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John Gavin, Misfit by Jacob A. Riis

 

John Gavin was to blame—there 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 family.

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 away—how could there be, with a houseful of children—and 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 tired—tired 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 little hug.

“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 baby softly.

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.

 
 
 

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