Frederick M. Smith - Fifth Avenue
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE world is adorned with cities; and the imagination faring farther, is tempted to linger on the shining half-circle of the Boulevards, on the green and jolly Prater, in the narrow Corso, or in the orange golden Sierpes in Seville. These are all fascinating thoroughfares, full of allurements, and if some have less of the historic, they all have a great deal of the picturesque. But fine as it is to saunter in deeply storied streets, one has not to journey so far from home, and, for myself, I will place beside the best of them a ramble up Fifth Avenue on a warm day in April, or in some mellow, ripening October. The Strand, let us say, is like red Burgundy, or stout brown ale, while our own Street is golden Rüdesheimer or, at its top moments, a vintage even more sparkling from the fields of Northern France.
For a picture where is its equal? The shops — and such shops? — with fine ladies going in and out of them — and some who are not so fine; the great stream of motor vehicles; the errand boys and the clerks; the hopeful young artists with portfolios; dandies with spats and boutonnières; blonde, full-bosomed females, with striking clothes and flinty, watchful eyes; an occasional English looking gentleman in loud tweeds; father, mother, and the girls from Steubenville or Kokomo; and an untold number of persons of an Israelitish cast.
Now and then you will mark a spruce oldish gentleman with white hair and moustache, and you fancy a real New Yorker who lives somewhere near Gramercy Park, or Washington Square, or wherever real New Yorkers do live now.
Again, have you ever noticed how, at certain happy after-noon hours, and in certain up-town precincts, bevies of young girls suddenly debouch upon the Avenue? misses of fourteen and sixteen, wide eyed, milk-and-rose damsels, all awake to the wonder of living! They are from the private schools in side streets; and they always walk arm in arm, some very lively and titillated, others very superior to a world that is soon to be their oyster. And always they are shepherded carefully under the eye of an oldish young woman with pince-nez. Youth is always inspiriting, and a little more so when it is feminine and innocent with a promise of beauty, and with an air of good breeding.
Another adventure that often happens on the Avenue is the seeing of a familiar face — familiar because you have seen it in the picture magazines or on the stage. With a thrill you discover that you can recognize Julia Marlowe in street clothes, or Miss Marie Tempest without grease paint. Or perhaps you see Mr. Winston Churchill leading a little boy by the hand. It is almost as if you had begun to know these celebrities personally; and you may even go the length of buying Mr. Churchill's next novel because you have once seen him peering into a shop-window.
Men and women, yes; but buildings too! — impressive shops — hotels magnificent — clubs that seem forbidding until you become a member — the gray pile of St. Patrick's; and, most beautiful architectural sight of all, the lacey white tower of St. Thomas's !
Hotels and shops ! the first quite beyond most of us; the second, in part at least, for everybody.
Only the saunterer can appraise the wealth of shop-windows — the displays at the great dry-goods stores, and the florists, where the coming seasons are colored forth, whether in bunches of pale yellow primroses and broad-brimmed rose-wreathed hats, or in the flaring chrysanthemums and the soft pelts of the black fox and the lowly skunk. Such windows make patches of color to delight the eye; but it is before others that the loiterer pauses to enjoy by inspection what he usually cannot afford in reality. I do not speak of the displays of diamond merchants; the saunterer cares little for such hard stones. It is the book and print-shops that hold him longest, for here are the rare and precious things that he cannot own — the birds of Audubon, a first edition of "Boswell," the sporting pictures of John Leech.
In the art stores he finds a pretty portrait in oil done in the manner of Romney; or a group of rural characters by George Morland; or a color print showing some high green valley with its wayside cross in the Tyrol. I am not sure but that to see pictures in this casual, very-much-by-chance fashion is not better than to own them. The eye soon fails to see that to which it is accustomed; but the idler on the Avenue has always a changing feast. And then, if he sees a print which particularly pleases him, he can go that way again and again, making a little pilgrimage, as it were, to worship at a shrine which is not continuing.
In a little less degree — it is wholly a matter of taste — he enjoys the riches of the oriental and antique shops. Here one person will delight in silk shawls embroidered with marvellous birds and golden dragons, and another in spindle-legged chairs, and another in bowls of blue porcelain; and still another in kindling jewels — topaz and emerald, or in clouded turquoise and gray-green jade. He can even play at a rapturous game that he remembers from boyhood, and choose fit ornaments for a real or an imagined sweetheart.
Speaking of America and the Orient — Grant Avenue in San Francisco is not a bad field for the saunterer. It is conventional enough not to worry the idler by demanding too sharp a look-out; but it has an atmosphere very romantic, even edging the mysterious; a savor of its own compounded of sandal-wood and musty interiors; it is gaudy and splendid and dingy by turns; the children are as sweet as the dolls in a toy-shop; the slant-eyed maidens, with their clear, faintly tinted, porcelain skins, have a certain reticent beauty and provocation; the men partake of the inward serenity of the East.
And what of Royal Street, New Orleans place of romantic balconies? In fact, we have so many thoroughfares which make an especial appeal to the saunterer that one does not. willingly leave off talking of them.
If life is a great book in which to read, then a stroll in the street of a world's city is a lively chapter; or, better, it is a sort of preface, foretelling a large part of the varied contents. And, since nowadays we must show that everything we praise has a use or be set down as thoughtless cumberers of the ground I contend that the educational value of sauntering is to be reckoned on. To the inquiring mind it suggests many delectable by-paths and gives a nice stimulus to the fancy. I can imagine a man seeing a copy of a Nicolas Maes or a Jan Steen in a window, and so getting curious about Dutch art. Or, who can note the cover designs of certain French masterpieces, bound in paper, without a desire to make an immediate acquaintance?
Does all this sound as if the saunterer were occupied merely with the iridescent surface of life? That is, perhaps, in the main, very true. But any thinking idler in the world's lively thoroughfares will find a great deal that sobers thought. The moralist in Fifth Avenue cannot escape knowing that its beauty and color are but inadequate cloaks for some of the seven deadly sins. Ile will find vanity and sinful extravagance and much wisdom about the lusts of the flesh. He will see that Mammon is the god of many, and that pleasure is their selfish aim. They pursue it regardless of the future, or of others. They are grasshoppers wasting the sunny season. They have time only for acquaintances, and do not know how to make friends. They do not relish or understand the quieter and more fundamental joys. In short they have forgotten how to walk, speed and display being their chief concerns. This moralist will see in the sumptuous caravansaries that line the street mere symbols of the evils of our present-day life, — its materiality, its instability, its love of luxury, its wastefulness, the gradual dimming of hearth fires, its lack of the finer culture. Even the hired men in uniforms, who open the doors of limousines, seem to sniff at simple folk and simple things. These hostelries are certainly very tempting, with their palatial foyers and their velvet-floored dining parlors, rich with silver, and shining with glass and white linen. But the people who frequent them — the silken women, nice artificers of beauty and the prodigal men — how much of charity and simplicity is in their hearts?
In the distance, to the East, the moralist glimpses the spider-thread of the Third Avenue El., and he remembers the sort of people who mostly journey on it. The contrast between these avenues cannot but give him pause. Is it right that there should be two such planes of living side by side, the first wilfully ignoring or looking askance at the other? So he asks himself. How specious, moreover, and insincere, seems the first in comparison with the second.
Yet I doubt if the moral contrast is so much in favor of Third Avenue. The rich are not always evil, nor the poor virtuous, as much of our sentimental modern teaching would have us believe. The poor to-day will probably be the prodigals tomorrow; and, if you go deep enough into the hearts of both, there is very little to choose between them. We are all cut from pretty much the same piece of cloth, and a shoddy piece it sometimes seems.
A bad outlook, says the moralist; and then, just as he becomes depressed, if not cynical, the fine, sweet face of a woman, or a happy old gentleman leading a child, makes the thoughtful one spy a kind of hope. Then a man in khaki, young, clean, straight, swings into sight and he must be a very despairing person who does not see that under all the superficiality of the Avenue there is much good blood coursing.
So the saunterer who is not too stern a moralist, but rather inclined to kindliness in his philosophy, and doubt-less, too, at heart a little indolent, — finds that life is, at worst, a mixed business, tragic and humorous, fascinating and inexplicable, but not necessarily desperate; and he goes on calmly, thinking that one may as well trust life as doubt it. Very probably at this stage of his cogitation he will slip into some comfortable and quiet refuge to pay extravagantly for tea or something stronger.
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