Ornaments change, and perhaps not for the best. The scherzo architecture of Villon's Paris, the gabled caprice of Shakespeare's London, the Rip Van Winkle jauntiness of a vanished New York, these are ghosts that wander among the skyscrapers and dynamo beltings of modernity.
One by one the charming blunders of the past have been set to rights. Highways are no longer the casual folderols of adventure, but the reposeful and efficient arteries of traffic. The roofs of the town are no longer a rumble of idiotic hats cocked at a devil-may-care angle. Windows no longer wink lopsidedly at one another. Doorways and chimneys, railings and lanterns have changed. Cobblestones and dirt have vanished, at least officially.
Towns once were like improvised little melodramas. Men once wore their backgrounds as they wore their clothes—to fit their moods. A cap and feather, a gable and a latticed window for romance. A glove and rapier, a turret and a postern gate for adventure. And for our immemorial friend Routine a humpty-dumpty jumble of alleys, feather pens, cobblestones, echoing stairways and bouncing milk carts.
These things have all been properly corrected. Today the city frowns from one end to the other like a highly efficient and insanely practical platitude. Mood has given way to mode. An essential evolution, alas! D'Artagnan wore his Paris as a cloak. And perhaps Mr. Insull wears his Chicago as a shirt front. But most of us have parted company with the town. It is a background designed and marvelously executed for our conveniences. The great metronomes of the loop with their million windows, the deft crisscross of streets, the utilitarian miracles of plumbing, doorways, heating systems and passenger carriers—these are monuments to our collective sanity.
But if one is insane, if one has inherited one's grand-father's characteristics as idler, loafer, lounger, dreamer, lover or picaroon, what then? Eh, one stays at home and tells it to the typewriter or, more likely, one gets run down, chewed up and bespattered while darting across State Street in quest of an invigorating vanilla phosphate.
Nevertheless—there's a word that speaks innate optimism, nevertheless, there are things which do not change as logically as do ornaments. Men and women, for instance. And although the town wears its mask of deplorable sanity and though Sunnyside Avenue seems suavely reminiscent of Von Bissing's troops goose-stepping through Belgium—there are men and women.
One naturally inquires, where? Quite so, where are there men and women in the city? One sees crowds. But men and women are lost. One observes crowds answering the advertisements. The advertisements say, come here, go there. And one sees men and women devotedly bent upon rewarding the advertisers.
Again, nevertheless, there are other observations to make. There are the taxicabs. Here in the taxicabs one may still observe men and women. Villon's Paris, Shakespeare's London and vanished New York, these are crowded into the taxicabs. In the taxicabs men and women still wear the furtive, illogical, questing, mysterious devil-may-care, wasterel adventure masks of their grandfathers' yesterdays.
What ho! A devilishly involved argument, that, when the taxicab owners plume themselves upon being the last word in the matter of deplorable efficiency, the ultimate gasp in the business of convenience! Nevertheless, although Mr. Hertz points with proper scorn to the sedan chair, the palanquin, the ox cart and the Ringling Brothers' racing chariots, we sweep a three-dollar fedora across the ground, raise our eyebrows and smile mysteriously to ourselves.
For on the days when our insanities grow somewhat persistent there is a solace in the spectacle of taxicabs that none of the advertisements of Mr. Hertz or his contemporaries can take away. For odds bodkins! gaze you through the little windows of these taxicabs. Pretty gals leaning forward eager-eyed, lips parted, with an air of piquing rendezvous to the parasols clutched in their dainty hands. Plump, heavy-jowled dandies reclining like tailored paladins in the leather cushions. Keen-eyed youths surrounded with heaps of bags and cases on a carefully linened quest. Nervous old women, mysteriously ragged creatures, rakish silk hats, bundles of children with staring fingers, strangely mustachioed and ribald-necked gentry.
A goodly company. A teasing procession for the eye and the thought. The cabs shoot by, caracoling through the orderly lines of traffic; zigzags of yellow, green, blue, lavender, black and white snorting along with a fine disdain. They speak of destinations reminiscent of the postern gate and the latticed window; of the waiting barque and the glowing tavern.
Of the crowds on the pavements; of the crowds in the passenger cars, elevators, lobbies, one wonders little where they are going. Answering advertisements, forsooth. Vertebrate brothers of the codfish. But these others! Ah, one stands on the curb with the vanilla phosphate playing havoc with one's blood and wonders a hatful.
These sybarites of the taxis are going somewhere. Make no doubt of that. These insanely assorted creatures bouncing on the leather cushions are launched upon mysterious and important enterprises. And these bold-looking jehus, black eyed, hard mouthed—a fetching tribe! A cross between Acroceraunian bandits and Samaritans. One may stare at a taxi scooting by and think with no incongruity of Carlyle's 'Night of Spurs"—with Louis and his harried Antoinette flying the guillotine. And of other things which our inefficient memory prevents us from jotting down at this moment. But of other things.
Journalism is incomplete without its moral or at least its overtones of morals. And we come to that now as an honest reporter should. Our moral is very simple. Any good platitudinarian will already have forestalled it. It is that the goodly company riding about in these taxicabs upon which we have been speculating are none other than these codfish of the pavements. The same, messieurs. A fact which gives us hope; briefly, hope for the fact that the world is not as sane as it looks and that, despite all the fine strivings of construction engineers, plumbers, advertisers and the like, men and women still preserve the quaint spirit of disorder and melodrama which once lived in the ornaments of the town.