By Irvin S. Cobb
To G. H. L.
Who stood godfather to these contents
This Space To-Let to Any Reputable Party Desiring a Good Preface
I. Tummies II. Teeth III. Hair IV. Hands and feet
Dr. Woods Hutchinson says that fat people are happier than other people. How does Dr. Woods Hutchinson know? Did he ever have to leave the two top buttons of his vest unfastened on account of his extra chins? Has the pressure from within against the waistband where the watchfob is located ever been so great in his case that he had partially to undress himself to find out what time it was? Does he have to take the tailor's word for it that his trousers need pressing?
He does not. And that sort of a remark is only what might be expected from any person upward of seven feet tall and weighing about ninety-eight pounds with his heavy underwear on. I shall freely take Dr. Woods Hutchinson's statements on the joys and ills of the thin. But when he undertakes to tell me that fat people are happier than thin people, it is only hearsay evidence with him and decline to accept his statements unchallenged. He is going outside of his class. He is, as you might say, no more than an innocent bystander. Whereas I am a qualified authority.
I will admit that at one stage of my life, I regarded fleshiness as a desirable asset. The incident came about in this way. There was a circus showing in our town and a number of us proposed to attend it. It was one of those one-ring, ten-cent circuses that used to go about over the country, and it is my present recollection that all of us had funds laid by sufficient to buy tickets; but if we could procure admission in the regular way we felt it would be a sinful waste of money to pay our way in.
With this idea in mind we went scouting round back of the main tent to a comparatively secluded spot, and there we found a place where the canvas side-wall lifted clear of the earth for a matter of four or five inches. We held an informal caucus to decide who should should go first. The honor lay between two of us—between the present writer, who was reasonably skinny, and another boy, named Thompson, who was even skinnier. He won, as the saying is, on form. It was decided by practically a unanimous vote, he alone dissenting, that he should crawl under and see how the land lay inside. If everything was all right he would make it known by certain signals and we would then follow, one by one.
Two of us lifted the canvas very gently and this Thompson boy started to wriggle under. He was about halfway in when—zip!—like a flash he bodily vanished. He was gone, leaving only the marks where his toes had gouged the soil. Startled, we looked at one another. There was something peculiar about this. Here was a boy who had started into a circus tent in a circumspect, indeed, a highly cautious manner, and then finished the trip with undue and sudden precipitancy. It was more than peculiar—it bordered upon the uncanny. It was sinister. Without a word having been spoken we decided to go away from there.
Wearing expressions of intense unconcern and sterling innocence upon our young faces we did go away from there and drifted back in the general direction of the main entrance. We arrived just in time to meet our young friend coming out. He came hurriedly, using his hands and his feet both, his feet for traveling and his hands for rubbing purposes. Immediately behind him was a large, coarse man using language that stamped him as a man who had outgrown the spirit of youth and was preeminently out of touch with the ideals and aims of boyhood.
At that period it seemed to me and to the Thompson boy, who was moved to speak feelingly on the subject, and in fact to all of us, that excessive slimness might have its drawbacks. Since that time several of us have had occasion to change our minds. With the passage of years we have fleshened up, and now we know better. The last time I saw the Thompson boy he was known as Excess-Baggage Thompson. His figure in profile suggested a man carrying a roll-top desk in his arms and his face looked like a face that had refused to jell and was about to run down on his clothes. He spoke longingly of the days of his youth and wondered if the shape of his knees had changed much since the last time he saw them.
Yes sir, no matter what Doctor Hutchinson says, I contend that the slim man has all the best of it in this world. The fat man is the universal goat; he is humanity's standing joke. Stomachs are the curse of our modern civilization. When a man gets a stomach his troubles begin. If you doubt this ask any fat man—I started to say ask any fat woman, too. Only there aren't any fat women to speak of. There are women who are plump and will admit it; there are even women who are inclined to be stout. But outside of dime museums there are no fat women. But there are plenty of fat men. Ask one of them. Ask any one of them. Ask me.
This thing of acquiring a tummy steals on one insidiously, like a thief in the night. You notice that you are plumping out a trifle and for the time being you feel a sort of small personal satisfaction in it. Your shirts fit you better. You love the slight strain upon the buttonholes. You admire the pleasant plunking sound suggestive of ripe watermelons when you pat yourself. Then a day comes when the persuasive odor of mothballs fills the autumnal air and everybody at the barber shop is having the back of his neck shaved also, thus betokening awakened social activities, and when evening is at hand you take the dress-suit, which fitted you so well, out of the closet where it has been hanging and undertake to back yourself into it. You are pained to learn that it is about three sizes too small. At first you are inclined to blame the suit for shrinking, but second thought convinces you that the fault lies elsewhere. It is you that have swollen, not the suit that has shrunk. The buttons that should adorn the front of the coat are now plainly visible from the rear.
You buy another dress-suit and next fall you have out-grown that one too. You pant like a lizard when you run to catch a car. You cross your legs and have to hold the crossed one on with both hands to keep your stomach from shoving it off in space. After a while you quit crossing them and are content with dawdling yourself on your own lap. You are fat! Dog-gone it—you are fat!
You are up against it and it is up against you, which is worse. You are something for people to laugh at. You are also expected to laugh. It is all right for a thin man to be grouchy; people will say the poor creature has dyspepsia and should be humored along. But a fat man with a grouch is inexcusable in any company—there is so much of him to be grouchy. He constitutes a wave of discontent and a period of general depression. He is not expected to be romantic and sentimental either. It is all right for a giraffe to be sentimental, but not a hippopotamus. If you doubt me consult any set of natural history pictures. The giraffe is shown with his long and sinuous neck entwined in fond embrace about the neck of his mate; but the amphibious, blood-sweating hippo is depicted as spouting and wallowing, morose and misanthropic, in a mud puddle off by himself. In passing I may say that I regard this comparison as a particularly apt one, because I know of no living creature so truly amphibious in hot weather as an open-pored fat man, unless it is a hippopotamus.
Oh how true is the saying that nobody loves a fat man! When fat comes up on the front porch love jumps out of the third-story window. Love in a cottage? Yes. Love in a rendering plant? No. A fat man's heart is supposed to lie so far inland that the softer emotions cannot reach it at all. Yet the fattest are the truest, if you did but know it, and also they are the tenderest and a man with a double chin rarely leads a double life. For one thing, it requires too much moving round.
A fat man cannot wear the clothes he would like to wear. As a race fat men are fond of bright and cheerful colors; but no fat man can indulge his innocent desires in this direction without grieving his family and friends and exciting the derisive laughter of the unthinking. If he puts on a fancy-flowered vest, they'll say he looks like a Hanging Garden of Babylon. And yet he has a figure just made for showing off a fancy-flowered vest to best effect. He may favor something in light checks for his spring suit; but if he ventures abroad in a checked suit, ribald strangers will look at him meaningly and remark to one another that the center of population appears to be shifting again. It has been my observation that fat men are instinctively drawn to short tan overcoats for the early fall. But a fat man in a short tan overcoat, strolling up the avenue of a sunny afternoon, will be constantly overhearing persons behind him wondering why they didn't wait until night to move the bank vault. That irks him sore; but if he turns round to reproach them he is liable to shove an old lady or a poor blind man off the sidewalk, and then, like as not, some gamin will sing out: "Hully gee, Chimmy, wot's become of the rest of the parade? 'Ere's the bass drum goin' home all by itself."
I've known of just such remarks being made and I assure you they cut a sensitive soul to the core. Not for the fat man are the snappy clothes for varsity men and the patterns called by the tailors confined because that is what they should be but aren't. Not for him the silken shirt with the broad stripes. Shirts with stripes that were meant to run vertically but are caused to run horizontally, by reasons over which the wearer has no control, remind others of the awning over an Italian grocery. So the fat man must stick to sober navy blues and depressing blacks and melancholy grays. He is advised that he should wear his evening clothes whenever possible, because black and white lines are more becoming to him. But even in evening clothes, that wide expanse of glazed shirt and those white enamel studs will put the onlookers in mind of the front end of a dairy lunch or so I have been cruelly told.
When planning public utilities, who thinks of a fat man? There never was a hansom cab made that would hold a fat man comfortably unless he left the doors open, and that makes him feel undressed. There never was an orchestra seat in a theater that would contain all of him at the same time—he churns up and sloshes out over the sides. Apartment houses and elevators and hotel towels are all constructed upon the idea that the world is populated by stock-size people with those double-A-last shapes.
Take a Pullman car, for instance. One of the saddest sights known is that of a fat man trying to undress on one of those closet shelves called upper berths without getting hopelessly entangled in the hammock or committing suicide by hanging himself with his own suspenders. And after that, the next most distressing sight is the same fat man after he has undressed and is lying there, spouting like a sperm-whale and overflowing his reservation like a crock of salt-rising dough in a warm kitchen, and wondering how he can turn over without bulging the side of the car and maybe causing a wreck. Ah me, those dark green curtains with the overcoat buttons on them hide many a distressful spectacle from the traveling public!
If a fat man undertakes to reduce nobody sympathizes with him. A thin man trying to fatten up so he won't fall all the way through his trousers when he draws 'em on in the morning is an object of sympathy and of admiration, and people come from miles round and give him advice about how to do it. But suppose a fat man wants to train down to a point where, when he goes into a telephone booth and says "Ninety-four Broad," the spectators will know he is trying to get a number and not telling his tailor what his waist measure is.
Is he greeted with sympathetic understanding? He is not. He is greeted with derision and people stand round and gloat at him. The authorities recommend health exercises, but health exercises are almost invariably undignified in effect and wearing besides. Who wants to greet the dewy morn by lying flat on his back and lifting his feet fifty times? What kind of a way is that to greet the dewy morn anyhow? And bending over with the knees stiff and touching the tips of the toes with the tips of the fingers—that's no employment for a grown man with a family to support and a position to maintain in society. Besides which it cannot be done. I make the statement unequivocally and without fear of successful contradiction that it cannot be done. And if it could be done—which as I say it can't—there would be no real pleasure in touching a set of toes that one has known of only by common rumor for years. Those toes are the same as strangers to you—you knew they were in the neighborhood, of course, but you haven't been intimate with them.
Maybe you try dieting, which is contrary to nature. Nature intended that a fat man should eat heartily, else why should she endow him with the capacity and the accommodations. Starving in the midst of plenty is not for him who has plenty of midst. Nature meant that a fat man should have an appetite and that he should gratify it at regular intervals—meant that he should feel like the Grand Canyon before dinner and like the Royal Gorge afterward. Anyhow, dieting for a fat man consists in not eating anything that's fit to eat. The specialist merely tells him to eat what a horse would eat and has the nerve to charge him for what he could have found out for himself at any livery stable. Of course he might bant in the same way that a woman bants. You know how a woman bants. She begins the day very resolutely, and if you are her husband you want to avoid irritating her or upsetting her, because hell hath no fury like a woman banting. For breakfast she takes a swallow of lukewarm water and half of a soda cracker. For luncheon she takes the other half of the cracker and leaves off the water. For dinner she orders everything on the menu except the date and the name of the proprietor. She does this in order to give her strength to go on with the treatment.
No fat man would diet that way; but no matter which way he does diet it doesn't do him any good. Health exercises only make him muscle-sore and bring on what the Harvard ball team call the Charles W. Horse; while banting results in attacks of those kindred complaints—the Mollie K. Grubbs and the Fan J. Todds.
Walking is sometimes recommended and the example of the camel is pointed out, the camel being a creature that can walk for days and days. But, as has been said by some thinking person, who in thunder wants to be a camel? The subject of horseback riding is also brought up frequently in this connection. It is one of the commonest delusions among fat men that horseback riding will bring them down and make them sylphlike and willowy. I have several fat men among my lists of acquaintances who labor under this fallacy. None of them was ever a natural-born horseback rider; none of them ever will be. I like to go out of a bright morning and take a comfortable seat on a park bench—one park bench is plenty roomy enough if nobody else is using it—and sit there and watch these unhappy persons passing single file along the bridle-path. I sit there and gloat until by rights I ought to be required to take out a gloater's license.
Mind you, I have no prejudice against horseback riding as such. Horseback riding is all right for mounted policemen and Colonel W. F. Cody and members of the Stickney family and the party who used to play Mazeppa in the sterling drama of that name. That is how those persons make their living. They are suited for it and acclimated to it. It is also all right for equestrian statues of generals in the Civil War. But it is not a fit employment for a fat man and especially for a fat man who insists on trying to ride a hard-trotting horse English style, which really isn't riding at all when you come right down to cases, but an outdoor cure for neurasthenia invented, I take it, by a British subject who was nervous himself and hated to stay long in one place. So, as I was saying, I sit there on my comfortable park bench and watch those friends of mine bouncing by, each wearing on his face that set expression which is seen also on the faces of some men while waltzing, and on the faces of most women when entertaining their relatives by marriage. I have one friend who is addicted to this form of punishment in a violent, not to say a malignant form. He uses for his purpose a tall and self-willed horse of the Tudor period—a horse with those high dormer effects and a sloping mansard. This horse must have been raised, I think, in the knockabout song-and-dance business. Every time he hears music or thinks he hears it he stops and vamps with his feet. When he does this my friend bends forward and clutches him round the neck tightly. I think he is trying to whisper in the horse's ear and beg him in Heaven's name to forbear; but what he looks like is Santa Claus with a clean shave, sitting on the combing of a very steep house with his feet hanging over the eaves, peeking down the chimney to see if the children are asleep yet. When that horse dies he will still have finger marks on his throat and the authorities will suspect foul play probably.
Once I tried it myself. I was induced to scale the heights of a horse that was built somewhat along the general idea of the Andes Mountains, only more rugged and steeper nearing the crest. From the ground he looked to be not more than sixteen hands high, but as soon as I was up on top of him I immediately discerned that it was not sixteen hands—it was sixteen miles. What I had taken for the horse's blaze face was a snow-capped peak. Miss Anna Peck might have felt at home up there, because she has had the experience and is used to that sort of thing, but I am no mountain climber myself.
Before I could make any move to descend to the lower and less rarefied altitudes the horse began executing a few fancy steps, and he started traveling sidewise with a kind of a slanting bias movement that was extremely disconcerting, not to say alarming, instead of proceeding straight ahead as a regular horse would. I clung there astraddle of his ridge pole, with my fingers twined in his mane, trying to anticipate where he would be next, in order to be there to meet him if possible; and I resolved right then that, if Providence in His wisdom so willed it that I should get down from up there alive, I would never do so again. However, I did not express these longings in words—not at that time. At that time there were only two words in the English language which seemed to come to me. One of them was "Whoa" and the other was "Ouch," and I spoke them alternately with such rapidity that they merged into the compound word "Whouch," which is a very expressive word and one that I would freely recommend to others who may be situated as I was.
At that moment, of all the places in the world that I could think of—and I could think of a great many because the events of my past life were rapidly flashing past me—as is customary, I am told, in other cases of grave peril, such as drowning—I say of all the places in the world there were just two where I least desired to be—one was up on top of that horse and the other was down under him. But it seemed to be a choice of the two evils, and so I chose the lesser and got under him. I did this by a simple expedient that occurred to me at the moment. I fell off. I was tramped on considerably, and the earth proved to be harder than it looked when viewed from an approximate height of sixteen miles up, but I lived and breathed—or at least I breathed after a time had elapsed—and I was satisfied. And so, having gone through this experience myself, I am in position to appreciate what any other man of my general build is going through as I see him bobbing by—the poor martyr, sacrificing himself as a burnt offering, or anyway a blistered one—on the high altar of a Gothic ruin of a horse. And, besides, I know that riding a horse doesn't reduce a fat man. It merely reduces the horse.
So it goes—the fat man is always up against it. His figure is half-masted in regretful memory of the proportions he had once, and he is made to mourn. Most sports and many gainful pursuits are closed against him. He cannot play lawn tennis, or, at least according to my observation, he cannot play lawn tennis oftener than once in two weeks. In between games he limps round, stiff as a hat tree and sore as a mashed thumb. Time was when he might mingle in the mystic mazes of the waltz, tripping the light fantastic toe or stubbing it, as the case may be. But that was in the days of the old-fashioned square dance, which was the fat man's friend among dances, and also of the old-fashioned two-step, and not in these times when dancing is a cross between a wrestling match, a contortion act and a trip on a roller-coaster, and is either named for an animal, like the Bunny Hug and the Tarantula Glide, or for a town, like the Mobile Mop-Up, and the Far Rockaway Rock and the South Bend Bend. His friends would interfere—or the authorities would. He can go in swimming, it is true; but if he turns over and floats, people yell out that somebody has set the life raft adrift; and if he basks at the water's edge, boats will come in and try to dock alongside him; and if he takes a sun bath on the beach and sunburns, there's so everlasting much of him to be sunburned that he practically amounts to a conflagration. He can't shoot rapids, craps or big game with any degree of comfort; nor play billiards. He can't get close enough to the table to make the shots, and he puts all the English on himself and none of it on the cue ball.
Consider the gainful pursuits. Think how many of them are denied to the man who may have energy and ability but is shut out because there are a few extra terraces on his front lawn. A fat man cannot be a leading man in a play. Nobody desires a fat hero for a novel. A fat man cannot go in for aeroplaning. He cannot be a wire-walker or a successful walker of any of the other recognized brands—track, cake, sleep or floor. He doesn't make a popular waiter. Nobody wants a fat waiter on a hot day. True, you may make him bring your order under covered dishes, but even so, there is still that suggestion of rain on a tin roof that is distasteful to so many.
So I repeat that fat people are always getting the worst of it, and I say again, of all the ills that flesh is heir to, the worst is the flesh itself. As the poet says—"The world, the flesh and the devil"—and there you have it in a sentence—the flesh in between, catching the devil on one side and the jeers of the world on the other. I don't care what Dr. Woods Hutchinson or any other thin man says! I contend that history is studded with instances of prominent persons who lost out because they got fat. Take Cleopatra now, the lady to whom Marc Antony said: "I am dying, Egypt, dying," and then refrained from doing so for about nineteen more stanzas. Cleo or Pat—she was known by both names, I hear—did fairly well as a queen, as a coquette and as a promoter of excursions on the river—until she fleshened up. Then she flivvered. Doctor Johnson was a fat man and he suffered from prickly heat, and from Boswell, and from the fact that he couldn't eat without spilling most of the gravy on his second mezzanine landing. As a thin and spindly stripling Napoleon altered the map of Europe and stood many nations on their heads. It was after he had grown fat and pursy that he landed on St. Helena and spent his last days on a barren rock, with his arms folded, posing for steel engravings. Nero was fat, and he had a lot of hard luck in keeping his relatives—they were almost constantly dying on him and he finally had to stab himself with one of those painful-looking old Roman two-handed swords, lest something really serious befall him. Falstaff was fat, and he lost the favor of kings in the last act. Coming down to our own day and turning to a point no farther away than the White House at Washington—but have we not enough examples without becoming personal? Yes, I know Julius Caesar said: "Let me have men about me that are fat." But you bet it wasn't in the heated period when J. Caesar said that!
One of the most pleasant features about being born, as I conceive it, is that we are born without teeth. I believe there have been a few exceptions to this rule—Richard the Third, according to the accounts, came into the world equipped with all his teeth and a perfectly miserable disposition; and once in a while, especially during Roosevelt years, when the Colonel's picture is hanging on the walls of so many American homes, we read in the paper that a baby has just been born somewhere with a full set, and even, as in the case of the infant son of a former member of the Rough Riders, with nose glasses and a close-cropped mustache. This, however, may have been a pardonable exaggeration of the real facts. As I recall now, it was reported in a dispatch to the New York Tribune from Lover's Leap, Iowa, during the presidential campaign eight years ago.
In the main, though, we are born without teeth. We are born without a number of things—clothes for example—although Anthony Comstock is said to be pushing a law requiring all children to be born with overalls on; but teeth is the subject which we are now discussing. This absence of teeth tends to give the very young of our species the appearance in the face of an old fashioned buckskin purse with the draw string broken, but be that as it may, we are generally fairly well content with life until the teeth begin to come.
First there are the milk teeth. Right there our troubles start. To use the term commonly in use, we cut them, although as a matter of fact, they cut us—cut them with the aid of some such mussy thing as a toothing ring or the horny part of the nurse's thumb, or the reverse side of a spoon—cut them at the cost of infinite suffering, not only for ourselves but for everybody else in the vicinity. And about the time we get the last one in we begin to lose the first one out. They go one at a time, by falling out, or by being yanked out, or by coming out of their own accord when we eat molasses taffy. They were merely what you might call our Entered Apprentice teeth. We go in now for the full thirty-two degrees—one degree for each tooth and thirty-two teeth to a set. By arduous and painful processes, stretching over a period of years, we get our regular teeth—the others were only volunteers—concluding with the wisdom teeth, as so called, but it is a misnomer, because there never is room for them and they have to stand up in the back row and they usually arrive with holes in them, and if we really possessed any wisdom we would figure out some way of abolishing them altogether. They come late and crowd their way in and push the other teeth out of line and so we go about for months with the top of our mouths filled with braces and wires and things, so that when we breathe hard we sob and croon inside of ourselves like an Aeolean harp.
But in any event we get them all and no sooner do we get them than we begin to lose them. They develop cavities and aches and extra roots and we spend a good part of our lives and most of our substance with the dentist. Nevertheless, in spite of all we can do and all he can do, we keep on losing them. And after awhile, they are all gone and our face folds up on us like a crush hat or a concertina and from our brow to our chin we don't look much more than a third as long as we used to look. We dislike this folded-up appearance naturally—who wouldn't? And we get tired of living on spoon victuals and the memory of past beef-steaks. So we go and get some false ones made. They have to be made to order; there appears to be no market for custom made teeth; you never see any hand-me-down teeth advertised, guaranteed to fit any face and withstand a damp climate. Getting them made to order is a long and unhappy process and I will pass over it briefly. Having got them, we find that they do not fit us or that we do not fit them, which comes to the same thing. The dentist makes them fit by altering us some and the teeth some, and after some months they quit feeling as though they didn't belong to us but had been borrowed temporarily from somebody's loan collection of ceramics.
But just about the time they are becoming acclimated and we are getting used to them, the interior of our mouth for private reasons best known to itself changes around materially and we either have to go back and start all over and go through the whole thing again, or else haply we die and pass on to the bourne from which no traveller returneth either with his teeth or without them. If Shakespeare had only thought of it—and he did think of a number of things from time to time—he might have divided his Seven Ages of Man much better by making them the Seven Ages of Teeth as follows: First age—no tooth; second age—milk teeth; third age—losing 'em; fourth age—getting more teeth; fifth age—losing 'em; sixth age—getting false teeth and finding they aren't satisfactory; seventh age—toothless again.
I knew a man once who was a gunsmith and lost all his teeth at a comparatively early age. He went along that way for years. He had to eschew the tenderloin for the reason that he couldn't chew it, and he had to cut out hickory nut cake and corn on the ear and such things. But there is nothing about the art of gunsmithing which seems to call for teeth, so he got along very well, living in a little house with the wife of his bosom and a faithful housedog named Ponto. But when he was past sixty he went and got himself some teeth from the dentist. He did this without saying anything about it at home; he was treasuring it up for a surprise. The corner stone was laid in May and the scaffolding was all up by July and in August the new teeth were dedicated with suitable ceremonies.
They altered his appearance materially. His nose and chin which had been on terms of intimacy now rubbed each other a last fond good-bye and his face lost that accordion-pleated look and straightened out and became about six or seven inches longer from top to bottom. He now had a sort of determined aspect like the iron jawed lady in a circus, whereas before his face had the appearance of being folded over and wadded down inside of his neck band, so his hat could rest comfortably on his collar. He knew he was altered, but he didn't realize how much he was altered until he went home that evening and walked proudly in the front gate. His wife who was timid about strangers, slammed the door right in his face and faithful Ponto came out from under the porch steps and bit him severely in the calf of the leg. There was only one consolation in it for him—for the first time in a long number of years he was in position to bite back.
And that's how it is with teeth—with your teeth let us say—for right here I'm going to drop the personal pronoun and speak of them as your teeth from now on. If anybody has to suffer it might as well be you and not me; I expect to be busy telling about it. As I started to say awhile ago, you—remember it's you from this point—you get your regular teeth and they start right in giving you trouble. Every little while one of them bursts from its cell with a horrible yell and in the lulls between pangs you go forth among men with the haunted look in your eye of one who is listening for the footfalls of a dread apparition, and one half of your head is puffed out of plumb as though you were engaged in the whimsical idea of holding an egg plant in the side of your jaw. A kind friend meets you, and, speaking with that high courage and that lofty spirit of sacrifice which a kind friend always exhibits when it's your tooth that is kicking up the rumpus and not his, he tells you you ought to have something done for it right away. You know that as well as he does, but you hate to have the subject brought up. It's your toothache anyhow. It originated with you. You are its proud parent but not so awfully proud at that. Mother and child doing as well as could be expected, but not expected to do very well.
But these friends of yours keep on shoving their free advice on you and the tooth keeps on getting worse and worse until the pain spreads all through the First Ward and finally you grab your resolution in both hands to keep it from leaking out between your fingers and you go to the dentist's.
This happens so many times that after awhile you lose count and so would the dentist, if he didn't write your name down every time in his little red book with pleasingly large amounts entered opposite to it. It seems to you that you are always doing something for your teeth? You have them pulled and pushed and shoved and filled and unfilled and refilled and excavated and blasted and sculptured and scroll-sawed and a lot of other things that you wouldn't think could be done legally without a building permit. As time passes on, the inside of your once well-tilled and commodious head becomes but little more than a recent site. Your vaults have been blown and most of your contents abstracted by Amalgam Mike and Dental Slim, the Demon Yeggmen of the Human Face. You are merely the scattered clews left behind for the authorities to work on; you are the faint traces of the fiendish crime. You are the point marked X.
But all along there is generally one tooth that has behaved herself like a lady. Other teeth may have betrayed your confidence but Old Faithful has hung on, attending to business, asking only for standing room and kind treatment. The others you may view with alarm, but to this tooth you can point with pride. But have a care—she is deceiving you.
Some night you go to bed and have a dream. In your dream it seems to you that a fox terrier is chasing a woodchuck around and around the inside of your head. In that tangled sort of fashion peculiar to dreams your sympathy seems to go out first to the fox terrier and then to the woodchuck as they circle about nimbly, leaping from your tonsils to your larynx and then up over the rafters in the roof of your mouth and down again and pattering over the sub-maxillary from side to side. But about then you wake up with a violent start and decide that any sympathy you may have in stock should be reserved for personal use exclusively, because at this moment the dog trees the woodchuck at the base of that cherished tooth of yours and starts to dig him out. He is a very determined dog and very active, but he needs a manicure. You are struck by that fact almost immediately.
Uttering some of those trite and commonplace remarks that are customary for use under such circumstances and yet are so futile to express one's real sentiments, you arise and undertake to pacify the infuriated creature with household remedies. You try to lure him away with a wad of medicated cotton stuck on the end of a parlor match. But arnica is evidently an acquired taste with him. He doesn't seem to care for it any more than you do. You begin to dress, using one hand to put your clothes on with and the other to hold the top of your head on. At this important juncture, the dog tears down the last remaining partitions and nails the woodchuck. The woodchuck is game—say what you will about the habits and customs of the woodchuck you have to hand it to him there—he's game as a lion. He fights back desperately. Intense excitement reigns throughout the vicinity. While the struggle wages you get your clothes on and wait for daylight to come, which it does in from eight to ten weeks. Norway is not the only place where the nights are six months long.
There is nobody waiting at the dentist's when you get there, it being early. You are willing to wait. At a barber shop it may be different but at a dentist's you are always willing to wait, like a gentleman. But the sinewy young man who is sitting in the front parlor reading the Hammer Thrower's Gazette, welcomes you with a false air of gaiety entirely out of keeping with the circumstances and invites you to step right in. He tells you that you are next. This is wrong—if you were next you would turn and flee like a deer. Not being next, you enter. Right from the start you seem to take a dislike to this young man. You catch him spitting in his hands and hitching his sleeves up as you are hanging up your hat. Besides he is too robust for a dentist. With those shoulders he ought to be a boiler maker or a safe mover or something of that sort. You resolve inwardly that next time you go to a dentist you are going to one of a more lady-like bearing and gentler demeanor. It seems a brutal thing that a big strong man should waste his years in a dental establishment when the world is clamoring for strong men to do the heavy lifting jobs. But before you can say anything, this muscular athlete has laid violent hands on your palpitating form and wadded it abruptly into the hideous embraces of a red plush chair, which looks something like the one they use up at Sing Sing, only it's done more quickly up there and with less suffering on the part of the condemned. On one side of you you behold quite a display of open plumbing and on the other side a tasty exhibit of small steel tools of assorted sizes. No matter which way your gaze may stray you'll be seeing something attractive.
You also take notice of an electric motor about large enough, you would say, to run a trolley car, which is purring nearby in a sinister and forbidding way. They are constantly making these little improvements in the dental profession. I have heard that fifty years ago a dentist traveled about over the country from place to place, sometimes pulling a tooth and sometimes breaking a colt. He practiced his art with an outfit consisting of two pairs of iron forceps—one pair being saber-toothed while the other pair was merely saw-fretted—and he gave a man the same kind of treatment he gave a horse, only he tied the horse's legs first. But now electricity is in general use and no dentist's establishment is complete without a dynamo attachment which makes a crooning sound when in operation and provides instrumental accompaniment to the song of the official canary.
I know why a barber in a country town is always learning to play on the guitar and I know why a man with an emotional Adam's apple always wears an open front collar. I know these things, but am debarred from telling them by reason of a solemn oath. But I have not yet been able to discover why every dentist keeps a canary in his office. Nor do I know why it is, just as you settle your neck back on a head rest that's every bit as comfortable as an anvil, and just as a dentist climbs into you as far as the arm pits and begins probing at the bottom of a tooth which has roots extending back behind your ears, like an old-fashioned pair of spectacles, that the canary bird should wipe his nose on a cuttle bone and dash into a melodious outburst of two hundred thousand twitters, all of them being twitters of the same size, shape, and color. For that matter, I don't even know what kind of an animal a cuttle is, although I should say from the shape of his bone as used by the canary instead of a pocket handkerchief, that he is circular and flat and stands on edge only with the utmost difficulty. If you will pardon my temporary digressions into the realm of natural history, we will now return to the main subject, which was your tooth.
The moment the muscular young man starts up his motor and gives the canary its music cue and begins pawing over his tool collection to pick out a good sharp one, you recover. All of a sudden you feel fine, and so does the tooth. Neither one of you ever felt better. The fox terrier must have killed the woodchuck and then committed suicide. You are about to mention this double tragedy and beg the young man's pardon for causing him any trouble and excuse yourself and go away, but just then he quits feeling of his biceps and suddenly seizes you by your features and undoes them. If you are where you can catch a glimpse of yourself in a mirror you will immediately note how much the human face divine can be made to look like an old-fashioned red brick Colonial fire place.
There are likely to be several things you would like to talk about. You are full of thoughts seeking utterance. For one thing you want to tell him you don't think the brand of soap he uses on his hands is going to agree with you at all. You probably don't care personally for the way your barber's thumb tastes either, but a barber's thumb is Peaches Melba alongside of a dentist's. Before you can say anything though he discovers a cavity or orifice of some sort in the base of your tooth. It seems to give him pleasure. Filled with intense gratification by this discovery and fired moreover by the impetuous ardor of the chase, he grabs up a crochet needle with a red hot stinger on the end of it and jabs it down your tooth to a point about opposite where your suspenders fork in the back.
You have words with him then, or at least you start to have words with him, but he puts his knee in your chest and tells you that it really doesn't hurt at all, but is only your imagination, and utters other soothing remarks of that general nature. He then exchanges the crochet needle for a kind of an instrument with a burr on the end of it. This instrument first came into use at the time of the Spanish Inquisition but has since been greatly improved on and brought right up to date. He takes this handy little utensil and proceeds to stir up your imagination some more. You again try to say something, speaking in a muffled tone, but he is not listening. He is calling to a brother assassin in the adjoining room to come and see a magnificent example of a prime old-vatted triple X exposed nerve. So the Second Grave Digger rests his tools against the palate of his victim and comes in.
As nearly as you can gather from hearsay evidence, you not being an eye witness yourself, one of them harpoons the nerve just back of the gills with a nutpick—remember please it is your nerve that they are taking all these liberties with—and pulls it out of its retreat and the other man takes a tack hammer and tries to beat its brains out. Any time he misses the nerve he hits you, so his average is still a thousand, and it is fine practice for him. A pleasant time is had by everybody present except you and the nerve. The nerve wraps its hind legs around your breastbone and hangs on desperately. You perspire freely and make noises like a drunken Zulu trying to sing a Swedish folk song while holding a spoonful of hot mush in his mouth.
In time becoming wearied even of these congenial diversions and tiring of the shop talk that has been going on, the second dentist returns to his original prey and the party who has you in charge tries a new experiment. He arms himself with a kind of an automatic hammering machine, somewhat similar to the steam riveter used in constructing steel office buildings, except that this one is more compact and can deliver about eighty-five more blows to the second. Thus equipped, he descends far below your high water mark and engages in aquatic sports and pastimes for a considerable period of time. It seems to you that you never saw a man who could go down and stay down as long as this young man can. You begin to feel that you misjudged his real vocation in life when you decided that he ought to be a boiler maker. You know that he was intended for pearl fishing. He's a natural born deep sea diver. He doesn't even have to come up to breathe, but stays below, knee deep in your tide wash, merrily knocking chunks off your lowermost coral reefs with his little steam riveter and having a perfectly lovely time.
You are overflowing copiously and you wish he would take the time to stop and bail you out. You abhor the idea of being drowned as an inside job. But no, he keeps right on and along about here it is customary for you to swoon away.
On recovering, you observe that he has changed his mind again. He is now going in for amateur theatricals and is using you for a theatre. First thoughtfully draping a little rubber drop curtain across your proscenium arch to keep you from seeing what is going on behind your own scenes, he is setting the stage for the thrilling sawmill scene in Blue Jeans. You can distinctly feel the circular saw at work and you can taste a hod of mortar and a bucket of hot tar and one thing and another that have been left in the wings. You also judge that the insulation is burning off of an electric fixture somewhere up stage.
All this time the tooth is still offering resistance, and eventually the dentist comes out in front once more and makes a little curtain speech to you. He has just ascertained that what the tooth really needed was not filling but pulling. He thought at first that it should be filled and that is what he has been doing—filling it—but now he knows that pulling is the indicated procedure. He does not understand how a tooth that seemed so open could have deceived him. Nevertheless he will now pull the tooth.
He pulls her. She does her level best but he pulls her. He harvests small sections of the gum from time to time and occasionally he stops long enough to loosen up the roots as far down as your floating ribs. But he pulls her. He spares no pains to pull that tooth. Or if he spares any you are not able subsequently to remember what they were. You utter various loud sounds in a strange and incomprehensible language and he lays back and braces his knees against your lower jaw, and the tooth utters the death rattle and begins picking the cover-lid. And then he gives one final heave and breaks the roots away from the lower part of your spinal column to which they were adhering, and emerges into the open panting but triumphant, and holds his trophy up for you to look at. If you didn't know it was your tooth you would take it for an old-fashioned china cuspidor that had been neglected by the janitor.
It was a tooth that you had been prizing for years, but now you wouldn't have it as a gracious gift. You are through with that tooth forever. You never want to see it again.
As for the dentist, he collects the fixed charge for stumpage and corkage and one thing and another and you come away with a feeling in the side of your jaw like a vacant lot. Your tongue keeps going over there to see if it can recognize the old place by the hole where the foundations used to be. You never realized before what a basement there was to a tooth.
As you come out you pass a fresh victim going in and you see the dentist welcome him and then turn to crank up his motor and you hear the canary tuning up with a new line of v-shaped twitters. And you are glad that he is the one who is going in and that you are the one who is coming out.
Science tells us that the teeth are the hardest things in the human composition, which is all very well as far as it goes, but what science should do is to go on and finish the sentence. It means the hardest to keep.
As I remarked in the preceding chapter of this work, one of the pleasantest features about being born is that we are born without teeth and other responsibilities. Teeth, like debts and installment payments, come along later on. It is the same way with hair.
Born, we are, hairless or comparatively so. We are in a highly incomplete state at that period of our lives. It takes a fond and doting parent to detect evidences of an actual human aspect in us. Only the ears and the mouth appear to be up to the plans and specifications. There is a mouth which when opened, as it generally is, makes the rest of the face look like a tire, and there is a pair of ears of such generous size that only a third one is needed, round at the back somewhere, to give us the appearance of a loving cup. And we are smocked and hem-stitched with a million wrinkles apiece, more or less, which partly accounts for the fact that every newborn infant looks to be about two hundred years old. And uniformly we have the nice red complexion of a restaurant lobster. You know that live-broiled look?
As for our other features, they are more or less rudimentary. Of a nose there is only what a chemist would call a trace. It seems hard to imagine that a dinky little nubbin like that, a dimple turned inside out, as it were, will ever develop into a regular nose, with a capacity for freckling in the summer and catching cold in the winter—a nose that you can sneeze through and blow with. There are no eyebrows to speak of either, and the skull runs up to a sharp point like a pineapple cheese. Just back of the peak is a kind of soft, dented-in place like a Parker House roll, and if you touch it we die. In some cases this spot remains soft throughout life, and these persons grow up and go through railroad trains in presidential years taking straw votes.
And, as I said before, there isn't any hair; only on the slopes of the cheese are some very pale, faint, downy lines, which look as though they had been sketched on lightly with a very soft drawing pencil and would wipe off readily. That, however is the inception and beginning of what afterward becomes, among our race, hair. To look at it you could hardly believe it, but it is. Barring accidents or backwardness, it continues to grow from that time on through our childhood, but its behavior is always a profound disappointment. If the child is a girl and, therefore, entitled to curly hair, her hair is sure to come in stiff and straight. If it's a boy, to whom curls will be a curse and a cross of affliction, he is morally certain to be as curly as a frizzly chicken, and until he gets old enough to rebel he will wear long ringlets and boys of his acquaintance will insert cockle-burs and chewing gum into his tresses, and he will be known popularly as Sissie and otherwise his life with be made joyous and carefree for him. If a reddish tone of hair is desired it is certain to grow out yellow or brown or black; and if brown is your favorite shade you are absolutely sure to be nice and red-headed, with eyebrows and lashes to match, and so many cowlicks that when you remove your hat people will think you're wearing two or three halos at once. Hair rarely or never acts up to its advance notices.
One of the earliest and most painful recollections of my youth is associated with hair. I still tingle warmly when I think of it. I should say I was about eight years old at the time. My mother sent me down the street to the barber's to have my hair trimmed—shingled was the term then used. Some of my private collection of cowlicks had begun to stand up in a way that invited adverse criticism and reminded people of sunbursts. They made me look as though my hair were trying to pull itself out by the roots and escape. So I was sent to the barber's. My little cousin, two years younger, went along in my charge. It was thought that the performance might entertain her. I was mounted in a chair and had a cloth tucked in round my neck, like a self-made millionaire about to eat consomme. The officiating barber got out a shiny steel instrument with jaws—the first pair of clippers I had ever seen—and he ran this up the back of my neck, producing a most agreeable feeling. He reached the top of my head and would have paused but I told him to go right ahead and clip me close all over, which he did. When he had finished the job I was so delighted with the sensation and with the attendant result as viewed in a mirror that I suggested he might give my little cousin a similar treat. From a mere child I was ever so—willing always to share my simple pleasures with those about me, especially where it entailed no inconvenience on my part. I told him my father would pay the bill for both of us when he came by that night.
The barber fell in with the suggestion. It has ever been my experience that a barber will fall in readily with any suggestion whereby the barber is going to get something out of it for himself. In this instance he was going to get another quarter, and a quarter went farther in those days than it does now. I dismounted from the chair and my innocent little cousin was installed in my place. As I now recall she made no protest. The barber ran his clippers conscientiously and painstakingly over her tender young scalp, while I stood admiringly by and watched the long yellow curls fall writhing upon the floor at my feet. It seemed to me that a great and manifest improvement was produced in her general appearance. Instead of being hampered by those silly curls dangling down all round her face, she now had a round, slick, smooth dome decorated with a stiff yellowish stubble, and the skin showed through nice and pink and the ears were well displayed, whereas before they had been practically hidden. She was also relieved of those foolish bangs hanging down in her eyes. This, I should have stated, occurred in the period when womankind of whatsoever age and also some men wore bangs, a disease from which all have since recovered with the exception of racehorses and princesses of the various reigning houses of Europe. And now my little cousin was shut of those annoying bangs, and her forehead ran up so high that you had to go round behind her to see where it left off.
Filled with a joyous sense of achievement and conscious of a kindly deed worthily performed, I took my little cousin by her hand and led her home.
My mother was waiting for us at the front door. She seemed surprised when I took off my hat and gave her a look, but that wasn't a circumstance to her surprise when I proudly took off my little cousin's cap. She uttered a kind of a strangled cry and my cousin's mother came running, and the way she carried on was scandalous and ill-timed. I will draw a veil over the proceedings of the next few minutes. At the time it would have been a source of great personal gratification and comfort to me if I could have drawn a number of veils, good, thick, woolen ones, over the proceedings. My mother wept, my aunt wept, my little cousin wept, and I am not ashamed to state that I wept quite copiously myself. But I had more provocation to weep than any of them.
When this part of the affair was over my mother sent me back to the barber with a message. I was to say that a heart-broken woman demanded to have the curls of which her darling child had been denuded. I believe that there was some idea entertained of sewing them into a cap and requiring my cousin to wear the cap until new ones had sprouted. Even to me, a mere child of eight, this seemed a foolish and totally unnecessary proceeding, but the situation had already become so strained that I thought it the part of prudence to go at once without offering any arguments of my own. I felt, anyhow, that I would rather be away from the house for a while, until calmer second judgment had succeeded excitement and tumult.
The man who owned the barber shop seemed surprised when I delivered the message, but he told me to come back in a few minutes and he'd do what he could. I drifted on down to the confectionery store at the corner to forget my sorrows for the moment in a worshipful admiration of a display of prize boxes and cracknels in glass-front cases—you should be able to fix the period by the fact that cracknels and prize boxes were still in vogue among the young. When I returned the head barber handed me quite a large box—a shoebox—with a string tied round it. It did not seem possible to me that my cousin could have had a whole shoebox full of curls, but things had been going pretty badly that afternoon and my motives had been misjudged and everything, so without any talk I took the box and hurried home with it. My mother cut the string and my aunt lifted the lid.
I should prefer again to draw a veil over the scenes that now ensued, but the necessity of finishing this narrative requires me to state that it being a Saturday and the head barber being a busy man, he had not taken time to sort out my cousin's curls from among the flotsam and jetsam of his establishment, but had just swept up enough off the floor to make a good assorted boxful. I think the oldest inhabitant had probably dropped in that day to have himself trimmed up a little round the edges. I seem to remember a quantity of sandy whiskers shot with gray. There was enough hair in that box and enough different kinds and colors of hair and stuff to satisfy almost any taste, you would have thought, but my mother and aunt were anything but satisfied. On the contrary, far from it. And yet my cousin's hair was all there, if they had only been willing to spend a few days sorting it out and separating it from the other contents.
In this particular instance I was the exception to the rule, that hair generally gives a boy no great trouble from the time he merges out of babyhood until he puts on long pants and begins to discern something strangely and subtly attractive about the sex described by Mr. Kipling as being the more deadly of the species. During this interim it is a matter of no moment to a boy whether he goes shaggy or cropped, shorn or unshorn. At intervals a frugal parent trims him to see if both his ears are still there, or else a barber does it with more thoroughness, often recovering small articles of household use that have been mysteriously missing for months; but in the main he goes along carefree and unbarbered, not greatly concerned with putting anything in his head or taking anything off of it.
In due season, though, he reaches the age where adolescent whiskers and young romance begin to sprout out on him simultaneously—and from that moment on for the rest of his life his hair is giving him bother, and plenty of it.
Your hair gives you bother as long as you have it and more bother when it starts to go. You are always doing something for it and it is always showing deep-dyed ingratitude in return; or else the dye isn't deep enough, which is even worse. Hair is responsible for such byproducts as dandruff, barbers, wigs, several comic weeklies, mental anguish, added expense, Chinese revolutions, and the standard joke about your wife's using your best razor to open a can of tomatoes with. Hair has been of aid to Buffalo Bill, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Samson, The Lady Godiva, Jo-Jo, the Dog-Faced Boy, poets, pianists, some artists and most mattress makers, but a drawback and a sorrow to Absalom, polar bears in captivity and the male sex in general.
This assertion goes not only for hair on the head but for hair on the face. Let us consider for a moment the matter of shaving. If you shave yourself you excite a barber's contempt, and there is nobody whose contempt the average man dreads more than a barber's, unless it is a waiter's. And on the other hand, if you let a barber shave you he excites not your contempt particularly, but your rage and frequently your undying hatred. Once in a burst of confidence a barber told me one of the trade secrets of his profession—he said that among barbers every face fell into one of three classes, it being either a square, a round or a squirrel. I know not, reader, whether yours be a square or a round or a squirrel, but this much I will chance on a venture, sight unseen—that you have your periods of intense unhappiness when you are being shaved.
I do not refer so much to the actual process of being shaved. Indeed there is something restful and soothing to the average male adult in the feel of a sharp razor being guided over a bristly jowl by a deft and skillful hand, to the accompaniment of a gentle grating sound and followed by a sensation of transient silken smoothness. Nor do I refer to the barber's habit of conversation. After all, a barber is human—he has to talk to somebody, and it might as well be you. If he didn't have you to talk to he'd have to talk to another barber, and that would be no treat to him.
What I do refer to is that which precedes a shave and more especially that which follows after it. You rush in for a shave. In ten minutes you have an engagement to be married or something else important, and you want a shave and you want it quick. Does the barber take cognizance of the emergency? He does not. Such would be contrary to the ethics of his calling. Knowing from your own lips that you want a shave and that's positively all, he nevertheless is instantly filled with a burning desire to equip you with a large number of other things. In this regard the barbering profession has much in common with the haberdashering or gents'-furnishing profession as practiced in our larger cities. You invade a haberdashering establishment for the purpose, let us say, of investing in a plain and simple pair of half hose, price twenty-five cents. That emphatically is all that you do desire. You so state in plain, simple language, using the shorter and uglier word socks.
Does the youth in the pale mauve shirt with the marquise ring on the little finger of the left hand rest content with this? Need I answer this question? In succession he tries to sell you a fancy waistcoat with large pearl buttons, a broken lot of silk pajamas, a bath-robe, some shrimp-pink underwear—he wears this kind himself he tells you in strict confidence—a pair of plush suspenders and a knitted necktie that you wouldn't be caught wearing at twelve o'clock at night at the bottom of a coal mine during a total eclipse of the moon. If you resist his blandishments and so far forget that you are a gentleman as to use harsh language, and if you insist on a pair of socks and nothing else, he'll let you have them, but he will never feel the same toward you as he did.
'Tis much the same with a barber. You need a shave in a hurry and he is willing that you should have a shave, he being there for that purpose, but first and last he can think of upward of thirty or forty other things that you ought to have, including a shampoo, a hair cut, a hair singe, a hair tonic, a hair oil, a manicure, a facial massage, a scalp massage, a Turkish bath, his opinion on the merits of the newest White Hope, a shoeshine, some kind of a skin food, and a series of comparisons of the weather we are having this time this month with the weather we were having this time last month. Not all of us are gifted with the power of repartee by which my friend Frisbee turned the edge of the barber's desires.
"Your hair," said the barber, fondling a truant lock, "is long."
"I know it is," said Frisbee. "I like it long. It's so Roycrofty."
"It is very long," said the barber with a wistful expression.
"I like it very long," said Frisbee. "I like to have people come up to me on the street and call me Mr. Sutherland and ask me how I left my sisters? I like to be mistaken for a Russian pianist. I like for strangers to stop me and ask me how's everything up at East Aurora. In short, I like it long."
"Yes, sir," said the barber, "quite so, sir; but it's very long, particularly here in the back—it covers your coat collar."
"Indeed?" said Frisbee. "You say it covers my coat collar?"
"Yes, sir," said the barber. "You can't see the coat collar at all."
"Have you got a good sharp pair of shears there?" said Frisbee.
"Oh, yes, sir," said the barber.
"All right then," said Frisbee; "cut the collar off."
But not all of us, as I said before, have this ready gift of parry and thrust that distinguishes my friend Frisbee. Mostly we weakly surrender. Or if we refuse to surrender, demanding just a shave by itself and nothing else, what then follows? In my own case, speaking personally, I know exactly what follows. I do not like to have any powder dabbed on my face when I am through shaving. I believe in letting the bloom of youth show through your skin, providing you have any bloom of youth to do so. I always take pains to state my views in this regard at least twice during the operation of being shaved—once at the start when the barber has me all lathered up, with soapsuds dripping from the flanges of my shell-like ears and running down my neck, and once again toward the close of the operation, when he has laid aside his razor and is sousing my defenseless features in a liquid that smells and tastes a good deal like those scented pink blotters they used to give away at drug-stores to advertise somebody's cologne.
Does the barber respect my wishes in this regard? Certainly not. He insists on powdering me, either before my eyes or surreptitiously and in a clandestine manner. If he didn't powder me up he would lose his sense of self-respect, and probably the union would take his card away from him. I think there is something in the constitution and by-laws requiring that I be powdered up. I have fought the good fight for years, but I'm always powdered. Sometimes the crafty foe dissembles. He pretends that he is not going to powder me up. But all of a sudden when my back is turned, as it were, he grabs up his powder swab and makes a quick swoop upon me and the hellish deed is done. I should be pleased to hear from other victims of this practice suggesting any practical relief short of homicide. I do not wish to kill a barber—there are several other orders in ahead, referring to the persons I intend to kill off first—but I may be driven to it.
After he has gashed me casually hither and yen, and sluiced down my helpless countenance with the carefree abandon of a livery-stable hand washing off a buggy, and after, as above stated, he has covered up the traces of his crime with powder, the barber next takes a towel and folds it over his right hand, as prescribed in the rules and regulations, and then he dabs me with that towel on various parts of my face nine hundred and seventy-four—974—separate and distinct times. I know the exact number of dabs because I have taken the trouble to keep count. I may be in as great a hurry as you can imagine; I may be but a poor nervous wreck already, as I am; I may be quivering to be up and away from there, but he dabs me with his towel—he dabs me until reason totters on her throne—sometimes just a tiny tot, as the saying goes, or it may be that the whole cerebral structure is involved—and then when he is apparently all through the Demoniac Dabber comes back and dabs me one more fiendish, deliberate and premeditated dab, making nine hundred and seventy-five dabs in all. He has to do it; it's in the ritual that I and you and everybody must have that last dab. I wonder how many gibbering idiots there are in the asylum today whose reason was overthrown by being dabbed that last farewell dab. I know from my own experience that I can feel the little dark-green gibbers sloshing round inside of me every time it happens, and some day my mind will give away altogether and there'll be a hurry call sent in for the wagon with the lock on the back door. Yet it is of no avail to cavil or protest; we cannot hope to escape; we can only sit there in mute and helpless misery and be filled with a great envy for Mexican hairless dogs.
For quite a spell now we have been speaking of hair on the face; at this point we revert to hair in its relation to the head. There are some few among us, mainly professional Southerners and leading men, who retain the bulk of the hair on their heads through life; but with most of us the circumstances are different. Your hair goes from you. You don't seem to notice it at first; then all of a sudden you wake up to the realization that your head is working its way up through the hair. You start in then desperately doing things for your hair in the hope of inducing it to stick round the old place a while longer, but it has heard the call of the wild and it is on its way. There's no detaining it. You soak your skull in lotions until your brain softens and your hat-band gets moldy from the damp, but your hair keeps right on going.
After a while it is practically gone. If only about two-thirds of it is gone your head looks like a great auk's egg in a snug nest; but if most of it goes there is something about you that suggests the Glacial Period, with an icy barren peak rising high above the vegetation line, where a thin line of heroic strands still cling to the slopes. You are bald then, a subject fit for the japes of the wicked and universally coupled in the betting with onions, with hard-boiled eggs and with the front row of orchestra chairs at a musical show.
At this time of writing baldness is creeping insidiously up each side of my head. It is executing flank movements from the temples northward, and some day the two columns will meet and after that I'll be considerably more of a highbrow than I am now. At present I am craftily combing the remaining thatch in the middle and smoothing it out nice and flat, so as to keep those bare spots covered—thinly perhaps, but nevertheless covered. It is my earnest desire to continue to keep them covered. I am not a professional beauty; I am not even what you would call a good amateur beauty; and I want to make what little hair I have go as far as it conveniently can. But does the barber to whom I repair at frequent intervals coincide with my desires in this respect? Again I reply he does not. Every time I go in I speak to him about it. I say to him: "Woodman, spare that hair, touch not a single strand; in youth it sheltered me and I'll protect it now." Or in substance that.
He says yes, he will, but he doesn't mean it. He waits until he can catch me with my guard down. Then he seizes a comb, and using the edge of his left hand as a bevel and operating his right with a sort of free-arm Spencerian movement, he roaches my hair up in a scallop effect on either side, and upon reaching the crest he fights with it and wrestles with it until he makes it stand erect in a feather-edged design. I can tell by his expression that he is pleased with this arrangement. He loves to send his victims forth into the world tufted like the fretful cockatoo. He likes to see surging waves of hair dash high on a stern and rockbound head. His sense of the artistic demands such a result.
What cares he how I feel about it so long as the higher cravings of his own nature are satisfied? But I resent it—I resent it bitterly. I object to having my head look like a real-estate development with an opening for a new street going up each side and an ornamental design in fancy landscape gardening across the top. If I permit this I won't be able to keep on saying that I was twenty-seven on my last birthday, with some hope of getting away with it. So I insist that he put my front hair right back where he found it. He does so, under protest and begrudgingly, it is true, but he does it. And then, watching his opportunity, he runs in on me and overpowers me and roaches it up some more.
If I weaken and submit he is happy as the day is long. If he gets it roached up on both sides that will make me look like a horizontal-bar performer, which is his idea of manly beauty. Or if he gets it roached up on one side only there is still some consolation in it for him I'm liable to be mistaken anywhere for a trained-animal performer. But once in a very great while he doesn't get it roached up on either side, but has to stand there and suffer as he sees me walk forth into the world with my hair combed to suit me and not him. I can tell by his look that he is grieved and downcast, and that he will probably go home and be cross to the children. He has but one solace—he hopes to have better luck with me next time. And probably he will.
The last age of hair is a wig. But wigs are not so very satisfactory either. I've seen all the known varieties of wigs, and I never saw one yet that looked as though it were even on speaking terms with the head that was under it. A wig always looks as though it were a total stranger to the head and had just lit there a minute to rest, preparatory to flying along to the next head. Nevertheless, I think on the whole I'll be happier when my time comes to wear one, because then no barber can roach me up.
HANDS AND FEET
Nearly every boy has a period in his life when he is filled with an envious admiration for the East India god with the extra set of arms—Vishnu, I think this party's name is. To a small boy it seems a grand thing to have a really adequate assortment of hands. He considers the advantage of such an arrangement in school—two hands in plain view above the desk holding McGuffy's Fourth Reader at the proper angle for study and the other two out of sight, down underneath the desk engaged in manufacturing paper wads or playing crack-a-loo or some other really worth while employment.
Or for robbing birds' nests. There would be two hands for use in skinning up the tree, and one hand for scaring off the mother bird and one hand for stealing the eggs. And for hanging on behind wagons the combination positively could not be beaten. Then there would be the gaudy conspicuousness of going around with four arms weaving in and out in a kind of spidery effect while less favored boys were forced to content themselves with just an ordinary and insufficient pair. Really, there was only one drawback to the contemplation of this scheme—there'd be twice as many hands to wash when company was coming to dinner.
Generally speaking a boy's hands give him no serious concern during the first few years of his life except at such times as his mother grows officious and fussy and insists that they ought to be washed up as far as the regular place for washing a boy's hands, to wit, about midway between the knuckles and the wrist. The fact that one finger is usually in a state of mashedness is no drawback, but a benefit. The presence of a soiled rag around a finger gives to a boy's hand a touch of distinctiveness—singles it out from ordinary unmaimed hands. Its presence has been known to excuse its happy possessor from such chores as bringing in wood for the kitchen stove or pulling dock weeds out of the grass in a front yard where it would be much easier and quicker to pull the grass out of the dock weeds. It may even be made a source of profit by removing the wrappings and charging two china marbles a look. I seem to recall that in the case of a specially attractive injury, such as a thumb nail knocked off or a deep cut which has refused to heal by first intention or an imbedded splinter in process of being drawn out by a scrap of fat meat, that as much as four china marbles could be charged.
On the Fourth of July you occasionally burned your hands and in cold winters they chapped extensively across the knuckles but these were but the marks and scars of honorable endeavor and a hardy endurance. In our set the boy whose knuckles had the deepest cracks in them was a prominent and admired figure, crowned, as you might say, with an imaginary chaplet by reason of his chaps.
With girls, of course, it was different.
Girls were superfluous and unnecessary creatures with a false and inflated idea of the value of soap and water. Their hands weren't good for much anyway. Later on we discovered that a girl's hands were excellent for holding purposes in a hammock or while coming back from a straw ride, but I am speaking now of the earlier stages of our development, before the presence of the ostensibly weaker sex began to awaken responsive throbs in our several bosoms—in short when girls were merely nuisances and things to be ignored whenever possible. In that early stage of his existence hands have no altruistic or sentimental or ornamental value for a boy—they are for useful purposes altogether and are regarded as such.
It is only when he has reached the age of tail coats and spike-fence collars that he discovers two hands are frequently too many and often not enough. They are too many at your first church wedding when wearing your first pair of white kids and they are not enough at a five o'clock tea. There is a type of male who can go to a five o'clock tea and not fall over a lot of Louie Kahn's furniture or get himself hopelessly tangled up in a hanging drapery and who can seem perfectly at ease while holding in his hands a walking stick, a pair of dove colored gloves, a two-quart hat, a cup of tea with a slice of lemon peel in it, a tea spoon, a lump of sugar, a seed cookie, an olive, and the hand of a lady with whom he is discussing the true meaning of the message of the late Ibsen but these gifted mortals are not common. They are rare and exotic. There are also some few who can do ushing at a church wedding with a pair of white kids on and not appear overly self-conscious. These are also the exceptions. The great majority of us suffer visibly under such circumstances. You have the feeling that each hand weighs fully twenty-four pounds and that it is hanging out of the sleeve for a distance of about one and three-quarters yards and you don't know what to do with your hands and on the whole would feel much more comfortable and decorative if they were both sawed off at the wrists and hidden some place where you couldn't find 'em. You have that feeling and you look it. You look as though you were working in a plaster of paris factory and were carrying home a couple of large sacks of samples. It would be grand to be a Vishnu at a five o'clock tea, but awful to be one at a church wedding.
About the time you find yourself embarking on a career of teas and weddings you also begin to find yourself worrying about the appearance of your hands. Up until now the hands have given you no great concern one way or the other, but some day you wake to the realization that you need to be manicured. Once you catch that disease there is no hope for you. There are ways of curing you of almost any habit except manicuring. You get so that you aren't satisfied unless your nails run down about a quarter of an inch further than nails were originally intended to run, and unless they glitter freely you feel strangely distraught in company. Inasmuch as no male creature's finger nails will glitter with the desired degree of brilliancy for more than twenty-four short and fleeting hours after a treatment you find yourself constantly in the act of either just getting a manicure or just getting over one. It is an expensive habit, too; it takes time and it takes money. There's the fixed charge for manicuring in the first place and then there's the tip. Once there was a manicure lady who wouldn't take a tip, but she is now no more. Her indignant sisters stabbed her to death with hat pins and nail-files. Manicuring as a public profession is a comparatively recent development of our civilization. The fathers of the republic and the founders of the constitution, which was founded first and has been foundering ever since if you can believe what a lot of people in Congress say—they knew nothing of manicuring. Speaking by and large, they only got their thumbs wet when doing one of three things—taking a bath, going in swimming or turning a page in a book. Washington probably was never manicured nor Jefferson nor Franklin; it's a cinch that Daniel Boone and Israel Putnam and George Rogers Clark weren't and yet it is generally conceded that they got along fairly well without it. But as the campaign orators are forever pointing out from the hustlers and the forum, this is an age calling for change and advancement. And manicuring is one of the advancements that likewise calls for the change—for fifty cents in change anyhow and more if you are inclined to be generous with the tip.
Shall you ever forget your first manicure? The shan'ts are unanimously in the majority. It seems an easy thing to walk into a manicure parlor or a barber shop and shove your hands across a little table to a strange young woman and tell her to go ahead and shine 'em up a bit—the way you hear old veteran manicurees saying it. It seems easy, I say, and looks easy; but it isn't as easy as it seems. Until you get hardened, it requires courage of a very high order. You, the abashed novice, see other men sitting in the front window of the manicure shop just as debonair and cozy as though they'd been born and raised there, swapping the ready repartee of the day with dashing creatures of a frequently blonde aspect, and you imagine they have always done so. You little know that these persons who are now appearing so much at home and who can snap out those bright, witty things like "I gotcher Steve," and "Well, see who's here?" without a moment's hesitation and without having to stop and think for the right word or the right phrase but have it right there on the tip of the tongue—you little reck that they too passed through the same initiation which you now contemplate. Yet such is the case.
You have dress rehearsals—private ones—in your room. In the seclusion of your bed chamber you picture yourself opening the door of the marble manicure hall and stepping in with a brisk yet graceful tread—like James K. Hackett making an entrance in the first act—and glancing about you casually—like John Drew counting up the house—and saying "Hello girlies, how're all the little Heart's Delights this afternoon?" just like that, and picking out the most sumptuous and attractive of the flattered young ladies in waiting; and sinking easily into the chair opposite her—see photos of William Faversham and throwing the coat lapels back, at the same time resting the left hand clenched upon the upper thigh with the elbow well out—Donald Brian asking a lady to waltz—and offering the right hand to the favored female and telling her to go as far as she likes with it. It sounds simple when you figuring it out alone, but it rarely works out that way in practice. It is my belief that every woman longs for the novelty of a Turkish bath and every man for the novelty of a manicure long before either dares to tackle it. I may be wrong but this is my belief. And in the case of the man he usually makes a number of false starts.
You go to the portals and hesitate and then, stumbling across the threshold, you either dive on through to the barber shop—if there is a barber shop in connection—or else you mumble something about being in a hurry and coming back again, and retreat with all the grace and ease that would be shown by a hard shell crab that was trying to back into the mouth of a milk-bottle. You are likely to do this several times; but finally some day you stick. You slump down into one of those little chairs and offer your hands or one of them to a calm and slightly arrogant looking young lady and you tell her to please shine them up a little. You endeavor to appear as though you had been doing this at frequent periods stretching through a great number of years, but she—bless her little heart!—she knows better than that. The female of the manicuring species is not to be deceived by any such cheap and transparent artifices. If you wore a peekaboo waist she couldn't see through you any easier. Your hands would give you away if your face didn't. In a sibulent aside, she addresses the young lady at the next table—the one with the nine bracelets and the hair done up delicatessen store mode—sausages, rolls and buns—whereupon both of them laugh in a significant, silvery way, and you feel the back of your neck setting your collar on fire. You can smell the bone button back there scorching and you're glad it's not celluloid, celluloid being more inflammable and subject to combustion when subjected to intense heat.
When both have laughed their merry fill, the young woman who has you in charge looks you right in the eye and says:
"Dearie me; you'll pardon me saying so, but your nails are in a perfectly turrible state. I don't think I've seen a jumpman's nails in such a state for ever so long. Pardon me again—but how long has it been since you had them did?"
To which you reply in what is meant to be a jaunty and off-hand tone:
"Oh quite some little while. I've—I've been out of town."
"That's what I thought," she says with a slight shrug. It isn't so much what she says—it's the way she says it, the tone and all that, which makes you feel smaller and smaller until you could crawl into your own watch pocket and live happily there ever after. There'd be slews of room and when you wanted the air of an evening you could climb up in a buttonhole of your vest and be quite cosy and comfortable. But shrink as you may, there is now no hope of escape, for she has reached out and grabbed you firmly by the wrist. She has you fast. You have a feeling that eight or nine thousand people have assembled behind you and are all gazing fixedly into the small of your back. The only things about you that haven't shrivelled up are your hands. You can feel them growing larger and larger and redder and redder and more prominent and conspicuous every instant.
The lady begins operations. You are astonished to note how many tools and implements it takes to manicure a pair of hands properly. The top of her little table is full of them and she pulls open a drawer and shows you some more, ranged in rows. There are files and steel biters and pigeon-toed scissors and scrapers and polishers and things; and wads of cotton with which to staunch the blood of the wounded, and bottles of liquid and little medicinal looking jars full of red paste; and a cut glass crock with soap suds in it and a whole lot of little orange wood stobbers.
In the interest of truth I have taken the pains to enquire and I have ascertained that these stobbers are invariably of orange wood. Say what you will, the orange tree is a hardy growth. Every February you read in the papers that the Florida orange crop, for the third consecutive time since Christmas has been entirely and totally destroyed by frost and yet there is always an adequate supply on hand of the principal products of the orange-phosphate for the soda fountains, blossoms for the bride, political sentiment for the North of Ireland and little sharp stobbers for the manicure lady. Speaking as an outsider I would say that there ought to be other varieties of wood that would serve as well and bring about the desired results as readily—a good thorny variety of poison ivy ought to fill the bill, I should think. But it seems that orange wood is absolutely essential. A manicure lady could no more do a manicure properly without using an orange wood stobber at certain periods than a cartoonist could draw a picture of a man in jail without putting a ball and chain on him or a summer resort could get along without a Lover's Leap within easy walking distance of the hotel. It simply isn't done, that's all.
Well, as I was saying, she gets out her tool kit and goes to work on you. You didn't dream that there were so many things—mainly of a painful nature—that could be done to a single finger nail and you flinch as you suddenly remember that you have ten of them in all, counting thumbs in with fingers. She takes a finger nail in hand and she files it and she trims it and she softens it with hot water and hardens it with chemicals and parboils it a little while and then she cuts off the hang nails—if there aren't any hang nails there already she'll make a few—and she shears away enough extra cuticle to cover quite a good-sized little boy. She goes over you with a bristle brush, and warms up your nerve ends until you tingle clear back to your dorsal fin and then she takes one of those orange wood stobbers previously referred to, and goes on an exploring expedition down under the nail, looking for the quick. She always finds it. There is no record of a failure to find the quick. Having found it she proceeds to wake it up and teach it some parlor tricks. I may not have set forth all these various details in the exact order in which they take place, but I know she does them all. And somewhere along about the time when she is half way through with the first hand she makes you put the other hand in the suds.
Later on when you have had more practice at this thing you learn to wait for the signal before plunging the second hand into the suds, but being green on this occasion, you are apt to mistake the moving of the crock of suds over from the right hand side to the left hand side as a notice and to poke your untouched hand right in without further orders, hoping to get it softened up well so as to save her trouble in trimming it down to a size which will suit her. But this is wrong—this is very wrong, as she tells you promptly, with a pitying smile for your ignorance. Manicure girls are as careful about boiling a hand as some particular people are about bailing their eggs for breakfast of a morning. A two minute hand is no pleasure to her absolutely if she has diagnosed your hand as one calling for six minutes, or vice versa. So, should you err in this regard she will snatch the offending hand out and wipe it off and give it back to you and tell you to keep it in a dry place until she calls for it. Manicure girls are very funny that way.
Thus time passes on and on and by degrees you begin to feel more and more at home. Your bashfulness is wearing off. The coherent power of speech has returned to you and you have exchanged views with her on the relative merits of the better known brands of chewing gum and which kind holds the flavor longest, and you have swapped ideas on the issue of whether ladies should or should not smoke cigarettes in public and she knows how much your stick pin cost you and you know what her favorite flower is. You are getting along fine, when all of a sudden she dabs your nails with a red paste and then snatches up a kind of a polishing tool and ferociously rubs your fingers until they catch on fire. Just when the conflagration threatens to become general she stops using the polisher and proceeds to cool down the ruins by gently burnishing your nails against the soft, pink palm of her hand. You like this better than the other way. You could ignite yourself by friction almost any time, if you got hold of the right kind of a chamois skin rubber, but this is quite different and highly soothing. You are beginning to really enjoy the sensation when she roguishly pats the back of your hand—pitty pat—as a signal that the operation is now over. You pay the check and tip the lady—tip her fifty cents if you wish to be regarded as a lovely jumpman or only twenty-five cents if you are satisfied with being a vurry nice fella—and you secure your hat and step forth into the open with the feeling of one who has taken a trip into a distant domain and on the whole has rather enjoyed it.
You stand in the sunlight and waggle your fingers and you are struck with the desirable glitter that flits from finger tip to finger tip like a heleograph winking on a mountain top. It is indeed a pleasing spectacle. You decide that hereafter you will always glitter so. It is cheaper than wearing diamonds and much more refined, and so you take good care of your fingers all that day and carefully refrain from dipping them in the brine while engaged in the well known indoor sport of spearing for dill pickles at the business men's lunch.
But the next morning when you wake up the desirable glitter is gone. You only glimmer dully—your fingers do not sparkle and dazzle and scintillate as they did. As Francois Villon, the French poet would undoubtedly have said had manicures been known at the time he was writing his poems, "Where are the manicures of yesterday?" instead of making it, "Where are the snows of yesteryear?" there being no answer ready for either question, except that the manicures of yesterday like the snows of yesteryear are never there when you start looking for them. They have just naturally got up and gone away, leaving no forwarding address.
You have now been launched upon your career as a manicuree. You never get over it. You either get married and your wife does your nails for you, thus saving you large sums of money, but failing to impart the high degree of polish and the spice of romance noticed in connection with the same job when done away from home, or you continue to patronize the regular establishments and become known in time as Polished Percival, the Pet of the Manicure Parlor. But in either event your hands which once were hands and nothing more, have become a source of added trouble and expense to you.
Speaking of hands naturally brings one to the subject of feet, which was intended originally to be the theme for the last half of this chapter, but unfortunately I find I have devoted so much space to your hands that there is but little room left for your feet and so far as your feet are concerned, we must content ourselves on this occasion with a few general statements.
Feet, I take it, speaking both from experience and observation, are even more trouble to us than hands are. There are still a good many of us left who go through life without doing anything much for our hands but with our feet it is different. They thrust themselves upon us so to speak, demanding care and attention. This goes for all sizes and all ages of feet. From the time you are a small boy and suffer from stone bruises in the summer and chilblains in the winter, on through life you're beset with corns and callouses and falling of the instep and all the other ills that feet are heir to.
The rich limp with the gout, the moderately well to do content themselves with an active ingrown nail or so, and the poor man goes out and drops an iron casting on his toe. Nearly every male who lives to reach the voting age has a period of mental weakness in his youth when he wears those pointed shoes that turn up at the ends, like sleigh runners; and spends the rest of his life regretting it. Feet are certainly ungrateful things. I might say that they are proverbially ungrateful. You do for them and they do you. You get one corn, hard or soft, cured up or removed bodily and a whole crowd of its relatives come to take its place. I imagine that Nature intended we should go barefooted and is now getting even with us because we didn't. Our poor, painful feet go with us through all the years and every step in life is marked by a pang of some sort. And right on up to the end of our days, our feet are getting more infirm and more troublesome and more crotchety and harder to bear with all the time. How many are there right now who have one foot in the grave and the other at the chiropodist's? Thousands, I reckon.
Napoleon said an army traveled on its stomach. I don't blame the army, far from it; I've often wished I could travel that way myself, and I've no doubt so has every other man who ever crowded a number nine and three-quarters foot into a number eight patent-leather shoe, and then went to call on friends residing in a steam-heated apartment. As what man has not? Once the green-corn dance was an exclusive thing with the Sioux Indians, but it may now be witnessed when one man steps on another man's toes in a crowd.
We are accustomed to make fun of the humble worm of the dust but in one respect the humble worm certainly has it on us. He goes through existence without any hands and any feet to bother him. Indeed in this regard I can think of but one creature in all creation who is worse off than we poor humans are. That is the lowly ear wig. Think of being an ear wig, that suffers from fallen arches himself and has a wife that suffers from cold feet!