THE VOICE OF THE CITY
by O. Henry
Twenty-five years ago the school children used to
chant their lessons. The manner of their delivery
was a sing-song recitative between the utterance of
an Episcopal minister and the drone of a tired
sawmill. I mean no disrespect. We must have lumber
I remember one beautiful and instructive little lyric
that emanated from the physiology class. The most
striking line of it was this:
"The shin-bone is the long-est bone in the hu-man
What an inestimable boon it would have been if all
the corporeal and spiritual facts pertaining to man
had thus been tunefully and logically inculcated in
our youthful minds! But what we gained in anatomy,
music and philosophy was meagre.
The other day I became confused. I needed a ray of
light. I turned back to those school days for aid.
But in all the nasal harmonies we whined forth from
those hard benches I could not recall one that
treated of the voice of agglomerated mankind.
In other words, of the composite vocal message of
In other words, of the voice of a big city.
Now, the individual voice is not lacking. We can
understand the song of the poet, the ripple of the
brook, the meaning of the man who wants $5 until
next Monday, the inscriptions on the tombs of the
Pharaohs, the language of flowers, the "step lively"
of the conductor, and the prelude of the milk cans
at 4 A. M. Certain large-eared ones even assert that
they are wise to the vibrations of the tympanum
produced by concussion of the air emanating from
Mr. H. James. But who can comprehend the meaning
of the voice of the city?
I went out for to see.
First, I asked Aurelia. She wore white--er--Swiss
and a hat with corn flowers on it, and ribbons and
ends of things fluttered here and there.
"Tell me," I said, stammeringly, for I have no voice of
my own, "what does this big--er--enormous--er--whopping
city say? It must have a voice of some kind. Does it
ever speak to you? How do you interpret its meaning?
It is a tremendous mass, but it must have a key."
"Like a Saratoga trunk?" asked Aurelia.
"No," said I. "Please do not refer to the lid. I have
a fancy that every city has a voice. Each one has
something to say to the one who can hear it. What
does the big one say to you?"
"All cities," said Aurelia, judicially, "say the same
thing. When they get through saying it there is an
echo from Philadelphia. So, they are unanimous."
"Here are 4,000,000 people," said I, scholastically,
"compressed upon an island, which is mostly land
surrounded by Wall Street water. The conjunction
of so many units into so small a space must result
in an identity--or, or rather a homogeneity--that
finds its oral expression through a common channel.
It is, as you might say, a consensus of translation,
concentrating in a crystallized, general idea which
reveals itself in what may be termed the Voice of
the City. Can you tell me what it is?"
Aurelia smiled wonderfully. She sat on the high stoop.
A spray of insolent ivy bobbed against her right ear.
A ray of impudent moonlight flickered upon her nose.
But I was adamant, nickel-plated.
"I must go and find out," I said, "what is the Voice
of this City. Other cities have voices. It is an
assignment. I must have it. New York," I continued,
in a rising tone, "had better not hand me a cigar
and say: 'Old man, I can't talk for publication.' No
other city acts in that way. Chicago says, unhesitatingly,
'I will;' Philadelphia says, 'I should;' New Orleans
says, 'I used to;' Louisville says, 'Don't care if I
do;' St. Louis says, 'Excuse me;' Pittsburg says,
'Smoke up.' Mattawaumkeag says, 'I swan.' Now,
"Very well," said I, "I must go elsewhere and find
I went into a palace, tile-floored, cherub-ceilinged,
and square with the cop. I put my foot on the brass
rail and said to Billy Magnus, the best bartender
in the diocese:
"Billy, you've lived in New York a long time--what
kind of a song-and-dance does this old town give
you? What I mean is, doesn't the gab of it seem to
kind of bunch up and slide over the bar to you in
a sort of amalgamated tip that hits off the burg
in a kind of an epigram with a dash of bitters and
a slice of--"
"Excuse me a minute," said Billy, "somebody's punching
the button at the side door."
He went away; came back with an empty tin bucket;
again vanished with it full; returned and said to me:
"That was Mame. She rings twice. She likes a glass
of beer for supper. Her and the kid. If you ever saw
that little skeesicks of mine brace up in his high
chair and take his beer and-- But, say, what was
yours? I get kind of excited when I hear them two
rings--was it the baseball score or gin fizz you
"Ginger ale," I answered.
I walked up to Broadway. I saw a cop on the corner.
The cops take kids up, women across, and men in. I
went up to him.
"If I'm not exceeding the spiel limit," I said, "let
me ask you. You see New York during its oblative hours.
It is the function of you and your brother cops to
preserve the acoustics of the city. There must be a
civic voice that is intelligible to you. At night
during your lonely rounds you must have heard it.
What is the epitome of its turmoil and shouting?
What does the city say to you?"
"Friend," said the policeman, spinning his club, "it
don't say nothing. I get my orders from the man higher
up. Say, I guess you're all right. Stand here for a
few minutes and keep an eye open for the roundsman."
The cop melted into the darkness of the side street.
In ten minutes he had returned.
"Married last Tuesday," he said, half gruffly. "You
know how they are. She comes to that corner at 9
every night for a--comes to say 'hello!' I generally
manage to be there. Say, what was it you asked me a bit
ago--what's doing in the city? Oh, there's a roof-garden
or two just opened, twelve blocks up."
I crossed a crow's-foot of street-car tracks, and skirted
the edge of an umbrageous park. An artificial Diana,
gilded, tortuous, heroic, poised, wind-ruled, on the
tower, shimmered in the clear light of her namesake in
the sky. Along came my poet, hurrying, hatted, haired,
emitting dactyls, spondees and la trefle. I seized him.
"Bill," said I (in the magazine he is Cleon), "give me
a lift. I am on an assignment to find out the Voice of
the City. You see, it's a special order. Ordinarily a
symposium comprising the views of Henry Clews, John L.
Sullivan, Edwin Markham, May Irwin and Charles Schwab
would be about all. But this is a different matter. We
want a broad, poetic, mystic vocalization of the city's
soul and meaning. You are the very chap to give me a
hint. Some years ago a man got at the Niagara Falls
and gave us its pitch. The note was about two feet
below the lowest G on the piano. Now, you can't put
New York into a note unless it's better indorsed than
that. But give me an idea of what it would say if it
should speak. It is bound to be a mighty and far-reaching
utterance. To arrive at it we must take the tremendous
crash of the chords of the day's traffic, the laughter
and music of the night, the solemn tones of Dr. Parkhurst,
the rag-time, the weeping, the stealthy hum of cab-wheels,
the shout of the press agent, the tinkle of fountains
on the roof gardens, the hullabaloo of the strawberry
vender and the covers of Everybody's Magazine, the
whispers of the lovers in the parks--all these sounds
must go into your Voice--not combined, but mixed, and
of the mixture an essence made; and of the essence an
extract--an audible extract, of which one drop shall
form the thing we seek."
"Do you remember," asked the poet, with a chuckle, "that
California girl we met at Stiver's studio last week? Well,
I'm on my way to see her. She repeated that poem of mine,
'The Tribute of Spring,' word for word. She's the smartest
proposition in this town just at present. Say, how does
this confounded tie look? I spoiled four before I got one
to set right."
"And the Voice that I asked you about?" I inquired.
"Oh, she doesn't sing," said Cleon. "But you ought to
hear her recite my 'Angel of the Inshore Wind.'"
I passed on. I cornered a newsboy and he flashed at me
prophetic pink papers that outstripped the news by two
revolutions of the clock's longest hand.
"Son," I said, while I pretended to chase coins in my
penny pocket, "doesn't it sometimes seem to you as if
the city ought to be able to talk? All these ups and
downs and funny business and queer things happening
every day--what would it say, do you think, if it could
"Quit yer kiddin'," said the boy. "Wot paper yer want? I
got no time to waste. It's Mag's birthday, and I want
thirty cents to git her a present."
Here was no interpreter of the city's mouthpiece. I
bought a paper, and consigned its undeclared treaties,
its premeditated murders and unfought battles to an
Again I repaired to the park and sat in the moon shade.
I thought and thought, and wondered why none could tell
me what I asked for.
And then, as swift as light from a fixed star, the answer
came to me. I arose and hurried--hurried as so many reasoners
must, back around my circle. I knew the answer and I hugged
it in my breast as I flew, fearing lest someone would stop
me and demand my secret.
Aurelia was still on the stoop. The moon was higher and
the ivy shadows were deeper. I took her hands and we
watched a little cloud tilt at the drifting moon and go
asunder, quite pale and discomfited.
After half an hour Aurelia said, with that smile of hers:
"Do you know, you haven't spoken a word since you came
"That," said I, nodding wisely, "is the Voice of the
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~