The Jungle | #10

...and so she was always chasing up the phantom of good health, and losing it because she was too poor to continue.

Four weeks Marija hunted, and half of a fifth week. Of course she stopped paying her dues to the union—she lost all interest in the union, and cursed herself for a fool that she had ever been dragged into one. She had about made up her mind that she was a lost soul, when somebody told her of an opening, and she went and got a place as a "beef-trimmer." She got this because the boss saw that she had the muscles of a man, and so he discharged a man, and put Marija to do his work, paying her a little more than half what he had been paying.

When she first came to Packingtown, Marija would have scorned such work as this. She was in another canning factory, and her work was to trim the meat of those diseased cattle that Jurgis had been told about not long before. She was shut up in one of the rooms where the people never saw daylight; beneath her were the chilling-rooms, where the meat was frozen, and above her were the cooking-rooms; and so she stood on an ice-code floor, while her head was often so hot that she could scarcely breathe. Trimming beef off the bones by the hundred weight, while standing up from early morning till late at night, with heavy boots on and the floor ankle-deep in blood, liable to be thrown out of work indefinitely because of a slackening in the trade, liable again to be kept overtime in rush seasons, and be worked till she trembled in every nerve and lost her grip on her slimy knife, and gave herself a poisoned wound—that was the new life that unfolded itself before Marija. But because Marija was a human horse she merely laughed and went at it—it would enable her to pay her board again, and keep the family going.

Marija's lesson came just in time, perhaps, to save Ona from a similar fate. Ona too, was dissatisfied with her place, and had far more reason than Marija. Ona did not tell half of her story at home, because she saw it was a torment to Jurgis, and she was afraid of what he might do. For a long time Ona had seen that the forelady in her department "had a grudge" against her. At first she thought it was the old-time mistake she had made in asking for a holiday to get married. Then she concluded it must be because she did not give the forelady a present occasionally—she was the kind that took presents from the girls, Ona learned, and made all sorts of discrimination in favor of those who gave them. In the end, however, Ona discovered that it was even worse than that. The forelady was a newcomer, and it was some time before rumor made her out; finally it transpired that she was a kept woman, the former mistress of the superintendent of that department. He had put her there to keep her quiet, it seemed—and that not altogether with success, for once or twice they had been heard quarreling. She had the temper of a hyena, and soon the place she ran was a witches cauldron. There were some of the girls who were of her own sort, who were willing to toady to her and flatter her; and these would carry tales about the rest, and so the furies were unchained in the place. Worse than this, the woman lived in a bawdy-house downtown, and some of the girls would go there with her in the slack times. In fact, it would not be too much to say that she managed her department at Smith's in conjunction with the house downtown—sometimes women from the house would be given places alongside decent girls, and after other decent girls had been turned off to make room for them. When you worked in this woman's department the house downtown was never out of your thoughts all day—there were always whiffs of it to be caught, like the odor of the Packingtown rendering plants at night, when the wind shifted suddenly. There would be stories about it going the rounds; the girls opposite you would be whispering them and winking at you. In such a place Ona would not have stayed a day but for starvation; and, as it was, she was never sure that she could stay the next day. She understood now that the real reason that the forelady hated her was that she was a decent married girl; and she knew that the talebearers and the toadies hated her for the same reason, and were doing their best to make her life miserable.

But there was no place a girl could go in Packingtown, if she was particular about things of this sort; there was no place in it where a prostitute could not get along better than a decent girl. That was inevitable, as anyone who is familiar with human nature could foresee. Here was a population, low-class and mostly foreign, hanging on always on the verge of starvation, and dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave-drivers; under such circumstances immorality was exactly as inevitable, and as prevalent, as it was under the system of chattel slavery. Things that were quite unspeakable went on there in the packing-houses all the time, and were taken for granted by everybody; only they did not show as in the old slavery times, because there was no difference in color between master and slave. One of these things result in the a horrible incident, in the new department where Marija worked, and only a week or two after she came. One of the women, an unmarried girl, who had been coming day after day when she ought not to have come, crept away at last into a dark passage and gave birth to a baby boy; and not knowing what to do with him, and in terror of losing her place, she crept up to the floor above and dropped him into one of the carts full of beer, that was all ready for the cooking-vats. It was by the merest chance that some one heard the baby cry, just as the cart was in the set of being dumped. They took this woman to the hospital—what became of her after that no one ever knew.

Perhaps it was because of this incident, which sent a shock through all the yards, that Ona had no difficulty in getting off when her own time came. She went home on Saturday morning, and Jurgis had the man-doctor, according to his whim, and she was safely delivered of a fine baby. It was an enormous big boy; and Ona was such a tiny creature herself that it seemed quite incredible. Jurgis would stand and gaze at the stranger by the hour, unable to believe that it had happened.

The coming of this boy was a decisive event with Jurgis. It made him irrecoverably a family man; it killed the last lingering impulse that he might have had to go out in the evenings and sit and talk with the men in the saloons. There was nothing he cared for now so much as to sit and look at the baby. This was very curious, for Jurgis had never been interested in babies. But then this was a very unusual sort of a baby, as everyone agreed. He had the brightest little black eyes, and little black ringlets all over his head; he was the living image of Jurgis, they said, and Jurgis found this a fascinating circumstance. It was sufficiently perplexing that this tiny mite of life should have come into the world at all, in the manner that it had; that it should have come with a comical imitation of his father's nose was simply uncanny.

Perhaps, Jurgis thought, it was intended to signify that it was his baby; that it was his and Ona's, to care for all its life. Jurgis had never possessed anything nearly so interesting; it was when you came to think about it, assuredly a marvelous possession. It would grow up to be a man; it would be a human soul, with a personality all its own, a will of its own! These thoughts would keep haunting Jurgis, filling him with all sorts of strange and almost painful excitements. He was wonderfully proud of little Antanas—as they were to call him; he was curious about all the details of him, the washing and the dressing and the eating and the sleeping of him, and asked all sorts of absurd questions. It took quite a while to get over his alarm at the incredible shortness of the little creature's legs.

Jurgis had, alas, very little time to see his baby; he never felt the chains about him more than just then. When he came home at night, the baby would be asleep, and it would be the merest chance if he awoke before Jurgis had to go to sleep himself. Then in the morning there was no time to look at him, so really the only chance the rather had was on Sundays. This was more cruel yet for Ona, who ought to have stayed home and nursed him, the doctor said, for her own health as well as the baby's; but Ona had to go to work, and leave him for Teta Elzieta to feed, upon the pale blue poison that was called milk at the corner-grocery. Ona's confinement lost her only a week's wages—she would go to the factory the second Monday, and the best that Jurgis would persuade her was to ride in the car, and let him run along behind and help her to Smith's when she alighted. After that it would be all right, said Ona, it was no strain sitting still sewing hams all day; and if she waited longer she might find that that dreadful forelady had put someone else in her place. That would be worse than ever now, Ona continued, on account of the baby. They would all have to work harder now on his account. It was such a responsibility—they must not have the baby grow up to suffer as they had. That had been the first thing Jurgis had thought himself—he had clenched his hands and braced himself anew for the struggle, for the sake of that tiny mite of human possibility.

And so Ona went back to Smith's and saved her place and a week's wages; and so she gave herself some on of the thousand ailments that women group under the title of "womb-trouble;" and so was never again a well person as long as she lived. It is difficult to convey in words all that this meant to Ona; it seemed such a slight offence, and the punishment was so out of all proportion that neither she nor anyone else ever connected the two. "Womb-trouble" to Ona did not mean a specialist's diagnosis, and a course of treatment, and perhaps an operation or two; it meant simply headaches and pains in the back, and depression and heartsickness, and neuralgia when she had to go to work in the rain. The great majority of the women who worked in Packingtown suffered in the same way, and from the same cause, so it was not deemed a thing to see a doctor about; instead Ona would try patent medicines, one after another, as her friends told her about them. As these all contained alcohol, or some other stimulant, she found that they all did her good, while she took them; and so she was always chasing up the phantom of good health, and losing it because she was too poor to continue. All this is so familiar and common-place that one has to apologize for telling of it; thought it might really be interesting to have some psychologist work out the problem why a dreadful and cruel fact that we learn about one person should immediately cease to trouble us when we are told that it is the case with millions. Perhaps it is because we feel the hopelessness of so vast a problem, and prefer to turn our limited sympathies where they can do some good; for cannot anyone in his right senses see that such troubles as Ona's must continue to be the rule, so long as women whom "God in his infinite wisdom" has condemned to be manufacturing-machines, will insist upon having children just as if they were ordinary human creatures!