The Squirearchy: Prologue

The next time you’re in lower Manhattan, be sure to take some time to visit the Tenement Museum. It’s located in the SoHo neighborhood of the city, so named because it’s South of Houston Street (in one of those wonderful quirks of the English language, the name of this street is pronounced “How-ston”, as opposed to the city in Texas, the name of which is pronounced “Hugh-ston”). The neighborhood has, for perhaps a quarter century now, been throughly gentrified, with the five-story brownstones that line its streets remodeled and turned into fashionable but oh-so-expensive apartments occupied mainly by the rising stars of the trading houses on nearby Wall Street. But in the late nineteenth through mid twentieth centuries, this place was among the most poverty-ridden slums in the nation; these same brownstones were occupied almost exclusively by penniless immigrants fresh off the boat, many of whom had come through Ellis Island with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Here they toiled in backbreaking and often terribly hazardous conditions. Some (including more than one of my own ancestors) dug the subway tunnels under the city with shovels or moved rock with their bare hands, others labored in sweatshops where fourteen to sixteen hour days, six or even seven days a week, were the norm. Many were crippled, maimed, or killed in accidents like the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911, in which 146 workers, mostly women, burned alive or were crushed in a panicked stampede after a fire broke out at a garment factory and those inside found that the owners had locked the exits in an effort to keep them from taking unauthorized breaks. After their long days of work, the immigrant laborers came home to these tenements, which in those days were kept in a horribly dilapidated condition. The very poorest among them were consigned to the basement apartments, where they lived and slept in an inch or two of water that perennially covered the hard stone floors.

Those days are long past, but a bit of them is preserved at 97 Orchard Street, which the Tenement Museum Foundation acquired just as the neighborhood was beginning its turnaround in the 1980s. From 10AM to 6:30PM, seven days a week, it receives visitors who are given guided tours of apartments that have been carefully restored to look as they would have during the great wave of immigration that hit New York City in the 1880s through the 1920s. If you go there on a weekday during the off-season when the summer tourists are gone and things are slow, and if you show up early for your tour and find yourself sitting in the museum’s lobby with the chance to chat a bit with your guide before they start showing you through the exhibits, you may just end up being favored with hearing this story…

* * *

Sometime toward the tail end of the nineteenth century, a young immigrant by the name of Piotr found himself, after being processed through Ellis Island, lost and alone in the confusing bustle of Grand Central Station in New York City. Surrounding him was a madding crowd made up mostly of other immigrants from every conceivable end of Europe, few of whom spoke so much as a single word of English, and many of whom were illiterate even in their native languages. Interspersed among them, trying to bring some semblance of order to the perpetual chaos that the influx of immigrants had brought to Grand Central, were railway employees, whose job it was to make sure that the immigrants got on the right train – the one that would take them to whoever it was that had sponsored them on their journeys across the Atlantic. Sometimes the sponsors would be relatives, but most often they were employers whose desire for cheap labor was so insatiable that they contracted with agents in Europe who recruited directly from among the continent’s poor, providing them with sponsorships and passage to America in exchange for pledges to work a certain number of years for those who had sponsored them. Most of these agents were deeply dishonest and unscrupulous, telling their perspective recruits tales of streets paved with gold in the New World, and carefully avoiding any truths about sweatshops and tenements.

It was one of these agents who had recruited Piotr, a second son of a poor dairy farmer in some backwater of a Poland that, in those days, was still under the domination of the Russian Czar. At the port of Danzig, before his ship set sail for New York, the agency handed him a piece of wood with that had a bit of rope attached to it at both ends and a word he didn’t recognize written on it. This was the agency’s rather ingenious workaround for the problem of their recruits not having the basic English skills necessary to tell the railway men in New York where they were supposed to be going – it was a sign that they were supposed to wear around their necks when they arrived that had the name of their destination painted on it in large lettering. Now, ten days later and an ocean away, Piotr stood in the chaos of Grand Central Station with the sign dutifully hung around his neck.

Eventually, he managed to fight his way through the crush to one of the railway employees, an annoyed, busy man whose patience with the immigrants who had brought unceasing disorder to his station was running noticeably short. The railman, who simply didn’t have the time to spend more than a few seconds with each one of the newcomers swarming around him, took a quick glance at the sign around Piotr’s neck and pointed him toward a departing train. In the confusion, nobody even stopped to check whether he had a ticket before he boarded (sponsors usually paid fares upon the arrival of their new laborers, so there wasn’t much point in looking at their ticket before they got to their destinations anyway). Everyone seemed satisfied by the fact that he was going where his sign said he should, though Piotr himself had never before even heard of the place whose name was painted on it – a place called Houston.

For three long days, the train rumbled along; through the Mid-Atlantic states, through the Tidewater, through the deep south, and on into Texas. Finally, the exhausting ordeal came to an end when the conductor shook Piotr awake and guided him off the train. Having arrived at his new home, he walked inside the Houston & Texas Central Railway depot to wait for his sponsor to come for him.

He waited all day, and then all night, sleeping fitfully on one of the depot’s wooden benches. Then he waited all the next day, and all the next night as well. By the end of Piotr’s third day there (and with no one having come to pay for his train fare), the station master knew that something had gone wrong. Unable to communicate with the young man and unable to find anyone who knew anything about him or how he had gotten there, the station master eventually summoned the sheriff. The sheriff, who was equally unable to make any sense of the situation, took Piotr off to jail, ostensibly on a charge of vagrancy, but more than anything simply because the jail had a bed for him to sleep in and food for him to eat until someone could figure out where he had come from and what to do with him.

For several days, the sheriff made inquiries, but turned up nothing – nobody seemed to be missing an immigrant or to know who might be missing one. Though Houston is now a vast metropolis, it was in those days a small, sleepy country city – a cow town where everyone knew everyone, surrounded by vast cattle ranches. It didn’t take long before anyone who might know anything had been asked, and every possible route of inquiry had come up dry. The sheriff knew that he couldn’t keep Piotr in jail forever, nor did he wish to, as the young man seemed like a decent enough sort of lad. Unable to think of anything else to do with him, the sheriff started asking around to see if any of the local ranchers would take him on as a hired hand. After a bit of good-natured cajoling, one of them – an old friend of the sheriff – agreed to it. The next morning, a wagon arrived to take the still-confused Piotr away to his new life on the ranch.

As soon as he arrived, his eyes lit up with a combination of joy and relief. Finally, there was something in America that he was comfortable with! He might not have known much about his new country or even known a word of its language, but if there was one thing he did know from growing up on a dairy farm, it was cows. Even his lack of English proved not to be as great a problem as the rancher feared, as Piotr needed hardly any instruction in his duties at all. Beyond this, he was responsible and hardworking; unlike the other cowboys, he didn’t spend his nights getting drunk or his days off down at the local whorehouse or gambling den, and so he was neither perpetually hung over nor perpetually broke. As he slowly but surely became fluent in English, he became more and more useful, and the rancher steadily promoted him to higher (and better paid) positions. And if Piotr had successfully caught the boss’s eye, eventually the gentle and industrious young man began to catch the eye of the boss’s eldest daughter, as well; with the rancher’s blessing, a romance blossomed between them.

Years passed, and the newcomer’s fortunes continued to rise. He became a trusted employee, then a friend, and finally part of the family; courtship turned to marriage, and in time, the ranch passed to Piotr and his wife. Under their direction, the ranch became more prosperous than ever. From the humblest of beginnings, the immigrant who had arrived with nothing came to be wealthy, respected, and a pillar of his community – he had found the American Dream in his adoptive home.

Yet contented as he was, there was still one thing that had never stopped bothering him over the years – the mystery behind the chain of events that had brought him to the ranch in the first place. No one in Houston had ever been able to come up with any explanations – as far as the Texans were concerned, he had simply appeared out of nowhere one day. And so, decades after he had passed through it on his way to his new life, Piotr, now wealthy enough to afford the trip and fluent enough to understand whatever documents he might uncover, set out, with his wife and a couple of his older children in tow, for New York City, to see if he could find out what had happened all those many years ago. While his family enjoyed the delights of shopping and dining on Fifth Avenue, Piotr returned to Ellis Island, spending his days digging through file cabinets full of dusty, yellowed old papers. After a few frustrating, long days of searching, he finally found what he was looking for.

His sponsor had been one the the garment sweatshops that operated in lower Manhattan, and the sign that he carried was meant to send him to Houston Street, not to Houston, Texas. In the crush and chaos of Grand Central Station, the overworked railway employee who never bothered to look at his papers had hastily pointed Piotr toward the wrong train. He was never meant to go where he had gone at all, and, if not for a quirk of fate, would have ended up in a life of crushing poverty in the slums of New York, working fourteen-hour days for pennies in horrifying conditions in someplace very much like the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, and living in misery in a tenement very much like what 97 Orchard Street looked like in those days, most probably even sleeping in an inch of water in a dark and moldy basement apartment.

Piotr returned to the big, comfortable house on his ranch in the wide-open plains of Texas very happy indeed for quirks of fate, and determined never to return to New York City, lest an elderly garment factory owner somewhere south of Houston Street find out who he was and attempt to sue him for the cost of a steerage class ticket from Danzig to New York.

And he lived happily ever after, y’all.

* * *

This seems as good a way as any to start a series of essays on the topic of the advantages of us all seeking our fortunes in the country rather than in the big cities. Expect more in this series to be coming soon.

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Follow The Lady

A recent episode of an alt-right podcast to which I am a subscriber turned to a discussion of high-trust societies versus low-trust societies. The upshot of the discussion seemed to be that high-trust societies are not only the natural state of Western man, but essentially an unalloyed good. It is, so they seemed to say, only lesser peoples from cruder societies who fail to build high social trust; their societies are worse because of it, and their people incompatible with our better, more advanced social structures.

Perhaps. And yet, whether I wanted it or not, I found something nagging at me from deep with my consciousness; something that told me that there were flaws with seeing high trust as an absolute good, to be aspired to by all men of acute sensibility and good intent. Not a philosophical argument; no, a memory. One from long past – cold, as all old memories are, but clear…

* * *

New York City, January 1986

It was a blistering cold day under a crystal clear blue sky as I made my way through Washington Square Park, headed southeast towards Broadway. Cold as it was, my thick winter coat – a full-length one that went all the way to my knees, still my favorite of all the winter coats I’ve ever owned – kept me well-protected as I wound my way past the park’s great central fountain, past the statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, and out onto West 4th Street. This was the old, rough New York of the pre-Giuliani days – the fountains had been dry for years; the statue’s base was covered in graffiti and Garibaldi himself was caked in birdshit that no one had bothered cleaning off in ages. As I passed Mercer Street, I saw a disheveled black bum, with a crazy look in his eyes and his pants down around his ankles, loudly straining as, in broad daylight on a crowded street, he defecated in the doorway of one of the buildings of New York University. In those days of the old, rough New York, the cops didn’t care, and everybody simply pretended not to notice.

I pretended not to notice, too. What would I have done about it? I was alone, and twelve years old, wandering through the great city. This was something my father not only allowed, but encouraged. We would come into the city, and he would turn me loose for hours upon end, to explore by myself while he did other things. This was before cell phones, so I couldn’t easily contact anyone if I needed to. I was expected to simply be cagey and street smart enough to get by, and so I was; it was supposed to make me independent and self-reliant, and so it did. We had a time and a place to meet, and if that failed an alternate time and place, and if that failed, I knew how to get to my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn on the subway. I had a little money in my pocket, and a little more tucked into my sock. This was “mugger money” – if someone tried to rob me, I could give him what was in my pocket, and the money secreted in my sock would still be enough to get home with. You had to be ready for anything.

Someplace around where Broadway meets East Houston Street (that’s pronounced “How-ston” – if you pronounce it “Hew-ston” everyone will know you’re a tourist) I came upon a small crowd gathered around two sets of buskers. The first, a troupe of breakdancers whirling crazily on a mat made of old cardboard boxes, held no interest for me, and I quickly passed them by. But the second made me stop and look, for it was a genuine sidewalk game of Three-Card Monte.

Three-Card Monte is a simple game of chance in which three cards, one a queen (of any suit, it doesn’t matter which) are placed side by side, face down, on a small table. The dealer then quickly moves the cards around for a few seconds to randomize which one is where. If the player is able to follow the movements of the queen and correctly pick it out after the dealer is done, he wins. If not, he loses. A simple game of luck and skill – if played honestly. Which it never is, especially not on a sidewalk in lower Manhattan.

I gently pushed through the small crowd, close enough to see the table (actually three cardboard boxes stacked on one another), but not close enough to be mistaken for someone who wanted to play. The dealer was a young black man in a Yankees cap; personable, charming, funny, smiling a lot. Behind him were two more such young men, similarly dressed. All wore nice running shoes as well. The player was an older black lady of maybe 70 years, nicely dressed, and doing very well indeed. She had won the first game and lost the second. This next one, she said, was going to be her last for the day.

The dealer turned the cards face-up. He pointed at the queen, to demonstrate to all that she was indeed there. He turned the cards over, and, with lightning quickness, began moving them, chanting as he did:

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

When he stopped, the old woman extended her arm to point at the center card, but then paused, grimaced intently, looked at the dealer, and pointed to the card on the right. A winner again!

But of course she won – she was a shill. In a typical game, there are five or six shills – apparent onlookers who are in league with the dealer and assigned various jobs to help him out – sprinkled about the crowd. For example, there would be a lookout or two who would alert the dealer if a cop was coming, in which case he would make use of those running shoes, leaving the cop with nothing but a stack of cardboard boxes to inspect. There would be the “winner” – someone as respectable-looking as they could come up with – whose victories would convince the marks in the crowd that the game could be won. And there would be security, here represented by the young men standing behind the dealer, who would intervene in case a mark who lost a game got physical. Such labor was cheap and plentiful in the ghetto, which was where the entire crew lived, though we were a long subway ride away from it. All of them were, of course, on welfare and unemployed, which left their days free for pursuits such as these. Yes, food stamps covered necessities, but a bit of cash was always useful. After all, liquor stores didn’t take food stamps, nor could they be used for cigarettes, lotto tickets, marijuana, prostitutes, or (at least in those days; perhaps it is different now) expensive running shoes.

The old woman had done her job, and receded into invisibility in the crowd.

“Come on now, who’s next?! I can’t go home broke!!” the dealer cheerfully yelled.

Out of the crowd stepped a young white man of perhaps twenty-five years. In an accent that suggested an origin in the less wealthy end of Europe, he said “Alright, I’ll giff it a try”.

The dealer smiled broadly, doubtless already imagining the filled pipe and 40 of malt liquor that he was going to buy that evening with the mark’s hard-earned money.

“Come on up, mah friend, come on up!”

The mark came on up. The procedure was repeated. The queen was presented, the cards placed face-down, and the dealer’s hands began to move.

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Almost imperceptibly, one of the security men gave a nod in the direction of the breakdancers. I couldn’t see what move they pulled, but it was enough to get a loud cheer from the crowd that surrounded them. For a split second, everyone looked away – the mark, the crowd around our table, the shills – everyone except the dealer. And me, as I knew what was coming next. As quick as lightning, one of the cards on the table went up the dealer’s loose, long sleeves, and another card, drawn from the sleeve, replaced it. It happened so fast that, even knowing it was coming, I almost didn’t see it happen. The mark, distracted for a split second, didn’t see it at all.

Now it didn’t matter which card he picked. The lady wasn’t anywhere on the table. He chose. He lost.

It was as the dealer magnanimously offered to let the mark win his money back that I finally spotted the remaining members of the crew of shills. A thin young man who had been standing to the side of the crowd came up behind one of the onlookers, a companion of the mark who was playing the game. There was an ever-so-light brushing up of one against the other, and in a flash, the onlooker’s wallet went from the back pocket of his pants into the front pocket of the thin young man’s jacket. This was the final bit of revenue enhancement for the crew, and probably just as lucrative as the game itself. On a good day, they might lift half a dozen wallets, or maybe even more.

But not mine. There was more than one reason I liked that heavy, knee-length coat.

The thin young man casually but quickly made his way towards the old woman who had won the first game I had seen, and who was still in the crowd. The stolen wallet dropped into the large tote bag she was carrying. This part was key – get the wallet off the pickpocket as quickly as possible; that way, if the victim noticed that his wallet was missing and confronted the person who had just bumped into him (or worse, managed to summon a passing cop), the thief wouldn’t have anything incriminating on him.

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Two more games were played – both with distractions appearing at the appropriate times, and both lost by the mark. A couple more wallets were lifted. The crew was having a good day.

If my father meant for me to learn from experiences, I can say without doubt that, at least that day, he succeeded. As I observed the Three-Card Monte crew, it occurred to me that everything there was a fraud, a cheat, and a theft, and that everyone there was complicit. Even the marks, with their desire to make a quick something for nothing, were not blameless. And, in my silence as I watched them get cheated and robbed, neither even was I. There was much to be learned from that.

A loud whistle came from somewhere just beyond the crowd. I turned to look, and almost before I could snap my head back towards the game, the dealer and his security men were gone. It was a signal from one of the lookouts; as the crowd quickly broke up I could see two of New York’s Finest slowly lumbering their way north up Broadway. If they had spotted the game, they were in no rush to get to it, but one way or another they would be where we were very soon. The show was over, and, like everyone else, I turned to go.

I hadn’t made it more than twenty or thirty feet before I heard a loud voice behind me, in an accent that suggested an origin in the less wealthy end of Europe, shout: “Vhere de fuck is my vallet?!”

* * *

And what is it, dear reader, that you might believe is all on the up-and-up?

Do you believe that your government represents your interests; that it works tirelessly to address your concerns and solve the problems in your life?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that judges of the Supreme Court really decide matters on what the Constitution says about them, regardless of any personally-held ideology?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that the common man is independent-minded, full of republican virtue, and can organize in order to exercise the wisdom of crowds?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that the news media are impartial watchdogs who bring you the objective truth, free from distortion or biases?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that Hollywood has no political agenda, and exists only to produce art and entertainment that bring happiness to the masses?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that if you saw it on TV, or read it in the newspaper, it must be true?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that the schools and universities really have as their primary mission the sacred trust of educating your children in order to make them into productive and responsible citizens of a free republic?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that going to college makes you smart; that it necessarily makes someone who has gone through it an authority worth listening to on anything?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that scientists are all followers of pure rationality with no hidden interests – financial, emotional, or ideological?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that the people in charge of things at the highest level of economic activity – in Washington, on Wall Street, at banks and investment houses – are really wise and farsighted stewards of your money rather than easily-spooked, trend-following grifters going for the short buck at all costs?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that everyone – all individuals, and all groups of people – are really equal?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that our ancestors were all fools and that we, outside of the single area of being able to produce wondrous machines, are smarter or wiser than they?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

* * *

So what have I learned from my experiences?

I’ve learned that trust either flows in both directions, or it isn’t trust – it’s just being a mark.

I’ve learned that trust should be like the money on the dealer’s table – hard to earn and easy to lose.

I’ve learned that nobody is an easier mark than someone who thinks they’re going to get something for nothing.

I’ve learned that only fools play rigged games, or play them at all without knowing for sure whether or not they are rigged.

I’ve learned that appearances are not only deceiving, but they are often meant to deceive; designed intentionally to deceive.

I’ve learned to see things for what they really are rather than what I wish them to be; to judge them by what they actually deliver rather than what they promise.

I’ve learned to assume that everything is a fake, a phony, and a fraud, and that everyone is a cheat, a shill, or a snake-oil salesman until I know for sure otherwise.

* * *

So with apologies to the hosts of that podcast, I cannot agree with the belief that a high-trust society is really so good or desirable a thing. It is too easily left at the mercies of unscrupulous people who for whatever reason (personal enrichment, ideology, envy, or perhaps just plain evil) will take advantage of that high trust and use it as a weapon. Some may see a high level of societal trust as the sign of a people who are noble or honorable, but within my cynic’s heart, I can only see it as the sign of a people who are a bunch of marks, soon to find themselves shouting: “Vhere de fuck is my vallet?!”

So do yourself a favor and heed my advice, dear reader – take care, know what’s what, and don’t allow yourself to think like a mark even if everyone around you does.