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Pete Hamill and I grew up side-by-side in working-class, Catholic, Brooklyn neighborhoods.
Pete – Irish. Me – Italian
That last distinction was the biggie. For as much as I admired and even feared the Brooklyn Irish; and though we lived cheek by jowl, I felt they were alien to my tribe. Sharper. Colder. Meaner. And, lots, lots drunker.
I can’t remember ever seeing an Irish parent being warm and affectionate with one of their children.
It was the Irish parents who mocked their kids and blackened their eyes; the Irish parents who drunkenly fell off bar stools and tenement stoops; the Irish parents who got thrown into the aptly named Paddy Wagon to be hauled away by Irish cops.
It was the Irish mother upstairs in our tenement who got her sluggish sons out of bed by throwing pails of cold water over them. It was the Irish father upstairs who chased one of those same sons out of their kitchen window only for the terrified kid to go sailing past our kitchen window as we ate dinner.
My childhood impression, formed in countless games of stick ball, tag and Monopoly, was that all Irish kids had fiery tempers and green teeth. I also learned that all Irish nuns had cheeks forever reddened with fury. No lie, it seemed like all of Irish Brooklyn was constantly plastered and pissed-off.
So, for me, Hamill’s memoir was an insider’s lowdown from the enemy camp – one that confirmed what I felt as a child about his kith and kin. In A Drinking Life, he spills his guts on himself and his breed with bittersweet affection and brutal honesty. This is a brave, brilliantly observed memoir that captures the feel of 20th century urban American life as well as any I’ve read. Pete’s description of the VE Day celebrations in Park Slope brought me to tears. The way he conjured his proud, angry one-legged father made me see and feel the man as he limped up the street to the corner bar.
Pete Hamill and I played in the same streets, rode the same trolleys, hung-out in the same parks, fought in the same playgrounds and gorged in the same ice cream parlors. I suffered a year of weekly piano lessons from a terrifying Irish nun at Holy Name School where Pete suffered the full-time fury of the Sisters of Perpetual Rage.
I even bought movie tickets from Pete’s mother at the local itch-house.
Yet, no matter how similar our childhood landscapes, we were separated not only by ethnicity but by politics.
Pete – Left. Me – Right.
Pete Hamill became one of New York’s premier newspaper columnists and bleeding-heart liberals. Like his contemporary Irish columnist, the insufferable douchebag-blowhard Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill loved playing the “muck-raking White knight” fighting for what he believed was equality but what I knew was actually White replacement.
In the 1980s when Brooklyn was stewing in crack-fueled racial violence, Hamill sided with Black Brooklyn against White Brooklyn – specifically Italian Brooklyn. He sneeringly called we Italians fighting for our survival, “guidos” which was tantamount to calling Blacks, “niggers.” I’ll never forgive Hamill for being a race traitor.
Irish drunks are a dime a dozen (and a fuckin’ bore) so Hamill’s saga of bottoming out before straightening out, though well told, wasn’t for me. I much preferred his bawdy, Henry Miller-like tales of being a budding beatnik artist. Those were full of fun period details and read like Tropic of Art School. Besides, a little sexual braggadocio never hurts. In fact, Brooklyn and braggadocio go together like sausage and peppers.
And, hey, if you were playing “hide the shillelagh” with…
You’d braggadocio, too!
So, this social-justice leprechaun wasn’t averse to a bit of jet-setting at Elaine’s and P.J. Clarke’s. (Somehow I doubt he ever squired Tawana Brawley to either boîte.) And yet… like Alfred Kazin (the subject of my last post ) as much as I wanted to smack Hamill in the chops for his silly knee-jerk liberal bullshit, I couldn’t help liking the guy.
I’d love to sit down with him over a beer (Oops, better make that a root beer) not at Elaine’s but at Farrell’s – the legendary Irish working-class watering hole in Park Slope. We could stay off politics and shoot the shit about the nuns, the priests, the gangs, the girls, the Irish Mafia, the Italian Mafia, Coney Island and especially the Dodgers. The Brooklyn Dodgers.
It takes two to make an unhappy marriage and my parents are those two. My father has just left my mother or been thrown out by her. (You can get even odds on either proposition.) With my older brother away at college, I am now the only male in the house – a house not favorably disposed toward males, especially males who look and act like our recently exiled father. When my mother looks at me, she sees him. She never tires of telling me this at length and at great volume. She hates him so my domestic situation is precarious at best.
One day, in the latest skirmish of our long-running feud, I punch my older sister in the stomach. She tried to kill me years before but I am now a husky 12-year-old. Is she a surrogate for my mother? My mother certainly thinks so and she throws me out of the house. At age twelve. Throws me out into New York City. At night. In December. Gives me one subway token and nothing else. No money. No food. Just the clothes on my back. Tells me to go live with my father. Then with my four weeping sisters beside her, she slams the vestibule door in my face. Dickens in Brooklyn.
I have no idea where my father is living but I know he is working nights in Macy’s for Christmas. (That Thanksgiving I spot him on TV holding one of the ropes to the Popeye balloon in Macy’s famous parade.) But, I don’t know if he is working tonight or in which department. And, Macy’s is “The World’s Largest Store.” That’s a lot of departments.
Somehow, I get to 34thstreet on the subway. Once there, I follow the signs to Macy’s. I don’t know there is such a thing as a Personnel Department so I ask everyone who looks like they work for Macy’s if they know my father. Somehow, I learn that he is “in Linoleum.” During Christmas season, “Linoleum” is as lively as a funeral parlor. Still, I have trouble finding someone to help me and trouble finding the nerve to ask that someone if my father is there. I’m embarrassed and I’m sure that my father will be angry with me for embarrassing him at work. But, I hope that he’ll calm down and we’ll move into a swank bachelor pad and take in some Yankee games and maybe even act together.
An elderly saleswoman wearing those “Frankenstein” orthopedic shoes tells me that my father isn’t working that night and she only has a daytime work number. “He should be here tomorrow night, sweetie. Ya know, Macy’s closes in ten minutes.” I hadn’t planned on this. My father isn’t there. Macy’s is closing. I can’t stay there. I can’t go home. I can’t roam the streets. I have no subway tokens or money to buy one so I can’t even sleep on the subway.
Somehow, I have to get back to Brooklyn. Somehow, I have to get back in the house. Somehow, she has to let me in. Doesn’t she?
I slink down into the 34th street subway station where to lessen my humiliation, I find a token booth far away from the eyes of the Christmas shoppers. I tell the clerk that I’ve lost my return token and plead to be let through the gate. Not a chance. So, I look for men with friendly faces and beg them for a token or even just a nickel to help buy one. (A nickel is nothing!) The men with friendly faces pretend not to see me.
The rock I throw misses the boy’s head and hits the wooden fence behind him with such force that all the tenement mothers thrust their bobby-pinned heads out of their windows. Tenement mothers instinctively know the sound of one child trying to murder another with a rock. I don’t even know who he is. I am seven. I know this because my mother has sent me into the backyard to check on my infant sister who is sleeping in her carriage. I’m seven years older than she so…
I am seven and it is a sunny day in 1957 and I am walking into our tenement’s backyard when I spot a strange little boy sitting next to my sister’s carriage. I can’t tell if he is talking to her or reading to her. But, I know he isn’t harming her. I know it. But, a twisted, heroic, righteous rage rises in me. No Red Devil whispers in my ear. This is all my doing. This is me. Evil Me. This is the first time the Red Mist engulfs me. I know the story of David and Goliath so I know all about smiting someone with a stone. I decide that I will be a tough guy like David or, even better, the local gang leader, Tony Unbatz. Man, will he and his gang be proud of me? They’ll throw me into the air and buy me a frozen Coke. These are my thoughts as I pick up the largest rock I can throw and hurl it at the boy. Rock in the eye – I blind him. Rock in the temple – I kill him. No Guardian Angel stays my hand. But, maybe his Angel is watching because the rock misses his head. Just. He looks at me with shocked, innocent eyes and runs away.
Many nights, as my not-so-innocent eyes close, I see that boy. I hear the rock. I sit up. I shudder. What if? I am too ashamed and ascared to raise this sin at my First Confession or my last or any in between. But, I do seek forgiveness from that boy. I hope he has enjoyed the life that could so easily have been ruined by me. I hope that, like me, he survived Vietnam and AIDS and 9/11. I hope he accepts my apology
One day in 1958, I’m looking at the tenement across the street when I see a vision – a creature so out of place, so ethereal, so “other” that I have to go out and speak to it. Its name is Andy and it’s from Glasgow, Scotland. I am eight and have a vague idea of where Scotland is but no idea of what Glasgow is like. I imagine something with lots of cozy cottages. The wallpaper in my childhood bedroom has a reproduction of the painting The Hay Wain by Constable in an endlessly repeating pattern all over it. It forms my image of Britain – a land of endlessly repeated cozy cottages beside winding streams. When I first hear of Greenwich Village, I picture the Manhattan skyline with an English village of cozy cottages nestled inside it. As a teenager, when I hear “Ferry ’Cross the Mersey” I imagine a narrow winding stream that’s lined by cozy cottages. Weeping willows grow aside the cottages, their branches gently brushing the punts as they pass. (My imagined Mersey was as wrong as my imagined Lake Michigan!)
I now know that Glasgow in the 1950s was every bit as rough as Brooklyn – a pair of blue-collar towns with bits of gentility around the edges. Brooklyn’s brownstones even originated in Glasgow. So, it isn’t that Andy had moved into a completely alien environment. But, the Andy I met in 1958 was not a tough kid. And, acting tough doesn’t make you tough. It’s a cover. What do you think tattoos are all about? I wonder if Andy is haunted by the memory of that day in the cemetery as much as I am. Maybe not. Maybe not. But, I am haunted by him as I am haunted by Carrie.
I’ve always enjoyed getting lost in strange towns and since I was broke that was my only entertainment in Milwaukee – a strange town indeed. On Saturday nights, I watched German and Polish farm-boys, come to the big city for an evening of beer drinking and beer vomiting, challenge each other to daredevil leaps across the opening drawbridges that spanned the Milwaukee River. Sometimes they made it.
Milwaukee hippiedom amounted to one music store that sold records, bongs and crucially, pot to put in those bongs. It was there I met a speed-freak wraith named Tulip. This sixteen-year-old ruin was another sign to me that all was not well in the post-Woodstock days of 1969. We’d just had Manson. Altamont lay dead ahead. The party was if not over, definitely winding down and the casualties were piling up.
Earlier that summer, I’d met another faded flower child. She had allowed a motorcycle gang to pull out all her teeth with pliers. She was tripping on acid at the time of the extraction and was sure her sacrifice would win her the bikers’ undying approbation. No wonder I felt a millennial chill.
Tulip asked me for spare change when she’d been kicked out of the record store for loitering with sonic-erotic intent. She was one of several speed freaks I’d observed attach themselves to the front of the mountainous Marshall amplifier used to play records at ear-bleed volume. They glued their emaciated bodies to the amp’s front like an octopus to a rock. There they clung thrusting their pathetically thin pelvises into the vibrating sound cone as they and the guitar solo reached climax. And, there they remained until the store clerk peeled them off or the music ended and they slid to the floor in post-coital bliss.
Like most boys, certainly Brooklyn stoop-boys, I had an early fascination with excrement. I especially loved poo jokes – most boys do. It’s not pathological and it passes. (See, I’m an adult now and didn’t draw your attention to that cheap pun.) But, there are male children, mercifully few in number, who display early signs of an unhealthy fixation with the natural, nay, essential bodily function of evacuation. As example, allow me to present –
The Case of the Catholic Coprophile
The Adventures of Zorro is the big TV hit of 1957-59. Zorro is the Robin Hood of Old California. Our hero uses his glistening rapier to carve his calling card – a large Z– into the bark of trees, the walls of haciendas and the bellies of his enemies. Every Brooklyn kid wants a Zorro mask, cape and sword. Spoiled kids have all three. The rest of us improvise or beat up the spoiled kids for their Zorro booty.
One boy in St. John the Pederast Primary School is painting large Zs all over the school walls – with his excrement. (It must be a boy because girls and nuns would not do this.) When I say all over, I mean, all over. The young defacer is a genius of product placement. You cannot miss his mark. “Mr. Maximum Visibility.” On some walls, he writes a simple Z; on other walls ZORRO. But, time and quantity of material permitting, he writes Zorro Was Here adding a large, insouciant Z under that for good measure.
But, why? When? How? We students are almost never allowed out of our classrooms alone. Could the demented graffiti artist be our hunchback janitor who looks like Quasimodo and wears an immense, Johnny-Ray-style hearing aid? (Several years later, he is caught spying on little girls in the toilet – echoes of Quasimodo and Esmeralda.) Is he a secret coprophile using the Zorro brand as clever cover for his twisted desire to take revenge on the world by smearing his hunchback dung on school walls? Does he derive still more perverse pleasure from having to remove his own caked-on filth?
Tony Unbatz, the top punk on my block, is known to be, as his Italian nickname implies, crazy – “batz.” He’ll do anything on a dare and more without one. He’s a skinny kid with a nose bigger than he is. He weighs at most a hundred and ten pounds soaking wet and since he’s drenched in beer that’s what he weighs tonight. Tony dresses like Marlon Brando in The Wild One – motorcycle jacket, boots and garrison belt. And, like all the Juvenile Delinquents in 1950s America, he apes Brando’s schtick – “Don’t bug me coz I’m a sullen, sensitive, tough-but-tender, misunderstood punk-poet.” The juvenile delinquents of Brooklyn even try to mimic Brando’s Southern accent from The Wild One. When Beatlemania hits Brooklyn, the punk-poets of that era attempt a Liverpool accent, “Toydy toyd and toyd meets the Moysey.” Brooklyn rock bands have to pretend to be English to get gigs and so they name themselves – The Churchills, The Cuppa Tease and The Chamber Pots.
I’m pitching pennies against a wall of the corner grocery store just like I see the big boys do. It’s a form of urban horseshoes. I have no idea what the rules are and have only one penny to pitch but I try my best to look tough and cool. I am six. The big boys are sixteen and hanging out on the corner as they always do on summer nights.
They gather under the streetlight and serenade the block with “Earth Angel” and other doo-wop dirges. This is Brooklyn’s answer to the bel canto street singing of Naples. Figures. Most of these punks are second-generation Napolitano. Rico has a sweet tenor voice so he sings lead. And, despite his polio leg-braces, he plays stickball with the gang. They brag about how far he can hit a ball – “I’m tellin’ ya Rico hit da ball three sewers.”
My friends and I are too young to witness the serious nighttime “rumbles” between the local gangs – The Bishops, The Undertakers, The South Brooklyn Boys and The Testors. (They sniff Testorsbrand airplane glue to get high.) But, the following morning, we scavenge their battle scenes in search of bloody souvenirs – chains, bats, pipes, teeth, spent shells even a loaded zip gun. Its barrel is a car aerial attached to a plank with a sliding bolt and rubber bands as primitive trigger-mechanism. We fire it in a basement where it explodes nearly blinding us all. We decide to leave the heavy artillery to the big boys.
We are a blue-collar Scout troop without a full uniform between us – more Bowery Boys than Baden Powell. We don’t buy our gear at the official Boy Scout store which is strictly for fagateers but at the Army surplus stores on Canal Street. Who cares if our canteens leak and our hatchets shatter? They are what General Patton’s soldiers used and that’s all that matters.
Only once is our tough-guy veneer pierced. It is when we encounter a disfigured boy who pitches his tent right next to ours at a Boy Scout Jamboree. The merit badge sash he wears across his torso contains more badges than our troop has won in its entire history. He is also an Eagle Scout and a member of the Order of The Arrow. This is like being a Green Beret and a Navy Seal. He is tall and well built. But, atop his perfectly formed body sits the most deformed head and face I have ever seen. His skull is squashed, elongated and lopsided. His features are randomly stuck onto the front of it like the plastic ears, mouth and nose of a Mr. Potato Head – a Mr. Potato Head who has been dropped from a great height. He has one misshapen ear on top of his skull and another down near his chin so that his glasses hang on his face in a vertical rather than horizontal line. His eyes, nose, and mouth are not much more than holes. Imagine the face of Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame drawn by Picasso then put through a wood chipper.