metropolis: chapter 1


castle garden

“Hot corn! Get your hot corn!”

Her voice cut through the clamor of Broadway but attracted no customers as she made her way south through the teeming crowd, bouncing her basket on her hip. When she reached the gates of the old fort known as Castle Garden, where the immigration center was, she flashed a smile at the guard, entered the premises and quickly sold her corn, several dozen ears, to the usual cast of hollow cheeked immigrants. The stuff had been dried on the cob in the fall and had to be soaked two full days before boiling, but even so, it had tasted good to her, five years back, after the unrelenting porridge of the passage from Dublin. Here and there, ears that had been stripped clean lay discarded in the dirt, kicked up against the pillars, along with every other sort of garbage.

So she'd sold her corn, but it didn't earn her much, just pennies a piece. She didn't mind. Selling hot corn wasn't why she'd come. Hot-corn girls were notorious for rounding out their incomes by stepping into corners and lifting their skirts upon request, but that wasn't the sort of compromise Beatrice had chosen to make. She'd found another way to save up the money to bring her younger brother over and keep her dignity, too.

“That was fine, miss,” said a boy, politely swallowing a belch. “Have you got any more?”

He was just about her brother’s age. Her voice had sounded that Irish when she had first arrived. Now it was more flexible; she could show her brogue or not, depending on the situation.

She let her voice lilt just enough to tell him he was at home there, too, but her answer was no, and she didn’t crack a smile. She had too much to do to linger with him.

She was there to take advantage of a rare opportunity and meant to make the most of it. She and her friend Fiona generally hit the disembarking passengers together. They were good, the two of them, could make more money as a pair than the rest of the girls in the gang put together, not least because they had fun doing it. They’d never been arrested, not even once. The jobs they pulled brought in plenty of money, but half the take went to their boss, just for starters, and then they split the rest between them. It was better than piecework, but it was taking too long for her to save up enough for Padric’s ticket. She worried about what would become of him, if she didn’t send for him soon. And so she had been pleased to learn that morning that Fiona was needed to help on another job, leaving Beatrice free to go out solo. A small lie or two when the gang did their weekly accounts would mean keeping four times as much as on a usual day, bringing Padric over four times faster. The only problem was, it was also at least four times as perilous, since it wasn’t just the cops she had to worry about, but the boss. He would break her fingers if he ever discovered she’d kept his cut for herself.

She took a sharp breath and stashed her basket behind a vast pile of luggage. The day was raw, and she was freezing. To do what she was going to do, she needed her hands to be warm and nimble. Her fingers fluttered in the dank harbor air, then vanished into her dress, leaving the sleeves of her overcoat dangling empty. Her hands darted past cheap gabardine and worn shirting and came to nestle in the heat, the musk, the fine damp hairs of her armpits. Soon her fingers were starting to feel warm. But her arms were trussed, and all she could do, when a gust of wind worked a copper strand loose from its braid and whipped it in her face, was snort and shake her head. Through it all, she watched the steamship’s tenders as they were loaded up with trunks, then passengers.

The first-class passengers had long since gone through a genteel version of immigration and customs on shipboard; their tender landed them at a well appointed West Side terminal, not Castle Garden. Steerage would be last off, as usual. But a ship this size carried people of every level of wealth and class, and the second-class passengers would be the first to disembark here. As the tender bumped against the pilings, Beatrice extracted her hands from her armpits, stuck them nonchalantly back through her sleeves, into her pockets, and began to move.

“As if there weren’t enough of these people already,” said a woman in a high velvet toque with a nervous thrust of her chin at the crowds of steerage passengers from earlier ships. Her husband winced and nodded. They’d just spent the season in London. Before the war, they traveled first class and never had to set foot in Castle Garden, but most of her money was southern—which was to say diminished since the War Between the States—and they'd been forced to make concessions.

Beatrice shed her hat, let down the braids that had been twisted under it and adjusted her posture and face in subtle ways that stripped her of nearly a decade in a handful of seconds: She was suddenly quite a little girl. The second-class couple emerged at the north gate, relieved, with sighs and murmurs of “Ah, New York, so good to be home!” At the curb, while the coachman raised their trunks to his roof rack and the gentleman made to hand his lady up onto the tufted leather carriage bench, Beatrice pressed forward. With her hand outstretched, she said, “Welcome to America, sir, miss! Have you anything extra to help me and my ailing mother?”

The couple looked away—he to the side, his wife to him. That was the trick, of course: to force them to look away.

Beatrice’s fingers were as fast as her eyes seemed innocent. Watches were her specialty, but this time she focussed on the lady, who wore a pin on her lapel that reminded Beatrice of her mother’s long gone gold-rimmed brooch. She wasn’t sure how much it would bring, so she also grabbed the silk-and-suede wallet that protruded from the gentlewoman’s muff (it turned out to be bulging at the seams, though some of the currency was foreign). Then Beatrice was gone, and the couple was grateful. The horse left a loamy turd steaming on the pavement as it strained against its harness. The wheels ground forward. They were halfway home before they realized what they’d lost.