Mulberry Street, New York, 1900. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.
Surprisingly little information Sewell Ford (1868 – 1946) seems to be available today, but his wonderfully vivacious and hilarious stories speak for themselves – and are as fresh now as when they were written. Ford was born in South Levant, Maine, the son of a postman and later procurement clerk, whose early ambition was to be a smuggler. Later, he studied Latin and became a reporter and editor on papers in Baltimore, Boston and New York, before retiring to become a painter. He also wrote several successful Hollywood scripts in the 1930s, knew Mark Twain and published about 20 books of short stories centred on the characters of Torchy and ‘Professor’ Shorty McCabe.
His world of preppy dandies, penniless bon viveurs, musicians, artists and various wheelers and dealers in turn of the 20th century New York intersects interestingly with that created by Wodehouse (twenty years his junior) in books like Psmith Journalist, or in Bertie Wooster’s trips to New York to escape the clutches of fearsome Aunt Agatha, or the adventures of other blundering ‘eggs’, ‘beans’ and ‘crumpets’ who cross the ocean. Echoes of (a rather disenchanted) Shorty can also be discerned in Henry Miller’s portraits of New York bon viveurs twenty or so years later. It is hard to imagine why or how the fluid and spontaneous McCabe stories could have fallen into obscurity – they are certainly worth a read, not just for being sharply drawn, incisive and insightful period and character sketches, but also for their superb farcical wit!
EXTRACT FROM: Sewell Ford 1904 ‘Joy Riding with Aunty’ In Odd Numbers: Being Further Chronicles of Shorty McCabe. Available online at Project Gutenberg.
Now, from all I’d ever seen or heard, I’d always supposed Mr. Craig Mallory to be one of the safety vault crowd. Course, they live at Number 4 West; but that’s near enough to the avenue for one of the old fam’lies. And when you find a man who puts in his time as chairman of regatta committees, and judgin’ hackneys, and actin’ as vice president of a swell club, you’re apt to rate him in the seven figure bunch, at least. Accordin’ to Duke, though, the Mallory income needed as much stretchin’ as the pay of a twenty-dollar clothing clerk tryin’ to live in a thirty-five dollar flat. And this is the burg where you can be as hard up on fifty thousand a year as on five hundred!
The one thing the Mallorys had to look forward to was the time when Aunt Elvira would trade her sealskin sack for a robe of glory and loosen up on her real estate. She was near seventy, Aunty was, and when she first went out to live at the old country place, up beyond Fort George, it was a good half-day’s trip down to 23d-st. But she went right on livin’, and New York kept right on growin’, and now she owns a cow pasture two blocks from a subway station, and raises potatoes on land worth a thousand dollars a front foot.
Bein’ of different tastes and habits, her and Brother Craig never got along together very well, and there was years when each of ’em tried to forget that the other existed. When little Dyckman came, though, the frost was melted. She hadn’t paid any attention to the girls; but a boy was diff’rent. Never havin’ had a son of her own to boss around and brag about, she took it out on Dyke. A nice, pious old lady, Aunt Elvira was; and the mere fact that little Dyke seemed to fancy the taste of a morocco covered New Testament she presented to him on his third birthday settled his future in her mind.
“He shall be a Bishop!” says she, and hints that accordin’ as Dyckman shows progress along that line she intends loadin’ him up with worldly goods.
Up to the age of fifteen, Dyke gives a fair imitation of a Bishop in the bud. He’s a light haired, pleasant spoken youth, who stands well with his Sunday school teacher and repeats passages from the Psalms for Aunt Elvira when she comes down to inflict her annual visit.
But from then on the bulletins wa’n’t so favor’ble. At the diff’rent prep. schools where he was tried out he appeared to be too much of a live one to make much headway with the dead languages. About the only subjects he led his class in was hazing and football and buildin’ bonfires of the school furniture. Being expelled got to be so common with him that towards the last he didn’t stop to unpack his trunk.
Not that these harrowin’ details was passed on to Aunt Elvira. The Mallorys begun by doctorin’ the returns, and they developed into reg’lar experts at the game of representin’ to Aunty what a sainted little fellow Dyke was growin’ to be. The more practice they got, the harder their imaginations was worked; for by the time Dyckman was strugglin’ through his last year at college he’d got to be such a full blown hickey boy that he’d have been spotted for a sport in a blind asylum.
So they had to invent one excuse after another to keep Aunt Elvira from seein’ him, all the while givin’ her tales about how he was soon to break into the divinity school; hoping, of course, that Aunty would get tired of waitin’ and begin to unbelt.
“They overdid it, that’s all,” says Dyke. “Healthy looking Bishop I’d make! What?”
“You ain’t got just the style for a right reverend, that’s a fact,” says I.
Which wa’n’t any wild statement of the case, either. He’s a tall, loose jointed, slope shouldered young gent, with a long, narrow face, gen’rally ornamented by a cigarette; and he has his straw colored hair cut plush. His costume is neat but expensive,—double reefed trousers, wide soled shoes, and a green yodler’s hat with the bow on behind. He talks with the kind of English accent they pick up at New Haven, and when he’s in repose he tries to let on he’s so bored with life that he’s in danger of fallin’ asleep any minute.
Judgin’ from Dyke’s past performances, though, there wa’n’t many somnolent hours in it. But in spite of all the trouble he’d got into, I couldn’t figure him out as anything more’n playful. Course, rough housin’ in rathskellers until they called out the reserves, and turnin’ the fire hose on a vaudeville artist from a box, and runnin’ wild with a captured trolley car wa’n’t what you might call innocent boyishness; but, after all, there wa’n’t anything real vicious about Dyke.
Playful states it. Give him a high powered tourin’ car, with a bunch of eight or nine from the football squad aboard, and he liked to tear around the State of Connecticut burnin’ the midnight gasolene and lullin’ the villagers to sleep with the Boula-Boula song. Perfectly harmless fun—if the highways was kept clear. All the frat crowd said he was a good fellow, and it was a shame to bar him out from takin’ a degree just on account of his layin’ down on a few exams. But that’s what the faculty did, and the folks at home was wild.
Dyke had been back and on the unclassified list for nearly a year now, and the prospects of his breakin’ into the divinity school was growin’ worse every day. He’d jollied Mr. Mallory into lettin’ him have a little two-cylinder roadster, and his only real pleasure in life was when he could load a few old grads on the runnin’ board and go off for a joy ride.
But after the old man had spent the cost of a new machine in police court fines and repairs, even this little diversion was yanked away. The last broken axle had done the business, and the nearest Dyke could come to real enjoyment was when he had the price to charter a pink taxi and inspire the chauffeur with highballs enough so he’d throw her wide open on the way back.
Not bein’ responsible for Dyke, I didn’t mind having him around. I kind of enjoyed the cheerful way he had of tellin’ about the fam’ly boycott on him, and every time I thinks of Aunt Elvira still havin’ him framed up for a comer in the Bishop class, I has to smile.
You see, having gone so far with their fairy tales, the Mallorys never got a chance to hedge; and, accordin’ to Dyke, they was all scared stiff for fear she’d dig up the facts some day, and make a new will leavin’ her rentroll to the foreign missions society.
Maybe it was because I took more or less interest in him, but perhaps it was just because he wanted company and I happened to be handy; anyway, here the other afternoon Dyke comes poundin’ up the stairs two at a time, rushes into the front office, and grabs me by the arm.
“Come on, Shorty!” says he. “Something fruity is on the schedule.”
“Hope it don’t taste like a lemon,” says I. “What’s the grand rush?”
“Aunt Elvira is coming down, and she’s called for me,” says Dyke, grinnin’ wide. “She must suspect something; for she sent word that if I wasn’t on hand this time she’d never come again. What do you think of that?”
“Aunty’s got a treat in store for her, eh?” says I, givin’ Dyke the wink.
“I should gurgle!” says he. “I’m good and tired of this fake Bishop business, and if I don’t jolt the old lady out of that nonsense, I’m a duffer. You can help some, I guess. Come on.”
(to be continued…)