Authors: Paul Collins
The Trouble With Tom
The Strange Afterlife and Times
But who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? Who hath the oracle of his ashes, or whither they are to be scattered? The relics of many lie like the ruins of Pompey's, in all parts of the earth; and when they arrive at your hands these may seem to have wandered far, who, in a direct and meridian travel, have but a few miles of known earth between yourself and the pole.
-Sir Thomas Browne,
or Urne-Buriall (1658)
A TAXI SPEEDS through the rain, dashing water up onto the sidewalks of Bleecker Street like a flume ride. I run around the corner up to Grove and duck under the awning of number 59. It's a handsome buildingâdevilishly handsome. If it were a man, and if I were gay, I'd have a crush on it.
Open its door and a swell of piano chords roar out into the downpour:
"Raindrops on roses!"
comes the cry from within. Creaking wooden steps descend into a low-ceilinged room packed with a mass of men and women-but mostly men-and twinkling over the bald and balding heads, as well as some immaculately groomed ones, there are glittering strings of electric Christmas tree lights. The swelling chorus of drunken voices bellow at a trim, dapper fellow banging away on a ploinkety old red piano:
. . .
and whiskers on kittens,
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens,
Brown paper packages tied up with strings-
These are a few of my favorite things.
The squeeze through the crowd toward the bar takes several minutes, and I catch a tiny squall of conversation between just about the only two men not belting out in their best baritone voices.
"I was innocent back then," one stirs his drink.
"Yeah," the other snorts. "Right."
Cream-colored ponies and
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles;
I finally reach the polished wooden bar.
'What can I get you?"
Wild geese that fly with
"I'll have . . ."
the moon on their wings-
These are a few of my favorite things.
"Can't hear you."
I resort to telegraphing between syllables of singing, yelling:
Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes,
"A. Hein. Eh. Ken."
He takes a couple more orders, and my beer arrives as the song ends in a final crashing chord and a cacophony of applause.
"Thanks." I hastily count out from my wallet. "Hey, I'm trying to find out a little about this building. Its history."
"It's got plenty of that."
. . ."
"There's a plaque out front, and . . ."
I get no kick from champagne!
He finishes his sentence soundlessly beneath the barrage and gives a helpless shrug at the music. I ford upstream through knot after knot of men, drinking my beer wide-eyed. It's like one of those festive bar crowds you only see in old black-and-white movies: men hanging off each other and raising glasses and warbling. I'm probably the only guy here who doesn't know all the lyrics being sung, and the place keeps filling impossibly with even more people.
Several songs later I've drained my beer, and half trip over a stranger's shoes, out into the cold night air. It's stopped raining; a few stray drips shake down from the awning in a gust, and I crouch in the darkness to squint at the brass plate bolted into the brick wall of the ancient building.
On this site.
All Mankind Is My Country.
To Do Good Is My Religion.
I Believe in One God
And No More.
This plaque placed here by
the Greenwich Village Historical Society
June 9, 1923
It stares out into the darkness, as if to really say:
what strange ends we
bar called Marie's Crisis now. Who'd imagine this as the place where his life came to a halt? There might have been so many other endings for the firebrand
rebel of 1776, the radical on the run from execution in London, the senator of revolutionary France. Paine alone claims a key role in the development of three modern democracies. He was a walking revolution in human formâthe most dangerous man alive. But dead? The plaque here could be for anybody, anybody at all: a forgotten minister, perhaps, or long-dead mayor.
The letters of the sign drip with the windblown remains of the rain.
I turn and survey Grove Street in the darkness. Around here is the old Greenwich Village, a vision of New York in respectable brownstone, brick and wrought iron, the city you imagine from faded lithographs. And yet even here, things quietly change.
sorts of businesses have been housed in this building over the centuries; before this plaque was attached to 59 Grove Street, the place was a delicatessen. Imagine that: Edwardians buying ham sandwiches and deviled eggs where a Founding Father once fell. It's almost as strange as belting out show tunes over the spot.
But this is indeed where he died. It wasn't for a lack of trying at other addresses. I guess you could say that Thomas Paine has died over and over. He has died innumerable times in effigy at gatherings in the English countryside; he had the visage of his corpse stamped into British coins; his imminent death predicted among bloodthirsty French mobs, foreseen in the apartment of James Madison and in the back room of a New York baker, and witnessed in the boarding rooms of Grove Street. Some people have lived everywhere, but Thomas Paine is altogether more rare. He has died everywhere.
The old man sat by a front window in Greenwich Village, visible from the street, watching the world and the country he had created passing him by. Here he sat: he who was the first to coin the phrase
United States of America;
who made from his own pocket the first deposit in what became the Federal Reserve; who shivered at Valley Forge, using a drumhead as a desk, penning the words
These are the
times that try
He who had made the country, and baptized it. The most hated man in America.
The country's rebellion eventually ended, but Paine's never did. After the Revolution he'd moved back to London to work as an entrepreneur, only to find that he could no longer view his old country in the same light. He wrote to George Washington in 1791: "I began to feel myself happy in being quiet; but I now experience that principle is not confined to Time or place, and that the ardour of seventy-six is capable of renewing itself." The monarchy chafed at him still, and so he rubbed the royal nose into
The Rights of Man
to prod the English into overthrowing their king. This time the troublesome Paine was chased to the Dover docks, and carried aloft at the other side of the Channel by the cheering revolutionaries of France.
But then he attacked the wrong sort of king.
He'd been in poor health for years, ever since nearly dying in a French prison at the height of the Terror. And now the old man was suffering from a series of strokes. He was arthritic, abscessed, tired. Tired of being attacked by gout, tired of being attacked by the slow rot of sores and ulcers, tired of being
attacked by eveybody and
everything all the time.
Of all the books and pamphlets he'd written, it was really just one that had done the damage:
The Age of Reason.
He wasn't attacking every God in it, he always hastened to point out to enraged evangelical Christians-just their God. "Belief in a cruel god makes a cruel man," he explained. He'd been raised a Quaker, after all: like many Friends, he simply sought a gentler and more rational moral system of good works. But Paine returned to America in 1802 to find roads placarded with portraits of him being seized by the devil. Back at his farm in New Rochelle, Paine was denied the vote by a county registrar who contemptuously informed him that he was "not American." The registrar clearly had a fine sense of irony, seeing as how he himself had been a Tory during the war. Renting out his upstate farm for desperately needed cash, the ailing Paine began staying with sympathetic friends in the city in 1805-and perhaps had taken to, as one grieved, looking for "consolation in the sordid, solitary bottle."
Well, not so solitary these days: I hear a slipped glass smash on the floor inside the bar, followed by mocking applause and a rim-shotting
off the piano. This house at what is now 59 Grove Streetâthere was neither grove nor street back thenâthis was merely the final deathbed of many. When he first arrived and was casting about for a place to stay, Paine helped himself to the guest room at the home of local religious reformer Elihu Palmer. Palmer was delighted to have his hero as a guest. But Paine, the reformer warned a mutual friend, was not long for this worldâ"His health I think is declining."
Palmer died six months later. Paine kept living.
As reformers are prone to do, Palmer died nearly broke; his widow had to sell off their furniture, and joined Paine to cram into the house of an old acquaintance over on 36 Cedar Street. Paine was lonely and needed nursing, as the widow Palmer scrawled in a September 1806 letter: "He says I must never leave him while he lives he is now comfortable but so lame he cannot walk nor git into bed without the help of two men."
He did still have some visitors to break up his loneliness, though. His old friend John Stewart was in the city for a while, and-how time was changing him! Strange to think of all that had passed since their days together in London, reading the day's papers and philosophizing until the wee hours of the morning at the White Bear coffeehouse on Piccadilly. Back in 1790, Stewart had been perhaps the only man in London who could draw more stares than Paine himself. Tall, muscular, and exotic, Stewart had lived the kind of life found only in adventure fiction. He'd shipped out to Madras as a young clerk for the East India Company in 1763, only to decide thatâas he announced brusquely in a letter to company directorsâhe was "born for nobler pursuits than to be a copier of invoices and bills of lading to a company of grocers, haberdashers, and cheese-mongers." And he was right: joining an Indian prince as a secretary, he rose through the ranks to become an army general and a prime ministerâbefore, incredibly, throwing it all over to walk on foot through the mountains of Persia and Turkey, the deserts of Arabia and Egypt, deep into Ethiopia and into the terra incognita of central Africa, and then back around the Adriatic and Mediterranean to Paris. When he reached London, he was dubbed by the incredulous press 'Walking Stewart." Never was there a more apt name; for he later hiked through Lapland and down into central Asia, and after sailing to New York walked all the way down to Paraguay. Walking Stewart became, as his friend Thomas De Quincey put it, the first circumambulator of the globe. Stewart attributed his survival to two things that struck anyone else back then as incomprehensible: a vegetarian diet, and an utter refusal to ever carry a weapon.