4. Fifth Avenue And Forty-Second Street
"Though you do not know it, I have a soul. Behold, across the way, my library. When the night shrouds those lions and the fresh young trees shake out their greenery against the white stonework, do you not catch a suggestion of atmosphere, something of a mood? And the black cliffs around, with the janitress lights making jeweled bars the width of them, are they not monuments? I cleave brilliantly, up and down this dormant city. It is for you, late wayfarer. Pay no heed to the plodding milk-wagon or the hatless young maiden speeding her lover's motor. Heed my long silences, my slim tall darknesses. My human tide has ebbed. My buildings come about me to muse and to commune. Receive, for once on Fifth Avenue, the soul that is imprisoned in my stone and steel."
It is not for the respectable, this polite communication. Theatre and club and restaurant have long since disgorged these. New York has masticated their money. They have done as they should and are restored uptown. Even the old newswoman, she who had spent starving months in the Russian woods, caught in the first eddies of the war, she has tottered from her stand down by the station. The Hungarian waiter in Childs' is still there, still assuaging the deep nocturnal need for buckwheat cakes, but that is off the avenue. It is three, the avenue is nearly empty. It is ready to disclose its soul.
But before this subtle performance there is a preliminary. It is a very self-respecting avenue and at three on a pleasant morning, when no one is around to disturb it, it proceeds to take its bath. Perhaps a few motors go by-a taxi rolling north, heavy with night thoughts, a tired white face framed in its black depth; or a Wanamaker truck clanking loosely home in the other direction, delivered of its suburban chores. The Italian acolytes are impartial. They spray the wheels of a touring car with gusto, ignored by its linked lovers, or drive a powerful stream under the hubs of a Nassau News wagon trundling to a train. The avenue must be refreshed, the brave green of the library trees nodding approval, the sparrows expecting it. It must be prepared for the sun, under bold lamps and timid stars.
A fine young morning, the watchman promises. A bit of wind whiffles the water that is shot out from the white-wing's hose, but it is clearing up above and looks well for the day. The hour beckons memories for the watchman-fine young mornings he used to have long ago, in Ireland, a boy on his first adventure and he driving with the barley to Ross.
It is an empty street. The hose is wheeled away over the glistening asphalt. The watchman disappears-he has a cozy nook beyond the ken of time-clocks. The last human pigmy seeks his pillow, to hide a diminished head. With man accounted for, night sighs its completion and creeps to the west. Then, untrammeled of heaven or minion, the buildings have their moment. Each tower stretches his proud height to the morning. The stones give out their spirit; their music is unsealed.
Fifth Avenue stands serene and still, but it cannot hold the virgin morning forever. Its windows may be blank, its sidewalks vacant. Behind the walls there is a magnet drawing back its human life.
"Give us this day our daily bread." A saintly venerable horse seems to know the injunction. Emerging from nowhere, ambling to nowhere, it usurps the innocent morning in answer to the Lord.
And not by bread alone. There is nothing in the prayer about clams, but some one in Mount Vernon is destined to have them quickly. Out of the mysterious south, racing against time, a little motor flits onward with gaping barrels of clams. At a decent interval comes a heavier load of fish. Great express wagons follow, commissarial giants. The honest uses of Fifth Avenue begin.
Butchers and bakers are out before fine ladies. The grocer and the greengrocer are early on their rounds. But an empty American News truck confesses that eternal vigilance is the price of circulation. Its gait is swifter than the gait of milkman or fruit-and-vegetable man. Dust and dew are on the florist's wheels: he has come whistling by the swamps of Flushing. His flimsy automobile runs lightly past the juggernauts that crush down.
Uncle Sam is in haste at six in the morning. His trucks hurl from Grand Central to make the substations. But his is not the pride of place. Nor is it coal or farmers' feed that appropriates the middle of the street. The noblest wagons, a long parade of them, announce the greater glory of beer. The temperance advocate may shudder at the desecration of the morning. He may observe "Hell Gate Brewery" and nod his sickly nod. But there is something about this large preparedness for thirst that stills the carping worm of conscience. It is good to see what solid, ample caravans are required to replenish man with beer. It is not the single glass that is glorious. It is not even the single car-load. It is the steady, deliberate, ponderous procession that streams through the early hours. Once it seemed as if Percherons alone were worthy of beer-wagons. It satisfied the faith that there was Design in creation, but the Percheron is not needed. There is the same institutional impressiveness about a motor-truck piled to the sky with beer.
"Number, please?" She is anonymous, that inquirer. But behind her anonymity there is humanity. Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street caught a glimpse of her at six forty-five A. M.
She was up at five in the morning. She had a pang as she put on her check suit, slightly darker than her check coat lined with pink. Her little hat, however, was smart and new. Her mother cooked breakfast while she set the table. Then she walked to the Third Avenue "L" with her friend. They got off the express at Forty-second Street, rode to Fourth Avenue on the short spur line, and walked along Forty-second Street in time for them to do a brief window-shopping as they passed the shirtwaists at Forsythe's. Her friend's bronze shoes she envied as they crossed the little park back of the Library. On Sixth Avenue they inspected the window at Bernstein's. A slight argument engrossed them. They hovered over the window, chirping not unlike the sparrows in Bryant Park. Then, in a flurry of punctuality, they raced for the telephone company to begin their "Number, please."
An hour earlier laborers with dinner-pails had crossed Fifth Avenue, and hatless Polish girls on their way to scrub. By seven o'clock the negro porters and laborers were giving way to white-collar strap-hangers on the elevateds and in the subway. It was getting to be the hour of salesmen and salesgirls and office-boys and shop-subordinates and clerks. The girls back of the scenes at the milliner's, they go up Fifth Avenue at seven, to take one side-street or another. The girl who sells you a toothbrush in the drug-store hurries by the shop windows, herself as neat as a model. Is it early? Myriads of men are pouring down already. Besides, "'S use of kickin'? If you don't like it, you can walk out!"
The night-watchman is going home, and an old attendant from the Grand Central. "Tired, Pop?" "Yeh, p'tty tired." "What right've you to git tired workin' for a big corporation?" The oppressed wage-slave bellows, "Ha, ha."
Of these things Fifth Avenue is innocent at five in the afternoon. The diastole of travelers had spread all morning from Grand Central; the systole is active at five. As the great muscle contracts in the afternoon, atoms are pulled frantically to the suburbs, tearing their way through the weaker streams that are drawn up by the neighboring shops and clubs and bars and hotels. The Biltmore and Sherry's and Delmonico's and the Manhattan and the Belmont are no longer columnar monuments, holding secret vigil. They are secondary to the human floods which they suck in and spray out. The street itself is lost to memory and vision. A swollen stream, dammed at moments while chosen people are permitted to walk dry-shod across, bears on its restless bosom the freight of curiosity and pride and favor. One might fancy, to gaze on this mad throng of motors, that a new religious sect had conquered the universe, worshipers of a machine.
It is the hour of white gloves and delicate profiles, the feminine hour. A little later there will be more leaves than blossoms, the men coming from work giving a duller tone. But one is permitted to believe for this period that Fifth Avenue has a personality, parti-colored, decorative, flashing, frivolous, composed of many styles and many types. The working world intersects it rudely at Forty-second Street, but scarcely infiltrates it. A qualification distinguishes those who turn up and down the Avenue. It is not leisure that distinguishes them, or money, but their sense that there is romance in the appearance of money and leisure. Many of the white gloves are cotton. Many of the gloves are not white. But it is May-time, the afternoon, Fifth Avenue. One may pretend the world is gay.
They seem chaotic and impulsive, these crowds on Fifth Avenue. They move as by personal will. But dawn and sunset, morning and evening, common attractions govern them. There is a rhythm in these human tides.
For eighty years Henri Fabre watched the insects. He stayed with his friend the spider the round of the clock. Time, that reveals the spider, is also eloquent of man in his city. Time is the scene-shifter and the detective. Some day we should pitch a metropolitan observatory at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street,-some day, if we can find the time.