The Forsythe Saga

Prairie-Town Boy

  • Author: Carl Sandburg
  • Source Category: Abstract, Contemporaneous, Informed
  • When he referred to the Q., he was referring to the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy (C.B. & Q.) Railroad, which was a major employer in the town.

    According to the book, he hung out with two other porters. In one case he relives an incident from 1893. This implies that he was already working for Mr. Humphrey at that time.

    According to the book, after he left the barbershop he worked for Sam Barlow for 16 to 18 months and left when he was nineteen. Therefore he must have left Mr. Humphrey when he was 17 or 18. We know he was working for Mr. Humphrey on his 17th birthday.

    Sandburg was 1 year older than Mr. Humphrey's oldest son (Artie), so he must have listed Artie's age wrong in the book. He listed him as 18 when he cut hair in the fourth chair on the weekends. Artie was only 16 or 17 when Sandburg quit.
  • Chapter 13:

         It came over me often that I wasn't getting anywhere in particular. I wanted a job where I could learn a trade. I asked plumbers, carpenters, house painters, and they said there was no opening or I might come around later. When I asked Q. machinists and boilermakers what were the chances they said the Hard Times were still on, old hands waiting to go back. I heard that the Union Hotel barbershop wanted a porter. I said, "Barbering is a trade. A barber can travel, can work in other towns from coast to coast. At barbering you might be shaving a man who'll offer you a job with better money than you can ever make barbering."
         I hired to Mr. Humphrey at three dollars a week, plus shoeshine money, and tips. The shop was under the Farmers' and Mechanics' Bank, in a half-basement with big windows that let you see the shoes of the walkers on the sidewalk. By going up eight steps, you could see the Public Square, down Broad Street to the courthouse park, and beyond that the Knox College campus. The floor of the shop was black and white square tiles which I mopped every morning. In rainy weather or snow, with mud tracked in, I gave the floor a once over again in the afternoon. The big windows to the street I went over once a week with soap and water, sponge and chamois. And the four brass cuspidors had a brisk cleanout every day. Four barber chairs faced a long wall mirror and three times a week I would put a white cleaning fluid on the glass, then with a chamois skin I would wipe off the white stuff.
         Mr. Humphrey, Head Barber and Proprietor, had the first chair. At the second chair was a tall fellow with a mustache; his first name was John. At the third chair was Frank Wykoff, smooth faced, with silky golden hair. He had manners and a reputation as a dancer. The fourth chair was worked by Mr. Humphrey's eighteen-year-old son on Saturdays and before holidays when a rush was on.
         Of what us kids called "the big bugs on the North Side," many came to the Union Hotel Barbershop. "You will meet the bon ton of Galesburg while you work here, Charlie," Mr. Humphrey had said to me. "It's a bluestocking trade comes to our shop and we want to keep the place shipshape, everything clean as a whistle."
         Mr. Humphrey was a barber and a gentleman. He would smile in his pleasant voice and say to a regular customer with a nod of the head and a bend of the back and shoulders that was nearly a bow, "Mister Highby, what is the good word with you?" or "Mister Applegreen, how does the world go round for you today?" or "Mister Hagenjos, it's about time we were seeing your good face again." He had a round face with a thin, straight-lined mouth. He was the Boss of the shop and ran it smooth and all had respect for him.
         At half-past ten or eleven in the morning, when I saw there would be no customer out of a chair in ten or fifteen minutes, I would go up a back stairs, cross the big main office of the Union Hotel, and go into the most elegant saloon in that part of Illinois. There was a polished mahogany bar, a shining brass rail, tall brass spittoons, a long mirror so those standing at the bar could look at themselves or the other faces at the bar, and wood carving like lace or embroidery on the top and sides of the mirror. Near the end of the bar they set out the free lunch at half-past ten-ham, cheese, pickles, rye, and white bread, and sometimes deer or bear meat-and I helped myself. Then I went back to the barbershop thankful to the bartenders for not asking what a minor was doling in the place, and thankful to Solomon Frolich and Henry Gardt, the two German Jews who owned the saloon. I tried to do an extra-special job when I ran my whisk broom over them or gave them a shoeshine.
         The Union Hotel got most of the big time people who came to town, show people, lecturers, minstrels, star actors who had been playing on Broadway and were taking their play from Galesburg to Omaha, to Denver, to Salt Lake City, to San Francisco.
         On my seventeenth birthday, January 6, 1895, General Philip Sidney Post died. He had served five terms as Congressman from our district, and was beginning his sixth when he died. Senators and Congressman, old soldiers of the Civil War, politicians from far and near, came to his funeral. At the Q. depot I watched a noon train from Chicago pull in with a special car loaded with men wearing Prinz Albert coats and high silk hats. Then I walked to the Union Hotel barbershop to find every barber chair filled and a line of customers wearing Prinz Albert coats in the waiting chairs. The hatrack was filled with silk hats, and more of the same shiny hats were in a row on two window ledges.
         I took to my shoeshine stand, where already the first customer was waiting. I shined the shoes of four Senators, eight Congressmen, two or three majors, and two pairs of knee-high boots of the same kind Lincoln wore. It was my banner day as a shoeshine boy. Most of them handed me the regular nickel pay. Some gave me a dine and two whose breath told me they could have been at the Union Hotel bar dropped a quarter into the hand I held out. For the first time I earned $1.40 in one day.
         In the barbershop on Saturday I was here, there, and everywhere. Next to the shop was a bathroom with eight tubs and partitions between, twenty-five cents for a bath. For those who asked it I would get a tub of hot water ready. There were two or three regulars who would call me in to scrub their backs with a brush. Nearly always those I gave special help to paid me a quarter.
         The worst mistake I made was one they guyed me about for a long time. The gentlemen had a shave, a haircut, and a shampoo. I gave him a shoe-shine. He looked good for a dime tip, at least a nickel. I swung my whisk broom over his Prinz Albert coat and his pants down to his shoes. Then I took his high silk hat off the hatrack. I began swinging my whisk broom up, down, and around his hat, the first hat of the kind I had ever handled. He had finished paying his bill to Mr. Humphrey when he looked over to where I was. He let out a howl and rushed over yelling, "You can't do that!" I saw at once what he meant; I had been an ignoramous about silk hats. I tried to mumble something about being sorry. I saw the two barbers trying to keep from laughing. Mr. Humphrey came up and I heard him say the only sharp words he ever said to me, ending up with talking natural, "Charlie, you ought to have a soft brush for silk hats or a satin cloth." The customer had snatched his hat out of my hands and held it as though I might of a sudden jump at him and tear the hat away. He handed me a nickel for the shine and walked out as though he certainly would never come back to this place. The next day I had a soft satin cloth on hand and a brush so soft you could hardly feel them running over the palm of your hand.
         Spring came after fall and winter months in the barbershop and doubts had been growing in me that I wasn't cut out for a barber. ... The barbershop had been getting stuffy. I parted from Mr. Humphrey and it wasn't easy to tell him, "You've been fine to me, Mr. Humphrey, but I've got to be leaving. I don't think I'm cut out to be a barber."

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