THE FIRE DEPARTMENT
To be in New York and not to see what fires are like in America would be a very regrettable omission. If it happens that this spectacle is not provided for you by your setting fire to a neighboring house, you only have to give yourself over to the care of my good friend Mr. King and you can enjoy the sight at your ease without having to suffer the slightest injury to your house or that of your neighbors.
I was invited to be present at an occasion of this kind organized quite spontaneously for me one evening after my concert at Gilmore Garden. I can do no better than to quote he Figaro, in which my visit to the fire department is admirably described by M. Bertie-Marriott, the genial correspondent, whom the proprietor of Le Figaro had sent to America to represent his journal. I think I will please my readers by not confining myself to citing only the passage about the fire department, and since the title of this book obliges me to talk about myself more than I would wish, I am content that someone else should have the task of telling about my deeds and gestures.
So here without further preamble is the article in question.
FROM PHILADELPHIA TO NEW YORK
New York, June 5, 1876
One machine roars, I am off! Another roars, I have arrived at Jersey City! The first is the locomotive which brings me; the second is that of the “Ferry Boat” which takes me and delivers me to “The Empire City,” New York. On this vast boat there were a number of horses, carriages, a mass of men, all standing, animals and people anxious for a ride. It was nighttime, but nevertheless one felt that these people are always in a hurry, in a hurry to arrive, in a hurry to take their rest, in a hurry to wake up; sleep is wasted time. Today was urging them on toward tomorrow, for tomorrow will be for each of them what yesterday was also—a struggle! Time, they say, is money. One must act quickly, for they are all running.
In brief, people in America are always talking about business, and it would not be exaggerating to say that out of a hundred words you hear, the word “dollar” appears seventy-five times. The dollar is the true god, perhaps the only god, the golden calf, adulated, worshipped with incense, no one protesting his worship this time; all are Levites. There is no Moses to overturn him.
To my great astonishment, I heard one name pronounced so often that finally I listened. It was that of Offenbach. Well! I said to myself, is it possible that I have exceeded the swift submarine of Jules Verne? Is it possible that I can have crossed the Atlantic in three hours? Can I be in Paris? Is this country so mechanized? Who knows? My neighbor reassures me, I am in New York and our dear maestro is here also, conducting an orchestra. Crowds come to listen to him, to see him, to touch him; my neighbor himself is going like everybody else to hear the master. I follow him. “He is a great musician,” adds this Yankee. “They give him a thousand dollars an evening to conduct, merely to conduct an orchestra.”
“They give him a thousand dollars!” What respectful admiration as he says with a sort of metallic tremor in his voice: “They give him a thousand dollars!” That is the price, and in his American mind, it increases the stature of the master. And why shouldn’t it be this way? As a child, “dollar” was the first word he heard; as a youth, it was his first love; as a man, it will be his only passion.
I allowed myself to be led, and when I had come out of some badly lighted streets, suddenly I entered an immense covered garden, lighted with a thousand colored lights. It was enormous, it was beautiful. What a crowd! What pretty women!
With difficulty I succeeded in reaching the center. It was full, crowded, people were elbowing each other. On a platform a hundred musicians were waiting, their eyes on the baton of the master. There he was, a little nervous as the multitude of curious eyes watched him. He played a polka which he had composed on shipboard expressly for the Americans. They knew this and they were happy about it. The rhythm was sometimes slow, sometimes rapid, mingled with songs and laughter. It was brilliant; it carried away these people ordinarily so cold and preoccupied, bored even in their amusements. I saw them laughing really from the heart. The musicians and the public were both excited, enthusiastic. A thunder of applause! The polka began again.
Finally he ended and descended from the podium. The crowd opened to let him pass through. “Le Figarol” he said when he saw me. “Le Figaro in New York! This gives me even more pleasure than the enthusiasm you have just seen and heard.” And taking my arm, he led me through the crowd who must have thought of me as some celebrity, thanks to this mark of friendship. How many pretty girls would have liked to be clinging to this famous arm? An arm which earns a thousand dollars an evening! Can you understand their point of view? How many other women would have been jealous, and then what wonderful gowns they would have been able to buy for themselves. They all looked at me as if I were robbing them!
“You know I’m carrying you off,” the maestro said to me. “Someone has just proposed a visit to the Fire Department, and I would like very much to see this institution of which I have heard so much and of which they are so proud!” It’s marvelous, incredible, prodigious! If we hadn’t been there ourselves, watch in hand, we would have never believed it. We would have said, “You’re kidding, you’re just joking!”
In a few words, here is what we witnessed: One of the Chiefs of the Fire Department, Mr. King, was with us. “Will you choose the fire station which we will take by surprise?” he said to the maestro. “Take your pick.”
Since Eighteenth Street was near, Offenbach picked that station and we started out. At the door, Mr. King said to us: “Look out! Set your watches. Are you ready?” “Yes.” He rang a little bell, a man opened and we entered. A superb machine was standing there, all shiny. In the rear, three horses were in their stalls with their harnesses on. The firemen were sleeping upstairs. A gong hanging on the wall was to give the alarm. “Pay attention and take your position against the wall to be out of the way of the horses.” Clang! Clang! Clang! The three horses are hitched up; twelve men are there manning the pumping machine; the driver has said, “Ready!” “How long?” Mr. King asks us. It had been just six seconds and a half since the gong sounded! Without a single word, without one observation, the horses were put back in their stalls; the men went upstairs to bed. The inspector had wished to see if everything was in order, and that was his right. He had found out; they had done their duty.
Well, I admit that I had not had the time to distinguish anything. Certainly I had heard something like a peal of thunder, that was the men; something like a frightful trembling of the floor, that was the horses; I had seen a red light, the engine was burning its coal; I had seen a black figure clinging to the reins, that was the driver with his cry, “Ready”; but I repeat, I had not had time to distinguish anything, and nevertheless, as the driver said, everything was ready—in six and a half seconds! I glanced at Offenbach, who was mute. He was still staring when everything had been returned to its normal order; his eyes seemed astounded as if he had been under the spell of a nightmare. He stood dumfounded and I must have resembled him completely. Have I succeeded in giving you an idea of such vertiginous, telegraphic speed? In spite of myself, our system of fire-fighting in France came to my mind, and I was ashamed.
“What do you think of it?” Mr. King asked us. Offenbach had found his tongue. “I have seen lots of plays about fairies and I have written some of them,” he said, “but never anything like that!” Mr. King smiled. He was content.
“I’m going,” he said, “to show you something even better. Come with me.” We followed him, and when we had reached one of the large open squares in New York, Madison Square, we stopped before a post with a box on it.
“I’m going to open this box and you, maestro, will press a button. The button communicates with six fire companies just like the one you have seen, each one situated at a different place, the nearest is a kilometer and a half away, the furthest, two kilometers and a half. Set your watches. When you press the button, you will give the alarm in these six stations. Are you ready? Yes? Press the button!”
It was just midnight, the surrounding streets were still full of carriages. Suddenly, in every avenue, bells were heard accompanied by frightful rumblings. Everywhere the carriages pulled to the curb and stopped; the pedestrians were motionless. You could hear the cry, “Fire! Fire!”
At full speed they arrived roaring, whistling, panting, vomiting steam. Here they were, the firemen and the machines. “Where? Where?” asked the men. The horses were already unhitched, the hoses attached. Then they found that the Inspector was trying to see if the organization was perfect, and each returned to his post without a word, without one single mark of discontent.
“How long?” asked Mr. King.
“Four minutes and a half.”
So in four minutes and a half six powerful machines with steam up and ready to pour torrents of water on the fire had arrived. Press another button and six others would have arrived, and all the machines in the city would have come if they were needed. As long as I shall live, never, no never, will I feel so poignant an emotion, so real an emotion as I felt that night.
“Do you want another demonstration?” asked Mr. King.
“No, no, this is enough. It is too exciting!”
And, in spite of myself, I saw in my mind’s eye a fire in Paris, the shouts of the crowd, that absurd little cart with buckets hanging from it, those hand pumps, reaching the spot when the fire is already beyond control, our firemen running up, full of goodwill, it is true, but out of breath, exhausted from running.
What a contrast! Come now, you insurance companies, since you can see it here in New York, why not copy the system? You would gain a great deal by importing it into France, and all the rest of us would also. In the first place, you would have done a humane act, then you would have greater profits, and the rest of us would have bigger dividends. Come now, be bold! Revolt against routine. Show a less conservative spirit, and I promise you that your first night in New York will be just as well employed as mine. . . . But you won’t come.
I will add only a few words to the story which the correspondent of Le Figaro has told about my astonishment at the incredible agility of American firemen. I watched them at the moment when the ringing of the gong awakened them suddenly. Nothing could be more wonderful than to see them hop out of bed, put on their trousers which are attached to their rubber boots, adjust their suspenders, put on their leather helmets, rush to the horses, and burst out of the station. These men who had been sleeping soundly in their beds, changed in the twinkling of an eye into men wideawake, fully dressed and on horseback; they were more than figures in a fairy tale—this was real magic.