Monday, October 20, 2014

General Slocum in the Tempus Fugit.

Two views of the General Slocum. 235-feet long, She was built in 1891 of white oak and yellow pine.
Even though I was slated to get up at 6AM on Sunday morning to take Whiskey up to Rye for her twice-weekly romp in the sea, I instead woke at 3:30. I was unable to fall back to sleep, so I quickly got dressed and did what I do. I headed the mile or so up to the Tempus Fugit for a cold one or two or three—a way of passing the hours until it was time to swim in the Sound.

We entered the bar and without even a hello, the bartender began his soliloquy.

“The General Slocum sank the day before James Joyce’s Bloomsday. June 15th, 1904 and Joyce wrote about it the next day.”

“Hullo to you, too,” I laughed, sitting on my usual stool. The bartender mechanically brought Whiskey a bowl of cold water and pulled me a Pike’s Ale, “the ALE that won for YALE.” He slid over a small wooden bowl of salted Spanish peanuts. I uttered by usual expression of demurral, “A pound in every nut,” and we began our early-morning academy.

'A small gin, sir. Yes, sir. Terrible affair that General Slocum explosion. Terrible, terrible! A thousand casualties. And heartrending scenes. Men trampling down women and children. Most brutal thing. What do they say was the cause? Spontaneous combustion: most scandalous revelation. Not a single lifeboat would float and the firehose all burst. What I can't understand is how the inspectors ever allowed a boat like that... Now you are talking straight, Mr Crimmins. You know why? Palmoil. Is that a fact? Without a doubt. Well now, look at that. And America they say is the land of the free. I thought we were bad here.'

“That’s Joyce, from ‘Ulysses’” he continued “And except for the small gin, it corroborates with all the accounts I’ve heard of the General Slocum. And I think I’ve heard them all.”

“If my nickel-knowledge of New York serves, almost as many people died on the General Slocum as died on the Titanic just eight years later."

"It was the largest single-day of death in the City's history up until September 11th, 2001," he continued. "Mostly poor German immigrants from the Lower East Side. Going to a church picnic. It was a Wednesday and there were 1,300 Krauts on board, they were right down the street--East 90th Street, 200 yards from here in the East River when a fire broke out in the lamp room. About 1,100 died."

"You're somewhat morbid this morning."

"For years bodies would be found on all the islands in the East River, along 90th Street here, even as far-away as Long Island and Westchester.
Bodies washed ashore on North Brother Island.

"One-thousand bodies," I answered "is a lot for the sea to consume."

"In my early days here, back when this was a speakeasy, poor souls would straggle into the Tempus Fugit," he pulled me my second Pike's "after having made a pilgrimage to 90th and the river where their loved ones died. Most people today have forgotten."

"We have so much else to mourn," I said. "So much else to worry about. We have more things to 'Never Forget' than ever before."

Whiskey began stirring from her place on the floor. Maybe she saw a mouse. Or a ghost. I reached down and reassured her by petting her underneath her neck. She returned to sleep.

"Out in the Lutheran Cemetary in Middle Village, Queens, that's where many of the victims were buried. Then there's a fountain in Tompkins Square Park. Nine tall feet of pink marble. There's a boy and a girl etched in the marble, they're looking out to the sea. 'They were earth's purest children young and fair,' is inscribed on the marble."

"Young and fair. Like my kids," I said.

"Young and fair," he repeated.

I began to pay.

"Not today," he said. "Not in front of the children."

Whiskey and I walked the river-route home.

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