In 1962, six year old John Tuohy, his two brothers and two sisters entered Connecticut’s foster care system and were promptly split apart. Over the next ten years, John would live in more than ten foster homes, group homes and state schools, from his native Waterbury to Ansonia, New Haven, West Haven, Deep River and Hartford. In the end, a decade later, the state returned him to the same home and the same parents they had taken him from. As tragic as is funny compelling story will make you cry and laugh as you journey with this child to overcome the obstacles of the foster care system and find his dreams.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John William Tuohy is a writer who lives in Washington DC. He holds an MFA in writing from Lindenwood University. He is the author of numerous non-fiction on the history of organized crime including the ground break biography of bootlegger Roger Tuohy "When Capone's Mob Murdered Touhy" and "Guns and Glamour: A History of Organized Crime in Chicago."
His non-fiction crime short stories have appeared in The New Criminologist, American Mafia and other publications. John won the City of Chicago's Celtic Playfest for his work The Hannigan's of Beverly, and his short story fiction work, Karma Finds Franny Glass, appeared in AdmitTwo Magazine in October of 2008.
His play, Cyberdate.Com, was chosen for a public performance at the Actors Chapel in Manhattan in February of 2007 as part of the groups Reading Series for New York project. In June of 2008, the play won the Virginia Theater of The First Amendment Award for best new play.
Waterbury Conn. 1970
I sat for hours on the steps of the wooden porch in front of the apartment and watched darkness fall, and it felt like old times, waiting for my mother to stagger home, except now I was alone. The other kids were scattered all over. Bridget had married and moved to New York and had two children off her own. Paulie had joined the Air Force. Christian was living in a foster home somewhere and Denny had been tossed out of the Wozniaks’ home for a series of infractions and rebellions, and was living with the family of a high-school friend. Remarkably, the state placed another child with the Wozniaks, a girl from Waterbury, also half-Irish and half-Jewish, and I wonder what the odds were of that? Walter threw her out after a few years after learning she had dated a black kid.
My mother came home at about nine that night. I spotted her walking up the street, the ever-present Pall Mall cigarette, stained with red lipstick, dangling from the side of her mouth. Her hair was still dyed bright orange. She was much heavier than I had ever seen her before, but the bright print dress she was wearing was too loose on her hefty body, and on her swollen feet she wore white sneakers. She looked like what she was, a dirt-poor and overweight woman on welfare who was barely hanging on. Walking beside her and holding her hand was my half-sister Kathleen. About five years old, she looked like a miniature version of my mother.
Both were happy and excited to have me move in, and we sat on the porch, Kathleen resting on my lap, and I told them what had happened at St. John’s and my father’s and at Kevin Johnston’s and at the group home in Hartford.
After an hour or so, we went into the apartment. It was on the ground floor and was spacious, if worn out. There were stamped copper ceilings, plenty of long windows without drapes or blinds, and the floor of every room had linoleum that carried the faint odor of roach spray. The four rooms contained almost no furniture, only an odd assortment of junk from the Goodwill store.
“Ain’t it a nice place though, huh, Johnny?” Mom asked. She was proud of it, and I was happy for her.
“Yeah, Ma,” I lied. “It’s really nice.”
We ate a late-night meal of pork and potatoes, and it tasted better than it probably was because I was still feeling elated that my journey had ended.
“I’m gonna move Kathleen’s stuff into my bedroom and you can have her room,” she told me.
“No, Ma,” I protested. “Don’t do that, please.”
“Naw,” she said. “A teenager should have things.”
For a while after I arrived, my mother managed to avoid her manic-depressive mood swings. She kept the house clean, prepared full meals and, although I don’t know how she did it, she managed to save a few extra dollars to give me as pocket money, no matter how much I protested. I didn’t need the money because I had nothing to spend it on. School wouldn’t start for another two months, so I didn’t know anybody to spend it with. I used the money to go to the movies at the Palace Theater, and, as I had all those years ago, lost myself in film. Black-and-white television was our other main source of entertainment. It was a long, hot summer.
My mother talked about moving to a larger apartment in a better part of town, but that wasn’t going to happen. She was on welfare and food stamps and didn’t have the income to support herself and Kathleen, much less a growing teenager. We walked everywhere, just as we had done years before. I had a driver’s license but no car and no hope of owning one. Nothing was going to happen.
After a few weeks, my elation turned to sadness, and then to depression, and then to hopelessness. I felt as if I had reached the end. When the food stamps ran out, we had to cut back on meals, and I was gaining weight from all of the starches we used as fillers. The clothes I wore were from the church donation box and looked it. My best shirt was a skin-tight polyester long sleeve with a cigarette burn on the back. My affliction, which had left me alone for a while, came back. I screamed inside my head, “I don’t belong here!” but I was there, in the middle of poverty, pain, defeat, and drudgery once again, a place where men stumbled home drunk, raped their daughters, and fought with their sons over the last beer in the broken refrigerators. I didn’t belong here with these angry people, with the rats, and the rat poison. But I got along. I wandered the streets that summer, looking for something to do when I found the city library, and that was where I escaped from hell into paradise.
The Silas Bronson Library was a sleek, modern glass building settled into an expansive park, a popular cruising area for homosexuals on the prowl and teenage hustlers willing to help them out for a fee. One afternoon I was sitting on a park bench, reading, oddly enough, Moby-Dick, when I was approached by a very respectable-looking man in his late sixties.
“I’m sixteen, under age,” I snapped. “Go away, or I will call the police.”
He was outraged, and snapped back, “Then why are you here?”
“To read,” I said, holding up my copy of Moby-Dick, although in retrospect that probably wasn’t a good idea.
The library had a respectable book collection and I spent most of my days haunting its aisles, scanning the shelves for titles by the great American novelists. I found most of them, and I usually devoured them in a day, lying on the bench in the park with my book and one of my mother’s massive brown-bag lunches.
I dissolved into the books I found at the library, which could take me places, answer my questions, and leave me with more questions. I learned the great truths and common principles from those works, mostly because I had no one else to teach me those things. Books are great teachers and they teach with ease for those hungry to learn. And I was learning. I was learning to live with poverty, the toughest teacher of all because it gives you the test first and the lesson later. The ancient Greeks called it pathemata mathemata—to learn, eventually, by suffering.
One day at the library I found a stack of record albums. I was hoping I’d find ta Beatles album, but it was all classical music so I reached for the first name I knew, Beethoven. I checked it out his Sixth Symphony and walked home. I didn’t own a record player and I don’t know why I took it out. I had Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony but nothing to play it on.
At home the unique smell of the Mad River in the summer wafted into our apartment and glided unopposed into every corner, because we had no air conditioning and every door and window was open. When dark approached, we had to close and lock them all— it was a dangerous neighborhood—and let the stale, humid air get pushed around by a small fan.
Behind the smell of the river came the scent of beer that the neighbors were drinking on kitchen chairs they had carried out onto the sidewalk. And behind that came the low pulse of salsa music played from a transistor radio.
I sat at the kitchen table, stared out the open back door, and soaked in the mildly warm breeze and the street music.
“Are you hungry, Johnny?” my mother asked as she came in from the near-empty parlor. It was pointless to say no, because she always made something for me anyway.
“No, Ma, I’m okay, thank you,” I said.
She pulled liverwurst and Polish mustard from the refrigerator and started to make me a sandwich.
“I got this at the library,” I said, showing her the album. “Beethoven. This is his Sixth Symphony, so he wrote six of them. I think he wrote more, I don’t know. You know what this is about?”
“No,” she said as she piled the meat high onto black bread and slathered it in the spicy mustard. “But I heard a him. Is he dead?”
“Yeah,” I said. “He died like a million years ago, but when he was alive, he would go for walks in the woods and then write down in music the way he felt about walking in the woods and all that. He was deaf.”
She handed me my sandwich with a glass of ice water and sat down at the table with me.
“Deaf? They should have got him a different job, the poor bastard.”
I handed her the album cover. She looked at the drawing of Beethoven on the front and said, “He needs a haircut. ” She added, “He looks like he could have been a boxer.”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Well, he coulda been,” she said. “Maybe that’s how he went deaf, he got hit too many times in the head.”
I took the album and read the back: “As the composer said, the Sixth Symphony is ‘more the expression of feeling than painting’.” I looked up at her and said, “It has five movements.” The smile was already on her face before I finished the sentence. “Go ahead,” I said. “Say it and get it out of your system.”
“Five movements,” she laughed. “What’s this guy eatin’ he gotta go five times?”
“Okay, Chuckles,” I said. “Are we done with that?”
“Can I continue?”
“Yeah,” she said, and then whispered, “Movements.”
“This is known,” I said, “as the Pastoral Symphony, Ma, because Beethoven, the guy who wrote this, he liked to go out into the woods and write about the way he thought a cloud would sound like, or a tree bending in the wind or even what a blade of grass would sound like on a sunny day. How wild is that?” I paused and said, “Each of the movements—I’ll wait while you giggle, go ahead,” I said, and waited.
“No,” she said, giggling. “I won’t laugh; go ahead.”
“Each movement is like a journal of what he saw and then turned into a song.” I rested for a second and added, “He’s even got a storm in here, you know. What a storm would sound like.”
I looked at her and awaited her response.
“He got a girl, this guy?” she asked
“Beethoven?” I said “I dunno, Ma. Yeah, probably. He went deaf later on.”
“Some of the deaf got girls,” she said. “I don’t know what they talk about, but they got ’em.”
She stood up to make me another sandwich “You know, Johnny, you ever meet a nice girl, you want to bring her around, don’t be ashamed, I’ll clean the house up good.”
“I know, Ma, but I’m not looking for a nice girl, I’m looking for a bad girl,” I said. “Please don’t make me another sandwich. I still got this one.”
She didn’t listen. Minutes had passed without my eating something, and God forbid I should collapse from starvation.
“Why don’t you play it?” “We don’t have a record player,” I said. “But some day, I will. Someday I’ll listen to it.”
The next day, when I came home from the library, there was a small, used red record player in my room. I found my mother in the kitchen and spotted a bandage taped to her arm.
“Ma,” I asked. “Where did you get the money for the record player?”
“I had it saved,” she lied.
My father lived well, had a large house and an expensive imported car, wanted for little, and gave nothing. My mother lived on welfare in a slum and sold her blood to the Red Cross to get me a record player.
“Education is everything, Johnny,” she said, as she headed for the refrigerator to get me food. “You get smart like regular people and you don’t have to live like this no more.”
She and I were not hugging types, but I put my hand on her shoulder as she washed the dishes with her back to me and she said, in best Brooklynese, “So go and enjoy, already.” My father always said I was my mother’s son and I was proud of that. On her good days, she was a good and noble thing to be a part of.
That evening, I plugged in the red record player and placed it by the window. My mother and I took the kitchen chairs out to the porch and listened to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony from beginning to end, as we watched the oil-stained waters of the Mad River roll by. It was a good night, another good night, one of many that have blessed my life.
In September, I enrolled in Wilby High School in Waterbury as a sophomore, the fourth high school I had attended in three years, and the last.
Deep Rover Conn. 1969
It was about that time that I started to date a girl from town named Lina Lentz, a voluptuous blonde with large brown eyes, a ready smile and a happy, easygoing disposition. She was a pleasure to be with, and people liked her. She was also—and this sounds much harsher than I intend it to sound—as dumb as a brick. But she was the girl who laughed away the dark clouds, and she arrived exactly at the right moment.
I met her on a winter’s day, one of the best in my life. There is a large pond in the middle of the village of Deep River, Roger’s Pond, and when it was frozen over the locals ice fished and skated there. Teens congregated around a small fire at the pond’s edge. That’s where I saw her first, standing around the fire with her girlfriends, covered from neck to toe in a long black coat of a kind popular with the girls that year. Her bright blonde hair poured out from under a white crocheted hat and spread across her slender shoulders and seemed even brighter set against her coat. White home-knitted mittens covered her small hands, and the winter’s cold had turned her pretty face crimson. A fog settled across the pond combined itself with the white smoke from the fire, and giving her an angelic appearance. We stared in silence at each other for a full minute until someone broke the spell and cracked, “So when’s the wedding for you two?”
It was a good day.
Lina’s family arrived in Deep River from Sweden in the early nineteenth century, and her grandfather was one of the town’s founders. Her father was a rough sort, with a gravelly voice and disposition that made me nervous. We were opposites of each other in every way possible. He didn’t know what to make of me, or what his daughter saw in me.
But he didn’t have to worry about me marrying into the family since my relationship with Lina was strictly physical, and nothing else. In fact, we barely spoke to each other, and on reflection, I really didn’t know much about her, what she liked, what she didn’t like, her favorite foods—nothing, really. I did know she was a shapely, amorous girl who was fond of sex.
We spent the early summer of 1969 in a massive field on the grounds of St. John’s that gave a splendid view of the river below and was far away from everything else. The field gave us privacy to get on with the heady business of exploring each other’s bodies.
Lina waited for me there, having already laid out a blanket for us and prepared a lunch she brought from home. Like most kids of the time, we brought along transistor radios and listened to our favorite AM rock stations, FM being mostly an empty wasteland.
One day in early May, we were laid out naked across the blanket, resting from our latest round of explorations. We were silently staring up into the blue sky and listening to the radio when toward the river I saw a large group of older people with cameras and binoculars staring up at us from the nearby railroad tracks.
“Look,” I said. “Voyeurs!”
Lina opened her eyes and saw them, smiled and waved at them, and several waved back. “What country are voyeurs from?” she asked.
She stood up and did a slow, very sexual interpretation of a football cheer for the folks:
Give me a T!
Give me an I!
Give me a E!
Give me a T!
Give me an S!
What’s that spell?
As I said, she was a good girl but she was a dumb girl, God bless her, and I stood and gave her rousing applause anyway, and we both took long and graceful bows.
What we didn’t know was that the group was made up of state and local officials who were on a research trip to consider funding a tourist railroad on the old tracks running along the river’s edge. Someone in the group sent Father Mac Donald a grainy but accurate photo of Lina and I in all our naked, smiling glory.
A few weeks later, I was called into Father MacDonald’s capacious office on the second floor, where he flashed the photo at me.
“Can you explain this?” he snapped, his finger unknowingly tapping the portion of the photo where Lina’s breasts were.
“No, Father,” I said. I tried to sound repentant but I couldn’t. I found myself fighting back the urge to burst out laughing. I don’t know if it was nerves or the fact that I just didn’t care anymore.
He pushed the black-and-white photo closer to my face and said, “Well, isn’t that you?”
“No, Father,” I laughed. “I don’t have boobs.”
He literally threw the book at me, a large black bound book. I was restricted to my room for two months and denied all privileges, and became a sort of legend in the storied history of Mount Saint John.
Sometimes life is too hard to be alone, and sometimes life is too good to be alone. -Elizabeth Gilbert
After the cops banged open our front door on Christmas night, they rushed into the house, groping around in the dark. I grabbed my plate of olive loaf from the kitchen and made a run for the cover of the bed in the living room. A massive red-faced cop scooped me up by my shirt collar and sat me hard on the floor with a single fling of his arm, and my blessed olive loaf flew across the room and disappeared into the night.
The other cops lifted up the bed, and Paulie, Denny, Bridget, and the baby scurried out, faster than cockroaches, in three different directions across the room, each intending to make a run for the front door where some of the older cops were standing.
I decided to join them and leaped up off the floor, but I was dizzy, as I was all the time, and fell forward. I got up, but the cop who had pushed me to the floor grabbed my coat collar and yanked me backwards, bent down to my level, stuck a long finger in my face and said, “You sit down or I’ll crack you one!”
I think that if I were forced to pinpoint a time and place in my life when my hair-trigger temper and penchant for violence, those two thieves that have robbed me of so much peace in my life, began, it would be at that moment. Our parents, for all that was wrong with them, never raised their hands against us or scolded us, and I was too young to tell the difference between an implied threat and the real thing.
I suppose I could have done what the cop said and sat down, but there was something about the sound of his voice, and that finger in my face, and that snarl of his, that disappeared when I landed a roundhouse right to his jaw and dug my teeth into his ear when he fell back. He was a big man. Factory town cops are big because everyone else in a factory town is big, too. He shoved me away and his lips grew tight and he said, “You son of a bitch,” letting out each word slowly and deliberately, and landed me across the room with an open-handed smack across the face. Denny and Paulie were on him before I hit the floor. Paulie had him by his knees while Denny tried to take the cop’s gun from its holster so he could shoot him. The other cops joined in, overpowered us, and dragged us, one by one, out of the house, past the gathered neighbors and into the back seat of their squad car.
They drove us silently to the police station on Grand Street, a broad and impressive road lined with marble government buildings. Inside the station they told us to sit on long, gleaming wooden benches, and the desk sergeant, a great pumpkin-shaped man with a shirt that was too tight and a gun belt that hung almost up to his ribs, wagged his finger at us and warned, “Don’t misbehave. Be quiet. Sit still and don’t move.” He turned and pointed to a black metal door and said, “If you misbehave or try to run away, I’ll toss you in a cell.”
Yeah, big deal. He couldn’t scare us. Our whole world was threats. Besides, a night in a jail cell with your own cot that you didn’t have to share wasn’t really punishment. But to press the point, the sergeant rested his thick hands on his gun belt and gave us a firm looking over.
“Who, who, who,” Paulie stuttered. “Who—”
“Come on, kid,” the cop said. “Spit it out.”
“Who dresses you?”
As the hours passed, we sat in exhausted silence. It was past midnight and we faded off into sleep. About an hour later, two cops in heavy winter coats stood in front of us snapping their fingers and clapping their hands loudly.
“Come on, get up,” one of them said. “This isn’t a hotel.”
“It is for them,” the other one said.
They knew us. We threw rocks at their patrol cars and then disappeared into the streets. We laughed at them when they ventured into our neighborhood. And now they had us. They ushered us back into a squad car and drove us a few blocks to Saint Mary’s Hospital, where I had been born. On the way over, the cop on the passenger side said, “Should we just toss them in the river or what?”
“Naw,” said the cop behind the wheel, “they’ll just bounce off the ice”.
Three smiling nuns in bright white robes were waiting for us at the hospital’s front entrance. They were delighted to see us, and the cops, being cops, changed their tune, removed their hats for the nuns, rubbed our hair, smiled at us and gently turned us over to the Sisters, who put us to bed in clean, cool white sheets.
“In da mornin’,” one of them said in a brogue heavy with a western Ireland accent, “It’s breakfast in bed for ya.”
It was good that we were in the hospital. Maura was malnourished and Denny had untreated ringworm and I had pneumonia that took away some of my hearing and left me forever dizzy. Many years later, when in a moment of desperation I joined the U.S. Army, I was sent to the recruiting station in New York City where I was given a physical examination, and promptly sent back to Waterbury, to the back seat of the Chevy Imperial in which I lived.
“Kid,” a well-meaning sergeant told me, “if we bottled everything that’s wrong with you and spread it around, we could take over the world without a shot.”
After our breakfast in bed, our state-assigned social worker arrived, by car, I assume now, but that day I would have believed that she descended from the heavens on a cloud carried by smiling cherubs. Her name was Mary Catherine Hanrahan, Miss Hanrahan to us, who hailed from Marblehead, Massachusetts, and had recently graduated from Smith College. She was tall, blonde, beautiful, young, and stylish. Everything about her seemed new and fresh.
I studied her face and concluded she looked like Marilyn Monroe.
“You’re as pretty as Marilyn Monroe,” I announced and she blushed red and nodded her thanks.
“Marilyn Monroe,” Denny felt the need to add with his heavy lisp, “is fuckin’ beautiful.”
She threw her head back and laughed and said, “Thank you, Denny. I didn’t know that. Thank you for clearing that up.”
Then she bent down to our level and whispered, “I am not with the police.”
“Yeah,” Denny said, looking sideways down the hall. “Fuckin’ cops though, huh?”
She gently pulled Denny closer and whispered, “We’re not going to say the F word anymore today, okay?”
Always willing to get along, Denny slapped her on her backside and said, “You got it.” She turned her attention back to us and said, “I work for the State of Connecticut. You are not in any kind of trouble at all. I’m your friend.”
We surrendered to her immediately. She smiled a lot and she seemed kind and genuinely happy to be with us. As tough, ragged, and suspicious as we were, we wanted peace and happiness, and like all kids everywhere, we wanted adults to be nice to us. We didn’t want to be chased from stores nor have angry cops blow cigarette smoke in our faces and threaten us with jail, or listen to our mother curse us.
We piled onto her, elbowing our way to her attention by telling her things we knew, but always making sure that Maura, only four years old, got the bulk of the attention. She stood up and looked down at us and with a clap of her hand sang, “We’re going shopping!”
Holland Hughes was Waterbury’s premier department store. Its front entrance was done in distinguished grey stone and highly polished brass and a man in a green and red uniform at the revolving front door greeted customers and kept out indigents, possible troublemakers, the badly dressed and children who weren’t with their parents.
Although the store was way out of our meager price range, it didn’t stop us from taking a weekly excursion down to the toy department and playing with the products until one of the sales clerks tossed us out. We got around the doorman and his “no-parents-no-entry” policy by breaking up into two and walking in alongside some unsuspecting woman.
Otherwise we had gone to Holland Hughes every Christmas to have our photo taken on Santa’s lap. Now, as we trudged through the store with Miss Hanrahan towards the grandiose brass and copper elevator and waited for the extravagantly uniformed operator to open the doors with his white-gloved hands, Denny said, “Santa Claus lives here.”
I rolled my eyes, exasperated. “He doesn’t live here. He has an office here.”
We were going up to the store’s central business office to get a reimbursement certificate to purchase our clothes. We sat quietly on a long, shiny mahogany bench while Miss Hanrahan went to speak with one of the women behind the wooden counter.
When she strolled by the manager’s office, the manager, a big-bellied man with a crewcut, and a black janitor, who was leaning heavily on a broom, stared her up and down. The manager said something to the janitor, who laughed at the remark harder and at more length than he should have, and then pushed his broom away to another room.
I watched Miss Hanrahan speak to the senior clerk behind the counter, a tall, lean, middle-aged woman with a long nose and a generally disapproving demeanor. She looked constipated.
They spoke for several seconds and then I heard the clerk’s voice crackle across the room, “Do you have serial numbers for the children? No? And do you know why? Because we didn’t issue you one because the policy is for you people”—the “you people” seemed to hold a specific acrimony for her—“to phone ahead twenty-four hours, and you haven’t done that, have you, young lady?”
Miss Hanrahan offered the woman her Miss Hanrahan smile and said, “I understand that, but this is an emergency. All the children have is on their backs, and it’s cold.”
The old lady leaned her neck out as long as a viper and hissed, “Do you have serial numbers for them?”
“No, I told you that,” Miss Hanrahan answered quietly with a taut smile.
The clerk’s face grew tight and she stared hard at Miss Hanrahan for several seconds. “You told me that?” she mimicked. “Young lady, I will not be spoken to in that fashion, am I understood?”
Miss Hanrahan’s faced flushed red, but she remained composed and apologized. “I’m in a bit of a hurry. The children haven’t eaten since yesterday, and I’d like to take them downstairs for a bite. I’m sorry if I was rash.”
“You’re taking them down to the cafeteria to eat?”
“Yes, I am. I thought it would be a nice treat for kids.”
The clerk was already shaking her head. “Oh, I’m sure it would be,” she said. “A nice treat indeed, at the expense of the American taxpayers of this state!”
I watched the pleasantness slip from Miss Harahan’s face. “I’m paying for the meal. Not the taxpayer.”
The lean old woman was unimpressed. She leaned forward and pointed a long, bony finger at the young woman. “And who pays you, Little Missy? Let me ask you that!”
Miss Hanrahan tugged her skirt and looked past the woman and said nothing.
“Take a seat, dear,” the woman said. “This is going to take a while to sort out.”
The clerk had won the opening scrimmage and Miss Hanrahan returned to the bench where we were waiting.
“You should have smacked her one,” Denny declared, loudly enough for the old woman to hear. Then he added in his best Ralph Kramden voice, “Whammo! Right to the moon!” Then he crawled up to his rightful place on Miss Harahan’s lap. Paulie, always the diplomat, looked at the bright, white marble floor and murmured, “She isn’t nice.”
I decided to change the subject by giving Miss Hanrahan a nice pick-you-upper.
“You got a real pair on you, sister,” I said with a smile that was intended to encourage her. But her eyes narrowed and she stared straight ahead for several seconds, probably in disbelief, and probably deciding whether to honor the remark with a reply. Finally, a faint but pleasant smile came over her pretty face and she turned to me.
“What did you say?”
“I said you got a real pair on you,” I said, and I gave her a reassuring pat on the back. I was proud that a friend of mine had a real pair, whatever that was, and that people noticed.
“Pair of what, John?” She was still smiling.
“I dunno.” I shrugged, distracted by everything else in the room.
“Why did you say that?” She was smiling now.
“I didn’t,” I said, and pointed to the manager in his office. “He did. When you walked by to get in line he said, ‘Sister, you got a real pair on you.’ And the other guy with the broom, the colored guy, he laughed really hard, but then he left.”
She looked into the manager’s office. He looked up and their eyes locked for a second. She gave him that demure smile that only she had, and he smiled back. After several seconds she stood silently, strolled over to the manager’s office, and positioned herself in a slightly provocative way against the open door.
“I was wondering if you could help me,” she whispered.
He smiled and nodded as she explained our plight and blamed herself for not understanding the store’s procedure in billing the state for dressing poor kids. The more she blamed herself and feigned incompetence, the more understanding he became. He was suffering from TBB, or Temporary Babe Blindness.
I tossed a glance at the women behind the counter. They were completely mesmerized by the conversation between Miss Hanrahan and their boss. The mean, thin clerk loudly sighed for the benefit of the other women, who predictably nodded and rolled their eyes. After several minutes the manager stood up, put on his suit coat, and guided Miss Hanrahan and us toward the brass elevator. When he reached out to press the down button, Miss Hanrahan grasped his bulky, hairy arm with both of her small, delicate and gloved hands and held it close to her.
“I’m so pleased there’s a real man here to take command of all this.”
Just as the elevator doors closed I looked up and caught a look of absolute horror, disbelief, and shock on the clerk’s face. Looking over to my left, at my eye level, I saw a smiling Miss Hanrahan discreetly give the old woman the finger.
Down on the sales floor of the children’s clothing department she reached into the racks and piled our outstretched arms with new clothes, with each of us exaggerating the weight with dramatic and well-acted grunts and groans. After a few minutes, the piles grew higher than our heads and we performed the mandatory pratfalls to the floor, arms and legs outstretched as though we had been completely crushed by the weight of the cotton fabric.
Miss Hanrahan tilted her head slightly to the right and gave a sad smile while she combed her slender fingers through the shock of Paulie’s sand-white hair.
“They authorized only twenty dollars per child,” she said. “They need so much, poor children.”
The manager put his hands on his round hips and stared at his feet, and said, “Well, we need the word from a higher-up for that.”
She opened her eyes wide and looked deeply into his face. “Oh,” she said sadly, “I thought you were in charge. I’m sorry. Perhaps you could phone someone in authority; maybe they would help.”
The manager paused and said with a tough-guy half-smile, “Little lady, I am the final authority here. You just let me take care of this.”
She grasped his meaty arm again and leaned close to him. “You’re too kind.”
He blushed and gave her an “Aw shucks, ain’t nothing” look, shrugged his broad shoulders and winked. “You just get these children what they need and let me take care of the rest.”
We marched to the glistening white-tiled food counter with a hundred and sixty dollars in new shirts and pants, a lot of money at that time. The manager also gave us lunch on the house tab. We dined on tuna-salad sandwiches, a new and exotic delicacy for us.
Later that day, with our new clothes and full bellies, Miss Hanrahan dropped us back off at Saint Mary’s Hospital. She hugged and kissed us all and told us she would be back in the morning to bring us to a new house to live in, and everyone relaxed. Even Paulie didn’t look tense. Everything was going to be all right. It was one of the greatest days of my life and I’ll never forget it.
Miss Hanrahan did come back the next morning, as promised, and her arrival on that morning changed everything in our lives forever, because the next step for us was foster care.
For the next decade, each of us would be whisked away, sometimes on a moment’s notice, from one foster home to another, and always in black four-door sedans with the Connecticut state emblem emblazoned on the front door with the motto, wrapped in vines: “Qui Transtulit Sustinet,” meaning “He Who Transplanted Still Sustains.” I always saw the humor in that, even if the state did not live up to its motto or its obligations.
I would spend the rest of my childhood and a good part of my adult life trying to return to Waterbury and Pond Street and the Garden of Eden on Pine Hill, the last places where I knew I belonged or didn’t feel out of place.
In folklore there is the story of The Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship that can never go home, and is doomed to sail the oceans forever because the captain and crew have been struck down with bubonic plague. When they try to dock, they are turned away. Their water and provisions run out and, eventually, all on board die and their souls are doomed to sail the seven seas for all eternity.
We were like that, roaming the state in those small black cars looking for a place to live. Over the next ten years, the five of us—Paulie, Denny, Maura, Bridget and I—would live in thirty-four foster homes, schools, and group homes before the system spat us out.
God enters by a private door into each individual
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
We returned to the hospital in the late afternoon and within an hour, we were bored. In those days, the Children’s Ward didn’t have a television set and we were restricted to just a few rooms and a short hallway covered with white tile from floor to ceiling. A few minutes after Denny and I discovered that the hallway made a magnificent echo chamber, one of the younger nuns in the ward took us on a walk through the hospital “to burn off some of that energy.”
We stopped at the gift shop and were loaded down with candy bars by a kindly and well-meaning clerk, who, like the rest of America at that time, didn’t associate hyperactivity in kids with sweets. By the time our tour took us to the hospital chapel, we were so hyped up we could have made Jack Kerouac look like a slouch.
Entering the cool, dark chapel with its fine mahogany panels and imported Roman marble floors, the Sister pointed to a very large, very graphic statue of Jesus mounted on a crucifix.
“Here is Jesus,” she said in a very low whisper. We looked up at the crucifix with wide eyes, our mouths agape. This was unbelievable.
“You should take this down, this isn’t funny,” Denny said.
“Well it’s not supposed—” she began, but I cut her off.
“What’d you do with his clothes?”
“Well,” she said, dumbfounded, “I—”
“Denny,” I said, cutting her off again, “You remember that deck of cards Joe Mullins had on Pond Street? The one with all the bare ladies who had no clothes on?”
“Yeah,” he smiled, and turned to the nun and said, “You ever see cards like that?” outlining a woman’s shape with his hands.
“There is no joy in the naked body,” she said firmly.
“Yeah,” I added, trying to be helpful. “Look at him.”
“This,” she said waving an arm towards the cross, “is to demonstrate the price Jesus paid for our souls.” We didn’t know what a soul was and were not impressed.
In a hushed tone, the nun continued, “The Romans whipped Jesus and their whips tore the flesh from his back.”
“Jesus Christ,” Denny whispered, more to himself than anyone else.
“Yes,” the nun smiled.
“Did they punch him?” Denny asked, throwing a punch into the air.
“Yes,” she said sadly, “They punched him.”
“They kick him?”
“Yes,” she said, and nodded solemnly. “They kicked him.”
“Did they,” I began, while jabbing my index fingers into make-believe eye sockets outward, because the question concerned Jesus’s eyeballs.
“Let’s just say,” she interrupted, “that the Romans brutalized our Lord.”
“Yeah,” Denny asked hurriedly, “but what’s the rest they did to Jesus?”
There was a very long pause and I watched the understanding wash over her face that we didn’t know that “Jesus” and “our Lord” were one and the same.
“Jesus,” she said slowly, “is our Lord.”
“Why?” I asked. I didn’t care why, I was just making conversation, but there was another long pause on her part. It may have been a conversation piece question, but it was also a very deep question, too.
“You know why Puerto Ricans wear pointed shoes?” Denny asked, placing his hand on her thigh. “Because their feet are—”
“Jesus,” she began, trying to save both her dignity and civil conversation, but Denny would have none of it.
“So they can climb over—” he continued, but this time he was interrupted by the nun.
“Jesus is the son of God who came down from heaven—”
“So is he a colored guy, this guy, this Jesus? “ Denny asked. “He looks like a colored guy.”
“What did you do wrong they make you dress like that?” I asked the nun. “You drink too much?”
As to why they wore the habit, Denny was direct.
“Are you bald?” He asked with deep sincerity. “’Cause it’s okay. I got a bald spot.” He turned around to show her the patch of missing hair taken away by ringworm. This, he figured, would help them bond and allow us to solve the great mystery of bald nuns, a rumor that was alive and well in most parochial schools in America through the decade of the 1960s.
“So,” said the nun, now talking directly to the crucifix because it wouldn’t interrupt her, “the Romans nailed our Lord—”
“You know,” I added with great authority, based completely on my film knowledge from the Palace Theater, “Tony Curtis was a Roman. He’s from Brooklyn. Ask my mother, she’ll tell ya.”
The nun lowered her head in defeat and returned us to the children’s ward. A while later, Denny and I were sitting on the front steps of the hospital, facing Pine Hill with its enormous cross, when a thunderbolt struck Denny. He pointed to the Pine Hill cross and said, “It’s empty!” and then he stood up and rushed into the hospital, and finding the nun inside the chapel at her evening prayers with the other Sisters, he shouted, “It’s okay! Jesus escaped!”
Love and understand the Italians, for the people are more marvelous than the land. -E. M. Forster
We arrived at our first foster home on January 6, 1962, my seventh birthday. There was no party because there were no adults around who knew it was my birthday, and I didn’t know it was my birthday without an adult to tell me.
Our new foster parents were a young couple, in their mid-twenties perhaps, and were cool cats who were products of the Beat generation, but at a time when beatnik culture was on the wane and more or less reduced to a cultural cliché. The Hippies were still six years away. Since neither Tina nor Kenny worked on a regular basis, they opened their house to the city for temporary placement of children so they could to make a few extra dollars.
As bizarre as it may seem, Tina and Kenny—I’m not sure we ever knew their last name—had been my parents’ occasional drinking partners. Tina, tall and slim with long, dark black hair, worked occasionally as a bartender at Shaum’s Tavern on Main Street, so we knew who she was but barely recognized her that day.
On our first morning at the house, Tina gathered us around the picnic table in the back yard, lit a Pall Mall cigarette, took a deep drag and said, “Look, I’m not gonna kid you. I’m nobody’s mother. Even if I wanted to be, I wouldn’t be very good at it. So here’s the deal.” She pulled a small pile of dollar bills out of her jeans pockets. “Kenny and I are making a few dollars on you being here. I guess you figured that out already.”
We hadn’t realized that, but it was useful information.
“Kenny and I will give you each a dollar a week not to cause any problems.” She handed Paulie, Denny and me one dollar each. “Any trouble, no more money.”
Now in 1962, a dollar went a long way, especially for a little kid. A movie ticket was fifty cents, a soda at the movie concession stand was twenty cents, and a candy bar was a nickel. But Paulie held out for more. My mother used to say that Paulie had “the face of Ireland and the mind of an Arab.” He looked harmless but could wheel and deal with the best of them. And that’s what he did with Tina.
“I should get two dollars,” he informed her.
“Because I’m in charge of them,” he said, pointing a thumb at us, “and that’s a lot of work.”
Tina pushed her lips out and asked, “How much work can that be?” and then waved her hand over our heads to demonstrate how little we were.
“Well, they’re very stupid,” Paulie countered, and turning to me he said, “Johnny put a fishhook in his eye because he wanted to see if it would hurt.”
She looked down at me with a mixture of horror, disbelief, and amusement and I nodded and showed her my slightly drooping right lid. “Cartoon” was the only word I could muster in my defense.
“Denny,” he continued, “Got hit by a car.”
Tina shrugged, unimpressed.
“Three times,” Paulie added.
Tina shrugged again.
“In one year,” Paulie said.
“So?” she asked.
“In the same place, on the same street,” he answered.
Impressed, Tina turned and looked down at Denny, who, proud of his feat, shrugged and smiled. “It was easy,” he blushed, and waved her off.,
Then came the pièce de résistance of Paulie’s argument. He pulled down his shirt collar and showed her the five-inch scar that ran from his jawbone to his chest. “I fell off a wall onto broken glass and cut my throat.”
“Run over three times, fish hooks in eyes, and slashed throats,” Tina said, shaking her head.
“Abi gezunt,” I said, and we all cracked up laughing, except Tina who had never heard my mother’s admonishment, “Stop complaining. You got your health, abi gezunt.” It was the gallows humor we loved most of all.
She handed Paulie another dollar.
“And what about Maura’s dollar?” he asked.
“She’s four years old, for God’s sake!” Tina said, feeling the full effects of what the legal community calls extortion.
“Then she doesn’t fall under the agreement,” Paulie said, and folded his arms across his chest.
“You would let your little sister fall into harm’s way because you didn’t get paid to help her?” Tina asked.
“Yeah,” we all said, more or less at the same time. Business is business. The thing about little kids and money is that they don’t understand the value of a dollar but you can’t cheat them out of a penny.
“All right,” she said, and handed Maura her dollar, and as she walked away we heard her mumble, “You cheap little bastards.”
But Tina was faithful to her promise. Every week she paid us our allowance, and, as agreed, we stayed out of trouble. But for all of Tina’s talk about not being a fit mother, she was actually good in the role. She cared for us and for her father, Dennio, who lived in an apartment in the basement. When Tina went to work, Dennio cared for us and we cared for him.
The house was on the very edge of Waterbury, way up in the hills, overlooking a large lake to the west and downtown Waterbury, a mile or so away, to the north. Back then the area was an undeveloped part of the city with woods and the occasional small vegetable farm. And that’s what our new home was, a small farm that had once been part of a much larger enterprise that was long since gone. Dennio had cultivated every inch of the land with vegetable and flower gardens, fruit trees, graded stone walkways, and horrendously ugly Greco-Roman sculptures that would have been out of place in Greece or Rome.
In the middle of the property was an unusually tall, but, I must say, well-dressed scarecrow, draped in a dark wool three-piece suit complete with black leather wingtips and raincoat tossed leisurely over the arm.
“He’s a’ the management,” Dennio would say as he observed his scarecrow with pride. “I think maybe he’s a college scarecrow, huh?”
Dennio was tall and slim, as was his daughter, and had a naturally distinguished and aristocratic air about him that seemed out of place among the grapevines and plants that he loved so much. He also had an artistic gentleness. A man inclined to Old World respect, he felt it was inappropriate for children to refer to an adult by first name. We addressed him as “Papa Dennio.” We spent weekends with him as he prepared his gardens and he told us of hundreds of things, for he was something new to us—he was an educated, cultured man who had been a professor of antiquities but was drafted into the Italian Army as a colonel to fight the Americans in North Africa.
“The first American I see—Private Enrico Coppola from New Jersey,” he told us one day as he peeled a fig for us with his pocketknife. “I surrendered,” he said, holding the knife up above his head.
“Why?” I asked, disappointed that he didn’t fight to the bloody end.
“It seemed like a real easy way to come to America,” he winked. And it was. The U.S. Army sent him to a prisoner-of-war camp on Jamestown Island in Rhode Island and when the war ended, he stayed in the States, earning a living selling insurance to Connecticut’s enormous Italian population, teaching the Italian language to Americans, and selling homemade wine. His wife had died of cancer only a year before we arrived but I noticed a steady stream of ladies from his parish who found their way to his gardens for an evening stroll and a glass of wine pressed from his vines.
Papa Dennio taught us about gardening, European opera, Greek and Roman history, mythology, the origins of Latin and, we in turn taught him the words to the song “Who Put the Bomp in the bomp, dah bomp, dah bomp.”
Hidden under his vines was a wooden shack stuffed with tools and an overstuffed easy chair and wooden crate used as a place to sit and sip wine. In the back of the shed was a small, white plaster statue of a man with an enormous erect penis. Catching me gazing at the work, Papa Dennio said, “That is the Roman god Priapus, stolen from the Italian people by the Greeks who said he was their god,” and by now his hands and arms were flying in five directions.
“He is the god in charge of a-you pene, ah, capisci?”
“Spaghetti?”” I answered, thinking of penne pasta.
“I got spaghetti,” he said, grabbing himself between the legs. “Young man, they got pene.” He looked at the statue admiringly and said, “Tina tells me ‘Papa, you can’t have this thing out in the field. What do people think?’”
He handed me a palmful of oily ripe olives and said, “Priapus is also the god of gardens. So, when you tomatoes are late, you pray to Priapus, you go like this.” He pressed his thumbs against his index and middle finger, held them up in the air and closed his eyes and whispered, “Dove i miei pomodori, che cosa sono voi stanno dormendo sul lavoro voi Greco pigro?” then he turned to me and asked, “Do you know what that means?”
“It means ‘Hey, Priapus! Where the hell are my tomatoes? You sleep on the job, you lazy Greek, you!’ ” and he finished with the international Italian salute of two fingers flicked quickly from under the chin.
As he pulled the hoe, he hummed and then lightly sang out:
Ma n'atu sole,
cchiù bello, oje ne'
'O sole mio
sta 'nfronte a te!
“You know who Giovanni Capurro was?” he asked.
“The barber down on East Main Street?” I answered.
He thought about my answer for a moment, because if the barber’s name down on East Main wasn’t Giovanni Capurro, it was something damned close to it. “No. He was a great Italian—”
“You know,” Denny interrupted as he patted soil around a green pepper, “a lot of these guineas are crooks. You gotta watch those people.” He didn’t bother to look up when he insulted our host but he did spit out an imaginary piece of tobacco just as our father would have done.
Papa Dennio rolled his eyes to the heavens, sighed deeply and continued speaking directly to me. “Giovanni Capurro was a great Italian poet. He was Napolitano, of course, like me,” and paused to let that sink in. It didn’t. But I dropped my rake and listened. About half the time I had no idea what he was talking about, but the half the time I understood him, he was fascinating.
“Do you know why he was a great artist?” he asked me without waiting for an answer, although I had one. It was the wrong one, but I had one. “Because he was an artist for art's sake.” He contorted his face into a look of great pain and said “He suffered for his art.” He returned to his rake and asked, “You know O sole mio?” I thought about it. I had an answer for that too. Again, it was the wrong one, but I had one.
“The great Giovanni Capurro,” he continued, “he wrote those beautiful words. A poor boy, he goes to the garden of his girl and he sings up to her window that she is his sun, just for him.”
“Why didn’t he just call her up?” Denny asked.
“So he sings,” he continued as if Denny had said nothing. “His solo mio, that with her in his life he is rich because she is so beautiful that she makes the sun more beautiful, you understand?” And at that he dropped the hoe, closed his eyes and spread out his arms wide and with the fading sun shining on his handsome face he sang:
Che bella cosa è na jurnata 'e sole
n'aria serena doppo na tempesta!
Pe' ll'aria fresca pare già na festa
Che bella cosa e' na jurnata 'e sole
Ma n'atu sole,
cchiù bello, oi ne'
'O sole mio
sta 'nfronte a te!
'O sole, 'o sole mio
sta 'nfronte a te!
sta 'nfronte a te!
It looked like fun. We dropped our tools and joined him, belting out something that sounded remarkably like Napolitano. We sang as loud as we could, holding on to each note as long as we could before we ran out of breath, and then we sang again, occasionally dropping to one knee, holding our hands over our hearts with exaggerated looks of deep pain. Although we made the words up, we sang with the deepest passion, with the best that we had, with all of our hearts, and that made us artists, great artists, for in that song, we had made all that art is: the creation of something from nothing, fashioned with all of the soul, born from joy.
And as that beautiful summer sun set over Waterbury, the Brass City, the City of Churches, our voices floated above the wonderful aromas of the garden, across the red sky and joined the spirits in eternity.
Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! - I have as much soul as you, - and full as much heart! ― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
I am here because I worked too hard and too long not to be here. But although I told the university that I would walk across the stage to take my diploma, I won’t. At age fifty-seven, I’m too damned old, and I’d look ridiculous in this crowd. From where I’m standing in the back of the hall, I can see that I am at least two decades older than most of the parents of these kids in their black caps and gowns.
So I’ll graduate with this class, but I won’t walk across the stage and collect my diploma with them; I’ll have the school send it to my house. I only want to hear my name called. I’ll imagine what the rest would have been like. When you’ve had a life like mine, you learn to do that, to imagine the good things.
The ceremony is about to begin. It’s a warm June day and a hallway of glass doors leading to the parking lot are open, the dignitaries march onto the stage, a janitor slams the doors shut, one after the other.
That banging sound.
It’s Christmas Day 1961 and three Waterbury cops are throwing their bulk against our sorely overmatched front door. They are wearing their long woolen blue coats and white gloves and they swear at the cold.
They’ve finally come for us, in the dead of night, to take us away, just as our mother said they would.
“They’ll come and get you kids,” she screamed at us, “and put youse all in an orphanage where you’ll get the beatin’s youse deserve, and there won’t be no food either.”
That’s why we’re terrified, that’s why we don’t open the door and that’s how I remember that night. I was six years old then, one month away from my seventh birthday. My older brother, the perpetually-worried, white-haired Paulie, was ten. He is my half-brother, actually, although I have never thought of him that way. He was simply my brother. My youngest brother, Denny, was six; Maura, the baby, was four; and Bridget, our auburn-haired leader, my half -sister, was twelve.
We didn’t know where our mother was. The welfare check, and thank God for it, had arrived, so maybe she was at a gin mill downtown spending it all, as she had done a few times before. Maybe she’d met yet another guy, another barfly, who wouldn’t be able to remember our names because his beer-soaked brain can’t remember anything. We are thankful that he’ll disappear after the money runs out or the social worker lady comes around and tells him he has to leave because the welfare won’t pay for him as well as for us. It snowed that day and after the snow had finished falling, the temperature dropped and the winds started.
“Maybe she went to Brooklyn,” Paulie said, as we walked through the snow to the Salvation Army offices one that afternoon before the cops came for us.
“She didn’t go back to New York,” Bridget snapped. “She probably just—”
“She always says she gonna leave and go back home to Brooklyn,” I interrupted.
“Yeah,” Denny chirped, mostly because he was determined to be taken as our equal in all things, including this conversation.
We walked along in silence for a second, kicking the freshly fallen snow from our paths, and then Paulie added what we were all thinking: “Maybe they put her back in Saint Mary’s.”
No one answered him. Instead, we fell into our own thoughts, recalling how, several times in the past, when too much of life came at our mother at once, she broke down and lay in bed for weeks in a dark room, not speaking and barely eating. It was a frightening and disturbing thing to watch.
“It don’t matter,” Bridget snapped again, more out of exhaustion than anything else. She was always cranky. The weight of taking care of us, and of being old well before her time, strained her. “It don’t matter,” she mumbled.
It didn’t matter that night either, that awful night, when the cops were at the door and she wasn’t there. We hadn’t seen our mother for two days, and after that night, we wouldn’t see her for another two years.
When we returned home that day, the sun had gone down and it was dark inside the house because we hadn’t paid the light bill. We never paid the bills, so the lights were almost always off and there was no heat because we didn’t pay that bill either. And now we needed the heat. We needed the heat more than we needed the lights. The cold winter winds pushed up at us from the Atlantic Ocean and down on us from frigid Canada and battered our part of northwestern Connecticut, shoving freezing drifts of snow against the paper-thin walls of our ramshackle house and covering our windows in a thick veneer of silver-colored ice.
The house was built around 1910 by the factories to house immigrant workers mostly brought in from southern Italy. These mill houses weren’t built to last. They had no basements; only four windows, all in the front; and paper-thin walls. Most of the construction was done with plywood and tarpaper. The interiors were long and narrow and dark.
Bridget turned the gas oven on to keep us warm. “Youse go get the big mattress and bring it in here by the stove,” she commanded us. Denny, Paulie, and I went to the bed that was in the cramped living room and wrestled the stained and dark mattress, with some effort, into the kitchen. Bridget covered Maura in as many shirts as she could find, in a vain effort to stop the chills that racked her tiny and frail body and caused her to shake.
We took great pains to position the hulking mattress in exactly the right spot by the stove and then slid, fully dressed, under a pile of dirty sheets, coats, and drapes that was our blanket. We squeezed close to fend off the cold, the baby in the middle and the older kids at the ends.
“Move over, ya yutz, ya,” Paulie would say to Denny and me because half of his butt was hanging out onto the cold linoleum floor. We could toss insults in Yiddish. We learned them from our mother, whose father was a Jew and who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in New York. I assumed that those words we learned were standard American English, in wide and constant use across our great land. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties and moved from the Naugatuck Valley and Connecticut that I came to understand that most Americans would never utter a sentence like, “You and your fakakta plans”.
We also spoke with the Waterbury aversion to the sound of the letter “T,” replacing it with the letter “D,” meaning that “them, there, those, and these” were pronounced “dem, dere, dose, and dese.” We were also practitioners of “youse,” the northern working-class equivalent to “you-all,” as in “Are youse leaving or are youse staying?”
“Move in, ya yutz, ya,” Paulie said again with a laugh, but we didn’t move because the only place to move was to push Bridget off the mattress, which we were not about to do because Bridget packed a wallop that could probably put a grown man down. Then Paulie pushed us, and at the other end of the mattress, Bridget pushed back with a laugh, and an exaggerated, rear-ends pushing war for control of the mattress broke out.
Poverty is the worst form of violence. Mahatma Gandhi
On the night the cops came, the flame from the oven gave the room a wonderful yellow and blue glow and eventually we tired and lay quietly and watched its reflection on the faded cold yellow walls. We thought we would sleep well that night because we had not seen any cockroaches around the house. Most of the time they were everywhere, in our clothes and our beds and in the food cabinets, and one of us would have to stay awake and brush them off the bed so the others could sleep without having the bastards crawling all over us.
Bridget had placed our wet shoes and socks on the open oven door. Seeing them, I studied the bottoms of my feet through the flickering light. They were wrinkled from snow that had flooded through the worn soles of my mismatched boots. Although my feet were cold, they burned.
One by one, we faded off into a deep sleep, our small bodies exhausted from a day of trudging through the deep snow that covered the winding sidewalks of Waterbury, all of which seemed to be uphill. We were awakened abruptly by a pounding noise against the door and the muffled, deep voices of men in a hurry. We pushed more closely together on the mattress.
“If it’s the Kings,” Paulie said, referring to the Puerto Rican gang that roamed the neighborhood at will, “they got knives.”
The Latin Kings were a teenage Puerto Rican gang that hung out on the streets, drank rum and Coke, and wore black leather jackets and blue jeans. They were tough, very tough. Cop cars avoided driving past the street corners where the Kings gathered. They took what they wanted from stores and stripped down random cars for parts. They were the real neighborhood law.
The Kings ruled over the South End and mostly fought the black gangs from the North End and sometimes the Italians from the Town Plot neighborhood. Their fights, “rumbles” they were called, took place in empty parking lots. Twenty-five to thirty gang members on each side charged into each other with knives, tire irons and chains. Their rumbles lasted no more than five minutes, maybe ten, and then they broke off, carrying their wounded with them if they could. Sometimes, if the wounds were bad enough, the gangs left them behind for the cops to bring to the hospital.
They mostly left us alone, but Bridget was approaching her teen years, and she was already tall for her age and attractive and some of the Kings had taken to following her home and groping her.
But this night, the bright beam from a cop’s long silver flashlight filled the room. That it was the cops instead of the Kings made no difference to us. They were both trouble.
A cop with a round red face appeared at the window, his mouth open, his eyes squinting across the room. Our eyes locked. He turned from the window and yelled, “Yeah, they’re in there,” and then turning back to us he looked at me and tapped on the glass.
“Sweetheart, open the door, like a good kid,” he shouted through a frozen smile through the frozen glass. We stared at him. We weren’t about to open that door to him or anyone else.
“It’s okay,” he assured us. “We’re not gonna hurt you, so open the door.”
“No!” Denny shouted.
“Little boy,” the cop said politely in a way that seemed strangely menacing, “please open the door,” and a cloud of cold breath floated from his mouth.
“Your mother,” was Denny’s answer, his answer to many things in those days.
The cop turned away from the window, wiped his running nose, and shouted, “Okay, kick it in.”
“Hide under the bed!” Bridget yelled, and following her command we grabbed Maura and scurried into the living room where it was dark, and slid under the bed with its worn box spring, no mattress.
“Push up against the wall,” Paulie shouted. “They can’t reach us there.” And we did, covering Maura with our skinny frames.
In our part of town, and among people like ourselves, the policeman was not our friend. The policeman was to be feared. Policemen locked up our parents and our neighbors. We saw them beat up men who were too drunk to stand. They poked people with their nightsticks, “paddy clubs” we called them, and drove past us and screamed at us to “get out of the street” and threatened us with putting their foot up our asses, and they would, too. We feared the cops for good reason. And now they were banging down our front door.
I had a cold, or what I thought was a cold. I kept losing my balance and falling down, and couldn’t move very quickly because of that, but figuring on an all-night siege, I slid out from under the bed and ran back to the kitchen just as the cops broke the door off its frame with a loud, violent crack. They rushed in as I opened the warm refrigerator door and found the rolls of olive loaf that I had taken from the Salvation Army Christmas dinner earlier in the day. That’s why the cops were there. Not for the olive loaf, but because somebody at the Salvation Army told them about us.
We sometimes feel that what we do is just a drop in the ocean, but the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.
We’re goin’ up to the Salvation Army,” Bridget had informed us that morning. “Put your coats on.” The Salvation Army had a large complex across town that included, among other things, a store for secondhand goods, a playroom for children, an after-school center with a television that worked, and a kitchen serving meals to the needy and where canned goods were given away.
“I don’t wanna go,” I said.
“You want to sit alone in a dark house?” she replied.
I didn’t want to go because the galoshes I had didn’t match and I looked a sight. I had worn them to school once and had been ridiculed for it, beginning my lifelong contempt for school and for those goddamned boots, which I refused to wear again.
“I’m not going because these boots are stupid,” I said.
“You gotta go, Johnny,” Bridget said in a way that closed all dissenting opinions.
“I can’t go with two stupid boots that are different colors, and I think one of them is for girls,” I shouted, in a way that closed off all dissent. Her large brown eyes locked with mine and instantly our ruddy complexions turned crimson. Tempers were about to flare. In this way, Bridget and I were kindred souls. In a similar situation, a meek and mild Paulie would surrender after a token protest, and good-natured Denny would do whatever was asked of him, but, like Bridget, I could be prickly when pushed. Bridget knew how to handle me.
“I need help carrying the baby,” she said softly, which shot directly into my guilt center.
“And,” she added, “they got free food there today because it’s Christmas,” which shot directly into my attention center for food. All food was a subject that interested me greatly, then and now.
So I put on the mismatched boots that were worn at the soles and let in the snow and rain, and Bridget led the way with the rest of us taking turns holding the baby. That afternoon we walked slowly up the hill. Waterbury is nestled in the center of three enormous and steep hills, which made walking anywhere an arduous task. But walk we did, to the North End, formerly the city’s Italian neighborhood, where the Salvation Army offices were decked out in wreaths and holly and Christmas trees, and vast herds of children ran wild in the main hall. A Santa Claus, far too slim I thought, handed out one wrapped present to each child, and each present was the same, a balsa-wood airplane in two pieces. And there was food and it was free. Free food: A fantastic idea when you’re hungry, and I was always hungry because we seldom ate well, or regularly, and sometimes we just plain didn’t eat at all. Many nights we went to bed hungry, which after a while wasn’t all that bad because we learned that drinking vast amounts of water would fight off the pangs of hunger until the morning arrived.
The Christmas dinner was modest: chips, soda, a pickle, a carrot, and olive loaf sandwiches. I’d never had olive loaf. Mostly, the only meat we ate was Spam, cold from the can if Bridget wasn’t around to fry it for us, and we had that only when the welfare check came in. Occasionally, when there was extra money and Mother was not overwhelmed, she prepared the dishes her Irish immigrant mother had taught her: boiled smoked shoulder with cabbage, and potatoes drenched in butter and floating in evaporated milk, with large doses of salt and pepper.
It was a good time when the welfare check arrived because it made us temporarily rich and happy and we bought all the things that other people enjoyed every day. But then the money ran out and we were poor again. After a while there was no food left in the house and we followed our mother up to the neighborhood stores, and watched her beg the grocer to give us credit for food and milk and diapers for the babies.
“I promise, I swear to God himself,” she would plead, “to pay youse first thing the welfare check comes in.”
Sometimes they helped us, sometimes they wouldn’t, and sometimes they would offer, with a leer, goods in exchange for my mother’s services, because she was a very attractive woman. Although short, she was well-built and buxom, with an enticing and mischievous smile, magnificent auburn hair, soft brown eyes, and a milky-white complexion.
Men tended to give her whatever she wanted and she was a talented manipulator, but the utility companies were different. They couldn’t be charmed or have their heads turned by a pretty face, and they didn’t give credit.
The electric company was the worst. They turned off our lights and left them off until they were paid in full. Then the water was turned off or the landlord sent around a collector, usually little more than a goon, to threaten us about the rent. The routine never changed. Several times a year, it all became too much for my mother and she placed the babies with my Aunts or her friends, and disappeared, leaving Bridget to mind us.
Bridget did her best with everything, but it was too much even for her noble soul, because being poor is hard work. It is all-consuming, and the poor spend endless hours trying to figure out ways to combat being poor. That’s what Bridget did, God bless her. She had no childhood at all, miserable or otherwise, because her life was filled with the righteous mission of fending for us.
Her childhood was like being punished for something she didn’t do. And that sense of being second-rate—it never leaves you. No matter how long you live or how much money you get, you never leave poverty. It stays with you, in your mind, forever, and leaves its victims with a sense of permanent unsettledness. This much I know to be true: The world’s greatest heroic acts are conducted in the minor battlefields of life by obscure warriors like my sister.
When the food ran out, and that happened a lot, Bridget, like our mother, walked us up the street to the corner grocery, but unlike our mother, Bridget had no intention of haggling for credit.
“Paulie,” she commanded, “you stay outside with the baby so the guy don’t recognize us,” and then turning to Denny and me, she bent close and whispered, “Youse two go in when I wave to you, and go to the back aisle and get something good.”
In other words, we were there to steal food while she kept the storeowner busy slicing a pound of minced ham we couldn’t afford and had no intention of buying. A simple plan that never really seemed to work out. Denny and I would crawl into the store on our hands and knees and steal whatever foodstuffs were at eye level but, since we couldn’t read and we were ruled over by our empty stomachs, some of our choices were interesting.
“A five-gallon can of imported olive oil,” Bridget yelled at Denny after the expedition had ended. “What the hell am I supposed to do with a five-gallon can of imported olive oil?”
“Eat it,” a highly offended Denny replied. He had based the worth of his prize on its weight.
“Eat it?” Bridget yelled back. “We don’t even got a can opener to open it with, ya schmuck.”
“Go back and steal one,” he countered.
I said nothing. I said nothing because my product of choice was worse. I had taken Brillo soap pads. I don’t know why. At the moment it had seemed like a good idea.
“We could bring it down the block to the deaf guy’s store and exchange it for money,” Paulie mumbled. We all stopped and pondered what our usually taciturn brother had said. You had to hand it to Paulie. The kid didn’t talk much, but when he did, it always made sense.
When you finally go back to your old hometown, you find it wasn’t the old home you missed but your childhood.
Waterbury is Connecticut’s fifth-largest city, although for us, as children, it was the biggest city in the world. Waterbury. Three hundred years of immigrants’ dreams, heartbreak, hope, and tears built this city as much as those things built this country. The factories were massive. Some plants, like Chase and Farrel’s and Scovill’s, extended for miles and employed thousands of men and women in three shifts, seven days a week, every day of the year. These shops that brought hundreds of thousands of Poles and Jews and Italians and Irish to the city are almost all gone now, but for centuries, they churned out brass, copper, and steel, and they changed the immigrants whose children and grandchildren changed America.
In their old countries, these lowly souls were the little guys, the perpetual hapless losers. It’s true that they were the tired, the hungry, the desperate and the poor, but they were also a people with lions’ hearts who got knocked down and got back up again only to be knocked down again by laws written for the sole purpose of knocking them down, until one day they stood up and left. They went to a new land to build a new nation: one where the rules were fair and getting back up again actually accomplished something.
They built Waterbury, these sons of Italy and Ireland, these daughters of Warsaw and Minsk. And the city they built reflected them. It would never be a cultural center or place of great learning, because they were not cultured or educated people. But it was a city of spacious parks and beautiful and awe-inspiring churches. It was a city divided into dozens of little countries, as Italian or Irish or Polish as any place in Europe. Their restaurants offered a working man’s fare of simple, hearty dishes, most with unpronounceable names and heavy with ingredients handed down for hundreds of years.
The factories rolled on, nonstop, seven days a week, every day of the year. The immigrants, men and women, dragged their tired bones home from the mills to the third-floor walk-ups perched on the sides of Waterbury’s hills that they called home, and they ate and they slept and they went back to work again.
When they dreamed at night, they dreamed their oldest and best dreams, which were all possible here in the new world, in the Brass City. They dreamed about the children they would have, children who would speak English and grow to be tall like the other Americans, the regular Americans. They dreamed good dreams. They dreamed American dreams.
Even in the early twentieth century, the Waterbury mills paid a fair wage and offered reasonable benefits for a good day’s work. And little by little, year by year, decade by decade and generation after generation, life got better, and gradually, great men and women rose from the humble streets of Waterbury.
So the city was rich and prosperous but we, and many others, were poor and unprosperous and lived in a poor neighborhood called the Abrigada, a Spanish word that means shelter, or a hiding place, and for us it was both. The Abrigada clung to the side of Pine Hill, one of Waterbury’s three massive hills.
Perched on its top was a surreal place called Holy Land USA, a Waterbury landmark as eccentric and interesting as the city itself. It’s mostly gone now—a few decades-old buildings and statues still stand—but in its heyday, Holy Land USA was an eighteen-acre private park filled with dozens of miniature plaster houses and cobblestone streets that were supposed to be replicas of ancient Jerusalem and Bethlehem. But even for the most devout Christian, it was a comically odd place. There was a giant fiberglass Bible, a replica of the Garden of Eden, a two-hundred-foot catacomb, grottoes and dozens of statues of saints and angels, most of them handmade in Waterbury by volunteers. Topping it off, literally at the very top of Pine Hill and Holy Land, a fifty-foot-high steel cross lit the night sky in a white amber glow that could be seen for miles. At the very bottom of Pine Hill, where we lived, was the Mad River, lined with a dozen red-brick factories.
In the 1880s the Abrigada was a massive Irish neighborhood, one of the largest in New England, whose main thoroughfare was then called Dublin Street. But by the time I was born, the Irish were long gone and so were the Italians who followed them out of the neighborhood. There were some Irish and Italians left, but mostly they lived up on the top of the hill, not down by the river with us and the Puerto Ricans.
We lived on Pond Street. Pond Street. A fine, picturesque name for such a God-awful place. It’s an irrelevant street, a dead-end still paved with cobblestones when I was a boy. There are only five or six houses on the whole street but there is an apartment house on the corner. Every now and then, young Puerto Rican men spilled out of the building, knives in hand, slashing at each other, leaving dark- brown blood stains on the building’s dirty grey walls. Across from the apartment house was a long factory, its bricks covered in decades of black and brown soot. Behind that was the river, the Mad River that puked out a rotten-egg smell that soaked into everything and everybody, even into the car seat cushions, so you carried it with you out of the neighborhood.
Next to the red brick factory was a long empty parking lot with enormous potholes, and at the end of the lot was another factory, soot-covered and dirty like the dozen other shops that lined the river’s edge.
The colored ladies—that’s what we called them then and it was meant politely— brought men in cars to the lot and parked facing the river. When a car started to rock we pelted it with stones until the woman came out, half-dressed, and chased us, which is what we were hoping for, but she never caught us, not down there, not in our neighborhood.
So she would stand by the car cursing us while her customer slid down the seat to hide himself from the neighbors, who came out to see what all the commotion was about. In the daytime, you could find used rubbers all over the place and when they dried, if you threw them in the river, they’d float for a while before they sank or the chemicals destroyed them.
It was loud and it was bright on Pond Street because the factory that took up the whole of the other side of the street never closed and the windows were always open, even in the winter, because all of the foundries were hotter than Hell itself. The smashing and banging and hammering from inside the shops poured out of the massive windows into our kitchens and bedrooms and heads, and at night the shop lights gave the entire street an otherworldly glow.
Our neighbors were the worst possible people in the world. They had nicknames like Benny Nose and Fat Eddy and Guinea Ann, who had no teeth and ran out of her house sometimes, naked for the world to see, and screamed in the middle of the street and then suddenly stopped and listened and then walked somberly back into the house. Joe Mullins rubbed your private parts when there was no one around and he’d give you Drake’s Cakes and Birch Beer soda if you let him do it. He was missing an eye, lost in the war. There were a lot of men like that in the Naugatuck Valley, mangled people who were missing legs and eyes and hands and jaws and fingers, all lost to the dogs of war. Missing body parts and death, not paper cuts and boredom, are usually the wartime fate of the working poor.
They were, almost all of them, alcoholics, and drug addicts, and perverts of one kind or another. They were ugly and Pond Street was an ugly place, but then again, it’s ugly being poor and it turns all things around it ugly.
Our leaning house sat adjacent to the local public elementary school and, even though it was only feet away, we rarely went. We were street urchins, and happy street urchins at that. We were completely and thoroughly undisciplined; the concept of school, of having to be someplace at a specific time where we were required to sit at a desk in silence while someone else talked, was beyond us. We tried it, decided it was not to our liking, and rarely returned.
The concept of order was beyond us. I don’t mean that figuratively. I mean that literally. Leadership in our family life was almost an elected position and there was rarely a central adult figure to tell us what to do, and when it came to being told what to do we responded best—in fact, now that I think about, the only way we responded— was through threats or bribes. Since elementary school teachers were not practitioners of the bribe/threat theory of education, we did what we wanted.
The first day that Denny went to kindergarten, to everyone’s amazement he didn’t put up a fuss. He got up, got dressed, and went to school. The next morning he pitched a holy fit. My father went into the room and said “What’s wrong?”
“They want me to go to school!”
“But you went yesterday.”
“Yeah, and now they want me to go back again!”
I remember once when I was being taken to the principal’s office, in a headlock. As we went down the long hallway I heard the sound of feet beside me. It was Denny. In a headlock. Headed to the principal’s office. Another time, Denny brought a dozen eggs to school so he could show them what throwing a hand grenade was like and presented said demonstration on the boys’ room wall.
At one point, I became enamored with the Walt Disney version of Babes in Toyland, a children’s film. I even had the book version. For me, in the fall of 1962, Babes in Toyland was the most important world event that had even happened. Strolling late into the school and stepping in front of the class, I launched into a monologue on the wonders of the film.
“Who’s seen the movie?” I asked.
“John,” the teacher said softly, “sit down.”
“I’m workin’ here,” I replied, borrowing the phrase from my father.
Not fully understanding the order, I sat down in a chair in front of the class and continued my spiel.
“John,” the teacher yelled, “face first against the wall!”
I stared at her for a while and then assumed the position against the wall.
It would have ended there had I not topped off the conversation by calling her “shmutz” as I turned to face the wall. I didn’t know she was Jewish.
Instead of school, on most mornings when it wasn’t too cold or rainy, Bridget led us on one adventure or another around town. We started each trek with an early-morning stop on lower North Main Street where a wholesale bakery was staffed by enormously fat, red-faced German people with thick accents, noticeable in a town that was then filled with people with many accents. They were the Becker family, who were, I later learned, leaders of the American Nazi Bund during the Second World War. The local police would use against them the old religious-based laws enacted by the state’s Puritan founders to keep them in check, asking them on a Sunday if they had shaved that morning. If they said yes, they were arrested, because it was illegal to shave on the Sabbath in Connecticut between 1692 and 1942. But in the winter of 1962, they delighted in feeding us doughnuts until our eyes swam in warm, sugar-coated dough. From there it was on to the parks.
Despite its drawbacks as an industrial city, Waterbury, the Brass City, The City of Churches, is also a city of parks, with dozens of them, of all shapes and sizes, some built by the Olmsted brothers who designed Central Park in Manhattan.
The parks were dotted across the cityscape, some hidden in forgotten corners, some bursting with thick, lush green grass and others filled with monkey bars, swings and wonderful Victorian-era bandstands painted white, red, blue, and other colors of summer. On the wooden ceilings of several of these bandstands were elaborate and beautiful drawings of the Italian countryside, hand-painted by craftsmen who pined for their homeland. Several of the parks were built around freshwater ponds, complete with sandy beaches, grills and picnic tables, and when I was a boy, droves of children converged at these ponds and lakes and splashed away for hours in the water turned tea-brown by pine needles from the trees that lined the water’s edge.
On those days when it was too cold to spend the day in a park, and there are many days like that in New England, we went to the movies. Because we were part of the New York distribution system for films, we got great movies before the rest of the country. We got classics like La Dolce Vita, a film that I watched after sneaking into the theater. I understood it too, not through the words but through the photography, through good content, director’s guidelines timing, color, and pace, and through the facial expressions—the same way that I enjoy films today.
The Hustler was one of those movies that could be watched and understood without hearing any words. So were One Eyed Jacks with Marlon Brando and Cape Fear with Robert Mitchum, a film that scared me then and unsettles me still today. It was the golden age for children's films like One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
There was, of course, a seemingly endless array of war films and I assumed most of them, like The Guns of Navarone, were documentary footage of my father’s foray through war-torn Europe, just as watching the film version of West Side Story was like watching gussied-up home movies of Pond Street.
We saw all these wonderful films in the grandeur of the Palace Movie Theater in the center of downtown Waterbury. Originally one of the premier silent film and vaudeville showplaces of New England, the Palace opened in 1922. It was then, and remains today, a magnificent place. Even as a child, I understood instinctively that the Palace Theater (pronounced “thee-ate-tor” in Waterbury) was a special and beautiful place. Everything in my world was dirty, broken, used, and grimy, but the Palace was what I imagined heaven to be. It was done in the Grand Renaissance Revival style, with an eclectic mix of Greek, Roman, Arabic, and Federal motifs, with an enormous grand lobby of imported Roman marble.
We discovered a dozen different ways to sneak into the theater, and after we were inside, sank into one of the enormous crushed purple velvet chairs, raised our heads back to take in the entire giant screen, and got lost in whatever film was playing that day. It didn’t matter. I watched anything they showed because it was like visiting another planet.
Those peaceful afternoons in the Palace set into motion my lifelong affair with motion pictures and storytelling, and it was here that I learned about the world outside Waterbury and Pond Street.
We lived on the worst possible street in the worst possible city in New England, surrounded by crowded poverty and ugliness. But on the screen, I saw places I never could have imagined. I watched John Wayne strut across the wide-open West or Peter O’Toole race across the white sands of the Arabian desert, and I wanted to know more about those places. Are there really places like that in the world? Big wide-open spaces, big enough for a horse to walk around in, big enough for vast herds of cows to stand around and do whatever it is vast herds of cows do? Are there places where the people aren’t ugly and scarred and poor and dirty and filled with desperation? Is there a place in the world that isn’t filled with filthy old factories and rats the size of cats? And when you get there, are the rivers really blue instead of multi-colored chemical runoff? And you can drink from them? Where is this place, and how do you get there? All I knew was there on Pond Street, the poorest place in the wealthiest state in the union.
If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance. -George Bernard Shaw
I was born in Waterbury on January 6, 1955. Called Little Christmas, or Russian Christmas, January 6 is a holiday in the Eastern Orthodox religion. In fact, we were all holiday people. My mother was born on Valentine’s Day, something my father saw as a cruel but humorous trick of fate. Paulie, named after my mother’s father, was born on Halloween, and Maura was born on Christmas Day and was brought home in a big red stocking. A few years later, on Labor Day, my brother Jimmy was born. I was named after my Father’s uncle, John Sullivan, a Boston railroad conductor. Denny was named for John Sullivan’s brother, Denny Sullivan, a Boston policeman.
My father was the grandson of austere, hardworking, highly devout, teetotaler Irish immigrants who came to America in the late 1890s from a village in remote western Ireland. My grandfather, Patrick Tuohy, was the exact opposite of his parents, and not by mistake, I should think. He was a two-fisted, quick-tempered, committed labor socialist with a penchant for drink and hard narcotics. He was a carpenter by trade, but rarely worked steadily at his craft, or at anything else for that matter. Patrick was an interesting man who tried his hand at everything from chicken farming to politics. He briefly struck it rich in the early 1930s, when, while on a drunk, he parked his car on a railroad crossing, fell asleep and was struck by a train. He survived, but with severe damage to the brain. He sued and The New Haven Railroad assumed it was their fault and settled for six figures. He moved to Chicago, God only knows why, where he ended up serving a short prison sentence for financial finagling. Busted, he returned to the safety of his Depression-wracked working-class Irish neighborhood in Naugatuck, Connecticut, called Kelley’s Hill, because so many Irish lived there on that patch of hillside. This is where my father and his eight siblings were raised.
My father was a handsome man with watery, soft blue eyes, who was always fit and trim. Unlike all of us, who were ruddy, he carried a darker complexion. He was the kind of handsome that people defer to. I noticed that when he spoke to women, they curled their hair in their fingers. He looked like a winner. Men held doors for him and cops let him out of speeding tickets because he had that rare ability to be almost instantly liked. People wanted to take care of him. It was fascinating to watch. People who barely knew him would smile at him and pat him on the back. I saw it but I never understood it, because, if the truth be told, he was not a particularly nice person. In fact, he barely tolerated most people, but that didn’t seem to matter when his magic kicked in.
My father, who was also named John, was a seventh-grade dropout who served in the army in World War II as part of the Connecticut Yankee Division. He detested his father, something he told me many times over the years. He recalled him as a belligerent bully.
“He was a no good son of a bitch,” he’d say as we drove along in his paint truck. “Just a no good son of a bitch.”
I never asked why he was a no good son of a bitch, because as soon as the words left my father’s mouth, he would look into some mist of yesterday that only he could see, and disappeared into it for a few minutes. However, my father adored his mother, Helen Sullivan of Boston, whom he always described as nothing short of angelic. When she died in 1943, my father was stationed with the Military Police on Fishers Island just off the Connecticut coast. My aunts told me that at his mother’s burial, my father had a complete emotional breakdown.
“He tried to leap right into the grave ditch with her, Johnny,” my Aunt Maggie, his older sister, told me. “It took all of us to hold him back, and then he just sat down and cried and cried.”
I am sure it is true, but I cannot, for the life of me, see my father becoming even slightly emotional over anything, least of all the way they described him. He was not a man of great emotion or depth, at least not that I ever saw. Despite his good looks, charms, and instant likability, he was a very shallow man and not very bright.
“Something in him shut off after she died,” Aunt Maggie whispered to me as she shook her head in that dramatically mournful way that the Irish have when discussing death.
Maggie insisted on being called Margaret but never was. “Margaret is more high-class,” she said. A New England spinster, she was a vicious gossip who had an uncanny and unsettling resemblance to the actor Margaret Hamilton who so brilliantly played the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. The chin, the mouth, the laugh. Perhaps she was right about my father and something snapping inside of him.
He left the military police and the safety of Fishers Island behind him, joined the infantry, and lugged a Browning automatic rifle across Europe. He won, in less than a year, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Purple Heart. He killed Nazis by the drove, according to the New York newspaper accounts that I read, but never once, in all of the many times he spoke of the war, did he acknowledge that he had shot anyone at all. Instead, his war stories were told and retold to me through the eyes of a small town New England kid, fascinated, scared and mesmerized by a world gone mad.
“We used Belgian money for toilet paper,” he said once, at the dinner table, of course.
“You know why?” he asked.
This was not a conversation I wanted to enter into, so I stared at my mashed potatoes and hoped it would go away.
“You know why?” he asked my mashed potatoes.
“No, Da. Why was that?” I said, and gave him my complete and full attention.
He would lean back in his chair, smile that pirate smile of his, and say, “Silk—it was made with silk. Not the whole thing, but a lot of it.”
He waited for my reply but I figured at that point it was pretty much all I needed to know about Belgian money and toilet paper.
After several seconds he said, “It was very soft.”
And then, wrongly assuming we had left the world of Belgian toilet paper behind us, I had started to eat again when he added, “and very wide, too.”
At the war’s end he returned to Waterbury and worked as a union house painter, the only job he ever knew outside his brief stint as a soldier.
My mother was born into a working-class family in Harlem, New York. Her mother, Nellie Connelly, was a hard-drinking, rebellious girl who left her native Northern Ireland in the late 1920s to work for an aunt as a chambermaid in a midtown Manhattan boarding house. But Nellie worked there only briefly, under the tyrannical Old World rule of her aunt, before being pulled away by the flashy new world of America. Within a year, she was living in Brooklyn earning her way as a housemaid.
My mother’s father’s family were Prussian Jews, the Zellners, who arrived in upstate New York in 1832. They made a small but respectable fortune in the dry goods business and later, in the twentieth century, in high-end furniture sales. They were also instrumental in building one of the first synagogues outside New York City, in the city of Elmira, New York, a cutting-edge transportation center that counted Mr. and Mrs. Mark Twain among its summer residents.
My grandfather, who was born Maxmillian Zellner and died as Paul Selner, but whom everyone knew as Milton, was drafted into World War I and served as one of General George Pershing’s drivers, though he didn’t know how to drive when he volunteered for the job. “I figured, ‘How hard can it be?’” he explained to me. “Nice job, and you never hear about them generals getting shot at.”
After the armistice, he elected to stay in Manhattan instead of returning upstate, and landed a job selling men’s suits at Gimbel’s, once the largest department store chain in the country. He’d been interviewed and hired for the position by Mr. Gimbel, the son of the Bavarian immigrant who founded the chain.
Milton, a short, stocky, swarthy man, met my grandmother, a tall, sallow redhead, at a political luncheon for young adults sponsored by Al Smith. A few weeks later he asked her to marry him, but she refused until he agreed to become a Roman Catholic. He had never practiced Judaism, so he converted without any hesitation. He was baptized at Saints Peter and Paul church in Brooklyn and given the Christian name Paul, after Saint Paul, Saul of Tarsus, the Jewish persecutor of Christian Jews—a bit heavy-handed in the symbolism, I think.
They had eight children, seven girls and one boy, most of whom lived brief, tragic and violent lives in the slums of Brooklyn. Several drank themselves to death at an early age, as my grandmother did, only ten years after she was married. Eddie, the only son, was murdered in a fight with his daughter’s boyfriend. He was stabbed more than fifty times.
When my mother was in her early teens, my grandfather forced her to leave school and raise her brother and sisters. Later he farmed her out as a housemaid, and eventually, he raped her. She carried those emotional scars with her for the rest of her life and several times she tried to kill herself. Toward the end of her life, she was finally diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, a form of mental illness that causes extreme mood swings. The illness may be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and it more than probably is genetic.
She watched television late into the night or simply sat alone in the kitchen sipping tea with milk and piles of sugar. When she did retire for the evening, she rarely slept through the night. Occasionally, when the depression set in, however, she slept for hours and rarely rose from the bed at all.
Her depression showed itself in dozens of other ways. She always had trouble concentrating, recalling things and making even simple decisions—hence her urge to seek out the opinions of those truly frightening, howl-at-the-moon crazy, God-awful creatures who surrounded us on Pond Street.
She complained endlessly of headaches, backaches and digestive problems and her appetite could and often did range between binge eating and self-imposed starvation, all of which caused her weight to swing drastically.
She never held a job. Although this was not unusual for many women of her generation, throughout her life she lived on welfare. She entered the hospital for virtually everything and anything, with the state paying the tab, and more than one unscrupulous doctor scheduled her for surgeries and operations she didn’t need. Eventually, and true to form for people with bipolar disorder, she developed migraines, thyroid illness, obesity, Type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Throughout her life, my mother’s fits of mania were breathtaking. At one moment she could be upbeat, positive, happy, and full of life and energy, talking so rapidly about moving out of the slums into a house in the country that it was nearly impossible to follow her thoughts. Then, suddenly and without warning, she flipped to the dark side and slid into a deep and frightening depression that left her overwhelmed with hopelessness.
Although she often felt sad to the point of numbness, I don’t recall ever, not once, seeing my mother cry, even during her dark moments of depression. However, there were, apparently, constant thoughts of suicide. She made several attempts as a girl and later as a young mother. Talk of death, her own death, was a constant theme with her, no matter what the mood. The comments on death weren’t always negative, especially during her normal intervals. Rather, they were simple, off-handed comments woven into the fabric of everyday conversation.
The depression didn’t last as long as her uncontrollable fits of temper did. Unlike the upbeat moods or the depressions, we could see the dark moods coming. She became snide and very irritable and then the violence started.
There was another side to her, of course, as there is another side to all of us. Although almost completely uneducated, she was extremely intelligent, unlike my father. While my father’s humor was plentiful but pedestrian, and his political outlook simplistic and jingoistic, her humor was surprisingly complex, as were her political philosophies.
By the time I was born, the grinding poverty of her life, the after-effects of her father’s rape which plagued her for many years, and the daily tensions of mothering seven children had overwhelmed her and she cracked. She suffered some sort of mental collapse and never fully recovered from it.
In the early 1950s, my mother’s younger sister, Maureen, met my uncle Bobby when he was passing through New York on leave from the Army. They married a year later and Bobby, a native of Waterbury, moved his bride to Connecticut. A few years later my mother followed. By then, she already had two children: my eldest sister, Bridget, a redhead like my mother, whose father was a punchy Long Island boxer turned bartender named “Irish Eddie” Boyle; and my tow-headed brother Paul, who was born from a short-lived affair between my mother and a Brooklyn musician named Jimmy Welch, also an Irishman.
My father met my mother in a downtown tavern in the early 1950s and they moved in together in 1954. They never married. They were solidly lower-class working people, poorly educated and not terribly cognizant of anything outside their world, but decent people. They were both movie-star handsome and they had many fine attributes when they were not drunk or crazy, but otherwise my parents were very different. All these years later, I do not know for the life of me what brought them together.
My mother was a vivacious, outgoing, beautiful redhead with a thick Brooklyn accent. She was an outspoken, opinionated woman who would be heard and would not be pushed or buffaloed. My father was her exact opposite. He was happy to fit comfortably into the background. His temperament was grounded, much more so than my mother’s was, and he went out of his way to avoid confrontation.
While my mother had a thirst for learning, respected the educated and held education in high regard, my father was not particularly inquisitive about anything. Nor was he particularly bright, something he recognized and accepted about himself. Like my mother, he was also nearly illiterate, and also like her, he enjoyed a good time far more than he should have and shared her genuine fondness for people.
In their own way, they were both instantly likable, amiable people, happy to accept the simple things in life and with no desire to rise above their modest places in the world. I don’t believe they were together because they loved one another but rather because they hoped for what could be, and because they probably understood that oftentimes even the tiniest bit of hope can create the birth of love.
What I like about cities is that everything is king size, the beauty and the ugliness. -Joseph Brodsky
Denny and I wandered through the North Square alone because we wanted to stand outside the Negro music store and listen to Sam Cooke and Chubby Checker on the loudspeaker that played music out into the street.
Inner-city black culture in the 1960s was distinctly different from white culture in the 1960s. What separated it most was dress. Stylish young black men wore porkpie hats, skin-tight pullover shirts, jet-black pants and black, blue or beige pointed shoes with three-inch heels. “Puerto Rican fence climbers,” we called them.
At the corners of North Main, Summers and Hill Streets, they would stand—pose, really, outside the R&B Record Shop. Somebody had nailed an ancient loudspeaker over the store’s front door, allowing all that magnificent, pure soul music played inside the shop to pour out on to the dirty streets and wash away the factory-town gloom.
In the summers we listened from a tiny park across the street from the record shop, waiting for a Sam Cooke record to play and watching the young men sip beer from cans in brown bags.
Soon flocks of teenage black girls, their hair done beehive-style, came out of the apartment houses from around the neighborhood and flirted with the boys or gathered in intimate circles across the street to whisper and laugh. Sometimes they’d dance. There was a song by Chubby Checker and Dee Dee Sharp called Slow Twistin’. It was a sensual song with erotic lyrics that didn’t have a damned thing to do with dancing.
Baby baby baby baby take it easy
Let's do it right
baby take it easy
Don't cha know we got all night
Cause there's no no twistin'
Like a slow slow twistin' with you
America twisted to that song and in 1962, everybody in America, from the President on down to us, was doing the Twist, but I knew even then that the colored people, at least in the North End of Waterbury, twisted differently from everyone else.
When they danced to the Slow Twistin’, man, oh, man. It reeked of sex. And even though I had only a vague notion of sex, watching them slow twist in the North End on a warm summer’s evening as the sun set, bodies twisting in deliberate slow motion without moving their feet, just a slow body wiggle, I knew there was more going on than a dance fad.
Who needed black-and-white television with bad reception when we had this?
Eventually a squad car prowled by, and came to a near stop, watched the dancing, and a red-faced Irish cop snarled out the window, “This look like a dance hall to youse? Get outta the goddamn street and behave yourselves.”
The cops talked to the colored like that back then in Waterbury and they got away with it, too. That was in 1961. Six years later, a new generation of young blacks decided they weren’t going to take it anymore. One night they turned the old Italian North End into a battleground against the cops and their abuse into a race riot that lasted, essentially, two more summers, before it ended.
One time when we were up at the North End, we found a nickel on the ground and bought us a Drake’s Cake with it. Being older—I was almost seven and Denny was closing in on six—I handled the transaction and divided the spoils.
Denny complained, loudly, that I gave myself the larger share. “But I’m hungry,” I told him, and he said, “You’re always hungry,” and made a grab for the pastry, but I ran for it, across North Main Street. Denny chased me and was struck by a car and I watched him fly across the road and slam on to the pavement. I heard his head bounce on the road and watched his arms spread out, and saw his eyes roll back of his head. I put my hands over my eyes because it would go away if I did that and it didn’t happen. But it did happen, and his legs were broken, and once again, we went to Saint Mary’s, where the nuns knew us well.
Every time we went there alone the Sisters sent out one of the janitors to find my mother or my father and bring one of them back to the hospital. The Sisters never called the cops because this was a family matter and all the cops would do is try to break up the family.
When death comes it will not go away empty. -Irish proverb
At the Salvation Army Christmas dinner, some lady kept asking where our mother or father was.
“I don’t know,” I answered several times.
“You don’t know?” she laughed. “Why, how could you not know?”
She obviously had no children of her own, because anyone with kids knows you never ask a child two questions in the same sentence because it makes them paranoid, and you never laugh at a child’s answers. Above all else, children want to be taken seriously by adults.
“Where do you think she is, sweetheart?” she asked again.
I answered truthfully, “She could be back in Brooklyn, but Paulie says she shacked up, probably with a colored guy; I don’t know.”
She kept asking the same stupid question and I kept giving her the best answers I could and I spoke slowly, too. I’d heard of adults like this, the slow people who talked to the angels, and I figured she was one of them, because how many times can you ask the same question and not understand the same answer?
The last question she asked me was, “Where do you live, darling?”
“Seventeen Pond Street,” I answered.
So we had been done in by the stupid lady at the Salvation Army. But everyone in the neighborhood knew about us. They knew that sometimes my mother locked the door to keep my father out and then disappeared herself, down to the taverns, her infants in tow. She’d drink herself into a stupor or simply forget about us and we’d return home to find ourselves locked out. We learned to cover our small fists in a shirt or coat and punch out a windowpane and let ourselves in through a window. But most times we sat patiently and waited for an adult to let us in. Sometimes we’d cry from hunger, frustration, lack of sleep, or all of those things, and, overwhelmed, go to a neighbor’s door and knock and ask for food or a place to nap or simply someplace to be where we weren’t alone. It happened a lot, and then, one day, Jimmy died and it didn’t happen anymore for a while.
He died from spinal meningitis, a rare disease almost always caused by a bacterial infection from dirt or filth. It cloaks itself as a common cold and that’s what we thought he had, a common cold. He was less than two years old, too young to express himself and describe the other symptoms that accompany the killer, like light and sound sensitivity, confusion and delirium.
He was a happy baby, Jimmy was. My father called him by his given name, Shamus, his granduncle’s name, old Irish for James. We were all happy that my father’s habit of naming us for past relatives ended there, because his grandfather’s name was Cornelius Aloysius Tuohy and who the hell wants a name like that to lug around, as if things weren’t bad enough already?
We taught Jimmy to drink beer, to blow out matches, and to dance the Twist in his high chair, the same high chair we all used once, and that’s where he was on that beautiful bright morning when he died: in his high chair. He had a cold. He nodded his head and fell asleep and he never woke up again. We tried to wake him up but he wouldn’t wake up.
We laughed about it and then my father touched Jimmy’s head and put his ear to his little chest and then pulled him from the high chair. He held him in his arms tightly, tightly, tightly and rocked him back and forth, and he closed his eyes and let out a moan so deep it scared us, and then without a word he ran with Jimmy from the house and across the bridge to Saint Mary’s, but Jimmy was dead in his arms.
When he came back, he stood in the doorway and told my mother, “He’s dead. My little boy, he’s dead, oh Jesus Mary mother of God,” and she stood and she stared at the empty high chair and then walked into the living room and fell straight down on her knees and it must have hurt because she went down so hard, and we all watched her. Nobody made a sound and she reached up and started to pull out her hair in big red clumps and then she made fists and shook them in front of herself, but there were no words coming out of her and I was scared.
“My boy is dead,” my father said, directly to her, and he sort of spit the words out. He didn’t yell, he just said it, but in a mean way. Then he walked up to her and bent over to her ear and yelled at her, “My boy is dead.”
Bridget curled her fingers and started to shake, and then we were all scared because, we figured, Bridget isn’t crazy like they were, but now we thought maybe she’d finally gone crazy too.
At the hospital, they say that Jimmy died from filth in our house and maybe he did, because Denny’s head was filled with ringworm. Our house, our clothes and all, had that dirty smell, that unique smell of poverty that permanently burns its way into your nostrils and never leaves, so you always recognize it and it’s everywhere in this world, and how awful is that?
I don’t think it was our dirt that killed him. I think it was the water from the Mad River that killed him. On all of the streets in the Abrigada, our neighborhood, we could see the river, and you could smell it because it was filled with hundreds of thousands of pounds of chemicals and other waste from the dozens of factories on its trash-strewn banks.
The factories ran seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day in those days, and poured a combination of the chemicals and industrial waste into the river. Raw sewage and the factory waste made the water turn colors. Sometimes it was a deep unnatural blue, and other days hundreds of islands of orange or yellow drifted along like some sort of grand pollution parade in celebration of industrial arrogance.
We discovered that we could slip into the openings of the street gutters and land in the big circular cement pipes that opened on to the riverbank. In the summers, we all went down there to cool off, and we took Jimmy with us sometimes, and he played in the water and maybe he drank it—I don’t know; he probably did.
The wake was held on Willow Street in a funeral parlor that had been the childhood home of the actor Rosalind Russell. It was the finest house we had ever been in and it made us nervous. Paulie even went out back to the parking lot to take a pee because he was too tense to go inside. My father’s union, the house painters, paid for almost the entire funeral including the tiny bright-white casket we buried poor Jimmy in. It was a closed casket, and I, not fully grasping the meaning of death, was concerned with Jimmy’s loneliness. It troubled me that with the casket closed, as grand a casket as it was, Jimmy wouldn’t know about all the people that had come to see him off, including aunts and uncles and cousins from as far away as Brooklyn and Brockton.
We had been in the news, and onlookers, perhaps the same ones who drove slowly past our leaning little house on Pond Street so they could stare at us, came as well. All of them brought something, just as tradition called for. There were tables of sandwiches and casseroles and sausages and meatballs with mountains of pastas and cakes. In the back room was another table, covered in a white cloth, made into a makeshift bar with a stock of liquor that would rival any of Waterbury’s taverns.
I wish Jimmy could have seen Denny, Paulie and I dressed just like him in fire-engine-red sports coats, white shirts, red ties, black pants and two-tone bucks, just like the kind Pat Boone wore on TV.
The wake started at three that afternoon and went on late into the night. The women, drenched in black dresses that reached their ankles, sat in the front room with my mother and Jimmy’s casket, in chairs that lined the walls, talking in hushed tones or whispering novenas over their rosaries.
Every now and then one of the women slipped out to the back room where the men gathered in circled chairs, sipping whisky and beers and smoking Chesterfields and L&Ms. They talked about the things they had seen in the war, how the Russians were going to blow us all up, and how “this new guy,” John F. Kennedy, was “wet behind the ears” and didn’t “know his ass from his elbow,” a mental picture I found confusing but funny.
The visiting women would have a few drinks, a little conversation and return to the main room with my mother. But, as the night wore on, more and more of them staggered down the narrow hall to the back room and didn’t return, and by the end of the evening most of them had to be carried out to their cars so they could drive home. The world was a different place back then.
At the wake the next day, almost everyone who was there wore sunglasses—not because of the sun, because it was mid-March in Connecticut, but because they were hung over. Since it was a funeral, no one seemed really out of place.
Jimmy’s Mass was in the same Church he was baptized in two years before. The church, built by and for the city’s Italians, was French Gothic and had a magnificent copper dome with an icon of God, complete with white beard and white robe, in the middle of it. On the side of the main hall were elaborate grottoes filled with lit votive candles. Because it was Lent, something we knew nothing about, the statues were hidden behind plush purple covers.
“Why they got those things covered?” I asked Paulie, who didn’t know either, but he said, “They must be going out of business.”
We buried Jimmy between my father’s parents. We were the only ones at the burial, me and Paulie and Denny and Bridget and Maura, and our mother and father. It was a brisk day, and from where we stood in the cemetery we could look down on the whole of the city. Jimmy was lowered into the ground and the very minute that his grave was covered over with dirt, the sun burst out from behind the clouds, the wind stopped, and I watched the grimness that had gripped my mother and father and Bridget over those past weeks slip away. I saw it leave as clearly as I have ever seen anything in my life. It was over. It was time to move along. Because Jimmy’s death and its cause made the newspapers, for a few days people from other neighborhoods drove by our little leaning house on Pond Street and stared at us. The welfare people and the people from the Salvation Army brought us boxes of clothes and canned food and blankets.
The nuns came by every morning and every night. They lived nearby in an ancient red-brick convent and we walked by sometimes and saw them strolling across the large manicured lawns, praying their rosaries or sitting in rocking chairs on the expansive Victorian veranda.
The convent was surrounded by a tall, black wrought-iron fence, and we assumed it had been placed there for their protection, or perhaps for our protection because they had done something wrong, and were under some sort of house arrest that forced them to wear strange clothes.
The wonderful thing about these nuns was that they always seemed to have some sort of exotic fruit available that appeared, magically, from under their long, flowing sleeves. They walked down to the fence where we stood and handed us oranges, plums, and apricots. It was a treat because in the 1950s and early 1960s fruit was still relatively expensive compared to its cost and abundance today, and we didn’t eat much of it. So the nuns were our friends and they knew our names and it was good to have them in the house.
The person we weren’t so pleased about was the priest. One day, not long after Jimmy had passed on—that’s what the Waterbury Irish called it, passing on—the priest from the nearby parish came to our house, spoke to my mother, drank tea, and then, without asking, tacked a framed picture of Jesus Christ to our kitchen wall. I guess he assumed that we knew who Jesus Christ was and what Jesus did for a living and who his father was and all, but we didn’t know, and unless Jesus arrived with a week’s worth of groceries instead of a picture, we didn’t care either.
So while he smiled adoringly at the picture of Jesus and saw the son of God and the savior of mankind, we saw a colorful painting of a guy dressed in different-colored blankets who didn’t look like anyone did in 1960. He had long hair and a beard. We could live with that. What troubled us was that his heart was not only exposed, it was on fire and it had the initials “INRI” tattooed on it. And he was smiling. His heart’s on fire, somebody tattooed it and he’s smiling.
We stood there and just stared at it until Denny finally asked what was on everyone’s mind: “What the hell happen to dis clown?”
Denny had a way of unsettling the religious. A few years later when we were in a Catholic elementary school, the nun asked the class if anyone knew any songs about foreign lands. Denny immediately raised his hand and assured the Sister he knew a great song that his father had taught him.
Would he be kind enough to sing it to the class then? the poor woman asked. Never stage shy, he leapt to his feet and, standing before his fellow second graders, he belted out his song in fashion that would have made Al Jolson proud:
On the other side of France
Where they don’t wear pants
All the streets are made of glass
you can see the people’s ass
The nun stopped him before the third verse, which included a rhyme with the word “Ritz.” Although we used God’s name in vain on an hourly basis, we knew nothing of God except that he was invisible, which we liked, in much the same way that we liked watching ghost stories.
It’s something short of amazing that we knew so little of God, since so many people seemed hell-bent on introducing him to us. They said, all of them, that God loves the poor, which we thought was stupid and figured he must not know any poor people. They told us that if we didn’t get to know God that we would have to deal with the devil, and they’d give us graphic descriptions of him and we would think how much more fun the devil seemed to be than God. In our lives, the devil made sense.
It’s also amazing that we knew so little of God, because in Waterbury, the City of Churches, he had outposts all over the city. But no matter how good a tactician the Catholic God was, or how well he has us surrounded, we had no interest in him because we could tell by the way adults spoke about God and church that it wasn’t a happy thing. They never smiled or laughed. Even the nuns, those happy nuns with their magically appearing fruit, lowered their voices and furrowed their brows when they spoke of him, and we figured, who needs this?
We much preferred the God of the colored people up in the North End, the only people in the city with a church made of wood instead of granite. On Sunday mornings we could hear them sing and shout out to God in what we assumed was something akin to a weekly birthday party. The Puerto Ricans were even more fun than that. They took their statues out on parades once a year so people could tape money to them. Now those religions, we thought, those were our kind of religions.
. . .and our few good times will be rare because we have the critical sense and are not easy to fool with laughter -Charles Bukowski
For a while after Jimmy died my mother and father stopped their fighting because they were too wounded to fight, and we lived in peace. Soon, after the pain went away, happiness reigned. On Sundays, if my father’s car worked, we piled in and rode down to the ocean, to a place called Savin Rock, each of us coming home that night exhausted, smelling of sea salt, filled with even more freckles than we left with, and badly burned by the sun, no matter how careful we were to avoid it.
We took long, aimless rides in the soft beauty that is Connecticut’s countryside. Our father—Bridget and Paulie considered him their father as well—sang in a remarkably good tenor voice. He sang old Irish songs, which I later learned, were mostly written by imaginative if schmaltzy Jewish composers from Tin Pan Alley in Manhattan. On these long rides through the wealthy rural villages and towns of western Connecticut’s Litchfield County, we would pick out a grand house and by matter of vote, pretend it was ours.
Knowing nothing of the other side of life, all of us in the car mistakenly assumed that the people who lived in these wonderfully large houses were happy and contented in their world because they had things, and we resented them for it.
Sometimes, when we spotted an extraordinarily large house—and Litchfield County is drenched with them—my father pulled up the drive way and honked the horn over and over again until some inevitably tall, lean, pale-skinned and annoyed Yankee appeared from inside the house. My father would say, “Never mind,” and drive away, and we would roar with laughter and one of us, or all of us, would turn and give the poor soul the finger, and then we would beg to do it again, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t do it again, too.
In those days, those scant precious few good days, I imagined that I felt like those people in the big houses felt all the time because for a moment we were loved and cared for by sober, calm parents who took joy in us. It makes a difference, a big difference when you’re appreciated, when you’re loved. In those moments you don’t care as much about not having anything.
I could, and did, take on all the weight of poverty because I had no choice, but the toughest part of poverty is loneliness, of being unloved. That is a burden that never lessens and never gets off your back. But now, in these good times, love insulated us, for a while anyway, from all the bile that poverty poured over us.
In the good times we stopped to swim in freshwater lakes and streams. There were nights at the drive-in movies and dinner at hot dog stands that had play areas for children. My father worked regularly around the valley as a house painter in those times of peace, and new shoes and clothes were bought for us, and we went to school like everyone else. On Friday and Saturday nights we all of us, strolled down to Shaum’s Bar and Grill on Main Street downtown and settled in.
We never went into the barroom area. That was closed to us. It was open to women, but they couldn’t drink there. In those days, Connecticut still had strict old blue laws. One law prohibited serving women at the bar. Instead, most of the taverns that dotted the city then, especially the older ones, had an adjoining, large room with dark wooden booths where a waiter brought drinks to the ladies. These back rooms usually served food, hearty European ethnic dishes that inevitably included some sort of potato dish.
The whole place smelled like old stale beer, but in some spots it smelled like old vomit. The glasses were dirty and the tables never cleaned, so hands and elbows stuck on them, and using the toilets was an act of bravery. Late at night, if you looked way in the back, you could see couples in the darkened booths kissing, and sometimes you could see the lady’s hand jerking the guy off beneath the table.
We spent the night there, feasting on Wise Owl potato chips, free peanuts and ancient boiled eggs served from a jar filled with dubious red water. We downed gallons of sweet white birch beer while watching the black-and-white television perched high up in a corner to protect it from the occasional flying beer mugs tossed during the drunken brawls that erupted.
Television, even when we had to bend our necks to see it, was a treat for us, because we seldom had a television, or at least seldom had one that worked for any length of time. A new television set in those days—most people had black and white—were large, complicated and expensive luxury items, out of reach of the very poor. In our house, at any given time, we had at least three televisions, one atop the other, the newest used one sitting above the last one that no longer worked.
When there was nothing on television to hold our attention, which was likely since the whole of television land back then consisted of only three channels, we begged, borrowed, and stole pocket change to play Elvis or Patsy Cline on the jukebox, over and over, while we danced in our own fashion around the room. That was our music: Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, and Eddy Arnold. We were, proudly, New England hillbillies.
By the end of the night, my parents were comfortably drunk, and in the early morning hours they woke us from our deep sleep in those imposing dark oak booths and we walked home. On those nights, those good nights when we were together, all of us, there were smiles instead of screams and laughter in place of curses, and if I were offered the world in place of one of those memories, I wouldn’t take it.
The good times never lasted more than a few weeks, though, and then everything went back to the way it was. When they were like that, constantly drunk and at each other’s throats, they didn’t care how it affected us. I think the way they looked at their relationship was that it was a trial and we were the results, trial children. They were, as Fitzgerald might have put it, careless people, my parents—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their poverty or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
It was always the same, never varied. After a few weeks of peace, they started to drink and argue and then fight—physically fight, in brawls that drew blood, during which furniture was tossed across rooms and through windows. My mother drew butcher knives or flung heavy black iron frying pans with incredible accuracy.
If my father was sober, he would stop fighting when the cops showed up, and they put him a squad car, drove him to a saloon downtown and let him go if he promised to stay away from the house for the rest of the night. But if he was drunk— and he was drunk a lot—he took a fighter’s stance and then they belted him across the knees with paddy clubs until he fell down and then cuffed him in a claw, a sort of handcuff designed to break the wrist if the person resisted. By the rules of slum life, it was acceptable for the cops to beat him if he resisted, but that’s where it ended. Pulling him into the squad car for an additional working over wasn’t allowed, but sometimes the newer cops tried it. When they did, neighbors slashed the tires on their squad cars or flung heavy objects from their apartment windows and broke the cars’ windshields. The neighbors’ reasoning was that if the cops could give Dad a beating the cops could give them a beating, or their sons and daughters or husbands and wives, when their day came. And in that neighborhood, everybody had a day, sooner or later.
In that decade, the 1960s, there would be many police riots besides ours. The cops would stop the beating but the violence against the squad car brought more cops who went wild; the neighbors fought back, and soon we had a small but respectable neighborhood riot on our hands. Sometimes the older cops, the ones who had been around longer, had the good sense to issue their additional beatings inside the house and away from the prying eyes of neighbors.
After the drinking and fighting started, my father would disappear, reappear and then leave. The last time he left, in December of 1962, he kept going until he hit Bridgeport, some twenty-five miles away on Long Island Sound, where he lived for the next ten years. Without his union painter’s money, we’d go back on welfare. My mother spent her days in bed and her nights in a bar, and she stopped caring about what happened to us.
“We are not rich by what we possess but by what we can do without.” Immanuel Kant
A lot happened to us. Paulie, chased by some Puerto Rican boys, fell from a high ledge near the Baldwin Street School and landed on pile of broken beer bottles, cutting the left side of his throat several inches across. He managed to walk out onto Baldwin Street and stood in the road with blood gushing out of his neck and flagged down a lady in a car who took him to Saint Mary’s Hospital. Broken legs and slashed necks and the dead sleeping babies happened because we were poor and because our parents were ignorant and overwhelmed from being poor, and we were always poor, all of the time, and we were always in trouble because of it.
The winter before the cops came to bang down our door, my mother almost burned herself to death and that, too, was caused by poverty and ignorance. They had turned off the heat in the house, so my mother sent Paulie and Bridget to walk across town to take the baby up to my Aunt Maureen’s house to stay warm, but it was a long walk across town and there was no money for a bus and they didn’t want to go.
“Youse gotta go,” my mother yelled. “If there’s another dead baby in this house, it will be the end of us all. We won’t be together anymore, the cops will come and put me in jail and the welfare people will get youse and toss you into big schools.”
My mother told Paulie and Bridget that Aunt Maureen would take the baby for sure but she might not take them in too, so they should see if she’d give them the money for the bus back. If she wouldn’t, they should ask Uncle Bobby, a tile man who drank too much wine; he’d help us. And she pushed Paulie and Bridget out the door into the cold and the wind, that awful biting wind that rushes down from Canada or up from the ocean, and it slaps your face no matter what winter it is.
We were lucky we had Maureen, my mother’s youngest sister. You don’t usually have relatives when you’re poor. Either they can’t afford you or you can’t afford them. Of the fifteen aunts and uncles we had, only Maureen talked to us. All the others stayed clear of us because we borrowed money, or asked them to take one of us in. My father’s family, a cold and humorless bunch, were the worst. They didn’t want us coming around to their houses because we were loud, crass, and vulgar and because eventually we beat up their children and stole their toys, hiding them under our shirts, because we didn’t have any, and even their dogs left when we came around.
With Paulie and Bridget gone with the baby, Denny and I crawled into bed and squeezed up against each other to stay warm and watched the flame from the four burners on the gas stove in the kitchen that were supposed to keep us warm, but didn’t.
We watched our mother talk to herself, again, which meant she was drunk, again, and we saw her lean unsteadily forward into the flame to light another unfiltered Pall Mall cigarette. Her hair fell into the fire. A strand from her tattered overcoat followed and both went up in flames, slowly at first, and then ignited her entire body in a matter of seconds. She screamed in terror and pain, her hair burning, and she screamed and called for dear God and tried to pull off the coat that was on fire too.
Denny and I leaped from bed, knocked her to the ground, rolled on top of her, beat down the flames and threw beer on her, and hit the flames over and over again until they went out. It was over in a minute, but most of her red hair was burned off and her coat was scorched to her back. I ran out to the hallway and screamed and screamed until the neighbors came. A few minutes later, we saw the red and blue lights from the ambulance and cop cars. She was going to the hospital, no heat in the apartment, the cops would take us away to the orphanage run by the welfare people, and we’d be beaten to death or something. I took Denny into the bedroom and helped him on with his shoes and jacket and we slipped out the window and made our way down across town to Aunt Maureen’s house. We got away that time.
The fire, like Jimmy’s death, Paulie’s fall, and Denny’s accident, all made the newspapers. Waterbury, despite its size, is really just another small New England factory town, a family town where those sorts of things don’t go unnoticed. Nor did they. The cops had us in the back seat of a squad car, and from that moment, we would no longer be a family.
Deep River Conn. 1970
Toward the end of the summer, one of the other boys from the third floor, Larry Hanson, told me, “They’re gonna have a huge rock concert for three days over in upstate New York, just over the border.” He lowered his voice, leaned closer, and said, “If we hitchhike, we could be there in a couple hours.”
The concert was in Woodstock, New York and I decided to go although it was a stupid thing to do. We slipped out of the school on Friday morning, just after breakfast. We figured that no one would know we were gone until lights out at eleven o’clock .
Using the back roads through the small villages and towns we arrived in New Haven by early afternoon. In those days, New Haven, the home of Yale University, was a hotbed of the counter-culture, anti-Vietnam-War set, and a youth-centered city. The Green, a park in the middle of the city, was occupied by hundreds of young people. Tables gave out information on the anti-war movement, the Black Panthers and the Yippie Party, guitar music, burning incense, and dancing. Several local Episcopalian churches gave out free food: brown rice and apples.
Hanson and I forgot about Woodstock and stayed on the Green for the rest of the day and into the night, meeting girls and sitting in large circles listening to lectures on racism, injustice, and the war.
Around midnight we were in the back of a van with a dozen other kids, smoking grass, one joint after the other, until there was so much smoke I couldn’t see the person sitting next to me. I had never smoked a joint before, but after a while I managed to smoke two, and had entered into a detailed conversation with the kid seated next to me about the wonders of the tuna fish sandwich.
“And then there is the mayonnaise,” I said, and then, after contemplating the wonders of mayonnaise for what might have been either ten seconds or ten minutes, I added, “God! Doesn’t mayonnaise sound just so perfect right now! Man, what a great word—mayonnaise.”
My speech on the wonders of my favorite condiment probably would have gone on all night, but after a knock on the van’s back door someone opened it, letting out a massive cloud of white smoke into the faces of two New Haven cops. We were all too stoned to run, but I had it in my mind to go find a tuna sandwich and started walking away.
“Hey,” a cop yelled at me. “Marco Polo, where you goin’?”
I snapped out of it and said, “With you?”
“You bet your ass you are,” he said. “Get in the wagon.”
We meekly piled into the paddy wagon when it arrived and were brought down to the central police station. When Hanson, who was several years older than I was, learned we were going to be booked as adults and tossed into jail, he told the cops we were minors from St. John’s.
We were driven across town in a squad car to the juvenile detention center, actually a big house with bars on the windows, set in the middle of a bad neighborhood. Tossed into a locked, completely dark room, I felt around, found the bed, and fell asleep.
The next morning we were back at St. John’s under room detention. I was allowed out for school and meals, and that was it.
At a series of meetings, none of which I was allowed to attend, the school social worker, the state social worker, Father MacDonald, my teacher, and the prefects asked the question, what was wrong with me? Would I run away from the school? Of course, if they had asked me, I would have told them, but they didn’t ask. They determined that I was suffering from some sort of hostility, and they wrote that in their files, and then they all went back to what they were doing.
As an additional part of my punishment I was to work as the chapel steward, cleaning the church and preparing the altar. One day, while working in the sacristy, I found a twenty-gallon jug of the cheap wine used in the communion service. I had never tasted wine, so I decided to take a swig, using the chalice as my cup. I liked the sweet taste, finished off the cup, and poured myself another. I liked that, too, and poured myself a third, and then took the bottle and the chalice and my drunken self out to the steps that lea to the altar, sat down, and relaxed. And that was where they found me later that night, sound asleep, empty bottle and sacred chalice in hand.
A prefect shook me awake and I answered by throwing a punch. More prefects came and more punches were thrown until they overpowered me. I was taken to a hospital to sober up, and the next morning, before breakfast, a state social worker arrived with my belongings packed into brown paper bags. He put me in into a black sedan with the state logo emblazoned on the side doors and I was gone.