In the Broadway
Cars by Stephen Crane
PANORAMA OF A DAY FROM THE DOWN-TOWN RUSH OF THE MORNING TO THE
UNINTERRUPTED WHIRR OF THE CABLE AT NIGHTTHE MAN, AND THE WOMAN, AND
The cable cars come down Broadway as the waters come down at Lodore.
Years ago Father Knickerbocker had convulsions when it was proposed to
lay impious rails on his sacred thoroughfare. At the present day the
cars, by force of column and numbers, almost dominate the great street,
and the eye of even an old New Yorker is held by these long yellow
monsters which prowl intently up and down, up and down, in a mystic
In the grey of the morning they come out of the up-town, bearing
janitors, porters, all that class which carries the keys to set alive
the great down-town. Later, they shower clerks. Later still, they
shower more clerks. And the thermometer which is attached to a
conductor's temper is steadily rising, rising, and the blissful time
arrives when everybody hangs to a strap and stands on his neighbour's
toes. Ten o'clock comes, and the Broadway cars, as well as elevated
cars, horse cars, and ferryboats innumerable, heave sighs of relief.
They have filled lower New York with a vast army of men who will chase
to and fro and amuse themselves until almost nightfall.
The cable car's pulse drops to normal. But the conductor's pulse
begins now to beat in split seconds. He has come to the crisis in his
day's agony. He is now to be overwhelmed with feminine shoppers. They
all are going to give him two-dollar bills to change. They all are
going to threaten to report him. He passes his hand across his brow and
curses his beard from black to grey and from grey to black.
Men and women have different ways of hailing a car. A manif he is
not an old choleric gentleman, who owns not this road but some other
roadthrows up a timid finger, and appears to believe that the King of
Abyssinia is careering past on his war-chariot, and only his opinion of
other people's Americanism keeps him from deep salaams. The gripman
usually jerks his thumb over his shoulder and indicates the next car,
which is three miles away. Then the man catches the last platform, goes
into the car, climbs upon some one's toes, opens his morning paper, and
When a woman hails a car there is no question of its being the King
of Abyssinia's war-chariot. She has bought the car for three dollars
and ninety-eight cents. The conductor owes his position to her, and the
gripman's mother does her laundry. No captain in the Royal Horse
Artillery ever stops his battery from going through a stone house in a
way to equal her manner of bringing that car back on its haunches. Then
she walks leisurely forward, and after scanning the step to see if
there is any mud upon it, and opening her pocket-book to make sure of a
two-dollar bill, she says: Do you give transfers down Twenty-eighth
Some time the conductor breaks the bell strap when he pulls it under
these conditions. Then, as the car goes on, he goes and bullies some
person who had nothing to do with the affair.
The car sweeps on its diagonal path through the Tenderloin with its
hotels, its theatres, its flower shops, its 10,000,000 actors who
played with Booth and Barret. It passes Madison Square and enters the
gorge made by the towering walls of great shops. It sweeps around the
double curve at Union Square and Fourteenth Street, and a life
insurance agent falls in a fit as the car dashes over the crossing,
narrowly missing three old ladies, two old gentlemen, a newly-married
couple, a sandwich man, a newsboy, and a dog. At Grace Church the
conductor has an altercation with a brave and reckless passenger who
beards him in his own car, and at Canal Street he takes dire vengeance
by tumbling a drunken man on to the pavement. Meanwhile, the gripman
has become involved with countless truck drivers, and inch by inch,
foot by foot, he fights his way to City Hall Park. On past the Post
Office the car goes, with the gripman getting advice, admonition,
personal comment, an invitation to fight from the drivers, until
Battery Park appears at the foot of the slope, and as the car goes
sedately around the curve the burnished shield of the bay shines
through the trees.
It is a great ride, full of exciting actions. Those inexperienced
persons who have been merely chased by Indians know little of the
dramatic quality which life may hold for them. These jungle of men and
vehicles, these cañons of streets, these lofty mountains of iron and
cut stonea ride through them affords plenty of excitement. And no
lone panther's howl is more serious in intention than the howl of the
truck driver when the cable car bumps one of his rear wheels.
Owing to a strange humour of the gods that make our comfort, sailor
hats with wide brims come into vogue whenever we are all engaged in
hanging to cable-car straps. There is only one more serious combination
known to science, but a trial of it is at this day impossible. If a
troupe of Elizabethan courtiers in large ruffs should board a cable
car, the complication would be a very awesome one, and the profanity
would be in old English, but very inspiring. However, the combination
of wide-brimmed hats and crowded cable cars is tremendous in its power
to cause misery to the patient New York public.
Suppose you are in a cable car, clutching for life and family a
creaking strap from overhead. At your shoulder is a little dude in a
very wide-brimmed straw hat with a red band. If you were in your senses
you would recognise this flaming band as an omen of blood. But you are
not in your senses; you are in a Broadway cable car. You are not
supposed to have any senses. From the forward end you hear the gripman
uttering shrill whoops and running over citizens. Suddenly the car
comes to a curve. Making a swift running start, it turns three
hand-springs, throws a cart wheel for luck, bounds into the air, hurls
six passengers over the nearest building, and comes down a-straddle of
the track. That is the way in which we turn curves in New York.
Meanwhile, during the car's gamboling, the corrugated rim of the
dude's hat has swept naturally across your neck, and has left nothing
for your head to do but to quit your shoulders. As the car roars your
head falls into the waiting arms of the proper authorities. The dude is
dead; everything is dead. The interior of the car resembles the scene
of the battle of Wounded Knee, but this gives you small satisfaction.
There was once a person possessing a fund of uncanny humour who
greatly desired to import from past ages a corps of knights in full
armour. He then purposed to pack the warriors into a cable car and send
them around a curve. He thought that he could gain much pleasure by
standing near and listening to the wild clash of steel upon steelthe
tumult of mailed heads striking together, the bitter grind of armoured
legs bending the wrong way. He thought that this would teach them that
war is grim.
Towards evening, when the tides of travel set northward, it is
curious to see how the gripman and conductor reverse their tempers.
Their dispositions flop over like patent signals. During the down-trip
they had in mind always the advantages of being at Battery Park. A
perpetual picture of the blessings of Battery Park was before them, and
every delay made them fumemade this picture all the more alluring.
Now the delights of up-town appear to them. They have reversed the
signs on the cars; they have reversed their aspirations. Battery Park
has been gained and forgotten. There is a new goal. Here is a perpetual
illustration which the philosophers of New York may use.
In the Tenderloin, the place of theatres, and of the restaurant
where gayer New York does her dining, the cable cars in the evening
carry a stratum of society which looks like a new one, but it is of the
familiar strata in other clothes. It is just as good as a new stratum,
however, for in evening dress the average man feels that he has gone up
three pegs in the social scale, and there is considerable evening dress
about a Broadway car in the evening. A car with its electric lamp
resembles a brilliantly-lighted salon, and the atmosphere grows just a
trifle strained. People sit more rigidly, and glance sidewise, perhaps,
as if each was positive of possessing social value, but was doubtful of
all others. The conductor says: Ah, gwan. Git off th' earth. But this
is to a man at Canal Street. That shows his versatility. He stands on
the platform and beams in a modest and polite manner into the car. He
notes a lifted finger and grabs swiftly for the bell strap. He reaches
down to help a woman aboard. Perhaps his demeanour is a reflection of
the manner of the people in the car. No one is in a mad New York hurry;
no one is fretting and muttering; no one is perched upon his
neighbour's toes. Moreover, the Tenderloin is a glory at night.
Broadway of late years has fallen heir to countless signs illuminated
with red, blue, green, and gold electric lamps, and the people
certainly fly to these as the moths go to a candle. And perhaps the
gods have allowed this opportunity to observe and study the
best-dressed crowds in the world to operate upon the conductor until
his mood is to treat us with care and mildness.
Late at night, after the diners and theatre-goers have been lost in
Harlem, various inebriate persons may perchance emerge from the darker
regions of Sixth Avenue and swing their arms solemnly at the gripman.
If the Broadway cars run for the next 7000 years this will be the only
time when one New Yorker will address another in public without an
excuse sent direct from heaven. In these cars late at night it is not
impossible that some fearless drunkard will attempt to inaugurate a
general conversation. He is quite willing to devote his ability to the
affair. He tells of the fun he thinks he has had; describes his
feelings; recounts stories of his dim past. None reply, although all
listen with every ear. The rake probably ends by borrowing a match,
lighting a cigar, and entering into a wrangle with the conductor with
an abandon, a ferocity, and a courage that do not come to us
when we are sober.
In the meantime the figures on the street grow fewer and fewer.
Strolling policemen test the locks of the great dark-fronted stores.
Nighthawk cabs whirl by the cars on their mysterious errands. Finally
the cars themselves depart in the way of the citizen, and for the few
hours before dawn a new sound comes into the still thoroughfarethe
cable whirring in its channel underground.