A Proposal On the Elevated by Jacob A. Riis
The sleeper on the 3.35 A.M. elevated train from the Harlem bridge
was awake for once. The sleeper is the last car in the train, and has
its own set that snores nightly in the same seats, grunts with the
fixed inhospitality of the commuter at the intrusion of a stranger, and
is on terms with Conrad, the German conductor, who knows each one of
his passengers and wakes him up at his station. The sleeper is unique.
It is run for the benefit of those who ride in it, not for the
company's. It not only puts them off properly; it waits for them, if
they are not there. The conductor knows that they will come. They are
men, mostly, with small homes beyond the bridge, whose work takes them
down town to the markets, the Post-office, and the busy marts of the
city long before cockcrow. The day begins in New York at all hours.
Usually the sleeper is all that its name implies, but this morning
it was as far from it as could be. A party of young people, fresh from
a neighboring hop, had come on board and filled the rear end of the
car. Their feet tripped yet to the dance, and snatches of the latest
waltz floated through the train between peals of laughter and little
girlish shrieks. The regulars glared, discontented, in strange seats,
unable to go to sleep. Only the railroad yardmen dropped off promptly
as they came in. Theirs was the shortest ride, and they could least
afford to lose time. Two old Irishmen, flanked by their dinner-pails,
gravely discussed the Henry George campaign.
Across the passage sat a group of three aparta young man, a girl,
and a little elderly woman with lines of care and hard work in her
patient face. She guarded carefully three umbrellas, a very old and
faded one, and two that were new and of silk, which she held in her
lap, though it had not rained for a month. He was a likely young
fellow, tall and straight, with the thoughtful eye of a student. His
dark hair fell nearly to his shoulders, and his coat had a foreign cut.
The girl was a typical child of the city, slight and graceful of form,
dressed in good taste, and with a bright, winning face. The two chatted
confidentially together, forgetful of all else, while mamma, between
them, nodded sleepily in her seat.
A sudden burst of white light flooded the car.
Hey! Ninety-ninth Street! called the conductor, and rattled the
door. The railroad men tumbled out pell-mell, all but one. Conrad shook
him, and he went out mechanically, blinking his eyes.
Eighty-ninth next! from the doorway.
The laughter at the rear end of the car had died out. The young
people, in a quieter mood, were humming a popular love-song. Presently
above the rest rose a clear tenor:
Oh, promise me that some day you and I
Will take our love together to some sky
Where we can be alone and faith renew
The clatter of the train as it flew over a switch drowned the rest.
When the last wheel had banged upon the frog, I heard the young
student's voice, in the soft accents of southern Europe:
Wenn ich in Wien war He was telling her of his home and his
people in the language of his childhood. I glanced across. She sat
listening with kindling eyes. Mamma slumbered sweetly; her worn old
hands clutched unconsciously the umbrellas in her lap. The two
Irishmen, having settled the campaign, had dropped to sleep, too. In
the crowded car the two were alone. His hand sought hers and met it
Forty-seventh! There was a clatter of tin cans below. The
contingent of milkmen scrambled out of their seats and off for the
depot. In the lull that followed their going, the tenor rose from the
Those first sweet violets of early spring,
Which come in whispers, thrill us both, and sing
Of love unspeakable that is to be,
Oh, promise me! Oh, promise me!
The two young people faced each other. He had thrown his hat upon
the seat beside him and held her hand fast, gesticulating with his free
hand as he spoke rapidly, eloquently, eagerly of his prospects and his
hopes. Her own toyed nervously with his coat-lapel, twisting and
twirling a button as he went on. What he said might have been heard to
the other end of the car, had there been anybody to listen. He was to
live here always; his uncle would open a business in New York, of which
he was to have charge, when he had learned to know the country and its
people. It would not be long now, and thenand then
There was a long stop after the levy for the ferries had left. The
conductor went out on the platform and consulted with the
ticket-chopper. He was scrutinizing his watch for the second time, when
the faint jingle of an east-bound car was heard.
Here she comes! said the ticket-chopper. A shout, and a man
bounded up the steps, three at a time. It was an engineer who, to make
connection with his locomotive at Chatham Square, must catch that
Hullo, Conrad! Nearly missed you, he said as he jumped on the car,
All right, Jack. And the conductor jerked the bell-rope. You made
it, though. The train sped on.
Two lives, heretofore running apart, were hastening to a union. The
lovers had seen nothing, heard nothing but each other. His eyes burned
as hers met his and fell before them. His head bent lower until his
face almost touched hers. His dark hair lay against her blond curls.
The ostrich-feather on her hat swept his shoulder.
Mögtest Du mich haben? he entreated.
Above the grinding of the wheels as the train slowed up for the
station a block ahead, pleaded the tenor:
Oh, promise me that you will take my hand,
The most unworthy in this lonely land
Did she speak? Her face was hidden, but the blond curls moved with a
nod so slight that only a lover's eye could see it. He seized her
disengaged hand. The conductor stuck his head into the car.
A squad of stout, florid men with butchers' aprons started for the
door. The girl arose hastily.
Mamma! she called, steh' auf! Es ist Fourteenth Street.
The little woman woke up, gathered the umbrellas in her arms, and
bustled after the marketmen, her daughter leading the way. He sat as
Ach! he sighed, and ran his hand through his dark hair, so
And he went out after them.