Read A Drinking Life Online

Authors: Pete Hamill

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A Drinking Life (4 page)

My father slept during the days, so we had to be quiet in the afternoons. I didn’t mind. He was helping the war effort. More important, he was there. I could see him, feel his rough beard, stare at the wooden leg. He never stripped his trousers from the leg; it stood in a corner beside the bed, with the tops of his trousers stuffed into the socket. Most days, he would rise late in the afternoon, pull on the leg, shave and dress, eat quickly, listening to the radio, smoke some Camels, drink a few cups of tea with milk and sugar, and then go out to the stoop, where some other men would pick him up in a car. He seemed to have two faces then: one long, the other round. He wore the long face when he woke up with his hair all black and spiky and wild. Then after he came out of the bathroom, his hair was tightly combed to his skull and his face was suddenly round. He shaved with a small heavy razor and used a bristle brush and a mug. Sometimes after he left for work I would use the brush to foam up the soapy block in the mug and cover my face with lather and try to scare my brother Tommy. He always laughed.

On Sundays, after I came home from the nine o’clock Mass at Holy Name, my father was usually in the bathtub. He was a man of routine. Bathed and shaved, he would go into a bedroom and return all dressed up. We had no washing machine, and the first launderettes didn’t open until after the war. So while my mother washed his work clothes by hand, or prepared his breakfast, he would look at the sports pages of the
Daily News.
He ate breakfast and talked to my mother. Sometimes there would be a pale blue one-page onionskin letter from Ireland, slipped into the mailbox on the second delivery on Saturday afternoon, after he’d gone off to Arma, held for my father’s inspection on Sunday morning. The letter was usually from his twin brother, Frank, and my mother would read part of it aloud, and he’d look at it carefully when she was through reading. They were always happy to hear from Belfast and always a bit anxious. After all, the Germans had bombed the Belfast shipyards; they might come back and bomb civilians, particularly on the Falls Road, where the Catholics lived. Whenever a letter arrived on a weekday, my mother’s face was a tight mask until she’d opened the envelope. On Sundays, she wrote letters back to Ireland; for all the beauty of his handwriting, I never saw my father write a letter.

After that late Sunday breakfast, after the talk, after the reading of the Irish letter, my father would go out, down the dark linoleum-covered hallway, into the street. He’d turn left outside the areaway, and walk up the block, saying hello to people. Sometimes I’d watch him from the stoop. He’d step hard on the good right leg and swing the wooden left leg behind him, and I thought that being a cripple wasn’t such a terrible thing; he walked in his own special way, and that made him different from the other men. Along the way, most of the Sunday people smiled at him. He was off to Mass. Or so he said.

And then one Sunday when I was almost eight, he said to me, Come on, McGee. I walked with him up to the corner and for the first time entered the tight, dark, amber-colored, wool-smelling world of a saloon. This one was called Gallagher’s.

In I went behind him, to stand among the stools and the gigantic men, overwhelmed at first by the sour smell of dried beer, then inhaling tobacco smells, the toilet smell, the smell of men. The place had been a speakeasy during Prohibition, and the men still entered through the back door. There was a front entrance too, opening into a large dim room with booths and tables; it was supposed to be a restaurant, but the kitchen was dusty and dark and nobody was ever there, except a few quiet women, who could not get service in the barroom proper. In that room, the men were jammed together at a high three-sided bar, talking, smoking, singing, laughing, and drinking. They drank beer. They drank whiskey. There was no television then, so they made their own entertainments.

Hey, Billy, give us a song! someone yelled. And then he started.

Mister Patrick McGinty,

An Irishman of note,

He fell into a fortune

And bought himself a goat.

A goat’s milk, said Paddy,

Of that I’ll have me fill,

But when he got the nanny home

He found it was a bill….

Laughter and cheers and off he went, verse after verse, even one about Hitler, added to help the war effort. Then everyone in the bar joined him for the song’s final lines:

And we’ll leave the rest to Providence —

And Paddy McGinty’s Goat!

They cheered and hooted and asked for another, and my father raised his glass to his lips, beaming, delighted with himself, took a long drink, and gave them what they wanted. From where I was huddled against the wall, he was the star of the place, ignoring the stools that the other men used, standing almost defiantly with one hand on the lip of the bar for balance, his face all curves, clearly the center of attention. Even the portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, hanging in the dim light above the cash register, seemed to approve.

This is where men go, I thought; this is what men do. When he was finished, they bought him drinks and then someone else began to sing and then Bing Crosby was singing on the jukebox. One of my father’s friends slipped me a nickel, another gave me a dime, and Dick the Bartender, a mysterious shiny-faced fat man in a starched collar, passed me some saltine crackers in cellophane and a ginger ale with a cherry in it. Strangers rubbed my blond head. They told me I was getting bigger. And then my rather said, Go on now, go along home.

5

I
WAS ALWAYS GLAD
to leave Gallagher’s. I loved seeing my father in his special place, but I hated the sour smells of the bar and the cigarette smoke. Besides, the coins in my hands seemed to be burning. I had discovered money and what you could do with it. Darting out the side door of Gallagher’s, a fortune in my hand, I would go down three steps and hurry across the street into Foppiano’s candy store. The glass cases and boxes on the counter held amazing treasures: hard caramels, Houton’s (small chocolate bars that were sweeter and cheaper than the products of Mr. Hershey), gummy Mexican sombreros, chocolate-dipped twists of nougat, strips of paper with small dots of candy stuck to them, Black Crows and Dots, Clark bars and Sky Bars, Kits and Jelly Royals, Mary Janes and Winter Greens. I would buy what I wanted, and then go down the block, looking for my brother Tommy so we could share the sweet treasures.

But after the first great rush of chocolate days, when I was gorged on this junk (my body suddenly light and my blood tingling), I began to spend my fortune on more substantial treasures: comic books. Comics I could own, instead of borrowing from Ronnie Zellins. Comics I could read over and over again. Comics I could trade with others. These were the first great wartime comic books, thick plump sixty-four-page extravaganzas, all in color, for a dime:
Superman, Captain Marvel
and
Batman,
the
Human Torch
and the
Sub-Mariner.
The heroes were all masked or caped and far more powerful than any seven- or eight-year-old could ever hope to be.

More important, many of their secret powers came from laboratory accidents or the ingestion of secret formulas. There was the Blue Beetle, with a scaly chain mail costume, a thin black mask, and strength that came from the amazing vitamin ZX. In
Police Comics,
there was Plastic Man, the only superhero with a sense of humor, able to shrink or elongate or compact himself into any shape, thanks to his own secret formula. More baroque, muscular, and explosive was the great Captain America. Cap’ (as he was called) was really a mild fellow named Steve Rogers who before the war was just another skinny 4F, like the guy in the Charles Atlas ads on the back covers. Then he too drank a secret serum. Within seconds, he was transformed into a pile of muscles. The scientist who invented the serum was then killed by Nazi agents, the formula lost forever. No longer 4F, Rogers went into the army, designed his Captain America costume, and teamed up with Bucky Barnes, a teenager who was allowed to hang around the army post. For most of the war, these two were in steady pursuit of a ferocious Nazi saboteur named the Red Skull.

I was very worried about the Red Skull, who was always blowing up factories like the one where my father worked nights. One evening, I told my father to be careful when he went to work because the Red Skull might be around, lurking somewhere in the dark.

Who? he said. The red who?

The Red Skull.

What the hell are you talking about? he said.

I showed him a copy of
Captain America.
He laughed out loud.

You idjit! he said. That’s a goddamned comic book!

I know, Daddy, but —

It’s not
real,
he said. It’s a
lie.

I never showed him another comic book. Somehow, I knew that he was right: they were all lies. If we had all these caped people on our side, if we had all those secret serums and magic formulas, the war could be ended in about twenty minutes. But they were lies as irresistable as candy or ice cream. They certainly couldn’t be the kinds of lies that were called sins in the catechism I was studying at Holy Name. To start with, they were patriotic lies. And I wasn’t telling the lies. The stories of Cap’ and Bucky were told by the men who wrote their names on the crowded, bursting first pages of each episode: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. They must be the liars. Still, I couldn’t understand how their lies could be bad, if they were on our side, just like Joe Louis and God.

Until I learned the names of Simon and Kirby, around 1943, I didn’t know that men actually sat down to write and draw comics. That knowledge would change my life. But when we lived on Thirteenth Street, the
content
of the comics was driving deep into me. They filled me with secret and lurid narratives, a notion of the hero, a sense of the existence of evil. They showed me the uses of the mask, insisting that heroism was possible only when you fashioned an elaborate disguise. Most important was the lesson of the magic potion. The comics taught me, and millions of other kids, that even the weakest human being could take a drink and be magically transformed into someone smarter, bigger, braver. All you needed was the right drink.

Up at Holy Name, I went into the next grade, and the next, and the ones after that; listened to Miss Doheny and then Mrs. Hubbard and then Miss Smith, as they sketched the contours of the world and supplied the platitudes by which I must live:
Birds of a feather flock together
or
Show me your friends and I’ll tell you what you are.
I learned to write compositions and do arithmetic. But at night, when my father was gone to work, I would lie in the dark and drive away the fear of roaches and Nazis by imagining myself mixing secret liquids in a glass beaker.

6

O
NE DAY
my mother took us to New York on the subway. We came out in a place of immense buildings, and she started walking in her rushed, breathless way, all the way to the river. Here were the great piers for the ships I saw in the harbor. There were soldiers with guns guarding the entrances to the piers and high fences with barbed wire at the top and warnings about staying out and not using cameras. We could see giant cranes loading crates into the ships, and shirtless men heaving on ropes, and men with hooks in their belts showing passes to the soldiers. Seagulls careened around the sky. Deep throaty horns blew as one ship eased away from a pier out into the flowing waters of the Hudson.

Did your father work here? I said.

I’m sure he did, my mother said. But he didn’t do this kind of work. He was an engineer.

What is that?

He helped put in the refrigeration system, the air conditioning, she said. He worked for United Fruit, you see, and they had to keep the bananas from spoiling. That was his job. He was an officer.

Was he in the First World War?

No, she said. He was killed
during
the war, but he wasn’t
in
the war.

Then up ahead we saw a lot of people staring at something we couldn’t see. There were sailors in leggings holding rifles, Marines with .45s on their hips, New York policemen, all keeping people back; I paused, wanting to look at these men with guns, among the first I had seen in life. My mother walked faster, and then we saw what the crowd was looking at: the S.S.
Normandie.
The great French liner was lying on its side, wedged into the mud beneath the water, like a fat woman killed in a bathtub. The hull was scorched and tendrils of smoke still leaked from open portholes. I had never seen anything like it, even in the comics.

That’s the
Normandie,
my mother said. She was a great passenger ship before the war. A French ship. Then they were converting her for troops and she went on fire.

Wow, I said.

Wow, Tommy said.

They think it was sabotage, she said.

Wow!

I don’t know how long we stayed there but it must have been hours. All through the war, we would pester her to go back. Let’s see the
Normandie,
Let’s go back to Pier 88 and see the
Normandie.
And she took us there again and again, to gaze at the parched hull, more than a thousand feet long, its giant propellers high out of the water. In my memory, the ruined liner looks humiliated, like a drunk who has fallen down in public. But at the time, the
Normandie
represented something else to me: proof that not all the tales in the comics were lies. Maybe the Red Skull didn’t do the job, but
somebody
did.

7

O
NE SUNDAY
afternoon on Thirteenth Street, I looked up from the stoop, where I was playing with Ronnie Zellins and some other kids, and saw my father coming down the street. There was another man with him, taller, holding my father’s left elbow, while my father used his other hand to grip the picket fences of the areaways. I got up and hurried to him, certain he was hurt.

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