Here are the opening chapters of a novel-in-progress, titled “City of Gracious Living.”
I will never forget that cursed night when our troubles began. Mayor Getty and the city fathers, the Common Council members and the alderman and the political ward bosses were joined by the town’s wealthiest merchants Mr. Otis of the elevator works and Mr. Smith of the carpet mills and Mr. Sweetney of the sugar refinery – and the various and sundry other captains of industry who had docked their ships of commerce in Yonkers – as they gathered at the riverside to inaugurate the campaign devised by the Board of Trade to promote the city as the nation’s next great metropolis.
Mr. Oliver, the editor of the Herald newspaper, had deployed two reporters and his best sketch artist to render the scene to his readers. The pastors of the Presbyterian, Baptist and Congregational churches – and even the priest from St. Joseph’s Church at the foot of Seminary Hill – were on hand for the event, the Protestants to offer invocations for the occasion and the Catholic because Getty and the others had become cognizant of the fact that the Irish and Italians had no money but had votes to cast and useful services to render.
Most exciting of all, young Edison himself had taken the train from the Pennsylvania Station to the Yonkers station and was on hand to flip the switch illuminating the new electrical sign that was the centerpiece of the Board of Trade’s plan. From New Jersey towns across the Hudson River, from the decks of passing steamboats and merchant ships, the new sign with its 3-foot-tall lighted letters would dispel the gloom of the docks with its glowing rendering of the newly adopted slogan.
Yonkers had been called ‘The City of Seven Hills’ since the days when an over-educated schoolteacher had pointed out that the Yonkers had been built on seven hills ‘just like the great city of Rome.’ Now, thanks to the Yonkers Board of Trade, it would be known by this new slogan that would be flashed to all the world from electric lights strung along thick wooden planks that had been bolted to seventeen strong poles erected in a row along the waterfront.
The mayor gave a lengthy speech in which he traced the city’s history from its earliest days as an Indian settlement, to the arrival of Hendrick Hudson on ‘this verdant shore,’ to the halcyon days of the Dutch settlers, to the tumultuous years in which the British ruled and then were driven out by Washington and his brave men at the Battle of White Plains ‘to which that ragtag band of patriots marched right through what we now know as Yonkers, along the Mile Square Road from Valentine’s Hill.’ The clergymen muttered prayers of thanksgiving and celebration. The sketch artist from the newspaper used up three charcoal sticks and both reporters broke their pencils in their haste to put the spectacle into words. The brass band supplied by the International Order of the Sons of Peter Stuyvesant played a rousing march. The Sons and Daughters of Liberty supplied representatives, a man and a woman who were dressed as Uncle Sam (the man) and Lady Liberty (the woman). The children’s choir from the Dayspring Presbyterian Church on Nodine Hill sang ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.’
I was not invited to participate. I stood in the crowd and watched, with three of my associates, the ailing but still able Himalayan Giant and the two remaining Animal Men of Sumatra, as my escorts and deceptively impressive bodyguards.
There was a time, when I first arrived in Yonkers with the remnants of the weird entourage assembled by my late and lamented brother Phineas, that I myself would have been the keynote speaker and would also have supplied the entertainment. Thirty years before, a great parade had welcomed us to the city. Crowds of people – the entire populace of what was then not even a city, with a population of 30,000– lined North Broadway and the sidewalks of Getty Square as we made our way to Teutonia Hall, where we were to stage our spectacle.
Not all of my performers had yet joined me. General Thimble Thumb and his wee bride were still very wee children. Joan and Jane, the English girls born joined at the hip, were both still alive – not for ten more years would Joan make her famous decision to keep her dead sister Jane by her side, saying ‘Together we came into to this world and together we will return to our Maker.’ Gustav the Gorilla-Faced Man had not been afflicted with his furry visage. And Francis the Armless Fiddler – who could also play Strauss on the piano, and dress and undress without assistance, and eat his dinner with utensils, and (as he did once as hundreds cheered from the eastern shore) even swim the width of the Hudson River, propelled by just the kick of his feet, had not yet lost his arms in that fateful accident in the Rhineland coal mines.
The parade when we arrived that day in Yonkers still was something the good people of the City of Seven Hills would never forget: Mongo the Missing Link was pulled in a cart and thrilled the crowd as he banged and rattled the bars of her cage. The freakish brothers Yin and Yang and Yon had already perfected their technique for charging wildly toward the crowd, scaring those poor hicks to Kingdom come, then letting themselves be ‘captured’ at the last minute by the yapping, yipping, barking, yowling Davy the Dog Boy.
The Donkey-Faced Woman, Gracie McLacey, was with us, braying at the top of her lungs. Petunia and Rose, born joined at the buttocks, shimmied and twirled down the street. And the aging Feejee Mermaid (bestowed upon me by my brother and, when she was later displayed in final repose, alleged by skeptics to be nothing but the body of a large dead fish with the head of a monkey attached) was still very much every fisherman’s dream, despite her wrinkles, as she swam in elegant circles and waved to the crowds with her long and still provocative flippers.
Back then, the town and its people were more innocent and isolated. When I was forced to remove my spectacle from my brother’s Palladium in lower Manhattan to the Teutonia Hall, the mayor and merchants were thrilled by the notion that the brother of
P.T. Barnum (not even the great showman himself, but his lesser sibling) had decided to bring his world of wonders to their little town. Our arrival had ranked with the arrival of Hudson’s Half Moon, with the several visits by young George Washington to the old Phillipse manor house, and even with the mournful passing along the Hudson River rail line of the martyred Lincoln’s funeral train as one of the highlights of this city’s not-so-illustrious past. The carpet mill and elevator works had not yet been built. The laying of trolley tracks was still twenty years away and a horse-drawn stage still made twice-daily rough journeys from the Battery in lower New York to the dusty front porch of the Getty House.
But now ambition and greed ruled the day. The businessmen and the politicians saw wealth and power on the horizon. New York City was already straining at its seams. The river was crowded with merchant ships. The city fathers truly believed their town, with its serendipitous location, might be the next great American city.
Hence the campaign to advertise the city with a new, forward-looking slogan, and hence the Barnum entourage was no longer welcome in the burgeoning downtown district called Getty Square. Our productions still filled the house at the Teutonia Hall. But my freaks, geeks and pinheads now sent a shudder down the spines of the serious gentlemen who sat across the newly-paved streets in their offices and looked out the plate-glass windows of their banks and solicitor’s offices and stock brokerages, and saw nothing but a threat to their wealth.
And so that is why now, on that remarkable night, I was not on the stage, but in the swirling crowd, as the festivities reached their peak .I looked on, with the giant and the wild men at my sides, as a fireworks barrage was shot from a long barge anchored in the middle of the Hudson. Bursts of green and red and gold lit the skies and illuminated the majestic Palisades at the other shore. And, as the rousing display concluded with a roaring grand assault of deafening blasts and blinding flashes, young Mr. Edison stepped forward on the flag-bedecked podium and yanked a long wooden lever. The crowd cheered lustily as the switch was flipped and lit the sign that announced in harsh, glaring light the new slogan chosen by the Board of Trade:
WELCOME TO YONKERS
CITY OF GRACIOUS LIVING
What the city fathers and wealthy merchants did not know — what I did not know — was that those glaring lights had already served a purpose. Though the sign’s lights shone mostly out toward the river, the electricity was so profuse and Mr. Edison such a genius that enough of the glow reflected backward a block away, casting its light far enough to illuminate Toothless Tessie’s corner at Vestry Street and Dock Street and even light a section of her familiar alley between the Seaman’s Chapel and the YMCA.
Tessie was a familiar yet disorienting sight. It was not easy to calculate her age. She looked older than her true years, but she was probably no older than thirty. Her thick red hair was dulled by dirt but still vivid, marking her as low Irish. Her eyes were green, of course, and with some imagination and sympathy it was possible to envision young Tessie as a full-bodied woman with whom any man might abandon himself in an Irish stew of lust and love and longing. But too much time at the docks and too many men driven only by lust had done their worst to Tessie. Just as her hair had gone from burning red to a dull reddish brown, just as her green eyes which once danced with light were now faded and nearly blank, her once fine figure was now nearly without form. The young girl Tessie may once have danced Irish jigs and Lowland twirls but this Tessie walked slowly and unsteadily through the grim alleys and dark streets. Even the shape of her mouth and its full lips hinted at past glories — that
Tessie once possessed a smile, but one by one had lost her teeth until none remained, and so had acquired the name known to all the sailors, all the fishermen, all the bootleggers, all the police, all the poor boys from the Glen and the Hollow and the shantytown on Seminary Hill near the carpet mill, all the dandy sons of the city fathers and wealthy merchants, and even some men of the cloth, all of whom knew the poor girl as Toothless Tessie.
Even now, though the glory and grandeur of her youthful beauty were no more, that adjective uttered before the vulgar form of her Christian name Theresa could send tingling jolts directly from the brains to the loins of each and every one of those lost and lusty sons of Adam. For those who did not have a full dollar to spend on the complete assortment of amusements provided by Tessie and her like, but had only a 10-cent coin, Tessie afforded a quicker, lesser but still popular alternative to taking a room for half an hour in one of the vermin-ridden establishments so amusingly described as ‘tourist hotels’ in the pamphlet ‘What is Yonkers?’ published by the Board of Trade in an attempt to attract more industries like the carpet mills built by Mr. Alexander Smith along the Nepperhan Creek, or the sprawling sugar refinery just upstream from the Hudson docks, or the impressive and bustling elevator works opened by young Mr. Otis on a once-primeval riverside tract where Indian bones were unearthed during excavation for the factory’s foundation.
Tessie did not discriminate. She entertained poor boys and rich boys; workers from the sugar refinery and the owners of the sugar refinery; muscular fishermen with their briny, sweaty stench and fat-bellied bankers with their fancy scents of witch hazel and bay rum; pale clergymen and ruddy cops, glib politicians and glum pole-lighters, slick confidence men and slicker Christian crusaders, even the poor Negroes and low Irish and mixed-breeds who dwelt in the Glen. From the new mansions on upper Park Hill to the waterfront docks, from the Slovak slums on Nodine Hill to the crowded rooms filled with illiterate Italians on lower Park Hill, even as far south as Kingsbridge and as far north as Dobb’s Ferry and Sleepy Hollow, boys and men winked and said, ‘If you’ve got the shilling, Toothless Tessie’s willing,’ and found their way to the joy to be found at Tessie’s alley, where even a light as bright as an exploding star might be devoured by such stubborn darkness.
Now I am well-acquainted with the mysteries of creation and the indecipherable nature of God’s ways. Why are two beautiful babies born joined at the hip? What strange hand worked the clay to create Portia the Puppet Woman, born so small that she could fit in a thimble and was no bigger than a cat when she was fully grown? How can I explain the wonders of my brother’s own Hottentot Venus, or the beautiful Miss Muffet, who need only lift her skirt to drive wise men into blathering fools? Who can know what god would create the boy named Timmy Torso, who was born without legs and was forced to spend his days walking on his hands through a topsy-turvy world? So I will not try to explain and I will only accept and describe what happened in that alley.
The young man handed over his 10-cent piece and walked into the alley with Tessie, who promptly began her well-practiced performance. The young man could hear echoes in the alley of the speeches being intoned at the piers. He could hear the children’s choir singing its stirring hymn.
But the lust stirring in him distorted those senses so that the singing sounded like a chorus of angels and the flashes and explosions from the fireworks show mingled with the dreams and thoughts cascading through his mind, and just at the moment of the grand finale of exploding light and percussion, the young man screamed in pain.
He grabbed a wooden plank he saw within reach and brought that wooden plank down hard on Tessie’s still-bent head. The wooden plank hit the girl’s head with a thick dull thump, and her brain shook and her eyes shut by reflex and her throat issued a groan. She fell backward into the dirty alley, and blood from the deep gash cut into her head mingled with her dirty red hair and with the brown dirt on the alleyway’s floor. The young man dropped the plank. He looked around but saw not a soul, except perhaps Tessie’s as it rose toward the heavens. He ran through the back door of the YMCA, deciding quickly to avoid Dock Street and the gathered crowds.
I will not leave you to wonder how I know the sad details of Tessie’s demise. I know these terrible things because T.L. Handy came to me that night, knocking on my door at the Hollywood Inn, where I’d taken rooms upon my glorious arrival in Yonkers ten years before.