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PART ONE

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

PART TWO

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

A note to fans of Little Golden America: as of issue No. 22, Admit Two adopted a PDF format, which means you will have to access individual back issues to get to further chapters of Ilf and Petrov's American adventure.

 

 

 

oLittle Golden America                     by    ILYA ILF AND EUGENE PETROV

_______________________________________________________________________

o

 

 o

Chapter Seven…

  The Electric Chair

 

 

     THE AMERICAN WRITER, Ernest Hemingway, author of the recently

published Fiesta, which evoked much discussion in Soviet literary circles,

happened to be in New York while we were there.

      And another American writer, John Dos Passos, who is even better

known among us and who provoked even more discussions in connection

with the polemics on formalism in art, came in to see us and introduced

us to Hemingway.

      Incidentally, whenever mention was made some years ago of a soul-

les formalist, he was always understood to be some house manager by

the name of Nezabudkin who had insulted an old lady for no good

reason or who did not provide needed information on time. Nowadays

no one thinks of house managers, and the words “a soulless formalist”

do not fail to call forth in memory the figure of some writer or composer

or of some other hairy votary of the Muses.

      The roundheaded, broad-nosed Dos Passos stutters a little. He begins

every sentence with a laugh, but he ends it seriously. He looked at us

benevolently and said:

      “I am writing a new book. It is called Big Money. I wonder how it

will fare. Every one of my succeeding books has had a smaller circulation

than its predecessor” 42nd Parallel had a circulation of twenty thousand

copies; 1919, fifteen thousand; this one will probably have ten thousand.”

      When we told Dos Passos that ten thousand copies of his 1919 dis-

appeared from Soviet book counters in several hours, he replied:

      “In your country people have been taught to read books, but with us

here… Listen, we’ll have to get together some time and have dinner

in the Hollywood Restaurant on Broadway. There you will se what

occupies the average American while in your country people read books.

You will see the happiness of a New York counterjumper.”

      Hemingway came to New York for a week. His permanent home is

at Key West, a small town at the extreme southern tip of Florida. He

proved to be a large man with mustaches and a peeling sunburnt nose.

He wore flannel trousers, a woolen vest which did not come together on

his mighty chest, and his bare feet were in house slippers.

      We stood together, in the middle of one of the hotel rooms in which

Hemingway lived, engaged in the usual American occupation. In our

hands were high and wide glasses of highballs – whisky mixed with

water. So far as we have been able to observe, everything in America

begins with a drink. Even when we came on literary business to our

publishers, Farrar and Rinehart, the gay, redheaded Mr. Farrar, publisher

and poet, at once led us into their library. He had many books there,

but also a large icebox. From that box the publisher took various bottles

and cubes of ice, asked us whether we preferred Manhattan, Bacardi or

Martini cocktails, and at once began to mix with such skill, as if the had

never in his life published books, had never written verse, but had always

worked as a barman. Americans enjoy mixing cocktails.

      We happened to talk of Florida, when Hemingway at once passed to

what seemed to be his favorite theme:

      “During your automobile journey, don’t fail to visit me at Key West.

We’ll go fishing there.”

      And with his arms he showed us the size of fish one can catch at Key

West. That is, like every fisherman he spread his arms as far apart as

he could. The fish must have been about the size of a sperm whale.

      We looked at each other in alarm and promised, come what might, to

drop in on him at Key West so that we might go fishing and have a

really serious talk on literature. But we were unreasoning optimists. If

we were to carry out everything we had promised during our meetings

and interviews, we could not have returned to Moscow before 1940. We

wanted very much to go fishing with Hemingway. We were not even

embarrassed by the problem of managing spinning and other involved

tackle, especially since Dos Passos declared that by the time we arrived

in Florida he would also be living in Key West.

      Then we talked of what we had seen in New York and what else

we wanted to see before going west. We happened to mention Sing Sing.

Sing Sing is the prison of the state of New York. We had heard of it

since childhood, having been then ardently interested in the adventures

of two famous detectives, Nat Pinkerton and Nick Carter. Suddenly

Hemingway said:

      “Do you know, my father-in-law happens to be here with me. He is

acquainted with the warden of Sing Sing. Maybe he can arrange it for

you to visit the prison.”

      He went to the adjoining room and returned with a neat little old man

whose thin neck was encased in a very high and old-fashioned starched

collar. Our wish was explained to the old man while he impatiently

chewed his lips and at last said vaguely that he would see what he

could do. Then we returned to our previous conversation about fishing,

journeys, and other excellent things. Hemingway and Dos Passos wanted

to go to the Soviet Union, to the Altai. While we tried to find out why

they had chose the Altai and praised also other parts of the Union, we

quite forgot the promise about Sing Sing. People are likely to say any-

thing in the course of a pleasant conversation, highballs in hand.

      But a day later we learned that Americans are no idle talkers. We

received two letters. One of them was addressed to us. Hemingway’s

father-in-law informed us respectfully that he had discussed the matter

with the warden of the prison, Mr. Lewis E. Lawes, and that we might

examine Sing Sing any day we chose. In the second latter the old man

recommended us to Mr. Lewis E. Lawes.

      We noted this American characteristic and more than once had con-

vincing confirmation that Americans never say anything they do not

mean. Not even once did we run across what we know as “idle chatter”

or more crudely as “talking through your hat.”

      One of our New York friends once suggested to us that we might go

on a fruit company ship to Cuba, Jamaica, and Colombia. He said that

the trip would be free of charge, and besides, we would be seated at the

captain’s table. There is no greater honor at sea. Of course, we con-

sented.

      “Very well,” said our friend. “You go on your automobile journey, and

when you return, telephone me. Everything will be arranged.”

      On our return trip from California to New York we recalled this

promise almost every day. After all, even this promise was made during

cocktails. On that occasion it was not a highball, but some complex mix-

ture with large green leaves, sugar, and a cherry at the bottom of the

glass. Finally, from the city of San Antonio, Texas, we sent a telegram of reminder

and quickly received a reply. Its tone was even a little bit hurt:

                    Your tropical journey arranged long ago.

      We did not take that tropical journey because we did not have the time

for it. But the mere recollection of American sincerity and the American

ability to keep a word comfort us to this day whenever we begin to

torment ourselves with the thought that we lost an opportunity to visit

South America.

      We asked Mr. Adams to go with us to Sing Sing. After repeatedly

calling us “ Gentlemen,” he consented.

      The next day we took our places in the Adams Chrysler; after a

wretched hour with New York traffic signals, we finally escaped from

the city. That which is called street movement in New York might just

as well be called street standing. At any rate, there is much more standing

than moving.

      After traveling thirty miles we discovered that Mr. Adams had forgot-

ten the name of the city where Sing Sing is located. We were obliged

to stop. At the edge of the road a workman was unloading some neat

little boxes from an automobile. We asked him the road to Sing Sing.

      At once he stopped his work and walked up to us. Here is another ex-

cellent characteristic. The most preoccupied American will always find

the time to explain to a traveler, briefly, to the point, and patiently,

what road he should take, and while doing so he will not get things

mixed up and will tell no lies. If he tells you something, he knows

whereof he speaks.

      Having finished his explanation, the workman smiled and said:

      “Hurrying to the electric chair? Wish you luck!”

      Twice again after that, more in order to clear our conscience, we

verified the road, and both times Mr. Adams did not fail to add that we

were hurrying to the electric chair. And in reply we heard laughter.

      The prison is located on the edge of the little town of Ossining. Two

rows of automobiles stood at the prison gate. Our heart contracted at

once when we saw that out of the machine which had driven up

simultaneously with us came a stooped, pleasant old man with two large

paper bags in his hand. In those bags lay packages of food and oranges.

The old man went to the entrance carrying the “outside bundle.” What

kinsman of his could be sitting there? Probably a son, whom most likely

the old man had thought a well-behaved, splendid boy, yet he was a

bandit, or maybe even a murderer. Old men have a hard time of it.

      The tremendous entrance fenced off by a grille was as large as a

lion’s cage. On either side of it wrought-iron lanterns were welded into

the walls. In the doorway stood three policemen. Each one of them

weighed no less than two hundred pounds, and these were pounds not

of fat but of muscle, pounds used for suppression, for subjugation.

      We did not find Mr. Lewis E. Lawes in the prison. This happened

to be the day for electing representatives to the legislature of the state

of New York, so the warden was away. But that made no difference,

we were told. They knew where he was, and would telephone him in

New York. Five minutes later they received a reply from Mr. Lawes.

He was very sorry that circumstances did not permit his showing us

Sing Sing personally, but he gave instructions to his assistant to do

everything possible for us.

      After that we were led into the anteroom, a white room with spit-

toons, polished and shining like samovars, and a grate was closed behind

us. We had never been in prison as inmates, yet even here, in the midst

of the shining cleanliness of a bank, the clang of a closing cage made us

shudder.

      The assistant warden of Sing Sing was a spare, strongly built man.

We turned at once to the inspection.

      This was visitors’ day. Three visitors could call on every prisoner –

provided he had no infraction of discipline charged against him. Pol-

ished barriers divide the large room into squares. In each square, facing

each other, are two short benches – the kind you find in a streetcar, let

us say. On these benches sit the prisoner and his guests. The visit lasts

an hour. At the exit door stands a warden. The prisoners are supposed

to wear the gray prison uniform. They don’t have to wear all of it, but

some part of it must be government issue, either the trousers or the gray

sweater.

      The hubbub of conversation in the room was reminiscent of a similar

hubbub in the foyer of a motion-picture theater. Children who had come

to visit their fathers ran to faucets to drink water. The old man we had

previously seen did not take his eyes off his beloved son. A woman was

weeping softly, and her husband, the prisoner, was looking sadly at his

own hands.

      The conditions of the visits were such that most certainly visitors could

transmit forbidden objects to the prisoners. But that would be useless.

Every prisoner, when returning to his cell, is searched immediately the

door of the visiting hall is closed.

      Because of the election, this was a prison holiday. Passing through the

yards, we saw small groups of prisoners who were taking a sun bath in

the autumn sun or playing a game of ball which was unfamiliar to us

(our guide said that it was an Italian game, that there are many Italians

in Sing Sing). However, here were few people. Most of the prisoners

were at the time in the prison motion-picture theater.

      “At present there are 2,299 people in prison,” said Mr. Lawes’s assis-

tant. “Of these, eighty-five have life sentences and sixteen are to be

electrocuted. And all these sixteen will undoubtedly be electrocuted,

although they hope for a pardon.”

      The new buildings of Sing Sing are very interesting. Undoubtedly, the

high general standard of American technique in building dwellings had

affected its construction, especially the level of American life – what in

America is called “the standard of living.”

      A photograph would give the best idea of an American prison, but to

our regret we were not allowed to take photographs inside Sing Sing.

      A prison building consists of six stories of narrow cabins, like those

aboard ship, standing side by side and provided with vertical lion-cage

grates. Through the length of every story stretch these metal galleries,

connected with each other by metal stairways. It resembles least of all a

place to live in, even a prison. The utilitarianism of the construction

invests it with the appearance of a factory. The resemblance to some kind

of mechanism is reinforced by the fact that all this is enclosed in a brick

box, the walls of which are almost entirely occupied with windows. It is

through these that daylight (and to a small extent sunlight) enters the

cells, because the cells themselves have no windows.

      In every such cell there is a bed, a table, and a waste can topped with

a lacquered cover. On a nail hang radio earphones. There are two or

three books on the table. Several photographs are on the walls – beautiful

girls or baseball player or God’s angels, depending upon the inclina-

tions of the prisoner.

      In the three new buildings each prisoners is lodged in a separate cell.

This is an improved prison, Americanized to the limit, and comfortable,

if one may apply such an honest, good word to a prison. It is light, and

the air is comparatively good.

      “In the new buildings,” said our escort, “are lodged eighteen hundred

men. The remaining five hundred are in the old building, constructed

a hundred years ago. Let’s go there.”

      That was indeed a real Constantinople prison of the era of the sultans.

      It was impossible to stand to one’s full height in these cells. When you

sat down on the bed your knees touched the wall opposite. The two cots

were one above the other. It was dark, damp, and frightful. Here were

no shining waste cans, no soothing pictures of angels.

      Something of our reaction was evidently reflected in our faces, for the

assistant warden hastened to distract us.

      “When they send you to me,” he said, “I’ll place you in the new

buildings. I’ll even find you a cell with a view of the Hudson. We have

such cells for especially deserving prisoners.”

      He added quite seriously:

      “I hear that in your country the penitentiary system has as its object

the correction of the criminal and his return to the ranks of society.

Alas, we are occupied only with the punishment of criminals.”

      We began to talk about life terms.

      “I have a prisoner here,” said our guide, “who has been here for

twenty-two years. Every year he files a petition of clemency and each

time his case is considered his petitions is decisively turned down, so

beastly was the crime which he committed. I would let him out. He is

now quite a different man. As a matter of fact, I would liberate about

half the prisoners, for they no longer present any danger to society. But

I am only a jailer, and I can’t do anything about it.”

      We were shown the hospital, the library, the dental office, in fact, all

the establishments of piety, culture, and enlightenment. We went up in

elevators, we walked down beautiful corridors. Punitive cells and similar

things we were not shown, of course, and out of quite comprehensible

politeness we did not inquire about them.

      In one of the yards we went to a one-story brick building, and the

assistant warden himself opened the doors with a large key. In this

house executions in the electric chair are carried out by order of the

courts of the state of New York.

      We noticed the chair at once.

      It stands in a roomy chamber without windows, so the light comes

through a glass lantern in the ceiling. We took two steps on the white

marble floor and stopped. Behind the chair on the door opposite the one

we entered is traced in large black letters the word:

      “Silence!”

      The condemned are admitted through that door.

      The condemned is informed early in the morning that his petition for

clemency has been rejected and that the execution will take place that

day. Then he is prepared for the execution. A small circle is shaved on

his head to enable the electric current to pass without impediment.

      Throughout the day the condemned sits in his cell. Now that the

circle had been shaved on his head, he has nothing to hope for.

      The execution occurs at about eleven or twelve o’clock at night.

      “The fact that throughout the entire day a man experiences the tor-

ments of expectant death is very sad indeed,” declared our guide, “but

we can do nothing about it. Such is the demand of the law. The law

regards this circumstance as and additional punishment. On this chair

two hundred men and three women have been executed.”

      Nevertheless, the chair looks quite new.

      This is a yellow wooden chair with a high back and arm rests. At

first glance it seems innocuous, and if it were not for the leather brace-

lets with which the hands and feet of the condemned are tied, it could

very well stand in some highly moral family home. A dealfish grand-

father might well be sitting in it to read his newspapers there.

      But an instant later the chair was very repellent to us, and especially

depressing were its polished arm rests. Better not to think about those

who had polished them with their elbows.

      A few yards from the chair stand four substantial railway station

benches. These are for the witnesses. Here is a small table. A washstand

is built into the wall. That is all there is to the furnishings in the midst

of which is accomplished the transition from a worse into a better world.

No doubt, young Thomas Alva Edison never dreamed that his electricity

would perform such depressing duties.

      The door in the left corner leads to a compartment larger than a

telephone booth. On its wall is a marble switchboard, the most ordinary

kind of switchboard with a heavy old-fashioned knife switch, the kind

available at any mechanical shop or in the operating booth of a provin-

cial motion-picture theater. The knife switch is pushed in, and the cur-

rent beats with great force through the helmet into the head of the con-

demned. That is all. That is the entire technique.

      “The man who turns on the current,” said our guide, ‘receives a hun-

dred and fifty dollars for each such performance. There are any number

of applicants for this job.”

      Of course, all the talk we had heard about three men switching on

the current and that not one of them knows which of them actually is

responsible for the execution proved to be an invention. No, it is all

much simpler. The man switches on the current himself and knows all

that happens and fears only one thing – that competitors may take this

profitable work away from him.

      From the room where the execution is carried out a door lead to the

morgue, and beyond that is a very quiet room filled to the ceiling with

simple wooden coffins.

      “The coffins are made right here in prison by the prisoners them-

selves,” our guide informed us.

      Well, we thought we had seen enough! It was time to go!

      Suddenly Mr. Adams asked to be allowed to sit in the electric chair,

so that he might experience the sensation of a man condemned to death.

      “No, no, gentlemen!” he muttered. “It will not take very long.”

      He settled himself firmly on the spacious seat and looked at us tri-

umphantly. The usual procedure was being carried out on him. He was

strapped to the back of the chair with a wide leather belt, his legs were

pressed with bracelets against the oaken chair legs, his hands were tied

to the arm rests. Again these accursed arm rests! They did not put the

helmet on Mr. Adams, but he begged them so that they finally attached

the end of the electric connection to his shining pate. It all became very

frightful for a minute. Mr. Adams’s eyes shone with incredible curiosity.

It was evident at once that he was one of those people who want to do

everything, who want to touch everything with their hands, to see and

hear everything themselves.

      Before departing from Sing Sing we went into the church where at

the time a motion-picture performance was going on. Fifteen hundred

prisoners were looking at a picture entitled Doctor Socrates. Here we

saw the laudable effort of the administration to provide the imprisoned

men with the very latest motion picture. As a matter of fact, outside the

prison Doctor Socrates was being exhibited that very day in the city of

Ossining. What utterly amazed us, however, was the fact that the pic-

ture portrayed the life of bandits, and to show it to the prisoners was

tantamount to teasing an alcoholic with a vision of a bottle of vodka.

      But it was already late. We thanked the administration for a pleasant

visit, the lion’s cage opened, and we went away. After sitting in the

electric hair, Mr. Adams suddenly became melancholy; he was silent all

the way back.

      Returning we saw a truck that had run off the road. Its rear part was

entirely off. A crowd was discussing the accident. Another crowd, much

larger, was listening to an orator who was talking about that day’s elec-

tion. Here all the automobiles were carrying election stickers on their

rear windows. Farther on, in the groves and forests flared the mad

autumn.

      In the evening we went with Dos Passos to look at the happiness of

a New York counterjumper. It was seven o’clock. A marquee the size

of half a house was alight over the entrance of the Hollywood Restau-

rant. Young men in semimilitary uniform, customary among hotel, res-

taurant, and theater servants, were skillfully pushing people in. In the

lobby hung photographs of naked girls pining with love for the populace.

      As in all restaurants where it is customary to dance, the center of the

Hollywood was occupied by a longish platform, the floor of which was

no more polished than the arm rests of the electric chair. On the sides

of this platform and rising somewhat above it were the tables. Over all

rose the tumultuous jazz.

      Jazz may be disliked, especially in America, where it is impossible to

hide from it. But generally speaking, American jazz is well played. The

jazz of Hollywood Restaurant presented an amazingly well-composed

eccentric musical intricacy altogether pleasant to the ear.

      When plates of rather uninteresting and in no way inspiring American

soup stood before us, from behind the orchestra suddenly ran out girls

half naked, three-quarters naked, and nine-tenths naked. They began to

dance zealously on their floor space, their feathers dipping occasionally

into plates of soup or jars of mustard.

      It must have been thus, no doubt, that the ruthless fighters of Moham-

med imagine their paradise – food on the table, a warm place, and

houris performing their ancient tasks.

      Later the girls ran out again a number of times: in the interval be-

tween the first and the second course, before coffee, and during coffee.

The proprietor of the Hollywood would not let them be idle.

      This joining of primate American cooking with the passion of service

somewhat upset us.

      The restaurant was full of people. The dinner cost about two dollars

per person. That means that the average New Yorker can come here

about once a month or less frequently. But then his pleasure is complete.

He listens to jazz, he eats a cutlet, he looks at the houris, and he himself

dances.

      The faces of some of the dancers were stupid, others were pathetic,

still others were cruel, but all were equally weary.

      Three blocks away from the restaurant a black poodle with gay eyes

was watching Dos Passos’ old machine.

      We parted. We had become saddened by New York’s happiness.

      “Good-bye, until Moscow,’ said the nice Dos.

      Good-by, until Moscow,” we replied.