Podium: Online Literary Magazine > Issues > Issue 9 > Fiction > PROLOGUE: 1971 – 1972

 


 

 

Prologue: 1971–1972

Jim Parry
 


                           HOLEY                                450-TON MOLE
                          SCHIST!                               ESCAPES HOLE

                                  Giant tunnel boring                      Explanation for disappearance
                           machine "lost" in                          of giant water tunnel boring
                         Manhattan bedrock.                      machine doesn't hold water.


These might have been the headlines in the New York Daily News and the New York Post had news of the mole, like the mole itself, escaped in mid-August 1971, but the sandhogs’ drilling Water Tunnel Number 3, who discovered the absence of the mole (A.K.A. the TBM, the tunnel-boring machine), were too shocked and/or embarrassed to say anything soon in public. By the time several did, on a drunken night in Luca's Grotto in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, it was several months later. They were overheard by a twenty-something-kid bartender who told a friend who worked on an alternative newspaper in a more chi-chi part of the borough. The next day, this transgression came to the attention of kid's uncle, a forty-year-old semi-pro linebacker who had friends in Local 147 and, as a Marine, had had his self-control shredded three and a half years previous by mortars at Khe Sanh. The uncle informed his nephew, "Zip it the fuck up, Richie." So, to the reporter's follow-ups, Richie said, "Moles? I was talking about my sister Lucille. Has them in her garden in Bensonhurst. You want her phone number?"

That was the closest the story ever came to getting out. Thus the tabloids were deprived not only of their initial headlines but also of subsequent ones.

HUMUNGOUS MOLE          SUBTERRANEAN SUBTERFUGE:         800 FEET DOWN,
  OUTTA CONTROL!                    HOW WATER TUNNEL                     NYC TAXPAYERS
   HEADS TO ROLL!                 SCANDAL WAS LEAKED                      GET THE SHAFT!


Instead, that late summer and early fall, they had to make do with the Attica Prison riots, the opening of Disney World and the beginning of the Knapp Commission hearings on police corruption. Had the facts about the mole reached the public, they were these:

At 1:20 on the afternoon of Sunday, August 15, eight hundred feet below Second Avenue and 87th Street, Manhattan, a newbie, Sonny Tooher, got careless and was hit and killed by the engine of a train-hauling rock from behind the mole. This was tragic but not unexpected. On the subject of fatalities in tunneling, the motto was "One man per mile." But as his fellow sandhogs were removing Tooher's body from under the train, the walking boss, Conor McGrath, got into an argument with a city bureaucrat pencil-head who claimed they were taking too much time.

"You want to see time?!" yelled McGrath and ordered all eighty men, not just those taking the body to the surface, out of the tunnel. Backing McGrath, the leadership of 147 called a work stoppage. Like all unions, the sandhogs were worried because Nixon had, today, imposed wage and price controls. (Nixon had also, today, ended the direct convertibility of the U.S. dollar to gold, but the sandhogs didn't care about that.) The union grabbed the bureaucratic insult as an excuse to flex muscles; the swing shift, due to show up at three P.M., didn't show. The conflict wasn't resolved until shortly before midnight Tuesday when the pencil-head was dragged into the mayor's office and forced to voice a mea culpa and donate five hundred dollars to upgrade Tooher's coffin to mahogany.

When the day shift showed up at seven A.M. Wednesday, the mole was gone.

Just gone.

Purchased second-hand in Norway last year for eight million dollars, the mole had been disassembled, lowered beneath Manhattan and, over several months, reassembled. With twenty-seven 300-pound cutters mounted in a twenty-three-foot diameter rotating head – each cutter applied 700,000 pounds of pressure – the mole had been chewing about four feet of bedrock per hour. As it chewed, it swallowed. With the rumble of vile indigestion, crushed rock was carried through a conveyor-belt’s alimentary system within the seventy feet of machinery behind its head, and was excreted out its end. Inching beneath the sleek Upper East Side, the mole's body was a clattering collection of dumb industrial metal angrily trying to shake itself apart; nothing about it would have surprised the original sandhogs who dug the underwater caissons for the Brooklyn Bridge. There was no way the mole could start up on its own, no way it could keep going on its own and, if it somehow did, no way it could simply disappear.

But it had.

It wasn't under 87th Street nor anywhere else in the tunnel.

Perhaps, since the mole looked less like a mammal and more like a segmented insect, it had morphed into a butterfly and flown up the elevator shaft?

Assume, said the wasted but logical sandhogs at the bar in Luca's Grotto, the mole had been going ever since the tunnel was vacated around 2 P.M. Sunday. By 7 A.M. Wednesday it could have bored maybe 260 feet – "Hey, at the most a football field" – south, the direction it had been facing. But the rock face south of the mole's last position was untouched. As for the rock face on either side of that position...

In several places, there were piles of scree that no one could remember from 2 P.M. Sunday. But beyond the scree, the tunnel walls and floor were solid, untouched. So, no, the mole had not started up and somehow jackknifed itself and gone off at a right angle east or west, nor – an undulating dragon in a Chinese New Year celebration –tunneled down to join the Cultural Revolution. But if, in the few odd seconds of quiet that sometimes erupted amid the nearly continuous factory roar of activity in the tunnel, you cocked your head, you could hear...

To the north and west: a faint growl? Getting fainter as weeks passed.

Nah. Couldn't be. Nor could anyone have disassembled the mole and made off with it.

"TBM stands for Totally Bullshit Macabre," said Dan Antonelli, age twenty-nine. Seven years previous he had received a B.A. in English Lit from SUNY-Binghamton. "But," he told the neighborhood guys, "that piece of paper is, as the farmers up there say, as useful as tits on a bull." (Dan had no idea if the farmers said it; he said it to make clear he had not gone in-tel-leck-choo-al.) So he had followed his father into 147. Spared from Nam by his marriage and his two daughters, Dan now calculated how he might avoid a slower death. How many years of tunneling at thirty grand a year could he endure while silica dust, fine as powdered sugar, sifting into his lungs, scarred them? "TBM – Tooher's Black Magic," he said to his fellow sandhogs in Luca's, washing silica dust down his throat with another longneck. "To wherever the fuck the mole is now," he said, raising his bottle toward the cigarette-smoke-filled ceiling. A tall man, six-five, Dan worried not only about silica dust but also about refrigerator-size rocks breaking off the tunnel ceiling; he feared he would be hit first.

Draining the bottle, he set it down on the bar and announced, "Another dead soldier." Getting a sideways look from Lew Novak who had lost a brother at Da Nang, Dan quickly ordered another round, "on me." And hang the expense, thought Dan. Despite Nixon's moves in mid-August, inflation continued to, as the papers said, "rage." Half-drunk, Dan saw beer bottles decked with dollar signs, swelling, over-inflating like balloons in Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade next month. The bottles arranged themselves into a two-three zone, the basketball defense which Dan, power forward, had played in high school.

Fuck, thought Dan, I'm more than half-drunk

He offered his toast and bought the round in mid-October. This was when, after two months of tunneling the old-fashioned way, with dynamite, another TBM, purchased new at twelve million dollars, had arrived from Switzerland and was being reassembled in the tunnel. The next summer, when Dan Antonelli met the only celeb in his life, the new TBM had become accustomed to its new home, as the sandhogs worked behind it 24/7 – "The mole works fine, long as somebody's here to keep an eye on it," said McGrath sourly. Dan's marriage was working less well; to fix it he took off to Italy (Rome and Venice) for a week in early July with his wife. He also took some vague Italian and vaguer yearnings.

Dan discovered an affinity for Venice. A numerologist and a believer in conjunctions, he was struck by the fact that the great flood of six years ago had raised the city's water exactly six feet five inches. And he saw its canals as water tunnels brought to the surface. He particularly saw them this way when drinking.

Another affinity grew on him. His last night in Venice, drunk, Dan pondered Ezra Pound. At SUNY-Binghamton, Dan had been subjected to, and never understood, some of The Cantos. His professor, a slight middle-aged man, would don poetry like a military greatcoat and in a thin voice assume its power. "Shit on the throne of England! Shit on the Austrian sofa!" – trying to shock the sophomore Jewish princesses from Long Island who were far tougher than the prof could imagine. "Pus was in Spain! Wellington was a Jew's pimp! 'Leave the Duke, Go for gold.'" Whaa? Wondered Dan. But he knew this: Pound was a fellow numerologist. And a monetary crank. Praising a Chinese method of counting cycles of eighty years, Pound had noted it was eighty years from the founding of the Bank of England to the American Revolution and another eighty to "the great betrayal," the 1863 U.S. law that established a system of national charters for banks. Ditching his wife at their hotel, Dan went searching. "I wanna see Ez," declared the sandhog to Olga Rudge, Pound's one-time lover and now companion and caretaker, at the door of their house on Calle Querini.

"So does everybody and their brother," said seventy-seven-year-old Miss Rudge. She had a British accent and the snoot of a proper Bostonian, totally bogus as she had been born in Youngstown, Ohio. "We get would-be biographers who say they want to 'tell both sides.' What both sides? Ezra is not a pancake!" "I'm not a biographer," said Dan. "I just wanna see – " "Ah, another hippie who loves the master's work," mocked Miss Rudge, seriously misjudging the sandhog. "Quote a line of any of his poems," she said, "and maybe." "Something about shit," slurred Dan. "Shit pus Jew pimp gold. But I know something better'n that. I know what happened way, way down beneath Manhattan the day that Nixon took America off the gold standard."

So the fierce-faced, grizzled monument, whose poetry reviled the sacralization of gold even more than it did Jews, came downstairs. He was a boulevardier in stylish blue wool suit, tan V-necked sweater, bright solid-yellow tie – like gold. Thumping on a cane, he walked with Dan along the Guidecca Canal. "Gold is an opaque metal which stops the light," Pound informed Dan, "whereas light should be allowed to flow. A system based on gold is a system determined monolithically – everything is fixed against gold. It is no accident that, the very day America abandoned the gold standard, your mole...took off. Thus wealth should circulate within the community at large." Pound waved his cane, pointed to its gold head. "Gold should be ornamentation only. Beauty only."

"You bet," said Dan. Pound had a dagger beard like Satan and tended to rear back and point his chin and beard at the taller Antonelli. The half-dozenth time Pound did this, he demanded, "Are you afraid of death, Danny? Death in Venice? 'Quick eyes gone under the earth's lid'?" Dan stumbled backward on the cobblestones and – through a gap in the iron railing – into the canal. "Killed by usury," cackled Pound, "by a yid."

Pulling himself out, sobered by the sudden drenching, Dan started worrying what bugs were in the water he had swallowed. Yeah, death. He tried to pay attention to Pound's pronouncements on gold at sixty-five dollars an ounce, on inflation, on Vico's three-stage cycle of history (Dan thought of a three-chambered Mazda rotary engine). Pound also made travel pronouncements: "You're in Venice – you can't skip Asolo. Browning called it 'palpably fire-clothed' – you gotta see a fire-clothed village, Danny." But Dan felt harangued, felt pissed at himself for ever thinking there was anything to be gained from this bigoted whack job. What had he had in mind? Mr. Make-It-New was an old fool. "Nixon fights inflation?!" thundered Pound. "What about the inflation of language? Read the Shanghai Communiqué – Nixon's and Mao's pomposity! Pure BOMFOG! The Brotherhood of Man Under the Fatherhood of God – hot air, endlessly bloviated by Mr. Nelson Rockefeller. Come a long, puffed-up way since his grandfather was passing out dimes and playing Silent Cal! We talk too much and say nothing. Puffery!" Pound's shaggy white hair flew in emphasis.

"Beer-bottle balloons," agreed Dan. Pound heard not a word. Dan pointed the ranting wreck home.

"Where do you think the mole is headed?" asked Pound, at the door of his house. Dan now spotted, on the doorstep – delivered in the middle of the night, as if only the cover of darkness would serve – a tabloid newspaper whose headline screamed "Zionist Conspiracy."

"Binghamton?" suggested Dan, naming a place northwest of Manhattan.

"Elmira," said Pound. "To attack the grave of Mark Twain – for all his stories celebrating the California Gold Rush. Or Cooperstown – the Farmers' Museum, where the Cardiff Giant, that other underground leviathan, slumbers? " He laughed. "Or my alma mater. Hamilton College. Attack the perfessers who died years ago, died 'fore they larned me" – Pound doing Idaho yokel – "who oughter be in their graves but who keep on larning folks ign'rance. Kill the kulturmenschen! Dig 'em a private pit o' hell." Laughing more loudly, he fumbled out the key to his door.

Wet and shivering, Dan liked the reference to graves. Sandhogs boasted that, if something was in New York City and was deeper than a grave, sandhogs had dug it. Of course this was not true but sandhogs, like Ezra Pound, needed their mythology.

"Wait!" said Dan, plucking Pound's sleeve as the ancient was about to disappear inside. "Your autograph?" Dan thrust at him the tabloid and a pen.

Pound – he of sharp blue agate eyes: two taws: two shooting marbles – fixed Dan with a look of a upright man whose friendship has been ill-used. "You know, Danny," he said, tearing off a strip of advertising from the bottom of the first page, "at a dinner party, a young woman sitting next to President Coolidge told him she had bet her friend that she could get at least three words of conversation out of him." Pound scrawled something across the scrap of paper. "Without looking at the woman, Silent Cal said, 'You lose.'" Pound handed Dan the scrap of paper. "Try selling that to a Jew autograph dealer," he cackled. "No provenance!" And he closed the door in Dan's face.

Dan read how the notorious celeb had signed the ad: EZ 16 OZ.

Later that month, Jane Fonda was photographed, hands clasped rapturously – kvelling, the Jewish princesses would say – while gazing at a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun crew. In August, the last U.S. ground troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. In September, at the Munich Olympics, Mark Spitz had his porn-star's mustache soaked while swimming to seven gold medals and the Black September terrorist group murdered eleven Israeli athletes. In October, trying to ride the rise of blue jeans (caving to the pernicious influence of hippies, Miss Rudge would have said), American Motors introduced a Gremlin with a "denim" interior held together by "copper rivets."

On November 1, 1972, two days after his eighty-seventh birthday, Pound died in Venice. Dan Antonelli missed the news; on November 2, he was in the Hospital for Special Surgery having his right-hand ring finger reattached after having it pinched off as – obsessing about his recent separation from his wife and not what the fuck he was doing – he mishandled a jackleg drill. When Dan swam out of anesthesia, there were two sandhogs presenting him a cardboard version of The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award, popularized on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. They reminded him the average time for a sandhog to go without a serious injury was five years. "You've been living on borrowed time, Danny." Five days later, in his tiny, glum, bachelor's apartment in Carroll Gardens, watching TV with the audio off, doped to heaven on painkillers, listening to "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," his right hand swaddled like an oven mitt, his left hand around a longneck, Dan saw Nixon declared re-elected.

This took Dan back to Pound and gold and the mole.

The mole weighed 450 tons. That's how many pounds? Um, 900,000. Gold is selling at what per ounce? About sixty-three dollars. Dan got a pencil, poised it above the back of a TV Guide, frog-marched his foggy mind and unaccustomed left hand through the math. If the mole were made of gold, that's 690 million dollars. Now compute value times time. The mole bored 100 feet per day through schist, the dense rock that made possible Manhattan's skyscrapers. Meaning, beyond Manhattan, the mole could bore faster? On the other hand...Dan remembered, from his childhood, a book about a train that liked to wander off the tracks, dawdle in the fields. So, stick with 100 feet per day. That's 36,500 feet per year, a little under seven miles per year. Figure 175 miles to Binghamton. But that's driving distance. What is it as the crow flies, the mole chews? Who knows. Stick with 175. Divided by seven. That's twenty-five years since last year. So the mole would reach Binghamton in 1996. Okay, 690 million dollars times twenty-five equals what? Toss down another painkiller, heaped like M&Ms in the Tupperware bowl. ("Take it," his wife had said, "you need dishes.") Equals...just over seventeen billion dollars. Dan's brother-in-law, an agent with Mutual of New York, said that was the amount of insurance MONY had in force. A conjunction! But who said it had to be Binghamton? Or Elmira or Cooperstown? Or Clinton, New York? Lotsa other places northwest of Manhattan where the mole might be headed. Get there sooner, get there later, making its hole...

I read the news today, oh boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all


On the flickering TV screen, the electoral map of Sweaty Jowly Tricky Dick's victory had only two small holes, pinpricks really, for Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Bathed in its light, counting dollars and miles and years, the inside of his skull as cottony as the bandage on his right hand, Dan Antonelli drifted into fields of drugged, boozy sleep. His last thoughts were of gold, which had two components: Pound, who looked like Fagin counting gold coins, or like Shylock muttering about a pound of flesh. And another book from his (Dan's) childhood, Little Black Sambo, in which tigers, chasing themselves around a tree, turned into a smear of golden butter.

A smear of gold, the mole burrowed upstate.

Jim Parry received his BA from Harvard and had a thriller, The Discovery, published by a division of what is now HarperCollins. He has co-written screenplays which have been sold to Columbia and Universal, and he currently blogs on Huffington Post as Ranting Political Poet. Since early 2009, has has been writing a long novel (no rants, some politics, scant poetry) to which this is the prologue.