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.
WE STOPPED in a small town and dined in a drugstore.
It is necessary to explain here the nature of a small American town, and
what sort of drugstore it is in which one may dine. That story might be
entitled “Pharmacist Without Mysticism, or The Secret of the American
When America’s big businessmen, in search of profit, directed their
attention to the drug business, they were first of all curious to find out what
pharmacists were really doing behind their partitions.
What were they grinding there with their pestles in those thick china
mortars, while frowning importantly? Was it medicines? Well, now, how
many medicines are there in the world? Let’s say fifty—a hundred—well,
a hundred and twenty at the most! A hundred and twenty febrifugal,
stimulant, or sedative medicines! Why then prepare them in an amateurish
way in drugstores? They should be produced in mass quantity in factories.
The fact that medicines began to be prepared in factories didn’t make
it any easier for the sick man—the medicines were no cheaper. But the
pharmacists lost their income. That was taken over by drug manufacturers.
To recoup their lost incomes the outsmarted pharmacists began to sell
ice cream, thirst-quenching waters, small notions, toys, cigarettes, kitchen
utensils—in a word, they went in for anything at all.
And so the present-day American drugstore is a large bar with a high
counter and revolving grand piano stools before it. Behind the counter,
back and forth, run redheaded young men with white sailor caps cocked
one the sides of their heads, and coquettish young women, with permanent
waves that will last years, who look like the latest and at the moment
the most fashionable movie star. At times they resemble Kay Francis, at
other times Greta Garbo; before that they all looked like Gloria Swanson.
The girls whip cream, open highly polished nickel taps out of which
emerge noisy streams of seltzer water, roast chickens, and throw pieces of
ice into a glass with a resounding tinkle.
Although the drugstore has been long ago converted into an eating es-
tablishment, its proprietor is nevertheless obliged to be a pharmacist and
have a certain baggage of learning, which is insistently indispensable while
serving coffee, ice cream, toasted bread, and other drugstore merchandise.
In the most distant corner of this lively establishment is a small glass
closet with little jars, boxes, and bottles. One has to spend at least a half hour
in a drugstore before he will notice this little closet. In it are stored the
There is but one drugstore left in New York where the pharmacist him-
self prepares medicines. Oh, this remarkable establishment is wrapped in
the aureole of medical mysteries! To prove that here medicines are ac-
tually prepared by hand, the proprietor of the drugstore displays in the
window a pile of old yellowed prescriptions. It all looks like the den of a
medieval alchemist. This is no ordinary drugstore. In the letter you can
eat, buy a pocket watch or an alarm clock, a pot or a toy; you can even buy
or rent a book.
We looked sadly at the menu. Dinner #1, Dinner #2, Dinner #3,
Dinner #4—Dinner Number One, Dinner Number Two, Dinner Num-
ber Three, Dinner Number Four! Dinner #4 costs twice as much as
Dinner #2, but that doesn’t mean that it is twice as good. No! There is
simply twice as much of it. If in Dinner #2 a course called “country
sausage” consists of three chopped off sausages, then in Dinner #4 there
will be six chopped off sausages, but the taste will be exactly the same.
After dinner we become interested in the spiritual fare in which the
drugstore traded. Here were wildly decorated picture postcards with
views of local sights—very cheap, two for five cents. Black ones cost five
cents apiece. The difference in price was right. The black postcards were
excellent, while the colored ones were a lot of trash. We examined the
of books. They were all novels: Sinning Is Man’s Game, The
of Burnt-Out Love, First Night, Affairs of the Married.
“You must not be shocked, gentlemen,” said Mr. Adams. “You are in a
small American town.”
Many people think that America is a land skyscrapers, that day and
night one hear the clatter of elevated and underground railways, the hell-
ish roar of automobiles and the overwhelming desperate cries of stock
exchange dealers who rush among the skyscrapers, constantly waving their
constantly falling stocks and bonds. This conception is firm, ancient, and
Of course, it’s all there—the skyscrapers, the elevated railways, and the
Falling stocks. But those are the attributes only of New York and Chicago.
And even there the stock brokers don’t rush around sidewalks, throwing
American citizens off their feet, but entirely unnoticed by the population
of America, they abide in their stock exchanges, performing all their
machinations inside those monumental buildings.
New York has many skyscrapers; Chicago has a few less; but in the
other large cities they are few in number—maybe two of three per city.
They tower there in a lonely fashion, in the manner of waterworks or a
firehouse tower. In small towns there are no skyscrapers.
America is preponderantly a country of one-story and two-story houses.
The majority of American population lives in small cities where the
population is three, five, ten, fifteen thousand.
What traveler has not experienced that first and unrepeatable feeling of
Excited expectation that possesses the soul upon entering the city where he has
never been before. Every street and every lane open new and newer mysteries
to the thirsty eyes of the traveler. Toward evening it begins to seem to
him that he has fallen in love with that city. The sight of the street mob,
the architecture of the buildings, the smell of the market, and finally the
color peculiar only to that city, compose the traveler’s first and truest
impressions. He can live in a city a year, explore its nooks and corners,
make friends, then forget the names of all those friends, forget all that he
had so conscientiously learned, yet he will never forget his impress-
Nothing of the kind can be said about American cities. Of course, even
in America there are a few cities that have their inimitable personalities—
San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, Santa Fe. One can be enthuse-
astic about them, one can be amazed by them, love them or detest them—
at any rate they evoke some definite feeling—but almost all other Ameri-
can cities resemble each like the five Canadian quintuplets, whom
even their tender mother mistakes for each other. This colorless and de-
personalized gathering of brick, asphalt, automobiles, and billboards evokes
in the traveler only a sense of annoyance and disappointment.
And if the traveler drives into the first small town with a feeling of ex-
cited expectation, then in the next town this feeling cools considerably,
in the third it is exceeded by astonishment, in the fourth by an ironic
smile, in the fifth, seventh, eighty-sixth and hundred and fiftieth it is
transformed into indifference—as if speeding automobile were being
met not by the new and unknown cities of an unexplored country but
rather by ordinary railroad sidings with the inevitable bell, hot-water boiler,
and the watchman in the red cap.
The city’s principal street passes right through the city. It is called Main
Street (which means the principal street) or State Street (the street of the
state) or Broadway.
Every small town wants to be like New York. There are New Yorks of
two thousand population, there are New Yorks of eighteen hundred. We
even found one New York consisting of nine hundred inhabitants and it
was real city, its inhabitants walked on their Broadway, their noses high
in the air. They weren’t quite sure which Broadway was generally regarded
as the more important, theirs or New York’s.
The architecture of the buildings in the principal street cannot present
the eye with artistic delights. It consists of brick, the frankest kind of brick,
laid in two-story cubes. Here people make money, so there is no room
for abstract embellishments.
The lower part of the city (downtown) is called the business center.
Here are the trading establishments, business offices, the motion-picture
theatres. There are no people on the sidewalks, but the streets are full
of automobiles. They occupy all the free places at the side. They are for-
bidden to stop only before fire hydrants and driveways, which is indicated
by the sign “No Parking.”
It becomes at times a task a torment to find a place where you may leave
your machine or, as the Russians in America say, where you can “park”
it. One evening we were in San Diego, a city of the shores of the Pacific
Ocean. We had to park our machine in order to have our dinner, so we
drove a full hour through the city, consumed with desire to park. The
city was so full of machines that there wasn’t room for just one additional
An American small town acquires its character not from its buildings
but from its automobiles and everything that is connected with them—
gasoline stations, repair stations, Ford stores, or General Motors stores.
These attributes apply to all American cities. You may drive a thousand
miles, two thousand, three thousand, natural phenomena will change and
the climate, the watch will have to be moved ahead, but the little town
in which you stop for the night will be exactly the same as the one which
you had seen somewhere two weeks before. Like the previous one, it will
have no pedestrians, there will be as many if not more automobiles parking
at the sidewalk, the signs of drugstores and garages will shine with a
same neons or argons, the principal street will be called, as before, Broad-
way, Main Street or State Street, the only possible difference being that
some of the houses may be built of different materials.
The residential part, or the uptown, is always utterly deserted. The silence
there is broken only by the rustle of the hoods of passing automobiles.
While the men work in the business center, the housewives are busy house-
cleaning. In the one-or two-storied houses vacuum cleaners hiss, furniture
is moved, and the gold frames of photographic portraits are dusted. There
is much work, for there are six or seven room in each house. It is enough
to be in one of them in order to know what furniture will be found in
millions of other such houses, to know even how it would be arranged.
In the disposition of the rooms, of the placing of the furniture, in all those
respects, there is amazing similarity.
The houses and the yards—in which there is the inevitable light garage
made of boards, which is never locked—are never separated by fences.
A cement strip leads from the door of the house to the sidewalk. A thick
layer of fallen leaves lies on the squares of the lawns. The neat little houses
shine under the light of the autumn sun.
At times that section of the residential part where well-to-do people live
produces an astonishing impression. Here is such an idyllic haven of
wealth that it seems as if it were possible only in a fairy tale. Black nurses
in white aprons and caps walk with little gentlemen. Red-haired girls with
blue eyes roll light yellow hoops. Splendid sedans stand beside wealthy
But beside this higher world, quite close, is located the sever iron and
brick business center, the ever-frightful American center of business, where
all the houses look like fire stations, where money is made in order to pro-
vide for the idyllic haven just described. There is such a cruel difference
between these two parts that at first one does not believe they actually are
located in the same city. Alas, they are always together! This is precisely
why the business center is so frightful—because all its strength goes to the
creation of an idyllic haven for people of wealth. One can come to under-
stand quite a lot after a sojourn in a small town. It does not matter where
you see it, whether in the East, the West, or the South. It will be the
The machine flies down the road. Little cities flash by. What pretentious
names! Syracuse, Pompeii, Batavia, Warsaw, Caledonia, Waterloo, Geneva,
Moscow—a lovely little Moscow, where you can get lunch # 2 in a drug-
store, griddle cakes covered with maple syrup, and where for dinner you
are entitled to sweet-salty pickles, where in the motion-picture theater a
film of bandit life is unreeled—a purely American Moscow.
There are several Parises, Londons, there is a Shanghai, a Harbin, and
a score of Petersburgs. There is Moscow in the state of Ohio, and there
are eighteen other Moscows, in other states. One of the Petersburgs has a
hundred thousand population. There are Odessas. It doesn’t matter that
near the Odessas there is not only no Black Sea but not any sea at all. One
is located in the state of Texas. Who was the Odessaite who had wandered
so far? Did he find his happiness there? No one, of course, will ever know
that. There are Naples and Florence. Near Naples, instead of Vesuvius, is
the smokestack of a canning factory, while in Florence it is undoubtedly
quite useless to venture a conversation about frescoes and similar subjects
of little interest and devoid of all possibility of producing a definite income.
But then, in all these cities you can buy the latest model automobile and
electric refrigerator (the dream of the newlyweds), there is hot and cold
water in all the faucets of all the houses, and, if the little town is of slightly
better grade, it has a decent hotel, where in your room you will have
three kinds of water: hot, cold, and iced.
Each city has several churches—Methodist, Congregational, Baptist.
There will inevitably be a many-columned building of the Christian
Science Church. But if you are not a Baptist or a Methodist and do not
believe in Christian Science, then there is nothing for you to do but to go
to a “movie pitcher,” to look at a beautifully photographed, beautifully
sounding motion picture, the contents of which befog your senses with
In every small town are the excellent buildings of elementary and mid-
dle schools. It may even be regarded as a rule that the best building in a
small town will inevitably be a school building. But after school the
boys go to the motion-picture theater, where they watch the adventures
of gangsters, play gangsters in the streets, and tirelessly wield revolvers
and machine guns manufactured in incredible quantities by toy factories.
Everlasting is the automobile and gasoline tedium of small cities.
Many of the rebellious writers of America have come from the small
towns of the Middle West. Theirs is the revolt against sameness, against the
deadly and futile quest of the dollar.
Some of the towns make heroic efforts to distinguish themselves from
their brethren of the same type. Signs are hung at the entrance to the
town, quite, let us say, like signs over the entrance to a store, so that the
customer may know what is being sold there.
And under in verse is written: “Climate best, by government test!”
Here they trade in climate.
The climate may be the best, but the life is the same as in the cities
that have no splendid climate.
Main Street. In large show windows stand automobiles wrapped, for
the occasion of the approaching New Year, in cellophane and tied with
colored ribbons. Behind somewhat smaller windows learned druggists
squeeze the juice out of oranges, or fry eggs with bacon, and through the
heart of the city, not on a mound or over a bridge, but right through the
main street a long freight train passes at full speed. The engine bell swings
and rings out sonorously.
Such is the small town, be it Paris or Moscow or Cairo or one of the
innumerable American Springfields.