Sounds of These Streets
22 July 2008 |
Note: this is an unpublished piece of imagining I wrote about a year ago. Meeting writers Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin today to talk about their forthcoming and very carefully researched Temple Press book on the black hero O.V. Catto and 19th century civil rights made me remember it (I met them with Sam Katz in preparation for the first phase of the Philadelphia history documentary). In addition to Catto (1839-1871), here is a peddler Moskowitz in 1888, the anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912) and the novelist/journalist/organizer George Lippard (1822-1854).
“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”
“Or the question it asks you, forcing you to answer, like Thebes through the mouth of the Sphinx.” Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
I live on Bainbridge Street, with the jackhammers and the tin ceilings and the voices, some low and knowing, others harsh and desperate and insecure. I sit in my office on the third floor and beneath the sound of the wind rustling the leaves of the birch trees across the way, I hear the shuffle of feet, the slam of the car door, the careful whir of the engine. Though I should be working, I listen to the quality of every sound.
Later, as I do, I’ll walk, under the pear trees, around the construction fences, past the low windows, block after block. As I walk I find myself recounting, in my own head, in my own voice, the very rhythm of the street. It’s a religious incantation.
On October 10, the air is warm and the sky cloudy. Octavius Catto leaves his office at Ninth and Bainbridge. He has closed school early for the day. There are mobs of white men – Irish and Nativists alike — roaming the streets. They mean to intimidate black voters.
A strong, graceful man, baseball hero, teacher, intellectual, lover, risen star of the movement for freedom and equality, Octavius knows he is a prime target of the thugs.
Nevertheless, he is off to keep the peace and get out the vote. If he’s successful, blacks voting in Pennsylvania now for only the second time since ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment will put an end to the corrupt Democratic machine.
The day is fraught with despair. There is no federal protection for voters. One man, Isaac Chase, has been murdered for exercising the vote.
To quell the violence, Catto has agreed to summon his Pennsylvania National Guard brigade. He makes a loop through the neighborhood intending to stop home for his uniform and equipment. Heading south on Ninth Street, Catto turns onto his block of South Street. His doorway is in sight.
On another October day, this one brisk, the temperatures falling, Moscowitz, the anarchist, descends Bainbridge Street. It is the morning of Yom Kippur. He uncovers his stall in the Washington Market, pulls out the barrels of beans and rice and barley and other grains. Then facing the synagogue across the way, he covers his head, puts on the linen robe and the prayer shawl. He says not a word. His business that day is to antagonize the pious. He takes from his pocket not prayers to be read but pamphlets, incantations of the revolution.
The religious men inside, taking a break during the day-long prayer of repentance, fill the stoop of the shul. Moscowitz reads an anarchist version of the traditional prayer; he davens. He expects neither customers nor confrontation. Yet the men on the steps have begun to admonish the blasphemer. They can’t ignore him.
Moscowitz goes on with his act. But the shouts, in Yiddish, grow louder. “All around the world we are hated!” they are screaming. “And here they accept us. Now that’s not good enough for you…” With their condemning eyes they refuse to leave him alone. Now they surround his stand; now they appear capable of violence and terror. “Why do you belittle us on this day?”
A policeman of Irish descent is on his beat. It appears to him that the peddler is in danger. He calls for backup. After much wrangling and desperate cries of the lynch-mob, the religious, terrified and indignant, many of them ignorant of English, are put into the police wagon and taken to jail.
It is one of those days in late summer when the air is leaden and hot. The sun pummels the street and so it is half-empty. The newspapers warn of cholera. On the fifth floor of a building at Seventh and Chestnut in the office of the radical weekly The Quaker City, George Lippard, the editor, feeling weak and tired from ill-health, sits writing. A man enters the office. He wears one shoe. His clothes are tattered.
The man, whose melancholy face is known across the world, sits down near the editor. They are old friends, together claiming more influence in American literature than any two others. But Poe, the visitor, has cast himself an outsider. He’s never comfortable. Yet he forces himself to speak. “You are my last hope,” he says.
Lippard, who takes no pride in being the nation’s best-selling author and wishes only to use literature to end misery, poverty, and disease, is busy forming a labor union. It will be the first challenge to the brutal hand of capitalism.
But Poe’s politics are different. He distrusts democracy. Art, he believes, requires purity of form and narrowness of effect. The political novel, the kind Lippard writes, scorches the page. It generates anger but doesn’t move the heart.
Lippard has always ignored their differences. Poe is genius, Tory-genius, so be it. It’s Franklin they can agree to hate.
“If you fail me, I can do nothing but die,” mutters Poe. His words are calculated to play on Lippard’s natural empathy.
After a while the editor descends to Chestnut Street. Because of the heat and cholera, the street is nearly empty. The doors of publishing houses, where he hopes to find pity and some cash, are barred. He is forced to give up. Those he does encounter all repeat the same: Poe is a drunk. “They found him on the street, don’t you know?” Lippard doesn’t return to the office.
Instead, walking north, he enters Franklin Square. Perhaps the fountain will provide some refuge. Perhaps with cholera in the city, he knows better. He keeps going. Climbing the grid in the pale, sad heat, ten minutes later he reaches home at Sixth and Brandywine. There inside the brick oven he sleeps.
All the while, as always, he asks, How does a man, bound by other men, bound by their unjust and brutal systems, remain free?
In the morning, now feeling better from the rest, Lippard rushes back to his office. Poe is still there. He sits at the table with his head in his hands. “I thought you had deserted me,” he says, and cries, “Get me out of Philadelphia, for God’s sake do it!”
At Eighth and Fairmount, Voltairine de Cleyre sits in the house she shares with George Brown and Mary Hansen. It is late March and she – the city’s most engaging and literary writer of radical politics — is writing a letter.
Dear Sir:—I see by this morning’s paper that you are reported to have said you would be willing to “give $1,000 to have a good shot at an Anarchist.” I wish you either to prove that you were in earnest, or to make you retract the utterance as one unworthy of—I will not say a senator, but a man.
I am an Anarchist, have been such for fourteen years, am publicly known to be such, having both spoken and written much upon the subject. I believe the world would be far better off if there were no kings, emperors, presidents, princes, judges, senators, representatives, governors, mayors, or policeman in it. I think society would have great profit (and more in the omission than the commission) if instead of making laws, you made hats—or coats, or shoes, or anything of some use to someone. I hope for a social condition in which no man restrains his fellow but each restrains himself. I refer you to the catechism enclosed, an expression of the principle of the Anarchists of Philadelphia.
Now if you desire to have a good shot at an Anarchist, it will not cost you $1,000.
You may by merely paying your carfare to my home (address below) shoot at me for nothing. I will not resist. I will stand straight before you at any distance you wish me to, and you may shoot, in the presence of witnesses.
Does not your American commercial instinct seize upon this as a bargain?
But if the payment of the $1,000 is a necessary part of your proposition, then when I have given you the shot, I will give the money to the propaganda of the idea of a free society in which there shall be neither assassins nor presidents, beggars nor senators.
Having turned the corner onto South Street, Catto recognizes Frank Kelly, the political operative. Kelly knows the black man that has just passed holds enough influence to topple the Democratic machine. They trade insults. But if Octavius senses danger in the confrontation he doesn’t show it. Rather he confidently walks on, anxious to don his uniform and organize his brigade.
Catto is a few paces on, his door in reach, when the bullets fly from Kelly’s gun. One of the two shots pierces his back and then his heart. He falls to the sidewalk and dies.
Just about nine months after de Cleyre invited Senator Joseph Hawley to be true to his threat against anarchists, she stands at Fourth and Green waiting for the 57 trolley to take her downtown. Most of her clients – to feed herself she teaches English to Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants – live near South Street. She wears a plain dress. The air is chilly, the wind strong, and so Voltairine wears a coat. Her face is gentle, her belly as usual empty, her hair thinning.
She feels a hand on her sleeve. Perhaps she thinks it is Gordon, a former student, a lover who wouldn’t abandon his traditional ideas about marriage and family. Voltairine turns. Instead of Gordon, it is Herman Helcher, the cigar maker. Helcher is forever associated in her mind with Gordon because he has tried so hard to keep them together, “for the good of the movement.” But he is disguised and she doesn’t recognize him.
He shoots her point blank. She turns, falling. He shoots her three more times, and two of these bullets lodge in her back. The first has lodged next to her heart. She runs, making it halfway up the block, where she collapses on a stoop.
For several days at Hahnemann Hospital, de Cleyre hovers between life and death. One paper declares her dead. But she is much like Frida Kahlo, the radical Mexican painter. Voltairine too suffers from chronic illness. She is used to pain and discomfort and so she is hard to kill.
A few days later, she tells the story to the North American, “Shortly before I was shot the young man sent me a letter which was pitiful—nothing to eat, no place to sleep, no work…Suddenly, when I was not thinking about him, he appeared in front of me, and, I am told, shot me. I did not recognize him at the time. I have no resentment towards the man.”
Angry at the hypocrite publishers and booksellers who have profited from and now forsake the genius Poe, Lippard descends the stairs once again to Chestnut Street. He is gone much of that morning.
When he returns from the canvas he tells of a publisher who has refused to help.
“Not a dollar?” asks Poe.
“Not a dollar.”
But Lippard has raised enough to feed Poe – and found another friend to purchase him a train ticket south. If Philadelphia has become Poe’s prison, at least now Lippard holds the key.
The day turns calm and sweet. The friends relive better times, quiet evenings on Seventh Street. They discuss upcoming work. At Eleventh and Washington, Poe boards an ominibus to the West Philadelphia station. He grasps Lippard’s hand. He holds it long and firm, the look in his eyes prescient, distant, final. Lippard will never see him again.
Sipping coffee at the back of the Chapterhouse, I stare into Catto’s office window. My friend Josh Owen sits across from me. He says there is meaning in everything. It’s something he learned as a child, digging through shards of ancient pottery. His father is an archeologist. “No ideas but in things,” I reply, quoting William Carlos Williams.
I like to sit at the back of the café, where the picture window frames an apple tree and the east wall of Catto’s Institute for Colored Youth. It is a lovely Italianate building, reminiscent for me of a street on the outskirts of Rome. The school was supposed to be the beginning – merely the beginning – of Catto’s promise to the blacks of Philadelphia. There would be more schools, more integration, and also more self-sufficiency. It is a view through that window of hope – indeed belief — that the radical ideas formed not a few blocks away would soon apply here too.
At the front of the café, looking north through the wide plate glass window, I see Catto coming. His every step is assured. Surely he doesn’t believe they will get him. No: he’s thinking of the first five movements of the brigade. He’s thinking of his burden, the great and weightless burden of freedom. But Octavius – Valentine is his middle name – turns left, his feet carrying him onto South Street.
“The idea is the thing,” wrote Voltairine de Cleyre’s friend Alexander Bergman, as if answering the poet Williams. The idea is the thing about this city – and everywhere you scratch and everywhere you listen, as the curious boy on the archeological dig, you encounter it. Freedom: one day Philadelphia bestowed it upon the world. One day, that’s all: the rest we spend echoing George Lippard, How does a man remain free?
A few blocks away, Moskowitz stands in front of the vacant entrance to the Love of Mercy shul. He had only intended a private protest, to pose a question. He didn’t expect an answer. Nevertheless, already, the wails of the believers – and his own careful silence – have been absorbed by the brick walls and the cobblestone and the wooden shambles of the market. Theirs is the cry of this city, its poetry: the sounds of these streets.