GIVE ME ANY TOPIC in current sociology, such as “The Working Classes vs. the Working Classes,” or “Various Aspects of the Minimum Wage,” and I can talk on it with considerable confidence. I have no hesitation in putting the Workingman, as such, in his place among the hewers of wood and drawers of water—a necessary adjunct to our modern life, if you will, but of little real consequence in the big events of the world.
|Drawing by Gluyas Williams|
For instance, whenever I enter an elevator in a public building I am usually repeating to myself the number of the floor at which I wish to alight. The elevator man gives the impression of being a social worker, filling the job just for that day to help out the regular elevator man, and I feel that the least I can do is to show him that I know what’s what. So I don’t tell him my floor number as soon as I get in. Only elderly ladies do that. I keep whispering it over to myself, thinking to tell it to the world when the proper time comes. But then the big question arises – what is the proper time? If I want to get out at the eighteenth floor, should I tell him at the sixteenth or the seventeenth? I decide on the sixteenth and frame my lips to say, “Eighteen out, please.” (Just why one should have to add the word “out” to the number of the floor is not clear. When you say “eighteen” the obvious construction of the phrase is that you want to get out at the eighteenth floor, not that you want to get in there or be let down through the flooring of the car at that point. However, you’ll find the most sophisticated elevator riders, namely, messenger boys, always adding the word “out,” and it is well to follow what the messenger boys do in such matters if you don’t want to go wrong.)
So there I am, mouthing the phrase, “Eighteen out, please,” as we shoot past the tenth – eleventh – twelfth – thirteenth floors. Then I begin to get panicky. Supposing that I should forget my lines! Or that I should say them too soon! Or too late! We are now at the fifteenth floor. I clear my throat. Sixteen! Hoarsely I murmur, “Eighteen out.” But at the same instant a man with a cigar in his mouth bawls, “Seventeen out!” and I am not heard.
The car stops at seventeen, and I step confidentially up to the elevator man and repeat, with an attempt at nonchalance, “Eighteen out, please.” But just as I say the words the door clangs, drowning out my request, and we shoot up again. I make another attempt, but have become inarticulate and succeed only in making a noise like a man strangling. And by this time we are at the twenty-first floor with no relief in sight. Shattered, I retire to the back of the car and ride up to the roof and down again, trying to look as if I worked in the building and had to do it, however boresome it might be. On the return trip I don’t care what the elevator man thinks of me, and tell him at every floor that I, personally, am going to get off at the eighteenth, no matter what any one else in the car does. I am dictatorial enough when I am riled. It is only in the opening rounds that I hug the ropes.
My timidity when dealing with minor officials strikes me first in my voice. I have any number of witnesses who will sign statements to the effect that my voice changed about twelve years ago, and that in ordinary conversation my tone, if not especially virile, is at least consistent and even. But when, for instance, I give an order at a soda fountain, if the clerk overawes me at all, my voice breaks into a yodel that makes the phrase “Coffee, egg and milk” a pretty snatch of song, but practically worthless as an order.
|Drawing by Gluyas Williams|
For there is something about the realization that I must shout out my order ahead of some one else that absolutely inhibits my shouting powers. I will stand against the counter, fingering my ten-cent check and waiting for the clerk to come near enough for me to tell him what I want, while, in the meantime, ten or a dozen people have edged up next to me and given their orders, received their drinks and gone away. Every once in a while I catch a clerk’s eye and lean forward murmuring, “Coffee” – but that is as far as I get. Some one else has shoved his way in and shouted, “Coca-Cola,” and I draw back to get out of the way of the vichy spray. (Incidentally, the men who push their way in and footfault on their orders always ask for “Coca-Cola.” Somehow it seems like painting the lily for them to order a nerve tonic.)
I then decide that the thing for me to do is to speak up loud and act brazenly. So I clear my throat, and, placing both hands on the counter, emit what promises to be a perfect bellow: “COFFEE, MEGG AND ILK.” This makes just about the impression you’d think it would, both on my neighbors and the clerk, especially as it is delivered in a tone which ranges from a rich barytone to a rather rasping tenor. At this I withdraw and go to the other end of the counter, where I can begin life over again with a clean slate.
Here, perhaps, I am suddenly confronted by an impatient clerk who is in a perfect frenzy to grab my check and tear it into bits to drop in his box. “What’s yours?” he flings at me. I immediately lose my memory and forget what it was that I wanted. But here is a man who has a lot of people to wait on and who doubtless gets paid according to the volume of business he brings in. I have no right to interfere with his work. There is a big man edging his way beside me who is undoubtedly going to shout “Coca-Cola” in half a second. So I beat him to it and say, “Coca-Cola,” which is probably the last drink in the store that I want to buy. But it is the only thing that I can remember at the moment, in spite of the fact that I have been thinking all morning how good a coffee, egg and milk would taste. I suppose that one of the psychological principles of advertising is to so hammer the name of your product into the mind of the timid buyer that when he is confronted by a brusk demand for an order be can’t think of anything else to say, whether he wants it or not.
This dread of offending the minor official or appearing to a disadvantage before a clerk extends even to my taking nourishment. I don’t think that I have ever yet gone into a restaurant and ordered exactly what I wanted. If only the waiter would give me the card and let me alone for, say, fifteen minutes, as he does when I want to get him to bring me my check, I could work out a meal along the lines of what I like. But when he stands over me, with disgust clearly registered on his face, I order the thing I like least and consider myself lucky to get out of it with so little disgrace.
And yet I have no doubt that if one could see him in his family life the Workingman is just an ordinary person like the rest of us. He is probably not at all as we think of him in our dealings with him – a harsh, dictatorial, intolerant autocrat, but rather a kindly soul who likes nothing better than to sit by the fire with his children and read.
And he would probably be the first person to scoff at the idea that he could frighten me.
– Robert Benchley, New York Tribune Magazine, 3 September 1916. (Collected in Of All Things, Henry Holt, 1921.)