By June snow and freezing temperatures were no more, but the flowering trees and grass were caught in a sudden reversal--freezing spring rains--an ice storm, the kind that contributed a nasty, last surge of the season to glaciers.
The fresh water barrel behind de Wordt house had completely iced over. On top a doomed mouse struggled weakly, pinned by its tiny feet. The limbs of the old crab in front of the barn had been iced into an umbrella of crystalline beauty. Its blossoms shimmered with silver and violet for anyone with eyes to appreciate it, but it was wasted on New Alkmaar.
Ice water dripped on Pieter when he later sat down on his old childhood swing a moment. His whole body ran with hot perspiration and icy run-off from his grandfather's favorite tree.
"Pieterzoon, come in and lie down like the doctor ordered," his scandalized mother called from the back door of the house. "Ye'll catch the English gout for sure!"
Anything English was considered sheer death in those parts. Her pity for a doomed child then flowed once again and began to freeze on her filthy apron. "You'll surely fall somethin’ nasty and get the English gout," she repeated, "and I'll lose ye too."
It was the blanket name for the most common killers in the Ways. Workers were always stepping on rusty nails or cutting themselves and becoming infected or poisoned or losing a limb, eye, or at least a couple toes or fingers. English gout covered a whole gamut of deadly things modern medicine could no longer control. The back bedrooms of the town were full of dying wrecks of men, gangrenous, lock-jawed, and poisoned in their blood.
Yet, if she thought stark fear might persuade, it utterly failed to turn her stubborn son.
"No, I've got to keep practicin'," he told her, trying not to shout at her like he often did because she was behaving so weak and spineless.
"The house is too small for me to practice. And I'm doin' it in order to get a real man's job this time around!"
His mother stared at him a moment aghast. So that was it! she realized. A job in his condition? Then she struck her worry-knotted forehead with her fist and began to laugh and laugh, holding her apron up over her face.
His face prickling, Pieter couldn't help staring at her with anger. How he hated it when people laughed at him! He could almost murder someone when they did that.
Finally, her cackle dying in her thin, knotted throat, Pieter's mother turned and the door shut. For some time there was nothing but the sound of dripping and tinkling ice and the banging of pans in the kitchen and the sound of the wood stove being stoked blended with Pieter's hard breathing and noisy clumping about in the messy ice and mud.
One day about a week after the conversation in the orchard, young de Wordt ventured out into the public street. He kept going, despite the stares of passers-by and the persecution of little boys. "Where ye be goin', crip?" they laughed, pelting him with stone-hard clods of mud.
Pieter was old enough to know they meant nothing by it even after one mudball smashed into his face. But just the same he gritted his teeth with the worse hurt of human words.
It was the strangest thing New Alkmaar had ever seen--half a boy hobbling determinedly down the road toward the Ways on his pitiful stumps. Sweat poured from his face as he struggled toward the old gristmill, swallowing pride every step of the way.
When he returned home late in the day, the clammy, fingery mist of the canal was catching at his garments as he dodged snowballs in vain. Once inside the house, he gasped for breath, collapsed on a chair, his clothes puffing gray-blue dust, then told his mother he had been given work--if not exactly a man's work.
At the glad news, his mother's mouth opened as she stared at him, but no sound came out. Her bony fingers clutched at an apron turned nearly black from the wintered-over, half-rotten turnips and cabbages she had been cleaning at the sink.
"Work! I got work, woman! " Pieter had to repeat before she found her wits again. And he tried to tell her how it happened. After his falling out with the manager, even with his stout good Dutch heart he had hated going to Horst. Thought of him and his mother starving, however, drove him over the edge.
Amazingly, after he asked for work, old Leadbelly turned out to be the most sympathetic. The other men stood around and most laughed at the pathetic creature that was Pieter. Even the one that had once defended him to Horst shook his head as if he weren't worth taking on.
But not Horst. He thrust out that belly a monstrous notch, meaning he had a word to speak and they better listen up if they wanted to keep their miserable existences. "So you're man enough to admit your mistake, as well as stand up to me. I like your spunk, boy!" Horst had declared. He clapped a bearish hand on Pieter's wincing, bed-softened shoulder, who really hadn't gone so far as to admit any such "mistake." "We need his type around here, don't we, chums?"
Horst wasn't through, by any means. He turned and glared through narrowed, mean slits at the men who had laughed at Pieter's application for work.
"Remember, all you horse butts, it could happen to you too. Treat him like the next guy! Or answer to mine lallapalooza! And, by the way, I'm reducin' you all some hours startin' next week--got to cut back some more, old van Tootle tell me the udder day. Demand for blue meal goin’ down."
There was general groan, mixed with some protest Leadbelly quickly nipped in the bud. Having had his say, the manager thrust out his stupendous gut and the men wisely shrank back to a safe distance. And that was as far as the revolt went. Everyone knew there were no other jobs. Pieter, just as wisely, kept his Dutch mouth shut and let his good fortune happen.
After a couple hours he was certain he would weaken in resolve and drop in a pile of rat droppings. But he didn't expire. Instead, he proved he could still sweep and rat-catch and number bags of flour leaving the mill. It was very hard for him still. Even as he saw he could do the work, he felt the old frustration seep back. It was like an abscess of “English gout” opened up, draining something dark and bitter into heart and soul as months passed and nothing seemed to have changed, except that life had gotten a lot harder.
Once his mother found him standing behind the door in the first snow of the year instead of coming in. He had been banging his head against the paint-blistered frame. There were two long wet streaks on his unwashed, bluecorn-dusted face and down his neck. He turned a despairing look upon his mother, which could have melted stone.
When she got him inside and stripped off his shirt, she saw what he had been hiding, too proud to show anyone. Huge blisters, angry and red like boils, had developed where the tops of his crutches rubbed his underarms. "O my son, I see ye's hurtin' bad. Horst is pushin' ye too hard! way too hard!"
Despite her own sorry state, his mother thus tried to comfort him--with ill effect. The well-meaning , awkward van de Wordts were never over-generous with human emotion. When expressed it seemed to come most woodenly, from poor actors scared stiff by the audience.
"'Tis a an affliction worthy of a grown man, to be sure!" the broken-down parent observed and wrung her hands. "Your father would be proud of ye! Can I get ye anything? A poultice of bread and milk in a nice, clean rag to lay by the worst of it?"
But Pieter had had enough of her messy ministrations. She sickened him. Besides, they didn't have any bread and milk. His moment of weakness was over. "Aw, leave me be! Ye better not be goin' to the neighbors beggin' so you can be puttin' anything on it! It'll be better in the mornin'!"
With her angry son gone to work, his mother slumped down on a chair in the midst of a filthy kitchen floor and did nothing for long hours. No longer minding her sink and apron either, Mrs. van de Wordt had not gotten over her husband's death, which had unstrung something in her.
She wouldn't take enough food to keep her body alive either. She might have hacked down the tree seedlings and kept up the garden, but she let it go and Pieter was too tired from work to do anything in it.
Then seeming disaster struck. At the end of November, Tootle's gristmill shut down for lack of orders from New Amsterdam's bakeries and pastry shops. Holland American blue corn meal--the main ingredient of common people’s bread--was no longer wanted. It simply didn’t pay for the effort anymore to grind it and ship it to the city and bake. They were ordering white flour direct from South America and catering to the deep-pocketed rich who could well afford it.
Carrying the bad news, Pieter struggled home after his last shift and found the house freezing and empty. It was usually cold, but not empty. He didn't know at first what to make of it. Being so tired and sleepy, he could not think straight. He collapsed finally on flour sacking and slept in dirty, chaff-clogged clothes. Later, with a start, he leaped from the bed, despite having no real legs to land on.
With others to help look, she turned up. It happened a lot in New Alkmaar. Perhaps gathering cattail tubers for supplementing cast-off flour-grit Pieter brought home, she had slipped and drowned in the canal. Perhaps. No one said anything to Pieter's face, even if such things happened too often to be coincidence in New Alkmaar.
Pieter, saying nothing either, even at the funeral, later gathered belongings in a knapsack, and without a glance back at the unlocked house, stumped off. He was leaving New Alkmaar and the mill forever.
Tears he had none. He had become a man and felt he was now free to spread what was left of his wings. Despite all he had suffered and endured, Dutch goodness still held its place in his universe. With his pluck and the goodness he knew was in people to do a fella a good turn when they could do it, he knew he could make it in the big city down river on the coast.
Pieter was now on his own at two years shy of twenty. That was an age when boys were men enough to take wives and try to start families. Whenever he thought about it in the hard times ahead, he thanked his "lucky stars" in his favorite constellation, the Prow of Argo, that he had not married. Others his age had already tied themselves down in jobs that weren’t going anywhere and would probably lose before long.
Though plain, hearth-hugging Dutch, something in him recoiled from the thought of lifelong drudgery and ending in poverty and illness in a back bedroom, unable to care for himself. He'd starve to death eventually if he stayed. Even if he could fall back on chopping wood for feeble old women and widows, it wouldn’t pay enough to keep him going. No, even if such a experience was natural and God-ordained, he had to get out while he still could!
The day he left New Alkmaar, it was in the grip of ice and snow. The house left as it was with no takers, he hobbled down the narrow, increasingly wooded canal-boat towpath toward New Amsterdam. He carried with him little grief for his parents. All he had, aside from some tiny savings from the gristmill and the shameful maiming it had given him for all his hard work, were a few memories of times spent fishing and talking with his grandfather.
He stopped in a street on the outskirts and stared and stared at the sights until people bumped into him, swore, and made him move on. Though Horst had warned him and slipped some coins in his coat pocket, he saw immediately big city life was worse than the manager tried to tell him. New Amsterdam was flooded with unemployed, dark rivers of them. Many were worthless, thieving sorts rightly called "grauw," or rabble, betting their pennies and half-pennies in numbers games But most were not scum. They were simple, uneducated, honest men from dead-end places like New Alkmaar seeking jobs. Seemingly, from the frantic looks on their faces and the despair in their eyes, they knew already their mistake.
That was where a Dutchman could go wrong--giving up too soon, Pieter thought. Life had a silver lining, he was sure of it, as only a youth of his type could be. Yet the silver lining in the cloud over New Amsterdam was not immediately discernible. There were plenty boys of Pieter's age to run errands and do odd jobs--boys called "gophers".
"Hey, boy, go fur--" this or that item, some loiterer on the street was ordered by a shopkeeper. Then when he returned, he might be thrown as much as a penny, depending on the size of the article or the hazards of getting it past coppers and racketeers.
Winter was the worst for those who sank and couldn’t get off the bottom. From September on to spring, every morning truck vans commissioned by the municipal fathers went round and picked up the weakest that had starved and frozen. The open-ended vans never rode empty for very long. Canals, rivers and sea lay handy close by, providing a quicker passage out for other unfortunates.
Yet with good wits, Pieter assumed he could match any boy his age, though he lacked speed and mobility. But what jobs could a young Dutchman get in the city?
Hanging about the wharves one day, hoping he might be picked to unload a barge or ship, he heard a couple of high-paid union stevedores talking, their conversation drifting out through a cracked window. Cosy enough in a two-man union shed with a big wood-burning stove, they were taking a two-hour lunch. Fishing huge meat and potato sandwiches out of lunch pails, the contents spilling from between thick slices of white bread, they jawed about a certain "eye-blink" of a canal town named New Alkmaar.
"Have ye ben in dat old pizzenpot, Alky Mare lately? Well, ah have an dat old mill, Van Tooter's, blessit, started up again after goin' bust in the blue meal trade," announced one authority. "So dat's a little more trade fur us atta dis end tho I sho nuff doun need da work! Why, 'count uv nobody vants da blue meal crap here, dey gonna ship it by air back to Nieuw Zeeland where de grows it! Let dem farmers an der hogs eat it! Dey grows it, doun dey? Only Van Tooters charges dem a much higher price cuz its ‘fine-milled.’ Now ain't dat smart?"
Someone else belched long and easy and put in his schuyler, or Dutch half-penny. "Ye ain't tellin me iny noose! Ah happin ta know da filthy rich, money-grubbin' furineer, a thievin' Red Coat no less, Clarkson, or Clarke by name, bought her up, ah heerd from anudder bargee!"
The last speech was produced from a mouth completely stuffed with bread, horse radish and garlic, for the fumes came to Pieter where he crouched beneath the window, making him gag, more from hunger than actual distaste.
The first, however, was not to be outdone by Garlic Mouth. He had the advantage of having barged in and out of New Alkmaar, and so he could go one better. "Yup, 'tis 'Clarke's Fine White Flours now! An mind ye, iny Limey knows how to make millions offa us po'r, honest Nederlanders! Den, once he's settin' pretty, he'll up and sell the day 'fore the mill dust catches from all dat rat-chawed blue corn meal dey can’t sell inymore and she blows sky-high. Ye knows how pow'ful dat stuff is!"
Pieter's ears burned at the news. But his mind was made up. "Let Van Tootle's blow! And the whole town with it!" he thought. After all, what had he ever gotten from New Alkmaar? Let them truckle to the rich!
Never, he vowed, would he return to a way of life that led into the murky canal! He was going to try the New Amsterdam rich, where they lived and worked! Surely, the rich had good hearts and would listen to him!
Pinkertons, who had little concern for boys looking for work on their beat, gave him the nod to tell him they'd run him off if he hung around too long in their opinion. With that in mind, he was allowed to enter the district of Van Gramercy Park mansions and other wealthy districts around fashionable Herrengracht (Gentlemen Burghers Canal) where he knocked on doors asking for a shovel so he could do clear their walks and patios of ice and snow. That, he found, was work their gardeners did. And he was laughed at when he asked about domestic work in the house. He was just too crippled up, thus impossibly "unsightly," people thought.
Plenty of papers were being sold everyday, at factories, City Hall and the Police Department, the Wall Street market, the Capitol, musical comedy theaters, not to mention the most thriving part of the capital-- "Little London"--like the rollicking metropolis off the sea a sin city of illegal speakeasies, Gypsy fortunetellers, tattoo parlors, cock fight pits, casinos and dives of the numbers racket.
Turned out at daybreak by kerchief-hatted women wielding mops and buckets of dirty canal water, he roamed the streets. He was looking for the pot at the end of the rainbow: a paper-selling job. But money was running out. He had to pay rent for a night bed and the few scanty meals he begrudged himself. Outside City Hall there was such a hubbub of boys hawking papers and doing numbers he could hardly hear himself. He was trying to get one of them to speak to him. Instead they cursed him and jeered at his makeshift legs. "Git along wit ye!" they shouted, guarding their spots between the huge, soot-blackened pillars. "No crip like ye is gwan tuh take a job offa us union gents!"
He could get nowhere with them. Tired of their abusing him, he turned to go. One boy, really a nasty old dwarf with one eye and teeth kicked out, caught him off guard and pushed him to the ground before he could go. That was apparently a sort of signal for the others to fall on him. "Kill da English bugga!" cried the dwarf leading the pack. “ Do ye duty to yer countree!
Pieter was fortunate a truck of rifle-mounted Pinkertons, hired to patrol the business districts and shoot grauw if necessary, passed at that moment. They distracted his attackers, or he would have been thrashed senseless and thrown in a canal for "presumin'" on the highly exclusive paperboy guild. "Hey, move on there, you no-good scallawags!" commanded a Pinkerton officer swinging a shiny, black truncheon that had cracked many a hapless skull.
Suddenly, the murderous crowd melted away as if it had never been. It was most amazing--a magician's optical trick and sleight of hand, as if Pieter had never happened. But he had happened.
"Awwwwh!" the cause of the disturbance moaned to himself, his breath kicked clean out. Retrieving his precious wings first, Pieter staggered to a safe place blocks away from the cut-throat dwarf and his gang.
"What am I going to do now?" Pieter muttered to himself, his gasps coming and going in painful spasms. He realized he needed to sit down and collect his thoughts. A bench stood right in front of him by the Roses Canal, but though he glanced at it he went and sat on the filthy snow. People stared at him as they passed, and he did not seem to notice them, even when they saw his crippled condition and a couple coins--tin schuylers--were thrown down.
Pieter paid no attention.
"Ah means youse, Blondie!"
Pieter turned around.
An old man, it seemed, had taken notice of Pieter's plight and edged in closer. The drifter was not unknown to him. Pieter had seen him, off to one side or other, hanging about as he went about looking for a job. Pieter took a good look at the man. With a stocking cap pulled low, a greasy, dark-green scarf was wrapped around his neck and chin--typical of the common run of grauw. That left only the nose and eyes free as he leaned into Pieter's face.
He munched on a half-spoiled bulb of elephant garlic. Pieter almost reeled from the man's breath and was about to turn away but stopped. He recalled he had seen the old man recently doing something. Yes, he had seen him giving a penny to a starving, old woman of the streets. And he had given out other pennies as well to starving creatures after they whispered grateful words in his ear. Obviously, he had a good heart. That made Pieter listen when the old one finally spit out what he had come to say.
"Ye can't earns your livin's here like youse ben doin', bub," said the old man. He drooled out his words over blackened teeth and the dirty scarf. "Ye sooner starves an' ends up in thet stunken Princes Canal odder dere!"
The old man began to cackle, pointing to the garbage-filled, brackish stream that had once been part of a pristine Central Park lake. The canal ran to the terminus of the city's most moneyed district, though here, amidst the worst part of the New City, there was no sign of fashion and wealth or any indication there ever would be. "Yess'm, Old Goatley, they's calls me," he introduced himself, smiling brokenly with gums and missing teeth.
Pieter watched, eyes widening. The old man didn't waste any time proving himself. He swung ragged limbs and scarecrow body about in a crazy dance before passers-by that a doctor might have diagnosed as delirium tremors. It was the strangest, craziest jig Pieter had ever witnessed, though as timeless a ruse as the pyramids. But it worked. It caught people's attention. Most could not believe their eyes.
After a time a big dressy gentleman in black bowler and beaver overcoat came sauntering by, a somewhat fat, fox-eyed throw-back to the platinum-blond gangland moll of the Roaring 20’s on his arm. The dogtrack owner paused to guffaw, then threw down a penny. The old scarecrow leaped on it in an instant, cawing like the fowl he resembled.
Crowing his success, the old man returned to Pieter's side. They became partners on the spot, in a little gambit of the old man's suggestion. Desperate to get anything that might put bread in his mouth and a bed under him at night, Pieter took him up immediately.
So Pieter gritted his teeth and begged from street to street, wherever Old Goatley, looking like "King of the Grauw," led. Teamed, with the old derelict's St. Vitus' dance and Pieter's horribly maimed limbs, they provided just enough spectacle to turn the dull, sullen apathy of crowds. This was a considerable feat. Most of the people who "coughed up" were not much better off than they were. With luck they each earned enough for a meal a day and a flea-infested cot at night.
At musical comedy theaters, they did better among free-spending youth--pampered sons and daughters of well-off gentlemen burghers. But it was hard to get in and get out before the Pinkertons descended. The guards liked to run Pieter and Old Goatley off just before they leaped to collect coins thrown at them.
He once or twice tried to catch Old Goatley up at his game. He would turn suddenly when he felt his eyes upon his back. But he never turned quickly enough. Old Goatley wasn't looking at him then, and Pieter felt ashamed of himself for mistrusting his partner.
Lastly, he loathed himself for having to live by turning grauw and begging. That was something the grauw, the shiftless rabble, did without a qualm. "Nice work if you can't get it!" seemed to be their motto. Any money they could steal or beg, they used to play the numbers racket. He couldn't understand their attitude. Life held more promise than they gave it credit. He wanted an honest man's work or nothing! And Old Goatley had hinted around once or twice to Peter about "Youse scratchee my back an meese scratchee yer back" and "Nice work, lookie-lookie, fur youse if ye is up to it, bein' so ye ain't so flush right now."
Whatever it was, Pieter wasn't sure Old Goatley's "lookie-lookie" or his "scratchee-scratchee" was for him, partner that he was. So, though feeling a little guilty about not telling, he moved quickly. He slipped away to another quarter of the town where he thought he could melt in the crowds of New Amsterdam's unemployed and homeless. For five cents he took a bed at a brick, three-story flophouse on Chatham Street called Waldorf-Astoria. The locale, hard by a defunct triborough bridge and penny steamer docks, was busy enough to furnish the pedestrians, horses and cars which Pieter needed to maintain big city anonymity.