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April 15, 2024

The Boat Boy's Golden Key

By John Mara

On the opulent rooftop garden of The Boat Boy Hotel, Sean Mooney holds out the golden key of proprietorship he'd like to bestow on Paddy, his sole heir. Stately as its owner, The Boat Boy hangs over the banks of Manhattan's East River, its glistening water lapping the hotel's toney waterfront walkway.

Paddy makes an entitled grab for the key, but Sean yanks it away. "Not so hasty, young man." Knees creaking in time with a rocking chair, Sean pours two more glasses of forty-year Tawny Port wine. "I'll tell you the seedy history of the hotel and our family. THEN decide, son, if you want to be the keeper of the golden key. Cheers."

* * *


On a noxious mudflat in Lower Manhattan, Bags Bagley ties the warm leather shoes he just commandeered from an old veteran of the Mexican War. Then, on a pant leg, he wipes clean a cudgel smeared with bloody gray hair. A two-wheel cart is tipped, launching into the East River the corpse that a moment ago wore the shoes and the hair. Bags pisses S-A-L in the mud, a grave marker that honors the deceased. This week's burial ceremony ended, the cart seems to wheel itself away; the wooden hearse knows the route home, having shuttled many vets to their early, watery graves.

The cart and Baggie stop beneath an ancient warehouse threatening to end its miserable life by toppling into the river. Anchored in the mudflat is a spidery network of planks and posts of every length, girth, and angle. They prop and gird the creaky, groaning old maid of a building, confounding the natural laws of physics and gravity. The dowager -- built in Dutch times -- on some days tilts left and on other days tilts right, depending on her mood and the whims of the breeze.

In 1874, the warehouse is The Mudflat Soldier's Home, where fifty wounded veterans of the Mexican War are inventoried. They live out their days in a shadowy form of human dignity, thanks to the beneficence of Tammany Hall.

Bags Bagley manages The Mudflat. Thin as a gas lamppost, Baggie's suspenders work overtime to hold up his canvas britches. One Bags lives inside them, but there's room enough for two. Every muscle of Baggie's slight frame stands out in a taut cord. He fidgets more than an anxious gnat, and his beady, suspicious eyes dart everywhere.

The eyes dart because of the scheme their owner hatched to outswindle Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall. The Boss pays Bags two dollars a week -- a lord's ransom -- to manage each resident of The Mudflat. But Bags took to bum-rushing the occasional veteran into the East River by way of a cudgel to the head. Their unreported deaths -- and beds refilled -- pad the roster of subsidized residents.

On the eve of the 1874 mayoral election, fifty living, breathing veterans reside in The Mudflat all right, but Tammany Hall pays for another 250 vets -- ahem, votes -- on their books who took an untimely swim in the East River.

"It's Election Day, Bags. The gig's up." Mick, the ward boss, says on the third-floor porch of The Mudflat. He gnaws the half-chewed, half-smoked cigar living in the corner of a mangy, bristled face. "I marched fifty votes to the polls tonight. Boss Tweed pays for three hundred."

"So have 'em vote twice," Bags shrugs. He flashes a toothless pirate's smile.

"They already did. We're still short." Mick glances at Baggie's bloody britches and the cudgel, a view that doubles the spark of his tree-bark stogie.

Bags swallows hard and the fidgeting gains steam. "That's why I'm heading home to Poughkeepsie in the morning." A carpetbag -- bulging with four years' worth of sweet payola -- twitches like a chubby child on his lap.

"Go live with the sod cutters back in County Cork, for all I care. But the money bag stays here."

"Hey, wait a minute, Mick. You've been getting a thirty percent slice all along!"

"Why settle for a slice when I can eat the whole loaf?" Mick lurches for the carpetbag. "The gig's up for me too, ya know."

They pull back and forth on the swindled fortune. The scrappy, slithery Bags holds his own against the meat-handed ward boss in a tussle the vets would call a Mexican standoff. That is, until The Mudflat itself weighs into the fight. With its ballast of human inventory celebrating a fair election at McSorley's Pub -- courtesy of Tammany Hall -- the ancient building begins to shift, shimmy, and shake in step with Bags and Mick.

The tussle now a fatal dance, the carpetbag hits the rotted floorboards. Bags and Mick, now allies, race to the other end of the overhanging porch. But the weight shift serves only to amplify the sway, a sway that is multiplied again and again as they race back and forth in a futile, eye-popping balletic attempt to stabilize the ramshackle building.

The Mudflat sags, leans and wobbles, a woozy, tottering old woman whose cane is kicked away. A single plank propping the rickety building snaps and the weight it holds transfers to another post beam. The rolling, undulating domino effect is on. Legs and supports turn to kindling as the staggered building succumbs to the inexorable march of Time and the immutable folly of Man. The Mudflat's painful moan becomes a death rattle.

In some heavenly form of justice and some earthly form of retribution, the ghost of The Mudflat has the final say. The two grifters crash through the porch's worm-eaten rail, imploring their Maker for clemency during the slow motion descent into the unforgiving river. In their wake, The Mudflat hurls into the cold water the tools of the chiselers' ill-gotten fortune: the murderous cudgel, the bloated carpetbag, and the cart that knew how to pull the dead weight along.

* * *

Sean Mooney hits pause on the historic panorama long enough to empty the bottle of Port into the two glasses. "A gibbous moon lit the water that night, son. Just like tonight. A garbage trawler was trolling the East River after midnight." Sean stokes a Cuban cigar, the fidgety flame lighting his face. "The boat boy fished out Baggie's wooden cart."

"The same worm-eaten cart parked in the lobby?"

"That's the one. And in it was the cudgel."

"The one on the fireplace mantle?"

"Yes. And next to that cudgel was the carpetbag. With a small fortune inside."

"Wow! But what's it got to do with the golden key?"

"Son, the boat boy was my grandfather, Declan Mooney. A week off the boat from Killarney, he was." Sean dangles the golden key. "This key was in the carpetbag. My grandfather gilded it to fit the front door when he built the hotel. Old Declan said the key opened the door to the Mooney family fortune."

"Wow. Who knows this story?" Paddy looks around. No ears are on the Mooney family history except the river, the wind, and the gibbous moon.

"The descendants of Boss Tweed may know. Also the Caruso family. They can all keep a secret."

"Caruso? I thought the Micks called the shots here."

"The Italians outgunned us Irish long ago." Sean straightens his Ferragamo tie and gold cufflinks. "There's no more to tell, son. The history lives in you. By taking this golden key, you live with the history. Keep its secret."

"No problem there. This hotel's a money machine! Its skeletons washed into the Atlantic, like the flush of a toilet. Is that it?"

"No, one last thing. The Caruso family still needs their cut. Or bad things happen. They blow a whistle. Or someone takes a swim in Long Island Sound with cement shoes."

Paddy pulls up. "What cut are we talkin'?"

"Thirty percent. Cash in a paper bag left in the wooden cart every month. Watch for a meat-handed young man gnawing a cigar. He wears a black suit, black shirt, black tie, black hair, and garlic breath. Enrico's a promising intern in the Caruso family business."

"Thirty? Thirty percent? I don't think so."

Sean climbs out of the rocker and stumbles over to the potted plants edging the rooftop. The last of the Port spills along the way like a blood trail, but the golden key stays locked in a white-knuckled vice grip. The moon looks down wearing a dark cloud like a scowl, as it did the night Bags Bagley perished.

Tippy too, Paddy follows. "Let's have the key, old man. It's after midnight."

"But son! The Carusos!"

"I'll handle the punk!" He grabs Sean's clenched fist. "Them greasy Caruso WOPs can lick my Irish cannoli!"

Sean grabs Paddy's other arm. They jostle for control of the golden key and the fortune it represents. In some form of divine justice, Sean and Paddy continue their ill-fated dance to the tune of Bags and Mick on the same spot. A mighty pull for the golden key topples Paddy backward over a border plant and he teeters on the cement edge of the rooftop lounge. Desperate to save his son, Sean clutches the lapels of Paddy's double-breasted blazer.

But the eternal laws of physics, gravity, and heaven are at work once again. The gold seekers meet their fate on the fashionable walkway below, its unforgiving edge adjudicating a cudgel-sized blow to their skulls. They roll into the water for a trip down the cold East River and for an even colder meeting with Saint Peter.

They may as well be floating down the River Styx.

* * *

The golden key pried from Sean's icy grip was the topic of speculation at every Midtown fundraiser for a month. In the end, the key was buried in the cold grip of the family patriarch, a symbol of a door closed forever on the Mooney era.

Three months later, a passing snip of an article appears on a page deep inside The NYC Real Estate Siren:

The investigation of the tragic deaths of Sean and Paddy Mooney, scions of the legendary hotel family, has ended. "It was a simple accident of nature. An act of God," said Harry Tweed, NYC's head building inspector and descendant of Tammany Hall's Boss Tweed.

In a welcome twist of New York history, it is rumored that Barry "Bags" Bagley is the lead bidder for The Boat Boy Hotel. Bags is the great-grandson of his namesake, the famous Baggie Bagley himself. Baggie is the inspiration for many of New York's philanthropic organizations today and for the coveted "Baggie Award." Mr. Bagley was a selfless humanitarian. Alone, in The Mudflat Soldier's Home built for fifty, documents show he somehow cared for three hundred needy veterans of the Mexican War. The cudgel he used to protect the aging vets and the cart he used to transport their food -- and often the vets themselves -- can be seen in the lobby of The Boat Boy Hotel.

The Boat Boy is a name destined to float down the river of history. Should he win the bid, Bags Bagley plans to honor his great-grandfather's benevolence by unlocking the door under a new name: Baggie's Mudflat Hotel.

Article © John Mara. All rights reserved.
Published on 2022-03-14
Image(s) are public domain.
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