ZONE POLICEMAN 88
A CLOSE RANGE STUDY OF THE PANAMA CANAL AND ITS WORKERS
HARRY A. FRANCK
Author of "A Vagabond Journey Around the World" and "Four Months Afoot in Spain"
TO A HOST OF GOOD FELLOWS THE ZONE POLICE
Quito, December 31, 1912
Strip by strip there opened out before me, as I climbed the "Thousand Stairs" to the red-roofed Administration Building, the broad panorama of Panama and her bay; below, the city of closely packed roofs and three-topped plazas compressed in a scallop of the sun-gleaming Pacific, with its peaked and wooded islands to far Taboga tilting motionless away to the curve of the earth; behind, the low, irregular jungled hills stretching hazily off into South America. On the third-story landing I paused to wipe the light sweat from forehead and hatband, then pushed open the screen door of the passageway that leads to police headquarters.
"Emm—What military service have you had?" asked "the Captain," looking up from the letter I had presented and swinging half round in his swivel-chair to fix his clear eyes upon me.
"No?" he said slowly, in a wondering voice; and so long grew the silence, and so plainly did there spread across "the Captain's" face the unspoken question, "Well, then what the devil are you applying here for?" that I felt all at once the stern necessity of putting in a word for myself or lose the day entirely.
"But I speak Spanish and—"
"Ah!" cried "the Captain," with the rising inflection of awakened interest, "That puts another face on the matter."
Slowly his eyes wandered, with the far-away look of inner reflection, to the vacant chair of "the Chief" on the opposite side of the broad flat desk, then out the wide-open window and across the shimmering roofs of Ancon to the far green ridges of the youthful Republic, ablaze with the unbroken tropical sunshine. The whirr of a telephone bell broke in upon his meditation. In sharp, clear-cut phrases he answered the questions that came to him over the wire, hung up the receiver, and pushed the apparatus away from him with a forceful gesture.
"Inspector:" he called suddenly; but a moment having passed without response, he went on in his sharp-cut tones, "How do you think you would like police work?"
"I believe I should."
"The Captain" shuffled for a moment one of several stacks of unfolded letters on his desk.
"Well, it's the most thankless damned job in Creation," he went on, almost dreamily, "but it certainly gives a man much touch with human nature from all angles, and—well, I suppose we do some good. Somebody's got to do it, anyway."
"Of course I suppose it would depend on what class of police work I got," I put in, recalling the warning of the writer of my letter of introduction that, "You may get assigned to some dinky little station and never see anything of the Zone,"—"I'm better at moving around than sitting still. I notice you have policemen on your trains, or perhaps in special duty languages would be—"
"Yes, I was thinking along that line, too," said "the Captain."
He rose suddenly from his chair and led the way into an adjoining room, busy with several young Americans over desks and typewriters.
"Inspector," he said, as a tall and slender yet muscular man of Indian erectness and noticeably careful grooming rose to his feet, "Here's one of those rare people, an American who speaks some foreign languages. Have a talk with him. Perhaps we can arrange to fix him up both for his good and our own."
"Ever done police duty?" began the Inspector, when "the Captain" had returned to the corner office.
"Nor that either."
"Well, we usually require it," mused the Inspector slowly, flashing his diamond ring, "but with your special qualifications perhaps—
"You'd probably be of most use to us in plain clothes," he continued, after a dozen questions as to my former activities; "We could put you in uniform for the first month or six weeks until you know the Isthmus, and then—
"Our greatest trouble is burglary," he broke off abruptly, rising to reach a copy of the "Canal Zone Laws"; "If you have nothing else on hand you might run these over; and the 'Police Rules and Regulations,'" he added, handing me a small, flat volume bound in light brown imitation leather.
I sat down in an arm-chair against the wall and fell to reading, amid the clickity-click of typewriters, telephone calls even from far-off Colon on the Atlantic, and the constant going and coming of a negro orderly in shiningly ironed khaki uniform. By and by the Inspector drifted into the main office, where his voice blended for some time with that of "the Captain," At length he came back bearing a copy of the day's Star and Herald, turned back to the "Estrella de Panama" pages so rarely opened in the Zone.
"Just run us off a translation of that, if you don't mind," he said, pointing to a short paragraph in Spanish.
Some two minutes later I handed him the English version of the account of a near-duel between two Panamanians, and took once more to reading. It was more than an hour later that I was again interrupted.
"You'll want to catch the 5:25 back to Corozal?" inquired the Inspector; "Mr. ——, give him transportation to Culebra and back, and an order for physical examination.
"You might fill out this application blank," he added, handing me a long legal sheet, "then in case you are appointed that much will be done."
The document began with the usual, "Name——, Birthplace——, and so on." There followed the information that the appointee "must be at least five feet eight; weigh one hundred and forty, chest at least thirty-four inches—" Then suddenly near the bottom of the back of the sheet my eyes caught the startling words;—"Unless you are sure you are a man of physical appearance far above the average do not fill out this application."
I was suddenly aware of a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach; the blank all but slipped from my nerveless fingers. Then all at once there came back to me the words of some chance acquaintance of some far-off time and place, words which were the only memory that remained to me of the speaker, except that he had lived long and gathered much experience, "Bluff, my boy, is what carries a man through the world. Act as if you're sure you are and can and you'll generally make the other fellow think so." I sat down at a desk and filled out the application in my most self-confident flourish.
"Go to Culebra to-morrow," said the Inspector, as I bade the room good-day and stepped forth with my most military stride and bearing, "and report back here Friday morning."
I descended to the world below, not by the long perspective of stairs that leads down and across the gully to the heart of Ancon, but by a short-cut that took me quickly into a foreign land. The graveled highway at the foot of the hill I might not have guessed was an international boundary had I not chanced to notice the instant change from the trim, screened Zone buildings, each in its green lawn, to the featureless architecture of a city where grass is all but unknown; for the formalities of crossing this frontier are the same as those of crossing any village street. It was my first entrance into the land of the panamenos, technically known on the Zone as "Spigoties," and familiarly, with a tinge of despite, as "Spigs"; because the first Americans to arrive in the land found a few natives and cabmen who claimed to "Speaga dee Eng-leesh."
To Americans direct from the States Panama city ranks still as rather a miserable dawdling village. But that is due chiefly to lack of perspective. Against the background of Central America it seemed almost a great, certainly a flourishing, city. Even to-day there are many who complain of its unpleasant odors; to those who have lived in other tropical cities its scent is like the perfumes of Araby; and none but those can in any degree realize what "Tio Sam" has done for the place.
Toward sunset I passed through a gateway with scores of fellow-countrymen, all as composedly at home as in the heart of their native land. Across the platform stood a train distinctively American in every feature, a bilious-yellow train divided by the baggage car into two sections, of which the five second-class coaches behind the engine, with their wooden benches, were densely packed in every available space with workmen and laborer's wives, from Spaniards to ebony negroes, with the average color decidedly dark. In the first-class cars at the Panama end were Americans, all but exclusively white Americans, with only here and there a "Spigoty" with his long greased hair, his finger rings, and his effeminate gestures, and even a negro or two. For though Uncle Sam may permit individual states to do so, he may not himself openly abjure before the world his assertion as to the equality of all men by enacting "Jim Crow" laws.
We were soon off. Settled back in the ample seat of the first real train I had boarded in months, with the roar of its length over the smooth and solid road-bed, the deep-voiced, masculine whistle instead of the painful, puerile screech that had recently assailed my ear, I all but forgot I was in a foreign land. The fact was recalled by the passing of the train-guard,—an erect and self-possessed young American in "Texas" hat, khaki uniform, and leather leggings, striding along the aisle with a jerking, half-arrogant swing of the shoulders. So, perhaps, might I too soon be parading across the Isthmus! It was not, to be sure, exactly the role I had planned to play on the Zone. I had come rather with the hope of shouldering a shovel and descending into the canal with other workmen, that I might some day solemnly raise my right hand and boast, "I helped dig IT." But that was in the callow days before I had arrived and learned the awful gulf that separates the sacred white American from the rest of the Canal Zone world. Besides, had I not always wanted to be a policeman and twirl a club and stalk with heavy, law-compelling tread ever since I had first stared speechless upon one of those noble beings on my first trip out into the world twenty-one years before?
It was not without effort that I rose in time next morning to continue on the 6:37 from Corozal across another bit of the Zone. Exactly thus should one first see the Great Work, piece-meal, slowly; unless he will go home with it all in an undigested lump. The train rolled across a stretch of almost uninhabited country, with a vast plain of broken rock on the right, plunged unexpectedly through a short tunnel, and stopped at a station perched on the edge of a ridge above a small Zone town backed by some vast structure, above which here and there a huge crane loomed against the sky of dawn. Another mile and the collectors were announcing as brazenly as if they challenged the few "Spigs" on board to correct them, "Peter M'Gill! Peter M'Gill!" We were already moving on again before I had guessed that by this noise they designated none other than the famous Pedro Miguel. The sun rose suddenly as we swung sharply to the left and rumbled across a girderless bridge. Barely had I time to discover that we were crossing the great canal itself and to catch a brief glimpse of the jagged gulf in either direction, before the train had left it behind, as if the sight of the world-famous channel were not worth a pause, and was roaring on through a hilly country of perpetual summer. A peculiarly shaped reservoir sped past on the left, twice or thrice more the green horizon rose and fell, and at 7:30 we drew up at the base of Culebra, the Zone capital.
On the screened veranda of a somewhat sooty and dismal building high up near the summit of the town, another and I were pacing anxiously back and forth when, well on in the morning, an abrupt and rather gloomy-faced American dashed into the building and one of the rooms thereof, snapping over his shoulder as he disappeared, "One of you!" The other had precedence. Then soon from behind the wooden shutters came a growl of "Next!" and two moments later I was standing in the reputed costume of Adam on the scales within. At about ten-second intervals a monosyllable fell from the lips of the morose American as he delved into my personal make-up from crown to toe with all the instrumental circumspection known to his secret-discovering profession. Then with a gruff "Dress!" he sat down at a table to scratch a few fantastic marks on the blank I had brought, and hand it to me as I caught up my last garment and turned to the door. But, alas—tight sealed! and all the day, though carrying the information in my pocket, I must live in complete ignorance of whether I had been found lacking an eye or a lung. For sooner would one have asked his future of the scowling Parques than venture to invoke a hint thereof from that furrow-browed being from the Land of Bruskness.
Meanwhile, as if it had been thus planned to give me such opportunity, I stood at the very vortex of canal interest and fame, with nearly an entire day before the evening train should carry me back to Corozal. I descended to the "observation platform." Here at last at my very feet was the famous "cut" known to the world by the name of Culebra; a mighty channel a furlong wide plunging sheer through "Snake Mountain," that rocky range of scrub-wooded hills; severing the continental divide. At first view the scene was bewildering. Only gradually did the eye gather details out of the mass. Before and beyond were pounding rock drills, belching locomotives, there arose the rattle and bump of long trains of flat-cars on many tracks, the crash of falling boulders, the snort of the straining steam-shovels heaping the cars high with earth and rock, everywhere were groups of little men, some working leisurely, some scrambling down into the rocky bed of the canal or dodging the clanging trains, all far below and stretching endless in either direction, while over all the scene hovered a veritable Pittsburg of smoke.
All long-heralded sights—such is the nature of the world and man—are at first glimpse disappointing. To this rule the great Culebra "cut" was no exception. After all this was merely a hill, a moderate ridge, this backbone of the Isthmus the sundering of which had sent its echoes to all corners of the earth. The long-fed imagination had led one to picture a towering mountain, a very Andes.
But as I looked longer, noting how little by comparison were the trains I knew to be of regulation U. S. size, how literally tiny were the scores upon scores of men far down below who were doing this thing, its significance regained bit by bit its proper proportions. Train after train-load of the spoil of the "cut" ground away towards the Pacific; and here man had been digging steadily, if not always earnestly, since a year before I was born. The gigantic scene recalled to the mind the "industrial army" of which Carlyle was prone to preach, with the same discipline and organization as an army in the field; and every now and then, to bear out the figure, there burst forth the mighty cannonade, not of war, but of peace and progress in the form of earth-upheaving and house-rocking blasts of dynamite, tearing away the solid rock below at the very feet of the town.
I took to the railroad and struck on further into the unknown country. Almost before I was well started I found myself in another town, yet larger than Culebra and with the name "Empire" in the station building; and nearly every rod of the way between had been lined with villages of negroes and all breeds and colors of canal workers. So on again along a broad macadamized highway that bent and rose through low bushy ridges, past an army encamped in wood and tin barracks on a hillside, with khaki uniformed soldiers ahorse and afoot enlivening all the roadway and the neighboring fields. Never a mile without its town—how different will all this be when the canal is finished and all this community is gone to Alaska or has scattered itself again over the face of the earth, and dense tropical solitude has settled down once more over the scene.
Panama, they had said, is insupportably hot. Comparing it with other lands I knew I could not but smile at the notion. Again it was the lack of perspective. Sweat ran easily, yet so fresh the air and so refreshing the breeze sweeping incessantly across from the Atlantic that even the sweating was almost enjoyable. Hot! Yes, like June on the Canadian border—though not like July. It is hot in St. Louis on an August Sunday, with all the refreshment doors tight closed—to strangers; hot in the cotton-fields of Texas, but with these plutonic corners the heat of the Zone shows little rivalry.
The way led round a cone-shaped hill crowned by another military camp with the Stars and Stripes flapping far above, until I came at last in sight of the renowned Chagres, seven miles above Culebra, to all appearances a meek and harmless little stream spanned by a huge new iron bridge and forbidden to come and play in the unfinished canal by a little dam of earth that a steam-shovel will some day eat up in a few hours. Here, where it ends and the flat country begins, I descended into the "cut," dry and waterless, with a stone-quarry bottom. A sharp climb out on the opposite side and I plunged into rampant jungle, half expecting snake-bites on my exposed ankles—another pre-conceived notion—and at length falling into a narrow jungle trail that pitched down through a dense-grown gully, came upon a fenced compound with several Zone buildings on the banks of the Chagres, down to which sloped a broad green lawn.
Here dwells hale and ruddy "Old Fritz," for long years keeper of the fluviograph that measures and gives warning of the rampages of the Chagres. Fritz will talk to you in almost any tongue you may choose, as he can tell you of adventures in almost any land, all with a captivating accent and in the vocabulary of a man who has lived long among men and nature. Nor are Fritz' opinions those gleaned from other men or the printed page. So we fell to fanning ourselves this January afternoon on the screened and shaded veranda above the Chagres, and "Old Fritz," lighting his pipe, raised his slippered feet to the screen railing and, tossing away the charred remnant of a match, began:—
"Vidout var dere iss no brogress. Ven all der vorld iss at peace, all der vorld goes to shleep."
Police headquarters looked all but deserted on Friday morning. There had been "something doing" in Zone criminal annals the night before, and not only "the Captain" but both "the Chief" and the Inspector were "somewhere out along the line." I sat down in the arm-chair against the wall. A half-hour, perhaps, had I read when "Eddie"—I am not entitled, perhaps, to such familiarity, but the solemn title of "chief clerk" is far too stiff and formal for that soul of good-heartedness striving in vain to hide behind a bluff exterior—"Eddie," I say, blew a last cloud of smoke from his lungs to the ceiling, tossed aside the butt of his cigarette, and motioned to me to take the chair beside his desk.
"It's all off!" said a voice within me. For the expression on "Eddie's" face was that of a man with an unpleasant duty to perform, and his opening words were in exactly that tone of voice in which a man begins, "I am sorry, but—" Had I not often used it myself?
"The Captain," is how he really did begin, "called me up from Colon last night, and—"
"Here's where I get my case nol prossed," I found myself whispering. In all probability that sealed document I had sent in the day before announced me as a physical wreck.
"—and told me," continued "Eddie" in his sad, regretful tone, "to tell you we will take you on the force as a first-class policeman. It happens, however, that the department of Civil Administration is about to begin a census of the Zone, and they are looking for any men that can speak Spanish. If we take you on, therefore, the Captain would assign you to the census department until that work is done—it will probably take something over a month—and then you would be returned to regular police duty. The Chief says he'd rather have you learn the Isthmus on census than on police pay.
"Or," went on "Eddie," just as I was about to break in with, "All right, that suits me,"—"or, if you prefer, the census department will enroll you as a regular enumerator and we'll take you on the force as soon as that job is over. The—er—pay," added "Eddie," reaching for a cigarette but changing his mind, "of enumerators will be five dollars a day, and—er—five a day beats eighty a month by more than a nose."
We descended a story and I was soon in conference with a slender, sharp-faced young man of mobile features and penetrating eyes behind which a smile seemed always to be lurking. On the Canal Zone, as in British colonies, one is frequently struck by the youthfulness of men in positions of importance.
"I'll probably assign you to Empire district," the slender young man was saying, "there's everything up there and almost any language will sure be some help to us. This time we are taking a thorough, complete census of all the Zone clear back to the Zone line. Here's a sample card and list of instructions."
In other words kind Uncle Sam was about to give me authority to enter every dwelling in the most cosmopolitan and thickly populated district of his Canal Zone, and to put questions to every dweller therein, note-book and pencil in hand; authority to ramble around a month or more in sunshine and jungle—and pay me for the privilege. There are really two methods of seeing the Canal Zone; as an employee or as a guest at the Tivoli, both of them at about five dollars a day—but at opposite ends of the thermometer.
There remained a week-end between that Friday morning and the last day of January, set for the beginning of the census. Certainly I should not regret the arrival of the day when I should become an employee, with all the privileges and coupon-books thereunto appertained. For the Zone is no easy dwelling-place for the non-employee. Our worthy Uncle of the chin whiskers makes it quite plain that, while he may tolerate the mere visitor, he does not care to have him hanging around; makes it so plain, in fact, that a few weeks purely of sight-seeing on the Zone implies an adamantine financial backing. In his screened and full-provided towns, where the employee lives in such well-furnished comfort, the tourist might beat his knuckles bare and shake yellow gold in the other hand, and be coldly refused even a lodging for the night; and while he may eat a meal in the employees' hotels—at near twice the employee's price—the very attitude in which he is received says openly that he is admitted only on suffrance—permitted to eat only because if he starved to death our Uncle would have the bother of burying him and his Zone Police the arduous toil of making out an accident report.
Meanwhile I must change my dwelling-place. For the quartermaster of Corozal had need of all the rooms within his domain, need so imperative that seventeen bona fide and wrathy employees were even then bunking in the pool-room of Corozal hotel. Work on the Zone was moving steadily Pacificward and the accommodations refused to come with it—at least at the same degree of speed.
Nor was I especially averse to the transfer. The room-mate with whom fate had cast me in House 81 was a pleasant enough fellow, a youth of unobjectionable personal manners even though his "eight-hour graft" was in the sooty seat of a steam-crane high above Miraflores locks. But he had one slight idiosyncrasy that might in time have grown annoying. On the night of our first acquaintance, after we had lain exchanging random experiences till the evening heat had begun a retreat before the gentle night breeze, I was awakened from the first doze by my companion sitting suddenly up in his cot across the room.
"Say, I hope you're not nervous?" he remarked.
"One of my stunts is night-mare," he went on, rising to switch on the electric light, "and when I get 'em I generally imagine my room-mate is a burglar trying to go through my junk and—"
He reached under his pillow and brought to light a "Colt's" of 45 caliber; then crossing the room he pointed to three large irregular splintered holes in the wall some three or four inches above me, and which I had not already seen simply because I had not chanced to look that way.
"There's the last three. But I'm tryin' to break myself of 'em," he concluded, slipping the revolver back under his pillow and turning off the light again.
Which is among the various reasons why it was without protest that, with "the Captain's" telephoned consent on the ground that I was now virtually on the force, I took up my residence in Corozal police station. 'T is a peaceful little building of the usual Zone type on a breezy knoll across the railroad, with a spreading tree and a little well-tended flower plot before it, and the broad world stretching away in all directions behind. Here lived Policeman T—— and B——. "First-class policemen" perhaps I should take care to specify, for in Zone parlance the unqualified noun implies African ancestry. But it seems easier to use an adjective of color when necessary. Among their regular duties was that of weighing down the rocking-chairs on the airy front veranda, whence each nook and cranny of Corozal was in sight, and of strolling across to greet the train-guard of the seven daily passengers; though the irregular ones that might burst upon them at any moment were not unlikely to resemble a Moro expedition in the Philippines. B—— and I shared the big main room; for T——, being the haughty station commander, occupied the parlor suite beside the office. That was all, except the black Trinidadian boy who sat on the wooden shelf that was his bed behind a huge padlocked door and gazed dreamily out through the bars—when he was not carrying a bundle to the train for his wardens or engaged in the janitor duties that kept Corozal station so spick and span. Oh! To be sure there were also a couple of negro policemen in the smaller room behind the thin wooden partition of our own, but negro policemen scarcely count in Zone Police reckonings.
"By Heck! They must use a lot o' mules t' haul aout all thet dirt," observed an Arkansas farmer to his nephew, home from the Zone on vacation. He would have thought so indeed could he have spent a day at Corozal and watched the unbroken deafening procession of dirt-trains scream by on their way to the Pacific,—straining Moguls dragging a furlong of "Lidgerwood flats," swaying "Oliver dumps" with their side chains clanking, a succession as incessant of "empties" grinding back again into the midst of the fray. On the tail of every train lounged an American conductor, dressed more like a miner, though his "front" and "hind" negro brakemen were as apt to be in silk ties and patent-leathers. To say nothing of the train-loads that go Atlanticward and to jungle "dumps" and to many an unnoticed "fill." Then when he had thus watched the day through it would have been of interest to go and chat with some of the "Old Timers" who live here beside the track and who have seen, or at least heard, this same endless stream of rock and earth race by six days a week, fifty-two weeks a year for six years, as constant and heavily-laden to-day as in the beginning. He might discover, as not all his fellow-countrymen have as yet, that the little surgical operation on Mother Earth we are engaged in is no mule job.
The week-end gave me time to get back in touch with affairs in the States among the newspaper files at the Y. M. C. A. building. Uncle Sam surely makes life comfortable for his children wherever he takes hold. It is not enough that he shall clean up and set in order these tropical pest-holes; he will have the employee fancy himself completely at home. Here I sat in one of the dozen big airy recreation halls, well stocked with man's playthings, which the government has erected on the Zone; I, who two weeks before had been thankful for lodging on the earth floor of a Honduranean hut. The Y. M. C. A. is the chief social center on the Isthmus, the rendezvous and leisure-hour headquarters of the thousands that inhabit bachelor quarters—except the few of the purely barroom type. "Everybody's Association" it might perhaps more properly be called, for ladies find welcome and the laughter of children over the parlor games is rarely lacking. It is not the circumspect place that are many of its type in the States, but a real man's place where he can buy his cigarettes and smoke his pipe in peace, a place for men as men are, not as the fashion plates that mama's fond imagination pictures them. With all its excellences it would be unjust to complain that the Zone "Y. M." is a trifle "low-brow" in its tastes, that the books on its shelves are apt to be "popular" novels rather than reading matter, that its phonographs are most frequently screeching vaudeville noises while the Slezak and Homer disks lie tucked away far down near the bottom of the stack.
With the new week I moved to Empire, the "Rules and Regulations" in a pocket and the most indispensable of my possessions under an arm. Once more we rumbled through Miraflores tunnel through a mole-hill, past her concrete light-house among the astonished palms, and her giant hose of water wiping away the rock hills, across the trestleless bridge with its photographic glimpse of the canal before and behind for the limber-necked, and again I found myself in the metropolis of the Canal Zone. At the quartermaster's office my "application for quarters" was duly filed without a word and a slip assigning me to Room 3, House 47, as silently returned. I climbed by a stone-faced U. S. road to my new home on the slope of a ridge overlooking the railway and its buildings below.
It was the noon-hour. My two room-mates, therefore, were on hand for inspection, sprawlingly engrossed in a—quite innocent and legal—card game on a table littered with tobacco, pipes, matches, dog-eared wads of every species of literature from real estate pamphlets to locomotive journals, and a further mass of indiscriminate matter that none but a professional inventory man would attempt to classify. About the room was the usual clutter of all manner of things in the usual unarranged, "unwomaned" Zone way, which the negro janitor feels it neither his duty nor privilege to bring to order; while on and about my cot and bureau were helter-skeltered the sundry possessions of an absent employee, who had left for his six-weeks' vacation without hanging up his shirt—after the fashion of "Zoners." So when I had wiped away the dust that had been gathering thereon since the days of de Lesseps and chucked my odds and ends into a bureau drawer, I was settled,—a full-fledged Zone employee in the quarters to which every man on the "gold roll" is entitled free of charge.
Just here it may be well to explain that the I. C. C. has very dexterously dodged the necessity of lining the Zone with the offensive signs "Black" and "White." 'T would not be exactly the distinction desired anyway. Hence the line has been drawn between "Gold" and "Silver" employees. The first division, paid in gold coin, is made up, with a few exceptions, of white American citizens. To the second belong any of the darker shade, and all common laborers of whatever color, these receiving their wages in Panamanian silver. 'T is a deep and sharp-drawn line. The story runs that Liza Lawsome, not long arrived from Jamaica, entering the office of a Zone dentist, paused suddenly before the announcement:
Crownwork. Gold and Silver Fillings. Extractions wholly without Pain.
There was deep disappointment in face and voice as she sat down with a flounce of her starched and snow-white skirt, gasping:
"Oh, Doctah, does I HAVE to have silver fillings?"
My room-mates, "Mitch" and "Tom," sat respectively at the throttle of a locomotive that jerked dirt-trains out of the "cut" and straddled a steam-shovel that ate its way into Culebra range. Whence, of course, they were covered with the grease and grime incident to those occupations. Which did not make them any the less companionable—though it did promise a distinct increase in my laundry bill. When they had descended again to the labor-train and been snatched away to their appointed tasks, I sat a short hour in one of the black "Mission" rocking-chairs on the screened veranda puzzling over a serious problem. The quarters of the "gold" employee is as completely furnished as any reasonable man could demand, his iron cot with springs and mattress unimpeachable—but just there the maternal generosity of the government ceases. He must furnish his own sheets and pillow—MUST because placards on the wall sternly warn him not to sleep on the bare mattress; and the New York Sunday edition that had served me thus far I had carelessly left behind at Corozal police station. To be sure there were sheets for sale in Empire, at the Commissary—where money has the purchasing-power of cobble-stones, and coupon-books come only to those who have worked a day or more on the Zone. Then the Jamaican janitor, drifting in to potter about the room, evidently guessed the cause of my perplexity, for he turned to point to the bed of the absent "Mitch" and gurgled:
"Jes' you make lub to dat man what got dat bed. Him got plenty ob sheets." Which proved a wise suggestion.
Empire hotel sat a bit down the hill. There the "gold" ranks were again subdivided. The coatless ate and sweltered inside the great dining-room; the formal sat in haughty state in what was virtually a second-story veranda overlooking the railroad yards and a part of the town, where were tables of four, electric fans, and "Ben" to serve with butler formality. I found it worth while to climb the hill for my coat thrice a day. As yet I was jangling down a Panamanian dollar at each appearance, but the day was not far distant when I should receive the "recruits" hotel-book and soon grow as accustomed as the rest to having a coupon snatched from it by the yellow negro at the door. Uncle Sam's boarding scale on the Zone is widely varied. Three meals cost the non-employee $1.50, the "gold" employee $.90, the white European laborer $.40, and negroes in general $.30.
That afternoon, when the sun had begun to bow its head on the thither side of the canal, I climbed to the newly labeled census office on the knoll behind the police station, from the piazza of which all native Empire lies within sweep of the eye. "The boss," a smiling youth only well started on his third decade, whose regular duties were in the sanitary department, had already moved bed, bag, and baggage into the room that had been assigned the census, that he might be "always on the job."
Not till eight that evening, however, did the force gather to look itself over. There was the commander-in-chief of the census bureau, sent down from Washington specifically for the task in hand, under whom as chairmen we settled down into a sort of director's meeting, a wholly informal, coatless, cigarette-smoking meeting in which even the chief himself did not feel it necessary to let his dignity weigh upon him. He had been sent down alone. Hence there had been great scrambling to gather together on the Zone men enough who spoke Spanish—and with no striking success. Most noticeable of my fellow-enumerators, being in uniform, were three Marines from Bas Obispo, fluent with the working Spanish they had picked up from Mindanao to Puerto Rico, and flush-cheeked with the prospect of a full month on "pass," to say nothing of the $4.40 a day that would be added to their daily military income of $.60. Then there were four of darker hue,—Panamanians and West Indians; and how rare are Spanish-speaking, Americans on the Zone was proved by the admittance of such complexions to the "gold" roll.
Of native U. S. civilians there were but two of us. Of whom Barter, speaking only his nasal New Jersey, must perforce be assigned to the "gold" quarters, leaving me the native town of Empire. At which we were both satisfied, Barter because he did not like to sully himself by contact with foreigners, I because one need not travel clear to the Canal Zone to study the ways of Americans. As for the other seven, each was assigned his strip of land something over a mile wide and five long running back to the western boundary of the Zone. That region of wilderness known as "Beyond the Canal" was to be left for special treatment later. The Zone had been divided for census purposes into four sections, with headquarters and supervisor in Ancon, Empire, Gorgona, and Cristobal respectively. Our district, stretching from the trestleless bridge over the canal to a great tree near Bas Obispo, was easily the fat of the land, the most populous, most cosmopolitan, and embracing within its limits the greatest task on the Zone.
Meanwhile we had fallen to studying the "Instructions to Enumerators," the very first article of which was such as to give pause and reflection;
"When you have once signed on as an enumerator you cannot cease to exercise your functions as such without justifiable cause under penalty of $500 fine." Which warning was quickly followed by the hair-raising announcement:
"If you set down the name of a fictitious person"—what can have given the good census department the notion of such a possibility?—"you will be fined $2,000 or sentenced to five years' imprisonment, or both."
From there on the injunctions grew less nerve-racking: "You must use a medium soft black pencil (which will be furnished)"—law-breaking under such conditions would be absurdity—"use no ditto marks and"—here I could not but shudder as there passed before my eyes memories of college lecture rooms and all the strange marks that have come to mean something to me alone—"take pains to write legibly!"
Then we arose and swarmed upstairs to an empty court-room, where Judge G——, throwing away his cigarette and removing his Iowa feet from the bar of justice, caused us each to raise a right hand and swear an oath as solemn as ever president on March fourth. An oath, I repeat, not merely to uphold and defend the constitution against all enemies, armed or armless, but furthermore "not to share with any one any of the information you gather as an enumerator, or show a census card, or keep a copy of same." Yet, I trust I can spin this simple yarn of my Canal Zone days without offense to Uncle Sam against the day when mayhap I shall have occasion to apply to him again for occupation. For that reason I shall take abundant care to give no information whatsoever in the following pages.
"The boss" and I initiated the Canal Zone Census that very night. Legally it was to begin with the dawning of February, but there were many labor camps in our district and the hours bordering on midnight the only sure time to "catch 'em in." Up in House 47 I gathered together the legion paraphernalia of this new occupation,—some two hundred red cards a foot long and half as wide, a surveyor's field notebook for the preservation of miscellaneous information, tags for the tagging of canvassed buildings, tacks for the tacking of the same, the necessary tack-hammer, the medium soft black pencil, above all the awesome legal "Commission," impressively signed and sealed, wherein none other than our weighty nation's chief himself did expressly authorize me to search out, enter, and question ad libitum. All this swung over a shoulder in a white canvas sack, that carried memory back through the long years to my newsboy days, I descended to the town.
"The boss" was ready. It was nearly eleven when we crossed the silent P. R. R. tracks and, plunging away into the night past great heaps of abandoned locomotives huddled dim and uncertain in the thin moonlight like ghosts of the French fiasco, dashed into a camp of the laborer's village of Cunette, pitched on the very edge of the now black and silent void of the canal. Eighteen thick-necked negroes in undershirts and trousers gazed up white-eyed from a suspended card game at the long camp table. But we had no time for explanations.
"Name?" I shouted at the coal-hued Hercules nearest at hand.
"David Providence," he bleated in trembling voice, and the great Zone questionnaire was on.
We had enrolled the group before a son of wisdom among them surmised that we were not, after all, plain-clothes men in quest of criminals; and his announcement brought visible relief. Twice as many blacks were sprawled in the two rows of double-sided, three-story bunks,—mere strips of canvas on gas-pipes that could be hung up like swinging shelves when not in use. Mere noise did not even disturb their dreams. We roused them by pencil-jabs in the ribs, and they started up with savage, animal-like grunts and murderous glares which instantly subsided to sheepish grins and voiceless astonishment at sight of a white face bending over them. Now and again open-mouthed guffaws of laughter greeted the mumbled admission of some powerful buck that he could not read, or did not know his age. But there was nothing even faintly resembling insolence, for these were all British West Indians without a corrupting "States nigger" among them. A half-hour after our arrival we had tagged the barracks and dived into the next camp, blacker and sleepier and more populous than the first. It was February morning before I climbed the steps of silent 47 and stepped under the shower-bath that is always preliminary, on the Zone, to a night's repose.
A dream of earthquake, holocaust, and general destruction developed gradually into full consciousness at four-thirty. House 47 was in riotous uproar. No, neither conflagration nor foreign invasion was pending; it was merely the houseful of engineers in their customary daily struggle to catch the labor-train and be away to work by daylight. When the hour's rampage had subsided I rose to switch off the light and turned in again.
The rays of the impetuous Panama sun were spattering from them when I passed again the jumbled rows of invalided locomotives and machinery, reddish with rust and bound, like Gulliver, by green jungle strands and tropical creepers. By day the arch-roofed labor-camps were silent and empty, but for a lonely janitor languidly mopping a floor. Before the buildings a black gang was dipping the canvas and gas-pipe bunks one by one into a great kettle of scalding water. But there are also "married quarters" at Cunette. A row of six government houses tops the ridge, with six families in each house, and—no, I dare not risk nomination to an ever expanding though unpopular club by stating how many in a family. I will venture merely to assert that when noon-time came I was not well started on the second house, yet carried away more than sixty filled-out cards.
More than two days that single row of houses endured, varied by nights spent with "the boss" in the labor-camps of Lirio, Culebra way. Then one morning I tramped far out the highway to the old Scotchman's farm-house that bounds Empire on the north and began the long intricate journey through the private-owned town itself. It was like attending a congress of the nations, a museum exhibition of all the shapes and hues in which the human vegetable grows. Tenements and wobbly-kneed shanties swarming with exhibits monopolized the landscape; strange the room that did not yield up at least a man and woman and three or four children. Day after blazing day I sat on rickety chairs, wash-tubs, ironing-boards, veranda railings, climbing creaking stairways, now and again descending a treacherous one in unintentional haste and ungraceful posture, burrowing into blind but inhabited cubby-holes, hunting out squatters' nests of tin cans and dry-goods boxes hidden away behind the legitimate buildings, shouting questions into dilapidated ear-drums, delving into the past of every human being who fell in my way. West Indian negroes easily kept the lead of all other nationalities combined; negroes blacker than the obsidian cutlery of the Aztecs, blonde negroes with yellow hair and blue eyes whose race was betrayed only by eyelids and the dead whiteness of skin, and whom one could not set down as such after enrolling swarthy Spaniards as "white" without a smile.
They lived chiefly in windowless, six-by-eight rooms, always a cheap, dirty calico curtain dividing the three-foot parlor in front from the five-foot bedroom behind, the former cluttered with a van-load of useless junk, dirty blankets, decrepit furniture, glittering gewgaws, a black baby squirming naked in a basket of rags with an Episcopal prayerbook under its pillow—relic of the old demon-scaring superstitions of Voodoo worship. Every inch of the walls was "decorated," after the artistic temperament of the race, with pages of illustrated magazines or newspapers, half-tones of all things conceivable with no small amount of text in sundry languages, many a page purely of advertising matter, the muscular, imbruted likeness of a certain black champion rarely missing, frequently with a Bible laid reverently beneath it. Outside, before each room, a tin fireplace for cooking precariously bestrided the veranda rail.
Often a tumble-down hovel where three would seem a crowd yielded up more than a dozen inmates, many of whom, being at work, must be looked for later—the "back-calls" that is the bete-noire of the census enumerator. West Indians, however, are for the most part well acquainted with the affairs of friends and room-mates, and enrolment of the absent was often possible. Occasionally I ran into a den of impertinence that must be frowned down, notably a notorious swarming tenement over a lumber-yard. But on the whole the courtesy of British West Indians, even among themselves, was noteworthy. Of the two great divisions among them, Barbadians seemed more well-mannered than Jamaicans—or was it merely more subtle hypocrisy? Among them all the most unspoiled children of nature appeared to be those from the little island of Nevis.
"You ain't no American?"
"Yes, ah is."
"Why, you de bery furst American ah eber see dat was perlite."
Which spoke badly indeed for the others, that not being one of the virtues I strive particularly to cultivate.
But "perlite" or not, there can be no question of the astounding stupidity of the West Indian rank and file, a stupidity amusing if you are in an amusable mood, unendurable if you neglect to pack your patience among your bag of supplies in the morning. Tropical patience, too, is at best a frail child. The dry-season sun rarely even veiled his face, and there were those among the enumerators who complained of the taxing labor of all-day marching up and down streets and stairs and Zone hills beneath it; but to me, fresh from tramping over the mountains of Central America with twenty pounds on my shoulders, this was mere pastime. Heat had no terrors for the enumerated, however. Often in the hottest hour of the day I came upon negroes sleeping in tightly closed rooms, the sweat running off them in streams, yet apparently vastly enjoying the situation.
Sunday came and I chose to continue, though virtually all the Zone was on holiday and even "the boss," after what I found later to be his invariable custom, had broken away from his card-littered dwelling-place on Saturday evening and hurried away to Panama, drawn thither and held till Monday morning—by some irresistible attraction. Sunday turns holiday completely on the Zone, even to hours of trains and hotels. The frequent passengers were packed from southern white end to northern black end with all nations in gladsome garb, bound Panamaward to see the lottery drawing and buy a ticket for the following Sunday, across the Isthmus to breezy Colon, or to one of a hundred varying spots and pastimes. Others in khaki breeches fresh from the government laundry in Cristobal and the ubiquitous leather leggings of the "Zoner" were off to ride out the day in the jungles; still others set resolutely forth afoot into tropical paths; a dozen or so, gleaned one by one from all the towns along the line were even on their way to church. Yet with all this scattering there still remained a respectable percentage lounging on the screened verandas in pajamas and kimonas, "Old Timers" of four or five or even six years' standing who were convinced they had seen and heard, and smelt and tasted all that the Zone or tropical lands have to offer.
Well on in the morning there was a general gathering of all the ditch-digging clans of Empire and vicinity in a broad field close under the eaves of the town, and soon there came drifting across to me at my labor, hoarse, frenzied screams; sounding strangely incongruous beneath the swaying palm-trees;
"Come on! Get down with his arm! Aaaaahrrr!"
But my time was well chosen. In the Spanish camps above the canal, still and silent with Sunday, men at no other time to be run to earth were entrapped in their bunks, under their dwelling-places in the shade, shaving, exchanging hair-cuts, washing workaday clothes, reminiscing over far-off homes and pre-migratory days, or merely loafing. The same cheery, friendly, quick-witted fellows they were as in their native land, even the few Italians and rare Portuguese scattered among them inoculated with their cheerfulness.
Came sudden changes to camps of Martiniques, a sort of wild, untamed creature, who spoke a distressing imitation of French which even he did not for a moment claim to be such, but frankly dubbed patois. Restless-eyed black men who answered to their names only at the question "Cummun t'appelle?" and give their age only to those who open wide their mouths and cry, "Caje-vous?" Then on again to the no less strange, sing-song "English" of Jamaica, the whining tones of those whose island trees the conquesting Spaniards found bearded—"barbados"—now and again a more or less dark Costa Rican, Guatemalteco, Venezuelan, stray islanders from St. Vincent, Trinidad, or Guadalupe, individuals defying classification. But the chief reward for denying myself a holiday were the "back-calls" in the town itself which I was able to check out of my field-book. Many a long-sought negro I roused from his holiday siesta, dashing past the tawdry calico curtains to pound him awake—mere auricular demonstration having only the effect of lulling him into deeper child-like slumber. The surest and often only effective means was to tickle the slumberer gently on the soles of the bare feet with some airy, delicate instrument such as my tack-hammer, or a convenient broom-handle or flat-iron. Frequently I came upon young negro men of the age and type that in white skins would have been loafing on pool-room corners, reading to themselves in loud and solemn voices from the Bible, with a far-away look in their eyes; always I was surrounded by a never-broken babble of voices, for the West Indian negro can let his face run unceasingly all the day through, and the night, though he have never a word to say.
Thus my "enumerated" tags spread further and wider over the city of Empire. I reached in due time the hodge-podge shops and stores of Railroad Avenue. Chinamen began to drift into the rolls, there appeared such names as Carmen Wah Chang, cooks and waitresses living in darksome back cupboards must be unearthed, negro shoemakers were caught at their stands on the sidewalks, shiny-haired bartenders gave up their biographies in nasal monosyllables amid the slop of "suds" and the scrape of celluloid froth-eradicators. Rare was the land that had not sent representatives to this great dirt-shoveling congress. A Syrian merchant gasped for breath and fell over his counter in delight to find that I, too, had been in his native Zakleh, five Punjabis all but died of pleasure when I mispronounced three words of their tongue. Occasionally there came startling contrast as I burst unexpectedly into the ancestral home of some educated native family that had withstood all the tides of time and change and still lived in the beloved "Emperador" of their forefathers. Anger was usually near the surface at my intrusion, but they quickly changed to their ingrown politeness and chatty sociability when addressed in their own tongue and treated in their own extravagant gestures. It was almost sure to return again, however, at the question whether they were Panamanians. Distinctly not! They were Colombians! There is no such country as Panama.
Thus the enrolling of the faithful continued. Chinese laundrymen divulged the secrets of their mysterious past between spurts of water at steaming shirt-bosoms; Chinese merchants, of whom there are hordes on the Zone, cueless, dressed and betailored till you must look at them twice to tell them from "gold" employees, the flag of the new republic flapping above their doors, the new president in their lapels, left off selling crucifixes and breastpin medallions of Christ to negro women, to answer my questions. One evening I stumbled into a nest of eleven Bengali peddlers with the bare floor of their single room as bed, table, and chairs; in one corner, surmounted by their little embroidered skull-caps, were stacked the bundles with which they pester Zone housewives, and in another their god wrapped in a dirty rag against profaning eyes.
Many days had passed before I landed the first Zone resident I could not enroll unassisted. He was a heathen Chinee newly arrived, who spoke neither Spanish nor English. It was "Chinese Charlie" who helped me out. "Chinese Charlie" was a resident of the Zone before the days of de Lesseps and at our first meeting had insisted on being enrolled under that pseudonym, alleging it his real name. Upstairs above his store all was sepulchral silence when I mounted to investigate—and I came quickly and quietly down again; for the door had opened on the gaudy Oriental splendor of a joss-house where dwelt only grinning wooden idols not counted as Zone residents by the materialistic census officials. On the Isthmus as elsewhere "John" is a law-abiding citizen—within limits; never obsequious, nearly always friendly, ready to answer questions quite cheerily so long as he considers the matter any of your business, but closing infinitely tighter than the maltreated bivalve when he fancies you are prying too far.
In time I reached the Commissary—the government department store—and enrolled it from cash-desk to cold-storage; Empire hotel, from steward to scullions, filed by me whispering autobiography; the police station on its knoll fell like the rest. I went to jail—and set down a large score of black men and a pair of European whites, back from a day's sweaty labor of road building, who lived now in unaccustomed cleanliness in the heart of the lower story of a fresh wooden building with light iron bars, easy to break out of were it not that policemen, white and black, sleep on all sides of them. Crowded old Empire not only faces her streets but even her back yards are filled with shacks and inhabited boxes to be hunted out. On the hem of her tattered outskirts and the jungle edges I ran into heaps of old abandoned junk,—locomotives, cars, dredges, boilers (some with the letters "U. S." painted upon them, which sight gave some three-day investigator material to charge the I. C. C. with untold waste); all now soon to be removed by a Chicago wrecking company.
Then all the town must be done again—"back calls." By this time so wide and varied was my acquaintance in Empire that wenches withdrew a dripping hand from their tubs to wave at me with a sympathetic giggle, and piccaninnies ran out to meet me as I returned in quest of one missing inmate in a house of fifty. For the few laborers still uncaught I took to coming after dark. But West Indians rarely own lamps, not even the brass tax-numbers above the doors were visible, and as for a negro in the dark—
Absurd rumors had begun early to circulate among the darker brethren. In all negrodom the conviction became general that this individual detailed catechising and house-branding was really a government scheme to get lists of persons due for deportation, either for lack of work as the canal neared completion or for looseness of marital relations. Hardly a tenement did I enter but laughing voices bandied back and forth and there echoed and reechoed through the building such remarks as:
"Well, dey gon' sen' us home, Penelope," or "Yo an' Percival better hurry up an' git married, Ambrosia."
Several dusky females regularly ran away whenever I approached; one at least I came a-seeking in vain nine times, and found her the tenth behind a garbage barrel. Many fancied the secret marks on the "enumerated" tag—date, and initials of the enumerator—were intimately concerned with their fate. So strong is the fear of the law imbued by the Zone Police that they dared not tear down the dreaded placard, but would sometimes sit staring at it for hours striving to penetrate its secret or exorcise away its power of evil, and now and then some bolder spirit ventured out—at midnight—with a pencil and put tails and extra flourishes on the penciled letters in the hope of disguising them against the fatal day.
Except for the chaos of nationalities and types on the Zone, enumerating would have become more than monotonous. But the enumerated took care to break the monotony. There was the wealth of nomenclature for instance. What more striking than a shining-black waiter strutting proudly about under the name of Levi McCarthy? There was no necessity of asking Beresford Plantaganet if he were a British subject. Naturally the mother of Hazarmaneth Cumberbath Smith, baptized that very week, had to claw out the family Bible from among the bed-clothes and look up the name on the fly-leaf.
To the enumerator, who must set down concise and exact answers to each of his questions, fifty or sixty daily scenes and replies something like these were delightful;
Enumerator (sitting down on the edge of a barrel): "How many living in this room?"
Explosive laughter from the buxom, jet-black woman addressed.
Enumerator (on a venture): "What's the man's name?"
"He name 'Rasmus Iggleston."
"What's his metal-check number?"
"Lard, mahster, ah don' know he check number."
"Haven't you a commissary-book with it in?"
"Lard no, mah love, commissary-book him feeneesh already befo' las' week."
"Is he a Jamaican?"
"No, him a Mont-rat, mahster." (Monsterratian.)
"What color is he?"
"Te! He! Wha' fo' yo as' all dem questions, mahster?"
"Oh, him jes' a pitch darker'n me."
"How old is he?"
(Loud laughter) "Law', ah don' know how ol' him are!"
"Well, about how old?"
"Oh, him a ripe man, mah love, him a prime man."
"Is he older than you?"
"Oh, yes, him older 'n me."
"And how old are you?"
"Te! He! 'Deed ah don' know how ol' ah is; ah gone los' mah age paper."
"Is he married?"
(Quickly and with very grave face) "Oh, yes indeed, mahster, Ah his sure 'nough wife."
"Can he read?"
(Hesitatingly) "Er—a leetle, sir, not too much, sir." (Which generally means he can spell out a few words of one syllable and make some sort of mark representing his name.)
"What kind of work does he do?"
(Haughtily) "Him employed by de I. C. C."
"Yes, naturally. But what kind of work does he do. Is he a laborer?"
(Quickly and very impressively) "Laborer! Oh, no, mah sweet mahster, he jes' shovel away de dirt befo' de steam shovel."
"All right. That 'll do for 'Rasmus. Now your name?"
"Mah name Mistress Jane Iggleston."
"How long have you lived on the Canal Zone?"
"Oh, not too long, mah love."
"Since when have you lived in this house?"
"Oh, we don' come to dis house too long, sah."
"Can you read and write?"
"No, ah don' stay in Jamaica. Ah come to Panama when ah small."
"Do you do any work besides your own housework?"
(Evasively) "Work? If ah does any work? No, not any."
Enumerator looks hard from her to washtub.
"Ah—er—oh, ah washes a couple o' gentlemen's clot'es."
"Very good. Now then, how many children?"
"We don' git no children, sah."
"What! How did that happen?"
Loud, house-shaking laughter.
Enumerator (looking at watch and finding it 12:10): "Well, good afternoon."
"Good evenin', sah. Thank you, sah. Te! He!"
Variations on the above might fill many pages:
"How old are you?"
Self-appointed interpreter of the same shade; "He as' how old is yo?"
"How old I are? Ah don rightly know mah age, mahster, mah mother never tol' me."
St. Lucian woman, evidently about forty-five, after deep thought, plainly anxious to be as truthful as possible: "Er—ah's twenty, sir."
"Oh, you're older than that. About sixty, say?"
"'Bout dat, sah."
"Are you married?"
(Pushing the children out of the way.) "N-not as yet, mah sweet mahster, bu-but—but we go 'n' be soon, sah."
To a Barbadian woman of forty: "Just you and your daughter live here?"
"Dat's all, sir."
"Doesn't your husband live here?"
"Oh, ah don't never marry as yet, sah."
Anent the old saying about the partnership of life and hope.
To a Dominican woman of fifty-two, toothless and pitted with small-pox: "Are you married?"
(With simpering smile) "Not as yet, mah sweet mahster."
To a Jamaican youth;
"How many people live in this room?"
"Three persons live here, sir."
"I stand grammatically corrected. When did you move here?"
"We remove here in April."
"Again I apologize for my mere American grammar. Now, Henry, what is your room-mate's name?"
"Well, we calls him Ethel, but I don't know his right title. Peradventure he will not work this evening [afternoon] and you can ask him from himself."
"Do his parents live on the Zone?"
"Oh, yes, sah, he has one father and one mother."
An answer: "Why HIMSELF [emphatic subject pronoun among Barbadians] didn't know if he'd get a job."
To a six-foot black giant working as night-hostler of steam-shovels:
"Well, Josiah, I suppose you're a Jamaican?"
"Oh, yes, boss, ah work in Kingston ten years as a bar-maid."
"No, boss, ah's not 'xactly married. Ah's livin' with a person."
A colored family:
Sarah Green, very black, has a child named Edward White, and is now living with Henry Brown, a light yellow negro.
West Indian wit:
A shop-sign in Empire: "Don't ask for credit. He is gone on vacation since January 1, 1912."
Laughter and carefree countenances are legion in the West Indian ranks, children seem never to be punished, and to all appearances man and wife live commonly in peace and harmony. Dr. O—— tells the following story, however:
In his rounds he came upon a negro beating his wife and had him placed under arrest. The negro: "Why, boss, can't a man chastize his wife when she desarves and needs it?"
Dr. O——: "Not on the Canal Zone. It's against the law."
Negro (in great astonishment): "Is dat so, boss. Den ah'll never do it again, boss—on de Canal Zone."
One morning in the heart of Empire a noise not unlike that of a rocky waterfall began to grow upon my ear. Louder and louder it swelled as I worked slowly forward. At last I discovered its source. In a lower room of a tenement an old white-haired Jamaican had fitted up a private school, to which the elite among the darker brethren sent their children, rather than patronize the common public schools Uncle Sam provides free to all Zone residents. The old man sat before some twenty wide-eyed children, one of whom stood slouch-shouldered, book in hand, in the center of the room, and at regular intervals of not more than twenty seconds he shouted high above all other noises of the neighborhood:
"Yo calls dat Eng-leesh! How eber yo gon' l'arn talk proper lika dat, yo tell me?"
Far back in the interior of an Empire block I came upon an old, old negro woman, parchment-skinned and doddering, living alone in a stoop-shouldered shanty of boxes and tin cans. "Ah don' know how ol' ah is, mahster," was one of her replies, "but ah born six years befo' de cholera diskivered."
"When did you come to Panama?"
"Ah don' know, but it a long time ago."
"Before the Americans, perhaps?"
"Oh, long befo'! De French ain't only jes' begin to dig. Ah's ashamed to say how long ah been here" (just why was not evident, unless she fancied she should long ago have made her fortune and left). "Is you a American? Well, de Americans sure have done one thing. Dey mak' dis country civilize. Why, chil', befo' dey come we have all de time here revolutions. Ah couldn't count to how many revolutions we had, an' ebery time dey steal all what we have. Dey even steal mah clothes. Ah sure glad fo' one de Americans come."
It was during my Empire enumerating that I was startled one morning to burst suddenly from the tawdry, junk-jumbled rooms of negroes into a bare-floored, freshly scrubbed room containing some very clean cots, a small table and a hammock, and a general air of frankness and simplicity, with no attempt to disguise the commonplace. At the table sat a Spaniard in worn but newly washed working-clothes, book in hand. I sat down and, falling unconsciously into the "th" pronunciation of the Castilian, began blithely to reel off the questions that had grown so automatic.
"Name?"-;-Federico Malero. "Check Number?"—"Can you read?" "A little." The barest suggestion of amusement in his voice caused me to look up quickly. "My library," he said, with the ghost of a weird smile, nodding his head slightly toward an unpainted shelf made of pieces of dynamite boxes, "Mine and my room-mates." The shelf was filled with four—REAL Barcelona paper editions of Hegel, Fichte, Spencer, Huxley, and a half-dozen others accustomed to sit in the same company, all dog-eared with much reading.
"Some ambitious foreman," I mused, and went on with my queries:
"Pico y pala," he answered.
"Pick and shovel!" I exclaimed—"and read those?"
"No importa," he answered, again with that elusive shadow of a smile, "It doesn't matter," and as I rose to leave, "Buenos dias, senor," and he turned again to his reading.
I plunged into the jumble of negroes next door, putting my questions and setting down the answers without even hearing them, my thoughts still back in the clean, bare room behind, wondering whether I should not have been wiser after all to have ignored the sharp-drawn lines and the prejudices of my fellow-countrymen and joined the pick and shovel Zone world. There might have been pay dirt there. A few months before, I remembered, a Spanish laborer killed in a dynamite explosion in the "cut" had turned out to be one of Spain's most celebrated lawyers. I recalled that EL UNICO, the anarchist Spanish weekly published in Miraflores contains some crystal-clear thinking set forth in a sharp-cut manner that shows a real inside knowledge of the "job" and the canal workers, however little one may agree with its philosophy and methods.
Then it was due to the law of contrasts, I suppose, that the thought of "Tom," my room-mate, suddenly flashed upon me; and I discovered myself chuckling at the picture, "Tom, the Rough-neck," to whom all such as Federico Malero with his pick and shovel were mere "silver men," on whom "Tom" looked down from his high perch on his steam-shovel as far less worthy of notice than the rock he was clawing out of the hillside. How many a silent chuckle and how many a covert sneer must the Maleros on the Zone indulge in at the pompous airs of some American ostensibly far above them.
Meanwhile my fellow enumerators were reporting troubles "in the bush." I heard particularly those of two of the Marines, "Mac" and Renson, merry, good-natured, earnest-by-spurts, even modest fellows quite different from what I had hitherto pictured as an enlisted man.
"Mac" was a half and half of Scotch and Italian. Naturally he was constantly effervescing, both verbally and temperamentally, his snapping black eyes were never still, life played across his excitable, sunny boyish face like cloud shadows on a mountain landscape, whoever would speak to him at any length must catch him in a vice-like grip and hold his attention by main force. He spoke with a funny little almost-foreign accent, was touching on forty, and was the youngest man at that age in the length and breadth of the Canal Zone.
At first sight you would take "Mac" for a mere roustabout, like most who go a'soldiering. But before long you'd begin to wonder where he got his rich and fluent vocabulary and his warehouse of information. Then you'd run across the fact that he had once finished a course in a middle-western university—and forgotten it. The schools had left little of their blighting mark upon him, yet "pump" "Mac" on any subject from rapid-fire guns to grand opera and you'd get at least a reasonable answer. Though you wouldn't guess the knowledge was there unless you did pump for it, for "Mac" was not of the type of those who overwork the first person pronoun, not because of foolish diffidence but merely because it rarely occurred to him as a subject of conversation. Seventeen years in the marine corps—you were sure he was "jollying" when he first said it—had taken "Mac" to most places where warships go, from Pekin and "the Islands" to Cape Town and Buenos Ayres, and given him not merely an acquaintance with the world but—what is far more of an acquisition—the gift of getting acquainted in almost any stratum of the world in the briefest possible space of time.
"Mac" spoke not only his English and Italian but a fluent "Islands" Spanish; he knew enough French to talk even to Martiniques, and he could moreover make two distinct sets of noises that were understood by Chinese and Japanese respectively. He was a man just reckless enough in all things to be generous and alive, yet never foolishly wasteful either of himself or his meager substance. "Mac" first rose to fame in the census department by appearing one afternoon at Empire police station dragging a "bush" native by the scruff of the neck with one hand, and carrying in the other the machete with which the bushman had tried to prove he was a Colombian and not subject to questioning by the agents of other powers.
Renson—well, Renson was in some ways "Mac's" exact antithesis and in some his twin brother. He was one of those youths who believe in spending prodigally and in all possible haste what little nature has given them. Wherefore, though he was younger than "Mac" appeared to be, he already looked older than "Mac" was. In Zone parlance "he had already laid a good share of the road to Hell behind him." Yet such a cheery, likable chap was Renson, so large-hearted and unassuming—that was just why you felt an itching to seize him by the collar of his olive-drab shirt and shake him till his teeth rattled for tossing himself so wantonly to the infernal bow-wows.
Renson's "bush" troubles were legion. Not only were there the seducing brown "Spigoty" women out in the wilderness to help him on his descending trail, but when and wherever fire-water of whatever nationality or degree of voltage showed its neck—and it is to be found even in "the bush"—there was Renson sure to give battle—and fall. "It's no use bein' a man unless you're a hell of a man," was Renson's "influenced" philosophy. How different this was from his native good sense when the influence was turned off was demonstrated when he returned from cautiously reconnoitering a cottage far back in the wilds one dark night and reported as his reason for postponing the enumerating: "If you'd butt in on one o' them Martinique booze festivals they'd crown you with a bottle."
Already one or two enumerators had gone back to private life—by request. Particularly sad was the case of our dainty, blue-blooded Panamanian. As with many Panamanians, and not a few of the self-exalted elsewhere, he was more burdened with blue corpuscles than with gray matter. At any rate—
On our cards, after the query "Color?" was a small space, a very small space in which was to be written quite briefly and unceremoniously "W," "B," or "Mx" as the case might be. Uncle Sam was in a hurry for his census. Early one afternoon our Panamanian helpmate burst upon one of his numerous aristocratic relatives in his royal thatched domains in the ancestral bush. When he had embraced him the customary fifteen times on the right side and the fifteen accustomed times on the left side, and had performed the eighty-five gestures of greeting required by the social manual of the bush, and asked the three hundred and sixty-five questions de rigueur regarding the honorable health of his honorable horde of offspring, and his eye had fallen again on the red cards in his hand, the fact struck him that the relative was of precisely the same shade of complexion as himself. Could he set him down as he had many a mere red-blooded person and thereby perhaps establish a precedent that might result in his own mortification? Yet could he stretch a shade—or several shades—and set him down as "white"? No, there was the oath of office, and the government that administered it had been found long-armed and Argus-eyed. Long he sat in deepest meditation. Being a Panamanian, he could not of course know that Uncle Sam was in a hurry for his census. Till at length, as the sun was firing the western jungle tree-tops, a scintillating idea rewarded his unwonted cogitation. He caught up the medium soft pencil and wrote in aristocratic hand down across the sheet where other information is supposed to find place:
"Color;—A very light mixture," and taking his leave with the requisite seventy-five gestures and genuflexions, he drifted Empireward with the dozen cards the day had yielded.
Which is why I was shocked next morning by the disrespectful report of Renson that "my friend the boss had tied a can to the Spig's tail," and our dainty and lamented comrade went back to the more fitting blue-blood occupation of swinging a cane in the lobbies of Panama's famous hostelries.
But what mattered such small losses? Had not "Scotty" been engaged to fill the breach—or all of them, one or two breaches more or less made small difference to "Scotty." He was a cozy little barrel of a man, born in "Doombahrton," and for some years past had been dispensing good old Dumbarton English in Panama's proudest educational institution. But Panama's school vacation is during her "summer," her dry season from February to April. What more natural then than that "Scotty" should have concluded to pass his vacation taking census, for obviously—"a mon must pick up a wee bit o' change wherever he can."
I seemed to have been appointed to a purely sight-seeing job. One February noon I reported at the office to find that passes to Gatun had been issued to five of us, "Scotty," "Mac," Renson, and Barter among the number. The task in the "town by the dam site" it seemed, was proving too heavy for the regular enumerators of that district.
We left by the 2:10 train. Cascadas and Bas Obispo rolled away behind us, across the canal I caught a glimpse of the wilderness surrounding the abode of "Old Fritz," then we entered a to me unknown land. I could easily have fancied myself a tourist, especially so at Matachin when "Mac" solemnly attempted to "spring" on me the old tourist hoax of suicided Chinamen as the derivation of the town's name. Through Gorgona, the Pittsburg of the Zone with its acres of machine-shops, rumbled the train and plunged beyond into a deep, if not exactly rank, endless jungle. The stations grew small and unimportant. Bailamonos and San Pablo were withering and wasting away, "'Orca L'garto," or the Hanged Alligator was barely more than a memory, Tabernilla a mere heap of lumber being tumbled on flatcars bound for new service further Pacificward. Of Frijoles there remained barely enough to shudder at, with the collector's nasal bawl of "Free Holys!" and everywhere the irrepressible tropical greenery was already rushing back to engulf the pigmy works of man. It seemed criminally wasteful to have built these entire towns with all the detail and machinery of a well governed and fully furnished city from police station to salt cellars only to tear them down again and utterly wipe them out four or five years after their founding. A forerunner of what, in a few brief years, will have happened to all the Zone—nay, is not this the way of life itself?
For soon the Spillway at Gatun is to close its gates and all this vast region will be flooded and come to be Gatun Lake. Villages that were old when Pizarro began his swine-herding will be wiped out, even this splendid double-tracked railroad goes the way of the rest, for on February fifteenth, a bare few days away, it was to be abandoned and where we were now racing northwestward through brilliant sunshine and Atlantic breezes would soon be the bottom of a lake over which great ocean steamers will glide, while far below will be tall palm-trees and the spreading mangoes, the banana, king of weeds, gigantic ferns and—well, who shall say what will become of the brilliant parrots, the monkeys and the jaguars?
For nearly an hour we had not a glimpse of the canal, lost in the jungle to the right. Then suddenly we burst out upon the growing lake, now all but licking at the rails beneath us, the Zone city of Gatun climbing up a hillside on its edge and scattering over several more. To the left I caught my first sight of the world-famous locks and dam, and at 3:30 we descended at the stone station, first mile-post of permanency, for being out of reach of the coming flood it is built to stay and shows what Canal Zone stations will be in the years to come. There remained for me but seven miles of the Isthmus still unseen.
On the cement platform was a great foregathering of the census clans from all districts, whence we climbed to the broad porch of the administration building above. There before me, for the first time in—well, many months, spread the Atlantic, the Caribbean perhaps I should say, seeming very near, so near I almost fancied I could have thrown a stone to where it began and stretched away up to the bluish horizon, while the entrance to the canal where soon great ships will enter poked its way inland to the locks beside us. Across the tree-tops of the flat jungle, also seeming close at hand though the railroad takes seven miles—and thirty-five cents if you are no employee—to reach it, was Colon, the tops of whose low buildings were plainly visible above the vegetation. Not many "Zoners," I reflected, catch their first view of Colon from the veranda of the Administration Building at Gatun.
We had arrived with time to spare. Fully an hour we loafed and yarned and smoked before a whistle blew and long lines of little figures began to come up out of the depths and zigzag across the landscape until soon a line of laborers of every shade known to humanity began to form, pay-checks in hand; its double head at the pay-windows on the two sides of the veranda, its tail serpentining off down the hillside and away nearly to the edge of the mammoth locks. Packs of the yellow cards of Cristobal district in hand—a relief to eyes that had been staring for days at the pink ones of Empire—we lined up like birds of prey just beyond the windows. As the first laborer passed this, one—nay, several of us pounced upon him, for all plans we had laid to line up and take turns were thus quickly overthrown and wild competition soon reigned. From then on each dived in to snatch his prey and, dragging him to the nearest free space, began in some language or other: "Where d'ye live?"
That was the overwhelming problem,—in what language to address each victim. Barter, speaking only his nasal New Jersey, took to picking out negroes, and even then often turned away in disgust when he landed a Martinique or a Haytian. West Indian "English" alternated with a black patois that smelt at times faintly of French, muscular, bullet-headed negroes appeared slowly and laboriously counting their money in their hats, eagle-nosed Spaniards under the boina of the Pyrenees, Spaniards from Castile speaking like a gatling-gun in action, now and again even a snappy-eyed Andalusian with his s-less slurred speech, slow, laborious Gallegos, Italians and Portuguese in numbers, Colombians of nondescript color, a Slovak who spoke some German, a man from Palestine with a mixture of French and Arabic noises I could guess at, and scattered here and there among the others a Turk who jabbered the lingua franca of Mediterranean ports. I "got" all who fell into my hands. Once I dragged forth a Hindu, and shuddered with fear of a first failure. But he knew a bit of a strange English and I found I recalled six or seven words of my forgotten Hindustanee.
Then suddenly a flood of Greeks broke upon us, growing deeper with every moment. Above the pandemonium my companions were howling hoarsely and imploringly for the interpreter, while clutching their trembling victim by the slack of his labor-stained shirt lest he escape un-enrolled. The interpreter, in accordance with a well-known law of physics and the limitations of human nature, could not be in sixteen places at once. I crowded close, caught his words, memorized the few questions, and there was I with my "Poomaynes?" "Poseeton?" and "Padremaynos?" enrolling Greeks unassisted, not only that but haughtily acting as interpreter for my fellows—not only without having studied the tongue of Achilles but never even having graced a Greek letter fraternity.
Quick tropical twilight descended, and still the labor-smeared line wound away out of sight into the darkness, still workmen of every shade and tongue jingled their brass-checks timidly on the edge of the pay-window, from behind which came roaring noises that the Americans within fancied Spaniards, or Greeks, or Roumanians must understand because they were not English noises; still we pounced upon the paid as upon a tackling-dummy in the early days of spring practice.
The colossal wonder of it all was how these deep-chested, muscle-knotted fellows endured us, how they refrained from taking us up between a thumb and forefinger and dropping us over the veranda railing. For our attack lacked somewhat in gentle courtesy, notably so that of "the Rowdy." He was a chestless youth of the type that has grown so painfully prevalent in our land since the soft-hearted abolishment of the beech-rod of revered memory; of that all too familiar type whose proofs of manhood are cigarettes and impudence and discordant noise, and whose national superiority is demonstrated by the maltreating of all other races. But the enrolled were all, black, white, or mixed, far more gentlemen than we. Some, of brief Zone experience, were sheepish with fear and the wonder as to what new mandate this incomprehensible U. S. was perpetrating to match its strange sanitary laws that forbade a man even to be uncleanly in his habits, after the good old sacred right of his ancestors to remotest ages. Then, too, there was a Zone policeman in dressy, new-starched khaki treading with dangling club and the icy-eye of public appearance, waiting all too eagerly for some one to "start something." But the great percentage of the maltreated multitude were "Old Timers," men of four or five years of digging who had learned to know this strange creature, the American, and the world, too; who smiled indulgently down upon our yelping and yanking like a St. Bernard above the snapping puppy he well knows cannot seriously bite him.
Dense black night had fallen. Here and there lanterns were hung, under one of which we dragged each captive. The last passenger back to Empire roared away into the jungle night; still we scribbled on, "backed" a yellow card and dived again into the muscular whirlpool to emerge dragging forth by the collar a Greek, a Pole, or a West Indian. It was like business competition, in which I had an unfair advantage, being able to understand any jargon in evidence. When at last the pay-windows came down with a bang and an American curse, and the serpentining tail squirmed for a time in distress and died away, as a snake's tail dies after sundown, I turned in more than a hundred cards. To-morrow the tail would revive to form the nucleus of a new serpent, and we should return by the afternoon train to the lock city, and so on for several days to come.