by John Reed
From Adventures of a Young Man: Short Stories from Life (San Fransisco: City Lights, 1975), pp.47-50.
American journalist and author John Reed (1887-1920) was widely known for his eyewitness account of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, Ten Days That Shook the World, as well as for his radical political activities. Shortly after the Russian Revolution, he returned to the United States to organize the Communist Labor Party. Later, when charged with sedition, he fled to Moscow, where he remained until his premature death from typhus. Though this early short story by Reed, “Another Case of Ingratitude” (1913) seems not to carry any overt political teaching, one wonders, by its end, whether one is meant to sympathize with the down-and-out worker or with his would-be benefactor. Reed’s seemingly well-intentioned philanthropist takes a poor fellow who is, literally, on his last (and frozen) leg out of the bitter cold, buys him a warm, hearty meal, and gives him money for a night’s lodging. As the poor fellow revives, his benefactor tries to engage him in conversation, but the questions he asks are unwelcome, and his motives for doing good are impugned. Should the benefactor have behaved differently? If so, at what point and how? Should the worker have behaved differently? Again, if so, at what point and how?
Introduction by Amy Kass
Walking late down Fifth Avenue, I saw him ahead of me, on the dim stretch of sidewalk between two arc-lights. It was biting cold. Head sunk between hunched-up shoulders, hands in his pockets, he shuffled along, never lifting his feet from the ground. Even as I watched him, he turned, as if in a daze, and leaned against the wall of a building, where he made an angle out of the wind. At first I thought it was shelter he sought, but as I drew nearer I discerned the unnatural stiffness of his legs, the way his cheek pressed against the cold stone, and the glimmer of light that played on his sunken, closed eyes. The man was asleep!
Asleep—the bitter wind searching his flimsy clothes and the holes in his shapeless shoes; upright against the hard wall, with his legs rigid as an epileptic's. There was something bestial in such gluttony of sleep.
I shook him by the shoulder. He slowly opened an eye, cringing as though he were often disturbed by rougher hands than mine, and gazed at me with hardly a trace of intelligence.
"What's the matter—sick?" I asked.
Faintly and dully he mumbles something, and at the same time stepped out as if to move away. I asked him what he said, bending close to hear.
"No sleep for two nights," came the thick voice. "Nothing to eat for three days." He stood there obediently under the touch of my hand, swaying a little, staring vacantly at me with eyes that hung listlessly between opening and shutting.
"Well, come on," I said, "we'll go get something to eat and I'll fix you up with a bed." Docilely he followed me, stumbling along like a man in a dream, falling forward and then balancing himself with a step. From time to time his thick lips gave utterance to husky, irrelevant words and phrases. "Got to sleep waking around," he said again and again. "They keep moving me on."
I took his arm and guided him into the white door of an all-night lunchroom. I sat him at a table, where he dropped into a dead sleep. I set before him roast beef, and mashed potatoes, and two ham sandwiches, and a cup of coffee, and bread and butter, and a big piece of pie. And then I woke him up. He looked up at me with a dawning meaning in his expression. The look of humble gratitude, love, devotion, was almost canine in its intensity. It sent a thrill of Christian brotherhood all through my veins. I sat back and watched him eat.
At first he went at it awkwardly, as if he had lost the habit. Mechanically he employed little tricks of table manners--perhaps his mother had taught them to him. He fumblingly changed knife and fork from right hand to left, and then put down his knife and took a dainty piece of bread in his left hand; removed the spoon from his coffee cup before he drank, and spread butter thinly and painstakingly on his bread. His motions were so somnambulistic istic that that I had a strange feeling of looking on a previous incarnation of the man.
As the dinner progressed, a marvelous change took place. The warmth and nourishment, heating and feeding his thin blood, flooded the nerve centers of that starving body; a quick flush mounted to his cheeks, every part of him started widely awake, his eyes glowed. The little niceties of manner dropped away as if they had never been. He slopped his bread roughly in the gravy, and thrust huge knife-loads of food into his mouth. The coffee vanished in great gulps. He became an individual instead of a descendant: where there had been a beast, a spirit lived; he was a man!
The metamorphosis ws so exciting that I could hardly wait to learn more about him. I held in, however, until he finished his dinner.
As the last of the pie disappeared, I drew forth a box of cigarettes and placed them before him. He took one and accepted one of my matches. "Thanks," he said.
"How much will it cost you for a bed—a quarter?" I asked.
"Yeh," he answered. "T’anks!"
He sat looking rather nervously at the table—inhaling great clouds of smoke. It was my opportunity.
"What's the matter—no work?"
He looked me in the eye, for the first time since dinner had begin in a suprpised manner. "Sure," he said breifly. I noticed, with somewhat of a shock that his eyes were gray, whereas I had thought them brown.
"What's your job?
He dien't answer for a moment. "Bricklayer," he grunted. What was the matter with the man?
"Where do you come from?"
Même jeu. "Albany."
"Been here long?"
"Say," said my guest, leaning over. "What do you think I am, a phonygraft?"
For a moment I was speechless with surprise. "Why, I was only asking to make conversation," I said feebly.
"Naw, you wasn't. You thought just because you give me a handout, I'd do a sob-story all over you. What right you got to ask me all them questions? I know you fellers. Just because you got money you think you can buy me with a meal…"
"Nonsense!" I cried. "I do this perfectly unselfishly. What do you think I got out of feeding you?"
He lit another one of my cigarettes.
"You get all you want," he smiled. "Come on now, don't it make you feel good all over to save a poor starvin' bum's life? God! You're pure and holy for a week!"
"Well, you're a strange specimen," I said angrily. "I don't believe you've got a bit of gratitude in you."
"Gratitude. Hell!" said he easily. "What for? I'm thanking my luck, not you—see? I might as well 'a been as any other bum. You see," he leaned across the table, exhaling, "you just had to save somebody tonight. I understand. I got an appetite like that, too. Only mine's women."
Whereupon I left that ungrateful bricklayer and went to wake up Drusilla who alone understands me.
Is it possible to perform a philanthropic act unselfishly, as the well-intentioned philanthropist claimed he did in rescuing the down-and-outer? Why or why not?
What obligation, if any, might someone who is the recipient of a philanthropic act, have to those who performed the philanthropic act? If there are expectations predicated on the giving, is it a gift?
How likely would someone be to continue to give if gratitude was not expressed for the giving? How likely would someone continue to give if their giving was ‘repaid’ with disdain and contempt? Would either or both of these reactions cause you to reconsider your giving?
Given what we know from this reading, how might you have acted if you were the down-and-outer? If you were the well-intentioned philanthropist? As Drusilla, the only one who understood the well-intentioned philanthropist, what words of wisdom or comfort might you provide the well-intentioned philanthropist upon his retelling of this story?