Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 17—The Titan City

Lucy looks in on Cat. “Huh.” There is a squeak from hinges he might have oiled, once. On Cat’s TV costumed actors sing of knit cotton underwear. They are dressed as large bunches of fruit; we are in a commercial break. She changes the channel, angry that Lucy has broken her focus. A cantaloupe stumbles and displays mock horror. Jeopardy appears as a high school Latin classroom. “And now.... from 503 BC! Let’s hear it for Menenius Agrippa, the Humble Farmer!” There is silence. Alex Trebek writes ‘Agrippa’ on the chalk board. A sophomore chews the eraser of her pencil as a reek of unwashed citizens fills the arena. Discrete applause ripples, stops, then rises to a thundering swell as spear hafts hammer on granite bleachers; sausage hawkers rattle their skewers; wine-sellers hold their wineskins on high, cheer and stamp their feet. A bewildered man, bent and bowlegged with years of unremitting labor shuffles out through the curtains. He wears a tattered tunic gathered up at the waist and the wide-brimmed conical hat favored by ancient Etruscans. The ovation subsides. Who is this? Menenius is wildly popular, but no one can remember why. This is an old man with a hay fork, not a captive prince come to play the games. Oh, that Menenius Agrippa—hadn’t he saved the City by thumping some barbarian? There is booing as this is MMDIII years gone and celebrity fades with time and distance.

“History is bunk,” Cat says. “And I would appreciate it if you would stop tampering with the TV.”

“I am not dead, not past history. This is a thing Philomena has told you. Or wishful thinking by you.”

“Philly? Silly... what would she know about life in the 21st Century? Sodden little mouse: worked near to death and with her nose up the ass of that Phil leVoid.”

“He has promised her a free pass to the Life Beyond. And your pretend preacher Fr. Coughlin? He is imaginary, Cat.”

“He is not. He is on the radio; that’s why you can’t see him. There is a difference. And you are defending her, Luce. Philly is real enough—I tripped over her with an ear at the keyhole last month. And there never was a Rome—your omnipresent Rome. Rome with all those references that nobody understands but you? I’ll just bet that you made it all up. You hide behind Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. You have never read the damned thing, if it is a real book at all. All your quoting of ancient history is a screen to keep you safe and superior. That is not kind. Is there something going on that I should know about?”

Lucy tells Cat about his interview with Sarah. “I told her I killed him. What the hell, he was a turret gunner. I was a bombardier. I felt he owed me something...”

“Archimedes Drye. What a lovely man. He doesn’t visit any more. We stand on the shoulders of giants,” Cat said. “Of course I realize that Fr. Coughlin is dead; I listened to him only last night. I am distressed you do not like the Radio Hour of the Little Flower, Archie.”

“I am Lucian.”

*  *  *

It was a crisp fall day in New York. Lucy had wangled himself an extra day of leave by not bothering to show up. An implausibly young girl sits dejectedly with her battered suitcase. She is pretty, verging on beautiful, a cavalier’s call to arms.

“Hullo. I am Lucian. Mind if I sit down? This area we now occupy used to be called ‘The Ladies’ Mile.’ You must be the lady so introductions are in order. My, my, you don’t look to be a day over sixteen.”

“I am. Yes. Several days.”

“Actual calendar days over sixteen, or are we speaking figuratively as with the passages of generations or the six creative ages of the universe. From the Bible?”

“Ladies’ Mile. Why?”

“Richard Harding Davis,” said Lucy. “Of the New York Sun? As in ‘Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus?”

“Oh. Yes.” Full, rich sensuous lips executed a practiced pout. An entrancing line of crinkles flashed across the bridge of Clear-eyed Alicia’s nose, then disappeared with a change of mood. “You are fooling. You are toying with me. You want to get me to the nearest hotel is all.”

“Ahh... So true. Lamentable, but alas, true.” Lucy Hobart sat close and held her hand. She did not pull it away. “Well. In 1892, that same Richard Harding Davis noted that ‘private carriages line the curb in quadruple file and the pavement is impressively studded with white-breeched grooms.’ It was here that the most elegant ladies came to buy the finest objects sold in America. First Ladies, such as Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Cleveland, came up from Washington to buy special outfits at Arnold Constable on Broadway at 19th Street. When Belle Gardner came down from Boston to buy diamonds, she came to Tiffany’s on Union Square.”

“And where are they now?” asked Clear-eyed Alicia. She studied the smut-gray facades of the onetime elegant cast iron buildings. Swirls of veined verdigris had been painted over the slender fluted cast iron columns to simulate the look of marble. “The real look of wood,” said Lucy.

“Wood?” The girl was flabbergasted. “I thought they were marble. The pillars?” The pout returned “You are having your fun with me.”

“No, dear Alicia, that will come in due course. The phrase is a mockery of the false claims of advertising-yet-to-come. I can see the future too, as well as level enemy cities and knock the snot out of Hitler with a flick of my bombsite. Did I tell you that? That I can, as is the mete and merit of all higher vertebrates, infer the future out of past happenings.” In the near distance, the Wanamaker department store squatted stolidly—in command of its own whole block square of precious Gotham real estate. Lucy stood to stretch and pace; he wanted a cigarette.

“Yes. John Wanamaker himself rode in from Philly, not Boston, and built what you see here. That was 1896 and Wanamaker’s still remains in business. The building’s original staircase connecting to the Astor Place IRT station is right under our feet.”

“I read this poem once in the Ladies Home Journal,” said Alicia.

Lucy stared with eyes wide. “Now there is a 90 degree change of course if I ever heard one. What on God’s green Earth made you say that? All my chatter about ‘The Ladies’ Mile?’”

“No. A real poem. That I read once. It was inside a pile of old magazines when I was cleaning out my granny’s house. She died.”

“I would imagine so, to allow her pearl beyond price granddaughter to congeal the passageways of her unblemished mind with worldly versifying.”

“Huh? I mean, yes. What?”

Lucy struggled closer and, shrugging out of his bulky Army overcoat, placed it and his arm across Alicia’s shoulders.

In Flanders Fields, the poem?” said Alicia. “A young woman named Moina Belle Michael, having been moved by the very same poem I had read in my gram’s Ladies’ Home Journal, finds a supply of red silk poppies on sale in Wanamaker’s Department Store along the stretch of Broadway known as the Ladies Mile, which thanks to you, I now know as the true name of exactly where we are. This event will determine the course of her life. This is why I come here alone. I hope the ghost of Moina will point me the way.”

“The way. To...”

“My true course.”

“Of course.”

Alicia declaimed, “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow / between the crosses row on row... Oh, look!” On a traffic island, a cement oasis in the midst of two converging yellow-liveried taxi streams, a commotion was forming up. Through a curtain of blue ozone that flickered like the aurora borealis, a tall, well-dressed man and a Salvation Sister with a too-short skirt were shaking the fallen form of what looked to be, at their distance, a human being.

“Is that a dead man?”

“Not unlikely. Could be a mirage. The city puts them about, an ambience to impress tourists. The sister and her escort seem to have things well in hand,” said Lucy giving Clear-eyed Alicia a squeeze. She did not slap him away, but continued to stare aghast at the tableau of the saint (Sister Joyful) and sinner (Judge Joseph Force Crater). “If he hasn’t moved for three days, he’s municipal property and will be disposed of in Potter’s Field.” Lucy nibbled Clear-eyed Alicia’s ear, “It’s the sanitation code.”

In 1926 the Education Bureau of Wanamaker’s department store exhibited a collection of paintings and murals called “The Titan City, A Pictorial Prophesy of New York, 1926–2026.” It depicted a great metropolis in the sky: ribbons of highway high above the ground, flocks of airships moving among the spires.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

The Wanamakers were, to a man and to a woman, respected Christian businessfolk. While they lived they distributed largess and tithed tight to the farthing. When dead, the Wanamakers lay down and stayed put, sensible behavior for the deceased. In Moina Michael’s time, Wanamaker’s was a Manhattan landmark advertised in newspapers as “easily accessible from all parts.” It had already given the world Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and among its marvels was an auditorium of three thousand seats, in which public lectures included magic lantern slides depicting a series of “Expeditions to the American Indian” intended to preserve the memory of a vanishing race.

*  *  *

In the days when Sarah Drye first broke off with house-sitting and dog walking she went cold turkey. She was burned out by the vagabond life of the artist and applied six thousand dollars of her savings on what Arpad Tasmanian, the rentals rep from Renaissance Properties, called a bed-sitter. It was a basement apartment, a half-floor underground, what the Brooklyn boosters of Cobble Hill called a “half-basement.”

“A Colonial, English, half-basement with Federal influences,” Arpad Tasmanian said. “A Dutch cellar. The light gets in but you stand have to on tiptoe to see out to the street.” City rentals were a sellers’ market and he rarely dusted the bloom from realty. “A fixer-upper. The present tenant has some improvements you’ll have to shell out for, too.” Out of her own pocket, not in the lease. “Sorry. The usual.” He minced few words about the Brooklyn properties he represented.

“Are you comfortable in close quarters?” asked Arpad Tasmanian. “No claustrophobia?” He leaned in as though demonstrating close quarters. This was habit, not really sexual aggression. Arpad was a close talker, a salesman, and he was on duty. Sarah was striking in a homegrown, fresh off the farm sort of way, but his age and therefore over the hill. Sarah Drye did not dovetail into Arpad’s chronicles of conquest where pubescent girls made up the majority. She was here; he was here—grab the closest ass, the world might end any minute now. Go for it. “Comfortable...” the word hung three-eighths of an inch from Sarah’s face.

“Was that a come-on? If so, that’s one,” Sarah said.

“One what,” asked Arpad Tasmanian.

“One out of three. You get three tries. Then I shoot you. Don’t worry, it’s an old joke.” Sarah backed off, leaving a five-inch frontier of neutral air space between her nose and his forehead. Arpad Tasmanian was good-looking. Did the Armenians bring strange diseases with them on their diaspora? Mountain tribesmen slaughtered by genocidal Turks, they ate dates and figs—go figure. She peered. He peered. There was a surge of revelatory silence between them, then they both got back to wrangling over the apartment. Sarah thought, Forget it: he’s just a salesman in wolf’s clothing. The rental game was afoot. And this pathetic basement apartment with grime-encrusted windows was worth more to her than any chance at a future fling.

At under two thousand dollars—one month’s rent, one month’s security deposit, and the agent’s fee, again one month’s rent—the place was a golden find at less than the going market rate. The signing of a lease demoted the gloom of her creative catacomb to a minor irritation. Sarah decorated her solo apartment with tasseled silk throws and hammered brass trays. The accordion-fold window grates had been locked with Master padlocks and their keyholes painted shut, removing any possibility of escaping from fire or flood into the pachysandra-filled front yard. Her bed was a fold-out convertible, on special at Jennifer Convertibles on Broadway at 96th Street. Jennifer Convertibles delivered to Brooklyn at no extra charge.

One morning after being awakened by grunts and squeals of copulation outside her bedroom cavity—not a room, there was barely space enough to tuck in the sheets—she tried to get the window open to see what was going on. The window, on the other side of the accordion-fold metal grate, was painted shut. She slipped into her winter jogging kit, sweatpants and sweatshirt, and went outside. A hatchet-faced Puerto Rican man and a baby-doll Latina had finished up and were passing a pipe. Crack, ozone-smelling, thick, sweet, and rich and chemical. The woman’s pants were still pulled down to her knees. Sarah made eye contact.

“You looking at me?” asked the hatchet-faced man. He took a toke and passed her the pipe.

“I am,” said Sarah. “And thanks, anyway.” She waved away the crack pipe. The man shrugged and handed it over to the girlfriend.

“This is our place,” said the hatchet-faced one.

“This is my place.” Sarah met his challenge, something out of his experience. Sarah tensed her body for bullets or a knife.

“Uh, OK.” The couple departed. Umbrella Man and Peaches, Sarah named them.

Peaches and the Umbrella Man get laid. I don’t get laid. What’s wrong with this picture? thought Sarah Drye.

“That’s two,” said Sarah. The joke was on her.

The first year she washed the windows from the outside. This was easily accomplished as she needed no ladder. Sarah had a well-considered fear—not fear per se, she would say, just common sense—of heights. Today she walked with a steaming plastic pail of ammonia solution, a large sponge and a roll of paper towels into the ventilation well. There was some scuttling at the far end of the murky dusk which she chose to ignore. The air shaft ran the height of the building between the basement and the roof and allowed minimal air and some light into her cellar. “When the window is washed,” said Sarah. She sponged, gave a swipe with a wad of paper towels. The towels came away black and oily. The window looked much the same. “One more time.” Many more times and the outside was washed to her satisfaction. That left the inside. Sarah bought a hacksaw and cut off the locks on the metal window grate.

*  *  *

In the vestry of the Shrine of the Little Flower, Father Charles E. Coughlin the Radio Priest, the only child of Thomas Coughlin and Amelia Mahoney, had stopped before the pier glass on the steps that ran the three flights from his private apartments to the vestry. The reflection in the pier glass was not that of Fr. Coughlin, nor that of Dave Peel, a creature of supernatural origin who stood at his side. The two peered into the pier glass. A buxom, jolly woman of advanced middle years was knitting. Steam rose from a cup of cocoa at her side.

“Billie Sundae, née Trout,” said Dave the fallen angel. “Billie’s chosen namesake was a baseball player before his calling—William Ashley Sunday, revival preacher, Phillies outfielder, a right-hander.”

“That is not Billy Sunday. We must have a bad connection.”

“No connections are bad,” said Dave. “Some are just better than others. Look to your spelling, priest. The glass is clouded.” Dave gave the mirror a kick. Billie’s cocoa sloshed over the side and spilled a drop on her crewelwork. “Shit,” she said.

Dave produced his packet of interleaved rice papers and rolled a cigarette. “You are conflicted. Here...” Dave passed the Father a joint.

“Billy Sunday,” said Fr. Charles E. Coughlin.

“He draws a crowd, sure,” Dave replied. “So does a train wreck. Billy hollers ‘Jesus, Jesus,’ postulants chuck their crutches, he slams them dead center between the eyes with the flat of his hand, they fall over. Next night: Toledo. Know how many radio stations we have as affiliates? So far? Thirty-two. And that’s coast-to-coast. Look at these Gallup polls; the numbers don’t lie. We’re pulling over 70,000 letters a week, every week from your radio congregation. You have cornered the market with the faithful and the idly curious. These latter, by the bye, will be ripe for conversion for you speak the truth. And couch your phrases in a common-sense, populist language the mouth-breathers can understand.”

“The numbers...”

“Don’t lie.”

“The mirror...” Fr. Charles E. Coughlin adjusted his collar in the pier glass.

“Does the best it can under the circumstances,” said Dave the Angel.

*  *  *

Sarah Drye meanwhile, found an outlet for her creative impulses, an outlet that spared her voice while allowing her to continue smoking cigarettes. But the new employer, a quilt shop proprietrix who looked suspiciously like Mrs. Santa Claus, frowned on quilting facilitators who smoked. Like Lucy Hobart in Maine, Sarah chewed nicotine gum by the wad, by the box, yard, fathom and furlong. Sarah developed large, strong jaws. Billie Sundae, owner of Quilter’s Paradise on the uphill side of the Gowanus Canal, read a singleness of purpose into Sarah’s clenched teeth and felt she was ready for more responsibility. Sarah was moved up to paper-piecing and appliqué.

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