A Toledo Christmas CarolWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
Harley was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt whatsoever about that.
Mike Bell stepped off the motorcycle and shook the light December rain from his boots and jacket. The bike’s engine ticked as it cooled, offering the outside drizzle feeble sonic competition in the dark purple twilight.
Bell was at least grateful to have made it to his office at One Government Center before the Harley died; he would have a full day to have it fixed before the ride home.
And it would be a full day; the city’s business required his full attention nearly every waking hour, at the office, at home, on long rides. Bell was not a superstitious man and did not take the Harley’s death as an omen, just an inconvenience.
Bell rode the elevator to the 22nd floor and entered his office. His chief of staff, Tom Crothers, worked in a little cell beyond, copying letters.
“Merry Christmas, Mayor!” cried Crothers in a cheerful voice.
“Bah!” Bell said, distracted by the death of his Harley. “Humbug.”
“You don’t mean that, Mike,” Crothers said. “Don’t be cross.”
“What else can I be?” returned Bell, “What is Christmas but another time for City Council to spend without money; a time for finding the Marina District and the Steam Plant a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing the city’s books and having every item in them through a round dozen of months presented dead against us? If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled in a pot of Tony Packo’s chili and buried with a stake made from a Mud Hens bat through his heart!”
Crothers countered the mayor’s sour mood with an invitation to holiday dinner, then watched silently as Bell retreated to his office. The new mayor worked several hours without stop; the sun traversed the sky and set without intruding on Bell’s thoughts. Just before midnight, long after the staff exited the building, Bell pushed back in his chair, rubbed his eyes and dwelled in the shadowlands between consciousness and sleep.
He looked at the screensaver on his computer and saw, not the rotating images of Harley bikes, but a face.
Carty Finkbeiner’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the office were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.
Bell blinked and it was a computer screen again. He stood up to leave and risked a glance back at the screen. It was Carty’s face again. From the computer, a spectral Carty rose full form, hovering above Bell’s desk. His body was transparent so that Bell, observing him from behind and looking through the chains draped on his suit coat, could see the “Toledo Pride” button on his coat in front. Bell had often heard it said that Carty had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.
“What do you want with me?” Bell asked, unafraid.
“For you to avoid my fate, avoid my legacy,” Carty intoned, dragging his chains across the floor.
“But you were always a good man of politics, Carty,” faltered Bell.
“Politics!” cried Carty, looking around the office for the absent Scout. “Mankind should have been my politics. The common welfare should have been my politics; charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence should have been my politics. The dealings of my time in office were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my politics!”
Bell sat back down in his chair, not knowing what to say to the horrible vision.
“You will be visited tonight by three spirits,” Carty said. “They can guide you to hope and change.”
Carty turned and flew through the closed window.
Bell followed to the window, desperate in his curiosity. He looked out. The Downtown air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Carty; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free.
The first of three spirits
Bell shook off the vision as a product of overworking and headed out of his office. He stopped at the Lucas County Commissioners office to drop off a document. Light flashed upon the hall, and there stood a spirit, bathed in golden light.
“Are you the first spirit?” Bell asked.
“I am,” the spirit breathed. “I am Samuel. Samuel Jones, the Ghost of Toledo Mayors Past.”
“Golden Rule Jones?” Bell asked.
“The same,” the spirit answered.
Before Bell could react, the light in the hall enveloped him in a twisting cyclone and he found himself in a Downtown Toledo alive with hotels, churches, homes and commerce. He saw the Oliver House, the Boody House Hotel, the Nasby building. Bell absorbed the conversation of the people in the bustling streets, those who praised Mayor Jones for his kindness to the poor and his efforts to get them food, shelter and work. Bell heard policemen and firemen, content with the attention Jones gave them. He heard businessmen and union men remarking on Jones’ independence from political parties and media entities. He saw a city bursting with promise and life, a city on the edge of technology and at the forefront of development.
“Remember as you rule,” Jones told Bell, as they cycloned into the golden light, “Do unto others as you would do unto yourself and practice principle before party.”
In a burst of light, Jones was gone, leaving Bell alone again in One Government Center.
The second of three spirits
Bell, calm and grateful for the lesson, worked his way to City Council chambers. In that great and open room, he heard the whistling of the air as if he were outside, a noise that blossomed into a roar and a thunderous clap that shook the room.
Standing before Bell was a blinding spectre.
“I am the prophetess and bringer of light,” the spirit warbled, hovering unsteadily.
Bell shielded his eyes and looked at the spirit.
“Opal? Is that you?” he asked.
“Yes, it is … and, oh, sorry, wrong vision,” she said. “I have my weekly guidance appointment with the Block brothers.” With a clap of her hands, she was gone.
Bell felt the next thunderbolt before he heard it, and as the smoke drifted, he could see the second spirit. Bell knew the face, knew the profile even before the mist cleared.
“Jamie Farr?” Bell started.
“Of course,” the friendly voice soothed. “It’s a state law that any artistic representation of Toledo has to incorporate me. I’m the Ghost of Toledo Present. Let’s go!”
Farr took Bell’s hand and they zoomed up through the walls and into the night air. They flew through the empty Owens Corning building, through the abandoned Berdan building, through the closed Nicholas building, through the dozens of other sad, empty properties. They swirled through neighborhoods with shuttered houses, businesses with plywood on the windows. They flew over closed movie theaters, closed retail stores, closed restaurants.
“Have you nothing positive to show me?” Bell demanded. “Have you no good news?”
Farr shook his head sadly. “I’m not allowed to leave the city to cross into Perrysburg, Maumee, Sylvania, Rossford, Monclova …”
“But that’s not realistic,” Bell protested. “We can’t be cut off from our suburbs. We rise and fall together.”
“Do you mean cooperate, collaborate?” Farr said.
“Yes!” Bell shouted as he saw the people moving to the suburbs. “That’s the only way!” he called to them.
“They can’t hear you,” Farr said. “They have been ignored and downplayed for far too long.”
“That has to change,” Bell said.
“Yes,” Farr said. “It does.”
The night swirled and blurred, and when Bell could see clearly, he saw himself looking down at inactive Jeep assembly lines; legions of machines sat in silence, with no hope for quick action.
“There are still a lot of people working here, still a lot we can contribute to the industry,” Bell said.
Farr shrugged, saying nothing.
The world swam in front of Bell’s eyes, and then he found himself looking at the St. Clair Street headquarters of his mayoral opponent, Keith Wilkowski. Signs in the office were stacked along a wall. Phones that once rang and hummed sat silent witness in the night.
At a desk, Wilkowski himself sat working, wrapping up details and loose ends from the campaign.
“There is much to be learned here,” Farr said.
“I know,” he said. “I promised unity and inclusion, and I will keep that promise.”
The night sky twisted and whirled, and below his feet, Bell could now see the closed United Way building.
“Here’s another promise you made,” Farr said. “This is a fight that will test your ability to withstand pressure over logic, politics over common sense.”
Bell nodded, and saw the grey stone Blade building across the street, where a great many ghosts struggled under the weight of a great many chains.
At that moment, Bell looked at the hem of Farr’s robe and saw two young children materialize, gnashing teeth and glaring at him with hatred.
“Wh-who are they?” Bell asked, shaken.
“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want,” Farr said. “Beware them both, but most of all beware this boy, for he is your daily print media, and I see that written upon him is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”
With that, Bell felt himself dropping back into his body in City Council chambers.
The last of the spirits
Bell gathered himself and slipped into his riding jacket, intending to walk to where his Harley was parked, the erstwhile machine having been fully repaired.
But as he opened the door and stepped outside, he found himself staring, not at One Government Center, but at 420 E. Manhattan Blvd.
“Ghost of Mayors Future!” Bell exclaimed, “As I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to help make Toledo another city from what it was, I am prepared to bear you company and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?’
The hovering spectre gave him no reply. Its skeletal hand was pointed straight before him. In that instant, its hood fell aside, and Bell saw a series of faces under the hood, faces that melted and changed and reformed as if the future could not make up its mind. It was Joe McNamara, then Tom Waniewski, then Bell himself, then Adam Martinez, then a woman whose face Bell could not quite identify (but who for certain was not Opal).
Silently they rose above the city, the years dropping away as quickly as the feet and yards from the ground.
The city melted into a dark expanse of wasteland. No cars rode its streets, no feet walked its sidewalks. Its buildings lay in disrepair and the dark clouds hovered close to its horizon. As they flew over an interstate choked with weeds and wild brush, Bell looked up and saw a sign posted at the city limits.
The Spirit stood at the sign, and pointed down to it.
Bell asked, “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or shadows of things that May be, only?”
Still the Ghost pointed downward to the sign by which it stood.
Bell crept toward it, trembling as he went; and following the spirit’s finger, read upon the sign of the neglected city: “Welcome to Little Detroit.”
“No, Spirit! Oh, no, no!” cried Bell.
At that moment, lightning flashed and the spirit’s shroud fell off its head, revealing its face, rapidly shuffling from its previously hopeful rotation to finally stop, like a hellish wheel of fortune.
It was, again, Carty’s face.
“Spirit!” said Bell, shuddering from head to foot. “I see, I see. The case of this unhappy city might be our own. This is a fearful place. In leaving it, I shall not leave its lesson, trust me. Let us go!”
The end of it
Bell awoke with a start and sat up, his chair wheeling away from his desk on the 22nd floor.
“I will live in Toledo’s Past, its Present and its Future!’ Bell repeated, as he bounded out of his office. “The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me and I shall remember and practice its lessons.”
Bell was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more. He became as good a friend, as good a mayor, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, in the good old world.
May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Katie Holmes observed, “God bless us, everyone!”
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com.
Editor’s Note: Several lines repeated from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the original nightmare before Christmas. Some of those lines were filtered through the stunning new Robert Zemeckis film. Thanks to Clint Mauk’s book “Historical Tales of Toledo” for the background on Samuel Jones.
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