A month later, Yank visits an IWW office near the New York City waterfront. In his dirty clothes, he knocks on the door and waits as the secretary inside says, “What the hell is that—someone knocking? Come in, why don’t you?” When Yank doesn’t enter, the secretary tells one of the many men in the office to see who’s there. Once inside, Yank explains that he wants to become a member, and the secretary happily says he’ll file his card. “Glad to know you people are waking up at last. We haven’t got many members in your line,” he tells Yank. When he asks what Yank’s name is, Yank pauses, saying, “Lemme tink.” “Don’t you know your own name?” the secretary asks. “Sure,” Yank says, “but I been just Yank for so long—Bob, dat’s it—Bob Smith.”
The fact that Yank can’t recall his own name once again indicates his lack of intelligence. That he needs to use it at all in this context also symbolizes that he has left the comfortable (to him) world of the stokehole, where everybody simply calls him Yank. On his own in the real world, he has to put in an actual effort to remember his own identity—something he hasn’t had to consider in years because he’s been so focused on cultivating his persona as a well-respected worker in the blasting heat of the engine room.
The secretary writes Yank’s name on the membership card and welcomes him to the IWW, telling him to take some pamphlets to distribute to his fellow stokers. He then asks why Yank knocked when he first arrived, and Yank says that he thought there were a lot of police officers in the neighborhood and figured the organization would want to inspect any visitors through a peephole before letting them inside. “What have the cops got to do with us? We’re breaking no laws,” the secretary says. “Sure,” Yank says conspiratorially. “I’m wise to dat.” The secretary is confused by this, eventually saying, “It’s all plain and above board; still, some guys get a wrong slant on us. What’s your notion of the purpose of the IWW?” In response, Yank refuses to answer, saying he knows better than to speak out of turn.
In this moment, it’s overwhelmingly clear that Yank is joining the IWW for the wrong reasons. Even the secretary—who has only known him for a matter of minutes—can see that he has the “wrong” idea about the organization. His error, of course, is that he thinks the IWW is a violent group seeking to “blow up” the titans of industry that oppress the working class. What’s more, if he knew that the IWW was a straightforward labor union, it’s unlikely he’d be interested in joining, considering the way he has continually disregarded Long’s ideas about communism and class disparity.
After a tiresome back and forth about the nature of the IWW, Yank says, “Yuh wanter blow tings up, don’t yuh? Well, dat’s me! I belong!” In response, the secretary says, “You mean change the unequal conditions of society by legitimate direct action or with dynamite?” “Dynamite!” Yank answers. “Blow it offen de oith—steel—all de cages—all de factories, steamers, buildings, jails—de Steel Trust and all dat makes it go.” Subtly indicating to the surrounding men that they should grab Yank, the secretary asks Yank what specific job he wants to carry out, and Yank reveals that he wants to blow up Nazareth Steel.
When Yank admits that he wants to target Nazareth Steel, the audience sees once and for all that his desire to join the IWW has nothing to do with unionization. Instead, Yank simply sees this as a way to take revenge on Mildred for calling him a “filthy beast.” And although it seems that he has finally comprehended the fact that Mildred is only a representative of her entire class (as evidenced by the fact that he has given up on trying to track her down), it’s obvious that he still doesn’t understand that “force defeats itself.”
Hearing Yank’s intentions, the men of the IWW grab him. Just before they throw him onto the streets, they ask the secretary if they should “put the boots to him.” “No,” the secretary responds. “He isn’t worth the trouble we’d get into. He’s too stupid.” He then walks over and laughs in Yank’s face, saying, “By God, this is the biggest joke they’ve put up on us yet. Hey, you Joke! Who sent you—Burns or Pinkerton? No, by God, you’re such a bonehead I’ll bet you’re in the Secret Service!” Going on, he tells Yank to return to whomever sent him and tell them that the IWW is a legitimate operation, but then he says, “Oh, hell, what’s the use of talking? You’re a brainless ape.”
When the secretary tells Yank to report back to whomever sent him, he assumes that Yank has been hired to entrap the IWW. This is a reasonable assumption, considering that the IWW has many enemies (as evidenced by the senator’s speech that ran in the newspaper). However, the secretary realizes that Yank is “too stupid” to even comprehend what he’s saying. Calling him a “brainless ape,” he issues an insult that once again emphasizes to Yank the fact that society sees him as a grotesque beast instead of a human being.
After the IWW men throw Yank out of the office, he sits in the streets and assumes the position of Rodin’s “The Thinker.” “So dem boids don’t tink I belong, neider.” Talking to himself, he scorns the way unions think about the world, saying that equal rights and better working conditions don’t mean anything. “What does dat get yuh?” he wonders aloud. “Dis ting’s in your inside, but it ain’t your belly. Feedin’ your face—sinkers and coffee—dat don’t touch it. It’s way down—at de bottom. Yuh can’t grab it, and yuh can’t stop it. It moves, and everything moves. It stops and de whole woild stops.” He then likens himself to a broken watch. “Steel was me,” he adds, “and I owned de woild. Now I ain’t steel, and de woild owns me.”
Yank is a deceivingly complex character. For the most part, he is unintelligent, aggressive, and vain, and his failure to understand simple concepts is both aggravating and inevitable, given his meager mental faculties. That said, O’Neill also uses Yank as a mouthpiece to express some rather nuanced existential ideas about unhappiness. In this moment especially, Yank references a certain kind of life force that exists “inside” of him. This energy is something that can’t be “touch[ed],” and it has nothing to do with working conditions or unions. What he seems to be referring to, then, is a generalized form of discontent, one that perhaps comes along with his experience of living in a world that fails to understand him. When he says that he used to “own” the world, the audience understands that his existential angst is the result of his sudden lack of purpose. After all, he was a celebrated worker in the stokehole, but now he feels alienated and purposeless in a world that refuses to accept him.
Hearing Yank talk to himself, a passing police officer tells him to get out of the street. “Sure!” Yank says. “Lock me up! Put me in a cage! Dat’s de on’y answer yuh know. G’wan, lock me up!” When the officer asks what Yank has done to deserve jailtime, Yank says, “Enuf to gimme life for! I was born, see? Sure, dat’s de charge.” Ignoring this, the officer accuses Yank of being drunk, but decides they’re too far from the station to make it worth walking him to a cell, so he simply tells Yank to get up and go elsewhere. “Say, where do I go from here?” Yank asks. Pushing him on his way, the officer grins and says, “Go to hell.”
Again, O’Neill intimates that Yank’s discontent has to do with the fact that nobody understands him. Having lost his sense of purpose, he wanders through the real world, which simply cannot accommodate him. Indeed, people like the IWW secretary and the police officer don’t know what to do with him. When he tells the officer to “lock [him] up,” the audience sees that he has resigned himself to the existence of a “hairy ape,” treating himself like a creature that must be kept in a cage.