Dion Moloch walked with the dreamy stride of a noctambulo among the apparitions on the Bowery. I say “apparitions” because, as every sophisticated New Yorker knows, the Bowery is a thoroughfare where blasted souls are repaired for the price of a free lunch.
Dion Moloch was a modest, sensitive soul attired in a suit of Bedford whipcord and pale blue shirt, the collars and cuffs of which were disgracefully frayed.
Though he was in the service of the Great American Telegraph Company he did not suffer from megalomania, dementia praecox, or any of the fashionable nervous and mental disorders of the twentieth century. It was often said of him that he was anti-Semitic, but then this is a prejudice and not a disease.
At any rate, he was not like a certain character out of Gogol who had to be informed when to blow his nose. He was, in short, an American of three generations. He was definitely not Russian.
His grandparents had fought in the Civil War—on both sides. He had fought in no wars.
In point of fact, he was, or had been, a draft dodger. Not that he was a coward, nor a man of high principles, for that matter, like—shall we say Woodrow Wilson? No, it was rather that he was an enigma (to himself) . . . that everything was an enigma.
Two years after the war was over he had arrived at the conclusion that the Germans were right, but it was too late then, of course, to enlist in a cause that had already been lost.
When America entered the war Dion Moloch took it into his head to get married. To be sure, thousands of Americans were similarly moved by the call to arms. This is a phenomenon, however, that chiefly concerns the sociologist.
Despite the fact that the war had been raging on a dozen fronts for several years, and that millions of his fellow creatures, for the sake of a few empty phrases, were being cheerfully converted into so much cannon fodder, Dion Moloch remained the victim of a habit which had begun at an early age. It may seem extraordinary to mention such a detail in connection with the life of this individual when the entire world was convulsed by a holocaust.
Nevertheless, this singular detail, trivial as it may seem beside the annals of a great war, had a most important bearing on Dion Moloch’s future career.
To put it tersely, our hero could never get up when the alarm went off in the morning.
During the Argonne Drive he had become enamored of a young pianiste who was giving concerts to help make the world safe for democracy. The young lady had a most unpatriotic desire to play the rhapsodies of Liszt, since she had been brought up on that diet in a finishing school at Montreal, but knowing little of the world, and less of Hungary, she was uncertain of the status of her taste. She therefore contented herself with practicing Liszt etudes on a clavier at home.
The assassin who hurled the bomb at the Archduke of Austria also brought these two creatures together. It was left to Providence to unite them.
One morning, when Moloch lay slumbering peacefully, oblivious of the rumble on the Western Front, or all the fronts put together, his mother (for some unknown reason) became unduly incensed by his torpor. Perhaps she had been stirred the night before by some unusual tale of atrocity. At any rate, she had been thinking thus—”If he won’t enlist he can at least get a job.” The more she thought the more irate she became. Finally, actuated by a sudden blind impulse she hastened to the sink and filled a pail of water. A moment later and she had dashed the chill contents over him.
“Now get up!” she screamed. “You lazy good-for-nothing, you waster . . . you bum!”
The last epithet required the complete abdication of her maternal affection.
It would be idle and tortuous to recount the successive steps by which, starting from this simple dramatic scene, our hero finally became enmeshed in the ophidian toils of matrimony. That Rabelaisian escapade forms another volume by itself. Suffice it to relate that immediately upon arising Dion Moloch packed his duds and wiped his feet on the paternal rug for the last time.
Nor does it seem fair to dwell on the fact, though it forms a somewhat colorful note—a leitmotif, as it were, throughout his future marital career—that on the morning of his hurried wedding he was obliged to borrow the price of a haircut and shave. The bride, as you may suspect, paid the marriage fee, a fact which was never entirely forgotten by her throughout their turbulent wedlock.
What seems of great importance, looking back upon his sclerotic past, is that this event, premature though it was, made it necessary for Dion Moloch to find a job.
When we first encounter him among the “apparitions” on the Bowery he has already given three years of his life to a great corporation.
What errand has brought him to this dismal thoroughfare—the Bowery? Is it to get his soul repaired, amid the rataplan of traffic? Or is it the free lunch that has attracted him?
He has just come from the home of a lunatic—one of those self-imposed missions which his position occasionally created and which he found not entirely disagreeable. Intent upon making his way back to the office his attention has been suddenly arrested by a notice suspended over a flight of stairs leading to a gloomy cellar. The notice, printed in huge ocher letters, read:
DEATH ON BUGS
Below these sulphurous words was a canvas whose colors affected the retina as pleasantly as fried eggs. The painter had endeavored, evidently, to reproduce a situation which undoubtedly had poignancy for the denizens of this locality. A recumbent nude with flaxen tresses and flowing hips was shown busily engaged in scratching the tenderer portions of her anatomy. The bed seemed rather to float in the middle air than to rest firmly on the planked flooring. Her consort was depicted stealing about the premises with a squirt-gun. The imbecilic glee he displayed was apparently evoked by the sight of a filthy mattress from which an interminable file of bedbugs issued. (The bedbug is known to scientists as Cimex lectularius. a cosmopolitan blood-sucking wingless depressed bug of reddish brown color and vile odor, infesting houses and especially beds. The cockroach is the natural enemy of the bedbug.) Even the counterpane on which the assassin’s saffron paramour reclined, after the now classic manner of Olympe, was diapered with these cosmopolitan bloodsucking wingless depressed bugs of reddish brown color and vile odor.
At this point a number of things might have happened. Nothing is further from the truth than that, given a certain impetus (as, for instance, this germicide portrait on the Bowery) the hero forthwith reacts in thus and such a manner. The grand metabolistic dynamics of the laboratory worker, which are so impressive in connection with rats and mental defectives, becomes inoperative when a truly human mind and organism is encountered. . . . Possibly twenty-five different courses of action presented themselves to our character. The one impulse to which he was thoroughly immune was to purchase a sample of this rare insecticide. For him the subway blurbs and the garish posters that stood out like a rash along the countryside had no message. His tastes were simple, his wants easily satisfied. Copywriters might rack their brains for another century to come without ever arousing in him that fundamental curiosity upon which the advertising cult of our day rears its ephemeral philosophy of success.
Shreds of thought fluttered like the snapped strings of an epiphone banjo in the gray convolutions of his upper register. True, he did not move entirely in an intellectual vortex. Almost instinctively he reached into his breast pocket and exhumed a leather-covered notebook, wherein he wrote with a neat legible hand these words:
“Read The House of the Dead again.”
As he turned to elbow his way out of the mass of sweaty flesh that enveloped him like a polyp he was made uncomfortably aware of the odor of sanctity. What that odor is like, someone has remarked, may be imagined from reading the lives of the saints. . . He paused a moment to survey the stinking proletariat of Karl Marx. Visions assailed him . . . visions of a young immigrant on the second floor of a poem by some Ivanovich or other. The young immigrant was tossing about on the bed-springs, dreaming of bedbugs and cockroaches, haunted by the miseries of his wasting, starved life, despairing of all the violent beauty beyond his grasp. Dion Moloch had an irresistible desire to get up on his hind legs and shout: “Let’s all sing goddam!”
Meanwhile his senses were jangled by a weird cacophony. Boss Tweed’s progeny of thugs and werewolves choked the Bowery’s grimy gullet like clots of phlegm. Dick Croker’s penny arcade of lice, lungers, lifers, and hallucinations was at noon of this day in the third decade of the twentieth century a maelstrom of frenetic rhythms. Cranes swinging, bells ringing, horns blowing, gongs clanging, gears meshing and scraping. Crazy, jagged rhythms—like the marriage of the brown derby and the slide trombone. The world of the machine in a tempo of glorified planetary abandon. An orgasm of inorganic lust rising to a crescendo of atomic disintegration. A weird, unearthly chant of a Bowery that had severed its affinity with Dick Croker’s dime museum of rotgut and syphilis. A veritable dirge dedicated by Labor to Capital on the ashes of Rosie O’Grady. An amalgamated union of groans supplied by the international workers of the world … death rattles contributed gratis by the Salvation Army. Visions of Chuck Connors with a cleaver fighting his way through delirium tremens. Shadows of comets swishing through rhomboidal space into Buxtehude. . . .
What the rabble on the sidewalk observed during this farrago which took possession of Moloch’s soul was a modest, sensitive individual of medium height, with the composite features of scholar and faun, wearing a shirt of pale dungaree beneath a suit of Bedford whipcord. A mortal with two legs to his trousers, like any other mortal in the Western hemisphere. Not a pedagogic sadist, like that trapeze artist from the Emerald Isle; not a great Socratic gadfly stinging the thick hide of British philistinism; nor a Slav flirting with eternity in a bath of cockroaches. No, just a man with suit and suspenders . . . and BVDs for perfect crotch comfort. A man whose name is un-Byzantine. An American of three generations, a husband and father, a modest, sensitive soul with unmistakable anti-Semitic leanings . . . And yet, employment manager of the Great American Telegraph Company.