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The Old Conservative


ISSUE:  Summer 1925

(On the Battery)

I saw the old man pause, then turn his head,
Stumbling a little as with vertigo,
His lips pursed out, his squally, red-rimmed eyes
Sweeping the wide periphery of the bay.
Dumb with unspeakable thoughts, at last he turned
And, with an angry flirt of his thick stick,
Growled, “Ar-r-r!” and, clumping, hobbled out of sight.
Beyond a doubt, I read his very thought:

“Here once i saw proud clipper-ships, bound in
From Java Head and up around the Horn,
Brail up their tripping skirts like dainty maids.
I heard the hawse-pipes roar, and saw the ships
Turn noses to the wind like hunting dogs
Still eager for the chase, though once more home.
Brown men swarmed on the foot-ropes; ‘Harbor furl!’
Mates roared from decks; and shanty-men, perched high
Upon the knight-heads, to the click of pawls
Lined out their shanties for the singing crews.
I had no need of house-flags then to know
Each slender beauty as she opened out
Beyond the slope of Bay Ridge like a cloud.
I knew them all, the temperamental dears,
Each meeting trouble in her own sweet way;
One springing up the tall seas with a laugh,
One burrowing in pillows of white foam,
Like any other sulky, crying girl,
But human, mind you. There in quiet docks
Tall ships drove jib-booms far above the street
Where brown-faced sailors stood about in groups
And talked of brawls and mates, but most of girls—
Of slim, dark girls who poled the bum-boats down
The river at Manila in the dawn;
Or others that in crowded Singapore
Laughed from black doorways, but wore daggers, too.
South Street was like a foreign market then,
Where sailormen hawked parrots from Brazil,
And Malay creeses, rolls of China silk,
And full-rigged ships in bottles, curious things;
Or, grouped about the apple-women’s carts,
They bought broadsides of sentimental songs,
And proudly bragged of things no one believed.
And sometimes through the huddled throng would stalk,
In black broadcloth and high silk stocks, grim men
With cold, unseeing eyes—masters of ships
Who might have had a knife between the ribs
But for that something, majesty or law,
That hedged them in.
And mostly good men, too.
But give a dog a bad name—well, you know.
The street’s half gutter now. and desolate,
With all that good salt water flooding past
Without a sail. For see our harbor now!
There goes a liner, just a huge cafe,
With dancing girls, and officers in white,
And dock-rat crews of pantry-serving boys,
And not a soul of all on board who knows
A quarter gasket from the futtock-shrouds;
And there a hog-backed tramp, listed to port,
Slobbered with iron-rust and ashy grit,
And smearing God’s own blue with her foul smoke;
There a tin wagon run by gasoline.

Oh, why not play one vast joke on the Flood—
And dump old Ararat into the sea,
And make the Vasty deep’ a boulevard
For motors and joy-riders! All it’s worth.”

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