Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Cop and The Anthem by O. Henry

On his bench in Madison Square in New York City, Soapy moved uneasily. The wild geese were calling loudly. Couples snuggled up for lack of winter coats. Snow began to fall. It was very, very cold. No wonder Soapy was nervous about the coming winter.

A dead leaf fell in Soapy's lap. That was a sign from the winter spirit, Jack Frost. Jack Frost knows there are homeless people sleeping on benches, and he is kind enough to give them plenty of warning that, yes, winter is on the way. At the corners of the four streets leading to Madison Square, Jack Frost hands out his “cards”, the falling leaves, carried by the North Wind, so that the inhabitants of the outdoors may read them get themselves ready.

Soapy became aware of the fact that the time had come for him to prepare himself for all the difficulties that were coming. He needed to plan a strategy. That’s why he nervously moved on his bench.

Soapy didn’t have a lot of options. He wasn’t a bear, so he couldn’t hibernate. He wasn’t rich, so he couldn’t go on any Mediterranean cruises, to warm places under Southern skies like Acupulco or tropical beaches on Hawaii. Three months on the Island was what his soul craved. Three months of certain board and bed and congenial company, safe from wind and cops, seemed to Soapy the essence of things desirable. Yes, you guessed it, the Island was a prison.

For years the nice warm Blackwell's Island Prison had been his winter quarters. Just as his more fortunate fellow New Yorkers had bought their tickets to Palm Beach and the Riviera each winter, so Soapy had made his modest arrangements for his annual stay at the Island. And now the time was come. On the previous night three Sunday newspapers, one under his coat, another around his ankles, and the third over his lap, had failed to prevent the cold from getting to him as he slept on his bench near the fountain in the ancient square. He wasn’t very fond of shivering as he tried to sleep. So he looked forward to a warm cell in the Island prison. It was time. He didn’t want any charity, he didn’t want to stay in any shelter provided by the city. In Soapy's opinion the Law was better than Philanthropy. Sure, there were many opportunities for a free meal and a room provided by the city or by some church. But to one of Soapy's proud spirit the gifts of charity are not an option. You have to pay for it one way or another. If you don’t pay for it with money, you must pay in humiliation of spirit for every benefit received at the hands of philanthropy. For every bed of charity, you must take a bath, for every loaf of bread, you’ll have to answer questions or promise to look for a job, or some painful prospect like it. That’s why it is better to be a guest of the Island Prison, which though conducted by rules, does not interfere inappropriately with a gentleman's private affairs.

Soapy, having decided to go to the Island, at once set about accomplishing his desire. There were many easy ways of doing this. The most pleasant was was to dine luxuriously at some expensive restaurant; and then, after refusing to pay for the meal, be handed over quietly and without much fuss to a policeman. An accommodating judge would do the rest.

Soapy left his bench and strolled out of the square and across the level sea of asphalt, where Broadway and Fifth Avenue flow together. Up Broadway he turned, and stopped at a shiny cafe, where every night you could find the best wines and the finest food.

Soapy had total confidence in himself from the lowest button of his vest to the top button of his shirt. He was shaven, and his coat was decent and he had a neat black, very nice necktie that had been presented to him by a lady missionary on Thanksgiving Day. If he could reach a table in the restaurant without getting thrown out, success would be his. The portion of him that would show above the table would raise no doubt in the waiter's mind. A roasted duck, thought Soapy, would be about the thing--with a bottle of Chablis, and then Camembert Cheese, a cup of expresso and a cigar. One dollar for the cigar would be enough. The total he would simply say, he couldn’t pay. Then would come his arrest, and yet the meat would leave him filled and happy for the journey to his winter refuge in the jail.

But as Soapy set foot inside the restaurant door the head waiter's eye fell upon his dirty, torn trousers and decadent, worn out shoes. Strong and ready hands turned him about and pushed him in silence and haste to the sidewalk and so the fine meal of duck wouldn’t land on Soapy’s plate that night.

Soapy turned off Broadway. It seemed that his route to the desired island was not to be through the pleasant unpaid meal in a restaurant. He must invent some other way of breaking the law so he could enter the nice, warm jail.

At a corner of Sixth Avenue electric lights and cleverly displayed wares behind plate-glass made a shop window stand out. Soapy took a stone and threw it at the glass. People came running around the corner, a policeman in the front. Soapy stood still, with his hands in his pockets, and smiled at the sight of brass buttons.

"Where's the man that done that?" inquired the officer excitedly.

"Don't you figure out that I might have had something to do with it?" said Soapy, not without sarcasm, but friendly, as one greets good fortune.

The policeman's mind refused to accept Soapy even as a clue. Men who smash windows do not remain to talk about it with the cops. They run away as fast as they can. The policeman saw a man half way down the block running to catch a street car. He took out his club and he ran after the man. Soapy, with disgust in his heart, shuffled away. Now he was unsuccessful twice!

On the opposite side of the street was an inexpensive restaurant. It served people with large appetites and modest purses. It was crowded. The plates and silverware weren’t very fancy. The soup wasn’t bad, but also wasn’t very substantial. Into this place Soapy took his worn out shoes and torn, dirty trousers, and he wasn’t much different from any of the other customers. At a table he sat and ate a beefsteak, pancakes, doughnuts and pie. And then to the waiter be confessed that the he didn’t even have a dime to pay for any of it. Then he said to the waiter:

"Now, get busy and call a cop, and don't keep a gentleman waiting."

"No cop for you," said the waiter, with a tough voice and eye burning like bright cherries. "Hey, Con!"

Two waiters threw Soapy onto the sidewalk. Soapy landed there on his ear. He got up slowly, and beat the dust from his clothes. Arrest seemed but a rosy dream. The Island seemed very far away. A policeman who stood before a drug store two doors away laughed and walked down the street.

Five blocks Soapy traveled before his courage permitted him to try again to commit some crime in order to be arrested. This time the opportunity presented itself to him in a way that looked very, very simple. A young woman who looked modest and pretty was standing before a show window gazing with a lot of interest at its display of shaving mugs and inkstands, and two yards from the window a large policeman who looked pretty tough and mean leaned against a fire hydrant.

It was Soapy's plan to play the part of a crude womanizer. He pretended to sexually harass the young woman. The refined and elegant appearance of his victim and the appearance of the serious cop encouraged him to believe that he would soon feel the pleasant official grab on his arm that would insure his winter quarters on the right little, tight little isle.

Soapy straightened the lady missionary's tie, dragged his hands out of his sleeves, rubbing them together, set his hat at an angle and marched toward the young woman. He made eyes at her, then started coughing and clearing his throat. He smiled, winked, and acted very obnoxiously toward her. With half an eye Soapy saw that the policeman was watching him carefully. The young woman moved away a few steps, and again placed her attention on the shaving mugs in the shop window. Soapy followed, boldly stepping to her side, raised his hat and said:

"Ah there, honey baby! Don't you want to come and play in my yard?"

The policeman was still looking. The persecuted young woman had only to wave at him and Soapy would be practically on the way to his island. Already he imagined he could feel the cozy warmth of the station-house. The young woman faced him and, stretching out a hand, caught Soapy's coat sleeve.

“Sure, Mike," she said joyfully, "How about you treat me to a pint of good beer? I'd have spoken to you sooner, but the cop was watching."

With the young woman playing the enthusiastic receiver of his inappropriate advances, Soapy walked past the policeman overcome with sadness. He seemed doomed to liberty, unable to do anything wrong.

At the next corner he shook off his companion and ran. He halted in the district where by night are found the very well lit streets, happy hearts, great restaurants and theaters.

Women in furs and men in overcoats moved gaily in the wintry air. A sudden fear grabbed Soapy. He imagined that he was under some sort of curse that made him immune to arrest. The thought brought a little of panic to him, and when he came to another policeman lounging grandly in front of a richly decorated theatre he decided that he would try the crime of "disorderly conduct."

On the sidewalk Soapy began to yell drunken gibberish at the top of his harsh voice. He danced, howled, raved and caused enough noise to wake the dead.

The policeman twirled his club, turned his back to Soapy and remarked to a citizen.

"It’s one of those damn Yale students celebrating their football victory over Harvard. You know, Yale won and Harvard got zero points. He’s noisy; but no harm. We've instructions to leave those Yale students alone."

Disappointed, Soapy stopped his useless racket. Would a policeman never lay hands on him? In his imagination, the Island seemed like an unattainable paradise. He buttoned his thin coat against the chilling wind.

In a cigar store he saw a well-dressed man lighting a cigar at a swinging light. His silk umbrella he had set by the door on entering. Soapy stepped inside, secured the umbrella and walked off with it slowly. The man with the cigar followed quickly.

"My umbrella," he said, angrily.

"Oh, is it?" sneered Soapy, adding insult to petty theft. "Well, why don't you call a policeman? I took it. Your umbrella! Why don't you call a cop? There stands one on the corner."

The umbrella owner slowed his steps. Soapy did likewise, with a fear that luck would again run against him. The policeman looked at the two curiously.

"Of course," said the umbrella man--"that is--well, you know how these mistakes occur--I--if it's your umbrella I hope you'll excuse me--I picked it up this morning in a restaurant--If you recognise it as yours, why--I hope you'll--"

"Of course it's mine," said Soapy, viciously.

The ex-umbrella man retreated. The policeman hurried to assist a tall blonde in an opera cloak across the street in front of a street car that was approaching two blocks away.

Soapy walked eastward through a street damaged by road work. He threw the umbrella angrily into an excavation. He muttered against the men who wear helmets and carry clubs. Because he wanted to fall into their grasp, yet they seemed to treat him as a king who could do no wrong.

At last Soapy reached one of the avenues to the east where the glitter and turmoil was but faint. He set his face down this toward Madison Square, for the homing instinct survives even when the home is a park bench.

But on an unusually quiet corner Soapy came to a standstill. Here was an old church, quaint and rambling and gabled. Through one violet-stained window a soft light glowed, where, no doubt, the organist praticed over the keys, making sure of his mastery of the coming Sabbath anthem. For there drifted out to Soapy's ears sweet music that caught and held him transfixed.

The moon was above, shiny and calm; vehicles and pedestrians were few; sparrows sang sleepily under the roof--for a little while the scene might have been a country churchyard. And the anthem that the organist played glued Soapy to the iron fence, for he had known it well in the days when his life contained such things as mothers and roses and ambitions and friends and pure thoughts and collars.

The mixture of Soapy's receptive state of mind and the influences about the old church created a sudden and wonderful change in his soul. He viewed with immediate dislike the terrible life he had drifted into, the degraded days, unworthy desires, dead hopes, and bad decisions that made up his existence.

And also in a moment his heart responded excitedly to this new emotion. An immediate and strong impulse moved him to battle with his uncertain fate. He would pull himself out of the dirt; he would make a man of himself again; he would get rid of the evil that had taken possession of him. There was time; he was comparatively young yet; he would resurrect his old ambitions and follow them without failure. He would go back to work. He would go to night school and improve his situation. Those solemn but sweet organ notes had set up a revolution in him. Tomorrow he would go into the downtown district and find work. A fur importer had once offered him a place as driver. He would find that person tomorrow and ask for the position. He would be somebody in the world. He would--

Soapy felt a hand on his arm. He looked quickly around into the broad face of a policeman.

"What are you doing here?" asked the officer.

"Nothing," said Soapy.

"Then come along," said the policeman.

"Three months on the Island," said the judge in the Police Court the next morning.


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