BROOKLYN BOOKS #4

A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill

Pete Hamill and I grew up side-by-side in working-class, Catholic, Brooklyn neighborhoods.   

Row of brownstones in Park Slope, Brooklyn
Pete in leafy Park Slope.
Me in not so leafy South Brooklyn.
Brooklyn trolley in the 1940s
Pete in the 1940s
The cast of The Honeymooners on a bus.
Me in the 1950s

Pete – Irish. Me – Italian

Kiss Me, I'm Irish. Blow me, I'm 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.

19th century anti-Irish immigration cartoon in the USA.

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. 

Cartoon Paddy Wagon

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.

Group of unsmiling nuns
Here they are saying “cheese”

I even bought movie tickets from Pete’s mother at the local itch-house.

She probably short-changed me , too.
Pete at play. Wait a minute… that’s me!
Pete Hamill at Holy Name School, Brooklyn
Me in the 8th grade. Wait minute… that’s Pete!

Yet, no matter how similar our childhood landscapes, we were separated not only by ethnicity but by politics. 

Pete – Left. Me – Right.

Pete’s pin-up.
Mine.

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. 

Pete believed dat dey was depraved on account dey wuz deprived.

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…

Pete Hamill with Shirley
Shirley MacLaine…
Pete hamill with Jackie Onassis
… and Jackie O

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.

Farrell's Bar & Grill, Brooklyn

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.  

Pete & Me

Two boys outa Brooklyn

So very different

So very the same

Boy Outa Brooklyn a murder-memoir by Jack Antonio
Available as an eBook here
and as an eBook and paperback from amazon.com
amazon.co.uk

Greek (Diner) Tragedy

Greek restaurant take-away coffee cup
A New York City icon!

I lived in New York City at a time when every intersection had a Greek diner. I don’t mean diners that sold only Greek food but corner joints run by Greeks. Their sticky, multi-paged, plastic-coated menus offered everything from sushi and spaghetti to souvlaki. And, all of it was on tap 24/7.

I was addicted to their toasted blueberry muffins that were the size of coconuts. A cup of coffee with a “toasted blue” was my snack of choice and, in hard times, my one meal of the day. So, I was saddened on a recent trip back home to discover that most of the Greek joints had gone. Some of the owners had made their money and happily returned to Greece but most had been priced out by the big coffee chains. (Another good reason to hate Starbucks though the brown piss they call coffee is reason enough!)    

Toasted blueberry muffin
Toasted ambrosia!

One blah night in the 1980s, I was sitting at the counter of my favorite Greek diner in the Village, reading the NY Post and cursing George Steinbrenner when I became aware that the man on the stool next to me was acting strangely. He was making little grunts and moving in a herky-jerky manner. I figured he was a junkie who’d missed his shot. So, I signaled to Nicos that I’d take my toasted blue further down the counter. Just then my counter colleague jerked into my arms in a way that forced me to hold him. As we fell backwards off our stools, he went into full spasm and I somehow knew I had an epileptic seizure on my hands. Literally!  

Classic NYC diner counter
Picture us wrestling in the middle of the floor.

I laid him out on the floor and looked up for help but the entire restaurant (customer and staff alike) had gone into catatonic shock. Those at the counter stared down at me like I was an annoying cockroach scurrying about their feet. Those in booths slowly leaned out until they were at a 90-degree angle with the floor and there they remained. Silent. Staring. Slightly inquisitive. Imagine the RCA Victor dog.  

Meanwhile, the epileptic was flopping around on the floor like a tuna that had been hauled on-board a Sheepshead Bay trawler. I knew less than nothing about the care and feeding of epileptics aside from the fact that you should never get your fingers in an epileptic’s mouth lest your fingers be chomped off. But, silly me, as I looked to my fellow diners for help and began to say something to the effect of, “Hey, does anybody wanna give me a fuckin’ hand here?” My fuckin’ hand got into the epileptic’s mouth.

Bloody hand dangling from alligator's mouth.
I had to act and fast!

As you can imagine, this dilemma increased the fervor of my calls for help. But, to no avail. I considered making like a coyote and chewing my hand off to escape the trap. I considered choking the epileptic to death to gain my freedom. I knew what I did next was risky but I was running out of time and about to be running out of fingers. I managed to get my other hand into the poor bastard’s mouth and pry his jaws apart before they snapped shut fracturing several bicuspids. 

Then, out of nowhere, a typically obese ambulance crew waddled in. I’m not sure if they’d been alerted and were waddling in to answer the call of “diner down” or if they were coincidentally waddling in for their moussaka with fries. I returned to the counter and Nicos gave me some ice for my fingers but the prick still charged me for my toasted blue! 

Fast forward maybe two years.

I’m watching an off-Broadway play in which one character delivers a show-stopping speech about the time he was in a Greek diner and a schmuck got his fingers stuck in an epileptic’s mouth. The actor brought the house down with his mime of the booth-sitters leaning out at a 90-degree angle and staring at the schmuck. That would be me. You guessed it. This playwright had been one of the selfish, frozen assholes who made not a move to help the epileptic or, more importantly, your reporter. Worse. This creep who had plagiarized my pain hadn’t given me an audition for his play.

As the quintessential Brooklyn boy, Ralph Kramden would say, “Bang! Zoom!”

Boy Outa Brooklyn a murder-memoir by Jack Antonio
Image: the smiling face of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn
Available as an eBook and paperback
amazon.com
amazon.co.uk
And as an eBook here
https://books2read.com/The-Boy-Outa-Brooklyn