I am in the maybe third rewrite of “Swamps of Jersey” trying to carefully add length and clarity to the story.
In this scene, Bartholomew Harrington, introduced earlier as “Ironton’s favorite drunken pro-bono attorney” invaded the lobby of city hall where the mayor Gabriel Richman and his election opponent Robert Yearning, have had an impromptu meeting. The tone is broad, the grandiose nature of Harrington’s speech intended to portray the depth of the issues in the city, but also humor.
Frank Nagler is the key character in the book, a detective, and Jimmy Dawson, a news paper reporter.
The lobby at city hall was a madhouse when Nagler returned from the park. Two circling groups of shouting men and women ringed the room and two patrolmen pushed back against the surge of bodies, creating space. Voices echoed off the hard ceiling, distorting the words, but not the sounds. “Stand back!” a patrolman shouted at three men trying to rush past him. A hand shot out of the crowd and knocked off the patrolman’s hat as he called into his radio for back-up. Nagler pushed his way into the crowd and was pushed back. “I’m a cop, goddamn it. Let me through.” Nagler shoved bodies out of the way, waving his badge in the angry faces, and caught an elbow in the ribs. Nagler spun around and found himself face-to-face with Jimmy Dawson.
“What the hell is this, Jimmy?” Nagler yelled.
“Gabe Richman was here talking to those in line for the home buyouts and his opponent Bob Yearning showed up with this.” Dawson held up a flyer with a couple grainy photographs of Richman and Debbie Glance sitting in Richman’s Escalade and the banner, “What the mayor does with his free time.”
Nagler scanned the flyer, noting only the word, “Lovebirds.”
He looked over the top of the crowd and saw Richman and Yearning leaning on the wall at opposite sides of the room. They were each surrounded by several men and woman, possibly election staffers, Nagler guessed. The election had been in the background for weeks as Ironton and its residents tried to recover from the storm damage. There has been two rather polite debates during which the strongest charge Yearning made was that the city was not recovering fast enough because of a lack of staff in key city departments, to which Richman replied that those departments would be fully staffed if Yearning, as part of a brief Republican administration, had not cut the city budget by 15 percent and fired all the workers.
The brief skirmish appeared to be over. While Richman and Yearning glared at one another from the opposite sides of the room, the two patrolman managed to get some of the crowd to move along. Sorry I missed it, Nagler thought.
“Oh, what a thing is this?”
The voice startled the crowd to silence. Nagler looked toward the main entrance to see Bartholomew Harrington, still wearing his herringbone jacket and Yankees cap, leaning on the door frame holding up a handful of paper. Nagler caught the eye of one of the patrolmen and shook his head, saying leave him alone. Bart was never dangerous, just theatrical and Nagler didn’t want the scene to become anything more than it might on its own. Jimmy Dawson moved to the edge of the crowd, smiling.
“Here we have the two,” Harrington said. “The Richman and the Yearning, staring each other down. Over what? A woman in a car? Surely you do better than that, Bobby. Maybe you’d like to discuss the piles of tires and pools of dark oil in the woods behind your repair shop.” The crowd murmured.
Harrington pulled out a sheet of paper and tossed it into the center of the room, where it fluttered to the floor. Dawson jumped out to grab it.
Harrington spun in a slow circle, stopping now and again to hand out one of the papers in his hands.
“We have a city in flames and a populous seeking leadership and hope and the best you can do is squabble over a woman in a car? Oh, Yearning. What are you yearning for?” Harrington pulled out another sheet and held it theatrically before his face. “Smaller government! What a unique plan. But that is big government? Was not World War II big government? The interstate highway system? The cure for polio or the Internet? No, for you big government is a program that helps poor people heat their homes or food stamps. You say you will defund those wasteful programs, dear me. Is not big government also the program that provided you a zero-interest loan to expand your repair shop? And which you have not repaid? I have that flyer here somewhere? Ah, yes. From the campaign of Gabriel Richman,” Harrington read. “ ‘What happened to the $50,000 loan Bob Yearning received? He failed to pay it back. Three years overdue. Deadbeat Yearning. He Yearns to be mayor. He can’t even pay his bills. Don’t let him near the city budget.’ “
Harrington tossed that flyer to the floor.
“That’s a lie!” Bob Yearning yelled. “Officers why don’t you stop him?”
Harrington turned silently to face the two patrolmen; he winked at Frank Nagler standing at their shoulder. “Yes, officers, why don’t you stop me? Is it because I’m freely exercising my right to free speech in the very place our government convenes?” The police remained in place. “I shall continue.” Harrington pulled out another sheet of paper, studied it and tossed it away. “That is of no interest. Yearning, really? As mayor you will oppose dredging of the Mississippi River in Louisiana? How quaint. Ah, here’s the one. ‘As a mayor I will trim the fat from the city budget.’ ” Harrington waved the paper in front of the crowd. “Do you want to know how he will accomplish that feat?” The crowd responded with a muffled, “Yes, tell us.” “Let’s see. Um, he’ll cut fifty thousand from the welfare account, and seventy-five thousand from the school budget. Oh, he wants to close three parks and trim a million from the community development office…” Harrington looked up at the crowd. “Just what a city that was underwater for a week needs, one less way to recover. I’m mean, really . And I see here he wants to trim a half-million from the police department and fire ten officers. The drug gangs operating on the east side of town will thank you for that. And of course, that will make it easier for the police to determine the killer of that young girl found in the Old Iron Bog.”
Harrington glanced at Gabriel Richman. “So, Gabriel, my friend, when will the police apprehend the killer?” Richman glared silently at Harrington and one of his staff grabbed his arm, holding him back and whispered something to him, after which Richman relaxed. Nagler, watched the silent exchange and thought, Don’t do me any favors, Bart. Jesus Christ.
“And we will not forget you, Gabriel.” A cheer arose from the crowd, at first a gentle ripple, then a few laughs, and then cries, “Yeah, Richman. What’d he do for us?”
Nagler wondered why the crowd had been so silent to that point. Maybe they were stunned that someone could pull off the act with such daring, or thought maybe it was just an act, and Harrington a traveling player, the advance clown sent in to warm up the house. So they waited for the punch line or the straight man. Or the men in the white coats. But then, Nagler had seen this before: Harrington mesmerizing a courtroom audience and jury, the prosecution attorney running his fingers through his hair as Harrington spun tales, whispered conspiratorial details, roared the facts of the case as if it was the climax of a great drama, the end of the cycle. And maybe, Nagler thought, that’s what it is. The end. Of what he wasn’t sure, but it felt like the end. The end of it all, a message delivered by a man in a clownish suit as we stood in awe, waiting our fate.
“So then, Richman,” Harrington began again. “The man of promise, or correctly, promises. You promised to clean the streets and repair the parks. To build a shopping center on the Old Iron Bog, where if you recall my previous reference, there is a dead body. That might slow things down. And you promised to repair the sewer plant and install new water lines and build new homes and attract new businesses and settle the accounts with the owners of the stoveworks, our neglected monument to waste and decay. Oh, Gabriel, the promises you made. You promised to lead us, to remember us, to heal us, to bring life back to the tired, dark streets, to bring joy back to the eyes of children and happiness to the voices of mothers, to remove from the city’s eyes the shame of our downfall; to cast up the hopes and dreams of the vacant-eyed, to bring people and sheckles to our downtown, to bring back to life that full-throated roar that once filled the air of this city, that roar that said, we are here, yes we are. Oh where, Gabriel, did that roar go? Was it lost in your deal-making, abandoned in the eyes of your sweet lover, or forgotten in the haze of ambition? But it is lost, dear Gabriel, gone in a mist. The streets remain silent, the brick hulks of commerce still vacant. And what will you do? The sky has opened and delivered a torrent, and the earth has cracked. Your people cry out, lead us, Great Gabriel, lead us, but there you stand wrapped in anger, a puddle of confusion, wishing you could wrap your hands about my throat and shake the life out of me. But you won’t. You’ll just stand and watch. Just as you have watched the city decay, watched your people despair.”
Harrington held the remaining papers in his hand as he turned in a circle in the center of the lobby. “Here,” he said. “Here are the lives of these two men who seek to lead you. Read and decide.”
Then he tossed the papers in the air, and as the crowd surged to grab the falling pages, Harrington slipped out the door like a magician.