Chapter Twenty four: Oral surgery


            I had put off oral surgery for over a year, despite my dentist telling me I would lose the tooth if I didn't do something. Part of it was money. Reporters get paid poorly on most weekly newspapers, although mine paper was less a culprit than most I'd worked for. Insurance usually didn't cover teeth. Yet when the surgeon said this might be covered, I agreed.

            I picked a thursday evening because that's when production ended for the week, and I would be helpless to cover a breaking story even if one should pop up.

            I should have learned from the train wreck the previous year, when I stood in Philadelphia and watched images of my beat flashing across national television -- unable to make the trip back to report on the scene.

            The surgeon's office was in the Southwest corner of Secaucus, down in that region of Meadowlands Parkway where office buildings rose out of miles of reeds like space ships from H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds.

            While my reporting rarely brought me to that part of town, I often wandered there by myself in off moment -- especially in the evening after the commuters had gone -- to revel in the remoteness of it. Secaucus had numerous spots people called Urban Wilderness. Both train crashes had left people stranded in the middle of nowhere, despite being able to see the World Trade Center. From the vantage point of the denist office, even that was invisble, since I stood near the shore of the Hackensack River facing away from New York.

            Surgery scared me. I didn't like the idea of being eased out of consciousness, putting my trust in the hands of strangers. The staff warned me against attempting to drive home, so I arranged to leave my car and take a cab. Even as they put me under, odd thoughts nagged me, the kind of fearful things that came up when I half woke in the mornings sometimes, not exactly awake, but not sleeping either, floating in limbo of worries that consciousness seemed to eraticate.

            I remember how groggy I felt after I woke, the staff handing me a precription slip for pain killers they said I would almost assuredly need later. The cab beeped, I stumbled out the door, for the short ride up Secaucus Road, through the heart of the Secaucus Outlets, then into the reed-sided sections where the road formed the boundary between North Bergen and Jersey City. I remember climbing the stairs. I remember falling into bed, and then seeking the more natural unconsciousness of sleep.

            The jangling of the telephone woke me. Normally, the answering machine took the call after four rings, but in my grogginess the night before I had failed to turn it on. Something about its insistance bothered me and I groped to the other room to answer it.

            Richard Ricco's nasely voice sobbed on the far end. Ricco was the head of the Secaucus Municipal Utilities Authority, but also a die-hard Democrat, one of the key players on the municipal scene.

            "Danny's dead," Ricco said.

            "Flanagan?" I asked. "How? What happened?"

            "He and his brother, John, died in a fire last night."

            The words were not real, just as they weren't real when my uncle -- greeting me on the front porch of my house as a kid -- told me about my grandfather's death. I needed concrete images to shape the truth of it for me, such as seeing my grandfather's body at the wake.

            "I'll get out there," I said, hung up the telephone, only to realize that my car was still parked several miles away in front of a dentist, and that it might be easier to walk to the fire scene than to try and recover the car first.

            I could have called a cab. I just didn't think of it, and later when I did, wondered what I would have told the driver: "Take me to the fire that just killed two men."

            I just grabbed my camera, ran down the hill where Secaucus Road plunged off the back end of the Palisades to cross Route 1 & 9 into the western edge of the Meadowlands.

            Although the cab had driven this same route the evening before and I had taken this road day and night as a short cut from Jersey City to Secaucus, I had never walked it before, and in the daylight, with the reeds stirring to the fingers of a gentle wind, I was again alone, as isolated along the busy roadway as I had been under the effects of the anesthic. A dull pain began in my jaw, reminding me of the surgery and rewarding my failure to get the prescription filled.

            It was not a long walk from Route 1&9 to the DPW yard, though it might have seemed longer had the street been lined with residental houses rather than warehouses and reeds. While the state and federal government had great plans for the area -- hoping to shape it into a regional rail freight storage area, one that intended to rival the shipyards of Elizabeth. Three years later, the gas station, burgerking and pizzahut vanished with the footing for a bridge over Route 1&9 took their place, and in the place of reeds, huge walls using boxcars for bricks rose along the southern side of Secaucus Road, blotting out air, light and all sense of natural reality.

            It took me 20 minutes to reach the DPW where I found a green-cabbed road department truck just pulling out of the yard. The driver rolled down the window to find out what I was going tramping long the fringe roads of town. When I told him my destination, he grew serious and offered me a lift to town hall. We rolled through the industrial part of Southern Secaucus, turning onto County Avenue passing the Motor Vehicle Inspection Station on one side and the United Parcel facility on the other, before the land along the right fell away as part of the long embankment leading to the New Jersey Turnpike, while on the other side, the Meadowview Hospital campus ran, high fence and dark building fitting an early 20 th century concept of what a mental institution should look like.

            At town hall, I found the Mayor easing into his car as I arrived. Mayor Anthony Just was a squat, balding man that fit the image perfectly of a small town mayor, always ready with a handshake and sage advice.

            But not now. He looked too stunned to do anything but offer me a ride to the sight. Although he didn't know it at the time, Daniel Flanagan's death would be a political disaster for the mayor, the second death within a year of key players in the Democratic Party. The previous December, Rocco Impreveduto -- the long time mastermind of the local Democratic Party -- had died of cancer. Daniel Flanagan, long seen as Rocco's heir, took the reigns of power earlier than expected, yet had already formulated big changes by the time the fire consumed him. Two years later, in 1999, the loss of Flanagan forced the Democrats to consolidate power, forcing Mayor Just out of office.

            But the mayor had also grown close to Daniel Flanagan over the years, one of those politically convenient relationships that had grown into a friendship, and the loss showed on the mayor's face, and resounded in his voice as he steered the car towards the northend where the disaster had struck.

            Oddly -- even ironically -- the fire had engulfed a house two doors away from one of the political footballs of the decade -- a house sale two doors down that had gone wrong and began to disclose a pattern of non-inspections, political favoristism and possible corruption, over which even Daniel Flanagan had begun grow annoyed.

            Pulling into the familiar street, the car stopped in front of the house I had written so much about, but my gaze was drawn away from it by the empty hull of the Flanagan house.

            Several firefighters still roamed the landscape, smothering out the few smoldering cinders, as several police officers stood guard as if at a wake. Televison crews from the national media still lingered, although the helicopter that had hovered over the house had gone, and the nervous eye of large media had moved on to other breaking stories.

            As with the first train crash a year earlier, I had come late and had to sort through the ruins to write my story.


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