by Nelson Algren, 1951
transcribed by Jack M Silverstein
1. The hustlers
To the east were moving waters, as far as eye could follow. To the west a sea of grass as far as wind might reach.
Waters restlessly, with every motion, slipping out of used colors for new. So that each fresh wind off the lake washed the prairie grasses with used sea-colors: the prairie moved in the light like a secondhand sea.
Till between the waters and the wind came the marked-down derelicts with the dollar signs for eyes.
Looking for any prairie portage at all that hadn’t yet built a jail.
Beside any old secondhand sea.
The portage’s single hotel was a barracks, its streets were pig-wallows, and all the long summer night the Pottawattomies mourned beside that river: down in the barracks the horse-dealers and horse-stealers were making a night of it again. Whiskey-and-vermilion hustlers, painting the night vermilion.
In the Indian grass the Indians listened: they too had lived by night.
And heard, in the uproar in the hotel, the first sounds of a city that was to live by night after the wilderness had passed. A city that was to roll boulevards down out of pig-wallows and roll its dark river uphill.
That was to forge, out of steel and blood-red neon, its own particular wilderness.
Yankee and voyager, the Irish and the Dutch, Indian traders and Indian agents, halfbreed and quarterbreed and no breed at all, in the final counting they were all of a single breed. They all had hustler’s blood. And kept the old Sauganash in a hustler’s uproar.
They hustled the land, they hustled the Indian, they hustled by night and they hustled by day. They hustled guns and furs and peltries, grog and the blood-red whiskey-dye; they hustled with dice or a deck or a derringer. And decided the Indians were wasting every good hustler’s time.
Slept till noon and scolded the Indians for being lazy.
Paid the Pottawattomies off in cash in the cool of the Indian evening: and had the cash back to the dime by the break of the Indian dawn.
They’d do anything under the sun except work for a living, and we remember them reverently, with Balaban and Katz, under such subtitles as “Founding Fathers,” “Dauntless Pioneers” or “Far-Visioned Conquerors.”
Meaning merely they were out to make a fast buck off whoever was standing nearest.
They never conquered as well as they hustled—their arithmetic was sharper than their hunting knives. They skinned the redskin down to his final feather, the forests down to the ultimate leaf of autumn, the farmer out of his last wormy kernel of Indian corn; and passed the rain-swept seasons between carefully skinning one another.
One such easy skinner listing his vocation lightly, in the city’s first dictionary, as Generous Sport.
Mountain grog seller and river gambler, Generous Sport and border jackal, blackleg braggart and coonskin roisterer, Long Knives from Kentucky and hatchet-men from New York, bondsmen, brokers and bounty-jumpers—right from the go it was a broker’s town and the brokers run it yet.
It’s still the easiest joint in the country in which to jump bond, as well as for staying out of jail altogether. The price commonly being whatever you have in your wallet. If the wallet is empty a fifty-cent cigar will usually do it.
Indeed, the city’s very first jailbird got a pass from the city fathers. An antique stray named Harper was knocked down, under the local vagrancy laws, to George White, the Negro town crier, for a quarter. And legally led away by White at the end of a rusty chain.
When antislavery feeling forced the Negro to let the white escape, George wanted only his two bits back. And couldn’t collect a dime. So each nigh scandalized the darkness by crying his loss instead of the hour. He never got his two bits back, but he made a hundred dollar uproar over it. Every hour on the hour. All night long.
The joint is still in an uproar. Every hour on the hour. All night long.
When the Do-Gooders try to quiet it down they only add drums to the tumult. The village squares arrived too late for a firm toehold.
In 1835 they declared a “season of prayer” and wrested two outlaws right out of the devil’s clutches—yet the devil seemed not to miss the pair at all. So they tossed two harder customers into the pokey.
And still nobody cared.
Then they fined a brothel-keeper twenty-five silver dollars, and the battle between the Pure-of-Heart and the Brokers’ Breed was joined for keeps. The ceaseless, city-wide, century-long guerrilla warfare between the Do-As-I-Sayers and the Live-And-Let-Livers was on. With the brokers breaking in front.
Broke in front and stayed in front despite being crowded to the rail on occasion.
Not that there’s been any lack of honest men and women sweating out Jane Addams’ hopes here—but they get only two outs to the inning while the hustlers are taking four. When Big Bill Thompson put in the fix for Capone he tied the town to the rackets for keeps.
So that when the reform mayor who followed him attempted to enforce the prohibition laws, he wakened such warfare on the streets that the Do-Gooders themselves put Thompson back at the wheel, realizing that henceforward nobody but an outlaw could maintain a semblance of law and order on the common highway. Big Bill greeted his fellow citizens correctly then with a cheery, “Fellow hoodlums!”
The best any mayor can do with the city since is just to keep it in repair.
Yet the Do-Gooders still go doggedly forward, making the hustlers struggle for their gold week in and week out, year after year, once or twice a decade tossing an unholy fright into the boys. And since it’s a ninth-inning town, the ball game never being over till the last man is out, it remains Jane Addams’ town as well as Big Bill’s. The ball game isn’t over yet.
But it’s a rigged ball game.
Once upon a time, when Thirty-fifth Street was the far Southside and North Avenue was the limit on the north, something called the Law-and-Order League shut the Sunday beer halls, and the Beer-on-Sunday Party won the subsequent elections in a walk. A horde of horrified Ohio spinsters thereupon counterattacking the halls by praying at the bar rails, pleading with the drinkers to kneel beside them.
There is no record of anyone getting sawdust in his cuffs: this was 1873, and thousands who had come to rebuild the ruins of the great fire were carrying ragged banners crying BREAD OR BLOOD on the streets. Sunday was the one day of the week the working stiff who was still working had to himself. So he just dipped his kisser deeper into his stein, wiped his moustache tidily and ordered another. He knew he wasn’t getting any eight-hour day by kneeling for it.
Indignantly then in their hundreds the women marched to City Hall to demand legal prohibition of Sunday beer—and got turned down there cold. Working stiffs and out-of-work stiffs alike booing them gently back to Ohio.
After times had picked up again a Reverend Gipsy Smith, dressed like midnight itself, led twelve thousand black-gowned and black-tied saviors, carrying flaring torches and half-stepping in funeral march tempo to the menacing boom of a single drum, up and down the midnight streets of the old Levee.
The piano rolls stopped on a single surprise chord, the little red lamps blinked out together, the big drum called “Come to Jesus or Else,” and the saviors cried in one all-accusing voice, “Where is my wandering boy tonight?”
“He ain’t in here, Reverend,” some awe-struck sinner answered earnestly—and the little red lamps flickered with laughter, a piano roll lightly tinkered a jeer, and the revelry crashed like window glass with one deep-purple roar.
And roared on all night long.
“We have struck a blow for Jesus,” the reverend announced without changing his shirt.
“A church and a W.C.T.U. never growed a big town yet,” Old Cap Streeter contradicted him flatly. “Hit’s still a frontier town.”
Where the gouging and the cunning and the no-holds-barred spirit of the Middle Border still holds as true as rent day.
For despite the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts, the missionary societies and the Bible institutes, the Legion of Decency and Lieutenant Fulmer, Preston Bradley and the Epworth League, Emile Coue and Dwight L. Moody, there’s no true season for salvation here. Good times or hard, it’s still an infidel’s capital six days a week.
And with a driving vigor and a reckless energy unmatched in the memory of man. Where only yesterday the pungent odor of stewed dog trailed across the marshes, now the million-candled billboards, weaving drunken lights in the river’s depths, boast of Old Fitzgerald, Vat 69, White Horse and Four Roses. Where only yesterday the evening crow crossed only lonely teepee fires, now the slender arc-lamps burn.
To reveal our backstreets to the indifferent stars.
NEXT CHAPTER: Are you a Christian?