Saturday, 28 January 2012

Night Hawks on James Street North - March 1887

A column from the Hamilton Spectator, March 19, 1887. 
This one is far to perfect to edit or in anyway change - a triumph of writing by a Spectator reporter using the pseudonym Jehoshaphat Jefferson.. Note that the story refers to No. 1 Police station which in 1887 was located in the Hamilton City Hall on James street north. The references are all concerning a late night experience on James street north - and this reprint of that 1887 walk along James street north is dedicated to the businesses and denizens of James street north who continue the vitality of the street present in this 1887 impression.


"About Night Hawks : Life on the Streets When the Night Begins to Wane : What the City Looks Like, What Sort of People Don’t Go Home Till Morning, and What They Do With Themselves”
       Perhaps some of you folks who always keep good, respectable hours would like to know what Hamilton Looks Like in the wee sma ‘oor a yout the twelve, when all good, honest, easy-going people are sleeping. If you feel like, just come along with me. I’ve got through work, and, after duly weighing the matter, have decided to go home and take a sleep. These are the editorial rooms; allow me to introduce you to them. It is nearly three o’clock; the last page of copy has been written; the voice of the night editor is no longer heard raised in profane and sarcastic comment on the literary ability of the associated press agent and away off in the distant perspective of the adjoining compositor’s room, in the midst of the silence broken only now and then by the monotonous click-click of the setting types at the long line of compositors’ cases, you hear his satanic majesty, the devil, proclaiming to the autocratic foreman that 80 “has gone in. Come on, we’ll go home. Now we are on the street. Quite a difference to what it was yesterday afternoon when I met you in this same spot. Then it was lighted by sunshine and alive with people and resounding with bustle and turmoil and trample of feet and jangle of wagons and tinkle of street car bells and the hum of cheery voices. Now, everything is quiet and solemn and strange. As the city lies before you with its silent streets lined with tall and gloomy buildings that take on a mysterious character in the pale, cold moonlight as they stretch away along on either side of the thoroughfares which as far as you can see are deserted, except for a solitary figure of a policeman standing like a bronze statue over there at the corner, and only adding an additional element of solitariness to the scene by his stately and dignified isolation. There is something grand and impressive in the sight of a great city sunk in sleep – lying before you, still, cold, lifeless under the splendor of the pale light of a majestic moon, riding at this hour high up in the southern heavens; it is much like the city of noonday as a live man is like the shrouded dead. Sleep is a great institution. The fellow who invented it had a great head. Every evening the omnipotent King Nod waves his sceptre over this struggling, toiling, grasping, cheating, laughing, loving, sorrowing humanity, and lo! The student lays down his book, the miser puts away his gold, the gambler drops his cards, the young lady quits banging on the piano, the mean man stops his cussedness, the good man puts up the shutters of his soul and they all crawl into their nests and give nature a chance to repair the wear and tear to which their mortal machinery has sustained in the work of the past day. Beneficent King Nod has stretched his magic wand  over the silent city that lies before you, and slowly and peacefully it has sunk into rest and stillness as a fevered giant might under the charm of a soothing opiate – all the passions, prejudices, ambitions, the mental and physical energies of 40,000 people have stopped dead in their tracks, while the omnipotent hand of nature lays hold of men in their fevered race for reputation and wealth and power and says to each of them : “See here, you big feeling and stiff-necked little chump – you insignificant and infinitesimal little speck of existence, even on a world which is itself but an insignificant and infinitesimal speck in the great firmament of the universe which I control, you’ve been making enough fuss about your miserable little anxieties and troubles and aspirations during the past day – now just lay down and keep still so you don’t get shook off while I give your little planet a flip over and bring your side up smiling to the sun in the morning; now don’t laugh, you little big head – just try to run contra to what I say, and see how quick you’ll get shook off, and the place that once knew you won’t know you again forever any more.”
          Well, I don’t wonder you are yawning; it’s pretty late, that’s a fact, but I just wanted to get you into a proper line of thought to enjoy the new experience. We will go down James street now. You see it stretching away down there to where the white frozen surface of the bay is glistening, one side of the street bathed in moonlight and the other smothered in deep shadow that extends to the middle of the roadway. Do you notice how quiet it is; there is scarcely a sound of any kind to be heard, except the noise of our footsteps which awake the little echoes that go skipping along in advance of us, and riot among the gables of the tall buildings and fling themselves bodily against the resonant window panes as if they took a malicious delight in waking up the grave, dignified piles of architecture and wanted to show how much they despised a dull time. Now, we are at the corner of King and James streets. Just stop and listen. You can distinctly hear Sergeant Prentice talking to a policeman in front of the city hall though he is just speaking in an ordinary conversational tone. Now they have gone into No. 1 police station. We’ll drop in too and see whether or not the men have toiled all night and caught nothing. Perhaps you have never been in No. 1 police station. Well, let me introduce you to it. This is the headquarters of our police department, and in that room back behind there where the gas is burning dimly is the chief’s office. That is the center of what you might call the nerve system of this city ; from there radiate some fifty nerves or feelers that penetrate to every corner of our particular aggregation of humanity, and as soon as anything of any account happens  to or agitates any other portion of the community, information of it finds its way through these channels into this little room. I’ll present you with a point – the chief of police of a city like this knows more about that city than any other man in it. You would be surprised to know how little people know outside of their own circle of life, except what they read in the papers. It is a reporter’s business to around to each little circle and jerk out thereof what is new for the benefit of all the other little circles. Well, as I was remarking, this room is not only the centre of the nerve system of the city, but it is the seat of the excutive physical force which controls the city. The chief of police embodies the moral sense or conscience of the municipal organization; he keeps the moral tone as high  as he can ; where the ministers leave of, he takes hold. He is ex officio a great news center, and when tomorrow morning I get up pretty late, I’ll make a bee line first thing for this room to feel the pulse of the whole city, and see that it has not been doing anything rash to itself, or getting itself into trouble while I was dreaming the happy hours away. Well, come into the outer room. These half dozen stalwart fellows lounging on the benches and talking are a section of the night patrol which has just come in. You see their overcoats and fur caps hanging in a line on the wall over there, with the baton and handcuffs belonging to each on the desk below them. Over in the corner on that high desk is the big ledger called the Occurrence Book which, along with the good-looking Cerberus who guards its sacred portals is a source of considerable attractive to the press gang. One of these immense books is filled with reports every two years in this station alone. A new station duty man comes on every month, and before the end thereof, the reporters all known him and love him as a brother. Those rings in the window sill are used to chain crooks and over on the wall in that cabinet is the rouge’s gallery. There is nothing new tonight, so we will move on. The sky away over there in the east is beginning to have a brighter tinge than the rest, though it is a long time till daylight yet – Jerusalem ! what in creation has broken loose now? There is a deafening, strident , reverberating clang in the air above us shattering the silence all into “pi” and the sound waves go rolling down the empty streets like balls in a bowling alley, and bring up with a rattle of echoes at the end. It is the clock in the bell tower striking the hour. Twice more the bell gives tongue, and then in the stillness that follows some vagrant rooster away over in Corktown toots its kazoo. Now, there is a confused murmur of thick voices and the sound of unsteady footsteps. This is the event of the evening – the homeward bound procession of gilded youth. It is a perambulating temperance lecture. Ah me! But aren’t they a sick-looking crowd as they move slowly along balancing themselves on the dizzy eminence of a twelve foot sidewalk.  If they ever had any joviality about them, it seems to have been corroded by their deck load of ginger wine, for they are mighty sedate and solemn in their sloppiness. Judging from the number of times I meet the same young men in this morning promenade, the wild oats they are sowing must be mainly tares.
          Do you notice how the buildings seem to take on an individuality tonight that you never noticed when then streets were full of people? Some of them you imagine have a gaunt and hungry look, while other little fat structures have a bulging in their sides and a contented, sleepy look about them, as if they had gorged themselves with the little pygmies of humanity that throng around them in the day time and were resting after it. The most of them have their blinds pulled close, but here and there a light burning dimly in an upstairs window makes the building look as if it was sleeping with one eye open. The most of them have their blinds pulled, but here and there a light burning dimly in an upstairs window makes the building look as if it was sleeping with one eye open.
          See that will’-the-wisp light dancing along the dark side of the street down there and disappearing every now and then into some doorway and listen to the swish, swish of rubbered feet on the sidewalk. If you were nearer you would see a tall, old man with a rugged face and frame and a certain poise about the shoulders and measured swing of the feet that proclaims an old soldier. He wears an old fur turban pulled rakishly over one ear like a forage cap, and an overcoat that looks as if it braved a thousand years, the huge collar of it he keeps religiously turned up; in one hand her carries a dark lantern and in the other a club; he looks like a cross between a pirate and a brigand, continuing all that is most ferocious in the aspect of both, and is calculated to strike terror into the heart of every transient who carries a heavy conscience or pocketbook; a mighty faithful and good-hearted old man all the same is nightwatchman Jamieson.
          “How are you, Mr. Jamieson?”
          “Well, young man.”
          “Are you catching much this evening, Mr. Jamieson?”
          At this point a lull in the colloquy takes place, and then after making sure the mud is pretty deep in the street between us –
          “Mr. Jamieson, how is your liver?”
          This is Mr. Jamieson’s vulnerable point. The round disk of light from the lantern is violently agitated for a moment and then the wicked little echoes say naughty things.
          It is not likely we will meet anymore tonight. In fact, it is not often you meet so many at this hour. Sometimes you can go along James street, from King to Cannon streets, and never meet a soul.  As a general thing there is never any danger of getting molested going home like, except you happen to run against a gang of drunken toughs going home. They will sometimes try to pick a quarrel by purposely jostling you as you go through, but if you keep cool and turn it off with a joke, you’re all right. Then, like as not, they become oppressively friendly and won’t let you go away until you go in somewhere and “take sumpin’ ” at the jostler’s expense. However, a good, stout stick is a mighty comforting thing to have along in a back street on a dark night. Sometimes you meet a few belated people going home from a party, usually a gentleman with a young girl on one arm and her mother or a stout old chaperone on the other. The chaperone is generally doing all the talking, and the young girl trips along with a dreamy look on her face and her thoughts roaming off in a delicious reverie as she reviews the events of the evening in a mirage of girlish imagination. The group flits past, leaving a breath of delicate perfume in the air, and the reporter rambles on in another delicious reverie, while in the mirage of his imagination there floats a dainty vision of fleecy white cloak, a pretty young face with a stray curl of gold on the cheek and a pair of lovely eyes that look out at him with a sparkle of innocent curiosity. Ah, who comes now? A rustle of rich silk, a jingle of bangles, the clicking step of a high-heeled bootine, a glitter of jewelry, a form, graceful and divinely tall, a close-wrapped cloak, a handsome, passionate face – now white and drawn – with a pair of eyes that burn like coals approaches and a sickening odor of musk and cheap perfume fills the air as she hurries past looking straight before her.
          Well, I guess we better make a stagger home for I hear the market wagons beginning to rumble down the mountain and the dogs and roosters are beginning to wake up. There’s my old friend policeman X over there. He used to waylay me going home at night in the election times and talk about politics till my teeth chattered, but, I really believe I converted the old fanatic in those midnight confabulations, so I forgive him –
          “Good night, old hoss.”
          “Good morning, you mean. Be off to your roots, you young nighthawks, or I’ll run ye in.”
          “Who’re you calling nighthawks? We’re too fly for you anyhow, you old pelican. I hope we didn’t disturb your slumbers – you’re so grumpy.
          “Say, how are the British Columbia elections going?”
          “Oh, we’ve knocked Hades out of the Grits.”
          “Hades – is that the place that’s always gone Grit?”
“No; that’s the place Grits always go to. Good night.”
“Well, hold on. Say, will the commissioners raise our salaries, think ye? They  say the judge – dead stuck agin – “
And so home and to bed, as my old friend Pepys used to remark.
                             JEHOSHAPHAT JEFFERSON

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