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By Jimmy Breslin
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Ronridge Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The first water for a civilization moves slowly, perhaps a couple of inches a second, as it runs through the woods in the night, the brook widening at the end of the woods and the water now moving at a foot per second and then much faster as it runs downhill on land that drops one foot in each ten thousand over the 115 miles to the city.
Black night rain falling on a ridge in the Catskills. In the morning sun the water becomes brown against the mud bottom of the brooks, which join into streams running past the backs of stores, through old towns that sigh in the afternoon, over the gravel alongside dead railroad tracks, and then around suburbs of lost laughter. Each day, over the eight months the water takes to run to the city, the color lightens more and more to the eye and the streams become swift creeks pouring into basins that look like lakes. The water leaps and spins in the sun: pure rainwater with oxygen counts of eleven and twelve when the most oxygen water can hold is fourteen. Water flowing on natural gravity, the drop of one foot in each ten thousand bringing the rain into the cupped hands of a city that requires a billion and a half gallons a day.
This pale treasure caused a city, and it brought the Morrisons to the boroughs of New York, where they live as one of the nation's oldest families of people who work with their backs and hands for a living.
There was a time in 1800 when Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr envisioned climbing a night ridge in the Catskills and placing a foot in the way of the water, or shoving a board into the wet earth and causing the water to back up and sink into the ground. Meanwhile, in the small city, people feared that to drink brackish water from its own wells was to gulp yellow fever. Hamilton and Burr saw a city staring at them with dry tongue hanging out. Which caused Burr to go to the legislature with a bill that would give his Manhattan Company control of the city's water, with the subclauses buried in the middle of the bill, paragraphs past the attention span of any local politician, speaking for Burr's craving for national control: all profits from selling water a glass at a time would be consigned to a new bank to be owned by Burr. How marvelous, he told himself. The bank would become so powerful that he, Burr, would step outside one day and buy the Presidency as if it were a frock coat. In the midst of his scheming, Burr dug a water well on Spring Street in New York as a display of good intentions. Then the body of a murdered woman was found in his well. Both Hamilton and Burr arrived in court as lawyers for a man named Rackmill, who was the woman's boyfriend and suspected of doing the killing, although in defense-table conversations it was Burr who clearly seemed to know more about the killing than the alleged killer. The client got off, and the records show that it was Burr's first public involvement with homicide, and his last with the people's water.
Seventy years later, the city was run by "Boss" Tweed of Tammany Hall, whose thought it was that New York's future could be guaranteed by the purchase of 375 square miles of upstate watershed, including the night ridges of the Catskills, and the water properly managed by building a system of the highest quality concrete and cast-iron aqueducts and tunnels to carry the water from Catskill ridge to Bowery faucet. The water, Tweed explained, was delivered by gravity, without pump, and thus cheaply, so that the high initial cost would be offset by low water expenses for the public over many years, while at the same time these construction costs would ensure that no growl of hunger would come to a Tweed belly for at least a century. Tweed, however, was a limited man, who thought that all stolen pots had to be of a size that would fit in a steamer trunk. It never occurred to him that the city would not end up owning the watershed land. Within his political circle, however, there was Albert Cardozo, a judge who kept both hands off the gavel, the better to receive, and his mind on enormous projects, for, having pored over the past, particularly Burr, a most stirring thief to study, Cardozo wanted to buy the watershed privately, thus giving Tweed and group a firm hand on the city's throat. Cardozo felt that with this money, and control over the nation's main city, they would be able to name Presidents. Tweed, with a clerk's vision, was afraid to try this. He decided that his city would buy the land and he would build the system: tunnels and aqueducts running hundreds of miles and taking decades to build, which would last for more than a hundred years without failure as they turned a city into the most influential on all the earth. While the marvelous system was being built, money magically dropped to the floor, and Tweed, whose belly was so big that he couldn't get his hands below his shins, allowed Cardozo to pick it up. Cardozo took great care of himself, then passed the bulk to Tweed, who threw it into the sky. Cardozo left his secret money to his son, Benjamin, who was brilliant and became as famous as he was reluctant to return the illicit money that founded his career. Of course, Tweed's name became synonymous with stolen goods, although he left a city with water and, by his own estimate and that of the sharper newspapers of the time, Tweed also made some fifteen hundred whores rich.
"No woman climbed out of my bed in need of anything for the spirit or purse," Tweed declared.
As riches from the water system spread among Tweed's outfit, they began to broaden their special program of mass public improvement: they now tried to make all the whores in the city rich. As the number of women who, if able to evade disease, rose to the positions of honor that came with money, Tweed's Tammany Hall became one of the few vehicles for the advancement of women prior to the Nineteenth Amendment.
One woman so assisted was Florence Morrison, who was born in Ireland and seemed destined to remain there. She lived in a stone cottage that was chilled by the cold mists of Burtonport, a fishing village in County Donegal. Her father fished for a living in the North Atlantic, her mother swept and sewed, and Florence worked in a tannery, which she had done since the age of fourteen. Her brother, Johnny, four years younger, cleaned fish.
At night, her father, Eamonn, walked up the rutted, sloping path to Mrs. Curtin's grocery store, where men sat around a small peat fire in the rear of the store and listened to the town's storyteller, Dan Joe, as he kept the legends of his land fresh. Dan Joe could not read or write and spoke with a slight lisp that was caused by both missing teeth and teeth crumbled into yellow stumps. But his ability to tell a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and to dramatize it, made him perhaps the most important figure in Burtonport. He was the town's university, lecturing nightly on the power of mystery, the belief in mystery, the reasonableness of mystery, and because of Dan Joe the importance of mystery never waned in Burtonport, where the Irish understood that the matters known by humans, when placed together in all the libraries and written in all the languages of the world, were meager in comparison to all that is not known, and because of this they were able to form beliefs in the unknown, in the mystery of God in Heaven, and in such vital matters on earth as coincidence. Dan Joe, through stories, taught people in Mrs. Curtin's grocery store that some coincidences were not that at all, that they were events that announced their presence in ways that only fools did not recognize. In Burtonport, Dan Joe insisted, anyone from all the ages past knew enough to flee the sound of a wagon going down a bumpy road at night, for each hoof clop, each rattle of the wagon, was an announcement of the presence of death. At first sound, the only defense was to run and hide, for to actually see a wagon on a bumpy road at night was to ensure death. It would happen at any time thereafter.
And then one night Florence Morrison's fisherman father, Eamonn, tarried too long over stout in Mrs. Curtin's store. When he came out into the darkness and walked unsteadily down the road, with a North Atlantic gale blowing in his face, hearing nothing but the gale's howl as he walked down the sloping road to his stone cottage at the edge of the ocean rocks, suddenly behind him came a roar and Eamonn Morrison teetered for a moment and then threw himself off the road and into a ditch. He heard the loud rattle, and he knew he should hide his head, but something—the stout, or worse, subconscious disbelief—caused him to look up and watch a runaway wagon roll down the road, milk cans on the back rattling loudly. He watched the wagon plunge into the darkness and then he got up and trudged home. In the morning, he awoke to the sound of the sea splashing high over rocks and he knew that this meant there would be no way for a Donegal fishing boat to last in such water. On the next morning, the sound of the ocean was slightly muted and Eamonn Morrison put on his white fisherman's sweater, oilskins, and heavy boots and got into the drab twenty-six- footer and, with two cousins crouched in the small cabin, started out into heaving gray water. They were two miles out, heading for water that ran over a ledge where turbot and Atlantic salmon darted through the darkness, when suddenly waves began to roll into the boat, each one gathering more power, and the bow disappeared into the water and the stern rose as high as it could and then the bow rose and the stern dropped with a smack into the water. The boat shook. Suddenly, there was a new sound, that of a loose board in the stern and the bow went into the water again and then rose, and the stern started to drop and Eamonn Morrison clenched his teeth and began to open the front of his slicker. His fisherman's sweater underneath would be helpful for at least a few moments against the freezing water and was certainly worth its weight. The oilskin slicker, however, was so loose and heavy that it would pull him to the bottom of the sea; therefore he prepared to pull it off. Eamonn had made the decision many years earlier to learn how to swim, something unheard of in Burtonport, where common sense ordered that no child of a fishing family be taught to swim, for if, when grown, he ever fell into the North Atlantic, the sooner he drowned, the better. The fisherman's belief was "Take a good breath of salt air and use it to say an Act of Contrition. And that's it." Eamonn, however, lived in more hope than that. And now he had one hand on the side of the fishing smack and the other starting to remove his slicker. He then would strike out into the waves if required. The stern was high in the air and then dropped. When it hit the wild ocean this time, the stern broke into pieces and the ocean rushed into the small boat.
A glance to the left showed dark sky, foam, and the masthead of Syl McGuinness's smack. Morrison was elated. Just stay afloat and McGuinness will go through any storm to pull you out, he thought. Eamonn lost footing and fell, and as he did he clutched the side and found wood still there. He saw his two cousins gripping it. We'll all be saved, he thought. Then he saw one of the cousins, Jack McClosky, start to wash away with the cold water. Eamonn dove for him. He missed, and his head went into a tub of rope, which twisted around his neck. He stood up to get the rope off and then he slipped and fell backward into the water. His foot hit Jack, who was hanging onto the side of the boat, whose planks had enormous strength, so much that when the wet thick rope caught itself on a piece of the wood that jutted out, the wood held the rope, which then snapped Eamonn's neck. Syl McGuinness's smack made its way over and he pulled Eamonn Morrison's two cousins in. Syl was pulling on the rope in the water, with Eamonn Morrison's form shimmering as it came close to the surface, and then the head came up, flopping over with the neck broken, and suddenly a huge wave washed Syl McGuinness off his feet and he dropped the rope, and Eamonn Morrison, who had heard the wagon at night, and then had made the mistake of looking at it, was gone forever.
Eamonn left his family an inheritance of the wagon story, and thirty pounds in a kitchen pot. The year was 1869. Florence Morrison, twenty-five, took her share of the inheritance, and the only good dress she owned, a long clinging dress knit by the women of her village, and went to the docks at Magilligan Point, where the steam packets slid out into the North Atlantic for the trip to New York. As the ship approached the dock at Castle Gardens, the predecessor to Ellis Island, Florence put on her dress and joined a crowd on deck that appeared dressed for Easter Sunday. Throughout all of immigration to America, virtually no one—from Irish maid and farmer to German brewery worker to Jewish seamstress from Poland—debarked at New York in anything less than frills and flowers. These were not huddled masses in torn clothes; they were men in shirts and ties and women in holiday finery, who understood the show of dignity.
Florence Morrison lived for months on Mulberry Street in the Five Points slum of Manhattan and did so poorly she began to think of Burtonport as livable. She scrubbed floors in a bank and gave it up as a bad job. One night, her red hair brushed till it blazed, she walked many blocks to the Blind Beggar on Rector Street and brazenly took a place bar side, where she had just started a pint when a Tweed politician, Gerry Corcoran, a bulky man with dark, mean eyes whose political duties consisted of beating up people, sauntered into the bar. At first, he smirked at this low-class woman at the bar, for he was used to standing alongside the rich. Condescension subsided as his prick rose. Corcoran bought Florence a drink, inquired of her background, and then boasted of personal influence so great that it spanned the ocean. Anybody in Ireland need only board a ship armed with Corcoran's name, the mention of which in New York, at the Board of Water Supply, created immediate employment. Corcoran then decreed that Florence Morrison was so beautiful that he was in love with her and wanted to buy her a new wardrobe for city life. He swept her out of the bar and into a room at the Hotel Piedmont, where he subsequently fell asleep. Florence Morrison remained awake. Some regard this as an advantage. Florence slipped out of bed, dressed, and, rather than risk awakening the thug and have him find her going through his pockets right in the room, took his suit, shirt, underwear, socks, and shoes and went downstairs, to an alley alongside the Hotel Piedmont, where, in his pockets, she found two hundred dollars, money for a lifetime. She took the clothes back to Five Points and sold the suit for two dollars. By the time Gerry Corcoran, snorting like a bull, appeared on the street in bare feet, the big toes sticking up so as not to step on a broken bottle, his bare body wrapped in a blanket with the name Hotel Piedmont emblazoned across the back, Florence Morrison was in her room at Five Points, writing, with tremendous effort, a letter to her brother in Burtonport. She told him that wealth was everywhere in New York and that he had only to appear and use the name of her friend, Gerry Corcoran, to obtain a job paying high wages. The job, she wrote, was digging a water tunnel. Six months later, wearing a gray suit jacket belonging to his late father and with a long scarf draped around his neck and not twirled around it as a muffler, despite the cold day, as he wanted all to see his immaculate new shirt, the only shirt with a starched collar he ever had owned, bought from a girl at the factory gate in Derry only hours before boarding the steam packet to New York, here came Johnny Morrison, age twenty-two in the year 1870, walking off the ship and past an immigration officer who said he was a grand lad and needed no papers or questioning. Florence Morrison led her brother to the Board of Water Supply, where a clerk said that Morrison could start work the moment he reached the construction site at Beacon, New York. Which delighted his sister, who felt that if Johnny had one night in a dance hall in Five Points, he would be a permanent guest in her room, an intrusion she intended to go without.
Excerpted from Table Money by Jimmy Breslin. Copyright © 1986 Ronridge Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
OK I tried. I really tried to read Jimmy Breslin's 1985 novel ÒTable Money.Ó It was recommended by a writer I respect, and although I disagree strongly with Breslin's politics, his novels are usually amusing and quite funny. That is the ones pre-1985, which are the only ones I had read anyway up until ÒTable MoneyÓ infiltrated my life. I made it through 80 excruciating pages before realized reading any further reading could only be classified as 'cruel and unusual punishment.' The novel starts by Breslin relating the entire family tree of the main character Owney Morrison, from 1865 to 1972, when Morrison returns from the Vietnam War. In fact, Owney himself doesnÕt make an appearance until page 32. The one thing Morrison and his family have in common is that they are all uninteresting louts, with no class and more than a passing fondness for a bottle of booze. Breslin blasts his readers with every Irish-drunken-bum clique in sight, which frankly makes me more than a little annoyed since, as a lifetime NY City denizen just as Breslin is, I know many more Irish people who donÕt drink at all, rather than those who spend all their waking hours at the business end of a bottle. To further contaminate things, Breslin develops no plot of substance, nor is their any reason to root for Owney Morrison and his troubled brood. After 80 pages, I came to the realization that ÒTable MoneyÓ belongs under the table, or more properly in the garbage can. Like an old baseball player who canÕt hit the fastball anymore, Breslin has seemed to have regressed into a caricature of his former talented self. Or maybe that was a mirage too. I have no design of reading any more of Jimmy BreslinÕs pap in the future. Nor in the past for that matter, from 1985 on. If you have intentions to spend a few rubles on buying ÒTable Money,Ó spend it on something much more jovial. Like ÒWar and PeaceÓ for example.
First chapter is great. Writing is locally very good but globally disjointed (yeah, yeah life is random, but a book about it shouldnt be). Knows what he writes about: he himself is Queens, Irish, and all that means.
Reading,Breslin Is always a treat.This book gives a vivid picture of life as it really was in the early thirties and fortys.His description of his characters were lifesize and alive.I would urge anyone over forty and raised in the city,to run out and buy this book!!
The neighborhoods described in Jimmy Breslin’s, Table Money are captured perfectly, I know because I grew up there. I had friends like Oweny who went to Vietnam and came back wild and crazy and were heavy drinkers. I also know the working class Irish American culture of that time which is pitch perfect in Table Money. Not all Irish Americans of that era were prejudiced and drinkers of course but many were. Well-done Mr. Breslin.