Humoresque: A Laugh on Life with a Tear Behind It

Produced by Suzanne Shell, Charlie Kirschner and the PG
Distributed Proofreaders










On either side of the Bowery, which cuts through like a drain to catch
its sewage, Every Man’s Land, a reeking march of humanity and humidity,
steams with the excrement of seventeen languages, flung in patois from
tenement windows, fire escapes, curbs, stoops, and cellars whose walls
are terrible and spongy with fungi.

By that impregnable chemistry of race whereby the red blood of the
Mongolian and the red blood of the Caucasian become as oil and water in
the mingling, Mulberry Street, bounded by sixteen languages, runs its
intact Latin length of pushcarts, clotheslines, naked babies, drying
vermicelli; black-eyed women in rhinestone combs and perennially big
with child; whole families of buttonhole-makers, who first saw the
blue-and-gold light of Sorrento, bent at home work round a single gas
flare; pomaded barbers of a thousand Neapolitan amours. And then, just
as suddenly, almost without osmosis and by the mere stepping down from
the curb, Mulberry becomes Mott Street, hung in grillwork balconies, the
moldy smell of poverty touched up with incense. Orientals whose feet
shuffle and whose faces are carved out of satinwood. Forbidden women,
their white, drugged faces behind upper windows. Yellow children,
incongruous enough in Western clothing. A draughty areaway with an
oblique of gaslight and a black well of descending staircase.
Show-windows of jade and tea and Chinese porcelains.

More streets emanating out from Mott like a handful of crooked rheumatic
fingers, then suddenly the Bowery again, cowering beneath Elevated
trains, where men burned down to the butt end of soiled lives pass in
and out and out and in of the knee-high swinging doors, a veiny-nosed,
acid-eaten race in themselves.

Allen Street, too, still more easterly, and half as wide, is straddled
its entire width by the steely, long-legged skeleton of Elevated
traffic, so that its third-floor windows no sooner shudder into silence
from the rushing shock of one train than they are shaken into chatter by
the passage of another. Indeed, third-floor dwellers of Allen Street,
reaching out, can almost touch the serrated edges of the Elevated
structure, and in summer the smell of its hot rails becomes an actual
taste in the mouth. Passengers, in turn, look in upon this horizontal of
life as they whiz by. Once, in fact, the blurry figure of what might
have been a woman leaned out, as she passed, to toss into one Abrahm
Kantor’s apartment a short-stemmed pink carnation. It hit softly on
little Leon Kantor’s crib, brushing him fragrantly across the mouth and
causing him to pucker up.

Beneath, where even in August noonday, the sun cannot find its way by a
chink, and babies lie stark naked in the cavernous shade, Allen Street
presents a sort of submarine and greenish gloom, as if its humanity were
actually moving through a sea of aqueous shadows, faces rather bleached
and shrunk from sunlessness as water can bleach and shrink. And then,
like a shimmering background of orange-finned and copper-flanked marine
life, the brass-shops of Allen Street, whole rows of them, burn
flamelessly and without benefit of fuel.

To enter Abrahm Kantor’s—Brasses, was three steps down, so that his
casement show-window, at best filmed over with the constant rain of dust
ground down from the rails above, was obscure enough, but crammed with
copied loot of khedive and of czar. The seven-branch candlestick so
biblical and supplicating of arms. An urn, shaped like Rebecca’s, of
brass, all beaten over with little pocks. Things—cups, trays, knockers,
ikons, gargoyles, bowls, and teapots. A symphony of bells in graduated
sizes. Jardinières with fat sides. A pot-bellied samovar. A
swinging-lamp for the dead, star-shaped. Against the door, an octave of
tubular chimes, prisms of voiceless harmony and of heatless light.

Opening this door, they rang gently, like melody heard through water and
behind glass. Another bell rang, too, in tilted singsong from a pulley
operating somewhere in the catacomb rear of this lambent vale of things
and things and things. In turn, this pulley set in toll still another
bell, two flights up in Abrahm Kantor’s tenement, which overlooked the
front of whizzing rails and a rear wilderness of gibbet-looking
clothes-lines, dangling perpetual specters of flapping union suits in a
mid-air flaky with soot.

Often at lunch, or even the evening meal, this bell would ring in on
Abrahm Kantor’s digestive well-being, and while he hurried down, napkin
often bib-fashion still about his neck, and into the smouldering lanes
of copper, would leave an eloquent void at the head of his
well-surrounded table.

This bell was ringing now, jingling in upon the slumber of a still newer
Kantor, snuggling peacefully enough within the ammoniac depths of a
cradle recently evacuated by Leon, heretofore impinged upon you.

On her knees before an oven that billowed forth hotly into her face,
Mrs. Kantor, fairly fat and not yet forty, and at the immemorial task of
plumbing a delicately swelling layer-cake with broom-straw, raised her
face, reddened and faintly moist.

“Isadore, run down and say your papa is out until six. If it’s a
customer, remember the first asking-price is the two middle figures on
the tag, and the last asking-price is the two outside figures. See once,
with your papa out to buy your little brother his birthday present, and
your mother in a cake, if you can’t make a sale for first price.”

Isadore Kantor, aged eleven and hunched with a younger Kantor over an
oilcloth-covered table, hunched himself still deeper in a barter for a
large crystal marble with a candy stripe down its center.

“Izzie, did you hear me?”


“Go down this minute—do you hear? Rudolph, stop always letting your
big brother get the best of you in marbles. Iz-zie!”

“In a minute.”

“Don’t let me have to ask you again, Isadore Kantor!”

“Aw, ma, I got some ‘rithmetic to do. Let Esther go!”

“Always Esther! Your sister stays right in the front room with her

“Aw, ma, I got spelling, too.”

“Every time I ask that boy he should do me one thing, right away he gets
lessons! With me, that lessons-talk don’t go no more. Every time you get
put down in school, I’m surprised there’s a place left lower where they
can put you. Working-papers for such a boy like you!”

“I’ll woik—”

“How I worried myself! Violin lessons yet—thirty cents a lesson out of
your papa’s pants while he slept! That’s how I wanted to have in the
family a profession—maybe a musician on the violin! Lessons for you out
of money I had to lie to your papa about! Honest, when I think of it—my
own husband—it’s a wonder I don’t potch you just for remembering it.
Rudolph, will you stop licking that cake-pan? It’s saved for your little
brother Leon. Ain’t you ashamed even on your little brother’s birthday
to steal from him?”

“Ma, gimme the spoon?”

“I’ll give you the spoon, Isadore Kantor, where you don’t want it. If

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