◊ Steeplechase Pier
“Can you hear the songbirds, or is it just me?”
Joe, his friend, a Marsh College professor, Joe, squinted like a birder, and replied, “Yeah, the clade passeri,” and chuckled about it, remembering one of the researchers at the school. “I knew one guy, he spent a year studying the whole passeri repertory, and decided they were trying to meet lady birds.”
“Really,” he smiled, on Auletta Pier, his elbows cradling a Seattle’s Best. “Do they drop any albums? You only see them rarely.”
“I think we’re talking sparrows here,” Joe disagreed, after a deep breath of salt air from the Atlantic Ocean, admiring Steeplechase Pier. He added, “I get them confused with avocets, wrens. You can hear songbirds. Seems like wrens are always just – messing around.”
He admitted, “You know, I miss the school. I miss being at the school, the – collegiality.”
Eventually, Joe said, “They used to race horses here at the Park until sixty-four. Our version of a cross between Atlantic City, and Kentucky Derby.”
He breathed, stoically, “Another day.”
Ten days at Brooklyn Medical Center had been, in many ways, “priceless.” He had been recuperating on the couch at his Coney Island flat, prior to Joe’s urging to “rediscover New York”; in the early throes of congestive heart failure, CHF, and suddenly awoken by the ring of a standard Bell telephone. There should have been no reason for surprise, but it did surprise him; in the receiver was a stern, and youthful woman’s voice. She was a dunner, a very “nice” one. She planned to make :arrangements” for the payment of his new, and entirely unpaid, medical bills. He had responded that applications had been filed, with both the school, and the government, but there was no response as yet. He was waiting to hear about the episode, which was “life-threatening,” musing this was an accounting matter, now; it had been been illegal to refuse treatment of life-threatening situation. She explained, “The bills still need to be paid.” He told Joe dunning heart patients should be against the law, for obvious reasons. Yes, it could kill them. She had told him, “You begin by paying just a little – ten dollars, say? That will keep things out of collection.” Roiled, he Googled it all, after she hung up. Heart attacks can cost over $90,000 in California. His candy striper at Coney Hospital, Mare Ligeia, had pointed that out. He was “lucky” to be treated in New York, where it shouldn’t cost “much over $35,000,” agreeably gladdened to find heart failure, although terminal, did not involved a “bypass, or a heart valve,” which normally “lifted 150 K.” He had $8,000 in savings, if every asset was collected, including a “poor” condition Yankees Team card, with an unknown circa; furniture; a motorcycle, in his custody, but actually owned by his friend Milt. The invoice for all of his medical expenses, a composition of four complete days, blinked $41,355. He couldn’t stop nodding in the dead air of his flat. The dunner said full payment had to be “arranged” in the next two weeks. She would call again, at “a more convenient time.” He was going to suggest such a time, a familiar saying, but he decided it was too cynical.
In view of the beach from Steeplechase Pier, the breakers routinely grooming the Atlantic shoreline, modernity equated to the scent of pizzas, which was all about, and no one seemed to complain. He might have, but didn’t feel the energy to do it any more. He watched a mother calling, and then barreling into the ocean, soaking her baggy, one-piece suit, trying to fetch her daughter, who was knocked down by one of the waves; the mother’s knees splaying the surf in every direction. Fried dough was part of the air; the drying salt of the ocean hinted for Bud Light.
Breaking a silence, Joe said, “I don’t see anybody. Is that them – over there?”
Thirty-seventh Street at Riegelmann Boardwalk was named originally for a borough president, who presided in 1923, the year Steeplechase Pier officially opened; it has been renovated, including after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The Lenape inhabitants of the area named the Coney Island area Narrioch, he knew, a name attributed by Wikipedia to meaning a “land without shadows” or “’always in light,’ describing how its south facing beaches always remained in sunlight.”
He had elected to join his friend for a morning of “watching celebrities,” which for some New Yorkers was a unique habit. They abided by the unwritten law to stay at least fifty-feet away from any real celebrity, but New York has many celebrities, real and unreal, who are known to suddenly emerge from any Subway, or just jog by on the street. It was rude to notice them, or to stop and notice them; and if they were engaged somehow, the rule was to address them like they were any other grocery shopper from Newark.
Today Joe urged the visit to Auletta pier to “see one of the Jeffersons,” – they “just had to, as academic part of the public school of arts.” The man was ostensibly visiting New York on an hiatus. They were now on the bench, sitting politely in diagonals in the sea mist, perusing everyone “fishing,” and anyone with a fishing line in the surf; they issued quick, unsuspecting glances at vacationers who might have a likeness to the third president of the United States, acknowledging by demeanor their respect for self-evident rights.
Their gaze eventually fell upon two men, several feet apart from one another, close to the entrance of the pier; one of them was a man with a tropical waist-shirt, and a suit jacket; the other was sporting a bright yellow fishing hat heavily-laden with lures. Joe opined to him about their attire, how it resembled “a cross between Target, and the York Street Goodwill.”
He was skeptical. He said, “That ain’t them.”
He grew tired of celebrity-watching, after the better part of an hour. A warm breeze from the south was comforting him. He held his coffee to his chest, stretching his legs out to ignore more of the day, imbibing more of the ocean, and a daydream, of his own rumination, about the school of Arts, and founding fathers. Joe invested the time in more people-watching, and suntanning, and slowly unwrapping ham sandwiches, commenting rhetorically, “Whatever did happen to the Washingtons, and the Madisons, the Lincolns? There has to be a drove of them somewhere in the U.S.”
The colleague had begun to doze in the sun, awaking with a start. He suggested, “Let’s go over there.”
Joe glanced down the pier, and asked, “Where?”
He noticed a US. Marine recruiter walk halfway down the pier, and then stop, and return to the street, apparently deciding against today’s visit to the boardwalk. He had spoken to the man in the tropical shirt, which prompted him to speculate it might be one of the Jeffersons, or “a Secret Service agent, at least.”
Joe observed, “No, it doesn’t work that way. The rule is Secret Service protects people from people. It’s a very, very fine point.”
He decided, “It’s got to be one of them.”
Joe said, “It can’t be the guy with the tropical shirt. And he looks like he makes three times more than the guy with the fishing hat.” He resumed his daydream, and sunnap, sure no celebrities were in sight.
Maybe he did sleep; it was not a habit, recently. He heard in a daydream, or the innate exercise of a professional academic, a voice of authority, actually two of them, speaking in mellow terms, sitting across from each other on a bench at Steeplechase Pier. They were adorned in colonial dressage. He watched them nearby from afar. The first man tucked into his breast pocket a quill, the same used to write The Federalist Papers; no one could mistake this man in New York. He was Alexander Hamilton. He was gauging the other fellow, across from him, Thomas Jefferson, who wore a powdered wig, and a swank, modern suit with a blue tailcoat. They were surrounded in a relief of the thick fog, and mostly genial. “Three words can describe the whole affair,” said Hamilton, raising his chin. The first US. Treasurer, and the author of many of the Federalist Papers which presented the best practices for a new republic, usually nodded before he spoke, and spoke as if one ought to agree with him. “We, the People,” he said.
The man from Virginia estimated Hamilton, and stated, “Wrong.”
The “war governor,” whose occupation was “attorney,” and a “war governor,” had not been invited to the Constitutional Convention, where those words, “We, The People,” were installed in the Preamble. He surveyed history, with a universalist view, and offered, in its stead, “Let us pray.”
“Let us pray?” Hamilton repeated, unenthusiastically.
Jefferson said, “All civilized history can be summarized by those words.”
“Well enough,” Hamilton said, appearing content. He raised one, but not two of his eyebrows, searching elsewhere.
The two colonials agreed, in his daydream, how “revolution” was a “dangerous” thing, but the conversation got testy upon the subject of slavery. The host, Hamilton, was a proper New Yorker, and had never owned any slaves, personally, but once traded them. Jefferson viewed trade as the crux of slavery, and never bought, or sold them, but was purported to own a good many, a fact the Virginian was not ready to accept. He told Hamilton, in fact, the slave trade was outlawed by his own executive order, creating the course of equality. He iterated slavery was older than mankind, and began in America two centuries earlier, in 1619, when the first twenty slaves were shipped to Jamestown.
“Eliminating slavery was political, it was social justice,” Jefferson said. “It became civil rights. But we learn social justice is usually decided by war. We called for liberty, liberty for everyone, for the first time since Exodus. To dispatch the entire matter, to dispatch liberty with the notion we owned slaves, is simply backward, and probably capricious.”
The New Yorker was frustrated with talk about liberty, and the “spirit of ‘76,” the ideals of a young, and younger generation of Americans. He remarked, “You miss the point of everything, which was – we neither could cross the ‘pound,’ or ‘the pond,’ as it were.”
The Virginian was perplexed. Hamilton, in the lull of the beach, asserted, “Liberty was everyone’s problem, not the slaves. The convention nailed the windows shut. They needed to gain safe independence from England, they had to be expunged as the fugitives of the King. First the horse, then the cart, like it or not. The Revolution was not about the Enlightenment, for goodness sake, or about civil rights. It was the first, best chance for people to get a chunk of American land for their family, and posterity, to build an estate, – and for free; for free, – if it could be taken away from the Brits. Liberty was from fees, charters, mortgages, taxes, the better part of the usual ‘free-for-all.’ That is the reason they joined the Continental Army, not Enlightenment. For property!”
“George, and his men,” Jefferson recalled. “It’s really kinder than it seems, how times can change,” he said. “You know, ambition was originally one of the deadly sins, then it was considered to be a virtue. Is that Enlightenment? Maybe not. Adams was charge d’affaires of the interests of a modest country, the Netherlands, at the time, well across ‘the pond,’ and I was shipped to France. Adams, he was curbed of the first presidency. And we did not get our issue, liberty, which is the opposite of slavery.”
“George was going to win out,” said Hamilton. “And I was one of his ‘men.’ Liberty was included, a constitutional right, if you recall.”
Hamilton continued, generously, “He did have a way of isolating his opponents and rivals, bringing people into the fold, the ones who wanted the same things, and leaving his opponents out-of-doors. But ignoring the manifest destiny does not make it untrue. The revolution was fought, and won by property owners. Everyone got the blessings of liberty, but they were going to be first.”
Jefferson chided, “Yes. The Father of his Country.”
He nudged at Joe, who was enthralled with the sights with the warmth of the Pier, and then resumed his “daydream,” partly awake, partly asleep, and from time to time.
Idle in the Atlantic air, Jefferson riled, “We outlawed the slave trade in 1804. The Congress abolished it in 1807, during my term. Democrats were enjoined against the Crown, and there’s nothing worse than that, mob rule. It was certainly not a grand time, not grand at all, surely not one’s chance at the apple: Imagine, British troops in your house, per se, on a Sunday Sabbath, the Indians in the woods, slaves in the yard, and the Governor on your porch. Even the Crown despised the idea of the Visigoths.”
“And we had effigies in Philadelphia,” Hamilton said, quietly. “Liberty arrives without a billfold. We all had to cross the Thoroughfare Gap on Monticello mountain in the wintertime, the victims of our own success. What were we really about, it begs the question.”
“We were for religious freedom,” said Jefferson. “The original settlers were not only the subjects of the Crown, which possessed the wealth of America, but the Crown also presided over the church.”
Hamilton recalled, admirably, “George didn’t have to steal a skiff to fight the Royal Navy any more.”
“But there was tragedy,” the Virginian recalled. “By the 1800’s, we had prop up the supporters of ‘76, until we ran out of money, personally. The chance to harness the wealth of America left us bankrupt. And how would it look if a Madison or Monroe or some one like that wound up in debtors’ prison?”
Hamilton mused, “I remember the advertisement in the newspapers to buy Monticello.”
Jefferson said, “Yes, tragic. And the slaves were seized by the bank against collateral. I never actually owned them, you know. They were urged to leave Virginia, go west. Not terribly practical, or even a fine idea, the bounty hunters, the war. The technical legality was these slaves were always free. Martha inherited them from her father. She died days before the first government was sworn.”
He concluded, “It would be unfortunate to misunderstand. These slaves chose to remain at the very center of the Revolution, to help build Monticello, which became one of the wonders of the world, and then the university. The cause, Liberty, eventually became everyone’s struggle for civil rights. It is wrong to say their pursuit of social justice, versus the West, was not the best choice.”
A brisk wind, and its change in direction from the east to west, awoke them. Joe rose wearily, and somewhat groggy, with a yawn, to stand at the rail of the Pier. They wandered, purposefully, towards the two people they had believed to be the party of one of Jefferson’s descendant. Unwarily, Joe decided to greet the man in the flowery shirt and blue jeans, asking him, perhaps too boldly, “Are you from Virginia, Monticello?”
The man provided a wary smile, and, after nudging the man with the fish-tackle hat, responded, “No, New York. Secret Service.”
The man with hat full of lures turned, introduced himself as “Peter,” and shook his fishing line in the water.
Cordially, the Secret Service man asked, “Are you fishing?”
Joe replied “No, we never bother with it. Never catch anything.”
Peter Jefferson eyed Joe in the salt air, and remarked, “Monticello – the ‘old house at the bottom of the fogs.’ That’s what I call it. I have taken a couple of tours. I’m from Florida, and New York. Sno’bird.”
They were interrupted by the sound of construction, and the arrival of large utility vehicles near Steeplechase Pier. He observed, “They’re building a new church.”
Peter said, “Sometimes I think that’s the best thing Americans really can ever do.”
It became surreal to him to listen to Joe and the two strangers converse, and more poignant than it seemed to be. Joe mentioned his condition, heart failure, to them. They were surprised to hear it, how it was a young age to suffer a disease. A man among men, the Secret Service agent added brusquely, “He could have been hit by a bus.”
The Jefferson descendant glanced at the agent, who nodded. He nodded to him. Joe became tight-lipped. “Lousy thing, though,” the agent acceded. “Heart failure.”
“This is extra innings,” Joe cajoled, elbowing his friend. The agent, and other man grinned, all four of the Americans embarrassed, if a bit.
His Coney Island friend piped, “Not sudden death.”
After a moment, Peter reflected, “I don’t know if it’s true: There’s a story about the French leader, Georges Clemenceau. Clemenceau is purported to have said, after the first world war, how he truly did admire the Americans, but he would never, ever want to be one of them. And he was asked why. ‘Why wouldn’t you ever want to be an American? They’re such a religious people.’ Georges said because ‘they die unhappy.’”
They bid the men a brief good-bye a minute later, and wandered back towards the city, and the end of the pier. It was not Humanities, or social science, telling the instructor, who sought, who was “looking for the places only they will know,” it, the disease, and the great brush of modernity, the crash and economic expansion, would eventually claim him; it would collect him, it would “include” him “nonetheless.”
The Coney Islander tried to join Joe’s steady march, in time to catch the city bus at the end of Auletta, stretching along with the planks laboriously, and not walking very fast. He felt the thin strains of congestion, and the halving grip of the “sage disease,” but there was exhilaration, in the burnish glare of the sun, and the steel pegs of the rail. ◊
¤ JUKE BOX ¤
Theme: “Songbird,” Fleetwood Mac | playlist, “Flea Markets, Nos. 51-,” a myopic vaile (No. 58)
..… from “^; or, CARET,” III of III,
The Echo By Seas; & Other Stories, by Soda Tom,
[Complete Works, No. 01]. Copyright (C) 2017-20, ff.
All Rights Reserved.
Created by Soda Tom