Before it is dark in the city the electric street lamps, hanging from their steel yard-arms, begin to sizzle as though trying to live up to a steady illumination, and their ground-glass globes take on beautiful opalescent tints of pink and lilac. This is the preliminary sputtering suggestive of the coming current. It ceases as the current grows stronger; and, as the dark falls, the lilac globes turn into marked spots of light and become related and associated with other spots of light. From block to block balls of yellow or orange or pure white or blue-violet appear. The city is soon illuminated parts of it almost ablaze. At its height the brilliancy of Paris, “the city of light,” seems just a little dull by comparison.
All over the city the lights are burning. The Brooklyn Bridge seen from Governor’s Island is a tracery of filigree work set with silver stars, underneath on the river and around on the Hudson the ferry-boats come and go like huge fireflies, the South Ferry region’ and the Battery glare with arc lights, the elevated overhead trails a chain of fire, the high office-buildings show ten thousand illuminated windows, the dome of the World Building is a glittering ring in the heavens, the Singer tower is a nocturne in gold and blue.
After nine o’clock many of the down-town lights upon towers and domes are extinguished, the office windows show dark, the few shop fronts burn only night lights for the patrolmen. The electric street lamp, with its blue tinge, flares along the thoroughfares, but the dark shadow accompanies it. People on the street pass infrequently, and the cab is not often seen. The trolley clangs along Broadway and the elevated continues to roar from Church Street, but otherwise the stillness is almost pro-found. Especially is this true of Wall and Broad streets, where in the daytime thousands are coming and going. What silence under the walls of the great sky-scrapers! And what shadows those twenty-story buildings cast down into the narrow streets! The electric shaft flashes up into them, piercing them here and there, but not annihilating them. Along the cornices and stringcourses and bottle-shaped cupolas they still linger.
Around Old Trinity at the head of the street, with its well-like area, the shadows gather deeper and even more mysteriously. The giant sky-scrapers about it impose their purple silhouettes one upon another until everything looks a little out of focus and uncertain in dimensions. Goblin shapes spread upward on the night veil, or dance like specters on the flat-faced walls, while possibly around the top of the well runs a series of sparkles and glitters struck off by the moonlight falling upon peaks and pinnacles.
Broadway seems lighter than the other streets of the lower city, owing no doubt to the continuous string of trolleys that run there. And the trolleys with their lights seem to lead but one way, and that up town. Perhaps it is the human moths moving in that direction that give one such an impression, but certainly there is the feeling that the grand fireworks are somewhere under the reflecting sky of the upper city. At Union Square there is apparently an increase in the power of the lights (an illusion, no doubt), on Fifth Avenue an increase in their numbers; but the central illumination of all is on upper Broadway, in the theater district. Beyond that to Seventy-Second Street, along Amsterdam and West End avenues and Riverside Drive, around Columbia University and along the Harlem River, even creeping across the bridges at the upper end of the city, the links of light extend.
Of course, much of this lighting is carried out by the city lamps and by trolleys; but the brilliancy of certain streets and spots like Herald Square, or Times Square, or the shop portion of Fifth Avenue, is materially augmented by the quantity of show-windows, and the prevalence everywhere of the electric sign. All the store fronts are now illuminated by electricity or a brilliant quality of gas, and some of the larger places have rows of lights running along edges and cornices, thus outlining the whole building from foundation to roof. The electric sign now goes along with every place of amusement, and is frequently flashed at night from large commercial houses, hotels, railroad sheds, and steamboat docks. When to this is added the glitter of the ordinary advertisement sign from scores of roof tops and wall-spaces, the total effect becomes quite bewildering.
Generally speaking, the sign is the same nuisance in New. York that it is in London or Paris only more so. It is put up almost everywhere from one end of the city to the other. Every piece of boarding, every bare wall, every decrepit roof top or vacant window, is plastered with signs. Sandwich men trail them along the curbings; wagons parade the streets with them. Advertisements are in your room at the hotel, on your dinner card, on your car tickets, your wrapping paper, your cigar bands. Wherever the public goes, the sign takes up the trail and follows after. It even pursues people out into the country, where it covers the fence boards and crawls with enormous letters over the farmers’ barns and stables. If you fly by fast train and look out of the window, lo, the sign is there! Rows and rows of boardings, with grotesque and hideous personifications upon them, parallel the great trunk-lines out of the city for many miles, disfiguring the landscape, ruining many an amiable disposition, and making a farce of any pretense to love of nature, or love of one’s fellow-man, or even common suburban decency.
Perhaps the most degrading thing about all these signs is that three-quarters of them advertise businesses with which no respectable person would be connected, and push forward wares that no one but a charlatan would lend his name to. Patent medicines and beauty lotions lead the list, with questionable statements about the value of canned soups, or pickles, or whiskies, coming in as a good second. There is not one sign in a dozen that tells the truth, or even pretends to do so. It is a blatant puffing of somebody’s business at the expense of the public patience. Wherever one turns, he has Smith’s hair tonic, or Brown’s corsets, or Jones’s consumption cure thrust at him, until he wonders if the world was made solely for the rapacious energy of the Smiths, Browns, and Joneses. The low mendacity exercised in tricking the foolish or the unfortunate is not more reprehensible than the brutal disregard of other people’s rights in country view, or city street, or public conveyance.
And there is not the saving grace of art to make the evil less repulsive. The whole battalion of New York sign-makers could hardly muster the genius of one Chéret. Occasionally something proves attractive in color or is novel in design; but usually attention is compelled by the strident quality of blue or red, or the exaggerated pro-portions of the figures or letters. Crudeness mixed with vulgarity seems to be purposely chosen, as though the object of advertising was to put you in a rage rather than lure you on to further inquiry. And the coarseness of the onset does enrage many nervous and sensitive people. The vociferous injunction in poison greens to “Drink Somebody’s Coffee” or “Smoke Everybody’s Cigarettes” is an insult in itself. And it might be done with delicacy, with insinuating grace of line, even with a charm of form and color. But there is too much of the get-rich-quick in the average advertiser to pursue modest methods. He seeks to stampede you with a shout, and pick your pocket while he pushes you.
In New York at night some of the cruder advertising disappears, or reappears in a less objectionable form. The electric signs show everywhere and, though one wearies unto death with what they say, the light of them helps on the general illumination and is rather attractive than otherwise. Roof lines are their favorite locations, though doorways, arches, chimneys, vacant wall-spaces, are all utilized. Letterings, patternings, arabesques, figures of birds and beasts and men, are outlined by small electric globes, and the whole thrust upon the night in giant proportions. Sometimes there are changing letters and different readings, or flash lights that keep blinking and going out in darkness like miniature lighthouses, or shifting globes giving different colored lights.
All told, the glitter and glare of these signs make up a bewildering and (it may be admitted) a brilliant sight. Great throngs of people delight in them, and perhaps the presence of so many people on the streets at night is, in measure, accounted for by the electric display. The avenues and some of the cross-streets are usually filled with people who are moving leisurely along, stopping to look in at shop windows, drawn in at moving-picture shows by the glare of electricity, or grouped about some place where music is heard. All over the better-lighted streets of the upper city one finds these lines of strollers out for a walk, interested in meeting friends, seeking some sort of amusement or diversion. Fourteenth Street, east and west, crowded with foreigners, is not different from Forty-Second Street, east and west, crowded with young Americans. Men and women, old and young, rich and poor, happy and miserable, again, one cannot help wondering who they are, where they come from, and where they are going; and the mild wonder if there are any but the sick, the aged, and the “queer,” who remain at home quietly, spending an old-fashioned evening with books, or music, or friends.
Perhaps the largest gatherings in the evening up town are about the opera-houses, the theaters, the vaudeville and concert halls, the restaurants, the clubs. From Thirty-Fourth Street to Columbus Circle and beyond is just now the amusement center; and there the people, the cabs, and the electric signs are the thickest. At eight in the evening there is the incessant come and go of trolleys, the rattle and rumble of cabs, the shuffle and push of many feet along the street, the insistent voice of ticket speculators, and the unintelligible shout of men and boys hawking night editions of newspapers. The Gothamite usually pays no attention to this moving roar, in fact he does not see it or hear it; but the stranger is interested in it because perhaps he fancies it stands for the city’s gayety. Usually, however, it means only noise, and a disagreeable kind at that. The real interest begins, possibly, at the entrance to the opera and the theater, when the carriages draw up and people step down and out. They make quite an animated throng as they enter the vestibules or crowd the staircases, or the foyer, bowing and chatting to each other, all smiling, all newly garbed, all on pleasure bent. The filling up of a theater with people, the drifting in and the taking of seats, the buzz of conversation, the recognition of acquaintances, the visiting between the acts, are sometimes more amusing to the onlookers than the play itself.
Another interesting sight, especially at the, opera, is the row of boxes containing people of more or less prominence socially. When Society shops, it does not anticipate an audience, though it may be very handsomely garbed for all that; when it drives, its fine feathers may be muffled by wraps or shut in by the carriage cover; but when it goes to the opera, it does so in full regalia, with all its war paint on, to be seen by friend and foe alike. The costumes are of the finest fabric and the most artistic design, the jewels are the rarest and the most brilliant, the coiffure (including the toque or tiara) the most fetching, the fan the most dazzling. Seated in its boxes against a background of gold and red silk, Society looks very imposing, very magnificent. And it seems to be very happy, for it wears a beatific smile and sheds an extra beam of pleasure when its members bend to speak to each other. The slightest contact produces the smile, though people before them have smiled and smiled and smiled and still been villainously unhappy. But if any sorrow is behind the mask, you do not see it. They may grow sad-faced when at home and undressing for the night, but not publicly will they show a rueful countenance.
After the play or the opera is over all the exits are hastily thrown open. People cannot get away fast enough by the main entrances. They may stop a moment to talk to some acquaintance, but usually they lose patience with anyone who holds up the line of people on the stairways or in the vestibule. Just why or what their haste they scarcely know. Most of them are going home and to bed, and are in no hurry about it if they stopped to think; but possibly a third of the audience is going somewhere to supper, and it is this minority that sets the speed for the others until they are quite persuaded that they, too, are in a hurry to secure a table somewhere. Everyone in New York is not in such hot haste as he appears. Many would, if they could, move slowly, but they understand they must move at the New York pace or else be stepped upon. Thus it is that the average person gets out of a theater faster than he went in; and after he is alone on the sidewalk he perhaps stops to think what he will do or where he will go.
If he is a lone bachelor or with men friends, perhaps he goes off to the Players Club on Gramercy Park, where the actors assemble after the play to talk, smoke, or have sup-per. If the way lies up Fifth Avenue, perhaps the theater-goer may turn into the artistic Century, the political Union League, the academic University, the social Union, or the grandiose Metropolitan. They are nearly all of them pretentious clubs, nearly all of large proportions, nearly all furnished like modern hotels, with more extravagance than taste. The columns and gildings, the lounges, curtains, and rugs that set off the smoking, reading, and reception rooms, would be more appropriate perhaps in some palace ball-room. But there is no denying their comfort. They are like the Pullman car, over which we may worry because of its want of simplicity, but not because of the softness of its seats.
The clubs of New York are perhaps the most luxurious known anywhere in the modern world. That is said to be their crying evil. They are too good a substitute for a home; and many men adopt them, have the club address put on their visiting cards, get their mail there, live there. The prominent ones with good dining-room accommodations are well patronized. That portion of the community afflicted with too much time to kill, and perhaps for that reason called the “leisure class,” goes to its club every afternoon, and usually ends up there every evening. So-called “club men” keep filing in and out all day long; and not an inconsiderable constituency takes breakfast there in the morning.
Aside from the large clubs the city is well supplied with organizations devoted to work, to study, to music, to art, to the theater. All of them make for society. The small theater club of ten or a dozen members is existent upon almost any city block. Ostensibly it is devoted to a study of the drama. A play is seen, and afterwards the party adjourns to some restaurant or member’s house, has its theater supper, and perhaps discusses the performance. These are generally juvenile gatherings, modest enough in scale and possibly shallow enough in criticism, but enjoyable, judging by the faces and the laughter. Young people in New York have the same good time, on slight provocation, that they do elsewhere in the world.
Swelldom, with Boredom on its arm, of course goes to the theater with a loftier air, and afterward drops in at Sherry’s or Delmonico’s for supper with a more sophisticated and wearied repose of manner. The two great restaurants are never very empty in the evening, and yet both feel somewhat the influx of people from the opera and the theater between eleven and twelve. Suppers are ordered, people chat vivaciously, the wind instruments of the orchestra rise above the buzz of conversation and the rattle of dishes, waiters flit here and there, guests move from table to table to greet acquaintances, the odor of flowers mingles with the steam of cooking, the flash of diamonds and cut-glass table-ware gets mixed up with silks, portieres, marble pilasters, gilded ceilings, pink-and-yellow colorings. Eating and drinking, instead of being the satisfaction of a physical need, is here a social function. The drawing feature is not so much the food as the crowd. That is why the fashionable restaurants are fashionable, why they are always crowded in spite of high charges.
The two famous restaurants, which somehow always find their way into print as though they fed half the people of New York, are only a small part of the food-supplying establishments of the city. The number of restaurants, cafés, lunch counters places where food is cooked and served is something amazing to strangers. Some of the side streets are lined and dotted with eating establishments; all the railway stations, department stores, sky-scrapers, apartment-houses, have kitchens attached to them, and the hundreds of hotels often gather more profit from “transients” than from their regular guests. Besides these there are large hall-like places where table d’hôte dinners are served, with music, to miscellaneous parties; cafes, French, German, Hungarian, where what is left of Bohemia likes to assemble and drink foreign wines; oyster and chop houses, where nomads drop in and eat in silence; dairies and confectionery shops, where women go for lunch or afternoon tea. There seems no end to the traffic in cooked things, nor to the places where they are supplied.
The stranger passing from restaurant to restaurant in up-town New York after seven in the evening, would be very apt to conclude that most of the city had given up house-keeping and was taking its meals “out.” And he would not be far from the mark in his conclusion. High rents for houses and the constant irritation over servants have driven many thousands to seek sleeping quarters in flats and eating accommodations in hotels and restaurants. The social conditions in New York are not favorable to the development of the domestic household. Even some of the very wealthy people in the city have, of recent years, preferred taking a suite of apartments at a hotel to the opening of their town house for the winter months.
After the theater, and after the supper, when the hours run into the morning and people begin to grow weary even of themselves, they silently slip away, singly and in pairs, by cab and car, scattering to the far ends of the city perhaps, disappearing up brown-stone steps, through the entrances of apartment-houses, or down hotel corridors.
The city roar dies down a little, the lights glitter far up the streets where only belated stragglers are seen, the patrolmen go along their beats, stopping occasionally to pull at a door knob, or pass a word with a late diner. The city sleeps for a few hours, sleeps “lively” for fear it will be late to business in the morning, sleeps like a weary columbine at the theater wing, in all its paint and spangles, expecting its call to “go on” at any moment.