The Babe


The Mom had a gift of gab, but certain lines suffered from repetition. At any time one might receive gems like "Do you think that all I have to do is to clean up after you?" or "Get your toys out of the way; I have to sweep the floor," or "Put your things back where they belong." There were in fact more unusual lines: "I want all of your things out of your room today! It has to be painted." All! Do you know what All is? You do know and I shall not go into it. It was enough to destroy half the precious summer morning, reveal the most embarrassing and critically vulnerable conditions and possessions, and temporarily strew disorder over half the flat.

On Saturday the scene became heavy: "Fix your bed. And when you do that, hang up your clothes and sweep the floor. Under the bed, too. And scrub the stairs. And get it out of your heads that you are going out before all of your work is done. Today we have to wash the windows too. And you look at your shoes; don't you ever shine them? You shine your shoes and comb your hair; you look a mess." There was no obliqueness or indirectness, no cutesy "Some little boy's shoes need shining," or "If only some good boy would help his Mother wash down the stairs," or "Mother gets so tired picking up things," no pretended martyrdom: just "You... You... You..."

Lucky if this were not a winter morning, for then it would extend farther: "And the ashes need dumping. And bring up the coal before you do the stairs; last week you spilled coal dust and ashes all over the stairs even after they were cleaned and you had to do them all over again..." Then, as an afterthought, "Whose turn was it to do the dishes yesterday? You left the frying pan full of grease in the oven." He hopped from the frying pan full of grease into the fire: "There wasn't any Kitchen Kleanser to clean it with." "Well, as soon as you finish with your work, go out and buy some."

The Mom's cheerful upbeat voice, even in its imperative vein, gave no one the shivers. Still, on a warm Spring morning the message by any medium cast a nasty gloom. The outside work that they had in mind had its own imperatives, none of which were authorized: the Babe's roller skate needed a strap. Unless he found a strap it would come off. He could tie it with rope but the rope would either be too loose to hold it or so tight it would hurt. If the skate kept coming off in the prospective hockey game, he'd lose. "She's always warning us about fixing things before they break, but those are Her Things." How did it go, the riddle she gaily recited to them, "and from Our Book, Jeez,"

For want of a nail the shoe was lost

For want of a shoe the horse was lost

For want of a horse the King was lost

For want of a King the Kingdom was lost

"Gee!" and it was about horses, and battles, and kings, matters he was compelled to heed.

Or, more usual, was the ball-game. The players forgathered early and loudly, their voices wafting easily up the three stories; the clatter of a dropped bat on the pavement was poignantly unmistakable, and, if this morning there was some new visiting player or the promise of a practically new sixteen-inch leather-covered ball, well then, heaven was at hand and its call was imperative: "Come on out, you guys!"

"Hear that?" they told the Mom. "Their mothers don't make them work like you do. Their mothers do their own housework."

Angered, Kate declares that those boys must live in pigsties; they had no respect for their poor mothers; they were badly raised; their mothers fed them junk. "Do you believe that they get the kind of good home cooking you get? They'll amount to nothing, you'll see... And you better do a good job or you won't get out at all!" -- a threat of elevated quality controls that never failed to disquiet them. "Aw, nuts," they said disgustedly, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," they jeered at her.

The Mom had a decade of external laundry services before the Depression had her ordering only wet-wash, which was delivered in a large white sack, instead of the finished product. Still the ironing board came popping out of the pantry with distressing frequency, and, as you can imagine, the boys had been inducted into the mysteries of the flatiron. Not the Dad's shirts, not Her stuff, but just about everything else passed unevenly and erratically beneath their hands: the comfortable smell of steaming, cooking, smoothed cloth was the pleasant side of an endless processing of the coverings of the hairless apes.

Rugs were in every room and they all needed to be "Hoovered". Herbert Hoover, the President, was long considered by the Babe to be the inventor of the vacuum cleaner of that name and this did nothing to improve the image of the starched-face man he came to believe had promulgated the Great Depression.

The brutal treatment, heroically withstood, of the Hoover vacuum cleaner, must be exposed. It was dashed at corners in the hope of scooping a particle caught in the angle, imagining the flat scoop to be a prow, instead of changing neatly the appliance for the broad areas into the special cornering scoop; the machine rebounded with a crash and groan. To get maximum suction (in case anyone should ask) one boy would step on the head and get a free ride; the other pushed the machine by its long handle, hoping to de-horse the rodeo rider. Maintenance was minimal. Cleaning the bag of dirt was disgusting and they insisted that it was not full even when it bulged like a blowfish and sucked with a mere faint wheeze. Then, beneath the outraged menacing maternal figure, newspapers were spread, the filth was shaken down, wrapped up and carried down to the alley ash-can.

A propos insect pests, it was questionable which parent had the upper hand, for the Dad entered here with a kind of direct fury that relegated the boys to by-standing: I refer to flies, mosquitos, moths, cockroaches, and bed bugs. Tolerant, nay, even affectionate toward butterflies, june-bugs, and fireflies, which nevertheless he would quickly evict from the interior by way of the windows, he turned his attention to exterminating all other living forms. In those days, before DDT, this was not a completely one-sided battle.

He cried havoc upon the appearance of a bed bug or bite thereof. Mattresses were pulled off the beds and turned upside down to be inspected in every crevice and for any possible hole in the matting; every skin blemish was examined to determine whether it was a bite; wall cracks were plastered and floor boards pried up; clothing was nitpicked. If all this did not put an end to the minuscule offenders, renewed assaults were ordered within the fortnight. In all of these operations, the boys might hope to be allowed to spray the scene with a vile fluid sometimes labelled as "Black Flag," whereupon all would retreat, leaving the bugs to their terminal agonies. Cockroaches aroused the same frightful aggression. Flies were hunted down by day and mosquitos by night; the Dad would refuse to retire if he deemed a mosquito to be alive in the flat.

Every Saturday Bro Bus and the Babe scrubbed the stairs as if driven by the devil. There was no escaping the task. The light unvarnished oak steps became quite black in the course of the week, for which the fully industrialized City, operated and heated by coal, and transforming many of the most noxious industrial pollutants, deserved some blame. Soot and chemicals were raining down continuously, even during the Depression, for then cheaper and dirtier fuels were consumed, and waste disposal was neglected so far as possible. Coal-fueled locomotives penetrated far into the interior of the City. The Loop was entirely surrounded by smoke-belching engines. Trucks, replacing the horses, added inefficiently burned gases to the atmosphere.

Industry and transportation came proudly forward in Chicago. "Chicago is blessed by the fresh breeze off the Lake," the boosters proclaimed, but the Lake breezes crossed the train yards and came up past East Chicago and Calumet City. And the Lake breezes were pathetic compared to the more common winds from the opposite direction.

No one ever called Chicago a clean city. It was said that the garbage disposal system was neat and cheap: "We kick it around until it gets lost." A boy could usually shovel up a bucket of black dirt from the gutter and it was composed not alone of leaves and horse manure, you may rest assured. As a matter of course you coughed and spit (and the Chicago boys could spit as far and straight as anyone) and nasally blew blackish excretions into your handkerchief or onto the pavement. Moreover, since Chicagoans did not, being unlike the Oriental peoples whom they believed to be dirty, remove their footgear when entering a home or office, the floors or carpets gave up weekly their share of black dust and grime.

Some of this came in the windows as well. Whereas the plumbing industry and its convoluted products were a source of Chicago pride, home and office insulation were strangely primitive and storm windows were practically unknown; fuel was cheap and plentiful; the length of coal trains entering the City with their hundred hoppers full was fabulous. Coal fires burned over the long winter in the stoves, eternally guarded like altars, and puffs of gas from the fire, whether by uneven combustion or by blasts of wind coming down the chimney, would paint a black patina nearabouts.

So scrubbing the stairs took vim and vigor, and began with two buckets of water, one with strong lye soap dissolving within it, the other clear, a stiff large brush for cleaning the wood, and a set of rags for wiping the stairs damp dry. One boy would scrub, the other wipe. They would work from the top stairs down, the wiper heckling the furiously laboring scrubber to speed him up. The scrubber laid old newspaper on the way back up; the wiper followed with the buckets and dumped their contents in the toilet, flushed it, stacked the buckets and brush in the corner, and hung the rags on the fire escape to dry.

They could now with studied nonchalance, but loudly, declare, "The stairs are all done," and cap in hand sidle toward the door, hoping, if all went well, to escape inspection; just before the door closed behind them, they shouted "Going out!" (for all departures had to be announced) in a special cheerful fulfilled tone, and leap down the steps to freedom. If the Mom collected her wits in time, even if she were involved in one of her interminable phone- conversations with her sister, she could stop them by calling out, "Oh, no you don't! Not until you wash the windows!"

This was a sickening body blow. There were eleven windows, with forty-four panes in all. (And eleven screens to be removed and replaced in summertime.) They were washed by rags and vinegar water and rubbed glistening dry by clean rags. The inside panes could be hurried along by the washer and the dryer working in succession; the outside panes had to be cleaned from both the inside reaching out and down while standing on the sill, and from the outside by sliding the two panels over and under. The older boy sat on the ledge with the sash clamped down on his lap; the younger one held his legs for even greater safety and handed him the cleaning materials.

Looking down they could see the boys gathering and warming up; "Be right down!" they called with unwarranted assurance. At any moment, the game might begin or be transferred elsewhere to play, which would subject the Mom to a piteous complaint. "They had to begin without us, see?" Now Kate was not as hard as nails and it was always possible that she would say, "O, go ahead, you can finish them later," and then finish them herself with the help of Lorraine or even the Dad if he happened upon the uncompleted scene later.

The boys got to Tom Sawyer, along with a score of other books about boys, early in their reading, but, before learning of Tom's way of getting other boys to whitewash his fence for him by pretending it was fun, they were expert in foisting work upon each other: by means of flattery, material compensation in cash or knick-knacks, bribes, blackmail, threats and reprisals, pleas of illness, exchange of promises (ill-kept at times and therefore suspect), appeals to reason, pledges of co-existence or detente, renunciation of rights, and denunciation of existing pacts. Thus: "You can lift this; it's not so heavy;" "I'll give you a nickel to take my turn at dish-washing;" "If you'll finish scrubbing, I'll let you keep my yo-yo;" "If you don't help mop the floor, I'll tell how you stole the cake." "If you don't fix [make] the bed, I won't return your books to the library." "You carry it up, my leg hurts;" "Clear the table and I'll take your turn all week- end;" "Let's do it together and get it done;" "Stop horsing around or we'll never finish;" "O.K. I won't do it anymore;" and "You started it and now I'll finish it!" As for Tom Sawyer's method, it might work on others, but they were too crafty and perceptive to regard it as more than an idyll.

They were not above exploiting their young brothers, engaging them in their most tender years at occupations and under conditions that would have shamed the early owners of Manchester factories. It will hardly excuse them to say that they had to answer the Call of the Streets, "Come on out and play," which had the effect on them of a hunting horn to a tethered hound.

Innovative techniques of human relations management were, however, known. The little boys were discovered to work harder if the Big Boys sang of "Old Hank," the locomotive engineer, his "hand on the throttle," the whistle blowing "Whooo, whoo!" going too fast to stop when a broken bridge looms up ahead, who jumps to safety because he had "a sweet patootie" who would rather see him home than dead.

For Byzantine intrigue and Kwakiutl ritual, however, the dish- washing complex needs to be looked into. The Mom had, of course, two sets of dishes and cutlery, one for everyday use, the other "for company." With the former the boys were entrusted as soon as they could convey them from board to sink. (Actually, there was a third set, kept on a very high shelf of the pantry, consisting of many "never to be used" items, whether of large sentimental value, or treasured souvenirs, or held for gifting, or wedding presents, known only by illegal prospecting, such as brought the Babe crashing down one day along with a cookie jar and a pink teapot, breaking itself with the Mom crying out "My wedding set!" and bursting into tears, to the dismay of her small son, who could not bear to see his Mother cry. Ever after, this particular baby pink on a ceramic disturbed him with an emotion of its fragility and untouchability.

Setting the table was joined to dish-washing. First the table was cleared of all odds and ends, the oil cloth was washed, and depending upon the Mom's mood, a cloth and napkins sometimes laid. Sufficient cutlery, plates, cups, glasses, condiments, bread and serving utensils had to be properly placed. Since the boys cooperated, they both profited from setting a simple table, which was the beginning of trouble. Who dried the dishes set the table. If the boy washing the dishes were to set the table, he would take the troglodytic position that a spoon and bowl were more than enough to handle any gastronomical problem. But he did not both set and wash, and therefore the setter was tempted to be as finicky as a Brahmin about mixing dishes and foods, and the table groaned under the setting. This was fine for the parents, but what really happened was that the boys bargained against the coming day, dealing in futures, when their roles would be reversed, and so did not, unless in a devilish mood, carry to excess the table setting.

In due course, and following a number of multilateral and summit conferences, it was resolved that the boy who washed should also set the table, and the boy who dried and put away things should also clear the table. We note, en passant, that there was now a chance that the dishwasher could be excessive in estimating the need of the diners for condiments and for whatever else could be placed on the table that did not need to be washed afterwards. The dishwasher could also gain a temporal advantage over the dryer by withholding dishes and cutlery in the sink until the last moment before placing them on the drying side, thus enhancing his escape time by a couple of minutes, not however without suffering a din of protest, for these actions were not going unobserved.

And the dryer had a trump card to play. If, upon scrutiny, it was noted that the tiniest speck or grease-spot appeared on the soi-disant washed piece, he had the right to return it to the sink to be washed again.

Although sanitary conditions were thus improved, the chances of quarrelling, bumping, and shoving, escalating to full-scale combat, were also increased, so that these children, when all is said and done, descended sometimes to the level of adult workshops and international congresses.

Yet, when their interests were hand and glove, they could clean a kitchen lickety-split, swinging past the startled parents with an "All done. So long!" before any questions might arise. "From small acorns, great oaks grow," they heard from the Dad in other regards, ad nauseam; the maxim should have said, "From Hill Street bickering and rule making might be derived the major principles of diplomacy among nations."

Lessons on dish-washing, mopping, oven-cleaning, and the rest came in the beginning and from time to time, and were characterized by the usual limitations in the absence of a will to learn, or worse, the will to apply knowledge. The Dad, who was a clean type, regarding smoking as a dirty habit, wearing gloves to carry a bucket of coal, using a clothes brush as a matter of routine, and keeping his conservative oxfords a fine brown or black, his white bucks the whitest, exhibited the art of dish-washing to them. The Mom, herself a speedy washer inclined at times to pass over fine detail, stood by with the sincere hypocrisy of a fat sergeant watching his rookies running an obstacle course. The Dad would hold up a fork and work a dishcloth between its prongs, saying "This is how to dry a fork," and take up a dish and work the cloth along the inner rim of its bottom saying "This is how to wipe a dish," and "This," lifting a glass against the light of the window after polishing it, "is how a glass should shine." The boys looked upon his calm, innocent, deliberate movements like Congo Pygmies watching an Englishman dress for dinner. It was one of the earliest occasions on which the Babe caught a hint of the fundamental human obsession behind routines.

How does the child's brain work in cases like this? How does the Babe connect a certain behavior, here the Dad's, with some grand principle of the human sciences. He does not do so immediately. He stores a brain pattern, first a certain uneasiness, an awareness, an involvement, regarding a kind of conduct. He is getting conflicting signals: this is the way, says the Dad. Bro Bus glances amused at his brother, no, this isn't the way, but don't you dare say so, let's go along with it. But isn't it typical of the Dad? He is so careful, so deliberate, yet also so passionate about whatever he is doing.

It would be a long time, if ever, before the Babe could attach this line of conduct to some principle that was being developed by Freud and others, to be defined as the obsessive-compulsive complex. But he would have to begin somewhere, I am saying, and this might be a beginning.

And, so, too, regarding another line of thought that had to begin somewhere, and I can attest that he concerned himself with it, time after time, and with a specific formulation of it, which is: Given a lot of work to do, should one do the hardest and dirtiest work first, leaving the easiest and cleanest work until afterwards, or the reverse? The world of philosophy and the press and politics and economics is burdened by false problems: who is concerned with this one, this which involves two billion households and offices and workshops every day of every year and has involved the same proportion of humans since the first great day of creation?

Here is the way the Babe was calculating, he being then eight years old: I am freshest to begin with, so I should tackle the hard and dirty work first, then as I become tired and feel like quitting, the work is getting cleaner and better so I keep going until it is finished. In effect, he is thinking, the displeasure and the morale are best kept in equilibrium until the work is ended. Remember that in his case, not in the two billion other cases, we are speaking of particular jobs such as dish-washing, school homework, housecleaning, and personal hygiene.

But then he thinks, if I do the easy work first, I'll feel better and begin to think that there may be an end to all of this, so I'll have better morale and when I come to the hard and dirty work I'll be well able to tackle it, especially since I then tell myself that I will soon be getting near to the end of it.

However, it is hard to do the tough jobs first, because the natural impulse is to do the easy things first -- but this often is followed by quitting, for a person who grabs at an easy job is not the kind of person who will tackle a dirty job when tired; in fact, this affects both the quitter type and the rational guy who does the hard thing first and then to his own dismay falls victim to depression, carelessness, irritation and finally the urge to abandon the job.

But people are different and what works for one will not work for another. Anyhow, it may be of interest to those who are observing the Babe to know that whereas he sometimes operated by tackling the hard part first and getting rid of it and then moving on to the easier work, he reversed this on other occasions. That makes a pragmatist of him. This trait of non-obsessed, non-principled principle ramified in many directions. He would do his hardest homework first, then the easier. But when he had pots that were difficult to wash, he would put them aside until he finished the dishes. If he had to neaten a room, he would put the large pieces in order before the small. Regrettably his conclusion was inconclusive, yet he managed to be all the more helpful, making up his mind differently each time on the basis of the facts of the case.

You might guess that with all this assistance the Mom would need no one else. Not so. She had the nearest thing to a daughter of her own, Lorraine, who belonged with the Anderson family around the corner. There was an Anderson boy, Milton, but he was totally effaced in a crowd of sisters, seven, eight, the mind boggles at the number, all scions of Mary Anderson and an inconsequential husband, who never worked, never was around, was "a poor excuse for a husband," a weak point of reference existing somewhere.

Mrs. Anderson received fulsome praise, too, from the Dad for her martyrdom, her industriousness, her Swedish staunchness, her clean girls, her gentleness withal. How he adored such women! This must have been his mother, saddened by the death of several infants, by a husband long faraway in the army and at war, who "gave her last crust to me when I was a hungry little boy."

The Anderson family lived in a fairy tale of poverty: cheerful, helpful, blooming in girth and color, honest, ready to work. The Babe came to know half a dozen, perhaps more, of them, but Lorraine it was who became most tightly of the De Grazia household and when Mary Anderson, doing their wash, had Lorraine report to duty as a mother's helper, a beautiful relationship sprang up. "Go around the corner to Mrs. Anderson's and see whether Lorraine can come over this afternoon," the Babe was told, and that was how he met all the Andersons.

Lorraine was the darkest of the sisters; most had blue eyes, she had large brown eyes; most were full-blown while she, like her mother, was gaunt. She had a long face and nose, long even white teeth that were used for a big smile now and then; her skin was pale and a tint of olive, her hair dark. She didn't date boys, not at thirteen, not at twenty-three but confidentially let it be known that she would some day marry a gorgeous man of great wealth, but they, the brothers, didn't regard her as all that beautiful, and they found her wanting in some affairs in which their interests were at stake, although in practically every instance it would be themselves who were in the wrong.

Which is to say that they treated her like a little sister and big sister at the same time, bossing her and submitting to her simultaneously. Now Lorraine she didn't mind helping a man if she could and, if she were there when they needed her, she'd try to help them out. It was no skin off her nose.

She liked the Mom's company, and how Mom talked on and on about female matters while they worked, as if the Mom were a nice older sister too. They listened to each other sympathetically, tried on clothes together, lengthening skirts to fit Lorraine when needs be, and the Mom took her along shopping on occasion, which Lorraine loved to do. The Mom loved Lorraine, the boys did too, if they had realized so. How often has this been said! The thought never entered their mind, sex yes, love no. She would have to hear of love only in the reminiscences of an old man, if at all.

Thus the boys were trained, and in what was popularly called "woman's work." Nor did they arrive at a contempt of kitchen scullions, neither the older brothers, nor the younger, who were ordained such at the proper time. All of these kinds of chores were forever regarded as honest, respectable jobs to be done well, in confirmation of the nobility of work, the classless society, equal pay for equal work, and a unisex vision of the world.