Visitors (1928)

Visitors (1928)

To the hard worker in a great modern city the problem of the casual visitor is baffling. No one needs visitors more than he: he needs the enlivening and quickening contact with the world outside the office. He needs to keep human and to resist the mechanical trend of his city routine. He needs the knowledge that comes by word of mouth to correct and make real the printed page.

On the other hand, if visitors want to greet a man, it is because he has done something—has thought, written, acted, inspired. And if a man is going to do anything today in New York, on Fifth Avenue, in a modern office, he must have periods of quiet, intensive, uninterrupted work.

Here comes the Visitor. He knows and appreciates what the Worker is doing. He wants to see him, to know him, to tell him. The Worker needs to be told. He works in a strange unmeaning silence. His voice has no echoes. No one seems to listen. No one cares—What’s the use? And then—in bursts the Visitor with outstretched hand and shining eves and joy and laughter in his voice! The world lives and moves again.

But—both Visitor and Worker must have some modicum of common sense. The Visitor blows in town on holiday. He sleeps well, eats heartily and at eleven A.M. says gaily: “Now for The Crisis office!” But pause, friend. Why not just go to the ’phone and say: “I’m in town. Want to see you. When are you free?” And the editor responds: “Could you come at 2? Good!” All is well. Both are happy. Both are helped.

But if the Editor is not asked and you burst in on his poised pen; if you interrupt a carefully arranged morning or a happy thought surging to be born —if you do this for no other reason but that you are too lazy to arrange a mutually convenient time—well, the Editor may be unhappy. He may think that his convenience has a right to be considered as well as yours.

I was sitting in my office with a helper reading the stone-proof of the magazine: last day, last hour. It must be down at 5 or the schedule of a great printing house with 25 magazines to print would be thrown out of kilter, 800 agents would await a late magazine, and 100,000 readers would yell: “C.P.T..” We were working like hell with an hour to finish an hour and a half’s work.—

“Miss Blink and Miss Blank of Seattle, to see the Editor.”

Frankly I am furious. The Misses B. and B. could just as easily have called an hour later or an hour earlier. Three minutes on the telephone could have arranged a delightful visit with two intelligent and educated women whom I needed to see and question and explain. One knew Youth— mysterious, prophetic, eternal Youth. And one knew Art, subtle, intriguing trick of thought—beauty of way and mean. I could learn something of both—but not then and now—for a Ghost with dripping hands hovered above me and I had to finish that proof.

Well—I did not see them. As a result, I lost two good and helpful friends. In vain did I write next day explanation and apology. They were insulted to the last degree. Selah.

I am not altogether blameless. I often discount human facts in comparison with divine thoughts. I cannot jump readily from the understanding mind to the glad hand. And yet, frank and sympathetic comprehension of my problem and of the problem of the Visitor might bring mutual understanding.

The problem has many attempted solutions: sound proof, inner sanctums which leave the public office frankly empty—“Stepped out”; “in conference”; staring printed signs about not being at home except at such and such hours; secret bells, like Bismark’s to summon oneself to mythical appointments; or alibis like that of a friend of mine. I used to find him easily ensconsed in his office with smiles and open door. The public was cordially welcome, whether on business or without—crank, book agent or prophet, for a few minutes or a few hours.

“How do you do it?” I gasped, aghast.

“Just waste the day,” he grinned. “Go home to dinner; take a nap, and work from Midnight to 4A.M.!”

“H’m!” I remarked. Two years later he had a stroke of paralysis.

I have a colleague across the way. I have seen him stagger out of his office at noon with death in his eye— Death of a Big Job—murder of a fine idea. Some friend had dropped in “just for a minute” and staid an hour!

And so, let’s get together on this thing. I want to see you, Visitor, I really do. But can’t we compromise on the hour, if not the day? I’ll go half way—honest, I will.

Never mind Me, but respect my Work. My Work is cold, calm, relentless. It will be done now or never. It is merciless. It glares at me cruel- kind, malignant-gracious:

“Tuesday’s Work undone? Good! Here’s Wednesday’s!”

I shriek in vain, wring my hands— “But Tuesday?”

The Work answers, very softly and smooth:

“There is no Tuesday. Tuesday is dead. Dead forever and forever. And Monday and last week and year 1927.”

“But Tuesday’s work is not done,” I wail, and it echoes:

“It shall never be done. Here is Today and Wednesday and this year. They are yours. Work or die.”

Sometimes I seek to fool my Master, Work. I enter stealthily Wednesday, lugging Tuesday’s undone task beneath my vest. He says no word. His face is grey and grim. I know I can never deceive my Master.

And yet often, when the finished Deed stands sleek before me, clothed like a Book, an Editorial, a Speech, a Letter,—I sigh and say:

“I have bought you with my Friends—and I have but few left.” Not me, not me, Lord Visitor, craves your thoughtful sympathy and co-operation, but the Master.

If we cajole him and seek to do his will, he may nod uneasily and sleep, snore and dream! Ah, when my Work dreams, that is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory of my friends. Then we will smoke and eat and carouse and make love and play. He will awake to find us more than ready and wild with waiting.

Happy are the workless and the Idle, who can just enjoy and need not think! But I, (woe is me!) I am the grandson of a Seventh Son, born with a Veil. From all Eternity I am sentenced to toil—and to love it.

Citation: Du Bois, W.E.B. 1928. “Visitors.” The Crisis. 35(7):239–240.