No Hurry To Get Home
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by Emily Hahn
Category: General Nonfiction
Description: Originally published in 1970, under the title Times and Places* *a memoir, this book is an anthology of twenty-three of her articles from The New Yorker, published between 1937 and 1970. Well-reviewed upon first publication, the book was re-published under the current title in 2000 with a Foreword by Sheila McGrath, a long-time colleague of hers at The New Yorker, and an Introduction by Ken Cuthbertson, author of Nobody Said Not to Go: The Life, Loves and Adventures of Emily Hahn. One of the pieces in the book starts with the line, "Though I had always wanted to be an opium addict, I can't claim that as a reason why I went to China." Hahn was seized by a wanderlust that led her to explore nearly every corner of the world. She traveled solo to the Belgian Congo at the age of twenty-five. She was the concubine of a Chinese poet in Shanghai in the 1930s--where she did indeed become and opium addict for two years. For many years, she spent part of every year in New York City and part of her time livingh with her husband, Charles Boxer, in England. Through the course of these twenty-three distinct pieces, Emily Hahn gives us a glimpse of the tremendous range of her interests, the many places in the world she visited and her extraordinary perception of the things, large and small, that are important in a life.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 1970
eBookwise Release Date: July 2010
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [478 KB]
Reading time: 318-446 min.
Not long after my family moved from St. Louis to Chicago, I ran away from home. It is only honest to admit that the affair didn't amount to much; indeed, nobody among my relatives remembers it, except my sister Rose, today a psychiatric social worker, who claims she does. She says I ran away because I was disturbed, and she adds that we were all disturbed at the time, and that the move to Chicago was bad for us. She speaks, of course, as a social worker, but when she talks like that I'm visited by the ghost of an old resentment. "There they go again," I say to myself, "crowding in on the act." But the annoyance really is only a ghost. It is nothing like the frustration and rage I felt back in 1920 at the slightest hint that any one of the rest of the family was as miserable as I was. Mother once tried to tell me that she was unhappy, too, but I only walked off, shaking my head. The misery was mine and mine alone. I was fifteen, and entitled to undisputed possession. Had I not been forced to leave St. Louis against my will? Wasn't I always being pushed around? No one but me had my sensitivity; no one but me knew how to suffer; the others were clods. It was clear that I had to run away.
"There must have been something wrong with you," my husband said recently, when I told him the story. "Girls don't usually run away from home."
"All normal girls do," I said loftily.
But, having thought it over, I will concede that I may be mistaken about that. My family weren't really clods, and they weren't abnormal, yet out of five girls and one boy, of whom I was the next to youngest, I'm the only one who ran away.
Very likely it happened not so much because we moved to Chicago as because I had a hangover from books. I was a deep reader, plunging into a story and remaining immersed even after I'd finished it. Some of it was apt to cling for a long time, like water to a bathing suit. The "Jungle Books" clung, for example. Mowgli was a natural wanderer. I was surprised when he went back to his home cave once, after he'd grown up, to confer with Mother and Father Wolf. I assumed that he had forgotten them. I had. I was also a natural wanderer, or wanted to be. Mowgli was the real thing--the best example--but there were others. David Copperfield, for instance; he ran away, and a lot of Dickens' other children were admirably mobile, too. I was certain that Little Nell, though she thought she was sorry to slip away from home with her grandfather, must have felt some hidden enthusiasm for the road. Nor did I have to depend on Dickens for vicarious running away. I drifted downriver with Huck Finn, and got lost with Tom Sawyer, and sailed here and there, all over the world, with any number of other people, scorning the stale air of indoors.
At the same time, I much preferred to be indoors in fact; there I could read in comfort of the wild hawk to the windswept sky, the deer to the wholesome word. My mother was always sending me out to play, partly because the open air was healthful and partly because she thought reading, done to excess, ruined the eyes. We all had good eyes, and she was a keen reader herself, but she dreaded some future day when we might use up our allotted sight, so she instituted a rationing system: her children up to the age of twelve might read for pleasure only half an hour a day; when they reached their teens, they were allowed an hour. The rest of our leisure time had to be spent in the open air. This was the era of the sleeping porch, or, if you couldn't have that, of the window gaping wide all the winter night, which may have been a legacy of Theodore Roosevelt--himself a great one for wandering in the open air--or a reaction to central heating, which we rather overdid. At any rate, I found playing outdoors boring until I learned to hide books under the back porch or in a peach tree's cleft. After that, it was simply a matter of finding some spot out of sight where I could read in peace.
Later on, in Chicago, it suited me to mope as if I'd lost a paradise when we moved away from St. Louis, and I began to dream of running off--if not to that one, then to some other. And St. Louis was, in fact, a pleasant place. There must have been other towns along the Mississippi with a similar charm-places where cement had not yet tamped down everything and nature still showed through--but I thought mine unique. I firmly believed that the little girl from New York who came out every summer to visit her grandparents next door was as miserable, when the time came to return to the brownstone fronts of the East, as Persephone going back to the underworld. In New York, we children told each other, there were no back yards. That unfortunate Eastern child had to live in a flat, with no place to dig in the dirt. Actually, what should have bothered us was that St. Louis was a hell of a place for a summer resort. It rests in a topographical hollow, and the air is usually quiet, growing humid to an extreme degree in summer, except for the times when everything blows up all at once in a cyclone. Our cyclones and tornadoes were inconvenient, and even dangerous, but we were proud of them.
Fountain Avenue was where we lived, across the street from Fountain Park--an oval-shaped tract of land about three blocks long, with trees and paths and benches and trimmed grass. My parents often said contentedly that it was a splendid place for children, but I preferred our back yard--a much wilder place. I didn't know much about jungles, but I pictured them as something like the back yard. There were hibiscus bushes in it, and peach trees. Somebody else had a persimmon tree, not far off; I know it couldn't have been ours, because the fruit bounced on someone's coach-house roof when it fell, and we didn't have a coach house. A ripe persimmon that has hit a roof on its way down is a badly squashed persimmon, but those tasted wonderful, in spite of twigs and bits of dead leaf that had to be pulled off or spat out. Bitten at the proper angle, a persimmon seed puckers the mouth, and when it splits open, a little white spoon lies inside it in silhouette.
Our yard was divided from its neighbors by a high board fence, always in need of paint. It had an occasional knothole and looked like the cartoon fences through whose holes little ragamuffins steal glimpses of baseball games. The upright planks were reinforced near the top by a ledge, on which daring children walked, balancing. In time, the fence was replaced by a low wire one--everybody who was anybody was getting wire fences-- and privacy was gone in our block. You could see both ways as far as the eye could travel, and I was sorry. Progress marred our alley, too. To begin with, when I pulled myself up to stand on the rim of our ashpit and peered over a wall into the alley, what I saw was almost rural. The alley was cobbled, bounded on one side by a vacant lot and a couple of wooden outhouses and a stable. In the stable lived a horse, who kept his head resting on the lower half of his divided door and always regarded me amiably. The whole place smelled of horse, cold ashes, garbage, and open ground. But one day men appeared and dug in the vacant lot, and practically the next day a tall red brick apartment building stood on it. About the same time, the stable, shed, and horse disappeared, to be replaced by concrete and brick and glass, with a lot of earthenware pots in evidence. It must have been the back of a flower shop. In the same abrupt manner--my memory moves as jerkily as an early silent movie--the rough alleyway became smoothly paved and good for roller-skating. St. Louis changed, but it was nice.
Late in May, it would begin to heat up. Then we were permitted to go barefoot, outside of school hours--a privilege I did not appreciate, for the sidewalks burned my feet and the asphalt in the streets melted to a mushy consistency, streaking my legs with tar. Wherever potholes in a street were being mended, there was a little heap of soft tar nearby, and I remember-though I hate to think of it--that we filched little pieces of the tar and chewed it. The parched grass of Fountain Park was easier than asphalt on the feet, but if one simply had to stay outside, the back yard was best. There we could turn on the garden hose and wallow. When the classroom thermometer at our school rose about ninety, we were sent home.
Then came vacation, and after a few weeks everybody, including us, went away. My father would go with us to Michigan, settle us in, stay a couple of weeks, and return to work. My mother always filled the family scene to a greater extent than he did; she could hardly help shouldering him out, for he was away a good deal of the time, "on the road," sellings things for a company of which he was half owner. But my father was not self-effacing. He enjoyed entertaining people, telling stories, and singing. Nevertheless, it is Mother I remember, and it was Mother I preferred. When Daddy wasn't on the road, we children went down to the streetcar stop to meet him. As he stepped off the car, we made a great demonstration, jumping and yelling and rushing to embrace him, scuffling like puppies, but I'm afraid I carried on in this manner only because the others were doing it. I was afraid of him, really. It was one of the foremost facts of our life that he was nervous and couldn't take too much noise. Nervous people, I knew, were as unpredictable as nervous dogs. Also, he affronted my vanity in the matter of what would now-adays be called sibling rivalry, by adoring my older sister Dorothy and paying less attention to the rest of us. It was only when I was older and braver that I learned to like him, and he in turn learned to recognize me. But if I didn't love my father, I certainly never realized it. I thought I loved him, and we were always in holiday mood when we set off all together for Michigan.
I wonder why Michigan. Presumably my parents thought it cooler than St. Louis, and it must have been, because anywhere was, but we didn't visit the northern woods; we went to a farm right in the heat belt. We didn't drive, of course. Cars were not quite unknown, but I can't remember anybody who actually went from one town to another by auto. We travelled on a train, taking with us a big trunk and many suitcases, getting aboard in the late afternoon and sleeping in flimsily constructed rooms of green cloth. The moldy smell of that cloth is still evocable in my nostrils. Arriving in Chicago next day, we rode across town in a Parmelee horse-drawn bus to another station. The bus was upholstered in something shabby and slippery, and the streets were bumpy. I kept sliding off the bench, but my mind was not on keeping my place, because I was looking out with horror at the streets. No skyscrapers today, not even the nightmare canyons of Wall Street, can match the towering height of Chicago's buildings as I saw them in my childhood. Not only were they tall, they faced each other across narrow streets into which the sun could not reach, and they were black all over with grime. At this point, angry Chicagoans may declare passionately that it simply isn't true, and that the Parmelee bus never followed such a route, so I hasten to assure them that I know it--now. I have tried, myself, to find those hellish buildings and the nightmare sooty pavements we rode along, but I couldn't. I can only conclude that I didn't really see them at all but read a description of such a place--some demon world--in a book, and mixed it up with reality. And yet it is vivid in my memory--the dreadful buildings, and ramshackle wooden sheds, and the brick facades of miserable tenements. It seemed natural, therefore, when my sisters spoke disparagingly of Chicago. "How dreadful it must be to have to live in Chicago!" they would say, and look with pity from the bus windows at the miserable people in the streets. Though I did not live there yet, and did not dream that I ever would, it was a place I was already glad to escape from.
Now, with one of those sudden cinema jerks, I remember myself at fifteen, in high school and already halfway out of the existence I had known best. Real life was no longer a mere transition from one story world to another. I looked at and saw flesh-and-blood people of whom I'd never before been aware. I looked at, and fell in love with, an assistant teacher at the art school I attended on Saturday mornings. I was waking, but it wasn't a tingling awakening; it was a sort of drifting. There was something in me that worried me, because I had never read or heard about it--a slowness to react, a drowsiness of the spirit. When other people were hurt, they cried immediately. When I was hurt, I cried a good deal later, and half the time only because I thought it the thing to do. I thought that I might be incapable of feeling, especially when I looked around at my relatives and saw how different they were. My sister Dorothy and Mother were volatile and excitable, and clearly revelled in scenes. My father couldn't read anything emotional aloud without choking up with laughter or tears; wiping his eyes, he would say, "I'm sorry, I know it's a weakness." Yes, I thought, he was weak, but perhaps that was the way to be.
I was jealous of my privacy, but I was inconsistent about it. I wanted desperately to be noticed and equally desperately to be let alone. This wasn't a new state, to be sure. Some years before, there had been the affair of the Teddy bear. Probably I wouldn't have been so wacky about him if we'd been permitted to keep live pets, but my parents thought dogs and cats were not good for children--Mother was convinced that cats carry typhoid germs--and they were sure children were bad for dogs and cats. Mad about animals, I lavished emotion on other people's pets, until I saw the bear in a shopwindow. I was no tot in search of a cuddly companion--I must have been eleven--and the bear was a miniature Steiff model, about five inches long, but I went crazy with love and longing. I saved up my allowance. I earned money running errands and cutting grass. Finally I got the bear, and I carried it everywhere for years. In those pre-Freud days, nobody worried about such things, though I drew pictures of its face on my arithmetic papers and songbooks, and made clothes for it, and built it a house. Even now, it's a struggle to call the bear "it," and not "him." One day I took it to school. Such small bears were a novelty, and the other children in my class made a fuss about it and vied for the privilege of keeping it in their desks for allotted spaces of time. Inevitably, the teacher noticed the disturbance. She investigated, discovered the bear, and confiscated it--an act that triggered off one of the most humiliating experiences I can remember. I burst into tears--in the sixth grade, mind you, and over a Teddy bear. But that was not the worst of it. To demonstrate that I didn't really care and was unwounded, I also laughed. The effect was appalling. Laughter mixed with the weeping came out in a series of whoops that wouldn't stop. The other children stared, and so did the teacher, while I gasped and whooped and sobbed until my breath failed. In the ensuing pause, the teacher said quietly that she would give me my bear after school. I got the bear back as the teacher had promised, and nobody ever dared to tease me about the incident or even mention it again, but I still shrivel when I think of it.
So, at fifteen, I admired and envied my sister Dot, who was very much the other way and would never shrink from scenes. When she felt like it, she threw things. Even when she threw them at me, I admired her swift passion, as well as her aim. I was sadly aware that my own rebellions and quarrels were cold in comparison--thoughtful and sluggish. My attacks were planned and few. But these self-doubts were finally submerged. Dot was away at college, and her splendid tantrums no longer enlivened the day. The eldest of us, my brother Mannel, married at the close of the First World War--he had been in the Air Service--and Rose was training in psychiatry in Boston. Dauphine and I, the younger ones, now found the house spacious and calm.
I had been in high school more than a year when the shock came. We were going to move to Chicago, because my father and his partner thought their business would expand there. It was almost too outrageous to believe. Live in Chicago--that gritty, high-built town? My parents must have gone crazy, I thought, or were in the grip of some higher power than themselves, mysterious and malign. It was incredible that they should want to go. Taught by them, we thought St. Louis was the best city--with the possible exception of New Orleans, where Daddy had relatives, and Denver, where they'd gone on their honeymoon--in the States; that Fountain Avenue was the most charming part of St. Louis; that our friends in St. Louis were uniquely wonderful; and that St. Louis schools were the best to be found anywhere in the world. That my parents should voluntarily give up all this privilege was inconceivable, unless--as I suddenly thought, for the first time, might be possible--they were not, after all, the kindest, wisest people ever born.
With this horrid doubt gnawing my mind, I followed sulkily in Mother's path, through the upsets and nuisance of selling the house, packing, perching for a while in a hotel in St. Louis and then in another in Chicago. The North Side, where we were to spend many years, has a reputation for elegance, but for a long time my eyes saw only what I already knew I would see--awful Chicago. Even when my senses convinced me that the street where we lived was not as dark, not as hemmed in as I had expected, I felt dark and hemmed in. At that, it wasn't a pretty place. My father found an apartment on Lawrence Avenue and signed a lease without consulting my mother, and she was not pleased, though it wasn't really as squalid as she said it was. Later, we were to move several times, and each removal would find us in a pleasanter place, but I couldn't look into the future, and I thought we would be stuck forever, without escape, in that narrow red brick building with its curious strung-out arrangement of rooms hitched to each other like boxcars.
Dauphine and I enrolled in the nearest high school, the Nicholas Senn. It was Dauph's first term in high school, and she was pleased to be where she felt she belonged--among older people. She was always gregarious and immediately made a lot of friends. In short, she committed infidelity and came to like Chicago, was glad we had come, wanted no escape, and made no bones about it. I dropped her flat. Slowly and reluctantly, I, too, made friends, but only a couple of them, and I hated Senn. It was too big. It wasn't Soldan High School, in St. Louis. Still, little by little, even I had to put out feelers, no matter how grudgingly. Lessons and weekly tests, lunch at the corner store with my new friends Betsy and Caroline, working on the school magazine-- these activities dented me, but even they left the dark well inside me undisturbed. Every afternoon, I went back to Lawrence Avenue and put on my misery again, like a pair of comfortable old slippers. Perhaps that simile is not a good one, because slippered people stay at home, and soon I was itching to get out of the apartment again. I was considered old enough now to have a certain amount of freedom, so I spent most of my allowance on bus rides along the lake, all the way down to the Field Museum and back. Even wrapped in my cloak of grief, I was aware of--for I remember it--the pattern of the city. First, the ride took me past relatively humble houses, a good many still retaining wooden porches of oddly rustic appearance. Then, as the bus approached the center of town, the surroundings swelled with splendor. The large residences of the rich were of varied styles, but they all imitated something in Europe: there were Bavarian castles, Queen Anne mansions, and Scottish fortresses side by side, having in common only their distance from the street and their surprisingly small gardens. Without a park to surround it, a mansion looked peculiar to me, but the millionaires apparently did not agree. They seemed to want to huddle together. I was indifferent.
Beyond this belt, the private houses grew less overwhelming, because fine new apartment houses and luxury hotels had taken over. This part of the Gold Coast left me as indifferent as the other. Here my eyes were fixed on the opposite side of the road, where, most of the time, I could look out over Lake Michigan, and sometimes down at the beach. Even I could not claim that there was something like it, but better, in St. Louis. Even I could not imagine anything better to do at dusk than bowl along by Lake Michigan in the front seat of the top of a double-decker bus. The wind from that great sea was never quite like ordinary air. It had a delicious foreign smell. But the most enchanting thing about the lake was that you couldn't see to the other side.
"How happy are they that till the land, did they but know it," wrote the Dorset poet William Barnes. How happy was I on that bus, did I but know it! Brooding over my sorrows (and, when I thought of them, the lesser troubles of Byron and Shelley and Keats), borne forward like the figurehead on a ship's prow through waves of gusty wind, I was busily preparing myself for new regrets, oncoming losses. When I got home afterward, Lawrence Avenue would be that much less bearable, with its close air, and with the dining-room table, under a circular hanging lamp, cleared and ready for homework.
I have forgotten exactly why I ran away on the day I did. No doubt Mother said something that brought all my sorrows to a head--but what? It could have been anything. During that time, she and I sparred a good deal, and even when we weren't bickering she often indicated impatience by sighing. She had a very eloquent sigh, and I hated it. I preferred it when she slammed doors, but she didn't often do that to me, reserving the gesture for the older children and my father. Perhaps she didn't say anything that day; perhaps she only sighed once too often. At any rate, something was the last straw, and I decided to run away.
True to my nature, I laid plans slowly and thoughtfully. It was Friday, before school. I emptied my money box of its few savings and put them into my pocket. At school, in history class, I approached Betsy Cummings. "Didn't you ask me if I could come home with you for the night sometime?" I said. "I could tonight, if you like."
Betsy said she was delighted, and if she was also surprised she didn't show it. That afternoon, I walked home with her in the direction away from Lawrence Avenue. Betsy lived on a street that led downhill to the lake front, in one of the apartment houses near the edge of Rogers Park. The houses there were new, which gave them a cachet. Betsy impressed me by having her own key. She unlocked her apartment door and led me into a living room furnished with a shiny new sofa and chairs, and curtains made of crisp flowered stuff. It looked very pretty to me; it wasn't home.
"Mama doesn't come home until about six," Betsy said. "She works. She manages something downtown. Let's put your things in my room--but where are your things?"
I'd thought that out. I said, "I had my bag all packed, and then I walked out of the house and left it."
Betsy said she was always doing things like that herself, and it didn't matter; she could lend me a nightgown, and I could brush my teeth with a finger. We went into the kitchen and made fudge. While it cooked and we dropped bits of it into cold water to see if it was ready, she explained her family life. Her father did not seem to be a part of the daily routine, and I didn't quite understand whether he was dead or just missing. He and her mother may have been divorced; if that was the case, Betsy would naturally have ignored the subject, because most people didn't talk about divorce. I didn't ask awkward questions, because I appreciated that it was hard enough on Betsy as it was, with her mother working. Working mothers were pretty outre in our circle.
Mrs. Cummings came home at six--a tall, deep-bosomed woman with carefully marcelled hair and the motherly manner characteristic of many career women. She was so wholesome I found it hard to like her. She went straight to the kitchen and put on a starched, ruffled apron, and told us to do our homework while she cooked supper. "It's no use your saving you have the whole weekend," she said merrily. "I know all about that. I'm not going to spend my Sunday afternoon driving Betsy to her books."
After supper, something rather surprising happened. Mrs. Cummings actually suggested to Betsy that she call up Howard, a fellow-student at Senn, and ask him over for cake and ice cream and to play the Victrola. It didn't startle me when Betsy welcomed the idea, because we all knew she was sweet on Howard. It was Mrs. Cummings' suggesting it that seemed so queer. My mother would never have done a thing like that. For one thing, she thought I was too young to fool around with boys, and, for another, she had a horror of appearing to chase young men for her daughters. She had always impressed on us carefully that we must never telephone boys; we must wait and let them telephone us. I asked myself if Mrs. Cummings could be quite nice. All through the evening, during which Howard politely danced with Betsy and me alternately, to the music of records like "Margie," and Mrs. Cummings beamed on the young people and brought in refreshments, I thought about her amazing behavior. Truly it was a variegated world I was stepping into, and Chicago mores were shockingly different from those of St. Louis. What ever must Howard be thinking? How shameful for poor Betsy!
After Howard had gone, and before we went to bed, there was some desultory talk about plans for the next day. Betsy and Mrs. Cummings expected me to stay for lunch at least, but I would not consent. I couldn't tell them why--that I intended to take a bus downtown, get a job and a room, and settle in for the next phase of freedom, which included plans to join a circus in the South. Instead, I told them politely that my mother wouldn't permit it, because she needed me at home.
"Surely she wouldn't make you work on Saturday," said Mrs. Cummings. "I thought you girls might like to go to a movie in the afternoon."
"I'm awfully sorry, but you see how it is," I replied.