The Human Touch

I was sitting in the shade of an old apple tree, or maybe it was some other old tree, on a blazingly hot afternoon, reading in a book from which the hum of distant conversation and activity was not sharp enough to distract me. It was on a Stuyvesant Park bench I was seated, with St. George’s Church and Mr. J. P. Morgan’s private chapel right behind me. It was all very pleasant and I could have remained on that bench for hours, reading of the strange fates of the strange and timeless people in the book before me, but as I continued reading I became aware of a knife-like snarl in the pleasant hum of sound, a human snarl, coming from a middle-aged man two persons to the left of me; in fact, the snarl had something of a Nazi accent running through it.

There were words to the snarl and they were addressed to, or at, the man who sat between us, one who did not attempt to keep the conversation going even by saying as little as “Yes” or “No.” He maintained an embarrassed smile, as if not to commit himself to agreement and at the same time not to run the risk of showing hostility. But the man who snarled was too full of the virulence of his own ideas to need encouragement or to be halted by anyone’s disinclination to enter into talk with him.

OBJECT OF THE SNARL

The objective of the snarl, so to speak, was a woman seated on a bench diagonal to ours, a woman who was talking with good-natured, and maybe offensive, loudness about something or other, or someone or other. She was a large woman, weighing in the neighborhood of two hundred pounds, and she was middle-aged, She was a mother, at least once, for I caught a reference to a daughter. By her appearance, clothes and manner, she put herself down as poor and vulgar, but, also, she looked like a woman whom it would be difficult to dislike, once she had made up her mind to be liked.

It was at her that the thin, weazened, bitter-tongued man was angry. They were perfect strangers, but that made no difference in his hostility. He was a repressed Nazi, who had to let it out in words, for the present, but who was itching to do something about it. And it wasn’t because this woman was Jewish; she was more likely Irish or German. This woman, who had reached the age of consent in many, many things, was giving this stranger-man offense because—she was smoking a cigarette! He was saying many things which, being directed to a masculine audience, could not be reproduced in a family newspaper, but he used one phrase which had a familiar ring. He was saying, word for word: “There ought to be a law!” He meant a law to prevent women from smoking, at least in public. And then he went on to rant about fifteen and sixteen-year-old girls who smoked and who ought to have their faces slapped, not to mention a more humiliating part of the anatomy.

But that was only the jumping-off place for his volunteered discourse, and the absence of “Hear, hear!” neither discomfited nor discouraged him. Had I been a Marxian I would have been delighted with his talk, for it was pure, unadulterated economic determinism, and although economic determinism is supposed to be Marxian and Communistic and the rest of it, his was pure Hitlerian economic determinism.

WOMAN’S PLACE

He went on to say, after his diatribe against cigarette-smoking women, that woman’s place is in the home, and that it is everywhere but in the home you find them. Apparently the thing that was a pebble in his shoes was that women were working in shops, offices, factories, mills, schools, stores, or what have you, taking the bread out of the mouths of men like himself undoubtedly, and again I heard the phrase, “There ought to be a law.” The subways carrying people to work in the morning told the terrible tale, he said, for all of those being borne to their jobs, there was only one man to twenty women, or thereabouts.

Although recognizing the source of his reasoning I could not help but feel sorry for the man, probably an unemployed, who hated to see a woman smoke a cigarette because he had no job, regarding the woman who smoked as a figure symbolic of woman emancipated, a woman who didn’t stay home and cook and mend and dust and look after the kids which he, in his manhood, would feed and clothe with his exclusive efforts, provided no woman, belonging to another man, took the bread out of his mouth. And having read all this between the lines of his vituperation, I moved on to a quieter bench to read more in “Seven Gothic Tales” where no such problems arise.

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