Louie and Nick
by Jill Hand
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
There was a flutter of wings as another pigeon alighted on the windowsill and hopped down into the room. She was a real looker, too: white feathers speckled with black, red legs and eyes the color of topaz. For your information, pigeons are not color blind. In fact, we see more colors than you do. The newcomer glanced at me and haughtily looked away.
Tesla reached for the wax paper bag on his desk that contained birdseed.
“Such a proud lady!” he said. Moving stiffly — he was eighty-seven and creaky in the joints — he scattered some seeds on the threadbare Persian rug. She pecked at them daintily. Then she spoiled the effect by relieving herself on the rug.
“Oops!” I said.
She cocked her head and gave me a flirty look before fluttering to the windowsill and taking off. The message was clear: Hello, sailor. Want to come with me?
I was tempted but I stayed put.
“Oh dear,” Tesla sighed, looking at the mess on the rug. “I had better clean that up.”
“Don’t bother. The chambermaid will take care of it.”
“I must remember to turn the Do Not Disturb sign around,” he said, fretfully. “I was thinking and wanted privacy, so I put the sign on the doorknob.”
He lived at the hotel rent-free, the rent paid by the Westinghouse Corporation as part of a settlement they made with him back in 1934. They also paid him a consulting fee of one hundred and twenty-five dollars a month, which was chickenfeed, even back when a loaf of bread cost nine cents and a gallon of gas was nineteen cents, not that you could go anywhere because there was a war on and civilian travel was strictly regulated.
Out in Hollywood, Joan Crawford had managed to wrangle five hundred thousand dollars out of Warner Brothers for making three movies. And here was Tesla, one of the greatest minds the world has ever known, practically broke, despite having invented the system of alternating current that was used for electrical power everywhere around the globe. He invented wireless communication, for Christ’s sake!
He invented so many things that it would make your head spin if I were to list them all but, smart as he was, he lacked the business acumen to profit from them, and he’d made some powerful enemies, J.P. Morgan among them. You really didn’t want to have somebody like him mad at you, not if you could avoid it.
Preoccupied by the slowly drying stain on the rug, Tesla asked me why I always went outside to do my business. Had someone trained me to do that?
“My mother,” I told him. “Ma taught us kids that it was bad manners to crap on a friend’s rug.”
He laughed appreciatively. “Louie, you’re a funny bird.”
“Thanks,” I said. “And you’re a genius. It’s an honor to be your friend.”
He sadly looked around the room: at the faded wallpaper and the clanking radiator. It was January and cold outside, but he left the window open a little so pigeons could get in. If the hotel management knew about it, they didn’t complain, maybe because they didn’t want to get on the bad side of Westinghouse, or maybe they were just being kind to an old man who had few pleasures left in life.
“If I’m such a genius, why aren’t I rich? Tell me that, Louie. If I’m such a genius, why don’t I live on an estate on Long Island? Why don’t I have a yacht tied up at the dock of my estate, eh? Why aren’t the great and the good flocking to my door, wanting to shake my hand, throwing banquets in my honor and inviting me to nightclubs? Tell me that.”
“C’mon, Nick. You know you hate nightclubs.”
“That’s true,” he conceded. “Still, it would be nice to be held in high esteem, like Edison.”
Here we go, I thought resignedly. We’d been over this ground many times. Edison this and Edison that! Edison had schools and hospitals and entire towns named after him and he was a bully, a blowhard, a thief! It wasn’t fair!
Back when Tesla was working for him, Edison offered him fifty thousand dollars to make his direct current generator more efficient and then when he did, he had the nerve to laugh in his face and tell him he’d been joking. Didn’t he understand American humor?
“Then,” Tesla thundered, an arthritic forefinger upraised, looking as furious as if the incident had happened a few hours ago, instead of many decades before, “then he had the nerve to give me a raise of ten dollars a week and act as if I should get down on my knees and kiss his feet in gratitude! The lying scoundrel!”
“Yeah, but he’s dead and you’re alive.”
He had outlived his old mentor and nemesis, not that it gave him any joy. I had the feeling that the only thing that would make him feel better would be if the cagey old Wizard of Menlo Park somehow managed to rise from the grave and came to see him, hat in hand, to apologize for being such a jerk.
Even though it was generally acknowledged that Tesla was an earlier inventor of radio than Guglielmo Marconi, he didn’t seem to be angry at Marconi for winning the patent and the Nobel Prize. All his animosity was reserved for Edison.
He thrust out his lower lip and went on, “If Edison were here now, I would say to him, ‘Look! See here? This is my friend Louie, a pigeon who comes and talks to me. Even you, the great Thomas Edison, didn’t have a pigeon who talked to you’.”
“That’s right,” I agreed. “He didn’t. He made a doll that recited nursery rhymes in a creepy little voice that nobody wanted because it was too expensive. It was one of his failures.”
That cheered him up. He didn’t appear to notice what should have been obvious to anyone: that there was something fishy about the set-up. A pigeon shouldn’t be able to talk. But then he was approaching his ninth decade of riding on the great merry-go-round of life and was getting a little foggy in the upper story.
* * *
I fluttered onto the desk and perched at his elbow. “Tell me about the White City.”
“That was a long time ago. How many years has it been now?”
“Fifty,” I said.
“Fifty years!” He shook his head in wonderment. “I don’t suppose there are many people still alive who remember it. The children who saw it would still remember, although they’re getting old now.” He sighed. “What is it they say about time, Louie?”
“It marches on.”
“So it does.”
I prompted him, “The White City?”
With a reminiscent smile, he said, “It was a marvel.”
He told me about it and I recorded it all for posterity: how a city rose up from a swamp on the shore of Lake Michigan to dazzle the world for an all-too-brief six months. More than six hundred acres were filled with beautiful white buildings, flowering islands and parklands designed by Frederic Law Olmstead and canals and lagoons on which gondolas floated.
It was called The World’s Columbian Exposition, supposedly intended to mark the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to America. However, its real purpose was to let young America strut her stuff before weary old Europe and sell manure spreaders and sewing machines and telephones and hundreds of other gadgets.
Take a gander, boys! The goddess Columbia crowed to England and France and Belgium and Germany and Russia. I bounced back from the Civil War and the Great Chicago Fire and the Panic of ‘87. Here I am, open and ready for business! Ain’t I something?
There was more to the White City than stately buildings and pretty scenery. There were belly dancers and harem girls and a Chinese temple that was no more a real Chinese temple than Katz’s Delicatessen was.
There were samples of a breakfast food called Shredded Wheat that people jokingly said should have been called “shredded doormat,” it was so dry and unappetizing-looking. There was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and the world’s first Ferris wheel. It was big and gaudy and vulgar, exactly the sort of spectacle that America likes best.
It must have been quite a sight by day, but by night it transcended reality into something approaching fairyland. That’s when the lights came on. Over two hundred thousand electric light bulbs outlined the buildings and were strung along the streets.
Some of the people who came from farms and little towns far out on the prairie had never seen a light bulb before. Electricity was a mysterious and frightening concept to them and yet, when the lights came on all at once, they gasped, enraptured by the glowing beauty.
“And you’re the one who lit it up,” I said to Tesla.
“Yes, my polyphase alternating current system. I was working for Westinghouse Electric at the time. They submitted a lower bid than Edison General Electric.”
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Jill Hand