Authors: Pete Hamill
I looked up at him. His eyes were unfocused, his jaw slack.
Daddy, I said, are you all right?
He looked at me as if I were a stranger.
Zallright, the other man said. Just drunk as a skunk.
They went past me, and turned into 435 and my father wheeled, as if to fall. The other man grabbed him roughly and held him up. But all the kids laughed. One of the other kids was Brother Foppiano, the son of the owner of the candy store.
Hey, hey, your old man’s drunk, he said, in a singsong teasing voice.
Shut up, I said.
Your old man’s an Irish drunk! Your old man’s an Irish drunk!
As my father and his friend disappeared into the hallway, I had my first fight. I had never hit anyone before and had never been hit. But I threw myself in a rage upon Brother Foppiano. He hit me and hurt me and hit me again. My face went numb. Blood spurted from my nose. And I turned in tears and ran inside, full of shame. Behind me, everyone was laughing. Even my friend, Ronnie Zellins.
My mother was out with Tommy and Kathleen, so I went into the bathroom and saw the blood on my hands and shirt, then watched it drip into the sink. I turned on the taps and the water made the blood thin and pale, forming a rosy whirlpool before vanishing down the drain. I held a cold washcloth to my nose. The inside of my mouth was slippery and sticky, and I lurched aside and threw up into the toilet bowl, feeling as if my insides were coming out through my mouth. The stench was disgusting. I looked at the water pipes and saw cockroaches moving in steady lines, their long hairy feelers out in front of them. I flushed the toilet and closed the door behind me.
My father was facedown on a bed, his wooden leg hanging off the bed in an awkward position. He smelled like vomit too.
For a long time after the fight with Brother Foppiano, I didn’t play with the other kids, not even Ronnie Zellins. I had cried and run away from a fight, and that was a humiliation. So I went to school, I came home, I passed them on the stoop and retreated into homework, the
Wonderland of Knowledge,
and my comics. No book revealed the ingredients of any magic potion. I could not emerge from my room in mask and cape to avenge myself upon Brother Foppiano. I could not, like Billy Batson, the orphaned newsboy, say the word
and be transformed into Captain Marvel. My mother said nothing that I can remember, but she must have known that something awful had happened to me. Winter came. The yard filled with snow, and I would stand at the window and gaze at the blue shadows of the piled snow and the redbrick walls of the Factory and remember the light and the trees of the lost window on Fourteenth Street.
Around this time, I also started reading Big Little Books, squat thick bricks of text and pictures that were sold at the five-and-ten-cent stores. The text was on the left-hand page, the illustrations on the right. Their heroes were different from the great baroque four-color visions of Simon and Kirby, or from Captain Marvel pursuing the mad scientist Dr. Sivana. Here were Dick Tracy, Dan Dunn, Tailspin Tommy, Smilin’ Jack, Don Winslow of the Navy, all neatly contained in square black-and-white panels. They were more mundane heroes, men without masks or capes or occult powers, but I liked reading the text and glancing at the pages to see if the drawings matched the images in my mind. My mother looked at them and explained that these were comics that first appeared in newspapers.
This is my favorite, she told me, pointing at a comic strip across the top of a page in the
It was called
Terry and the Pirates.
The drawing was beautiful, full of realistic detail, oiled guns, perfect airplanes, skies or mountains brushed in with great rich blacks. But the balloons were dense with dialogue that I didn’t really understand.
was definitely made for grown-ups. Still, I was thrilled that my mother could also care for a comic strip. She didn’t say, This is my favorite
And because of her, I started looking at the newspaper comics.
One day I ran into Brother Foppiano again. He was nastier now, because he had bloodied me and made me cry and run.
Your old man’s an Irish drunk, your old man
… I realized I was being watched by other kids, including my former friend Ronnie Zellins, and I knew that this time I couldn’t run. So I piled into Brother, frantic, afraid, but determined not to cry, not to “give up.” He hit me and hit me, but I held on to him, tripped him, fell upon him, hit him, then felt his hard wiry arms lock around my neck. I struggled. I jerked. But I couldn’t get free.
So I whispered the word:
Nothing happened. Brother Foppiano tightened his grip and I tightened mine on him.
We might be locked in that violent embrace to this day if Ronnie Zellins’s beautiful mother hadn’t come along and ordered us to stop. I watched Brother walk away, his green striped shirt as dirty as mine. There was a sneer on his face, but he didn’t say anything; he didn’t speak badly about my father. I felt better for another reason: the humiliation of public crying and loss was erased. Then Ronnie Zellins came over to me.
Want to go down the Alley? he said.
What about comics? Want to go trading?
No, I said. I don’t want to do anything with you.
One Sunday afternoon, a week after my second fight with Brother Foppiano, my father ordered me out of Gallagher’s. His face was loose and bleary again, the way it had been the day I first saw him drunk. I imagined him leaving the saloon, helped by one of the men, staggering down the street to our house, and Brother Foppiano emerging from hiding to start his cruel chant. I asked him to come home. Maybe I whined. Maybe I was annoying. I know I was holding on to his coat. He jerked the coat out of my grip, looked down at me, and ordered me in a harsh voice to go home to my mother. Hurt and angry, I ran outside.
But I didn’t go home. I went directly to Foppiano’s candy store. I was desperate now, even willing to fight Brother again to be sure that he wouldn’t see my father drunk. I could punch him. I could tease him. Or I could talk to him, argue with him, maybe even try to make friends with him. I just didn’t want him to see my father being helped down the block. But Brother wasn’t around, not behind the counter, not in the back room. His father sat there, reading a newspaper and smoking a cigarette. And with a sense of relief, I looked at the comic book racks near the door. I had read most of the new comics and was not interested in the books about funny animals or high school girls. Then I found the very first issue of Master Comics. I began to read the story of Captain Marvel, Jr., and was lifted out of Brooklyn. Hey, Mister Foppiano said, ya gonna read or ya gonna buy?
I handed him a dime and rushed home, clutching my copy of Master Comics. Back at 435, I read this issue over and over, watching a crippled boy named Freddy Freeman hobble on his crutches. Suddenly he said
magic word — “Captain Marvel,” the name of his hero — and was transformed into a lithe, strong hero in a sleek blue gold-trimmed costume. After my fight with Brother, I knew that “Shazam” didn’t work for me; it probably was just a lie. But maybe it could work for others. Maybe words, like potions, were also capable of magic. And I wished that my father had a secret word too. He would come home from Gallagher’s and sit in the kitchen and whisper …
A lightning bolt would split the sky and there he would be: two legs, young, whole, like the man in that old photograph, his eyes sharply focused. He would smile at me and reach over and hug me and off we would go together to play ball.
That never happened.
After two years in the first floor right, we moved again.
HE NEW FLAT
was only a few blocks away, but it was another descent, into a harder, poorer world.
Seventh Avenue was a wide avenue with trolley cars of the 67 line moving in both directions. The steel wheels of those sleek green-and-silver “streamlined” cars ran on steel tracks, and we would hear their squealing clattering sounds through the night; some of us heard those trolleys for the rest of our lives. The power lines were hidden in steel poles that made a deep bonging sound when you hit them with bats or pipes; from the tops of these poles cables fed the lines that ran above the trolley tracks. Those poles and lines and the steel tracks gave the avenue the look of an artist’s exercise in perspective, with diminishing lines flowing away into infinity, or its equal: Flatbush Avenue at one end of the avenue, Greenwood Cemetery at the other. In the mind of an eight-year-old, both were as far away as Madrid.
Our building was 378, a tenement rising four ominous stories above the street. It was in the middle of the block, between Eleventh and Twelfth Streets, with a butcher shop on one side of the doorway and a fruit and vegetable store called Teddy’s to the right. That first day, it was a place in another country.
I stood on the sidewalk with my mother and Tommy and Kathleen, who was bundled in a red snowsuit in a stroller and bawling. My mother moved the stroller back and forth, shushing Kathleen, while I gazed around at this new piece of geography. There was a barbershop across the street, with a red, white, and blue pole turning slowly outside. On one side of the barbershop was a dry cleaner’s, the windows opaque with steam, then a notions shop, a variety store, a fish store, and a diner. To the left, filling the corner of Eleventh Street, was Rattigan’s Bar & Grill, dark inside, with men going and coming through the front door. Nobody used the side door.
Across the street, on a diagonal from Rattigan’s, there was one glimmer of the familiar: the red, white, and blue sign of still another Roulston’s store. But otherwise I felt like a stranger as we waited outside for the large men from Gallagher’s to arrive in a truck with our furniture and our stuffed cardboard boxes. My mother said, You’ll like it here. But I looked up and saw fire escapes climbing the brick face of the building, as if drawn with rulers, and a strange canopy hanging over the edge of the roof, and a flock of pigeons circling against the hard sky. I shivered in the cold, and my mother told me to wait in the hallway. But I was afraid to go through that door. I didn’t think I would like it here at all. I wanted to go back to 471 Fourteenth Street, my real home.
Do they have roaches here? I said.
My mother laughed. I hope not, she said.
I don’t want to live here if they have roaches, I said.
Well, she said without much hope, let’s wait and see.
Then the truck arrived and my father eased out of the cab, smoking a cigarette, while the large men unloaded the furniture and started moving us into 378. Groups of nameless kids were gathering at the corners, watching us with a mixture of curiosity and hostility; some of them were my age, and all were wearing long pants while I still wore knickers and knee socks. Faces appeared at the windows of Rattigan’s. Someone wiped a peephole in the steam of the dry cleaner’s. Maybe they had come to see the cripple. Or maybe they had heard about the Irish drunk. Or a crippled Irish drunk. Or maybe they just wanted to look at the kid who still wore knickers.
When the truck arrived, my mother took us into the warmth of a candy store, two doors away, and I felt better. Nobody could watch us in here. The place was called Sanew’s (we pronounced it Sen-you). Immediately inside the door, atop a glass-topped counter, nickel candies were arrayed on a stepped rack, like a sugary stoop. Beside it, a small change dish, advertising Dentyne gum, sat on top of a pebbled rubber mat, with the cash register next to it. There were racks of cigarettes on the wall behind the counter, including my father’s beloved Camels. That was good. He could walk next door to get his cigarettes, even in the snow.
Most of the good things of Sanew’s were on the right as you walked in, including a soda fountain with four swivel-topped stools. Behind the marble counter, spouts poured soda, seltzer, a variety of syrups in endless combinations (egg creams and lime rickeys and cherry Cokes), and below the counter were silver-covered hidden places filled with tubs of ice cream. That first day, Mrs. Sanew mixed soda for us kids and made tea for my mother, looking distracted in a way that would soon become familiar to all of us. Mrs. Sanew had gray-streaked black hair pulled into a tight bun, thick eyeglasses wedged on a longish nose, a pinched sour mouth. She always wore thick-heeled sensible shoes and a wine-colored wool sweater that buttoned in the front. The sweater had two pockets, and sometimes, when distracted, she would jingle coins in those pockets, her eyes seeing something that was a long way from Brooklyn. Behind that counter, seven days a week, from seven in the morning until ten at night, Mrs. Sanew made egg creams, or filled dishes with ice cream, or prepared tea, or poured coffee. She sold cigarettes, cigars, candies, and newspapers; she rang up purchases on the cash register; she made change. There was simply no time for joy or laughter. There also might have been some darker cause for her permanent air of distraction, some fierce Catholic denial of self, some permanent act of mortification or penance. In all the years we lived there, I never saw her eat or drink even one of the treats she made for others; it was as if that would be some sign of weakness, some surrender to illicit pleasures or desires she held in contempt. That first day, as she served my mother, her face was locked into a sad or angry mask.
There was one other ornament of Sanew’s: a rack on the wall to the left of the door. The top row was filled with movie magazines or copies of
Collier’s, Liberty, Life.
The next was thick with pulps, with their garish, disturbing covers. But the two bottom racks were full of comic books. Comics with titles I didn’t know, covers I’d never seen, comics that could have been from another country.
Blue Bolt. Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. The Spirit.
They were completely different from the comics at Foppiano’s and I must have stared at them with something like passion and desire, because I remember my mother saying to me: “Well, you’ll be happy