Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 2

Miss Momsen

When I told Mac that I had begun hiring my staff, he replied,

"Ok, son. What disguise are you going to adopt for yourself and your people?"

"Most of the agents will move from job to job before they get found out. For myself, I'll travel with a couple of accountants. They may uncover some things, and I'll supervise them. However, I want most people to think of me as an official of a rather fussy kind who'll quibble over trivial amounts, but who doesn't really pose any great threat to anyone."

"There's much more to you than that, Jimmy, but it takes an observant person to see it. You can pass as a bureaucrat."

"I hope so. I thought we'd occupy two converted sleeping cars, a dining car, and a baggage car. We can couple them on to the end of any freight without adding critically to its tonnage and go anywhere we want."

"In winter you'll freeze your asses off. Freight trains aren't fitted with hoses to provide steam heat."

"I know. I plan to have a small boiler fitted to the baggage car."

Mac laughed and replied,

"You'll have the only baggage car in the country with a smoke stack. Spies aren't supposed to be conspicuous, but I guess it can't be helped."

Mac soon departed on a trip to see to the setting up of our new national headquarters in Indiana. Temporarily taking back command in Scranton, I was able to relax. Once, emerging from a shop into the late sunshine of an early winter day, I was suddenly struck by the scene I had come hardly to notice over the years.

Scranton was a pleasant place, and the business street on which I stood was lined on both sides with modest well- proportioned buildings of brick and stone. None of the signs were garish, and, because of the depression, there were relatively few cars on the street. Only the trolley car moving jerkily and noisily away from me suggested any urgency.

The people on the sidewalks, most of them well-dressed, moved purposefully along the store-fronts and across the intersections. It was possible to believe that the great majority of them were useful and responsible citizens, carrying out their various undertakings in an exemplary fashion. I had been one of those people for a good part of my life, and I was gratified when the corner newsboy ran up with the afternoon paper, calling,

"Here's your paper, Mr. Witt."

His manner was exactly what it had always been. Then, right behind me, I heard a crisp,

"Good afternoon, Mr. Witt."

It was a lady of my acquaintance, and, while her tone wasn't quite what it had once been, I knew that she was the sort of lady who, on principle, would continue to greet any person who had done her no personal harm. I replied quickly and tipped my hat. She smiled in response as she passed on.

It might be said that Scranton was a hat-tipping town. Gentlemen who might otherwise have wished to go bare-headed in warm weather still wore hats so that they could tip them to ladies. It was thought pretentious and too much in the gaudy tradition of Sir Walter Raleigh to sweep off one's hat and bow low at the approach of a lady. Instead, the right thing was a little tap to the underside of the brim, with two fingers held stiff. It was often accentuated with a slight nod and just the suggestion of a bow. The whole display expressed respect and the kind of friendliness that was irreproachable. I knew that I was headed for places where men wouldn't tip their hats. It was unfortunate that there were such places, but, on reflection, I decided that it wasn't a matter of the first importance.

After dining alone at a restaurant, I returned to the hotel which adjoined our headquarters and belonged to us. Before separating from my wife, it was a place I seldom had reason to enter. Since taking up residence there, I had come to know the desk clerks and feel comfortable in a sort of environment which was, in fact, quite new to me.

On this occasion, I waved to the clerk, busy behind the desk, and began to cross the lobby. I was there accosted by a man who might have been no older than myself, but who had obviously been living off the land for some time. I was morally certain that he was about to ask me for money, but, before he could do so, the clerk jumped up and yelled,

"Hey you, no begging in here!"

Like lightning, the man pulled some papers out of his pocket and thrust them at me. I did just make out that they were religious tracts before the clerk, who had come running up, grabbed the man. Even before the latter, who had some difficulty speaking clearly, could argue his privileged status as an urban missionary, the clerk was marching him out with the words,

"We don't want no religion in here neither."

Having ejected the intruder, the clerk spoke to me,

"I'm sorry, Mr. Witt. They'll try anything nowadays."

"Ah yes. There are so many of them now."

As I climbed the stairs, I was conscious that I was no longer living in the inner regions of the respectable world. It was only when one was out at the fringes that one realized how zealously the gateways were guarded.

In the mood of asceticism which I had chosen to clothe my feelings, I had taken one of the most modest rooms, one which contained only a bed, a bureau, and a desk. The desk faced the only window. From the window I could just see my former home, resplendent on top of a hill on the other side of the valley.

After making myself a cup of tea on the hot-plate, I put it down on the desk and set to work with a ruler, paper, and pencil. I had it in mind to design my new home. I decided first to occupy a converted observation car, and to couple it just behind the dining car. I could eat with the accountants whenever I felt like it, but I could also plead work or irregular hours and have my stewards serve me in a small dining room in my own car.

The Lackawanna already possessed a couple of observation cars with a corridor on one side and bedrooms on the other, and also a small lounge at the front. I would take the back bedroom, with a window opening out on to the observation platform, and knock down the forward partition to the next bedroom, thus enlarging it. A nice bathroom would replace the third bedroom from the end, and the fourth would be left as a guest room. The other bedrooms would be eliminated to form a large lounge, and the original lounge would be the dining room.

After working for a while, I produced a plan which seemed satisfactory:

railroad car plan

The front end of the car would be a little cramped, and the dining room table would be small. But it was a good thing that the part of the car most likely to be glimpsed by passing railwaymen would have a crowded and cluttered look. I would also avoid having the exterior of the cars painted or tricked out in any way, letting them gradually come to look like part of a work train. Behind this unprepossessing appearance, in the intimacy of my own quarters, I would provide myself with every comfort.

The next morning, using a telephone in the lobby, I called the rolling stock superintendent. The DL&W, in the process of being taken over, was still running trains, and the workshops were still staffed. As it happened, one of the observation cars was in the coach yard. I had it pulled into one of the workshops immediately, and, as soon as I got to the office, I sent one of the boys over with my plan. Being busy for the rest of the day, it wasn't until the next day that I thought about the furnishings for my new car.

There was only one department store in Scranton which had escaped bankruptcy. I went there in the early afternoon and stated my business to the first clerk I met. She, a middle-aged lady who seemed unnecessarily exhuberant, exclaimed,

"I'll take you right back to our Miss Momsen. She's our interior decorator, you know."

I was then led toward the rear of the store at a breakneck clip. I did think of escaping. It seemed likely that "our Miss Momsen" would be rather like the lady who had captured me, breathless because her corset was too tight, but with sufficient forcefulness to sell me whatever I needed, and then some. My car would end up full of overstuffed chairs, chintz curtains, and a parrot who greeted me politely each morning in a way which would, in time, become obscene.

Miss Momsen turned out to be something altogether different. When she rose to meet me, I realized that she was at least as tall as I, even without her high heels. Since I am six feet, I wasn't used to looking up to women. Not only that, she seemed the very expression of youthful power, so much so that she seemed caged in her little office. While quite slim, her shoulders were unusually broad and her long narrow hands and fingers looked strong enough to crack walnuts.

I noticed these things before I noticed that she was, on almost any standard, very good-looking. That is, she had bright blonde hair, deep-set blue eyes, and regular features which tended to be rather sharp. She looked a little dangerous, beautiful in a way in which a Viking marauder might have been beautiful.

To my relief, Miss Momsen was delighted to see me. I realized later that she would have been delighted with any customer, not excluding Attila the Hun. Decorators in struggling department stores were paid next to nothing, and ones with little to decorate were unlikely to prosper on their commissions.

I managed to pull myself together enough to state the facts. Miss Momsen allowed that she had never decorated a railway car, but would love to have the chance. When I told her that the car was already being worked on, she replied,

"Perhaps I could go and see it now, before they've done too much. If you're busy, I'm sure I could manage on my own."

I, of course, announced that I would be delighted to conduct her hence in my automobile.

The car was parked a little distance away, and, as we walked to it, everyone looked at us. Miss Momsen, full of vivacious gestures and unconstrained movements, seemed hardly aware of the attention that she was getting. I felt uncomfortable at first, but then much better. It was unlikely that anyone seeing us would guess our real connection, and, consequently, everyone would assume that I knew her better than I did. Any sort of perceived association between us could only confer credit upon me.

When we arrived at the workshop, Miss Momsen allowed me to take her elbow as she stepped carefully over rails and equipment, and then ascended the steps to the car. The workmen all stopped to look at her, and, since they, too, had no idea who she was, I continued to bask in a certain amount of undeserved glory.

When Miss Momsen went through the vestibule into the car, I heard her catch her breath. With debris and dust everywhere, it did appear to be a disaster. Most of the partitions had been torn down, and the bare steel of the car body was exposed in many places. Her first suggestion was that we panel the whole car in a blonde wood.

"It won't be as elegant and impressive as dark panelling, but, if you're going to actually live here, it'll be much more pleasant."

I considered that my days of impressing people were over. Only Mac Garner mattered, and I doubted that he had any aversion to yellow pine. Miss Momsen looked at me winningly. She must have known about me along with everyone else, but, if she pitied me, she didn't show it. I accepted her suggestion on the spot.

Men who are used to fitting main rods and heavy springs to locomotives aren't necessarily cabinet makers, but my companion found an old Swede who said he could do the job. She was looking very Scandinavian herself, and an accord sprang up quickly between them.

We next consulted my plan, and put to good use a tape measure which Miss Momsen produced out of her purse. When we marked out the new partitions with a piece of chalk she had also brought, she stopped and considered.

"It'd be nice to have another two feet for the bathroom. We can take it away from the lounge, which is too long for its width as it stands. It wouldn't be cozy."

Miss Momsen looked at me again, her face lit with earnestness and good humor. God knew, I wanted coziness at all costs. Since no partitions had yet been put in, there was no difficulty in altering the plan.

We ended our survey by standing on the observation platform. It was an unusually deep one, and Miss Momsen was delighted with it.

"We won't change a thing here. We'll just paint it and provide some furniture. How about a deck chair, and a little table and padded straight chair? Then, you can either work or relax out here."

As I assented, some workmen came by, rather slowly, and looked up at us. My companion waved gaily to them, and they waved back.

Passing back through the car, I admitted that my secret sin was boxing, and that I wished to have a heavy punching bag hung in the guest room. On the infrequent occasions when I had a guest, it could be taken down and a bed folded out from the wall. Miss Momsen seemed not at all shocked by this disclosure, and declared herself an admirer of Jack Dempsey.

Back at the store, my guide made it clear that there was no furniture in stock which she would want to place in my car. She could, however, order all sorts of wonderful things. She said of one catalogue,

"They have lovely modernistic things in here. For instance, they've got chairs and love seats with steel and curved chrome, just right for a railway car. They're quite comfortable to sit in, and they come upholstered with bright vivid colors. They're cute and cozy and not at all stodgy."

Again, it was difficult to interpret. Did she think I was in danger of being stodgy? Or did she think that I badly needed to be cheered up, a task that could be accomplished only by the most radical of modern furnishings? Or, rather less likely, did she think that I was already cute and cozy and not at all stodgy? Whatever she thought, no one could have refused her.

The upshot was that we went through the catalogue together and ordered everything that was most fun and most modern. As we did so, I caught a different look from Miss Momsen, a Viking look. I also noticed that, in every case, we ordered the most expensive object available. Was she a commercial Viking?

On reflection, I realized that, had she been truly mercenary, she could have attracted and married a very rich man. There was no question of that. But it was still the depression, and any sane woman would maximize her commercial opportunities. Miss Momsen had a healthy sense of self preservation, and no wise person would threaten it. The net result was that my new home would be very bright and attractive.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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