Route 1 to the heart of darkness
Jack settles back into the Kennedy cottage where he gets a warm welcome from Bobby and gets a good look at The Grandfather: Joseph P. Sr.
By John Armstrong
It was as quiet as New York ever gets on the way out of the city and traffic was light when we got onto US 1 headed south. The freeway runs over top of what was the original Boston Post Road, three hundred years old under its modern surface and ironically, that cement and tarmac was poured and paid for by the Kennedys at their end and the New York Families at ours, our respective crews meeting in the middle somewhere. I remember that because it was one of the illustrations of how a closed economic system works, back in college. We collect our tribute from the people and in return, we have to keep things working, such as roads. Plus, it’s a basic cost of business. Where would we be without transportation? Or sewers, or whatever.
Say we have a contract to let for 100 miles of freeway construction, just like this. Chances are, it’s going to a Luciano construction company, one of them, but does that mean they don’t pay the industry standard bribe for getting it? It does not – family’s family, but business is business. And they can afford the baksheesh, too – road crews are doing a union job at union wages, like most of our businesses. Why wouldn’t they be: we run the unions, too. Who do you think organized organized labor in the first place?
One classmate complained “it’s just taking money out of one pocket and putting it in the other.” So? Personally, I don’t see a problem. Everybody gets paid, the road gets built, and all the money stays safely in our pocket. Does it matter which one? That’s the problem with economists – they look at something in practice and wonder if it would work in theory.
We rode on in silence and at some point I slept because I woke as we were turning onto what’s officially the John F. Fitzgerald Expressway and has never in living memory been called that by anyone who lives here. It’s always “the Artery’ – or if you want to pass for native, “the Awdaree.” John Fitzgerald is obviously my namesake, the former Mayor of Boston and father of my Grandmother Rose; when she married Joseph, the son of Boston’s other most powerful political family, the Kennedys, the dynasty was founded. I imagine it was done the same way the old feudal lords arranged the marriages of their children. Grandmother has never betrayed the slightest affection for Joe and I can’t imagine anyone marrying him unless they were forced to. Then again, he was young, once, and I can’t imagine that, either.
We took the artery through and over the city and out the other side, less than an hour from the Compound, the family grounds in Hyannis. Then we were there at the driveway and I felt as if I were in a dream. It was like coming back to a haunted house.
John Fitzgerald is obviously my namesake, the former Mayor of Boston and father of my Grandmother Rose; when she married Joseph, the son of Boston’s other most powerful political family, the Kennedys, the dynasty was founded. I imagine it was done the same way the old feudal lords arranged the marriages of their children. Grandmother has never betrayed the slightest affection for Joe and I can’t imagine anyone marrying him unless they were forced to. Then again, he was young, once, and I can’t imagine that, either.
The driver took my bags up to the door and two servants took over from there, one to carry the luggage and another to go on ahead and break trail. The house is not so enormous that it requires a guide –Gracie Mansion, Frank’s place, is maybe twice its size– but the Kennedys are big on demonstrations of propriety and gentility. I’ve seen one of them at the dinner table ring the service bell for a waiter to come back from the kitchen and fetch them something that was within a short stretch the sideboard. I asked Frank why once and he said, the difference between us is we were all peasants in our own countries, but the Kennedys want everyone to forget they were ever poor.
The bearer laid my things down on the bed and the other told me that Mr. Robert would see me in the “sipping room” when I was settled. I washed my face, changed my shirt and took several deep breaths, then went out into the hall. The curtain had gone up. Now all I had to do was figure out what my lines were.
…the difference between us is we were all peasants in our own countries, but the Kennedys want everyone to forget they were ever poor…
The sipping room is an ugly, maritime themed room in the basement off the wine cellar. As kids it was a favorite during hide-and-seek and later it was a place for anything that needed doing away from the eyes of adults. Everything is made from old planks and cracked leather and the bar itself is an antique serving station from some long-since decommissioned ship.
I never really understood the family’s passion for all things nautical until I got older and learned that boats and horses are two hobbies only the very rich can afford. When I was older still, Frank explained to me that boats had made he and Joe very, very rich, bringing whiskey down the coast from Eastern Canada during Prohibition. He also said Joe was lucky – when the Takeover happened his involvement in politics could have really hurt the family’s standing but fortunately everyone knew he was the biggest crook around so his reputation was safe. Frank has what is generally described as a dry wit.
Robert was standing by the fireplace with a short glass. He put it down and came to hug me.
“I can’t believe you’re here. Everyone is so happy you’re back home.” He went over to the bar to pour me a drink and I had a moment to think of something to say.
“I’m just grateful I had somewhere to go. It was a shock – out of nowhere, bang – I was out. I’m still trying to make sense of it.”
“That’s because there isn’t any,” Bobby said. He passed me my drink and sat down on the wide arm of one of the couches. “One of the worst things about leadership is knowing who you can trust. You can find a reason to doubt everyone if you look for it, and it’s not surprising that when a man gets old and his mind betrays him, he turns on his closest friends and family. I’ve seen it.”
“But you saw him last week, he was fine.” I found I was thinking about everything I said half a dozen times before I could get it out, trying to get it to sound plausible and innocent. I hoped I just sounded dazed by events.
“No, he didn’t. He looked like he was at the end of his rope. That thing at the Waldorf finished him. It’s a shame, but he needs to be put out to pasture before he does any more harm.” Bobby finished his drink and set the glass aside. “I know you love the man. I’m just saying, if he can’t think straight it’s time he retire.
“But that‘s for us to talk about with Dad.” He looked less boyish when he mentioned Joe. He looked every one of his years and a few more.
“He wasn’t very kind to you and your mother, I know, and that’s hard to forgive. Ethel and I tried to make up for it but it could never be enough, I know that, too.” He went back to the bar and screwed the cap back on the bottle. “I love my father but he’s wrong about many things. But whatever he’s done he’s suffered, whether it was God’s punishment or just bad luck. He’s buried most of his children. That’s the irony, that he built all this for his kids and now he has none, only me. And you. If you’ll give him a chance. I’m not saying he deserves it from you.”
I didn’t know what to say, so that’s exactly what I told him.
Bobby said, “You don’t have to say anything. Just give things a chance to work out, okay? Now go up and say hello to your aunt and grandmother. And be ready to get cried on.” He put his arm around my shoulder and we went up the stairs.
Dinner was exactly like everything else about this homecoming, by which I mean it was as strange as dancing mice. After the initial crying-over that Bobby had warned me of, it was like I’d gone out for cigarettes an hour ago. Bobby and Ethel’s kids didn’t see anything odd in my sudden reappearance – they remembered me vaguely from when they were little. I’d gone away, and now I was back; it was the sort of thing adults did and they paid it no mind.
The meal was a cookout on the back patio, hot dogs and hamburgers and potato salad. I was reintroduced to a variety of cousins, some of whom I dimly remembered and one who blushed when we were presented to each other. I took it she also recalled spending an instructive half-hour down in the sipping room, many summers ago.
About an hour into the party one of the servants wheeled Joe out. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t have recognized him but the change was profound. For one thing, he could still walk when I left.
If there was one word I’d have used to describe my grandfather in his prime it would have been ‘sharp’ – from the crease in his pants to the point of his chin, sharp-eyed behind the steel-framed lenses he always wore, sharp-tongued and sharp-witted. Now he looked dull, as if he’d been washed too many times. His remaining hair was plastered back on his skull but a thatch of it on one side refused to cooperate and fluttered around his ear. He was wearing a white dress shirt and tie under a heavy sweater and beneath the blanket covering his legs I could see he was wearing pajama bottoms and thick wool socks.
Joe had never been fat, but he’d been solid, with strong legs and a sturdy workingman’s body. Now he looked dried out, desiccated, and the worst were his hands. I remembered them as strong and nimble. Now they were deformed, clutching at nothing, lying palms-up in his lap like dead spiders.
“The last stroke really took a lot out of him. How long since you’ve seen him?” Ethel was at my side, whispering and spooning pickled beets onto my plate.
I turned to her and away from Joe, who was staring at me with no expression at all on his face. “About ten years, I guess. A bit less. Jesus Christ …”
“He can still talk,” she said. “Bobby says his mind is pretty good but he gets tired fast. Sometimes he forgets things.”
“He doesn’t look like he’s cheered up any.”
Ethel let out a horselaugh and the crowd turned to us. She laughed again and punched my arm – “Oh, you big teaser!” Then she said quietly, “Thanks a lot, I got coleslaw up my nose. No, cheery is not a word for your grandfather. But he used to be just angry at everyone, now he’s angry and sad. It’s an improvement, of sorts.”
“I take it Bobby talked him into me coming back, it wasn’t granddad’s idea?”
“No, no use lying about that. But he didn’t say no, either. So, take what you can get. That’s the best advice I can give you.” She kissed me on the cheek and went off with her serving tray.
I stuck a beet in my mouth and chewed. It was sweet and sour at the same time. God, I hate metaphors.
After dinner we had drinks on the patio and watched it get dark over the Atlantic. The Kennedys are dog people – read into that whatever you want – and while there was still light I took a walk down the beach with one of them and we played chase-the-stick for a bit.
So far everything seemed on the up-and-up, from what little I could discern. The real information was just how sickly Joe had become. Could he even run a takeover in his condition, and why would he bother? One last campaign, one last big move? What would it get him, really? Bobby had said we were going to talk to him. Maybe it would make sense then.
I dumped sand out of my shoes on the patio and left them there to dry and went up to my room barefoot, just like I had when I was a kid.
I slept late and no one woke me. I was alone in the kitchen with a bowl of cereal around 10 a.m. when Bobby came in.
“You want some more time to get your bearings or you want to jump in?” he said, pouring coffee from the big carafe. Day or night, you can depend on fresh coffee in that kitchen.
“No, let’s get started. I get anxious sitting around with nothing to do.”
He smiled that big smile. “Good. Grab a cup and meet me in my office, upstairs.” The main house at the Compound is a big, three-gabled “cottage” that Joe bought just after the turn of the century. It’s a cottage the way the Queen Mary is a boat. I remembered Bobby’s office as being a set of rooms on the second floor, with a connecting bathroom.
… So far everything seemed on the up-and-up, from what little I could discern. The real information was just how sickly Joe had become. Could he even run a takeover in his condition, and why would he bother? One last campaign, one last big move? What would it get him, really? Bobby had said we were going to talk to him. Maybe it would make sense then…
It was right where I’d left it however many years ago and he put me to work at a desk against one wall. He set a stack of file folders and statements on it and told me to go through them and “get a feel” for where we stood. It didn’t take more than a few hours. Bobby was on the phone at his own desk by the window and in and out while I read and did a little arithmetic.
If Joe was trying to take Frank’s action over, it wasn’t because the Kennedys needed it. They were very rich when I left. They were far richer now. They owned half the Eastern Seaboard outright, and what they didn’t own they held the mortgage on.
As a kid I went straight from a mania for dinosaurs to devouring science fiction stories and there’s a phrase they always used when talking about atomic power: critical mass. It’s the smallest amount of material necessary for a nuclear reaction. The Kennedys had reached critical mass economically. They’d reached that magic point where the money itself made money, whether they did anything or not. It couldn’t help itself anymore than a neutron could.
Their biggest problem had to be, what to do with it all. You couldn’t spend it, really. Unless you were going to swim in it like a cartoon miser, after a certain point it was meaningless. In and of itself, in its simple form as a medium of exchange, money has finite uses. How many cars and boats and houses could you use? Yes, money is power, too, but in this country there’s a limit on how much power one family can have.
Joe had claimed a very large and lucrative chunk of America for himself when the Commission carved up the country but he was limited in terms of expansion. Someone once said real estate is so valuable because they just aren’t making it anymore, and he was right. No matter how much money Joe had he couldn’t get more territory. He couldn’t buy it and he couldn’t steal it without going to war with the rest of the country. Not even the Kennedys had that much money and power. There simply weren’t enough guns for rent to take on the rest of the Commission, not in the whole country.
What had I learned, then? Nothing really, except they had more money than anyone guessed. Then again, I’d only been here one day and to be fair, I wasn’t a spy any more than I’d been a general. How does a real spy learn things? Put a water glass against the wall? Hide behind the drapes and hope someone talks about the Big Plan? I thought about the thriller novels I’d read and they all seemed to have the same scene in them: after the villain catches our fearless hero, he explains everything to him – while he’s being lowered into a pool full of sharks. No reason not to tell him, since he’ll be dead shortly.
Now, in the novels our hero always manages to escape the fiendish deathtrap through steely determination and his own brilliance, and possibly the help of a beautiful henchwoman who’s fallen in love with him. Well, I thought, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
I was just finishing a plate of sandwiches and putting files back together when Bobby came in and asked how I was making out.
“I think I have a pretty good handle on it. The family’s in great shape. The only thing I can see is – what do you do now? Where do you go from here?”
Bobby picked up half of a chicken salad sandwich and bit down. “I knew you’d see it. That’s the real point, isn’t it? What’s money unless you accomplish something? That’s what Dad always wanted and now we’re in a position to do it. But he’s too sick to lead and I can’t do it alone. That’s why we needed you back.” He put the crust of the sandwich back on the plate. “But Rome wasn’t built in a day, right? I’m going to go have a swim. Want to come along?”
I told him I’d be out in a bit; I wanted to straighten my desk. What I really wanted was to ask him what he meant by “accomplishing” something. However, as new to this as I was, I was pretty sure spies didn’t just come out and ask. I had the feeling he was going to tell me soon enough anyway.
Mob Rule is a work of fiction, serialized in The Ex-Press. To read past instalments, click here.
THE EX-PRESS, November 7, 2015