www.common-place.org · vol. 2 · no. 3 · April 2002
"It was fear that he needed to cultivate, a necessary ingredient that had to be constantly attended to, like the feeding and grooming of the beauteous beasts in his kennel."
The Hungry Eye, Episode 4
Kit Burns (known to his long-dead mother and father, his as-good-as-dead wife, and the Fourth Precinct's deadly Captain Thorne as Christopher Kilbourn) cherished constancy. Born in the windowless back of two rooms on South Street, his travels over thirty-six years had taken him no further north than Jones Wood and no further west than Hoboken.
Instead of regret, Kit considered his circumscribed mobility as a noteworthy achievement: acquaintances, friends, and relatives came and went in peripatetic panic, leaving the city in search of the main chance only to return months, years later, sometimes shamefaced, sometimes pugnacious, always penurious. In contrast, Kit had hunkered down on the waterfront. And there he had prospered.
Not that Kit's static success set an example for his fellow citizens. Absence, it seemed, generated the adulation of the docks. Those who left and didn't return, most particularly the lot of Kit's peers who'd been drawn west by gold fever in '48, fed the fantasies of those who remained. Sailors were always reappearing, randy and ready to lose their earnings, so the local optimists had turned to speculating about the likes of O'Leary, Hennessey, and Curtis, the most vocal of the b'hoys who'd preached the road to Californ-eye-ay. When years had passed without the trio's reappearance, the stories began to circulate. They'd found the mother lode and were now leaders of the raw aristocracy of the West Coast; alternatively, they'd deferred that privilege for a purchased enthronement in some Edenic (when you discounted the malaria) Central American backwater. Whatever the story, it seemed to bear an equal portion of pessimism. At least that was the way Kit saw it.
The local fantasists constructed fates for the b'hoys that permitted them, once they were deep in their cups, to wallow in the realization that refugees from the Frog 'n Toe who gained success easily forgot those they left behind. However, when Kit was deep into his whiskey (the result of considerable effort, since Kit insisted on only imbibing the fare he served in Sportsmen's Hall and that was well mixed with the waters of the River East), he was sure that O'Leary, Hennessey, and Curtis lay buried somewhere among the forests, plains, deserts, and savages he'd seen in the illustrated newspapers. His estimation of their fates back when they'd habituated the Fourth Ward docks had been low enough.
In sum, Kit was a firm believer in planning and stasis, and he felt that he didn't need public admiration to legitimate his dedication to this little spot in the universe that had served him so well.
Kit was proud of his three-story kingdom on Water Street, viewing it as a landmark equal to the likes of John Allen's dancehall just a few blocks away. On a good night, weren't both establishments bursting with dockhands, sailors, river pirates, and errant swells? True, the penny press tended to dwell on the Bandbox's badger baiting (and when the badgers gave out, rat baiting), while John Allen's emporia came across as higher toned if more salacious, its buxom doxies being the staple of the newspapers' descriptions. But if Kit's place was deprived of the flash accorded to Allen's dive, both men contended for the appellation of the Most Wicked Man in New York, a mark of notoriety among a select group of the city's residents that made Kit's barrel chest swell with pride.
Nevertheless, Kit's prosperity was burdened with the freight of vigilance. Having leased Sportsmen's Hall a decade earlier, he maintained his position as a local entrepreneur through the careful marshaling of his resources. Indeed, Kit maintained a clutch of doxies on the second and third floors of his own establishment. The brothel drew a consistent clientele who, aroused by the pit's blood and bar's liquor, eagerly climbed into the girls' open arms and legs, aware that Kit's whores might not be as well groomed as his curs, but they put up less of a fight. The girls, however, bore a good dose of belligerence (among other things) and they seemed to reserve much of it for Kit, forever grumbling about the scarcity of meat and surfeit of water in their fare. Not to his face, of course: he received these reports from the dutiful Mrs. McMahon (better known as Mayhem), who responded to such criticisms with only a slightly lighter hand than Kit would have wielded. So, relieved from administering discipline, Kit was free to grumble himself, usually from within the formidable embrace of Mrs. Mayhem who reserved her own arms and legs for him in her ornate, if close, chamber on the top floor of the Bandbox. The damned whores, he'd groan into her cleavage, listing the costs of running Sportsmen's Hall. What did they know about the pain of running the Bandbox? For example, had they any idea of the significant proportion of his earnings Kit was forced to invest in the ward's constabulary?
The cost of preserving his wary truce with Captain Thorne's Metropolitans was a favorite gripe of Kit's. It was a gripe, however, reserved for the Mayhem bed; general knowledge of his transactions with the police would only make many extremely untrusting and untrustworthy citizens nervous. The Slaughter House Boys, among other river-pirate gangs, might look unkindly upon news that Kit transferred a steady stream of cash and discrete amounts of information to Captain Thorne in exchange for the courtesy of running the Bandbox without the interference of the occasional raid. But Kit found his arrangement with the Fourth Precinct increasingly burdensome and nerve-racking, complicated as it was by recent reform efforts that had reshaped the police department. Captain Thorne was now answerable to the state, and Kit suspected that the Bandbox could easily become a negotiable item in one of Thorne's transactions should the Fourth Precinct fall under the scrutiny of the Albany masters of the Metropolitan Police.
Kit had other burdens to enumerate. When he wasn't ensuring that the police were on his side, Kit had to guard his flanks from the covetous nipping and sucking of challengers to his realm. It was fear that he needed to cultivate, a necessary ingredient that had to be constantly attended to, like the feeding and grooming of the beauteous beasts in his kennel. To that end, Kit had surrounded himself with a small but dedicated squad of dock-rats who knew how to bloody a lip or break an arm or, when such measures proved to be inadequate, deposit a corpse in the East River. Among the nastiest of his crew was his very own son-in-law, whose disrespect for Kit's daughter--the spitting image of her mother in both girth and temper--was outweighed by his peculiar talent with a razor, not to mention the entertainment he furnished the Bandbox clientele. Known locally as Jack the Rat, the boy often served as an opening act for the dogfights. For ten cents, the lad got the crowd's blood flowing by biting off the head of a mouse. For two bits, he'd accept a mouthful of rat. The thrills and disgust generated by Jack's act redounded, as it were, to Kit's credit, contributing to his reputation as a man whom only the foolhardy or addled crossed.
Surely, Kit thought as he now returned to the pit, surely the bearded cove who had tried to turn the fight, the one who was now harassing his bruised but victorious champion, surely he knew the terrible retribution he risked. Surely, Kit surmised, his pockets filled with Butts's winnings, surely the beard had the backing of additional brawn and sinew if he'd come to smash the Bandbox or steal his dog. Always vigilant, Kit had already instructed Jingles and Brooklyn Johnny to take their usual positions in preparation for a muss.
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