Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A scene from May the Road Rise Up to Meet You that didn't make the final cut - The 1863 Draft Riots

This is a scene from May the Road Rise Up to Meet You that was part of the original story but was excluded from the final draft.  It is an important part of the history of this period, so I share it here.  Ethan has returned to New York (without Marcella) after having the confrontation with Harry at Gettysburg (rather than Fredericksburg as I later made it).  He is bruised and dazed from a barroom fight he got into with two gravediggers in Gettysburg...a sort of flashback to Aislinn's funeral triggering his rage.  And when he returns to New York, this:

July 13th, 1863

New York

Your head still throbs from eight hours on the train and all you want is to get to Seanny’s house to get some rest and let the bruises go down a bit, now that the bleeding’s stopped, so you don’t have to see Marcella this way.  But soon as you tell the taxi driver to take you to Fahrteenth an’ Broadway it’s like he’s identified you as his long lost cousin from th’Old Country and he starts in right away about th’mischief goin’ on down in the Points.   Mischief, you think, when’s there ever not mischief goin’ on down in the Points?  But this is different he says, th’Mob’s already torched a few shanties on Baxter Street, chasin' the darkies outta their homes.  He seems particularly pleased about that, sayin’ th’crowd turned on th’darkies right off, once dey got a snootful an’ decided it was toime t’do somethin’ about this goddamned Draft.  He tells you he’s a few years off the boat himself, did his ninety day bit early on, asks if you was fool enough as him t’serve…an’ when you just say The Sixty-Ninth…it’s like he figures you know all about it, all about the war and the mischief goin’ on in the Points. 

Did my nointy day bit early on too, not wit’ th’Sixty Noint’, but did my bit all th’same.  Didn’t see much action, but still…so you an’ me bowt’ know about dis Rich Man’s war. An’ the’lads down in th’Points’re all fired up ‘bout dat t’ree hunnerd dollar exemption.  Rich Man’s war, wit’ th’poor men doin’ th’foightin’, an’ all fer th’darkies.  And when you don’t say anything in response, he assumes you feel the same way he does about it all. If ya ask me, dis here’s been brewin’ a long toime.  Dropped a fella down along Eight’ Street not an hour ago an’ ya could hear th’Mob stirrin’ from that far away.  If ya ask me, won’t be a darkie left anywhere near th’Points when th’Mob gets t’rough wit’ ‘em. 

And you know there’ll be no resting at Seanny’s.  You know he’s down there in the Points, tryin’ to do what he can to put an end to the foolishness.  But he’d always said that th’Points were a powder keg waitin’ on a spark, Tammany doin’ what it could to keep the sparks away.  Seanny’d be down there now for sure, so you tell the driver to take you there, to the Points.  And Irish camaraderie doesn’t do a damn thing to get you there, but a twenty does.

There’s more smoke than usual, and you can hear the clamoring of th’Mob down near Pell Street, so you continue south on Bowery, feeling your head throbbing more than ever from the exertion, not willing to stop, feelin’ somehow that you have a place here, that there’s something you can do along with Seanny….to help end the foolishness.  But its foggier now, your thinking is, so that when you  turn right on Pell street, and see th’Mob gathered at the far end of the block, stones and bricks flyin’ from their midst towards the buildings, you wonder just what you thought you might do.  A few dozen policemen come running towards th’Mob, brandishing billy clubs and blowin’ whistles, the sound like pins jabbing at your temples.   They hurl themselves into the crowd with the sort of ruthless fury reserved for the battlefields, but th’Mob will not be moved so easily, needing a few minutes of hand to hand, before they’re on their way and the street is cleared.

It’s instinctive in you now, this walking towards the scene of the next clash, past several policemen who yell at you to be on your way.  There’s an old Negro woman being carried from the building by the policemen, and you can see her head is bloodied from a brick or stone that struck her.  The next several buildings in a row have not a single window intact, and there’s smoke coming from one of them, a Negro man swatting at the flames with a blanket.  And you don’t see the point of attacking these people who have nothing to do with the draft boards or the rich men getting their three hundred dollar exemptions.  You want to help the man try and put out the fire, but then he gives up, surrendering to the inevitable, grabbing a few things before running out of the building, joinin’ several others watching their homes go up in flames.

The noise of th’Mob draws you down Mott Street, to Park, and then up Baxter where they’ve joined another Mob attacking more buildings.  There’re dozens of police already there and the ones you just left on Pell Street come runnin’ breathlessly past you.  One of them bumps your shoulder and the jerk of your head makes you weak on your feet, so you stop walking and lean against a streetlamp, watching as the police pour into th’Mob just as they had before, only now th’Mob giving as good as they get.  It’s maybe half an hour before the scene is finally cleared, the remnants of the clash in the form of battered men, both police and civilians, lying prone on the street, cursing each other with what energy they can muster.  The Negro tenants look out of their windows with the fear that comes from knowing they’re completely surrounded within the Points, outnumbered at least ten or fifteen to one, trapped inside their homes until th’Mob passes far enough away so they can maybe slip out to Brooklyn and something like safety.

The senselessness of it staggers you.  Go uptown, you want to tell them.  Go to Wall Street.  Go to City Hall.  They’re the enemy.  But you say nothing of course, remembering instead how your Da had described the Points to you the first time you saw it.  All th’most desperate people, th’ones at da bottom, grabbin’ an’ kickin’ at one anudder t’keep from going under demselves, was what he’d said, and you always remembered it just that way.  And as it comes back to you now, you realize that it’s a force far greater than anything you can hope to stop.  Disgusted, you stand up and begin to walk, dazed, thinking you’re goin’ back uptown but walking south instead.  You don’t realize your mistake until you reach the corner of Park Street, where another Mob has assembled, larger than the previous two, reinforced by people from outside the Points and lubricated with whiskey and rum and beer.  When the police arrive, they don’t budge th’Mob at first and are forced to retreat, then regroup, and enter the fray again.  Once more unto the breach, you think, bitterly.  

Not far from the edge of the battle you see a Negro man slip out a side window of one of the buildings under attack and make a dash up Park Street away from the crowd and towards you.  Then two men coming from the opposite direction block his path and knock him hard to the ground, as several others catch up with him from behind and begin to kick and punch him.  The police don’t see any of this, too involved with the main mob, so you begin to run up the street to help.  It’s only a dash of thirty or forty yards, but it takes all the coherence from you.  When you reach them, you shout something even you don’t comprehend, then strike one of them a glancing blow across the temple, your elbow striking another man’s shoulder and spinnin’ you just enough to send you tumbling to the ground beside the Negro man.

Everything freezes for a moment, and you brace yourself for a beating far worse than the one you took yesterday. But then the men who’d been kicking and stomping begin to laugh hysterically at you, believing that you meant to join them, of course, since you’re one of them, but were just too drunk to do much good.  Even the man you hit seems to believe this, and he’s laughin’ hardest of all.  Then a roar comes from down the street and you can see flames bursting forth from one of the buildings, and they turn and run back towards th’Mob again.  The man lying on the ground next to you has cuts along his face and a terrified expression to match them.  He forces himself to his feet and looks at you confused, as if wondering whether maybe you had come to help him, but he doesn’t deliberate for long before takin’ off up Park Street and away from th’Mob.  And you’re left there, in the fog, but none the worse for a beating.  Still, you close your eyes for just a while, giving in to the fog, resting, garnering what strength you can before trying anything so ambitious as finding your way back to Seanny’s house, deciding right them that you’ve had enough of the Points, and enough of the desperate people grabbing and clawing at each other for….for what?  This place makes less sense to you now than it did to that twelve year old boy who saw it with his Da all those years ago.