The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
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Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942
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Doing Good May Not Be Learned
By Robert F. Mintz, '31
The Magpie, June 1931, v. 32, n. 2, p. 5.
Night came. The big leather-cutting machine droned softly as the gray shadows crept across the rough wooden floor. Voices, tired but happy with the thought of one whole day of pleasure on the morrow, drifted in through the half-open door. Then silence again, and the soft singing of the machine as it gobbled up the leather that the man fed it.
From another room a voice shouted, "How many more, Karl?" And the man answered. And then again, "Hold it; we're closing now."
The machine was silenced and the lights darkened. A few minutesthen the cool air of the night blew in through the open door as the two men went out. "Good bye, Karl," said the man.
The languid heat of the day was gone. A faint breeze blew ever so gently in the dry streets and through Karl's thick black hair. It was good to be out in the air after twelve hours of work; only he was hungry and couldn't think so much about that. Saturday nights he went to his father's house where he ate supper. The thick foods that his mother prepared, bathed in heavy gravies and steaming hot, were most delicious, he thought. And then there was a discussion after supper.
He was at these times conscious of his father's rich voice droning into his heavy head. He was conscious of a very monotonous voice speaking a great many words, and within himself a feeling of satisfaction he couldn't quite explain. Only he knew that he was satisfied, and that the heavy smoke that poured from the cigar in his father's mouth was decidedly nice.
When he got to his father's home, the lights in the dining room were already lit, and he could hear the clatter of the knives and forks against the plates. Since they had already begun, he took off his hat quietly and without saying a word walked in and sat down at the table in the place they had saved for him. He helped himself to the steaming platter and then joined in the noise of the conversation. When the meat and potatoes disappeared, there was coffee and a large brown raisin and nut cake he liked particularly. That was all, and they sat back in their chairs, the father and mother and two older sons, to talk.
Something had been bothering Karl all day. Yesterday he had been talking to the Communist, Leon, in the factory, and Leon had told him the Communist's conception of God and religion. He had also said something about the soul, and laughed at the idea of immortality. "All is forgotten," he had said, "in the dust of the cool tombs."
Karl could not understand. What did happen to one after death if one didn't go to heaven? Why was one good on earth, and why did the man who spoke on the corner say, "He who is good shall be saved"?
But Leon, with his fiery eloquence, had made him uneasy. He wondered why people looked for new ideas when old ones were so comfortable. He would ask his father about it. Surely, he knew and could make things clear for him, so he asked slowly, "Father, do you believe in immortality"?
"Immortality," repeated the old man. "Yes, there is such a thing as immortality, but somewhere have I read that it is our deeds which make up our soul, and our soul lives on in the remembrance of those deeds."
"Our good deeds, you mean, father," suggested the mother.
"Yes, yes, our good deeds. And our soul lives on after us in the living remembrance of those deeds."
"But suppose, father, one is not able to do good deeds" the mother began again.
"No, no, do not confuse me. It is our good deeds. The deeds of honor, of courage, of charitythey are the things by which we are remembered. Nothing else counts...."
The old man continued to talk, but Karl did not hear. Only his father's words on immortality and of the soul existing in good deeds fumbled through his brain. He could not quite understand it all. He had thought of his soul, perhaps as a bird, that left the body at his death and lived on. Why it should live or why he wanted it to live was not quite clear even to him, but it was associated with everything good, and he was told that men who lived well during their lives would be rewarded by somehow finding themselves in heaven.
And now he was disturbed. He must do good deeds if he was to have eternal life. He must do things that people would remember him by.
Other people had so much time in which to do good deeds. After working twelve hours a day, he could not find time. It was enough if he could go home, eat his cheese and beer and then go to sleep. He was handicapped, he concluded, but he must overcome the handicap, for he could not conceive of a death without immortality.
That evening when he bade his family good-night he was still troubled. But there was Sunday before him.
* * *
There are certain persons who are gifted with that precious facility for natural happiness. The unpleasant colors and the evident flaws which creep into the tapestry we weave and call our life are to them but breaks in the endless monotony of perfection, and improve rather than disfigure the whole. There can be no unhappiness for them, for there is no cause for unhappiness, and the little indifferences which affect us so deeply are to them but a moment's pain.
Of such a nature was Karl. He would wake in the morning sincerely happy and never thinking of the truly hard burden he was forced to bear. But there are in these people, and so in Karl, a point of attack, an Achilles' heel, and on that one point they may he wounded severely. That point had been pricked; and it seemed strange, ironic, that in this large, happy, friendly Hungarian, the subtle point was immorality.
As it was cool that Sunday afternoon, Karl decided it would he nice to go for a walk in the amusement park. It would be great fun to ride on those fast-moving things which nearly broke your back and made the girls scream for fear or joy, Karl couldn't say which.
There were a great many persons there already, moving slowly over the soft grass. Karl felt quite happy in the midst of all this noise and music and the many smells which came to his nostrils. The man with the frankfurters was so jovial and the frankfurters themselves sizzled so happily on the griddle that Karl was tempted to buy one, and then the man laughed so much and spoke about so many things to him and talked so rapidly that Karl was very much pleased with him and bought still another frankfurter.
With this warm morsel in his stomach, Karl bade the man good-bye and looked at the breath-taking canvases on which very many ladies, some fat, some beautiful, and some in extremely uncomfortable positions, were displayed. He had half a mind to go in but decided that the carousel would afford him a greater pleasure. He gave the lady two nickels and she gave him a ticket.
He decided after his third ride that he was having a splendid time, but perhaps it would he fun to ride on the ferris wheel. He got off in back of a handsomely-dressed man with a pair of spats.
Karl had gone but a few steps when he noticed on the ground a black wallet bulging with money. The man must have dropped it. He thought he had seen it fall from his pocket.
He picked it up quickly. The feel of the money in the pocket-book made his heart beat quite loudly. He could almost hear it. A few of the green crisp bills stuck out. There was more money there than he had ever seen in his life. And nobody had seen him pick it up. He could slip it into his pocket and he sure of his food and room for ever so long. And the man was disappearing rapidly in the crowds. He would never see him again. The man was rich and would not miss the money very much. But through his mind, in a flash, flew the thoughts of the day before. It would be honorable to return it. He would he doing a good deed, one of those deeds, as his father called it, of honor.
He stood for a moment undecided. Then he hurried quickly through the crowds in the direction of the man. The people jostled him. Men warned him angrily as his big body brushed past them. Finally he came to the man. "Look, sir, is this yours?" he asked.
The man turned and looked at him. Karl's collar was rumpled and his tie was free from his vest. He was perspiring from his run. His mouth was half-open in a happy, rather stupid smile, and he breathed heavily. The man took the wallet and counted the money greedily
"There's some missing," he said. "Come, come, pass it over."
The happy smile passed from Karl's face and a puzzled, amazed expression came to his eyes. He had done only what he knew was right and the man was accusing him of theft. He felt himself blushing as though he were actually guilty. He started to protest his innocence. A little crowd was gathering now. The man said quickly, "Very well, I was going to give you a reward, but since you took it yourself there will be no need to." And then highly pleased at the splendid way in which he had handled the matter, and feeling very proud at his apparent magnanimity, he strolled off.
Karl was quite miserable then. He turned to go, and he heard a lady with a high hat which had artificial flowers say something quite loudly about the "pick-pockets which seemed to gather at amusement parks." He decided that he was in no mood for the ferris wheel now and made his way to the gate.
It had not been a very good day, he thought, as he made his way to the train. He had thought he was doing a good deed, a deed of honor, he had left the park with people actually thinking that he was a thief and that he went through strange pocket-books. If he had taken the money, no one would have been the wiser, and he would have been at least a hundred dollars richer. Now he was just as poor as he had been before and feeling a great deal worse. It wasn't so easy to do good. It was not enough if one merely tried. Maybe one had to have the knack, like feeding leather to the machine.
As he entered the train on his way home, he noticed a little fellow being shaken by the conductor, a big strong man with stiff black whiskers and the ferocious aspect of a lion. The little prisoner seemed to be more afraid of the conductor's face than of the punishment he was receiving. Karl imagined that the child had probably sneaked passage on the train and had been caught.
It seemed unfair that this big man should punish the little child who could not fight back. Supposing the child had sneaked passage? Did it mean so much to this conductor? Could he not feel any pity for the child, perhaps a bootblack, earning so very little, and having to contribute to the support of a large family? If the child could not afford it....
But why should he interfere? Why was it up to him to argue with this man? Before, things had come out poorly. Maybe this time again; and he could hear the lady back at the park with the artificial flowers and her high-pitched voice speak her mind. He trembled lest this time, too, he would be no more successful. He found himself speaking.
"Let him go. I'll pay for him." His voice sounded strange, lost in the silence of amazement.
"What's that?" asked the conductor, dropping the child for a moment and turning to Karl.
"I said that I would pay his fare," said Karl again, this time a little weaker as the conductor's devastating scowl was now leveled at him, and he feared he had done something wrong.
The train stopped, and the child sprang for the door and in a twinkling was gone. An angry buzz drifted to Karl's ears.
"You fool, you. See what you've done. Pay his fare!" the conductor snorted angrily. "Maybe you'll pay for all the pockets that the rascal picked until I got my hands on him."
Karl's face turned crimson. He mumbled something under his breath and he picked his way to a seat. He heard someone whisper "busybody" and another "know-it-all" as he passed, and he could feel the hostile glances all over his body. He felt miserable. A queer little hook was pulling at his throat, and he wanted to cry, or do something. He was glad when the train came to his station and he was able to get off.
Monday morning came, and it found Karl tired and eating a large roll and a cup of coffee. Back again to work. He felt glad to be going. He didn't find time to dream of immortality in the leather shop. He was afraid to think of it, for in his father's words, "The essence of immortality lies in good deeds." He had tried to do good, but somehow he didn't have the knack of it. At the factory, what one didn't know, one could learn, but he felt that there was no learning to do good. It simply had to be born in you.
He put on his large brown hat and went out.
The Magpie Sings the Great Depression
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