This is the story of three men who died. It happened quite suddenly, one after the other, in the space of three months: a painter of portraits, a banjo player, and a philandering fishmonger. Cuthbert, Wilkie, and Abraham.
But it’s also the story of a forgotten part of New York City: the Lower East Side. They were not important men; not in the sense of being important in late-nineteen-century Manhattan, although the painter did have something of a reputation among the fabulous and wealthy. These men were not the Fricks, Carnegies, or Astors. No, they were ordinary men, in the most basic sense, whose scope was small, residents of a provincial place in Manhattan, the area of the Lower East Side, among the Five Points: Bowery to Orchard and back. They were not friends; they were acquaintances; they were too different; from different backgrounds and degrees of wickedness. In unison, as I can now see, and only now, they were alike in their custody of a purity of spirit that excelled—through base or foolish or desperate actions—with steady sidereal patina.
How and why am I privy to such details of these men’s lives? I was connected to all three through the business in which I worked. It was a business that was owned by an insular, clannish Irish family ensconced hierarchically in a set of old world Irish thought and New York City politics of the time. But a time of rapid change that this family was not ready to accept: Thomas Edison granted a patent for the first meaningful radio device; Ellis Island opens a year later. In my private drama—my ongoing adventure with this family; with those three men—Cuthbert, Wilkie, and Abraham, were but bit players to whom I gave very little thought to, until they vanished.
As of late, however, I have been thinking of those three men; waking at night thinking about how they disappeared. It’s as if they have come to remind me of something I need to do. Perhaps it is as simple as telling their story: to let people know of their discarded lives.
I recall encountering the three of them at my place of employment. It was not of music, art, or fish. It was Wilkie telling a hunting story; he talked about shooting a deer upstate on the Hudson. He talked about how he was not such a good shot, he merely wounded the young deer and that it was crying in pain in way that sounded like a human child. So he picked it up and quieted it in his arms in the way that only he could have done, and quieted it in his arms until it died.
And then? “Then I took it home and gutted it on Rivington St. Young like that, it makes for good eatin.”
In my world, this eerie tenderness and brutality could only be possible among these three men. It was at the heart of their character.
These are three men who are not present anymore. We don’t know why. We don’t ask why—gone over the course of three months. They are gone for reasons that are not talked about. These men were unleashed into the world with words unworthy of their being. Words spoken of them revealed only ignorance—of their status as palimpsest in the Lower East Side. I’m sure I am the only one who noticed them; at least that is what I like to believe. I’m certain that logic connected these three characters, I sometimes suspect that I am more implicated in it than I thought. Maybe I was not just a witness, but one of them—the fourth outsider. Perhaps we were a story, and I didn’t know it.
As hastily as the witnesses appear, the witnesses disappear. They crowd together at the edge for moments at a time, fattening; and then they are gone—leaving me searching for the thread, served by a few clues in my own flat on Spring St. A wrought iron bed; the melancholy voice of a Syrian girl who asks me if I have received any news; the smell of canned Oyster Bay asparagus; aromatic shrouds and satchels of herbs deteriorating into a fragrant dust.
Mick Spillane left the shark-infested cubicles of Manhattan publishing to start his own writing and book-editing business, Turn of Phrase Editorial. Mick is also the author of the cult classic How to Open and Operate a Financially Successful Notary Business (with companion CD-ROM).”
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