SANTA ZANNI: Rodney Snodgrass

Rodney Snodgrass

If there ever was a person who had it all in Santa Zanni it was Rodney Snodgrass. In the case of Rodney Snodgrass, he really did have it all. He was the president and sole shareholder of the Bank of Santa Zanni, owned the general store, owned the only lumber mill within 20 miles of the community, was the president of the Santa Zanni Chamber of Commerce, the co-owner of the only blind pig in town and one of three silent partners in the uptown brothel. He also owned a chunk of the water utility and the electric utility and sat on every board of directors in the city. Imperial, mercurial, magisterial, he was no one’s fool. While he had his moments of arrogance and stupidity, over the long run he was a man bound by common sense with the ice-cold blood of an entrepreneur.

The root system of his wealth had been a disease of his grandfather. The old, old man — as opposed to the “old man” as Rodney referred to his own father — had an addiction to stock. In this case the stock was animals and in his case, someone else’s animals. Unfortunately for the old, old man, everyone knew of his transgressions; fortunately for the old, old man he was long gone from Waco before the United States Marshal, (his brother-in-law’s brother), managed to get around to the paperwork to arrest the stripling. By then the stock had been sold and the proceeds deposited in an enterprise in Los Angeles. It was not until the death of the consanguineal that the Texas law establishment got around to searching for the cattle which had been turned, in sequence, into bank certificates, hardware and thereafter real estate. The Los Angeles court had laughed off the extradition order for a 35-year old crime which had allegedly occurred before the Civil War in a part of Texas where boots were soiled with manure before they were sold.

When the old, old man died his son headed north from Los Angeles to take advantage of the building boom in the ravaged city of San Francisco. The son more than doubled the fortune of his father but recognized that there would be more sustained money in selling things to the rebuilt City of San Francisco than fighting tooth and nail for the building contracts which were becoming fewer and fewer and smaller and smaller. So the old man bought land conveniently close to San Francisco on both sides of a proposed rail line running north from Salinas and Monterey. The fact that he was on the board of an intra-city rail line that was going to be the northern terminus of the proposed north-bound railroad, was no reason to suspect that he had had any advance knowledge of the proposed rail route. At least this is what he and other members of the board told the federal investigating committee about their collective and sudden acquisition of large swaths of land conveniently located along a railroad route no one was supposed to know about.

The old man died before the case went to trial and his son, Rodney, was left to turn several thousand acres into a money-making enterprise. The fact that Rodney was also left with a bank account in the eight figures, again, had absolutely nothing to do with his ability to parlay that fortune into a handful of others. By the time of the Great War he had the fiscal reach of a gargantuan octopus with a sucker cup in every business venture from Santa Zanni to Salinas.

Personally Rodney Snodgrass was double-faced, a Janus. There was his public face that he presented as a philanthropist, president of the Santa Zanni Bank, Mayor of Santa Zanni, Magistrate of Santa Zanni and member of the board of directors of the California Chamber of Commerce. Then there was his business visage: crafty, duplicitous, larcenous and expedient. He never lost the ability to control which face he was wearing and he could switch between the two with the speed of Mercury.

The allusion to Mercury was fitting because none other than Rodney Snodgrass himself alluded to Mercury on many occasions. Though not well principled he was well educated. Early on he had learned that Mercury was, like himself, duplicitous. To the Greeks he was Hermes, but he was better known by his Roman name, Mercury. The public face of Mercury, so to speak, was that he was a messenger of the gods. Additionally, again the public face, he was also the patron saint of shepherds, cow herders, orators, writers, poets, inventors and athletes. Of his second face he was the god of commerce and thieves along with weights and measures. The 17th of May was a special day for Rodney because it was on this day in ancient Rome that merchants walked in procession to the temple of Mercury to beg the pardon of the deity for all of the lying, cheating, jiggling of weights, shorting of measures and false business promises they had made over the previous year. There was no temple to Mercury in Santa Zanni so Rodney simply tipped his hat to a statue of the god in the entryway of his home on May 17th of each year.

It would be easy to pummel Rodney for his duplicitous nature but he was doing nothing more sinister than any other businessman had been or was doing be it in ancient Rome or San Francisco during the Great War. Ethics were one thing and profit quite another; the former had latitude but the latter was only adjustable upward. Rodney was comfortable in his own skin and gracious enough with his money to be lauded by everyone who enjoyed his largesse.

There was only one man in Santa Zanni who saw Rodney for exactly what he was. It was Rabbi Ben Shalom, a wizened man of the Torah who had retired to Santa Zanni because his daughter had committed the unpardonable transgression of marrying a Unitarian. The husband had taken a job as a schoolteacher in town and thus the rabbi was spending his retirement in Santa Zanni.

Oddly, Rodney and Ben Shalom were good friends because each knew of the other’s gross weakness. From his side of the table, Rodney lamented that the Ben Shalom saw good in all men. This Rodney knew to be a very dangerous mistake as there were many men who did not have so much as a dollop of honesty in their entire being. Further, these individuals were bred to be deceitful and taught their progeny the same. They were born to be hanged and many were.

Ben Shalom, for his part, was one to agree that there were evil people in the world, men and women. But for him the error of their way was neither genetic nor permanent. God was good even when men were bad. God gave every man, and woman, every chance to redeem himself, or herself, perhaps even so after death. Who knew? But of one thing Ben Shalom was certain. In his words, “every one of your sins will catch up to you in life; virtues take a little longer.” It may have been this admonition that led Rodney Snodgrass to be as philanthropic as he was.

With regard to the living and breathing souls, Ben Shalom was a believer in all of the alleged words of Jesus save one: that of John 3:16 which asserts that Jesus was the one and only son of God. Which, in fact, Jesus never said. John said it but can you really trust writers? Or prophets, Ben Shalom noted, because there might be a very good reason that prophet and profit are pronounced the same. Rodney liked that point of view and since Ben Shalom never asked him for money so the two got along famously.

The glue that bound the two was scholarship. Both were steadfast believers in the old school of academics. It was not the degrees you had but what you actually knew. Even a fool could become a lawyer and there were a lot of fools who were lawyers. Knowledge was not just the number of facts one had bouncing around inside the cranial vault; it was how those facts were used. Being able to quote from JULIUS CAESAR that Brutus had a “lean and hungry look” was one thing; spotting that “lean and hungry look” in a prospective business partner was quite another.

There had only been one moment of difficulty between the two. It had come shortly after Ben Shalom had come to town. The rabbi kept to himself, primarily because there were only two other Jews in town and both were married to Episcopalians. Secondarily, because the last thing the retiring rabbi wanted to do was interrupt his scholarly pursuits with the earthly tasks he retired to get away from. The men had chanced to meet when someone informed the rabbi that Rodney has the best personal library in town which included books in both Greek and Latin. That was certainly something in a town as small as Santa Zanni because even the public library in San Francisco had less than a handful of such books. So the rabbi went to the home of Rodney Snodgrass to enquire if he could, upon occasion, borrow a book or two in Greek or Latin. Rodney was thrilled that someone, and particularly someone in town, could read Greek or Latin much less want to borrow a book in either of those languages.

Sometime in that first conversation Rodney had said something along the lines of most people being rude and brutish. It was a classical quote and perhaps Rodney felt it was appropriate. Rabbi Ben Shalom simply pointed out one of the windows in the Snodgrass living room and asked Rodney what he saw outside.

“People,” said Rodney, “on the sidewalk.”

“True,” said the Rabbi who then pointed at the mirror in the Snodgrass entry way, “and what do you see there?”

Rodney admitted that his saw himself. Was there a point in these questions?

Yes, stated the Rabbi. Both the window and mirror were made of glass. But the moment you covered the glass with silver all you can see is yourself.”

Rodney was quick with a parable of his own. “Allow me a story of some of those people,” he said pointing out the window. “Once upon a time there were two friends, Jonathan and Harold. There were lifelong friends and swore that even after death they’d continue to be friends wherever they ended up. When Harold died Jonathan was broken-hearted. One day Jonathan was walking alone down the street and saw a horse hitched to an ice wagon. The horse looked up at him and said ‘Jonathan!’

Well, of course, Jonathan was taken by surprise. After all he was the only one on the streets so the horse had to be talking to him.

‘Harold,’ he said as he moved closer to the horse. ‘Is that you? You’ve come back as a horse?’

‘Yes, Jonathan, it’s me. I’ve come back as a horse.’

‘What kind of a life is it?’

‘Terrible! All day long I pull this heavy wagon in the hot sun. The driver beats me, I don’t get enough water, I sleep in a barn with rats and my shoes hurt.’

‘Well, I’ll speak the driver,’ Jonathan said indignantly. ‘I’ll tell him you’re my friend and he’d better treat you better!’

A horrified look came across the horse’s face. ‘For God sake don’t do that! If he finds out I can talk he’ll have me yelling ICE!’”

Rabbi thought this anecdote was as telling as his own and the men became fast friends. Theirs was not an open friendship in the sense that the men were seen together in public. Such was not the character of their relationship. They would meet frequently at the home of Snodgrass and discuss matters that ranged from the Roman gods to the anticipated impact of the Panama Canal on San Francisco cargo traffic. They were both scholars of the Bible, New and Old Testament and debated what exactly had been formalized at the First Council of Nicea and what Constantine’s real motives may have been when he established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Both had a collection of pithy expression in Greek and Latin which they exchanged.

While their conversations did occasionally stray to religion, their approach was academic rather than canonical. Neither questioned the others religious roots or what fruit had been produced from the branches of their individual trees of religious life. Ethics was a favored subject because of the disparity of opinion between the two. Another topic of academic interest was the work of God on earth. Both men agreed that there was a God in some form but thereafter the discussion went astray. The rabbi was convinced that the ways of God were unknown and unknowable and there was no method, means or proof that the work of God existed as all. All man could say for certain was that there was a God and if there was a divine plan no man could know it. The best that any man, or woman, could do was to live a good life, treat others with dignity and respect.

Rodney, on the other hand, was a man of the real world. Or at least the world as he understood it. To him the world was divided into two groups of people. There were people who had things and people who wanted the things the other people had. There was never a moment of peace between the two. Life was either the ongoing struggle to keep people from stealing from you or the ongoing machination of people trying to steal from whomever was most convenient. Since it was a lot easier to steal from an organization than an individual, the larger the operation the more tempting the target. Thus there was government corruption. Efficiency had nothing to do with work, just the number of leeches on the contract. He illustrated his point of view in a parable he frequently related to chamber of commerce meetings when he was asked to speak. He told of two labor union officials who were contemplating how to get more dues-paying members as they were watching a steam shovel in operation.

“Why if that machine wasn’t there,” said one union leader, “we could have a thousand dues-paying members working with shovels!”

“Pfffff,” said the other. “Without the shovels we could have a million dues-paying members working with spoons.”

The men were as disparate in their view of the world as one could find in Santa Zanni. Rabbi Ben Shalom was quite happy being a widower. He rarely talked of the matrimonial era of his life. When he was asked if marriage was a good thing, he quoted Socrates: “Whether you decide to get married or remain single you are making a mistake.” He loved his daughter and son-in-law enough to live with them but was more than pleased to have a door that would keep the grandchildren at bay after 8 pm.

Rodney, who had also been a widower, was not about to let the death of his dear wife intrude on his earthly pleasures. It was well-known he patronized his own brothel even though he had a second wife. This one, barely five years older than his son, was adept at the social virtues required of a man of the stature of Rodney Snodgrass and remained purblind to his transgressions. When she did put her foot down it was on rugs and furniture. As long as that was the extent of the confrontation, there was connubial bliss in the Snodgrass household.

Surprisingly, both men had the same opinion of women’s suffrage but for very different reasons. The rabbi did not see that women were any better or worse in God’s eyes and therefore there was no reason to treat them any better or worse in public or private. They, like all men, had the freedom of choice and those who were smart enough to become doctors or lawyers should have the same privileges as men who were also smart enough to become doctors or lawyers.

Rodney, again a man of the world, understood that a good 80% of the people in the world were, at best, mediocre. Regardless of their education, genealogy, bank account or access to opportunity, these 80% would never end better than they started. Of those 20% who remained, half would succumb to the exigencies of life. But that ten percent of the population, half of which were women, was going to be the sparkplugs of every enterprise they individually entered. Rodney knew from personal experience that one good worker was worth a dozen mediocre ones. Sex had nothing to do with it at all. It was talent or common sense or ability combined with the fortitude to succeed. Only10% of the population had it and Rodney made every effort to get as many of those 10% people into his businesses as possible. In an age and city where being a woman meant raising children and attending church, a good third of the Snodgrass employees were women.

One of the blessings of life in a small town like Santa Zanni is that nothing ever really changes. Years come and go and the social stratum remains the same. Even the tiptoeing of technology does not change the order of things. Before the Santa Zanni and San Francisco rails came through Santa Zanni the Snodgrass investments flowered. After the rails came through, the Snodgrass empire flourished. That empire was the epitome of what Adam Smith meant when he referred to the gluttony of rich leading to wealth from unproductive labor. The Snodgrass empire did not make things; it simply skimmed the economic surface.

But if there was any one aspect of the real world to which both men were blind it was to the unpredictable nature of all things, temporal and sublime. God may be both unknown and unknowable but so too were the force of nature. Neither was predictable and no one, saint or sinner, mogul or prophet, can escape the drama of life. There is no buffer to the advance of the unexpected.

The virulent tentacles of the future reached into Santa Zanni in the waning hours of July 12, 1918. Rabbi Ben Shalom was in a deep discussion of the role of fate with Rodney Snodgrass when they were rudely interrupted by a thumping on the oak door of the Snodgrass mansion. Knocking was not the operative word; pounding was. Sidney opened the door to find an employee of his bank, hair disheveled from a run across Santa Zanni, shouting that an epidemic had come to the city on the rails. The two men looked at each other. When the young lad caught his breath he stated that four people had collapsed in the bank and were having difficult time breathing. If that wasn’t enough, there were a good half-dozen men in the railyards with the same symptoms. Could this be the dreaded Spanish Flu?

Both older men scoffed off the possibility. First, it was a long, long way from Madrid to Santa Zanni even if both names were of Spanish origin. Second, flu deaths came to people who lived in squalor and neither the Bank of Santa Zanni nor the railyards fit that description. Third, flu of any description was an affliction of gradients. One did not just contract the ailment and then keel over. There was a scientific progression that could be charted and medicines could be used to avert the demise of the patient.

Chuckling at the ignorance of the young, Rabbi Ben Shalom and Rodney Snodgrass leisurely walked downtown. What they had expected was a smattering of individuals staggering about because of some vapors that had been released from a railroad tank car. What they found was a city of people reeling from the effect of an unknown virus. There were four people in the bank sitting on the floor fighting for their life’s breath and two on the plank sidewalk bench outside were doing the same. The rasping was loud and sounded exceedingly dangerous. Expectorant and vomit was about the floor as was liquid of an unknown source.

The men had not yet taken stock of the situation before Rudolph the Red, the representative for the unions and the Railroad, burst into the bank in search of Rodney.

“Mayor,” he said, “I’ve got stevedores and teamsters dropping like flies on the loading dock. We’ve got an epidemic here. We’ve got to close off the city.”

“Isn’t that a bit extreme,” said Rodney, still trying to comprehend what was happening. “What’s going on?”

“I’m not sure, Mayor,” replied Rudolph the Red. “I’m guessing it’s the Spanish Flu. It’s been moving this way over the past month. I guess it’s just our turn.”

“Do you have a plan?” Rodney was still unsure that it was Spanish Flu but he was, if nothing else, a take charge man.

“We’d better contain it here.” Rudolph made a sweeping gesture as if he were pointing through the walls. “If it gets into the countryside we could be talking thousands of infected people.”

Rabbi Ben Shalom, no stranger to disaster, asked how Rudolph the Red knew it was the Spanish Flu.

“I’ve been trading telegrams with other stations down the line to Salinas,” he responded. “They’ve been hit too. Same symptoms: sudden flu, difficulty with breathing, weakness and chills, vomiting and diarrhea. They’re doing what we should be doing, quarantining the sick and separating the healthy from the ill.”

“This is quite fast, isn’t it?” asked the rabbi. “Flu is not a sudden affliction. It takes time for ailment to fester and grow.”

Rudolph the Red was silent for a moment and then he pointed at the four people on the floor of the bank, “Why don’t you ask them?”

By midnight the Santa Zanni hospital was full and had patients in the corridor. Then the hospital commandeered the school and laid the patients out on blankets on the floors of the classroom. If there had been any hope of keeping the influenza within city limits, it was in vain. By the time the sun came up the next day there was stream of sick people moving into the city.

“My god, this is Armageddon. What did we do to deserve this?” said Rodney from his desk at the bank, the central command for the emergency effort. Rabbi Ben Shalom was there occasionally but most of his time was spent with the three other ecclesiastics in town ministering to the sick.

“A better question, Rodney,” said the rabbi, “is why not us? We are still among the standing. Is there a divine purpose for us to be pillars of stone in this inundation of disease?”

“There’s no divinity involved here, Ben,” Rodney replied. “It’s all biology. Some of us will get the flu, some won’t. If we could have gotten it we would have. That leaves us to manage the disaster. Someone has to and I guess that falls to us.”

“God works in mysterious way, Rodney.”

Indeed God does. The Spanish Flu struck down more Americans than had been lost in the Great War. In the four years of the Great War it was estimated that 16 million people had been killed in the fighting in Europe. In 1918 and 1919, it was estimated that 50 million people worldwide died of the flu, more than any other disease in human history. One-fifth of world’s population was affected as were one in four Americans. No one was safe. Natives in the frozen North died in statistical equality with Italians in New York City, cotton farmers in Mississippi and mule skinners in Missouri.

Whether or not it was God’s curse, the result of poor sanitation or a lack of appreciation for the possibility of a pandemic was never known to Rodney Snodgrass or Rabbi Ben Shalom. Snodgrass took ill in October and succumbed within the day. He died at his office desk still trying to conduct the business of banking and maintaining civil order as the world was, quite literally, falling apart around him and Santa Zanni. Rabbi Ben Shalom survived the 1918 plague only to succumb to the return of the disease the next year. He was preceded by his daughter and one grandson, both victims of the flu.

There is no present. What people call the present is just the dividing line between the past and the future. Rodney Snodgrass and Rabbi Ben Shalom were not masters of their empires; they were simply players in the dividing line between past and future. The rabbi’s surviving grandson became a doctor, his choice of profession no doubt influenced by the impact of the influenza. The rabbi’s son-in-law taught school until he retired; he never remarried.

The saga of the Rodney Snodgrass progeny, all one of them, was as lurid as Rodney’s life was sedate. Reginald Snodgrass, named for the old, old man, and Rodney’s second wife immediately fell to fighting over the financial empire. What neither appreciated was that there are two categories of a fortune: wealth and riches. Wealth is the accumulated dollar value of all assets and, in most cases, is not easily accessible. That is, it is the value of a piece of land that could be turned into a gold mine. Riches, on the other hand, are moneys that can be touched. Rodney was dollar-heavy with the first but cash poor. When he died his assets were approaching the million-dollar mark. But he only had about a few hundred thousand in cash.

There was more he could have acquired if he had been alive.

But he was not alive.

Reginald and the Rodney’s young wife, MaryAnn, fought tooth-and-nail for the estate. In the end the two competing law firms in Santa Zanni ended up with most of it. MaryAnn left with close to $100,000. She made it as far as San Francisco where the money was frittered away on cargo that was merely paperwork on ships that never existed on its way to ports unknown. She then resorted to what she knew best, being a blind wife, and lived somewhat comfortably in Richmond until the end of the Second World War.

Reginald was just as lucky with his cash. He remained in Santa Zanni and married badly — three times — and went broke supporting a brood of children who refused to leave home when they graduated from high school. The litter lived in the Snodgrass mansion until 1935 when it burned down, some say for the insurance money. After that the family drifted away from Santa Zanni. It was never reported in the Santa Zanni Gazette where and when Reginald died so, quite possibly, he is still alive to this day.

Oddly, the triumph of both Rodney Snodgrass and Rabbi Ben Shalom lived well beyond their demise. The women who worked for Rodney, who never got the vote while the two men were alive, were transferred like chattel as the Snodgrass properties changed hands. Like serfs tied to the land, they went with the businesses.

God does work in mysterious ways. Approaching the turn of the decade those women of Santa Zanni formed the backbone of the suffrage movement in Central California. As well they should have. Collectively they had several centuries of experience as bankers, land developers, bookkeepers, accountants, lawyers, mortgage lenders and city administrators. They had earned their way up the ladder of success and were the true legacy of Rodney Snodgrass, the man in Santa Zanni who had it all. As Rabbi Ben Shalom would have said, God works in mysterious ways.

[This short story is from Steven Levi’s SANTA ZANNI available on Kindle. His mystery novels are at]

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