Web posted on: Tuesday, July 07, 1998 3:44:30 PM EDT
(CNN) -- Picking up where brother Frank left off, Malachy McCourt tells of his early days in New York. The title comes from the young immigrant's mishearing the "amongst women" line in the Hail Mary. The books recounts the adventures of a young man set loose in New York City in the freewheeling 1960s in search of fame, fortune, and fun.This first chapter includes language that may be offensive to some readers.
There is a story in our family that one day my mother was strolling along with my brother Frank and myself, and pushing our twins in a pram. A huge black motorcar stopped at the kerb, and out hopped a smartly dressed chauffeur, who opened the rear door for a bejeweled, befurred grande-dame type of woman who, putting the well-shod feet on the ground, commanded the mother to stop, which she did promptly. Then the grande dame waxed lyrical on the subject of myself -- how, she had never seen a more beautiful little boy: the blonde hair, the gleaming teeth, the gorgeous skin, and the smile -- and how she would pay any amount of money to the mother to allow her to adopt me.
The mother, as the story is told, thought, and thought, and thought, and said it was an attractive proposition, but she couldn't think of a way to explain my disappearance to my father, who had not yet disappeared himself, so she reluctantly declined the offer.
In later years, 'twas often thrown in my face by the mother and the brothers that a great mistake had been made by my retention in the family circle. Privately, I was always of the opinion that a grande dame had gotten herself in the family way outside of wedlock and had paid my mother to take me. How else can it be explained, my easy and effortless assimilation into the good life, life in America?
The brother Frank had somehow got to the U.S.A. in 1949, at the age of nineteen, and then saved up enough money to send for me in 1952, when I was twenty. Two hundred dollars paid my passage on the good ship America. Talk about the good life: clean beds, clean sheets, pillow, light to read by, and the food! As many meals and as much as you wanted, and you could have sandwiches in the middle of the night if you wanted. And there was a swimming pool. It was still embarrassing to have patched clothes and mended shoes, and all of it too heavy for the summer climate toward which we sped.
What was I going to do in the U.S. of A., they asked me, and how in God's name was I to tell them that I'd left school at thirteen and had no certificates to prove I'd been to school at all, as I had failed the primary exams twice and was considered a dunce, doomed, doomed to mendicancy, criminality or, worse, manual labor to the end of my natural days, that's what they'd said.
But the Americans were kind, so I'd tell them I was going to be a doctor an engineer a surgeon a pilot a navigator -- anything to bring a smile to the lips of these kindly folks. Truth is, I knew I couldn't do anything at all but tell stories and lies.
When I got here to the U.S., Frank was gone in the army to Germany and a family named McManus met me and guided me around. I had to register for the draft too, and found myself in the service for a couple of years, and out I came discharged, still not knowing what to do at the age of twenty-three.
I went to the docks and, as I swore I wasn't a Communist or a member of organized crime, I was allowed to register for work. In England, you were called a "docker," but here in the U.S. you were a "longshoreman," a romantic-sounding name for a laborer unloading the ships. There was a comforting monotony to the job, especially if you were fit, strong, and not too high in the I.Q. department.
New York was still a thriving port, the terminal point for a greater variety of cargoes than the brother Frank and myself. Hell's Kitchen, a hard and ragged neighborhood on the West Side of Manhattan, next to the Hudson River, was dominated by the Irish, and it was said there used to be signs on the piers. There that read NO WOPS; in Brooklyn the Italians were in charge, and they put up signs on the piers there that said NO MICKS.
I'd wander from pier to pier, to the Jersey City, Bayonne, and Hoboken hiring halls, echoey, smelly places, with green walls, dirty floors, and the usual flickering fluorescent lights. We'd shape up early in the morning, freezing in the winter, us garbed in the longshoreman's uniform: heavy boots, heavy trousers, sweater, pea jacket, woolen cap, work gloves, and the cargo hook unsteady from last night's excesses. If there were a lot of ships, the greenhorns like me worked; if not, it was another arse-scratching day.
This was in 1955, the days of the Waterfront Commission, established to clean up unions. Any time a union endeavored to clean up the horrendous, dangerous conditions under which workers were mutilated and killed, the bosses set in motion the propaganda machine to break the union under the guise of stamping out corruption.
Elia Kazan, who squealed on his friends to the House Un-American Activities Committee, got the job of directing the movie On the Waterfront as a reward for his treachery. Between Hollywood, the government, and the Church, they managed to practically destroy the International Longshoreman's Association by kicking out the great seekers for justice.
There was one dedicated little fellow with glasses who felt the union should do better. He ran for office time and time again. They'd shoot at him, beat him up, sabotage his car, and yet he lived to fight another day. The heart's a wonder, as Synge said.
I stayed out of the union doings, as I was not too keen on getting beaten up, and, being a fresh-faced young immigrant, I was still reasonably ignorant of the issues in dispute.
Was there thievery on the docks? Hell, yes! We helped ourselves to fine Italian shoes, and there were days we dropped our trousers and wound yards of suit fabric around the torso, so that at quitting time, you'd observe scores of portly males waddling off the pier. When there was a shipment of alcohol of any sort, it was a day of accidents involving fork lifts being drunkenly driven over the side of the pier, men falling into holds, fisticuffs, arguments, and much simple rejoicing.
There was a day I was working on a Brooklyn pier, and a cargo of artificial flowers arrived, which were duly tithed among the toilers. A thoroughly useless item it was, and I asked the other Irishman working there that day, an older fellow named McCabe, why they were stealing such a thing.
"Ah," sez he, "if they shipped shit over here in one-pound boxes, they'd steal all of it."
"They," of course, were the Italians, who stole everything, as distinct from the Irish, who only stole on principle -- that according to my elder.
My favorite cargo was rubber: huge, five-hundred-pound bales of the stuff, imported from Malaysia. Sometimes the crane man would let a bale fall out of the net from a great height, and the huge projectile would come bounding and bouncing erratically along the pier, sending even the most arthritic nonagenarian leaping for safety with gay abandon.
Along with shifting cargo on my handcart, I was keeping fit by playing with the New York Rugby Football Club. This was a polyglot of expatriates from the U.K., New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa, plus a sprinkling of anglophilic Yanks, some of whom hoped they would be mistaken for English. For a while, I was the only Irisher on the team, outside of a fellow named Brad Brady from Cork, who was so Brit-oriented he could hardly speak.
Many of those Brits lamented the coarseness of the Yanks, their lack of sportsmanship. "They actually care more about winning than playing the game, old boy." Perhaps one day they would see the error of their ways, return to the Empire, learn good manners, and become good subjects.
There was a lot of swilling of beer, chug-a-lug contests, and the like. At our annual dinner, toasts were proposed to the President and the Queen. When I proposed a toast to the President of Ireland, I was ruled out of order, so I proposed we eliminate the Queen's toast. Though I followed Robert's Rules, this counterproposal received little support.
We played games against colleges, wherever we could get 'em, from Princeton to Boston to Dartmouth. One of my first games was against Harvard, and it was a rough one with a lot of dirty play and fisticuffs. Several players were ordered off the field by the ref, including one Boston boy named Kennedy, known to we lads as Ted.
I couldn't get over being accepted into what is called "civilized, middle-class society." Jesus, here I was, a manual laborer, hobbing with college-educated folk, doctors, engineers, and stockbrokers. There was the occasional feeling that one day they would find me out -- that I was uneducated, a guttersnipe from the lanes of Limerick, an upstart. My weapon, my defense, to ensure my acceptance, was to drink more and drink faster than anyone on the team, to sing more songs, to be the larger-than-life of the party. I knew they would not have had anything to do with me in another clime, but here we were all exiles with no choice but to play the game, drink the drink, sing the song, and hide whatever need be hidden.
These rugby piss-ups were almost always totally male get-togethers. We men of the world would descend on a college, and all the undergraduates would be impressed at our savoir faire. At times, there'd be the leggy Aryan coed attached to an American Hero type. I'd look, lust, and leave, knowing I could never have one of them for myself.
Women fascinated me: their aromas, budding, blooming, busting-out breasts, the bottoms, the lips, the legs, the softness and roundness of all the parts, the dulcetness of speech, and that mysterious place guarded by thighs and downy hair. But what, in God's name, was I to say to them?
Cursed with shyness, I continued letting it all out on the field of battle, and during the off-season, continued the practice of shaking hands with the unemployed. Wanking, the Irish called it, that is, spilling the seed onto the ground, or anywhere else the trajectory sped it.
Mother Church had had strong views on sins of the flesh, and I never got over the feeling of being a sinner, of being unworthy, an excrescence in the eyes of God. I thought about the biblical injunction to Onan: Better to spill your seed in the belly of a whore than waste it on the ground.
Why, I would like to ask at this late date, is it less of a sin to stick the winkie into a paid lady than to wank? Theologians, please note.
Anyway, these rugby affairs were sexless, except for one pretentious Brit with a game leg, who babbled in that plummy way they have. Some of these Brits who are very class conscious speak as if they are about to expire, and each breath is their very last. This fellow, who was corpulent, to say the least, had a little boyfriend named Johnny. He was the sort of lightweight lad who'd be nervous using a feather duster, lest it fatally wound someone, and our man Harold, whose playing days were long done, would insist on Johnny playing the game.
Sheer terror guided Johnny on the field. He behaved like a gazelle who knows there are hungry lions waiting for him in the veldt, and he ran as if he had a ripe strawberry stuck 'tween the cheeks of his arse, which he had been instructed not to crush.
Eventually, Johnny got weary of being one with the turf and fled with a clothing designer to California, leaving Harold with a broken heart, from which he died.
With a few quid in my pocket from my labors on the docks, a proper place to lay the head was in order, and I found one on West Eighty-first Street, in an apartment overlooking the Museum of Natural History, which, being so close, I never set foot in. The roommate who bid me share his bode was a tall, gaunt fellow, a construction engineer by profession, and totally around the bend. He staggered under the name of George Giles Green. George had been a pilot in the Korean War, and whilst absent from home during that forgotten conflict, fighting for America's honor, didn't his spouse dump him? She strolled off with another lad, who happened to be of the Hebraic persuasion, which led George to feel a very strong empathy with the late A. Hitler. The Jews, said he, were behind everything, including the voting machine. When he was exercising his citizen's right to vote, I was thoroughly and repeatedly informed, they manipulated the controls so that George voted for Jewish candidates against his will.
An ardent craw-thumping follower of Gucci-shoed popes was old G.G.G., who cast a cold orb upon me when I'd share with him my inflated tales of fleshly pursuits, until I decided I'd show him, and kept them to myself.
On the table in our living room there stood in eternal vigilance a stone bird, beak up, wings folded, greenish grey -- an ornithologist's dilemma. George warned me to be careful what I said, as our friend the boid had the habit of flying around to the other apartments in the building after we went to bed and relating to all the Jews living there every word we had spoken. And there was much to be reported, as our chats, such as they were, would by then have been quite brief were it not for the latest doings of the Jews (G.G.G.) and the weather (me).
The end of this apartment share came after only a few months, the night G.G.G. and myself were sitting digesting the evening's repast and, having been filled in by my roommate on the daily doings of Moses' henchmen, I was reading quietly. Suddenly my attention was drawn to the floor. Eichmann's admirer was crawling toward me, eyes ablaze, flecks of ye olde foam at the corners of the mouth. "Get down," he urged. "Get down on the floor. Quick! Quick!"
George was a veteran of the latest police action in Korea and, although a pilot, knew ground warfare too. As my knowledge of warfare partook of neither the sky nor the battlefield, but extended only to the occasional barroom set-to, I deferred to his greater experience and assumed we were under attack, even though we were on the seventh floor. Fear accelerated my dive to the carpet, where I found myself stretched out on the belly, face-to-face with my foaming friend.
Having taken all possible precautions against being blown away by sniper fire from the Museum of Natural History, I ventured a query to George.
"What is going on, George?" sez I.
"Can't you hear them!"
"Who?" sez I.
"The Jew cab drivers."
I tried to look thoughtful, and indeed I was, thinking how a distinction could be made between the words "Jew" and "Jewish."
"What about them, George?"
"As if you don't know! They've been told to honk their horns when they pass this building!"
"I see. And what are we doing on the floor?"
"They can see our shadows on the ceiling!"
It's embarrassing to realize you've been conned into entering the province of a first-class, ocean-going lunatic, so up on the pins with me, announcing, "You're talking through your arsehole!"
Thereupon, the slavering George said that I was a brainwashed Jew-lover, no better than the Judas bird, and there was no place for me in a decent Christian society, much less his apartment, so I'd better get out. I left the following morning, after an alert and sleepless night.
I didn't see old G.G.G. for some years, until I spotted him on Third Avenue pacing up and down across the street from Malachy's I, a saloon I owned at that time. With a bit of trepidation, I approached the man. He seemed glad to see me, and when I invited him to step across the boulevard to the saloon, he demurred, and instead invited me to dine with him the following week at the New York Athletic Club.
I was relieved to see the man had apparently achieved normalcy, so I accepted. The New York Athletic Club at that time was a bastion of Franco-loving, Mussolini-mourning, God-fearing Hitlereans, but, not being too discriminating in those days, I hied myself over there and presented myself for the free dinner. Got a warmish greeting from George and, after a beaker of Irish whiskey (N.B.: No other whiskey is entitled to be spelled with an "e"), he invited me to inspect the new wrestling mats in the gym.
Myrmidonish sort of laddie that I was, I assented, and off we strolled to the gym to view said mats. On the way there, George said that he was living here now, as it was a very safe place from Jews. Jesus, here we go again. But I hadn't had the dinner yet. Or seen the new mats.
We stepped into the gym, which was bereft of human beings, and George said, "There they are!" with a wave toward the pile of mats.
I said something brilliant, like, "Very nice." A glance then at good old George showed me that the face of the madman had emerged again -- the blazing eyes, the foam, etc. -- and a choked voice told me that I had fucked a Jew whore and told her I was George Giles Green and now she was pregnant and demanding money from him. I, of course, said I hadn't, a weak statement, I'll admit, but the best I could muster at the mo'. George paid no attention to the denial, which, I suppose, should not have come as a surprise.
Though not in the best of physical form, he was capable of moving with celerity, in this case unleashing an uppercut that would have pleased Mr. M. Ali of fisticuffs fame, had he dispatched it. It landed a couple of degrees west of the chin, on the jawline. I found myself inspecting the new wrestling mat more closely than I had intended when George extended the invite to view them.
When the head cleared, I was alone, face down, Georgeless once more. George had fled the premi. I departed the N.Y.A.C., dinnerless and with a very sore jaw. The last I heard of George, he was in a safe place, attended by white-garbed folk. He was most agreeable in their company, as he thought they were off-duty members of the K.K.K.
The lesson learned then, and revisited over the years, was that all anti-Semites, and bigots as a general class, are either sick or stupid. Ah, I thought, as this obvious bit of sociology dawned on me, aren't I the clever little immigrant to have figured that out?© 1998 Malachy McCourt. All rights reserved.
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