At the heart of my upcoming novel is a discussion of social and economic standing in the City of Ironton, N.J., where the story takes place. Mayor Gabriel Richman has called a public meeting to calm the city following a disastrous fire in which three people died. Bart Harrington, a lawyer known more for being a drunk, takes over the meeting. Frank Nagler is the detective and chief character.
“Swamps” is due for a mid-fall publication. Details to come.
From seemingly nowhere, Bartholomew Harrington was standing on the council dais waving his arms.
“Get down,” Nagler yelled.
Harrington just smiled, his eyes blazing with frenzy.
“Rise up! Rise up, brothers,” Harrington yelled. “Oh, yes, the time to rise up has come.”
A couple of cops tried to grab Harrington’s legs and pull him of the table, but they were dragged away by several men in the crowd. “Oh, my brothers,” Harrington yelled, as he danced along the dais.
Nagler finally got an arm around Richman’s waist and pulled him out of the central crowd to a wall behind the dais. “What the hell is he doing?” Richman yelled.
Nagler was screaming out to Harrington. “Get out of here, Bart.”
Harrington turned to face the mayor.
“Do you recognize these faces, Gabriel?” Harrington yelled. “Gabriel Rich Man, do you recognize these faces?” Harrington pronounced Richman’s name in two syllables. Rich. Man.
“They are the faces of your youth, the hard leather skin, creased and cracked, mouths formed into sneers or angry scowls; faces of the beaten. You saw these faces when as a boy you walked past the gates of the iron mills and saw the men leave the jobs for the last time, passing into the streets as a security guard leaned and pushed hard on his tiptoes as he struggled to shove the massive gates closed, and with a loud metal crack jammed a steel bar into the latch. Those are the faces that should haunt you, Gabriel Rich Man. You’ve lied to them your whole life, stolen from them, their dreams, their goals, their livelihoods. And I have the proof.” He reached into his jacket and pulled out a manila envelope and waved it in the air. “Everything you’ve ever done to these fine people, the citizens of Ironton. And now it is over.”
The fighting shuffled to silence as Harrington spoke. Group by group the combatants dropped their fists, shook away the collar or arm they had grabbed and stood in silence to listen.
Harrington walked atop the long table, arms waving; when he caught Nagler’s eye, he winked. No one moved to stop him, stunned by the bravado, mesmerized by the madness of it all. Nagler released the mayor’s arm when Richman stopped trying to pull away. Richman stared at the floor, and then at Nagler, eyes pleading, why?
Nagler pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows as he tipped his head. You have no friends in this room, Mr. Mayor.
“Those were the faces of your youth, Gabriel. The bloom of the great George Richman’s day long faded; the mills, the canal, the trains, all gone; the shops, the great stores, the frantic buzz that filled the downtown streets, silent. The vacant stares replaced smiles, torn pants replaced new slacks. Torn pants, torn shoes, dirty-faced kids; streets with holes, houses with no paint, men huddled hopeless. Those were the faces you stared into when you promised you would make things better, when you promised you could return Ironton’s glory days. Faces you had long forgotten.”
Richman stepped to the table’s edge. “Get down, Bart,” Richman shouted. “They’ll take you down. I don’t know what your beef is, but get down and we’ll talk.”
Harrington turned to the crowd. A few of the men had turned to face the room and stood before the table with arms crossed, a sudden barrier to anyone trying to reach Harrington. The shift calmed the crowd even more. Nagler just leaned against the wall and shook his head in wonder. This was the Bart Harrington of old: dramatic, larger-than-life, putting on a show for the court.
“The Great Gabriel Rich Man wants me to stop,” he yelled. “But I don’t want to stop. He thought you were cheering for him. He thought you believed him. Only now does he realize how hollow your cheers had been. But you didn’t hear him; didn’t want to hear him. You swallowed your voices for years as the city lost jobs, factories closed and parks and streets fell to disrepair.
‘When is the park near my house going to be fixed?’ you asked. ‘My kids need a place to play. The city hasn’t fixed my fence that was wrecked by a snow plow last December. How am I going to feed my family?’ You demanded to know.
“You had listened as politicians asked you just to recall the glory of the past, when inventive men devised machines that needed workers to operate, when Ironton’s workers carried the region on their broad shoulders and prosperity spread out from the red brick mills of the city on the river like green streams of hope. When generations of your fathers and grandfathers wiped their brows of hard-earned sweat and proudly held in their hands the product of their labors, the thing that held their souls; when they understood how their hard work had made someone else happy.
“But at the same time they understood the mathematical equation of their existence that said all their hard work would never erase all the steep steps between themselves and the factory owners, never shorten the path of their children to success, or allow them to measure their happiness on the same scale as the bosses’. ‘Hey, Gabe, how’s that shopping center coming? Hey, Gabe, when am I going to get a job?’ You shouted to him. And he did not listen. Because Gabriel Rich Man could not stifle that roar. All he could do was stand in its path as it rushed by. It flashed by him, stripping away all the little constructs he had made in his mind, all the flimsy dreams he had foisted on you, Ironton’s citizens, in hopes you would believe him and give him one more chance to connect the random and poisonous imaginings to reality. That’s who Gabriel Rich Man is.”
Harrington stopped. A couple officers tried to reach his legs to pull him down, but the phalanx of men stopped them. Nagler motioned for Harrington to come toward him. But Harrington just smiled, his face filled with a holy light that seemed to say, if this was the last thing I ever do, what a thing it is.
The room was silent as a church on Easter Sunday. Every face was upturned to watch Bartholomew Harrington, who was sweating and breathing hard.
“But know what,” he continued, not shouting anymore, but softly, explaining, “you’ve seen the ‘home for sale’ signs grow on your street more numerous than new trees, seen stores boarded up and your taxes rise even as the library closed on Saturdays, police were laid off, and you had to pay extra for your kid to play football or take a school trip to New York City. You’ve seen the suffering.
“But Gabriel Rich Man never saw that. He never saw that your streets were still filled with fallen trees and trash left by the rising water. He never knew that your work hours were cut, never saw your neighbor stare at the want ads knowing that at her age no one would hire her.”
Harrington’s voice gained new strength; he stood straight and tall, and eyes blazing again, hushed what had been for a moment a busy murmur. “Gabriel Rich Man didn’t dispute the shouting newscasters saying how on one hand unemployment was the biggest political issue the country faced, and on the other hand how much it was costing everyone else to have all of you out of work at the same time; heard them say with big sad eyes how bad they felt that everyone was hurting at the same time, but you jobless masses had better find a way to get a job, even at some convenience store, because everyone else was not going to pay for you to be out of work much longer.
“They told you, ‘Stop being lazy. Stop asking for help. Get off your ass and help yourself.’
“ And Gabriel Rich Man never told them to stop. Maybe your voices cannot be heard through the thick stone walls and double glass windows where Gabriel Rich Man conducts his business every day like some ruler of a small kingdom, not the mayor of an American city, a city in a democracy.”
Harrington leaned into the crowd, his voice filled with anger and despair.
“How long can a beaten man be kicked? How long can a woman work one job, put her children to sleep with a prayer of better times, and then leave them for her second over-night job and still be told she needs to do more? How long can you stare into the face of a worker and tell him he is not doing his best? How is it that hate becomes easier than mercy?”
His voice filled with disgust.
“Why didn’t Gabriel Rich Man hear you? Because he is one of them. He is one of those men in dark rooms stealing your future, who stole the future of your fathers, who will steal the future of your children. Why didn’t Gabriel Rich Man fight for you? Because he only cares for himself. You are mere pawns in the game that he and his friends are playing. They will walk away rich and you will die in your homes, as poor and befuddled as ever. Bring them down. Bring them down!” His voice thundered through the quiet room; shattered the peace like a banshee’s cry.
Then he whispered. “It’s either you or them. Be strong, my brothers.”
Then Harrington stopped talking. He sat on the table, and then pushed himself off and stood on the floor.
He turned to face the mayor, who was being restrained by Nagler.
“They are coming for you, Gabriel Rich Man,” he said with a twisted smile, his voice harsh and guttural. Harrington looked over the room. In a cracked whisper he said, “And they are coming for me.”