Benjamin Mehlig, a small man with an office at 132 Fulton Street, who had a habit of leaving the West Side Interborough subway at 157th Street and Broadway every evening at a little before 6 o’clock, set his teeth firmly together yesterday afternoon, looked a squad of subway guards firmly in the eye and started what may become a Movement.
Life in New York is like that. A plain citizen leaves his place of business immersed in conventional affairs. His thoughts are on this or that; his job, income tax, crossword puzzle, the price of a new overcoat, or what he has forgotten that his wife told him to be sure and remember. Then without warning the Fates seize him and hurl him for a loss square in the middle of a revolution, a banditry, a fire or a Movement.
No vast impulses yeasted within the soul of Benjamin Mehlig as he boarded a subway train to Pennsylvania Station at a little after 5 o’clock last night. He wished to go home. A train came along empty, having been run through for the benefit of the midtown rush hour crowds. Benjamin Mehlig was among the surge, wishing merely to go home. He noted that the train was marked Van Cortlandt Park, and Benjamin Mehlig’s heart was lifted within him. It was his train and it was empty!
Benjamin Mehlig’s moment was at hand. But had some prophet, gifted with vision, whispered into his ear, “Benjamin, you are shortly to achieve something that Napoleon never even thought of attempting,” he would have said, “Go away, you nut,” or words to that effect.
The ten-car train was quickly filled. Times Square added a quota to the grand 5 o’clock shove. Seventy-second Street decanted merely a handful, and others took their places. Benjamin Mehlig read his Wall Street edition and wondered what was for supper.
At Ninety-sixth Street a guard poked his head into the car and shouted something that sounded to Benjamin Mehlig like “Awsingeackwowshoawlwow!” Benjamin’s interest was merely casual until he observed a general restlessness among his fellow passengers.
“What did he say?” asked Benjamin Mehlig, whose great moment was even now upon him.
“He said,” a neighbor replied with bitterness, “that we should all change at 103d Street because this train is going to the car barns.”
Benjamin Mehlig pondered this for a while. He was not surprised. It had happened to him before. But somehow this time was different. The soul of Benjamin Mehlig was in revolt. He felt filled with fire. He arose in his seat and shouted at the guard. Benjamin Mehlig, the small man of 132 Fulton Street, yelled at a subway guard!
“Hey, you!” said Benjamin Mehlig, “what is this?”
“Yawlsingecawwahbaw,” the guard replied, and Benjamin Mehlig said:
The guard tottered and caught at the door frame for support. He shook his head, puzzled. It appeared to his bewildered senses that the small Benjamin Mehlig was in revolt. That there was, in fact, a mutiny on board. Yet . . . impossible, surely.
The guard came into the car and addressed Benjamin Mehlig, whose strange conduct was now beginning to excite the interest of the other passengers.
“Whaddidyuh say-y-y?” demanded the guard.
Benjamin Mehlig stood up.
“I said like hell,” replied Benjamin Mehlig. “That’s what I said. What do you think of that? Like hell I’ll change at 103d Street. I’m going to 157th Street. That’s where I’m going.”
“Ho!” said the guard. “Not on this train, brother, you ain’t.”
“Ho!” said Benjamin Mehlig, climbing on a seat. “But I am. On this train. An’ don’t you call me brother, you—you subway guard.”
The train had stopped. It was 103d Street. The passengers gathered around Benjamin Mehlig, who stood on his seat in a corner. Other passengers sensing a murder or a hold-up or some other mildly exciting vicarious adventure, crowded from other cars. People who had left the train got back on. Benjamin Mehlig was now making a speech.
“You’re a lot of sheep,” said Benjamin Mehlig, the small man. “That’s what you are—a lot of sheep. You let a subway guard tell you where to get off the train. You paid your fares, didn’t you? You paid to go wherever it is you’re going to, didn’t you? You’re a lot of sheep—all but me. I’m not a sheep. I’m going to stay on this train until it gets to 157th Street. Thank God, I’m not a sheep.”
“Yuh look like one,” said the guard bitterly.
“I would rather,” said Benjamin Mehlig gazing coldly down at the guard—he was still standing on the seat—“look like a sheep than like a subway guard.”
Benjamin Mehlig was applauded by the other passengers. The Movement was begun. Other protestants arrived. There were cheers for Benjamin Mehlig, who, standing on his seat, implored every one not to be a sheep.
More guards arrive. The Interborough held a conference. The guard who had originally encountered Benjamin Mehlig’s Movement favored an immediate slaughter with as much mayhem as possible thrown in. Calmer counsels prevailed.
“We’ll take you people to 110th Street,” the spokesman of the guards’ conference conceded at last. You’ll have to get off there. This train is going to the car barns.”
“No,” said Benjamin Mehlig. “Only the sheep will get off at 110th Street. I am not a sheep.”
The train moved to 110th Street. Some passengers left. They were going to 110th Street anyway. Benjamin Mehlig remained, remarking at frequent intervals that he was not a sheep.
Another conference and a further compromise. The train would go to 137th Street. Cheers. Mr. Mehlig, the small man, announced that he was prepared to tell the world that he was not a sheep.
At 137th Street every one left the train except Benjamin Mehlig and two others. The faithful disciples of the anti-sheep movement on the subway who stood by the grand old flag were Arthur Weiner, of 134 West 180th Street, and Eleanor Booth Simmons, a writer and suffragist, who was going to Dyckman Street and who also is not a sheep.
The crowd at 137th Street cheered Benjamin Mehlig, Arthur Weiner and Eleanor Booth Simmons. They cheered for themselves. They jeered the guard and the Interborough and the turnstiles and the slot machines. Jeers, cheers; and Benjamin Mehlig, standing on his seat, declining to be a sheep.
“You gotta get out,” announced the guards’ conference.
“At 157th Street,” said Benjamin Mehlig. “Don’t kid yourselves that I’m a sheep.”
“We’ll put you out,” said the guards’ conference, and the voice of the original guard was heard lifted above all the rest begging to be allowed to get at him.
“You lay a finger on me,” said Benjamin Mehlig, “and you’ll hear from my lawyers. I got lawyers. Sheep haven’t got lawyers, but me, I ain’t a sheep.”
The train continued. Ten cars. Three passengers, one of them Mr. Mehlig, but none of them sheep.
The train roared through 145th Street and howled into 157th Street. The brakes shrieked. The train, all ten cars of it, came to a stop. The doors were flung open.
Benjamin Mehlig walked out.
“I hope you choke,” shouted the guard.
“I am not a sheep,” announced Benjamin Mehlig, and went home to supper.