A Drinking Life: A Memoirby Pete Hamill
A journalist and author of Loving Women recreates the hard-drinking Brooklyn-Irish lifestyle that informed every aspect of his childhood and early career and that eventually destroyed his marriage.
A journalist and author of Loving Women recreates the hard-drinking Brooklyn-Irish lifestyle that informed every aspect of his childhood and early career and that eventually destroyed his marriage.
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A Drinking LifeA Memoir
By Hamill, Pete
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 1994 Hamill, Pete
All right reserved.
THIS IS A BOOK about my time in the drinking life. It tells the story of the way one human being became aware of alcohol, embraced it, struggled with it, was hurt by it, and finally left it behind. The tale has no hero.
The culture of drink endures because it offers so many rewards: confidence for the shy, clarity for the uncertain, solace to the wounded and lonely, and above all, the elusive promises of friendship and love. From almost the beginning of awareness, drinking was a part of my life; there is no way that I could tell the story of the drinking without telling the story of the life. Much of that story was wonderful. In the snug darkness of saloons, I learned much about being human and about mastering a craft. I had, as they say, a million laughs. But those grand times also caused great moral, physical, or psychological damage to myself and others. Some of that harm was probably permanent. There is little to be done now but take responsibility. No man's past can be changed; it's a fact, like red hair.
More than twenty years have gone by since I stopped drinking. My father died at eighty; my mother lives on. I’;m happily married to a wonderful woman and work even harder than I did when young. But life doesn't get easier when you walk away from the culture of drink; you simply live it with greater lucidity.
I started writing this book when some of my friends from the drinking life began to die. They were decent, talented, generous, and humane. But as they approached the end, physically ruined by decades of drinking, I remembered more of their good times than they did. In a way, this book is about them too.
New York City
DURING THE WAR
Little enough I know of your struggle,
although you come to me more and more,
free of that heavy body armour
you tried to dissolve with alcohol,
a pale face staring in dream light
like a fish's belly
upward to life.
— John Montague,
“Stele for a Northern Republican”
AT THE BEGINNING of my remembering, I am four years old and we are living on the top floor of a brick building on a leafy street in Brooklyn, a half block from Prospect Park. Before that place and that age, there is nothing. But in those remembered rooms are my mother, my younger brother Tommy, and me. It is the winter of 1939. I remember the kitchen, with its intricately patterned blue-and-red linoleum floors, and windows that opened into a garden where an elm tree rose higher than the house. The kitchen light was beautiful: suffused with a lemony green in summer, dazzling when winter snow garnished the limbs of the elm tree. I remember the smell of pine when my mother mopped the floors. I remember her whistling when she was happy, which was most of the time. I remember how tall she seemed then, and how shiny her brown hair was after she had washed it in the sink. And I remember my brother Tommy, two years younger than I, small and curly-haired and gentle. I don't remember my father.
He was there, all right. Billy Hamill wasn't one of those Depression fathers who went for a loaf of bread at the corner store and never came back. He moved through those rooms. He slept in one of the beds. He shaved in the bathroom and bathed in the tub. But for me, he wasn't there. In some ways, it made no difference. On summer afternoons, I would sit outside the house, in a patch of earth near the curb, playing with a small red fire engine, telling myself stories.
Perhaps my father was in those stories. But he didn't take me on those long green walks through the endless meadows and dark woods of Prospect Park. My mother did. Nor did he take me to see my first movie. My mother did that too. It was The Wizard of Oz, and the streets were dark when we came out of the Sanders Theater and she took my hand and we skipped home together, singing Off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz, because because because because Because. I have no memory of him bouncing me on his knee or looking at the drawings I made each day with my box of eight Crayolas. I remember sitting on the stoop, watching Japanese beetles gnaw the ivy that covered the face of the brownstone next door and my mother teaching me a little song to be crooned to another insect neighbor: Ladybug, Ladybug, fly away bome. Your bouse is on fire, your child is alone…. But I learned no songs from my father. Not then.
In large part, my father's absence was caused by his work. He left home before I awoke and returned after I was asleep. So in some ways, I didn't really miss him. He wasn't in my presence often enough to be physically missed. Besides, I was too busy learning the names of the world and even having small adventures. Once I went to Prospect Park with Billy Kelly, the boy who lived on the first floor. He was my first friend, a year older than I was, and his family owned 471 Fourteenth Street, the house where we lived on the top floor. Our adventure began in a very simple way. Billy said, Let's go to the park. And I said, Okay, let's go to the park.
And yet I knew that what we were doing was full of risk. Most important of all, it was the first time I’d ever gone anywhere without my mother and this act could lead to punishment. She might get cross. She might spank me. I went anyway, trusting Billy Kelly, certain we would be back before my mother noticed I was gone. I crossed the wide avenue called Prospect Park West, following the vastly more experienced Billy, watching for the trolley cars and the few big boxy black automobiles that moved through the streets in those days. We plunged into the park and wandered through that green world whose trees loomed high above us. Soon we were lost. We crossed streams, gazed at lakes, threw stones into the woods, but never could find the familiar playground and low stone wall beyond which lay home. I was filled with panic. I might never see my mother again or my brother Tommy or the kitchen at 471. We could end up in jail or someplace called the Orphanage, where they put kids without parents.
We were still in the park at dusk, when my mother found us. Her eyes were wide and angry, probably frantic. She did nothing to Billy Kelly; that was not her right. But she spanked me.
I’ve been looking everywhere for you, Peter, she said sharply. You had me worried sick.
I cried all the way home, full of remorse, and shocked too, because I had never before seen my mother angry, certainly not at me. And then we were at the house, going up the stoop in silence and into the vestibule and up the stairs to the top floor. Then, suddenly, quietly, she hugged me. And fed me. And put me to bed. The day had been the most turbulent of my short life; but from beginning to end, my father played no part in it at all.
In the summer of 1940, my mother started taking Tommy and me to visit my father where he worked.
You should be very proud of your daddy, my mother said. He only finished the eighth grade and he is working as a clerk. The reason is his beautiful handwriting.
She didn't explain what a clerk was, but she did show me his handwriting on some sheets of ruled paper. I was just learning to print the alphabet on the same kind of paper, and the shape and steadiness of my father's handwriting did seem very beautiful. He was working at the main office of a Brooklyn grocery chain called Thomas Roulston & Sons and brought home nineteen dollars a week. The Roulston company was housed in a redbrick factory building near the Gowanus Canal, more than a mile from where we lived. My mother would pack a lunch for him and put Tommy in a stroller and off we would go, first crossing along the parkside, then marching block after block, down the great slope. From Ninth Street, I could see all the way to the harbor, where there were ships on the water as small as toys. I loved arriving down near the canal, where the Smith and Ninth Street station of the Independent subway line rose high above us on a concrete trestle. On some days, a drawbridge would groan and squeal, rising slowly to allow some tough squat tugboat to plow through the canal's oily waters to the harbor. There was a mountain of coal on one of the banks and a machine for unloading it off barges and another for putting it on thin-wheeled trucks with odd sloped fronts like the points of steam irons. I’d wait beside the bridge with Tommy while my mother took her plump brown paper bag up to my father's office. He never once came down to the street to say hello to us.
But I do remember him sitting in the kitchen one bright Sunday afternoon in May. Suddenly among us there was a fat blond baby in a tiny crib. A white cake lay on the table and my father was there, bigger than he'd ever seemed before. He was celebrating his own birthday and the birth of my sister, Kathleen.
Through the door that afternoon came Uncle Tommy, gruff, friendly, my father's brother, and his wife, Aunt Louie, followed by another brother named Uncle David, tall and lean and grave, and his wife, Aunt Nellie, who was chubby and large and laughed a lot. Behind them came other men, great huge men with sour smells clinging to their jackets and enormous feet encased in shiny leather. They all wore hats and smoked cigarettes and laughed very loudly and drank beer from tall glasses and giant brown bottles. After a while, one of them began to sing, a sad mournful song. When he was finished my father rose and started singing too. His song was funny. His eyes danced, he smiled, he gestured with his hands to emphasize a point, used his eyebrows for other points, and when he was finished they all cheered. The baby cried. My mother picked her up and went into the other room while my father filled his glass with beer, took a long drink and started into another song. For a long time, I sat on the floor near the window, watching this magic show.
IN THE FALL, I started kindergarten at PS 107, down on the corner. We played with blocks. We learned songs. We made paintings and cutouts. Then it was winter. Great piles of snow filled the schoolyard for weeks and once on a class trip to the park I took a great mound of pure fresh-fallen snow in my mittens and began to eat it. I didn't know exactly why; the snow was just so clean and white that I wanted it inside me. But the other kids laughed. I was mortified by their laughter and wanted to run home, but the teacher said, It's all right, young man; if you want to eat snow, there's no rule against it.
My mother had friends on the street: Mrs. Hogan directly across the street, Mrs. Fox, Mrs. Cottingham, who lived near the corner across from the schoolyard. Now I had another friend: a beautiful girl named Roberta Perrin, who had dark hair and lustrous eyes and inspired in me some vague desire; her mother and mine were also friends. Roberta was in my class at kindergarten, and I liked being with her more than with my friend Billy Kelly, who was now in first grade. After school, I found my way to her areaway, which was always dark under great thick-trunked trees, and we played together. When I ate snow, she didn't laugh. There was a grocery store on the corner, run by Syrians, but my mother didn't shop there; she went to a Roulston's branch a block away, loyal, as always, to my father. Except for those long journeys down to the canal, the world was a very small place.
Just before Christmas that year, we woke to the sight of a tree with shiny colored bulbs and tinfoil decorations my mother made from the lining of cigarette packs. We had no blinking lights. There must have been Christmas trees in our house before then, but I don't remember them. This was a special Christmas. I was given some toys, some candy canes, and a copy of A Child's Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson. My mother read from it to me, over and over, showing me the letters and the words. Then it was summer again and we were taking our long journeys to the Gowanus Canal. Now Tommy was walking and Kathleen was in the carriage. My father still didn't come down to see us. One sunny day I asked why.
Oh, he'd love to come down, my mother said. But the stairs are too hard on him. He works all the way up there.
She pointed to the top floor of the six-story building.
Then why can't we go up and see him? I said.
Because they don't let kids in the building.
Well, there must be two hundred men working for Roulston's. If every man had three kids visit him at lunchtime, there'd be a riot in there.
She laughed, told us she wouldn't be long, and hurried into the building. I stared at the top floor, wishing my father would come to a window and wave at us. He never did.
In the fall of 1941, I entered the first grade at Holy Name of Jesus elementary school. My mother took me by the hand to the schoolyard and then went away. A white brick school building rose like a fortress before me, three severe stories off the ground. At a right angle to the school was the back of the church, its bricks painted the color of dried blood. Those walls and the wire fence blocked any possibility of escape, and I was swiftly trapped in a wild sea of strangers. There were seventy-two boys in 1A that year, and a tall nun with creamy skin struggled to tame us. This was no easy task. On the first day, one frantic lank-haired boy danced on top of a desk. Others shouted encouragement, squealed in delight, whined, thumped each other, and slammed the desktops. I sat there, wishing I was home, alone on the stoop watching Japanese beetles or staring out the window into the safe stillness of the green garden. Somehow I got through the day. I was assigned a desk. I started writing letters of the alphabet in a composition book with a black-and-white cover. The boys calmed down. Sister assered her command.
A few weeks later, there was great excitement everywhere: car horns blowing, bells ringing in a hundred church steeples, sirens screaming from firehouses. The Dodgers had won the pennant! I wasn't sure what a pennant was, but it must have been a glorious thing to win, for we were given the day off from school and my mother took us on another long walk, to Grand Army Plaza. There we stood, among thousands of joyful strangers, on the new steps of the gleaming white Brooklyn Public Library and watched the Dodgers parade in triumph up Flatbush Avenue on their way to Ebbets Field. The ball players were huge tanned men with great smiles and enormous arms, sitting on the backs of convertibles, waving at us all. That night my father came home with two large bottles of beer and sitting alone in the kitchen (because my mother knew nothing of baseball) he celebrated the great triumph while listening to reports on the radio.
Just remember one thing, McGee, he said to me, in a grave voice. The Dodgers are the greatest thing on earth.
In school the next day, I told some of the other boys that the Dodgers were the greatest thing on earth. They all agreed with this, of course, and so did Sister, who had us pray for the Dodgers as they moved on to the World Series against the Yankees. But then a Dodger catcher named Mickey Owen dropped a third strike, the Yankees won the World Series, and we all had to wonder if God was a Yankee fan. That couldn't be possible. God was a Catholic, wasn't he? And since the Dodgers were from Brooklyn, they must be Catholics too. Or so we thought.
As young as we were, we were learning fast that year about the presence of calamity in the world. The Dodgers were only the beginning. On December 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. I have no clear memory of that Sunday or of Franklin Roosevelt's famous speech on the following day. But I can still see my mother in the kitchen a few weeks later, cooking dinner and listening to music on the radio. Then an announcer interrupted to describe through veils of static the fall of Manila. He was telling us about explosions and gunfire and Japanese soldiers coming up the street when the broadcast abruptly stopped and another announcer, free of static, spoke softly about the war and this defeat. Suddenly, my mother was crying.
Those poor boys, she said, and hugged me. Those poor boys….
She then explained to me that we were at war. I started to cry too. Not because of the war or the poor boys in Manila, wherever that was (the name itself provoked only an image of vanilla ice cream). I cried because I had never seen my mother cry before and I didn't like it. I could cry. Tommy could cry. Baby Kathleen could cry. We were kids. My mother wasn't supposed to cry.
That night, when my father came home, he bumped into something and woke me up. I got up and tiptoed toward the kitchen, stopping in the dark of the next room. His face looked different, his jaw hanging loose, his slick black hair disheveled and wild. He sat down hard at the table and knocked over a glass of beer. My mother was no longer crying but she was what we kids called “cross.”
Ach, Billy, she said, and started wiping up the beer with a dishcloth.
Don't say a thing! he said sharply. Just get me my bloody dinner.
She turned away and I thought she was going to cry again. Then he saw me.
What the hell are you looking at? he said to me. Get into bed.
I saw how upset she was and I started to whimper.
You've got damn all to cry about! he said.
Leave him alone! she said. You're upsetting him! And you'll wake the baby.
He ignored her and pointed a finger at me.
Into bed! he said. Make it snappy!
I retreated into the darkness of the second room from the kitchen, and lay facedown on a bed beside Tommy and listened. I heard his voice, blurting and hard; then her voice; then his again; then silence. I heard water running and dishes clacking sharply against each other. Then silence again. I stated back toward the kitchen. My mother was at the sink. My father's arm was straight out across the table, his head resting on it, a fork still in his hand, though his plate was gone. He was asleep.
IN SCHOOL that first year, I learned two things that began to give me some sense of self. One, I was Irish. At school, kids kept asking: What are you? I thought I was American, but in those days in Brooklyn, when you were asked what you were, you answered with a nationality other than your own. Since my parents were from Ireland, I was from a group called “Irish.” There were other Irish in 1A, a lot of them, along with Italians and Germans and Poles. But because my name wasn't obviously Irish, like Kelly or Murphy or O'Connor, they kept on asking me. My mother had to explain it all to me.
She started with a book. For months, she had been buying an encyclopedia called the Wonderland of Knowledge, known to us simply as the Blue Books. Every week there was a coupon in the New York Post; for the coupon and a dime the newspaper sent us a volume. We would soon have them all, and they truly were wonderful. My mother found the right volume and turned to some maps and showed me where Ireland was: a tiny spot off the coast of a huge multicolored mass called Europe. Then she tried to explain what it meant to be Irish.
I can't remember her exact words. But she had a strong sense of history and injustice, so I’m sure she told me that day (as she told me in so many ways in the years to come) that Ireland had been an independent country for more than a thousand years and then, about eight hundred years ago, the British had come with swords, horses, and treachery to take it for themselves. They destroyed the language of the Irish and made them speak English. They tried to destroy their religion too, particularly during the reign of the wicked Queen Elizabeth. But the Irish kept fighting, kept resisting, almost always losing, but struggling on, until in 1916, they rose in rebellion on Easter Sunday and drove the English out. Or at least drove them out of twenty-six of the nation's thirty-two counties. The way she told it, the story was thrilling.
What happened to the other counties? I asked.
They're still occupied by the British, she said. They kept six of them: the counties where our people are from. My parents, Daddy's parents. And there'll be no peace until they're free. Someday they'll finish the job they started in 1916.
She told me that 1916 was also the year her father died. His name was Peter Devlin and he was a seaman. He fell off a ship in a dry dock in Brooklyn and was crushed. So my mother, who was a little girl in 1916, went back to Ireland with her mother and her brother, Maurice. They lived there until 1929, when her mother died and she decided it was time to come back to America.
Those two dates always make me sad, she said, 1916 and 1929.
The room seemed to fill with sorrow as she tried, so carefully, to explain herself to me. Her mother and father were dead and she had come alone across that great expanse of blue on the map to live here in Brooklyn. I was happy she was here; who else could be my mother? But I felt sorry that she had no mother or father of her own. That was unfair. She had nobody except us. Even her brother, Uncle Maurice, was in Ireland, far across the ocean.
And where did you live in Ireland?
In Belfast, she said. Right here, see that dot?
She paused and her voice grew soft.
We lived on Madrid Street, she said. It was named after a city in Spain.
She showed me Madrid on the map, and I thought it was a wonderful thing to live on a street with a name like Madrid instead of a mere number, like ours. But she was unhappy as she told me about Belfast (on that day, and many others). The city was divided between Catholics like us and Protestants, who were a different kind of Christian. And though she knew some decent Protestants, in Belfast most of them were bigots. She was a little girl in Belfast when the Troubles started and the bigots formed into the Murder Gang and came into the Catholic neighborhoods to burn down houses and kill Catholics. The British army was there too, with armored cars and machine guns, terrible men who hated the Irish and hated the Catholics. All of that was in Belfast, where the bigots ran everything.
This was at once scary and thrilling, and I made her tell me the stories many times. I couldn't imagine myself on streets where gunmen shot rifles from the shadows, where soldiers came rolling upon you in iron trucks, where you could be beaten or killed because you were a Catholic. But my mother seemed to me to be an amazing woman, someone who had seen things when she was a little girl that were more terrible than any movie. And here she was. Smiling. Whistling when she was happy. Telling me that she loved America for its freedom.
Freedom is a lot more important than money, she said. Remember that. Here we're free. And you must never ever be a bigot.
What is a bigot anyway?
A bigot is a hater, she said. A bigot hates Catholics. A bigot hates Jews. A bigot hates colored people. It's no sin to be poor, she said. It is a sin to be a bigot. Don't ever be one of them.
No, Mommy, I said. I won't be one of them.
And imagined a bigot with yellow eyes and a tall black hat and fangs for teeth. I said I would watch for them and if a bigot came to our street I would tell her and she could use the telephone in Mr. Kelly's kitchen and call the police.
After I learned that I was Irish, I came to understand another big thing: my father was a cripple. That's what the kids in 1A said. He is not, I said (not knowing what they meant, thinking perhaps that it was something like being a bigot). He is too, they said. He's a cripple.
Yes, my mother said, he is a cripple. He lost his left leg in 1927. He was a soccer player. That's a game they play in Ireland, with a round ball that they kick. They also play it out in Bay Ridge, another part of Brooklyn, and in a lot of other countries. She took a tobacco-colored photograph from a drawer and showed it to me. My father was sitting with other members of a team, all of them wearing short pants.
See, she said. He has two legs in this picture. But he only has one leg now.
She explained how he had to wear a wooden leg. He had a stump above the knee that fit into the wooden leg and straps that went over his shoulders to hold it in place. That was why the stairs at Roulston's were hard on him. I hadn't known that. She told me more, about how he was playing soccer one Sunday, here in America, in Brooklyn, in Bay Ridge, and he was kicked very hard and his leg was broken and they left him on the sidelines while they waited for an ambulance. It was a long wait. When the ambulance finally came, it took him away to Kings County Hospital, but there were no doctors to treat him and by the next day gangrene had set in and they had to cut off his leg.
How did they do that?
With a saw, she said. They had to do it to save his life.
You mean he almost died?
That's what they said.
So that's what they meant in 1A when they said my father was a cripple. He only had one leg. Why did they yell that at me? It wasn't bis fault. The ambulance was late. There were no doctors at the hospital. And besides, he had a wooden leg. You could look at him and not know the difference. And being a cripple wasn't as bad as being a bigot. It wasn't bad at all.
That's the way I reasoned to myself, but I’m sure I said nothing to the kids at school. After a while, boredom must have set in, and they stopped tormenting me about my father's leg. But I looked more closely at my father after that and asked to see again the picture of him in his football uniform with two legs sticking out of his shorts. Sometimes when it was dark, the word “gangrene” would seep through me, and I would see my father in a hospital bed, turning green. His skin was green and rotting and his eyes were green and his hands were green and there was a man at the door with a saw.
THAT WINTER, after the war started in the Pacific, we moved out of 471, leaving behind the elm tree, Roberta Perrin, and the ivied walls next door. The Kellys had six children of their own, and after Kathleen was born there were simply too many kids for one three-story house. Mrs. Kelly wanted the rooms for a nice mild bachelor. Without warning, we packed everything into cardboard boxes and moved to the first floor right at 435 Thirteenth Street. The colors of the world instantly changed.
The new house was only one block away but it butted up against the dirty redbrick bulk of the old Ansonia Clock Factory, built in 1879 and for a while the largest industrial building in New York. The dark blue shadow of the Factory (as everyone called it) fell upon the stoop and across the backyard. Nothing grew in that bald, forlorn yard; it was made of tightly packed orange clay that cleaved as neatly as ice cream when you drove a shovel into it. To get to the backyard, we could climb out the kitchen window, or go down into a damp cellar and up a flight of slippery stone stairs. Usually we went out the window. Once, I planted watermelon seeds in the orange clay and was astonished when a tiny green plant shot up a few days later. The plant didn't last; everything withered in the hostile clay and permanent darkness of that yard. It looked beautiful only when packed with fresh snow.
There were some advantages, of course. The rooms were larger and wider. More important, the apartment was on the first floor and my father did not have to haul his wooden leg up flights of stairs one step at a time. And the rent was twenty-six dollars a month, including steam heat.
Within days, I knew that life would now be different, and the principal reason was small, glossy-backed, and dark brown: the cockroach. I saw them moving along the hot water pipes, scurrying in corners of the kitchen, darting around the tin breadbox, rising from the drain in the bathtub, hiding in nests under the edge of the linoleum. They were everywhere. At night, I was afraid to sleep, certain that one of them would enter my ears and begin gnawing at my brain. We hit them with newspapers, stomped them, threw shoes at them. We learned what millions of New Yorkers learned: cockroaches were invincible.
Within months, we were settled. I convinced my mother that I could make my way to Holy Name without her beside me (fearful, as were all the others, of being called a momma's boy). But the first few times I walked past our old house at 471 Fourteenth Street, looking up as I passed our stoop, walking under the familiar leafy canopy of our trees, seeing Mrs. Hogan or Mrs. Fox or Mrs. Cottingham, seeing Roberta Perrin with new friends, hurrying through that place that was once the center of my existence, the essence of my dailiness, then reaching the corner and turning right under the marquee of the Sanders, I was filled with a chaotic sadness. I couldn't name what I felt. But for the first time, I sensed that there was such a thing as the past.
So I changed my route, using Fifteenth Street, where great boxy trolley cars rattled on steel tracks in two directions and the neighborhood's only black man worked as a super in a large apartment house on the corner. There were no trees here either, but that street had one virtue: it did not make me sad.
In the roachy new house on Thirteenth Street, there were some compensations. I discovered that a boy from my class lived on the top floor. His name was Ronnie Zellins. He was my first friend on the new street. I did homework with him and went to the park with him and his mother, who seemed to me to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Best of all, Ronnie Zellins introduced me to comic books. He had a collection but he couldn't read them yet, so he just followed the pictures. I could read them from the very beginning, explaining to him what was in the balloons and how the words helped make the pictures more exciting. When it was cold, we sat in the vestibule just inside the door, reading book after book and then reading them again. Other kids had collections too and would come to the door and shout: Wanna trade? And then we would go through an elaborate process, the most refined bargain being a decision to trade two ten-cent comics without covers for one copy of World's Finest, which was thicker than the others and cost fifteen cents.
In the spring and summer, we were out on the stoop, which had only three deep slablike steps (unlike the narrower steps of the high stoop on Fourteenth Street). We played card games. We fiddled with some kind of punchboard that you pushed with a wooden match to find tiny printed messages on compacted paper. We went roller skating. The girls skipped rope or played potsy, and sometimes we joined them. Other times, Ronnie and I and my brother Tommy wandered down the street to look at the Alley, a wide noisy cobblestoned warren of ancient trucks and escaping steam and iron-barred windows. The Alley ran from Thirteenth Street to Twelfth Street, splitting the Factory into two unequal sections, and in the years of the war, it seemed always jammed with men at work. I would stand at the Thirteenth Street end, sometimes with Ronnie Zellins, sometimes alone, and stare into the sweaty turbulence. My mother told me to stay out of the Alley because I might get hurt, and I knew that disobedience was a sin. But after many months, I found the courage to dash through to the other side. When I confessed this to a priest in the confessional box at Holy Name, I was sure I heard him laugh.
Now too I started to see more of my father. After we moved, he left Roulston's and took a job with the Arma Corporation in a place called Bush Terminal. The leg, his age, and his family combined to keep him out of the war, but he was doing war work anyway. He started working nights, earning the unbelievable salary of eighty dollars a week, four times what he made as a clerk. But because he was there through the night, my mother couldn't bring him lunch anymore; she packed it into a black metal lunchbox that contained a thermos for tea or soup. I loved staring into the thermos, where glass seemed laid upon glass, layer upon fluid layer, in an impossibly perfect form.
My father slept during the days, so we had to be quiet in the afternoons. I didn't mind. He was helping the war effort. More important, he was there. I could see him, feel his rough beard, stare at the wooden leg. He never stripped his trousers from the leg; it stood in a corner beside the bed, with the tops of his trousers stuffed into the socket. Most days, he would rise late in the afternoon, pull on the leg, shave and dress, eat quickly, listening to the radio, smoke some Camels, drink a few cups of tea with milk and sugar, and then go out to the stoop, where some other men would pick him up in a car. He seemed to have two faces then: one long, the other round. He wore the long face when he woke up with his hair all black and spiky and wild. Then after he came out of the bathroom, his hair was tightly combed to his skull and his face was suddenly round. He shaved with a small heavy razor and used a bristle brush and a mug. Sometimes after he left for work I would use the brush to foam up the soapy block in the mug and cover my face with lather and try to scare my brother Tommy. He always laughed.
On Sundays, after I came home from the nine o'clock Mass at Holy Name, my father was usually in the bathtub. He was a man of routine. Bathed and shaved, he would go into a bedroom and return all dressed up. We had no washing machine, and the first launderettes didn't open until after the war. So while my mother washed his work clothes by hand, or prepared his breakfast, he would look at the sports pages of the Daily News. He ate breakfast and talked to my mother. Sometimes there would be a pale blue one-page onionskin letter from Ireland, slipped into the mailbox on the second delivery on Saturday afternoon, after he'd gone off to Arma, held for my father's inspection on Sunday morning. The letter was usually from his twin brother, Frank, and my mother would read part of it aloud, and he'd look at it carefully when she was through reading. They were always happy to hear from Belfast and always a bit anxious. After all, the Germans had bombed the Belfast shipyards; they might come back and bomb civilians, particularly on the Falls Road, where the Catholics lived. Whenever a letter arrived on a weekday, my mother's face was a tight mask until she'd opened the envelope. On Sundays, she wrote letters back to Ireland; for all the beauty of his handwriting, I never saw my father write a letter.
After that late Sunday breakfast, after the talk, after the reading of the Irish letter, my father would go out, down the dark linoleum-covered hallway, into the street. He'd turn left outside the areaway, and walk up the block, saying hello to people. Sometimes I’d watch him from the stoop. He'd step hard on the good right leg and swing the wooden left leg behind him, and I thought that being a cripple wasn't such a terrible thing; he walked in his own special way, and that made him different from the other men. Along the way, most of the Sunday people smiled at him. He was off to Mass. Or so he said.
And then one Sunday when I was almost eight, he said to me, Come on, McGee. I walked with him up to the corner and for the first time entered the tight, dark, amber-colored, wool-smelling world of a saloon. This one was called Gallagher's.
In I went behind him, to stand among the stools and the gigantic men, overwhelmed at first by the sour smell of dried beer, then inhaling tobacco smells, the toilet smell, the smell of men. The place had been a speakeasy during Prohibition, and the men still entered through the back door. There was a front entrance too, opening into a large dim room with booths and tables; it was supposed to be a restaurant, but the kitchen was dusty and dark and nobody was ever there, except a few quiet women, who could not get service in the barroom proper. In that room, the men were jammed together at a high three-sided bar, talking, smoking, singing, laughing, and drinking. They drank beer. They drank whiskey. There was no television then, so they made their own entertainments.
Hey, Billy, give us a song! someone yelled. And then he started.
Mister Patrick McGinty,
An Irishman of note,
He fell into a fortune
And bought himself a goat.
A goat's milk, said Paddy,
Of that I’ll have me fill,
But when he got the nanny home
He found it was a bill….
Laughter and cheers and off he went, verse after verse, even one about Hitler, added to help the war effort. Then everyone in the bar joined him for the song's final lines:
And we'll leave the rest to Providence —
And Paddy McGinty's Goat!
They cheered and hooted and asked for another, and my father raised his glass to his lips, beaming, delighted with himself, took a long drink, and gave them what they wanted. From where I was huddled against the wall, he was the star of the place, ignoring the stools that the other men used, standing almost defiantly with one hand on the lip of the bar for balance, his face all curves, clearly the center of attention. Even the portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, hanging in the dim light above the cash register, seemed to approve.
This is where men go, I thought; this is what men do. When he was finished, they bought him drinks and then someone else began to sing and then Bing Crosby was singing on the jukebox. One of my father's friends slipped me a nickel, another gave me a dime, and Dick the Bartender, a mysterious shiny-faced fat man in a starched collar, passed me some saltine crackers in cellophane and a ginger ale with a cherry in it. Strangers rubbed my blond head. They told me I was getting bigger. And then my rather said, Go on now, go along home.
I WAS ALWAYS GLAD to leave Gallagher's. I loved seeing my father in his special place, but I hated the sour smells of the bar and the cigarette smoke. Besides, the coins in my hands seemed to be burning. I had discovered money and what you could do with it. Darting out the side door of Gallagher's, a fortune in my hand, I would go down three steps and hurry across the street into Foppiano's candy store. The glass cases and boxes on the counter held amazing treasures: hard caramels, Houton's (small chocolate bars that were sweeter and cheaper than the products of Mr. Hershey), gummy Mexican sombreros, chocolate-dipped twists of nougat, strips of paper with small dots of candy stuck to therri, Black Crows and Dots, Clark bars and Sky Bars, Kits and Jelly Royals, Mary Janes and Winter Greens. I would buy what I wanted, and then go down the block, looking for my brother Tommy so we could share the sweet treasures.
But after the first great rush of chocolate days, when I was gorged on this junk (my body suddenly light and my blood tingling), I began to spend my fortune on more substantial treasures: comic books. Comics I could own, instead of borrowing from Ronnie Zellins. Comics I could read over and over again. Comics I could trade with others. These were the first great wartime comic books, thick plump sixty-four-page extravaganzas, all in color, for a dime: Superman, Captain Marvel and Batman, the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner. The heroes were all masked or caped and far more powerful than any seven- or eight-year-old could ever hope to be.
More important, many of their secret powers came from laboratory accidents or the ingestion of secret formulas. There was the Blue Beetle, with a scaly chain mail costume, a thin black mask, and strength that came from the amazing vitamin ZX. In Police Comics, there was Plastic Man, the only superhero with a sense of humor, able to shrink or elongate or compact himself into any shape, thanks to his own secret formula. More baroque, muscular, and explosive was the great Captain America. Cap’ (as he was called) was really a mild fellow named Steve Rogers who before the war was just another skinny 4F, like the guy in the Charles Atlas ads on the back covers. Then he too drank a secret serum. Within seconds, he was transformed into a pile of muscles. The scientist who invented the serum was then killed by Nazi agents, the formula lost forever. No longer 4F, Rogers went into the army, designed his Captain America costume, and teamed up with Bucky Barnes, a teenager who was allowed to hang around the army post. For most of the war, these two were in steady pursuit of a ferocious Nazi saboteur named the Red Skull.
I was very worried about the Red Skull, who was always blowing up factories like the one where my father worked nights. One evening, I told my father to be careful when he went to work because the Red Skull might be around, lurking somewhere in the dark.
Who? he said. The red who?
The Red Skull.
What the hell are you talking about? he said.
I showed him a copy of Captain America. He laughed out loud.
You idjit! he said. That's a goddamned comic book!
I know, Daddy, but —
It's not real, he said. It's a lie.
I never showed him another comic book. Somehow, I knew that he was right: they were all lies. If we had all these caped people on our side, if we had all those secret serums and magic formulas, the war could be ended in about twenty minutes. But they were lies as irresistable as candy or ice cream. They certainly couldn't be the kinds of lies that were called sins in the catechism I was studying at Holy Name. To start with, they were patriotic lies. And I wasn't telling the lies. The stories of Cap’ and Bucky were told by the men who wrote their names on the crowded, bursting first pages of each episode: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. They must be the liars. Still, I couldn't understand how their lies could be bad, if they were on our side, just like Joe Louis and God.
Until I learned the names of Simon and Kirby, around 1943, I didn't know that men actually sat down to write and draw comics. That knowledge would change my life. But when we lived on Thirteenth Street, the content of the comics was driving deep into me. They filled me with secret and lurid narratives, a notion of the hero, a sense of the existence of evil. They showed me the uses of the mask, insisting that heroism was possible only when you fashioned an elaborate disguise. Most important was the lesson of the magic potion. The comics taught me, and millions of other kids, that even the weakest human being could take a drink and be magically transformed into someone smarter, bigger, braver. All you needed was the right drink.
Up at Holy Name, I went into the next grade, and the next, and the ones after that; listened to Miss Doheny and then Mrs. Hubbard and then Miss Smith, as they sketched the contours of the world and supplied the platitudes by which I must live: Birds of a feather flock together or Show me your friends and I’ll tell you what you are. I learned to write compositions and do arithmetic. But at night, when my father was gone to work, I would lie in the dark and drive away the fear of roaches and Nazis by imagining myself mixing secret liquids in a glass beaker.
ONE DAY my mother took us to New York on the subway. We came out in a place of immense buildings, and she started walking in her rushed, breathless way, all the way to the river. Here were the great piers for the ships I saw in the harbor. There were soldiers with guns guarding the entrances to the piers and high fences with barbed wire at the top and warnings about staying out and not using cameras. We could see giant cranes loading crates into the ships, and shirtless men heaving on ropes, and men with hooks in their belts showing passes to the soldiers. Seagulls careened around the sky. Deep throaty horns blew as one ship eased away from a pier out into the flowing waters of the Hudson.
Did your father work here? I said.
I’m sure he did, my mother said. But he didn't do this kind of work. He was an engineer.
What is that?
He helped put in the refrigeration system, the air conditioning, she said. He worked for United Fruit, you see, and they had to keep the bananas from spoiling. That was his job. He was an officer.
Was he in the First World War?
No, she said. He was killed during the war, but he wasn't in the war.
Then up ahead we saw a lot of people staring at something we couldn't see. There were sailors in leggings holding rifles, Marines with. 45s on their hips, New York policemen, all keeping people back; I paused, wanting to look at these men with guns, among the first I had seen in life. My mother walked faster, and then we saw what the crowd was looking at: the S.S. Normandie. The great French liner was lying on its side, wedged into the mud beneath the water, like a fat woman killed in a bathtub. The hull was scorched and tendrils of smoke still leaked from open portholes. I had never seen anything like it, even in the comics.
That's the Normandie, my mother said. She was a great passenger ship before the war. A French ship. Then they were converting her for troops and she went on fire.
Wow, I said.
Wow, Tommy said.
They think it was sabotage, she said.
I don't know how long we stayed there but it must have been hours. All through the war, we would pester her to go back. Let's see the Normandie, Let's go back to Pier 88 and see the Normandie. And she took us there again and again, to gaze at the parched hull, more than a thousand feet long, its giant propellers high out of the water. In my memory, the ruined liner looks humiliated, like a drunk who has fallen down in public. But at the time, the Normandie represented something else to me: proof that not all the tales in the comics were lies. Maybe the Red Skull didn't do the job, but somebody did.
ONE SUNDAY afternoon on Thirteenth Street, I looked up from the stoop, where I was playing with Ronnie Zellins and some other kids, and saw my father coming down the street. There was another man with him, taller, holding my father's left elbow, while my father used his other hand to grip the picket fences of the areaways. I got up and hurried to him, certain he was hurt.
I looked up at him. His eyes were unfocused, his jaw slack.
Daddy, I said, are you all right?
He looked at me as if I were a stranger.
Zallright, the other man said. Just drunk as a skunk.
They went past me, and turned into 435 and my father wheeled, as if to fall. The other man grabbed him roughly and held him up. But all the kids laughed. One of the other kids was Brother Foppiano, the son of the owner of the candy store.
Hey, hey, your old man's drunk, he said, in a singsong teasing voice.
Shut up, I said.
Your old man's an Irish drunk! Your old man's an Irish drunk!
As my father and his friend disappeared into the hallway, I had my first fight. I had never hit anyone before and had never been hit. But I threw myself in a rage upon Brother Foppiano. He hit me and hurt me and hit me again. My face went numb. Blood spurted from my nose. And I turned in tears and ran inside, full of shame. Behind me, everyone was laughing. Even my friend, Ronnie Zellins.
My mother was out with Tommy and Kathleen, so I went into the bathroom and saw the blood on my hands and shirt, then watched it drip into the sink. I turned on the taps and the water made the blood thin and pale, forming a rosy whirlpool before vanishing down the drain. I held a cold washcloth to my nose. The inside of my mouth was slippery and sticky, and I lurched aside and threw up into the toilet bowl, feeling as if my insides were coming out through my mouth. The stench was disgusting. I looked at the water pipes and saw cockroaches moving in steady lines, their long hairy feelers out in front of them. I flushed the toilet and closed the door behind me.
My father was facedown on a bed, his wooden leg hanging off the bed in an awkward position. He smelled like vomit too.
For a long time after the fight with Brother Foppiano, I didn't play with the other kids, not even Ronnie Zellins. I had cried and run away from a fight, and that was a humiliation. So I went to school, I came home, I passed them on the stoop and retreated into homework, the Wonderland of Knowledge, and my comics. No book revealed the ingredients of any magic potion. I could not emerge from my room in mask and cape to avenge myself upon Brother Foppiano. I could not, like Billy Batson, the orphaned newsboy, say the word Shazam! and be transformed into Captain Marvel. My mother said nothing that I can remember, but she must have known that something awful had happened to me. Winter came. The yard filled with snow, and I would stand at the window and gaze at the blue shadows of the piled snow and the redbrick walls of the Factory and remember the light and the trees of the lost window on Fourteenth Street.
Around this time, I also started reading Big Little Books, squat thick bricks of text and pictures that were sold at the five-and-ten-cent stores. The text was on the left-hand page, the illustrations on the right. Their heroes were different from the great baroque four-color visions of Simon and Kirby, or from Captain Marvel pursuing the mad scientist Dr. Sivana. Here were Dick Tracy, Dan Dunn, Tailspin Tommy, Smilin’ Jack, Don Winslow of the Navy, all neatly contained in square black-and-white panels. They were more mundane heroes, men without masks or capes or occult powers, but I liked reading the text and glancing at the pages to see if the drawings matched the images in my mind. My mother looked at them and explained that these were comics that first appeared in newspapers.
This is my favorite, she told me, pointing at a comic strip across the top of a page in the Daily News. It was called Terry and the Pirates. The drawing was beautiful, full of realistic detail, oiled guns, perfect airplanes, skies or mountains brushed in with great rich blacks. But the balloons were dense with dialogue that I didn't really understand. Terry was definitely made for grown-ups. Still, I was thrilled that my mother could also care for a comic strip. She didn't say, This is my favorite lie. And because of her, I started looking at the newspaper comics.
One day I ran into Brother Foppiano again. He was nastier now, because he had bloodied me and made me cry and run. Your old man's an Irish drunk, your old man … I realized I was being watched by other kids, including my former friend Ronnie Zellins, and I knew that this time I couldn't run. So I piled into Brother, frantic, afraid, but determined not to cry, not to “give up.” He hit me and hit me, but I held on to him, tripped him, fell upon him, hit him, then felt his hard wiry arms lock around my neck. I struggled. I jerked. But I couldn't get free.
So I whispered the word: Shazam.
Nothing happened. Brother Foppiano tightened his grip and I tightened mine on him.
We might be locked in that violent embrace to this day if Ronnie Zellins's beautiful mother hadn't come along and ordered us to stop. I watched Brother walk away, his green striped shirt as dirty as mine. There was a sneer on his face, but he didn't say anything; he didn't speak badly about my father. I felt better for another reason: the humiliation of public crying and loss was erased. Then Ronnie Zellins came over to me.
Want to go down the Alley? he said.
What about comics? Want to go trading?
No, I said. I don't want to do anything with you.
One Sunday afternoon, a week after my second fight with Brother Foppiano, my father ordered me out of Gallagher's. His face was loose and bleary again, the way it had been the day I first saw him drunk. I imagined him leaving the saloon, helped by one of the men, staggering down the street to our house, and Brother Foppiano emerging from hiding to start his cruel chant. I asked him to come home. Maybe I whined. Maybe I was annoying. I know I was holding on to his coat. He jerked the coat out of my grip, looked down at me, and ordered me in a harsh voice to go home to my mother. Hurt and angry, I ran outside.
But I didn't go home. I went directly to Foppiano's candy store. I was desperate now, even willing to fight Brother again to be sure that he wouldn't see my father drunk. I could punch him. I could tease him. Or I could talk to him, argue with him, maybe even try to make friends with him. I just didn’t want him to see my father being helped down the block. But Brother wasn't around, not behind the counter, not in the back room. His father sat there, reading a newspaper and smoking a cigarette. And with a sense of relief, I looked at the comic book racks near the door. I had read most of the new comics and was not interested in the books about funny animals or high school girls. Then I found the very first issue of Master Comics. I began to read the story of Captain Marvel, Jr., and was lifted out of Brooklyn. Hey, Mister Foppiano said, ya gonna read or ya gonna buy?
I handed him a dime and rushed home, clutching my copy of Master Comics. Back at 435, I read this issue over and over, watching a crippled boy named Freddy Freeman hobble on his crutches. Suddenly he said his magic word — “Captain Marvel,” the name of his hero — and was transformed into a lithe, strong hero in a sleek blue gold-trimmed costume. After my fight with Brother, I knew that “Shazam” didn't work for me; it probably was just a lie. But maybe it could work for others. Maybe words, like potions, were also capable of magic. And I wished that my father had a secret word too. He would come home from Gallagher's and sit in the kitchen and whisper … Captain Marvel. A lightning bolt would split the sky and there he would be: two legs, young, whole, like the man in that old photograph, his eyes sharply focused. He would smile at me and reach over and hug me and off we would go together to play ball.
That never happened.
After two years in the first floor right, we moved again.
THE NEW FLAT was only a few blocks away, but it was another descent, into a harder, poorer world.
Seventh Avenue was a wide avenue with trolley cars of the 67 line moving in both directions. The steel wheels of those sleek green-and-silver “streamlined” cars ran on steel tracks, and we would hear their squealing clattering sounds through the night; some of us heard those trolleys for the rest of our lives. The power fines were hidden in steel poles that made a deep bonging sound when you hit them with bats or pipes; from the tops of these poles cables fed the lines that ran above the trolley tracks. Those poles and lines and the steel tracks gave the avenue the look of an artist's exercise in perspective, with diminishing lines flowing away into infinity, or its equal: Flatbush Avenue at one end of the avenue, Greenwood Cemetery at the other. In the mind of an eight-year-old, both were as far away as Madrid.
Our building was 378, a tenement rising four ominous stories above the street. It was in the middle of the block, between Eleventh and Twelfth Streets, with a butcher shop on one side of the doorway and a fruit and vegetable store called Teddy's to the right. That first day, it was a place in another country.
I stood on the sidewalk with my mother and Tommy and Kathleen, who was bundled in a red snowsuit in a stroller and bawling. My mother moved the stroller back and forth, shushing Kathleen, while I gazed around at this new piece of geography. There was a barbershop across the street, with a red, white, and blue pole turning slowly outside. On one side of the barbershop was a dry cleaner's, the windows opaque with steam, then a notions shop, a variety store, a fish store, and a diner. To the left, filling the corner of Eleventh Street, was Rattigan's Bar & Grill, dark inside, with men going and coming through the front door. Nobody used the side door.
Across the street, on a diagonal from Rattigan's, there was one glimmer of the familiar: the red, white, and blue sign of still another Roul-ston's store. But otherwise I felt like a stranger as we waited outside for the large men from Gallagher's to arrive in a truck with our furniture and our stuffed cardboard boxes. My mother said, You'll like it here. But I looked up and saw fire escapes climbing the brick face of the building, as if drawn with rulers, and a strange canopy hanging over the edge of the roof, and a flock of pigeons circling against the hard sky. I shivered in the cold, and my mother told me to wait in the hallway. But I was afraid to go through that door. I didn't think I would like it here at all. I wanted to go back to 471 Fourteenth Street, my real home.
Do they have roaches here? I said.
My mother laughed. I hope not, she said.
I don't want to live here if they have roaches, I said.
Well, she said without much hope, let's wait and see.
Then the truck arrived and my father eased out of the cab, smoking a cigarette, while the large men unloaded the furniture and started moving us into 378. Groups of nameless kids were gathering at the corners, watching us with a mixture of curiosity and hostility; some of them were my age, and all were wearing long pants while I still wore knickers and knee socks. Faces appeared at the windows of Rattigan's. Someone wiped a peephole in the steam of the dry cleaner's. Maybe they had come to see the cripple. Or maybe they had heard about the Irish drunk. Or a crippled Irish drunk. Or maybe they just wanted to look at the kid who still wore knickers.
When the truck arrived, my mother took us into the warmth of a candy store, two doors away, and I felt better. Nobody could watch us in here. The place was called Sanew's (we pronounced it Sen-you). Immediately inside the door, atop a glass-topped counter, nickel candies were arrayed on a stepped rack, like a sugary stoop. Beside it, a small change dish, advertising Dentyne gum, sat on top of a pebbled rubber mat, with the cash register next to it. There were racks of cigarettes on the wall behind the counter, including my father's beloved Camels. That was good. He could walk next door to get his cigarettes, even in the snow.
Most of the good things of Sanew's were on the right as you walked in, including a soda fountain with four swivel-topped stools. Behind the marble counter, spouts poured soda, seltzer, a variety of syrups in endless combinations (egg creams and lime rickeys and cherry Cokes), and below the counter were silver-covered hidden places filled with tubs of ice cream. That first day, Mrs. Sanew mixed soda for us kids and made tea for my mother, looking distracted in a way that would soon become familiar to all of us. Mrs. Sanew had gray-streaked black hair pulled into a tight bun, thick eyeglasses wedged on a longish nose, a pinched sour mouth. She always wore thick-heeled sensible shoes and a wine-colored wool sweater that buttoned in the front. The sweater had two pockets, and sometimes, when distracted, she would jingle coins in those pockets, her eyes seeing something that was a long way from Brooklyn. Behind that counter, seven days a week, from seven in the morning until ten at night, Mrs. Sanew made egg creams, or filled dishes with ice cream, or prepared tea, or poured coffee. She sold cigarettes, cigars, candies, and newspapers; she rang up purchases on the cash register; she made change. There was simply no time for joy or laughter. There also might have been some darker cause for her permanent air of distraction, some fierce Catholic denial of self, some permanent act of mortification or penance. In all the years we lived there, I never saw her eat or drink even one of the treats she made for others; it was as if that would be some sign of weakness, some surrender to illicit pleasures or desires she held in contempt. That first day, as she served my mother, her face was locked into a sad or angry mask.
There was one other ornament of Sanew's: a rack on the wall to the left of the door. The top row was filled with movie magazines or copies of Collier's, Liberty, Life. The next was thick with pulps, with their garish, disturbing covers. But the two bottom racks were full of comic books. Comics with titles I didn't know, covers I’d never seen, comics that could have been from another country. Blue Bolt. Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. The Spirit. They were completely different from the comics at Foppiano's and I must have stared at them with something like passion and desire, because I remember my mother saying to me: “Well, you'll be happy here.”
Then we walked back to 378, entering through the street door for the first time. There were brass mailboxes on the left of the vestibule, white octagonal tiles on the floor, then a second door, filled with a panel of frosted glass, leading into the hallway. For a moment, I was scared; the hallway space was high, narrow, murky; the dark air was stained by strange odors, as if something was rotting. On the left a passageway led into the back of the hall, where I could see three battered garbage cans. On the right were the narrow stairs, with strips of ridged metal tacked to the lip of each step, to protect the linoleum from the assault of thousands of footsteps. My mother lifted Kathleen from the baby carriage and parked it against the wall on the left and started leading us up the stairs, into a deeper darkness. The rough plaster walls were shiny with paint, dark brown from the floor to the height of my mother's shoulder, then a paler ocher to the ceiling. I could smell meat cooking. I could hear radios: music on one floor, announcers talking on another. On the second landing, dogs barked from behind a door. On each landing there was a small bare yellowish light bulb, which heightened the feeling of deep rich earth-colored darkness.
We went up three flights, to the top floor right, where a door was open to the kitchen. This was where we were now going to live. I paused in the hall, unable to move. Maybe if I just stood there, they would change their minds and we would put everything in the truck and drive away, skipping 435 Thirteenth Street, going all the way back to Fourteenth Street. My father and some of the large men were standing there, drinking beer from quart bottles, laughing and smoking cigarettes, using saucers for ashtrays.
Don't stand there like an idjit, my father said. Come in.
The large men laughed.
Come on, my father said. Give us a hand.
So I went in and the large men shook my hand and said to my father, We shoulda brung some soda for the kid, Bill.
And my father said, We'll bring some back.
And one of the men said, Hell, he's big enough for a beer, ain't he, Bill?
My father smiled, and turned away, lifting silverware and glasses from a Campbell's soup box, discarding the newspapers that wrapped them, then laying them in the sink. It was as if I’d disappeared.
For a long time, the large men shifted furniture, grunting, sweating, while my mother asked them to move a chair here, a couch there. I wandered through the rooms of the railroad flat. There was a small bedroom off the kitchen, then a larger bedroom, then the living room, with two windows looking down at Seventh Avenue. The new building was only one story higher than the flat on Fourteenth Street, but after two long years on the ground floor at Thirteenth Street, the height here amazed me. I could see the roofs of trolley cars, the tops of the black steel poles that supplied their power, the bobbing hats and shoulders of passing strangers. Unlike Fourteenth Street, there were no trees to break a fall, no branches or tree trunks to supply direction to the eye or the illusion of safety. If I fell from this window, I would die. It was like coming to the edge of the cliff I saw in the advertising on the back of the comics, all about the Rosicrucians, whatever they were, and the secrets of life.
To the right of the living room, facing the avenue, there was a small room with a window that led to the fire escape. We called this the Little Room and it was unique: it had a door. From the Little Room's window, I could see across the avenue into the apartments of strangers, turrets and chimneys on the rooftops, and away off, the distant ridge of Prospect Park. I thought: This must be what it's like to be a giant.
In a rush of excitement, I ran back into the kitchen. This wasn't so bad, maybe. Up here in the top floor right, the world was bright again after the darkness of the hall. The kitchen windows looked down a long slope toward the harbor, and I could even see the concrete railway trestle where the subway went over the Gowanus Canal. That astonished me. I had been under that trestle many times, waiting for my mother when she brought my father his lunch; now, I was above the trestle, up here at the top of the long slope. From this back window, I could see the receding rectangles of a thousand rooftops and the skeletal shapes of ten thousand winter trees and the steeples of a hundred churches rising above the houses. There were ships moving in the distant harbor, sailing away to fight Hitler, and my mother came over and pointed out the Statue of Liberty, green and tiny, and the skyline of Manhattan, naming some of the buildings. But there was something missing.
Where's the backyard? I said.
Well, my mother said, that's a wee bit of a problem. There's no backyard.
I looked straight down from the window and saw fenced-off yards filled with the scrawny shapes of stunted trees and patches of blackened snow. But those yards belonged to the smaller houses on the side streets. The tenements on the avenue had no yards. This was hard to imagine: a house without a backyard. And I wished I still had the backyard on Fourteenth Street or even the bald shadowed clay of Thirteenth Street. After all, if there was no backyard, where would I play on summer afternoons?
Suddenly the moving job was finished and my father and the large men started to go out.
Will you bring me a soda, Daddy?
Sure, he said.
Hell, Billy, one of the large men said. He's gettin’ pretty big, the kid. Whyn't you bring him over the bar?
Yeah, my father said, not meaning it.
But you gotta get him outta them knickers, another man said. Ya can't go drinkin’ in knickers, kid.
Yeah, one of these days, my father said.
And they went out. My mother then turned to look at the boxes and bags, the mounds of clothes, the cluttered table, the dishes in the sink. She sighed.
Mommy, I want long pants, I said.
You'll have long pants soon enough, she said.
I hate knickers, I said.
Excerpted from A Drinking Life by Hamill, Pete Copyright © 1994 by Hamill, Pete. Excerpted by permission.
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