“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.” — Howard Newton
One of my favorite scenes in the first Frank Nagler Mystery, 2014’s THE SWAMPS OF JERSEY, is this one with reporter Jimmy Dawson and the Ironton former mayor Howard Newton.
Newton’s speech sets a tone for all the books in which the criminals justify their actions. But is also a tone familiar to our current political discussion.
Did Howard Newton anticipate the Trump era. Or did he just reflect on the work he had done himself?
In Lee’s reading, the characters come to life, but one that stands out is Howard Newton.
If you read the short section below, take a second and add the sounds of a deep, gravelly voice to the Newton lines. It is the voice of time, the voice of self-satisfaction, the voice of Methuselah, which Lee Alan brilliantly captures.
THE SCENE: (Former Ironton Mayor Howard) Newton was probably eighty-five, 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 Newton 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 Newton’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.
“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 their grades weren’t so hot. So I helped.”
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.”
He slowly lifted the cigar. The tip glowed red as he drew air though the tobacco. The air filled with the dense aroma as a slim stream of smoke leaked from the side Newton’s mouth.
“So they set up an alternative way of doing business, because, hell, 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. It was how we fought back against a system that was killing us, one in which if we played by the rules, we had no chance to succeed.”
The old man placed the cigar on an ashtray, 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, and the house got fixed. Then they did a little work for you.”
Dawson stood and walked to the edge of the patio. “The crooks are wearing the suits, Jimmy, sitting on city councils,” Newton said. “Seems so innocuous. They write an ordinance to tear down a building so only their friend’s company could qualify, look the other way when their brother’s kid wants to be a cop or stack the land-use board with their golf partners. They twist the law into knots to justify anything they want. That’s who the Attorney General caught. For them it’s like breathing. They don’t think anyone notices. Then there’s the guys with three cell phones and nine hundred dollar suits. Listen to them. They sell so much bullshit, they forget who they sold it to.”
“But when that something you traded wasn’t really yours, isn’t that corrupt?” Dawson 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 it out? The U.S. Supreme Court gave human rights to corporations and said that money is free speech; said big companies can cheat women out of equal pay. The big stores pay so little or schedule employees so they work a little less than full time so they have to get health insurance from the government.”
Newton pointed a finger at Dawson.
“That’s corruption, Jimmy. Big time, in your face, stop us if you can corruption and they have the money, the lawyers 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 military-industrial complex. These guys make the military-industrial complex look like a carnival, such is their immeasurable greed.”