From The Jungle
During this time that Jurgis was looking for work occurred the
death of little Kristoforas, one of the children of Teta Elzbieta.
Both Kristoforas and his brother, Juozapas, were cripples, the latter
having lost one leg by having it run over, and Kristoforas having
congenital dislocation of the hip, which made it impossible for him
ever to walk. He was the last of Teta Elzbieta's children, and
perhaps he had been intended by nature to let her know that she had
had enough. At any rate he was wretchedly sick and undersized;
he had the rickets, and though he was over three years old, he was
no bigger than an ordinary child of one. All day long he would
crawl around the floor in a filthy little dress, whining and fretting;
because the floor was full of drafts he was always catching cold,
and snuffling because his nose ran. This made him a nuisance, and a
source of endless trouble in the family. For his mother, with
unnatural perversity, loved him best of all her children, and made
a perpetual fuss over him--would let him do anything undisturbed,
and would burst into tears when his fretting drove Jurgis wild.
And now he died. Perhaps it was the smoked sausage he had eaten that
morning--which may have been made out of some of the tubercular pork
that was condemncd as unfit for export. At any rate, an hour after
eating it, the child had begun to cry with pain, and in another hour
he was rolling about on the floor in convulsions. Little Kotrina,
who was all alone with him, ran out screaming for help, and after a
while a doctor came, but not until Kristoforas had howled his last howl.
No one was really sorry about this except poor Elzbieta, who was
inconsolable. Jurgis announced that so far as he was concerned
the child would have to be buried by the city, since they had no
money for a funeral; and at this the poor woman almost went out of
her senses, wringing her hands and screaming with grief and despair.
Her child to be buried in a pauper's grave! And her stepdaughter to
stand by and hear it said without protesting! It was enough to make
Ona's father rise up out of his grave to rebuke her! If it had come
to this, they might as well give up at once, and be buried all of
them together!. . . In the end Marija said that she would help
with ten dollars; and Jurgis being still obdurate, Elzbieta went
in tears and begged the money from the neighbors, and so little
Kristoforas had a mass and a hearse with white plumes on it, and a
tiny plot in a graveyard with a wooden cross to mark the place.
The poor mother was not the same for months after that; the mere
sight of the floor where little Kristoforas had crawled about would
make her weep. He had never had a fair chance, poor little fellow,
she would say. He had been handicapped from his birth. If only she
had heard about it in time, so that she might have had that great
doctor to cure him of his lameness!. . . Some time ago, Elzbieta
was told, a Chicago billionaire had paid a fortune to bring a great
European surgeon over to cure his little daughter of the same disease
from which Kristoforas had suffered. And because this surgeon had
to have bodies to demonstrate upon, he announced that he would treat
the children of the poor, a piece of magnanimity over which the papers
became quite eloquent. Elzbieta, alas, did not read the papers,
and no one had told her; but perhaps it was as well, for just then they
would not have had the carfare to spare to go every day to wait upon
the surgeon, nor for that matter anybody with the time to take the child.
All this while that he was seeking for work, there was a dark shadow
hanging over Jurgis; as if a savage beast were lurking somewhere in the
pathway of his life, and he knew it, and yet could not help approaching
the place. There are all stages of being out of work in Packingtown,
and he faced in dread the prospect of reaching the lowest. There is
a place that waits for the lowest man--the fertilizer plant!
The men would talk about it in awe-stricken whispers. Not more than
one in ten had ever really tried it; the other nine had contented
themselves with hearsay evidence and a peep through the door.
There were some things worse than even starving to death. They would
ask Jurgis if he had worked there yet, and if he meant to; and Jurgis
would debate the matter with himself. As poor as they were, and making
all the sacrifices that they were, would he dare to refuse any sort
of work that was offered to him, be it as horrible as ever it could?
Would he dare to go home and eat bread that had been earned by Ona,
weak and complaining as she was, knowing that he had been given
a chance, and had not had the nerve to take it?--And yet he might
argue that way with himself all day, and one glimpse into the
fertilizer works would send him away again shuddering. He was a man,
and he would do his duty; he went and made application--but surely
he was not also required to hope for success!
The fertilizer works of Durham's lay away from the rest of the plant.
Few visitors ever saw them, and the few who did would come out
looking like Dante, of whom the peasants declared that he had been
into hell. To this part of the yards came all the "tankage" and
the waste products of all sorts; here they dried out the bones,--and
in suffocating cellars where the daylight never came you might see
men and women and children bending over whirling machines and sawing
bits of bone into all sorts of shapes, breathing their lungs full
of the fine dust, and doomed to die, every one of them, within a
certain definite time. Here they made the blood into albumen,
and made other foul-smelling things into things still more foul-smelling.
In the corridors and caverns where it was done you might lose yourself
as in the great caves of Kentucky. In the dust and the steam the
electric lights would shine like far-off twinkling stars--red and
blue-green and purple stars, according to the color of the mist and
the brew from which it came. For the odors of these ghastly charnel
houses there may be words in Lithuanian, but there are none in English.
The person entering would have to summon his courage as for a
cold-water plunge. He would go in like a man swimming under water;
he would put his handkerchief over his face, and begin to cough and
choke; and then, if he were still obstinate, he would find his head
beginning to ring, and the veins in his forehead to throb, until
finally he would be assailed by an overpowering blast of ammonia fumes,
and would turn and run for his life, and come out half-dazed.
On top of this were the rooms where they dried the "tankage," the mass
of brown stringy stuff that was left after the waste portions of the
carcasses had had the lard and tallow dried out of them. This dried
material they would then grind to a fine powder, and after they had
mixed it up well with a mysterious but inoffensive brown rock which
they brought in and ground up by the hundreds of carloads for that
purpose, the substance was ready to be put into bags and sent out
to the world as any one of a hundred different brands of standard
bone phosphate. And then the farmer in Maine or California or Texas
would buy this, at say twenty-five dollars a ton, and plant it with
his corn; and for several days after the operation the fields would
have a strong odor, and the farmer and his wagon and the very horses
that had hauled it would all have it too. In Packingtown the fertilizer
is pure, instead of being a flavoring, and instead of a ton or so
spread out on several acres under the open sky, there are hundreds
and thousands of tons of it in one building, heaped here and there
in haystack piles, covering the floor several inches deep, and filling
the air with a choking dust that becomes a blinding sandstorm when
the wind stirs.
It was to this building that Jurgis came daily, as if dragged by
an unseen hand. The month of May was an exceptionally cool one,
and his secret prayers were granted; but early in June there came
a record-breaking hot spell, and after that there were men wanted
in the fertilizer mill.
The boss of the grinding room had come to know Jurgis by this time,
and had marked him for a likely man; and so when he came to the door
about two o'clock this breathless hot day, he felt a sudden spasm
of pain shoot through him--the boss beckoned to him! In ten minutes
more Jurgis had pulled off his coat and overshirt, and set his teeth
together and gone to work. Here was one more difficulty for him to
meet and conquer!
His labor took him about one minute to learn. Before him was one
of the vents of the mill in which the fertilizer was being ground--
rushing forth in a great brown river, with a spray of the finest
dust flung forth in clouds. Jurgis was given a shovel, and along
with half a dozen others it was his task to shovel this fertilizer
into carts. That others were at work he knew by the sound, and by
the fact that he sometimes collided with them; otherwise they might
as well not have been there, for in the blinding dust storm a man
could not see six feet in front of his face. When he had filled
one cart he had to grope around him until another came, and if there
was none on hand he continued to grope till one arrived. In five
minutes he was, of course, a mass of fertilizer from head to feet;
they gave him a sponge to tie over his mouth, so that he could breathe,
but the sponge did not prevent his lips and eyelids from caking up
with it and his ears from filling solid. He looked like a brown ghost
at twilight--from hair to shoes he became the color of the building and
of everything in it, and for that matter a hundred yards outside it.
The building had to be left open, and when the wind blew Durham and
Company lost a great deal of fertilizer.
Working in his shirt sleeves, and with the thermometer at over
a hundred, the phosphates soaked in through every pore of Jurgis'
skin, and in five minutes he had a headache, and in fifteen was
almost dazed. The blood was pounding in his brain like an engine's
throbbing; there was a frightful pain in the top of his skull,
and he could hardly control his hands. Still, with the memory of
his four months' siege behind him, he fought on, in a frenzy of
determination; and half an hour later he began to vomit--he vomited
until it seemed as if his inwards must be torn into shreds. A man
could get used to the fertilizer mill, the boss had said, if he would
make up his mind to it; but Jurgis now began to see that it was
a question of making up his stomach.
At the end of that day of horror, he could scarcely stand. He had
to catch himself now and then, and lean against a building and get
his bearings. Most of the men, when they came out, made straight
for a saloon--they seemed to place fertilizer and rattlesnake poison
in one class. But Jurgis was too ill to think of drinking--he could
only make his way to the street and stagger on to a car. He had a
sense of humor, and later on, when he became an old hand, he used to
think it fun to board a streetcar and see what happened. Now, however,
he was too ill to notice it--how the people in the car began to gasp
and sputter, to put their handkerchiefs to their noses, and transfix
him with furious glances. Jurgis only knew that a man in front of
him immediately got up and gave him a seat; and that half a minute
later the two people on each side of him got up; and that in a full
minute the crowded car was nearly empty--those passengers who could
not get room on the platform having gotten out to walk.
Of course Jurgis had made his home a miniature fertilizer mill a
minute after entering. The stuff was half an inch deep in his skin--
his whole system was full of it, and it would have taken a week not
merely of scrubbing, but of vigorous exercise, to get it out of him.
As it was, he could be compared with nothing known to men, save that
newest discovery of the savants, a substance which emits energy for
an unlimited time, without being itself in the least diminished
in power. He smelled so that he made all the food at the table taste,
and set the whole family to vomiting; for himself it was three days
before he could keep anything upon his stomach--he might wash his hands,
and use a knife and fork, but were not his mouth and throat filled
with the poison?
And still Jurgis stuck it out! In spite of splitting headaches he
would stagger down to the plant and take up his stand once more,
and begin to shovel in the blinding clouds of dust. And so at the
end of the week he was a fertilizer man for life--he was able to
eat again, and though his head never stopped aching, it ceased to
be so bad that he could not work.
So there passed another summer. It was a summer of prosperity,
all over the country, and the country ate generously of packing
house products, and there was plenty of work for all the family,
in spite of the packers' efforts to keep a superfluity of labor.
They were again able to pay their debts and to begin to save a
little sum; but there were one or two sacrifices they considered
too heavy to be made for long--it was too bad that the boys should
have to sell papers at their age. It was utterly useless to caution
them and plead with them; quite without knowing it, they were taking
on the tone of their new environment. They were learning to swear
in voluble English; they were learning to pick up cigar stumps and
smoke them, to pass hours of their time gambling with pennies and
dice and cigarette cards; they were learning the location of all
the houses of prostitution on the "Levee," and the names of the
"madames" who kept them, and the days when they gave their state
banquets, which the police captains and the big politicians all
attended. If a visiting "country customer" were to ask them,
they could show him which was "Hinkydink's" famous saloon, and could
even point out to him by name the different gamblers and thugs and
"hold-up men" who made the place their headquarters. And worse yet,
the boys were getting out of the habit of coming home at night.
What was the use, they would ask, of wasting time and energy and
a possible carfare riding out to the stockyards every night when
the weather was pleasant and they could crawl under a truck or into
an empty doorway and sleep exactly as well? So long as they brought
home a half dollar for each day, what mattered it when they brought it?
But Jurgis declared that from this to ceasing to come at all would
not be a very long step, and so it was decided that Vilimas and
Nikalojus should return to school in the fall, and that instead
Elzbieta should go out and get some work, her place at home being
taken by her younger daughter.
Little Kotrina was like most children of the poor, prematurely made old;
she had to take care of her little brother, who was a cripple, and also
of the baby; she had to cook the meals and wash the dishes and
clean house, and have supper ready when the workers came home in
the evening. She was only thirteen, and small for her age, but she
did all this without a murmur; and her mother went out, and after
trudging a couple of days about the yards, settled down as a servant
of a "sausage machine."
Elzbieta was used to working, but she found this change a hard one,
for the reason that she had to stand motionless upon her feet from
seven o'clock in the morning till half-past twelve, and again from
one till half-past five. For the first few days it seemed to her
that she could not stand it--she suffered almost as much as Jurgis
had from the fertilizer, and would come out at sundown with her head
fairly reeling. Besides this, she was working in one of the dark holes,
by electric light, and the dampness, too, was deadly--there were
always puddles of water on the floor, and a sickening odor of moist
flesh in the room. The people who worked here followed the ancient
custom of nature, whereby the ptarmigan is the color of dead leaves
in the fall and of snow in the winter, and the chameleon, who is black
when he lies upon a stump and turns green when he moves to a leaf.
The men and women who worked in this department were precisely the
color of the "fresh country sausage" they made.
The sausage-room was an interesting place to visit, for two or
three minutes, and provided that you did not look at the people;
the machines were perhaps the most wonderful things in the entire plant.
Presumably sausages were once chopped and stuffed by hand, and if so
it would be interesting to know how many workers had been displaced
by these inventions. On one side of the room were the hoppers,
into which men shoveled loads of meat and wheelbarrows full of spices;
in these great bowls were whirling knives that made two thousand
revolutions a minute, and when the meat was ground fine and adulterated
with potato flour, and well mixed with water, it was forced to the
stuffing machines on the other side of the room. The latter were
tended by women; there was a sort of spout, like the nozzle of a hose,
and one of the women would take a long string of "casing" and put
the end over the nozzle and then work the whole thing on, as one
works on the finger of a tight glove. This string would be twenty
or thirty feet long, but the woman would have it all on in a jiffy;
and when she had several on, she would press a lever, and a stream
of sausage meat would be shot out, taking the casing with it as it came.
Thus one might stand and see appear, miraculously born from the
machine, a wriggling snake of sausage of incredible length. In front
was a big pan which caught these creatures, and two more women who
seized them as fast as they appeared and twisted them into links.
This was for the uninitiated the most perplexing work of all; for all
that the woman had to give was a single turn of the wrist; and in
some way she contrived to give it so that instead of an endless chain
of sausages, one after another, there grew under her hands a bunch
of strings, all dangling from a single center. It was quite like
the feat of a prestidigitator--for the woman worked so fast that
the eye could literally not follow her, and there was only a mist
of motion, and tangle after tangle of sausages appearing. In the
midst of the mist, however, the visitor would suddenly notice the
tense set face, with the two wrinkles graven in the forehead, and the
ghastly pallor of the cheeks; and then he would suddenly recollect
that it was time he was going on. The woman did not go on; she stayed
right there--hour after hour, day after day, year after year, twisting
sausage links and racing with death. It was piecework, and she was apt
to have a family to keep alive; and stern and ruthless economic laws
had arranged it that she could only do this by working just as she did,
with all her soul upon her work, and with never an instant for a glance
at the well-dressed ladies and gentlemen who came to stare at her,
as at some wild beast in a menagerie.
The Jungle Chapter 14