Willows: The Creole is an Amazon Best Seller written by local author, Cyndie Shaffstall. The Arceneaux family has a long history of falling victim to circumstance, but heir to the family home, one woman is determined the legacy will end with her. Embroiled in the fleecing of New York’s bridge funds, she is offered a new life in New Orleans, but what she finds is an abandoned house, a fractured family, and an oppressed people. Determined, she confronts the challenges head on, but soon realizes change is not something needed only for her, but for many.
A GIFT OR BURDEN
My eyes fly open and I try to sit up all at the same time. Antonio pushes me back down on the bed and wipes at my forehead none too gently with a wetted rag. I begin to recall the events, from—
How long have I been here?
Fortunately, he confirms it’s only been a few minutes.
Whatever happened to the adage: never hit a woman?
He reminds me I have also forgotten the adage: women should be seen, not heard.
I thought that was children.
He lifts the rag, examines the wound, and makes a face.
Is it bad?
He gets up, goes through the open door, and returns with a shaving mirror a few moments later. I make an attempt to sit up in the bed so I can lean against the wall, but the effort gives me a moment of nausea. I try a second time and succeed. I hold up the mirror in one hand and use the other to pull at the cut—which causes it to resume bleeding. Antonio curses at me and pushes the rag at the wound—even less gently than before.
It’s not the first time. Not likely to be the last—unless I do start spending more time being seen than heard.
[Not blam’d likely.]
Antonio tells me he has to get back to work. His boss was already upset that he threw me over his shoulders like a sack of flour and carried me up the stairs to my apartment, across the hall from his own.
Yes, go. I’ll be fine. I have an appointment to attend.
I wait for him to leave and shut the door before trying to stand. It’s slow going; the nausea from moments before returns with a vengeance. I sit on the edge of the bed, with my feet on the floor, and make several efforts to stand, after the fourth of which I am granted a modicum of success.
I take note of my opened bodice and unlaced corset. That didn’t take long. Bleeding to death, but Antonio takes the time to open my clothing. I wonder if that was the extent of his liberties.
In real danger of being late, I attempt to redress and gather myself, but am forced to sit more than once as I watch the minutes tick away. Finally, after nearly half an hour, I’ve made it down the steps to stand at the edge of the busy Brooklyn sidewalk. I cross to the other side so I will not been seen by any witnesses who still remain in the butcher’s shop, where the incident occurred, and I think of the burly Irishman with a hammer fist as I go.
It is a typical attorney’s office: a brick building, like a dozen others I’ve been in over the last year, and every bit as threatening—given all that has happened. I walk up the stairs leading from the sidewalk to the lobby, open the door, and find the firm’s name on the directory.
I creep up the stairs—like a punished child—the sense of dread increasing with every step.
Will this finally be the day they dispel my defense and arrest me?
The glass door is neatly painted in all capital letters—as though the shape of the letters should command respect. Oddly, it does seem more official—authoritative, even—which only serves to increase my sense of dread; though obstinacy is also growing, I realize. I open the door and cross the large room to the secretary’s desk. She is handwriting a letter, though next to her sits a bulky typewriter. She levels a curt glare to silence me—just in case I was considering interrupting her.
She finishes her writing and looks up. With as much politeness as I can muster, I tell her I am here to see Mr. Blankenship. She looks at the cut above my eye and tsks at me, as though she were my mother, and checks her book for my appointment. She indicates I should have a seat while she informs him I have arrived. I turn to look at the handcrafted leather chairs behind me, and wonder if she thinks I’m worthy of sitting in one. I decide to sit in it just to irritate her—I couldn’t care less what she thinks. After far more than a polite amount of time—and well past the appointment—she marshals me down the hall and into the office of a very round man.
The room is nothing short of luxurious. Heavy velvet drapes hang at all of the many windows overlooking Wall Street below, which I can hear, but not see, from where I stand. The attorney is smoking a long, fat cigar and drinking liquor—before lunch—while rifling through a stack of papers. A full bookcase is behind him, stretching from wall to wall and ceiling to floor. Not a single one of the books appears to have ever been read, the spines in perfect condition.
[Just another ignorant moron in control of my freedom and future.]
I continue to stand, expecting acknowledgment. As dismissive as the secretary, Mr. Blankenship barely looks at me before waving his hand in the general direction of the two opulent chairs facing his desk. I sit on the closest—made even more irritated by his demeanor. I look around the room and at the obviously expensive rug—no doubt paid for by corrupt men like my father. I can see indentations in the wool marking where this chair usually sits, and wonder if he moved it away from the desk due to my presence. I have a full view of his bald head as he continues to lean over the papers and read. I consider the collective amount of rudeness I’ve received over the past three years, and know his—or his secretary’s—behavior barely measures. I pull a lace handkerchief from my reticule and dab at the cut, just in case it has started to bleed again. It has.
Without any introduction he turns back to the first page in the stack, looks in my direction, and points to the page. As though I can see what it says from the distant chair, he informs me my father’s sister, Hortense Arceneaux, has died and I am to receive a portion of her estate. He pushes the documents toward me, still without meeting my eyes, and I must stand to retrieve them from his desk. I return to the chair and skim them quickly. Beyond the Last Will & Testament at the top is a deed to property near New Orleans. Various other documents follow, some in small type, some handwritten, many in French, some in Spanish, and a few in English.
He permits me only a few moments to look through them before asking if I have any questions. As I begin to ask the first of many, he takes a long puff on his cigar, and blows the smoke directly at me while standing to indicate our meeting has finished. Without so much as a civil—or otherwise—wish for a good day, he walks toward the door and opens it—ushering me out with a sweep of his arm and leaving a trail of smelly smoke, which I am left to walk through in order to exit. It clings to me like a bad perfume and follows me into the hall.
More annoyed than before, I stand, stride through the doorway, and resist the urge to reopen the door and give him a large serving of the curses I am screaming in my thoughts. My wound pounds as a reminder of the last such effort, and I choose instead to retreat down the hall, pass the secretary without acknowledgment—who again glares at me—and step out the door into the main hall.
I stand at the top of the stairs and hold the rail—dizzy with relief or from the head injury; I am not certain. I risk another brief look at the documents I’m holding. The sizeable stack includes a property description, a property list, and contact information for the company that has provided management of the property for the last 87 years—surely an error—among others. I shake my head—regretting the movement immediately—and leave the building, glad to escape the dreadful environment, made even more intense by my anxiety about attending in the first place.
I take the few steps down to the street and join others on the busy sidewalk, pondering the topic as I go. I remember my father’s sister—Aunt Hortense, a spinster—but only barely. I can recall having met her just once when I was ten or maybe a little older. I cannot imagine why she would provide for me, a niece with whom she has had no contact in all these years since.
THE NEW YORK AND BROOKLYN BRIDGE
On the sidewalk, there is a suffocating, deep throng of people. The busy streets of Brooklyn have the addition of visitors here to watch the opening of the New York and Brooklyn Bridge. My walk is slow, trying to weave through the crowd, but it would be unbearable if not for the cool breeze sweeping through the city.
I suffer the crowd and push my way along with thousands of others. The preparations for the opening ceremonies have been underway for weeks—perhaps months—but today they and the masses have reached natural crescendos; even the East Bay is filled with ships crowding the waters.
With new thoughts burdening the recesses of my mind, the jostling crowd nudges me along as I watch various events unfold without paying attention.
Special trains have been run from Philadelphia and Easton in Pennsylvania, and from Long Island points; for regular lines, extra cars were attached in order to provide additional transportation for the thousands of people. The bridge’s approach platforms for both cities are already so full there are barely any standing room left. Those not arriving by train or foot also have the option of a sound boat or ferry—every possible vehicle type enlisted to swell the crowds in the cities even further.
I continue to be bumped as I stand at a place on 23rd Avenue where the two processions will merge. Looking at the people already lining the streets, the opening of the bridge is unquestionably more Brooklyn’s celebration, with New York’s role somewhat paltry in comparison. This is the side on which the procession is assembling, and from where the parade will start. The event has drawn so many Brooklyn workers from their offices, the Exchange and some of the businesses have closed; others have posted notice of their intent to do so at noon. I believe, though, if I were to ask, I would have found most businesses were unwilling to forego the additional monies yet to be spent by those descending on the city for the celebration.
City Hall Park and Printing House Square are also filled, and so much so that even those with tickets to attend the ceremonies are finding it nearly impossible to pass. The patience of the police officers is tested in their efforts to keep the crowds sufficiently thinned in order to ensure continued passage.
Visitors and residents combine, filling to bursting the vicinity of Madison Square to Broadway. The street and buildings are mostly undecorated—except for the flying of American flags—windows, balconies, and roofs of the buildings along Broadway hold reveling spectators. There are less than a score of buildings whose owners have thought to decorate the outsides with garlands and streamers; and for those who have, most of their work is hidden behind the crowd lining the parade routes.
The police are in strong force and visible—uptown and downtown—and with a maneuver, which must have been practiced, they block the street at precisely nine o’clock in the morning so workmen can remove the temporary fence from the front of the Brooklyn approach. A line of officers has formed and they stand at the ready, also preventing the onlookers from edging forward onto the bridge until after the procession has passed.
It is several hours’ wait before the first of twenty-four carriages conveys President Arthur and Mayor Edson past where I stand. The crowd cheers and President Arthur lifts his hat in acknowledgment. The second carriage seats Secretary of State Frelinghuysen, Secretary of the Treasury Foger, and Trustee Agnew. Other dignitaries follow, but just as the cheers subside in exuberance, the sixth carriage arrives, occupied by Governor Cleveland and Trustee General Slocum, and the cheers rise loudly again.
The dignitaries dismount from the carriages, and the crowd raises a cheer anew at the sight of the President. Standing with the President is Governor Cleveland, who is not recognized until General Slocum joins him. All but one of the city aldermen—Mr. Fitzpatrick, who spoke out against the bridge project—march in carrying staffs of their office, to line up and become a procession of footmen. The band plays a lively march, the regiment breaks into columns of fours, and the procession moves forward, making its way to the bridge’s Brooklyn approach.
There were twenty-seven men who lost their lives during the construction, including the bridge’s chief engineer, John Roebling, but Mr. Roebling did not actually die during the construction; rather he was run into by a boat while taking compass readings. Though he contracted tetanus from the injury and died three weeks later, his death obviously was not enough to prevent the bridge’s completion. The credit for completing the bridge goes to his son, Washington A. Roebling, who had worked at his father’s side on several bridges.
There were other tragedies and injuries involving the compression chambers of the main caissons, which support the bridge. Men, including the younger Mr. Roebling, were required to work underwater and in doing so, succumbed to compression sickness. Mr. Roebling was able to partially recover from his experience with the bends, and continued directing the construction by providing instructions to his wife, Emily Warren Roebling. Mrs. Roebling had studied higher mathematics, calculations of catenary curves, strengths of materials, bridge specifications, and intricacies of cable construction, which made her highly qualified to provide written communication between her husband and the bridge-construction supervisors. For eleven years, she and her husband continued in this manner in order to complete the bridge’s construction. Given the numerous construction challenges and the theft of the funds at the hands of Tweed, an unscrupulous business associate of my father—and his other cronies—it’s a wonder the bridge has been completed at all.
…and, yet, now it has…
In the harbor, the water vessels—ferries, tugs, and other small boats—are decorated with flags, streamers, and garlands, much more so than the buildings. Even docked vessels are packed with revelers, who must have arrived hours before me, perhaps even before dawn. The warships—the Tennessee, Kearsarge, Yantic, Vandalia, Minnesota, and Saratoga—are also decorated and anchored in a line below the newly completed structural span.
At two o’clock, a Signal Corps officer dips a flag, and a shot fires upward from a porthole of the Tennessee, followed directly by a loud report: the first of the twenty-one-gun salute. The other war ships fire as well, until all twenty-one shots have been heard and the procession advances across the bridge.
The President, mayors, and other persons of the foot procession fall in step behind a carriage in which Emily Roebling sits—a rooster on her lap as a symbol of victory. Mr. Roebling, still bedridden, watches from a top-floor hospital bed. Behind the carriage, and in front of the procession, a smiling black man carries a yellow pail filled with drinking water in one hand, and a rack of glasses in the other. He smiles to the crowd as he passes them—happy to have been chosen for the important occupation.
Once the distinguished people of the parade pass through the entrance, ticket holders are allowed to follow. I edge forward trying to keep step with the procession, but must stop when I can advance no further toward the crowded pier. I can see the upper windows and roofs of houses filled with eager onlookers, spying on the event through opera glasses or small telescopes, and wish for a device of my own as the beginning of the parade moves further from me.
People with telescopes call out the happenings for those of us without tickets who still linger, reporting that at the Brooklyn side pier, Mayor Low and other Brooklyn dignitaries greet the procession and the two mayors lock arms. The President is smiling and waving, and the band plays Hail to the Chief. As those from the Brooklyn side continue to push across the bridge, an immense crowd amasses on the New York approach, which prevents those still crossing from reaching the interior of the approach’s building situated at the end. The jam continues to grow until it extends back halfway to the pier—and there is nothing left to see for those of us who remain.
I sit where I had been standing and watch the people and continuing procession for what’s left of the day and into the night. Well after dark has arrived, fireworks are set off in a colorful display eliciting the customary oohs and aahs, and once the display has finished, the families with children totter home.
I have nowhere to be and since regular sleep left me nearly three years ago, I continue to watch until well past dawn—the procession constant, even as I depart. In almost twenty-four hours in the same place on the grass, I have watched nearly two thousand vehicles cross the only land passage between Brooklyn and New York—fifteen hundred ninety-five feet of cables, concrete, and steel. Though I have no way of counting, I’m certain there must also have been a hundred thousand people—perhaps more—crossing the bridge, either in the initial procession or since, using the broad promenade above the roadway.
As the day heats up and the air regains the oppressive moisture—chased away yesterday by the breeze—I return to my single-room, dreary apartment. The walk is long and ungodly hot. It takes me nearly two hours to make the distance, but at least in the densely packed crowd of mostly visitors, there is the benefit of anonymity.
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