(AK/Nabat)Jack Black was your quintessential thieving bum. Starting at age fifteen, and for thirty years, he stole his way through turn-of-the-century United States and Canada. Finally, at age forty-five, after spending much of his life in and out of prison, he went straight and --- with the publication of You Can't Win in 1926 --- became something of a national character, living out his old age in San Francisco, working as, if you will believe it, a librarian.
What a story it is. He rode the rails and lived as a bum. At times, he had enough money to squander everything on faro and dope. At other times, he was too poor to buy a five-cent cup of coffee. He did second-story jobs. He robbed safes and cash registers. He snuck into hotel rooms at three in the morning and pulled wallets out from under sleepers' heads. His meticulous detail is the glue that holds this whole fascinating story together (and gives us a righteous lesson in the etymology of some of our current vocabulary):
The expression "I have him pegged," which has crept into common usage, is thieves' slang pure and simple, and has nothing to do with the game of cribbage as many suppose. The thief, to save himself the trouble of staying up all night watching a spot to make sure no one enters after closing hours, puts a small wooden peg in the door jamb after the place is locked up. At five or six o'clock in the morning he takes a look. If the peg is in place the door has not been opened. If it is found lying in the doorway, that means somebody has opened the door in the night. If he finds the place is visited in the night he must then stay out and learn why and at what time and how often. He now has the place "pegged" and plans accordingly or passes it up as too tough.
You Can't Win is jam-packed with such delicious information --- often reminding us of novelist Samuel Richardson who describes in such loving detail how his young ne'er-do-wells would plot the precise methodology of jimmying locks to reach and deflower the innocent virgin of their choice.
The fascination with this particular picaresque novel grows out of, for one, the vocabulary of the trade: "junk," "stones," "poke," "small book," "yegg," "vag," "chuck," "bum simple," "plant," "get the coin," "hop fiend," "hypos." And the names! The Sanctimonious Kid, Salt Chunk Mary, Soldier Johnnie, Swede Pete, Montana Blacky, Cocky McAllister, Foot-and-a-Half George.
Too, there are the tales of the exacting work spent in casing a joint, planning the procedure, executing it, and then getting the hell out of town (usually having to bury the money or jewelry in case of a search, and return later to retrieve it).
Black says that if readers ever have any thoughts about going into the thievery business --- think of what it is like to have to go into someone else's house at 2 a.m.: crack the back door --- leaving it wedged open in case of the need for a quick escape --- go up the stairs (hoping they don't creak), enter a room where someone is sleeping, go through the drawers and closets while that someone is snoring, three feet away from you. You don't know if the sleeper has a gun, or a violent mastiff --- and even if you get out the door without being murdered, half of your work has just begun, because if you got jewelery, it has to be fenced, and fenced in such a way that you will never be traced.
There are some passages that reach high, almost comic, art. For instance, at the time, one of the punishments in the provinces of Canada was The Lash:
It would not be fair to the reader for me to attempt a detailed description of this flogging. In writing these chronicles I have tried to be fair, reasonable, and rational, and rather than chance misleading anybody by overstating the case I will touch only the high points and leave out the details. No hangman can describe an execution where he has officiated. The best he can do is to describe his end of it, and you have but a one-sided case. The man at a whipping post or tripod can't relate all the details of his beating fully and fairly. He can't see what's going on behind him, and that's where most of the goings-on are...
Furthermore, he does not approach the subject with that impersonal, detached mental attitude so necessary to correct observing and reporting. Mentally he is out of focus, and his perspective is blurred...If I could go away to some lonely, desolate spot and concentrate deeply enough I might manage to put myself in the flogging master's place and make a better job of reporting the matter. But that would entail a mental strain I hesitate to accept, and I doubt if the result would justify the effort.
What Black does by refusing to describe the flogging is to make it even more painful for the reader; and when he describes the result, we see it in artful perspective:
...he beat me like a balky horse, and I took it like one --- with my ears laid back and my teeth bared. All the philosophy and logic and clear reasoning I had got out of books and meditation in my two years were beaten out of me in thirty seconds, and I went out of that room foolishly hating everything a foot high.
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If nothing else, we must be nostalgic for the world that Black lived in. Most cops were on the take --- and sometimes they were generous with their charges --- letting prisoners go if they talked hard enough and fast enough; jails were usually one-room affairs, in which the sheriff's wife did the cooking for the prisoners; cities like San Francisco, Vancouver, Seattle --- even Salt Lake City --- were wide open. There was, he claims, an honor among thieves --- and those who were held in highest regard were beggars who were missing an arm, or a leg.
Black spent the last few years of his life speaking and writing on prison reform. Some of the causes he championed --- the end of flogging, the discontinuation of the use of the strait-jacket, the use of parole to encourage good prisoner behavior --- came to pass. But as Michael Disend points out in the "Afterword," these progressive changes are quickly being vitiated by those who feel more comfortable with the American police state. With a full 2,000,000 people in jail or on parole, Black's heartfelt work is being rapidly undone, and his efforts for reform have, by now, largely been erased.--- Sarah Teale