Misfit by Jacob A. Riis
John Gavin was to blamethere is no doubt of that. To be sure, he
was out of a job, with never a cent in his pockets, his babies
starving, and notice served by the landlord that day. He had travelled
the streets till midnight looking for work, and had found none. And so
he gave up. Gave up, with the Employment Bureau in the next street
registering applicants; with the Wayfarers' Lodge over in Poverty Gap,
where he might have earned fifty cents, anyway, chopping wood; with
charities without end, organized and unorganized, that would have sat
upon and registered his case, and numbered it properly. With all these
things and a hundred like them to meet their wants, the Gavins of our
day have been told often enough that they have no business to lose
hope. That they will persist is strange. But perhaps this one had never
heard of them.
Anyway, Gavin is dead. But yesterday he was the father of six
children, running from May, the eldest, who was thirteen and at school,
to the baby, just old enough to poke its little fingers into its
father's eyes and crow and jump when he came in from his long and
dreary tramps. They were as happy a little family as a family of eight
could be with the wolf scratching at the door, its nose already poking
through. There had been no work and no wages in the house for months,
and the landlord had given notice that at the end of the week, out they
must go, unless the back rent was paid. And there was about as much
likelihood of its being paid as of a slice of the February sun dropping
down through the ceiling into the room to warm the shivering Gavin
It began when Gavin's health gave way. He was a lather and had a
steady job till sickness came. It was the old story: nothing laid
awayhow could there be, with a houseful of childrenand nothing
coming in. They talk of death-rates to measure the misery of the slum
by, but death does not touch the bottom. It ends the misery. Sickness
only begins it. It began Gavin's. When he had to drop hammer and nails,
he got a job in a saloon as a barkeeper; but the saloon didn't prosper,
and when it was shut up, there was an end. Gavin didn't know it then.
He looked at the babies and kept up spirits as well as he could, though
it wrung his heart.
He tried everything under the sun to get a job. He travelled early
and travelled late, but wherever he went they had men and to spare. And
besides, he was ill. As they told him bluntly, sometimes, they didn't
have any use for sick men. Men to work and earn wages must be strong.
And he had to own that it was true.
Gavin was not strong. As he denied himself secretly the nourishment
he needed that his little ones might have enough, he felt it more and
more. It was harder work for him to get around, and each refusal left
him more downcast. He was yet a young man, only thirty-four, but he
felt as if he was old and tiredtired out; that was it.
The feeling grew on him while he went his last errand, offering his
services at saloons and wherever, as he thought, an opening offered. In
fact, he thought but little about it any more. The whole thing had
become an empty, hopeless formality with him. He knew at last that he
was looking for the thing he would never find; that in a cityful where
every man had his place he was a misfit with none. With his dull brain
dimly conscious of that one idea, he plodded homeward in the midnight
hour. He had been on the go since early morning, and excepting some
lunch from the saloon counters, had eaten nothing.
The lamp burned dimly in the room where May sat poring yet over her
books, waiting for papa. When he came in she looked up and smiled, but
saw by his look, as he hung up his hat, that there was no good news,
and returned with a sigh to her book. The tired mother was asleep on
the bed, dressed, with the baby in her arms. She had lain down to quiet
it and had been lulled to sleep with it herself.
Gavin did not wake them. He went to the bed where the four little
ones slept, and kissed them, each in his turn, then came back and
kissed his wife and baby.
May nestled close to him as he bent over her and gave her, too, a
Where are you going, papa? she asked.
He turned around at the door and cast a look back at the quiet room,
irresolute. Then he went back once more to kiss his sleeping wife and
But however softly, it woke the mother. She saw him making for the
door, and asked him where he meant to go so late.
Out, just a little while, he said, and his voice was husky. He
turned his head away.
A woman's instinct made her arise hastily and go to him.
Don't go, she said; please don't go away.
As he still moved toward the door, she put her arm about his neck
and drew his head toward her.
She strove with him anxiously, frightened, she hardly knew herself
by what. The lamplight fell upon something shining which he held behind
his back. The room rang with the shot, and the baby awoke crying, to
see its father slip from mamma's arms to the floor, dead.
For John Gavin, alive, there was no place. At least he did not find
it; for which, let it be said and done with, he was to blame. Dead,
society will find one for him. And for the one misfit got off the list
there are seven whom not employment bureau nor woodyard nor charity
register can be made to reach. Social economy the thing is called;
which makes the eighth misfit.