In June of 1962, in my furnished room on West 95th Street, the temperature is rising. Tempers begin to flare among old-time Irish, Italians and African Americans and the more recently arrived Puerto Ricans. Something is brewing. Seamus Collins is a few years older than I am. He and I work together. Seamus and his roommate, both of them Irish immigrants, are looking for a third man to share their apartment in the Bronx. Am I interested? I most certainly am.
One week after I move, a newspaper account describes an incident on 95th Street. An African American woman scolded or hit a Puerto Rican child, or vice versa. In protest, a hail of plants and garbage erupts from the surrounding rooftops, provoking a general riot and summoning a host of squad cars.
Not many Irish immigrants get to live first in Manhattan before moving to the Bronx. It's lucky for me that I escaped the riot by moving, just in time, back among the Irish. Seamus Collins, Eddie Deary and I live at Apt 1C, 1917 Walton Avenue. Seamus writes to his father in Ireland. His father, in writing back, addresses his letter to "The Aptic, 1917 Walton Avenue." He has assumed, no doubt, that his son is doing well. Isn't he living in a building with a fancy name? The apartment is on the ground floor and to the rear. There's little daylight and only one bedroom. The living room is the second bedroom.
The building, I would guess, had seen better times, when it was younger and held a predominantly Jewish population. The synagogue next door abuts the bedroom window where I sleep. On Saturday mornings in the summer, long before air-conditioning, it is always ninety degrees and a full-bodied bluebottle fly buzzes the bedroom. Periodically he touches down on my forehead. Repeatedly I shoo him away. His antennae are dulled by the fumes of last night's beer. He himself is lulled, no doubt, and calmed into slow motion, as I am, by the stately Sabbath chant as it drifts upward from the synagogue, soothing my ravaged gentile spirit.
In this secure Irish and Italian neighborhood, life is simple and straightforward if you are not too ambitious and your sensibilities are not hanging out all over. Two bars and a Catholic Church are within shouting distance of "The Aptic." I can't afford the church, but I make an obeisance at Behan's Bar whenever funds will allow. Exile from exile, this is sanctuary. The family name is not known here, as it is in Manhattan, in the Village and in the saloons of the Upper East Side, where the brothers have made their mark.
Here am I, up from my brief apprenticeship in the world of Manhattan cocktail parties, where the tinkle of polite conversation matches the gentle rattle of the ice in the glasses. Manhattan, where elegant women of the Upper East Side, women in black dresses and pearls, will ask me with glittering, if brittle, interest, if I am going to school. And I tell them yes, I am. That seems to be what they want to hear. Yes I am, I tell them. Yes I can. Yes I will. Yes I would. Anything you want, anything, just say the word, I would tell them, if I were not so tongue-tied. I can only nod in agreement as the blood rises to my face and they shine at me and tell the brothers that I am very bright.
Especially on New Year's Eve when Malachy and his wife arranged a date for me. She was the daughter of a well-known literary personality. We were to attend a formal party. I had no tux, so Malachy lent me his old one.
In The Cruel Sea, Nicholas Monsarrat describes a woman whose clothing was equipped with a quick-release device. She was always ready.
Malachy's suit must have had some thousands of miles on it. Somewhere along the line, the seam, which usually holds together the crotch part where the scrotum hangs out or hangs in, as the case may be, had abandoned ship, leaving a vacancy and a very breezy point. A hole in your pants, especially in that area, is not reassuring, especially when you're headed out for an evening. But, at age twenty-two, chance was all. Putting my best foot forward, I tried, really, to put both feet forward, both at the same time. Cheeks and thighs had to be held together at all times. Bow from the waist? I would if I had to. Just don't ask me to dance.
Miss Kate and I were chatting as we strolled the party. We tasted the food, drank some and toasted the New Year. We left the party early, stepping into the winter air, the very brisk winter air, but, at twenty-two neither snow nor sleet would stay. I had no doubt that Miss Kate was puzzled at my antics. I had moved around so casually at the party. Now, in the street, in an attempt to shield the jewels from winter chill and from revelation, I was walking sideways. Most of all, I was in mortal fear of being exposed.
Back at her parents' apartment we got together mighty hot and mighty quick on the couch. We moved along. My partner was a woman of some experience while I was ready, too ready and too ignorant. So anxious was I in my fear of discovery and so worried that she would come across the ripped seam that, in a short time, tension lit the spark and consummation was reached all by myself. The pants were christened. Rigor mortification set in, only adding to her puzzlement and I retired from the field, dejected by my momentary failure but hoping for another day.
In the Bronx, there are no black dresses or strings of pearls. There may be willing women, but I never find them. I don't know where the women dwell in the Bronx for there are no women in the streets after five o'clock. I would see them coming out of the church on Sundays after Mass, but otherwise they must be under wraps.
Behan's bar is peopled by old-time Irish Americans and immigrant Irishmen like myself. There is not much of the ice tinkling in the glasses, not much ice at all. Shots and beers and conversation are very basic among plumbers, carpenters, subway mechanics and factory workers who hang out there. I belong only because, by now, I have risen to the rank of service elevator operator in a residential building in Manhattan.
Bernard Baruch, financier, philanthropist and adviser to presidents, lives in the building, as does the British Ambassador to the U.N., Sir Patrick Dean. Both are decent men and, like a truly beautiful woman, these two truly accomplished men are approachable.
By this time I am a student, at Lehmann College in the Bronx, during the day. Running the service elevator at night allows me plenty of time to study. On that once-a-week evening when I must do tedious duty at the front door, I keep, on the bench by my side, a copy of Plato's Republic. Plato marks my spot. Plato's presence by my side will let them know, especially the good-looking daughter of the real estate mogul, that I am not only what I seem to be.
Sir Patrick Dean invites me for a tour of the U.N. Bernard Baruch asks me if I am going to school and is mighty pleased that I am, and proud that they have named a college after him. But in my uniform, even with Plato by my side, I am invisible to the mogul's daughter as she passes in and out. If she ever does notice Plato and me, she sure doesn't show it. All I ever get from her is a toss of her hair as she sashays away through the lobby.
Seamus Collins had come to the U.S. in his middle to late twenties and his age made it very difficult for him to make the adjustment to life in New York. Ideally he should have been here by age twenty-one in order to fit in, especially since he had a bit of the old Irish middle class in his origins. Strictly a suit-and-tie man, he works in insurance in an office.
For any special occasion, Seamus wears a cravat. At Behan's bar there are murmurings of too much gentility and a fool could mistake him for a bit of a dandy. But Seamus had been an amateur boxer. He is well able to handle himself and, strong as he is, he's a great man to have in your corner in any situation.
More émigré than emigrant is Seamus, as I would realize later. Still steeped in the manners and mores of his own country, he is dipping his toe, now, in a different culture. Too old to be so junior in position, he doesn't quite fit in with his peers at his office. Nor does he fit in with his fellow Irish immigrants, because of his old-fashioned manners and his unfailing courtesy.
Never afraid to branch out, Seamus mixes with people from Jamaica and Hungary and Korea, people with theatrical and artistic leanings. That's lucky for me. At one of their parties I meet Sally, a social worker and graduate student at Columbia University. Diminutive and pretty she is and she laughs at my jokes. We don't linger long at the party.
At International House, a residence for women students, men are not allowed upstairs. Evading capture, Sally and I shoot upstairs in the elevator and straight into her single bed. Furtive and anxious I am and in mortal fear of the arrival of the chastity shock troops. It happens fast, but it does happen. At last. She welcomes it with no begrudgery and no false modesty or fear. Just open arms and a warm welcome to the United States of Enlightenment.
After an encore it is time for me to go. Down the stairs I fly, running straight into the dawn, almost knocking over a sleepy, startled security guard who makes no attempt to stop me as I run out the door into the rising sun.
At Behan's she is a source of amazement, a real live woman in the bar. At this time, women do not frequent bars. She is a far cry from the broken-down alcoholic woman, escaping from husband and children, who sometimes appears. Nor does she resemble the desperate once-a-week woman, always chasing her drunken husband in an attempt to salvage something of his paycheck, which by now will have been well spent.
Neither of these two will cause any surprise in Behan's. But a young and good-looking woman (a real American, a Californian, mind you) obviously intelligent and educated, and with a hyphen to her name and pedigree? This is unheard of.
Before Sally's arrival the only halfway attractive woman ever to cross the threshold of the bar was the sometime girlfriend of Tommy, a hard-bitten factory worker from Glasgow, Scotland. And, as far as we know, his lady is married. She comes only on Sunday afternoons, when the crowd, in the best tradition, has already been in for the after-Mass beers, their reward for a hard week's work and for an hour of even more demanding piety.
She makes her entrance after the post-pious crowd has gone home to the heavy Sunday dinner, when only we hardy souls, with no wives and no expectation of any Sunday dinner, are still extant. On the jukebox, Roger Miller sings "King of the Road," the words of the song in a loose rhythm with the shoosh of the brass weights speeding down the length of the polished shuffleboard table. When the speeding weight hits a stationery weight, the kathunk is followed by a dull thud as the defeated weight is knocked off the table and into the sawdust in the trough.
Yes, Tommy's lady shows up on Sundays. Always with a touch of red: a scarf, a blouse or a pair of red shoes to add flame to her dark and exotic looks, hailing from Argentina, they say. "To hell with the Celtic mists that do be after rising. Is it on, or off the bog? I can't remember which. "Just give us a touch of the Pampas, will yeh?" I can hardly keep myself from saying it, but none of us stands a chance with her. Tommy is hard-bitten, as I said. And he is fully aware of us, as we put aside our shuffleboard lassitude, to stand straight up and give her our full regard.
For one or two drinks they stay, she smoking fast and nervous while Tommy, with pretended indifference, nurses his drink. Diverted by an occasional joke or a verbal toss into the ring by one of his mates, he rarely looks in her direction. Any overt sign of attention paid to her by Tommy will be construed as submission and will land him in a hell of taunts and imitations later on. But his command is absolute. At a nod from him, they leave and walk to his apartment, next door and just upstairs. Like a Carmen she had come, to ruin our shuffleboard reverie and to set us adrift on a raft of fantasy. Now she's gone and our imaginings, all of them foolish and futile, have gone with her. We resume the rhythm of the shuffleboard; the shoosh, the kathunk and the thud are companionable, comfortable and soothing.
Sally comes often to that bar with me. God knows what this California girl must think of those bleak streets. The IRT train pounds and rattles above our heads, bringing a constant drilling among glasses and bottles behind the bar. She is closely scrutinized by bartender and customers, but when I introduce her around, the novelty fades.
Mickey is an exception, Mickey of the no neck, arms extending all the way to his knees. Careful and deliberate in movement and an excellent shuffleboard player, he works as an elevator operator. God knows he has the perfect physique for the job. When I introduce him to Sally he is wary.
In conversation, later he remarks, "I never shpoke to a Prottishtant."
"Mickey," I ask him, "how do you know?" Mightily disturbed is he and, probably, forever. From that point on, he will keep his distance from Sally for he has guessed, I think, and correctly, that she is not a Catholic. She is, indeed, a Protestant, God Help Us. But Mickey is not unkind, as I discover when I find myself in need of work and he arranges a part-time job for me.
Soon I will be retired from my elevator operator job because I fail to show up on a couple of Saturday mornings at my ridiculous starting time of seven in the morning. Had I gone to work I could not have lain in bed, lamenting the effects of Friday night's beer and swatting at the solitary fly, just to let him know that somebody was taking note of his existence. Worst of all, I would have missed my arm's-length participation in the Sabbath service in the synagogue next door. There was probably a constitutional issue in my being fired, only I didn't realize it.
In the meantime, I have received a draft notice ordering me to report to Whitehall Street in Lower Manhattan for induction. When I write and tell them that I am a full-time student, they postpone my induction and request that I return the subway token they had sent me for transportation. I keep the token.
At the end of November, I am introduced to someone who knows someone. He, in turn, introduces me to someone who knows someone else. Following an exhaustive and rigorous physical examination, with much probing of the rectum, which to me seems strange and downright stupid, at age twenty-three, I am hired by the Pennsylvania Railroad. Every evening our small crew stands out on a freezing railroad platform in Long Island City from four o'clock to midnight.
In sorting mailbags full of Christmas mail, we create a Christmas miracle of our own. Destination names are abbreviated and barely legible. Half of us can barely read and don't much care where the mail goes. The other half of us can read and we care even less. If any of that mail ever reaches its destination it is because of Divine Intervention, but, at ninety-six dollars a week, the pay is good. In the end, at four o'clock on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, when we report for work, the foreman hands us our pay. "Go on home, fellas," he tells us, "and have a Merry Christmas. You're all done." It is a mighty sweet ending.