This post is about addictions: not drugs or alcohol or nicotine, but the stuff we get obsessed about, the stuff we think we can’t do without. Let’s begin with a quote from a prose poem of Baudelaire:
Il faut vous enivrer sans trêve. Mais de quoi? De vin, de poésie, ou de vertu à votre guise. Mais enivrez-vous.
You’ve got to be constantly drunk. But on what? On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, as you wish. But get drunk.
|Avarice, cathedral of Metz.|
So what do we get drunk on? Here in New York, Wall Street is drunk on greed. In post #150, “Wall Street, Greed, and Addiction” (October 26, 2014), I discussed exactly this, citing the account of a former Wall Streeter who at age 25 had a salary of $1.75 million a year, but came to realize that he wasn’t doing anything useful or necessary to society, that he was addicted to money -- an addiction that he finally, with great effort, shook off.
And how are things on Wall Street today? For the last five years the beginning Wall Street salary for recent college graduates was a mere $70,000, but now times are so good that it has been raised to $85,000. So an article in the New York Times of May 14 states, while reporting on a new study giving the views of Wall Street professionals themselves on their industry. About a third of those interviewed said they had knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace, and nearly one in five concedes that, to be successful today, a Wall Streeter must sometimes engage in unethical or illegal activity. Compensation structures or bonus plans encourage employees to compromise ethics or violate the law, and employees fear retaliation if they should ever report wrongdoing. All of which suggests that, in spite of penalties worth billions that Wall Street firms have paid to settle charges of misconduct, their addiction to greed still rages.
This reminds me of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved classic The Little Prince, in which a little prince from another planet tells of his adventures exploring the cosmos and learning about grown-ups. On one asteroid he encounters a businessman who is totally involved in counting “those little golden things that make lazy people daydream,” which the little prince finally identifies as stars. The businessman claims to own the stars, but all he does is count them and put the numbers in a bank. When his visitor observes that such ownership serves no useful purpose, the businessman is left speechless, and the little prince departs, observing that grown-ups are truly “extraordinary.” I humbly suggest that the behavior of many denizens of Wall Street is likewise truly extraordinary.
But preoccupation with money may involve something other than greed. In the 1860s and early 1870s Daniel Drew, a drover turned financier and steamboat operator, reveled in perturbing Wall Street. Dressed drably, with a pinched face and a fringe of whiskers, he struck others as a rube from the provinces or a country parson, and was referred to as Ursa Major, the Old Bear, and the Deacon. As the most inside insider and its lender of last resort, he manipulated the stock of the Erie Railway, clipped Commodore Vanderbilt for several millions (no easy thing to do), and attempted a corner of greenbacks, on each occasion convulsing the stock market and sometimes disrupting international markets as well. Tight-lipped, his gray eyes agleam with cunning, he loved being importuned by journalists on Wall Street, but gave them mere scraps of information at most – just enough to tantalize them and make them beg for more -- before entering his broker’s office, where he escaped to a snug, small room in back and shut the door in their face. And from inside that snug little room, where in cold weather he sat with his feet propped up on a mantle in front of a blazing fire, could be heard his hen-cackle laugh, which earned him yet another nickname: the Merry Old Gentleman of Wall Street. And well might he laugh. A half-literate farm boy from Putnam County who couldn’t even spell “door” (he spelled it “doare”), he'd showed them yet again that he could outsmart the shrewdest of the Wall Street crowd, that he was still a big bug on the Street.
Was Dan Drew addicted to greed? Many thought so at the time but were mistaken. When a young Methodist minister with whom he had a close friendship urged him to retire from business with his millions and do God’s work, he replied, “People don’t understand me. They think I love money. I tell you, Brother Parker, it ain’t so. I must have excitement or I should die. And when I get among these money kings, I go in because I don’t want them fellows to feel that they can have everything their own way. And when I go in, I go in to win, for I love the fight!” There, expressed candidly for perhaps the only time in his life, is the secret of what made Dan Drew, a good church-going Methodist, tick. He had to have risk and adventure, the sheer fun of secret combinations, of greenhorns and old hands alike flocking to him with offers, schemes, and tips, the thrill of sending messengers racing to the Stock Exchange with orders to buy or sell millions, the Street bleeding and the press agog because once again the Old Bear had “taken a slice out ’em.” Was this addiction? Yes. Dan Drew was addicted to excitement.
While Dan Drew was cavorting on Wall Street, his colleague Alanson P. St. John, a senior captain, superintendent, and treasurer of Drew’s People’s Line, was looking after Drew’s steamboats. Captain St. John had been a steamboat skipper on the Hudson River for over forty years, most of the time with the People’s Line. The rhythms of his life were married to the rhythms of the river, and to the palace steamboats, the finest in the world, that plied between New York and Albany. Every spring, when the packed ice of the Hudson began to squeak and crack and groan, and geese honked northward, and the first boats nudged their way upriver to Peekskill, then Poughkeepsie, and finally all the way to Albany, his heart beat fast, glad to shake off the long inactivity of winter. And when the great mass of ice broke loose and surged down the river, slammed and sloshed its way past Manhattan into the Inner Harbor and the Outer Harbor all the way out to Sandy Hook, and spewed forth into the ocean its captive splintered small craft, broken pier ends and bridges, and the thawed bodies of the drowned, then at last, with the river open to navigation, Captain St. John was truly and completely alive.
All spring and summer and autumn he ran the spume-treading People’s Line boats to Albany, skippering one and then another as they took merchants and politicians and westward bound travelers to Albany, fashionables to Saratoga, and aesthetes and artists to the Adirondacks. He knew and loved the sight of steamboat funnels belching pillars of smoke by day and showers of sparks by night, the sound of the splashing sidewheels, and in summer the aroma of fresh peaches and plums and grapes rising from the freight deck to intoxicate him. He knew the boats, their pistons plunging and their furnaces blazing as they sped silently and smoothly upriver, and he knew the passengers, who marveled at the paneling of rosewood and ebony, the grand saloons with glittering chandeliers, the marble tables and satin damask chairs. And if he especially prized the St. John, a $400,000 wonder of marine construction named for himself and hailed by the press, he could hardly be blamed; it was recognition of his lifelong devotion to the boats and the river. And if, late each autumn, geese honked southward, snow fell, and ice began to sheathe the Hudson, signaling the end of the season, he knew it was time to tie up the boats to the docks, repair and repaint them, and plan for the season to come.
So it went for years, but finally time caught up with him. In 1875, at age 77 and suffering from ill health, he was forcibly retired by the board of the People’s Line, following which he was at a loss, listless, depressed. Then, after a long winter, spring came. The Dean Richmond and the Drew had been overhauled, their brass polished, and new carpets and furniture installed, and were ready for the run to Albany, and the St. John would soon follow. With the river at last free for navigation, trucks were flocking to the docks to unload freight destined for all the river towns as far up as Albany and Troy. It was a new season with the whole river coming to life again, but he was not a part of it.
On the afternoon of April 23, 1875, the retired skipper came from his home in New Jersey to look over his favorite boat, the St. John, still undergoing repairs at the foot of West 19th Street, North River. Chatting with the mate on the deck, he seemed in good spirits and the best of health, following which he entered the steward’s room alone. Five minutes later a shot rang out. Rushing inside the cabin, the workmen found the captain sprawled dead in an easy chair, a smoking revolver in one hand, his features as composed as in sleep. Suicide, the coroner concluded, “while laboring under temporary aberration of mind.” Some attributed his depression to ill health, but his friends knew better: he couldn’t live away from the river. His addiction was benign, benefiting himself and many others for years, but in the end it killed him.
Yes, an addiction can be benign.
Captain St. John was addicted to steamboating and the river, but his addiction lacked the compulsive behavior of the true workaholic, which leads to neglect of family and friends and often undermines the subject’s health. A prime candidate for the label “workaholic” is Fiorello La Guardia, mayor of New York from 1934 to 1945, whom I have already discussed in post #102, “The Dynamo Mayor: La Guardia” (December 1, 2013). A workaholic? Consider:
· His feverish dictation of letters to three stenographers simultaneously: “Nuts! …Regrets! … Thanks!” while tossing letters at his secretary: “Say yes! … Say no! … Throw it away! … Tell him to go to hell!”
· His whirlwind visits by car to verify the progress at a housing construction site, or to supervise snow removal or traffic flow, or query a patrolman or garbage collector, sometimes visiting all five boroughs in a single day.
· His readiness, when angry, to knock a city employee’s hat off or dash a cigarette from a worker’s lips.
· His delight in personally taking a sledge hammer to mobster Frank Costello’s confiscated slot machines and dumping the smashed machines from a police boat into Long Island Sound.
· His rushing to the scene of a tenement roof’s collapse, a train wreck, or a fire to scream advice to police and firemen, even dashing into a burning building to inspect the refrigerator system to see if the building code had been violated.
|Neil Estern's statue of La Guardia at La Guardia Place in Greenwich|
Village. Better than any photo I know, it captures his intensity.
Just an energetic little man who loved his job, you might say. Yes, he was all that, but anyone who saw his short, pudgy form in action, waving his arms wildly and raising his high-pitched, squeaky voice to a scream in order to make a point, sensed in his explosive personality a force that went beyond commitment to a job. He couldn’t not do these things, he was driven. Yes, I insist, a workaholic, but by general acclaim the best mayor – and certainly the most honest – that the city has ever had.
As La Guardia’s story demonstrates, zealous reformers risk becoming workaholics. Let’s look now at Henry Bergh (1813-1888), another reform-obsessed New Yorker but one whose name, unlike La Guardia’s, doesn’t resonate today. Tall, erect, and slender, with a droopy mustache considered stylish at the time, he had the appearance, in his frock coat and well-brushed topper, of a dapper gentleman of leisure who had no need to smirch his hands with toil. But if, on his treks through the city, he saw a cartman beating his horse, Bergh would approach the cartman and explain civilly that what he was doing was against the law. Then, if the offender evinced disbelief, Bergh would produce a copy of the law from his pocket and read it to him. So far, Bergh the gentleman. But if, as often happened, the cartman told him to go to hell and continued beating the animal, Bergh the gentleman was instantly transformed into Bergh the warrior, who would grab the offender by the collar and yank him down from his cart. And if a scuffle ensued, Bergh would summon the policeman he had posted nearby and have the man arrested.
|Henry Bergh stopping a crowded horsecar to see if the horses drawing it are well treated.|
Such was Henry Bergh’s daily routine in the city. He also targeted butchers who stacked live animals like cordwood on market-bound carts, organizers and patrons of dogfights and cockfights, trolley companies that overworked their horses, and sportsmen who practiced marksmanship by tossing live captive pigeons in the air. That he was mocked by some, denounced by others, and labeled “the Great Meddler” in the press bothered him not at all.
So who was this meddler and what was he up to? The son of a wealthy New York shipbuilder who left him a fortune, Henry Bergh indeed had no need to smirch his hands with toil. In his early years he was something of a dilettante, scribbling poetry and plays of no great value, enjoying the city’s social life, and traveling abroad with his young wife. Seeing a bull fight in Spain, he was appalled by the bloody spectacle, especially the crowd’s cheers when the horses were gored, and when the bulls were taunted and then killed.
Thanks to his social and political connections, Henry Bergh in 1862 was appointed secretary and acting vice consul to the American legation in St. Petersburg, Russia, and it was there, so the story goes, that the incident that would shape his life occurred. One day, while riding through the streets in a fancy carriage, he saw a Russian peasant beating his fallen cart horse. Shocked, he order his coachman to stop and to tell the peasant to stop beating the horse. How the incident ended isn’t clear, but it determined Bergh to launch a campaign in the U.S. against such wanton cruelty to animals. Returning to America, he stopped off in England, where he consulted the Earl of Harrowby, president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, following which he decided to found a similar society in New York.
Back in the city he urged friends and acquaintances to support his campaign, gave lectures to children and adults, got letters published in newspapers and magazines, and persuaded prominent citizens to sign a petition that he took to Albany, where he lobbied the state legislature to good effect. As a result, in 1866 the legislature granted a charter for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), of which he became the president, with authorization to enforce the new law that it passed, making cruelty to animals illegal.
Armed with the new law, Bergh and his agents patrolled the streets and docks to enforce it, often risking physical assault. Seeing an overloaded wagon too heavy for the beast trying to haul it, they made the driver lighten his load. Sick and decrepit horses were taken from their drivers and sent to the Society’s animal hospital, and suffering horses were likewise rescued from stables. If an animal fell into a ditch or an excavation (of which there were plenty in the ever expanding city), the Society used a derrick to lift it out. They inspected slaughterhouses, looked everywhere for raw flesh under collars and saddles, protested when dairymen kept cows chained to their stalls, and created public fountains where animals could drink. And to replace the live pigeons used by sportsmen in shooting matches, Bergh himself invented the clay pigeon still in use today.
Early in his campaign he clashed with P.T. Barnum, the leading American showman of the time and self-proclaimed master of humbug. In December 1866 Bergh wrote a letter to the managers of Barnum’s new museum to protest the feeding of snakes with live animals, a practice that he called “semi-barbarian”; if they persisted, he threatened prosecution. Returning from a trip to the West, Barnum found the letter and answered it in March 1867, stating that the museum would continue to feed its animals in accordance with the laws of nature; enclosed was a letter Barnum had solicited from the noted biologist Louis Agassiz, confirming Barnum’s insistence that the only way snakes eat their food is in its natural state: alive.
Bergh answered at once, quoting at length the account of an anonymous museum visitor who described in detail the terror of a rabbit thrust into the cage of a boa constrictor, and deploring Agassiz’s condoning of such a cruel practice. This prompted a long and heated response from Barnum, who denounced Bergh’s “insulting epithets” and “ungentlemanly manner,” his “dictatorial air” and “thoughtless and absurd statements,” his “miserable pettifogging.” Clearly, Bergh had touched a raw nerve, prompting the showman to get the exchange of letters published in the New York World, which called the controversy “funny as well as instructive.” There is little doubt that Barnum meant to subject Bergh to public mockery.
In spite of Barnum’s hostility, Bergh and his agents persisted in the face of mockery, indifference, and even physical abuse, and gradually won the public over, thus creating a radical change in how New Yorkers viewed animals and treated them. “An angel in a top hat” was how Bergh’s supporters described him, though they might just as well have said “human dynamo.” His lecture tour in the West in 1873 prompted the formation of several societies similar to the one he had founded in New York. In 1879 Scribner’s Magazine declared that Bergh had invented “a new type of goodness.” By 1886, 39 states had adopted statutes protecting animals based on the original one in New York. When, worn out by his efforts, Bergh died in 1888, Barnum was a pallbearer at his funeral, for Bergh’s tireless efforts and obvious sincerity had finally won even the master showman over. For what good-hearted citizen could long resist Henry Bergh, a man addicted to benevolence?
Reformers rarely achieve their goals easily. The abolitionists campaigned for decades, but only the coming of the Civil War made possible the abolition of slavery. Similarly, the suffragettes fought long and hard before finally getting the vote for women. Why did Bergh obtain the desired New York State legislation so quickly? The abolitionists were stymied for years by the slaveholders, who held their own in the Senate and the Supreme Court, got proslavery men elected President, and intimidated well-meaning citizens with the threat of secession. And the suffragettes had to overcome the prevailing opinion, held by most men and many women, that the woman’s place was in the home, and that women were incapable of dealing with the issues of public life. Bergh, on the other hand, had to cope with mockery and disbelief, but no entrenched opposition. Who, after all, wanted to stand tall in the public arena as a defender of the brutal treatment of animals? His appeal to society’s better instincts triumphed, and victory came quickly.
Bergh’s Society was one of many operating in nineteenth-century New York, each reflecting someone’s intense concern with social betterment. As for instance:
· The Society for the Encouragement of Faithful Domestic Servants
· The Society for the Prevention of Crime
· The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children
· The Society for the Relief of Distressed Debtors
· The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows
· The Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents
· The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Piety among the Poor
· The Association for the Relief of Respectable Aged Indigent Females
And many more.
Clearly, benevolence was rampant in the city. But if these names strike us as quaint and condescending, and smack of excessive middle-class do-goodism, it’s worth remembering that nineteenth-century New York, like Dickens’s London, was rife with poverty, ignorance, and vice, to cope with which there as yet were few agencies of the city or state. But the good folk of the middle class couldn’t easily ignore these conditions, since rich and poor lived in close proximity. In post-Civil War New York, Fifth Avenue was the acclaimed axis of elegance, lined with imposing mansions and spiky spires of churches. But if in the evening one walked a mere block west to Sixth Avenue, one found oneself in the Tenderloin – the “Satan’s Circus” of many a sermon – with pretty-waiter-girl saloons, gambling dens, brothels, and cheap hotels with rooms available by the hour or the night, its sidewalks alive with streetwalkers, pimps, wisecracking loafers, and drunks. To eliminate these alleged disreputables was the goal of many a do-gooder, sometimes affiliated with a church and sometimes not – an addiction to benevolence with a cutting edge.
|The Tenderloin, "Satan's Circus." At least they were having fun.|
A last word on addictions: benign or otherwise, we need them. They can destroy you or give your life a purpose; either way, they liven things up. If you have an addiction, you’ll never be bored.
Note on Goldman Sachs: Followers of this blog know how, second only to Monsanto, I love Goldman Sachs. (See post #158, “Goldman Sachs: Vampire Squid or Martyred Innocent?”) Having for 146 years been the bank of the powerful and privileged, it has now announced that, starting in 2016, it will offer loans of a paltry few thousand dollars to ordinary Americans, people like you and me, and (a new twist) it will do so online. This is unprecedented, and risky, too, since Goldman has no experience dealing with ordinary borrowers with limited financial means. Why then is it doing it? Make no mistake, it sniffs an opportunity, smells profit. So the vampire squid (not my image, though I love it) is reaching its tentacles into yet another realm of finance. Borrowers, beware. The squid does not enjoy a good reputation, has a genius for profiting from the woes and folly of others.
Coming soon: Catastrophes. Do the years 1832 and 1888 mean anything to you? If not, they will, for in those years New Yorkers had a lot to put up with. And after that, West Village Wonders and Horrors, with a look at a pink palazzo right down the street from me that maybe should never have been built.
© 2015 Clifford Browder