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Authors: Kevin Baker

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HERBERT WILLIS ROBINSON

In New York the machines don't work and the men won't. The streetsweepers are on strike and the machines they brought in to replace them don't clean anything, they only wet down the trash and scatter it around. New piles of trash spring up around them—empty bottles, cabbage leaves, fish bones, scraps of clothing. (It is the iron law: Wherever there is a pile of trash, New Yorkers will throw more and more, pretending that is where it is supposed to go.)

Dead horses line the gutters where they fell. That's the surest sign of how hot it is. The worst heat of the summer yet, humidity already thick enough to make you feel as though you washed in molasses.

Two brawny Irish laborers wobble on ahead of me, arms around each other's shoulders, drunk as lords at seven in the morning. There is no doubt about it, something is in the air today. They thought it was a good idea, having the first day of the draft on a Friday. Get it started, get it over with, and let things cool down over the weekend. Instead it just gave them time to talk and plot, away from their jobs, just gave the heat time to settle itself upon us—

I am still headed down the island, toward my place of employment at the New York
Tribune.
After I stop in at the
Trib,
I must get back up to Paradise Alley and check on Maddy. She won't fare well if there's trouble. Maybe I can convince her to come up to my house in
Gramercy Park, take shelter in the servants' quarters—though I doubt it. She refuses me everything now, things for her as well as for me. She refuses even to play our little game anymore. Relying, instead, on that big horse pistol she has gotten hold of. Brandishing it in her little hand with a laugh
—If there's trouble, I can take care of meself—

My Maddy.
Still so willful, so beautiful, even though she rejects me. She's seen so much in her life. But she's never seen a mob.

The boy gazes up at me from the gutter. The pool of blood engulfing his paper boat, dragging it down into the whirlpool. He wipes his hand across his face, smiling, spreading the blood from ear to ear—

I don't know why his face stays with me so. Most days I would not look twice. You can see one like him on almost any street corner in town. Just another child of the City at his play—

At Eleventh Street I stop to watch an Irish construction crew, putting up a double tenement on the site of Abraham De Peyster's old mansion. I can never resist pausing to watch the City make itself over again, its constant risings and contractions like that of a giant anaconda, or a copperhead, shedding its skin.

I have been watching this same crew for weeks, toiling in its pit of yellowed mud. By now they are so familiar I can identify most of them by sight. The big, red-bearded fellow, a natural captain of men, who is the foreman. The short one, slightly hobbled, but built thick as a bull in the chest, able to lift whole beams by himself. Two others, both with dark complexions and thick, curly beards, who look enough alike to be brothers, perhaps even twins. All of them in their stiff canvas pants and work shirts, filthy bandannas tied around their necks, identical bent straw hats to shield them from the broiling sun.

Day after day they nibbled away at old De Peyster's stately Dutch brick home and garden, determined as ants, with only the most primitive of tools, shovels and picks and sledgehammers, even their bare hands.

Question: Why is the wheelbarrow the greatest invention of all time?

Answer: Because it taught the Irish how to walk on two feet.

It is good to see someone—anyone—working again, after all the strikes in the last few months. The strike of the longshoremen, and the
gasmen, and the streetsweepers. The strike of the tailors and the hatblockers, the ship's joiners and the ship's caulkers, the coppersmiths and the carpenters and the machinists and the hod-carriers—

It is a pleasure to watch even such a thing as this go up, to reassure oneself by its steady progress, day in and day out. No hoosiers or lumpers here, my little team has been at it without pause. As soon as they finished leveling De Peyster's house and gardens, they began putting up the tenement houses on the same site, using the same salvaged bricks and timbers. Nothing is ever permanently discarded in the City, save human life.

There has been little enough construction for the duration of the war. Even Dagger John's enormous new cathedral lies dormant and moldering along the Fifth Avenue, due to the shortage of manpower. But the tenement has risen steadily through the spring, and early summer—three stories high, rooms eighteen feet by twelve, with a single stinking row of privvies in between. More than likely the men who have built it will occupy it themselves, building their own homes here, the roofs above their own heads—

“Cave in! Cave in! Men in trouble!”

It happens slowly, yet all at once—like dropping a tea kettle and watching it fall, knowing the damage it will cause before it even hits the floor. There is a groan that seems to come from deep within the earth, then an awful tearing noise as the building collapses, and then the men disappear under all the old brick walls and timbers and earth.

The red-bearded foreman, with his usual apprehension, nimbly jumping clear at the last moment. The squat, hobbled little Vulcan and two of the others scrambling up immediately from the ruins. They jump back in before the great white-grey cloud of dust has even settled. Impervious to their own danger, sending up the cry even as they dig frantically into the rubble:

“A hand, a hand! Men in trouble!”

The whole neighborhood is there in an instant: passing grocery clerks and bank messengers, teamsters jumping down from their wagons, leaving their packages and carts where they stand in the street. Women running to the site still barefoot, tying black shawls around their heads, coming straight from their kitchens or the cellars and back tenements, the laundries and the factories. All of them leaping into the
treacherous hole to help dig out, hauling out whole beams, scratching up bricks and stone with their hands.

Their urgency is so desperate, so terrible to behold that, before I know what I am doing, I run in myself. There I am, right down among them, slipping and sliding into the excavation, useless though I am. Turning this way and that, trying to find something, anything to carry out.

There is another harsh, inchoate cry, of triumph and of fear. They have found the buried men, and now they haul them up—the two black-bearded twins. Surprisingly short and thick-legged so close up. Eyes lolling back lifelessly in their heads and every inch of them, even their curly black beards, now covered in white mortar dust. They lay them out on the ground, try desperately to push life into their lungs, breathe it back into their mouths. I wait with them, looking just over their shoulders, enflamed to be so near to this scene—to
them.

Yet it is all futile. The diggers have become the dust they are buried in. The men pumping at their chests and mouths back away, and the horde of women gathers in around them now. They are their wives and daughters, sisters and cousins and neighbors trying to exhort them back to life—caressing their brows, wiping the dust from their beards and cheeks with their aprons.

It is to no avail—now they see it is to no avail, and send up a long, wailing keen of despair. Clapping and grasping their hands together, raising their heads and their hands to the sky. Their faces looking hollowed and ancient, distorted beyond all human recognition. Their wailing is a weird, unearthly sound, straight from some ancient, heathen village, out on the bogs.

I clamber up from the pit as fast as I can, brushing what dust I can from my suit. In my haste I bump into one of the new foundation walls. I barely touch it—but the wall begins to come apart immediately, the bricks sliding off, one after another. Even though it was laid down weeks ago, the mortar has reliquefied in the humid, swampy heat.

I stare at it, mesmerized. The mortar is now nothing more than a slimy grey paste, oozing out from between the bricks it was supposed to hold in place. This is plainly the cause of the cave-in. The worthless mortar, provided by some contractor who was hoping—what? That
it would not give way until the tenements were all finished, and filled up with families, and he was well away?

I scramble back up to the street, no longer so concerned about the condition of my suit. Just wanting to be gone from that place, the keening going on and on behind me and the grey mortar still leaking out, dropping bricks into the yellow mud.

HERBERT WILLIS ROBINSON

Seven-thirty,
and I reach the
Tribune
building still trembling from the cave-in. My face and new suit covered in dust, in the dust from those men as well as the house they were building.
What was I doing, jumping right in like that? Trying to save them? They could not be saved—

I try to shake the dust from my suit, from my head. I don't feel up to facing Horace just yet. Instead of going on into the
Tribune,
I linger across the street by the
Times,
where Henry Raymond, Greeley's old assistant and constant thorn, is passing out carbines to any of his men who want one. He guffaws when he sees me, nearly swallowing the cheroot that is dangling coolly from one side of his mouth.

“Good Lord, man, but what happened to you! Does Horace make you put in Sundays on his farm now?”

I try to look amused, and force my hands to stop trembling.
What a strange day this has been already! First that boy, running his finger along his throat. Then the cave-in—

“If you were any kind of newspaperman at all, Henry,” I tell him, doing my best impersonation of Horace, “you would know that the future of our nation depends upon sound, scientific advances in agriculture and animal husbandry.”

Henry guffaws appreciatively, and keeps handing out guns. A small, dapper man, his face swaddled in a thick moustaches and sideburns; Raymond was never an abolitionist, always preached compromise
for the Union. Now, though, he seems to be positively hoping for trouble.

“Jerome is going up to the Armory,” he tells me, coolly smoking his cheroot while he waits for the flashy stock plunger who is his leading investor. “He is going to get some Gatling guns from the army. With those mounted in the windows, I may actually
invite
that lot to try us!”

He stubs out his cheroot and gestures contemptuously across Park Row, toward City Hall Park.

A huge crowd is gathered there now, behind the high, iron fence of the park—more of the workingmen and women I have seen on the move all morning. They mill about, trampling the neatly planted flower beds. Doing nothing else as yet but talking to each other, listening to a few soapbox orators.

“Just give them a few hours to get drunk,” Raymond assures me. “The police should have moved them out from there already. But of course our noble mayor has been caught napping.”

So has Superintendent Kennedy, apparently, for all his assurances. There are only one or two Metropolitans in sight, fewer even than there would be on a normal working day, treading fearfully about on the far edges of the crowd. So much for staying right on top of the mob and hitting them.

“What about the Common Council?” I ask.

“Those Copperheads!” Raymond snorts, his eyes shining with disgust. “It's a wonder they're not out here leading the mob.”

“But what about their ordinance?”

There was talk that The Forty Thieves might pass a midnight act, offer to pay the three hundred dollars needed for substitutes on behalf of any man who wanted one. Such a bill would be extravagant and craven, a complete capitulation to the mob—and something that just might save the day.

“Yes, I heard that, too,” Raymond says drily. “But where's the angle for them in
that?
Where's their share, eh? Better we should have provided our councilmen with thirty dollars for each
recruit.
The Sixth Ward alone would've taken Richmond two years ago!”

He offers me a revolver, and after a moment's hesitation I thank him, and shove it hastily into an inner breast pocket of my dusted suit. Raymond grunts with satisfaction, then leans in more seriously.

“At least you've got sense! I've been trying to get your employer to take some guns all morning. They will come, you know.”

“Yes.”

“The pigheaded old fool!” Raymond swears.

“Yes.”

In the newspaper business everyone feuds with everyone else, but Greeley more than most. His fissure with Raymond dates back to the man's employment with Horace. (Something about Raymond lying close to death for two weeks in his boardinghouse, while Greeley neglected to so much as send a copyboy to check on him.) Then, of course, Raymond had to go and aggravate everything by building his bigger, grander new
Times
building, catty-corner from the
Tribune
across Nassau Street—

Bidding him good luck, I cross over at last to Horace—and walk into chaos. Editors and reporters and apprentices are running up and down the halls, making any preparation they can think of. They are filling buckets of water, shuttering and bolting the big glass windows on the lower floors and stuffing water-soaked bales of paper up against them. All repeating to each other whatever scraps of gossip and rumor they have heard, no matter how insane. (Once a newspaper has been shut up, what choice do we have but to tell our lies to each other?)

Greeley himself adamantly refuses to make any preparations for the mob, though it's well-known how much they despise him for his abolitionism, his Republicanism; his repeated jibes at the Irish and Catholics in general. He is, instead, in one of his martyr moods. He stands now behind his tall painted composing desk, tousled white hair and neck whiskers ringing his absurdly round, pink, affable face like that of some superannuated cherub. Wide blue eyes blinking innocently, hands clasped together with that air of perfect, childlike serenity that makes friends and enemies alike so wish to strangle him.

As I watch he rejects all pleas from his adjutants, Sydney Howard Gay and James Parton, that he arm the staff, insist on police guards, flee—do
something.

“In a republic, we are always at the mercy of the people,” he tells Mr. Gay, who is nearly in tears. “If, after all our efforts here, we still must live in danger that our establishment will be burned and our very persons assaulted—well then, so be it. We must acknowledge that
everything we have tried to do over these last twenty-two years has been a failure.”

The very fact that he is on the premises before noon, though, belies Greeley's tranquility. Either that or he simply wanted to get away from the woman up on his Chappaqua farm whom he calls Mother—and who is better known around the office as The Irrepressible Conflict. It is a brave man indeed who would rather go home to Mary Greeley than face down a mob.

“No, far be it from us to add more blood to a nation already awash in it—”

Beneath those pious blue eyes, I detect a deeper uncertainty. Like most men who have strong opinions on everything, Greeley does not fare well in a crisis. It was the same way when the war began. His first reaction was to write a pacifistic editorial opposing any attempt to keep the South in the Union by force—“Erring sisters, go in peace!” Within two months he was deluging Lincoln with telegrams on how to deploy his armies.

“Do you think there will be any
violence?
” he asks me now, as if “violence” were some kind of unthinkable consequence, here in this City, in the bloodiest war of our history.

“Nothing more than burning the town down,” I tell him. “I suspect they will stop at Brooklyn, though. East River and all that.”

“Are they determined to go through with the draft? It's madness! I told Lincoln—”

He cuts himself off, brooding. Running his fingers absently through the piles of foolscap and grass heaped on his desk, the pasteboard hatbox full of scribbled notes for his future editorials. Horace, with all of his hobbyhorses—his socialism and Fourierism, his enthusiasms for land reform and abolitionism, fantastic diets and free love. Some of it he even believes in.

“We must know things,” he says, his newspaper instincts rising to the fore. Furiously scribbling down notes on his desk. “Have the police turned out? How many troops are there in the City? Can we count on any more from Meade? Where are the mobs gathering at present?”

He turns to me, wondering the same thing he asks himself when he turns his attention to any man.
What can I do for the Empire of Horace?

“What are those spendthrifts on the Common Council doing? Where is our mayor?” he demands.

“Most likely in Long Branch, or Newport for the season.”

“Find them, would you? It would be nice to know what they plan to do about the mob calling for our deaths.”

“What about acknowledging our failure—” I try to ask, but Mr. Gay is already pushing me out the door.

Maddy.
I should be with her already, up in the house I rent for her by Paradise Alley. She is my first charge, surely I should be trying to do what I can for her, trying something to get her to leave.

She won't go, though, I know that already. I stopped by to see her, too, during my peripatetic rounds this week-end. But she would not listen to my warnings, my worries.
She is so much like a child still, in mind if not in body.

There is more to it than that, I know. She is still bitter—she has every right to be. I have betrayed her, though I never made any promises to her. I should get back to her now—but she will wait, I am sure of it. I still have time, to do Greeley's bidding, do my job, and get back to her. Just a little while more—

I go out the back door of the
Tribune
and pass into the City again. Going back out to the mob in City Hall Park. My pulse is racing, even to move among such people, but I am almost giddy to be there. Secure, as I am, in my disguises.

Instantly, I have become one of them, thanks to the treatment my clothes received in the construction pit. Not quite a workie, or an Irishman, of course, but one of that vast,
in-between
class that always mortars together the City. A printer's devil, or an itinerant craftsman, an egg dealer or a patent medicine salesman, down on his luck.

Just now we are being exhorted by a man on top of an orange crate. I recognize him, curiously enough; he is the barber from Christadoro's, at the Astor House. Normally a good-humored man, like all barbers, pleasant and amenable to whatever views on life or politics or women his customers like to spout as he guides a razor across their throats.

Now he dances atop his orange crate, still in his barber's apron and his gartered sleeves, leading the crowd in three wild cheers for
General McClellan, and for the
The Caucasian,
the banned Copperhead paper.

“And now three groans for the damned
Tribune,
and the damned
Times,
and that goddamned Greeley! The old White Coat what thinks a nigger's as good as a white man!” he sputters furiously, thrusting his straight razor to the sky.

The men before him laugh, and cheer, and give three low, menacing groans on cue. Only in New York—a mob led by a revolutionary barber.

Yet for all their bloodlust it is still a holiday for the crowd—a bit of hookey from their jobs, with little real malice beneath their schoolboy cheers and moans. I take up a spot on the periphery of the mob and stop to listen for a while, but soon this tonsorial rhetoric causes my mind to wander. I become distracted, staring out through the iron bars of the park at the rest of the City, at the passing scene of the City that always fascinates me, as long as I can watch it from a distance.

Everything still appears to be normal there. Swaths of gold and magenta shimmer along the dollar side of Broadway. The ladies trundle between the milliner's and the department stores—as they have for the last two years—shining in their plumed Imperial bonnets. Moiré dresses ripple in emerald and amber waves. At the corners they use the hidden strings of Madam Demorest's dress elevators to lift their hoop skirts, and glide over the unspeakable filth and the pigs in the gutters like so many balloons.

If, that is, one can really call them ladies. These days the shoddy aristocracy and the old gentility are all but indistinguishable. We mint millionaires faster than shinplaster money. Men make fortunes in a month, selling the government saddles without stirrups, rifles without barrels, uniforms that are no more than rags glued hastily together, likely to fall to pieces in the first hard rain. They throng Delmonico's latest restaurant to wolf down French partridges—though they still balance peas along their knives and blow their noses in their fingers.

BOOK: Paradise Alley
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