Standing on Washington Heights—that hump on northwestern Manhattan Island—gazing, say, from a window of the City College whose gray and quaint cluster fronts the morn as on a cliff above the city—one sees, at seven of a sharp morning, a low-hung sun in the eastern skies, a vast circle and lift of mild blue heavens, and at one’s feet, down below, the whole sweep of New York from the wooded ridges of the Bronx to the Fifty-ninth Street bridge and the golden tip of the Metropolitan Tower. It is a flood of roofs sweeping south to that golden, flashing minaret, a flood bearing innumerable high mill chimneys, church steeples, school spires, and the skeleton frames of gas-works. Far in the east the Harlem River lies like a sheet of dazzling silver, dotted with boats; every skylight, every point of glass or metal on the roofs, flashes in the sun, and, gazing down from that corner in the sky, one sees the visible morning hymn of the city—a drift from thousands of house chimneys of delicate unraveling skeins of white-blue smoke lifting from those human dwellings like aerial spirits. It is the song of humanity rising, the song of the ritual of breaking bread together, of preparation for the day of toil, the song of the mothers sending the men to work, the song of the mothers kissing and packing to school the rosy, laughing children.
It might be hard to imagine that far to the south in that moving human ocean, a certain Joe Blaine, swallowed in the sea, was yet as real a fact as the city contained—that to himself he was far from being swallowed, that he was, in fact, so real to himself that the rest of the city was rather shadowy and unreal, and that he was immensely concerned in a thousand-flashing torrent of thoughts, in a mix-up of appetite and desires, and in the condition and apparel of his body. That as he sat at his desk, for instance, it was important to him to discover how he could break himself of a new habit of biting the end of his pen-holder.
And yet, under that flood of roofs, Joe was struggling with that crucial problem. He finally settled it by deciding to smoke lots of cigars, and proceeded to light one as a beginning. He smoked one, then a second, then a third—which was certainly bad for his health. He was in the throes of a violent reaction.
Several days of relentless activity had followed the moving in. There was much to do. The four rooms became immaculately clean—sweetened up with soap and water, with neat wallpaper, with paint and furniture. Even the dark inner bedrooms contrived to look cozy and warm and inviting. Joe’s mother was a true New England housekeeper, which meant scrupulous order, cleanliness, and brightness. The one room exempt from her rule was Joe’s. After the first clean-up, his mother did not even try to begin on it.
“You’re hopeless, Joe,” she laughed, “and you’ll ruin faster than I can set right.”