Chapter I: Jersey City Genesis
I don't recall holding onto one side of the baby carriage while learning to walk. Nor being taken on a walk through the park one cold winter morning. Nor the woman who walked up to my mother that morning and questioned her about why I was constantly falling down while taking short steps when only a few days ago I was walking erect. She suggested that my mother take me to the nearest hospital and have me checked over. She did just that.
For the next several months I went through all sorts of treatments, as well as experiments, to stop the spread of the polio that had gripped me. Four months later I was released, with one leg shorter than the other by half an inch. Compared to the hundreds of other kids who were caught in that particular epidemic, I came off fairly lucky.
I suppose the first words I heard of any conversation were my mother denouncing my dad's failure to bring home his paycheck without first stopping in the local pub and spending half of it on his boozing buddies. I don't recall ever being picked up by the old man and held in his arms, or receiving any hugs or kisses from him like I saw in pictures. All I could recollect was the fear that he put into the family as he came home falling-down drunk. Then the tears started and there was much yelling and shouting between my mother and father, while all the kids tried to hide in different parts of the house to stay out of reach of the old man. When the yelling and arguing stopped, it was because the old man would give my mother a belt and knock her against the wall. That was the price she paid for protesting too loudly and too often against his preference for drink over his love of family. At this stage of life, I don't think my dad had any great love for the family or my mother.
They had met in Ireland. It was shortly after she had returned to the outskirts of Waterford from two years of "service" in South Africa. Ireland in those days was Great Britain's melting pot for an abundance of cheap labor forced on by poverty and hunger. Mother applied for a "position" and was accepted for work as a kitchen maid in the home of a well-to-do English doctor on a beautiful estate in Cape Town.
Back in Ireland, this beautiful woman, Elizabeth Nolan, met my dada meeting she always regretted, so she said. Raised as a Catholic by a strict Irish family, she abided by all the dogmas of the Church. My father had just returned from India, where he had done a hitch or two for His Majesty's occupation troops. He cut a handsome figure in his white uniform, Sam Browne belt, saber, bobby-type colonial hat and a rifle across his shoulder.
In those days of hunger and poverty it was easy to get soldiers to go abroad, especially when they were guaranteed three meals a day and fringe benefits. To trick the enlisted men into signing up for another hitch in the "colonies," the British paid them off on the spot in cash when their enlistments were up. The British hoped in this way the discharged men would go off to town, spend it all on drink, end up broke, and come back to sign up for another hitch. Too many did just that. But my old man was fairly sharp on the ways of the British. He took his pay, proceeded to Bombay and managed to get himself a job as a coal-passer on a ship going to England.
While en route homeward, the ship stopped for bunkers in an African port. It was a balmy Sunday. They lay at anchor, awaiting the coal barges. The old man was trying to sleep after a tough watch in the boiler room. Out on the hatch, a bunch of crew members had improvised a band and started to entertain themselves. One of the songs they sang was "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?" The old man was awakened by the banging of pots and pans used by the crewmen as musical instruments. He came charging out on deck ready for a fight. Why had they improvised a song with his name in it? After being calmed down somewhat by his fellow crew members, he was convinced that the song had nothing to do with him, but had been written and set to music many years before.
When my old man arrived back in Ireland, he still had part of his army pay. It was this money that helped pay the passage for him and my mother to the United States. As my mother told the story, when they came ashore at Ellis Island, it was full of "foreign" people. Many of them could not speak or understand a word of English. There was a man pinning tags on them and giving them new names, then waving them on. There was a man and his wife in front of my mother. He must have been a Russian. He had a long beard. The officer asked his name. Nobody could understand it, so the officer said, "Your name from now on is Nickolas Goldman," and he let him pass on to the ferry boat that took them all to New York City.
After having thirteen kids, my dad concluded that there was no way out of this trap. More and more, he resorted to the bottle. Unable to feed the family on the small paycheck he got from working as a hod carrier and common laborer, he made it a practice to stop off in several saloons before coming home. What little he did manage to withhold from the bartenders and bring home was barely enough to pay the rent, let alone put bread and potatoes on the table. As his drinking became heavier, the arguments in the saloons became more heated, frequently resulting in bloody fights.
Being Irish was one thing, but being Catholic to boot was a tough combination, especially when many signs could be seen on factory gates that "No Irish Need Apply." To be Irish meant to be on the bottom rung of the social ladder. In those days, the Irish and the Poles lived in the same area of the slums of Jersey City. Without a doubt, they were the poorest, most rundown neighborhoods.
The old man was a tough and dirty fighter. He had never heard of the Marquis of Queensbury, but if he had, he could not have cared less. He rarely came home after a drinking bout without a bloody nose or black eye. It was getting impossible to reason with him. One day, two policemen came to the door.
"We want your husband," one of them told my mother.
"And what has he done now?" she asked.
"He bit half the ear off of Stephen O'Riley in a fight," the officer replied.
In the past two years Mother had had him arrested four or five times for beating her and for non-support. But when it came time to face the judge and have the old man put away, she began to think about the few dollars he did bring home; she would not appear in court to proceed against him. However, after the cops removed the old man this time, she no longer had the forgiving feeling. She started packing what was packable: some old clothes, a few pots and pans. My younger sister, then only six months old, was put into the baby carriage. Leading the way with the brood following close behind, my mother walked clear across Jersey City into another of the city's slums, this one located right on the waterfront.
I was not to see the old man again until some forty years later. That he didn't follow us was proof of his feeling of liberation when we left him.
Maybe the hand of nature was kind to us. Of the thirteen kids my mother gave birth to, seven had died. It appeared that every second kid made it. One died from spinal meningitis; the other six died in early infancy. Malnutrition had its effect.
I think that the Catholic Church is cruel to demand of its followers to go on bearing child after child with no visible means of feeding them. The poorer our family became, the more children my mother bore. The Church encouraged large families. It meant more disciples and greater influence for the Church. But to the poor, it offered nothing but privation and misery, especially for those who lived in the city.
We had moved into the top floor of a broken-down tenement at 44 Hudson Street. There was no hot water or heat; no gas or electricity. Kerosene lamps were the main source of light. One toilet served the entire tenement, and that one was downstairs in the backyard. The building was located on the last street, facing the waterfront. Across the street stood the Vulcan Ironworks, a large two-block structure that housed a machine shop. Several hundred workers worked six days a week around the clock, and the shop's riveting guns, steam hammers, and compressors reverberated all over the neighborhood. From our window we could see ships, tugboats, and barges ply up and down the Hudson River.
On the corner of our block was a ship's chandler called Mullins. He had everything to outfit a ship or tugboat, including a cellar full of big rats. Across from Mullins was a saloon. Sixty or seventy-five people could line up shoulder to shoulder against the highly-polished bar of carved oak. Big brass spittoons sat scattered throughout the saloon in two inches of fresh-smelling sawdust. A few doors up the street stood the livery stable. Some fifty truck horses were boarded there. In the summer heat, the smell became so unbearable you could not keep your windows open. A few doors past the stable was a resin works, and then came more broken-down tenement houses long ignored for repairs by the corporation landlords. These housed the poor Irish and Polish families, some of them just six months off the boat, and, in the case of the Polish, struggling with their first words of English.
Our house had several legends attached to it. One was that a man was found swinging by the neck on the clothesline in back. Another was that a head had been found in the front room of the floor we occupied, while the rest of the body was discovered stuffed in a steamer trunk in the cellar. Every time I heard the wind rattle the windows or shake the roof, I had the feeling it was the ghost of the head rolling across the room, looking for the rest of its body.
The first month at the new residence was the toughest. Everyone slept on the floor. There were no beds. Soon the neighbors learned that we were just another family fleeing from a drunken father and they quickly came to our aid. They brought some old tattered blankets, old coats, and dented pots and pans, all of which my mother made good use of. They even gave us an old spring which she mounted on several egg crates to make her own bed.
The clan was made up of Isabella, the oldest, followed by John Patrick, Kathleen, Mike, William and Alice. The birth of Alice marked the thirteenth kid. All the kids were delivered with the help of a neighborhood midwife or just neighbors. My mother never did see the inside of a hospital when giving birth. Within a month after moving into the new residence, my mother had her routine worked out. John and Isabella would take the basket and collect dirty laundry from a few families not too poverty-stricken to afford such a service. These families lived about eight blocks away, in an area considered a "better neighborhood."
Kate and I had to gather firewood, chop it into small stove-length pieces and haul it up the long flight of stairs. On the stove, my mother kept a small washtub in which she boiled the laundry. Removing it to the sink, she would scrub for the rest of the day on a wooden scrubbing board. On days when there was no laundry from the neighbors to wash, she would take off early in the morning to catch a ferry boat to New York, where she sought jobs as a scrub woman in those monstrous, tall buildings that lined Wall Street. On most other occasions, when she had done the laundry and there was still part of a day left, she would hand down instructions to the older kids and then rush off to find an evening of cleaning work.
Early in the morning, she would quietly walk up the squeaky stairs, enter the house on tiptoes and make sure we were all covered. After a few hours of sleep she was up cooking oatmeal and warming the house. Then laundry had to be hauled from the line and four or five irons placed on the stove. The rest of the day was spent ironing, and when the clothes were neatly folded in the basket, the delivery was made.
Within three months she had saved enough to buy two old beds. Through word of mouth, we had two roomers within a week. One old guy was a tugboat captain who had a tough time holding down a job because of hitting the bottle. But drunk or sober, he managed to get in and out of his room without ever making a sound, and always to the delight of my mother, he paid his rent on time. The other roomer was a strong, muscular Portuguese, a coal-burning fireman who had given up going to sea and instead worked only on tugboats within the harbor. He was known around the waterfront as "Spick." All the kids in the neighborhood loved him because he was generous and kind. Every now and then he would dole out a handful of pennies to the kids. A penny bought an all-day jawbreaker. When he got drunk, the kids would surround him and beg him to do his "needle trick." Out came a hat pin, and he slowly pushed it through the muscle of his arm until it exited on the other side. For an encore, he pushed it through one side of his hand in the same manner. We stood there transfixed, our eyes on the needle as he pushed it through. What an experience! The kids talked about it for hours. We revered him as some special god.
The new prosperity improved our daily lives. My mother always bought potatoes and onions by the sack, and that was good for a week. Two 25-pound sacks of flour barely made it to the end of the week. The smell of freshly-baked bread permeated the air every other night. With success and more food, however, came the big rats that were a constant scourge in the neighborhood. Most of the sewer pipes drained right into the river, making for an easy entrance of the big water rat. In the still of the night you could hear them screaming and scratching their way up into the wall-pipe recesses to get into the pantry. You could close up one hole and they would chew away to make another. I remember my mother many times sitting up half the night with a stick in her hand, guarding the breadbox against some daring rat. In our neighborhood, it was nothing to hear of some baby left alone in the baby carriage in a hallway during the day being chewed on by rats. I had a deadly fear of them.
One day I was in one of the boarders' rooms, looking at some pictures in a magazine, when I heard a big commotion in the hallway. I opened the door and saw my mother and sister chasing an overfed rat with brooms. The rat saw an opening and charged right into the room over my bare feet. I collapsed in a dead faint. Ever since then, I have maintained a deep respect for rats. I stay away from them. Much of the rat problem was finally solved, at least on our floor, when my brother came in one day with about 20 empty bottles and proceeded to smash them into small pieces to fill up all the holes where the rats had managed to get into the house.
Playmates in the neighborhood were plentiful. I can't remember ever being alone for too long in the streets. A boy named Peter was my favorite. He was about my age. One day we had a disagreement. He socked me one, and I socked him back even harder. He started to cry. His mother, a Pole who lived beneath us, heard his cries and came charging to the window. She immediately launched into a verbal attack against me and my family and all the Irish in Ireland and America. She cursed me in Polish and in the few English words she knew. My mother came to the window, and soon it became a yelling match. One word led to another. Soon our mothers were confronting each other in the hallway, and then in the street.
For the next ten minutes, both mothers were engaged in a slugging and hair-pulling match that brought out half the neighborhood and all the drunks from the local saloon. They stood and cheered the two mothers on. Peter and I stood in the background, sick with fright as we watched our mothers pulling each other's hair and throwing punches and listened to the yells of the drunks as they chose sides. I don't recall who stopped the fight, but when I went into the house, fearing a thrashing for being the culprit who started it all, I found the two mothers sitting at a table drinking beer and nursing their wounds. They became good friends after that day.
Of the playmates I spent time with, three stand out in my mind: Stella, Olga and Pauline. They were the three children of a Polish family that lived in the same tenement, on the bottom floor. Their father was a steel worker--when he found work. Their mother made excellent kilbosi, a Polish sausage, and other strange and nice-tasting dishes with cabbage and meat. You knew when things were good for them when their kitchen had lots of kilbosi rings hanging from the ceiling. When things were bad, like they were so many times, meals were cabbage soup or just steamed cabbage. At least once a week we shared a meal in each other's home.
I was always their pride and joy; they played with me and kept an eye on me, too--at least some of the time. In our backyard we had a series of little woodsheds besides the one housing the toilet shared by all of the tenants. A lot of times we played in one of the woodsheds, especially when the weather was too wet or windy or cold for us to be out in the yard. One day the game we were playing, whatever it was, soon got switched to "Papas and Mamas." Without a doubt, we played that game as realistically as we knew how. The boy would pretend to be drunk, and the girl would plead with the boy to stop drinking and be kind to the family. All the kids experienced some sort of personal misery in their homes, and it was easy for them to play this game.
When it came time for Pauline to perform, she lifted her dress and exposed her little bloomers, which she proceeded to lower to the ground. Seven years old, she stood there naked from the waist down. She walked over to me and said, "Take out your peter."
"What peter?" I asked stupidly.
"That peter!" she replied, pointing to my mid-section and then opening my pants with great authority. Now that "peter" was exposed, I stood there, waiting for the next shocker. Pauline spread herself on the floor of the woodshed and pulled me over to her. "All right, now," she commanded. "Do it."
"Do it? Do what?" I asked.
"Oh, come on," urged Pauline as she pulled me down on top of her and held me as she wiggled and twisted. I just lay there, bewildered. What a stupid game, I told myself.
A few minutes later Pauline got up, put on her bloomers and shouted, "You are the stupidest thing on earth! All you know is how to play cowboys and Indians. You don't know how to play the good Mamas and Papas games. You're a dummy! I'm not gonna play with you anymore, so there!" And she ran out of the woodshed, leaving me standing there like the dummy I was with my pants open.
Since kerosene lamps provided the main illumination in the house, fires were the main cause of destruction. At least once a week there was a fire of some kind in the neighborhood. The fire engines would come charging down the street with a Dalmatian dog, their mascot, running ahead of the speeding horses.
The fireman was surely a hero in my book. I associated firemen with my first toys. For me, the fireman was associated with Christmas more than Santa Claus. When the holidays drew near, firemen picked out the children of the neediest families in the area of their stations. The Baileys were always on the list. We were given tickets, and on Christmas Eve we lined up outside the station house, ready to dash in when our turn came to have the choice of a few toys and a bag of Christmas candy. Those toys were made to last for the rest of the year, and then some.
Three blocks to the right of where I lived, Hudson Street stopped at a canal. There was a small wooden pier. Some old rafts used by ships' painters bobbed and banged against the decrepit pilings of the pier. Old pieces of rope knotted together kept the rafts from floating away. Across the canal, a distance of about a city block, was a small island where a lot of guys went fishing or crabbing on Sundays. A small flat-bottomed boat holding about 15 people plied back and forth during daylight hours. Between the boat landings was a securely-hooked steel cable. The boat operator simply guided himself hand-over-hand along the cable until he reached the other side.
I was fascinated by boats, and when left alone I would manage to walk down the few blocks and stand on the pier and watch the life rafts bob and bang against the pier. One Sunday I stood alone on the pier. No one was around. I looked at the rafts. How nice it would be to be on one, I thought. A ladder, running straight up and down, was nailed to the pier. I reached the first rung, then carefully lowered myself down one rung at a time. I put one bare foot on the raft; it moved away from the dock, and I fell into the water. Only by a miracle was I able to grab onto some old pieces of rope. The water reached up to my neck. I screamed, "Mama! Mama . . ." all the time holding on to that rotting piece of rope. As the raft moved away from the pier, I looked out and saw the flat-bottomed boat making its way across the canal. It was filled with men wearing bright straw hats; many were in their Sunday clothes.
They heard my screams. The boat stopped. I saw three men jump in, clothes and all. Before I knew it, I had been hauled up out of the creek. "Do you know where you live?" one man asked.
I pointed down the street. The guy put me on his shoulder and, dripping water all the way, carried me to the house. "All right now," he said, "get on upstairs--and stay away from that pier." He put me down and left.
I walked into the hallway. All I could think of was the thrashing that awaited me if I walked into the house. That morning my mother had put a new set of underwear she had made from flour sacks on me. I remembered her last words as I went out to play: "Don't get dirty. If you get those nice things filthy, you'll get a thrashing you'll never forget."
The threat terrified me. Now here I was, soaked with the oily, smelly water of the canal. My front was covered with a heavy black mass of oil or oakum that smelled bad. I envisioned the thrashing, contemplating my chance of outrunning her, or of running from one hiding place to another. I knew I would get caught in the end. It was always that way. Better to hide in the recess behind the stairway. There I sat for two hours, trembling, my lips turning blue.
I heard footsteps on the stairway. My mother was coming down to go to the toilet in the yard. I crawled deeper into the corner, hoping to go unnoticed, but foul-smelling little pools of water all around the hallway led directly to me. She stood there for a moment in shock. I said nothing. Only my chattering teeth made strange noises. She reached down, grabbed me and carried me upstairs. She took off my clothes and quickly threw a blanket around me. Within minutes she had hauled in the big washtub from the fire escape and filled it with water, and in I went. Next, she was out the door and down to the saloon to buy a half pint of rye whiskey. She mixed some of this with hot water and sugar and fed the potion to me. After the bath, I explained what had happened. There was no thrashing. A lot of hugs and kisses, and she put me to bed.
Two weeks later, at the same pier, I watched a Polish mother tear out her hair as she identified her son. He had been playing around the edge of the pier and fell in and drowned. Searching with long hooks a few days later, they had found him. His little body lay under a canvas sheet. The crabs had gotten to him. The mother's screams of sorrow and pain stayed with me for many years. It was the first dead person I ever saw.
Our neighborhood was always filled with some sort of excitement, especially on Saturdays, which was pay day. The saloons did their biggest business on Saturdays. In those days, you did not buy a bottle of beer. You did your beer shopping with a tin pail which generally held a gallon or two. When mother had company, she would hand me a pail and a ten-cent piece, invariably instructing, "Go over to Paddy's and have him fill it up first, then hand him the dime." Then she would put her finger on the lard and run it inside the pail. This was to keep the suds down, in the hope that the bartender might fill the pail more generously. But the bartenders were wise to this; most times they would take the pail and wash it out with boiling water from the clam broth steamer. Thus you would get your share of the suds. But the bartenders at Paddy's knew that to pull this trick on my mother would bring her right over in person, ready to dust a bottle over their heads.
The saloon was always a source of excitement for me. Paddy's had one of the best and longest bars in Jersey City. Sometimes five bartenders were employed on a Saturday, and fifty or sixty men lined up against the bar. The brass foot rail extending along the bar was highly polished, as were the spittoons that stood at the base of the bar. At the far end was the free lunch counter. A big steaming pot of clams and clam juice sat amid trays of sausage, baloney, pigs' knuckles, pretzels, potato salad and bread. All this, of course, was for patrons only, and most made good use of it. Near the entrance, just inside the swinging doors, stood a big piano. Traveling piano players were in great demand at that time. They would go from bar to bar, playing and picking up all the free drinks they could handle, sometimes getting donations from the patrons. The piano at Paddy's was never idle. If it wasn't "My Wild Irish Rose," it was "Alice Blue Gown" or "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," or a lively Irish jig. I had to get the attention of the bartender fast, grab the beer and get home before the beer turned flat. If I was a good boy, I might be allowed a few sips.
In the late afternoon, as things became lively in the bar, the inevitable would happen. You could hear some glass breaking, followed by yelling, and you knew the fight was on. Out they'd come, belting and butting each other with their heads until one hit the deck and got the boots. Finally someone who had the authority to stop the fight would step in. When I was a few years older, I vowed that when I grew up and became a great big man, I would close down all the saloons in the world and stop all the misery that emanates from them.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book One