The S. A. R. E. B., as its members called it, with the universal passion for mysterious and important-sounding initials, was the State Association of Real Estate Boards; the organization of brokers and operators. It was to hold its annual convention at Monarch, Zeniths chief rival among the cities of the state. Babbitt was an official delegate; another was Cecil Rountree, whom Babbitt admired for his picaresque speculative building, and hated for his social position, for being present at the smartest dances on Royal Ridge. Rountree was chairman of the convention program-committee.
Babbitt had growled to him, Makes me tired the way these doctors and profs and preachers put on lugs about being professional men. A good realtor has to have more knowledge and finesse than any of em.
Well, if it would help you in making up the program Tell you: the way I look at it is this: First place, we ought to insist that folks call us realtors and not real-estate men. Sounds more like a reglar profession. Second place What is it distinguishes a profession from a mere trade, business, or occupation? What is it? Why, its the public service and the skill, the trained skill, and the knowledge and, uh, all that, whereas a fellow that merely goes out for the jack, he never considers thepublic service and trained skill and so on. Now as a professional
He laid out a new fifteen-cent school exercise-book on his wifes collapsible sewing-table, set up for the event in the living-room. The household had been bullied into silence; Verona and Ted requested to disappear, and Tinka threatened with If I hear one sound out of youif you holler for a glass of water one single solitary time You better not, thats all! Mrs. Babbitt sat over by the piano, making a nightgown and gazing with respect while Babbitt wrote in the exercise-book, to the rhythmical wiggling and squeaking of the sewing-table.
For a week he went about looking important. Every morning, as he dressed, he thought aloud: Jever stop to consider, Myra, that before a town can have buildings or prosperity or any of those things, some realtor has got to sell em the land? All civilization starts with him. Jever realize that? At the Athletic Club he led unwilling men aside to inquire, Say, if you had to read a paper before a big convention, would you start in with the funny stories or just kind of scatter em all through? He asked Howard Littlefield for a set of statistics about real-estate sales; something good and impressive, and Littlefield provided something exceedingly good and impressive.
But it was to T. Cholmondeley Frink that Babbitt most often turned. He caught Frink at the club every noon, and demanded, while Frink looked hunted and evasive, Say, Chumyoure a shark on this writing stuffhow would you put this sentence, see here in my manuscriptmanuscriptnow where the deuce is that?oh, yes, here. Would you say We ought not also to alone think? or We ought also not to think alone? or
One evening when his wife was away and he had no one to impress, Babbitt forgot about Style, Order, and the other mysteries, and scrawled off what he really thought about the real-estate business and about himself, and he found the paper written. When he read it to his wife she yearned, Why, dear, its splendid; beautifully written, and so clear and interesting, and such splendid ideas! Why, its justits just splendid!
Next day he cornered Chum Frink and crowed, Well, old son, I finished it last evening! Just lammed it out! I used to think you writing-guys must have a hard job making up pieces, but Lord, its a cinch. Pretty soft for you fellows; you certainly earn your money easy! Some day when I get ready to retire, guess Ill take to writing and show you boys how to do it. I always used to think I could write better stuff, and more punch and originality, than all this stuff you see printed, and now Im doggone sure of it!
He had four copies of the paper typed in black with a gorgeous red title, had them bound in pale blue manilla, and affably presented one to old Ira Runyon, the managing editor of the Advocate-Times, who said yes, indeed yes, he was very glad to have it, and he certainly would read it all throughas soon as he could find time.
They met at the Union Station for the midnight train to Monarch. All of them, save Cecil Rountree, who was such a snob that he never wore badges, displayed celluloid buttons the size of dollars and lettered We zoom for Zenith. The official delegates were magnificent with silver and magenta ribbons. Martin Lumsens little boy Willy carried a tasseled banner inscribed Zenith the Zip CityZeal, Zest and Zowie1,000,000 in 1935. As the delegates arrived, not in taxicabs but in the family automobile driven by the oldest son or by Cousin Fred, they formed impromptu processions through the station waiting-room.
It was a new and enormous waiting-room, with marble pilasters, and frescoes depicting the exploration of the Chaloosa River Valley by Père Emile Fauthoux in 1740. The benches were shelves of ponderous mahogany; the news-stand a marble kiosk with a brass grill. Down the echoing spaces of the hall the delegates paraded after Willy Lumsens banner, the men waving their cigars, the women conscious of their new frocks and strings of beads, all singing to the tune of Auld Lang Syne the official City Song, written by Chum Frink: Good old Zenith, Our kin and kith, Wherever we may be, Hats in the ring, We blithely sing Of thy Prosperity.
Warren Whitby, the broker, who had a gift of verse for banquets and birthdays, had added to Frinks City Song a special verse for the realtors convention: Oh, here we come, The fellows from Zenith, the Zip Citee. We wish to state In real estate Theres none so live as we.
The patient poor people waiting for the midnight train stared in unenvious wonderItalian women with shawls, old weary men with broken shoes, roving road-wise boys in suits which had been flashy when they were new but which were faded now and wrinkled.
Babbitt perceived that as an official delegate he must be more dignified. With Wing and Rogers he tramped up and down the cement platform beside the waiting Pullmans. Motor-driven baggage-trucks and red-capped porters carrying bags sped down the platform with an agreeable effect of activity. Arc-lights glared and stammered overhead. The glossy yellow sleeping-cars shone impressively. Babbitt made his voice to be measured and lordly; he thrust out his abdomen and rumbled, We got to see to it that the convention lets the Legislature understand just where they get off in this matter of taxing realty transfers. Wing uttered approving grunts and Babbitt swelledgloated
The blind of a Pullman compartment was raised, and Babbitt looked into an unfamiliar world. The occupant of the compartment was Lucile McKelvey, the pretty wife of the millionaire contractor. Possibly, Babbitt thrilled, she was going to Europe! On the seat beside her was a bunch of orchids and violets, and a yellow paper-bound book which seemed foreign. While he stared, she picked up the book, then glanced out of the window as though she was bored. She must have looked straight at him, and he had met her, but she gave no sign. She languidly pulled down the blind, and he stood still, a cold feeling of insignificance in his heart.
But on the train his pride was restored by meeting delegates from Sparta, Pioneer, and other smaller cities of the state, who listened respectfully when, as a magnifico from the metropolis of Zenith, he explained politics and the value of a Good Sound Business Administration. They fell joyfully into shop-talk, the purest and most rapturous form of conversation:
So, Elbert Wing was droning, I hired this shop-window for a week, and put up a big sign, Toy Town for Tiny Tots, and stuck in a lot of doll houses and some dinky little trees, and then down at the bottom, Baby Likes This Dollydale, but Papa and Mama Will Prefer Our Beautiful Bungalows, and you know, that certainly got folks talking, and first week we sold
The trucks sang lickety-lick, lickety-lick as the train ran through the factory district. Furnaces spurted flame, and power-hammers were clanging. Red lights, green lights, furious white lights rushed past, and Babbitt was important again, and eager.
He did a voluptuous thing: he had his clothes pressed on the train. In the morning, half an hour before they reached Monarch, the porter came to his berth and whispered, Theres a drawing-room vacant, sir. I put your suit in there. In tan autumn overcoat over his pajamas, Babbitt slipped down the green-curtain-lined aisle to the glory of his first private compartment. The porter indicated that he knew Babbitt was used to a man-servant; he held the ends of Babbitts trousers, that the beautifully sponged garment might not be soiled, filled the bowl in the private washroom, and waited with a towel.
To have a private washroom was luxurious. However enlivening a Pullman smoking-compartment was by night, even to Babbitt it was depressing in the morning, when it was jammed with fat men in woolen undershirts, every hook filled with wrinkled cottony shirts, the leather seat piled with dingy toilet-kits, and the air nauseating with the smell of soap and toothpaste. Babbitt did not ordinarily think much of privacy, but now he reveled in it, reveled in his valet, and purred with pleasure as he gave the man a tip of a dollar and a half.
He was to share a room at the Hotel Sedgwick with W. A. Rogers, that shrewd, rustic-looking Zenith dealer in farm-lands. Together they had a noble breakfast, with waffles, and coffee not in exiguous cups but in large pots. Babbitt grew expansive, and told Rogers about the art of writing; he gave a bellboy a quarter to fetch a morning newspaper from the lobby, and sent to Tinka a post-card: Papa wishes you were here to bat round with him.
The meetings of the convention were held in the ballroom of the Allen House. In an anteroom was the office of the chairman of the executive committee. He was the busiest man in the convention; he was so busy that he got nothing done whatever. He sat at a marquetry table, in a room littered with crumpled paper and, all day long, town-boosters and lobbyists and orators who wished to lead debates came and whispered to him, whereupon he looked vague, and said rapidly, Yes, yes, thats a fine idea; well do that, and instantly forgot all about it, lighted a cigar and forgot that too, while the telephone rang mercilessly and about him men kept beseeching, Say, Mr. Chairmansay, Mr. Chairman! without penetrating his exhausted hearing.
In the exhibit-room were plans of the new suburbs of Sparta, pictures of the new state capitol, at Galop de Vache, and large ears of corn with the label, Natures Gold, from Shelby County, the Garden Spot of Gods Own Country.
The first of them opened with a welcome by the mayor of Monarch. The pastor of the First Christian Church of Monarch, a large man with a long damp frontal lock, informed God that the real-estate men were here now.
The venerable Minnemagantic realtor, Major Carlton Tuke, read a paper in which he denounced coöperative stores. William A. Larkin of Eureka gave a comforting prognosis ofThe Prospects for Increased Construction, and reminded them that plate-glass prices were two points lower.
The delegates were entertained, incessantly and firmly. The Monarch Chamber of Commerce gave them a banquet, and the Manufacturers Association an afternoon reception, at which a chrysanthemum was presented to each of the ladies, and to each of the men a leather bill-fold inscribed From Monarch the Mighty Motor Mart.
Mrs. Crosby Knowlton, wife of the manufacturer of Fleetwing Automobiles, opened her celebrated Italian garden and served tea. Six hundred real-estate men and wives ambled down the autumnal paths. Perhaps three hundred of them were quietly inconspicuous; perhaps three hundred vigorously exclaimed, This is pretty slick, eh? surreptitiously picked the late asters and concealed them in their pockets, and tried to get near enough to Mrs. Knowlton to shake her lovely hand. Without request, the Zenith delegates (except Rountree) gathered round a marble dancing nymph and sang Here we come, the fellows from Zenith, the Zip Citee.
It chanced that all the delegates from Pioneer belonged to the Brotherly and Protective Order of Elks, and they produced an enormous banner lettered: B. P. O. E.Best People on EarthBoost Pioneer, Oh Eddie. Nor was Galop de Vache, the state capital, to be slighted. The leader of the Galop de Vache delegation was a large, reddish, roundish man, but active. He took off his coat, hurled his broad black felt hat on the ground, rolled up his sleeves, climbed upon the sundial, spat, and bellowed:
Well tell the world, and the good lady whos giving the show this afternoon, that the bonniest burg in this mans state is Galop de Vache. You boys can talk about your zip, but jus lemme murmur that old Galop has the largest proportion of home-owning citizens in the state; and when folks own their homes, they aint starting labor-troubles, and theyre raising kids instead of raising hell! Galop de Vache! The town for homey folks! The town that eats em alive oh, Bosco! Welltelltheworld!
The guests drove off; the garden shivered into quiet. But Mrs. Crosby Knowlton sighed as she looked at a marble seat warm from five hundred summers of Amalfi. On the face of a winged sphinx which supported it some one had drawn a mustache in lead-pencil. Crumpled paper napkins were dumped among the Michaelmas daisies. On the walk, like shredded lovely flesh, were the petals of the last gallant rose. Cigarette stubs floated in the goldfish pool, trailing an evil stain as they swelled and disintegrated, and beneath the marble seat, the fragments carefully put together, was a smashed teacup.
As he rode back to the hotel Babbitt reflected, Myra would have enjoyed all this social agony. For himself he cared less for the garden party than for the motor tours which the Monarch Chamber of Commerce had arranged. Indefatigably he viewed water-reservoirs, suburban trolley-stations, and tanneries. He devoured the statistics which were given to him, and marveled to his roommate, W. A. Rogers, Of course this town isnt a patch on Zenith; it hasnt got our outlook and natural resources; but did you knowI nev did till to-daythat they manufactured seven hundred and sixty-three million feet of lumber last year? What d you think of that!
He was nervous as the time for reading his paper approached. When he stood on the low platform before the convention, he trembled and saw only a purple haze. But he was in earnest, and when he had finished the formal paper he talked to them, his hands in his pockets, his spectacled face a flashing disk, like a plate set up on edge in the lamplight. They shouted Thats the stuff! and in the discussion afterward they referred with impressiveness to our friend and brother, Mr. George F. Babbitt. He had in fifteen minutes changed from a minor delegate to a personage almost as well known as that diplomat of business, Cecil Rountree. After the meeting, delegates from all over the state said, Hower you, Brother Babbitt? Sixteen complete strangers called him George, and three men took him into corners to confide, Mighty glad you had the courage to stand up and give the Profession a real boost. Now Ive always maintained
Next morning, with tremendous casualness, Babbitt asked the girl at the hotel news-stand for the newspapers from Zenith. There was nothing in the Press, but in the Advocate-Times, on the third pageHe gasped. They had printed his picture and a half-column account. The heading was Sensation at Annual Land-mens Convention. G. F. Babbitt, Prominent Ziptown Realtor, Keynoter in Fine Address.
It was the last meeting. The delegations were presenting the claims of their several cities to the next years convention. Orators were announcing that Galop de Vache, the Capital City, the site of Kremer College and of the Upholtz Knitting Works, is the recognized center of culture and high-class enterprise; and that Hamburg, the Big Little City with the Logical Location, where every man is open-handed and every woman a heaven-born hostess, throws wide to you her hospitable gates.
In the midst of these more diffident invitations, the golden doors of the ballroom opened with a blatting of trumpets, and a circus parade rolled in. It was composed of the Zenith brokers, dressed as cowpunchers, bareback riders, Japanese jugglers. At the head was big Warren Whitby, in the bear-skin and gold-and-crimson coat of a drum-major. Behind him, as a clown, beating a bass drum, extraordinarily happy and noisy, was Babbitt.
Warren Whitby leaped on the platform, made merry play with his baton, and observed, Boyses and girlses, the time has came to get down to cases. A dyed-in-the-wool Zenithite sure loves his neighbors, but weve made up our minds to grab this convention off our neighbor burgs like weve grabbed the condensed-milk business and the paper-box business and
Running down the aisle, clapping his hands, a lean bald young man cried, Im from Sparta! Our Chamber of Commerce has wired me theyve set aside eight thousand dollars, in real money, for the entertainment of the convention!
The Committee on Resolutions was reporting. They said that Whereas Almighty God in his beneficent mercy had seen fit to remove to a sphere of higher usefulness some thirty-six realtors of the state the past year, Therefore it was the sentiment of this convention assembled that they were sorry God had done it, and the secretary should be, and hereby was, instructed to spread these resolutions on the minutes, and to console the bereaved families by sending them each a copy.
A second resolution authorized the president of the S.A.R.E.B. to spend fifteen thousand dollars in lobbying for sane tax measures in the State Legislature. This resolution had a good deal to say about Menaces to Sound Business and clearing the Wheels of Progress from ill-advised and short-sighted obstacles.
There was no formal entertainment provided for the last evening. Babbitt had planned to go home, but that afternoon the Jered Sassburgers of Pioneer suggested that Babbitt and W. A. Rogers have tea with them at the Catalpa Inn.
Teas were not unknown to Babbitthis wife and he earnestly attended them at least twice a yearbut they were sufficiently exotic to make him feel important. He sat at a glass-covered table in the Art Room of the Inn, with its painted rabbits, mottoes lettered on birch bark, and waitresses being artistic in Dutch caps; he ate insufficient lettuce sandwiches, and was lively and naughty with Mrs. Sassburger, who was as smooth and large-eyed as a cloak-model. Sassburger and he had met two days before, so they were calling each other Georgie and Sassy.
Sassburger said prayerfully, Say, boys, before you go, seeing this is the last chance, Ive got it, up in my room, and Miriam here is the best little mixelogist in the Stati Unidos like us Italians say.
With wide flowing gestures, Babbitt and Rogers followed the Sassburgers to their room. Mrs. Sassburger shrieked, Oh, how terrible! when she saw that she had left a chemise of sheer lavender crêpe on the bed. She tucked it into a bag, while Babbitt giggled, Dont mind us; were a couple o little divvils!
Sassburger telephoned for ice, and the bell-boy who brought it said, prosaically and unprompted, Highball glasses or cocktail? Miriam Sassburger mixed the cocktails in one of those dismal, nakedly white water-pitchers which exist only in hotels. When they had finished the first round she proved by intoning Think you boys could stand anotheryou got a dividend coming that, though she was but a woman, she knew the complete and perfect rite of cocktail-drinking.
Outside, Babbitt hinted to Rogers, Say, W. A., old rooster, it comes over me that I could stand it if we didnt go back to the lovin wives, this handsome Abend, but just kind of stayed in Monarch and threw a party, heh?
At half-past seven they sat in their room, with Elbert Wing and two up-state delegates. Their coats were off, their vests open, their faces red, their voices emphatic. They were finishing a bottle of corrosive bootlegged whisky and imploring the bell-boy, Say, son, can you get us some more of this embalming fluid? They were smoking large cigars and dropping ashes and stubs on the carpet. With windy guffaws they were telling stories. They were, in fact, males in a happy state of nature.
Babbitt sighed, I dont know how it strikes you hellions, but personally I like this busting loose for a change, and kicking over a couple of mountains and climbing up on the North Pole and waving the aurora borealis around.
The man from Sparta, a grave, intense youngster, babbled, Say! I guess Im as good a husband as the run of the mill, but God, I do get so tired of going home every evening, and nothing to see but the movies. Thats why I go out and drill with the National Guard. I guess I got the nicest little wife in my burg, but Say! Know what I wanted to do as a kid? Know what I wanted to do? Wanted to be a big chemist. Thas what I wanted to do. But Dad chased me out on the road selling kitchenware, and here Im settled downsettled for lifenot a chance! Oh, who the devil started this funeral talk? How bout nother lil drink? And a-noth-er drink wouldn do s ny harmmmmmmm.
Yea. Cut the sob-stuff, said W. A. Rogers genially. You boys know Im the village songster? Come on nowsing up: Said the old Obadiah to the young Obadiah, I am dry, Obadiah, I am dry. Said the young Obadiah to the old Obadiah, So am I, Obadiah, so am I.
They had dinner in the Moorish Grillroom of the Hotel Sedgwick. Somewhere, somehow, they seemed to have gathered in two other comrades: a manufacturer of fly-paper and a dentist. They all drank whisky from tea-cups, and they were humorous, and never listened to one another, except when W. A. Rogers kidded the Italian waiter.
Well, in that case, Carlo, just bring me a hunk o steak and a couple o bushels o French fried potatoes and some peas, Rogers went on. I suppose back in dear old sunnyIt the Eyetalians get their fresh garden peas out of the can.
Is that a fact! Georgie, do you hear that? They get their fresh garden peas out of the garden, in Italy! By golly, you live and learn, dont you, Antonio, you certainly do live and learn, if you live long enough and keep your strength. All right, Garibaldi, just shoot me in that steak, with about two printers-reams of French fried spuds on the promenade deck, comprehenez-vous, Michelovitch Angeloni?
In the Monarch Herald, Babbitt found an advertisement which he read aloud, to applause and laughter:
Old Colony Theatre
Shake the Old Dogs to the WROLLICKING WRENS The bonniest bevy of beauteous bathing babes in burlesque. Pete Menutti and his Oh, Gee, Kids.
This is the straight steer, Benny, the painless chicklets of the Wrollicking Wrens are the cuddlingest bunch that ever hit town. Steer the feet, get the card board, and twist the pupils to the PDQest show ever. You will get 111% on your kale in this fun-fest. The Calroza Sisters are sure some lookers and will give you a run for your gelt. Jock Silbersteen is one of the pepper lads and slips you a dose of real laughter. Shoot the up and down to Jackson and West for graceful tappers. They run 12 under the wire. Provin and Adams will blow the blues in their laugh skit Hootch Mon! Something doing, boys. Listen to what the Hep Bird twitters.
But they put off departure as long as they could. They were safe while they sat here, legs firmly crossed under the table, but they felt unsteady; they were afraid of navigating the long and slippery floor of the grillroom under the eyes of the other guests and the too-attentive waiters.
When they did venture, tables got in their way, and they sought to cover embarrassment by heavy jocularity at the coatroom. As the girl handed out their hats, they smiled at her, and hoped that she, a cool and expert judge, would feel that they were gentlemen. They croaked at one another, Who owns the bum lid? and You take a good one, George; Ill take whats left, and to the check-girl they stammered, Better come along, sister! High, wide, and fancy evening ahead! All of them tried to tip her, urging one another, No! Wait! Here! I got it right here! Among them, they gave her three dollars.
Flamboyantly smoking cigars they sat in a box at the burlesque show, their feet up on the rail, while a chorus of twenty daubed, worried, and inextinguishably respectable grandams swung their legs in the more elementary chorus-evolutions, and a Jewish comedian made vicious fun of Jews. In the entractes they met other lone delegates. A dozen of them went in taxicabs out to Bright Blossom Inn, where the blossoms were made of dusty paper festooned along a room low and stinking, like a cow-stable no longer wisely used.
Here, whisky was served openly, in glasses. Two or three clerks, who on pay-day longed to be taken for millionaires, sheepishly danced with telephone-girls and manicure-girls in the narrow space between the tables. Fantastically whirled the professionals, a young man in sleek evening-clothes and a slim mad girl in emerald silk, with amber hair flung up as jaggedly as flames. Babbitt tried to dance with her. He shuffled along the floor, too bulky to be guided, his steps unrelated to the rhythm of the jungle music, and in his staggering he would have fallen, had she not held him with supple kindly strength. He was blind and deaf from prohibition-era alcohol; he could not see the tables, the faces. But he was overwhelmed by the girl and her young pliant warmth.
When she had firmly returned him to his group, he remembered, by a connection quite untraceable, that his mothers mother had been Scotch, and with head thrown back, eyes closed, wide mouth indicating ecstasy, he sang, very slowly and richly, Loch Lomond.
But that was the last of his mellowness and jolly companionship. The man from Sparta said he was a bum singer, and for ten minutes Babbitt quarreled with him, in a loud, unsteady, heroic indignation. They called for drinks till the manager insisted that the place was closed. All the while Babbitt felt a hot raw desire for more brutal amusements. When W. A. Rogers drawled, What say we go down the line and look over the girls? he agreed savagely. Before they went, three of them secretly made appointments with the professional dancing girl, who agreed Yes, yes, sure, darling to everything they said, and amiably forgot them.
As they drove back through the outskirts of Monarch, down streets of small brown wooden cottages of workmen, characterless as cells, as they rattled across warehouse-districts which by drunken night seemed vast and perilous, as they were borne toward the red lights and violent automatic pianos and the stocky women who simpered, Babbitt was frightened. He wanted to leap from the taxicab, but all his body was a murky fire, and he groaned, Too late to quit now, and knew that he did not want to quit.
There was, they felt, one very humorous incident on the way. A broker from Minnemagantic said, Monarch is a lot sportier than Zenith. You Zenith tightwads havent got any joints like these here. Babbitt raged, Thats a dirty lie!Snothin you cant find in Zenith. Believe me, we got more houses and hootch-parlors an all kinds o dives than any burg in the state.
In the morning, when he returned to Zenith, his desire for rebellion was partly satisfied. He had retrograded to a shame-faced contentment. He was irritable. He did not smile when W. A. Rogers complained, Ow, what a head! I certainly do feel like the wrath of God this morning. Say! I know what was the trouble! Somebody went and put alcohol in my booze last night.
Babbitts excursion was never known to his family, nor to any one in Zenith save Rogers and Wing. It was not officially recognized even by himself. If it had any consequences, they have not been discovered.