Episode 11 •
The Little Dollar’s Christmas Journey
• The coupon looked for all the world like a dollar bill, except that it was so small that a baby’s hand could easily cover it.
SHOW NOTES ____________
The Little Dollar’s Christmas Journey
By Jacob Riis
“IT is too bad,” said Mrs. Lee, and she put down the magazine in which she had been reading of the poor children in the tenements of the great city that know little of Christmas joys; “no Christmas tree! One of them shall have one, at any rate. I think this will buy it, and it is so handy to send. Nobody would know that there was money in the letter.” And she inclosed a coupon in a letter to a professor, a friend in the city, who, she knew, would have no trouble in finding the child, and had it mailed at once. Mrs. Lee was a widow whose not too great income was derived from the interest on some four-per-cent government bonds which represented the savings of her husband’s life of toil, that was none the less hard because it was spent in a counting-room and not with shovel and spade. The coupon looked for all the world like a dollar bill, except that it was so small that a baby’s hand could easily cover it. The United States, the printing on it said, would pay on demand to the bearer one dollar; and there was a number on it, just as on a full-grown dollar, that was the number of the bond from which it had been cut.
The letter traveled all night, and was tossed and sorted and bunched at the end of its journey in the great gray beehive that never sleeps, day or night, and where half the tears and joys of the land, including this account of the little dollar, are checked off unceasingly as first-class matter or second or third, as the case may be.
In the morning it was laid, none the worse for its journey, at the professor’s breakfast-plate. The professor was a kindly man, and he smiled as he read it. “To procure one small Christmas tree for a poor tenement,” was its errand.
“Little dollar,” he said, “I think I know where you are needed.” And he made a note in his book. There were other notes there that made him smile again as he saw them. They had names set opposite them. One about a Noah’s ark was marked “Vivi.” That was the baby; and there was one about a doll’s carriage that had the words “Katie, sure,” set over against it. The professor eyed the list in mock dismay.
“How ever will I do it?” he sighed, as he put on his hat.
“Well, you will have to get Santa Claus to help you, John,” said his wife, buttoning his greatcoat about him. “And, mercy! the duckses’ babies! don’t forget them, whatever you do. The baby has been talking about nothing else since he saw them at the store, the old duck and the two ducklings on wheels. You know them, John?”
But the professor was gone, repeating to himself as he went down the garden walk: “The duckses’ babies, indeed!” He chuckled as he said it, why I cannot tell. He was very particular about his grammar, was the professor, ordinarily. Perhaps it was because it was Christmas eve.
Down-town went the professor; but instead of going with the crowd that was setting toward Santa Claus’s headquarters, in the big Broadway store, he turned off into a quieter street, leading west. It took him to a narrow thoroughfare, with five-story tenements frowning on either side, where the people he met were not so well dressed as those he had left behind, and did not seem to be in such a hurry of joyful anticipation of the holiday. Into one of the tenements he went, and, groping his way through a pitch-dark hall, came to a door ’way back, the last one to the left, at which he knocked. An expectant voice said, “Come in,” and the professor pushed open the door.
The room was very small, very stuffy, and very dark, so dark that a smoking kerosene-lamp that burned on a table next the stove hardly lighted it at all, though it was broad day. A big, unshaven man, who sat on the bed, rose when he saw the visitor, and stood uncomfortably shifting his feet and avoiding the professor’s eye. The latter’s glance was serious, though not unkind, as he asked the woman with the baby if he had found no work yet.
“No,” she said, anxiously coming to the rescue, “not yet; he was waitin’ for a recommend.” But Johnnie had earned two dollars running errands, and, now there was a big fall of snow, his father might get a job of shoveling. The woman’s face was worried, yet there was a cheerful note in her voice that somehow made the place seem less discouraging than it was. The baby she nursed was not much larger than a middle-sized doll. Its little face looked thin and wan. It had been very sick, she explained, but the doctor said it was mending now. That was good, said the professor, and patted one of the bigger children on the head.
There were six of them, of all sizes, from Johnnie, who could run errands, down. They were busy fixing up a Christmas tree that half filled the room, though it was of the very smallest. Yes, it was a real Christmas tree, left over from the Sunday-school stock, and it was dressed up at that. Pictures from the colored supplement of a Sunday newspaper hung and stood on every branch, and three pieces of colored glass, suspended on threads that shone in the smoky lamplight, lent color and real beauty to the show. The children were greatly tickled.
“John put it up,” said the mother, by way of explanation, as the professor eyed it approvingly. “There ain’t nothing to eat on it. If there was, it wouldn’t be there a minute. The childer be always a-searchin’ in it.”
“But there must be, or else it isn’t a real Christmas tree,” said the professor, and brought out the little dollar. “This is a dollar which a friend gave me for the children’s Christmas, and she sends her love with it. Now, you buy them some things and a few candles, Mrs. Ferguson, and then a good supper for the rest of the family. Good night, and a Merry Christmas to you. I think myself the baby is getting better.” It had just opened its eyes and laughed at the tree.
The professor was not very far on his way toward keeping his appointment with Santa Claus before Mrs. Ferguson was at the grocery laying in her dinner. A dollar goes a long way when it is the only one in the house; and when she had everything, including two cents’ worth of flitter-gold, four apples, and five candles for the tree, the grocer footed up her bill on the bag that held her potatoes—ninety-eight cents. Mrs. Ferguson gave him the little dollar.
“What’s this?” said the grocer, his fat smile turning cold as he laid a restraining hand on the full basket. “That ain’t no good.”
“It’s a dollar, ain’t it?” said the woman, in alarm. “It’s all right. I know the man that give it to me.”
“It ain’t all right in this store,” said the grocer, sternly. “Put them things back. I want none o’ that.”
The woman’s eyes filled with tears as she slowly took the lid off the basket and lifted out the precious bag of potatoes. They were waiting for that dinner at home. The children were even then camping on the door-step to take her in to the tree in triumph. And now—
For the second time a restraining hand was laid upon her basket; but this time it was not the grocer’s. A gentleman who had come in to order a Christmas turkey had overheard the conversation, and had seen the strange bill.
“It is all right,” he said to the grocer. “Give it to me. Here is a dollar bill for it of the kind you know. If all your groceries were as honest as this bill, Mr. Schmidt, it would be a pleasure to trade with you. Don’t be afraid to trust Uncle Sam where you see his promise to pay.”
The gentleman held the door open for Mrs. Ferguson, and heard the shout of the delegation awaiting her on the stoop as he went down the street.
“I wonder where that came from, now,” he mused. “Coupons in Bedford street! I suppose somebody sent it to the woman for a Christmas gift. Hello! Here are old Thomas and Snowflake. I wonder if it wouldn’t surprise her old stomach if I gave her a Christmas gift of oats. If only the shock doesn’t kill her! Thomas! Oh, Thomas!”
The old man thus hailed stopped and awaited the gentleman’s coming. He was a cartman who did odd jobs through the ward, thus picking up a living for himself and the white horse, which the boys had dubbed Snowflake in a spirit of fun. They were a well-matched old pair, Thomas and his horse. One was not more decrepit than the other. There was a tradition along the docks, where Thomas found a job now and then, and Snowflake an occasional straw to lunch on, that they were of an age, but this was denied by Thomas.
“See here,” said the gentleman, as he caught up with them; “I want Snowflake to keep Christmas, Thomas. Take this and buy him a bag of oats. And give it to him carefully, do you hear?—not all at once, Thomas. He isn’t used to it.”
“Gee whizz!” said the old man, rubbing his eyes with his cap, as his friend passed out of sight, “oats fer Christmas! G’lang, Snowflake; yer in luck.”
The feed-man put on his spectacles and looked Thomas over at the strange order. Then he scanned the little dollar, first on one side, then on the other.
“Never seed one like him,” he said. “’Pears to me he is mighty short. Wait till I send round to the hockshop. He’ll know, if anybody.”
The man at the pawnshop did not need a second look. “Why, of course,” he said, and handed a dollar bill over the counter. “Old Thomas, did you say? Well, I am blamed if the old man ain’t got a stocking after all. They’re a sly pair, he and Snowflake.”
Business was brisk that day at the pawnshop. The door-bell tinkled early and late, and the stock on the shelves grew. Bundle was added to bundle. It had been a hard winter so far. Among the callers in the early afternoon was a young girl in a gingham dress and without other covering, who stood timidly at the counter and asked for three dollars on a watch, a keepsake evidently, which she was loath to part with. Perhaps it was the last glimpse of brighter days. The pawnbroker was doubtful; it was not worth so much. She pleaded hard, while he compared the number of the movement with a list sent in from Police Headquarters.
“Two,” he said decisively at last, snapping the case shut—“two or nothing.” The girl handed over the watch with a troubled sigh. He made out a ticket and gave it to her with a handful of silver change.
Was it the sigh and her evident distress, or was it the little dollar? As she turned to go, he called her back: “Here, it is Christmas!” he said. “I’ll run the risk.” And he added the coupon to the little heap.
The girl looked at it and at him questioningly.
“It is all right,” he said; “you can take it; I’m running short of change. Bring it back if they won’t take it. I’m good for it.” Uncle Sam had achieved a backer.
In Grand street the holiday crowds jammed every store in their eager hunt for bargains. In one of them, at the knit-goods counter, stood the girl from the pawnshop, picking out a thick, warm shawl. She hesitated between a gray and a maroon-colored one, and held them up to the light.
“For you?” asked the salesgirl, thinking to aid her. She glanced at her thin dress and shivering form as she said it.
“No,” said the girl; “for mother; she is poorly and needs it.” She chose the gray, and gave the salesgirl her handful of money.
The girl gave back the coupon. “They don’t go,” she said; “give me another, please.”
“But I haven’t got another,” said the girl, looking apprehensively at the shawl. “The—Mr. Feeney said it was all right. Take it to the desk, please, and ask.”
The salesgirl took the bill and the shawl, and went to the desk. She came back, almost immediately, with the storekeeper, who looked sharply at the customer and noted the number of the coupon.
“It is all right,” he said, satisfied apparently by the inspection; “a little unusual, only. We don’t see many of them. Can I help you, miss?” And he attended her to the door.
In the street there was even more of a Christmas show going on than in the stores. Peddlers of toys, of mottos, of candles, and of knickknacks of every description stood in rows along the curb, and were driving a lively trade. Their push-carts were decorated with fir-branches—even whole Christmas trees. One held a whole cargo of Santa Clauses in a bower of green, each one with a cedar-bush in his folded arms, as a soldier carries his gun.
The lights were blazing out in the stores, and the hucksters’ torches were flaring at the corners. There was Christmas in the very air and Christmas in the storekeeper’s till. It had been a very busy day. He thought of it with a satisfied nod as he stood a moment breathing the brisk air of the winter day, absently fingering the coupon the girl had paid for the shawl. A thin voice at his elbow said: “Merry Christmas, Mr. Stein! Here’s yer paper.”
It was the newsboy who left the evening papers at the door every night. The storekeeper knew him, and something about the struggle they had at home to keep the roof over their heads. Mike was a kind of protégé of his. He had helped to get him his route.
“Wait a bit, Mike,” he said. “You’ll be wanting your Christmas from me. Here’s a dollar. It’s just like yourself: it is small, but it is all right. You take it home and have a good time.”
Was it the message with which it had been sent forth from far away in the country, or what was it? Whatever it was, it was just impossible for the little dollar to lie still in the pocket while there was want to be relieved, mouths to be filled, or Christmas lights to be lit. It just couldn’t, and it didn’t.
Mike stopped around the corner of Allen street, and gave three whoops expressive of his approval of Mr. Stein; having done which, he sidled up to the first lighted window out of range to examine his gift. His enthusiasm changed to open-mouthed astonishment as he saw the little dollar. His jaw fell. Mike was not much of a scholar, and could not make out the inscription on the coupon; but he had heard of shin-plasters as something they “had in the war,” and he took this to be some sort of a ten-cent piece. The policeman on the block might tell. Just now he and Mike were hunk. They had made up a little difference they’d had, and if any one would know, the cop surely would. And off he went in search of him.
Mr. McCarthy pulled off his gloves, put his club under his arm, and studied the little dollar with contracted brow. He shook his head as he handed it back, and rendered the opinion that it was “some dom swindle that’s ag’in’ the law.” He advised Mike to take it back to Mr. Stein, and added, as he prodded him in an entirely friendly manner in the ribs with his locust, that if it had been the week before he might have “run him in” for having the thing in his possession. As it happened, Mr. Stein was busy and not to be seen, and Mike went home between hope and fear, with his doubtful prize.
There was a crowd at the door of the tenement, and Mike saw, before he had reached it, running, that it clustered about an ambulance that was backed up to the sidewalk. Just as he pushed his way through the throng it drove off, its clanging gong scattering the people right and left. A little girl sat weeping on the top step of the stoop. To her Mike turned for information.
“Susie, what’s up?” he asked, confronting her with his armful of papers. “Who’s got hurted?”
“It’s papa,” sobbed the girl. “He ain’t hurted. He’s sick, and he was took that bad he had to go, an’ to-morrer is Christmas, an’—oh, Mike!”
It is not the fashion of Essex street to slop over. Mike didn’t. He just set his mouth to a whistle and took a turn down the hall to think. Susie was his chum. There were seven in her flat; in his only four, including two that made wages. He came back from his trip with his mind made up.
“Suse,” he said, “come on in. You take this, Suse, see! an’ let the kids have their Christmas. Mr. Stein give it to me. It’s a little one, but if it ain’t all right I’ll take it back, and get one that is good. Go on, now, Suse, you hear?” And he was gone.
There was a Christmas tree that night in Susie’s flat, with candles and apples and shining gold on, but the little dollar did not pay for it. That rested securely in the purse of the charity visitor who had come that afternoon, just at the right time, as it proved. She had heard the story of Mike and his sacrifice, and had herself given the children a one-dollar bill for the coupon.
They had their Christmas, and a joyful one, too, for the lady went up to the hospital and brought back word that Susie’s father would be all right with rest and care, which he was now getting. Mike came in and helped them “sack” the tree when the lady was gone. He gave three more whoops for Mr. Stein, three for the lady, and three for the hospital doctor to even things up. Essex street was all right that night.
“Do you know, professor,” said that learned man’s wife, when, after supper, he had settled down in his easy-chair to admire the Noah’s ark and the duckses’ babies and the rest, all of which had arrived safely by express ahead of him and were waiting to be detailed to their appropriate stockings while the children slept—“do you know, I heard such a story of a little newsboy to-day. It was at the meeting of our district charity committee this evening. Miss Linder, our visitor, came right from the house.” And she told the story of Mike and Susie.
“And I just got the little dollar bill to keep. Here it is.” She took the coupon out of her purse and passed it to her husband.
“Eh! what?” said the professor, adjusting his spectacles and reading the number. “If here isn’t my little dollar come back to me! Why, where have you been, little one? I left you in Bedford street this morning, and here you come by way of Essex. Well, I declare!” And he told his wife how he had received it in a letter in the morning.
“John,” she said, with a sudden impulse,—she didn’t know, and neither did he, that it was the charm of the little dollar that was working again,—“John, I guess it is a sin to stop it. Jones’s children won’t have any Christmas tree, because they can’t afford it. He told me so this morning when he fixed the furnace. And the baby is sick. Let us give them the little dollar. He is here in the kitchen now.”
And they did; and the Joneses, and I don’t know how many others, had a Merry Christmas because of the blessed little dollar that carried Christmas cheer and good luck wherever it went. For all I know, it may be going yet. Certainly it is a sin to stop it, and if any one has locked it up without knowing that he locked up the Christmas dollar, let him start it right out again. He can tell it easily enough. If he just looks at the number, that’s the one.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
By subscribing, you will automatically receive the latest episodes downloaded to your computer or portable device. Select your preferred subscription method above.
To subscribe via a different application: Go to your favorite podcast application or news reader and enter this URL: https://clearwaterpress.com/byline/feed/podcast/