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 During the year 1890 I had been my first dim notion as to what it was I wanted to do in life. For two years and more I had been reading Eugene Field’s “Sharps and Flats,” a column he wrote daily for the Chicago Daily News, and through this, the various phases of life which he suggested in a humorous though at times romantic way, I was beginning to suspect, at first, that I wanted to write, possibly something like that. Nothing else that I had so far read—novels, plays, poems, histories—gave me quite the same feeling for thought as did the matter of his daily notes, poems, and , which were of Chicago principally, whereas nearly all others dealt with foreign scenes and people.  
But this comment on local life here and now, these bits on local street scenes, institutions, characters, functions, all moved me as nothing hitherto had. To me Chicago at this time with a peculiarly human or realistic atmosphere. It is given to some cities, as to some lands, to suggest romance, and to me Chicago did that hourly. It sang, I thought, and in spite of what I deemed my various troubles—small enough as I now see them—I was singing with it. These seemingly drear neighborhoods through which I walked each day, doing collecting for an easy-payment furniture company, these regions of large homes where new-wealthy packers and manufacturers dwelt, these foreign neighborhoods of almost all nationalities; and, lastly, that great downtown area, surrounded on two sides by the river, on the east by the lake, and on the south by railroad yards and stations, the whole set with these new tall buildings, the wonder of the western world, fascinated me. Chicago was so young, so , so new, I thought. Florence in its best days must have been something like this to young Florentines, or Venice to the young Venetians.
Here was a city which had no traditions but was making them, and this was the very thing that every one seemed to understand and rejoice in. Chicago was like no other city in the world, so said they all. Chicago would every other American city, New York included, and become the first of all American, if not European or world, cities.... This dream many hundreds of thousands of its citizens held dear. Chicago would be first in wealth, first in beauty, first in art achievement. A great World’s Fair was even then being planned that would bring people from all over the world. The , the new Great Northern Hotel, the amazing (for its day) Masonic Temple twenty-two stories high, a score of public institutions, , theaters and the like, were being constructed. It is something wonderful to witness a world springing up under one’s very eyes, and this is what was happening here before me.
Nosing about the city in an inquiring way and dreaming half-formed dreams of one and another thing I would like to do, it finally came to me, dimly, like a bean that strains at its shell, that I would like to write of these things. It would be interesting, so I thought, to describe a place like Goose Island in the Chicago River, a mucky and neglected realm then covered with made of upturned boats sawed in two, and yet which seemed to me the height of the ; also a building like the Auditorium or the Masonic Temple, that vast wall of twenty-two stories high and at that time actually the largest building in the world; or a pit like that of the Board of Trade, which I had once visited and which astonished and fascinated me as much as anything ever had. That roaring, yelling, screaming whirlpool of life! And then the lake, with its pure white sails and its blue water; the Chicago River, with its black, oily water, its tall grain elevators and black coal pockets; the great railroad yards, covering miles and miles of space with their cars.
How wonderful it all was! As I walked from place to place collecting I began betimes to , vaguely word-pictures or rhapsodies anent these same and many other things—free verse, I suppose we should call it now—which concerned everything and nothing but somehow expressed the seething poetry of my soul and this thing to me. Indeed I was crazy with life, a little demented or with romance and hope. I wanted to sing, to dance, to eat, to love. My word-dreams and maunderings concerned my day, my age, poverty, hope, beauty, which I mouthed to myself, chanting aloud at times. Sometimes, because on a number of occasions I had heard the Reverend Frank W. Gunsaulus and his like rocket-like sputterings on the subjects of life and religion, I would orate, pleading great causes as I went. I imagined myself a great with thousands of people before me, my gestures and and thought perfect, , and all my hearers moved to tears or of wild delight.
After a time I ventured to commit some of these things to paper, scarcely knowing what they were, and in a fever for self-advancement I bundled them up and sent them to Eugene Field. In his column and elsewhere I had read about geniuses being occasionally discovered by some chance composition or work by one in authority. I waited for a time, with great interest but no vast depression, to see what my fate would be. But no word came and in time I realized that they must have been very bad and had been dropped into the nearest waste basket. But this did not give me pause nor grieve me. I seethed to express myself. I bubbled. I dreamed. And I had a singing feeling, now that I had done this much, that some day I should really write and be very famous into the bargain.
But how? How? My feeling was that I ought to get into newspaper work, and yet this feeling was so nebulous that I thought it would never come to pass. I saw mention in the papers of reporters calling to find out this, or being sent to do that, and so the idea of becoming a reporter gradually formulated itself in my mind, though how I was to get such a place I had not the slightest idea. Perhaps reporters had to have a special training of some kind; maybe they had to begin as clerks behind a counter, and this made me very , for those glowing business offices always seemed so far removed from anything to which I could . Most of them were ornate, floreate, with onyx or chalcedony wall trimmings, flambeaux of bronze or on the walls, imitation mother-of-pearl lights in the ceilings—in short, all the gorgeousness of a sultan’s court brought to the outer counter where people or paid for ads. Because the newspapers were always with signs and wonders, great functions, great commercial schemes, great tragedies and pleasures, I began to conceive of them as wonderlands in which all concerned were prosperous and happy. I painted reporters and newspaper men generally as receiving salaries, being sent on the most urgent and interesting missions. I think I confused, inextricably, reporters with ambassadors and prominent men generally. Their lives were laid among great people, the rich, the famous, the powerful; and because of their position and facility of expression and mental force they were received everywhere as equals. Think of me, new, young, poor, being received in that way!
Imagine then my intense delight one day, when, scanning the “Help Wanted: Male” columns of the Chicago , I encountered an advertisement which ran (in substance):
Wanted: A number of bright young men to assist in the business department during the Christmas holidays. possible. Apply to Business Manager between 9 and 10 a.m.
“Here,” I thought as I read it, “is just the thing I am looking for. Here is this great paper, one of the most prosperous in Chicago, and here is an opening for me. If I can only get this my fortune is made. I shall rise rapidly.” I conceived of myself as being sent off the same day, as it were, on some brilliant mission and returning, somehow, covered with glory.
I hurried to the office of the Herald, in Washington Street near Fifth Avenue, this same morning, and asked to see the business manager. After a short wait I was permitted to enter the of this great person, who to me, because of the material of the front office, seemed to be the equal of a millionaire at least. He was tall, , dark, his full black whiskers parted aristocratically in the middle of his chin, his eyes vague pools of . “See what a wonderful thing it is to be connected with the newspaper business!” I told myself.
“I saw your ad in this morning’s paper,” I said hopefully.
“Yes, I did want a half dozen young men,” he replied, beaming upon me , “but I think I have nearly enough. Most of the young men that come here seem to think they are to be connected with the Herald direct, but the fact is we want them only for clerks in our free Christmas gift bureau. They have to judge whether or not the are impostors and keep people from on the paper. The work will only be for a week or ten days, but you will probably earn ten or twelve dollars in that time——” My heart sank. “After the first of the year, if you take it, you may come around to see me. I may have something for you.”
When he of the free Christmas gift bureau I vaguely understood what he meant. For weeks past, the Herald had been conducting a campaign for gifts for the poorest children of the city. It had been the rich and the moderately comfortable to give, through the medium of its scheme, which was a bureau for the free distribution of all such things as could be gathered via cash or direct donation of supplies: toys, clothing, even food, for children.
“But I wanted to become a reporter if I could,” I suggested.
“Well,” he said, with a wave of his hand, “this is as good a way as any other. When this is over I may be able to introduce you to our city editor.” The title, “city editor,” mystified and me. It sounded so big and significant.
This offer was far from what I anticipated, but I took it . Thus to step from one job to another, however brief, and one with such , seemed the greatest luck in the world. For by now I was nearly hypochondriacal on the subjects of poverty, loneliness, the want of the creature comforts and pleasures of life. The thought of having enough to eat and to wear and to do had something of paradise about it. Some previous long and fruitless searches for work had marked me with a horror of being without it.
I about to the Herald’s Christmas , as it was called, a building in Fifth Avenue between Madison and Monroe, and reported to a brisk underling in charge of the out of these to the poor. Without a word he put me behind the single long counter which ran across the front of the room and over which were handled all those toys and Christmas pleasure pieces which a loud tomtoming concerning the need of the poor and the proper Christmas spirit had produced.
Life certainly offers some amusing at times, and that with that gay which life alone can and achieve when it is at its worst anachronistically. Here was I, a victim of what would look upon as wage slavery and economic robbery, quite as , I am sure, of gifts as any other, and yet lined up with fifteen or twenty other economic victims, ragamuffin souls like myself, all out of jobs, many of them out at elbows, and all of them doling out gifts from eight-thirty in the morning until eleven and twelve at night to people no worse off than themselves.
I wish you might have seen this as I saw it for eight or nine days just preceding and including Christmas day itself. (Yes; we worked from eight a.m. to five-thirty p.m. on Christmas day, and very glad to get the money, thank you.) There poured in here from the day the bureau opened, which was the morning I called, and until it closed Christmas night, as diverse an of poverty-stricken souls as one would want to see. I do not say that many of them were not deserving; I am willing to believe that most of them were; but, deserving or no, they were still worthy of all they received here. Indeed when I think of the many who came miles, carrying slips of paper on which had been listed, as per the advice of this paper, all they wished Santa Claus to bring them or their children, and then recall that, for all their pains in having their minister or doctor or the Herald itself visé their request, they received only a fraction of what they sought, I am inclined to think that all were even more deserving than their reward indicated.
For the whole scheme, as I soon found in talking with others and seeing for myself how it worked, was most loosely managed. Endless varieties of toys and comforts had been talked about in the paper, but only a few of the things promised, or vaguely indicated, were here to give—for the very good reason that no one would give them for nothing to the Herald. Nor had any sensible plan been devised for checking up either the gifts given or the persons who had received them, and so the same person, as some of these soon discovered, could come over and over, bearing different lists of toys, and get them, or at least a part of them, until some clerk with a better eye for faces than another would chance to recognize the and point him or her out. Jews, the fox-like Slavic type of course, and the poor Irish, were the worst in this respect. The Herald was supposed to have kept all applications written by children to Santa Claus, but it had not done so, and so hundreds claimed that they had written letters and received no answer. At the end of the second or third day before Christmas it was found necessary, because of the confusion and , to throw the doors wide open and give to all and who looked worthy of whatever was left or “handy,” we, the ragamuffin clerks, being the judges.
And now the clerks themselves, seeing that no records were kept and how without plan the whole thing was, notified poor relatives and friends, and these upon us with baskets, expecting candy, turkeys, suits of clothing and the like, but receiving instead only toy , toy stoves, baby brooms, Noah’s Arks, story books—the shabbiest mess of cheap things one could imagine. For the newspaper, true to that canon of commerce which demands the most for the least, the greatest show for the least money, had gathered all the and ends and left-overs of toy bargain sales and had dumped them into the large above, to be out as best we could. We could not give a much-desired article to any one person because, supposing it were there, which was rarely the case, we could not get at it or find it; yet later another person might apply and receive the very thing the other had wanted.
And we clerks, going out to lunch or dinner (save the mark!), would seek some scrubby little restaurant and eat ham and beans, or crullers and coffee, or some other tasteless dish, at ten or fifteen cents per head. Hard luck stories, comments on what a botch the Herald gift bureau was, on the strange characters that showed up—the Niobes and dusty Priams, with eyes too sunken and too dry for tears—were the order of the day. Here I met a young newspaper man, gloomy, out at elbows, who told me what a wretched, pathetic struggle the newspaper world presented, but I did not believe him although he had worked in Chicago, Denver, St. Paul.
“A poor failure,” I thought, “some one who can’t write and who now and wastes his substance in living when he has it!”
So much for the sympathy of the poor for the poor.
But the Herald was doing very well. Daily it was filling its pages with the splendid results of its charity, the poor relieved, the darkling homes restored to gayety and .... Can you beat it? But it was good , and that was all the Herald wanted.
Hey, Rub-a-dub! Hey, Rub-a-dub-dub!

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