Friday, September 16, 2016

"The Cornfield" (December 1935): An Excerpt from "The Goodfather"

The city had that hard concrete cold and your bones were like the icy sidewalk under your shoes. Marc was smoking in the doorway to The Club.

Manuel Medina was chewing on his ear. "Albizu Campos is organizing a rebellion. That's what I have heard. The Puerto Rican nationalists are not interested in winning elections. They want revolution and they are going to get crushed."

Medina locked-up and they turned to face the river wind. Cornbread was standing there silent 18 inches taller than the both of them.

"Jeezus, Mary and Joseph, you scared the hell outta me!" Marc barked.

"Need to spiel Boy Orator."

Marc couldn't say no. "Okay, c'mon in."

Medina went back too. He wouldn't leave The Congressman alone on a night when the heat wasn't working. But Marc sent him out for coffee. It was something serious in Cornbread's face.

"Phil wants your help on this thing going down in West Virginia. Some construction workers from there, they working on that tunnel."

"Gauley Bridge?"

"Uh-uh."

"Why's Randolph coming to me?"

"You a Congress Man now, Marco."

"Sometimes I forget. Beef me."

But Cornbread couldn't spiel. Marc pushed. He hemmed and hawed. Marc asked about the ten-year drive to organize the Pullman Porters.

We ain't finished yet,” said Bread. “We gonna have a vote to see if the men want the Brotherhood or not and Phil says it's in the kick. That we gonna get recognized soon.”

That was it. Marcantonio waited. He knew black people had their own code of bada a le cose tue.

Cornbread came around. "Well, I don't, uh. These construction guys. They sayin' everybody dyin' very fast from sand gettin' in they lungs and killin' people off in a matter of a couple a years."

"I thought it took longer. Like twenty, twenty-five years," Marc said.

"Well, I guess they got new tools with a lot more power."

"Pneumatics?"

"Yeah, that. Solid Marc. Anyway, they saying people are dying, Negroes mostly, and they don't know what's happening to the bodies. Families come lookin' for the bodies and they told they gone and don't know where the bodies are. Make somethin' up."

Marc was focused-in good on Cornbread now.

"You sure about this?"

"I'm just telling you what these union guys told some Pullman porters who told Phil Randolph who asked me to talk to you. Do you think anything can be done?"

"Well, we have to find out if it's true."

Medina came back. Marc filled him in on the details. They needed to go down to West Virginia for some facts.

"Who?" Cornbread wanted to know.

"Us. Me and you, and Randolph if he wants to come along."

"Marc I am not going down to the hollows of West Virginia. I don't much like leaving The Stroll myself. That's where I feel safe. I would go to Chicago, but West Virginia? That's a wrong note."

"Don't you ride the rails? You travel all over the country for heavens sake."

"They pay me Marc. It's that or starve. My job is a gun to my head."

"I'll pay you to come with me."

"Put down that gun sir."

"You think it's that bad?"

"Why find out? You dig?"

"You want my help on this, you gotta give me some support."

"Why you wanna do this?"

"Now you told me about it, you want me to put it under my hat and walk away? Keep it mum? I can't do that. You know The Major did it with asbestos mines in Pennsylvania. Took a trip and eyeballed the thing for himself. He saved a lot of people."

"Pennsylvania ain't West Virginia, although it tries."

"How do you know you won't like it if you don't go? If you don't try it?"

"I never ate shit, but I'm pretty sure I won't like it. Look Marc, I think it is just terrible these lynchings can happen here in America in this day and age. You know a few years back they lynched a porter steppin' off the train for a minute? J.H. Wilkins. Busted his head in two and then strung him up by his Pullman jacket. You got to be careful whenever you get off a train in the south so as they don't string you up for lookin' at some guy's dinner the wrong way. You walkin' on eggshells Gate.”

I see your point.” Marc put out his cigarette. The conversation was over. Other arrangements would have to be made.

Rosina lit up like Park Avenue. "West Virginia? Sure!"

"It's not for fun Rosie. We'll take a plane and then have someone drive us to the middle of nowhere and find out if they're all choked to death on silica or not."

"How can that not be fun? Listen Vito, I'll go if there aren't a bunch of rules about how I should behave and all. Okay?"

"Okay Rosina."

But driving through the green shadows of the Blue Ridge country she felt they had left the land of light for dark places.

They came to the giant tunnel dig and left it to see the towns around. They found a ghostly people more ghostly than East Harlem even old when young bent broken and aimless.

Marc talked to people lots of people and their every ill could be tagged on the tunnel project. They called it the tunnel of death. It was a Union Carbide thing.

Interviews were done:

"Shifts are ten hours and they make you dry drill. You see, they have machines to cover the dust and wet it so it don't kick up, but they don't wanna pay for it. There's ten drills goin' at a time and no place for the stuff to go excepting up yer nose."

"Did anyone call the state Bureau of Mines?"

"We're not miners. We're just diggin' a tunnel."

The testimonies went on. Rosina scribbled
them into a yellow pad.

"You couldn't tell a white man from a colored man fifteen feet away" -- "Strong, husky men gasped, choked and collapsed on the ground and were carried outside to revive" -- "Men died like flies" -- "Silica dust covered us from head to foot, got in our hair, our eyes, our throats, befouled our drinking water."

Phil Randolph set Marc up with a man in a Negrotown down there and he had some things to say: "I knew they was gonna kill those niggers, but I didn't know they was going to kill them so quick. Thought it would take least five years."

The mystery was solved according to him. Everybody knew about it but nobody was saying a thing. It was small world stuff and the news had nowhere to go.

"So what are you telling me?"

"Follow," the man said and he jumped into a dray with a mule and they crawled behind him five miles an hour the New Yorkers ready to jump out of their shoes.

He came to a cornfield.

"Vito, I don't like this," Rosina grabbed his elbow.

"Don't like what?" he was getting down from the car his polished leather shoes slipping on gravel.

"Just a feeling. My gut. I don't like it."

The man did not say much. "Go on," he waved his straw hat toward the field. He did not like it either.

Marc began to move into one of the rows. The stalks were bare and bent. Rosina did not follow. Then she changed her mind.

Everything was frozen still with the cold. The three of them were sealed in the frame of that patch.

"Why did you bring me here?" Marc sounded angry.

"Said you wanted to know what happened to all the people done died in the dig."

"What's this cornfield got to do with it?"

"You standin' on 'em. Maybe 200, maybe 500."

Marc lifted one foot and looked at the dirt under it. "You sure?"

"I can get you a tractor if you wanna dig some." He looked around. "Though I don't recommend it. You may be white, but you from New York."

Marc looked over the field his eagle's nose sensing something in the air.

Rosina. "Vito. You think it's true? What he said?"

Marc waited a long moment. "I can hear them, Rosie."

"I'm gone!" and she ran back to the car. Marc listened a minute more and then followed her out of the cornfield.

The two of them did not travel much and they were in a state of shock.

"Jesus," Rosina said, "I thought East Harlem was rough!"

"It's like they don't recognize any laws but their own," Marc said. "You could disappear in there and nobody would ever know."

"What are you gonna do, Vito? You gonna dig up that field?"

"Shouldn't I?"

"Not if you don't want to end up in it."

He had no answer and turned to look ahead focusing on the white lines separating the

to-and-go flows of the road.

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