The Harbor


I slept little that night, and my work the next morning went badly. So, after wasting an hour or two, I decided to stop. I would go and see Joe and be done with it.

What was he doing with my harbor? The address Sue had given me was down on the North River, my old hunting ground. The weather had turned cold over-night, and when I came to the waterfront I felt the big raw breath of the sea. I had hardly been near the harbor in years. It had become for me a deep invisible corner-stone upon which my vigorous world was built. I had climbed up into the airy heights, I had been writing of millionaires. And coming so abruptly now from my story of life in rich hotels, the place I had once glorified looked bleak and naked, elemental. Down to the roots of things again.

I came to a bare wooden building, climbed some stairs and entered a large, low-ceilinged room which was evidently a meeting hall. Chairs were stacked along the walls and there was a low platform at one end. As I lingered there a moment, by habit my eyes took in the details. The local color was lurid enough. On the walls were foreign pictures, one of the anarchist Ferrer being executed in Spain, and another of an Italian mob shaking their fists and yelling like demons at a bloated hideous priest. There were posters in which flaming torches, blood-red flags and barricades and cannon belching clouds of smoke stood out in heavy blacks and reds. And all this foreign violence was made grimly real in its purpose here by the way these pictures centered around the largest poster, which was of an ocean liner with all its[Pg 239] different kinds of workers gathered together in one mass and staring fixedly up at the ship.

Through a door in a board partition I went into a narrow room from which two dirty windows looked out upon the docks below. This room was cramped and crowded. Newspapers and pamphlets lay heaped on the floor, and in the corners were four desks, at one of which three men, whom I learned later to be an Italian, an Englishman and a Spaniard, were talking together intensely. They took no notice of my entrance, for many other visitors, burly, sooty creatures, were constantly straggling in and out.

I saw Joe at a desk in one corner. Looking doubly tall and lean and stooped, and with a tired frown on his face, he sat there with his sleeves rolled up slowly pounding out a letter on the typewriter before him. On top of his desk were huge ledgers, and over them upon hooks on the wall hung bunches of letters from other ports. It all gave me a heavy impression of dull daily drudgery. And in this Joe was so absorbed that he took no notice of my presence, although I now stood close behind him. When at last he did look up and I got a full view of his face, with its large, familiar features, tight-set jaw and deep-set eyes, I was startled at its gauntness.

"Hello, Joe——"

"Hello." A dullish red came into his face and then a slight frown. He half rose from his seat. "Hello, Bill," he repeated. "What's brought you here?"

He appeared a little dazed at first, then anything but glad to see me. The thought of our old college days flashed for a moment into my mind. How far away they seemed just now. Through our first few awkward remarks he lapsed back into such a tired, worn indifference that I was soon on the point of leaving. But that bony gauntness in his face, and all it showed me he had been through, gave him some right to his rudeness, I thought. So I changed my mind and stuck to my purpose of hav[Pg 240]ing it all out with Joe and learning what he was about. Persisting in my friendliness my questions slowly drew him out.

Since I had seen him five years ago he had continued his writing, but as he had grown steadily more set on writing only what he called "the truth about things," the newspapers had closed their doors. While I had gone up he had gone down, until finally throwing up in disgust "this whole fool game of putting words on paper," he had made up his mind to throw in his life with the lives of the men at the bottom. So for two years he had shoveled coal in the stokeholes of ships by day and by night, he had mixed with stokers of every race, from English, French and Germans to Russians and Italians, Spaniards, Hindus, Coolies, Greeks. He had worked and eaten and slept in their holes, he had ranged the slums of all the seas. And of all this he spoke in short, commonplace phrases, still in that indifferent tone, as though personal stories were a bore.

"But look here, Joe," I asked at the end, "what's the good of living like this? What the devil can you do?"

I still remember the look he gave me, the weary remoteness of it. But all he said was,

"Organize strikes."



"Of stokers?"

"No, of all industries."

"For higher pay, eh, and shorter hours."

Another brief look.

"No, for revolution," he said.

Briefly, in reply to my questions, he explained how he and his friends had already induced some twelve thousand stokers and dockers to leave their old trade unions and enroll themselves as members of this new international body, which was to embrace not only one trade but all the labor connected with ships—ships of all na[Pg 241]tions. He was here doing the advance work. As soon as the ground was made ready, he said, some of the bigger leaders would come. Then there would be mass meetings here and presently a general strike. And as the years went on there would be similar strikes in all trades and in all countries, until at some time not many years off there would be such labor rebellions as would paralyze the industrial world. And out of this catastrophe the workers would emerge into power to build up a strange new world of their own.

This was what Joe saw ahead. He seemed to be seeing it while he spoke, with a hard, clear intensity that struck me rather cold. Here was no mere parlor talk, here was a man who lived what he said.

"You comfortable people," he said, "are so damn comfortable you're blind. You see nothing ahead but peace on earth and a nice smooth evolution—with a lot of steady little reforms. You've got so you honestly can't believe there's any violence left in the world. You're as blind as most folks were five years before the Civil War. But what's the use talking?" he ended. "You can't understand all this." Again my irritation rose.

"No, I can't say I do," I replied. "To stir up millions of men of that kind and then let 'em loose upon the world strikes me as absolutely mad!"

"I knew it would."

"Look here, Joe, how are you so sure about all this? Hasn't it ever struck you that you're getting damnably narrow?" He smiled.

"I don't care much if I'm narrow," he said.

"You think it's good for you, being like this?"

"I don't care if it's good for me."

"Don't you want to see anything else?"

"Not in your successful world."

"Well, J. K., I'm sorry," I retorted hotly. "Because I'd like to see your world, I honestly would! I'm not like you, I'm always ready to be shown!"[Pg 242]

"All right, come and see it. Why don't you write up Jim Marsh?" He smiled as he named the notorious leader of the whole organization. "He'll be here soon, and in his line he has been a mighty successful man. All up and down the U. S. A. Jim's name has been in headlines and Jim himself has been in jail. A successful revolutionist. So why not add him to your list? Write up the America he knows." There was a challenge in Joe's voice.

"All right, perhaps I will," I said. At least I had him talking now. "Come out to lunch and tell me some more."

"I don't want any lunch."

Something in the way he said that made me look at him quickly. He appeared to me now not only thin but tense and rather feverish. His nerves were plainly all on edge. He had smoked one cigarette after another.

"I've got a lot of work to-day," he added restlessly. "Not only these damn letters to write—I've got to make up our paper besides—it goes to the printer to-morrow. Here, take a copy with you."

And he handed me the last week's issue. It was a crude and flimsy affair, with its name, in scarehead letters, "WAR SURE." I glanced it over in silence a moment. What a drop for Joe, from what he had been, to this wretched violent little sheet, this muckraker of the ocean world.

"Not like the harbor you painted," he said.

"No," I answered shortly.

"Do you want another look at your harbor?"

I eyed him for a moment:

"All right—I'll look——"

"Fine business." He had risen now, and a gleam of the old likable Joe came for a moment into his eyes.

"Meet me to-morrow at seven a. m. And let's look at some of its failures," he said.[Pg 243]

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