Sunday, October 17, 2010
A Summer with Charlie
This is the first chapter of my book "A Summer with Charlie." I have probably sold more copies of this book than any other. It was recently published in Merrimack Valley Magazine along with a review by local journalist Christine Lewis and a short bio of the author. You can find out more about this book by clicking on the link at the right of this page. You can also order the book if you like.
1 Charlie Gets Liberty
“Rich?” my buddy Willie said in a whisper, slipping up next to me at the pool table. “That was Charlie, man.”
“What’s he doing home from the Navy?”
“He’s dying, man. Didn’t you hear?”
“Dying? You’ve got to be kidding?”
“No man! He got some disease from workin’ them X-ray machines for the Navy.”
“How come he ain’t in some Navy hospital or something?”
“He’s gone, man. There ain’t no cure. So I guess the Navy just let him go and he’s back home at his mom and dad’s house until he croaks. They called me up to find out where all of us guys were hanging out now. I guess Charlie just sits around the parlor staring out the window and smoking cigarettes. Mr. and Mrs. K don’t know what the hell to do, I guess.”
“No joke, man.”
I stared down at the pool table as I pretended to be racking up the balls. Chucky was home from the Navy. He was home to die.
Charlie’s home, and my home, was a mill town in the northeast corner of the State of Massachusetts. It was thick with people, rough and tumble, down and dirty. It was tough, blue-collar, working, immigrant folk from just about every country in the world. In fact, today it calls itself The Immigrant City. There aren’t too many places like it in the United States that I have ever seen. I have been all over the United States and I haven’t seen anything like it. I’m not saying that Lawrence is or was something great, I’m just saying that it is unique, a one of a kind. Seeing it once, though, would probably be enough for most folks. This is where Chucky and I were raised.
Robert Frost graduated from Lawrence High School which was just one block north of the “Y” (YMCA). I had to tell you all that. It’s the only fact that most of us know to brag on in old Lawrence.
Across from the Y was the Common. The Common was a city park. It had a baseball field, and a softball field, a wading pool and played host to many city events. I’ve since read that one-eyed Big Bill Haywood was there in 1912 for the famous Bread and Roses labor union strike. The largest labor union strike of the era, involving tens of thousands of workers. Supposedly that strike changed labor history and turned things around for the workingmen, women and children in America.
I always thought that it would be interesting to research that strike. Two of my grandparents were there and probably on different sides of the picket lines.
My grandmother on my mother’s side was a weaver, and my grandfather on my father’s side was a mill foreman at the Arlington Mills on Broadway. My grandmother worked at the Wood Mill.
The Wood Mill was the largest of its kind. It was built, owned and operated by a William Wood. My grandmother, the weaver, was Polish and my grandfather, the foreman, was Irish. My grandfather might have been standing, looking out a fourth floor window, slapping a club into his palm or wielding a shotgun, while staring down onto the street at my Polish grandmother marching and picketing with her newly arrived, poor, immigrant friends.
Growing up, I never heard one word about unions or strikes. I never heard of the Bread and Roses Strike, or Big Bill Haywood, or Elizabeth Gurley Flynn or Mother Jones. Nor did I hear about the deaths of strikers that were caused by the authorities and then blamed on the strike leaders. A little Italian girl by the name of Anna LoPizzo was shot and killed by police and a fifteen year old Syrian boy by the name of John Ramy was bayoneted by the militia and eventually died in a Lawrence hospital. They framed two of the union leaders for the murders. Smiling Joe Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti were in jail for over a year and finally absolved of the trumped up murder charges brought against them by the state.
My friends and I never discussed any of this. The Bread and Roses Strike of 1912 is the most documented labor/management disaster in union history, yet I never heard mention of it in or out of any of my Lawrence school houses. I don’t know if the town was ashamed of it, or it was my Catholic, “support the State and keep the peace” education. Maybe there were such hard feelings over it that everyone just refused to talk about it. So there you go - history in action.
Big Bill Haywood stood up on the bandstand at the Common and gave his famous, or infamous, clenched-fist, unity speech. Each finger standing alone was destructible, but once the hand was closed into a fist and united, the fingers could now defend themselves like a club - today’s black power salute.
Dwight David Eisenhower appeared in the Common in 1952 on his first run for the presidency. Between Lawrence, Lowell and Haverhill you probably had several million eligible voters. I don’t remember Ike being there at the Common. I would have been nine or ten at the time. I could have been there in the crowd for all I know.
“Hey Charlie, you feel like losing a game of pool, do yah?”
I had just walked into the YMCA. The gang from the old Corner had migrated to the lobby at the Y. I didn’t even know what the letters YMCA represented. I really didn’t care. The important thing was that for fifty cents I was now an associate member of the YMCA. Being an associate member entitled me to complete and unadulterated access to the Y lobby and its multiple and various facilities. This included a free seat in the “peanut gallery” for TV viewing; access to two official-sized pool tables; visiting privileges to the public reading room; and permission to use one of their chess boards, checker boards, or decks of bicycle playing cards. It was really the best deal for a winter quarters that our street gang had ever stumbled upon. A nice warm lobby with all of the above mentioned amenities, plus vending machines that sold hot chocolate, coffee, potato chips, crackers, Coca-Cola and a whole array of other goodies. I don’t know which one of the guys had discovered the associate membership to the Y lobby, but this was the berries. This was the closest we had ever come to being treated as adults in our entire career. It was great; coatracks and everything. Just like real people and not street hooligans or roughnecks. That’s what my mother used to call me and my buddies ... roughnecks. “Where are you and your roughneck buddies going tonight? Don’t let the cops catch you. STAY OUT OF TROUBLE!” Yah, yah, yah.
I heard a familiar voice call out my name, but my quick scoping out of the peanut gallery revealed no recognizable candidates. I proceeded across the lobby and over to one of the pool tables. I put my quarter in the machine apparatus, shoved in the sliding doohickey thing and then started racking up the balls.
The peanut gallery was always dark, so that you could see the TV which was elevated high up on a wall. If you wanted to change the station on the TV, you had to drag one of the folding or straight-backed chairs over, and climb up onto it. Of course, you had better ask the crowd in the peanut gallery before you ever made such an attempt, if you didn’t want to get lynched.
I saw a smile spread under the porkpie hat over in the dim, poorly lit corner.
“Well,” Charlie said rising up from his chair. “I suppose that this will be embarrassing. It has been so long since I’ve shot a game of pool.”
“Oh my god, will you listen to this? The overseas, international billiards champion of the entire US Fleet and it’s going to be embarrassing? Yah right! Don’t give me any of that Willie Mosconi hype. I know better.”
Charlie was laughing now. By the time he got to the table, I had the balls all racked.
“You break ‘em, hustler,” I said with a grin.
Charlie picked himself a cue and rolled it around the table. After three or four cue sticks bumped their way over the felt, he grabbed up the last one and laughed.
“That’s a good one. You can probably shoot around corners with that sucker.”
Charlie didn’t look like Charlie anymore. His face was all puffed up. He was a little chubby. He wasn’t the lean, mean, fighting machine that he was when he had joined the Navy. If Willie hadn’t come up to me and pointed him out, I certainly wouldn’t have recognized him. He didn’t look sickly though. He still pranced like a young colt with his leather healed loafers clicking on the hardwood floor. He always dressed well; neat and clean, not fancy. Charlie was a sharp looking guy - neat, trim, good looking. He used to slick back his hair and puff a big wave up in the front, as we all did. We all looked like Elvis in those days.
Charlie had been a member of the “corner gang” since the early days. Myself and John Robert Michael McSheehy Sr. were the organizers of the original Corner Gang. We were on our way home from the St. Rita’s grammar school in route number four when we got the bright idea.
The “routes” were the organized and patrolled or supervised pathways to our various neighborhood homes, orchestrated and devised by the Good Nuns. The Good Nuns, the Sisters of Notre Dame, had everything under control. The nuns were sweethearts I know, but I still don’t think that I had a nun in any grade who was unable to press her own body weight in the gym. I never saw a nun with a tattoo, though. I walked home in route number four because it was the shortest route. It was only one block long, and it ended at Nell’s Variety Store. I don’t know what brought up the idea of starting a Corner Gang, but we thought that we would like to start one. John Robert Michael McSheehy Sr. thought that starting a gang would be easy.
“Just start hanging around the same place at the same time everyday, and pretty soon you will have a gang,” he suggested. I didn’t believe it but I always hated going home so I suggested that we give it a try. John Robert Michael McSheehy Sr., commonly known as Jack, was agreeable to the idea. So everyday after school we went into Nell’s, got a bag of Granite State Potato Chips in the sealed fresh aluminum bag and a bottle of C & J (Curran and Joyce) Orange Phosphate, or Lime Rickey and we were in business. We would just sit outside on the steps of the store, or on the sidewalk or the steps leading up to the upstairs apartments and just wait. At supper time we would go home and eat quickly and then run right back. I remember thinking at that time that this was the most exciting thing. I couldn’t wait to get back to the Corner after supper each day. It was like fishing. How many bites would we get today and then could we hook them?
It was only a matter of weeks before we had a gang. First came Dolan, who lived just around the corner; then Costello, who lived right across the street from St. Rita’s; then Cusack, then Comier, then Charlie who also took route four; then Vinnie Whaley; then Mike Torla who was a friend of Jimmy Costello. It wasn’t long before there were fifteen or twenty of us out there every afternoon and evening. It wasn’t long before we were a part of the local police department’s regular routine also.
“Okay, let’s move it. Come on, come on. Don’t you little bastards have a home to go to, anyway?”
“You know officer, now that you mention it, you look a little like Dolan. You ever spent any time on Hampshire Street, sir? What do you think Dolan?”
“Daddy, daddy, oh please, can I go home with you tonight?”
“Get movin’ you little shits. If we have to get out of this cruiser you guys will be in big trouble.”
“Yah like what are you gonna do ... arrest us?”
“That’s it. Let’s get ‘em Billy.”
“ALL RIGHT! They’re gonna arrest us! SHOTGUN!”
“No no, I’m riding shotgun. You got to ride shotgun last time.”
The cops were a regular thing. It was a joke. This was a Catholic tenement-house city, with ten damn kids on every floor. The Police didn’t know what to do with us. They tried to keep us moving from one place or from one corner to another. But whatever corner we migrated to, the neighbors didn’t want us there either. But the truth was that most of the cops were just like us. They were Irish Catholic or sons of immigrants. They each had six or seven brothers and sisters, and they grew up in the streets or hanging out on the street corners just like we were. They mostly just laughed at us and told us to take a walk and give the poor people living in the surrounding tenement houses a break. We used to go on walks all over the neighborhood, but invariably ended right back where we started; sitting on the steps at Nell’s Variety.
“So, what’s the deal, you out of the Navy for good now, or just home on leave or something?” Small talk. I knew all the answers but you have to say something.
“I’m gonna be around for awhile,” Charlie offered, while inspecting the pool table for a good shot.
“Yah, lucky you guys.”
The guys who hung out on the Corner were more like family than acquaintances or even buddies. We all knew one another better than we knew our own family members. We sat there everyday, day after day, talking our personal stuff and our personal problems.
Charlie wasn’t one to be confessing a lot of personal stuff. He was busy, busy, busy. He was always just coming or just going. He was a year or two older than me and Jack and some of the others. He liked playing cards, shooting pool, and pitching pennies. He was a listener, and a laugher. He was the tease-ee rather than the tease-er. He loved getting razzed, or being the subject of a joke, but he never told any himself, and he didn’t tease others. He was the kind of kid who beamed when you called out his name or bumped into him someplace downtown. He loved to be recognized. He loved being a part of the Corner Gang. He played in all of the activities. He was an independent type. He had his own car when we got bigger.
He had his own cigarettes. He never bummed a cigarette. And he didn’t indulge those who did. He always had his own money. He never talked or complained about his mother or father or his sisters or brothers. In fact, I don’t know if he had a sister. I know he had a younger brother.
Charlie was up the Corner all the time, he was one of the guys. He skipped out of the senior prom to come down to Walter’s Variety to get a pack of cigarettes. Walter’s was one corner up from Nell’s and it was our latest refuge and hangout. Everybody loved that one. A dapper dude in a tux, smoking a cigarette, and reading comic books at Walter’s Variety on senior prom night. Walter loved it. He thought that was the greatest. Charlie was a pisser. He was no class clown, but he did unexpected things. Charlie was really so straight and conventional that when he did something out of the ordinary, it really stood out and made you giggle. When you were with Charlie, you always did the talking. I don’t ever remember Charlie voicing an opinion on anything. He was easy to be with. He was easy to be around. He was very easy to like. It would not be easy to watch him die.