The Curious City Of Battle Creek
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
IT was on a chilly morning, not much after eight o'clock, that we left Detroit. I recall that, driving trainward, I closed the window of the taxicab ; that the marble waiting room of the new station looked uncomfortably half awake, like a sleeper who has kicked the bedclothes off, and that the concrete platform out-side was a playground for cold, boisterous gusts of wind.
Our train had come from somewhere else. Entering the Pullman car, we found it in its nightime aspect. The narrow aisle, made narrower by its shroud of long green curtains, and by shoes and suit cases standing beside the berths, looked cavernous and gloomy, re-minding me of a great rock fissure, the entrance to a cave I had once seen. Like a cave, too, it was cold with a musty and oppressive cold; a cold which embalmed the mingling smells of sleep and sleeping car—an odor as of Russia leather and banana peel ground into a damp pulp.
Silently, gloomily, without removing our overcoats or gloves, we seated ourselves, gingerly, upon the bright green plush of the section nearest to the door, and tried to read our morning papers. Presently the train started. A thin, sick-looking Pullman conductor came and took our tickets, saying as few words as possible. A porter, in his sooty canvas coat, sagged miserably down the aisle. Also a waiter from the dining car, announcing breakfast in a cheerless tone. Breakfast! Who could think of breakfast in a place like that? For a long time, we sat in somber silence, without interest in each other or in life.
To appreciate the full horror of a Pullman sleeping car it is not necessary to pass the night upon it; indeed, it is necessary not to. If you have slept in the car, or tried to sleep, you arise with blunted faculties—the night has mercifully anesthetized you against the scenes and smells of morning. But if you board the car as we did, coming into it awake and fresh from out of doors, while it is yet asleep—then, and then only, do you realize its enormous ghastliness.
Our first diversion—the faintest shadow of a speculative interest—came with a slight stirring of the curtains of the berth across the way. For, even in the most dismal sleeping car, there is always the remote chance, when those green curtains stir, that the Queen of Sheba is all radiant within, and that she will presently appear, like sunrise.
Over our newspapers we watched, and even now and then our curiosity was piqued by further gentle stirrings of the curtains. And, of course, the longer we were forced to wait, the more hopeful we became. In a low voice I murmured to my companion the story of the glorious creature I had seen in a Pullman one morning long ago : how the curtains had stirred at first, even as these were stirring now; how they had at last been parted by a pair of rosy finger tips ; how I had seen a lovely face emerge; how her two braids were wrapped about her classic head; how she had floated forth into the aisle, transforming the whole car; how she had wafted past me, a soft, sweet cloud of pink; how she—Then, just as I was getting to the interesting part of it, I stopped and caught my breath. The curtains were in final, violent commotion ! They were parting at the bottom ! Ah! Slowly, from between the long green folds, there appeared a foot. No filmy silken stocking covered it. It was a foot. There was an ankle, too—a small ankle. Indeed, it was so small as to be a misfit, for the foot was of stupendous size, and very knobby. Also it was cold; I knew that it was cold, just as I knew that it was attached to the body of a man, and that I did not wish to see the rest of him. I turned my head and, gazing from the window, tried to concentrate my thoughts upon the larger aspects of the world outside, but the picture of that foot remained with me, dwarfing all other things.
I did not mean to look again ; I was determined not to look. But at the sound of more activity across the way, my head was turned as by some outside force, and I did look, as one looks, against one's will, at some horror which has happened in the street.
He had come out. He was sitting upon the edge of his berth, bending over and snorting as he fumbled for his shoes upon the floor. Having secured them, he pulled them on with great contortions, emitting stertorous sounds. Then, in all the glory of his brown balbriggan undershirt, he stood up in the aisle.. His face was fat and heavy, his eyes half closed, his hair in towsled disarray. His trousers sagged dismally about his hips, and his suspenders dangled down behind him like two feeble and insensate tails. After rolling his collar, necktie, shirt, and waistcoat into a mournful little bundle, he produced from inner recesses a few unpleasant toilet articles, and made off down the car—a spectacle compared with which a homely woman, her face anointed with cold cream, her hair done in kid curlers, her robe a Canton-flannel nightgown, would appear alluring !
Never, since then, have I heard men jeering over women as they look in dishabille, without wondering if those same men have ever seen themselves clearly in the mirrored washroom of a sleeping car.
On the railroad journey between Detroit and Battle Creek we passed two towns which have attained a fame entirely disproportionate to their size: Ann Arbor, with about fifteen thousand inhabitants, celebrated as a seat of learning; and Ypsilanti, with about six thou-sand, celebrated as, so to speak, a seat of underwear.
One expects an important college town to be well known, but a manufacturing town with but six thou-sand inhabitants must have done something in particular to have acquired national reputation. In the case of Ypsilanti it has been done by magazine advertising—the advertising of underwear. If you don't think so, look over the list of towns in the "World Almanac." Have you, for example, ever heard of Anniston, Ala.? Or Argenta, Ark.? Either town is about twice the size of Ypsilanti. Have you ever heard of Cranston, R. I.; Butler, Pa., or Belleville, Ill.? Each is about as large as Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor put together.
Then there is Battle Creek. Think of the amount of advertising that town has had! As Miss Daisy Buck, the lady who runs the news stand in the Battle Creek railroad station, said to us: "It 's the best advertised little old town of its size in the whole United States."
And now it is about to be advertised some more.
We were total strangers. We knew nothing of the place save that we had heard that it was full of health cranks and factories where breakfast foods, coffee substitutes, and kindred edibles and drinkables were made. How to see the town and what to see we did not know. We hesitated in the depot waiting room. Then fortune guided our footsteps to the station news stand and its genial and vivacious hostess. Yes, hostess is the word; Miss Buck is anything but a mere girl behind the counter. She is a reception committee, an information bureau, a guide, philosopher, and friend. Her kindly interest in the wayfarer seems to waft forth from the precincts of the news stand and permeate the station. All the boys know Miss Daisy Buck.
After purchasing some stamps and post cards as a means of getting into conversation with her, we asked about the town.
"How many people are there here ?" I ventured. "Thirty-five," replied Miss Buck.
"Thirty-five?" I repeated, astonished.
Though Miss Buck was momentarily engaged in selling chewing gum (to some one else), she found time to give me a mildly pitying look.
"Thousand," she added.
The "World Almanac" gives Battle Creek but twenty-five thousand population. That, however, is no reproach to Miss Buck; it is, upon the contrary, a reproach to the cold-hearted statisticians who compiled that book. And had they met Miss Buck I think they would have been more liberal.
"What is the best way for us to see the town ?" I asked the lady.
She indicated a man who was sitting on a station bench near by, saying:
"He 's a driver. He '11 take you. He likes to ride around."
"Thanks," I replied, gallantly. "Any friend of yours—"
"Can that stuff," admonished Miss Buck in her easy, offhand manner.
I canned it, and engaged the driver. His vehicle was a typical town hack—a mud-colored chariot, having C springs, sunken cushions, and a strong smell of the stable. Riding in it, I could not rid myself of the idea that I was being driven to a country burial, and that hence, if I wished to smoke, I ought to do it surreptitiously.
Presently we swung into Main Street. I did not ask the name of the street, but I am reasonably certain that is it. There was a policeman on the corner. Also, a building bearing the sign "Old National Bank."
Old! What a pleasant, mellow ring the word has! How fine, and philosophical, and prosperous, and hospitable it sounds. I stopped the carriage. Just out of sentiment I thought I would go in and have a check cashed. But they did not act hospitable at all. They refused to cash my check because they did not know me. Well, it was their loss! I had a little treat pre-pared for them. I meant to surprise them by making them realize suddenly that, in cashing the check, they were not merely obliging an obscure stranger but a famous literary man. I was going to pass the check through the window, saying modestly: "It may interest you to know whose check you have the honor of handling." Then they would read the name, and I could picture their excitement as they exclaimed and showed the check around the bank so that the clerks could see it. The only trouble I foresaw, on that score, was that probably they had not ever heard of me. But I was going to obviate that. I intended to sign the check "Rudyard Kipling." That would have given them something to think about !
But, as I have said, the transaction never got that far.
The principal street of Battle Creek may be with-out amazing architectural beauty, but it is at least well lighted. On either curb is a row of "boulevard lights," the posts set fifty feet apart. They are good-looking posts, too, of simple, graceful design, each surmounted by a cluster of five white globes. This admirable system of lighting is in very general use throughout all parts of the country excepting the East. It is used in all the Michigan cities I visited. I have been told that it was first installed in Minneapolis, but wherever it originated, it is one of a long list of things the East may learn from the West.
After driving about for a time we drew up. Looking out, I came to the conclusion that we had returned again to the railway station.
It was a station, but not the same one.
"This is the Grand Trunk Deepo," said the driver, opening the carriage door.
"I don't believe we'll bother to get out," I said. But the driver wanted us to.
"You ought to look at it," he insisted. "It's a very pretty station."
So we got out and looked at it, and were glad we did, for the driver was quite right. It was an unusually pretty station—a station superior to the other in all respects but one : it contained no Miss Daisy Buck.
After some further driving, we returned to the station where she was.
"I suppose we had better go to the Sanitarium for lunch?" I asked her.
"Not on your life," she replied. "If you go to the `San,' you won't feel like you 'd had anything to eat—that is, not if you 're good feeders."
"Where else is there to go ?" I asked.
"The Tavern," she advised. "You '11 get a first-class dinner there. You might have larger hotels in New York, but you have n't got any that 's more home-like. At least, that 's what I hear. I never was in New York myself, but I get the dope from the traveling men."
However, not for epicurean reasons, but because of curiosity, we wished to try a meal at the Sanitarium. Thither we drove in the hack, passing on our way the office of the "Good Health Publishing Company" and a small building bearing the sign, "The Coffee Parlor"—which may signify a Battle Creek substitute for a saloon. I do not know how coffee drinkers are regarded in that town, but I do know that, while there, I got neither tea nor coffee—unless "Postum" be coffee and "Kaffir Tea" be tea.
It was at the Sanitarium that I drank Kaffir Tea. I had it with my lunch. It looks like tea, and would probably taste like it, too, if they did n't let the Kaffirs steep so long. But they should use only fresh, young, tender Kaffirs; the old ones get too strong; they have too much bouquet. The one they used in my tea may have been slightly spoiled. I tasted him all afternoon.
The "San" is an enormous brick building like a vast summer hotel. It has an office which is utterly hotel-like, too, even to the chairs, scattered about, and the people sitting in them. Many of the people look perfectly well. Indeed, I saw one young woman who looked so well that I could n't take my eyes off from her while she remained in view. She was in the elevator when we went up to lunch. She looked at me with a speculative eye—a most engaging eye, it was—as though saying to herself : "Now there 's a promising young man. I might make it interesting for him if he would stay here for a while. But of course he 'd have to show me a physician's certificate stating that he was not subject to fits." My companion said that she looked at him a long while, too, but I doubt that. He was always claiming that they looked at him.
The people who run the Sanitarium are Seventh-Day Adventists, and as we arrived on Saturday it was the Sabbath there—a rather busy day, I take it, from the bulletin which was printed upon the back of the dinner menu :
7.20 A. M. Morning Worship in the Parlor.
The last injunction was not disobeyed by us. We ate enough to satisfy our curiosity, and what we did not eat we left.
The menu at the Sanitarium is a curious thing. After each item are figures showing the proportion of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates contained in that article of food. Everything is weighed out exactly. There was no meat on the bill of fare, but substitutes were provided in the list of entrees: "Protose with Mayonnaise Dressing," "Nuttolene with Cranberry Sauce," and "Walnut Roast."
Suppose you had to decide between those three which would you take?
My companion took "Protose," while I elected for some reason to dally with the "Nuttolene." Then, neither of us liking what we got, we both tried "Walnut Roast." Even then we would not give up. I ordered a little "Malt Honey," while my companion called for a baked potato, saying: "I know what a potato is, anyhow!"
After that we had a little "Toasted Granose" and "Good Health Biscuit," washed down in my case by a gulp or two of "Kaffir Tea," and in his by "Hot Malted Nuts." I tried to get him to take "Kaffir Tea" with me, but, being to leeward of my cup, he declined. As nearly as we could figure it out afterward, he was far ahead of me in proteins and fats, but I was infinitely richer in carbohydrates. In our indigestions we stood absolutely even.
There are some very striking things about the Sanitarium. It is a great headquarters for Health Congresses, Race Betterment Congresses, etc., and at these congresses strange theories are frequently put forth. At one of them, recently held, Dr. J. H. Kellogg, head of the Sanitarium, read a paper in which, according to newspaper reports, he advocated "human stock shows," with blue ribbons for the most perfectly developed men and women. At the same meeting a Mrs. Holcome charged that : "Cigarette-smoking heroes in the mod-ern magazine are, I believe, inserted into the stories by the editors of publications controlled by the big interests."
To this Mr. S. S. McClure, the publisher, replied : "I have never inserted cigarettes in heroes' mouths. I have taken them out lots of times. But generally the authors use a pipe for their heroes."
There was talk, too, about "eugenic weddings." And a sensation was caused when a Southern college professor made a charge that graduates of modern women's colleges are unfitted for motherhood. The statement, it may be added, was vigorously denied by the heads of several leading women's colleges.
Rather wild, some of this, it seems to me. But when people gather together in one place, intent on some one subject, wildness is almost certain to develop. One feels, in visiting the Sanitarium, that, though many people may be restored to health there, there is yet an air of mild fanaticism over all. Health fanaticism. The passionate light of the health hunt flashes in the stranger's eye as he looks at you and wonders what is wrong with you. And whatever may be wrong with you, or with him, you are both there to shake it off. That is your sole business in life. You are going to get over it, even if you have to live for weeks on "Nuttolene" or other products of the diet kitchen..
It is always an experience for the sophisticated palate to meet a brand-new taste. In "Nuttolene" my palate encountered one, and before dinner was over it met several more.
"Nuttolene" is served in a slab, resembling, as nearly as anything I can think of, a good-sized piece of shoe-maker's wax. In flavor it is confusing. Some faint taste about it hinted that it was intended to resemble turkey; an impression furthered by the fact that cranberry sauce was served on the same plate. But what it was made of I could not detect. It was not unpleasant to taste, nor yet did I find it appetizing. Rather,. I should classify it in the broad category of uninteresting food. However, after such a statement, it is but fair to add that the food I find most interesting is almost al-ways rich and indigestible. Perhaps, therefore, I shall be obliged to go to Battle Creek some day, to subsist on "Nuttolene" and kindred substances as penance for my gastronomic indiscretions. Better men than I have done that thing-men and women from all over the globe. And Battle Creek has benefitted them. Nevertheless, I hope that I shall never have to go there. My feeling about the place, quite without regard to the cures which it effects, is much like that of my companion :
At luncheon I asked him to save his menu for me, so that I might have the data for this article. He put it in his pocket. But he kept pulling it out again, every little while, throughout the afternoon, and suggesting that I copy it all off into my notebook.
Finally I said to him :
"What is the use in my copying all that stuff when you have it right there in print? Just keep it for me. Then, when I get to writing, I will take it and use what I want."
"But I'd rather not keep it," he insisted.
"Well, there might be a railroad wreck. If I'm killed I don't want this thing to be found on me. When they went through my clothes and ran across this they 'd say: `Oh, this does n't matter. It 's all right. He 's just some poor boob that 's been to Battle Creek.' "
When we got out of the hack at the station before leaving Battle Creek, I asked the hackman how the town got its name. He did n't know. So, after buying the tickets, I went and asked Miss Daisy Buck.
"I suppose," I said, "there was some battle here, beside some creek, wasn't there ?"
But for once Miss Buck failed me.
"You can search me," she replied. Then: "Did you lunch at the `San' ?"
We admitted it.
"How did you like it?"
We informed her.
"What did you eat—Mercerized hay?"
"No; mostly Nuttolene."
She sighed. Then :
"What town are you making next?" she asked. "Kalamazoo," I said.
"Oh, Ka'zoo, eh? What line are you gen'l'men
travelling in ?"
"I'm a writer," I replied, "and my friend here is an artist. We're going around the country gathering material for a book."
In answer to this statement, Miss Buck simply winked one eye as one who would say : "You're some little liar,
ain't you ?"
"It's true," I said.
"Oh, sure!" said Miss Buck, and let one eyelid fall again.
"When the book appears," I continued, "you will find that it contains an interview with you."
"Also a picture of you and the news stand," my companion added.
Then we heard the train.
Taking up our suit cases, we thanked Miss Buck for the assistance she had rendered us.
"I'm sure you're quite welcome," she replied. "I meet all kinds here—including kidders."
That was some months ago. No doubt Miss Buck may have forgotten us by now. But when she sees this—as, being a news-stand lady, I have reason to hope she will—I trust she may remember, and admit that truth has triumphed in the end.