Home -> Other California History Books -> California Sketches - Second Series -> Mike Reese

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Mike Reese.

I had business with him, and went at a business hour. No introduction was needed, for he had been my landlord, and no tenant of his ever had reason to complain that he did not get a visit from him, in person or by proxy, at least once a month. He was a punctual man - as a collector of what was due him. Seeing that he was intently engaged, I paused and looked at him. A man of huge frame, with enormous hands and feet, massive head, receding forehead, and heavy cerebral development, full sensual lips, large nose, and peculiar eyes that seemed at the same time to look through you and to shrink from your gaze - he was a man at whom a stranger would stop in the street to get a second gaze. There he sat at his desk, too much absorbed to notice my entrance. Before him lay a large pile of one-thousand-dollar United States Government bonds, and he was clipping off the coupons. That face! it was a study as he sat using the big pair of scissors. A hungry boy in the act of taking into his mouth a ripe cherry, a mother gazing down into the face of her pretty sleeping child, a lover looking into the eyes of his charmer, are but faint figures by which to express the intense pleasure he felt in his work. But there was also a feline element in his joy - his handling of those bonds was somewhat like a cat toying with its prey. When at length he raised his head, there was a fierce gleam in his eye and a flush in his face. I had come upon a devotee engaged in worship. This was Mike Reese, the miser and millionaire. Placing his huge left-hand on the pile of bonds, he gruffly returned my salutation,

"Good morning."

He turned as he spoke, and east a look of scrutiny into my face which said plain enough that he wanted me to make known my business with him at once.

I told him what was wanted. At the request of the official board of the Minna-street Church I had come to ask him to make a contribution toward the payment of its debt.

"O yes; I was expecting you. They all come to me. Father Gallagher, of the Catholic Church, Dr. Wyatt, of the Episcopal Church, and all the others, have been here. I feel friendly to the Churches, and I treat all alike - it won't do for me to be partial - I don't give to any!"

That last clause was an anticlimax, dashing my hopes rudely; but I saw he meant it, and left. I never heard of his departing from the rule of strict impartiality he had laid down for himself.

We met at times at a restaurant on Clay street. He was a hearty feeder, and it was amusing to see how skillfully in the choice of dishes and the thoroughness with which he emptied them he could combine economy with plenty. On several of these occasions, when we chanced to sit at the same table, I proposed to pay for both of us, and he quickly assented, his hard, heavy features lighting up with undisguised pleasure at the suggestion, as he shambled out of the room amid the smiles of the company present, most of whom knew him as a millionaire, and me as a Methodist preacher.

He had one affair of the heart. Cupid played a prank on him that was the occasion of much merriment in the San Francisco newspapers, and of much grief to him. A widow was his enslaver and tormentor - the old story. She sued him for breach of promise of marriage. The trial made great fun for the lawyers, reporters, and the amused public generally; but it was no fun for him. He was mulcted for six thousand dollars and costs of the suit. It was during the time I was renting one of his offices on Washington street. I called to see him, wishing to have some repairs made. His clerk met me in the narrow hall, and there was a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he said:

"You had better come another day - the old man has just paid that judgment in the breach of promise case, and he is in a bad way."

Hearing our voices, he said,

"Who is there? - come in."

I went in, and found him sitting leaning on his desk, the picture of intense wretchedness. He was all unstrung, his jaw fallen, and a most pitiful face met mine as he looked up and said, in a broken voice,

"Come some other day - I can do no business today; I am very unwell."

He was indeed sick - sick at heart. I felt sorry for him. Pain always excites my pity, no matter what may be its cause. He was a miser, and the payment of those thousands of dollars was like tearing him asunder. He did not mind the jibes of the newspapers, but the loss of the money was almost killing. He had not set his heart on popularity, but cash.

He had another special trouble, but with a different sort of ending. It was discovered by a neighbor of his that, by some mismeasurement of the surveyors, he (Reese) had built the wall of one of his immense business-houses on Front street six inches beyond his own proper line, taking in just so much of that neighbor's lot. Not being on friendly terms with Reese, his neighbor made a peremptory demand for the removal of the wall, or the payment of a heavy price for the ground. Here was misery for the miser. He writhed in mental agony, and begged for easier terms, but in vain. His neighbor would not relent. The business men of the vicinity rather enjoyed the situation, humorously watching the progress of the affair. It was a case of diamond cut diamond, both parties bearing the reputation of being hard men to deal with. A day was fixed for Reese to give a definite answer to his neighbor's demand, with notice that, in case of his noncompliance, suit against him would be begun at once. The day came, and with it a remarkable change in Reese's tone. He sent a short note to his enemy breathing profanity and defiance.

"What is the matter?" mused the puzzled citizen; "Reese has made some discovery that makes him think he has the upper-hand, else he would not talk this way."

And he sat and thought. The instinct of this class of men where money is involved is like a miracle.

"I have it!" he suddenly exclaimed; "Reese has the same hold on me that I have on him."

Reese happened to be the owner of another lot adjoining that of his enemy, on the other side. It occurred to him that, as all these lots were surveyed at the same time by the same party, it was most likely that as his line had gone six inches too far on the one side, his enemy's had gone as much too far on the other. And so it was. He had quietly a survey made of the premises, and he chuckled with inward joy to find that he held this winning card in the unfriendly game. With grim politeness the neighbors exchanged deeds for the two half feet of ground, and their war ended. The moral of this incident is for him who hath wit enough to see it.

For several seasons he came every morning to North Beach to take sea-baths. Sometimes he rode his well-known white horse, but oftener he walked. He bathed in the open sea, making, as one expressed it, twenty-five tents out of the Pacific Ocean, by avoiding the bathhouse. Was this the charm that drew him forth so early? It not seldom chanced that we walked downtown together. At times he was quite communicative, speaking of himself in a way that was peculiar. It seems he had thoughts of marrying before his episode with the widow.

"Do you think a young girl of twenty could love an old man like me?" he asked me one day, as we were walking along the street.

I looked at his huge and ungainly bulk, and into his animal face, and made no direct answer. Love! Six millions of dollars is a great sum. Money may buy youth and beauty, but love does not come at its call. God's highest gifts are free; only the second-rate things can be bought with money. Did this sordid old man yearn for pure human love amid his millions? Did such a dream cast a momentary glamour over a life spent in raking among the muck-heaps? If so, it passed away, for he never married.

He understood his own case. He knew in what estimation he was held by the public, and did not conceal his scorn for its opinion.

"My love of money is a disease. My saving and hoarding as I do is irrational, and I know it. It pains me to pay five cents for a streetcar ride, or a quarter of a dollar for a dinner. My pleasure in accumulating property is morbid, but I have felt it from the time I was a foot peddler in Charlotte, Campbell, and Pittsylvania counties, in Virginia, until now. It is a sort of insanity, and it is incurable; but it is about as good a form of madness as any, and all the world is mad in some, fashion."

This was the substance of what he said of himself when in one of his moods of free speech, and it gave me a new idea of human nature - a man whose keen and penetrating brain could subject his own consciousness to a cool and correct analysis, seeing clearly the folly which he could not resist. The autobiography of such a man might furnish a curious psychological study, and explain the formation and development in society of those moral monsters called misers. Nowhere in literature has such a character been fully portrayed, though Shakespeare and George Eliot have given vivid touches of some of its features.

He always retained a kind feeling for the South, over whose hills he had borne his peddler's pack when a youth. After the war, two young ex-Confederate soldiers came to San Francisco to seek their fortunes. A small room adjoining my office was vacant, and the brothers requested me to secure it for them as cheap as possible. I applied to Reese, telling him who the young men were, and describing their broken and impecunious condition.

"Tell them to take the room free of rent - but it ought to bring five dollars a month."

It took a mighty effort, and he sighed as he spoke the words. I never heard of his acting similarly in any other case, and I put this down to his credit, glad to know that there was a warm spot in that mountain of mud and ice. A report of this generous act got afloat in the city, and many were the inquiries I received as to its truth. There was general incredulity.

His health failed, and he crossed the seas. Perhaps he wished to visit his native hills in Germany, which he had last seen when a child. There he died, leaving all his millions to his kindred, save a bequest of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars to the University of California. What were his last thoughts, what was his final verdict concerning human life, I know not. Empty-handed he entered the world of spirits, where, the film fallen from his vision, he saw the Eternal Realities. What amazement must have followed his awakening!

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