Soapy is the main character of "The Cop and the Anthem" and the only character whose name we learn. We follow him through New York City one chilly fall night as he tries very hard to get arrested and sentenced to three months in jail. Why is Soapy so desperate to get arrested?
See, Soapy's home is a park-bench in Madison Square in New York City. This is all fine and dandy in the summer, but not good when the temperature drops below zero and the snow starts falling. Soapy could die if he stays outside. Soapy knows he could find free shelter, but he claims that such charity always comes with "humiliation" (5) and invasions of privacy. According to Soapy, going to jail is a more dignified way to get free room and board for the winter. So, Soapy's real goal isn't jail so much as a way to get food and shelter in the least humiliating way with the least sacrifice of his privacy.
Maybe this is why he ultimately decides that there is a better way to take care of his basic needs than receiving charity or getting arrested.
It might seem like we get very little information about Soapy in this story. That's because we do get very little information about Soapy in this story. Still, we do get clues, and we can explore those clues to get to know our unlikely hero a little better.
Early in the story we learn that for the past few years Soapy has been spending the warm parts of the year in New York City around Madison Square and his winters in the prison on Blackwell's Island. We get a vague sense of his life, which is devoted to getting the basic survival necessities. When Soapy hears the anthem coming from the church, we learn some things about his past before becoming homeless:
And the anthem that the organist played cemented Soapy to the iron fence, for he had known it well in the days when his life contained such things as mothers and roses and ambitions and friends and immaculate thoughts and collars. (42)
This sentence really gives us a lot to think about. First, we notice is that Soapy is familiar with the anthem—he used to be a churchgoing man. It also tells us that Soapy, who is probably in his twenties or thirties, used to have family and friends. The fact that roses used to be in Soapy's life might hint that Soapy had a romantic interest or interests, and/or that he simply liked flowers and was interested in nature. By recognizing that he used to have ambitions, Soapy admits that he really doesn't have them anymore—or that his present ambitions (survival) aren't very ambitious.
The sentence ends with two more references to church: immaculate (squeaky clean) thoughts, which are what church is supposed to help you have, and collars, which priests and ministers wear. Could Soapy himself have been studying to be a minister or priest? It's possible. While the passage gives us clues, it doesn't give us a solid sense of Soapy's prior life. It does, however, give us a sense of Soapy's deeper value system. He values a life with family, friends, nature, and religion.
Since Soapy used to actually have a life that included such things, we can guess that his current existence is a stark contrast to his past. We'd sure like to know what happened to make Soapy change so drastically. Wouldn't you? Any guesses as to what happened to him?
He viewed with swift horror the pit into which he had tumbled, the degraded days, unworthy desires, dead hopes, wrecked faculties, and base motives that made up his existence. (43)
Soapy doesn't really seem to be doing anybody any serious harm. He's not out to hurt others, just to take care of his basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing. But still, his story is a little nightmarish and harsh, even though it's told playfully. Getting food and shelter and staying clean and healthy is no picnic when you don't have money or at least a home.
This passage suggests that before Soapy hears the anthem he is almost numb to how difficult, uncomfortable, and isolating his life really is. The phrase "unworthy desires" suggests that there might be aspects of Soapy's life that are even worse than what is revealed to readers.
The beginning of the story makes us think Soapy doesn't really mind his life. Toward the end we realize that he might have gotten used to it, he might have accepted it, but he really doesn't like it. The anthem helps him realize this. Maybe even more importantly, it inspires him and empowers him to try to do something to make it better.
He would pull himself out of the mire; he would make a man of himself again […] he would resurrect his old eager ambitions and pursue them without faltering. […] He would be somebody in the world. He would— (44)
It sounds like Soapy really means it, he really wants to change his life. Interestingly, he seems to want to change it back to the way it was before he became homeless. Apparently, during those times he had goals that he still considers worth going after. Unfortunately, we don't have a clue what these are.
We might have found out if Soapy's heartfelt dreams for the future weren't interrupted by the sixth policeman. Like a genie in a bottle, the cop delivers the wish Soapy makes at the beginning of the story—to be arrested so he can spend the winter in jail. In "What's Up With the Ending?" we talk about how different readers will interpret this in different ways.
Some might feel that Soapy will continue his cycle of living on park benches and in jails. Other readers believe his change is so intense that he will still be able to change his life when he gets out of jail in the spring. Remember, O. Henry changed his life while in prison—he wrote and submitted and published his first twelve stories from jail. Now, how do you imagine Soapy's future life?