Much of the tragical lore of the infant mortality, the malnutrition, and the five-in-a-room morality of the city’s poor is written in statistics, and the statistical path to the heart is more figurative than literal.
It is difficult to write stylistically a per-annum report of 1,327 curvatures of the spine, whereas the poor specific little vertebra of Mamie O’Grady, daughter to Lou, your laundress, whose alcoholic husband once invaded your very own basement and attempted to strangle her in the coal-bin, can instantly create an apron bazaar in the church vestry-rooms.
That is why it is possible to drink your morning coffee without nausea for it, over the head-lines of forty thousand casualties at Ypres, but to push back abruptly at a three-line notice of little Tony’s, your corner bootblack’s, fatal dive before a street-car.
Gertie Slayback was statistically down as a woman wage-earner; a typhoid case among the thousands of the Borough of Manhattan for 1901; and her twice-a-day share in the Subway fares collected in the present year of our Lord.
She was a very atomic one of the city’s four millions. But after all, what are the kings and peasants, poets and draymen, but great, greater, or greatest, less, lesser, or least atoms of us? If not of the least, Gertie Slayback was of the very lesser. When she unlocked the front door to her rooming-house of evenings, there was no one to expect her, except on Tuesdays, which evening it so happened her week was up. And when she left of mornings with her breakfast crumblessly cleared up and the box of biscuit and condensed-milk can tucked unsuspectedly behind her camisole in the top drawer there was no one to regret her.
There are some of us who call this freedom. Again there are those for whom one spark of home fire burning would light the world.
Gertie Slayback was one of these. Half a life-time of opening her door upon this or that desert-aisle of hall bedroom had not taught her heart how not to sink or the feel of daily rising in one such room to seem less like a damp bathing-suit, donned at dawn.
The only picture—or call it atavism if you will—which adorned Miss Slayback’s dun-colored walls was a passe-partout snowscape, night closing in, and pink cottage windows peering out from under eaves. She could visualize that interior as if she had only to turn the frame for the smell of wood fire and the snap of pine logs and for the scene of two high-back chairs and the wooden crib between.
What a fragile, gracile thing is the mind that can leap thus from nine bargain basement hours of hairpins and darning-balls to the downy business of lining a crib in Never-Never Land and warming No Man’s slippers before the fire of imagination.
There was that picture so acidly etched into Miss Slayback’s brain that she had only to close her eyes in the slit-like sanctity of her room and in the brief moment of courting sleep feel the pink penumbra of her vision begin to glow.