John Barleycorn HTML version

Chapter 21
But behold! As soon as I went out on the adventure-path I met John Barleycorn again. I
moved through a world of strangers, and the act of drinking together made one
acquainted with men and opened the way to adventures. It might be in a saloon with
jingled townsmen, or with a genial railroad man well lighted up and armed with pocket
flasks, or with a bunch of alki stiffs in a hang-out. Yes; and it might be in a prohibition
state, such as Iowa was in 1894, when I wandered up the main street of Des Moines and
was variously invited by strangers into various blind pigs--I remember drinking in barber-
shops, plumbing establishments, and furniture stores.
Always it was John Barleycorn. Even a tramp, in those halcyon days, could get most
frequently drunk. I remember, inside the prison at Buffalo, how some of us got
magnificently jingled, and how, on the streets of Buffalo after our release, another jingle
was financed with pennies begged on the main-drag.
I had no call for alcohol, but when I was with those who drank, I drank with them. I
insisted on travelling or loafing with the livest, keenest men, and it was just these live,
keen ones that did most of the drinking. They were the more comradely men, the more
venturous, the more individual. Perhaps it was too much temperament that made them
turn from the commonplace and humdrum to find relief in the lying and fantastic sureties
of John Barleycorn. Be that as it may, the men I liked best, desired most to be with, were
invariably to be found in John Barleycorn's company.
In the course of my tramping over the United States I achieved a new concept. As a
tramp, I was behind the scenes of society--aye, and down in the cellar. I could watch the
machinery work. I saw the wheels of the social machine go around, and I learned that the
dignity of manual labour wasn't what I had been told it was by the teachers, preachers,
and politicians. The men without trades were helpless cattle. If one learned a trade, he
was compelled to belong to a union in order to work at his trade. And his union was
compelled to bully and slug the employers' unions in order to hold up wages or hold
down hours. The employers' unions like-wise bullied and slugged. I couldn't see any
dignity at all. And when a workman got old, or had an accident, he was thrown into the
scrap-heap like any worn-out machine. I saw too many of this sort who were making
anything but dignified ends of life.
So my new concept was that manual labour was undignified, and that it didn't pay. No
trade for me, was my decision, and no superintendent's daughters. And no criminality, I
also decided. That would be almost as disastrous as to be a labourer. Brains paid, not
brawn, and I resolved never again to offer my muscles for sale in the brawn market.
Brain, and brain only, would I sell.