Uncle William watched it all in good-humored detachment. He made friends with half the shed, wandering in and out through the crowd, his great bulk towering above it. Here and there he helped a fat, heavy baby down the length of the shed, or lifted aside a big box that blocked the way. He might have been the Presiding Genius of the place. Men took him in with a good-humored wink, as he towered along, and women looked after him gratefully. Amid the bustle and enforced waiting, he was the only soul at rest. Time belonged to him. He was at home. He had played his part in similar scenes in hundreds of ports. The city bubbling and calling outside had no bewilderments for Uncle William. New York was only one more foreign port, and he had touched too many to have fear of them. They were all alike—exorbitant cab-men, who came down on their fare if you stood by your box and refused to let it be lifted till terms were made; rum-shops and gambling-holes, and worse, hedging the way from the wharf; soiled women haunting one’s steps, if one halted a bit or turned to the right or left in indecision. He had talked with women of every port. They were a huge band, a great sisterhood that reached thin hands about the earth, touching it with shame; and they congregated most where the rivers empty their burden of filth into the sea. Uncle William knew them well. He could steer a safe path among them; and he could turn a young man, hesitating, with foolish, confident smile on his face. Uncle William had not been in New York for twelve years, but he had a sailor’s unerring instinct for the dangers and the comforts of a port. He knew which way hell lay, and which of the drivers, backing and cursing and calling, one could trust. He signaled to one with his eye.
“What’ll ye charge to give this young feller a lift?” Uncle William indicated the youth beside him.
The driver looked him over with keen eye. “That’s all right.” He moved along on the seat to make room. “Come on, young man.”
The youth climbed up with clumsy foot.
“You might know of a job,” suggested Uncle William. “He looks strong and willin’.”
The man nodded back. “I’ll keep an eye on him, sir.” The van rumbled away and Uncle William faced the crowed once more.
He made friends as he moved among the throngs of hurrying men and women. Men who never saw him again recalled his face sometimes at night, as they wakened for a minute from sleep. The big smile reached to them across time and gave them a sense of the goodness of life before they turned again and slept.
If he had been a little man, Uncle William would still have run hither and thither through the crowd, a kind of gnome of usefulness. But his great frame gave him advantage. He was like a mountain among them—with the breath of winds about it—or some huge, quiet engine at sea, making its way with throbbing power.