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My Life In The Underworld, Part 1

My Life in the Underworld, part 1

Episode 28•

My Life in the Underworld, part 1

I have often thought that to this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer. In order to get the food whereby I lived, I was compelled to tell tales that rang true.

SHOW NOTES ____________

My Life in the Underworld, part 1

By Jack London

From Cosmopolitan, May, 1907

THERE is a woman in the state of Nevada to whom I once lied continuously, consistently, and shamelessly, for the matter of a couple of hours. I don’t want to apologize to her. Far be it from me. But I do want to explain. Unfortunately, I do not know her name, much less her present address. If her eyes should chance upon these lines, I hope she will write to me.

It was in Reno, Nevada, in the summer of 1892. Also, it was fair-time, and the town was filled with petty crooks and tin-horns, to say nothing of a vast horde of hungry hoboes. It was the hungry hoboes that made the town a “hungry” town. They “battered” the back doors of the homes of the citizens until the back doors became unresponsive.

A hard town for “scoffings,” was what the hoboes called it at that time. I know that I missed many a meal, in spite of the fact that I could “throw my feet” with the next one when it came to “slamming a gate” for a “poke-out” or a “set-down,” or hitting for a “light piece” on the street. Why, I was so hard put in that town, one day, that I gave the porter the slip and invaded the private car of some itinerant millionaire. The train started as I made the platform, and I headed for the aforesaid millionaire with the porter one jump behind and reaching for me. It was a dead heat, for I reached the millionaire at the same instant that the porter reached me. I had no time for formalities.

“Gimme a quarter to eat on,” I blurted out. And as I live, that millionaire dipped into his pocket and gave me—just precisely a quarter. It is my conviction that he was so flabbergasted that he obeyed automatically, and it has been a matter of keen regret ever since, on my part, that I didn’t ask him for a dollar. I know that I’d have got it. I swung off the platform of that private car with the porter maneuvering to kick me in the face. He missed me. But I got the quarter! I got it!

But to return to the woman to whom I so shamelessly lied. It was in the evening of my last day in Reno. I had been out to the race-track watching the ponies run, and had missed my dinner (i. e., the mid-day meal). I was hungry, and, furthermore, a committee of public safety had just been organized to rid the town of just such hungry mortals as I. Already a lot of my brother hoboes had been gathered in by John Law, and I could hear the sunny valleys of California calling to me over the cold crests of the Sierras. Two acts remained for me to perform before I shook the dust of Reno from my feet. One was to catch the blind baggage on the west-bound overland that night. The other was first to get something to eat. Even youth will hesitate at an all-night ride, on an empty stomach, outside a train that is tearing the atmosphere through the snow-sheds, tunnels, and eternal snows of heaven-aspiring mountains.

But that something to eat was a hard proposition. I was “turned down” at a dozen houses. Sometimes I received insulting remarks and was informed of the barred domicile that would be mine if I had my just deserts. The worst of it was that such assertions were only too true. That was why I was pulling west that night.

It began to look as if I should be compelled to go to the very poor for my food. The very poor constitute the last sure recourse of the hungry tramp. The very poor can always be depended upon. They never turn away the hungry. Time and again, all over the United States, have I been refused food at the big house on the hill; and always have I received food from the little shack down by the creek or marsh, with its broken windows stuffed with rags and its tired-faced mother broken with labor. Oh! you charity-mongers, go to the poor and learn, for the poor alone are the charitable. They neither give nor withhold from the excess. They have no excess. They give, and they withhold never, from what they need for themselves. A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog when you are just as hungry as the dog.

There was one house in particular where I was turned down that evening. The porch windows opened on the dining-room, and through them I saw a man eating pie—a big meat pie. I stood in the open door, and while he talked with me he went on eating. He was prosperous, and out of his prosperity had been bred resentment against his less fortunate brothers. He cut short my request for something to eat, snapping out,
 “I don’t believe you want to work.”

Now this was irrelevant. I hadn’t said anything about work. The topic of conversation I had introduced was “food.” In fact, I didn’t want to work. I wanted to take the west-bound overland that night.

“You wouldn’t work if you had a chance,” he bullied.

I glanced at his meek-faced wife, and knew that but for the presence of this Cerberus I’d have a whack at that meat pie myself. But Cerberus sopped himself in the pie, and I saw that I must placate him if I were to get a share of it. So I sighed to myself and accepted his work morality.

“Of course I want work,” I bluffed.

“Don’t believe it,” he snorted.

“Try me,” I answered, warming to the bluff.

“All right,” he said. “Come to the corner of blank and blank streets”—I have forgotten the address—”to-morrow morning—you know where that burned building is—and I’ll put you to work tossing bricks.”

“All right, sir, I’ll be there.”

He grunted and went on eating. I waited. After a couple of minutes he looked up with an I-thought-you-were-gone expression on his face, and demanded,

“I—I am waiting for something to eat,” I said gently.

“I knew you wouldn’t work!” he roared.

He was right, of course; but his conclusion must have been reached by mind-reading, for his logic wouldn’t bear it out. But the beggar at the door must be humble, so I accepted his logic as I had accepted his morality.

“You see, I am now hungry,” I said, still gently. “To-morrow morning I shall be hungrier. Think how hungry I shall be when I have tossed bricks all day without anything to eat. Now, if you will give me something to eat, I’ll be in great shape for those bricks.”

He gravely considered my plea, at the same time going on eating, while his wife nearly trembled into propitiatory speech, but refrained.

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” he said, between mouthfuls. “You come to work to-morrow, and in the middle of the day I’ll advance you enough for you dinner. That will show whether you are in earnest or not.”

“In the meantime—” I began; but he interrupted.

Alas! no ray of humor had ever penetrated the somber, work-sodden soul of that man. “Yes, like me,” he answered.

“All of us?” I queried.

“Yes, all of you,” he answered.

“But if we all became like you,” I said, “allow me to point out that there’d be nobody to toss bricks for you.”

I swear there was a flicker of a smile in his wife’s eye. As for him, he was aghast.

“I’ll not waste words on you,” he roared. “Get out of here, you ungrateful whelp!”

I scraped my feet to advertise my intention of going, and queried, “And I don’t get anything to eat?”

He arose suddenly to his feet. He was a large man. I was a stranger in a strange land, and John Law was looking for me. I went away hurriedly. “But why ungrateful?” I asked myself as I slammed his gate. “What in the dickens did he give me to be ungrateful about?” I looked back. He had returned to his pie.

By this time I had lost heart. I passed many houses by without venturing up to them. After walking half a dozen blocks I shook off my despondency and gathered my “nerve.” This begging for food was all a game, and if I didn’t like the cards I could always call for a new deal. I made up my mind to tackle the next house. I approached it in the deepening twilight, going around to the kitchen-door.

I knocked softly, and when I saw the kind face of the middle-aged woman who answered, as by inspiration came to me the “story” I was to tell. For know that upon his ability to tell a good story depends the success of the beggar. First of all, and on the instant, the beggar must “size up” his victim. After that he must tell a story that will appeal to the peculiar personality and temperament of that particular victim. And right here arises the great difficulty: in the instant that he is sizing up the victim he must begin his story. Not a minute is allowed for preparation. As in a lightning flash he must divine the nature of the victim and conceive a tale that will hit home. The successful hobo must be an artist. He must create spontaneously and instantaneously—and not upon a theme selected from the plenitude of his own imagination, but upon the theme he reads in the face of the person who opens the door, be it man, woman, or child, sweet or crabbed, generous or miserly, good-natured or cantankerous, Jew or Gentile, black or white, race-prejudiced or brotherly, provincial or universal, or whatever else it may be. I have often thought that to this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer. In order to get the food whereby I lived, I was compelled to tell tales that rang true. At the back door, out of inexorable necessity, in developed and convincingness and sincerity laid down by all authorities on the art of the short story. Also, I quite believe it was my tramp apprenticeship that made a realist out of me. Realism constitutes the only goods one can exchange in the kitchen-door for grub.

After all, art is only consummate artfulness, and artfulness saves many a “story.” I remember lying in a police station at Winnipeg, Manitoba. I was bound west over the Canadian Pacific. Of course the police wanted my story, and I gave it to them—on the spur of the moment. They were landlubbers, in the heart of the continent, and what better story for them than a sea-story? They could never trip me up on that. And so I told a tearful tale of my life on the hell-ship Glenmore. (I had once seen the Glenmore lying at anchor in San Francisco Bay. I was an English apprentice, I said. And they said that I didn’t talk like an English boy. It was up to me to create on the instant. I had been born and reared in the United States. On the death of my parents, I had been sent to England to my grandparents. It was they who had apprenticed me on the Glenmore. I hope the captain of the Glenmore will forgive me, for I gave him a character that night in Winnipeg police station. Such cruelty! Such brutality! Such diabolical ingenuity of torture! It explained why I had deserted the Glenmore at Montreal.

But why was I in the middle of Canada going west, when my grandparents lived in England? Promptly I created a married sister who lived in California. She would take care of me. I developed at length her loving nature. But they were not done with me, those hard-hearted policemen. I had joined the Glenmore in England; in the two years that had elapsed before my desertion in Montreal, what had the Glenmore done and where had she been?

And thereat I took those landlubbers around the world with me. Buffeted by pounding seas and stung with flying spray, they fought a typhoon with me off the coast of Japan. They loaded and unloaded cargo with me in all the ports of the Seven Seas. I took them to India and Rangoon and China, had them hammer ice with me around the Horn, and at last came to moorings at Montreal.

And then they said to wait a moment, and one policeman went forth into the night while I warmed myself at the stove, all the while racking my brains for the trap they were going to spring on me.

I groaned to myself when I saw him come in the door at the heels of the policeman. No gypsy prank had thrust those tiny hoops of gold through the ears; no prairie winds had beaten that skin into wrinkled leather; nor had the snow-drift and mountain-slope put in his walk that reminiscent roll. And in those eyes, when they looked at me, I saw the unmistakable sun-wash of the sea. Here was a theme, alas! with half a dozen policemen to watch me read, and I had never sailed the China seas, nor been around the Horn, nor seen India and Rangoon.

I was desperate. Disaster stalked before me incarnate in the form of that gold-earringed, weather-beaten son of the sea. Who was he? What was he? I must solve him ere he solved me. If he questioned me first, before I knew how much he knew, I was lost.

But did I betray my desperate plight to those lynx-eyed guardians of the public welfare of Winnipeg? Not I. I met that aged sailorman glad-eyed and beaming, with all the simulated relief at deliverance that a drowning man would display on finding a life-preserver in his last despairing clutch. Here was a man who understood and who would verify my true story to the faces of those sleuth-hounds. I seized upon him. I volleyed at him questions about himself. Before my judges, I would prove the character of my savior before he saved me.

He was a kindly sailorman—an “easy mark.” The policemen grew impatient while I questioned him. At last one of them told me to shut up. I shut up, but while I remained shut up I was busy creating, busy sketching the scenario of the next act. I had learned enough to go on with. He was a Frenchman. He had sailed always on French merchant vessels, with the one exception of a voyage on a “lime-juicer.” And last of all-blessed fact!—he had not been on the sea for twenty years.

The policemen urged him to examine me.

“You called in at Rangoon?” he queried.

If he had asked me what kind of fever, I should have answered, “Enteric,” though for the life of me I didn’t know what enteric was. But his next question was,
 “And how is Rangoon?”

“All right. It rained a whole lot when we were there.”

“Did you get shore-leave?”

“Sure,” I answered.

“Do you remember the temple?”

“Which temple?” I parried.

“The big one, at the top of the stairway.”

If I remembered that temple, I knew I’d have to describe it. I shook my head.

I never loathed a temple so in my life. But I fixed that particular temple at Rangoon. “You can’t see it from the harbor,” I contradicted, “you can’t see it from the town, you can’t see it from the top of the stairway, because”—I paused for the effect—”because there isn’t any temple there.”

“But I saw it with my own eyes!” he cried.

“That was in ——?” I queried.


“It was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1887,” I explained. “It was very old.”

There was a pause. He was busy reconstructing in his old eyes his youthful vision of that fair temple by the sea.

“The stairway is still there,” I aided him. “You can see it from all over the harbor. And you remember that little island on the right-hand side coming into the harbor?” I guess there must have been one there (I was prepared to shift it over to the left-hand side), for he nodded. “Gone,” I said. “Seven fathoms of water there now.”

I had gained a moment for breath. While he pondered on time’s changes, I prepared the finishing touches of my story.

“You remember the custom house at Bombay?” He remembered it.

“Burned to the ground,” I announced.

“Do you remember Jim Wan?” he came back at me.

“Dead,” I said, but who the devil Jim Wan was I hadn’t the slightest idea. I was on thin ice again. “Do you remember Billy Harper, at Shanghai?” I queried.

That aged sailorman worked hard to recollect, but the Billy Harper of my imagination was beyond his faded memory.

“Of course you remember Billy Harper,” I insisted. “Everybody knows him. He’s been there forty years. Well, he’s still there, that’s all.”

And then the miracle happened. The sailorman remembered Billy Harper. Perhaps there was a Billy Harper, and perhaps he had been in Shanghai for forty years and was still there; but it was news to me.

For fully half an hour longer the sailorman and I talked on in similar fashion. In the end he told the policemen that I was what I represented myself to be, and after a night’s lodging and a breakfast I was released to wander on westward to my married sister in San Francisco.

But to return to the woman in Reno who opened her door to me in the deepening twilight. At the first glimpse of her kindly face I took my cue. I became a sweet, innocent, unfortunate lad. I couldn’t speak. I opened my mouth and closed it again. Never in my life before had I asked anyone for food. My embarrassment was painful, extreme. I was ashamed. I, who looked upon begging as a delightful whimsicality, thumbed myself over into a true son of Mrs. Grundy, burdened with all her bourgeois morality. Only the harsh pangs of the belly-need could compel me to do so degraded and ignoble a thing as beg for food. And into my face I strove to throw all the wan wistfulness of famished and ingenuous youth of mendicancy.

“You are hungry, my poor boy,” she said. I had made her speak first.

I nodded my head and gulped. “It is the first time I have ever—asked,” I faltered.

“Come right in.” The door swung open. “We have already finished eating, but the fire is burning, and I can get something up for you.” She looked at me closely when she got me into the light. “I wish my boy were as healthy and strong as you,” she said. “But he is not strong. He sometimes falls down. He fell down this afternoon and hurt himself badly, the poor dear.”

She mothered him with her voice, with an ineffable tenderness in it that I yearned to appropriate. I glanced at him. He sat across the table, slender and pale, his head swathed in bandages. He did not move, but his eyes, bright in the lamplight, were fixed upon me in a wondering stare.

“Just like my poor father,” I said. “He had the falling sickness. Some kind of vertigo. It puzzled the doctors.”

“He is dead?” she queried gently, setting before me half a dozen soft-boiled eggs.

“Dead,” I gulped. “Two weeks ago. I was with him when it happened. We were crossing the street together. He fell right down. He was never conscious again. They carried him into a drug store. He died there.”

And thereat I developed a pitiful tale of my father—how, after my mother’s death, he and I had gone to San Francisco from the ranch; how his pension (he was an old soldier), and the little other money he had, was not enough; and how he had tried book-canvassing. Also, I narrated my own woes during the few days after his death that I had spent alone and forlorn on the streets of San Francisco. While that good woman warmed up biscuits, fried bacon, and cooked more eggs, and while I kept pace with her in taking care of all that she placed before me, I enlarged the picture of that poor orphan boy and filled in the details. I became that poor boy. I believed in him as I believed in the beautiful eggs I was devouring. I could have wept for myself. I know the tears did get into my voice at times.

It was very effective. In fact, with every touch I added to the picture that kind soul gave me something else. She made up a lunch for me to carry away. She put in many boiled eggs, pepper and salt, and other things, and a big apple. She provided me with three pairs of thick red woolen socks. She gave me clean handkerchiefs and other things which I have since forgotten. And all the time she cooked more and more, and I ate more and more. I gorged like a savage; but then it was a far cry across the Sierras on a blind baggage, and I knew not when nor where I should find my next meal. And all the while, like a death’s-head at the feat, silent and motionless, her own unfortunate boy sat and stared at me across the table. I suppose I represented to him mystery and romance and adventure—all that was denied the feeble flicker of life that was in him. And yet I could not forbear, once or twice, from wondering if he saw through me down to the bottom of my mendacious heart.

“But where are you going?” she asked.

“Salt Lake City,” said I. “I have a sister there, a married sister. Her husband is a plumber, a contracting plumber.”

Now, I knew that contracting plumbers were usually credited with making lots of money. But I had spoken. It was up to me to qualify.

“They would have sent me the money for my fare if I had asked for it,” I explained, “but they have had sickness and business troubles. His partner cheated him. And so I wouldn’t write for the money. I knew I could make my way there somehow. I let them think I had enough to get me to Salt Lake City. She is lovely, and so kind. She was always kind to me. I guess I’ll go into the shop and learn the trade. She has two daughters. They are younger than I. One is only a baby.”

Of all my married sisters that I have distributed among the cities of the United States, that Salt Lake sister is my favorite. She is quite real, too. When I tell about her I can see her and her two little girls and her plumber husband. She is a large, motherly woman, just verging on beneficent stoutness—the kind, you know, that always cooks nice things and that never gets angry. She is a brunette. Her husband is a quiet, easy-going fellow. Sometimes I almost know him quite well. And who knows but some day I may meet him?

On the other hand, I have a feeling of certitude within me that I shall never meet in the flesh my many parents and grandparents—you see, I invariably killed them off. Heart disease was my favorite way of getting rid of my mother, though on occasion I did away with her by means of consumption, pneumonia, and typhoid fever.

I hope that woman in Reno will read these lines and forgive me my gracelessness and unveracity. I do not apologize, for I am unashamed. It was youth, delight in life, zest for experience, that brought me to her door. It did me good. It taught me the intrinsic kindliness of human nature. I hope it did her good. Anyway, she may get a good laugh out of it, now that she learns the real inwardness of the situation.

To her my story was “true.” She believed in me and all my family, and she was filled with solicitude for the dangerous journey I must make ere I won to Salt Lake City. This solicitude nearly brought me to grief. Just as I was leaving, my arms full of lunch and my pockets bulging with fat woolen socks, she bethought herself of a nephew, or uncle, or relative of some sort, who was in the railway mail service, and who, moreover, would come through that night on the very train on which I was going to steal my ride. The very thing! She would take me down to the station, tell him my story, and get him to hide me in the mail-car. Thus, without danger or hardship, I would be carried straight through to Ogden. Salt Lake City was only a few miles further on. My heart sank. She grew excited as she developed the plan, and with my heart sinking I had to feign unbounded gladness and enthusiasm at this solution of my difficulties.

Solution! Why, I was bound west that night, and here I was being trapped into going east. It was a trap, and I hadn’t the heart to tell her that it was all a miserable lie. And while I made believe that I was delighted, I was busy racking my brains for some way to escape. But there was no way. She would see me into the mail-car—she said so herself—and then that mail-clerk relative of hers would carry me to Ogden. And then I would have to beat my way back over all those hundreds of miles of desert.

But luck was with me that night. Just about the time she was getting ready to put on her bonnet and accompany me, she discovered that she had made a mistake. Her mail-clerk relative was not scheduled to come through that night. His run had been changed; he would not come through until two nights afterward. I was saved, for of course my boundless youth would never permit me to wait those two days. I optimistically assured her that I’d get to Salt Lake City quicker if I started immediately, and I departed with her blessings and best wishes ringing in my ears.

But those woolen socks were great. I know. I wore a pair of them that night on the blind baggage of the overland, and that overland went west.

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