On a day like this, he says, on a day like this, when the wind plays cello music across the rooftops. . . . I think about things. The town is like a fireless, dimly lighted room. Yesterday the windows sparkled with sunlight. To-day they stare like little coffin tops.
On a day like this, he says, on this sort of a day I walk along smoking a pipe and wonder what I was excited about yesterday. Then I remember, he says, that once it rained yesterday and I waited under the awning till it ended. I remember, he says, that once I walked swiftly down this street toward a building on the corner. It was vastly important that I reach this building. I remember, he says, that there were days I hurried down Clark Street and days I ran down Monroe Street. Now it is windy again. There is long silence over the noises of the street. The sky looks empty and old.
There were people gathered around an automobile that had bumped into the curbing. I stopped to watch them, he says. There was a man next to me with a heavy gray face, with loose lips and with intent eyes. There was another man and another—dozens of men—all of them people who had been hurrying in the street to get somewhere. And here they were standing and looking intently at an automobile with a twisted wheel.
I became aware that we were all looking with a strange intensity at this automobile; that we all stood as if waiting for something. Dozens of men hurrying somewhere suddenly stop and stand for ten, twenty, thirty minutes staring at a broken automobile. There was a reason for this. Always where there is a machine at work, digging or hammering piles, where there is a horse fallen, an auto crashed, a flapjack turner, a fountain pen demonstrator; where there is a magic clock that runs, nobody knows how, or a window puzzle that turns in a drug-store window or anything that moves behind plate glass—always where there is any one of these things there are people like us standing riveted, attentive, unwavering.
People on artificial errands, hurrying like obedient automations through the streets; stern-faced people with dignified eyes, important-stepping people with grave decision stamped upon them; careless, innocuous-looking people—all these people look as if they had something in their heads, as if there were things of import driving them through the streets. But this is an error. Nothing in their heads. They are like the fish that swim beneath the water—a piece of shining tin captures their eyes and they pause and stare at it.
The broken automobile holds their eyes, holds them all riveted because—because it is something unordinary to look at, to think about. And there is nothing unordinary to look at or think about in their heads.
And I too, he says, on this day when the wind played cello music across the rooftops, stood in the crowd. We were all children, I noticed, more than that—infants Open-mouthed infantile wonder staring out of our tired, gray faces. Men, without thought, men making a curious little confession in the busy street that they were not busy, that there is nothing in life at the moment that preoccupies them—that a broken automobile is a godsend, a diversion, a drama, a great happiness.
I smoked my pipe, he says, and began to wonder again. Why did they stare like this? And at what? And who were these staring ones? And what was it in them that stared? I thought of this, he says. Dead dreams, and forgotten defeats stood staring from the curb at the broken automobile. Men who had survived themselves, who had become compliant and automatic little forces in the engine of the city—these were ourselves on the curb.
And this is a weary thing to remember about the city. When I am tired, he says, and the plot of which I am hero, villain and Greek chorus suddenly vanish from my mind, I pause and look at something behind plate glass. A bauble catches my eye. Long minutes, half hours pass. There is a marvelous plenitude of baubles to look at. Machines digging, excavations, scaffoldings, advertisements, never are lacking.
And at such times I begin to notice how many of us there are. The hurry of the streets is an illusion. The noises that rise in clouds, and the too-many suits of clothes and hats that sweep by—all these things are part of an illusion. The fact drifts through my tired senses that there is an amazing silence in the street—the silence inside of people's heads. Everywhere I look I find these busy ones, these energetic ones stopped and standing like myself before a bauble in a window, before a broken automobile.
Of people, authors always make great plots. Authors always write of adventures and intrigues, of emotions and troubles and ideas which occupy people. People fall in love, people suffer defeats, people experience tragedies, happiness, and there is no end to the action of people in books.
But here is a curious plot, he says, on a day like this. Here is a crowd around a broken automobile. The broken automobile has trapped them, betrayed them. They realize the broken automobile as a "practical" excuse to stop walking, to stop moving, to stop going anywhere or being anybody. Their serious concentration on the broken wheel enables them to pretend that they are logically interested in practical matters. Without which pretense it would be impossible for them to exist. Without which pretense they would become consciously dead. They must always seem, to themselves as well as to others, logically interested in something. Yes, always something.
But the plot is—and do not misunderstand this, he cautions—that the pretense here around the broken automobile grows shallow enough to plumb. There is nothing here. Two dozen men standing dead on a curbing, tricked into confessional by a little accident.
So I will begin a book tomorrow, he says, and empties his pipe as he talks, which will have to do with the make-believe of people in streets—the make-believe of being alive and being somebody and going somewhere.
And saying this, this garrulous one walks off with a high whistle on his lips and a grave triumph sitting on his shoulders.