metropolis by elizabeth gaffney

Metropolis by Elizabeth Gaffney, UK edition

(to the UK edition)

Her voice cut the clamor of Broadway like a bell, but she never paused to let a customer approach her.  He trailed her down Broadway by just twenty paces and then nearly caught up to her at the crowded crossing of Maiden Lane.  She slipped ahead while he waited for an omnibus to pass.  He was hungry for an ear of the steaming corn she carried in a basket on her hip, and so he pressed on, but when he spotted her again, he had just reached Whitehall Street. That was his turn. She was going the other direction. The ferries left for Staten Island on the hour, and it made no sense to miss the next boat for an ear of corn.  He cast a glance down the avenue and watched her vanish into the throng, never even having noticed him. There would be other hot-corn girls, he thought, never guessing that the skirts of his very fate swished around that hot-corn girl's ankles and hers alone.  He had no inkling then — how could he? — but for him, there would be no other hot-corn girls.  

            None of the things that took place later would have happened, if he'd caught up and bought her corn, if she'd looked into his eyes and seen his face.  But he didn't, she didn't, and a certain door swung open, through which he would soon enough walk. Of course, if they had met, there would still have been nearly a million people in that city of buildings.  Someone else would have filled his place.  The same bridges would have been built.  The streets, the gutters and the rivers would still have overflowed with sewage; cargo would still have been delivered at the same piers where dripping garbage was loaded on scows; livestock would still have roamed the streets freely and vermin asserted their position in the food chain; fires would have burned; the populace would still have been just as obsessed with science and politics, scandal and crime, art and amusement. Such was life in the metropolis of New York City, in 1868, such is life today.  To wish that away would be to wish away nature, to wish away culture, to wish away the world. 

            When the ferry Westfield lurched away from Whitehall a quarter hour later, the man looked back through a hoarfrosted window at the southern tip of New York.  If he'd had half the eyesight of the falcon roosting in the belfry of the big church on the Heights, or if the window had been cleaner, he might have been able to see his hot-corn girl standing on the pier at Castle Garden, staring into the freezing wind, idly noticing his ferry as it crossed her line of sight, briefly obscuring her view of the oceangoing steamer she had come there to meet.

            This was before Ellis Island, and Castle Garden was where you arrived, the entry to the Port of the City of New York.  The hot-corn girl had business to conduct with several of that steamer's passengers, and she was impatient.  Behind her, the immigration center teemed with people all hoping to forge a better life for themselves.  But for now they were still just babbling in their dozen different tongues, praying to their several feuding Gods, cursing at their children, stamping in the cold, laughing with nervous expectation.  All of them were alike, in that they sought release into the city beyond, where they dreamed that in exchange for doing honest work, they'd get the chance to build something new, something pure, something theirs.  In America, they dreamed, all that had been out of reach to them before would be possible. To get above the fray, to make their living proudly, to be the kind of people they admired — their aspirations were boundless but simple, really.  They sought happiness.

            All of them were more or less filthy, now, from the long ordeal of traveling across third-class — steerage. They stank of unwashed hair and skin and onions and the rank sweat of fear, and some of them of worse things, but no matter: This at last was the hour on which their lives were to turn.  Or so they imagined, never guessing how long it would take not just to get through Immigrations, hours upon hours upon hours.  It would be longer than that before any of them got the life they'd dreamed of when they set sail. For many, it would never happen.  They would never even learn to negotiate the twangs and flat vowels of the new world language. In their midst, the hot-corn girl waited calmly, not one of them anymore.   Beatrice had come to New York from Dublin with her uncle and aunt five years before and had gradually given up most of the fantasies of the newly arrived.  That first winter, her uncle drank up all their money and made next to none himself, and they hadn't been able to keep the flat warm, much less save money to bring her little brother over, as planned.  And she was just an orphaned niece, lucky they'd let her tag along with their family on her own dime, without any power over the family purse, not even a right to spend the money she herself had earned.  She'd been so confident she would find a way to raise the price of his passage, once they were in America.  She had always had a way of finding opportunities, and wasn't America the land of that?  It hadn't taken long to figure out that sewing shirtsleeves eighteen hours a day brought in just enough to stay alive, and that higher paying jobs were simply not available to an Irish girl. Eventually, she had found another way, a way she had to keep secret from her uncle and aunt, but at least she was finally saving up dollars for Padric.   

            She quickly sold her basket of steaming corn, three dozen ears to hollow cheeked immigrants who didn't know that no one who knew anything would eat the mealy hot corn that was available in winter — it had been dried on the cob in the fall and had to be soaked two full days before boiling.   Even so, she remembered how good the stuff had tasted to her after the unrelenting porridge of the ocean passage.  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 her corn was gone.  She always sold her corn.  But she wouldn't trot home at midday for a second steaming load of ears.  And unlike some other hot-corn girls, she wouldn't step into a dark corner and lift her skirts upon request, to round out her income. She saw where that led, and it wasn't a compromise she was willing to make.  She had a different racket.

            "That was  fine, miss," said a boy, smacking his lips and 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 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 was there on a matter of business and hadn't the time nor the least inclination to linger with this raw arrival. 

            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 still taking too long to save up for Padric's ticket.  He'd written her a letter about wanting to join the nationalist movement.  Padric was all enthusiasm and fire, and she worried 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's help was needed on another job, leaving Beatrice 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 that much faster.  The only problem was, it was also far more perilous, since it wasn't just the cops she had to worry about, but her boss. He would break her fingers if he ever discovered she'd kept his cut for herself. 

            She took a sharp breath, turned away from the harbor and stashed her basket behind a vast pile of luggage.  The day was raw, and she was freezing, but to do what she was going to do, she needed her hands to be warm and nimble.   Her bare 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 at last 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 strand of hair loose from its braid and whipped it into her face, was snort and shake her head.  Through it all, though, she kept her eye on the steamship's tenders as they were loaded up with trunks, then people.

            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, and worst off, as usual.  But a ship this size carried people of every level of wealth and class.  The girl was concerned in particular with the second-class, always the first to set foot on land at Castle Garden, paperwork expedited, steamer trunks in tow.  They were fine looking, respectable people, busy thinking about how they looked and what foreign stories they would soon be regaling their friends and families with, which meant easily distracted.  They were poor enough to have to travel second class and go through Castle Garden, but by all means well enough to do to be worth her time.  As the first tender bumped against the pilings, the girl extracted her hands from her armpits, stuck them nonchalantly back through her sleeves, into her pockets, and began to move.

            Her eye followed the parade of ribboned hats and horn-handled canes that now parted the crowd in the frigid, brick amphitheater. 

            "As if there weren't enough of these people already," said a high velvet toque with a nervous thrust of her chin at the crowd of steerage passengers from an earlier ship.  She and her husband had just spent the season in London.  Before the war, they traveled first class and never had to step 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 accommodate. 

            The hot-corn girl had darted to the exit.  She 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 just a little girl.  The second class emerged at the north gate, relieved, with sighs and murmurs of "Ah, New York, so good to be home!"  At the curb, the coachman raised their trunks to his roof rack and the gentleman made to hand his wife up onto the tufted carriage bench.  But before the coach could whisk them away into the maze, the girl pressed forward.  With her hand outstretched, she said, "Welcome to America, Sir, Miss!  Have you anything extra to help me poor ailing mother?"

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

            Her fingers were as fast as her eyes seemed innocent.  Watches were her specialty — they brought excellent money and were easy to get hold of, the way they dangled from every would-be gentlemen's vest — but this time she focussed on the lady.  She wore a pin on her lapel that reminded the hot-corn girl of the one piece of finery her mother had owned, a gold-rimmed cameo brooch. She wasn't sure how good this one was, so she also made away with the silk-and-suede wallet that protruded slightly from the gentlewoman's muff and turned out to be bulging at the seams, though most of the currency was foreign.   Then she was gone, and they were grateful.  The horse left a loamy turd steaming on the pavement as it strained against its harness.  The wheels ground forward.  The couple was halfway home before they realized what they'd lost, at which point Beatrice was just pushing through the doors of Marm Mandelbaum's pawnshop, wondering what discount she'd have to accept on the brooch in exchange for the old shrew's discretion. 

            A dozen ferries from twenty-odd lines were just then groaning up against pilings and flinging their hemp lines to men on docks.  Pitch-daubed harbor wood and estuary brine commingled in the salty air.  Seagulls swooped.  The white cresting harbor chop seemed somehow pure, even cleansing, but in fact the water was abrew with sewage and sinkhole seepage.  That little illusion of the splash was one of the city's wondrous many.   At lower tides, a fetid taint from the peripheral marshes drifted and clung to the fibers of people's clothes, their hair.  And through those waters, lightly spattered by the spray, two hundred thousand disembarked daily at ferry piers in Fulton Street, Mott Haven,  Jersey City, Weehawken, Green Point, Hunter's Point, Harlem.  The bridges and tunnels that would one day join Manhattan to the Jersey mainland and major harbor islands were just notions, then, patiently waiting for the building boom that would transform the wooden city to a modern metropolis as tall and technological as the populace dared to make it.

            Sometime late that afternoon, off the ferry Westfield's dock at Whitehall Street, there stepped the fellow who'd managed by luck if not by intention to avoid an encounter with Beatrice, the hot corn-confidence girl.  He'd had a pleasant day off, if a slightly lonely one, and he was thinking of a girl, of course.  He was young after all and as full of lust as he was of the typical immigrant dreams. He wanted to be a builder, an architect, something in that vein, and he wanted to have someone he could take out dancing, dining and driving.  It was a girl he'd befriended on the ship over who occupied that space in his mind. They had sailed together from Hamburg on the Leibnitz, and now he wondered, as he often did, how Maria had fared in the city, and whether he would ever find her again.

            The Leibnitz had been a typhoid ship, and although the two of them were among the healthy ones, that did not spare them the fifteen days of quarantine.  He sent to a grim dormitory on Swineburn Island, and he had no idea where she was.  Men and women were billeted separately.  The day they released him, he asked how to find her and was told they kept no such records.  If she'd been family, maybe they would have arranged a reunion, but she just a girl he'd been smitten with, not his mother, not his sister, not his wife. He took consolation in knowing she was tough — the passage across the Atlantic had proven that — but still, she was entirely alone.  He would have done anything to find and rescue her, but he had neither the knowledge nor the means.  It was possible, he knew, that she wasn't even in New York anymore.  He recalled the man at the immigration bureau who'd attempted to convince him to immigrate further, to a place called Kansas, where he claimed there was more work and much more land.  Our man had shaken his head at that offer, being willing to go hungry and without work for as long as he had to, rather than deport himself further, to some remote wilderness where his chances of finding Maria again were nil and the even the churches were likely built of planks, not stone. 

            He was an immigrant, but he didn't want to be a pioneer.  And he'd booked his passage on the Leibnitz not so much for America as for New York itself, a city so great and so swiftly growing that they couldn't put buildings up fast enough to contain the swelling crowds.  New York was famous, but Kansas?  No, he craved the excitement, the crowds.  He'd loved Hamburg, when he lived there, working on the great cathedral.  He'd had a girlfriend in town and a mentor in the master builder, and it had truly been the best time in his life, knowing he was doing something worthwhile with his days.  If only that could have lasted.  But it hadn't, and so he'd set his sights on New York. How could anyone with such marketable skills as stonecutting and masonry fail to find a job in New York, where buildings were said to go up by the score every day, where all the world was flocking, just for the sheer opportunity?  As it turned out, there were a hundred ways.

            Eventually, he'd landed a position as stable mucker.  It was all he could get after weeks of searching, and he was disappointed, but he was almost broke. He had no choice but to take whatever he could get.   He told himself it was just for now, till spring, when the construction crews started hiring again.  It turned out to be some stable though.  It belonged to P.T. Barnum's American Museum, and the stalls were inhabited not just by horses but by dancing white Arabians, beautiful beasts.  There were no cows at all, but a gorilla, a giraffe, a python, a tiger.  He had never expected this land of dreams to be quite so dreamlike — so surreal, so uncanny. 

            The sightseeing jaunt to the sandy shores of Staten Island had made a fine and affordable excursion for a man with a day off and little to spare in his pockets, but the harbor views couldn't begin to displace the images of elephants newly implanted in his mind.   It was funny, he thought, the way New York was a disappointment when seen from the sea.  It looked no greater than any other city, the buildings even and low, the church spires merely average in height, not even a notable cathedral.  Not yet.  He'd heard there was one going up, way uptown.  Maybe his next day off he'd make his way up there and take a look, try his chances at getting a job.  He'd learned it wasn't so easy to break into a skilled trade, even here in a country without trade guilds and apprenticeships.  But one way or other, he was confident it would all work out for him, before long.  Yes, he decided as he leafed through the little Stranger's Guide he'd bought at a second-hand shop, New York's low skyline was almost a disguise.  He'd already understood, in one short month, that even if New York didn't look extraordinary, it was.  It projected a glow that reached higher, a din that spread wider than that of any other city he'd seen.   

            The age of cast iron had not yet begun, but by 1868 you could feel a growth spurt of some sort coming on, you could sense it in the wide open sky. Steamships were edging out the tall ships, ripping out the threads of the way things had once been done. You could say the city's extraordinary nature lurked, in those days.  It was biding its time, waiting for just the right moment to surge ahead and change into something bigger, newer, better.  There were plans afoot even then to construct a fantastic bridge across the river to Brooklyn, though many doubted it could really be done. Already there were water and gas mains feeding the city and in some districts sewers, too, to flush away the waste. The bedrock was about to flex its muscles and erupt with pointy buildings, and a vast network of wires and underground conduits would soon take root below — the subterranean world that would sustain the spectacle above.  Soon.  It was all just beginning, then.  The man who was for the meantime just a stableman sensed all this in the wind.  He was no one in the City of New York, he had nothing, but he was determined to play a part in it.

            That night, as the sun set toward the Jersey shore, he set out for home — Barnum's stable, where he lived in a room not much different from the animals' stalls. He planned to spend the remainder of his first day off attending the fabulous exhibits and shows his employer staged.  The glimpses he'd gotten thus far suggested that the circus might provide some shorthand code to the mysteries of the metropolis.  It was like no traveling circus he'd ever seen in Germany, that was for sure.  Behind him, the ferry boats continued to depart and arrive, regular as breathing, and they would keep it up all night, taking the tired home but bringing new folk into the fray. 

            And so, as our stableman returned to Barnum's, night began in the city.  People whose livings were made at night headed out to work, while their customers duded themselves into shape for an evening's recreation.  Who were they?  They were good, they were bad, they were a mix of the two; they were innocent, they were criminals, they were something in between. There were so many of them. They washed their faces in ice-gray water from shallow basins, frozen shards sharp at their cheeks. They smoothed down their hair with spit and adjusted their collars.  They smiled in the mirror, or at the dreams in their heads.  And then they fanned out across the neighborhoods, uptown and down, east side and west, questing for excitement, opportunity, life.  They talked, they ate, they laughed, they breathed, they licked their lips and wiped their greasy chins. They drank an ale or two, a glass of wine, or something stronger.  Some danced.  Some went to shows.  Some paired off in dark rooms, stripped to the bone, and bathed in the moisture and warmth of moving flesh.  The hot-corn girl was out there, doing her second shift of the day, this time quite legit, with her friend Fiona at her side.  They were working the crowd out front of a Broadway theater where Hamlet was enjoying a record-length sold-out run,. 

            And see that tall, thin dirty blond man in the derby over there — the one smiling and scratching his neck, just about to hop that omnibus?  He was in a fine mood that night. He happened to be planning the ruin of a man he hated and the purchase of a gallon of kerosene.  All he needed to complete the job was a dupe on whom to pin the crime. 

            And that boy — the youth in the dusty jacket stepping into Owney Geoghegan's Hurdy-Gurdy for a pint of ale?  He'd worked in a Brooklyn lumber mill for the three months since he ran off from his parents' dairy farm, but this day he planned to apply for a job as a messenger boy at the New York Tribune.   For him the paved-over city was a fertile ground on which to scatter his ambition.   He saw himself in a handful of years, green-visored, pencil in hand, with something important to say.  He'd have spat at your feet if you suggested he might soon be just another newsboy on the corner, sleeping in alleys, running errands for crooks on the side, but that was the truth.  From there, well, one could always hope, but newsboy wasn't a career with much of a future outside house breaking. 

            Look at that black man with the mud spattered overalls, wearily walking down Wall Street toward home.  We'll meet him again, before long.  He'd been an officer in a colored regiment in the war and was trained in a technical profession — but he now worked digging ditches for sewer pipes near Washington Square. 

            Now follow that pretty redhead with the pearl buttons running up her bodice as she strolls down Bowery on the arm of a gentleman, an up-and-coming entrepreneur.  She had something to spring on him, that night — she was pregnant.  She also had high hopes of marriage and a front room with damask curtains, but it's unclear exactly where she'd gotten the impression she could ever be more than a pastime to a man who paid her by the assignation and planned to go into politics.  Things weren't going to work out very well for Pearl, but for the moment, at least, she was smiling and optimistic.

            The truth is, most of the bodies that made up the throng would never get lucky.  Luck is for the few.  Various fates hung from the ever rarer trees of the city like somnolent bats and descended largely at random on their victims, annoiting one, condemning another, benignly neglecting others yet.  The New Yorkers did their best, under the circumstances.  They strove, they stumbled and fell, then rose and repeated the routine, standing and falling and rising again, striving to build something and watching it topple, again and again, till death parted them from hope.  And all the while more kept coming to fill their places; the show just went on and on.  The city was a circus in itself — beautiful and strange — a magnet that had no rival in its power of attraction, no limit on its range.

            And speaking of circuses, consider for a moment that huckster Barnum.  In those days, his venture was known as Barnum's American Museum, but already he billed it as "the greatest show on Earth."  The Greatest.  Limelights, organ music, oddities galore: midgets and ostriches, camels and pygmies, a diabolical fetus whose pale horns protruded just above the level of preservative to rap at the glass jar.  There was a bear that waltzed with a bearded lady and rumors of a taxidermy mermaid that fooled no one, least of all the barmaid whose unclaimed body had been bought at the morgue so her torso might be stitched to a swordfish's tail. 

            Hurry on down.  Follow in the footsteps of that spellbound German stableboy; he knows the way, and he's got a nose for action.  But as you go, look around and see if you don't agree that Barnum was pulling a fast one.  Why pay to see spectacles and freaks when they're broadly available for free.  Six-year-old hookers wearing rouge and false bosoms, African wet nurses suckling aristocrats' infants, burglers scaling walls with the agility of rats, gangsters conversing in secret languages, barkeeps wielding blades from shoe-sole scabbards, magnates donning rags for an evening the better to enjoy the squalor of the Five Points dives.  The city itself was at least as overwhelming and outrageous as Barnum's little show. For on the street, everyone was on exhibit, all the time, anything could happen, and everyone's seat was in the front row. 

            But people, then as now, generally preferred not to notice the strangeness of their world. They wanted to feel normal and so they sought out things more extreme to gawk at.  The stableman was no exception, craning his neck from the back of the theater at Barnum's to gape at a very small sight indeed: General Tom Thumb himself and his matching bride, Lavinia Bumpus, going through their miniature wedding yet again, for the benefit of another audience. Looming at the other end of the spectrum was the Nova Scotia giantess and the elephants of the final act — exotic!  huge!  Did anyone wonder as he tossed his nickel Barnum's way that a victim of serious glandular disorder was so lightly compared to a pachyderm?  Did anyone but those mammoths remember the veldt they'd been stolen from, when every few years a couple more of them were roasted crisp, as yet another of Barnum's ill-fated enterprises burned to the ground?  No, they thought the sparks were glorious, and it was all part of the show.  It wasn't just Barnum, either: The city itself was ablaze. 

            Anywhere you looked there were amazing and horrifying sights, exhibits to titillate and intrigue you while you watched orange cinders rise in the sky.  A dozen buildings burned down every week, slums and mansions alike.  A street preacher shouted, "It's the stoking of fires of apocalypse for the fin-de-si�cle barbecue!"  Maybe so.  Some circus it was, New York City, 1868. Every man and woman was a ring. Phantasmagoria and wild confabulation were as commonplace as dirt.  Excitement was available to all.  As for power, well, it was more limited — a function of access and privilege — but distributed more democratically than might be expected .  The city was nothing if not perverse. 

            On a bad day in those years, a couple of bluebottle flies could effect as much change on Manhattan Island as the boss of New York and Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall, a behemoth known as William Marcy Tweed — and he was one powerful man. While Boss Tweed's official carriage stood stalled in the jam at Broadway and Wall, he was the center of a certain universe.  He schemed.  He embezzled.  He reigned supreme.  He stood as tall astride New York Harbor as the Rhodesian Colossus, and twice as wide.  But size was not all it seemed.  If Tweed was great in stature, he was also fat and sluggish like a hog before slaughter, and oblivious to the fact that there were other, lesser known crucibles of might located in rather less likely and more ironic places.  The flies swooped past him, unseen, unfettered by traffic.

            Who determined who lived or died in New York in those days?   All I'll say is that destiny flew on the wings of the lowliest as well as the wealthiest and best connected creatures. A four-year-old daughter of Mulberry Bend could have a staggering societal impact, under certain conditions.  She'd been playing in the mud near the outhouse, as usual, but this time she caught a rather nasty bug. When the hemorrhaging of typhoid is low in the digestive tract, the blood is ruddy and fresh; higher up, it comes out clotted coffee-ground black. The panel of respectable men on the Sanitary Commission might have saved her and countless others, if they'd known more or tried a little harder, but epidemiology was a new and disputed theory, sewers insufficient to the need and society badly stratified.  No one noticed her, and no one cared.  And yet her  sphere of influence turned out to be far wider than the circle of her acquaintance, thanks to the radical efficiency of those two bluebottle flies.  With a few sets of footprints, they transported countless colonies of typhoid bacilli from the privy hole in her courtyard to a counter just a few blocks and a stiff breeze away, where cooled two dozen fresh baked pies, sweet tart lakes of apple custard in tender buttery crust, destined for a restaurant downtown.  The Petri dish per se was yet to be invented, but what a Petri dish custard made that day!  How smoothly it went down the gullet at the price of five cents a slice (plus your life).  A banker ate a piece, and a broker.  A portly lawyer who might have been mayor if he'd lived had two, a double dollop of whipped cream on each.  Thus, on one frosty winter afternoon — and it wasn't even fever season — did destiny transcend the boundaries of class, of power, of species. 

            There were  in the Barnum stable, dead-looking raisins in the window sill.  They hadn't moved in months, but late one night they awakened from their quasi-hibernation to a warmth premature for the season and at odds with the weather outdoors.  They buzzed, a quiet alarm, but no one heard, least of all the stableman, who was sleeping deeply in his bed.  A little over a month had passed since his big day off, and it was  March 2.  The screen of the stableman's cornea was clear and firm beneath its tight clamped lid.  It refracted the image of his optic nerve, and he saw backward into his own mind.  The veins, like road maps, went somewhere, had come from somewhere.  They all had names.  The past flitted before his eyes like a magic-lantern show.  He had not always been so alone.  Once he'd had a sister, a father, a mother, a friend, a girl.

            And then on the boat, there was Maria: strong, haughty, with yellow hair.  He'd not forgotten the tangy smell of her body, the impish twist of her lips, the suddenness of his own desire.  On the boat, too, there was death.  It came not pale, not like a horseman, but boarded the ship politely, rather the same way it had come for his mother — a germ with ruddy cheeks, proper manners and a lethal approach.  It circulated first in a cold potato soup, gnawing like a termite, inconspicuous but  hungry, wracking the insides of a few fancy people who quietly took to their state rooms and clung to their chamber pots, shaking.  Then the germ spread, and death, it came like a wrecking ball, taking everything and everyone  it wanted, indiscriminate of cabin size or class.  His sweat ran clammy when he saw the sick passengers, the familiar fever.  He tried to help them by distributing the teas of chamomile and willow that Maria  brewed in the galley.  That was how they first became friends — they were among the few who were not ill — but the infusions just seemed to make the people worse.  The Leibnitz's passengers were no sturdier than his mother had been, his aunt, his little sister.  They gasped and clawed and died.  As he ministered to them he wished he were a doctor like his father, even though he knew that when it came to  this disease, his father knew nothing, doctors knew nothing, did nothing, were nothing. 

            He helped to heave the mortal remains of a dozen passengers into the sea, shrouded in just their bedclothes.  Then he wished he were a minister, for none was aboard and the bodies sank unblessed, unabsolved.  He knew that they would rise again, bloated, in a few days' time, to be pecked at by the gulls.  Through it all, he and the girl Maria did their best to soothe the unsoothable souls of the dying and the bereaved.  She was perhaps fifteen, but the way she handled the plague made her seem more than that, and he, who was somewhat older, felt ancient.  He bemoaned the money he'd stolen and the trouble he'd gone to, to get on that boat.  At first, he'd thought, Oh God, I'm next, but then it turned to, Why don't I  die too?  The very death he'd been plagued by back home in Germany had tagged along, a stowaway.

            So those were some of the sights that passed before his eyes as he slept on his straw mattress in Barnum's stable that March night.  He'd been weary in flesh and discouraged in spirit when he'd turned in around midnight.  It seemed there were a thousand small things that had not gone his way that day or the last: a horse he was fond of who'd had to be put down, his ceaseless struggle to communicate in English, the stable manager who'd dressed him down though the horse's injury wasn't remotely his fault. He'd been stymied yet again in his quest for a better job — it seemed there were precious few construction jobs starting in winter.  And then there was the little wooden fox he'd been whittling from a hunk of scrap — someone had knocked it from its shelf and the tail had snapped off.  He'd thrown the pieces into the dying fire in the pot-belly stove just before he went to bed.   On top of all that was the basic fact that he was something of an odd bird, our stableman, awkward with people, the kind of man who stands apart and sketches patterns in the sawdust with his toe, who cannot fake a smile.  In fact, he could barely smile at all.  After such a long run of wretched luck, his features had settled into a mask of sorrow. So this man (does his name really matter, considering how often he would change it in the years to come?), this stable boy who had seen so much and come from somewhere, whose mother had given him perfect love but then died when he was nine — his first meeting with the typhoid and the start of his ill luck — this man who as a child had once lithely made his way through the weekend crowds in his town's market square, negotiating grown men's legs like living colonnades to see a single pale pink flamingo on display, this fugitive who'd fled across the ocean from a troubled past now went through life in New York City almost entirely unseen — he was unnoticeable, one of scores and scores of thousands.  Yet inside himself, he lived in a state of wonder.  He was a one-ring circus all by himself, filled  with dreams, hopes, conflicts, regrets, desires — a show to which no one came.  No one saw him.  Not the hot-corn girl (though she'd soon be back in his world with more force than he cared for).  Not Maria, as she carried out her own daily rounds a mere dozen blocks from where he lived.  He had no friends at all besides the animals, and so he had no recourse, if he wanted to make sure he really existed, but to look at himself.  And having no mirror in his room, he did it in the dirty windowpane and in his dreams, gazing at his past life and the unexpected present one in which he cared for strange beasts for a most peculiar man called Barnum in a city that was stranger still, getting a bed and bit of cash in return, trying to make sense of it all.  Every once in a while, on payday, he would burst out and actually be the man he aspired to: He would set forth singing and apply for another job, then go to see one of the sights of the city or splurge on a glorious plate of oysters, licking up every drop of their slightly gritty gravy at the end.  Once, long before, he'd eaten three meals a day on Meisen and dabbed his lips on ironed linen, and there was a sense in which he liked having the freedom to slurp. More often than oysters, though, he dined on modest fare like those mushy lukewarm ears of corn that were sold from baskets by women all across the city. The hot-corn girls were black near Union Square and Irish at the Battery.  It seemed that where ever he went, waking or sleeping, there was always one of them singing her song within earshot. Hot corn! Hot corn! Get your hot corn!  Here's your lily white corn. They had made it into his dreams, those women, though he'd forgotten all about Beatrice. Of course he understood that many of them plied a second trade on the side and that their song held a second meaning, a promise of nongustatory satisfaction.  That was not the kind of love he sought — and besides, he was always awfully close to broke — so thus far he had only bought their corn.  But still, he watched them, hoping that one of them would look at him and somehow her face would be a face he knew: Maria.  While he slept, he saw her often and she always looked back into his eyes, glad to see him, too.  In life, however, he never saw her, and no one looked at him at all, not even the corn girls.  The ones who didn't happen to be hookers knew better than to meet the gaze of men who wanted more than corn, while those whose corn really was just a ploy never looked at a man till his money had been tucked away safely in their waistbands. 

            It was a great gulf that stretched between the dreams that were rising up in his mind and the cold reality of his room.  He was filled with hope, with optimism, with yearning.  He saw himself strapped into a harness, high above the rooftops, fitting stones on a steeple; he imagined a woman waiting down below.  We must dream, perhaps, to live, but all that was only going to make it harder when the gap cracked wider and the wrecking ball flew free.