The Rattling Of Wheels

Hemingway once said that Ivan Turgenev’s “The Rattling Of Wheels” was the best short story of all time. I recently read it, and it reached a fine climax despite a slow start, but there are others I prefer. Annie Proulx’s “People In Hell Just Want A Drink Of Water,” for example. Or that haunting piece, “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson. Or an incredibly evocative story that Justin Heckert recently showed me: “Heat,” by Joyce Carol Oates.

For a lot of us who write narrative nonfiction in the range of, say, 4,000 to 10,000 words, great short fiction is an enticing model to follow. We can see the parallels in nonfiction stories such as Gary Smith’s “Walking His Life Away,” or this blistering early work by Ben Montgomery, “Everyone Knew About John Kidd’s Problem….

Let’s hear from Gangrey Nation. What are your all-time favorite short stories? And what are your favorite non-fiction stories that sound like short fiction?

Also, what are the disadvantages of trying to make nonfiction sound like a short story?

82 Years Strong

Bill Stevens: HOLIDAY — Steve Wrubel fixed a light breakfast Tuesday morning and sat down at the dining room table to pay some bills. He blinked hard to make his eyes water.

“I saw better yesterday,” said Wrubel, 102.

Still, he managed to make out the cable bill — $78.06. Seems like a lot for a man who doesn’t watch television. He also paid his car insurance bill — $1,160 for six months coverage on the old Chevy he keeps in the carport. He stopped driving last year, but keeps the car so friends and neighbors can use it to take him shopping and, more important, to visit his beloved Vickie.

Today marks their 82nd wedding anniversary.

Think about that for awhile.

Treating Ignorance With Respect

David Granger’s note in this month’s Esquire welcomes Charlie Pierce back to the magazine and drops this interesting nugget: “In a memo to me a few months ago, Charlie exhorted me and all of Esquire’s writers to ‘avoid the common trap of treating ignorance with respect.’ There is more ignorance afoot in the world right now getting more credence than at any other time in history.”

Reactions? You think that’s true, that we’re in the Age of Ignorance? And do you think we’re being too easy on the morons?

Stories That Should Never Go Away, VI

From our dear friend Janine Anderson: I had no idea this story existed until the 2009 Mike Levine Workshop, when Ben and a few others from the Times Herald-Record brought it up after Pete Hamill spoke at the Eddie Adams barn. At the time, I covered courts in a community that struggled with the same poverty-gangs-drugs-crime-violence-murder cycle as Newburgh. And I struggled with how to keep the community narrative a part of quick-hit stories on people getting charged, tried and sent to prison.

After returning from the Workshop, I went to the library and put in a loan request for the article.

It does what few daily crime stories do — puts you on the streets, in the middle of the battle. The entire story is conflict. From the opening scene to the last, in every paragraph, every quote.

It’s an uneasy story about an uneasy town, and it made me uneasy reading it. If it hadn’t, we wouldn’t still be talking about it 22 years later.

Our Town, by Pete Hamill
Esquire, September 1989

The woman came around the corner into Lander Street and you could see right away that she was in trouble. She was big and brown and solid, but she kept looking behind her, down toward Broadway. Then came the man, thin as a razor, walking quickly along the wall of Woolworth’s. It was a few minutes after three in the afternoon.

“Yo!” the man shouted. “Yo, Coreema, you stop, hear?”

Coreema didn’t stop. She glanced across the street at clumps of silent women and children sitting on wooden stoops, then back at the man. She moved faster and so did he, and she was starting to run when he caught her. He spun her around and smashed a fist into her face. She wobbled and he hit her again, and she went down.

“Bitch!” he screamed, kicking her in the sides and the chest. “Bitch!”

Her face was a bloody smear, and she rolled and put her hands up to her eyes and he kicked her again. Her large body shuddered and went very still. The man was through with her. He looked around him for the first time: at the women and children, at four teenagers on the far corner, at me. He took a knife from his pocket, flicked open the blade, said nothing, and hurried back to Broadway. When he turned the corner, a large woman heaved her bulk off one of the wooden stoops and started across the street to help Coreema. She squinted at me and whispered hoarsely, “You better get the fuck out of here, man.”

This wasn’t Times Square. This was the east end of Newburgh, New York (population 25,000), sixty miles up the lovely Hudson River from the biggest, meanest city in America. Nevertheless, I decided to follow her advice. Even on a sun-drowned afternoon, that particular street in that particular town can be scary. And these days in America, alas, Newbugh is not unique. There must be a thousand lost towns like it around the country, wasted by time and indifference, and I never get used to seeing them. Poverty, dilapidated housing, drugs, casual violence: they’re supposed to be exclusive to life in big cities.

But Newburgh, a 280-year-old river town, is far from the mayhem and nihilism of New York. Ancient oaks and maples line some of its streets. George Washington really did sleep here at the end of the Revolution. Geography alone should make the town immune to our urban contagions. It doesn’t.

I first saw Newburgh as a young man in the 1950s, when it was a pleasant, dull, middle-class town with a wide main street called Broadway that seemed shaped by an odd collaboration between Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell. I passed through every few years, usually on my way somewhere else. On each trip, the town seemed shabbier, but compared with the dissolution of the big cities, it never struck me as sinister. Then, over the last year, I started noticing small items out of Newburgh in the newspapers: stories of drug busts, assaults, occasional murders. From a distance, the town seemed to be getting deeper into trouble, and I wondered why.

To a visitor form the big city, the latest version of Newburgh felt oddly familiar. Two days after I saw the woman named Coreema kicked into a shambling pile, a man named Richard D. Woods Jr. pulled his car up in front of his house on Carson Avenue. He yelled something at one of the eight children of a man named Julio Estela, with whom he’d been feuding for a year. Estela came out of his house across the street carrying a .22-caliber Ruger carbine. He fired six shots and one of them hit Woods in the chest and killed him. When Woods’s brother, Noel, arrived at the scene, he said: “That was definitely the wrong move.”

Newburgh is full of people who are always making the wrong move. Usually this is done in anonymity. But occasionally the town does become part of the public imagination, as it did during the media hysteria over the Tawana Brawley case. Ms. Brawley claimed to have been held prisoner by six white men for four days; investigators later learned that on one of those days she was attending a party thrown by a crack dealer at 163 Lander Street. When a grand jury decided that Brawley was just a little girl who told a big lie, Newburgh faded again. The life of casual violence and steady drugs went on.

On ordinary weekends, the emergency room of St. Luke’s Hospital takes in dozens of the beaten, the stabbed, and the shot. Sometimes the doctors and nurses only have to clerk the corpses. Typical was poor Romance Maise Brock, who arrived with two screwdrivers jammed into her chest and an electrical cord wrapped around her neck; her half brother told the police he had to chill her because she was going to tell them he was using cocaine.

But murder is usually only a melodramatic highlight in places like Lander Street; life is more often about surviving a soul-grinding routine of assaults and robberies. Many go unreported. “What’s the point?” one black woman said to me. “Police don’t do nothin’ anyway.” The police try, but there are only seventy-two cops on the city’s payroll; sometimes as few as six are patrolling its streets. And since 1986, when crack conquered the east end, the lives of the poor have become infinitely more dangerous. “Crackerjacks don’t care who gets hurt,” one older man told me, “long as they get their crack.” Even the dead aren’t safe; a few months ago, someone stole the antique wrought-iron gates off the entrance to the town’s cemetery.

One afternoon I drove around Newburgh with Tim McGlone, then covering the mayhem beat for the Newburgh-Beacon Evening News. It was clear that crack had found an ideal market in Newburgh. Like so many other hurt places around the country, the town needed better housing, schools, jobs — all the usual “liberal” remedies so glibly sneered at in the age of Reagan. It got drugs instead. “See that little deli?” McGlone said. “It’s been busted four times, selling crack.” He pointed out three more tiny stores as we moved along pothole-ridden streets. “They sell it like it was Wonder Bread,” McGlone said, showing me a place that had been raided so many times the locals called it Stop ‘n’ Cop.

The context for all this is sadly familiar. There are several thousand welfare clients in this small city, many of them living in the eight-story Bourne Apartments overlooking the Hudson (or in the Imperial Motel or the Hotel Washington). Others are jammed into the Hotel Newburgh on Broadway, where too many children spend most of their days eating junk food, watching television, and learning other things. “They all be doin’ drugs an’ fightin’ and stabbin’,” a seven-year-old boy named Rondo told me, standing alone in front of the hotel. “At night, it’s bad here….”

If welfare and crack are the present tense of this old, small city, it is almost impossible to ignore its long, often booming past. The section called Balmville at the edge of the city evokes the nineteenth century, when rivers were the nation’s highways and Newburgh was a whaling town, a town of shipfitters and boat builders, men who shipped food and ice to the growing maw of New York City. The splendid Victorian and Greek Revival mansions they erected are still here, complete with spectacular views of the river winding south into the gorge at the foot of Storm King Mountain. The world they made seemed built to last forever. It didn’t.

“Newburgh was a nice, solid town,” said a barber named Sam Martino, who now lives twelve miles away in Wallkill. “Then everything changed. Just like that.”

Newburgh was wasted by a number of forces, including racism. In the 1950s, blacks and Puerto Ricans came to work on the nearby apple farms as migrant workers; many stayed on to work in the mills of Newburgh, and whites slowly began to leave. This “white flight” was not unique to Newburgh — in the ’60s and ’70s it happened all over the United States. It was just more blatant here. “They see a black face,” a man named Errol said, “and they run.”

Two enormous shopping centers opened on the outskirts of town and devastated the shops along Broadway. The passenger railroad stopped running on the west bank of the Hudson. Urban renewal projects were begun in the 1960s and never completed; black leaders charged racism was the motive, the process a crude form of “urban removal.” Then, in 1969, Stewart Air Force Base was ordered closed, ending nine hundred civilian jobs, removing 2,500 servicemen and $30 million from the local economy. The tax base eroded and so did Newburgh’s physical plant. By 1981 the federal government had listed Newburgh as number one on the list of the nation’s distressed urban areas.

There were other problems: Neanderthal politics; racial disturbances in the late ’60s and early ’70s; corruption in the police department. Cynicism flourished. The drug trade began to establish itself. By 1987, the only house on Lander Street with a backyard swimming pool belonged to a crack dealer named Randy “D Day” Davis.

These days, the political air in Newburgh still has a ripe odor. Consider the delicious case of Wilbert Sanchez. In 1987 he ran in the Republican primary for mayor, and on paper he was a great candidate: a thirty-seven-year-old Vietnam veteran, always impeccably dressed, the head of a Hispanic community group called FUENTE. He was vocal about education, immigration, and employment issues, and helped raise money for the homeless. A Republican who talked like a Democrat. Perfect. He was also very critical of the police, claiming that they weren’t doing enough to combat the spread of crack and cocaine. He ran hard in the Republican primary and lost by only seventy-eight votes.

Then, not long after the election, he was indicted by the feds. They charged him with — of course! — conspiring to distribute cocaine. The trial was brief. Even his stepdaughter testified against him. He was convicted in May.

The saddest thing about the mood in Newburgh these days is that a revival of sorts was actually under way for a few years. New people were coming in, buying old Victorians and restoring them to past glory. Key Bank built its corporate headquarters at the foot of Broadway. Some new factories opened for business. An old red-brick factory was converted into a condominium called The Foundry. There were familiar complaints that gentrification was going to dislodge the poor. But the city briefly experienced a new emotion: hope.

Then came crack.

Now there are FOR SALE signs everywhere. And the problems never go away. They are the same problems eating at the hearts of many American cities, and you have to wonder: If a town the size of Newburgh can’t be saved, how can any of the country’s injured cities? One little scene last spring suggested to me that perhaps it is already too late.

A group called the Newburgh Drug/Alcohol Task Force had announced a project called “One Street at a Time.” They would go into the crack-ravaged streets of the east end, backed by the police, and drive out the dealers by moral persuasion. And one evening, the present mayor, a former mayor, CORE chairman Roy Innis, and a number of locals marched into Lander Street. Dealers faded into the dusk. Coffee and doughnuts were served. Kids chanted, “No more drugs! No more drugs!”

The cops stayed around. So did most of the middle-class marchers. And then just before dark another group arrived, young and tough and black, with the cold, blank eyes of their generation. They turned from South Street into Lander, and they were chanting, too. “We want drugs!” they shouted. “We want drugs! We want drugs!”


(Other Stories That Should Never Go Away: Michael Paterniti’s The House That Thurman Munson Built, John Fetterman’s Pfc. Gibson Comes Home, Tom Junod’s The Rapist Says He’s Sorry, Gary Smith’s The Little Girl In Grave 1565, and Paterniti’s Eating Jack Hooker’s Cow.)

Welcome To Newburgh, Murder Capital Of New York

Patrick Radden Keefe: One morning earlier this month, just before sunrise, a silent convoy of SUVs streamed into the tiny, troubled city of Newburgh, New York. Over 200 law-enforcement officers descended on the blighted heart of town, and a company of military-style commandos prepared for a synchronized raid. Armed with M4 assault rifles and dressed in helmets, goggles, and green fatigues, SWAT teams burst into a series of dilapidated houses, shouting, “FBI! Get down!”

From The Ashes

Dan Barry: SPRINGFIELD, Mass.

In the hours after the 2008 election of the country’s first African-American president, three white men crept up to a predominantly African-American church being built here in Springfield, blessed it corruptly with gasoline — and faded into the fresh November night.

Soon the church’s pastor, Bishop Bryant Robinson Jr., was at the crime scene’s flickering edge, weary, saddened. Moments before, he had been anticipating a new chapter in American history, and now here was one page, stuck. He didn’t need an investigation to tell him this was a racist act of arson. He is a black man with snow in his hair; he knew.

As he watched the new home for the Macedonia Church of God in Christ burn to the ground, Bishop Robinson imagined only one response: Rebuild.

Soundtrack To War Goes Quiet

Dan Zak: FORWARD OPERATING BASE PROSPERITY, Iraq — “It’s 81 degrees in beautiful downtown Baghdad. Six oh five on your clock on Fun Fact Friday. I’m Prickel.”

“And I’m Townsend. Thanks for falling into extended formation this morning.”

An apricot sunrise burns through the gray haze over Baghdad, which wakes up Friday to the jocular baritones of two staff sergeants in a ramshackle, mostly disassembled sound booth in a squat, Saddam-era bunker on a dusty side street of the Green Zone.

“Prickel is over at the weather desk.”

“Before I get into the weather, I wanna point this out: We have blotch.”

“Baghdad, you are not cloudy, you are not partly cloudy. You have blotch.”

That Bright Mecca

Anne Hull, circa 1999: In the early 1960s, Walter Elias Disney took a plane ride over Florida. When he passed the vast area of scrub land south of Orlando, he pointed and said, “There.”

Disney quietly paid $5.5-million for 27,000 acres, and the bulldozers and the hammers set to work.

As a native child of Central Florida, I grew up in the advancing shadow of the mouse ears. What did we do before Walt Disney World opened, replacing our perceptions of joy? We lived inside our own kingdom.

Our childhoods were barefoot. We rode ponies into the orange groves, past the NO TRESPASSING SIGNS on barbed wire fences. The sweet evidence lingered in our hair, on our clothes, but we risked punishment every time and kept returning to the dark shade of the citrus trees.