Queer Street Characters
( Originally Published 1893 )
ECCENTRICITIES OF MEMORY-QUEER STREET CHARACTERS-THE ONLY SON OF A KING-IDIOMS OF A PAST GENERATION-OLD VOLUNTEER FIREMEN-A FORGOTTEN STATESMAN
A QUEER thing is this memory of ours. When we have leisure to overhaul its storehouses, to brush away the dust and restore the forgotten pictures of long ago, it creates a new world of old friends for us veterans who persist in lagging behind the majority. With an implacable enemy sowing white hairs and deep wrinkles, I understand what my grandmother meant when she told me that she was never lonesome; that all the sweet visions and hallowed spectres of the past came -trooping around her as she sat by the fireside in the winter nights, and they made her wondrously content. The babies she had kissed in death half a century be-fore, and that had never grown an hour older; the stalwart young brother who went to sea in her girl-hood, and never was heard of again ; the husband taken from her side in early manhood; the endless line of friends who for two generations had been passing over Jordan into the land of promise ; her brides-maids, the children she had played with, her own pretty young mother-all these came trooping around the white-haired old lady and made her happy in her loneliest hours. Surely one of the beatitudes was omitted in making up the transcript, for, blessed are the aged who understand how to grow old gracefully.
"Did you ever hear me preach ?" asked the elder Coleridge of Charles Lamb. "I never heard you do anything else," was the sharp response. Perhaps some of my readers will think my grandmother was right in desiring to train me up for a minister, and that there is a surplus of moralizing in these papers. The dear old lady was so bent upon my making a career of the pulpit that she objected to my taking dancing lessons at Monsieur Charraud's Terpsichorean rookery on White Street. Do any of the old boys remember that musty old resort-the dingy nests of boxes in which hats and shoes were deposited, the well-waxed floor lighted by candles in sconces, the dear old dancing-master and his endless violin, and goblin wrath with a pupil's awkwardness, the giggling of the girls who carried on surreptitious flirtations through offerings of taffy and peanuts, the wild delight of escorting a chosen sweetheart home, and the sorrow of having to leave her at the nearest corner to her home, for fear her big sisters would make her life miserable by teasing ? I do not think that this mild revelry would have harmed even a student of divinity, much less a boy who had no such aspirations.
These things are all written down in the book of memory, and it is the privilege of age to open the volume and preach a sermon therefrom. Besides, I am tempted into it. One friend writes and asks if I re-member the queer personages who used to roam our streets when the city was smaller and identities were not so easily hidden. Another wants information in regard to the idioms, and the political caricatures, and the eccentricities of private and public life forty years ago-and then I open the volume of memory's photographs (though we had nothing but daguerrotypes then, and Insley had the most famous gallery of the day), and perforce I begin to preach.
Yes, there were some characters in the streets of New York whom everybody knew by sight, but of the mysteries of whose life as little was known then as now. The Lime-kiln Man was a familiar figure to the street arabs and a sphinx to the newspaper men. Sturdy, with long beard, and large blue eyes, having an appearance of education and of former refinement, he had deliberately chosen to make himself an out-cast. It was said that he slept in the lime-kilns that then existed in the neighborhood of Gansevoort Street, and his shabby clothes, and even his long beard, at times bore witness to the whiteness of his rough-and-ready bedding. He neither sought nor shunned human society, and was fond of a stroll down Broadway. To us boys he was a fascinating terror ; and while we watched him with intense interest, we would have run away had he approached us. Tramps were a rarity in that day, and the Lime-kiln Man was a hero in our eyes, though he was made a Mumbo Jumbo in the nursery, and all sorts of stories were prevalent as to the crimes he might have committed, of which he was doubtless entirely innocent. He made a picturesque figure in the little city of quiet workers, and when he died he received a longer obituary than many a good citizen who had never gone crazy with love or losses. The Blue Man was another character who was always pointed out to strangers as a local celebrity. There was nothing odd about him, except that he had taken so much medicine that his face had assumed a livid hue. Its deep indigo color made him appear a ghost among the living, and I well remember how I was startled when he was first pointed out to me on Broad-way. At two different times there were demented men who haunted the City Hall Park and attempted to set up in business as the Angel Gabriel. One of these preachers of a judgment to come carried a trumpet under his arm as a badge of office; the other wore a sort of uniform, with a star upon his breast. Sometimes they would preach to a few auditors in the Park, or at the street corners, and nobody molested them. Indeed, one of this eccentric pair showed considerable method in his madness, and managed to convince some persons possessed of a little money that his claims were divine. He went to the penitentiary. The other Angel Gabriel brought up in a lunatic asylum. Another man of mark had the proud distinction of never wearing an overcoat. He wore a full-dress suit of black (the dress-coat was commonly worn on the streets then), and in the severest winter weather, though he had reached the age of seventy, he buttoned his coat up to the chin, and with no additional protection save a pair of warm gloves, he defied the elements. This gentleman, who was an officer of a leading church association, was our Hannibal Hamlin in civil life. But he was not admired by the boys-for he was continually held up to them as an example of what they ought to do to harden their constitutions and keep down tailors' bills.
Of all the strange characters whom I saw or met in early years, the one who interested me most was the Rev. Eleazer Williams, missionary to the St. Regis Indians, in the northern part of the State. He was not a claimant, and yet he believed himself to be the son of Louis XVI. of France. As I saw him in the chancel of St. John's Chapel, in his surplice, with a black velvet cap on his head, he looked all that he claimed to be; as he wrote his autograph for me after-wards, he looked "every inch a king." I had hoped he would write his royal autograph. " No, my son," he replied, " I am only a missionary now, though a king's son." He had no doubts as to his royal birth; I have never had any concerning him. Prince de Joinville and other dignitaries of the French kingdom had gone to him to get him to sign off claims that he had never made, and he refused. He would not sell his birthright, and. he did not want to wear a crown. That was kingliness. Mr. Williams was present at a reception at Dr. Wainwright's residence in Hubert Street, and a young student of divinity who had never heard of him had been looking at some rare portraits of the royal family of France which happened to be on the walls. Suddenly he turned to a fellow-student and said, " See, one of those old Bourbons has stepped out of his frame and is walking around here." The living portrait was a perfect facsimile. Both young men were greatly astonished when, later in the evening, they learned the strange story of the kingly guest. For a brief while Mr. Williams was lionized in New York, and was made the subject of a wide-spread inquiry, " Have we a Bourbon among us? He re-turned quietly to his work, and died a few years after-wards among the people to whom he had given his life. That the son of a king of France should become a Protestant missionary in the American Republic is a flight beyond the ordinary ether of fiction. Yet he believed it, and so do I.
Idioms? Yes, slang is of no nation or period. It was a characteristic of a past generation, as it is to-day, though I am quite certain that neither the clergy in their pulpits nor the ladies in their homes indulged in it. Queerly enough, one can trace the story of any given period in its idioms, or, if you please, in its slang. The idioms stand for living people, real scenes, and actual life. Twelve or fifteen years before the war for the Union broke out, a New York boy of good family ran away to sea and made a whaling voyage. Out in the South Pacific Ocean one day his ship anchored off a small island, little more than a coral reef in the wide waste of waters, in the hope of getting fresh supplies. Presently a great canoe, paddled by a score of dusky spearmen, shot out from the shore, and a huge islander, who turned out to be the king of the reef, clambered up the side of the ship. When he reached the deck the monarch smiled so as to show every one of his milk-white teeth, and laughed assuringly. " Do you speak English?" asked the captain. The giant opened his capacious mouth and roared out, "I kills for Keyser!" The mystified captain, who was a New Englander, inquired " what in the name of iniquity" he meant. " I kills for Keyser !" roared the giant again. And then the young New Yorker stepped forward and explained that this was a New York idiom -not to say a bit of slang--in general use at one time in the Bowery. Keyser was a famous cattle man, and the butchers who " killed " for him were proud of asserting the fact, and it had passed into the slang of the period. A shipwrecked sailor or some delayed ship had taught the King this one sentence in English, and he was as proud of it-as if he had acquired the whole language. To him it meant a royal salutation, and he followed it up with royal gifts to the ship. But to the New Yorker who heard it there, five thousand miles from home, it came like a cry of mockery from the grave.
Was it the fireman in real life or the fire laddie of the stage who gave rise to the slang that centred around the life of the volunteer fireman? For a long time, in my school-days, " Mose," " Lize," and " Syksey" were familiar names upon our play-grounds, and we shouted to " wash her out " or "take de butt " as if we were veritable Chanfraus. The caricatures of the period found inexhaustible fun in " Mose," with, his red shirt, black broadcloth pantaloons tucked into his boot-tops, his elfin " soap-locks " hanging over each ear and down his close-shaven cheeks, his tall silk hat perched on one side of his head, and his broadcloth coat hung over his left arm. For his " Lize " he ordered pork and beans in the restaurant, and bade the waiter, "Don't yer stop ter count a bean," and to "Lize " he remarked, as he drove out on the road, It isn't a graveyard we're passin'; it's mile-stones." Possibly a new generation does not see anything laugh-able in these traditional jokes, but to the men of that period they stood for living actualities, the dashing heroes of many a fierce battle with the dread forces of fire.
I honor the old volunteer firemen. When one of the battered " machines " of former days passes by in a public procession I feel like taking off my hat to it, as I always do to the tattered colors that I have followed on many a fierce field of fight. Ah, what nights of noise and struggle were those in which the engines rattled down pavement or sidewalk, drawn by scores of willing hands and ushered into action by the hoarse cries of hundreds of cheering voices. There was no boy's play around the engine when once it began to battle with the flames. Men left their pleasant firesides to risk their lives for the preservation of the lives and property of others, and they did it without bravado, as if it were but one of the ordinary duties of their lot. They had their jealousies and their prejudices, their feuds and their fights of rival organizations, but all met alike on the common ground of self-sacrifice for the common good. All classes of society were represented in the ranks of the firemen. The mechanic and the son of the wealthy merchant were in-distinguishable under the volunteer's heavy hat, and emulated each other in labors and daring. College graduates drew the silver-mounted carriage of Amity Hose to the scene of peril, and then the boys of " Old Columbia" did as good work amid the flames as the gilt-edged boys of the Seventh Regiment did after-wards through the long years of war. And then the firemen's processions-were they not superb? What a magnificent polish the engines took, and how exuberantly they were garlanded with flowers, and how full were the long lines of red-shirted laddies who manned the ropes and were the cynosure of the ad-miring eyes of all feminine Gotham ! The men who carried the trumpets were the conquering heroes of the day and the envy of every boyish beholder. It seems a pity that their glory should have departed. Has it departed ? I open the book of memory again, and they are all there, and the glory of their record is - undimmed:
"Those ahold of fire-engines and hook-and-ladder ropes No less to me than the gods of the antique wars."
Speaking of the caricatures of that day, I am re-minded that the first political caricature which I re-member to have seen was entitled The Fox of Kin derhook." It was a large lithograph of a fox curled up at the entrance of his den in the rocks, and in place of his head was substituted the shrewd, sagacious face of Martin Van Buren. At that time, though John Tyler was President, Mr. Van Buren was still a political power, not merely in the State of New York, but in the country at large. Yet to-day he is nothing more than a memory. Senator of the United States, Minister at the Court of St. James's, Secretary of State, and finally President of the United States, his was a most illustrious record, yet how many are able to re-call the story of his statesmanship ? Stat nominis um-bra. We speak without thought when we say of this or that man who has managed to achieve distinction that his name and achievements will never be forgotten. A caricature is as apt to fix fame as a library of biographies.
But the fire has almost gone out, the chair on the other side of my old-fashioned grate in which my grandmother used to sit is empty, the familiar spirits of the past have vanished in anticipation of cock-crowing, and I very much fear that some gentle Charles Lamb of the present generation will whisper in my ear: "I never heard you do anything else but preach."