Had it not been for the screaming of his lungs for air, Jacob Riis would have gladly held his breath in this part of town. He would have rather denied himself oxygen for the hour or more he needed to be here than endure the stinging stench of un-bathed human bodies, dead rotting animals, and streets used as lavatories. Staring at the squalor around him, bulky camera in hand, he resisted the urge to raise his free hand to his nose.
The streets and shaky, brick tenements looked as if they had been doused in a rainstorm of dust and ash. Bricks were loose, windows were either broken out or too filthy to see through, and unidentifiable garbage was strewn along the road and alleyways. Jacob inhaled deliberately and coughed as he felt particles of fine dust traveling through his nostrils and subtly scratching his lungs.
Thus was the atmosphere of the east side New York slums.
Adjusting his rounded spectacles to a higher position on his nose, Riis turned solemnly to his assistant. “Breathe it in, John. That lack of fresh air, that putrid scent of filth. That represents the wretched life that these residents are forced to live each day.”
John Nagle shook his head in awe, his own flash-bulb camera in his hands. “I see now why you are so adamant about exposing these conditions with your journalism.”
“Photojournalism. I have no doubt that our pictures will add ten times the impact to my simple articles.” He patted his friend on the shoulder. “Thank you for your willingness to help.”
“Not a problem, Jacob. If just one of these photos we feature in the newspaper could open people’s eyes in the middle and upper classes ... well, I’d like to know I had a part in creating better circumstances for the poor.”
“And you will. Together we will work to make this air breathable for its residents. The streets will be clean and the children will have a place to play.”
Jacob’s eyes roamed to the cluttered sidewalk ahead. Dusk was setting in and a few exhausted street urchins had already curled up together in a cramped corner. Carefully dodging a muddy puddle, he crept to the corner, positioned his camera, and snapped a shot. The children looked up, startled.
“It’s alright.” He smiled reassuringly.
Spinning around, he nearly knocked into a small boy standing behind him.
“Need a paper, Mister?” The boy raised a crumpled newspaper with his grubby hand.
“Thank you, young man, but I already ...”
“Only a penny. It got’s all da latest happenings.”
Jacob paused, entranced by the deep, blue eyes peering at him from behind grimy strands of chestnut hair. He knelt to meet the boy’s gaze while reaching into his pocket. “You know, I was just thinking that I need another paper for my friend.”
He pulled out a coin. The boy grabbed it, shoved the newspaper at his customer, and darted into an alley.
“Wait! I’d like to ask you something!” Jacob dashed after him, twisting around crates and rusty fire-escape ladders; winding through a maze of buildings and alleys.
In a few minutes his lungs were burning. He gulped at the air, sucking in mouthfuls of it, and willing his body not to slow down. But the little tramp had all the speed and endurance of a wild rabbit. With his sides ablaze and his chest heaving, Jacob finally had to surrender the chase.
As the boy disappeared down a long alley, Jacob leaned over and rested his hands on his knees, panting heavily. Gulps of oxygen rushed down his throat and began to calm his racing heart.
“Hey, Mister, whad’ja want with George?”
He turned to see another boy, about the same age, perched atop a wooden crate.
“Well ... I wanted to ask him some questions.”
“His age. Where he lives. Things I could use as examples in my newspaper article.”
“Oh, that’s easy. He’s eight years old and ain’t got no home. Works on the streets like most of us. Buildings are too stuffy to stay in.”
“You sleep on the streets all the time?”
“Yeah, we try to find hideaways to sneak in during winter, but mostly we stay out here. Even though it smells awful.” He frowned. “Anyway, why do you need to know?”
“Because I want to purify this air, son.” He filled his nostrils with another breath of dust and rotten odors. “I want to purify it with change.”
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