By O. Henry
(Abridged and adapted)
On his bench in Madison Square in New York, Soapy, a poor homeless man, moved nervously. It had become much colder than before. He was nervous about the coming winter, and how he would manage his life on the streets.
A dead leaf fell off a tree onto Soapy's lap. This was a message – a warning that winter was approaching. This was a message that homeless people should prepare themselves for the coming winter.
Soapy understood that the time has come to prepare for a cold winter. He needed to plan what to do next. So, he nervously moved on his bench.
Soapy didn’t have a lot of options. He was not rich, so he could not go to a warm place like Italy or Hawaii. Three months in prison on the Island was what he wanted. Three months of food and a bed and friendly company. He would be safe from cold winds and life on the street. This is what he wanted.
The rich people in New York had bought their tickets to go to warm beaches. Soapy too had to make his arrangements. On the previous night, three Sunday newspapers had failed to keep him warm on the bench. He looked forward to a small, warm room in the Island prison.
Soapy, having decided to go to the Island, at once set about his plan. There were many easy ways of doing this. He needed to get arrested by the police for committing a crime. The most pleasant way to do this was to eat at an expensive restaurant. Then, when he couldn’t pay for the meal he would be handed to a policeman. A judge in court would do the rest.
Soapy left his bench and walked away from the square. He stopped at a very nice restaurant, where every night you could find the best drinks and food.
Soapy had total confidence in himself. He had shaved, and his coat was clean and he had a nice black tie. If he could reach a table in the restaurant without getting thrown out, success would be his. He would order a roasted duck, a cup of espresso and a cigar. After he finished he would say that he couldn’t pay. Then they would arrest him – the first step to getting into prison.
But as soon as Soapy entered the restaurant, the waiter noticed his dirty trousers and worn out shoes. Strong hands turned him about and pushed him out of the restaurant. There would be no duck.
Disappointed, Soapy walked away. He must think of another way of breaking the law so he could enter the nice, warm jail on the Island.
At a corner of Sixth Avenue, Soapy took a stone and threw it at a shop window, breaking it into a thousand pieces. People came running around the corner. A policeman came up to Soapy and asked, "Where's the man who did that?"
"Don't you think that I might have done it?" said Soapy.
The policeman did not even consider the possibility. Men who break windows do not stay around to talk about it with the police. They usually run away as fast as they can. The policeman saw a man some distance away running to catch a taxi. He ran after the man. Soapy, with sadness in his heart, went away. He had been unsuccessful twice!
There was a cheap restaurant on the opposite side of the street. This restaurant served people who wanted to eat a lot but had little money. It was crowded. At a table, he sat and ate steak, donuts, and a pie. When he finished he told the waiter that he didn’t have any money to pay for the food. He added:
"Now, do what you have to and call a policeman. Don't keep a gentleman waiting."
"No policeman for you," said the waiter, with a tough voice.
Two waiters threw Soapy onto the dusty sidewalk outside the restaurant. He got up slowly and beat the dust from his clothes. The prison on the Island seemed very far away. A policeman who stood outside a pharmacy two doors away laughed and walked down the street.
Soapy continued to walk for a little while before he was ready to commit a new crime. This time, the opportunity looked very simple. A young and pretty woman was standing in front of a shop window, looking at the goods inside. A large policeman was standing two meters away.
Soapy walked toward the young woman. He smiled at her and acted in a very rude way. Soapy saw that the policeman was watching him carefully. The young woman moved away a few steps and continued to look inside the shop window. Soapy followed her and said:
"Hey there sweetheart! Do you want to talk?"
The policeman was still looking. The young woman only needed to look at the policeman and Soapy would be on his way to the Island. The young woman faced him and, extending a hand said:
“Sure, Mike, How about you take me to a coffee shop? I wanted to speak to your earlier but the policeman was watching us."
Greatly disappointed and angry, Soapy walked past the policeman with the woman.
At the next corner, Soapy left the woman and ran. He came into a district of restaurants and theaters.
Rich women and men, nicely dressed, walked around. A sudden idea came to Soapy. When he came to another policeman who was standing in front of a theater, he decided that he would try to commit the crime of “disorderly conduct” – behaving in a bad way.
He began to shout. He danced, shouted and talked wildly.
The policeman looked at him, and then turned his back to Soapy and said to a man walking by,
"It’s one of those Yale students celebrating their win in the football against Harvard. They are noisy, but they are harmless. We have been told not to arrest them."
Soapy stopped his noise. He felt disappointed again. Would a policeman never arrest him? The Island seemed like a dream that he could never arrive at.
In a small store, he saw a well-dressed man lighting a cigarette. Soapy stepped inside, took the umbrella which was there on a stand and walked off with it slowly. The man who owned the umbrella followed him quickly.
"My umbrella," he said, angrily.
"Oh, is it? Well, why don't you call a policeman? I took it! Look, a policeman is standing on the corner."
The umbrella man slowed down. Soapy did the same. The policeman looked at the two men.
“Of course,” said the umbrella man—“that is—well, you know how these mistakes occur—I—if it's your umbrella I hope you'll excuse me—I picked it up this morning in a restaurant—If you recognize it as yours, why—I hope you'll—”
"Of course it's mine," said Soapy, angrily.
The other man went away, and the policeman turned away.
Soapy walked eastward. He threw the umbrella away. He hated policemen. They seemed to treat him as a king who could do no wrong.
He started walking toward Madison Square towards his bench.
But on a quiet corner Soapy stopped. He saw an old church. He saw a light through the window. An organist was playing some music. Soapy liked the music. He stopped and listened.
The moon was shining beautifully in the sky. There were no people around. There were no cars. And the music that the organist played made Soapy stop. He remembered the days when his life contained family, flowers, ambitions, friends, good thoughts and nice people.
The music made a great change occur within Soapy. He thought with shame of the terrible life he had lived over the past few years: the bad days, dead hopes and wrong decisions.
And his heart responded to this new emotion. An immediate and strong desire moved him to fight against his present lifestyle. He must change it!
He would pull himself out of his sad life. He would make a new man of himself. There was time. He was still young. He could go back to work. This beautiful and sweet organ music had changed his heart and his mind! Tomorrow he would find a job. He could get a job as a driver. He would be somebody in the world. He would—
Soapy felt a hand on his arm. He looked around into the face of a policeman.
"What are you doing here?" asked the officer.
"Nothing," said Soapy.
"Come along with me," said the policeman.
"Three months on the Island, for loitering with intent", said the judge in the Police Court the next morning.
Abridged and adapted from the original version by Dr. Algirdas Makarevicius:
The Cop and the Anthem, by O. Henry