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Old-time radio, 3 August: The Unusual Underground

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“[A] humorous, pathetic and extremely interesting excursion into ways of life as strange to most gainfully employed citizens as those of Papuan head-hunters.” So wrote Orville Prescott in The New York Times of Edmund G. Love’s Subways are for Sleeping, a book he expanded from a staggering Harper‘s article in March 1956, just months before perhaps the last of the great old-time radio dramatic anthologies brought it to the air.

Love addressed an issue that wouldn’t become a full-blown sociopolitical cause celebre for another couple of decades. His direct impetus was New York City having been scandalised in the early-to-mid 1950s by a revelation that the city’s subways turned out to be populated by a small but peculiarly profound class of homeless people. Love himself had been one. He spend a period sleeping on the subways himself, when unable to afford a night’s lodging while making his way as a freelance writer.

Once a soldier who served in World War II before leading a group composing histories of the Pacific theater of the war after its end, Love wrote the original Harper’s article from inside the scandal’s immediacy. He focused not on himself, however, but on one vagrant, Henry Shelby. Like Love himself, Shelby barely fit the stereotype of the disheveled down-and-outer.

Henry Shelby, today, is forty-one years old, but looks at least five years younger. He is five feet, eleven and one-half inches tall, weighs 162 pounds. His hair is black but thinning, and his eyes are a deep blue. He has no disfigurements, and his bearing is good. The key to his personality lies in his eyes which express the depth of his feeling, or a quiet humor, depending upon his mood. When he is deep in thought, or troubled, he is apt to trace patterns on the floor, or in the dirt, with the toe of his shoe. At other times he moves briskly, and with some of the grace and sureness of an athlete.

He is a graduate of the University of Michigan with a master’s degree in economics. He also holds a life teacher’s certificate in the state of Michigan and was, at one time, a teacher in the public schools of Lansing. His master’s degree studies were concentrated in the field of accounting procedure, and for four years after World War II, he was an accountant with the Post Office Department in Washington. His associates there consider him an excellent man in this field, and at least two of them say that he could probably qualify as a certified public accountant. In addition to these qualifications, he is experienced and capable in the field of public relations, where his approach has been described as “fresh” and “honest.”

The city of New York has long been noted for the number and variety of its vagrants. Estimates as to the number of homeless and penniless men and women run from a conservative 10,000 to somewhere around half a million. Vagrants in other parts of the United States are a migratory lot, usually moving with the weather, but the New York variety stay put, occupying park benches, flop houses, gutters, and doorways in all seasons. There are many who possess qualifications as rich as Henry Shelby’s. There are many who are literally human derelicts living out their days in a drunken stupor, waiting for an obscure death in the river or a ward at Bellevue. In between there are as many gradations as there are strata in normal society. Almost the only things all vagrants have in common are a hard luck story and an air of bewilderment. Not all of them have lost hope.

Henry Shelby is not a hopeless man, but he is certainly bewildered. He himself describes his present life as treading water, waiting to see how things come out. “In the meantime,” he says, “I’m getting along all right. I’m perfectly happy.”

In his months as a vagrant he has become an expert at management and has learned to put first things first. In his case this means food, cleanliness, and shelter, in that order. He prides himself on the fact that he has never panhandled, never visited a soup kitchen, or taken a night’s lodging in one of the various hostels maintained by charitable agencies in the city. He has accepted handouts, but he can recall only one instance where anyone ever stepped up to him and gave him money: One night in the middle of winter he noticed advertisements for the premiere of a motion picture at a Broadway theater. He arrived early and took up a prominent position against the ropes under the marquee. As he stood there, watching the celebrities arrive in their limousines, a man came over to him and placed an unfolded ten dollar bill in his hand.

Shelby has never been completely penniless except for one very brief period when he left New York. He has set fifteen cents, which represents subway fare, as the absolute minimum below which he will not allow his finances to sink. He has no maximum, but rarely possesses more than thirty dollars, which represents about one week’s salary at present minimum levels. He acquires his money in a variety of ways. He is able to pick up a day’s work here and there, carrying sandwich boards, working as a roustabout on the waterfront, washing dishes in cheap restaurants, shoveling snow for the city.

When expanding the article into the book, Love fell upon, among others, Mitts Flanagan, a wealthy businessman and St. Bonaventure graduate who left his Boston area home and family periodically for adventures and hustles along New York’s demimonde; Charlie Knutsen, a city nomad whose specialty was assorted small labour jobs and finding lodging in other people’s apartments while trying to find work as a singer; Martha Grant, a woman haunted by medical maladies whose favourite technique to keep from being evicted from assorted hotels was to dress in nothing but two towels; Sam Victor, a one-time ballplayer and barkeep who managed to acquire six wives, a promiscuous gambling habit, and a lifetime of street savvy; George Spoker, a banker whose family abandoned him after he went to prison for embezzlement and eventually amassed a small fortune running snacks to assorted city dwellers while living like the bum he’d decided to become if his family and old friends thought so of him; and others.

From Subways are for Sleeping, Lowe went to a distinguished career as a non-fiction author. He wrote well-received books about his family’s endurance in Depression-era Michigan (Hanging On), a recollection of the Pacific war (War is a Private Affair), and a boy’s passion for trains at the turn of the 20th Century (The Situation in Flushing), among others. He died in his native Flint, Michigan in 1990, at 78.

The CBS Radio Workshop: Subways are for Sleeping (CBS, 1956)

As in Harper’s, the specific tonight is Henry Shelby (Byron Kane), cultivated and well-educated, a one-time Michigan teacher and Postal Service accountant who now lives purely by his wits. (And, as it happens, his wit.) Shelby works when he’s moved to work or when his modest monies run out. Essentially, in this telling, he soaks in a kind of active education he implies having had to miss if he’d chosen to remain in his former, conventional lifestyle.

As in Love’s original article and eventual book, it’s the sober, matter-of-fact understatement here that makes the story even more jarring than the reality it reveals, even if the book would reveal something a little more to homelessness, even in the 1950s, than its activists beginning toward the end of the 20th Century often prefer to believe.

The strangely cheerful postscript: Not long after tonight’s broadcast, Henry Shelby would stumble into work as a teacher north of New York City. One hopes he went from there to a fine, secure career.

Additional cast: Sarah Selby, Helaine Burke, Edwin Bruce, Frank Erstel, Cort Falkenburg, Tony Barrett, Ted Bliss, Alan Reed. Narrator: William Keneally. Announcer: Unidentified. Music: Fred Steiner. Director: William N. Robson. Writer: Fran Van Hardesvelt, adapted from the article by Edmund G. Love.

Further Channel Surfing . . .

Suspense: A Friend to Alexander (Mystery/Thriller; CBS, 1943)
Vic & Sade: Russell Reminisces (Comedy; NBC, 1944)
The Jack Paar Show: Buying a House (Comedy; NBC, 1947)
Quiet, Please: Inquest (Fantasy; Mutual, 1947)
Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: Gumshoe Flaherty (Improvisational comedy; lemme think, 1959)

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