudgingly indeed they made room for me to peer under their elbows, and for Jim to stand tip-toe to look over their shoulders.

But there, lost in his happy maze of anticipation, was our little friend in the very act of lifting the box lid again for another wonderful peep at whatever was inside.

Long and craftily he gazed into the open corner. And when he replaced the lid, it was a starry gaze he listed, to turn and look out the car window to see where he was.

“Has anybody found out what he’s got?” Jim inquired those who had been lucky enough to stand close for the past few blocks.

Everybody shook their heads and ventured various opinions.

“It’s something alive,” decreed a lady with her arms full of Christmas parcels.” I heard him sort of whistling at it.”

“A canary, I bet you,” suggested another.

“No, canaries come in small wooden cages when you buy them,” announced another.

“I don’t think it’s anything alive,” asserted a third. “I think it’s some kind of toy he’s taking home to his grandson. Maybe an airplane.”

The little man was entirely indifferent to all this conversation right in his face. His hands enfolded in the box lovingly and he smiled inscrutably and happily at the coat front of the gentleman leaning right over him.

“I don’t think anybody,” declared Jim warmly, “has any right to create all this disturbance. Especially at this season of the year.”

“I suppose,” I said bitterly, “we should pile on top of him and rip the cover off the box and satisfy our curiosity.”

“If he’d only keep still,” protested Jim, “and not keep peeping all the time! If he’d only not look so excited!”

“My dear Jim,” I scoffed, “has it come to this, in cities, that nobody can have any private thoughts any more? Must we all wear dead pans? Even at Christmas time, can’t a man look happy and eager? This gentleman is taking something home to his little grandson. He is very delighted with his purchase. Maybe it’s a doll…”

When the Lid Came Off

“He said there were four,” corrected Jim.

“Maybe it’s four dolls,” I suggested, “for his little granddaughter.”

“He said they were two bits each,” pointed out Jimmie. “You can’t get dolls for two bits.”

“Jim,” I announced, “I’m prepared to move back to the far end of the car and forget it. I never saw such an exhibition of nosey idle curiosity in my…”

But I was cut short, because the little man was again bending slowly over, and with a delicate finger lifting one corner of the box for another peek.

We all surged close. We shoved, elbowed and shouldered one another for a closer look.

He raised the corner of the box lid about a quarter of an inch and then, lifting the box, put his eye to the hole and seemed transfixed by what he beheld. His hands shook. He heaved a sigh. And then, lowering the box and replacing the lid, gazed ecstatically from face to face of us all glaring above him.

“CANARY?” suddenly yelled the lady with all the parcels.

“Pardon me!” cried the little man.” I didn’t think! Of course you may have my seat. I’m terribly sorry…I…”

And as he scrambled to his feet, the lid of the box popped off and slid to one side, out leaped four white mice so fast and so twinkling, they seemed to vanish like blobs of quicksilver.

In an instant, the car was a screaming madhouse. Ladies shrieked and men yelled encouragement at them. One mouse appeared on a lady’s shoulder and powdered its nose. The lady, perfectly upright, fell perfectly horizontal, with three men easing her down. The little man had darted after his pets and on hands and knees shoved and dived amid the ankles of passengers all retreating in the two possible directions.

The car came to a stop. The doors slid open and there was a wild stampede for the exit, ladies fairly vaulting over the backs of those ahead, gasping and giving small squeaks or screams, while gentlemen soothed and shouted courage to them, at the same time assisting them out the car doors.

In a matter of 20 seconds, the car was empty, save for the little man and about five of the more valiant of the men, including Jim and me, who were forming ourselves into a posse to round up the mice.

“Shut the doors!” we commanded the motorman.

“What’s cookin’?” he called.

“White mice got loose,” shouted one of the posse.

“You’d think it was lions or tigers,” called the motorman.

“Hold everything, and they can get back on again,” commanded Jim.

“Who, the mice?” called the motorman.

“No, the passengers,” said Jim.

“To heck with that!” retorted the motorman, starting the car. “I’ve got a schedule to meet. If people want to get off my car, they can.”

So while the car made the next few blocks, the little man with his posse rounded up three of the four. Jim caught two in his hat. Another of the posse lapped his mitt over another. And after he had searched all over for the fourth, and had almost decided it had got off with the passengers, maybe in some lady’s hat, the motorman sang out:

“Aw, here’s the little darling up here! Right on my window sill.”

So the little man went up and snapped it into the cardboard box.

And we all shook hands with him, all flushed and beaming.

“It’ll be a great surprise,” he cried happily.

“It sure will,” we all agreed, slapping him on the back.

And we all got off at our corners.