Authors: Pete Hamill
Into bed! he said. Make it snappy!
I retreated into the darkness of the second room from the kitchen, and lay facedown on a bed beside Tommy and listened. I heard his voice, blurting and hard; then her voice; then his again; then silence. I heard water running and dishes clacking sharply against each other. Then silence again. I stated back toward the kitchen. My mother was at the sink. My father’s arm was straight out across the table, his head resting on it, a fork still in his hand, though his plate was gone. He was asleep.
that first year, I learned two things that began to give me some sense of self. One, I was Irish. At school, kids kept asking: What are you? I thought I was American, but in those days in Brooklyn, when you were asked what you were, you answered with a nationality other than your own. Since my parents were from Ireland, I was from a group called “Irish.” There were other Irish in 1A, a lot of them, along with Italians and Germans and Poles. But because my name wasn’t
Irish, like Kelly or Murphy or O’Connor, they kept on asking me. My mother had to explain it all to me.
She started with a book. For months, she had been buying an encyclopedia called the
Wonderland of Knowledge,
known to us simply as the Blue Books. Every week there was a coupon in the
New York Post;
for the coupon and a dime the newspaper sent us a volume. We would soon have them all, and they truly were wonderful. My mother found the right volume and turned to some maps and showed me where Ireland was: a tiny spot off the coast of a huge multicolored mass called Europe. Then she tried to explain what it meant to be Irish.
I can’t remember her exact words. But she had a strong sense of history and injustice, so I’m sure she told me that day (as she told me in so many ways in the years to come) that Ireland had been an independent country for more than a thousand years and then, about eight hundred years ago, the British had come with swords, horses, and treachery to take it for themselves. They destroyed the language of the Irish and made them speak English. They tried to destroy their religion too, particularly during the reign of the wicked Queen Elizabeth. But the Irish kept fighting, kept resisting, almost always losing, but struggling on, until in 1916, they rose in rebellion on Easter Sunday and drove the English out. Or at least drove them out of twenty-six of the nation’s thirty-two counties. The way she told it, the story was thrilling.
What happened to the other counties? I asked.
They’re still occupied by the British, she said. They kept six of them: the counties where
people are from. My parents, Daddy’s parents. And there’ll be no peace until they’re free. Someday they’ll finish the job they started in 1916.
She told me that 1916 was also the year her father died. His name was Peter Devlin and he was a seaman. He fell off a ship in a dry dock in Brooklyn and was crushed. So my mother, who was a little girl in 1916, went back to Ireland with her mother and her brother, Maurice. They lived there until 1929, when her mother died and she decided it was time to come back to America.
Those two dates always make me sad, she said, 1916 and 1929.
The room seemed to fill with sorrow as she tried, so carefully, to explain herself to me. Her mother and father were dead and she had come alone across that great expanse of blue on the map to live here in Brooklyn. I was happy she was here; who else could be my mother? But I felt sorry that she had no mother or father of her own. That was unfair. She had nobody except us. Even her brother, Uncle Maurice, was in Ireland, far across the ocean.
And where did you live in Ireland?
In Belfast, she said. Right here, see that dot?
She paused and her voice grew soft.
We lived on Madrid Street, she said. It was named after a city in Spain.
She showed me Madrid on the map, and I thought it was a wonderful thing to live on a street with a name like Madrid instead of a mere number, like ours. But she was unhappy as she told me about Belfast (on that day, and many others). The city was divided between Catholics like us and Protestants, who were a different kind of Christian. And though she knew some decent Protestants, in Belfast most of them were bigots. She was a little girl in Belfast when the Troubles started and the bigots formed into the Murder Gang and came into the Catholic neighborhoods to burn down houses and kill Catholics. The British army was there too, with armored cars and machine guns, terrible men who hated the Irish and hated the Catholics. All of that was in Belfast, where the bigots ran everything.
This was at once scary and thrilling, and I made her tell me the stories many times. I couldn’t imagine myself on streets where gunmen shot rifles from the shadows, where soldiers came rolling upon you in iron trucks, where you could be beaten or killed because you were a Catholic. But my mother seemed to me to be an amazing woman, someone who had seen things when she was a little girl that were more terrible than any movie. And here she was. Smiling. Whistling when she was happy. Telling me that she loved America for its freedom.
Freedom is a lot more important than money, she said. Remember that. Here we’re free. And you must never ever be a bigot.
a bigot anyway?
A bigot is a hater, she said. A bigot hates Catholics. A bigot hates Jews. A bigot hates colored people. It’s no sin to be poor, she said. It
a sin to be a bigot. Don’t ever be one of them.
No, Mommy, I said. I won’t be one of them.
And imagined a bigot with yellow eyes and a tall black hat and fangs for teeth. I said I would watch for them and if a bigot came to our street I would tell her and she could use the telephone in Mr. Kelly’s kitchen and call the police.
After I learned that I was Irish, I came to understand another big thing: my father was a cripple. That’s what the kids in 1A said. He is not, I said (not knowing what they meant, thinking perhaps that it was something like being a bigot). He is too, they said. He’s a cripple.
Yes, my mother said, he
a cripple. He lost his left leg in 1927. He was a soccer player. That’s a game they play in Ireland, with a round ball that they kick. They also play it out in Bay Ridge, another part of Brooklyn, and in a lot of other countries. She took a tobacco-colored photograph from a drawer and showed it to me. My father was sitting with other members of a team, all of them wearing short pants.
See, she said. He has two legs in this picture. But he only has one leg now.
She explained how he had to wear a wooden leg. He had a stump above the knee that fit into the wooden leg and straps that went over his shoulders to hold it in place. That was why the stairs at Roulston’s were hard on him. I hadn’t known that. She told me more, about how he was playing soccer one Sunday, here in America, in Brooklyn, in Bay Ridge, and he was kicked very hard and his leg was broken and they left him on the sidelines while they waited for an ambulance. It was a long wait. When the ambulance finally came, it took him away to Kings County Hospital, but there were no doctors to treat him and by the next day gangrene had set in and they had to cut off his leg.
How did they do that?
With a saw, she said. They had to do it to save his life.
You mean he almost died?
That’s what they said.
So that’s what they meant in 1A when they said my father was a cripple. He only had one leg. Why did they yell that at me? It wasn’t
fault. The ambulance was late. There were no doctors at the hospital. And besides, he had a
leg. You could look at him and not know the difference. And being a cripple wasn’t as bad as being a bigot. It wasn’t bad at all.
That’s the way I reasoned to myself, but I’m sure I said nothing to the kids at school. After a while, boredom must have set in, and they stopped tormenting me about my father’s leg. But I looked more closely at my father after that and asked to see again the picture of him in his football uniform with two legs sticking out of his shorts. Sometimes when it was dark, the word “gangrene” would seep through me, and I would see my father in a hospital bed, turning green. His skin was green and rotting and his eyes were green and his hands were green and there was a man at the door with a saw.
, after the war started in the Pacific, we moved out of 471, leaving behind the elm tree, Roberta Perrin, and the ivied walls next door. The Kellys had six children of their own, and after Kathleen was born there were simply too many kids for one three-story house. Mrs. Kelly wanted the rooms for a nice mild bachelor. Without warning, we packed everything into cardboard boxes and moved to the first floor right at 435 Thirteenth Street. The colors of the world instantly changed.
The new house was only one block away but it butted up against the dirty redbrick bulk of the old Ansonia Clock Factory, built in 1879 and for a while the largest industrial building in New York. The dark blue shadow of the Factory (as everyone called it) fell upon the stoop and across the backyard. Nothing grew in that bald, forlorn yard; it was made of tightly packed orange clay that cleaved as neatly as ice cream when you drove a shovel into it. To get to the backyard, we could climb out the kitchen window, or go down into a damp cellar and up a flight of slippery stone stairs. Usually we went out the window. Once, I planted watermelon seeds in the orange clay and was astonished when a tiny green plant shot up a few days later. The plant didn’t last; everything withered in the hostile clay and permanent darkness of that yard. It looked beautiful only when packed with fresh snow.
There were some advantages, of course. The rooms were larger and wider. More important, the apartment was on the first floor and my father did not have to haul his wooden leg up flights of stairs one step at a time. And the rent was twenty-six dollars a month, including steam heat.
Within days, I knew that life would now be different, and the principal reason was small, glossy-backed, and dark brown: the cockroach. I saw them moving along the hot water pipes, scurrying in corners of the kitchen, darting around the tin breadbox, rising from the drain in the bathtub, hiding in nests under the edge of the linoleum. They were everywhere. At night, I was afraid to sleep, certain that one of them would enter my ears and begin gnawing at my brain. We hit them with newspapers, stomped them, threw shoes at them. We learned what millions of New Yorkers learned: cockroaches were invincible.
Within months, we were settled. I convinced my mother that I could make my way to Holy Name without her beside me (fearful, as were all the others, of being called a momma’s boy). But the first few times I walked past our old house at 471 Fourteenth Street, looking up as I passed
stoop, walking under the familiar leafy canopy of
trees, seeing Mrs. Hogan or Mrs. Fox or Mrs. Cottingham, seeing Roberta Perrin with new friends, hurrying through that place that was once the center of my existence, the essence of my dailiness, then reaching the corner and turning right under the marquee of the Sanders, I was filled with a chaotic sadness. I couldn’t name what I felt. But for the first time, I sensed that there was such a thing as the past.
So I changed my route, using Fifteenth Street, where great boxy trolley cars rattled on steel tracks in two directions and the neighborhood’s only black man worked as a super in a large apartment house on the corner. There were no trees here either, but that street had one virtue: it did not make me sad.
In the roachy new house on Thirteenth Street, there were some compensations. I discovered that a boy from my class lived on the top floor. His name was Ronnie Zellins. He was my first friend on the new street. I did homework with him and went to the park with him and his mother, who seemed to me to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Best of all, Ronnie Zellins introduced me to comic books. He had a collection but he couldn’t read them yet, so he just followed the pictures. I could read them from the very beginning, explaining to him what was in the balloons and how the words helped make the pictures more exciting. When it was cold, we sat in the vestibule just inside the door, reading book after book and then reading them again. Other kids had collections too and would come to the door and shout: Wanna trade? And then we would go through an elaborate process, the most refined bargain being a decision to trade two ten-cent comics without covers for one copy of
which was thicker than the others and cost fifteen cents.
In the spring and summer, we were out on the stoop, which had only three deep slablike steps (unlike the narrower steps of the high stoop on Fourteenth Street). We played card games. We fiddled with some kind of punchboard that you pushed with a wooden match to find tiny printed messages on compacted paper. We went roller skating. The girls skipped rope or played potsy, and sometimes we joined them. Other times, Ronnie and I and my brother Tommy wandered down the street to look at the Alley, a wide noisy cobblestoned warren of ancient trucks and escaping steam and iron-barred windows. The Alley ran from Thirteenth Street to Twelfth Street, splitting the Factory into two unequal sections, and in the years of the war, it seemed always jammed with men at work. I would stand at the Thirteenth Street end, sometimes with Ronnie Zellins, sometimes alone, and stare into the sweaty turbulence. My mother told me to stay out of the Alley because I might get hurt, and I knew that disobedience was a sin. But after many months, I found the courage to dash through to the other side. When I confessed this to a priest in the confessional box at Holy Name, I was sure I heard him laugh.
Now too I started to see more of my father. After we moved, he left Roulston’s and took a job with the Arma Corporation in a place called Bush Terminal. The leg, his age, and his family combined to keep him out of the war, but he was doing war work anyway. He started working nights, earning the unbelievable salary of eighty dollars a week, four times what he made as a clerk. But because he was there through the night, my mother couldn’t bring him lunch anymore; she packed it into a black metal lunchbox that contained a thermos for tea or soup. I loved staring into the thermos, where glass seemed laid upon glass, layer upon fluid layer, in an impossibly perfect form.