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On Livelihoods
by [?]

Somewhere in his letters, I think, Stevenson pronounces street paving to be his favorite occupation. I fancy, indeed,–and I have ransacked his life,–that he never applied himself to its practice for an actual livelihood. That was not necessary. Rather, he looked on at the curb in a careless whistling mood, hands deep in the pockets of his breeks, in a lazy interval between plot and essay. The sunny morning had dropped its golden invitation through his study windows, and he has wandered forth to see the world. Let my heroes–for thus I interpret him at his desk as the sunlight beckoned–let my heroes kick their heels in patience! Let villains fret inside the inkpot! Down, sirs, down, into the glossy magic pool, until I dip you up! Pirates–for surely such miscreants lurked among his papers–let pirates, he cries, save their red oaths until tomorrow! My hat! My stick!

It was thus, then, as an amateur that Stevenson looked on street paving–the even rows of cobbles, the nice tapping to fit the stones against the curb, the neat joint around the drain. And yet, unpardonably, he neglects the tarpot; and this seems the very soul of the business, the finishing touch–almost culinary, as when a cook pours on a chocolate sauce.

I remember pleasantly when our own street was paved. There had been laid a waterpipe, deep down where the earth was yellow–surely gold was near–and several of us young rascals climbed in and out in the twilight when work was stopped. By fits we were both mountaineers and miners. There was an agreeable gassy smell as if we neared the lower regions. Here was a playground better than the building of a barn, even with its dizzy ladders and the scaffolding around the chimney. Or we hid in the great iron pipes that lay along the gutters, and followed our leader through them home from school. But when the pipes were lowered into place and the surface was cobbled but not yet sanded, then the tarpot yielded gum for chewing. At any time after supper a half dozen of us–blacker daubs against the darkness–might have been seen squatting on the stones, scratching at the tar. Blackjack, bought at the corner, had not so full a flavor. But one had to chew forward in the mouth–lightly, lest the tar adhere forever to the teeth.

And yet I am not entirely in accord with Stevenson in his preference.

And how is it, really, that people fall into their livelihoods? What circumstance or necessity drives them? Does choice, after all, always yield to a contrary wind and run for any port? Is hunger always the helmsman? How many of us, after due appraisal of ourselves, really choose our own parts in the mighty drama?–first citizen or second, with our shrill voices for a moment above the crowd–first citizen or second–brief choristers, except for vanity, against a painted scene. How runs the rhyme?–rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief; doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief! And a robustious fellow with great voice, and lace and sword, strutting forward near the lights.

Meditating thus, I frequently poke about the city in the end of afternoon “when the mind of your man of letters requires some relaxation.” I peer into shop windows, not so much for the wares displayed as for glimpses of the men and women engaged in their disposal. I watch laborers trudging home with the tired clink of their implements and pails. I gaze into cellarways where tailor and cobbler sit bent upon their work–needle and peg, their world–and through fouled windows into workrooms, to learn which livelihoods yield the truest happiness. For it is, on the whole, a whistling rather than a grieving world, and like little shouts among the hills is laughter echoed in the heart.

I can well understand how one can become a baker or even a small grocer with a pencil behind his ear. I could myself honestly recommend an apple–an astrachan for sauces–or, in the season, offer asparagus with something akin to enthusiasm. Cranberries, too, must be an agreeable consort of the autumn months when the air turns frosty. I would own a cat with a dusty nose to rub along the barrels and sleep beneath the stove. I would carry dried meats in stock were it only for the electric slicing machine. And whole cheeses! Or to a man of romantic mind an old brass shop may have its lure. To one of musty turn, who would sit apart, there is something to be said for the repair of violins and ‘cellos. At the least he sweetens discord into melody.