It’s Christmas Eve. A gnome arrives at your doorstep. He looks like Santa Claus’s mini-me; roly-poly with a long white beard and a red velvet cap. He introduces himself as Randy. Yes, the gnome’s name is Randy. His stubby little finger points in the direction of an evergreen tree on your front lawn, beneath which sits a time machine. Randy explains that for Christmas this year, you are being given a wondrous gift from the folklore gods. The rusty old machine will transport you to New York City at the height of the Gilded Age, where you will remain for the next twelve hours.
Without hesitation, you run to the machine and step inside. Randy slams the door shut and off you go to the land of gold-plated carriages, five course dinners at Delmonico’s, and extravagant parties at the Vanderbilt Mansion.
In the blink of an eye, the door creaks open. You step outside to see that you are not in upper Manhattan, as you had stupidly assumed. You are in lower Manhattan. The Bowery, to be exact. Randy, you devilish twerp. Here are a few takeaways from the next twelve hours of your life- twelve hours that you never want to live through again:
- The Bowery stinks. Literally. People dump the contents of their chamber pots from upper story windows. The fecal stew douses the heads of unfortunate pedestrians walking past. You quickly learn to walk beneath the awnings, designed for that purpose. A noxious mixture of manure and urine from horses and oxen, not to mention stray dogs and cats, cakes the streets. It’s winter and people wear coats over their ragged clothing. Nevertheless, in the absence of indoor plumbing, they still reek of body odor so powerful that any cologne used to cover it up only makes it worse. And the halitosis! Ugh. You feel like handing out tubes of toothpaste and bottles of Listerine.
Indoor plumbing was a luxury that Bowery residents did not enjoy.
My, there sure are a lot of flop houses and brothels. The oldest profession is thriving in the Bowery, but the women are not the well-dressed courtesans that frequent the restaurants and ballrooms uptown. Plain-faced, haggard widows transact for a loaf of bread. Girls, some of them as young as twelve, walk the streets. Even younger girls are forced to offer their services in the backrooms of beer gardens and brothels. You want to cry, but what’s the point? They are all dead now. The past is the past.
You head for the tenement district. You visited the Tenement Museum in the Bowery last summer, and you expect to see the sturdy brick buildings that you saw on that tour. You spot a few, but the most common living quarters are ramshackle wooden edifices with lopsided roofs and very few windows, resulting in poor ventilation and deadly fires. Families are packed together like sardines. No wonder so many people are pale-faced and hacking with some sort of deadly virus or disease.
Nicer brick tenements still stand in the Bowery. The wooden ones are gone.
Regulations to keep air pollution at bay- what are those? Clouds of black ash cover the facades of every building. Housewives stretch damp garments on strings hanging between fire escapes. The freshly washed dresses and petticoats are floral corollas in a sunless garden. By morning, they will all be covered in soot. The noise pollution is no better. The deafening and persistent rumbling of the El Train bursts with a thunder that booms through the neighborhood, shaking buildings in their foundations, and dripping lines of oil on the roofs. Vendors shout, children scream, morphine addicts moan for their next fix, and the yawping of drunken kerfuffles pierce the air. If only you brought your migraine pills….
‘Good grief,’ you think as you climb back into the time machine after twelve wretched hours. Was there anything positive about that experience? Yes, the immigrants. The Irish, the Jews, the Germans, the Chinese. And those who never chose to come to this country, African Americans who migrated north following the Civil War. Many had returned your curious gaze with vacant eyes, but in some of the faces you saw hope. The same hope that created The City of Dreams.
You emerge from the time machine. Randy approaches. He asks if you enjoyed your trip. You want to kick his pudgy little ass to kingdom come. Instead, you shake his tiny hand. “Come on inside for a cup of spiced eggnog,” you say.
Randy flashes a diabolical smile and follows you inside.