Neighbors: Life Stories of the Other Half
Jacob August Riis

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Neighbors: Life Stories of the Other Half
Jacob August Riis

Jacob A. Riis

Neighbors: Life Stories of the Other Half


These stories have come to me from many sources—some from my own experience, others from settlement workers, still others from the records of organized charity, that are never dry, as some think, but alive with vital human interest and with the faithful striving to help the brother so that it counts. They have this in common, that they are true. For good reasons, names and places are changed, but they all happened as told here. I could not have invented them had I tried; I should not have tried if I could. For it is as pictures from the life in which they and we, you and I, are partners, that I wish them to make their appeal to the neighbor who lives but around the corner and does not know it.



“You get the money, or out you go! I ain’t in the business for me health,” and the bang of the door and the angry clatter of the landlord’s boots on the stairs, as he went down, bore witness that he meant what he said.

Judah Kapelowitz and his wife sat and looked silently at the little dark room when the last note of his voice had died away in the hall. They knew it well enough—it was their last day of grace. They were two months behind with the rent, and where it was to come from neither of them knew. Six years of struggling in the Promised Land, and this was what it had brought them.

A hungry little cry roused the woman from her apathy. She went over and took the baby and put it mechanically to her poor breast. Holding it so, she sat by the window and looked out upon the gray November day. Her husband had not stirred. Each avoided the question in the other’s eyes, for neither had an answer.

They were young people as men reckon age in happy days, Judah scarce past thirty; but it is not always the years that count in Ludlow Street. Behind that and the tenement stretched the endless days of suffering in their Galician home, where the Jew was hated and despised as the one thrifty trader of the country, tortured alike by drunken peasant and cruel noble when they were not plotting murder against one another. With all their little savings they had paid Judah’s passage to the land where men were free to labor, free to worship as their fathers did—a twice-blessed country, surely—and he had gone, leaving Sarah, his wife, and their child to wait for word that Judah was rich and expected them.

The wealth he found in Ludlow Street was all piled on his push-cart, and his persecutors would have scorned it. A handful of carrots, a few cabbages and beets, is not much to plan transatlantic voyages on; but what with Sarah’s eager letters and Judah’s starving himself daily to save every penny, he managed in two long years to scrape together the money for the steamship ticket that set all the tongues wagging in his home village when it came: Judah Kapelowitz had made his fortune in the far land, it was plain to be seen. Sarah and the boy, now grown big enough to speak his father’s name with an altogether cunning little catch, bade a joyous good-by to their friends and set their faces hopefully toward the West. Once they were together, all their troubles would be at an end.

In the poor tenement the peddler lay awake till far into the night, hearkening to the noises of the street. He had gone hungry to bed, and he was too tired to sleep. Over and over he counted the many miles of stormy ocean and the days to their coming, Sarah and the little Judah. Once they were together, he would work, work, work—and should they not make a living in the great, wealthy city?

With the dawn lighting up the eastern sky he slept the sleep of exhaustion, his question unanswered.

That was six years ago—six hard, weary years. They had worked together, he at his push-cart, Sarah for the sweater, earning a few cents finishing “pants” when she could. Little Judah did his share, pulling thread, until his sister came and he had to mind her. Together they had kept a roof overhead, and less and less to eat, till Judah had to give up his cart. Between the fierce competition and the police blackmail it would no longer keep body and soul together for its owner. A painter in the next house was in need of a hand, and Judah apprenticed himself to him for a dollar a day. If he could hold out a year or two, he might earn journeyman’s wages and have steady work. The boss saw that he had an eye for the business. But, though Judah’s eye was good, he lacked the “strong stomach” which is even more important to a painter. He had starved so long that the smell of the paint made him sick and he could not work fast enough. So the boss discharged him. “The sheeny was no good,” was all the character he gave him.

It was then the twins came. There was not a penny in the house, and the rent money was long in arrears. Judah went out and asked for work. He sought no alms; he begged merely for a chance to earn a living at any price, any wages. Nobody wanted him, as was right and proper, no doubt. To underbid the living wage is even a worse sin against society than to “debase its standard of living,” we are told by those who should know. Judah Kapelowitz was only an ignorant Jew, pleading for work that he might earn bread for his starving babies. He knew nothing of standards, but he would have sold his soul for a loaf of bread that day. He found no one to pay the price, and he came home hungry as he had gone out. In the afternoon the landlord called for the rent.

Another tiny wail came from the old baby carriage in which the twins slept, and the mother turned her head from the twilight street where the lights were beginning to come out. Judah rose heavily from his seat.

“I go get money,” he said, slowly. “I work for Mr. Springer two days. He will give me money.” And he went out.

Mr. Springer was the boss painter. He did not give Judah his wages. He had not earned them, he said, and showed him the door. The man pleaded hotly, despairingly. They were hungry, the little kids and his wife. Only fifty cents of the two dollars—fifty cents! The painter put him out, and when he would not go, kicked him.

“Look out for that Jew, John,” he said, putting up the shutters. “We shall have him setting off a bomb on us next. They turn Anarchist when they get desperate.”

Mr. Springer was, it will be perceived, a man of discernment.

Judah Kapelowitz lay down beside his wife at night without a word of complaint. “To-morrow,” he said, “I do it.”

He arose early and washed himself with care. He bound the praying-band upon his forehead, and upon his wrist the tefillin with the Holy Name; then he covered his head with the tallith and prayed to the God of his fathers who brought them out of bondage, and blessed his house and his children, little Judah and Miriam his sister, and the twins in the cradle. As he kissed his wife good-by, he said that he had found work and wages, and would bring back money. She saw him go down in his working clothes; she did not know that he had hidden the tallith under his apron.

He did not leave the house, but, when the door was closed, went up to the roof. Standing upon the edge of it, he tied his feet together with the prayer shawl, looked once upon the rising sun, and threw himself into the street, seventy feet below.

“It is Judah Kapelowitz, the painter,” said the awed neighbors, who ran up and looked in his dead face. The police came and took him to the station-house, for Judah, who living had kept the law of God and man, had broken both in his dying. They laid the body on the floor in front of the prison cells and covered it with the tallith as with a shroud. Sarah, his wife, sat by, white and tearless, with the twins at her breast. Little Miriam hid her head in her lap, frightened at the silence about them. At the tenement around the corner men were carrying her poor belongings out and stacking them in the street. They were homeless and fatherless.

Ludlow Street had given its answer.


Early twilight was setting in on the Holy Eve. In the streets of the city stirred the bustling preparation for the holiday. The great stores were lighting up, and crowds of shoppers thronged the sidewalks and stood stamping their feet in the snow at the crossings where endless streams of carriages passed. At a corner where two such currents met sat an old man, propped against a pillar of the elevated road, and played on a squeaky fiddle. His thin hair was white as the snow that fell in great soft flakes on his worn coat, buttoned tight to keep him warm; his face was pinched by want and his back was bent. The tune he played was cracked and old like himself, and it stirred no response in the passing crowd. The tin cup in his lap held only a few coppers.

There was a jam of vehicles on the avenue and the crush increased. Among the new-comers was a tall young woman in a fur coat, who stood quietly musing while she waited, till a quavering note from the old man’s violin found its way into her reveries. She turned inquiringly toward him and took in the forlorn figure, the empty cup, and the indifferent throng with a glance. A light kindled in her eyes and a half-amused smile played upon her lips; she stepped close to the fiddler, touched his shoulder lightly, and, with a gesture of gentle assurance, took the violin from his hands. She drew the bow across the strings once or twice, tightened them, and pondered a moment.

Presently there floated out upon the evening the familiar strains of “Old Black Joe” played by the hand of a master. It rose above the noise of the street; through the rattle and roar of a train passing overhead, through the calls of cabmen and hucksters, it made its way, and where it went a silence fell. It was as if every ear was bent to listen. The crossing was clear, but not a foot stirred at the sound of the policeman’s whistle. As the last strain of the tune died away, and was succeeded by the appealing notes of “’Way Down upon the Suwanee River,” every eye was turned upon the young player. She stood erect, with heightened color, and nodded brightly toward the old man. Silver coins began to drop in his cup. Twice she played the tune to the end. At the repetition of the refrain,

“Oh, darkies, how my heart grows weary,
Far from the old folks at home,”

a man in a wide-brimmed hat who had been listening intently emptied his pockets into the old man’s lap and disappeared in the crowd.

Traffic on street and avenue had ceased; not a wheel turned. From street cars and cabs heads were poked to find out the cause of the strange hold-up. The policeman stood spellbound, the whistle in his half-raised hand. In the hush that had fallen upon the world rose clear and sweet the hymn, “It came upon a midnight clear,” and here and there hats came off in the crowd. Once more the young woman inclined her head toward the old fiddler, and coins and banknotes were poured into his cup and into his lap until they could hold no more. Her eyes were wet with laughing tears as she saw it. When she had played the verse out, she put the violin back into its owner’s hands and with a low “Merry Christmas, friend!” was gone.

The policeman awoke and blew his whistle with a sudden blast, street cars and cabs started up, business resumed its sway, the throng passed on, leaving the old man with his hoard as he gazed with unbelieving eyes upon it. The world moved once more, roused from its brief dream. But the dream had left it something that was wanting before, something better than the old man had found. Its heart had been touched.


It was the night before Washington’s Birthday that Mr. Riley broke loose. They will speak of it long in the Windy City as “the night of the big storm,” and with good right—it was “that suddint and fierce,” just like Mr. Riley himself in his berserker moods. Mr. Riley was one of the enlivening problems of “the Bureau” in the region back of the stock-yards that kept it from being dulled by the routine of looking after the poor. He was more: he rose to the dignity of a “cause” at uncertain intervals when the cost of living, underpay and overtime, sickness and death, overpopulation, and all the other well-worn props of poverty retired to the wings and left the stage to Mr. Riley rampant, sufficient for the time and as informing as a whole course at the School of Philanthropy. In between, Mr. Riley was a capable meat-cutter earning good wages, who wouldn’t have done a neighbor out of a cent that was his due, a robust citizen with more than his share of good looks, a devoted husband and a doting father, inseparable when at home from little Mike, whose baby trick of squaring off and offering to “bust his father’s face” was the pride of the block.

“Will yez look at de kid? Ain’t he a foine one?” shouted Mr. Riley, with peals of laughter; and the men smoking their pipes at the fence set the youngster on with admiring taunts. Mike was just turned three. His great stunt, when his father was not at hand, was to fall off everything in sight. Daily alarms brought from the relief party of hurrying mothers the unvarying cry, “Who’s got hurted? Is it Mike?” But only Mike’s feelings were hurt. Doleful howls, as he hove in sight, convoyed and comforted by Kate, aged seven, gave abundant proof that in wind and limb he was all that could be desired.

This was Mr. Riley in his hours of ease and domesticity. Mr. Riley rampant was a very different person. His arrival was invariably heralded by the smashing of the top of the kitchen stove, followed by the summary ejection of the once beloved family, helter-skelter, from the tenement. Three times the Bureau had been at the expense of having the stove top mended to keep the little Rileys from starving and freezing at once, and it was looking forward with concern to the meat-cutter’s next encounter with his grievance. For there was a psychological reason for the manner of his outbreaks. The Rileys had once had a boarder, when Kate was a baby. He happened to be Mrs. Riley’s brother, and he left, presuming on the kinship, without paying his board. As long as the meat-cutter was sober he remembered only the pleasant comradeship with his brother-in-law, and extended the hospitality of a neighborly fireside to his wife’s relations. But no sooner had he taken a drink or two than the old grievance loomed large, and grew, as he went on, into a capital injury, to be avenged upon all and everything that in any way recalled the monstrous wrong of his life. That the cooking-stove should come first was natural, from his point of view. Upon it had been prepared the felonious meals, by it he had smoked the pipe of peace with the false friend. The crash in the kitchen had become the unvarying signal for the hasty exit of the rest of the family and the organizing of Kate into a scouting party to keep Mrs. Riley and the Bureau informed about the progress of events in the house where the meat-cutter raged alone.

Mrs. Riley was a loyal, if not always a patient, woman—who can blame her?—and accepted the situation as part of the marital compact, clearly comprehended, perhaps foreshadowed, in her vow to cling to her husband “for better for worse,” and therefore not to be questioned. In times of peace she remembered not the days of storm and stress. Once indeed, when her best gingham had been sacrificed to the furies of war, she had considered whether the indefinite multiplication of the tribe of Riley were in the long run desirable, and had put it to the young woman from the Bureau, who was superintending the repair of the stove top, this way: “I am thinking, Miss Kane, if I will live with Mr. Riley any longer; would you?”—to the blushing confusion of that representative of the social order. However, that crisis passed. Mr. Riley took the pledge for the fourth or fifth time, and the next day appeared at the office, volunteering to assign himself and his earnings to the Bureau for the benefit of his wife and his creditors, reserving only enough for luncheons and tobacco, but nothing for drinks. The Bureau took an hour off to recover from the shock. If it had misgivings, it refused to listen to them. The world had turned a corner in the city by the lake and was on the home-stretch: Mr. Riley had reformed.

And, in truth, so it seemed. For once he was as good as his word. Christmas passed, and the manifold temptations of New Year, with Mike and his father still chums. Kate was improving the chance to profit by the school-learning so fatally interrupted in other days. Seventeen weeks went by with Mr. Riley’s wages paid in at the Bureau every Saturday; the grocer smiled a fat welcome to the Riley children, the clock man and the spring man and the other installment collectors had ceased to be importunate. Mrs. Riley was having blissful visions of a new spring hat. Life back of the stock-yards was in a way of becoming ordinary and slow, when the fatal twenty-second of February hove in sight.

The night before, Mr. Riley, quitting work, met a friend at the gate, who, pitying his penniless state, informed him that “there was the price of a drink at the corner” for him, meaning at Quinlan’s saloon. Now this was prodding the meat-cutter in a tender spot. He hated waste as much as his employers, who proverbially exploited all of the pig but the squeal. He didn’t want the drink, but to have it waiting there with no one to come for it was wicked waste. It was his clear duty to save it, and he did. Among those drinking at the bar were some of his fellow-workmen, who stood treat. That called for a return, and Riley’s credit was good. It was late before the party broke up; it was 3 a.m. when the meat-cutter burst into the tenement, roaring drunk, clamoring for the lives of brothers-in-law in general and that of his own in particular, and smashed the stove lids with crash after crash that aroused the slumbering household with a jerk.

For once it was caught napping. The long peace had bred a fatal sense of security. Kate was off scouting duty and Mrs. Riley had her hands full with Pat, Bridget, and the baby all having measles at once—too full to take warning from her husband’s suspicious absence at bedtime. Roused in the middle of the night to the defense of her brood, she fought gallantly, but without hope. The battle was bloody and brief. Beaten and bruised, she gathered up her young and fled into the blinding storm to the house of a pitying neighbor, who took them in, measles and all, to snuggle up with his own while he mounted guard on the doorstep against any pursuing enemy. But the meat-cutter merely slammed the door upon his evicted family. He spent the rest of the night smashing the reminders of his brother-in-law’s hated kin. Kate, reconnoitering at daybreak, brought back word that he was raging around the house with three other drunken men. The opening of the Bureau found her encamped on the doorstep with a demand that help come quickly—the worst had happened. “Has little Mike broken his neck?” they asked in breathless chorus. “Worse nor that,” she panted; “do be comin’, Miss Kane!”

“Oh, what is it? Are any of the children dead?”

“Worse nor that; Mr. Riley has broke loose!” Kate always spoke of her father in his tantrums as Mister, as if he were a doubtful acquaintance. Her story of the night’s doings was so lurid that the intimacy of many a post-bellum remorse felt unequal to the strain, and Miss Kane commandeered a policeman on the way to the house. The meat-cutter received her with elaborate inebriate courtesy, loftily ignoring the officer.

“Who is he?” he asked, aside.

She tried evasion. “A friend of mine I met.” She was sorry immediately.

“Is he that? Then he is no friend of mine. Oh, Miss Kane,” he grieved, “why did you go for to get him? You know I’d have protected you!” This with an indignant scowl at his fellow-marauders, who were furtively edging toward the door. An inquest of the house showed the devastation of war. The kitchen was a wreck; the bedroom furniture smashed; the Morris chair in which the family of young Rileys had reveled in the measles lay in splinters. “It was so hot here last night,” suggested the meat-cutter, gravely, “it must have fell to pieces.” In the course of the inspection Mrs. Riley appeared, keeping close to the policeman, wrathful and fearful at once, with a wondrous black eye. Her husband regarded it with expert interest and ventured the reflection that it was a shame, and she the fine-looking woman that she was! At that Mrs. Riley edged away toward her husband and eyed the bluecoat with hostile looks.

Between crying and laughing, “the Bureau lady” dismissed the policeman and officiated at the reunion of the family on condition that the meat-cutter appear at the office and get the dressing down which he so richly deserved, which he did. But his dignity had been offended by the brass buttons, and he insisted upon its being administered by one of his own sex.

“I like her,” he explained, indicating Miss Kane with reproving forefinger, “but she’s gone back on me.” Another grievance had been added to that of the unpaid board.

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