You Can't Win.
"I see hop joints, wine dumps, thieves’ resorts, and beggars’ hangouts." (1925)
I first heard about “You Can’t Win” from William Burroughs. Or, maybe “via” William Burroughs would be more accurate. I read somewhere that it was a favorite book of his, so, when I went looking for it and found a volume with a foreword by Burroughs, I bought it on the spot. And Burroughs did love it - a lost slice of a long-gone America, the language, the characters and the stories. The book was first published in 1925, which is the year young Bill first read it. At one point in his short essay, Burroughs says, “Half a century later, I was to use characters and scenes from [the book], quoting the prose of Jack Black from memory, occasionally word for word, and when you can remember a passage of prose after fifty years, it has to be good.”
That was my experience, as well, although I don’t think my memory is as good as his. Still, my first reading was vivid enough that I read it again a few months later and it stuck with me even more. It’s not the most modern writing and that’s one of the things I also enjoyed about it. Black was a hobo and a small-time thief and this book is an account of his life, his descent into crime and his vagabonding through a country that was as different from ours as 100 years can make it. Some things have not changed. Some will never return. I think I’m going to have to read it again. I may start tonight. —Paul Vlachos
I am now librarian of the San Francisco Call.
Do I look like one? I turn my chair so I can look in the mirror. I don’t see the face of a librarian. There is no smooth, high, white forehead. I do not see the calm, placid, composed countenance of the student. The forehead I see is high enough, but it is lined with furrows that look like knife scars. There are two vertical furrows between my eyes that make me appear to be wearing a continual scowl. My eyes are wide enough apart and not small, but they are hard, cold, calculating. They are blue, but of that shade of blue farthest removed from the violet.
My nose is not long, not sharp. Nevertheless it is an inquisitive nose. My mouth is large—one corner of it is higher than the other and I appear to be continually sneering. I do not scowl, I do not sneer; yet there is something in my face that causes a man or woman to hesitate before asking to be directed to Dr. Gordon’s church. I can’t remember a time that any woman, young or old, ever stopped me on the street and asked to be directed. Once in a great while a drunk will roll over to where I am standing and ask how he can get to “Tw’ninth ’n’ Mission.”
If I gaze into the mirror long enough and think hard enough I can conjure up another face. The old one seems to dissolve and in its place I see the face of a schoolboy—a bright, shining, innocent face. I see a mop of white hair, a pair of blue eyes, and an inquisitive nose. I see myself standing on the broad steps of the Sisters’ Convent School. At the age of fourteen, after three years’ “board and tuition,” I am leaving to go home to my father and then to another school for “big boys.”
My teacher, a sweet, gentle Sister, a madonna, is holding my hand. She is crying. I must hurry away or I will be crying, too. The Mother Superior says good-by. Her thin lips are pressed so tightly together that I can barely see the line where they meet. She is looking into my eyes intently and I am wondering what she is going to say to me when the crunching of gravel warns us that the old coach is ready and I must be off. The Mother takes my teacher gently by the hand. I see them go through the wide door and disappear silently down the long, dark hall.
All the boys in the school, and there were fifty of them, lined up and gave me a noisy send-off. The old coachman clucked to his horses, and I was off for the train—and the world.
Any reader with a spoonful of imagination can picture me going home, then to other schools in turn, then to some sort of an office job; advancement here and there, always leading a well-ordered, quiet, studious life, until he finally places me in the respectable and responsible position of librarian of a metropolitan newspaper. That’s the way it should have been, but wasn’t.
The course I followed from that convent school to this library desk, if charted on a piece of paper, would look like the zigzag line that statisticians use to denote the rise and fall of temperature or rainfall or fluctuations of business. Every turn I made was a sharp one, a sudden one. In years I cannot remember making one easy, graceful, rounded turn.
It has often been a question with me just how much the best of it a boy has, who has his mother with him until his feet are well planted under him; who has a home and its influences until he gathers some kind of a working philosophy that helps him to face the world. There is no substitute for the home and the mother.
It may not mean much to the average chap to have a friend say: “John, I want you to meet my mother.” To me it means more than I can put on paper. It seems to explain to me why the man who so proudly says, “This is my mother,” is so many things that I am not and never can be. The insurance people have not yet got to the stage of insuring a man against a lifetime of failure, but if they ever do, I imagine the chap who can guarantee them that he will keep his mother with him until he is twenty will have a shade the best of it when he pays his premium.
I am not lugging in the fact that I was left motherless at the age of ten to alibi myself away from anything. Nevertheless I think a fellow has the right to ask himself if things might not have been different. My mother died before I got very well acquainted with her—I doubt if any child gives its parents much thought before the age of twelve or thirteen.
I probably thought that my mother was a person put into the world to scrub my face and neck and to be screamed and kicked at; to put scratchy, flannel rags around my neck with smelly grease on them when I had the croup; and to stand by the bed and keep me in it when I had the measles. I can remember distinctly how angry I became when she brought me a nice, new toothbrush and showed me what to do with it.
This was the greatest indignity of all—the last straw. I threw the thing away and refused to use it; told her up and down that I was “no girl” and wouldn’t have any “girl things.” She did not get angry and scold; she just went on with her work, smiling. She may have been pleased with my manly outburst. I don’t know.
I don’t remember that I was shocked or pained when she was buried. I cried, because it was expected of me. Mother’s relatives, a couple of sisters, whom I never saw before or since, were crying. I saw tears in my father’s eyes. So I tried to cry, and did. I know my father realized what we had lost and his grief was genuine, but I could not feel it then.
A few days later father sold our little cottage home and furnishings and we moved into the only hotel in the little town. Schools were few and far between for poor children then. I played around the hotel all day, running wild, till father came home from work. He would have his dinner, read a paper, and then put me to bed. After that he would read a book for an hour and go to bed himself. We lived this way for almost a year. Some nights he would put down his book and look at me strangely for minutes at a time. I was a problem, undoubtedly, and he was trying to decide what to do with me. A ten-year-old boy without a mother is a fit problem for any father’s mind, and my father was a thoughtful man.
Looking back at it, it seems to me that I was blown here and there like a dead leaf whipped about by the autumn winds till at last it finds lodgment in some cozy fence corner. When I left school at fourteen I was as unsophisticated as a boy could be. I knew no more of the world and its strange way than the gentle, saintly woman who taught me my prayers in the convent.
Before my twentieth birthday, I was in the dock of a criminal court, on trial for burglary. I was acquitted, but that is another story. In six years I had deserted my father and home, gone “on the road.” I had become a snapper-up of small things, a tapper of tills, a street-door sneak thief, a prowler of cheap lodging houses, and at last a promising burglar in a small way.
At twenty-five I was an expert house burglar, a nighttime prowler, carefully choosing only the best homes—homes of the wealthy, careless, insured people. I “made” them in the small hours of the night, always under arms.
At thirty I was a respected member of the “yegg” brotherhood, a thief of which little is known. He is silent, secretive, wary; forever traveling, always a night “worker.” He shuns the bright lights, seldom straying far from his kind, never coming to the surface. Circulating through space with his always-ready automatic, the yegg rules the underworld of criminals. At forty I found myself a solitary, capable journeyman highwayman; an escaped convict, a fugitive, with a background of twenty-five years in the underworld.
A bleak background! Crowded with robberies, burglaries, and thefts too numerous to recall. All manner of crimes against property. Arrests, trials, acquittals, convictions, escapes. Penitentiaries! I see in the background four of them. County jails, workhouses, city prisons, Mounted Police barracks, dungeons, solitary confinement, bread and water, hanging up, brutal floggings, and the murderous straitjacket.
I see hop joints, wine dumps, thieves’ resorts, and beggars’ hangouts.
Crime followed by swift retribution in one form or another.
I had very few glasses of wine as I traveled this route. I rarely saw a woman smile and seldom heard a song.
In those twenty-five years I took all these things, and I am going to write about them.
And I am going to write about them as I took them —with a smile.
DEAD WOOD provides excerpts from the years before ideas became “content”. Some editions are serious and thought-provoking. Some are ludicrous or silly. Some are chosen just because they happened to strike us as particularly interesting.
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