End of the Line (1933)

by Paul Mattick

“Insull bankrupt!” ––The headlines read for over a week. The Chicago Opera season was coming to an end. Galli Gurci retired to her home in the country, grew roses and refused to pay her taxes. A Riviera home came under the hammer. Tito Schipa fired two private detectives. Now his heir could rest at ease. He would no longer be robbed by extortionists, though he would also be worth a few hundred thousand less. Resignations––disappointments––tears! The ballet disbanded. The burlesque hula-hula girls shook their breasts more vigorously to meet the new competition.

Old Insull––great patron of the arts, father and owner of the opera, financial genius––was on the run. London––Paris––Athens!

Four major suicides made headlines. A dozen smaller ones, worth a mere three lines, were an embarrassment to the life insurance company. Those who had lost a lot jumped from the eighteenth floor of the fashionable Gold Coast apartments. Those less high up dove off the pier into the darkness of Lake Michigan instead.

The streetcars were owned by the Insull corporation––would they go out of service? Would the railways slowly rust over?––Life goes on. Chicago had big plans. The city was being prepped for the World’s Fair. “A century of progress!” The streetcars also ran without Insull.

Surely, this was all a big change for Bill Waters, though it seemed quite natural to him. Life without a streetcar?––Unimaginable! His life was too closely bound up with it. He had twenty years as a conductor under his belt on the Halsted Street line. During that time, the streetcar had come to mean everything to him: his bread, his house, his wife, his worries and conversations.

A long stretch, right through the heart of the city. Just two times from one end of the line to the other, and he had about earned his pay. But habit became necessity, and Bill’s face would always light up any time he heard anyone sing that old song which meant so much to him, “O, my dear Halsted street––Halsted street––Halsted street!”

Twenty long years. With and without beer, in peace and in war, through all crises. The union took care of everything that had to do with wages, there was nothing to worry about; he always got paid. You paid the unions so you could sleep at night, just as Tito Schipa paid money so his heir could sleep at night. Life was simple.

After ten years of instalments, Bill Waters owned a house on the outskirts. He had money in the bank and owned shares in the Insull corporation. Bill was more than a conductor. In theory, he owned at least a fraction of the car he drove. For these reasons, Bill had been a good worker. Anyone who rode for free was not only cheating the company, but Bill Waters as well.

After twenty years of working the Halsted Street line, Bill got to enjoy the comforts of the rentier. The bank paid interest, the stocks yielded dividends, owning the house did away with rent, and the world, so happily organised in this manner, allowed Bill Waters to swap out the practical for the philosophical side of life. All the while, the stock prices rose. A share costing 100 would soon yield 250, even 370 dollars. Insull became more reckless, he stopped caring whether the cost of his capital was covered or not. Capital sweated capital.

But by the time Bill Waters was ready to sell his shares, the genie was no longer trading in shares, but selling his breed of Great Danes at the London Dog Exchange. The streetcars were still there, the opera house stretched high over the Illinois River, but in theory, no one wanted to own them. The stocks were worthless. Insull Jr. pulled his hat down over his face as the photographers from the press entered Polo field.

Bill saw the banks close down right in front of his eyes. How could a bank suddenly one day stop being a bank? He couldn’t believe it. The police officer knew better. He pushed Bill along the sidewalk with several others. “Keep moving! ––Keep moving!" ––The doors of the bank were sealed shut, and would only reopen once bar tables replaced the cold marble desks inside, when four percent beer flowed instead of four percent interest, when the end of Prohibition spawned a beer boom that turned closed banks into cosy bars overnight.

Bill Waters’ housemate fell five months behind on his rent, so Bill took him to court to kick him out. With that, his last source of income had dried up forever, since there were no tenants left. Almost a million people were unemployed in Chicago. This meant the ruin of small homeowners as well.

More and more factories closed their doors or cut working hours. The whole system was shaking. Nothing worked the way it used to. Only the state remained firm; the last truly stable point amidst the generalised economic misery. Not only did it demand taxes at regular intervals, but the taxes were also going up. But not from the unemployed, since a part of the taxes was meant for them. Not from Insull, since he was bankrupt. Not from Morgan, who had been complaining about falling profits for years, but from the property owners. From them alone, Bill Waters thought. When he had nothing else to do, Bill would sit and calculate when the state would publicly auction off his house to pay back the taxes he owed. But for now he was still the owner, if no longer in theory, at least in practice.

Samuel Insull had his picture taken on the Acropolis. Noble ruins, though they no longer sparked anything in Bill Waters’ imagination. It was true that the state needed taxes to protect property, but the banks remained closed. “Keep moving!––Keep moving!” It was now outside the welfare office that Bill heard these words, and they didn’t sound any less harsh there. He still wore a starched collar, the streetcars ran even without Insull, the World’s Fair was coming up, the President had plans, and the finale of suicides resounded less and less on the pavement. The press generated optimism wherever life denied it. And that, too, made headlines. Patience!

Halsted is a long street. An eternity from one end of the line to the other. Passengers regularly fell asleep. Bill had just got on––in the misery cart of welfare.

A sad stretch, a tiring stretch. Barracks to the right and left. Salvation Army on the corners. Empty squares. Rubble! Tear gas for the cave-dwellers of construction sites. Pregnant women in thin coats that didn’t close over their stomachs. Thieving hungry children. Streetwalkers with large families. Tuberculous negroes. A manslaughter for twenty cents. Drunks! Empty, crumbling factories. Torn-up pavement––miles of it––the bleakest view in the world.

Halfway there, Bill flipped his collar down. Now but a memory, the Acropolis en miniature. He was indeed a rentier, but he was an old man as well, and the banks remained shut.

From nine in the morning until four in the afternoon, he sat in a room where sitting is the only thing that happens, not living, only to learn that he would have to spend the next day exactly the same way. He looked at the people. Though they all wanted the same thing, they all had different thoughts. The welfare workers were volunteers and their fingernails were as red as their lips. In the evenings they talked about welfare policy and because of this they were a class above the average women. They were not required to think, only to follow regulations, and they could all read. It was their job––an honourable job, a voluntary job, a socio-political job––to make each case more difficult in order to discourage those who did not necessarily need the help. The road to welfare was as long as Halsted Street. Those who are hungry wait. Hunger manifests itself first and foremost in patience, only later...!

But Bill Waters had lost all patience by the time he entered the welfare office. When it was his turn in line, he no longer had an application to hand in, but rather a sickening hunger. His wife was waiting. The neighbours who refused to loan him any money were as rude as the grocer who refused to let him buy on credit. Nothing could be sold. There were neither buyers nor prices. Bill Waters’ furniture bore the marks of a twenty-year life. And why should Bill sell? Insull was in Athens, the banks were pouring beer. Others received help. Bill had a good president, a people’s president; why shouldn’t he be helped too?

The welfare worker, however, had a different view, based on her reading of the regulations. She looked at Bill regretfully, truly sincerely regretfully. His application had been rejected; he could not declare bankruptcy, he was a homeowner, and as an owner he was not eligible for welfare assistance. Bill Waters slowly realised that he could not own anything that would satisfy his hunger, neither theoretically nor practically. We live in a world of extremes, only the extremely rich and the extremely poor are helped. The one is helped with a passport to Athens, the other with a prison sentence.

And yet, it really didn’t matter to Bill Waters. He could have begged, but how could a man who owned shares, who owned property, who had driven past beggars for twenty years beg? He wanted to live, not beg. He was entitled to help, it was not his fault that the state had not yet thought of foreclosure sales. The woman only saw the regulations. Nothing to be done. Next! Move on!

There was still a higher court. Bill didn’t go out of his way. His case was heard two days later. Bill had stayed very calm during those two days. Surely, they would understand, surely they would rule in his favour; he could explain everything down to the smallest detail, and if not, well he would show them that he could not be ignored, that he would not become a beggar. He would force them to grant him the glow of the sun that shone so wonderfully on old Insull’s broad back. After all, it was Insull, not he, who had gone bankrupt.

For the first time in twenty years, he carried his revolver in his pocket. He bought the revolver when he bought the house to keep burglars out. But apart from a clothesline, nothing had been stolen from Bill Waters, only the banks had closed. But banks are not people you can shoot at, they are institutions, as intangible as the state itself, which are supposed to protect property.

The boss at the welfare office tried to make one thing and one thing only clear to Bill Waters: the law can only be interpreted in the interest of the law. Bill stood before him, in front of the desk, an old man. (Why are these people so slow on the uptake? Embarrassing when they are old too). “Yep, you’re not the only victim of the master of the Chicago Opera, humanist and great philanthropist. I myself have lost out; we all have. Why didn’t you choose a safe bank?” The boss was a good man; he brought his pregnant protégées filtered water and comfortable chairs from his office. He was also a well-groomed man and a very educated person. He read Theodore Dreiser and Henri Barbusse.

There was an assembly at the central office at three o’clock. Professor Douglas would report on an unemployment insurance bill which might come into effect in 1940. Mrs Bryan would make practical proposals for Christmas aid, and the Mayor––; but Bill Waters had no intentions of going. Nor did he have anything to say. He stood in the doorway, utterly forlorn. He was holding up the business. It didn’t matter what he was thinking, who knows what he was thinking or if he thought anything at all. But suddenly, very quietly––his hands trembling all the while––he said “End of the line!” and pulled the revolver out of his pocket. The boss turned pale, but Bill’s visage was the colour of death. The boss was alarmed, but Bill convulsed. He could not speak, he could not even point the revolver at the desk. He thought nothing either, he waited for something to happen, he could not do anything. The boss screamed for help. Bill got even more confused when some unemployed people rushed into the room to reason with him; he started to cry. Then, with the revolver still in his hand, he ran into the street. No one stopped him. A police officer ran towards him. Bill saw a bunch of people and he felt ashamed. People started shouting loudly, a few ran after the policeman. Bill went into a cigar shop, not knowing which way to turn. He saw the crowd of onlookers through the shop window. He leaned against the wall to support himself, his knees started to buckle. The police officer yelled at him to drop the revolver, but Bill did not move. He was breathing heavily and only clutched the gun tighter. But then he collapsed. The policeman shot twice, hitting him in the head each time. Bill was taken to the morgue.

The policeman received a $50 bonus on the first of the month, as part of the monthly award program sponsored by the Chicago Tribune, the world’s largest newspaper, for each police act of bravery. The first discovery made by the coroner was that Bill Waters’ revolver was not loaded. Bill’s wife wept and will probably weep often.

The next day, the newspapers reported that former tram conductor Bill Waters had been caught red-handed robbing a cigar shop––and shot dead. Bill Waters’ case in the welfare department was closed forever. His life and death were placed under the heading: “Economy improving! Welfare figures show unemployment declining. 5,000 fewer applications than last month!”

The newspapers also reported that Greece would not extradite Insull; there are so few rich men in Athens. And Insull is not only rich, he is also a real lover of the arts.


Originally published in: Neue Deutsche Blätter, Monatsschrift für Literatur und Kritik, Prague, 1. Jg, Nr. 4, 15. December 1933, pp. 213-8