Authors: Pete Hamill
Then we walked back to 378, entering through the street door for the first time. There were brass mailboxes on the left of the vestibule, white octagonal tiles on the floor, then a second door, filled with a panel of frosted glass, leading into the hallway. For a moment, I was scared; the hallway space was high, narrow, murky; the dark air was stained by strange odors, as if something was rotting. On the left a passageway led into the back of the hall, where I could see three battered garbage cans. On the right were the narrow stairs, with strips of ridged metal tacked to the lip of each step, to protect the linoleum from the assault of thousands of footsteps. My mother lifted Kathleen from the baby carriage and parked it against the wall on the left and started leading us up the stairs, into a deeper darkness. The rough plaster walls were shiny with paint, dark brown from the floor to the height of my mother’s shoulder, then a paler ocher to the ceiling. I could smell meat cooking. I could hear radios: music on one floor, announcers talking on another. On the second landing, dogs barked from behind a door. On each landing there was a small bare yellowish light bulb, which heightened the feeling of deep rich earth-colored darkness.
We went up three flights, to the top floor right, where a door was open to the kitchen. This was where we were now going to live. I paused in the hall, unable to move. Maybe if I just stood there, they would change their minds and we would put everything in the truck and drive away, skipping 435 Thirteenth Street, going all the way back to Fourteenth Street. My father and some of the large men were standing there, drinking beer from quart bottles, laughing and smoking cigarettes, using saucers for ashtrays.
Don’t stand there like an idjit, my father said. Come in.
The large men laughed.
Come on, my father said. Give us a hand.
So I went in and the large men shook my hand and said to my father, We shoulda brung some soda for the kid, Bill.
And my father said, We’ll bring some back.
And one of the men said, Hell, he’s big enough for a beer, ain’t he, Bill?
My father smiled, and turned away, lifting silverware and glasses from a Campbell’s soup box, discarding the newspapers that wrapped them, then laying them in the sink. It was as if I’d disappeared.
For a long time, the large men shifted furniture, grunting, sweating, while my mother asked them to move a chair here, a couch there. I wandered through the rooms of the railroad flat. There was a small bedroom off the kitchen, then a larger bedroom, then the living room, with two windows looking down at Seventh Avenue. The new building was only one story higher than the flat on Fourteenth Street, but after two long years on the ground floor at Thirteenth Street, the height here amazed me. I could see the roofs of trolley cars, the tops of the black steel poles that supplied their power, the bobbing hats and shoulders of passing strangers. Unlike Fourteenth Street, there were no trees to break a fall, no branches or tree trunks to supply direction to the eye or the illusion of safety. If I fell from this window, I would die. It was like coming to the edge of the cliff I saw in the advertising on the back of the comics, all about the Rosicrucians, whatever they were, and the secrets of life.
To the right of the living room, facing the avenue, there was a small room with a window that led to the fire escape. We called this the Little Room and it was unique: it had a door. From the Little Room’s window, I could see across the avenue into the apartments of strangers, turrets and chimneys on the rooftops, and away off, the distant ridge of Prospect Park. I thought: This must be what it’s like to be a giant.
In a rush of excitement, I ran back into the kitchen. This wasn’t so bad, maybe. Up here in the top floor right, the world was bright again after the darkness of the hall. The kitchen windows looked down a long slope toward the harbor, and I could even see the concrete railway trestle where the subway went over the Gowanus Canal. That astonished me. I had been
that trestle many times, waiting for my mother when she brought my father his lunch; now, I was
the trestle, up here at the top of the long slope. From this back window, I could see the receding rectangles of a thousand rooftops and the skeletal shapes of ten thousand winter trees and the steeples of a hundred churches rising above the houses. There were ships moving in the distant harbor, sailing away to fight Hitler, and my mother came over and pointed out the Statue of Liberty, green and tiny, and the skyline of Manhattan, naming some of the buildings. But there was something missing.
Where’s the backyard? I said.
Well, my mother said, that’s a wee bit of a problem. There’s no backyard.
I looked straight down from the window and saw fenced-off yards filled with the scrawny shapes of stunted trees and patches of blackened snow. But those yards belonged to the smaller houses on the side streets. The tenements on the avenue had no yards. This was hard to imagine: a house without a backyard. And I wished I still had the backyard on Fourteenth Street or even the bald shadowed clay of Thirteenth Street. After all, if there was no backyard, where would I play on summer afternoons?
Suddenly the moving job was finished and my father and the large men started to go out.
Will you bring me a soda, Daddy?
Sure, he said.
Hell, Billy, one of the large men said. He’s gettin’ pretty big, the kid. Whyn’t you bring him over the bar?
Yeah, my father said, not meaning it.
But you gotta get him outta them knickers, another man said. Ya can’t go drinkin’ in knickers, kid.
Yeah, one of these days, my father said.
And they went out. My mother then turned to look at the boxes and bags, the mounds of clothes, the cluttered table, the dishes in the sink. She sighed.
Mommy, I want long pants, I said.
You’ll have long pants soon enough, she said.
I hate knickers, I said.
We’ll talk about it later, she said. Let’s get moved in first.
And so we moved in. All that afternoon, we began to explore this new place high above everything. The kitchen was to become the center of almost everything we did; we ate there, talked there, listened to the radio there, did homework there. I can remember every inch of it, with the table of much-painted pine in the center under a ceiling light whose cord bobbed in the air. There were four chairs around the table, with a sugar bowl in the middle beside my father’s ashtray (my mother didn’t smoke or drink). Just inside the door was a shallow corner closet shaped like a triangle. It had no door, only a drape hanging from a rod. Sometimes on rainy days, when we kids played hide and seek, I would huddle in there under piles of clothes and sheets, burrowed into a cave, wishing that I’d never be discovered.
On that first day at 378, my father came home hours later, bleary with drink. My mother tried to get him to eat some sandwiches and soup. He couldn’t do it. He tried to sing but the words stopped coming, choked in a phlegmy cough. Finally, he rose from the kitchen table. I was in the first room in a narrow bed that fit tightly against the wall. As he went by I said, Hello, Daddy. He didn’t hear me. From the next room, I heard him removing his trousers, change jingling in the pockets, then the straps and the leg being slammed against the wall before he fell heavily into bed. Then there was silence from my mother in our brand-new kitchen. Except for her sad breathing.
to the rhythms of the war. Years later, we even marked time in a special way: Before the War, During the War, After the War. There were other wars, Korea and Vietnam, and American invasions of too many other places, but for people my age there was only one War. That war was in our comics, our movies, our dreams. The radio was filled with it. Every evening, my mother listened to Edward R. Murrow and Gabriel Heatter, and in school we followed the war on maps. There was North Africa. And Tobruk. And somewhere in all that yellow emptiness, El Alamein.
At Holy Name, I heard about the war from new teachers every year, each of them rolling down the maps and showing us the places that were in the newspapers and on the radio. There was much excitement when the Allies landed in Sicily because the parents of most of the Italian kids were from that island. They wanted the Americans to win. They had brothers in our army and some of the brothers died in those first battles. All of them said their parents were worried. I got an aunt there, said Vito Pinto. My grandmother is there, said Michael Tempesta. I got an uncle over there, said George Poli. The war went on and on.
I’d like to give that Hitler a boot in the ass, my father said one night.
Billy, my mother said. The children …
I would, he said. I mean it. Let him walk into Rattigan’s and drop one on his chin.
That struck me as a wonderful idea. Hitler goose-stepping down Seventh Avenue, with Göring and Goebbels and Himmler behind him (for we knew each of their names), all of them marching into Rattigan’s, and my father walking over and punching Hitler right in the mout’. Then my father’s friends could mop up the rest of them, the way Captain America went after the Red Skull. That would be that. No more war.
But the war went on. We learned its common and proper nouns: bomb, rifle, pillbox, Guadalcanal and grenade, camouflage and convoy, submarine and torpedo, Salerno and Monte Cassino, Rommel and Montgomery, infantry and air force, destroyers, PT boats, cruisers and carriers, casualties and conning towers, depth charges and bomb bays, antiaircraft, bazookas and howitzers, wounded, ambulances, shrapnel and flak, generals, colonels, majors, lieutenants, sergeants, corporals, privates, along with admirals, commanders, captains and seamen, WACS and WAVES, 1A and 4F, Tojo and Mussolini, .45s and .88s, tanks and jeeps, occupation and refugee and resistance. And in comics and radio serials, in movies and schoolyards, we heard the words Secret Weapon. Hitler might have one; we had to get one.
In the windows of the neighborhood now you saw small flags bearing a star for each son who had gone to serve the country. Some flags had as many as four. And after the invasion of North Africa, some of the stars were gold, telling us that a son had died. There were more after Sicily and many more after Anzio.
Up on Eighth Avenue and Thirteenth Street, a sandlot football team called the Arrows erected a sign on the wall beside Foppiano’s, listing the names of all the men who were away in the service. Even after we moved to Seventh Avenue, I passed it every day on my way to Holy Name. The lettering was small and neat, but before the war was over, the sign was completely filled and many of the young men were dead. The sign was there for years After the War, battered by weather, the names bleached by sun and washed by rain, then repainted, then washed away again, until the names were gone for good and nobody was left in the neighborhood who could remember the living or the dead.
Like other families, we experienced the war in small ways. In addition to the vocabulary of the war itself, I learned the word “shortage” and the phrase “black market.” There was a shortage of sugar. There was a shortage of meat. Butter was rare and there were no more bananas because of the German submarines in the Caribbean. The Germans were sinking all of the ships that used to come to New York Before the War.
Ships like the ones your father worked on? I asked my mother one night.
Yes, she said. Exactly like the ones he worked on. He was all over South America, you know. He used to write letters to my mother from all those places. He was even at the Panama Canal when they were building it.
In the Blue Books, we found maps of the Caribbean and Central America and located the Panama Canal. She showed me a deck of playing cards adorned with scenes of the canal’s construction, cards sent to her mother long ago, and all the while, I was trying to imagine my mother when she still had a father. He certainly existed, because she had a photograph of him, in a dark suit, taken in New Orleans. And she told me that I was named after him. Or I was named after my father
her father: William Peter. But they called me Peter anyway. So I had some connection to that lost grandfather who had died. But when I asked her to tell me about him, she always got busy doing something else, and became very quiet.
When she talked about the black market, I imagined some terrible place down near the Gowanus Canal, a huge building painted black and filled with men in black suits and black masks.
No, she said, it’s not like that.
A bunch of terrible people she called reprobates cheated the government by hiding things that were part of the shortages. If you knew the right people, you could get all the sugar you wanted, all the meat. You just needed to know the black market people, the reprobates. Why didn’t
Because they’re bad people, she said. They love money more than they love their country. Are they bigots? I asked.
Probably, she said. For sure, they are gangsters.
At some point, my mother received ration books and tokens. When she went to buy meat or butter, she needed to hand over the ration stamps or dime-sized cardboard tokens. She saved bacon fat in tin cans, and when she turned in the bacon fat at Semke’s butcher shop, she was given more tokens in exchange. Once a month, she said, the government picked up all the cans of bacon fat. One day, I asked my father why the army needed bacon fat.
To grease the guns, he said. And for the soldiers to put on their boots to keep out water.
I tried to imagine this. Wouldn’t the Nazis smell
when the Americans tried to sneak up on them in a raid?
There were some questions that could never be answered, particularly about the war.
OR THE CHRISTMAS
of 1943, my mother bought me a pair of roller skates. They were strong and tough, with clamps over the front of your shoes that were tightened with a skate key. The wheels were shiny; they would never wear out, filling with those ruinous holes we called skellies. They had probably cost her a lot of money, at least three dollars. But on a frigid Saturday a week later, there was a huge scrap metal drive, men in trucks moving slowly along the avenue, shouting to everybody to haul out their old metal and iron so we could turn the stuff into bombs and bullets. People came out with beaten-up old metal chairs and lengths of pipe and broken bicycles. I thought it was my duty to make the ultimate sacrifice. I threw in my skates.