Why I Wouldn’t Trade Des Moines for New York
By J. N. Darling
Otherwise known as “Ding”
The American Magazine 88 (July 1919), pages 37-38, 120.
THERE IS a coyote from the wind-swept prairies of Nebraska that now lives in ease and luxury in New York City.
He has a furnished apartment, servants, trained nurses for his children, aristocratic neighborhood, fine view overlooking the park, and the best of meals served from a nearby community kitchen of unquestionable excellence. He even has an iron grill-work entrance which, so I am told, is considered the final mark of social distinction in New York architecture. His is the last cage to the north in the row occupied by the members of the American Wolf family (one of our very oldest families), in the Bronx Zoo.
But in spite of the pride his mother must feel and his friends back home may have over his exalted station in life, he is bored to distraction. He gazes wistfully hour after hour out through the bars of his cage. I do not know how much coyotes are given to introspection, but I gather from his expression that he wishes he were out on the barren knob of a prairie sand hill where he could yap and howl to his heart's content, terrifying all the little cottontails and field mice into spasms, and plotting how he might stalk a young and tender grouse for his breakfast.
I suppose he is the most distinguished and noticed coyote in the world; but when he dies of fatty degeneration of the heart or of apoplexy from too much food and too little exercise, they'll just go out and catch another to take his place.
Whenever I get the feeling that New York offers the fullest and most complete expression of life, I take the subway out to see my old friend the coyote. He and I sit down and yearn for home.
I never knew a coyote to be blasé in his native surroundings; they don't get that way naturally. Neither do people. It is only when you subject a man to an existence which has as its chief physical requirement that he digest a lobster supper at two A. M., that he takes on the social and emotional attributes of a hermit crab.
It may have occurred to some who have read this far that I am trying to explain why I prefer living in the West, when I might live in New York City. Not that anyone cares. There isn't anything particularly interesting in a wooden leg, either, but if you know a man has one you can't help looking at it and wondering how it works, and how he lost his own.
Of course the case of the coyote and mine are not exactly parallel; for no curator of the greatest zoo in the world ever set a trap for me and tried to drag me, willy-nilly, into the spotlight. My invitations have not been quite so urgent. With me, going to New York has been more a matter of "Having passed the examinations in the eighth grade, the folks at home expect, of course, you'll go on through high school." You know how it is with the home folks -- God bless 'em. I guess every village and hamlet in the country has a cornet soloist in the band who "ought by rights to be playing with Sousa." If it isn't a cornetist, it's the local tenor, who is "just wasting his time around here and really ought to go into grand opera." Or, maybe, it is the star reciter of Marion Willoughby Jones' local College of Dramatic Art, Elocution and Music, who "has just lots and lots of flattering offers from Belasco to go on the stage.”
And such is the nature of "artists" that after the town has talked in that manner long enough they have a way of believing it themselves, and think it is up to them to prove it. So they pack up their things and move to New York. Hence the crowded condition of the subway. The cartoonist on the home paper is subject, and too often susceptible, to the same influence. Aside from this little variation in the method of arriving in New York, the parallel of the coyote and the Westerner who goes to live in New York is quite complete.
So far as making cartoons is concerned, I cannot see that it would make a bit of difference whether I live in New York, Des Moines or Mozambique. The days when my cartoon “falls” in the baking, any place would seem disagreeable - and would be quite a little more disagreeable for my being there, too. And the days when I do "ring the bell" I could be happy anywhere in the world - with the possible exception of that portion of the earth's surface temporarily under the domination of Potsdam and that won't be so bad when we get through fixing it.
So much for working in any place in particular. But when it comes to doing a good job of really living, I can see nothing in dwelling in New York that would tempt me to trade my present surroundings in Des Moines, although there is nothing gorgeous or unusual about the little quiet by-way off the main traveled road which John and Mary and "Penny" and I call home.
It isn't so quiet though, after all, when you come to think of it; for John is digging a "pirate's" cave in the back yard, and yesterday, surreptitiously smuggled some of his mother's table silver and her best lunch cloth into the grimy depths of his cavern to aid in the festivities of a "wienie" roast with the neighbors' boys. (I sometimes think his mother secretly cherishes the hope that we will move to New York.) Mary has discovered a pair of bluebirds nesting in one of our trees, and has ruined one of her dresses in attempting to get a “close-up” of the operation. This morning four wild ducks flew up and down the creek that skirts our back yard. And while we were at breakfast Kip dropped in to say that he'd be ready to start for the duck slough at four-thirty this afternoon for the evening shoot, a night at the farm house, an early breakfast of homemade sausage and a whole platter of fresh eggs, and then the morning shoot, and home tomorrow in time for the day's work.
There's nothing heroic about all these things, but did any John ever dig a pirate cave in the back yard of a New York apartment? And did anyone ever drop in at a sixteen-story apartment on Riverside Drive while you were at your buckwheat cakes and whet your appetite for life with news that the ducks were thick in the slough north of town?
I CAN SEE HOW people might get along quite contentedly without any wild duck atmosphere in their lives; but it's the "drop in" sort of companionship that is missing. It seems just as essential to me that I live near friends as it does to New Yorkers to live near a Rapid Transit station - and quite a bit more companionable. What, for instance, do folks in New York do when they wake up in the morning bursting with the impulse to "Hello" to somebody? Your most intimate friend probably lives in New Rochelle, while you hole up somewhere between One Hundred and Sixty-ninth Street and Montclair, New Jersey. When the uncontrollable desire to be sociable comes on, you write or telephone, and a week from next Tuesday you meet for the avowed purpose of delivering your erstwhile spontaneous outbursts of greetings. It's like opening a bottle of sparkling burgundy to drink week after next.
What kind of living is that for a world in which the only wealth worth having is measured by the amount of friendly affection you can accumulate on your journey through? Out West we have to get our sea food canned. But rather canned sea food and fresh friendships than canned friendships and fresh sea food! When you boil all the superfluous water out of life, and sugar off, if you haven't gathered a goodly residue of friendships and affections, you aren't going to have very much sweetness left in the kettle. Success, money, and position don't add a pennyweight of happiness unless they have brought the comradeship of friends. What all of us are really after in this world is to have people like us. If nobody likes us, the world is going to be a pretty dreary place, and we will wish we hadn't come, no matter how much success and wealth we may have accumulated.
I don t mean to say that New Yorkers don't have friends. They do. But they are laboring under a frightful handicap. Real friendships are not made by buying theatre tickets or a supper for the party afterward or seeing one another at a semi-occasional banquet of the descendants of the Mayflower pilgrims. I have a feeling that to make a real friend you must sit up all night with him in a damp cellar feeding his dog lard to keep him from dying of poison; or maybe someone has taken care of children number one and two while number three was having scarlet fever. Either that, or you must have played on the same old football team together when you were younger, or you must have sung bass to his tenor in the old college quartet or something that gave you a deeper insight into his being than you are apt to get while dressed up in your evening clothes at a seven o'clock dinner.
That is where the West comes in. I use the term "West" here as the New Yorker uses it, which means anything across the Hudson River. We don't have as many shows and bright lights out here, but we see the same folks often enough to know each other without being introduced all 'round again every time we meet. And when I get up in the morning and go out on the front porch to get the morning "Register," Bill, who lives next door, is generally in his yard fixing his lawn mower or trimming his hedge; and there is something about hallooing across lots the first thing in the morning that is fine for starting you on your day's journey.
I have often wondered what would happen if a jovial soul should breeze into a New York subway train some fine morning with a lusty "Hello, everybody. How's everybody this morning?" and slap the subway guard on the back. His effervescence would be about as acceptable as if he tried to join in the choruses of the Metropolitan Opera from his seat in the parquet. They'd probably have a wagon from the detention hospital waiting for him at the next station. You can say "Good morning" to most anybody Out West without being suspected of attempting to pick their pockets or to sell a gold brick.
NEW YORKERS are in reality not cold and unresponsive any more than people in other parts of the world; but they just don't see the same ones often enough to get acquainted. My personal feeling is that most New Yorkers are starving for just plain, good, old-fashioned comradeship, for someone to call them by their first name, and to slap them on the back. But it hardly seems fitting to go two or three miles out of your way, as you go to the office, just to find someone you know well enough to do it to you.
You might try the elevator boy, but he would probably think he was being asked to do something he wasn't paid for. As for your next-door neighbors, the most you know about them is the odors you get in the hall from their cooking. There is nothing more dreary to me than an endless sea of strange faces, and not a soul among them that knows your or even cares to. A barren prairie without a soul in sight is downright sociability by comparison.
Of course I understand that someone must live in New York to run the hotels and to entertain the buyers from the West. And there must be a lot of good reasons which I haven't thought of, or two or three million people wouldn't be living there and liking it. I sometimes wonder if it isn't because doing a good job of living there is so difficult that it make's people insist on doing it, simply because they like to tackle a hard proposition - sort of self-imposed martyrdom for the sake of being able to do something they think other people would do if they could.
The idea of going to New York to live and to work (in my case, to make cartoons) reminds me for all the world of playing the game of "Going to Jerusalem" for the sake of the chance it would give you to sit down. The chief object of the game is to acquire a chair - but you don't do any sitting in it to speak of.
"GOING to Jerusalem" is an old-fashioned game they play sometimes at neighborhood parties and church sociables. To play it, seventeen, more or less, people march to music around sixteen, more or less, chairs, and when the music stops everyone makes a dive for a chair. Of course in the scramble, since neighborhood parties are not synchronized like the blades of an aeroplane propeller to the bullets of its machine gun, everybody sits more or less on top of or underneath everybody else, and generally some two hundred-pounder steps on some lady's instep and everyone grows red-faced and pop-eyed in the heat of the conflict.
When the dust clears away there is always the unfortunate seventeenth person who gets no seat at all and is hooted ignominiously into the discard. Then they remove another chair and proceed with the elimination of the unfit by repeating the process until there is just one left, who is the hero of the occasion. But such is the price of fame that the lady with the crushed instep secretly suspects the triumphant one, and all the rest of the participants openly admit that they might have won if they had been willing to stoop to his scurrilous methods.
GOING to Jerusalem may be all right as a sporting proposition if you can't think of anything else to do; but from the point of view of the man who is looking for a comfortable place to sit down, the next room, where there are plenty of arm chairs with Russia leather upholstery and a pillow at your back, has a decided advantage. So leaving my comfortable little nook and going to New York to live and to work might add a trifle to my heritage of excitement, but it would have no desirable effect on the making of cartoons. And since my particular job is to make as good a cartoon as possible every day, and not at all to see how many other cartoonists I can beat at the game, I have picked out the most comfortable place I could find, where the only limitation I have to worry about is my own conscience, and I draw as seriously as I can, considering what a comical world it is in which we live.
Absorbing as anyone's day's work should be, it is only half the game. The other half depends on how good a job of living you can do in the hours after your day's work is done. And just why I prefer living in the West, when I might possibly live in New York, is in some rather unexplainable way mixed up with the problem of that other half of life outside the day's work. Explaining it is a good deal like trying to make clear just why one has red hair. One has it, that's all.
When I get over on the down-hill side of the game, so that the editors look out from under their eyeshades when I go in to sell a picture, and murmur under their breath, "There comes old Ding with one of his damned old-fashioned cartoons," I shall still be able to go up and down the streets of my friendly old town and have people slap me on the back and call me by my first name. There will be a capital stock of friendships laid by, and when that time comes, a man needs the interest on that as much as the interest on his savings.
Imagine being a "has-been" in New York!
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