In 1910, just as Marconi’s wireless telegraph caught Dr Hawley Crippen from fleeing England for The United States, a man called Nathan was born in London, England.
His great-grandfather was a barber, in the mode of Sweeney Todd, but without (as far as I know) the throat-cutting bit, who arrived on the shores of the Thames in 1815, from the clutches of the rampaging Russian Empire. He cut a dashing figure whenever someone with a dashing figure came into the shop looking for a shave.
Anyway, he made a life for himself and his family in the East End of London, along the Mile End Road in an area known as Globe Town, in-between the schmutter shops and the delicatessens, several generations before the millions arrived at the tail end of the century, after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, and the economic hardships and persecutions that inevitably follow.
At some point in time he and his wife had a son, and they began to weave a life in the East End, which itself evolved from Middle Ages boundaries, until it was officially named, though never precisely mapped, by the English clergyman and historian John Strype in his 1720 Survey of London, where he counts four distinct areas of the half-million population city as ‘the City of London, Westminster, Southwark’, and, rather Peakesquely, ‘that Part beyond the Tower’.
That part beyond the Tower, bounded maybe by the River Lea on one side, or the Aldgate Pump on another, or the Roman walls of the City of London on yet another, became built up and more crowded, and progress looked like progress at the time, as it always does.
That son was also a barber, as was his son, Maurice, and so began an easily-forgettable dynasty of a couple of generations of lopping locks and telling tall tales.
Eventually, when there were no more bad jokes to make while holding a cut-throat razor and a tickly brush, Nathan committed Barbicide by arguing too vehemently with his father and rejecting his manifest destiny, and left England for Chicago, where he became an instant citizen, to proudly walked the pavements of possibility until he’d ingratiated himself enough to be recognized by, and maybe even welcomed into the heart of, the Chicago Outfit.
The Outfit, led by the New Yorker Alphonse Gabriel Capone, or Scarface to his friends, or enemies, or both, or neither, it's unclear, ruled the streets and all the accoutrements of commercial life in certain selected areas of this grand city. That included movie theatres, which Nathan gravitated towards, maybe because he knew someone who knew someone and his visual similarity to Walter Elias Disney, a heralded Chicagoan himself, born ten years earlier than Nathan, may have been an inside joke that he played along with, because you did that with notorious crime bosses.
However it happened, Nathan became a projectionist and manager of theatres in the Windy City, so named for the furious one-upmanship of the Chicago and New York newspapers, and nothing to do with the climate, and began a career in the movies, proudly riding his Henderson ACE, the ‘Fastest Motorcycle in the World’, around the ‘City of Broad Shoulders’.
Chicago was a volatile place when Nathan lived there, and prohibition, mandated by a misguided government and largely ignored by Capone and his minions, didn't help to ease tensions. At some point during any given day, a gunfight would inevitably break out, and as, so the story goes, it did one day in Nathan’s theatre, as Animal Crackers was showcasing the Marx Brothers enviable talent.
Whether the fire came from Giuseppe ‘Joe’ Aiello’s boys, or from Eliot Ness’s sharpshooters, or from Capone’s mob themselves, the upshot was that when the firing stopped, Nathan had one less leg to walk the streets of gold.
Chicago’s bright lights may have dimmed a little for Nathan after that, and, maybe with the help of the Outfit, he moved to Brooklyn, Capone’s hometown, and began running a theater there, where the gangs threw flour at each other, not bullets.
And, it was in Brooklyn, on Atlantic Avenue, on a gentle Sunday while reminiscing with friends of his uncle Eric, who hadn’t been fortunate enough to escape his precarious situation at the end of October in Detroit, in 1926, that he met and fell in love with Polly.
She swept him off his foot, and they were married soon after, and began a life together in a place that thronged with the brogues of Irish shopkeepers, and the excited gesticulations of Jewish traders, and the shrugged smiles of Italian barbers, and a theatre, that played movies for all of them.
Soon after, Nathan learned that he would be a father himself, to a girl, whose name would be Shirley, after the performer Shirley Temple Black, who’s movie Nathan had played to an audience the night before he found out.
It was when Nathan began sharing the news with friends on the Avenue that he received strange muted congratulations. Sure, there were smiles and handshakes, and a cigar here and there, but less than the warmth he’d expected from people he’d come to see as his own Cosa Nostra. And sure enough there was a fly in the ointment, or a twist in the tale, or a cowlick on the Curly Top.
Because Polly, who was not only with baby, but was also with Roman, who she’d been seeing behind Nathan’s back, for some time.
Suddenly, the future of a wife and a child and a home in Brooklyn, was taken from him, as quickly as his limb had been, which he still felt though it was also gone. Polly admitted this to Nathan, and admitted she’d married him too, leading to a bigamy trial that was resolved by the court in Brooklyn.
What wasn’t resolved was the paternity of Shirley, who was born to Polly and Roman, because Nathan, disgusted with his wife had filed for divorce and, unable to face the ridicule of the close-knit neighbourhood, left for England soon after, determining instead that a different life with a loyal wife and a new child, and presenting himself every month at the US Embassy for approval to remain, was far more agreeable than the trauma of his past across the ocean.
He never returned to his beloved country, never spoke to Polly again, never saw the child that might have been his.
His reluctance to look back is understandable, though if he had been able in some way to fight back the pain of rejection and the tears of betrayal that plagued him, and left the protection of his ivory tower, he would've met another part of himself, his daughter, Shirley, who’s mind was always troubled with an unmistakable distance between her and the father she’d grown up with.
I never knew Nathan, my grandfather, as he had passed before I was born, but in 2008 I met that part beyond the tower.
photo by cottonbro