Read A Drinking Life Online

Authors: Pete Hamill

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A Drinking Life (9 page)

The McEvoy flat amazed me. Most of the living room was filled with a green-topped table upon which an entire model railroad line was operating in a perfect miniature world. There were mountains, a farm with cows and horses, a lake, streams, trees, stations, water towers, with the Lionel trains racing through them all.

My father built it for me, Jackie said casually, showing me how he operated switches, how he could make the trains move from one track to another, how they could even go backwards.

My father can build anything, Jackie said.

I said nothing in reply, thinking of my father calling Big Jack a cheapskate before heading for Rattigan’s.

I was awed by the McEvoy living room. In a corner of the room, an immense fat Christmas tree stood bright with bulbs, blinking electric lights, silver strands draped along the branches. Against one wall, a piano was covered with Christmas cards. Our own living room was barren in comparison; we wouldn’t have a tree until a few days before Christmas, when the prices came down, and we could never afford a real piano. Then Jackie showed me his collection of comics, great stacks of them. And added something else: comics he had drawn himself.

He had about seven of them, all in composition books, the pages broken up into panels like real comic books. Jackie’s hero was Smilin’ Jack, and the stories were all about his pursuit across the Pacific of a villain called the Red Bat. The panels were full, of ships and airplanes, desert islands and dying Japanese soldiers. At the end of each book, he wrote the ominous words: To Be Continued.

Pretty good, huh? he said.

Yeah, yeah, I said. They’re great, Jackie.

That night, back in our house, I started drawing my own comic books. I had one blank composition book and used a number 2 pencil to make my drawings. I asked my mother for a story and she said I should just make one up. So I did, sending Smilin’ Jack after the same Red Bat created by Jackie McEvoy. But in my story I made them roam the jungles of South America, using places from the Bomba books. The airplanes were hard to draw, so I looked at some comics, and tried to copy them. They didn’t come out well. The page grew rough and dirty from erasing, but when I was finished, they did look like airplanes.

When I finished my first book, I took it to show Jackie McEvoy and he said it was lousy. I thought, Well, maybe it is, but let me try again. I started filling book after book with my own comics, all about Smilin’ Jack, then adding other characters, then changing my hero’s name to Bob Sterling, Secret Agent. My mother loved these books. She would actually read them and laugh. Once more, she showed me the comics in the newspapers, in particular
Terry and the Pirates,
by Milton Caniff. I still didn’t quite connect with this strip, but I liked Terry Lee, who was blond and in the air force, and his commander, Flip Corkin, and his friend, Pat Ryan. I just didn’t understand the talk.

But on other pages in the
Daily News,
I found
Smilin’ Jack,
who didn’t look anything like Jackie McEvoy’s version of the character. In the newspaper, he was a handsome guy with a mustache, who flew all over the Pacific, fighting the Japanese. He met beautiful women everywhere and had two friends: Fat Stuff, a black guy whose buttons kept popping off his enormous belly, and Downwind Jaxon, who was always seen in three-quarters view from the rear so that his face remained a mystery. The airplanes were great. But I could never draw Smilin’ Jack the way he really looked. That’s why I invented Bob Sterling, who was a kind of flying G-man, chasing Nazis through Brazil, where they had taken over a lost city in the jungles. Naturally, they had a secret weapon too, the incredible Death Bomb.

That summer I showed some of my later books to Jackie McEvoy. This time, he didn’t dismiss me with contempt. He got furious.

What are you doing? he shouted at me. Stealing my idea?
I
write comic books, not
you
!

I never showed him another one.

In a way, I didn’t care. Jackie McEvoy’s approval didn’t matter all that much to me; on the street, even the big guys didn’t want to hang around with him. Besides, I had begun to think that I could draw better than he could. After a year of practice, I could make a credible Dick Tracy or Flattop without looking at the
Daily News.
I could even turn out a pretty fair Smilin’ Jack. I couldn’t draw women at all. But I would sit at the kitchen table after dinner, filling pages with airplanes, jungles, submarines, and heroes, packing balloons with talk, ignoring the heat or the cold, the cockroaches or the radio. The truth was, I only wanted the approval of one person.

But when my mother showed him my hand-drawn comic books one night, he stared at them, riffled through the pages, nodded, said Nice, and reached for his cigarettes and the quart bottle of Trommer’s.

16

U
P TWELFTH STREET
, in one of the buildings across from the Factory, there was a woman with flaming red hair who was called Betty the Whore (we pronounced the word
who-uh).
We would see her in the late afternoons, coming down the street in very high heels, short skirt, and jacket with padded shoulders. She changed her hairstyle all the time, letting it flow out, piling it on top of her head, flattening it under a pillbox hat. She was also the first woman in the neighborhood to wear slacks, which caused people to stare at her just as much as that tangerine hair. Most afternoons, when she started her walk, men would slowly step out of the bars, just to look at her, and they’d yell at her and she’d yell back and then she’d get on a trolley car and go off toward Flatbush Avenue. The men would all laugh and nudge each other and then go back into the bars.

I remember asking my mother about her: what the word “who-uh” meant and why the woman wore slacks and why the men yelled at her. She smiled and then shook her head.

She’s just a poor unfortunate, my mother said. Her husband’s in the army and she’s all alone.

Why do the men shout at her?

Because they are horse’s asses, she snapped. If they had any pity in them, they’d pray for her.

Do you pray for her?

I will. And you should too.

That night I prayed for Betty the Whore and the night after that, and then I forgot about her. There were so many people in the world to pray for that I just didn’t have time for the Poor Unfortunate with the rolling hips and flaming red hair.

17

T
HEN
one June afternoon, I came home from Holy Name and saw everyone rushing around, waving newspapers, shouting, pumping clenched fists in the air. D day! We had invaded France! Radios blared from hundreds of windows, telling about landings in Normandy and heavy fighting as the troops moved into France. My mother was happy, listening carefully as my father shaved.

Well, maybe it’ll be over soon, she said.

How soon? I said.

They say it might be Christmas.

I thought she was going to cry, but she didn’t. My father came out of the bathroom and I was proud of him. The radio said that men were fighting on the beaches near Cherbourg and flights of bombers were smashing the Ruhr, which I knew was in Germany; they must have been using his bombsights. He didn’t say anything for a long time, just listened to the news reports.

Good, he said at last. They can hang old Hitler from a telephone pole.

Off he went to work, and after a while I heard people coming up the stairs. Mae McEvoy and her daughter, from the first floor; Mrs. Halloran and Carrie Woods from the second floor. They had sandwiches and soda bottles and pails of beer and were heading for the roof. Across the hall lived the Caputos, who were wonderful people. Mike Caputo had a tough face and wore a tough longshoreman’s cap but he always smiled at us and remembered our names. Mrs. Caputo taught my mother how to make sauce for spaghetti, which we immediately wanted to eat every night instead of barley soup and stew. They had three sons, Sonny, Babe, and Junior, and they were always friendly. Then their door opened and all of them started for the roof too.

Let’s go, Mommy. Come on! Everybody’s going up to the roof.

She said, Okay, but be careful. It’s almost dark.

The roof was as packed as the street during an air raid drill. I saw people from every building on the avenue, and men from the bars, and they were all looking out at the harbor. Mr. Caputo asked me how I was doing in school and I said, Okay, vacation’s soon, and he said, Great, you can get a job f’ the summer. But I wasn’t thinking about a job. I was nine. Who would hire me at nine? The sun was now setting into New Jersey, the sky all red and purple, the skyline beginning to disappear into the darkness. We could hear the foghorns of dozens of ships. And then the sun set, the sky turned mauve and then black. The skyline disappeared as it did every night during the war. For a long time, people murmured to each other in hushed expectant voices.

What’s going to happen? I asked. Why is everyone here?

Just wait, my mother said. Watch the skyline.

And then, without warning, the entire skyline of New York erupted into glorious light: dazzling, glittering, throbbing in triumph. And the crowds on the rooftops roared. They were roaring on roofs all over Brooklyn, on streets, on bridges, the whole city roaring for light. There it was, gigantic and brilliant, the way they said it used to be: the skyline of New York. Back again. On D day, at the command of Mayor La Guardia. And it wasn’t just the skyline. Over on the left was the Statue of Liberty, glowing green from dozens of light beams, a bright red torch held high over her head. The skyline and the statue: in all those years of the war, in all the nights of my
life,
I had never seen either of them at night. I stood there in the roar, transfixed. And then softly, her voice trembling with emotion, my mother began to sing:

There’ll be bluebirds over

The white cliffs of Dover

Tomorrow, when the world is free …

And the others joined in, most of them women, some of whom had men in the army, fighting or dying out beyond the Narrows, their voices now joined, singing hard and loud, some crying, all gazing at that blaze of light.

There’ll be love and laughter

And peace ever after

Tomorrow — just you wait and see …

The war wasn’t over by Christmas. There was a lot more killing and a lot more dying. Across the summer, I played ball in the street, learning the mysteries of stickball. But the fall was very cold and the winter was brutal. The radio was on almost all the time. I read and drew more comics, and started drawing in sketchbooks. At the same time, I searched for Bomba books, pushing out beyond the edges of the Neighborhood to find little bookshops. I got good grades in school. In 4B, I was given the religion prize, a book about Thomas Aquinas, illustrated with silhouettes. I copied the silhouettes and then made some of my own.

Roosevelt died in April. Flags were lowered to half mast at the fire-house and the post office, schools were closed, and my mother prayed for Roosevelt’s departed soul. His picture remained on the kitchen wall. Truman became president. My mother didn’t like him but my father said, At least he’s a Democrat. Then on May 8, there was another collective roar in Brooklyn, and when I came home from school, people were out on the street, cheering and dancing while others banged pots from their windows and hung American flags on the fire escapes. The war was over in Europe! This was V-E Day. Hitler was dead, the Nazis had quit. Seventh Avenue was having a block party.

Patty Rattigan set up a keg of free beer on the sidewalk. Mrs. Caputo burst out of 378 with a huge pot of spaghetti. Other people brought down platters piled with sandwiches. My mother cooked a rhubarb pie. Even the Gapers Club abandoned the windows and came down to the street to gape at the food and drink. Radios appeared on fire escapes, loud with patriotic music and news from Washington. There was wild dancing, with grown-ups doing the Lindy Hop. Everybody was singing and drinking. My father was still asleep and he went to work that night without saying good-bye.

But V-E Day didn’t end the war. The fighting was still going on in the Pacific, getting more brutal as it came closer to Japan. In the
Daily News
maps I found Tarawa and Iwo Jima and Okinawa, showing them to Tommy, talking about them in the street. I added “kamikaze” and “flame thrower” to the nomenclature of war. And then on a still, thick day in August, Tommy Moore came bursting from his house with the news about the atom bomb.

We got a friggin’ secret weapon, he said. It blew up a whole friggin’ city!

I ran upstairs and turned on the radio. It was true. The American secret weapon had blown the entire city of Hiroshima to pieces. I ran downstairs again. To the kids in the street, this was great news. The Japs had bombed Pearl Harbor and now they were paying for it. Now the war would end. The secret weapon that was part of the plot in so many comic books was called the atomic bomb. And we had it.

But that night my mother was upset by the news, and for me that was confusing.

Those poor people, she said.

What poor people? my father said. They’re Japs!

They’re just people like us, she snapped back. Women and children and working people. They didn’t start the war. Some old politician did. But now thousands of them are dead.

They had it coming, my father said.

They did not.

What the hell do you know about it? he said in a hard voice. You’re not the president!

I know they’re just people, she said, holding her own.

He shut up then and finished his dinner and went to work. When he was gone, my mother hugged me.

Pray for the poor Japanese, she said. And I did.

Three days later, Nagasaki was bombed. And now my mother was more angry than sorrowful.

That old Truman, she said. He picked the one city in Japan where the Catholics lived.

How do you know? my father said. I never heard of a Jap that was Catholic.

It was on the
radio,
she said.

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