Getting down to brassy tacts

Mob Rule: Part 39

Jack and Lyndon sit back on the campaign trail with a bottle of bourbon and dig at the roots of each other’s deep beliefs

By John Armstrong

We had more than several over the next few hours. There were twin beds in his room and I sat on one with Vanessa beside me and him on the other, facing each other. I took a long drink of bourbon and smoked half a cigarette trying to figure out how to start and then finally just began at the beginning, with Frank and I diving for cover on a New York sidewalk, only a few months ago. Back when the world made sense.

mob rules victor bonderoff illustrationIf I left anything out it was because I’d forgotten it, not because I was being cagey. I’d had enough of subterfuge and lying to last me a lifetime and I trusted Lyndon implicitly, no matter what side we wound up on in the end.

Over the last few weeks and especially during our early stops in the South he’d gone off-script regularly, hitting on poverty and race equality whether he was in front of colored, mixed, or all-white crowds and the more he did, the worse things got between he and Bobby. It had become clear they were never all that fond of the other to start with. During one after-speech dressing down from my uncle Bobby, he was right in his face telling him — yelling — that the campaign was no place for his pet causes and he was alienating as many people as he won over.

Lyndon stood up ramrod straight at that and looked at Bobby, and you could tell it was all he could do to control himself.

“Well, if it isn’t then what the hell’s the presidency good for?” he said tightly, as close to violence as I’d ever seen him, fists clenched, jaw twitching.

Bobby was 20 years younger and in his prime but he wisely kept his mouth shut. He wouldn’t have made it out of the first round with Lyndon. He might not even make it out of his corner.

About three refills later I got to where we were now and wound down, adding my last cigarette to the collection of butts in an overflowing ashtray.

“So where does all this leave you, Jack,” Lyndon asked softly. “What do you believe in?”

In 28 years on the planet no one had ever asked me that, and I had never sat down and asked myself the question either, but it had been on my mind for some time now. Like most people I grew up in a system that was in place long before I came along and like most of us I never really thought much about it; sometimes it worked better than others and sometimes it worked badly and I bitched about it, but I never really thought much about trying to change it. Ever since Frank had taken me in I’d lived a life of privilege, and I’d gotten used to it. But I still remembered what it was to be poor, living in that dingy apartment on Salem St. above Fiorito’s Pizza. I couldn’t remember ever missing a meal but it was a big night when we could afford to eat downstairs at the pizzeria and we were never so flush that my father didn’t have to think hard about ordering a second beer when we did.

In 28 years on the planet no one had ever asked me that, and I had never sat down and asked myself the question either, but it had been on my mind for some time now.

What did I believe? I believed everyone should have a chance to get as far as their abilities could take them. I believed no kid should have to go to bed hungry or go to school without shoes. I believed a man should be able to live anywhere he could afford to and not be afraid of waking up with a cross burning on the lawn and hooded men kicking his door in.

I was far from convinced of the sacred nature of democracy, though. Did the bosses need throwing out? Well, if they did that was up to the people, and even if they weren’t given a vote, they could do what people had always done when they were really unhappy with their kings, presidents, what-have-you — they could overthrow them, though from what I read of history they always seemed to be in a great hurry to put someone just as bad or worse in there. Regardless of that, there was nothing stopping them from having a proper revolution, not the bogus, land of make-believe show my grandfather and Bobby were peddling. The fact they hadn’t done it any time in the last few decades seemed to me to indicate most people were happy enough with how things were.

Which is not to say things couldn’t be better. Like medicine – if you had the money, you went to the doctor who gave you the best odds. If you didn’t, you made do with the one who wasn’t so sure he knew how to fix you up. Maybe we could improve on things like that.

One thing in the bosses’ favor, in my book; there was a minimal amount of interference in what people could or couldn’t do and the first thing old Joe would want to do was start a list of what was forbidden, either because it cut into his profits or because he just didn’t care for it himself and didn’t want you doing it, either. After all, what was the point of having cops and courts if you didn’t have a bunch of laws telling people what they weren’t allowed to do?

Was there a way to have your cake and eat it too? Have a voted-in civic body to oversee social programs, with a President to head it up? Maybe.

Lyndon had listened to everything I said and nodded his head, still thinking, and then said, “Well, you and I disagree on a fundamental issue about democracy but we see eye to eye on most everything else. I don’t know about this idea of a Senate or Parliament but it’s a damn sight better than nothing, which is what we have. No matter how decent the gangsters have been in most regards, I just plain don’t believe the public welfare should be dependent on the good intentions and largesse of the rich. We might as well go back to feudalism.” He thought a second. “Christ’s sake, we already have.

“My question is, can you sell this to your people?”

That was a good question. It called for a good answer and I was fresh out. The best I had was, “I don’t know. Maybe. The way to sell it is to show them why it’s good business. What my friend Joe calls ‘enlightened self-interest.’”

“Well, I think you can make a case for that,” Lyndon said.

“You asked me once if there’s any real difference between the Kennedys and the Bosses?” He thumbed a match-head and lit a cigarette. “Hell, probably not enough difference to slide a playing card between, except I trust the Kennedy bunch even less. There’s an old blues song and it has the lines, ‘Got me a new boss, just the same as the old boss.’ I think that’s about right. But maybe just having someone called President will whet the people’s appetite for a real democracy, where they’re the boss. I’m still aiming for that, just so you know.”

“You asked me once if there’s any real difference between the Kennedys and the Bosses?” He thumbed a match-head and lit a cigarette. “Hell, probably not enough difference to slide a playing card between, except I trust the Kennedy bunch even less…”

I said that from what I knew, the men with the most money had always controlled democracy in this country. Even when elections weren’t outright bought and paid for, you had to have money to run a campaign and the investors with enough money to bankroll a president always wanted something back. And there you were – even the best and noblest were beholden to men who hadn’t been elected to any office by anyone, and they simply paid for the kind of country they wanted. Look at how many weeks of exactly that we’d been through with this campaign.

He took another drag and rolled the butt between his fingers.

“No, it’s not perfect and probably won’t ever be. But that’s a poor argument against it. I’ve lived long enough to learn that people aren’t perfect, no matter how much you might want them to be, and imperfect people are going to invent imperfect things. But I’ve learned something else, and you should know it too, given your background: Even when the game’s rigged, if you don’t bet you can’t win.”

“So maybe we’ll get lucky, huh?”

He smiled that wide smile and said, “Long odds is always better than none” and we shook hands on that. Now all we had to do was get out of here with our lives and shut these clowns down before they did any real damage.

Mob Rule is a work of fiction, serialized exclusively in The Ex-Press. To read past instalments, click here.

THE EX-PRESS, January 2, 2016




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