On a Pair of Leather Suspenders.

“Not long since I paid a visit to New Haven before daylight of a winter morning. I had hoped that my sleeper from Washington might be late and I was encouraged in this by the trainman who said that the dear old thing commonly went through New Haven at breakfast time. But it was barely three o’clock when the porter plucked at me in my upper berth. He intruded, happily, on a dream in which the train came rocking across the comforter.

Three o’clock, if you approach it properly through the evening, is said to have its compensations. There are persons (with a hiccough) who pronounce it the shank of the evening, but as an hour of morning it has few apologists. It is the early bird that catches the worm; but this should merely set one thinking before he thrusts out a foot into the cold morning, whether he may justly consider himself a bird or a worm. If no glad twitter rises to his lips in these early hours, he had best stay unpecked inside his coverlet.

It is hard to realize that other two-legged creatures like myself are habitually awake at this hour. In a wakeful night I may have heard the whistles and the clank of far-off wheels, and I may have known dimly that work goes on; yet for the most part I have fancied that the world, like a river steamboat in a fog, is tied at night to its shore: or if it must go plunging on through space to keep a schedule, that here and there a light merely is set upon a tower to warn the planets.

A locomotive was straining at its buttons, and from the cab a smoky engineer looked down on me. A truck load of boxes rattled down the platform. Crates of affable familiar hens were off upon a journey, bragging of their families. Men with flaring tapers tapped at wheels. The waiting-room, too, kept, as it were, one eye open to the night. The coffee-urn steamed on the lunch counter, and sandwiches sat inside their glass domes and looked darkly on the world.

“1917.” -Image courtesy of The Project Gutenberg, “The Project Gutenberg EBook of Chimney-Pot Papers, by Charles S. Brooks,” produced by Sankar Viswanathan, Delphine Lettau, Joyce Wilson, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team, 2008. “Chimney-Pot Papers,” by Charles S. Brooks, illustrated with wood-cuts by Fritz Endell, 1920

It was the hour when ‘the tired burglar seeks his bed.’ I had thought of dozing in a hotel chair until breakfast, but presently a flood appeared in the persons of three scrub women. The fountains of the great deep were opened and the waters prevailed.

It still lacked an hour or so of daylight. I remembered that there used to be a humble restaurant and kitchen on wheels—to the vulgar, a dog-wagon—up toward York Street. This wagon, once upon a time, had appeased our appetites when we had been late for chapel and Commons. As an institution it was so trite that once we made of it a fraternity play. I faintly remember a pledge to secrecy—sworn by the moon and the seven wandering stars—but nevertheless I shall divulge the plot. It was a burlesque tragedy in rhyme. Some eighteen years ago, it seems, Brabantio, the noble Venetian Senator, kept this same dog-wagon—he and his beautiful daughter Desdemona. Here came Othello, Iago and Cassio of the famous class of umpty-ump.

The scene of the drama opens with Brabantio flopping his dainties on the iron, chanting to himself a lyric in praise of their tender juices. Presently Othello enters and when Brabantio’s back is turned he makes love to Desdemona—a handsome fellow, this Othello, with the manner of a hero and curled moustachios. Exit Othello to a nine o’clock, Ladd on Confusions. Now the rascal Iago enters—myself! with flowing tie. He hates Othello. He glowers like a villain and soliloquizes:

In order that my vengeance I may plot
Give me a dog, and give it to me hot!

That was the kind of play. Finally, Desdemona is nearly smothered but is returned at last to Othello’s arms. Iago meets his deserts. He is condemned to join Δ Κ Ε, a rival fraternity. But the warm heart of Desdemona melts and she intercedes to save him from this horrid end. In mercy—behind the scenes—his head is chopped off. Then all of us, heroines and villains, sat to a late hour around the fire and told one another how the real stage thirsted for us. We drank lemonade mostly but we sang of beer—one song about:

Beer, beer, glorious beer!
Fill yourself right up to here!

accompanied with a gesture several inches above the head. As the verses progressed it was customary to stand on chairs and to reach up on tiptoe to show the increasing depth.

But the dog-wagon has now become a gilded unfamiliar thing, twice its former size and with stools for a considerable company. I questioned the proprietor whether he might be descended from the noble Brabantio, but the dull fellow gave no response. The wagon has passed to meaner ownership.

Across the street Vanderbilt Hall loomed indistinctly. To the ignorant it may be necessary to explain that its courtyard is open to Chapel Street, but that an iron grill stretches from wing to wing and keeps out the town. This grill is high enough for Hagenbeck, and it used to be a favorite game with us to play animal behind it for the street’s amusement. At the hour when the crowd issued from the matinée at the Hyperion Theatre, our wittiest students paced on all fours up and down behind this grill and roared for raw beef. E—— was the wag of the building and he could climb up to a high place and scratch himself like a monkey—an entertainment of more humor than elegance. Elated with success, he and a companion later chartered a street-organ—a doleful one-legged affair—and as man and monkey they gathered pennies out Orange Street.

I turned into the dark Campus by Osborn Hall. It is as ugly a building as one could meet on a week’s journey, and yet by an infelicity all class pictures are taken on its steps. Freshman courses are given in the basement—a French class once in particular. Sometimes, when we were sunk dismally in the irregular verbs, bootblacks and old-clothes men stopped on the street and grinned down on us. And all the dreary hour, as we sweated with translation, above us on the pavement the feet and happy legs of the enfranchised went by the window.

Yale is a bad jumble of architecture. It is amazing how such incongruous buildings can lodge together. Did not the Old Brick Row cry out when Durfee was built? Surely the Gothic library uttered a protest against its newer adjunct. And are the Bicentennial buildings so beautiful? At best we have exchanged the fraudulent wooden ramparts of Alumni Hall for the equally fraudulent inside columns of these newer buildings. It is a mercy that there is no style and changing fashion in elm trees. As Viola might have remarked about the Campus: it were excellently done, if God did all.

Presently in the dark I came on the excavations for the Harkness quadrangle. So at last Commons was gone. In that old building we ate during our impoverished weeks. I do not know that we saved much, for we were driven to extras, but the reckoning was deferred. There was a certain tutti-frutti ice-cream, rich in ginger, that has now vanished from the earth. Or chocolate èclairs made the night stand out. I recall that one could seldom procure a second helping of griddlecakes except on those mornings when there were ants in the syrup. Also, I recall that sometimes there was a great crash of trays at the pantry doors, and almost at the instant two old Goodies, harnessed ready with mops and pails, ran out and sponged up the wreckage.

And Pierson Hall is gone, that was once the center of Freshman life. Does anybody remember The Voice? It was a weekly paper issued in the interest of prohibition. I doubt if we would have quarreled with it for this, but it denounced Yale and held up in contrast the purity of Oberlin. Oberlin! And therefore we hated it, and once a week we burned its issue in the stone and plaster corridors of Pierson.

There was once a residence at the corner of York and Library where Freshmen resided. The railing of the stairs wabbled. The bookcase door lacked a hinge. Three out of four chairs were rickety. The bath-tub, which had been the chemical laboratory for some former student, was stained an unhealthy color. If ever it shall appear that Harlequin lodged upon the street, here was the very tub where he washed his clothes. Without caution the window of the bedroom fell out into the back yard. But to atone for these defects, up through the scuttle in the hall there was an airy perch upon the roof. Here Freshmen might smoke their pipes in safety—a privilege denied them on the street—and debate upon their affairs. Who were hold-off men! Who would make Βουλη! Or they invented outrageous names for the faculty. My dear Professor Blank, could you hear yourself described by these young cubs through their tobacco smoke, your learned ears, so alert for dactyl and spondee, would grow red.

Do Scott’s boys, I wonder, still gather clothes for pressing around the Campus? Do they still sell tickets—sixteen punches for a dollar—five punches to the suit? On Monday mornings do colored laundresses push worn baby-carts around to gather what we were pleased to call the ‘dirty filth’? And do these same laundresses push back these self-same carts later in the week with ‘clean filth’ aboard? Are stockings mended in the same old way, so that the toes look through the open mesh? Have college sweeps learned yet to tuck in the sheets at the foot? Do old-clothes men—Fish-eye? Do you remember him?—do old-clothes men still whine at the corner, and look you up and down in cheap appraisal? Pop Smith is dead, who sold his photograph to Freshmen, but has he no successor? How about the old fellow who sold hot chestnuts at football games—’a nickel a bush’—a rare contraction meant to denote a bushel—in reality fifteen nuts and fifteen worms. Does George Felsburg still play the overture at Poli’s, reading his newspaper the while, and do comic actors still jest with him across the footlights?

Is it still ethical to kick Freshmen on the night of Omega Lambda Chi? Is ‘[n-word] baby’ played on the Campus any more? The loser of this precious game, in the golden days, leaned forward against the wall with his coat-tails raised, while everybody took a try at him with a tennis ball. And, of course, no one now plays ‘piel.’ A youngster will hardly have heard of the game. It was once so popular that all the stone steps about the college showed its marks. And next year we heard that the game had spread to Harvard.

Do students still make for themselves oriental corners with Bagdad stripes and Turkish lamps? Do the fair fingers of Farmington and Northampton still weave the words ”Neath the Elms’ upon sofa pillows? Do Seniors still bow the President down the aisle of Chapel? Do students still get out their Greek with ‘trots’? It was the custom for three or four lazy students to gather together and summon up a newsy to read the trot, while they, lolling with pipes on their Morris chairs, fumbled with the text and interlined it against a loss of memory. Let the fair-haired goddess Juno speak! Ulysses, as he pleases, may walk on the shore of the loud-sounding sea. Thereafter in class one may repose safely on his interlineation and snap at flies with a rubber band. This method of getting a lesson was all very well except that the newsy halted at the proper name. A device was therefore hit on of calling all the gods and heroes by the name of Smith. Homeric combat then ran like this: 

the heart of Smit was black with anger and he smote Smit upon the brazen helmet. And the world grew dark before his eyes, and he fell forward like a tower and bit the dust and his armor clanked about him. But at evening, from a far-off mountain top the white-armed goddess Smit-Smit (Pallas-Athena) saw him, and she felt compash—compassion for him.

And I suppose that students still sing upon the fence. There was a Freshman once, in those early nights of autumn when they were still a prey to Sophomores, who came down Library Street after his supper at Commons. He wondered whether the nights of hazing were done and was unresolved whether he ought to return to his room and sit close. Presently he heard the sound of singing. It came from the Campus, from the fence. He was greener than most Freshmen and he had never heard men sing in four-part harmony. With him music had always been a single tune, or at most a lost tenor fumbled uncertainly for the pitch. Any grunt had been a bass. And so the sound ravished him. In the open air and in the dark the harmony was unparalleled. He stole forward, still with one eye open for Sophomores, and crouched in the shadowy angle of North Middle. Now the song was in full chorus and the branches of the elms swayed to it, and again a bass voice sang alone and the others hummed a low accompaniment.

Occasionally, across the Campus, someone in passing called up to a window, ‘Oh, Weary Walker, stick out your head!’ And then, after a pause, satirically, when the head was out, ‘Stick it in again!’ On the stones there were the sounds of feet—feet with lazy purpose—loud feet down wooden steps, bound for pleasure. At the windows there were lights, where dull thumbs moved down across a page. Let A equal B to find our Z. And let it be quick about it, before the student nod! And to the Freshman, crouching in the shadow, it seemed at last that he was a part of this life, with its music, its voices, its silent elms, the dim buildings with their lights, the laughter and the glad feet sounding in the dark.

I came now, rambling on this black wintry morning, before the sinister walls of Skull and Bones.

I sat on a fence and contemplated the building. It is as dingy as ever and, doubtless, to an undergraduate, as fearful as ever. What rites and ceremonies are held within these dim walls! What awful celebrations! The very stones are grim. The chain outside that swings from post to post is not as other chains, but was forged at midnight. The great door has a black spell upon it. It was on such a door, iron-bound and pitiless, that the tragic Ygraine beat in vain for mercy.

It is a breach of etiquette for an undergraduate in passing even to turn and look at Bones. Its name may not be mentioned to a member of the society, and one must look furtively around before pronouncing it. Now as I write the word, I feel a last vibration of the fearful tremor.

Seniors compose its membership—fifteen or so, and membership is ranked as the highest honor of the college. But in God’s name, what is all this pother? Are there not already enough jealousies without this one added? Does not college society already fall into enough locked coteries without this one? No matter how keen is the pride of membership, it does not atone for the disappointments and the heart-burnings of failure. It is hinted obscurely for expiation that it and its fellow societies do somehow confer a benefit on the college by holding out a reward for hard endeavor. This is the highest goal. I distrust the wisdom of the judges. There is an honester repute to be gained in the general estimate of one’s fellows. These societies cut an unnatural cleavage across the college. They are the source of dishonest envy and of mean lick-spittling. For three years, until the election is announced, there is much playing for position. A favored fellow, whose election is certain, is courted by others who stand on a slippery edge, because it is known that in Senior elections one is rated by his association. And is it not preposterous that fifteen youngsters should set themselves above the crowd, wear obscure jewelry and wrap themselves in an empty and pretentious mystery?

But what has this rambling paper to do with a pair of leather suspenders? Nothing. Nothing much. Only, after a while, just before the dawn, I came in front of the windows of a cheap haberdasher. And I recalled how I had once bought at this very shop a pair of leather suspenders. They were the only ones left—it was hinted that Seniors bought them largely—and they were a bargain. The proprietor blew off the dust and slapped them and dwelt upon their merits. They would last me into middle age and were cheap. There was, I recall, a kind of tricky differential between the shoulders to take up the slack on either side. Being a Freshman I was prevailed upon, and I bought them and walked to Morris Cove while they creaked and fretted. And here was the very shop, arising in front of me as from times before the flood. With it there arose, too, a recollection of my greenness and timidity. And mingled with all the hours of happiness of those times there were hours, also, of emptiness and loneliness—hours when, newcome to my surroundings, for fear of rebuff I walked alone.

“I am ashes where once I was fire, And the soul in my bosom is dead; What I loved I now merely admire, And my heart is as gray as my head.” -Image courtesy of The Project Gutenberg, “The Project Gutenberg EBook of Chimney-Pot Papers, by Charles S. Brooks,” produced by Sankar Viswanathan, Delphine Lettau, Joyce Wilson, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team, 2008. “Chimney-Pot Papers,” by Charles S. Brooks, illustrated with wood-cuts by Fritz Endell, 1920

The night still lingers. These dark lines of wall and tree and tower are etched by Time with memories to burn the pattern. The darkness stirs strangely, like waters in the solemn bowl when a witch reads off the future. But the past is in this darkness, and the December wind this night has roused up the summer winds of long ago. In that cleft is the old window. Here are the stairs, wood and echoing with an almost forgotten tread. A word, a phrase, a face, shows for an instant in the shadows. Here, too, in memory, is a pageantry of old custom with its songs and uproar, victory with its fires and dance.

Forms, too, I see bent upon their books, eager or dull, with intent or sleepy finger on the page. And I hear friendly cries and the sound of many feet across the night.

Dawn at last—a faint light through the elms. From the Chapel tower the bells sound the hour and strike their familiar melody. Dawn. And now the East in triumphal garment scatters my memories, born of night, before its flying wheel.”
-Excerpt and (top) image courtesy of The Project Gutenberg, “The Project Gutenberg EBook of Chimney-Pot Papers, by Charles S. Brooks,” produced by Sankar Viswanathan, Delphine Lettau, Joyce Wilson, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team, 2008. “Chimney-Pot Papers,” by Charles S. Brooks, illustrated with wood-cuts by Fritz Endell, 1920

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s