Marching Men

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book IV: Chapter III

When McGregor was admitted to the bar and ready to take his place among the thousands of young lawyers scattered over the Chicago loop district he half drew back from beginning the practice of his profession. To spend his life quibbling over trifles with other lawyers was not what he wanted. To have his place in life fixed by his ability in quibbling seemed to him hideous.

Night after night he walked alone in the streets thinking of the matter. He grew angry and swore. Sometimes he was so stirred by the meaninglessness of whatever way of life offered itself that he was tempted to leave the city and become a tramp, one of the hordes of adventurous dissatisfied souls who spend their lives drifting back and forth along the American railroads.

He continued to work in the South State Street restaurant that got its patronage from the underworld. In the evenings from six until twelve trade was quiet and he sat reading books and watching the restless thrashing crowds that passed the window. Sometimes he became so absorbed that one of the guests sidled past and escaped through the door without paying his bill. In State Street the people moved up and down nervously, wandering here and there, going without purpose like cattle confined in a corral. Women in cheap imitations of the gowns worn by their sisters two blocks away in Michigan Avenue and with painted faces leered at the men. In gaudily lighted store-rooms that housed cheap suggestive shows pianos kept up a constant din.

In the eyes of the people who idled away the evenings in South State Street was the vacant purposeless stare of modern life accentuated and made horrible. With the stare went the shuffling walk, the wagging jaw, the saying of words meaning nothing. On the wall of a building opposite the door of the restaurant hung a banner marked "Socialist Headquarters." There where modern life had found well-nigh perfect expression, where there was no discipline and no order, where men did not move, but drifted like sticks on a sea-washed beach, hung the socialist banner with its promise of the co-operative commonwealth.

McGregor looked at the banner and at the moving people and was lost in meditation. Walking from behind the cashier's desk he stood in the street by the door and stared about. A fire began to burn in his eyes and the fists that were thrust into his coat pockets were clenched. Again as when he was a boy in Coal Creek he hated the people. The fine love of mankind that had its basis in a dream of mankind galvanised by some great passion into order and meaning was lost.

In the restaurant after midnight trade briskened Waiters and bartenders from fashionable restaurants of the loop district began to drop in to meet friends from among the women of the town. When a woman came in she walked up to one of these young men. "What kind of a night have you had?" they asked each other.

The visiting waiters stood about and talked in low tones. As they talked they absentmindedly practised the art of withholding money from customers, a source of income to them. They played with coins, pitched them into the air, palmed them, made them appear and disappear with marvellous rapidity. Some of them sat on stools along the counter eating pie and drinking cups of hot coffee.

A cook clad in a long dirty apron came into the room from the kitchen and putting a dish on the counter stood eating its contents. He tried to win the admiration of the idlers by boasting. In a blustering voice he called familiarly to women seated at tables along the wall. At some time in his life the cook had worked for a travelling circus and he talked continually of his adventures on the road, striving to make himself a hero in the eyes of his audience.

McGregor read the book that lay before him on the counter and tried to forget the squalid disorder of his surroundings. Again he read of the great figures of history, the soldiers and statesmen who have been leaders of men. When the cook asked him a question or made some remark intended for his ears he looked up, nodded and read again. When a disturbance started in the room he growled out a command and the disturbance subsided. From time to time well dressed middle-aged men, half gone in drink, came and leaned over the counter to whisper to him. He made a motion with his hand to one of the women sitting at the tables along the wall and idly playing with toothpicks. When she came to him he pointed to the man and said, "He wants to buy you a dinner."

The women of the underworld sat at the tables and talked of McGregor, each secretly wishing he might become her lover. They gossiped like suburban wives, filling their talk with vague reference to things he had said. They commented upon his clothes and his reading. When he looked at them they smiled and stirred uneasily about like timid children.

One of the women of the underworld, a thin woman with hollow red cheeks, sat at a table talking with the other women of the raising of white leghorn chickens. She and her husband, a fat old roan, a waiter in a loop restaurant, had bought a ten-acre farm in the country and she was helping to pay for it with the money made in the streets in the evening. A small black-eyed woman who sat beside the chicken raiser reached up to a raincoat hanging on the wall and taking a piece of white cloth from the pocket began to work out a design in pale blue flowers for the front of a shirtwaist. A youth with unhealthy looking skin sat on a stool by the counter talking to a waiter.

"The reformers have raised hell with business," the youth boasted as he looked about to be sure of listeners. "I used to have four women working for me here in State Street in World's Fair year and now I have only one and she crying and sick half the time."

McGregor stopped reading the book. "In every city there is a vice spot, a place from which diseases go out to poison the people. The best legislative brains in the world have made no progress against this evil," it said.

He closed the book, threw it away from him and looked at his big fist lying on the counter and at the youth talking boastfully to the waiter. A smile played about the corners of his mouth. He opened and closed his fist reflectively. Then taking a law book from a shelf below the counter he began reading again, moving his lips and resting his head upon his hands.

McGregor's law office was upstairs over a secondhand clothing store in Van Buren Street. There he sat at his desk reading and waiting and at night he returned to the State Street restaurant. Now and then he went to the Harrison Street police station to hear a police court trial and through the influence of O'Toole was occasionally given a case that netted him a few dollars. He tried to think that the years spent in Chicago were years of training. In his own mind he knew what he wanted to do but did not know how to begin. Instinctively he waited. He saw the march and countermarch of events in the lives of the people tramping on the sidewalks below his office window, saw in his mind the miners of the Pennsylvania village coming down from the hills to disappear below the ground, looked at the girls hurrying through the swinging doors of department stores in the early morning, wondering which of them would presently sit idling with toothpicks in O'Toole's and waited for the word or the stir on the surface of that sea of humanity that would be a sign to him. To an onlooker he might have seemed but another of the wasted men of modern life, a drifter on the sea of things--but it was not so. The people plunging through the streets afire with earnestness concerning nothing had not succeeded in sucking him into the whirlpool of commercialism in which they struggled and into which year after year the best of America's youth was drawn.

The idea that had come into his mind as he sat on the hill above the mining town grew and grew. Day and night he dreamed of the actual physical phenomena of the men of labour marching their way into power and of the thunder of a million feet rocking the world and driving the great song of order purpose and discipline into the soul of Americans.

Sometimes it seemed to him that the dream would never be more than a dream. In the dusty little office he sat and tears came into his eyes. At such times he was convinced that mankind would go on forever along the old road, that youth would continue always to grow into manhood, become fat, decay and die with the great swing and rhythm of life a meaningless mystery to them. "They will see the seasons and the planets marching through space but they will not march," he muttered, and went to stand by the window and stare down into the dirt and disorder of the street below.

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It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.