The Harbor


The events of that day dropped out of my mind in the turbulent weeks that followed. For day by day I felt myself sink deeper and deeper into the crowd, into surging multitudes of men—till something that I found down there lifted me up and swept me on—into a strange new harbor.

Of the strike I can give only one man's view, what I could see with my one pair of eyes in that swiftly spreading confusion that soon embraced the whole port of New York and other ports both here and abroad. War correspondents, I suppose, must feel the same chaos around them, but in my case it rose from within me as well. I was like a war correspondent who is trying to make up his mind about war. What was good in this labor rebellion? What was bad? Where was it taking me?

From the beginning I could feel that it meant for me a breaking of ties with the safe strong world that had been my life. I felt this first before the strike, when I went to my magazine editor. He had taken my story about Jim Marsh, but when I came to him now and told him that I wanted to cover the strike,

"Go ahead if you like," he answered, a weary indulgence in his tone, "I don't want to interfere in your work. But I can't promise you now that we'll buy it. If you feel you must write up this strike you'll have to do it at your own risk."

"Why?" I asked. For years my work had been ordered ahead. I thought of that small apartment of ours, of my father sick at home—and I felt myself suddenly insecure.[Pg 305]

"Because," he answered coolly, "I'm not quite sure that what you write will be a fair unbiassed presentation of the facts. I've seen so many good reporters utterly spoiled in strikes like this. They lose their whole sense of proportion and never seem to get it quite back."

This little talk left me deeply disturbed. But I was unwilling to give up my plan, and so, after some anxious thinking, I decided to free-lance it. After all, if this one story didn't sell I could borrow until I wrote something that did. And I set to work with an angry vim. The very thought that my old world was closing up behind me made my mind the more ready now for the new world opening ahead.

From the old house in Brooklyn I once more explored my harbor. All day and the greater part of each night I went back over my old ground. Old memories rose in sharp contrast to new views I was getting. From the top I had come to the bottom. Crowds of sweating laborers rose everywhere between me and my past. And as between me and my past, and between these masses and their rulers, I felt the struggle drawing near, the whole immense region took on for me the aspect of a battlefield, with puffs and clouds and darting lines of smoke and steam from its ships and trains and factories. Through it I moved confusedly, troubled and absorbed.

I saw the work of the harbor go now with an even mightier rush, because of the impending strike. The rumor of its coming had spread far over the country, and shippers were hurrying cargoes in. I saw boxes and barrels by thousands marked "Rush." And they were rushed! On one dock I saw the dockers begin at seven in the morning and when I came back late in the evening the same men were there. At midnight I went home to sleep. When I came back at daybreak the same men were there, and I watched them straining through the last rush until the ship sailed that day at noon. They had worked for twenty-nine hours. In that last hour I[Pg 306] drew close—so close that I could feel them heaving, sweating, panting, feel their laboring hearts and lungs. Long ago I had watched them thus, but then I had seen from a different world. I had felt the pulse of a nation beating and I had gloried in its speed. But now I felt the pulse-beats of exhausted straining men, I saw that undertaker's sign staring fixedly from across the way. "Certainly I'm talking to you!" Six thousand killed and injured!

I saw accidents that week. I saw a Polish docker knocked on the head by the end of a heavy chain that broke. I saw a little Italian caught by the foot in a rope net, swung yelling with terror into the air, then dropped—his leg was broken. And toward the end of a long night's work I saw a tired man slip and fall with a huge bag on his shoulders. The bag came down on top of him, and he lay there white and still. Later I learned that his spine had been broken, that he would be paralyzed for life.

But what I saw was only a part. From the policemen's books alone I found a record for that week of six dockers killed and eighty-seven injured. I traced about a score of these cases back into their tenement homes, and there I found haggard, crippled men and silent, anxious women, the mothers of small children. Curious and deeply thrilled, these children looked at the man on the bed, between his groans of pain I heard their eager questions, they kept getting in their mother's way. One thin Italian mother, whose nerves were plainly all on edge, suddenly slapped the child at her skirts, and then when it began to cry she herself burst into tears.

These tragic people gripped me hard. The stokers down in their foul hole in the bottom of the ship had only disturbed and repelled me. But these crippled dockers in their homes, with their women and their children, their shattered lives, their agony, starvation looming up ahead—they brought a tightening at my throat—nor was[Pg 307] it all of pity. For these labor victims were not dumb, I heard the word "strike!" spoken bitterly here, and now I felt that they had a right to this bitter passion of revolt.

But still I felt their way was wrong. How could any real good, any sure intelligent remedies for all this fearful misery, come out of the minds of such people as these, who were rushing so blindly into revolt? I went into saloons full of dockers and stokers, and out of the low harsh hubbub there the word "strike!" came repeatedly to my ears, recklessly from drunken tongues. Wherever I went I heard that word. I heard it spoken in many languages, in many tones. Anxious old women said "strike!" with fear. Little street urchins shouted it joyously. Even the greenest foreigner understood its meaning. A little Greek, who had broken his arm and was one of the cases I traced home, understood none of my questions. "You speak no English?" He shook his head. "Strike!" I ventured. Up he leaped. "Yo' bet!" he cried emphatically.

What was it deep within me that leaped up then as though to meet that burning passion in his eyes?

"Keep your head," I warned myself. "To change all this means years of work—thinking of the clearest kind. And what clear thinking can these men do? The ships have got them down so low they've no minds left to get out of their holes!"

And yet—as now on every dock, that "strike feeling" in the air kept growing tenser, tenser—its tensity crept into me. What was it that lay just ahead? I felt like a man starting out on a journey—a journey from which when he comes back he will find nothing quite the same.

I had a talk about the strike one day with Eleanore's father. I can still see the affectionate smile on his face, he looked as though he were seeing me off.

"My dear boy," he said, in his kind quiet voice, "don't forget for even a minute that the men who stand behind[Pg 308] my work are going to stamp out this strike. This modern world is too complex to allow brute force and violence to wreck all that civilization has done. I'm sorry you've gone into this—but so long as you have, as Eleanore's father, I want you now to promise you won't write a line until the strike is over and you have had plenty of time to get clear. Don't let yourself get swamped in this—remember that you have a wife and a small son to think of."

My father had put it more sharply. He was out of bed now and he seemed to take strength from the news reports that he eagerly read of the struggle so fast approaching.

"At sea," he said, "when stokers try to quit their jobs and force their way on deck, they're either put in irons or shot down as mutineers. You'll see your friend Kramer dead or in jail. No danger to your sister now. Only see that you keep out of it!"

I did not tell him of my work, for I knew it would only excite him again, and excitement would be dangerous.

"Now you and Eleanore must go home," said Sue that night. "You'll have enough to think of. I'll be all right with father—he knows there's nothing to do but wait, and he's so kind to me now that it hurts. Poor old Dad—how well he means. But he's the old and we're the new—and that's the whole trouble between us." A sudden light came in her eyes. "The new are bound to win!" she said.

But I was not so sure of the new. To me it was still very vague and chaotic. After we had moved back to New York, at the times when I came home to sleep, Eleanore was silent or quietly casual in her remarks, but I felt her always watching me. One night when I came in very late and thought her asleep, being too tired to sleep myself, I went to our bedroom window and stood looking off down, into the distant expanse of the harbor.[Pg 309] How quiet and cool it seemed down there. But presently out of the darkness behind, Eleanore's arm came around me.

"I wonder whether the harbor will ever let us alone," she said. "It was so good to us at first—we were getting on so splendidly. But it's taking hold of us now again—as though we had wandered too far away and were living too smoothly and needed a jolt. Never mind, we're not afraid. Only let's be very sure we know what we are doing."

"We'll be very sure," I whispered, and I held her very close.

"Let's try to be sure together," she said. "Don't leave me out—I want to be in. I want to see as much as I can—and help in any way I can. If you make any friends I want to know them. Remember that whatever comes, thy people shall be mine, my dear."

The next day the strike began.

Out of the docks at nine in the morning I saw dockers pour in crowds. They moved on to other docks, merged themselves in other crowds, scattered here and gathered there, until at last a black tide of men, here straggling wide, here densely massed, moved slowly along the waterfront.

In and out of these surging throngs I moved, so close that in the quiver of muscles, the excited movements of big limbs, the rough eagerness of voices that spoke in a babel of many tongues, such a storm of emotions beat in upon me that I felt I had suddenly dived into an ocean of human beings, each one of whom was as human as I. I caught a glimpse of Joe hurrying by. And I thought of Sue, and of Joe's appeal to her and to me to throw in our lives with such strangers as these whose coarse heavy faces were pressing so close. And I thought of Eleanore at home. "Thy people shall be mine, my dear."[Pg 310]

Teamsters drove clattering trucks through the crowds. Some of them did not unload, but others dumped piles of freight by the docks. The dam had begun. All day long the freight piled up, and by evening the light of a pale moon shone down upon acres of barrels and boxes. Then the teamsters unharnessed their teams, left the empty trucks with poles in air, and the teamsters and their horses and all the crowds of strikers scattered by degrees up into the tenement regions. Bursts of laughter and singing came now and then out of the saloons.

Silence settled down over the docks. Walking now down the waterfront I met only a figure here and there. A taxi came tearing and screeching by, and later down the long empty space came a single wagon slowly. A smoky lantern swung under its wheels, and its old white horse with his shaggy head down came plodding wearily along. He alone had no strike feeling.

Battered and worn from the day's impressions I wanted to be alone and to think. I made my way in and out among trucks and around a dockshed out to a slip. It was filled with barges, tugs and floats jammed in between the two big vessels that loomed one at either pier. It was a dark jumble of spars and masts, derricks, funnels and cabin roofs, all shadowy and silent. A single light gleamed here and there from the long dark deck of the Morgan coaster close to my right. She was heavily loaded still, for she had come to dock too late. Smoke still drifted from her stout funnel, steam puffed now and then from her side. Behind her, reaching a mile to the North, were ships by the dozen, coasters and great ocean liners, loaded and waiting to discharge or empty and waiting to reload. And to the South were miles of railroad sheds already packed to bursting. I thought of the trains from all over the land still rushing a nation's produce here, and of the starlit ocean roads, of ships coming from all over the world, the men in their fiery caverns below feeding faster the fires to quicken their[Pg 311] speed, all bringing cargoes to this port. More barrels, boxes, crates and bags to be piled high up on the waterfront. For the workers had gone away from their work, and the great white ships were still.

"What has all this to do with me?"

There came into my mind the picture of a little man I had seen that day, a suburban commuter by his looks, frowning from a ferryboat upon a cheering crowd of strikers. I laughed to myself as I thought of him. He had seemed so ludicrously small.

"Yes, my friend," I thought, "you and I are a couple of two-spots here, swallowed up in the scenery."

I thought of what Joe had said that day: "When you see the crowd, in a strike like this, loosen up and show all it could be if it had the chance—that sight is so big it blots you out—you sink—you melt into the crowd."

Something like that happened to me. I had seen the multitudes "loosen up," I had felt myself melt into the crowd. But I had not seen what they could be nor did I see what they could do. Far to the south, high over all the squalid tenement dwellings, rose that tower of lights I had known so well, the airy place where Eleanore's father had dreamed and planned his clean vigorous world. It was lighted to-night as usual, as though nothing whatever had happened. I thought of the men I had seen that day. How crassly ignorant they seemed. And yet in a few brief hours they had paralyzed all that the tower had planned, reduced it all to silence, nothing. Could it be that such upheavals as these meant an end to the rule of the world from above, by the keen minds of the men at the top? Was that great idol which had been mine for so many glad years, that last of my gods, Efficiency, beginning to rock a little now upon its deep foundations?

What could these men ever put in its place? I recalled the words of an old dock watchman with whom I had talked the evening before. From the days of the[Pg 312] Knights of Labor he had been through many strikes, and all had failed, he told me. His dog sat there beside him, a solemn old red spaniel, looking wistfully into his master's face. And with somewhat the same expression, looking out on the moonlit Hudson, the old striker had said slowly:

"Before these labor leaders will do half of what they say—a pile of water will have to go by."

A sharp slight sound behind me jerked me suddenly out of my thoughts. I jumped as though at a shot. How infernally tight my nerves were getting. The sound had come from a mere piece of paper blown by the wind—a rough salt wind which now blew in from the ocean as though impatient of all this stillness. From below came a lapping and slapping of waves. Above me a derrick mast growled and whined as it rocked. And now as I looked about me all those densely crowded derricks moved to and fro against the sky. I had never felt in this watery world such deep restlessness as now.

"I wonder if you'll ever stop heaving," I thought half angrily. "I wonder what I'll be like when you finally get through with me. When will you ever let me stand pat and get things settled for good and all? When stop this endless starting out?"[Pg 313]

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