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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 Eleven…

  The Small Town

   

    

     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

Drugstore.”

     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

drugs.

     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

shelf of books. They were all novels: Sinning Is Man’s Game, The Flame

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

customary.

     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-

sions.

     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

machine.

     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

houses.

     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

same.

     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

their foolishness.

     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.

     “Redwood City!”

     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.