June 5th, 1867
“I have at last, after several months’ experience, made up my mind that it is a splendid desert – a domed and steepled solitude, where the stranger is lonely in the midst of a million of his race. A man walks his tedious miles through the same interminable street every day, elbowing his way through a buzzing multitude of men, yet never seeing a familiar face, and never seeing a strange one the second time. He visits a friend once – it is a day’s journey – and then stays away from that time forward till that friend cools to a mere acquaintance, and finally to a stranger. So there is little sociability, and, consequently, there is little cordiality. Every man seems to feel that he has got the duties of two lifetimes to accomplish in one, and so he rushes, rushes, rushes, and never has time to be companionable – never has any time at his disposal to fool away on matters which do not involve dollars and duty and business.
All this has a tendency to make the city-bred man impatient of interruption, suspicious of strangers, and fearful of being bored, and his business interfered with. The natural result is, that the striking want of heartiness observable here, some times even among old friends, degenerates into something which is hardly even chilly politeness towards strangers. A large party of Californians were discussing this matter yesterday evening, and one said he didn’t believe there was any genuine fellow feeling in the camp. Another said: “Come, now, don’t judge with out a full hearing – try all classes; try everybody; go to the Young Men’s Christian Association.” But the first speaker said: “My son, I have been to the Young Men’s Christian Association, and it isn’t any use; it was the same old thing – thermometer at 32 degrees, which is the freezing notch, if I understand it. They were polite there, exasperatingly polite, just as they are outside. One of them prayed for the stranger within his gates – meaning me – but it was plain enough that he didn’t mean his petition to be taken in earnest. It simply amounted to this, that he didn’t know me, but would recommend me to mercy, anyhow, since it was customary, but didn’t wish to be misunderstood as taking any personal interest in the matter.”
Of course that was rather a strong exaggeration, but I thought it was a pretty fair satire upon the serene indifference of the New Yorker to everybody and everything without the pale of his private and individual circle.
There is something about this ceaseless buzz, and hurry, and bustle, that keeps a stranger in a state of unwholesome excitement all the time, and makes him restless and uneasy, and saps from him all capacity to enjoy anything or take a strong interest in any matter whatever – a something which impels him to try to do everything, and yet permits him to do nothing. He is a boy in a candy-shop – could choose quickly if there were but one kind of candy, but is hopelessly undetermined in the midst of a hundred kinds. A stranger feels unsatisfied, here, a good part of the time. He starts to a library; changes, and moves toward a theatre; changes again and thinks he will visit a friend; goes within a biscuit-toss of a picture-gallery, a billiard-room, a beer cellar and a circus, in succession, and finally drifts home and to bed, without having really done anything or gone anywhere. He don’t go anywhere because he can’t go everywhere, I suppose. This fidgety, feverish restlessness will drive a man crazy, after a while, or kill him. It kills a good many dozens now – by suicide. I have got to get out of it.
There is one thing very sure – I can’t keep my temper in New York. The cars and carriages always come along and get in the way just as I want to cross a street, and if there is any thing that can make a man soar into flights of sublimity in the matter of profanity, it is that. You know that, yourself. However, I must be accurate – I must speak truth, and say there is one thing that is more annoying. That is to go down West Tenth street hunting for the Art building, No. 51. You are tired, and your feet are hot and swollen, and you wouldn’t start, only you calculate that it cannot be more than two blocks away, and you almost feel a genuine desire to go and see the picture on exhibition without once changing your mind. Very well. You come to No. 7; and directly you come to 142! You stare a minute, and then step back and start over again – but it isn’t any use – when you are least expecting it, comes that unaccountable jump. You cross over, and find Nos. 18, 20, 22, and then perhaps you jump to 376! Your gall begins to rise. You go on. You get on a trail, at last, the figures leading by regular approaches up toward 51 – but when you have walked four blocks they start at 49 and begin to run the other way! You are perspiring and furious by this time, but you keep desperately on, and speculate on new and complicated forms of profanity. And behold, in time the numbers become bewilderingly complicated: on one door i8 a 3 on a little tin scrap, on the next a 17 in gold characters a foot square, on the next a 19, a 5 and a 137, one above the other and in three different styles of figuring! You do not swear any more now, of course, because you can’t find any words that are long enough or strong enough to fit the case. You feel degraded and ignominious and subjugated. And there and then you say that you will go away from New York and start over again; and that you will never come back to settle permanently till you have learned to swear with the utmost fluency in seventeen different languages. You become more tranquil, now, because you see your way clearly before you, how that, when you are properly accomplished, you can live in this great city and still be happy; you feel that in that day, when a subject shall defy English, you can try the Arabic, the Hungarian, the Japanese, the Kulu-Kaffir, and when the worst comes to the worst, you can come the Hindostanee on it and conquer. After this, you go tranquilly on for a matter of seventeen blocks and find 51 sandwiched in between Nos. 13 and 32,986. Then you wish you had never been born, to come to a strange land and suffer in this way.
Well, I intended, when I started out, to give my views of the pleasant side of New York, but I perceive that I have wandered into the wrong vein, and 80 I will stop short and give it up until I find myself in a more fortunate humor. I do not think that I could twist myself around now any easier than I could turn myself inside out.”