YOU'D ASK YOUR MOTHER, "What was it like in the olden days?"
Answer: stricter, poorer, more polite.
No: You wanted to know what it felt like to be alive then. How could she explain . . . the dusty heat of old television sets, the smell of Vitalis on men's hair . . . women in gloves that felt sexy touching your skin, the warmth . . . men who whistled (with trills) and wore hats tipped to one side and got killed in wars . . . the champagne disenchantment of the tuxedo '20s, husbands who lost Depression jobs and hid in their houses for shame, the October-morning energy of the postwar '40s, the barefoot LSD weddings when the universe seemed a conspiracy in everyone's favor . . .
Charles Baudelaire, a hip 19th-century French poet, said that each age has "a deportment, a glance, a smile of its own."
In his high school yearbook, your father seems older at 18 than you did at 35. His age had a deportment of its own. So does yours.
Ages don't match decades, of course. Maybe the '60s ran from 1965 to 1975, but never mind. Some ages coincided with decades--the Roaring '20s, the Depression '30s. Some didn't. Either way, decades are handy pigeonholes for lives and times.
No one denies the importance of history--newsreel dive bombers, Olympic medals, dates and facts. Yes, the Titanic sank and Martin Luther King Jr. changed America.
But what did it feel like to be alive back then when everything or nothing seemed possible? When you lay awake listening to train whistles that weren't so much noise as a heightening of your bedroom silence? When you smelled woodsmoke walking home in the early dark?
What it felt like . . .
Back in the first decade of the 20th century, the Oughts, the Good Years, the Age of Confidence. People fought over solutions, not problems: the gold standard vs. free silver, the flying machine--tool or toy? And Teddy Roosevelt busted the trusts, started digging the Panama Canal and sent the Great White Fleet around the world.
What it felt like just to walk down the street on a morning in early spring?--the smell of dank, dark wool and the ragged sparking of streetcar wires, men with derbies and level stares, women holding skirts above the muck and manure, immigrants audacious with ambition, the dead sweet smell of coal smoke, and soot on the last yellow, melting snow . . .
Back when health, wealth and happiness seemed not just possible but inevitable and there were Gibson girls with their confident, lifted hair and their hands in fur muffs . . . photographs of families lined up from tallest to shortest, like organ pipes . . . the whistle of stiff bristle brushes on porch floors . . . wiseacres saying "Make like a hoop and roll out of here" . . . grimy children crippled in textile mills . . .
John D. Rockefeller said, "God gave me my money." Things were dark and deliberate. Fathers knew best.
You want to know what it felt like to have the nervous system of a striker wrecking two trains near Wilkes-Barre, Pa., or a baseball player sleeping in barns and living on bread and beefsteak, or a schoolteacher thinking about the science of Marie Curie and the bared legs of Isadora Duncan, and then going home to hand her sealed pay envelope to Father.
In 1900, there were 75 million people in the 45 states and by 1910 a million immigrants a year, and who knows what it felt like for each one of them?
Davy Jones, outfielder for the Chicago Cubs, in "The Glory of Their Times":
"Back at the turn of the century, you know, we didn't have the mass communication and mass transportation that exist nowadays. We didn't have as much schooling, either. As a result, people were more unique then, more unusual, more different from each other. Now people are all more or less alike, company men, security minded, conformity--that kind of stuff. In everything, not just baseball."
You already know Teddy Roosevelt shot bears and the Wright brothers flew an airplane on that cold beach in 1903. You've seen the crowd photographs. Everything seemed to happen in crowds: the masses huddled in slum flats, the sea-bathing ladies in bloomers, boys in knickers playing marbles. Things flashed around in newsreels: horses, smiles, top hats, parasols and dimity dresses.
Sen. Albert Beveridge of Indiana announced: "God has marked the American people as his chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of . . . ."
Henry James said: "The will to grow was everywhere written large, and to grow at no matter what or whose expense." The expense of the working man? The immigrant? The farmer? Anarchists and atheists? The conquered Filipino?
But what it felt like is lost and gone forever, O my darling Clementine.
No telling what it was like for W.K. Vanderbilt--the dining room of his Newport "cottage" had bronze furniture and Algerian marble walls--or for farmers driven off the land by railroads, or for parents with children dying of diphtheria, whooping cough, typhoid and malaria. Or terrified families dressing up for the minister's visit. Or blacks: W.E.B. Du Bois, who went to Harvard and then studied racial theory in Germany, said American blacks had "two-ness--an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings."
But you have ideas. You have an idea of ashmen and icemen. The circus with miraculous foreigners in tights. Croquet. Resort hotels that burned down. So many blind people, harelips, clubfeet, hunchbacks. Chestnut trees. Hydrangeas. Vaudeville comics: "I sent my wife to the Thousand Islands for a vacation: a week on each island." Dogs: Loyal Newfoundlands and smart pugs are good with children.
On Sunday afternoons, Aunt Lil sings " 'Tis the Last Rose of Summer." You cringe when the high note nears. Your mother mouths at you: "Don't." With the gramophone you can listen to Caruso singing "Vesti la giubba." He always makes the high note. Machines will solve all our problems.
The New York Times: "We step upon the threshold of 1900 . . . facing a still brighter dawn of civilization."
The Cheyenne Sun-Leader: "Never has a year been ushered in with more promise."
Your father shaves with King Gillette's new safety razor. It's not as manly as the straight razor, somehow. But that Gillette! What a man! He says he's going to take the electricity from Niagara Falls and build a city for 60 million people! And he's not the only one--he's racing against Albert Love with his "Model City" and Love Canal.
Drain the swamps! Clear the forests! The city skyline gets higher every day, and the wind tears the smoke and steam out of stacks, banners of progress, electric Camelot.
But how it felt . . .
You have an idea of dark houses with fringed couches and tables of golden oak.
A mother weeps in her bedroom for no reason she can tell. The doctor calls it neurasthenia. She feels asphyxiated, as if the whole world smelled like a clothes closet. She drinks another tablespoon of Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Tonic, 18 percent alcohol.
Sitting by a kitchen window, a daughter wonders what real love will be like and studies the Sears, Roebuck catalogue ad for "La Dores Bust Food--for developing the bust and making it firm and round." There is linoleum on the floor. They can make anything now in factories. She watches the streetcar turn the corner with a waltzy pivot that isn't quite graceful in the way that the metronome on the parlor organ isn't quite rhythm. Aunt Lil says no machine will ever create beauty, though some European artists think art must be like machines in the future . . . anarchists, probably, or socialists. And what about the Pianola playing those beautiful rolls of sad Chopin! He lived with George Sand, a woman. Unmarried. Why not?
In his bedroom, a son lifts dumbbells and wonders if he is magnetic, masterful and fascinating. Perhaps if he learned to play Ping-Pong. Or smoked cigarettes. Or bought penny stocks . . . oil wells in Mexico . . . that turned him into the youngest millionaire in the history of Wall Street and when he ran into old classmates they'd say, "If only we'd known then . . ."
Outside, an Italian family walks past with eyes you can't see into, the women shrouded in black, the men carrying knives, or so the son has heard. In the spring, they ask to pick your dandelions. To make wine? Some people don't like Italians. They lynched 11 of them one day in New Orleans. But who was it who invented the radio? Marconi! Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Off in the city, a father thinks about the lady "typewriters" clacking away outside his office in their shirtwaists with big shoulders that make their hands look small. He wears a high, stiff collar that makes his chin look bigger. Chins show character. He wishes his son cared more about character and less about what young people call "personality." Personality didn't decide to dig the Panama Canal. It's one of those words that Walt Whitman slung around.
Wanting to have fame instead of a good reputation. Dancing the bunny hug. A fellow named Simon Nelson Patten saying that it is better to consume than produce. Everything new and scientific. Magazines telling you the best ways to comb your hair and cook your dinner--Edward Bok and his Ladies' Home Journal calling for an end to corsetry. And "The Call of the Wild" with Jack London telling you to live outdoors and be free of the same civilization that publishes his books.
Things feel a little unreal. Distant corporations can your food, light your house, ready-make your clothes without even measuring you, and give you music with machines when you used to make it yourself. McCall's, McClure's, all these magazines tell you how to beat rugs, cure female troubles and raise your children. When Father was a boy, people knew these things. They didn't need some dude in a city to tell them. Though we've still got some grit. After the San Francisco earthquake America turned down foreign offers of help and said we'd handle it ourselves, by God.
Father locks his desk. He wouldn't want anybody to open it and find Boccaccio's "Decameron," which may be a classic in Europe but it's smut here in these United States.
On his way to the saloon, he dodges the clatter of a wagonload of shingles. He thinks of the fellow in the paper saying soon the streets would be clean, silent and uncrowded thanks to the automobile. It takes less space than the horse-and-wagon, and is quiet with no iron-rimmed wheels or hooves on cobblestones with the sharp, dark crack that feels like it'll make your ears ring. But with less than 150 miles of paved roads in 1900, how soon could it happen?
But will there be the men to make it happen? A doctor has written, "Is it not shameful to think of a big, well-built man, brought up on the farm . . . spending his days . . . whispering into a Dictaphone?" On the other hand, a commentator named John Bates Clark says: "A certain manly quality in our people gives assurance that we have the personal material out of which a millennium will grow."
Bill the bartender emerges from the tangy haze of cigar smoke, pickle brine and beer-damp sawdust. He says to Father: "Here's one you can tell the wife. It seems Paddy tells Mike that Mrs. O'Hara has died. 'Has she now, Paddy? And what did she die of?' 'Why, she died of a Tuesday.' "
"That's a corker," Father says, while he tries to figure it out. Ah: the way the Irish say "of" a Tuesday not "on" a Tuesday. "A corker indeed, Bill."
We leave our family now, with mother feeling better and going down the cellar stairs to fetch an apronful of potatoes sprouting the occasional white tendril in a bin that smells mildewy and dusty at the same time. And apples for apple brown betty. She sets the salt cod to soak.
The daughter decides on molded ice cream for her birthday party, angels for the girls and George Washingtons for the boys. Though it's spring now and the milk tastes of onion sprouts the cows have been eating. Will the ice cream smell of onions, too? Well, as long as Aunt Lil doesn't sing . . .
Is this family what families were like back then? If so, they were a lot like families now. Maybe people don't change that much.
Though smells change, and some day this son and daughter will remember this house by the smell of hominy, pipe smoke, ill-fitted plumbing, rice pudding, cloves, radiator air, fried doughnuts, and the way you could follow summer into fall by the pies: strawberry, raspberry, blue- and blackberry, apple, grape, pumpkin, yam . . . Then it's winter with canned peas, bread, and the root vegetables in cellar bins--turnips, onions . . .
Outside, in the twilight chill, woodsmoke makes your nostrils flare. The sky over the city horizon twitches with glare from smelters. Down at the station, there's ice on the tracks. A locomotive, steam punching at the air, gets a little start and then the wheels lose purchase and they spin puffpuffpuff . . . puff, to silence, and it starts again.