A MIRACLE AT COFFEE JOHN’S

The lad in the sweater yawned with abandon and glanced up at the clock
which hung on the whitewashed wall between a lithograph of Admiral Dewey
and a sign bearing the legend: “Doughnuts and Coffee, 5 cents.”

“I move we proceed,” he said, impatiently. “There’ll be nobody else here
to-night; all the stew-bums have lined up at the bakeries for free
bread. I say, old man, you pull the trigger and we’re off! I’ve got a
two-days’ handicap on my appetite and I won’t do a thing but make an
Asiatic ostrich of myself!”

“I’ll back my stomach against yours,” said the man with spectacles who
sat opposite him. “I’ll bet I could eat a ton of sinkers and a barrel of
this brown paint. I’m for rounding up the grub myself. I’ll be eating
the oil-cloth off this table, pretty soon!”

The proprietor of the dingy little restaurant turned to them from the
counter in front, where he had been arranging a pile of wet plates and
an exhibit of pastry in preparation for the next morning’s breakfasts.
Wiping his hands on his apron, he said with a Cockney accent which
proclaimed his birth, hinted at by his florid countenance and
mutton-chop whiskers, “I sye, gents, if yer don’t want to wyte, yer know
bloomin’ well wot yer _kin_ do, an’ that’s git art! Strike me pink if
yer ain’t gort a gall! Yer a bit comin’ on, gents, if yer don’t mind me
syin’ it. I told yer I’d give yer an A1 feed if yer’d on’y wyte for
another bloke to show up, an’ he ain’t ’ere yet, is ’e? Leastwise, if ’e
is, I don’t see ’im.”

He took off his apron, nevertheless, as if he, too, were anxiously
expectant, and he cast repeated glances at the door, where, painted on
the window in white letters, were the words, “Coffee John’s.” Then he
left the range behind the counter and came across the sanded floor to
the single oil-lamp that lighted the two men who were his last patrons
for the day.

The younger, he with the red sweater, had a round, jocund face and a
merry, rolling eye that misfortune was powerless to tame, though the lad
had evidently discovered Vagabondia.

“Who’s your interesting but mysterious friend?” he asked. “You’re not
expecting a lady, I hope!” and he glanced at his coat which, though it
had the cut of a fashionable tailor, was an atrocious harlequin of spots
and holes.

“I don’t know who’s a comin’ no more’n you do,” Coffee John replied.
“But see ’ere!” and he pointed with a blunt red finger at an insurance
calendar upon the wall. “D’yer cop that there numero? It’s the
Thirteenth of October to-dye, an’ they’ll be comp’ny all right. They
allus is, the Thirteenth of October!”

“Well, you rope him and we’ll brand him,” remarked the other at the
table, a man of some twenty-two years, with a typically Western cast of
countenance, high cheek-bones and an aquiline nose. His eyes were
gray-blue behind rusty steel spectacles. “I hope that stranger will come
pretty durn pronto,” he added.

“There’ll be somethink a-doin’ before nine, I give yer _my_ word. I’ll
eat this ’ere bloomin’ pile o’ plytes if they ain’t!” Coffee John
asserted.

Scarcely had he made the remark when the clock rang out, ending his
sentence like a string of exclamation points, and immediately the door
burst open and a man sprang into the room as though he were a runaway
from Hell.

In his long, thin, white face two black eyes, set near together, burned
with terror. His mouth was open and quivering, his hands were fiercely
clinched. Under a battered Derby hat his stringy black hair and ragged
beard played over his paper collar in a fringe. He wore a cutaway suit,
green and shiny with age, which, divorced at the waist, showed a ring of
red flannel undershirt. He crept up to the counter like a kicked
spaniel.

“For God’s sake, gimme a drink o’ coffee, will you?” he whined.

“Wot’s bitin’ yer?” Coffee John inquired without sentiment. “Don’t yer
ask me to chynge a ’undred-dollar bill, fur I reelly can’t do it!”

“I lost my nerves, that’s all,” he said, looking over his shoulder
apprehensively. Then, turning to the two at the table, he gazed at them
over the top of a thick mug of coffee. “Lord! That’s good! I’m better
now,” he went on, and wiped off his mustache with a curling tongue,
finishing with his sleeve. “If I should narrate to you the experience
which has just transpired, gents, you wouldn’t believe it. You’d regard
myself as a imposition. But facts is authentic, nevertheless, and cannot
be dissented from, however sceptical.”

“See here!” cried the lad in the sweater, not too unkindly, “suppose you
tell us about it some other time! We’ve been waiting for you many
mad-some moons, and the time is ripe for the harvest. If you are as
hungry as we are, and want to be among those present at this function,
sit down and you’ll get whatever is coming to you. You can ascend the
rostrum afterward. We were just looking for one more, and you’re it.”

The vagabond looked inquiringly at Coffee John, who, in response,
pointed to a chair. “Why cert’nly,” the new-comer said, removing his
hat, “I must confess I ain’t yet engaged at dinner this evening, and if
you gents are so obliged as to——”

“Rope it!” roared the man in spectacles, out of all patience. The
voluble stranger seated himself hurriedly.

Coffee John now drew two tables together. “Jest excuse me for half a
mo’, gents, w’ile I unfurl this ’ere rag,” he said, spreading the cloth.

The three strangers looked on in surprise, for the Cockney’s tone had
changed. He wore an expectant smile as he seated himself in the fourth
place and rapped loudly on the table, distributing, as he did so, a
damask napkin to each of his guests.

“Gloriana peacock!” cried the man in spectacles, “I’m sorry I forgot to
wear my dress-suit. I had no idea you put on so much dog for coffee and
sinkers.”

“Get wise, old chap,” the man in the sweater said, warningly, “I have a
hunch that this is to be no mere charity poke-out. This is the true
chloroform. We’re up against a genuine square this trip, or I’m a
Patagonian. How about that, Coffee John?”

The host tucked his napkin into his neck and replied, benignly, “Oh, I
dunno, we’ll do wot we kin, an’ them as ain’t satisfied can order their
kerridges.”

As he spoke, two Chinamen emerged from the back room and filed up the
dusky rows of tables, bearing loaded trays. Swiftly and deftly they
spread the board with cut glass, china, and silverware, aligning a
delectable array of bottles in front of the proprietor. In a trice the
table began to twinkle with the appointments of a veritable banquet,
complete even to a huge centre-piece of California violets. In that
shabby hole an entertainment began to blossom like a flower blooming in
a dunghill, and the spectators were awed and spellbound at the sudden
miracle of the transformation. The man in the red sweater loosened his
belt three holes under the table, the black-eyed man pulled a pair of
frayed cuffs from his sleeves, and the other wiped his glasses and
smiled for the first time. When all was ready, Coffee John arose, and,
filling the glasses, cried jubilantly:

“Gents, I give yer the good ’elth of Solomon Bauer, Esquire, an’ the
Thirteenth of October, an’ drink ’earty!”

The toast was drunk with wonder, for the men were visibly impressed,
but, at the entry of oysters, each began to eat as if he were afraid it
were all a dream and he might awake before it was over. The lad with the
merry eye alone showed any restraint; his manners were those of a
gentleman. The one with the spectacles drank like a thirsty horse, and
the thin, black-haired individual watched the kitchen-door to see what
was coming next. Following the oysters came soup, savoury with cheese.

“Potage _au fromage_, _a la_ Cafe Martin, or I’ve never been in New
York!” cried the youngster.

“Correck. I perceive yer by wye of bein’ an epicoor,” Coffee John
remarked, highly pleased at the appreciation.

“I didn’t think they could do it in San Francisco,” the youth went on.

The Cockney turned his pop-eyes at the lad, and, with the bigotry of a
proselyte, broached his favourite topic. “Young man, we kin do anythink
they kin do in New York, not to speak of a trick or two blokes go to
Paris to see done; an’ occysionally we kin go ’em one better. Yer don’t
know this tarn yet. It’s a bloomin’ prize puzzle, that’s wot it is;
they’s a bit o’ everythink ’ere!”

The fish followed, barracuda as none but Tortoni can broil; then
terrapin, teal, venison, and so, with Western prodigality, to the
dessert. The guests, having met and subdued the vanguard of hunger, did
hilarious battle with the dinner, stabbing and slashing gallantly. No
one dared to put his good fortune to the hazard of the inquiry, though
each was curious, until at last the lad in the sweater could resist
wonder no longer. The demands of nature satisfied, his mind sought for
diversion. He laid his fork down, and pushed back his plate.

“It’s too good to be true,” he said. “I want to know what we’re in for,
anyway! What’s your little game? It may be bad manners to be
inquisitive, but I’ve slept in a wagon, washed in a horse-trough and
combed my hair with tenpenny nails for so long that I’m not responsible.
The time has come, the walrus said, to speak of many things! and I balk
right here until I know what’s up your sleeve. No bum gets a Delmonico
dinner at a coffee-joint on the Barbary Coast for nothing, I don’t
think; and by John Harvard, I want to be put next to whether this is
charity, insanity, a bet, or are you trying to fix us for something
shady?”

“What d’you want to stampede the show for?” interrupted the man in
spectacles. “We haven’t been asked to pay in advance, have we? We’ve
signed no contract! You were keen to begin as a heifer is for salt, and
when we draw a prize you want to look a gift-horse in the jaw! Get onto
yourself!”

“Gents,” the unctuous voice of the third man broke in, “they’s champagne
a-comin’!”

Coffee John had been looking from one to the other in some amusement.
“Easy, gents,” he remarked. “I ain’t offended at this ’ere youngster’s
expreshings, though I don’t sye as wot I mightn’t be, if ’e wa’n’t a
gentleman, as I can see by the wye ’e ’andles ’is knife, an’ the
suspicious fack of ’is neck bein’ clean, if he _do_ wear a Jarsey. Nar,
all I gort to sye is, thet this ’ere feast is on the squyre an’ no
questions arsked. As soon as we gits to the corffee, I’ll explyne.”

“I accept your apology,” the lad cried, gayly, and he rose, bubbling
with impudence. “Gentlemen-adventurers, knights of the empty pocket,
comrades of the order of the flying brake-beam and what-not, I drink
your very good health. Here’s to the jade whose game we played, not once
afraid of losing, ah! It is passing many wintry days since I fed on
funny-water and burned cologne in my _petit noir_, but there _was_ a
time—! My name, brothers of the pave, is James Wiswell Coffin 3d. Eight
Mayflower ancestors, double-barrelled in-and-in stock, Puritans of
Plymouth. Wrestling Coffin landed at Salem in the _Blessing of the Bay_,
1630, and——”

“Whoa, there!” the man in spectacles cried. “You ain’t so all-fired
numerous! I left a happy mountain-home myself, but the biographical
contest don’t come till the show is over in the big tent!”

“Cert’nly not, after you vetoed at my remarks,” said the third. “Let’s
testify after the dishes is emptier and we begin to feel more like a
repletion!”

In such wise the guests proceeded with badinage till the fruit appeared.
Then, as a plate containing oranges and bananas was placed on the table,
the young man of the party suddenly arose with a look of disgust, and
turned from the sight.

“See here, Coffee John,” he said, pacifically, “would you mind, as a
grand transcontinental favour, removing those bananas? I’m very much
afraid I’ll have to part with my dinner if you don’t.”

“Wot’s up?” was the reply.

“Nothing, yet,” said the youth. “But I’ll explain later. We’ll have to
work out all these puzzles and word-squares together.”

The bananas were taken away, while the others looked on curiously. Then
the man with glasses grew serious, and said, “As long as objections have
been raised, and the whole bunch is a bit loco, I don’t mind saying I’ve
a request to make, myself.”

“Speak up, an’ if they’s anythink wrong, I’ll try to myke it correck,”
said Coffee John. “’Evving knows it ain’t ’ardly usual for the likes o’
me to tyke orders from the likes o’ you, but this dinner is gave to
please, _if_ possible, an’ I don’t want no complyntes to be neglected.
Wot’s the matter nar?”

“I’ve been sitting with my back to the wall, as you may have noticed,
but there’s that over my head that makes me feel pretty sick when I
catch myself thinking,” said the objector. “It’s that picture of Dewey.
He’s all right, and a hero for sure; but if you don’t mind, would you
turn him face to the wall, so I can look up?”

“Don’t menshing it,” said Coffee John, rising to gratify this eccentric
request. “Nar wot’s your private an’ partickler farncy?” he asked,
turning to the thin, dark man.

“Nothin’ at all, only proceed with the exercises, and if you’d be
magnanimous enough to allow me to smoke, they being no females
present——”

A box of Carolina perfectos was brought in, with a coffee-urn, cognac,
and liqueurs, and the three men, now calm, genial, and satisfied, gave
themselves up to the comforts of tobacco. Even the youngest allowed
himself to draw up a chair for his feet, and sighed in content. Coffee
John finished the last drop in his glass, drew out his brier pipe, and
lighted it. Then, producing a folded paper from his pocket, he raised
his finger for silence and said:

“If yer wants to know the w’y and the w’erfore of this ’ere reparst,
gents, I am nar ready to give yer satisfaction o’ sorts. It ain’t me yer
obligyted to, at all; it’s a newspyper Johnnie nymed Sol Bauer who’s put
up for it, him as I arsked yer for to drink a ’elth to. It’s a proper
queer story ’ow ’e come to myke and bryke in this ’ere very shop o’
mine, an’ if yer stogies is all drawin’ easy, I’ll read the tyle as ’e
wrote it art for me, skippin’ the interduction, w’ich is personal, ’e
bein’ of the belief that it wos me wot brought ’im luck.

“So ’ere goes, from w’ere ’e come darn to this plyce of a Hoctober night
five years ago.” And so saying, he opened the paper. The narrative,
deleted of Coffee John’s dialect, was as follows:

THE STORY OF THE GREAT BAUER SYNDICATE

Ten years I had been a newspaper man, and had filled almost every
position from club reporter to managing editor, when just a year ago I
found myself outside Coffee John’s restaurant, friendless, hungry, and
without a cent to my name. Although I had a reputation for knowing
journalism from A to Z, I had been discharged from every paper in the
city. The reason was good enough; I was habitually intemperate, and
therefore habitually unreliable. I did not drink, as many journalists
do, to stimulate my forces, but for love of the game. It was physically
impossible for me to remain sober for more than two weeks at a time.




I had, that day, been discharged from the _Tribune_ for cause. The new
president of the Southern Pacific Company was on his way to San
Francisco, and it was necessary for our paper to get ahead of its
contemporaries and obtain the first interview. I was told to meet the
magnate at Los Angeles. I loitered at a saloon till I was too late for
the train, and then decided I would meet my man down the line at Fresno.
The next train south left while I was still drinking. I had time,
however, to catch the victim on the other side of the bay, and interview
him on the ferry, but he got in before I roused myself from my dalliance
with the grape. Then, trusting to sheer bluff, I hurried into the
office, called up two stenographers, dictated a fake interview
containing important news, and rushed the thing on the press.

The next day the president of the railway repudiated the whole thing,
and I was summarily given the sack. Nevertheless, it so happened that
almost the whole of what I had predicted came true within the year.

I celebrated the bad luck in my characteristic manner, and finished with
just sense enough to wish to clear my head with black coffee. So,
trusting to my slight acquaintance with Coffee John, and more to his
well-known generosity, I entered his place, and for the first time in my
life requested what I could not pay for. I was not disappointed. A cup
of coffee and a plate of doughnuts were handed me without comment or
advice.

As I was making my meal in the back part of the little restaurant, three
men, one after the other, came and sat down at my table. In the general
conversation that ensued I found that one was a tramp printer, whose
boast it was to have worked and jumped his board-bill in nearly every
State in the Union; one was a book-agent, who had been attempting to
dispose of “The Life of U. S. Grant,” and the third was an insurance
solicitor, who had failed to make good the trade’s reputation for
acumen.

A little talk developed the fact that all four of us were out of funds,
and ready for anything that promised to keep the wolf from the door.
Then, with a journalist’s instinct for putting three and one together,
an idea came to me by which we could all find a way out of the dilemma.

For it so happened that one of the _Herald’s_ periodical upheavals had
occurred that very day, and a general clean-up was being effected in the
office. The city editor, after a stormy interview with his chief, had
resigned, and had carried with him four of the best men on the staff.
Other reporters who had taken his part had also been let go, and the
city room of the _Herald_ was badly in need of assistance. It was very
likely that any man who could put up any kind of a pretence to knowing
the ropes would stand a fair chance of obtaining a situation without any
trouble.

My plan was this: Each of the three men was to apply for a situation as
reporter on the _Herald_, and, if accepted, was to report the next day
for his assignment, and then come immediately to me for instructions. I
was to give them all the necessary information as to obtaining the
material, and, when they had brought me the facts, write out the story
for them to hand in.

The three men agreed enthusiastically to the venture, and I spent the
evening in coaching them in the shop-talk and professional terms they
would need. You cannot teach a man what “news” is in one sitting—a man
has to have a nose trained to smell it, and a special gift for
determining its value, but I described the technical meaning of “a
story” and “covering” a detail. I told them to keep their eyes open, and
gave many examples of how it often happened that a reporter, when sent
out on a little “single-head” story, would, if he were sharp, get a hint
that could be worked up into a front page “seven-column scare-head.”

There is, of course, no royal road to journalism, but there are
short-cuts that can be learned. I gave them points on the idiosyncrasies
of the new man at the city desk, for I knew him well, and I provided
each of them with a yarn about his supposed previous place. One, I
believe, was to have worked on the St. Louis _Globe-Herald_, under
George Comstock; one had done special writing on the Minneapolis
_Argus_, and so on; for I knew a lot about all the papers in the East,
and I fixed my men so they couldn’t easily be tripped up on their
autobiographies.

They went down to the _Herald_ office that night, and after I had waited
an hour or so, I had the satisfaction of hearing that all three of my
pupils had been accepted. It was agreed that each of them was to give me
half his salary, and so I had a fair show of earning a man and a half’s
wages as President of the Great Bauer Syndicate.

At one o’clock the next afternoon I sat down in Coffee John’s and waited
for my subordinates to report. As each man came in I gave him minute
instructions as to the best possible way of obtaining his information.
There was not a trick in the trade I didn’t know, and I had never been
beaten by any paper in town. I had succeeded in obtaining interviews at
two in the morning from persons avowedly hostile to my sheet, I had got
photographs nobody else could get, and I had made railroad officials
talk after an accident. Without conceit, I may claim to be a practical
psychologist, and where most men know only one way of getting what they
want, I know four. My men had little excuse for failing to obtain their
stories, and they walked out of Coffee John’s like automata that I had
wound up for three hours.

They returned between four and five o’clock, gave me the information
they had secured, and, while they reported to the city editor, received
instructions as to writing the story, and got their evening’s
assignment, I wrote the articles at railroad speed. I could tell as well
as any city editor how much space the stories were worth, and wrote the
head-lines accordingly—for in the _Herald_ office every reporter was his
own head-line writer.

If by any chance the editor’s judgment were not the same as mine, it
took but a few minutes to cut the thing down or pad it to any length,
and my men took the copy back before they went out on the next detail.
Meanwhile, I had given them their new directions, and, when they turned
up, toward ten and eleven at night, I had the whole batch of writing to
do again. It was a terrific pace for any one man to keep up, and I doubt
if anyone else in San Francisco could have kept three busy and turned
out first-class work.

This went on for fifteen days, during which time I made Coffee John’s
joint my headquarters. That was the only place where I could hope to
keep sober, working at such high pressure, for I didn’t dare trust
myself in a saloon, and I couldn’t afford to hire an office. The amount
of black coffee I consumed made me yellow for a year. Whether Coffee
John wondered what I was up to or not I never knew; at any rate he asked
no questions and made no objections.

The Great Bauer Syndicate went merrily, and the members, with the
exception of the president, earned their salaries easily enough. If the
job was especially difficult or delicate, I went out and got the story
myself. At the end of the first week we drew our pay and divided it
according to the agreement, but there were indications that my men
thought they were getting clever enough to handle the work alone. If it
hadn’t been that while I was waiting for them to come in I managed to
write several columns of “space,” faked and otherwise, that they could
turn in and get paid for without any work at all, I would have had
trouble in holding them down to their contracts. Except for this, the
prospects were bright for the prettiest little news syndicate that ever
fooled a city editor. We made a record for two weeks, and then came the
crash.

I had been as sober as a parson for fifteen long, weary days, beating my
record by twenty-four hours. I had drenched myself in black coffee, and
turned out copy like a linotype machine, keyed up to a tension so tight
that something had to give way. You can easily imagine what happened.
One Monday night, after the last batch of copy had been delivered, and I
had drawn down my second week’s pay, I relapsed into barbarism and cast
care to the winds for the nonce.

I started down the line, headed for Pete Dunn’s saloon at 1 A.M., with
thirty dollars in my pocket, and I found myself on Wednesday morning at
the Cliff House, with an unresponsive female, whom I was imploring to
call me “Sollie.” What had happened to me in the interim I never cared
to investigate. But the Great Bauer Syndicate was out of business.

It seems that my three subordinates showed up as usual on Tuesday
afternoon, and after waiting for me a while they attempted to cover
their assignments without my help. The insurance solicitor got all
twisted up, and never came back; the printer threw up his job when he
failed to find me on his return. But the book-agent had grown a bit
conceited by this time, and he thought he was as good as anybody in the
business. So he sat down and wrote out his story, and by what they say
about it, it must have been something rich enough to frame.

He had picked up a good many stock newspaper phrases, like “repaired to
the scene of the disaster,” and “a catastrophe was imminent,” and “the
last sad offices were rendered,” and “a life hung in the balance,” and
such rot, and he had a literary ambition that would have put the
valedictorian of a female seminary to the blush. He had an idea that my
work was crude and jerky, so he melted down a lot of ineffable poetical
bosh into paragraphs hot enough to set the columns afire. As for the
story, you couldn’t find it for the adjectives. He may have been a
wonder at selling “The Life of U. S. Grant,” but he couldn’t write
English for publication in a daily paper.

When he turned the stuff in, the city editor gave a look at it, put
about three swift questions to him, and the cat was out of the bag. It
took no time at all to sweat the story out of him, and they sent that
book-agent downstairs so quickly that he never came back.

The whole office went roaring over the way I’d done the paper, and the
first thing I knew I was sent for, and the managing editor told me that
if I’d take the Keeley cure for four months he’d give me the Sunday
editor’s place and forget the episode.

The time I put in at Los Gatos taking chloride of gold was the darkness
that preceded my financial dawn. When I graduated I hated the smell of
whiskey so much that I couldn’t eat an ordinary baker’s mince-pie. Six
months after that I was sent for by the New York _Gazette_, where I am
now drawing a salary that makes my life in San Francisco seem insipid.

* * * * *

Coffee John folded the document carefully and restored it to his pocket
with consideration. “Thet’s the wye ’e wrote it darn for me, an’ I’ve
read it every year since. Yer see, gents, Sol. Bauer ’avin’ gort the
idea I was, in a wye, the means of his restorashing to respeckability,
an’ by wye of memorisink them three bums, ’as myde a practice o’ sendin’
me a cheque an a small gift every year, with instrucshings to celebryte
the ’appy event by givin’ the best dinner money can buy to the fust
three blokes as turns up here after 8.30 on the thirteenth dye of
October, an’ I sye it’s ’andsome of ’im. Nar, I propose thet we all
drink ’is very good ’ealth again, after w’ich, them as is agreeable will
tell ’is own story for the mutual pleasure of the assembled company ’ere
present.”

The three men agreed, and filled their glasses to the grateful memory of
Solomon Bauer of the Great Bauer Syndicate.

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