Father Sends Me to the World’s Fair by Clarence Day

Father and Mother and my brothers went out to the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. I was finishing my freshman year at Yale, and by the time I got home they had gone. Father had written me that I had better follow on and join them, but I couldn’t. I had spent all my allowance. There would be no more money coming to me until college opened again in September. In the meantime I didn’t even have car fare or money enough for tobacco. It wasn’t this that bothered me, however, or not going out to Chicago. It was the fact that for the first time in my life I had got deep in debt.

I owed Warner Hall forty-two dollars for seven weeks’ board, I owed Dole for a heavy turtle-neck sweater, and De Bussy, Manwaring & Co. for ascot ties and shirts and a pair of pointed-toed shoes. I owed Heublein’s for the rounds of drinks I had signed for, on what had once seemed jolly nights. I was in debt to Stoddard the tobacconist for sixty or seventy dollars for all sorts of fancy pipes–one of them was a meerschaum head of a bull with large amber horns. The total due to these and other tradesmen was nearly three hundred dollars, and I didn’t see how I could have been so reckless, or when I could ever pay up. Worst of all, my creditors too had become pessimistic.

I borrowed a nickel for car fare from old Margaret, after she had cooked me my breakfast, put a sandwich and a banana in my pocket, and went down town at once to Father’s office to ask for a job. They didn’t have any work for me down there and didn’t want me around, but it was lucky I went, because while I was eating my sandwich one of my creditors entered. He had come down to New York with a bundle of overdue bills to see whether he could collect any of them by calling upon his customers’ parents.

I was appalled. It had never occurred to me that anyone would come to Father’s office like this. It seemed to me most underhanded. If Father had been there and I hadn’t, I’d have been in serious trouble, for Father had warned me repeatedly to keep out of debt. I was thoroughly frightened, and I attempted to frighten that creditor. I said in a loud, shaky voice that if he was going to behave in this manner, I would never buy anything more from him as long as I lived.

He said he was sorry to hear it. But he didn’t sound very sorry. Times were bad, he explained, and he had to have money. I didn’t believe him. Looking back, I realize that the long depression of the nineties had started and banks were beginning to close, but I knew nothing about this at that time. I was preoccupied with my own troubles. These looked blacker than ever to me when my creditor said, as he left, that since my father was out, he would have to call on him again the next time he came to New York.

I didn’t know what to do. But one thing was clear. I saw I must stick around Father’s office for the rest of that summer. So as soon as he got back from the Fair, I begged him to give me a job. I didn’t need any vacation, I told him, and I would be getting a lot of valuable experience if he would let me go to work.

After thinking it over, he said that perhaps I could make myself useful as an office-boy while his clerks were taking turns going on their vacations. I started the very next day at four dollars a week.

I might have got slightly better wages elsewhere, but I couldn’t have made enough anyway to pay much on my bills, and the most important thing was not to make a few dollars extra but to stand on guard at the door of Father’s office to keep my creditors out. When I was sent out on an errand, I ran all the way there and back. When I was in the office, turning the big iron wheel on the letter-press, I always kept one eye on the grated window where the cashier sat at his counter, to make sure that no old buzzards from New Haven were coming in to see Father.

But late in the summer I got into trouble. The cashier told Father that I had taken hold better than he had expected, and that although I was not very accurate I was punctual and quick and seemed to be especially interested in getting down early. Father was so pleased that he sent for me to come into his inner office and told me that he had decided I had earned a vacation.

I said that honestly and truly a vacation was the last thing I wanted.

He smiled at the immense pleasure I seemed to be taking in sealing envelopes and filling inkwells, but he explained that he wanted me to have some rest and recreation before college opened, and he added that he would advise me to go to Chicago and see the World’s Fair.

I said I didn’t care about seeing the Fair.

Father didn’t quite like this. “I have just told you, Clarence,” he said, “that I would advise you to go.” I saw that he would regard it as disrespectful of me if I refused.

I uncomfortably made a partial confession. I said I couldn’t afford to go to Chicago. I didn’t have any money.

Father was surprised. “What about your allowance?” he asked.

“I’m sorry to say I’ve spent it all, Father.”

“That was very imprudent of you,” he observed.

I said in a low voice that I knew it.

Father said that he hoped this would be a lesson to me to be more careful in future. By failing to exercise even the most ordinary prudence, he explained in his firm, friendly way, I had deprived myself of seeing a sight that might never come again in my lifetime. He said he felt badly about it.

I didn’t, however. I went back to working the letter-press. I liked to turn the big, painted iron wheel and tighten the plates. We didn’t use carbons. Instead, after writing letters by hand in copying ink or else on the typewriter, we pressed them down hard on damp tissue-paper to make copies to file. It took a good deal of practice to do this correctly. If the tissue was too dry, the copy was so faint it could hardly be read, and if I got it too wet, it made the ink run and smudged the whole letter.

The next day, Father interrupted me at this interesting occupation again. He had had a long talk with Mother, it seemed, and, as all the rest of the family had seen the Fair, they wanted me to go, too. He said that he would therefore help me out this once and give me some money, and he asked how much I had saved from my wages.

I had saved nearly all of them, as a matter of fact. I had spent less than a dollar a week. Margaret had wrapped up little lunches for me, and my only other needs had been a hair-cut and car fares and a new pair of cuffs. But as I had been using all I saved to pay small instalments to those men in New Haven, I had only forty-eight cents on hand.

“Well, the devil!” Father laughed disappointedly. “You have attended to your duties here faithfully enough, I suppose, but I see you have a damn lot to learn.”

I thought to myself that he little knew how much I was learning.

He lit a cigar and looked at me reflectively. “Clarence,” he said, “I think I should reproach myself afterward if I allowed you to miss seeing this Fair. It is a great educational opportunity that may never recur. So I will make you a present of one hundred dollars to enable you to go to Chicago.”

“Thank you very much, Father,” I said, as he shook hands with me, “but if you wouldn’t mind, I’d rather have the money, sir.”

Father frowned.

I stood beside his desk, waiting. A hundred dollars would be a magnificent windfall for me and my creditors.

His reply killed my hopes. “I see no point in giving you a hundred dollars to fritter away as you have done with your other funds,” he said. “If you don’t choose to avail yourself of this educational–“

“Oh, I do, sir,” I said. If the only way to get that hundred dollars was to go to Chicago and back, I saw that of course I’d better go. I felt sure I could save at least some of it to use in paying my bills.

I went to the cashier and begged him to keep an eye out for my creditors and not let any of them in, in my absence. He said he would do all he could, but he wouldn’t like to be caught surreptitiously keeping out callers. I argued that these people would annoy Father if they saw him, and that they ought to be treated like book-agents; but he said Father might regard their disclosures as important, however unwelcome, and that he couldn’t keep anyone out who came on legitimate business.

I almost gave up going, at this. But Father and Mother were so eager to give me a treat that I couldn’t. I had to pretend to be eager myself, with my heart in my boots.

I wrote to my creditors that I would begin paying my bills very soon and that I hoped they would wait.

Father asked me what road I was getting a ticket on. He said the Lake Shore was the best. I made some vague answer to that. I didn’t like to tell him, after he had been so generous to me, that I had bought a cut-rate ticket to Chicago and back, for eleven dollars, on an Erie Special Excursion. The Erie was so awful in those days that it was a joke. It didn’t go nearly as far as Chicago, of course, but it had arranged for trackage rights over a number of other one-horse railroads for its Special Excursions.

It took that train three days and two nights, if I remember correctly, to get to Chicago. We stopped at every small station. We waited for hours on sidings. Most of the time I had very little idea where we were. The Excursion wandered around here and there, in various parts of this country and Canada, trying to pick up extra passengers. Of course, the train had no sleeping-cars or diner–only day coaches. There was quite a crowd of us in them–men, women and children. In the seat back of mine was a woman with two babies. I had my seat pretty much to myself, however, because the old man who sat with me spent most of his time in the smoker. I didn’t go to the smoker myself. I had nothing to smoke.

All the windows were open, it was so hot. We were coated with coal-dust. The washroom got out of order and had to be locked. The little drinking-tank was soon emptied. Most of us had nothing to eat, and we slept sitting up. But it was fun. Nearly everybody but the overworked train-men was good-natured and friendly. At every stop we’d all pile out of the cars and bolt for the wash-room in the station, or try to buy pie and sandwiches and stand in line at the water-cooler, and those of us who went dry at one stop would try again at the next. At one little place where the station was locked and there was no other building in sight, we had the best luck of all, because there was a pond near the tracks, rather yellow, but with plenty of water for everybody. I was rinsing my undershirt in it when the whistle blew, and I only just managed to scramble aboard the train as it started. The day before that, at a little place where the eating was good, several passengers who didn’t run fast enough had been left behind.

At Chicago, I hunted up a boarding-house. As those near the Fair Grounds were expensive, I went to the outskirts, where I found an old boarding-house near the railroad which was clean and decent. I sent off a postcard to Mother saying that the Fair was simply fine, and got a good bath and sleep.

I went to the Fair the next day. My boarding-house was so far out that I had to go by train, but the fare was low and the station was handy. And when I walked into the Fair Grounds, I was deeply impressed. They were a wonderful sight. The vast buildings weren’t solid stone, of course, and they wouldn’t be there a hundred years hence, but in the meanwhile they provided a vision of grandeur, at least for innocent eyes. The eyes, for example, of persons who had come on the Erie.

I sat in the Court of Honour, I walked admiringly around the artificial lagoon, I sauntered through one or two of the exhibition halls, and went back to my boarding-house.

On my next visit, I explored the grounds more thoroughly and I was upset to find that all the places which I wanted to see most cost money. This was particularly true of the Midway Plaisance, a broad promenade lined with side-shows. There were Bedouins, a Ferris Wheel, a fearsome (canvas) Hawaiian volcano, a wonderful captive balloon, and a “Congress of Beauty.” And there was also a real Dahomey village of genuine savages. I could reach out and touch them as they stalked about, scowling; and whenever I did I could hear them muttering things to themselves. They occasionally danced in a threatening manner uttering genuine war-cries; and the guide-book said, “They also sell products of their mechanical skill.” And, what had excited the most talk of all in the newspapers, there were dancing girls with bare stomachs, who wriggled in what clergymen said was a most abandoned way, right before everybody.

I had heard so much about these girls that I forgot all my vows to economize and went into their tent. They didn’t come up to my hopes. I had already noticed in New Haven that such things never did.

That night in my boarding-house, I counted my money, and I saw that if I had good times on the Midway, I’d have a bad time with creditors. My creditors won and I didn’t go to the Midway again.

There was a great deal else to see, however, and I saw nearly all of it, because it was free. But as Father had said, it was educational. I spent hours and hours roaming through the principal exhibits which were supposed to be good for the mind. They were interesting but monotonous. It was like visiting a hundred museums at once. A few of these palaces fascinated me when I came to them fresh; the Krupp guns were better than anything on the Midway. But the showmanship wasn’t. Herr Krupp had announced, by the way, that he was presenting the biggest gun of all to America, “for the defence of the great port of Chicago.”

These free exhibits increased my expenses, some days; they made me so hungry. I had a hard time trying to be economical at the White Horse Inn, I remember. This was a reproduction of an old English inn, swollen to an extraordinary size, and the big chops at the next table looked juicy and the steaks smelled delicious. And every time I went to the Transportation Building and got in a coma, I had to revive myself on beer and cheese afterward in a place called Old Vienna.

Father had especially enjoined upon me the duty of studying the Transportation Exhibits, because he was an officer or director of several small railroads, and he hoped that by and by I might be too. It was quite an assignment. That building had eighteen acres of floor-space. It was built in the form of several large train-sheds. The guide-book explained that “in style it is somewhat Romanesque,” and it added that “the ornamental colour designs, in thirty different shades, of its exterior, produce an effect almost as fine as embroidery.”

On rainy days I didn’t go to the Fair Grounds. I sat in my boarding-house and saved money. But this was dull and I felt lonely, so I bought a chameleon for company. He wasn’t much company. On the other hand, as the end of his tail had been broken off, he only cost twenty cents. He wore a chain with a little brass collar at one end and a pin at the other, and I stuck the pin in the window curtain to tether him, and fed him live flies.

I wanted to go home after a week of this, but I figured that I’d better not. Father might think I had been too lavish with his money if it only lasted a week. So I stayed on for over a fortnight to inspire him with confidence in me, and make him see that I wasn’t always a spendthrift in spite of my bad freshman record.

When I wasn’t at the Fair, I wandered around Chicago. There was something about Chicago I liked. It seemed bigger and busier to me than New York, and much fatter, much more spread out and roomy.

At last, when I thought Father must surely be feeling that I had used up that hundred dollars, I packed my suitcase, pinned the chameleon to the lapel of my coat, and embarked again on the Erie. The chameleon had a miserable time on the train and the rest of his tail got joggled off, but even so he was luckier than he knew, for we made much better time going east than we had made going west.

I had gone away worried and alarmed, but I came home in triumph. No creditors had gone to the office, I learned, and I had saved fifty-two dollars to send to New Haven. I hadn’t brought home any presents for the family, but I presented the chameleon to Mother.

Father and I had a little talk about what I had liked. “Did you see the Midway?” he asked.

“I saw a little of it,” I said cautiously. “Did you see it, Father?”

“Yes,” he said, “I was interested in those filthy Hottentots. How people can live in that disgusting manner I don’t understand. I didn’t know it was allowed.”

He was pleased when he found I had gone only once to the Midway and had apparently spent all the rest of my time in the right places.

“Well,” he finally said in approval, “I gather, then, that you found it was an educational experience for you.”

“Yes, Father,” I told him, “I did.”

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