The U.S Attorney was everywhere there was a camera, a microphone, a reporter, or a voter talking about corruption in the State of New Jersey.
It’s never “New Jersey,” Dawson thought. It’s always “The State of New Jersey,” just as in Washington it’s “The American People” who have spoken or not spoken, approved or disapproved, according to the politicians when most of The American People, Dawson knew, were at home watching football.
Dawson thought the Attorney General needed to rent a bus and hang a big banner on it declaring the “End Corruption in NJ Tour.”
A hundred officials was pretty impressive, Dawson thought, but it was like throwing chum on the water. Like sharks drawn to blood, politicians are drawn to money.
Did they have to make it that easy?
“We will end this corruption,” the attorney general declared. “The people of the State of New Jersey deserve no less. I am disgusted that one hundred elected representatives of the people felt they had a greater right to sell their office to the highest bidder than they did to fix the streets, help the seniors citizens, take steps to lower taxes or simply act in an honest manner.
They sold their office for a couple thousand bucks. Who are these fools? My office will make sure they never serve the people of the great State of New Jersey again.”
The people of the State of New Jersey.
Dawson looked away from the television as Howard Nelson laughed at the scene being broadcast.
“The poor people of the State of New Jersey,” Nelson coughed out. “They elected these assholes, again and again. What do they think is going to happen? The people of the State of New Jersey. My God. Biggest bunch of sheep there ever was.”
Said the man who had been elected to office ten times by those same sheep, Dawson thought.
They were on the shaded patio of the Trenton Street Club. Dawson had come to ask Nelson about Lauren Fox and Gabe Richman, but the television was on and the cable news guys were following the Attorney General everywhere.
Nelson was probably 85, Dawson figured. He never told his age to anyone. His face had settled into a mass of splotches and moles that might have been cancerous. That probably accounted for the oversized Panama he always wore, that and the shades. Always shades, even indoors. The scars on his nose traced back to his boxing days when Nelson was a small middleweight with an up-yours chip on his shoulder that got him into more trouble inside the ring than he ever faced outside it.
He fought on guts, not skill, and after a round of being pounded by a whirlwind of punches, his opponents inevitably sized the kid up and leveled him with a combination or two.
He had shrunken inside his clothes like a punching bag that leaked stuffing, and when sitting in a chair silently as he was now, he was scarily corpselike.
Dawson always noticed Nelson’s hands. The leathery brown skin was wrinkled and bulged with veins. The knuckles were broken and bent, but his nails were perfectly manicured. The index finger of his right hand curled around a fat Cuban cigar like it was a wad of hundreds.
Beyond the line of evergreens at the end of the yard Dawson could see the peaked roof of the house Barry had told him about. The club’s yard with a perfect green lawn was lined by trees and shrubs that were centered in garden patches of flowerbeds that were rotated seasonally. The landscaping bill for the place was probably more than I made in a month, Dawson thought. But knowing Howie Nelson, he paid nothing. Got it in trade. An exchange of services.
Because that was what Howard Nelson could deliver: Services. Help with a permit, a building inspection, a work permit for some underage kid, a job in the road department that suddenly was opening on Thursday, a little environmental clean up problem at your auto repair place?
It was the whole subterranean wink-and-nod culture that laughed in the face of the Attorney General and his gang of a hundred saps who managed to get caught. They all knew how the game was played but just got so full of themselves they thought they’d never get caught
Howie Nelson had been doing it all his public life. A little at a time. Just enough not to get noticed too much.
Dawson had written a countless stories about Howard Nelson. He had been investigated or sued dozens of times. The state had been in to look at the city’s books five times when he was mayor. Somehow the books were always square.
Dawson gazed jealously at the green lawn and peaceful yard. All that greenery took a lot of fertilizer, he thought.
Dawson laughed to himself, amused that it was so easy to jerk the system around to one’s own advantage. During the Depression when Ironton was really in the dumps a city mayor, who also served on the county commission, had all the city’s main streets renumbered as county roads so the county government had to plow and repair them. It wasn’t illegal, and in a way it made sense. But it twisted the rules and gave to a few that which was denied to the many.
When everyone did it, the system crashed.
“So, Howard, I hear you’re interested in that house out back for a parking lot,” Dawson said.
“Parking lot?” Nelson asked. “Where’d you hear that? Not a parking lot. Just the other side over there is that empty Italian joint, Dominic’s? There’s a fast food company wants to buy it, but they need a bigger lot to get it past the planning board.”
“So you’ll get the property and become good friends with the fast food guy’s real estate attorney…”
“What the hell…yeah.”
Had to love Howard Nelson, Dawson thought. Right out there in the open.
“What about the homeowner. What’s she think? Maybe she wants some of that fast food money?”
“Old Maria? She’s got cancer and wants to sell out so she can go back to the old country and die in peace. Asked me to buy the place last year.”
“What? I’ll give her a fair price, more than it’s worth,” he said.
“Did you even mention that fast food company?”
“Crap, Jimmy, she’ll be dead before they make her an offer, and they’ll lowball her anyway. She’ll do better with me.”
The pair sat in silence for a moment. The television channel had returned to its regular programming.
“You’re surprised, Jimmy,” Howard Nelson said. “You always seem surprised; as long as I’ve known you. Need to stop being surprised; it’ll clear up your vision. Sometimes what seems to be really crooked, is actually pretty straight. And sometimes the straight and narrow is as dirty and scummy as anything you ever saw. Look at it from a different direction.”
Dawson thought, am I?
Nelson gazed over the lawn.
“I know you think I’m a crook,” he said. “Go back and look what I’ve done. I helped people. Their sons needed jobs, the daughters needed to get into the county college but her grades weren’t so hot. So I helped.”
“Oh, hell,” Dawson said. “That’s so much bullshit. You were mayor for eight years, made what? Three grand a year? As far as I could find, you never had a regular job in your life. But you always had a new Caddy, your house was half again as large as your neighbors’, and your son has a job for life in the sewer department. Come on, Howie. That’s Mob stuff. You must have something on nearly everyone in town.”
Dawson stopped. Why am railing at this old man? Known him my whole life and he’s never been any different. He’d steal your lunch while you were in English class and sell it back to you an hour later.
The old man was silent for several minutes; his fingers rolled slowly over the smooth edges of the chair’s arm.
“It’s what we learned, Jimmy.” The voice came from a smoky distance. “What our grandfathers learned to survive.
They were all working for the big boss who owned that mansion on Blackwell with the five turrets and wide porch and forty windows. They worked 15 hours a day in dirty overheated buildings handling hot metal with no protection. They got burned, lost hands, arms, got crushed by a load of iron, branded by the dripping slag and if they faltered, the shift bosses ground them into the dirt. If they were lucky if they lived to be fifty.
They’d walk past that house behind the iron gates – made with iron they had forged – and knew that it was their labor in that hot, stinking iron mill that had made the man rich.
So they set up an alternative way of doing business, first because they had no money, but mostly they knew they could not trust the mill owners or the bosses or the bankers, the landlords or anyone who had control over their lives. So we all did favors, and some of the favors got big.”
The old man stood up and put his hands in his pants pockets.
“Did that make us corrupt? Don’t think so. Made us traders. Trade something, get a little extra for it when you trade it again. It was all so small time. But you know what? People didn’t lose their homes to the banks. If they got behind somehow it was made right. And when they got hurt on the job and the factory boss threw them out, their kids got fed , the house got fixed. Then they did a little work for you. Look at that flood last week. Those people will be paying off those repairs for years because the insurance companies who sold them flood insurance didn’t tell them that it didn’t cover water damage. What the fuck did they think a flood was anyway?”
Dawson stood and walked to the edge of the patio.
“But when that something you traded wasn’t really yours, isn’t that corrupt?” he asked.
The old man turned, his mouth working.
“You tell me, Jimmy. You tell me.” The raspy voice had an edge, the lips drawn tight.
“What’s it mean when a lobbyist for the oil business sits in a committee room and helps a Congressman write a bill about oil regulations? Or when the bankers cook the books in a way that even other bankers can’t figure out? The U.S. Supreme Court gave human rights to corporations and said that money is free speech. That’s corruption, Jimmy. Big time, in your face , stop us if you can corruption and they have the money, the votes and the rules to make it stand up.
“They make rule after rule to shut that door of opportunity for the little guy. Get their hands around the throats of the middle class and squeeze. They make deals that only benefit themselves and their money men. The cut taxes for the rich and screw the poor. Remember that congressman who wanted to get rid of Medicare and let the insurance companies run it? That would put old folks out of their homes, take food from their mouths. These assholes act like the Great Depression happened to somebody else.
They won’t be happy till they grind everyone else under their wheels, the grinning bastards. Eisenhower said fear the industrial-military complex. These guys make the industrial-military complex look like a carnival, such is their immeasurable greed.”
“And you’re worried about me buying an old lady’s home so she can get out from under a monthly mortgage payment that costs more than her immigrant parents earned in a year? Bah.”
Nelson returned to his chair and shut off the television.
“ There’s a lot of people exercising their free speech these days, I’d say. And that holier-than-thou AG has a list of friends as long as your arm, and they’re all going to come calling one day.”
When Dawson left, Howard Nelson had settled back into that corpselike state, sitting stiffly in his chair, the only sign of life was the occasional rise and fall of the Cuban cigar in the corner of his mouth.
Back in the newspaper office Dawson sat before his blinking computer screen alone in the vast room. He hadn’t turned on the lights so the room was lighted by the dim safety lights. There was an unholy silence.
He had just finished his Sunday political column. Jed Upton was not going to like it.
Tough shit, Dawson thought.
So they are holding hearings in Congress on whether native born Muslims are American enough.
The congressman who is running the show once supported the Irish Republican Army, freedom fighters to some, but declared terrorists by England and the U.S. government, the nation which the congressman has pledged to support, and pays his salary.
Perhaps he is aware that the Irish were once as despised as the he feels the Muslims are, that once employers posted signs that said “No Irish need apply.” Perhaps he conveniently forgot.
Remember when the big question about JFK was whether a Catholic could be president?
We have chased the Italians out of town, the Methodists, the Mormons; demonized the poor, blamed flood victims for living where they do and blamed people in need for having the gall to be needy in the first place.
They should be like me: I don’t need anything. I have my truck and big screen TV, my three-bedroom house in the suburbs and a lawn tractor the size of a Volkswagen to cut my lawn.
And if someone tries to take it away I have my licensed handgun and will use it to defend my castle.
We have become blinded by our own self-satisfaction, and as soon as we did, they had us. Otherwise every middle class homeowner and job holder would be in the streets when teachers, librarians, clerks, street cleaners, public engineers, accountants, crossing guards and the occupiers of all those little jobs that hold our society together are attacked as greedy, tax-sucking bums.
But they are not attacking me because they’re union, and I’m not.
I’m an insurance adjustor, a car salesperson; I sell pizzas, run a local hardware store, a bodega, a carpenter, plumber. I’m an independent business owner.
And everything they do makes my life harder. Or at least I think it does.
And while the little guys fight among themselves for scraps the people who make the rules tilt them in their own favor again and again.
The millionaires being ripped off by the billionaires. And everyone lost their homes.
The magician’s trick in the end is to get the audience to look where he wants us to look while he switches coins. And we’re all suckers for a good magic trick.