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The Bonfire of the Vanities

Prologue: Mutt on Fire

"And then say what? say, 'forget you're hungry, forget you got shot inna back by some racist cop-Chuck was here? Chuck come up to Harlem-'" "No, I'll tell you what-" "'Chuck come up to Harlem and-'" ''I'll tell you what-" "Say, 'Chuck come up to Harlem and gonna take care a business for the black community'?" That does it. Heh-heggggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! It's one of those ungodly contralto cackles somewhere out there in the audience. It's a sound from down so deep, from under so many lavish layers, he knows exactly what she must look like. Two hundred pounds, if she's an ounce! Built like an oil burner! The cackle sets off the men. They erupt with those belly sounds he hates so much. They go, "Hehhehheh ... unnnnhhhh-hunhhh ... That's right ... Tell 'em, bro ... Yo ... " Chuck! The insolent-he's right there, right there in the front-he just called him a Charlie! Chuck is short for Charlie, and Charlie is the old code name for a down-home white bigot. The insolence of it! The impudence! The heat and glare are terrific. It makes the Mayor squint. It's the TV lights. He's inside a blinding haze. He can barely make out the heckler's face. He sees a tall silhouette and the fantastic bony angles the man's elbows make when he throws his hands up in the air. And an earring. The man has a big gold earring in one ear. The Mayor leans into the microphone and says, "No, I'll tell you what. Okay? I'll give you the actual figures. Okay?" "We don't want your figures, man!" Man, he says! The insolence! "You brought it up, my friend. So you're gonna get the actual figures. Okay?" "Don't you shine us up with no more your figures!" Another eruption in the crowd, louder this time: "Unnnnh-unnnnhunnnh ... Tell 'im, bra ... Y' on the case ... Yo, Gober!" "In this administration-and it's a matter of public record-the percentage of the total annual budget for New York City-" "Aw, maaaan," yells the heckler, "don't you stand there and shine us up with no more your figures and your bureaucratic rhetoric!" They love it. The insolence! The insolence sets off another eruption. He peers through the scalding glare of the television lights. He keeps squinting. He's aware of a great mass of silhouettes out in front of him. The crowd swells up. The ceiling presses down. It's covered in beige tiles. The tiles have curly incisions all over them. They're crumbling around the edges. Asbestos! He knows it when he sees it! The faces they're waiting for the beano, for the rock fight. Bloody noses!-that's the idea. The next instant means everything. He can handle it! He can handle hecklers! Only five-seven, but he's even better at it than Koch used to be! He's the mayor of the greatest city on earth-New York! Him! "All right! You've had your fun, and now you're gonna shut up for a minute!" That startles the heckler. He freezes. That's all the Mayor needs. He knows how to do it. "Youuuu asked meeeee a question, didn't you, and you got a bigggg laugh from your claque. And so now youuuuu're gonna keep quiiiiet and lissssten to the answer. Okay?" "Say, claque?" The man has had his wind knocked out, but he's still standing up. "Okay? Now here are the statistics for youm community, right here, Harlem." "Say, claque?" The bastard has hold of this word claque like a bone. "Ain' nobody can eat statistics, man!" "Tell 'im, bra ... Yo ... Yo, Gober!" "Let me finish. Do youuuuu think-" "Don't percentage no annual budget with us, man! We want jobs!" The crowd erupts again. It's worse than before. Much of it he can't make out-interjections from deep in the bread basket. But there's this Yo business. There's some loudmouth way in back with a voice that cuts through everything. "Yo, Gober! Yo, Gober! Yo, Gober!" But he isn't saying Gober. He's saying Goldberg. "Yo, Goldberg! Yo, Goldberg! Yo, Goldberg!" It stuns him. In this place, in Harlem! Goldberg is the Harlem cognomen for Jew. It's insolent-outrageous! -that anyone throws this vileness in the face of the Mayor of New York City! Boos, hisses,, grunts, belly laughs, shouts. They want to see some loose teeth. It's out of control. "Do you-" It's no use. He can't make himself heard even with the microphone. The hate in their faces! Pure poison! It's mesmerizing. "Yo, Goldberg! Yo, Goldberg! Yo, Hymie!" Hymie! That business! There's one of them yelling Goldberg and another one yelling Hymie. Then it dawns on him. Reverend Bacon! They're Bacon's people. He's sure of it. The civic-minded people who come to public meetings in Harlem-the people Sheldon was supposed to make sure filled up this hall-they wouldn't be out there yelling these outrageous things. Bacon did this! Sheldon fucked up! Bacon got his people in here! A wave of the purest self-pity rolls over the Mayor. Out of the corner of his eye he can see the television crews squirming around in the haze of light. Their cameras are coming out of their heads like horns. They're swiveling around this way and that. They're eating it up! They're here for the brawl! They wouldn't lift a finger. They're cowards! Parasites! The lice of public life! In the next moment he has a terrible realization: "It's over. I can't believe it. I've lost." "No more your ... Outta here ... Boooo ... Don' wanna ... Yo, Goldberg!" Guliaggi, the head of the Mayor's plainclothes security detail, is coming toward him from the side of the stage. The Mayor motions him back with a low flap of his hand, without looking at him directly. What could he do, anyway? He brought only four officers with him. He didn't want to come up here with an army. The whole point was to show that he could go to Harlem and hold a town-hall meeting, just the way he could in Riverdale or Park Slope. In the front row, through the haze, he catches the eye of Mrs. Langhorn, the woman with the shingle hairdo, the head of the community board, the woman who introduced him just-what?-minutes ago. She purses her lips and cocks her head and starts shaking it. This look is supposed to say, "I wish I could help you, but what can I do? Behold the wrath of the people!" Oh, she's afraid like all the rest! She knows she should stand up against this element! They'll go after black people like her next! They'll be happy to do it! She knows that. But the good people are intimidated! They don't dare do a thing! Back to blood! Them and us! "Go on home! ... Booooo ... Yagggghhh ... Yo!" He tries the microphone again. "Is this what-is this what-" Hopeless. Like yelling at the surf. He wants to spit in their eyes. He wants to tell them he's not afraid. You're not making me look bad! You're letting a handful of hustlers in this hall make all of Harlem look bad! You let a couple of loudmouths call me Goldberg and Hymie, and you don't shout them down-you shout me down! It's unbelievable! Do you-you hardworking, respectable, God-fearing people of Harlem, you Mrs. Langhorns, you civic-minded people-do you really think they're your brothers! Who have your friends been all these years? The Jews! And you let these hustlers call me a Charlie! They call me these things, and you say nothing? The whole hall appears to be jumping up and down. They're waving their fists. Their mouths are open. They're screaming. If they jump any higher, they'll bounce off the ceiling. It'll be on TV. The whole city will see it. They'll love it. Harlem rises up! What a show! Not the hustlers and the operators and the players rise up-but Harlem rises up! All of black New York rises up! He's only mayor for some of the people! He's the mayor of White New York! Set fire to the mutt! The Italians will watch this on TV, and they'll love it. And the Irish. Even the Wasps. They won't know what they're looking at. They'll sit in their co-ops on Park and Fifth and East Seventy-second Street and Sutton Place, and they'll shiver with the violence of it and enjoy the show. Cattle! Birdbrains! Rosebuds! Goyim! You don't even know, do you? Do you really think this is your city any longer? Open your eyes! The greatest city of the twentieth century! Do you think money will keep it yours? Come down from your swell co-ops, you general partners and merger lawyers! It's the Third World down there! Puerto Ricans, West Indians, Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans, Colombians, Hondurans, Koreans, Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, Ecuadorians, Panamanians, Filipinos, Albanians, Senegalese, and Afro-Americans! Go visit the frontiers, you gutless wonders! Morningside Heights, St. Nicholas Park, Washington Heights, Fort Tryon-por que pagar mas! The Bronx-the Bronx is finished for you! Riverdale is just a little freeport up there! Pelham Parkway-keep the corridor open to Westchester! Brooklyn-your Brooklyn is no more! Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope-little Hong Kongs, that's all! And Queens! Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, Hollis, Jamaica, Ozone Park-whose is it? Do you know? And where does that leave Ridgewood, Bayside, and Forest Hills? Have you ever thought about that! And Staten Island! Do you Saturday do-it-yourselfers really think you're snug in your little rug? You don't think the future knows how to cross a bridge? And you, you Wasp charity-bailers sitting on your mounds of inherited money up in your co-ops with the twelve-foot ceilings and the two wings, one for you and one for the help, do you really think you're impregnable? And you German-Jewish financiers who have finally made it into the same buildings, the better to insulate yourselves from the shtetl hordes, do you really think you're insulated from the Third World? You poor fatties! You marshmallows! Hens! Cows! You wait'll you have a Reverend Bacon for a mayor, and a City Council and a Board of Estimate with a bunch of Reverend Bacons from one end of the chamber to the other! You'll get to know them then, all right! They'll come see you! They'll come see you at 60 Wall and Number One Chase Manhattan Plaza! They'll sit on your desks and drum their fingers! They'll dust out your safe-deposit boxes for you, free of charge- Completely crazy, these things roaring through his head! Absolutely paranoid! Nobody's going to elect Bacon to anything. Nobody's going to march downtown. He knows that. But he feels so alone! Abandoned! Misunderstood! Me! You wait'll you don't have me any longer! See how you like it then! And you let me stand here alone at this lectern with a god damned asbestos ceiling corning down on my head- "Boooo! ... Yegggghhh! ... Yaaaggghhh! ... Yo! ... Goldberg!" There's a terrific commotion on one side of the stage. The TV lights are right in his face. A whole lot of pushing and shoving-he sees a cameraman go down. Some of the bastards are heading for the stairs to the stage, and the television crews are in the way. So they're going over them. Shoving-shoving somebody back down the stairs-his men, the plainclothes detail, the big one, Norrejo-Norrejo's shoving somebody back down the stairs. Something hits the Mayor on the shoulder. It hurts like hell! There on the floor-a jar of mayonnaise, an eight-ounce jar of Hellmann's mayonnaise. Half full! Half consumed! Somebody has thrown a half-eaten jar of Hellmann's mayonnaise at him! In that instant the most insignificant thing takes over his mind. Who in the name of God would bring a half-eaten eight-ounce jar of Hellmann's mayonnaise to a public meeting? The goddamned lights! People are up on the stage ... a lot of thrashing about ... a regular melee ... Norrejo grabs some big devil around the waist and sticks his leg behind him and throws him to the floor. The other two detectives, Holt and Danforth, have their backs to the Mayor. They're crouched like blocking backs protecting a passer. Guliaggi is right beside him. "Get behind me," says Guliaggi. "We're going through that door." Is he smiling? Guliaggi seems to have this little smile on his face. He motions his head toward a door at the rear of the stage. He's short, he has a small head, a low forehead, small narrow eyes, a flat nose, a wide mean mouth with a narrow mustache. The Mayor keeps staring at his mouth. Is that a smile? It can't be, but maybe it is. This strange mean twist to his lips seems to be saying: "It's been your show up to now, but now it's mine." Somehow the smile decides the issue. The Mayor gives up his Custer's command post at the lectern. He gives himself over to this little rock. Now the others are closed in around him, too, Norrejo, Holt, Danforth. They're around him like the four corners of a pen. People are all over the stage. Guliaggi and Norrejo are muscling their way through the mob. The Mayor is right on their heels. Snarling faces are all around him. There's some character barely two feet from him who keeps jumping up and yelling, "You little white-haired pussy!" He keeps saying it. "You little white-haired pussy!" Right in front of him-the big heckler himself! The one with the elbows and the gold earring! Guliaggi is between the Mayor and the heckler, but the heckler towers over Guliaggi. He must be six five. He screams at the Mayor, right in his face: "Go on back-oof!" All at once the big son of a bitch is sinking, with his mouth open and his eyes bugged out. Guliaggi has driven his elbow and forearm into the man's solar plexus. Guliaggi reaches the door and opens it. The Mayor follows. He feels the other detectives pushing him through from behind. He sprawls against Guliaggi's back. The guy's a piece of stone! They're going down a stairway. They're clattering on some metal strips. He's in one piece. The mob isn't even on his heels. He's safe-his heart sinks. They're not even trying to follow him. They never really tried to touch him. And in that moment ... he knows. He knows even before his mind can put it all together. "I did the wrong thing. I gave in to that little smile. I panicked. I've lost it all.