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DUTIES AND DOLLARS
It was on the fifth night out from Southampton that the threatening shadow of the American Custom House began to fall over the company in the saloon.
One could see ladies talking nervously together. The subject was the one most dear to the female heart; but the pleasure of talking about “things” was mingled—at least in the hearts of the uninitiated—with an uneasiness which, in not a few cases, amounted to actual fear; for that evening certain forms had been distributed by the purser, and these forms contained questions calculated to search out the inmost secret of every dress-basket and Saratoga trunk on board.
By the time you had filled in the blanks, if you had done it honestly—as, of course, no one except myself did—you had not only given a detailed list of your wardrobe, but you had
enumerated in a separate schedule every article that you had bought new in Europe.
You were graciously permitted to possess one hundred dollars’, or, say, twenty pounds’ worth of personal effects. If you had more than that you were treated as a commercial traveller importing dry goods, and had to pay duty in case you sold them again, and thus came into competition with the infant industries of Uncle Sam.
At the foot of the schedule was a solemn declaration that you had given your wardrobe away to the last pocket-handkerchief, and the next day you had to repeat this declaration verbally to an urbane official, who was polite enough to look as though he believed you.
When it came to the actual examination in the wharf-shed, I found myself wondering where Uncle Sam’s practical commonsense came in. You had to take a paper, given to you on board in exchange for your declaration, to a desk at which sat a single clerk.
As there were about four hundred first- and second-class passengers, this took some little time, and provoked considerable language. When you
had at length struggled to the desk the clerk gave you a ticket, beckoned to a gentleman in uniform, handed him your paper, and remarked:
“Here, George, see to this.”
In my case George seemed to have a pressing engagement somewhere else, for he went off and I never set eyes on him again. My modest effects, a steamer trunk, a Gladstone-bag, and a camera-case, lay frankly open to the gaze of all men in cold neglect, while small mountains of trunks were opened, their contents tickled superficially by the lenient fingers of the examiners, closed again, and carted off.
A couple of hours later, when I had interviewed every official in the shed on the subject of the missing George, and made a general nuisance of myself, I was requested to take my things out and not worry—or words to that effect. Outside I met a fellow-voyager, who informed me that he and his wife had taken thirteen trunks full of dutiable stuff through without paying a cent of duty—at least not to the Exchequer of the United States Customs.
He had been through before and knew his man. It may have cost him ten dollars, but Uncle Sam
would have wanted three or four hundred; wherefore it is a good thing to know your man when you land at New York with a wife and a two years’ wardrobe.
From this it will be seen that there was none of that turning out of trunks and shameless, heartless exhibition of things that should only be seen in shop windows before they are bought, which one heard so much about a few years ago. That is practically stopped now, and it was stopped by the officials themselves.
They didn’t scatter precious, if unmentionable, garments around the shed floor out of pure devilry or levity of soul. The American official is like any other; he wants to earn his salary as easily as possible, and the new tariff regulations gave him a tremendous lot of work, so he took counsel with himself and came to the astute conclusion that if he systematically outraged the tenderest sentiments of the wives and daughters of millionaires, senators, congressmen, political bosses, and other American sovereigns for a certain period either the regulations would have to be considerably watered down or there would be another civil war.
His conclusions were perfectly correct. The big
customs officials faced the music stubbornly for a time; then invitations to dinner and the most select social functions began to fall off. Their wives and daughters lost many opportunities of showing off the pretty frocks which they had smuggled in from Europe.
Election time came near—in other words, Judgment Day for every American official from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was openly hinted in high places that the authors of such outrages on America’s proudest matrons and most dainty maidens were soulless brutes who weren’t fit to hold office, and then the United States Customs Department came down on its knees, kissed the hems of the garments it had scattered around the shed floor, and, as usual, the Eternal Feminine had conquered.
In Paul Leicester Ford’s delightful word-picture of American political life, “The Honourable Peter Sterling,” the worthy Peter delivers a dinner-table homily on the immorality of five hundred first-class steamboat passengers conspiring to defraud the revenue of their native land by means of false declarations such as most of us signed on the St. Louis.
I was surprised to find that Peter, a shrewd politician and successful ward-boss, knew so little of human nature.
Never from now till the dawn of the millennium abolishes the last Customs House will men and women be convinced that it is immoral or even wrong to smuggle. It is simply a game between the travellers and the officials. If they are caught they pay. If not the man smokes his cigars with an added gusto, and the woman finds a new delight in wearing a dainty costume which all the arts of all the Worths and all the Redferns on earth could never give her—and of such were the voyagers on the St. Louis.
Before I got to bed that night I had come to the conclusion that no country was ever better described in a single phrase than America was by poor G. W. Steevens when he called it the Land of the Dollar.
From the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from Maine
to Mexico, you simply can’t get away from it. In other countries people talk about money,—generally and incidentally about pounds, or francs, or marks, or pesetas,—but in America it is dollars first, last, and all the time.
Where an Englishman would say a man was keen on making money, an American would say “he’s out for dollars.” On this side we speak of making a fortune, over there it’s “making a pile,”—of dollars understood,—and so on.
But there is another sense in which the pungent phrase is true. I am not going to commit myself to the assertion that everything in the States is a dollar, because there are many things which cost more than a dollar. There are also some—a few—which cost less, such as newspapers and tramcar tickets, but, as a rule, when you put your hand into your pocket a dollar comes out—often several—and you don’t have much change.
Thus, when I had released my baggage from the lax grip of the United States Customs, I took a carriage ticket at the desk. Three dollars. In London the fare from the station to the hotel would have been about half a crown. The gentleman who put my luggage up received a quarter. If I had
offered him less he would probably have declined it and asked me, with scathing irony, to come and have a drink at his expense.
Still, that carriage was a carriage, and not a cab; well-hung, well-cushioned, and well-horsed. In fact, I was not many hours in New York before I began to see that, although you pay, you get. Everything from a banquet to a boot-shine is done in better style than it is in England.
“We are very full, sir,” said the clerk at the Murray Hill Hotel; “but I can give you a four-dollar room. I daresay you’ll like a comfortable night after your passage.”
I thought sixteen shillings and eightpence a good deal for a room, but I found that the room was really a suite, a big bed-sitting-room, beautifully furnished, with bathroom, lavatory, and clothes-cupboard attached.
The next morning I had a shine which cost fivepence, but that shine lasted all the way to San Francisco. The boots simply needed dusting and they were as bright as ever. Then I went and had a shilling shave, and found that the American shave is to the English one as a Turkish bath is to a cold tub; and so on throughout. You spend
more money, far more, than in England, but you get a great deal more for it. But to this rule there is one great and glorious exception, and that is railway travelling.
I presented my ordinary first-class tickets at the booking-office in the Central Depôt, and then came from the lips of the keen-faced, but most polite and obliging clerk, the inevitable “five dollars please—and if you’re going on the South-Western Limited it will be one dollar more. You see this is one of the fastest trains in the world, and we keep it select. You’ll have a section to yourself all the way.”
I checked my trunk in the baggage-office and said a thankful good-bye to it for three thousand two hundred miles, after buying a new strap for it, which, curiously enough, was not a dollar, but seventy-five cents. Then I took possession of my cosy corner in the long, luxuriously furnished car to be whirled over a thousand miles of iron road in twenty-three hours and a half.
Soon after we had pulled out of New York and the bogey wheels had begun the deep-voiced hum which was to last day and night for the inside of a week, I saw something which struck me again
and again in the run across the continent. A big American city is like a robe of cloth of gold with a frayed and tattered border of dirty cotton. Its outskirts are unutterably ragged and squalid.
A few minutes after you leave the splendid streets and squares of Central New York you are running through a region of mean and forlorn-looking wooden huts—really, they can hardly be called houses—crowded up together in terraces or blocks beside broad, unpaved roads, which may some day be streets, or standing in little lots of their own, scraps of unkempt land, too small for fields, and as much like gardens as a dumping-ground for London rubbish. All the houses wanted painting, and most of them repairing. The whole aspect was one of squalid poverty and mean discomfort.
But these soon fell behind the flying wheels of the South-Western Limited. Another region was entered, a region of stately pleasure-houses standing amidst broad, well-wooded lands, and presently the great train swept with a stately swing round a sloping curve, and then began one of the loveliest railway runs in the world, the seventy-mile-an-hour spin along the level, four-track road
which lies beside the eastern bank of the broad and beautiful Hudson.
It was during this delicious spin that I went into the smoking-room to have a pipe and something else. I sat down in a seat opposite to a man whose appearance stamped him as one of those quietly prosperous Americans who just go to their work and do it with such splendid thoroughness that the doing of it saves their country from falling into the social and political chaos that some other Americans would make of it if they could.
He gave me a light, and we began talking. If it had been in an English train we might have glared at each other for five hundred miles without a word. As it was, we had begun to know each other in half an hour. We talked about the Hudson, and the Catskills, and West Point, and then about the train, and so the talk came back to the inevitable dollar.
“A gorgeous train this,” I said; “far and away beyond anything we have in England. But,” I added with uncalculating haste, “it seems to me pretty expensive.”
“Excuse me,” he said, “I don’t think you’ve
figured it out. You’re going to San Francisco, thirty-two hundred miles from here. All the way you have a comfortable train,”—that was his lordly way of putting it,—“you have servants to wait on you day and night, a barber to shave you, a stenographer to dictate your letters to, and you never need get off the train except for the change at Chicago.
“When you get to San Francisco you will find that the total cost works out at about three cents a mile, say three halfpence. I believe the legal first-class fare in England—without sleeping-accommodation, in fact without anything you have here except a place to sit down in—is threepence a mile.”
I didn’t make the calculation, because when we subsequently exchanged cards I found I was talking to the President of the Mercantile Transportation Company, a man who knows just about as much of travel by land and sea as there is to be learnt.
After this we got on to railroading generally. I learnt much, and in the learning thereof came to think even less of British railway methods than I had done before. I learnt why it was
cheaper to carry grain a thousand miles from Chicago to New York than it is to carry it a couple of hundred miles from Yorkshire to London; why cattle can be carried over thousands of miles of prairie at less cost than over hundreds of miles of English railroads; and many other things all bearing on the question of the dollar and how to save it—for your true American is just as keen on saving as he is lavish in spending—which I thought might well be taught and still better learnt on this side.
It was during this conversation that I had an example of that absolutely disinterested kindness with which the wanderer so often meets in America and so seldom in England.
“By the way,” said Mr. President, “have you taken your berth from Chicago in the Overland Limited?”
“No,” I said; “I was told I could telegraph for it from Buffalo.”
“Well,” he said, “you know the train is limited and will probably be pretty full. There’s quite a number of people going west just now. However, don’t trouble; I guess I can fix that for you.”
Now, I had never seen this man before, and the probability was that I should never meet him again, and yet when I got to the North-Western Depôt at Chicago there was a section in the centre of one of the newest and most luxurious cars reserved for me.
“Mr. Griffith?” said the clerk, as I presented my transportation tickets. “That’s all right, sir. Your section’s engaged. Here’s your check, ‘2 D, San Vincente.’ Got a porter? Well, you can have your baggage taken down right away. She pulls out 3.30 sharp. Seventeen dollars, please.”