Read A Drinking Life Online

Authors: Pete Hamill

Tags: #BIO000000

A Drinking Life (8 page)

That first book, and all the others in the series, were driven by Bomba’s search for his lost parents, and therefore a solution to the riddle of his own identity. The entire series was a classic quest.

Once, when my father shouted at me, I ran to Prospect Park and crawled into Devil’s Cave, which was hidden beside a stream that fed the Swan Lake. In times of peril, Bomba almost always took refuge in a cave. Mine was low, narrow, extending about six feet into the hill. I sat there alone, wishing for a thunderous Amazonian storm, fierce lightning, the stream transformed into a swollen river. Instead, a parkie came over and said, Hey, kid, you better beat it. It’s gettin’ dark.

When I went home that evening, my father was gone. I took down a Bomba book and retreated into the jungles of South America, moving through the swamp of death, wary of anacondas, using a pole to test for quicksand, the rubber trees so tall that there was no light. In a way, I hoped Bomba would never find his father. He might be sorry.

13

A
T NIGHT FROM
the kitchen windows, we could not see New York. There were wartime blackouts, every light in the city extinguished so that German bombers could never find us and so that German submarines couldn’t see the freighters and navy ships as they left New York Harbor. Mayor La Guardia was in charge of all this, talking in his thin squeaky voice over the radio, asking all New Yorkers to cooperate. Everybody did, because almost everybody loved Mayor La Guardia, except one of my aunts, who lost her job when Jimmy Walker lost his. To keep out the light, people began buying blackout shades, which were, of course, black, and on some nights there would be air raid drills, with sirens blaring from the firehouse up the block and air raid wardens walking around in the dark streets shouting orders at the deaf, the careless, or the indifferent.

On summer nights, these drills were exciting. Everybody would be out in the street, sitting on chairs or stoops or the front steps of the stores. Some of us even sat on Sanew’s newsstand. If it was hot, the big people drank hot tea, which was supposed to make you cooler. Most of the time they talked and joked and made fun of the air raid wardens, whose helmets for some reason were white, making them perfect targets for roaming Messerschmitts.

On one such evening, a warden started shouting into Rattigan’s. Someone shouted back. Then the warden went into the saloon. Then he came hurtling out of the saloon and landed on his back, the helmet skittering away into the gutter. A group of men came outside behind him. One of them was my father.

The warden stood up, shouting. On our side of the street, everybody was standing now, moving down to the corner. The argument got louder, the words still not clear. Then my mother started across the street. I followed her.

Billy, she said, come on home.

Stay out of this! he shouted.

What’s the matter?

This bum called Eddie Malloy a draft dodger!

Draft dodger!
The worst words in the English language. Draft dodgers were rich guys. Draft dodgers were cowards. Some draft dodgers even wanted the Nazis to win.

Yiz are all a bunch of draft dodgers! the warden said, standing now, adjusting his white helmet, trying through his anger to look dignified.

Then a big suety guy with a flushed face came forward. This was Eddie Malloy.

You say dat again, you bum, I put you down the sewer! I got t’ree kids in de army. I got one kid in da navy. I went down an’ volunteered da day after Poirl Harba!
Dey
toirned me down on accounta as’ma. An’ because I’m too old. I tried da navy. I tried da Marines. Don’t call me no draft dodger, you bastid.

Then suddenly a police car with its lights out came around the corner of Twelfth Street and another one hurried along the avenue from Ninth Street.

Come on home, Billy, my mother said, taking my father’s arm as I watched from the doorway of the Gapers Club.

You
go home, he said, shaking off her hand. This is none of your goddamned business, woman.

She backed away, shocked and hurt. Then the cops were piling out of the patrol cars, shouting, What the hell’s going on? The air raid warden pointed at the crowd.

They assaulted me while I was doing my duty! he said.

That’s a load of bullshit, my father said. He came in looking for trouble and he got it. Eddie Malloy was smoking a cigarette at the bar and when this idjit told him to put it out, Eddie laughed. Then he called Eddie a draft dodger.

The biggest cop said, You’re Mister Malloy? I went to Holy Family with your son Jackie. How is he?

Inna Sout’ Pacific, killin’ them Japs.

The big cop turned to the crowd and said, Okay, let’s everybody go home now.

Then he said to the air raid warden, Relax, pal. Go check out who’s smoking on Thirteenth Street.

Then to Eddie Malloy, Go inside now, and for Chrissakes, don’t smoke ‘til the drill is over.

The warden strode away in a fury. The cops got into their cars and left. The men were laughing and slapping each other on the back and then started inside. My father’s face was beaming. He’d told them, yeah. He’d told them. Then, as if remembering something, he separated from the others and came over to my mother.

I’m sorry, Annie, he said. Come in, we’ll have a drink in the back.

You can drink alone, she said, and took my hand and walked quickly back across the street.

14

T
HE WAR
was always with us. On the radio, we heard about the men who were building Liberty Ships in two weeks and how, at the great plant in Willow Run, a complete bomber was coming off the assembly line every hour, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. But in the summer at Coney Island, we saw lumpy blobs of congealed oil on the beaches and were told they came from sunken ships. It was true:
Loose lips sink ships, loose lips sink ships
… We were losing; we were winning; everyone must play a part. At one point, we were told to roll up toothpaste tubes while we used them and were forced to turn them in before we could get another; my mother started buying tooth powder, which was cheaper, the canister made with cardboard; but after a while there was none of that left either, and we brushed our teeth with bicarbonate of soda or didn’t brush them at all.

On the radio now, they were singing
Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me
and
I got spurs that jingle jangle jingle,
and every morning, on a show called “Rambling with Gambling,” we heard
Oh what a beautiful morning, Oh what a beautiful day
from a Broadway show called
Oklahoma.

I’d love to see that show, my mother said one day. I love those songs.

Why don’t you go and see it? I said.

It’s over on Broadway, she said, as if explaining it was in Madrid. It’s much too dear.

She said this as if ending the discussion. I was persistent.

Why can’t Daddy take you? He has money for Rattigan’s. Why can’t he save up and take you over to Broadway?

Well … maybe after the war is over.

I’d like to see Broadway too, I said.

She smiled and said, After the war …

During the second year of the war, my father started giving me an allowance of a dime a week, and with a few more cents (again, deposits on those bottles) I began to go to the movies with other kids. Almost always, on a Saturday morning, our destination was the Minerva, which was one large malodorous room, with two aisles and about twenty rows noisy with kids. There were usually three features, a serial (which we called the “chapter”), a cartoon, a newsreel, and coming attractions; all for twelve cents if we got there before noon. We never knew what time a movie started; we just went to the Show. And sitting there in the noisy dark, I was transported to other worlds.

I loved the Tarzan movies, with their lush scenes of jungles, tree houses, Johnny Weissmuller swinging on vines and bellowing his great triumphant calls. I also discovered the glories of the American West, vistas of amazing beauty, of deserts and mesas and mountains. Sitting in the dark of the Minerva, I could smell the leather saddles, the beans cooking in skillets on sagebrush fires, the dirty smoke billowing from an Iron Horse as it raced across the prairie. At the movies, I dove into mountain streams. I survived raging snowstorms and stampeding cattle. I faced down Indians, black hats, rustlers, desperadoes. I was pursued by posses and escaped into Mexico.

In those westerns, in the gangster movies, in the war movies, and even the love movies, the men were always drinking. They shot each other in saloons and nightclubs. They got drunk on leave and got into wild, hilarious fights in waterfront bars. Some of the movie drunks were comical, some mean. With the exception of a few cowboys, even the heroes drank whiskey. They never got drunk.

In the third year of the war, the Kilroy signs started appearing everywhere, brought home to America from Europe. They showed a long-nosed cartoon figure, his nose hanging over a fence, and the slogan: Kilroy Was Here. Nobody knew who Kilroy was. But he was everywhere (they said on the radio), he was every GI, he was every American fighting overseas. I mastered the head and nose of Kilroy hanging over the fence and chalked it on a hundred walls and fences. That year, Kilroy even made it to Brooklyn.

On the radio there were stories about zoot suit riots in Los Angeles, on the other side of the country; sailors were chasing the zoot suiters, most of whom were Mexicans, stripping off their clothes, shaving their heads, and then beating them to a pulp. Almost everybody seemed to think this was a good thing. A riot broke out in Detroit, blacks against whites, and people were killed by the police. Then there was a riot closer to home: in Harlem, over in Manhattan, where the Negroes lived. I saw pictures in the
Daily News
of black men with bloodied heads and tough cops with faces like slabs standing in front of them.

They oughtta kill
all
them niggers, a kid named Tommy Moore said, standing outside Sanew’s, as we looked at the headlines about the riot.

Why?

Why?
We’re fightin’ Hitler and the Japs, and the niggers are rioting! Whose side are they on?

Maybe they got a good reason. The paper says they won’t let them in the army with whites.

Of course not! said Tommy Moore. They’re
niggers!
They won’t fight!

But they’re fighting in Harlem!

That’s different! You can’t fight the Nazis wit’ a knife!

This was a puzzlement. There were no black people in our part of Brooklyn except for one tall man in overalls, who worked as a super in an apartment house on Fifteenth Street. Nobody seemed to bother him; certainly he didn’t bother anybody. When we traveled with my mother on the subway, we saw blacks, but they behaved like everybody else: dozing or reading newspapers or talking to each other. Joe Louis sure could fight; but when I thought about blacks in the movies I understood what Tommy Moore was saying. In the movies, blacks were always wide-eyed and comical, full of fear, running from ghosts or bad guys or their own shadows. If they saw Nazis with guns, would they say, as so many did in movies,
Feets, get movin’?

As always, I brought this to the kitchen table. My mother was rushing around, ladling out food. My father had gone to work.

How come niggers won’t fight? I said.

What? she said. What did you say?

The niggers, you know, from Harlem? How come —

Don’t use that word in this house, my mother said. They are called colored people. Or Negroes.

Everybody calls them —

Only bigots call them niggers, she said. And what does a bigot know about fighting? Bigots are cowards and bullies.

She knew everything.

When the rioting ended, we were back to news of distant battles. And other matters. A gangster named Lepke went to the chair, and everybody talked proudly about how he wouldn’t squeal on anyone, right up to the end, because he was from Brooklyn and if you’re from Brooklyn, you don’t squeal, ever. Jimmy Durante started saying “umbriago” on the radio, and though nobody knew what this meant, in school we said umbriago as if it were another version of Shazam: a magic word, a curse, a mystery. There were stories about strikes, and people cursed John L. Lewis, who was keeping the coal from reaching the cities. My father wondered how Lewis could be a union leader, anyway. He was a goddamned
Republican.

Then one wartime winter, there were no cigarettes. My father was always irritated, smoking strange brands, like Wings and Fatima (because the GIs were now using up the entire supply of Camels); the black market had them, he said, and they were holding them back to drive up the prices. Paper matches suddenly disappeared too, so my father started using wooden kitchen matches, snapping the sulfur heads into flame with his thumbnail. Alone in the kitchen I tried to do this many times, and always failed.

The war went on and on.

15

A
T
378, Big Jack McEvoy was the super. He lived on the first floor fight, with his wife, Mae, his son, Jackie, and his daughter, Marilyn. Everybody in the building thought they were strange people. For one thing, Big Jack was a Giant fan. We never knew another Giant fan, though there was a rumor that a Yankee fan lived on Ninth Street and Eighth Avenue. Both breeds were as rare as Republicans. Big Jack was probably a Republican too.

He’s a strange bird, my father said one Sunday morning.

Why? my mother said in an irritated way. Because he doesn’t spend hours in Rattigan’s?

My father gave her a hard look.

He’s making good money at the shipyards but he still works as a super, saving every dime, he said. He’s a cheapskate. He comes into the bar and never says a word and takes his pail home. I never trust a man that drinks alone.

In spite of the father who drank his beer from a pail at home, I became friendly with his son, Jackie. He was lean, taut, black-haired, and a great stickball player. We didn’t mind that he was a Giant fan too. He could play. Jackie was three or four years older than I was and he had a terrible temper, which was why the boys his own age wouldn’t play with him, even though he was a great hitter. But he seemed to like me. In the hall one day, a few weeks before Christmas, I asked him if he wanted to trade comics. Sure, he said, come to my house after dinner.

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