At this season the subject of politics
claims the chief attention of everyone, but one kind of politics,
which is certainly as interesting if not as important as many, is
invariably overlooked. Newspapers keep us informed of the doings of
the great parties; writers of fiction have made so-called "saloon
politics" an open book; the spellbinder receives attention; the
wizard of the stump is exploited, and so on. But few people know of
the sort of thing that goes on in the Russian quarter of the city.
But there must be some clubs, for the gregarious instinct is strong
there as everywhere, and the need is well supplied by the Russian
cafés. These people want no saloons. When they drink liquor, they
drink at home in a properly well-bred fashion. But their tea, they
take in public and over it discuss the questions of the day for
hours at a time. In these cafés there is much political work done,
much earnest and clever talk on the problems of government. They are
in a sense intellectual centers.
Not every Russian café reaches this level. There are many which
exist for the purpose of dispensing food and for that alone. Four or
five, however, make this only a part of their business. At most
hours of the day and night, until three o'clock in the morning,
these places are filled with men who have come there to sip Russian
tea out of tumblers, meet their friends, and discuss everything
under heaven. They are the intellectual aristocracy of the East
Side, although aristocracy is a word tabooed among them, for they
are almost all socialists or dreamy and peaceable anarchists. The
socialistic feeling is widespread on the East Side, and in these
cafés most of it is fostered.
NEARLY ALL OF RADICAL OPINIONS.
The literary men, the newspaper writers, the actors, the
professional men form the clientele of the cafés. Not all of them
are interested in the socialist movement, but nearly all are of
radical opinions. The air of the East Side is unfavorable to
conservatism. Too much is remembered of the old Russian home across
the water, and while nobody would apply here the rules that hold
good in the Czar's dominion, the habit of being "ag'in' the
government," once formed, is not easily broken.
One of the cafés on the East Side is the official meeting place for
the socialists of the district. Another, higher up, serves as a
Tammany stronghold, but the latter is not typically East Side, like
the other. The other cafés are Russian, pure and simple. As one
steps into them, he has taken a journey into another world. At the
little bare tables there are groups of men, with here and there a
woman, all of them bearing the stamp of intelligence and earnestness
on faces which testify only too plainly to the life of unnatural
confinement led by most of them.
"She must have just come over," remarked an habitué of the cafés the
other evening of a girl sitting near, "she looks so fat and
healthy." The characteristic face is pale, sharp-featured, intensely
eager, and earnest - the face of one who thinks too much and
breathes the air of heaven too little. They drink their tea slowly,
biting off bits of the sugar, in true Russian style, instead of
dropping it into the glass. It is not the most healthful occupation
in the world, after a long day's work to sit and sip tea until long
after midnight, but it makes an interesting sight for spectators.
These people do not give their overwrought brains much time to
rest. Life is a struggle for a livelihood part of the time and a
feverish search after knowledge for another part. Not all are poor,
of course there are many prosperous-looking men and women among
the groups in these places - but the pale-faced, overworked type
AN AIR OF CHEERFULNESS.
There is a general air of cheerfulness,
however. The East Side loves a joke, and many go the rounds. There
is always fun of some sort in the Russian cafés, together with the
earnest discussion which characterizes the places. Games of one
sort or another are frequently played. A group of men will gather in
a corner and crowd together in such earnest conference that a timid
visitor might suppose that they were plotting the destruction of
society, while in reality they are only watching a game of chess and
discussing the good or bad points of the play. Being Russians, they
are all chess players, and intellectual strain marks even their
recreation. One might think that for overnervous people there might
be a better prescription, but it seems the nature of these folk to
live at high pressure.
The "nature cure" is much needed, but
nobody would take it were it offered. They love the good fellowship
of the café, the noise and crowds of the city. They are city people,
although, like many of their kind, they may think they pine for the
peace of the country. It is a notable fact that there are few among
them who do not hold Russia in fond remembrance. The Government they
hated, of course; many of them left fortunes behind to fill the
pockets of officials, and many of them know what is the comedy which
the courts call a trial by law. But for the country, for the people
in general, they have a love and homesickness.
Any one who knows the East Side well will easily recognize a fair
proportion of the men in any of the well-known cafés on any evening
after eleven o'clock. At that time the intellectual East Side sets
forth to enjoy itself. The humdrum worker is asleep, but these men
cannot exist without companionship, and this is the time to find it.
When the theaters are closed and the meetings ended, the cafés begin
to fill. If there has been a great socialist gathering, the talk is
of that. If the brilliant playwright who gives the Jewish stage
plays considerably stronger than those produced in English has just
brought out a new work, that is the general theme.
POPULAR COFFEE HOUSE.
Patronized by East Side foreigners.
A TRUE HOST.
Among the tables moves the proprietor.
He is not a man who stands behind a counter or who holds himself
aloof from his guests. He is a true host, and in more than one café
he is the chief attraction. The proprietors of these cafés are
social powers in the neighborhood. They are clever, well-informed
men who can talk well on any subject with their guests. Most of the
clever men on the East Side patronize some one café in particular,
and the choice is frequently decided according to their personal
liking for the proprietor. He must need be a bright man, for his
visitors are men of education and ability. Here, one sees the editor
of some socialist paper there, is a musician of more than local
reputation. Another man is a physician of high repute on the East
Side and one of its best educated men. Yet another - and with what
respect is he regarded! - is the same playwright who thrills the
East Side with productions worthy of any stage in the city. Another
is the actor who makes the East Side laugh, and with him may be the
actress who makes it cry.
Everybody is clever-looking; everybody knows everybody else; all is
sociability and bright talk. The earnest groups who are talking
politics retire to the corners, if there is not a special meeting
ill some room in the rear. Anyone who wishes is at liberty to join
in the talk. It is Bohemia; a socialist as well as a literary free
missionary prevails. Introductions are not necessary, beyond that of
a smile and an appropriate remark. All are welcome, young and old,
Jew and Gentile, although the latter are in a hopeless minority.
To those who know it, this life is fascinating in the extreme. It is
a phase which is little known, for few not born in it can lay aside
preconceived notions so far as to permit themselves to recognize in
the habitués of these places their intellectual equals or superiors.
If students and sociologists and workers in the political field
would turn their attention to these happy hunting grounds of radical
thinkers, they would find out how limited is their knowledge of
conditions in this great city.