“There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs.”
~Herman Melville, 1851, Moby Dick
Another ragged breath ripped through me, and I raised my head, panting now. The cart wasn’t moving, and neither were several people around me, wide eyes taking in my dripping hair and undignified position.
Take the curve ahead of you.
I pushed myself upright and extended my right foot off the end of the cart, feeling for the stones of the street. I felt like a slow motion film, as if the world had stopped around me and I could barely move. About the time I got both feet under me, there was a hand under my arm and an overeager voice asking if I were all right. Of all the things to cross my mind, it registered that he didn’t use the word “okay.”
I nodded and responded with as much dignity as I could muster, “I’m—I’m well, thank you. I stumbled.” I gestured vaguely at the cart, wondering how feasible an explanation that could possibly be.
“Most unfortunate, Miss…” His raised eyebrows made the trailed-off sentence a question, and thinking of the Times mention, I hastened to supply the rest.
“Harper, Gayla Harper. Thank you so much for your assistance.” Not that he’d assisted much, more like he was being nosy. But I suspected this eager face belonged to a reporter—or would talk to one—and I needed that to be true. Check, one item off the list.
It would have been easier to brush the manure off if I hadn’t been so wet myself, but I gave it my best effort. I hadn’t missed the young man taking note of my gold rings, and I slipped all but two of them off my fingers and tucked them into my skirt pocket to clink against the handful of dollars and dimes. No sense attracting undue attention. Ha, as if I hadn’t just done that. But that was attention I needed in order to leave myself the clue, and I didn’t want to attract the wrong kind. I was pretty much standing on the set of “Gangs of New York” right here.
Somehow I’d feel safer when that gold was converted to coin, which had the advantages of being less noteworthy and more easily spent. I didn’t imagine I’d get “best value,” but I was confident I’d amass more than I needed for an inn here, shipboard passage to New Bedford, outfitting myself with a more comprehensive kit, and whatever other incidentals might arise. I’d done my research on gold prices and dollar values. Each of the dollar coins in my pocket would buy something like $28 worth of goods or services from my own time, and gold would sell now for $21 to the ounce. Yup, I’d done my math, and now I had the next step in the equation—finding a pawnbroker.
I guessed correctly that I wouldn’t have far to search. Pawning should be listed right after prostitution in the “oldest professions” list. I didn’t plan to sell them all at once, partly because I wasn’t sure what kind of reception I’d get, but the Irishman behind the dark shop’s counter didn’t seem suspicious that I wanted to sell two rings. If anything, considering the state I was in, he probably wondered why I hadn’t sold them already.
Street vendors are another old profession, though health-department oversight was a yet-unknown addition to the trade. Still, I didn’t even feel hesitant when I smelled the beefy steam. The impulse toward the hot-dog man that had led me to start crossing Baxter Street of 2011—and land on Orange Street of 1841—had been a couple hours ago at least. Or maybe a couple lifetimes. I couldn’t have judged the time just then to save my life. I pressed my two dimes into the vendor’s paw and gratefully received two gravy-laden meat pies in exchange.
The world looks different on a full stomach. Of course, in this case the world looked altogether different already. Lacking the backdrop of skyscrapers and and cars and subway tunnels, the very acoustics of the city, the echoes as well as the sounds, had shifted. The smells had shifted—horse dung and dust and human sweat in place of automobile exhaust. The dress and even the faces of people around me had shifted. And the cadence of speech had shifted. The “New York accent,” so distinctive in my own time, hadn’t yet developed, and the unmistakable lilt of Irish inflections pervaded the street here in Five Points.
But in either time, the character of the city can change within a matter of blocks, and I could see the demographic shift as I walked purposefully toward the water.
New York has so much cultural influence and such iconic status in my time, instantly recognizable even to TV audiences who have never set foot there, it’s easy to forget how small Manhattan really is. It took me barely half an hour to reach the waterfront on foot—ship-laden piers jutting out into the water and not a bridge in sight. (It’s also easy in my time to forget that Manhattan is an island.) I had ducked into three more pawnbrokers along my route, selling a pair of gold rings at each, and walked now with a hand on my pocket to keep it quiet. Convenient (and quiet) paper money hadn’t yet been invented either.
At this point I wanted nothing more than quiet space and time to regroup, so I was eyeballing inns along the waterfront. New York is a commercial port rather than a whaling hub, but the painted sign for “The Whaler’s Wife” caught my eye. That name boded well to me, lacking any other criteria for choosing a place, and I stepped in the door. The front room with its packed earth floor and wooden benches echoed with the raucous voices of drinkers. Several young girls bustled among the seated crowd, collecting small coins and pouring refills from pottery pitchers; I caught the eye of one, who paused in her passage.
“Whom can I see about a room?”
“Mrs. Molly over there.” Hands encumbered, she nodded toward what I guessed was the kitchen door, at a stout woman in a pristine apron. Clearly Mrs. Molly didn’t stoop to serving her patrons herself. She watched me as I made my way toward her, and her assessing gaze made me wish away the smears of horse dung. I suddenly wondered if my face were even clean.
“I’d like a room for one week, please, if you have it. And I wonder if maybe you could assist me with some shopping—I’ve had a mishap and arrived without my trunk.”
Her face radiating skepticism, she told me the room with meals would cost me a dollar a night, in advance. I deliberately pulled out a whole fistful of coins so she could see them, counted out seven into her hand, and returned the rest to my pocket with enough force for them to make noise against the rest. The gesture registered—I could practically see her upward assessment of my worth, and the corresponding willingness to be helpful. The coins disappeared under her unstained apron and she barked at one of the busy girls to show me upstairs. And bring me some wash water.
“After you’ve cleaned up”—her gaze flicked downward to the stained knees of my skirt—“you come back down here for dinner, and we’ll talk about what you need.”
I’d had in mind that she might just advise me about where to shop, but I had an idea now that she’d want a cut of the action. Well, if that meant some goods coming to me instead of the other way around, I could live with the price of the convenience. I had other things I’d need to attend to in upcoming days. And my money only had to last the weeks until I got myself married.
The surge of adrenaline that accompanied that thought served to show me that I hadn’t been operating in a place of fear or anxiety for most of the afternoon, and that surprised me. I had an alcoholic friend back home who had Recovery slogans posted all around her house on sticky-notes. The one on her bathroom mirror asked, “What’s the next right thing to do?” That’s how she takes life, one thing at a time, as each comes in front of her. Like the next curve on the highway. If I could just stay in that mindframe, maybe the next eight years wouldn’t have to be an ongoing adrenaline infusion.
The room seemed tidy enough, and I resolved not to wonder how often they laundered the sheets. I was uncomfortably aware of its lack of a bathroom—and my need for one—while I waited for Bitsy to return with water. She arrived with a stiff clothing brush and a sloshing copper wash tub (apparently my appearance warranted more water than a mere pitcher) and I thanked her and asked where to find the privy. She looked sideways at me as if I’d asked the obvious—which perhaps I had, unfamiliar as I was with a nineteenth century inn—and directed me down the back steps to the inn yard behind the building.
That relief accomplished, I returned to my room (thinking of hotel key-cards as I re-entered its unlocked door) and took off my dress to see what I could do with it. The cloak I spread across several pegs on the wall to finish drying its outer layer (noting with satisfaction that its interior had stayed dry in the rainstorm) and the dress I spread on the floor so I could tackle its skirt with the clothes brush and warm water. I ended with a soaked spot across the front, but appreciably less stained—it would look reasonably respectable once it dried. I knew I would have to accustom myself to not bathing daily, but it was such a relief to unhook my undergarments and sponge down my sweaty torso. I toweled off with the linen square provided—wishing for deodorant—and donned my damp attire again.
I had worked with a hairdresser before I left—she perfected the nineteenth-century knot and sidecurls, but I wasn’t sure I’d gained the skills myself, despite practicing repeatedly in front of her mirror. Now I found myself missing several hairpins, and not terribly motivated to tackle the job. Instead, I retrieved my hairbrush from my cloak and brushed it out, leaving it hanging down my back. It may not be the fashion, but I didn’t have the energy to fuss. Besides, my hair is my good feature—it’s pretty loose, even if it’s out of fashion.
Feeling I’d done the best I could, I descended the front stairs to the noisy tavern room, and sought out Mrs. Molly to talk shopping lists. She sat me down on a bench near her kitchen-door post, signaling Bitsy (or a look-alike, I wasn’t sure) to bring me food and drink, and asked me bluntly what I needed bought.
“Do you have a pen and paper?” Her look of surprise brought home the fact that this was probably a woman who kept all her accounts in her head. She was probably a whiz at mental math, but she might not read. If that were the case, however, she apparently wasn’t going to let on. She disappeared for a length of time—during which a red chowder and fresh bread appeared, accompanied by a mug of ale—reappearing at last with paper, an ink bottle, and a quill. Still uncertain whether she could read what I might write, I made the impulsive decision to draw my list. Pushing aside the half-finished chowder, I bent my head to the page and dipped the quill in its ink repeatedly, sketching little line-drawings of a pair of blouses, a nightgown, a skirt, a carpetbag, hairpins, a comb, a notebook, a fountain pen, an ink jar, a knife, some whale teeth… And a sextant—by far the priciest item on my pictograph list.
When I handed her the page I couldn’t tell if her surprised reaction were due to the items on the list, or the fact that they’d been sketched instead of named. I shrugged, suddenly feeling embarrassed by my assumption of her illiteracy. “Sorry, I’m an artist.” Perhaps that went some way toward explaining me anyway. And maybe I hadn’t been off base—instead of disappearing with the page as she’d seemed poised to do, she sat herself across from me.
“None of this should be difficult,” she assured me, “though you’ll no doubt have to call yourself for the sextant. I think those merchants will not call here.”
“No worries,” I responded quickly (registering too late her flash of puzzlement at the phrase). “I planned to make that call myself, but I’d still like your advice in where to go. I don’t know New York at all, and I’m sure you know all the inside information.” I smiled, hoping the flattery would ease us past any awkward question of my linguistic goof. I was going to have a lot of those, I could tell.