Wednesday Jul 18

EXCERPT FROM Redlined — The forthcoming novel

Born in the northern Arctic, the icy wind swept due south past a freighter steaming east out of Argentia, Newfoundland, veered west, curled round the rockbound Maine coast, hummed a tune through the rigging of the Boston Lightship, crossed Boston harbor, swept up the corridor between Columbus Avenue and The Jamaicaway, ruffled the steel-gray surface of Jamaica Pond, funneled through the narrow canyon of doubledeckers packed along Jamaica Plain’s Green Street, then cut like a sharpened blade through a down jacket and several layers of wool and sent a shiver tap-dancing up the spine of the young neighborhood organizer who stood lonely vigil on a cold winter’s night.

It was half past midnight and Susan Barlow was still alive.

She rocked up onto her toes then stamped her feet. The night was black and as bitter as the dregs at the bottom of her cardboard coffee cup. The young woman gazed up at stars shining like icy pinpricks in a coal black shroud. She crumpled the cup in her hand and started to toss it into the trash-strewn alleyway, then hesitated, “No, no, mustn’t litter,” she whispered to herself, grinned and stuffed the crushed cardboard deep into the side pocket in her down parka.

“Very sexy, Suze! You look like a corndog wrapped in a blue bun.” That was her roommate Sara’s verdict the day she wore the new parka back to the dorm.

“Didn’t Ali McGraw wear something like this in Love Story,” Susan asked, twisting side to side, admiring her new purchase in the full-length mirror.

Sara was an Ivy League wannabe and the actress was Sara’s role model — she had seen Love Story “like a gazillion times” and Susan had bought the parka partially as a protest against her roommate’s stultifying conservative style of dress. “Yeah, well”, she thought, wrapping her arms around her chest and hugging herself close, “I’d rather be a warm corn dog than a frozen French fry on a night like this”.

She leaned back against the door, her eyes closed, her lips curled into a smile as her mind drifted back to a golden August afternoon. For the moment she forgot the cold, forgot that she stood shivering in the cramped shadow of a cellar doorway guarding one of a serried row of hulking tenements, their darkened windows gazing with sightless eyes over Green street. Instead she stood engrossed in the gurgling melody that played against the smooth hull of her catboat; her mind recalling only the warmth of her family’s carefree Nantucket summers.

She felt herself falling and instinctively reached out and steadied herself against the pealing doorframe. “Whoa there, Suze, let’s try to stay awake!” She stretched her back, then pushed back her sleeve, exposed the glowing watch dial and sighed— 12:50am, just ten minutes since the last check. She glimpsed something out of the corner of hereye. Her breath caught, Was that a light in the first floor window? She narrowed her eyes and studied the window. Must be seeing things! She stamped her feet, checked her watch again. Shit! she had been standing in the doorway now for an hour and a half.

“Easy, Suze,” she admonished herself, “Don’t go getting all squirrelly on me”!

She and her boss, Jedediah Flynt, had discussed the surveillance and the wisdom of her getting an early start. Does the guy ever sleep or take nourishment?, she wondered.

She had stopped by the old stone church that served as the project’s office just after 10pm to pick up a file. Her planning meeting with a couple of block-club leaders had run late. Her ladies had won a commitment from the city to have a neighborhood firetrap boarded up in record time and the buzz of power was as heady as it was unfamiliar to a pair of working class Boston-Irish housewives.

Flynt sat alone in the project’s office, lounging in his swivel chair—feet up on his desk with the phone cradled in the crook of his hunched left shoulder, a white porcelain coffee mug stood by his right hand. The office was open-plan cube farm with dividers separating it into a crossword puzzle of workstations, one for each of the staff organizers. The eight-foot fluorescent tubes mounted in the ceiling lit up the interior like a fish market. Flynt nodded in recognition, spat a few quick words into the black mouthpiece, dropped it into its cradle and swung his feet onto the floor.

“You’re up late,” he said.

“Yeah, the block club meeting just ended,” she said.

Flynt looked up and rubbed his chin. “How’d it go”? he asked.

“Really well, the city has scheduled a board up early next week.”

Armed with Susan’s research and tactical advice, the two ladies had led the charge to secure the abandoned property. It had been a short, tough fight between the neighborhood group and the Boston Building Commissioner. But the commissioner was clearly not prepared for an ambush by a crowd of neighborhood people who filled his office like an overstuffed sandwich, refused his demands that they leave and could quote the State Sanitary Code chapter and verse.

“Congratulations—how about the leadership?”

“Oh, the ladies, they’re on a power high! There’s a group of neighborhood kids want the city to build a street hockey rink and the block club is already making plans to help them get it.”

Susan stood with her feet apart and her hands on her hips and looked down at Flynt. “You think anybody’s going to try and torch that building before midnight, boss?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Hard to say.”

“Supposed to be a cold snap all this week?” she said.

He shrugged. “Yeah, it’ll be cold. Your call,” he said.

“Yeah, right!” she said.

She saw right through the feigned indifference. He was being cute, manipulating her, and she resented it. But then, what did she expect? Keeping the place from being burned down before the city had a chance to board it up was her problem and she knew that she had to deal with it. She was scared of being out there late at night but wasn’t ready to admit it to herself and she was never going to admit it to him.

She and Flynt had an odd sort of relationship. He’s definitely a sexist, she decided, though at one point she had fantasized about an afternoon in bed with him.

“What makes you so sure, Jedediah, about the burning, I mean?”

His dark eyes rounded briefly at her use of his full first name. He had a lopsided smile that played off against the sharp angles of his face. He usually called his employees by their last names and most just called him Jed.

He raised his elbows and stretched his long rangy body. “Come on, Barlow, you’ve done the math! Except for those that were properly secured, every vacant building within two or three blocks of the corridor has been torched. The one you just took care of is in the zone — and if memory serves, you were the first one to notice that pattern.”

Susan shrugged her heavy bag onto an opposite desktop and slumped down into a facing chair.

“Yeah, if it really is a pattern! Me and my big mouth, huh?” she said. “Played too many games of Monopoly when I was a kid, I guess.”

Flynt smiled at her. “Yeah, maybe, but nobody else noticed— shows you’ve been paying attention.”

Her eyes looked boldly back at him. The color was arresting, disconcerting. China blue one of the other young organizers had called them. “Really? That sounds almost like a compliment, boss.”

“Yeah, well don’t let it go to your head, Barlow. Thereare a lot of homeless types looking for a place to crash. They break in, make fires to keep warm, piss on the floor, strip out the copper to buy booze or drugs and at somepoint, the fire gets away from them. Like you said in the staff meeting, lately it’s been happening too damn quick and nobody even bothers with the copper.”

“Any word from the district fire chief’s office?”

“So far can’t get anyone from the district to return my calls,” he said with a thin smile. “Better make up a Freedom of Information request, get one of your leaders to sign it, they know they have to respond to that. Talked to one of the flak-catchers over at Little City Hall. She claims all fires are thoroughly investigated, Mr. Flynt.”

He raised his hands and dropped them in a gesture of helplessness.

She made a face. “Guess I better write a letter. So, what’s the point, insurance?”

“You kidding, fire insurance on Green Street? Good luck getting any insurance company to write a new policy in your neighborhood or anywhere else in central J. P. The whole area is redlined.”

“Redlined? You’ve mentioned that before, but I really can’t say that I understand it all that well?”

Flynt hesitated and gazed at her for a moment to make sure that she wasn’t pulling his chain. Susan, he knew, typically came on like she knew it all even when she didn’t.

“Well,” he began, “it’s complicated. The Northwest Community Organization in Chicago was the first people’s organization to get a handle on it. I’ve got an organizer from N.P.A. — that’s National People’s Action — fellow by the name of Trapp, used to be lead organizer at Northwest, coming in to run a staff training session. Basically, redlining refers to a practice where the banks or the insurance companies or all of the above get together and draw a big red line on a map around parts of the city that they consider too risky to do business.”

“So, they write off the whole neighborhood?”

“You got it and once that happens, kiss the central neighborhood goodbye. Ninety-five percent of all residential housing sales are sold subject to a mortgage, and to get a mortgage you must have insurance. So, it’s a Catch- 22, you can’t get one, you don’t get the other. If mortgage or the insurance money is choked off, the housing market collapses — which sets the stage for blockbusting, slumlords, racial steering and housing abandonment.

Redlining is the underlying economic cause of most of the shit we have been organizing around.”

“So, basically these properties are worthless?”

“Yeah, well there it is,” he said rocking back in his chair. She noted the stubble on his cheeks and the dark smudges under his smoke-gray eyes.

“You ever read the novel Gone With The Wind”? he asked.

“Yeah, when I was like about twelve, why?” she said.

“Well, there is this scene where Melanie is questioning Rhett Butler about how he made all his money. You recall he was a smuggler, dodging the Yankee blockade to bring supplies into southern ports during the Civil War?”

“Uh, huh.”

“Okay, so, Melanie overcomes her proper Southern manners and asks the question, and he says, ‘there is more money to be made out of the wreckage of a civilization than from the building of one.’”

Susan rolled her eyes, “Yeah right, okay, I get it, like blockbusting?”

“Exactly.”

“Ok, but what’s with the corridor anyhow? I mean whose bright idea was that?”

“Happened before my time. Bunch of community groups got together to stop I-95 running right through the middle of the neighborhood. Finally got the governor to stop it but not until the whole thing was demoed in from Route 128 to Roxbury. What you see is what’s left,” Flynt said.

She stood up. “Okay, I’ll get setup as soon as I leave here. But what do I do if I see anybody?”

“Stay out of sight! Hide in an alley between the buildings. Or just stay in the shadows. If you see anyone or anything suspicious, try for a description or a license plate. Then get the fuck outta there, call the cops and then call me.”

“And if it’s late and you’re home asleep?”

“I’m serious, Barlow. Don’t take any chances. People who torch houses are not the kind of folks you want to screw around with. Call me if you see anything suspicious, no matter what time, day or night, just call me, okay?”

“Aye, aye, sir! “she said, and she tossed off a mock salute.

“Susan!”

“Okay, okay, I get it, I’ll call!”

He had just used her first name and she felt absurdly pleased.

If it was one of the guys, Flynt was thinking, I’d be worried—but Susan has a good head on her shoulders. He picked up his cup and cradled it between his hands.

“Chances are, these guys are professionals, they are going to show up in some kind of vehicle and be in and out quick. Try for a description of the car, and above all a license plate—look, can’t you get any help? What about your leadership?”

“The whole neighborhood is watching the house, but Cathy and Mrs. Sheehan both work third shift. People have got to sleep!”

“Nobody else?”

“Molly Reagan. She lives just up the street. She loves this kind of shit, keeps a lookout on the street all day long, writes down the license numbers of the cars that stop, but she’s an old lady and she turns in early. Looks like it’s down to me. I can hang out in the cellar doorway along the side of her house, though — it’s almost right across the street.”

“Right, okay, good. You need some help? I can assign one of the guys to spell you.”

Not one of those assholes, she thought. She liked her three male colleagues well enough, but, like most guys, they were a bunch of chauvinists. She’d be damned if she showed anything that could be interpreted as female weakness. She’d never live it down

She propped her hands on her hips.

“It’s only a few days. You think I can’t handle it? You say one thing to any of those guys and I walk right now. ”Flynt stood up and held up both hands palms forward.

“I never said you couldn’t handle it. But it’s spooky late at night. If there are guys out there systematically torching houses it could get seriously dangerous if they catch on to you.”

“I’m a grown woman and I can handle anything any of the guys can, and Green Street is my territory and that makes it my problem, right?”

“Right.”

“Okay, that means I’ll deal with it.”

“Yes mam.”

“Ok”! Susan grabbed the strap of her bag and hiked it up onto her shoulder, turned and strode straight though the vestibule and out the door without another word.

Jedediah Flynt watched her exit, admiring the slim retreating figure in tight jeans. He stood still until he heard the outside door slam shut, and then shook his head slowly side to side and sighed. My, my, my, he thought — keep your eyes on the prize, my son, because there surely lies the road to perdition.

Flynt sat down at his desk, propped his feet up, picked up the phone and dialed.

Richard W. Wise is a former lead community organizer. He directed organizing projects in Providence, Rhode Island, Boston and New Bedford, Massachusetts. His other books include: Secrets of The Gem Trade and The French Blue.” Wise has the copywrite to “Redlined.” This is an excerpt of the beginning of the still unpublished novel which is a work-in-progress.

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