I didn’t think it possible, but Jon Katz has outdone himself with this piece. It brought me to tears – people wonder why someone not in the business and no longer living in the area would care about these horses and these people – this is why. Please read it and share: http://bit.ly/1fRKIrh
“The soul exceeds it’s circumstances.
Yes, History not to be granted the last word of the first claim.
In the end I gathered from the display-case peat my staying powers,
Told my webbed wrists to be like silver birches,
My old uncallused hands to be young sward,
The spade-cut skin to heal, and got restored by telling myself this.”
I had been talking to the carriage horse people for awhile, and I sensed that Sunday’s event – Liam Neeson acting as host and inviting the New York City Mayor and City Council to come and see the carriage horses for themselves – was going to be an Irish thing, so I brought with me one of the world’s most wonderful poets, Seamus Heaney’s great poem “The Tollund Man in Springtime” and had it in my pocket. And I read it while the reporters gathered and set up their cameras.
It could have been written for Sunday, perhaps it was, one of Ireland’s greatest poets could see things others could not.
Most of the stable owners are Irish, the drivers and medallion owners are too, as so many of their fathers and grandfathers were. I have always identified with the Irish and loved them in many ways. They are a people of poets and mystics, loyal to their friends, family is everything.They are a long suffering people, people who love lost causes and fights with long odds. They never forget the magic and romance in the world, they have always fought for it and celebrated it. They have always fought for freedom, too.
It is not an abstract notion to them, something spouted by politicians on cable news channels, it is a real and powerful thing for them, and when people try and take it from them, they will fight for it, long and hard and forever. Unlike many Americans, they do not hedge their bets and play the odds. When they fight, they go all the way, and to the end, that was what I was feeling in the room. They said it again and again. They have had enough. They are ready to fight back.
I grew up with Irish kids, they were great friends when they weren’t beating me up. They would often chase the Jewish kids like me home from school, running us down and pummeling us for any pocket change for candy. Many became my best friends, they never stopped chasing me, but woe to anybody else who tried to beat me up or take my money. I loved their spirit.
In the big room on the ground floor of the stables, where the carriages are usually kept, Liam Neeson was making a big noise, he alone drew all those reporters there. His entry was enthralling, he appeared out of nowhere, the huge crowd surged towards him, he walked slowly and calmly through the pressing mob, so that every single person there could have a look and take a picture, lights and cameras whirring all over the place. But there was something else in the room too, something just as powerful, I sensed it right away.
I felt the Irish soul I had seen before, felt the words of their poets and musicians, thought of their so often doomed struggles, that is in their soul too. it was there in the room. I wondered at a world where beholden politicians and angry people in their apartments told the world what their horses felt and needed, what they wanted and must have, tried to take loved work away from people who had done no wrong, been accused of nothing. How many people in our world, I thought, love their work as much as these people do? Who would presume the right to take it from them?
This is wrong, I kept feeling. This is not right. None of us have that right to enter this ancient and private space between honest and hard-working people and their animals, it is one of the oldest and most sacred stories in the world, no one has the right to destroy it to feed their own selfish needs and resentments. “We are beginning to see that we are fighting for something other than us,” one of the drivers told me. “Other people are beginning to see it to,” he said. “Like you. Thanks for your blog. It has meant a lot to us.” I can’t tell you how shocked I was, to hear this again and again, from people I never imagined would be reading my blog, and perhaps never have. We are bonded together now, though, we are on a trip together. I felt it yesterday. There is no greater gift for a writer than to be head, to be felt.
When I became a reporter, the hard-edged Irish reporters took me under their wing, taught me how to drink whiskey with cops all night long until tongues loosened up, how to steal the photo of a dead child off of the fireplace mantel while the parents were sobbing in the other room, how to look somebody in the eye and flush out a lie. How to hold unimaginable quantities of scotch. They taught me never to quit on a story, to run from angry drunks, to always tell the truth and to always remember my job was to love the underdog, torment the powerful, screw the bosses, and keep an eye on the rich. From the first moment I became aware of the carriage horse story, I thought of them, of what they taught me.
The Irish make the world’s best friends, if you fight one of them, you fight all of them. And they dearly love to fight. Liam Neeson grew up with one of the stable owners, he often visits the Irish carriage drivers as they wait in line in Central Park and they gossip about their hometown on the street as teenage girls shriek and take out their Iphones. They talk of Ballymena, in County Antrim, where Neeson worked as forklift operator and truck driver for Guinness long before he became a movie start. Every day, Neeson walks in the park, he says, for 20 years he has seen the horses and carriages, seen how much the visitors and tourists and lovers enjoy riding in them. It is a sin, he said, criminal, to ban them.
You can see what he said here. I don’t need to repeat it.
I have a confession to make. When Liam Neeson came into the Clinton Park stables and was swarmed by perhaps a hundred reporters, I was not paying a lot of attention. I was watching Paddy Malone.
Paddy is an elderly Irish man and former carriage horse rider and medallion owner,he is a legend in the horse carriage industry. His hair is full and white, his eyes still carry a twinkle you could see through the TV lights. Paddy Malone is entitled to the greatest respect. He seemed frail and was sitting down, I didn’t want to bother him and ask for a photo, I just felt uncomfortable doing it, although I regretted it all Sunday night and today.
I learned as a reporter to look wherever everybody else wasn’t looking if you wanted to get the best story in the room, and Paddy, I think, was the best story in the room, although he was not a handsome movie star and the reporters all ignored him. Paddy Malone came to the United States from Ireland in the 60′s, he says the only thing he and his family ever knew was horses, so he got into the carriage trade, shod the horses, cleaned the stables, rode the horses, learned the business, saved his money and worked his way up the ladder until he could buy a carriage medallion – more than one – and then turn them over to his son Stephen when he retired. Stephen plans to do the same for his own children.
Paddy walks with a stick now and he had to sit in a chair to watch his son Stephen, a medallion holder and rider himself, introduce Liam Neeson and the big and burly members of the Teamsters Union who had come to show support for their brothers and sisters in the carriage trade. The carriage industry people belong to the Teamsters Union and often in the past five or six years, it seemed to them that the Teamsters were the only friends they had in New York City. A row of big, burly men in Teamsters jackets ringed the Clinton Park stables and kept an eye out for crashers or protesters. There were none, a wise decision for them perhaps.
There were not many politicians to talk to either. The mayor and the city council president, both of whom have vowed to ban the horses from the city, refused Neeson’s invitation to come. About a dozen of the city’s 52 council members showed up, they hid from reporters and went upstairs to see the horses, then left by a side door. The mayor told reporters he would meet with the stable owners and drivers when his schedule permitted, but the only thing he would discuss with them was possible other jobs and opportunities when the stables are closed. For him, he said, the issue was closed, there was nothing else to discuss.
I didn’t fight through the crowd to see Neeson, I saw Paddy’s eyes when his son Stephen got up to speak, and I saw the defiance and resolve in the room. This is going to be a long and protracted and very complicated and painful struggle, the people in the room are up against all of the power in New York. If you know your history, you know this is nothing new for the Irish, this is something they have known all the years of their lives and the long life of their country. Many people in the room come from Northern Ireland, they are not really afraid of people who call them names in the street or on websites. I
If anybody thinks they are finished, or will pack up their carriages and vanish, they ought to check up on their history, they should have been at the stables Sunday. There was a lot of resolve in the room, a lot of anger, you could almost touch it, you could see Neeson in the movie,The Last Stand Of The Carriage Horses.
It was fascinating to be at the same event as Liam Neeson, he is impressive – I’m not sure I have ever witnessed charisma quite like his, yet he seems a very real and grounded human being. He grew up with some of the carriage stable owners, he has not forgotten who he is.
But the most powerful moment for me was not when Neeson spoke, it was when Paddy’s wife Jean came over to me and said her husband wanted to meet me. Paddy stood up slowly, and leaning on the arm of his wife, he walked over to me, his eyes meeting mine, his arm outstretched. “I want to thank you,” he said, for what you have written about us. You write with heart,” he said. I think it was one of the best compliments I have ever received. I was touched by the heart of this man, by his life. He deserved better than the ugly and painful drama of the carriage horses, his story is not just an Irish tale, but a very American one. I could almost feel him struggling to understand why such a beautiful and meaningful thing, his life’s work, was now being turned into something so ugly by people who would not even dignify them by meeting him and his son face to face.
There was another person in the room who stood out for me, who I liked instantly, another person of charisma and presence, not famous outside of her world. Eva Hughes is a former carriage horse driver, the member of a carriage horse family, now the vice-president of the New York Carriage Horse Association. She talked to me about some of the things I have written. She said I was right about at least one thing, the carriage horse people had to change their story, had to change the narrative. “For five years,” she said, “we have been under attack, been accused of so many awful things, been lied about. Now we have decided to fight back to tell our story, and never again be defined by the false stories other people are telling about us.” We have had enough, she said, I heard that phrase all afternoon.
That was perhaps the most powerful current in the room yesterday, this sense of fighting back, of not quitting, of having had enough. Hughes said, they accuse us of abusing the horses. Sometimes, they say the stables are cruel and unclean and unsafe. Sometimes they say there’s too much traffic in New York for horses. When you answer one thing, they come up with another. And they just lie. You can see our horses are clean, you can see they are healthy, you can see we are safe and the people around us are safe and the people who love to ride in our carriages are safe. This is a way of life, a passion, we know horses, we love our horses, they are like family to us. We are going to fight for them, and for us.”
I liked Eva Hughes a lot, she is direct, honest, warm and quite open. Like most of the carriage horse people I have met, she was direct, does not hesitate or choose or parse her words. She says she has now devoted her life to saving the horses and the carriage trade industry, she works at it 24 hours a day, seven days a week and she won’t quit. it is her battle now, she is in it. “I can’t live like this forever,” she side, “it has to stop.”
Listening to Eva, watching Paddy, I couldn’t help but think of the odds against these people, who always seem so open and real to me. They are working-class people, the families of immigrants. There is no guilt and calculation in them, little media savvy, they are people who play by the rules, mostly they seem stunned by people who don’t, by the position they find themselves in. There is lots of steel in them but little rage, until Sunday they have seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the very new idea that they are cruel and uncaring people, that their work counts for nothing, that their government could put them out of work, and that it is now officially considered abuse for working animals to work with them. If you know anything about the history of people and horses in Ireland, of for that matter, the United States, you might know this is an astounding idea, one that, until recently, was never taken seriously.
But it is taken very seriously now, and the mayor and the city council have embraced this quite stunning, even mad, idea without reservation.
So many powerful forces have gathered to threaten the horse carriage trade: the mayor, the city council president, most of the new members of the city council, a coalition of wealthy and organized groups that call themselves animal rights organizations, powerful developers seeking to acquire the valuable land that the stables occupy. It does seem hopeless sometimes, and yet seeing the spirit in their, it suddenly didn’t Sunday.
Many of the groups seeking to banish the horses have been working to not only emotionalize the lives of the horses but have begun criminalize behavior that is almost universally commonplace among people who love and live with animals. Because it is illegal to abuse animals or neglect them or work them to death or subject them to great dangers as the carriage horse people are accused of doing, the people who work in the carriage trade are being accused of committing crimes.
The carriage trade families are now fighting for their very existence as well as their work, traditions and way of life. They are fighting for the fathers and mothers and their sons and daughters. They not only see their work being taken from them, but their hopes for their children as well. They see their past and the future under siege. There is pain and confusion in almost all of their faces, but yesterday also there is a growing sense of hope that they are not, in fact, alone, that people who love animals all over the country and world are coming to their aid. By his very presence and the attention he drew to their plight, he lifted them up.
I talked to some of the drivers, Irish faces, Irish brogues, Irish stories. Their families had always had horses, they grew up with them, that is the only life they have known or wished to know. No, they would not be driving vintage electric cars, that is not what their history is about, nor their passion. Their communities, their families had been around horses for centuries, they know and loved them, they knew all kinds of things about them, how to read them, how they moved, how to calm them. Perhaps they love animals in a different way than people love their dogs and cats, love their pets.
Is this, I wonder, really a crime?
This was so disturbing, they kept saying, listening to the strangers and the politicians talk so much nonsense about the horses, what they feel and need, what was cruel and what was not. What did they mean when they said the horses needed to socialize with other horses, the horses were with other horses day and night? Didn’t they know they bit and kick one another when put in the same place, didn’t they know they didn’t need to hold hands to be with one another? Didn’t they know how sick and obese horses got when they didn’t work? How they died so young? They could not begin to comprehend people calling them thieves and abusers, horses were their lives, why they were here, what they did all day, what they wanted for their sons and their daughters. “I just cannot understand,” said one, “what people mean when they say these horses should not work. Don’t they know anything about them? Don’t they know what they are?”
That, I thought to myself, is the first thing you learn when you approach this story. The people trying to determine the fate of the horses – and the political leaders they helped elect – seem to know absolutely nothing about them.
So here’s the thing about people and animals, some people hear the music of the animals, love the magic and mystery and ancient history of them, know and understand them. Some people cannot hear the music, animals are a thing of rage and judgment, objects of pity and rescue, something to exploit and abuse in a new way, seeds of a self-righteous fury that is simply beyond reason. Animals have no purpose but to be rescued from greedy and heartless humans. Something that is the very opposite of what these men and women are and see in their lives and history and work. There was so much romance in the room, from the stories, the hats, the hugs. These are not people who are perfect or would with to be, these are people who are human and wish to be treated as humans. They are fighting for their dignity as well as their livelihood.
As always, the horses seemed lost in the media scrum around Liam Neeson. For me, there is a deepening sense of crisis and catastrophe around the future of these horses, even though hardly any of the reporters wanted to see them or write about them.
I was grateful to be in New York, touched by the good things people said about me. I am no movie star, but the word matters, writing can count, even in the age of the great blog wars. I told Paddy that I was like the Teamsters in my own odd way, I am not one of them, I am not good at joining tribes, but I am a brother in a way to the men and women of the stables, to the families and children gathered there yesterday. To the idea of the horses. If they lose, we all lose, if they lose, every animal in the world who has a reason to be around human beings loses, every person and every animal who is not a pet in every city loses, the very meaning and glory of the working animal.
I left the stables and went back and picked up my Ipad, I re-read my Seamus Heaney and nearly cried myself at the feeling in the room yesterday afternoon, the emotion was strong enough to breathe, I had absorbed a lot of it, as happens to me. There was the sense of people who are not perfect but who have the sense of a noble purpose. There was the sense that it had finally come to this: the Irish soul rising, ordinary people, backs to the walls, ready to fight for their lives.
There was lots of drama in the Clinton Park Stables Sunday, a mix of celebrity, history, family, a call to arms. It was the last stand of the New York Carriage Horses, one way or the other.
I wanted to call Paddy up and read him the end of the poem:
“I re-awoke to revel in the spirit
They strengthened when they chose to put me down
For their own good. And to a sixth-sensed threat:
Panicked snipe offshooting into twilight,
Then going awry, larks quietened in the sun,
Clear alteration in the bog-pooled rain.”
Hang in there, Paddy, your soul exceeds the circumstances.