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‘Paradise Alley’

At the height of the Civil War, what begins with strong words and a few broken bottles will, over the course of five days, escalate into the worst urban conflagration in American history. Hundreds of thousands of poor Irish immigrants smolder with resentment against a war and a president that have cost them so many of their young men. When word spreads throughout New York’s immigrant wards that
/ Source: TODAY

At the height of the Civil War, what begins with strong words and a few broken bottles will, over the course of five days, escalate into the worst urban conflagration in American history. Hundreds of thousands of poor Irish immigrants smolder with resentment against a war and a president that have cost them so many of their young men. When word spreads throughout New York’s immigrant wards that a military draft is about to be implemented — a draft from which any rich man’s son with $300 can buy an exemption — trouble begins to spill into the streets. Down in the waterfront slum of Paradise Alley, three women — Deirdre Dolan O’Kane, Ruth Dove, and Maddy Boyle — struggle with their private fears as they wait for the storm to descend on them. Here's an excerpt of this month’s Today Book Club selection, “Paradise Alley,” by Kevin Baker.

He is coming.

Ruth leaned out the door as far as she dared, peering down Paradise Alley to the west and the south. Past the other narrow brick and wood houses along Cherry Street, slouching against each other for support. The grey mounds of ashes and bones, oyster shells and cabbage leaves and dead cats growing higher every day since the street cleaners had gone out.

Fire bells were already ringing off in the Sixth Ward, somewhere near the Five Points. The air thick with dust and ash and dried horse droppings, the sulfurous emissions of the gasworks along the river, and the rendering plants and the hide-curing plants. It was not yet six in the morning but she could feel the thin linen of her dress sticking to the soft of her back.

“The good Lord, in all His mercy, must be readyin’ us for Hell-”

She searched the horizon for any sign of relief. Their weather came from the west, the slate-grey, fecund clouds riding in over the Hudson. That was how she expected him to come, too, fierce and implacable as a summer storm. His rage breaking over them all.

He is coming-

But there was no storm just yet. The sky was still a dull, jaundiced color, the blue tattered and wearing away at the edges. She ventured a step out into the street, looking hard, all the way downtown, past the church steeples and the block-shaped warehouses, the dense thicket of masts around lower Manhattan.

There was nothing out of the ordinary. Just the usual shapeless forms lying motionless in the doorways. A ragged child with a stick, a few dogs. A fruit peddler with his bright yellow barrow. His wares, scavenged from the barges over on the West Side, already pungent and overripe.

Nothing coming. But then, it wasn’t likely he would come from the west anyway-

With a muted cry she swung around, then ducked back into her house, bolting the door behind her while she fought for breath. The idea that he could have been coming up behind her the whole time. She remembered how quickly he could move. She could feel his hands on her, could see the yellow dog’s bile rising in his eyes. That merciless anger, concentrated solely upon her—

She had not truly believed it before now — not even after Deirdre had come over to tell her yesterday afternoon. Standing there on her doorstone, one foot still in the street as if she were hanging on to the shore. Wearing her modest black church dress, her beautiful face even sterner than usual. She was a regular communicant, Sundays and Fridays — no doubt especially agitated to have to see Ruth on the Lord’s day. She told her the news in a low voice, all but whispering to her. Deirdre herself, whispering, as if somehow he might overhear.

He is coming.

He had come — all the way back from California. It was a fearsome, unimaginable distance. But then, what was that to a man who had gone as far as he had already? A friend of Tom’s, a stevedore, had seen him on the docks — as stunned as if he had seen Mose himself stepping off a clipper ship, back from his bar in the Sandwich Islands. Coming down the gangplank with that peculiar, scuttling, crablike walk of his, fierce and single-minded as ever. Moving fast, much faster than you thought at first, so that Tom’s friend had quickly lost him in the crowd waiting by the foot of the gangplank. Already disappeared off into the vastness of the City—

Which meant — what? The mercy of a few days? While he found himself a room in the sailors’ houses along Water Street, began to work his way relentlessly through the bars and blind pigs, sniffing out any news. Sniffing out them.

Or maybe not even that. Maybe he had hit it right off, had found, in the first public house he tried, a garrulous drunk who would tell him for the price of a camphor-soaked whiskey where he might find a certain mixed-race couple, living down in one of the nigger nests along Paradise Alley—

No. Ruth calmed herself by sheer force of will. Picking up a broom, she made her hands distract her. Sweeping her way scrupulously around the hearth, under the wobbly-legged table even though she knew there was no need, they would never live here again after this morning.

When she made herself think about it logically, it wasn’t likely he could be that lucky. He had never had much luck, after all — not even with herself — and his own face would work against him. He couldn’t go out too bold. They would remember him still, after what had happened with Old Man Noe. Men would remember him, would remember that, and keep their distance. Maybe even turn him in, for the reward —

They still had time. A little, anyway. She and Billy had talked it out, deep into the night. Time enough for Billy to go up to his job at the Colored Orphans’ Asylum in the Fifth Avenue today, and collect his back wages. Then they would have something to start on, at least, to see them through up to Boston, or Canada.

Why aren’t we in Canada already? We should be there —

She swept faster, in her anger and her frustration, kicking up the fine, black grit that crept inexorably through the windows and over the transom, covering the whole City over, every day. They had talked about leaving, all these years, but somehow they had never actually gone. She had put it down to Billy’s moodiness and his obstinacy, the lethargy that seemed to hold him sometimes, particularly when he’d been drinking.

Yet it was more than that, and she knew it. They both felt safer here — on their block, miserable as it was, in the bosom of their friends and neighbors. They told themselves there would be risks if they ran, perhaps even worse risks. A white woman and a black man, with their five mixed-race children, moving through one small town after another, with no real money to sustain them. They would be leaving tracks for him like they were written in the sky —

So where were they to run now?

Ruth forced the question from her mind. It didn’t matter now, now they had no choice. She had everything packed and ready to go. In a little while she would get the children up and give them their breakfast. They would leave as soon as Billy got back from the Colored Orphans’, with the two weeks’ wages he was owed.

She would stay home from her job with the German bonepickers, it would be safe enough here for the time being, on their street. At least that was what they had told themselves. It was too bad Tom was off with the army, but there was Deirdre. They could count on her to keep an eye out, at least. Ruth had seen her when she’d first looked out this morning — already sitting by a window, standing the watch.

Deirdre knew well enough what to expect from her own brother.

All it required was a few more hours of grace, then they would be gone. Over to Hoboken on the Desbrosses Street ferry, then a schooner up to Halifax, or Montreal. Or if they didn’t have enough money for that, they could just set out at random, across the countryside, head west or north—

There was a low, rumbling sound. She risked poking her head out a window, wanting to see if it was storming after all. But no — the tattered yellow sky still hung balefully over the harbor, and the North River.

The sound went on and on — one continuous, unending roll of noise — and she realized it must be something man-made. Something both more and less than the daily going to work, the bawdy, boisterous awakening of the City that she liked to listen to every morning from her doorstep before joining it herself. This had more of a purpose, a direction. The sound of hundreds, even thousands of feet, and voices, moving relentlessly, indivisibly north, toward uptown.

Something had been brewing in the City all weekend, she knew, though she had barely set foot outside her home. There were little things she had picked up, when she poked her head out to throw the washing water in the gutter. Something in the snatches of talk from the men in their taverns, and the brayings of drunks on street corners. Something in the agitation of horses, the thinning of traffic, the urgency of a policeman’s voice. In the unhappy silence of the other women on the block like her — listening and waiting.

The men were unhappy, and when men were unhappy, no one could rest easy. Something about the draft, but whatever it was, she knew it would be bad for people like them. Maybe, at least, it would delay him—

A couple hours’ grace, that’s all we need. Surely that is possible.

She tried to think, to make sure there was nothing she had forgotten. Her memory had never been very good since her time with Johnny Dolan. She would leave the beans or the corn bread over the fire until they burned. She would forget to run an errand, to get something important, unless she carefully thought out everything on her way to work in the morning, or while trying to fall asleep in her bed at night. Sometimes she thought he had knocked it out of her, beaten it right out of her brains—

What needed to be done, then? She forced herself to concentrate. The children were still asleep in the back room but she had their things bundled up beside their beds. They could carry that much on their own. Everything else was already tied up and waiting by the back door — their bolt hole — where it could be easily tossed into the barrow just outside.

There was little enough. Her kitchen wares, two tin pots and an iron frying pan. Six long spoons, a few bent knives and forks. The two other dresses she owned, plus another small bag for her underclothes, and the ribbons she wore in her hair on special days. Billy’s one suit, and his shirts and his overalls. His seaman’s kit, and his tools, still as meticulously wrapped and oiled — and as untouched — as when he had first purchased them, over a dozen years before.

There was almost nothing of a more personal nature. Only their Bible, and a few books that belonged to Milton, their oldest boy. The framed daguerreotype she had finally persuaded Billy to have made of the whole family. All of them in their best clothes, standing solemnly around Billy where he sat in a broad, cushioned chair. The paterfamilias, a little stand in the picture parlor tucked carefully behind his close-cropped hair to make sure he held his head steady, the rest of them clustered all around him in various shimmering shades of light. Hers the only fully white face, looking bleak and blanched, nearly invisible next to the rest of them.

She had wanted to have one made of the little girl who had died, of Lillian, who had passed from the croup before she was two. A proper funeral picture, made up with the girl in her best dress, lying in the coffin, but Billy had stopped her. It was too dear, they needed to spend the money on the living, and she was glad he had persuaded her now. There was no need to haul the picture of that poor dead girl up and down the roads, as Ruth had once hauled herself. She would be left behind where she lay, out in the pleasant, shady cemetery in Brooklyn—

That was all. Everything they had to show for thirteen years in this cramped little house. They could be gone in a moment, out through the back privvy lots and down to the ferries. Gone before even he could catch them —

Excerpted from “Paradise Alley” by Kevin Baker. Copyright © 2002 by Kevin Baker. Published by HarperCollins, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used by permission without permission of the publisher.