Mob Rule: Part 26
With a cigar and a stiff drink, Jack boards the Kennedy campaign train with full knowledge the contest won’t be won on merit
By John Armstrong
They cheered and jumped up from their chairs. Someone stuck a cigar in my mouth, and several of them called out “Speech! Speech!” Someone else began filling the whiskey glasses and stuck one in my hand. Bobby held his hands up for order and got nowhere. Finally Joe stood up behind his desk. I didn’t know he actually could but then I saw he was using his arms only to support him.
“Order – Order, goddamnit!” Joe was used to being listened to, and it worked both ways – people were used to listening to him. They settled down but stayed standing, all smiles and backslapping and handshakes. You’d have thought I’d already been elected, I thought. Then I corrected myself – as far as the old man and his cronies were concerned, I had. I wasn’t to be elected; I was going to be installed.
It didn’t seem like much of a restoration of democracy to me, with only one candidate and the outcome bought and paid for. On the other hand, how many democratic elections had been anything else? This was just business as usual after an unfortunate interruption of several decades.
(We had plenty of first-hand experience with how the electoral process really worked. In the old days, before the Takeover, Mafioso and other “criminals” had been hired on a regular basis by the ward bosses to strong-arm voters and otherwise encourage them to vote correctly. Frank told me once about taking a dozen men on the East River ferry over to Calvary Cemetery, to “get out the vote.” This entailed searching the tombstones for former residents of legal age and writing the names and birthdates down, to be later entered onto the public rolls in support of whichever tame candidate the boys had decided to back.
“It was one of the pleasantest days I can remember,” he said, “nothing but the sound of pens scratching away and the seagulls. We brought box lunches and sat right down on the grass to eat, watching the clouds go by. It was the only time I ever enjoyed politics.”)
Joe waited and the room got quieter, then he raised his glass. It had about a quarter-inch of liquor in it, and I would bet it was still there from before I’d left the room earlier.
Everyone hurried to refill their glasses and then raised them up. Joe looked around the room and then back at me, and said,
“To John Fitzgerald Kennedy, my grandson, the next president of the United States!”
That got them all going again, cheering and yelling. Joe set down his glass and Bobby went around the desk to help him back into his chair.
When he was settled again, he waited for quiet.
“This has been a long time coming, too long, but here we are. After all of our work, we can finally begin. Now, I won’t ask you to start now. But tomorrow, at eight a.m., in this room, we’ll have our first campaign meeting.”
They pounded on the arms of their chairs and cheered some more.
“Jack, we won’t need you for all the nuts and bolts and strategizing. Bobby can keep you up to date with what you need to know. I don’t think we’ll be ready to move before the weekend at best.” He looked at Bobby, who picked it up.
“This is going to be hard work, Jack, long hours and little sleep. If you want to take your girl and spend a couple of days sightseeing or whatever, you should. There won’t be any time for that once we kick into gear.”
I puffed on my cigar. It was nowhere close to one of Meyer’s cubanos.
“She’d like that,” I said. “This has all been rough on us. Maybe we’ll go up the Cape and get a cabin, something like that.”
“Just be somewhere we can get in touch with you, a place with phone service, okay?” Bobby was smiling at me and I smiled back. Stay in touch? Like there was any chance in hell we wouldn’t be tailed every inch of the way?
“You got it. Oh – say, what do I need for clothes? What does a candidate wear, anyway?”
“Not those gangster clown costumes,” Joe snorted. “You’ll need a more appropriate wardrobe – leave a shirt and a suit on your bed so we have your sizes and we’ll get whatever you need made up.”
I bristled at that. I’m considered quite a well-dressed man in New York, and some of the city’s finest men’s shops design and tailor my suits. But I smiled and said, “Thanks. I’ll have a lot to get used to, I suppose. This stuff is all foreign to me.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Joe said. “It’s in your blood.”
We left Friday morning in one of the family cars and drove up the Cape Highway to Provincetown with the top down and Vanessa looking like a movie star in sunglasses and a scarf wrapped around her hair. It wasn’t quite May but the sun came out early and shone as if it didn’t own a calendar and we watched gulls at play over the ocean. The air was clean and laced with salt and the drive was only a little more than an hour or so, still too early for the tourist hordes that back up the freeway for miles during the high season.
I went clean through Provincetown proper, then had to turn around and go back to buy groceries. I was headed for Herring Cove, on the far side of the Cape, and while it’s a lovely place, one of my favorites on earth, you take what you can get at the village store. I packed beer and wine and assorted picnic foods on ice in a hamper and got back on the Shore Road, followed it to the end and stopped with the front wheels in sand at the cove. At that point, you have to – all there is after that is the Atlantic. We rented a little cottage, one big room with shiplap walls and a big stone fireplace, a kitchen at one end and a double bed at the other, looking out to the sea.
After lunch I took her down to the water, over the sand dunes and out to play on the tidal flats, crabs and little fishes tickling our feet as we sloshed through sun-warmed pools. The beach itself is rocky but the water is clean and warm and clear and we found some conveniently shaped rocks to sit on, drink beer, and watch the plovers rummaging on the shoreline, racing up and down on their toothpick legs piping to each other when one them found something tasty.
On the way back we passed signs reading Men and Women hanging on a tall fence covered in ivy and Vanessa was most of the way through the gate, thinking she was heading for a toilet. She was incredulous when I explained she’d almost walked through the privacy barrier onto the all-women homo beach (and given how she looked she might have started a riot. Or never been seen again.)
Apparently in England they don’t have such things and the homos keep themselves locked away in segregated bars and nightclubs. In Provincetown the beaches for “cruising”, as it’s called, pull countless thousands of well-heeled men and women in through spring and summer, and they leave a trail of money behind them in shops, restaurants, bars and hotels. The more devout, bible-thumping types may raise an eyebrow at them but the clergy fail to notice them at all, soundly reasoning that the money they spend goes into the pockets of locals who in turn transfer a nice chunk of it to the collection plates on Sunday. Of all the things they profess belief in, I don’t think the church has any concept of “dirty money.”
For the rest of the time we lazed on our patio, cooked when we were hungry, drank too much (which turned out to be just the right amount), went to bed when we were sleepy or otherwise inspired, and talked each other’s ears off, except for when we didn’t talk at all and just watched the sunset. I did take her on one exhausting hike to the old Long Point lighthouse, a deserted spot at the very tip of the Cape that feels like the end of the world. We picked wildflowers and explored the remains of two Civil War fortresses, built in a great panic and then never used at all when the Great Struggle completely ignored this end of New England. The locals call them Fort Useless and Fort Ridiculous.
The first night there I cooked oven-roasted scrod for her, fillets of young cod in lemon and paprika, a New England delicacy. She was polite about it but finally confessed it seemed a waste of perfectly good cod that could have been properly deep-fried. On Saturday night we went into town and after dinner I decided to scandalize her.
One of the downtown clubs features a regular weekend ‘drag” show, where men impersonate famous female singers and actresses. It was my turn to be shocked when she didn’t bat an eye, explaining that ‘back home we have this at our Christmas pantomime every year.” I’m a fairly sophisticated man but the idea of this kind of thing as a holiday entertainment, for families with children, is headshaking.
There’s no understanding the English. Don’t even try.
The other feature of the club is what’s called a Cabaret, immediately following the show and during which the performers cajole the audience into doing the entertaining. Vanessa sang Poor Little Buttercup and I, after much mocking and wheedling, and not a little wine, did my best to render Little Tony’s 24,000 Kisses. I recall performing much of it on my knees before Vanessa, with attendant beseeching gestures and beating of breast, but the less said about the whole thing the better, so far as I’m concerned.
Sunday night I called in and was told to get back to Hyannis as early as I could on Monday. It was time to start the campaign.
Mob Rule is a work of fiction, serialized exclusively in The Ex-Press. To read past instalments, click here.
THE EX-PRESS, November 22, 2015