From an Interlude, Incompletely

guylandSanford Gwynn woke up in the drainage ditch behind the Nassau County Jail. It was still quite early, the grove of trees was lush and quiet, and the sky was clear and just beginning to draw a tint of pink.

Mr. Gwynn was sprawled in a nearly symmetrical star shape, as though he had tried to make a snowman in the grass. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that he had tried. But there he was, arms spread wide and his legs spread open, and after a few moments, Mr. Gwynn accidentally spit on himself.

He puffed his lips into an O shape, and exhaled loudly. He opened his eyes slowly, and croaked a groan of relief that it was not yet bright and very quiet.

For a moment, he wondered what had stirred him.

Then, with great care, he propped himself up on his elbows and tried to orient his head perpendicular to the ground. After about 30 seconds, he succeeded.

He looked down at himself. Remarkably, at least to his sore eyes, things were well sorted. There were no embarrassing stains, yawning tears or unfamiliar articles. His black wool pants were thoroughly wrinkled and there was dust of some sort on his left knee, but they were in one piece. His white shirt was creased in a fascinating geometric pattern of cascading spindly moraines. And his jacket?

Well, he wasn’t sure where his jacket was. And he noticed he had only one shoe. But he could see pants and he could see a shirt. And he still had his socks.

Mr. Gwynn totted up these victories with no small amount of satisfaction. He sighed again. And with careful exertion pushed himself up into a sitting position.

After a moment, he said, “Not so bad,” to no one.

As he sat, his head slowly drooped downward, tilting his field of vision from the jail and its parking lot, which was a picture of stolid, civic serenity, to the patch of ground between his legs. He gazed at the grass and the dirt and at a few small pieces of trash, a bottle cap, a scrap of paper and a toy wedding ring.

A few minutes later, he started out of his trance and slowly looked up again. Trees, scrub and jail, everything was still quiet. He thought about what to do, and he decided that he should get up and get something to eat.

He let his body unfold back into the grass. His head smacked into something. Bemused, he twisted his body and looked down where his head had been. It was a shoe. After a beat he recognized it as his shoe.

He smiled a smile of experienced accomplishment.

Then, something made him glance up. A few inches away from his face was his jacket, hanging from a low-hanging branch.

He untwisted himself and laid back down again, grinning more broadly than before.

It was nearly 9 by the time Mr. Gwynn emerged from the grove, sauntered up Packwood to the newsstand, bought a few newspapers and settled into a stool at Mr. Kafeer’s diner.

Mr. Kafeer was short, smoothly bald and robustly fit. Few people in Mineola knew it, but Mr. Kafeer loved to exercise. And he would occasionally run in place in front of the broad grill in his kitchen, though he was careful to keep this activity out of view of his customers.

He was well-acquainted with Mr. Gwynn. That morning, he had seen Mr. Gwynn coming a long way up the street. As Mr. Gwynn walked closer, his hair matted and his shirttails untucked, Mr. Kafeer was distracted by a thorough, scathing judgment of the dissipated habits of 20-something American men.

They drank too much. They smoked too much. Never mind that Mr. Kafeer was a devout muslim; he was possessed with the comprehensive tolerance of a businessman. Still, Mr. Kafeer could talk all day about his customers and never come up with the name of a young man who met his approval.

But Mr. Kafeer’s tolerance was also mingled with the cautious fear and pragmatism of an immigrant. He had first come to America in 1900, literally stepping off the boat onto Ellis Island. Within days he had become enamored, almost dreamy, with the polyglot chaos of the streets. But he also was industrious, and soon ingratiated himself with the small, moneyed knot of Levantine elders who noodled around Lower Manhattan.

It took Mr. Kafeer a month to set up his own business, a lunch counter at the back of a drug store owned by a crusty Syrian. Mr. Kafeer believed he had nailed the American dream.

A month after that, it was looted, with unapologetic irony, by an anti-Italian mob.

Undeterred, he tried again. This time, he opened a kebab stand in a Jewish neighborhood a good, long walk from downtown, and despite the Zionist rumblings and the occasional cross looks, he made out like a bandit. His neighbors came to trust him, and a few even respected him.

After a year and a half, an anti-Jewish mob took his cart and pitched it in the East River.

As he watched his kebabs float downriver, Mr. Kafeer dusted himself off. He walked to Penn Station, bought a ticket on the Long Island Railroad and stepped off the train in Mineola, where there were few Italians or Jews and only one Moroccan, himself.

That was 12 years ago.   

Mr. Gwynn shuffled toward the front door of the diner, kicked it accidentally as he fumbled with the handle and finally pushed his way in with a boozy sigh.

Mr. Kafeer swallowed his disgust.

“Ahh, Sayyid Gwynn,” he said with hollow enthusiasm.

Mr. Gwynn gave a polite nod. He did not know Mr. Kafeer’s name, even though he had accepted thousands of plates from his hand, even though the word was written on above the windows on the front of the building.

“You will be wanting the eggs and the toast,” Mr. Kafeer said.

Mr. Gwynn nodded again, sat down and laid the day’s papers on the counter. Mr. Kafeer retreated to his kitchen.

For all his faults, his self-indulgent personality and revolting habits, Mr. Gwynn at least had currency. That is to say, he read several newspapers every day, hangovers notwithstanding, and could be a competent partner in conversation about the day’s events.

He had his favorite newspapers, of course, but in fact, he was fairly tolerant when it came to quality. He could be counted on to buy one of the big papers, The Times or The Tribune, but he did not share the owly judgment of his colleagues — who were quick to hoot at busted headlines and purple writing — when it came to the odd measures and obscure flags of smaller circulations.

Mr. Gwynn approached a newsstand like a pilgrim, studying the front pages with penitent seriousness even before he could make out the letters. Typically, he would buy two or three. Always, he paid with a bill and waved away the change with a half-audible, “Keep it.”

The sight of stacks of grubby newsprint, crowned by rocks, lumps of iron and other heavy oddments, seemed to clear his mind, tamp down the throbbing in his head and the hot nausea in his throat. Even on the mornings after particularly extreme benders, Mr. Gwynn was in a cafe somewhere with coffee and a newspaper by about 9 in the morning. Ten, at least.

O.K. Maybe 11.

But today, it was relatively early and Mr. Gwynn had a full head of curiosity brewing. He smoothed the papers with his hand. The New York Times was on top. His eyes scanned hungrily for the lede article. His eyes caught the letters “T.R.,” and he felt a tingle of joy.

Ahh, the Colonel, he thought, referring to the former president, Theodore Roosevelt, who had been out of office but nearly always in the news since 1908.

Please, Mr. Gwynn begged to no one in particular, let him have made another cantankerously ridiculous speech.

Under the headline ‘IF PERKINS GOES, I’LL GO, TOO’ — T.R., an article related the Colonel’s arrival from his nearly-ill-fated Amazonian expedition. The papers had said that he looked like death in May when he stumbled out of the jungle, and the Colonel had had a violent attack of malaria, more severe than any he had in South America, only a week before.

But the teeth-snapping Roosevelt vigor, in the form of a belligerent tangle with reporters and the release of a long prepared statement, was fairly pulsing through the newswires.

What the Colonel was most exercised about was the administration’s recent offer of $25 million to the government of Colombia, compensation for it lost when the United States, prodded with muscular diplomacy by the Colonel, had built the Panama Canal. But most reporters led with a building rift in the Progressive Party, which the Colonel had custom-made for an attempt to retake the White House in 1912.

Mr. Gwynn began to read with relish — “If they read George Perkins out of the party,” a combative Colonel rasped, referring to the former J. P. Morgan toady and current Progressive functionary, “they will have to read me out, too.”

Gwynn snorted.

And this, in its way, seemed to announced Filo Phinney, who stepped out of the white summer light into the diner. He went directly to the counter, asked for a coffee and then glanced around the room. His eyes quickly alighted on Mr. Gwynn, and once he had his beer he walked over and stood next to where Mr. Gwynn was slouched.

“How’s the boy?”

Mr. Gwynn grunted in the affirmative.

Mr. Phinney had an abiding tolerance for all of God’s creatures, chief among them Mr. Gwynn. He was accustomed to his habits, his grandiose storytelling, his inevitable inebriation. For sure, by now, Mr. Phinney barely noted that malodorous cloud of vaporized rye whiskey that typically hung like a funeral mask around Mr. Gwynn’s head.

Mr. Phinney did not mean to sit down, so he stooped low, as if to say something more confidentially Mr. Gwynn, but he stopped himself about halfway down. He smelled something odd.

“What have you been drinking?”

Mr. Gwynn exchanged a disinterested look for a confused one, then cashed it all in for resignation.

“I sat in some onions.”

That made sense somehow.

Long Island Interlude: Love at the Jailhouse

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Mineola, N.Y., sometime in November 1913 (about seven months before the death of Lulu Bailey).

Sanford Gwynn woke up in the drainage ditch behind the Nassau County Jail early on a November morning. In a matter of moments, he would nominally be witness to the full flowering of one of the more lurid criminal enterprises in Mineola’s history.
For his part, Mr. Gwynn was too hung over to really notice.

The parking lot to the jail was a tangle of cars and activity, and all of it was clearly visible from where Mr. Gwynn was sprawled. Women in flirty, airy dresses made too-familiar gestures to men in disheveled suits. Most of the men were leaving, some of them with half-empty bottles, all of them with half-satisfied smirks on their faces. A handful, though, were late arriving, or were returning for a second pass through the most popular brothel and gaming house in all of western Long Island: That which was operated by Warden Winfield S. Box.

Mr. Box was not merely a pimp; at least, this is what he told himself. In any event, he was a respected, churchgoing citizen, with a wife and a large, pleasant-looking family. He was well-known for his prowess at horseshoes and well-liked at the Elks lodge that met just a few blocks away. To a fault, though, he also was an eminently practical man and, for reasons which will soon be clear, although probably not to Mr. Gwynn, organizing a whorehouse and casino in the county jail seemed like the natural thing to do.

At that moment, and not unusually, Mr. Gwynn was remarking foggily to himself that there was nothing wrong with waking up in the ditch.

He had come to realize, after a long period of continual observation, that there was a great comfort to it — if you allowed first that every ounce of his being was being savaged by a ruthless and unrelenting hangover.

In the first place, it was always cool in the ditch.

Even in the hottest days of August, the grass there was long and lush, and black walnut trees lolled their branches protectively overhead. The earth, soft and forgiving, would nuzzle a prone body like a concerned parent. In the spring or the fall, the early morning would bring dew, which to Mr. Gwynn held a soothing, almost icy, dampness that would apply itself to every inch of his nervous, twitching body.
In the second place, the ditch was convenient.

Straight behind Mr. Gwynn, about 100 yards away perpendicular from the ditch, was Ali Kafeer’s luncheonette. Immediately across the ditch was the aforementioned parking lot of the county jail, where Mr. Gwynn was a regular visitor. About 200 yards farther in the same direction was Pedersen’s Ale House, where he was also a regular. North of him, where the ditch met Packwood Road, was the Bengal Club, where he was regularly turned away. And not far to the south, somewhere beyond the trees, was the back door to the morose row house where he had a room.

The ditch was secluded, too.

It wound through a tall, disorganized grove of pitch pines, spruces, walnuts and other trees like a scar on the back of an angry, dirty animal. Below this wild mesh was a riot of shrubs — juniper, holly, bayberry — and harder-to-identify plants. Lapping at the roots, blanketing the mud, were mounds and mounds of rotting leaves, twigs and trash of all kinds. Here and there in the small wilderness were discarded monuments to carelessness, like the cast-iron stove that had been improbably tossed nearby.

The ditch itself was probably the result of the construction of the jail. Though, if had been an honest man, Mr. Gwynn would confess that in all the time he spent in the ditch, he never once wondered how it got there.

It should be said that Mr. Gwynn was not a honest man.

On this particular morning, in early November, the dew might have been frost. But it wasn’t, and Mr. Gwynn laid in the grass with his eyes closed, mostly oblivious to the occasional shrieks of playful laughter at the jail, and felt the coolness of his wet clothes with a perverse satisfaction. As car doors slammed and engines revved below him, he slowly stretched his limbs out.

Without opening his eyes, he knew his face was flecked with blades of grass and drops of muddy water. He could feel that his clothes were about half-soaked, and not only with water. He sighed. He did not mind.

As a breeze passed over his face, Mr. Gwynn slowly formed a mental sketch of the night before. He had left the offices of The Mineola Press Boy and Gazeteer after the close of the afternoon edition, had a dinner of eggs and toast under the obsequious gaze of Mr. Kafeer and then tried in vain for half an hour to get inside the Bengal Club.

At length, he had procured a bottle of rye from a corner store and wandered around in the gloaming trying to look casual while drinking it. Eventually, he fell into Pedersen’s, where he was sure he had told several fascinating anecdotes to a coterie of attractive young women.

As he laid there, the sky still dark and blank and the wind gently nudging the trash around his head, he thought he could hear their joyful adulation.

“Oh, Mr. Gwynn,” they said. “Your sense of humor!”

They all laughed, not just the girls but the whole bar. A chorus of admirers tumbled into snorts and heehaws. Even the band stopped playing. Swells of cheering overwhelmed him, men slapped him on the back, and mugs of beer sloshed behind him on the bar.

And by now, Mr. Gwynn was sure he could hear that laughter, for real.

He lifted his head, gingerly, and stared down past his feet at the jail. At first, all he noticed was that he was wearing only one shoe. A moment later, his red, swollen eyes focused in surprise on the denouement of another night of the warden’s debauch.

And the instant that Mr. Gwynn began to question why so much was going on in the parking lot of the county jail at 5 in the morning, his excesses from the previous evening welled up like an orchestra and gripped his head and his stomach in a simultaneous convulsion of pain, nausea and temporary blindness.

Had he been in a contemplative mood, he might have mentally added to his list of reasons why the ditch made a perfect early morning haven: No one cares if you throw up. In fact, reasonable, respectable people would tell him, Yes, yes, by all means. Go to the ditch over there and throw up.

But he wasn’t thinking about any of that. He just turned his head and vomited. His view of the parking lot shifted to dark green grass and then faded away altogether to white and then red.

He let his head slap mercifully back into the cool November mud.