Read A Drinking Life Online

Authors: Pete Hamill

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A Drinking Life (10 page)

I don’t believe it, he said. Japs aren’t Catholics.

They are so, she said. Some of them. The Jesuits were in Nagasaki, the French and the Portuguese. My
father
was in Nagasaki.

With that, he went quiet. But I was in awe. Peter Devlin had been in South America. He had seen real jungles. He had refrigerated bananas. He had watched the building of the Panama Canal. And now I learned that he had even crossed the Pacific! He had been in Japan! In
Nagasaki!

I ate fast and went down to tell everybody this news. Nobody believed me; what could an Irishman be doing in friggin’ Nagasaki? On the way home again, I met Jackie McEvoy coming down the stairs. I told him all about my grandfather and the Pacific and Nagasaki.

You’re such a goddamned
kid,
he said, and went past me to the street.

18

T
HEN THE WAR
ended for good. And on Seventh Avenue, V-J Day was celebrated with the biggest, noisiest block party of them all. Strangers kissed each other. Georgie Loftus, the bartender, kissed Pat Mulroney, the taxi driver. Mrs. Irwin from the second floor even kissed a cop. Carrie Woods fell down the stairs, skinned her knees, and made Cliff bring her another whiskey. A wild young guy named Paulie McAleer vomited on a parked car and then smashed his fist through the window of the Kent cleaners. Teddy from the fruit store gave away free watermelon. My father took the night off from work and joined the crowd in front of Rattigan’s, where five kegs of free beer were lined up on the sidewalk. The firemen all got drunk. A firehouse dog bit a priest. Betty the Whore danced with three sanitation men. The trolley cars kept ding-dinging for passage but the avenue was so packed that the drivers opened the doors and let everyone take free rides. For that long day and into the night, everyone you saw was happy. This was the fabulous tomorrow from the song, the day when there would be joy and laughter and peace ever after. This was tomorrow. The world was free.

Going upstairs that night, gorged with watermelon, spaghetti, candy, and soda, I felt that I was about to begin my life. The next day, at last, would begin the time called After the War. The ballplayers would come home. My mother would see
Oklahoma!
All shortages would end. We’d be happy. Every one of us.

But on the second landing, I found my father asleep on the stairs. I woke him up and he looked at me with dazed, watery eyes, his jaw slack, saliva drying in the corners of his mouth.

What’s the problem? he said.

Come on, I said. The war is over.

Yeah, he said. The war is over.

I helped him up the stairs, like Bomba taking Cody Casson back to the cabin.

II

AFTER THE WAR

A father’s no shield

for his child.

We are like a lot of wild

spiders crying together,

but without tears.

— Robert Lowell, “Fall 1961”

The happy leave no clues.

— John Hewitt, “The Happy Man”

1

A
ND SO
the pattern had begun, the template was cut. There was a celebration and you got drunk. There was a victory and you got drunk. It didn’t matter if other people saw you; they were doing the same thing. So if you were a man, there was nothing to hide. Part of being a man was to drink. I was ten years old that summer of the end of the war, but I was learning the ways of the world.

In the lot on Twelfth Street, we still played war games, using shovels to dig foxholes and trenches. We mowed down Japanese holdouts with rifles made from broom handles or guns shaped from the corners of orange crates. We stuffed tin cans with stones and used them as hand grenades, usually aimed at cats. We even played a game called concentration camp, made up of jailers and the pursued, sprinkling our talk with German words learned from comic books and movies:
Achtung!
and
Schweinhund!

I played these games with all the other kids, but then one rainy Sunday afternoon I went to the RKO Prospect to catch a double bill and saw for the first time the newsreels from Buchenwald. Grizzled American soldiers were at the edge of the camp, some of them weeping. And just past them, beyond the barbed wire, were men and women and children in striped pajamas, unable to move, full of fear, staring with eyes that couldn’t be seen. Some were lying on tiers of bunks, too close to death to ask for help, their long skeletal hands limply hanging to the floor. Their arms were tattooed with numbers. Their heads were shaven. They looked like zombies I’d seen in a movie at the Minerva. This was what Hitler had left behind after killing himself in the bunker: these silvery gray images of European horror, these bony heaps that had once been human. I tried to get someone to answer my questions:
How did this happen? Who did this?
But my father only said, That son of a bitch Hitler. And my mother said, That terrible bigot. And in school, there was no answer at all.

For weeks, I read the newspaper stories about the camps and stared at the photographs in
Life
that I found on the racks in Sanew’s candy store, and there were no answers. I dreamed of the camps, of slush-eyed men in black SS uniforms herding us from boxcars into barracks and finally to showers where gas hissed from the nozzles on the ceiling. In one repeated dream, I was fighting, struggling, pushing at the skeletal men, trying to get out of the packed showers, trying to reach the door, to get to Brooklyn, to safety, to my mother and father, and at least once I woke up screaming. My mother came in and asked what the matter was, and I cried and talked about the concentration camps and the gas and the barbed wire, and she crooned to me,
Don’t worry, now, don’t worry anymore, don’t worry, Peter, the war is over.

After that trip to the Prospect, I never played concentration camp again.

During this time, I began to look more closely at the grown-ups who inhabited the world of Seventh Avenue. Around the corner on Twelfth Street, the men wore overalls or army surplus and heavy steel-tipped boots. They always needed a shave. Their hands were filthy. Most evenings, they lurched home drunk from the bars on the avenue. The other kids made fun of them, but I was almost always silent. In one way, they made me see my father the way others might see him. He didn’t dress like them; his lost leg made heavy manual labor impossible. He did drink the way they did. So the drunks were also consoling figures. They told me that my father was not unique.

Once, I saw a man named Dix, rawboned and scary-eyed, fight his wife, who was also drunk. They drew a huge crowd. The wife, small and thick in what we called a housedress, kept coming in a frantic rage, while Mr. Dix stepped back and jabbed her, breaking up her face, making blood flow from her mouth and nose, smirking until his cap fell off, and then enraged, bending her over a fence and hammering her until two of the other women stepped in and broke it up. The men in the crowd did nothing to stop the fight. Most of them laughed and cheered at the end, and I heard one of them say: Never marry a woman you can’t knock out with one punch. But a few feet from me, under the lamppost, the smallest of the many Dix kids was sobbing, holding on to his mother as the blood ran down between her heaving breasts.

You
fuck!
she shouted after her husband, as he moved off to the bar. You big
fuck!

He turned, looking ominous.

Get inside, he said, or I’ll break your fucking neck, woman.

Make
me! she screamed.
Make
me, you bum! Hit a woman! You fuckin’
bum!

The other women surrounded her, putting their bodies between her and her husband, and took her into the house, the sobbing kid behind them. Then Mr. Dix turned to us.

What are you little cocksuckers looking at? he said.

We walked away. The fight was sickening. I hated the way he kept punishing her after he had made her bleed. I hated the other men cheering.

But in some secret way, it made me feel better. My father would never do that to my mother. He might speak harshly to her, as he did the night of the blackout. He might tell her she didn’t know what she was talking about; he did that often. He might get drunk and miss meals or sleep in the halls. But
hit
her? Curse her? Make her bleed in front of a hundred people and her own kids? Never. When I compared him to Mr. Dix, my father made me proud.

That afternoon, I retreated from the drunken melodramas of Twelfth Street to the comparative serenity of Eleventh Street, where the men wore suits to work and always looked sober. First I went upstairs and found a Bomba book, then I drifted around the corner to lie on the slanted wooden cellarboard beside the Kent dry cleaning store, whose windows had been smashed on V-J Day and were now whole again.

I was reading there alone when I looked up and saw a soldier moving slowly along Seventh Avenue. That was not unusual. The soldiers were all coming home now. Troopships arrived each day in the harbor, and there were pictures in the newspapers of women rushing to kiss husbands and sweethearts. Every morning, I’d see new signs in neighborhood doorways: Welcome Home, Jimmy, and God Bless You, Eddie. But this soldier was different. He was alone. And he was on crutches. One trouser leg was pinned up. Obviously, he’d lost a leg.

And then I saw my father coming out of Rattigan’s. He stood alone on the corner, watching the soldier from another angle. He hesitated, then started across the street, swinging his wooden leg behind him. I stood up. My father reached the younger man in front of Kent’s.

Hey, soldier, he said.

The soldier stopped, his eyes wary.

Yeah? he said.

You lost a leg, my father said.

Yeah.

So did I, my father said.

Well —

Don’t let it get to you, my father said. You can still have a life.

The soldier shrugged as if he didn’t believe this at all.

Come on, my father said. We’ll have a drink.

Without discussion, they started back across the avenue to Rattigan’s, the soldier swinging on the crutches, my father leading the way.

I loved him very much that day.

2

O
N THE STREETS
I learned the limits of the Neighborhood. This was our hamlet, marked by clear boundaries. Sometimes we moved beyond those boundaries: to visit aunts and uncles out in Bay Ridge; to gaze at the
Normandie;
and on one wondrous fog-choked Saturday in July, to stare up at the Empire State Building after a twin-engined B-25 crashed into its north side between the seventy-eighth and seventy-ninth floors, killing fourteen people and hurting many others. But it was to the Neighborhood that we always returned. Other neighborhoods were not simply strange; they were probably unknowable.

I was like everybody else. In the Neighborhood I always knew where I was; it provided my center of gravity. And on its streets I learned certain secrets that were shared by the others. The fight between Mr. Dix and his wife was one secret. I learned who the gangsters were in the Neighborhood and the name of the bookmaker. Their presence created other rules, none of them written on paper. I heard tales of police informers who disappeared in the night and others who were slashed with a knife, from the corner of the mouth to the upper point of the cheek, the mouth gashed into a grotesque elongation like the face of the grinning man at Steeplechase Park in Coney Island: the awful Mark of the Squealer. Such people were called stool pigeons or rats.

There is no person worse in this world,
my father said,
than a goddamned informer.

I learned too about what they called in religion class “infidelity.” I didn’t know anything of the mechanics of sex, but I did understand that if a father left a mother for another woman, the family would be destroyed. I couldn’t imagine my father leaving my mother for anyone else; but sometimes, when he lay drunk in bed, I was terrified that she might leave him. Sometimes I heard her say,
Bill, I’m fed up.
And wondered if she would get so fed up she would pack a bag, like women in the movies did, and just go away.

In the Neighborhood, there were many women during the war whose husbands were off at the fighting, and on summer evenings, as the grownups sat around outside, and one of these women went by, I heard whispers and giggles. They weren’t just about Betty the Whore. I heard about the woman who lived across the street from the Minerva and welcomed men visitors at night while her husband worked in the Navy Yard. And the woman from Sixth Avenue who had a baby fifteen months after her husband left for the South Pacific. None of this was absolutely clear to me, but I knew they were talking about sin. In some way, all sin had the same weight, so I also knew the names of those who refused to go to Mass; those who were forced to make general confessions after years away from the Church; and, of course, the names of the drunks.

All of these people were citizens of the Neighborhood, a small state bound together by rivers — rivers of alcohol. On weekends, my father moved on those rivers. Sometimes I would follow him, desperate to know what he did and why. On a few sunny Sunday afternoons, he would take me with him, the way he took me to Gallagher’s when we lived on Thirteenth Street. He said little; but I soon had charted the map of his world.

In the center, of course, was Rattigan’s, directly across the street, packed and smoky, the men discreetly hidden from view by carefully hung café curtains. After the war, the men of Rattigan’s started the Doghouse Club — as in “I’m in the doghouse wit’ the little woman” — and behind the bar there were rows of small white doghouses each with the name of a member lettered on the front. Inside the doghouses were bar tabs or messages, tickets for racetracks or ballparks left by local politicians.

They give you a racetrack ticket, my father explained, and you give them a vote. It’s a good deal.

There were stools at the bar and booths in the back room, but most of the men preferred to stand. So did my father. In those years, there was no jukebox or television set. As they did in Gallagher’s, the men entertained themselves. As in Gallagher’s, my father was a star performer.

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