The Rent Baby by Jacob A. Riis
Adam Grunschlag sat at his street stand in a deep brown study. He
heeded not the gathering twilight, or the snow that fell in great white
flakes, as yet with an appreciable space between, but with the promise
of a coming storm in them. He took no notice of the bustle and stir all
about that betokened the approaching holiday. The cries of the huckster
hawking oranges from his cart, of the man with the crawling toy, and of
the pedler of colored Christmas candles passed him by unheard. Women
with big baskets jostled him, stopped and fingered his cabbages; he
answered their inquiries mechanically. Adam's mind was not in the
street, at his stand, but in the dark back basement where his wife
Hansche was lying, there was no telling how sick. They could not afford
a doctor. Of course, he might send to the hospital for one, but he
would be sure to take her away, and then what would become of little
Abe? Besides, if they had nothing else in the whole world, they had yet
each other. When that was no longer the caseAdam would have lacked no
answer to the vexed question if life were then worth living.
Troubles come not singly, but in squads, once the bag be untied. It
was not the least sore point with Adam that he had untied it himself.
They were doing well enough, he and his wife, in their home in
Leinbach, Austria, keeping a little grocery store, and living humbly
but comfortably, when word of the country beyond the sea where much
money was made, and where every man was as good as the next, made them
uneasy and discontented. In the end they gave up the grocery and their
little home, Hansche not without some tears; but she dried them quickly
at the thought of the good times that were waiting. With these ever
before them they bore the hardships of the steerage, and in good season
reached Hester Street and the longed-for haven, only to findthis. A
rear basement, dark and damp and unwholesome, for which the landlord,
along with the privilege of keeping a stand in the street, which was
not his to give, made them pay twelve dollars a month. Truly, much
money was made in America, but not by those who paid the rent. It was
all they could do, working early and late, he with his push-cart and at
his stand, she with the needle, slaving for the sweater, to get the
rent together and keep a roof over the head of little Abe.
Five years they had kept that up, and things had gone from bad to
worse. The police blackmail had taken out of it what little profit
there was in the push-cart business. Times had grown harder than they
ever were in Hester Street. To cap it all, two weeks ago gas had begun
to leak into the basement from somewhere, and made Hansche sick, so
that she dropped down at her work. Adam had complained to the landlord,
and he had laughed at him. What did he want for twelve dollars, anyway?
If the basement wasn't good enough for him, why didn't he hire an
upstairs flat? The landlord did not tell him that he could do that for
the same rent he paid for the miserable hole he burrowed in. He had a
good thing and he knew it. Adam Grunschlag knew nothing of the Legal
Aid Society, that is there to help such as he. He was afraid to appeal
to the police. He was just a poor, timid Jew, of a race that has been
hunted for centuries to make sport and revenue for the great and
mighty. When he spoke of moving and the landlord said that he would
forfeit the twenty dollars deposit that he had held back all these
years, and which was all the capital the pedler had, he thought that
was the law, and was silent. He could not afford to lose it, and yet he
must find some way of making a change, for the sake of little Abe as
well as his wife, and the child.
At the thought of the child, the pedler gave a sudden start and was
wide awake on the instant. Little Abe was their own, and though he had
come in the gloom of that dismal basement, he had been the one ray of
sunshine that had fallen into their dreary lives. But the child was a
rent baby. In the crowded tenements of New York the lodger serves the
same purpose as the Irishman's pig; he helps to pay the rent. The
childit was never called anything elsewas a lodger. Flotsam from
Rivington Street, after the breaking up of a family there, it had come
to them, to perish if the Lord so willed it in that basement. Infant
slaughter houses the Tenement House Commission had called their kind.
The father paid seventy-five cents a week for its keep, pending the
disclosure of the divine purpose with the baby. The Grunschlags, all
unconscious of the partnership that was thus thrust upon them, did
their best for it, and up to the time the trouble with the gas began it
was a disgracefully healthy baby. Since then it had sickened with the
rest. But now, if the worst came to the worst, what was to become of
The pedler was not given long to debate this new question. Even as
he sat staring dumbly at nothing in his perplexity, little Abe crawled
out of the yard with the news that mamma was most deaded; and though
it was not so bad as that, it was made clear to her husband when he
found her in one of her bad fainting spells, that things had come to a
pass where something had to be done. There followed a last ineffectual
interview with the landlord, a tearful leave-taking, and as the
ambulance rolled away with Hansche to the hospital, where she would be
a hundred times better off than in Hester Street, the pedler took
little Abe by the hand, and, carrying the child, set out to deliver it
over to its rightful owners. If he were rid of it, he and Abe might
make a shift to get along. It was a case, emphatically; in which two
were company and three a crowd.
He spied the father in Stanton Street where he was working, but when
he saw Adam he tried to run away. Desperation gave the pedler both
strength and speed, however, and he overhauled him despite his
handicaps, and thrust the baby upon him. But the father would have none
Aber, mein Gott, pleaded the pedler, vat I do mit him? He vas
I don't care what you do with her, said the hard-hearted father.
Give her awayanything. I can't keep her.
And this time he really escaped. Left alone with his charge, the
pedler bethought himself of a friend in Pitt Street who had little
children. Where so many fed, there would be easily room for another. To
Pitt Street he betook himself, only to meet with another setback. They
didn't want any babies there; had enough of their own. So he went to a
widow in East Broadway who had none, to be driven forth with hard
words. What did a widow want with a baby? Did he want to disgrace her?
Adam Grunschlag visited in turn every countryman he knew of on the East
Side, and proposed to each of them to take the baby off his hands,
without finding a single customer for it. Either because it was hurt by
such treatment, or because it thought it time for Hansche's attentions,
the child at length set up a great cry. Little Abe, who had trotted
along bravely upon his four-years-old legs, wrapped in a big plaid
shawl, lost his grip at that and joined in, howling dolefully that he
Adam Grunschlag gave up at last and sat down on the curb, helpless
and hopeless. Hungry! Yes, and so was he. Since morning he had not
eaten a morsel, and been on his feet incessantly. Two hungry mouths to
fill beside his own and not a cent with which to buy bread. For the
first time he felt a pang of bitterness as he saw the shoppers hurry by
with filled baskets to homes where there was cheer and plenty. From the
window of a tenement across the way shone the lights of a Christmas
tree, lighted as in old-country fashion on the Holy Eve. Christmas!
What had it ever meant to him and his but hatred and persecution? There
was a shout from across the street and voices raised in laughter and
song. The children could be seen dancing about the tree, little room
though there was. Ah, yes! Let them make merry upon their holiday while
two little ones were starving in the street. A colder blast than
ordinary came up from the river and little Abe crept close to him,
wailing disconsolate within his shawl.
Hey, what's this? said a rough, but not unkindly voice at his
elbow. Campin' out, shepherd fashion, Moses? Bad for the kids; these
ain't the hills of Judea.
It was the policeman on the beat stirring the trio gently with his
club. The pedler got up without a word, to move away, but little Abe,
from fright or hunger, set up such a howl that the policeman made him
stop to explain. While he did so, telling as briefly as he could about
the basement and Hansche and the baby that was not his, a silver
quarter found its way mysteriously into little Abe's fist, to the utter
upsetting of all that kid's notions of policemen and their functions.
When the pedler had done, the officer directed him to Police
Headquarters where they would take the baby, he need have no fear of
Better leave this one there, too, was his parting counsel. Little
Abe did not understand, but he took a firmer grip on his papa's hand,
and never let go all the way up the three long flights of stairs to the
police nursery where the child at last found peace and a bottle. But
when the matron tried to coax him to stay also, he screamed and carried
on so that they were glad to let him go lest he wake everybody in the
building. Though proverbially Police Headquarters never sleeps, yet it
does not like to be disturbed in its midnight nap, as it were. It is
human with the rest of us, that is how.
Down in the marble-tiled hall little Abe and his father stopped
irresolute. Outside it was dark and windy; the snow, that had ceased
falling in the evening, was swept through the streets on the northern
blast. They had nowhere to go. The doorman was called downstairs just
then to the telegraph office. When he came up again he found father and
son curled up on the big mat by the register, sound asleep. It was
against the regulations entirely, and he was going to wake them up and
put them out, when he happened to glance through the glass doors at the
storm without, and remembered that it was Christmas Eve. With a growl
he let them sleep, trusting to luck that the inspector wouldn't come
out. The doorman, too, was human.
So it came about that the newspaper boys who ran with messages to
the reporters' offices across the street, found them there and held a
meeting over them. Rudie, the smartest of them, declared that his
fingers just itched for that sheeny's whiskers, but the others paid
little attention to him. Even reporters' messengers are not so bad as
they like to have others believe them, sometimes. The year before, in
their rough sport in the alley, the boys had upset old Mary, so that
she fell and broke her arm. That finished old Mary's scrubbing, for the
break never healed. Ever since this, bloodthirsty Rudie had been
stealing down Mulberry Street to the old woman's attic on pay-day and
sharing his meagre wages with her, paying, beside, the insurance
premium that assured her of a decent burial; though he denied it hotly
if charged with it. So when Rudie announced that he would like to pull
the pedler's whiskers, it was taken as a motion that he be removed to
the reporters' quarters and made comfortable there, and the motion was
carried unanimously. Was it not Christmas Eve?
Little Abe was carried across Mulberry Street, sleeping soundly, and
laid upon Rudie's cot. The dogs, Chief and Trilby, that run things in
Mulberry Street when the boys are away, snuggled down by him to keep
him warm, taking him at once under their protection. The father took
off his shoes, and curling up by the stove, slept, tired out, but not
until he had briefly told the boys the story he had once that evening
gone over with the policeman. They heard it in silence, but one or two
made notes which, could he have seen them, would have spoiled one
Hester Street landlord's Christmas. When the pedler was asleep, they
took them across the street and consulted with the inspector about it.
Father and son slept soundly yet when, the morning papers having
gone to press, the boys came down into the office with the night-gang
of reporters to spend the dog-watch, according to their wont, in a game
of ungodly poker. They were flush, for it had been pay-day in the
afternoon, and under the reckless impulse of the holiday the jack-pot,
ordinarily modest enough for cause, grew to unheard-of proportions. It
contained nearly fifteen dollars when Rudie opened it at last. Amid
breathless silence, he then and there made the only public speech of
The pot, he said, goes to the sheeny and his kid for their
Christmas, or my name is mud.
Wild applause followed the speech. It awakened the pedler and little
Abe. They sat up and rubbed their eyes, while Chief and Trilby barked
their welcome. The morning was struggling through the windows. The snow
had ceased falling and the sky was clear.
Mornin', said Rudie, with mock deference, will yer worships have
yer breakfast now, or will ye wait till ye get it?
The pedler looked about him in bewilderment. I hab kein blam'
cent, he said, feeling hopelessly in his pockets.
A joyous yell greeted him. Ikey has more nor you, shouted the
boys, showing the quarter which little Abe had held fast to in his
sleep. And see this.
They swept the jack-pot into his lap, handfuls of shining silver.
The pedler blinked at the sight.
Good morning and Merry Christmas, they shouted. We just had
Bellevue on the 'phone, and Hansche is all right. She will be out
to-day. The gas poisoned her, that was all. For that the police will
settle with the landlord, or we will. You go back there and get your
money back, and go and hire a flat. This is Christmas, and don't you
And they pushed the pedler and little Abe, made fast upon a gorgeous
sled that suddenly appeared from somewhere, out into the street, and
gave them a rousing cheer as they turned the corner going east, Adam
dragging the sled and little Abe seated on his throne, perfectly and