Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist/Part II/Chapter 10
Chapter 10: The YeggEdit
WEEKS AND MONTHS pass without clarifying plans of escape. Every step, every movement, is so closely guarded, I seem to be hoping against hope. I am restive and nervous, in a constant state of excitement.
Conditions in the shop tend to aggravate my frame of mind. The task of the machine men has been increased; in consequence, I am falling behind in my work. My repeated requests for assistance have been ignored by the overseer, who improves every opportunity to insult and humiliate me. His feet wide apart, arms akimbo, belly disgustingly protruding, he measures me with narrow, fat eyes. "Oh, what's the matter with you," he drawls, "get a move on, won't you, Burk?" Then, changing his tone, he vociferates, "Don't stand there like a fool, d'ye hear? Nex' time I report you, to th' hole you go. That's me talkin', understand?"
Often I feel the spirit of Cain stirring within me. But for the hope of escape, I should not be able to bear this abuse and persecution. As it is, the guard is almost overstepping the limits of my endurance. His low cunning invents numerous occasions to mortify and harass me. The ceaseless dropping of the poison is making my days in the shop a constant torture. I seek relief-forgetfulness rather-in absorbing myself in the work: I bend my energies to outdo the efforts of the previous day; 1 compete with myself, and find melancholy pleasure in establishing and breaking high records for "turning." Again, I tax my ingenuity to perfect means of communication with Johnny Davis, my young'neighbor. Apparently intent upon our task, we carry on a silent conversation with eyes, fingers, and an occasional motion of the lips. To facilitate the latter method, I am cultivating the habit of tobacco chewing. The practice also affords greater opportunity for exchanging impressions with my newly-acquired assistant, an old-timer, who introduced himself as "Boston Red." I owe this development to the return of the Warden from his vacation. Yesterday he visited the shop. A military- looking man, with benevolent white beard and stately carriage, he approached me, in company with the Superintendent of Prison Manufactures.
"Is this the celebrated prisoner?" he asked, a faint smile about the rather coarse mouth.
"Yes, Captain, that's Berkman, the man who shot Frick."
"I was in Naples at the time. I read about you in the English papers there, Berkman. How is his conduct, Superintendent?"
"Well, he should have behaved outside."
But noticing the mountain of unturned hosiery, the Warden ordered the overseer to give me help, and thus "Boston Red" joined me at work the next day.
My assistant is taking great pleasure in perfecting me in the art of lipless conversation. A large quid of tobacco inflating his left cheek, mouth slightly open and curved, he delights in recounting "ghost stories," under the very eyes of the officers. "Red" is initiating me into the world of "de road," with its free life, so full of interest and adventure, its romance, joys and sorrows. An interesting character, indeed, who facetiously pretends to "look down upon the world from the sublime heights of applied cynicism."
"Why, Red, you can talk good English," I admonish him. "Why do you use so much slang? It's rather difficult for me to follow you."
"I'll learn you, pard, See, I should have said 'teach' you, not 'learn.' That's how they talk in school. Have I been there? Sure, boy. Gone through college. Went through it with a bucket of coal," he amplifies, with a sly wink. He turns to expectorate, sweeping the large shop with a quick, watchful eye. Head bent over the work, he continues in low, guttural tones:
"Don't care for your classic language. I can use it all right, all right, But give me the lingo, every time. You see, pard, I'm no gun'; don't need it in me biz. I'm a yegg.
"What's a yegg, Red?"
"A supercilious world of cheerful idiots applies to my kind the term 'tramp."'
"A yegg, then, is a tramp. I am surprised that you should care for the life of a bum."
A flush suffuses the prison pallor of the assistant. "You are stoopid as the rest of 'em," he retorts, with considerable heat, and I notice his lips move as in ordinary conversation. But in a moment he has regained composure, and a good-humored twinkle plays about his eyes.
"Sir," he continues, with mock dignity, "to say the least, you are not discriminative in your terminology. No, sir, you are not. Now, lookee here, pard, you're a good boy, but your education has been sadly neglected. Catch on? Don't call me that name again. It's offensive. It's an insult, entirely gratuitous, sir. Indeed, sir, I may say without fear of contradiction, that this insult is quite supervacaneous. Yes, sir, that's me. I ain't no bum, see; no such damn thing. Eliminate the disgraceful epithet from your vocabulary, sir, when you are addressing yours truly. I am a yagg, y-a- double g, sir, of the honorable clan of yaggmen. Some spell it y-e- double g, but I insist on the a, sir, as grammatically more correct, since the peerless word has no etymologic consanguinity with hen fruit, and should not be confounded by vulgar misspelling."
"What's the difference between a yegg and a bum?"
"All the diff in the world, pard. A bum is a low-down city bloke, whose intellectual horizon, sir, revolves around the back door, with a skinny hand-out as his center of gravity. He hasn't the nerve to forsake his native heath and roam the wide world, a free and independent gentleman. That's the yagg, me bye. He dares to be and do, all bulls notwithstanding. He lives, aye, he lives,-on the world of suckers, thank you, sir. Of them 'tis wisely said in the good Book, 'They shall increase and multiply like the sands of the seashore/ or words to that significant effect. A yagg's the salt of the earth, pard. A real, trueblood yagg will not deign to breathe the identical atmosphere with a city bum or gaycat. No, sirree."
I am about to ask for an explanation of the new term, when the quick, short coughs of "Red" warn me of danger. The guard is approaching with heavy, measured tread, head thrown back, hands clasped behind,-a sure indication of profound self-satisfaction.
"How are you, Reddie?" he greets the assistant.
"Ain't been out long, have you?"
"That's pretty long for you."
"Oh, I dunno. I've been out four years oncet."
"Yes, you have! Been in Columbus' then, I s'pose."
"Not on your life, Mr. Cosson. It was Sing Sing."
"Ha, ha! You're all right, Red. But you'd better hustle up, fellers. I'm putting in ten more machines, so look lively."
"When's the machines comin', Mr. Cosson?
"Pretty soon, Red."
The officer passing on, "Red" whispers to me:
"Aleck, 'pretty soon' is jest the time I'll quit. Damn his work and the new machines. I ain't no gaycat to work. Think I'm a nigger, eh? No, sir, the world owes me a living, and I generally manage to get it, you bet you. Only mules and niggers work. I'm a free man; I can live on my wits, see? I don't never work outside; damme if I'll work here. I ain't no office-seeker. What d' I want to work for, eh? Can you tell me that?"
"Are you going to refuse work?"
"Refuse? Me? Nixie. That's a crude word, that. No, sir, I never refuse. They'll knock your damn block off, if you refuse. I merely avoid, sir, discriminately and with steadfast purpose. Work is a disease, me bye. One must exercise the utmost care to avoid contagion. It's a regular pest. You never worked, did you? "
The unexpected turn surprises me into a smile, which I quickly suppress, however, observing the angry frown on "Red's" face.
"You bloke," he hisses, "shut your face; the screw'll pipe you. You'll get us in th' hole for chewin' th' rag. Whatcher hehawin' about?" he demands, repeating the maneuver of pretended expectoration. "Dye mean t' tell me you work?"
"I am a printer, a compositor," I inform him.
"Get off! You're an Anarchist. I read the papers, sir. You people don't believe in work. You want to divvy up. Well, it is all right, I'm with you. Rockefeller has no right to the whole world. He ain't satisfied with that, either; he wants a fence around it."
"The Anarchists don't want to 'divvy up/ Red. You got your misinformation-"
"Oh, never min, pard. I don' take stock in reforming the world. It's good enough for suckers, and as Holy Writ says, sir, 'Blessed be they that neither sow nor hog; all things shall be given unto them.' Them's wise words, me bye. Moreover, sir, neither you nor me will live to see a change, so why should I worry me nut about 't? It takes all my wits to dodge work. It's disgraceful to labor, and it keeps me industriously busy, sir, to retain my honor and self-respect. Why, you know, pard, or perhaps you don't, greenie, Columbus is a pretty tough dump; but d'ye think I worked the four-spot there? Not me; no, sirree! "
"Didn't you tell Cosson you were in Sing Sing, not in Columbus? "
"'Corse I did. What of it? Think I'd open my guts to my Lord Bighead? I've never been within thirty miles of the York pen. It was Hail Columbia all right, but that's between you an' I, savvy. Don' want th' screws to get next."
"Well, Red, how did you manage to keep away from work in Columbus?"
"Manage? That's right, sir. 'Tis a word of profound significance, quite adequately descriptive of my humble endeavors. just what I did, buddy. I managed, with a capital M. To good purpose, too, me bye. Not a stroke of work in a four-spot. How? I had Billie with me, that's me kid, you know, an' a fine boy he was, too. I had him put a jigger on me; kept it up for four years. There's perseverance and industry for you, sir."
"What's 'putting a jigger on?
"A jigger? Well, a jigger is-"
The noon whistle interrupts the explanation. With a friendly wink in my direction, the assistant takes his place in the line. In silence we march to the cell-house, the measured footfall echoing a hollow threat in the walled quadrangle of the prison yard.
Conversation with "Boston Red," Young Davis, and occasional other prisoners helps to while away the tedious hours at work. But in the solitude of the cell, through the long winter evenings, my mind dwells in the outside world. Friends, the movement, the growing antagonisms, the bitter controversies between the Mostianer and the defenders of my act, fill my thoughts and dreams. By means of fictitious, but significant, names, Russian and German words written backward, and similar devices, the Girl keeps me informed of the activities in our circles. I think admiringly, yet quite impersonally, of her strenuous militancy in championing my cause against all attacks. It is almost weak on my part, as a terrorist of Russian traditions, to consider her devotion deserving of particular commendation. She is a revolutionist; it is her duty to our common Cause. Courage, wholesouled zeal, is very rare, it is true. The Girl, Fedya, and a few others,-hence the sad lack of general opposition in the movement to Most's attitude.... But communications from comrades and unknown sympathizers germinate the hope of an approaching reaction against the campaign of denunciation. With great joy I trace the ascending revolutionary tendency in Der Arme Teufel. I have persuaded the Chaplain to procure the admission of the ingenious Robert Reitzel's publication, All the other periodicals addressed to me are regularly assigned to the waste basket, by orders of the Deputy. The latter refused to make an exception even in regard to the Knights of Labor Journal. "It is an incendiary Anarchist sheet," he persisted.
The arrival of the Teufel is a great event. What joy to catch sight of the paper snugly reposing between the legs of the cell table! Tenderly I pick it up, fondling the little visitor with quickened pulse. It is an animate, living thing, a ray of warmth in the dreary evenings. What cheering message does Reitzel bring me now? What beauties of his rich mind are hidden today in the quaint German type? Reverently I unfold the roll. The uncut sheet opens on the fourth page, and the stirring paean of Hope's prophecy greets my eye,- Oruss an Alexanbrr Berkman!
For days the music of the Dawn rings in my ears. Again and again recurs the refrain of faith and proud courage,:
Schon ruftet rich der freiheit Schaar
Zur heiligen Entfcheidungsfchlacht;
Es enden "zweiundzwanzig" Jahr'
Dielleicht in einer Sturmesnacht!
But in the evening, when I return to the cell, reality lays its heavy hand upon my heart. The flickering of the candle accentuates the gloom, and I sit brooding over the interminable succession of miserable days and evenings and nights.... The darkness gathers around the candle, as I motionlessly watch its desperate struggle to be. its dying agony, ineffectual and vain, presages my own doom, approaching, inevitable. Weaker and fainter grows the light, feebler, feebler- a last spasm, and all is utter blackness.
Three bells. "Lights out!"
Alas, mine did not last its permitted hour....
The sun streaming into the many-windowed shop routs the night, and dispels the haze of the fire-spitting city. Perhaps my little candle with its bold defiance has shortened the reign of darkness,-who knows? Perhaps the brave, uneven struggle coaxed the sun out of his slumbers, and hastened the coming of Day. The fancy lures me with its warming embrace, when suddenly the assistant startles me:
"Say, pard, slept bad last night? You look boozy, me lad."
Surprised at my silence, he admonishes me:
"Young man, keep a stiff upper lip. just look at me! Permit me to introduce to you, sir, a gentleman who has sounded the sharps and flats of life, and faced the most intricate network, sir, of iron bars between York and Frisco. Always acquitted himself with flying colors, sir, merely by being wise and preserving a stiff upper lip; see th' point?"
"What are you driving at, Red?"
"They'se goin' to move me down on your row, 3 now that I'm in this 'ere shop. Dunno how long I shall choose to remain, sir, in this magnificent hosiery establishment, but I see there's a vacant cell next yours, an' I'm goin' to try an' land there. Are you next, me bye? I'm goin' to learn you to be wise, sonny. I shall, so to speak, assume benevolent guardianship over you; over you and your morals, yes, sir, for you're my kid now, see?
"How, your kid?"
"How? My kid, of course. That's just what I mean. Any objections, sir, as the learned gentlemen of the law say in the honorable courts of the blind goddess. You betcher life she's blind, blind as an owl on a sunny midsummer day. Not in your damn smoky city, though; sun's ashamed here. But 'way down in my Kentucky home, down by the Suanee River, Sua-a-neece Riv-"
"Hold on, Red. You are romancing. You started to tell me about being your 'kid.' Now explain, what do you mean by it?"
"Really, you-" He holds the unturned stocking suspended over the post, gazing at me with half-closed, cynical eyes, in which doubt struggles with wonder. In his astonishment he has forgotten his wonted caution, and I warn him of the officer's watchful eye.
"Really, Alex; well, now, damme, I've seen something of this 'ere round globe, some mighty strange sights, too, and there ain't many things to surprise me, lemme tell you. But you do, Alex; yes, me lad, you do. Haven't had such a stunnin' blow since I first met Cigarette Jimmie in Oil City. Innocent? Well, I should snicker. He was, for sure, Never heard a ghost story; was fourteen, too. Well, I got 'im all right, all right. Now he's doin' a five-bit down in Kansas, poor kiddie. Well, he certainly was a surprise. But many tempestuous billows of life, sir, have since flown into the shoreless ocean of time, yes, sir, they have, but I never got such a stunner as you just gave me. Why, man, it's a body-blow, a reg'lar knockout to my knowledge of the world, sir, to my settled estimate of the world's supercilious righteousness. Well, damme, if I'd ever believe it. Say, how old are you, Alex?"
"I'm over twenty-two, Red. But what has all this to do with the question I asked you?"
"Everythin', me bye, everythin'. You're twenty-two and don't know what a kid is! Well, if it don't beat raw eggs, I don't know what does. Green? Well, sir, it would be hard to find an adequate analogy to your inconsistent immaturity of mind; aye, sir, I may well say, of soul, except to compare it with the virtuous condition of green corn in the early summer moon. You know what 'moon' is, don't you?" he asks, abruptly, with an evident effort to suppress a smile.
I am growing impatient of his continuous avoidance of a direct answer. Yet I cannot find it in my heart to be angry with him; the face expressive of a deep-felt conviction of universal wisdom, the eyes of humorous cynicism, and the ludicrous manner of mixing tramp slang with "classic" English, all disarm my irritation. Besides, his droll chatter helps to while away the tedious hours at work; perhaps I may also glean from this experienced old-timer some useful information regarding my plans of escape.
"Well, d'ye know a moon when you see 't?" "Red" inquires, chaffingly.
"I suppose I do."
"I'll bet you my corn dodger you don't. Sir, I can see by the tip of your olfactory organ that you are steeped in the slough of densest ignorance concerning the supreme science of moonology. Yes, sir, do not contradict me. I brook no skeptical attitude regarding my undoubted and proven perspicacity of human nature. How's that for classic style, eh? That'll hold you down a moment, kid. As I was about to say when you interrupted-eh, what? You didn't? Oh, what's the matter with you? Don't yer go now an' rooin the elegant flight of my rhetorical Pegasus with an insignificant interpolation of mere fact. None of your lip, now, boy, an'lemme develop this sublime science of moonology before your wondering gaze. To begin with, sir, moonology is an exclusively aristocratic science. Not for the pretenders of Broad Street and Fifth Avenue. Nixie. But for the only genuine aristocracy of de road, sir, for the pink of humankind, for the yaggman, me lad, for yours truly and his clan. Yes, sirree!"
"I don't know what you are talking about."
"I know you don't. That's why I'm goin' to chaperon you, kid. In plain English, sir, I shall endeavor to generate within your postliminious comprehension a discriminate conception of the subject at issue, sir, by divesting my lingo of the least shadow of imperspicuity or ambiguity. Moonology, my Marktwainian Innocent, is the truly Christian science of loving your neighbor, provided he be a nice little boy. Understand now?"
"How can you love a boy?"
"Are you really so dumb? You are not a ref boy, I can see that. "
"Red, if you'd drop your stilted language and talk plainly, I'd understand better."
"Thought you liked the classic. But you ain't long on lingo neither. How can a self-respecting gentleman explain himself to you? But I'll try. You love a boy as you love the poet-sung heifer, see? Ever read Billy Shakespeare? Know the place, 'He's neither man nor woman; he's punk.' Well, Billy knew. A punk's a boy that'll
"Yes, sir. Give himself to a man. Now we'se talkin' plain. Savvy now, Innocent Abroad?"
"I don't believe what you are telling me, Red."
"You don't be-lie-ve? What th' devil-damn me soul t' hell, what d' you mean, you don't b'lieve? Gee, look out!"
The look of bewilderment on his face startles me. In his excitement, he had raised his voice almost to a shout, attracting the attention of the guard, who is now hastening toward us.
"Who's talkin' here?" he demands, suspiciously eyeing the knitters. "You, Davis?"
"Who was, then?"
"Nobody here, Mr. Cosson."
"Yes, they was. I heard hollerin'."
"Oh, that was me," Davis replies, with a quick glance at me. "I hit my elbow against the machine."
"Let me see 't."
The guard scrutinizes the bared arm.
"Wa-a-ll," he says, doubtfully, "it don't look sore."
"It hurt, and I hollered."
The officer turns to my assistant: "Has he been talkin, Reddie? "
"I don't think he was, Cap'n."
Pleased with the title, Cosson smiles at "Red," and passes on, with a final warning to the boy: "Don't you let me catch you at it again, you hear!"
During the rest of the day the overseers exercise particular vigilance over our end of the shop. But emboldened by the increased din of the new knitting machinery, "Red" soon takes up the conversation again.
"Screws can't hear us now," he whispers, "'cept they's close to us. But watch your lips, boy; the damn bulls got sharp lamps. An' don' scare me again like that. Why, you talk so f oolish, you make me plumb forget myself. Say, that kid is all to the good, ain't he? What's his name, Johnny Davis? Yes, a wise kid all right. just like me own Billie I tole you 'bout. He was no punk, either, an' don't you forget it. True as steel, he was; stuck to me through my four-spot like th' bark to a tree. Say, what's that you said, you don't believe what I endeavored so conscientiously, sir, to drive into your noodle? You was only kiddin' me, wasn't you?"
"No, Red, I meant it quite seriously. You're spinning ghost stories, or whatever you call it. I don't believe in this kid love."
"An' why don't you believe it? "
"Why-er-well, I don't think it possible.
"What isn't possible?"
"You know what I mean. I don't think there can be such intimacy between those of the same sex."
"Ho, ho! That's your point? Why, Alex, you're more of a damfool than the casual observer, sir, would be apt to postulate. You don't believe it possible, you don't, eh? Well, you jest gimme half a chance, and I'll show you."
"Red, don't you talk to me like that," I burst out, angrily. ,,if you-"
"Aisy, aisy, me bye," he interrupts, good-naturedly. "Don't get on your high horse. No harm meant, Alex. You're a good boy, but you jest rattle me with your crazy talk. Why, you're bugs to say it's impossible. Man alive, the dump's chuckful of punks. It's done in every prison, an' on th' road, everywhere. Lord, if I had a plunk for every time I got th' best of a kid, I'd rival Rockefeller, sir; I would, me bye."
"You actually confess to such terrible practices? You're disgusting. But I don't really believe it, Red."
"Confess hell! I confess nothin'. Terrible, disgusting! You talk like a man up a tree, you holy sky-pilot."
"Are there no women on the road?"
"Pshaw! Who cares for a heifer when you can get a kid? Women are no good. I wouldn't look at 'em when I can have my prushun. Oh, it is quite evident, sir, you have not delved into the esoteric mysteries of moonology, nor tasted the mellifluous fruit on the forbidden tree of-"
"Well, you'll know better before your time's up, me virtuous sonny."
For several days my assistant fails to appear in the shop on account of illness. He has been "excused" by the doctor, the guard informs me. I miss his help at work; the hours drag heavier for lack of "Red's" companionship. Yet I am gratified by his absence. His cynical attitude toward woman and sex morality has roused in me a spirit of antagonism. The panegyrics of boy-love are deeply offensive to my instincts. The very thought of the unnatural practice revolts and disgusts me. But I find solace in the reflection that "Red's" insinuations are pure fabrication; no credence is to be given them. Man, a reasonable being, could not fall to such depths; he could not be guilty of such unspeakably vicious practices. Even the lowest outcast must not be credited with such perversion, such depravity. I should really take the matter more calmly. The assistant is a queer fellow; he is merely teasing me. These things are not credible; indeed, I don't believe they are possible. And even if they were, no human being would be capable of such iniquity. I must not suffer "Red's" chaffing to disturb me.