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Zone Policeman 88 Chapter 7

Zone Policeman 88
By Harry A. Franck
Published 1912
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10


It might be worth the ink to say a word about socialism on the Canal Zone. To begin with, there isn’t any of course. No man would dream of looking for socialism in an undertaking set in motion by the Republican party and kept on the move by the regular army. But there are a number of little points in the management of this private government strip of earth that savors more or less faintly of the Socialist’s program, and the Zone offers perhaps as good a chance as we shall ever have to study some phases of those theories in practice.

Few of us now deny the Socialist’s main criticisms of existing society; most of us question his remedies. Some of us go so far as to feel a sneaking curiosity to see railroads and similar purely public utilities government-owned, just to find how it would work. Down on the Canal Zone they have a sort of modified socialism where one can watch much of this under a Bell jar. There one quickly discovers that a locomotive with the brief and sufficient information “U.S.” on her tender flanks—or more properly the flanks of her tender—gives one a swelling of the chest no other combination of letters could inspire. Thus far, too, theory seems to work well. The service could hardly be better, and recalling that under the old private system the fare for the forty-seven miles across the Isthmus was $25 with a charge of ten cents for every pound of baggage, the $2.40 of today does not seem particularly exorbitant.

The official machinery of this private government strip also seems to run like clockwork. To be sure the wheels even of a clock grind a bit with friction at times, but the clock goes on keeping time for all that. The Canal Zone is the best governed district in the United States. It is worth any American’s time and sea-sickness to run down there, if only to assure himself that Americans really can govern; until he does he will not have a very clear notion of just what good American government means.

But before we go any further be it noted that the socialism of the Canal Zone is under a benevolent despot, an Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent ruler; which is perhaps the one way socialism would work, at least in the present stage of human progress. The three Omnis are combined in an inconspicuous, white-haired American popularly known on the Zone as “the Colonel”—so popularly in fact that an attempt to replace him would probably “start something” among all classes and races of “Zoners.” That he is omnipotent—on the Zone—not many will deny; a few have questioned—and landed in the States a week later much less joyous but far wiser. Omniscient—well they have even Chinese secret-service men on the Isthmus, and soldiers and marines not infrequently go out in civilian clothes under sealed orders; to say nothing of “the Colonel’s private gum-shoe” and probably a lot of other underground sources of information neither you nor I shall ever hear of. But you must get used to spies under socialism, you know, until we all wear one of Saint Peter’s halos. Look at the elaborate system of the Incas, even with their docile and uninitiative subjects. In the matter of Omnipresence; it would be pretty hard to find a hole on the Canal Zone where you could pull off a stunt of any length or importance without the I.C.C. having a weather-eye on you. When it comes to the no less indispensable ingredient of benevolence one glimpse of those mild blue eyes would probably reassure you in that point, even without the pleasure of watching the despot sit in judgment on his subjects in his castle office on Sunday mornings like old Saint Louis under his oak—though with a tin of cigarettes beside him that old Louis had to worry along without.

This all-powerful government insists on and enforces many of the things which Americans as a whole stand for,—Sunday closing, suppression of resorts, forbidding of gambling. But the Zone is no test whether these laws could be genuinely enforced in a whole nation. For down there Panama and Colon serve as a sort of safety-valve, where a man can run down in an hour or so on mileage or monthly pass and blow off steam; get rid of the bad internal vapors that might cause explosion in a ventless society. This we should not lose sight of when we boast that there are few crimes and no real resorts on the Zone. “The Colonel” himself will tell you there is no gambling. Yet it is curious how many of the weekly prizes of the Panama lottery find their way into the pockets of American canal builders, and in any Zone gathering of whatever hour—or sex!—you are almost certain to hear flitting back and forth mysterious whispers of “—have a 6 and a 4 this week.”

The Zone system is work-coupons for all; much as the Socialist would have it. Only the legitimate members of the community—the workers—can live in it—long. You should see the nonchalant way a clerk at the government’s Tivoli hotel charges a tourist a quarter for a cigar the government sells for six cents in its commissaries. Mere money does not rank high in Zone society. It’s the labor-coupon that counts. They sell cigarettes at the Y.M.C.A.; you are in that state where you would give your ticket home for a smoke. Yet when you throw down good gold or silver, black Sam behind the showcase looks up at you with that pitying cold eye kept in stock for new-comers, and says wearily:

“Cahn’t take no money heah, boss.”

That surely is a sort of socialism where a slip of paper showing merely that you have done your appointed task gets you the same meal wherever you may drop in, a total stranger, yet without being identified, without a word from any one, but merely thrusting your coupon-book at the yellow West Indian at the door as you enter that he may snatch out so many minutes of labor. Drop in anywhere there is a vacant bed and you are perfectly at home. There is the shower-bath, the ice-water, the veranda rocker—you knew exactly what was coming to you, just what kind of bed, just what vegetables you would be served at dinner. It reminds one of the Inca system of providing a home for every citizen, and tambos along the way if he must travel.

But it IS the same meal. That is just the point. There is where you begin to furrow your brow and look more closely at this splendid system, and fall to wondering if that public kitchen of socialism would not become in time an awful bore. There are some things in which we want variety and originality and above all personality. A meal is a meal, I suppose, as a cat is a cat; yet there are many subtle little things that make the same things distinctly different. When it comes to dinner you want a rosy fat German or a bulky French madame putting thought and pride and attention into it; which they will do only if they get good coin of the realm or similar material emolument out of it in proportion. No one will ever fancy he has a “mission” to serve good meals—to the public.

In the I.C.C. hotels we have a government steward who draws a good salary and wears a nice white collar. But though he is sometimes a bit different, and succeeds in making his hotel so, it is only in degree. He is not a great frequenter of the dining-room; at times one wonders just what his activities are. Certainly it is not the planning of meals, for the I.C.C. menu is as fixed and automatic as if it had been taken from a stone slab in the pyramids. A poor meal neither turns his hair white nor cuts down his income. Frequently, especially if he is English and certainly if he has been a ship’s steward, the negro waiters seem to run his establishment without interference. Dinner hours, for example, are from 11 to 1. But beware the glare of the waiter at whose table you sit down at 12:50. He slams cold rubbish at you from the discard and snatches it away again before you have time to find you can’t eat it. You have your choice of enduring this maltreatment or of unostentatiously slipping him a coin and a hint to go cook you the best he can himself. For you know that as the closing hour approaches the cooks will not have their private plans interfered with by accepting your order. Here again is where the fat German or the French madame is needed—with an ox-goad.

In other words the tip system invented by Pharaoh and vitiated by quick-rich Americans rages as fiercely in government hotels on the Zone as in any “lobster palace” bordering Broadway—worse, for here the non-tipper has no living being to advocate his cause. All food is government property. Yet I have sat down opposite a man who gave the government at the door a work-coupon identical with mine, but who furthermore dropped into the waiter’s hand “35 cents spig”—which is half as bad as to do it in U.S. currency—and while I was gazing tearfully at a misshapen lump of vacunal gristle there was set before him, steaming hot from the government kitchen, a porterhouse steak which a dollar bill would not have brought him within scenting distance of in New York. Do not blame the waiter. If he does not slip an occasional coin to the cook he will invariably draw the gristle, and even occasional coins do not grow on his waist band. It would be as absurd to charge it to the cook. He probably has a large family to support, as he would have under socialism. There runs this story on the Zone, vouched for by several:

A “Zoner” called an I.C.C. steward and complained that his waiter did not serve him reasonably:

“Well,” sneered the steward, “I guess you didn’t come across?”

“Come across! Why, damn you, I suppose you’re getting your rake-off too?”

“I certainly am,” replied the steward; “What do you think I’m down here for, me health?”

Surely we can’t blame it all to the steward, or to any other individual. Lay it rather to human nature, that stumbling-block of so many varnished and upholstered systems.

I hope I am not giving the impression that I.C.C. hotels are unendurable. “Stay home”—which on the Zone means always eat at the same hotel table—subsidize your waiter and you do moderately well. But to move thither and yon, as any plain-clothes man must, is unfortunate. The only difference then is that the next is worse than the last. Whatever their convictions upon arrival, almost all Americans have come down to paying their waiter the regular blackmail of a dollar a month and setting it down as one of the unavoidable evils of life. One or two I knew who insisted on sticking to “principles,” and they grew leaner and lanker day by day.

Because of these things many an American employee will be found eating in private restaurants of the ubiquitous Chinaman or the occasional Spaniard, though here he must often pay in cash instead of in futures on his labor—which are so much cheaper the world over. It is sad enough to dine on the same old identical round for months. But how if you were one of those who blew in on the heels of the last Frenchman and have been eating it ever since? By this time even rat-tails would be a welcome change—and with genuine socialism there would not even be that escape. It is said to be this hotel problem as much as the perpetual spring-time of the Zone that so frequently reduces—with the open connivance of the government—a building housing forty-eight quiet, harmless bachelors to a four-family residence housing eight and gradually upwards; that wreaks such matrimonious havoc among the white-frocked stenographers who come down to type and remain to cook.

Besides the hotel there is the P.R.R. commissary, the government department stores. It is likewise laundry, bakery, ice-factory; it makes ice-cream, roasts coffee, sends out refrigerator-cars and a morning supply train to bring your orders right to your door—oh, yes, it strongly resembles what Bellamy dreamed years ago. Only, as in the case of the hotel, there seems to be a fly or two in the amber.

The laundry is tolerable—fancy turning your soiled linen over to a railroad company—all machine done of course, as everything would be under socialism, and no come-back for the garment that is not hardy enough of constitution to stand the system. In the stores is little or no shoddy material; in general the stock is the best available. If a biscuit or a bolt of khaki is better made in England than in the United States the commissary stocks with English goods, which is unexpected broad-mindedness for government management. But while prices are lower than in Panama or Colon they are every whit as high as in American stores; and most of us know something of the exorbitant profit our private merchants exact, particularly on manufactured goods. The government claims to run the commissary only to cover cost. Either that is a crude government joke or there is a colored gentleman esconced in the coal-bin. Moreover if the commissary hasn’t the stuff you want you had better give up wanting, for it has no object in laying in a supply of it just to oblige customers. Its clerks work in the most languid, unexcited manner. They have no object whatever in holding your trade, and you can wait until they are quite ready to serve you, or go home without. True, most of them are merely negroes, and the few Americans at the head of departments are chiefly provincial little fellows from small towns whose notions of business are rather those of Podunk, Mass., than of New York. But lolling about the commissary a half-hour hoping to buy a box of matches, one cannot shake off the conviction that it is the system more than the clerks. Poets and novelists and politicians may work for “glory,” but no man is going to show calico and fit slippers for such remuneration.

Nor are all the old evils of the competitive method banished from the Zone. In the Canal Record, the government organ, the government commissary advertised a sale of excellent $7 rain-coats at $1 each. The “Record”! It is like reading it in the Bible. Witness the rush of bargain hunters, who, it proves, are by no means of one gender. Yet those splendid rain-coats, as manager, clerks, and even negro sweepers well knew and could not refrain from snickering to themselves at thought of, were just as rain-proof as a poor grade of cheese-cloth. I do not speak from hear-say for I was numbered among the bargain hunters—”recruits” are the natural victims, and there arrive enough of them each year to get rid of worthless stock. Ten minutes after making the purchase I set out to walk to Corozal through the first mild shower of the rainy season—and arrived there I went and laid the bargain gently in the waste-basket of Corozal police station.

Thus does the government sink to the petty rascalities of shop-keepers. Even a government manager on a fixed salary—in work-coupons—will descend to these tricks of the trade to keep out of the clutches of the auditor, or to make a “good record.” The socialist’s answer perhaps would be that under their system government factories would make only perfect goods. But won’t the factory superintendent also be anxious to make a “record”? And even government stock will deteriorate on the shelves.

All small things, to be sure; but it is the sum of small things that make up that great complex thing—Life. Few of us would object to living in that ideal dream world. But could it ever be? I have anxiously asked this question and hinted at these little weaknesses suggested by Zone experiences to several Zone socialists—who are not hard to find. They merely answer that these things have nothing to do with the case. But not one of them ever went so far as to demonstrate; and though I was born a long way north of Missouri I once passed through a corner of the state.

As to the other side of the ledger,—equal pay for all, nowhere is man further from socialism than on the Canal Zone. Caste lines are as sharply drawn as in India, which should not be unexpected in an enterprise largely in charge of graduates of our chief training-school for caste. The Brahmins are the “gold” employees, white American citizens with all the advantages and privileges thereto appertaining. But—and herein we out-Hindu the Hindus—the Brahmin caste itself is divided and subdivided into infinitesimal gradations. Every rank and shade of man has a different salary, and exactly in accordance with that salary is he housed, furnished, and treated down to the least item,—number of electric lights, candle-power, style of bed, size of bookcase. His Brahmin highness, “the Colonel,” has a palace, relatively, and all that goes with it. The high priests, the members of the Isthmian Canal Commission, have less regal palaces. Heads of the big departments have merely palatial residences. Bosses live in well-furnished dwellings, conductors are assigned a furnished house—or quarter of a house. Policemen, artisans, and the common garden variety of bachelors have a good place to sleep. It is doubtful, to be sure, whether one-fourth of the “Zoners” of any class ever lived as well before or since. The shovelman’s wife who gives five-o’clock teas and keeps two servants will find life different when the canal is opened and she moves back to the smoky little factory cottage and learns again to do her own washing.

At work, “on the job” there is a genuine American freedom of wear-what-you-please and a general habit of going where you choose in working clothes. That is one of the incomprehensible Zone things to the little veneered Panamanian. He cannot rid himself of his racial conviction that a man in an old khaki jacket who is building a canal must be of inferior clay to a hotel loafer in a frock coat and a tall hat. The real “Spig” could never do any real work for fear of soiling his clothes. He cannot get used to the plain, brusk American type without embroidery, who just does things in his blunt, efficient way without wasting time on little exterior courtesies. None of these childish countries is man enough to see through the rough surface. Even with seven years of American example about him the Panamanian has not yet grasped the divinity of labor. Perhaps he will eons hence when he has grown nearer true civilization.

But among Americans off the job reminiscences of East India flock in again. D, who is a quartermaster at $225, may be on “How-are-you-old-man?” terms with G, who is a station agent and draws $175. But Mrs. D never thinks of calling on Mrs. G socially. H and J, who are engineer and cranemen respectively on the same steam-shovel, are probably “Hank” and “Jim” to each other, but Mrs. H would be horrified to find herself at the same dance with Mrs. J. Mrs. X, whose husband is a foreman at $165, and whose dining table is a full six inches longer and whose ice-box will hold one more cold-storage chicken, would not think of sitting in at bridge with Mrs. Y, whose husband gets $150. As for being black, or any tint but pure “white”! Even an Englishman, though he may eat in the same hotel if his skin is not too tanned, is accepted on staring suffrance. As for the man whose skin is a bit dull, he might sit on the steps of an I. C. C. hotel with dollars dribbling out of his pockets until he starved to death—and he would be duly buried in the particular grave to which his color entitled him. A real American place is the Zone, with outward democracy and inward caste, an unenthusiastic and afraid-to-break-the-conventions place in play, and the opposite at work.

Yet with it all it is a good place in which to live. There you have always summer, jungled hills to look on by day and moonlight, and to roam in on Sunday—unless you are a policeman seven days a week. It is possible that perpetual summer would soon breed quite a different type of American. The Isthmus is nearly always in boyish—or girlish—good temper. Zone women and girls are noted for plump figures and care-free faces. And there is a contentment that is more than climatic. There are no hard times on the Zone, no hurried, worried faces, no famished, wolfish eyes. The “Zoner” has his little troubles of course,—the servant problem, for instance, for the Jamaican housemaid is a thorn in any side. Now and then we hear some one wailing, “Oh, it gets so—tiresome! Everybody’s shoveling dirt or talking about the other fellow.” But he knows it isn’t strictly true when he says it and that he is kicking chiefly to keep in practice. Every one is free from worries as to job, pay, house, provisions, and even hospital fees, and the smoothness of it all, perhaps, gets on his nerves at times. I question whether “the Colonel” himself loses much sleep when a chunk of the hill that bears up his residence lets go and pitches into the canal. It sets one to musing at times whether the rock-bound system of the Incas was not best after all,—a place for every man and every man in his place, each his allotted work, which he was fully able to do and getting Hail Columbia if he failed to do it.

Which brings up the question of results in labor under the pseudo-socialist Zone system. Most American employees work steadily and take their work seriously. It is as if each were individually proud of being one of the chosen people and builders of the greatest work of modern times. Yet the far-famed “American rush” is not especially prevalent. The Zone point of view seems to be that no shoveling is so important, even that of digging a ditch half the ships of the world are waiting to cross, that a man should bring upon himself a premature funeral. The common laborers, non-Americans, almost dawdle. There are no contractor’s Irish straw-bosses to keep them on the move. The answer to the Socialist’s scheme of having the government run all big building enterprises is to go out and watch any city street gang for an hour.

The bringing together into close contact of Americans from every section of our broad land is tending to make a new amalgamated type. Even New Englanders grow almost human here among their broader-minded fellow-countrymen. Any northerner can say “nigger” as glibly as a Carolinian, and growl if one of them steps on his shadow. It is not easy to say just how much effect all this will have when the canal is done and this handful of amalgamated and humanized Americans is sprinkled back over all the States as a leaven to the whole. They tell on the Zone of a man from Maine who sat four high-school years on the same bench with two negro boys, and returning home after three years on the Isthmus was so horrified to find one of those boys an alderman that he packed his traps and moved to Alabama, “where a nigger IS a nigger”—and if there isn’t the “makings” of a story in that I ‘ll leave it to the postmaster of Miraflores.