When young Ben Hecht came to Chicago in 1910 his journalistic tools were the blunt
instruments of scandal-mongering, moral outrage and muckraking verse. Ten years after his Titanic protest rhyme “Master and Man,” Hecht had mastered needle-precision in his literary persuasion. Vox Populi insidiously voices outrage against the way the U. S. Congress treated its war veterans.
The context of the story is the aftermath of World War I, whose American veterans were not initially provided government pensions. And it was a nasty war leaving thousands of invalids poisoned by gas and deranged by the trauma of shellfire. The body of the Unknown Soldier had been lain to rest ceremoniously by Congress in 1920 two years before, but Congress, presumptively the Voice of the People, had not passed a bill for a cash settlement to vets. In fact, the bill for the Veteran’s Bonus languished for ten years after Hecht’s story in the Chicago Daily News. In 1932 tens of thousands of veterans marched on Washington in a “Bonus Army.” After months of camping out on the Washington Mall, a health emergency loomed and they were finally dispersed by US troops led by Douglas MacArthur. The bonus passed in 1934.
Some twelve years before, Hecht wrote Vox Populi, about a veteran he saw begging at the Chicago subway station. Florice Whyte Kovan.
Kovan interprets the meanings in the story in The Ben Hecht Story & News Below, inlay and Centerfolio cover from the original series of The Ben Hecht Story and News, March 2000.
Take this man away. He annoys me. I have worked hard all day. I have troubles of my own. Unpaid bills and a sick kid. And now when I’m going home, now when I would like a few minutes rest and forgetfulness looking out of the I. C. window at the lake___ this man in his khaki overcoat: this man in front of the I.C. station I don’t like this man,. Take him away, He annoys me.
. . . I don’t like the way he looks at me. And I don’t like his khaki overcoat. There should be a law against his wearing khaki. I remember them marching down Michigan avenue. There was something sacred about the color of khaki. And they ought to make a law against beggars wearing khaki.
. . . I don’t want any Easter cards. I never buy Easter cards. And I ain’t going to be bullied into buying something I don’t want. How can I help it if the country ain’t looked after the ex-soldier. I ain’t a wholesaler.
I got unpaid bills and a sick kid and I’m tired as the devil of the same old grind day in and day out. And they oughtn’t to let him stand there right at the entrance to the I.C. station, where you can’t miss him; standing there and asking you to buy Easter cards from an ex-soldier who ain’t got a job. No sir, I don’t like the way he looks at me. I don’t like his khaki overcoat. . . It was the same last evening when I went home, There he was. There he stood. Maybe he’s a faker, I figured. But then I looked back at him and I figured not. You can tell a faker by his eyes. And this one has blue eyes. He looked straight at me. A grin started on his lips. He looked straight at me and whispered, “Easter cards, buddie, buy some-a my Easter cards.”
. . And I didn’t buy any, I don’t know why. I was going to. But I didn’t want to stop and talk to him. I didn’t want to hand a man in a khaki overcoat a dime. And I couldn’t afford any more. I had to keep carfare for the next morning. Aw, take this man away. He annoys me. I don’t like his khaki overcoat. I got troubles of my own. Make some law against beggars wearing overcoats.
* * *
He was there again this morning when I come to work and I’ve changed my mind. He’s a faker. It was bad enough before when he called, “Buddie, buy some Easter cards,” but this morning he stood there with a grin on his face. I slowed up as I passed him. I’d brought a quarter along figuring to hand it to him and do my duty by the ex-soldiers of our country. After all, it was the soldiers who won the war and saved the world for democracy. And if it hadn’t been for their great victory we would never have put an end to all future wars.
. . . And now when I come alongside of him and go to stop, he turns his eyes on me and grins. I didn’t like the way he grins. It was an insult. As if I was to blame for him being a beggar. Why don’t he get a job like I got. I was going to give him a piece of my mind. Tell him what I thought of him. (Scroll up to column on right)
But he kept on grinning. I had the quarter in my hand and I decided to give it to him for one of the Easter cards.
. . . “Hello, Buddie,” I said. And I stopped. And he looked at me and laughed as if I’d said something funny. I couldn’t understand what he was laughing about. I ain’t going to allow any bum in a khaki overcoat or not to laugh at me like that. Merely because I called him, “Hello Buddie.” looked at me like that and when I stopped to hand him all I could afford. He oughtn't to have laughed at me. He’d of had my two bits if he hadn’t been so smart and laughed at me. I wish there was a law against ex-soldiers dragging the uniform in the mire by using it as a cloak for their begging. If they got to beg they should ought to be made to do so not in the uniform of the soldiers who fought and made the great sacrifice in the war.
* * *
Dr. Pendergast telephoned from the county hospital to-day.
“We got an interesting case here,” he said. “An ex-soldier suffering from shell shock was brought in. He’d been starving for a week and trying to pick up some money selling Easter postal cards around town.
“He wasn’t all there, of course. Owing to the shock he hadn’t recovered from. Yesterday noon he tumbled over and they brought him here. He’s dying now. You ought to come out and see him.. Get a good story from him. His mind’s pretty well gone and he don’t know his name and there isn’t a mark of identification on him. He just lies here and looks at the ceiling.
“Oh yes. He was in the war all right. A highly developed case of shell shock. Yes, that’s right. Relatives? None. We don’t know where to begin to locate his relatives, not knowing his name. Yes, of course, the county will have to bury him. Do that often out here . A lot of people who die we can’t identify and they’re buried in nameless graves.
“What? That’s a good idea. The Unknown Soldier, eh? That’s right. There isn’t much of a difference between him and the one they buried in Washington with all the salutes and generals and presidents around. Better come out and talk to him or look at him. No, there won’t be any funeral. We’ll just bury him, probably in a couple of days. He should die to-morrow.
“By the way, there’s one or two points that might help. The Easter cards he was trying to sell are a crazy collection. Some of them are photographs of castles on the Rhine and some are half smutty picture postals and there a lot of old Christmas cards and some valentines.
“And, oh yes, when we undressed him there was a locket hanging under his shirt. It was made out of brass and had the name “Antoinette” scratched on it. That’s right, the funeral will be strictly private. But if you come out I’ll drink a sarsaparilla with you to the memory of___”
Central cut us off. But the story is by this time there is one less beggar in the world.
Read more about the story in The Ben Hecht Story & News Compiled, ed. Florice Whyte Kovan. isbn 0966770927 or issn 1629-0611.