Berkman, Alexander (1912) Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, Mother Earth Press.
FOR A WEEK "Boston Red" is absent from work. My best efforts seem ineffectual in the face of the increasing mountain of unturned hosiery, and the officer grows more irritable and insistent. But the fear of clogging the industrial wheel presently forces him to give me assistance, and a dapper young man, keen-eyed and nervous, takes the vacant place.
"He's a dip,"' Johnny Davis whispers to me. "A topnotcher" he adds, admiringly.
I experience a tinge of resentment at the equality implied by the forced association. I have never before come in personal contact with a professional thief, and I entertain the vaguest ideas concerning his class. But they are not producers; hence parasites who deliberately prey upon society, upon the poor, mostly. There can be nothing in common between me and this man.
The new helper's conscious superiority is provoking. His distant manner piques my curiosity. How unlike his scornful mien and proudly independent bearing is my youthful impression of a thief! Vividly I remember the red-headed Kolya, as he was taken from the classroom by a fierce gendarme. The boys had been missing their lunches, and Kolya confessed the theft. We ran after the prisoner, and he hung his head and looked frightened, and so pale I could count each freckle on his face. He did not return to school, and I wondered what had become of him. The terror in his eyes haunted my dreams, the brown spots on his forehead shaping themselves into fiery letters, spelling the fearful word vor.
"That's a snap," the helper's voice breaks in on my reverie. He speaks in well-modulated tones, the accents nasal and decided. "You needn't be afraid to talk," he adds, patronizingly.
"I am not afraid," I impatiently resent the insinuation. "Why should I be afraid of you? "
"Not of me; of the officer, I meant."
"I am not afraid of him, either."
"Well, then, let's talk about something. It will help while away the time, you know."
His cheerful friendliness smooths my ruffled temper. The correct English, in striking contrast with the peculiar language of my former assistant, surprises me.
"I am sorry," he continues, "they gave you such a long sentence, Mr. Berkman, but
"How do you know my name?" I interrupt. "You have just arrived. "
"They call me 'Lightning Al,"' he replies, with a tinge of pride. "I'm here only three days, but a fellow in my line can learn a great deal in that time. I had you pointed out to me."
"What do you call your line? What are you here for?"
For a moment he is silent. With surprise I watch his face blush darkly.
"You're a dead give-away. Oh, excuse me, Mr. Berkman," he corrects himself, I sometimes lapse into lingo, under provocation, you know. I meant to say, it's easy to see that you are not next to the way-not familiar, I mean, with such things. You should never ask a man what he is in for."
"You are ashamed."
"Not a bit of it. Ashamed to fall, perhaps,-I mean, to be caught at it-it's no credit to a gun's rep, his reputation, you understand. But I'm proud of the jobs I've done. I'm pretty slick, you know."
"But you don't like to be asked why you were sent here."
"Well, it's not good manners to ask such questions."
"Against the ethics of the trade, I suppose?"
"How sarcastic we can be, Mr. Berkman. But it's true, it's not the ethics. And it isn't a trade, either; it's a profession. Oh, you may smile, but I'd rather be a gun, a professional, I mean, than one of your stupid factory hands."
"They are honest, though. Honest producers, while you are a thief."
Oh, there's no sting in that word for me. I take pride in being a thief, and what's more, I am an A number one gun, you see the point? The best dip in the States."
"A pickpocket? Stealing nickels off passengers on the street cars, and-"
"Me? A hell of a lot you know about it. Take me for such small fry, do you? I work only on race tracks."
" You call it work?"
"Sure. Damned hard work, too. Takes more brains than a whole shopful of your honest producers can show."
"And you prefer that to being honest? "
"Do I? I spend more on gloves than a bricklayer makes in a year. Think I'm so dumb I have to slave all week for a few dollars? "
"But you spend most of your life in prison."
"Not by a long shot. A real good gun's always got his fall money planted,-I mean some ready coin in case of trouble,and a smart lawyer will spring you most every time; beat the case, you know. I've never seen the fly-cop you couldn't fix if you got enough dough; and most judges, too. Of course, now and then, the best of us may fall; but it don't happen very often, and it's all in the game. This whole life is a game, Mr. Berkman, and every one's got his graft."
"Do you mean there are no honest men?" I ask, angrily.
"Pshaw! I'm just as honest as Rockefeller or Carnegie, only they got the law with them. And I work harder than they, I'll bet you on that. I've got to eat, haven't I? Of course, " he adds, thoughtfully, "if I could be sure of my bread and butter, perhaps-"
The passing overseer smiles at the noted pickpocket, inquiring pleasantly:
"How're you doin', Al?
"Tip-top, Mr. Cosson. Hope you are feeling good to-day."
"Never better, Al."
"A friend of mine often spoke to me about you, Mr. Cosson."
"Who was that?"
"Barney. Jack Barney."
"Jack Barney! Why, he worked for me in the broom shop."
"Yes, he did a three-spot. He often said to me, 'Al, if you ever land in Riverside/ he says, 'be sure you don't forget to give my best to Mr. Cosson, Mr. Ed. Cosson,' he says, 'he's a good fellow."'
The officer looks pleased. "Yes, I treated him white, all right," he remarks, continuing on his rounds.
"I knew he'd swallow it," the assistant sneers after him. "Always good to get on the right side of them," he adds, with a wink. "Barney told me about him all right. Said he's the rottenest sneak in the dump, a swell-head yap. You see, Mr. Berkman,-may I call you Aleck? It's shorter. Well, you see, Aleck, I make it a point to find things out. It's wise to know the ropes. I'm next to the whole bunch here. That Jimmy McPane, the Deputy, he's a regular brute. Killed his man, all right. Barney told me all about it; he was doing his bit, then,I mean serving his sentence. You see, Aleck," he lowers his voice, confidentially, "I don't like to use slang; it grows on one, and every fly-cop can spot you as a crook. It's necessary in my business to present a fine front and use good English, so I must not get the lingo habit. Well, I was speaking of Barney telling me about the Deputy. He killed a con in cold blood. The fellow was bughouse, D.T., you know; saw snakes. He ran out of his cell one morning, swinging a chair and hollering 'Murder! Kill 'em!' The Deputy was just passing along, and he out with his gat-I mean his revolver, you know-and bangs away. He pumped the poor loony fellow full of holes; he did, the murderer. Killed him dead. Never was tried, either. Warden told the newspapers it was done in self-defense. A damn lie. Sandy knew better; everybody in the dump knew it was a coldblooded murder, with no provocation at all. It's a regular ring, you see, and that old Warden is the biggest grafter of them all; and that sky-pilot, too, is an A I fakir. Did you hear about the kid born here? Before your time. A big scandal. Since then the holy man's got to have a screw with him at Sunday service for the females, and I tell you he needs watching all right."
The whistle terminates the conversation.