Life In New York City: Random Gossip 1885 #1

One of the Dullest Weeks of the Year in the Metropolis
 A NUMBER OF QUEER LOOKING  men have been wandering up and down the streets of New York for years whose faces and figures are as familiar as the City Hall clock, but whose lives are shrouded in more or less mystery. There is one extraordinary man whose identity it seems impossible to fathom. The first time I ever saw him was one August afternoon on West street, a bout eight years ago. I had just come in from a fishing excursion and was crossing West street when I noticed a number of longshoremen and loungers staring with great interest at an opposite corner. It was a sultry and dusty day. The sun scorched everything it touched and pedestrians hugged the shady side of the street. On the corner, however, in the full glare of the sun, stood a man about six feet two inches in height, with one hand resting on his hip and the other holding a black cane, sword fashion. He was dressed in the heaviest of black broadcloth, his frock coat hung below his knees, his hands were incased in black kid gloves and he wore a tall and straight rimmed beaver. His face was bony and the profile sharp. An immense mass of black oiled hair, which covered his head, was trained down over his ears and cut off square across the back of the neck. His tiny black mustache was waxed and the ends turned upward. He was extremely thin. The shoulders of his coat were padded grotesquely, and the coat was held together by one button around his wasp like waist.

If the man's appearance was uncommon his manner was absurd. As he stood there in a heroic attitude, with his hand on his hip and his black stick held firmly in front of him, he looked like a Don Quixote of the Nineteenth Century. Occasionally he would change his pose, but always to some absurd and tragic variation on the position in which I had first seen him. The heat, apparently, had no effect upon him, for after staring about, he started off with a measured stride along West street, and the men who were watching him languidly in the shade until a car should come along, mopped their own faces from pure sympathy with the gaunt and black haired stranger, who stalked so majestically along under the August sun. In the course of time a car crept up to us, as it is sure to do sooner or later, if you wait on West street long enough. Half a mile or more above the corner where we had first seen him, we saw the lank but erect stranger standing again in the sun in the position of Ajax defying the lightning. Ever since that time I have seen the extraordinary figure of the tall man at intervals of a week or a month, but always stalking about the street with the melodramatic manner of J.B. Studley playing Edmunt Dantes in a Bowery theater. He is invariably dressed in black, his shoes are brightly polished, his gloves new, his hat well brushed and his clothes are never threadbare. Going along Park Row one day I saw the blacked robed figure of the tall man in front of me. As he stepped upon a little platform, which was erected over the sidewalk in front of the Potter Building, he leaned over on one side and picked up the tails of his long tailed coat with the same gesture that a woman would use in raising her skirts on going up or down a muddy flight of steps. I have never seen him above Chambers street and I imagine that he never goes up town. He lives in Chatham street, I am told, in a room over one of the shops there, but no one seems to know his name, his country or his business.

I was rather amused one day to see Hungry Joe, the bunko steerer, speak to the tall stranger. The man was standing in the customary majestic position on the corner of Frankfort and Nassau streets. The bootblacks were cavorting around him and even the crowd that hurried over the bridge stopped to glance back at the stark and black robed figure. Hungry Joe, in the most fashionable of clothes and smoking a big cigar, was standing with a lot of other bunko men whose faces and names are perfectly well known to the police, and, indeed, to many citizens near the bridge. They had evidently been joking about the tall man for Hungry, as he is familiarly and affectionately known, left his friends and went jauntily forward. He approached the black robed man with the deference of a vassal to his king, raised his hat politely and put out a well gloved band. The tall man stared down at the pert young confidence operator with austerity and surprise, but the guileless smile on Hungry's beaming face was apparently too much for him, and he bowed courteously in return. Hungry Joe talked to him a moment about the weather, the yellow condition of the stone front of the City Hall, they exchanged cigars, and he returned to his friends. it was evident that the stranger's dignity was a little too much for the bunko man, but Hungry Joe made it a point always to bow politely whenever he passed the stranger after that slight conversation.

ANOTHER CURIOUS FIGURE  in the streets of New York is a short, thick set, bow legged man, who dresses shabbily and who wears an immense mass of black, curly hair down ever his shoulders and back. He also has a big black beard, and the whole is surmounted by a sort of brigand felt hat. Usually he carries a bit of parchment under his arm, and he stumps along with a heavy cane in his hand. He is a Greek. Several times he has appeared in the courts on various charges and he has come to be looked upon as a crank by the people and police. He is a man of the most vindictive temperament, and to my mind, dangerous. he is the terror of women in the uptown streets at night, and apparently he never sleeps, for he has been seen plodding gloomily along Fifth avenue or Broadway at all hours of the night. His appearance is extremely repulsive, and he stares at women with the most blood curdling ferociousness. New Year's night, for instance, he amused himself by standing on the corner of Twenty-second street and Broadway, close to the post on which the clock stands. As women passed with their escorts he would start forward half a step, with his face thrust out, and stare at them with distended eyes. He raises his eyebrows and opens his mouth when he stares, so that the effect is not inviting. Every woman who saw him started nervously and clung to her escort's arm, and not a few of them uttered suppressed exclamations of terror and stepped hurriedly away from him. He will commit an outrage some day, and then the police will wonder why he wasn't arrested before it was too late.

THERE IS ANOTHER LITTLE OLD MAN who reminds me, when ever I see him, of the mysterious old detective, who wrote so interminably on the backs of papers and letters in Dickens' novel of "Martin Chuzzlewit." I remember him as long as I can remember any strangers in the New York streets, and it doesn't seem to me that he has changed since I saw him until now. He is small of statue, has a thin gray beard cut close to his face, wears a worsted "comforter" around his neck and his thread gloves are always out at the ends of his fingers. The most extraordinary thing about this man is his ubiquity. He is uptown in the morning, downtown in the afternoon and one is likely to run across him again at night. He is much in the streets and apparently goes everywhere. He shuffles along quietly near the shop windows, but never looks into them. His ferret like eyes are fixed continually on the faces of the passers by. He seems to be acquainted with a great many men, and he acknowledges their salutations with a very deep and mysterious sort of nod. He is always alone, and he is a familiar figure at the theaters, where he habitually stands behind the last row of seats. He reminds me a little bit of a very precise and pert little old gentleman who has excited my interest at various times during the past ten years. he is well formed, very erect, displays the snowiest of white linen and the blackest of broadcloth clothes. He moves with a brisk little step and is apparently happy. He walks up and down from business every day. What attracted my attention to him first was a little bald spot on his head, which showed under the back of his hat like the rim of a tomato colored moon in a bank of snow clouds. I walked down town behind him one day some years ago and the rim of that so called moon bobbed up and down before me for three miles. Next time I walked down Broadway, I found myself looking under men's hats for that particular rim of blood red moon. I didn't discover it until a year later, when, to my surprise, it had enlarged until it looked like a moon in the first quarter. When I again saw him, still more of it had shown, and now it is as perfect a half moon as one could design with a pair of compasses. I have watched it grow larger and larger with the flight of years. This is not very exciting, but it shows what an absorbing interest baldness has for one man at least.

I CAN IMAGINE no more striking contrast to this precise little old man with the half moon decoration on the back of his head than a tall, well built and gray haired man who has become a tramp by almost imperceptible degrees during the past five years. No man is better known, as far as his appearance is concerned, to the women who shop along Broadway than he. He started as a gentlemanly sort of a beggar when he first appeared, and the police say that for a long while he reaped a rich harvest. Although his bushy hair is as white as snow, I doubt if the man is more than forty years of age. He has a sort of Lester Wallack mustache, which is also gray, and when he first appeared on Broadway he was cleanly shaven and well clad. I passed him several times walking leisurely along, until one day I saw him step up to two ladies who were looking into the window of a music store, stand dejectedly there, hat in hand, and recite something to them. His manner was unmistakably that of a professional mendicant. The women started when he first spoke to them, listened and then opened their purses and put money in his hand. He bowed with the most Chesterfieldian politeness and resumed his stroll up Broadway. It struck me as being a large, aristocratic and pretentious form of begging thoroughly in keeping with the size of the metropolis, and so whenever I saw the men after that I kept my eye on him. He was extremely polite, but in the most grave and dignified manner. One continually saw him closing or opening the doors of carriages in front of the shops or standing hat in hand beside some fashionably dressed woman at a window. Gradually he grew more and more seedy. His boots became rusty, his hat battered and he went unshaven about the streets. He grew worse and worse, but very gradually, until today he wanders up and down Broadway the wreck of the pretentious beggar who patrolled that thoroughfare five years ago. A scraggy beard on a bloated face, shoes that almost drop from his feet and tattered clothes make up the general apppearance of the man. He is as wretched and repulsive an object as one could find on the streets today with the exception of that long haired crank__the Greek.

CARDINAL McCLOSKEY, who is now in his 84th year, is growing very feeble. A few days ago I was walking down Madison avenue when the Cardinal's carriage drew up at the broad steps which lead to his marble house. He had just returned from his daily drive through the park. The doors of the house flew open and two middle aged serving men in the conventional costume of waiters came down the steps. One carried a fur coat and the other a shawl. The footman opened the door of the carriage and Father Farley, the secretary of the Cardinal, jumped out. Then he turned and assisted the Cardinal to alight. The coachman leaned over and looked down sympathetically, and the serving men wrapped the Cardinal up in the fur coat and shawl and hovered about him as toiled feebly up the steps.

JOHN KELLY IS AILING seriously and it is said that his iron constitution has given away under the strain of the work he has so long performed in politics. Mr. Kelly took his defeat very much to heart. Speaking of him, reminds me of that festive and flamboyant band of incorrigible corruptionists, the New York Board of Aldermen. I doubt if ever, in the history of this city the Aldermen have exhibited such an utter, careless and contemptuous disregard for public opinion as now. Such a red hot life and death scramble for spoils is instructive. it shows that despite all their protestations of purity and patriotism, they are on the make from the word go, and that their scheme is now, as it ever has been to make every cent the offices will pay by hook or crook, while they are in power.

THE CUSTOM of making many calls on New Year's day is no longer general. Very few people received on Thursday and a great many did not take the trouble to hang baskets on the doors. In the first place, it was decided that it is no longer the fashionable thing to do, and that killed it at once in a certain set. The joy of making New Year's calls, too, is largely metaphorical and the majority of men found it easier to send cards than to make a lot of calls. Of course, there were special instances where friends of the family were received and small New Year's dinners and parties were not uncommon. But on the whole, it may be said that the custom has permanently disappeared. All the fun of the season seems to take place on New Year's eve. It was the night before a holiday and apparently half the men in New York decided to see the new year in in a festive way. The town was painted very red that night. The theatres were filled with stag parties, and as 12 o'clock approached the principal restaurants and cafes were crowded to the doors. When it struck the hour the hubbub was tremendous, and the pounding on the tables, singing and congratulations turned many of the most ordinary uptown eating places into beer gardens. At 2 o'clock in the morning the streets were alive with the men who were singing the new year in with noise enough to frighten it out of its wits.

Website: The History
Article Name: Life In New York City: Random Gossip 1885 #1
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


Brooklyn Daily Eagle January 4,1885
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