Remnants of an Autobiography by Charles Hoy Fort
What was done to us that night, we do not remember; bread and water probably, as a punishment for staying away all day, for the little kid had not told. For, though They continued to beat the others, They struck us no more after the time we had forced them almost to the floor.
And for a long time we sighed for our camp fires down along the Hudson;
the stolen rides on freight cars; battles with tramps; and then the sea,
we a sailor, and the other kid a cabin boy, we protecting him from brutal
captains. Always protecting someone in our dreams. There was a little girl
on the next block; we had saved her many time from wolves, tigers, Indians,
and she saying no even, "Thank you," the next time we'd meet
her. She in a white dress and blue sash; we all mud and very likely with
a black eye. Trying to talk with her now and then, feeling awkward because
of her self-possessed ways, but feeling that she must admire us because
we were an outlaw in the neighborhood. We marvelled at little girls, and
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beat him into insensibility; no, we'd have the little kid of a big, noble-looking man do the beating, for three against one would not be fair. Anyway, all our dreams seemed to end in violence in some form.
Then in real life again, and, hearing their voice, we would scowl or would try to be very quiet to please them.
Playing ball in the big lot on Hudson Avenue, with wagons of a stranded circus all around, or in the Capitol Park, with its earth worn hard and stony, the remains of an iron fence on a base of crumbling marble, and the ruins of the old, brown-stone Capitol. We interested in all buildings half torn down, liking to see the kinds of wall paper people had, tracing staircases by streaks on walls where people would not keep to the bannister, as we were taught to at home. Sent to church every Sunday morning, we, the other kid, and the little kid, too. Sent over to the Dutch Reformed Church, where there were inclined planes of stone by the stoop, which were very good to slide down. But going to Mason's with our ten cents, buying contrabands, wandering during church hours. Going to the river to marvel at the high water mark on a corner building, the normal surface far below. Looking at a grain elevator. Why should grain be elevated? We often hoisted things. But why should grown people elevate grain? Then all three holding hands, the one in the middle shutting his eyes, the others leading him in devious ways to have him guess what part of the city he was in. He'd guess "Post Office," and there he'd be in the lumber yard. Which was almost as interesting and astonishing as it would be to take a balloon and guess, "Maryland" and find Labrador.
Always wanting something; and not a cent from Them. Hearing that we
could get a stuffed penguin for a dollar, a quarter down and the rest in
easy payments. Our mind could hold nothing but
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arms offensively. A dime off for shovelling snow when he was told to shovel snow, sitting down, looking on, making a good bargain, as a good business man should, having ten cents worth of work done, and having twenty cents worth of pleasure seeing us do it. Fearful humiliation at times, but we were willing to do anything to make the collection wholly ours.
At the table. They saying, "Who's making that noise?" The other kid guilty; looking significantly at us. And we, in a tired kind of way, feeling the awfulness of slavery, would answer, "Me."
"Say `I.' Go upstairs."
We going; the other kid crossing off another dime. He's a good, business man now; he was then.
Trying to study, hating arithmetic except cancellation, which seemed like a game. Trying to understand decimals, then running to the street. Spending much time in new buildings, climbing ladders, sliding down ropes. And liking old buildings, coming down, making believe they were ruins, living many of the Waverly novels in an old frame house that had never held anything more romantic than two old maids. It's queer; there were old maids up the street and down the street, and we thought them creatures pitiable, contemptible, ridiculous, but nowadays there are no such old maids.
And in the Capitol a good deal, daring and "stumping" one
another to walk over beams high in the air; crawling through a long tunnel,
filled with air almost suffocating. There was a flaw in the reputation
of every boy that had not crawled through this tunnel, coming out gasping
at the other side, stuck now and then, if he should be too fat a boy. Going
down to the dynamos to have our knife blades magnetized. We had little
red horse shoes, but it was more interesting to pick up tacks with a knife
blade that we, ourself, had magnetized.
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five more went out of sight. All taking turns in rowing except Billy Robinson, who played the mouth organ, which he thought should exempt him. Playing with hands caving around, "bringing in the bass" as giftless we longed to do, tried to do but could not do. Going in swimming and then running up and down the sands trying to be sunburned. Tortured with blistered backs, but proud of blistered backs, hoping the fiery red would turn brown. Having blisters on our hands from rowing, proud of the blisters, wanting them to become callouses right where the fingers begin.
Every other Sunday morning, They would send us to the Post Office, a big building with a little street all its own beside it. White granite above but worn all discolored from the ground to the height of a man's shoulders. Loungers could sit or stand anywhere else but every unoccupied person in that vicinity had to lean against the Post Office. Granite blocks an ugly brown and shiny, a man with nothing to do, if as far away as Eagle Street, having to go and lean against the Post Office. City Hall, fine, restful churches, other broad walls attracting no one; men that had never written a letter having to lean against the Post Office.
Sending us every other Sunday morning for the mail, for in assigning
all tasks They were strictly impartial. Frowning and warning us, for we
always took an hour longer than necessary. Punishment and warning were
useless; we;d be certain to take that hour. Causing them great annoyance,
but never causing them to swerve from their impartiality. We displeasing
them, then the little kid displeasing them, then the other kid pleasing
them, because he was less often bad. But in all the years of our boyhood
never once did they show favoritism. We had to take that extra hour, for
every string of snow
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Then trouble with Washington Av'ners. We invaded and defeated. Falling back, each unable to see much more than was occupying him, but feeling a spirit of general defeat. Breaking gradually and then giving away all at once. Each fearing to separate from the main body, for that might single him out for pursuit, or darting away anyway, hoping the enemy would continue after the rest. Panic-stricken, picturing far worse than wolves after us, bunching at the corner fence, in a scramble to get over, the strong pushing the weak. But, even in these moments, though hopping in nervousness, Crousey's fierce band almost upon us, we and the other kid would wait to lift the little kid over the fence; that little kid always tagging on behind. Then we'd be safe. Knowing just where barbed wires were torn down, just where fence boards were loose, where a tree would make climbing easier. Into the next yard; woman scolding. Over a shed; an indignant, old man threatening to shoot. Going on to a vacant lot; a trail of heads out windows. Then playing "Follow the leader," chasing away all the little kids except our little kid, who would sit apart, saying nothing, his eyes wide-open, seeing again the wonderful things we had done to the enemy.
It was very good of the little kid to admire us but often we'd wish he'd tone down just a little of the admiration he felt. A taciturn, little kid, but sometimes talking recklessly. Taking a little walk, urged to have some excitement in his dark, uninteresting world. Throwing stones at a big boy. Then saying, "My brother can lick you." Positive we could lick grocery boys, messenger boys, all kinds of boys, and all kinds of boys at once. We were not positive of this; but then we'd rather die than lose anyone's admiration.
And then the next day we'd meet the big boy. He'd say, "Do you
want to make anything out of that?" And the little kid,
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because we could resist nothing that we thought funny, always feeling this inability to conform with discipline and rules. But in geography, when told to draw a map, we would not make merely a scrawl, as would many pupils; we'd get a large sheet of drawing papers, and would trace squares to so to enlarge; with a shader, shading lakes and seas, pausing to imagine ourself on them; making mountains that looked like wooly caterpillars, pausing to fight bandits or hunt a panther. And in our compositions, we'd bring in facts from histories other [than] our school history, using the big words that we met with in our reading, proud of our compositions, sometimes having them read aloud, having the fact that we used our own words pointed out.
After school, we'd run around in the streets, annoying people, climbing fences and ringing door bells, and would go home to read Greek and Roman history, French and German, and especially English history; mythology, biographies, and dime novels. We read hundreds of dime, or rather, half dime, novels, going with Whitey to a little, old store to exchange them. Slipping dime novels under our coats, when the little, old man in the little, old store was not looking. Whitey was a thoughtful boy, interested in chemicals and given to stealing.
Our school reports were so bad that often we dared not show them at home. We learned forgery from Whitey, who had very good reports, but dared show only the very best. Taking an old signature, placing it over a report, tracing, rubbing hard, then going over what we pressed into the report. And, at home, it seemed as if nothing They could do could make us better. No longer beating us, but locking us in a little, dark room, giving us bread and water, sentencing us to several days or several weeks in solitude. Three times a day the door would be opened, and bread and water would be thrust into darkness. Three times day a bundle would come down the air shaft. At the table, the other kids would sit with handkerchiefs on their knees, clipping in things when no one was looking. So well did we take care of one another that when two were serving terms, the free one would be the starved one.
Books coming down the air shaft, and matches to light the gas with. We sitting in the little window, writing our name and date on the white wall, adding, "Imprisoned here for doing nothing," which, we believe, is the view of most criminals. It would please us to write these things, feeling that many years later we, then a great, famous man, should like to come back and look at them. Often we'd have this feeling that the great, famous man would like to see relics of his childhood. Raising boards and nailing them down with paper soldiers or heroic marbles down under; slipping treasures down cracks between walls and floors. Our mind was filled with our reading of great men; positively we should be one of them.
We in prison, and They turning the gas fixture so that we should be in darkness. A monkey wrench coming down the air shaft. Sitting sometimes with the gas burning but oftener in darkness, we a lazy kind of boy but tortured with the awfulness of doing nothing. Then singing to make the time hasten. Melancholy songs, we an unfortunate, little boy, persecuted for doing nothing, crying a little in sympathy with the poor, little boy, who had never done anything wrong. Then singing patriotic songs, half defiantly because of the noise we were making. About "Let freedom ring." Adding, "Freedom don't ring here." Hearing our new mother, under the air shaft, laugh at this. Then we, too, would laugh; for we could never be mean when others were not.
Days seeming to go by, but only half a morning. We pacing
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And then they told us to go to the store Saturdays as well. Worse was to come. They made us work! Sent us up in the loft to scrape old labels off cans and paste on new labels of their own. They made us work!
We were unhappy and the other kid was quite as unhappy. We scraping in resentful carelessness; the other kid scraping as well as he could. We rebelling and grumbling and shirking; the other kid rebelling and grumbling but scraping as well as he could. We sat in a corner; the other kid worked on. Then he refused to speak to us, because we made him do all the work. But why should either of us do any work except just enough to keep out of trouble? How lazy we did hate work! Other kid scraping as well as he could, refusing to speak. So we had to give in; anything, even work rather than not to be spoken to.
Then both of us lazy. Sliding down the elevator cables, exploring from loft to loft, for the store was of two buildings with the elevator running between and landing broken through the walls. Exploring through dark canyons of boxes piled high, every floor a labyrinth of things good to eat. Breaking into cases, taking out cans. Eating a few cherries, then having a light lunch of peaches; trying a little asparagus, going on to apricots. Hammering cans flat so that we could take them out in our pockets. Then lazy and not bothering; just throwing the cans out on the roof. They'd be seen sometime, but we seemed to care nothing for detection so long as detection should not be right away.
Throwing a plum pudding can with too much force. It rolled. It would
fall int the street right by the side door. We ran back to our scraping;
but the elevator cables were moving. Scraping furiously, but hoping anyway;
cables glimmering up, and then the rust spot that meant that the elevator
was a floor away. Tall hat appearing. Their face, chest, arms; still, we
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Chapters One to Three
Chapters Six to Eight
Chapters Eleven and Twelve Next
Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen and the Remainder
Tiffany Thayer's Prologue, Notes, and Epilogue
Extracts from Wild Talents
Raymond N. Fort's Recollections of Charles Hoy Fort
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