Excerpts for City of Orphans


1

Amazing things happen.

Look at someone on the street and you might never see that person again--ever. Then you bump into a stranger and your whole life changes--forever. See what I'm saying? It's all 'bout them words: "luck," "chance," "coincidence," "accident," "quirk," "miracle," plus a lot of words I'm guessing I don't even know.

But the thing is, I got a story that could use all them words. 'Bout a kid by the name of Maks Geless. That's Maks, with a k. M-a-k-s.

Now, this Maks, he's regular height for a thirteen-year-old, ruddy-faced, shaggy brown hair, always wearing a cloth cap, canvas jacket, and trousers, plus decent boots. He's a newsboy--what they call a "newsie." So he's holding up a copy of the New York City newspaper The World,andhe'sshouting, "Extra! Extra! Read all 'bout it! ‘Murder at the Waldorf. Terrible Struggle with a Crazy Man! Two Men Killed!' Read it in The World! The world's greatest newspaper. Just two cents!"

Now, not everything gets into the papers, right? But see, the only one who knows what really happened up at the Waldorf is . . . Maks.

You're thinking, how could this kid--this newsie--know?

I'll tell you.

This story starts on Monday, October 9, 1893. That's five days before the day of that headline you just heard. It's early evening, the night getting nippy. Electric streetlamps just starting to glow. In other words, the long workday is winking.

Not for Maks. He's still on his regular corner, Hester Street and the Bowery. Been peddling The World for five hours and has sold thirty-nine papers. Sell one more and he'll have bailed his whole bundle. Do that and he'll have eighty cents in his pocket.

Now listen hard, 'cause this is important.

In 1893 newsies buy their papers and then sell 'em. So next day's bundle is gonna cost Maks seventy-two cents. Then he sells 'em for two cents each. Means, for his five hours' work, he'll earn a whole eight cents. Not much, you say? Hey, these days, six cents buys you a can of pork and beans, enough eats for a day, which is more than some people gets.

You're probably thinking, eight pennies--that ain't hardly worth working all them hours. But this is 1893. These are hard times. Factories closing. Workers laid off. Not many jobs. Housing not easy to find. Fact, people are calling these days the "Great Panic of 1893." And the thing is, Maks's family's rent is due this week. Fifteen bucks! For them, that's huge.

All I'm saying is, Maks's family needs him to earn his share, which is--you guessed it--eight cents a day.

Now, most days when Maks finishes selling his papers, he likes staying in the neighborhood to see how his newsie pals have done. Don't forget, this is New York City. The Lower East Side. Something always happening.

This night all Maks wants to do is to get home and eat. No surprise; he's hungry twenty-five hours a day, eight days a week. And last time he ate was breakfast--a roll and a bowl of coffee-milk.

So Maks holds up his last newspaper and gives it his best bark: "Extra! Extra! Read all 'bout it! ‘Joe Gorker, Political Boss, Accused of Stealing Millions from City! Trial Date Set! Others Arrested!' Read it in The World! World's greatest newspaper. Just two cents! Only two cents!"

Sure, sometimes crying headlines, Maks gets to head doodling that someday he'll be in the paper for doing something great, like maybe making a flying machine. So The World would pop his picture on its first page, like this here mug Joe Gorker. Then Maks reminds himself that his job is selling the news, not being it. Besides, The World is always laying down lines 'bout Joe Gorker, screaming that the guy is a grifter-grafter so crooked that he could pass for a pretzel.

Anyway, Maks's shout works 'cause next moment, a fancy gent--top hat, handlebar mustache, starched white collar, what some people call a "swell stiff"--wags a finger at him.

Maks runs over.

The guy shows a nickel. "Got change, kid?"

"Sorry, sir. No, sir."

I know: Maks may be my hero, but he ain't no saint. Like I told you, for him, pennies are big. Needs all he can get.

"Fine," says the swell. "Keep the change."

"Thank you, sir!" Maks says as he slings his last sheet to this guy.

The guy walks off, reading the headlines.

Maks, telling himself his day is done, pops the nickel into his pocket. Except no sooner does he do that than who does he see?

He sees Bruno.

This Bruno is one serious nasty fella. Taller than Maks by a head, his face is sprinkled with peach fuzz, greasy red hair flopping over his eyes, one of which is squinty, and on his head he's got a tipped-back brown derby, which makes his ears stick out like cute cauliflowers.

But the thing is, Bruno may be only seventeen years old, but he's head of the Plug Ugly Gang. Lately, Bruno and his gang have been slamming World newsies, beating 'em up, stealing their money, burning their papers.

So Maks knows if Bruno is giving him the eye, things gonna be bad. And it's not just 'bout being robbed. If Maks loses his money, he ain't gonna be able to buy papers for next day. No papers, no more money and the family rent don't get paid. In other words, no choice. Maks has to get home with his money.

Trouble is, his home is a three-room tenement flat over to Birmingham Street, near the East River. That's fifteen big blocks away, which, right now, feels as far as the North Pole.

In other words, if Maks wants to keep his money, he's gonna have to either outrun that Plug Ugly or fight him.

Don't know 'bout you, but Maks would rather run.

© 2011 Avi Wortis

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