This is a deplorable street, a luxurious couch of a street in which the afternoon lolls like a gaudy sybarite. Overhead the sky stretches itself like a holiday awning. The sun lays harlequin stripes across the building faces. The smoke plumes from the I. C. engines scribble gray, white and lavender fantasies against the shining air.
A deplorable street—a cement and plate glass Circe. We walk—a long procession of us. It is curious to note how we adjust ourselves to backgrounds. In other streets we are hurried, flurried, worried. We summon portentous frowns to our faces. Our arms swinging at our sides proclaim, "Make way, make way! We are launched upon activities vital to the commonwealth!"
But here—the sun bursts a shower of little golden balloons from the high windows. The green of a park makes a cool salaam to the beetle-topped traffic of automobiles. Rubber tires roll down the wide avenue and make a sound like the drawn-out striking of a match. Marble columns, fountains, incomplete architectural elegancies, two sculptured lions and the baffling effulgence of a cinder-veiled museum offer themselves like pensively anonymous guests. And we walk like Pierrots and Pierrettes, like John Drews and Jack Barrymores and Leo Ditrichsteins; like Nazimovas, Patricia Collinges and Messalinas on parole.
I have squandered an afternoon seduced from labors by this Pied Piper of a street. And not only I but everybody I ever knew or heard of was in this street, strutting up and down as if there were no vital projects demanding their attention, as if life were not a stern and productive routine. And where was the Rotary Club? Not a sign of the Rotary Club. One billboard would have saved me; the admonitions that "work is man's duty to his nation," that my country needed me as much in peace as in war, would have scattered the insidious spell of this street and sent me back to the typewriter with at least a story of some waiter in a loop beanery who was once a reigning prince of Patagonia.
But there was no sign, no billboard to inspire me with a sense of duty. So we strutted—the long procession of us—a masquerade of leisure and complacency. Here was a street in which a shave and a haircut, a shine and a clean collar exhilarated a man with a feeling of power and virtue. As if there were nothing else to the day than to decorate himself for the amusement of others.
There were beggars in the street but they only add by way of contrast to the effulgence of our procession. And, besides, are they beggars? Augustus Caesar attired himself in beggar's clothes one day each year and asked alms in the highways of Rome.
I begin to notice something. An expression in our faces as we drift by the fastidious ballyhoos of the shop windows. We are waiting for something—actors walking up and down in the wings waiting for their cues to go on. This is intelligible. This magician of a street has created the illusion in our heads that there are adventure and romance around us.
Fauns, Pierrots, Launcelots, Leanders—we walk, expectantly waiting for our scenes to materialize. Here the little steno in the green tam is Laïs of Corinth, the dowager alighting from the electric is Zenobia. Illusions dress the entire procession. Semiramis, Leda, and tailored nymphs; dryad eyes gleam from powder-white masks. Or, if the classics bore you, Watteau and the rococo pertness of the Grand Monarch. And there are Gothic noses, Moorish eyebrows, Byzantine slippers. Take your pick, walk up and down and wait for your cue.
There are two lives that people lead. One is the real life of business, mating, plans, bankruptcies and gas bills. The other is an unreal life—a life of secret grandeurs which compensate for the monotony of the days. Sitting at our desks, hanging on to straps in the street cars, waiting for the dentist, eating in silence in our homes—we give ourselves to these secret grandeurs. Day-dreams in which we figure as heroes and Napoleons and Don Juans, in which we triumph sensationally over the stupidities and arrogances of our enemies—we think them out detail by detail. Sometimes we like to be alone because we have a particularly thrilling incident to tell ourselves, and when our friends say good-by we sigh with relief and wrap ourselves with a shiver of delight in the mantles of imagination. And we live for a charming hour through a fascinating fiction in which things are as they should be and we startle the world with our superiorities.
This street, I begin to understand, is consecrated to the unrealities so precious to us. We come here and for a little while allow our dreams to peer timorously at life. In the streets west of here we are what we are—browbeaten, weary-eyed, terribly optimistic units of the boobilariat. Our secret characterizations we hide desperately from the frowns of windows and the squeal of "L" trains.
But here in this Circe of streets the sun warms us, the sky and the spaces of shining air lure us and we step furtively out of ourselves. And give us ten minutes. Observe—a street of heroes and heroines. Actors all. Great and irresistible egoists. Do we want riches? Then we have only to raise our finger. Slaves will attend with sesterces and dinars. A street of joyous Caligulas and Neros, with here and there a Ghengis Khan, an Attila.
The high buildings waver like gray and golden ferns in the sun. The sky stretches itself in a holiday awning over our heads. A breeze coming from the lake brings an odorous spice into our noses. Adventure and romance! Yes—and observe how unnecessary are plots. Here in this Circe of streets are all the plots. All the great triumphs, assassinations, amorous conquests of history unravel themselves within a distance of five blocks. The great moments of the world live themselves over again in a silent make-believe.
Here is one who has just swum the Hellespont, one who has subdued Cleopatra; here one whose eyes are just launching a thousand ships. What a street!
The afternoon wanes. Our procession turns toward home. For a few minutes the elation of our make-believes in the Avenue lingers. But the "L" trains crowd up, the street cars crowd up. It is difficult to remain a Caesar or a Don Quixote. So we withdraw and our faces become alike as turtle backs.
And see, the afternoon has been squandered. There were things which should have been done. I blush indignantly at the memory of my thoughts during the shining hours in the Avenue. For I spent the valuable moments conversing with the devil. I imagined him coming for me and for two hours I elaborated a dialogue between him and myself in which I gave him my immortal soul and he in turn promised to write all the stories, novels and plays I wanted. All I would have to do was furnish the paper and leave it in a certain place and call for it the next morning and it would be completed—anything I asked for, a story, novel or play; a poem, a world-shattering manifesto—anything.
Alas, I am still in possession of my immortal soul!