In "The Cop and the Anthem," why did Soapy move uneasily on his bench in Madison Square?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The Cop and the Anthem" is one of O. Henry's best and most frequently anthologized short stories. Typically of his stories, it is set in New York City. Soapy is characterized as a thoroughly experienced vagrant who sleeps on a park bench in Madison Square. He has one bench which he considers his own, and he knows when he can sleep there and when a patrolman is likely to be coming along to roust all his fellow vagrants by a rap on the feet with a billy club. The opening paragraph contains the following phrase:

...and when Soapy moves uneasily on his bench in the park, you may know that winter is near at hand.

Soapy has been living this way for years. He knows all the ins and outs of living on the streets. No doubt he eats in soup kitchens and store-front rescue missions. He is also certainly an experienced panhandler. When winter comes, he is in the habit of getting himself sentenced to three months in jail on Blackwell's Island on the open-ended charge of vagrancy or loitering. O. Henry treats his subject humorously and poetically, but the issue is extremely serious for his character Soapy because he could freeze to death in the harsh New York winter.

This is an example of O. Henry's tongue-in-cheek poetic style:

A dead leaf fell in Soapy's lap. That was Jack Frost's card. Jack is kind to the regular denizens of Madison Square, and gives fair warning of his annual call.

An indication of how cold it is getting is contained in one sentence:

On the previous night three Sabbath newspapers, distributed beneath his coat, about his ankles and over his lap, had failed to repulse the cold as he slept on his bench near the spurting fountain in the ancient square.

It used to be a common practice for homeless men to use newspapers to preserve their own body warmth. They would stuff papers wherever they would fit under their clothes and secure very effective insulation. What O. Henry means by "Sabbath newspapers" is Sunday newspapers, not religious newspapers. The newspapers cost Soapy nothing because so many were discarded after their purchasers had read them. The newspapers were the dominant medium of mass communication in O. Henry's day. There was no television and not even radio. The Sunday papers cost a little extra and were enormous. The major Sunday papers were made up of many different sections, including Sports, Society, Business, and Claffifieds, and they must have weighed four or five pounds. If Soapy had three complete New York City Sunday newspapers stuffed inside his clothes and spread out like blankets over his ankles and lap, he must have been heavily protected--and yet he could still feel the biting cold through all that insulation.

O. Henry had spent time in prison and knew what it was like to be down and out in a big city. He published his stories in those same New York newspapers that served as winter protection for the poorest of the poor. Another man who wrote from personal experience about being down and out in New York was Theodore Dreiser. Some of his best writing is in his detailed description of the slow, relentless downward progress of George Hurstwood in the latter part of his novel Sister Carrie. There is no humor and little irony in Dreiser's account of how Hurstwood loses all his money and all his self-confidence, ending up committing suicide by turning on the gas in a flophouse room that rents for about fifteen cents a night.