Chapter VI: Hell's Kitchen
About ten days later, my mother found the answer to some of her problems. We packed up and moved to New York City, right into the middle of notorious Hell's Kitchen, on West 38th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. The Hoboken police were so pleased to get rid of me, they never pursued the matter. I was glad to be out of there.
Adjusting to a new neighborhood always takes a while. You stand around and watch the action in the streets for a while. Pretty soon you get to know who the toughest character is, who the good guys and bad guys are. The local kids start their scrutiny of you the minute you haul the first piece of furniture into the house. The block we lived in was made up mostly of Irish, with a scattering of Greeks. A block away, Poles dominated; in the block on the other side of us it was Italians.
On Saturdays, between West 38th and West 42nd Streets on both sides of 9th Avenue, pushcart vendors took over. From six in the morning to almost midnight, almost anything edible was for sale. The competition was keen, yet there were never any arguments among vendors. I soon learned that, by carefully crawling under certain pushcarts from the rear, I could steal a fair number of shopping bags. Legitimately, these sold for five cents apiece; I sold them for four. Sometimes I could even lift some fruits and vegetables. Generally, from these little crawling expeditions around the pushcarts I was able to supply the household with enough potatoes and onions and other vegetables to last until the following Saturday. Sometimes I or another kid would get caught and receive a good kick in the ass. We couldn't show our faces to any of the vendors on the block for a long time without having the word passed that the petty crooks were on the loose.
I managed to make a few legitimate dimes on the side. At nine or ten at night, the pushcart owners closed shop. Usually too tired to haul their carts back to the stables, they called on the kids to help. For ten cents, we would dash like madmen to the stable, then run back to pick up another cart. If we were lucky we might come out with fifty cents. That was enough money to take us through the week. We never spent the money on movies, because we could always sneak into them through unlatched back doors or through toilet windows.
Up to now, the stepfather's contribution to the family had been negligible. His hitch in the army during World War I had been the best thing he'd ever done from the vantage point of the idleness he had enjoyed ever since. He developed the attitude that the time he spent fighting to make the world safe for democracy qualified him to be taken care of for the rest of his life. The world owed him a living and he was going to make it pay dearly. The rest of the world may have loved "Harry Longlegs" for winning the war in Europe, but no one in my family was impressed. Manual labor was alien to him. Whenever some government bureaucrat insisted he put as much zeal into finding suitable employment as he did demanding an increase in his disability check, he would cough and complain about how he was left disabled by the "German gas attack." He was one of the most articulate letter writers I can remember. He knew enough about the law and how congressmen and bureaucrats operated to get some traction with his letters when other means failed. All government-run hospitals were open to him. Whenever the booze got to him and he needed a few weeks' rest and good food, he'd complain about his condition and get admitted to any number of hospitals. During the severe winter months he would find his way into a hospital in the warm regions, where he would loaf and eat nourishing food while the family lived on potato and onion stew and stuffed their shoes with newspaper to keep out the chill. He spent more time inside convalescent homes than he did outside of them. For those on-and-off moments when he was around, it was clear that as a husband he was a failure. As a provider, he was a disaster. He provided nothing but confusion and broken promises. He managed to lift the lion's share right off the top of what little did trickle into the house. My mother had long since given up on him. It was becoming routine to enter the house and hear her denouncing him and his forbears as drunks and lazy freeloaders.
Our move into this six-story tenement in the heart of Hell's Kitchen had been made with the understanding that, for a big cut in rent, Mother would act as janitor. It meant turning on the gas lights on each floor in the evening and turning them off in the morning, sweeping the stairs and organizing the garbage disposal, and generally looking after the tenement for the owners, whoever they were. My mother had expected the stepfather to lend a hand in this project, but that, too, turned out a disappointment. When the time came to perform his duties, he ducked into the local pub. Here in the smelly saloon, where everyone fought for elbow room at the bar, he found sympathetic ears into which he could pour his stories about the big battles he took part in and how the "Huns" had gassed him at the Marne. Such stories generally brought him free beer, and he was never without something to eat since the free lunch counter was always full.
One Sunday my mother sent me off to church with a nickel to put in the collection. It was a beautiful day, and I couldn't see spending it in church. I joined a few other kids in some fun that ended with us rolling dice and pitching pennies with the money intended for the collection plates. When I came home, Harry Longlegs asked, "What did the priest have to say for his sermon?"
I thought fast because I could see the steam rising in him. "I dunno," I replied.
"You don't know!" he bellowed, starting to draw the belt out of his pants' loops. I figured I was in for it. My mother was in the next room sewing, but she was aware of what was happening.
I backed a few inches away from him, watching as he wrapped part of the belt around his fist. I made one more attempt to pacify him. "I sat in the back. I couldn't hear him so well. I think he said something about more people should come to Mass." Just then my mother entered the room. "Leave him be," she ordered.
Harry looked at her with wild eyes. "There's nothing worse than a liar," he shouted, "and he's lying. He's never been to church. He hasn't even got a bit of dust on his knees where he's supposed to have been kneeling." I was glad to see my mother enter the fray. But the belt was still snugly wrapped around Harry's fist; he still looked angry.
"The way those damn priests carry on," suggested my mother, "I can't tell what the hell they're saying half the time myself. And those Eye-talians can't even speak English. No one can understand their gibberish. I wish they'd get a good Irish priest in that parish."
Harry Longlegs was not to be outdone. Having lost that particular round, he gave it another try, shaking his belted fist in my direction. "I catch you one more time lying, I'll give you the back of my hand that will knock you to kingdom come," he promised. I looked at my mother, trying to thank her with my eyes. However, she gave me the feeling that she knew I was lying and she didn't like it either.
For a boy growing up in New York, two daydreams predominated. One was of the Wild West and cowboys and buffaloes, Indians and mountains, and good guys and bad guys. The dream included all the goodies that reward good guys, like the rancher's beautiful daughter and the keys to the city where the good deeds were performed. The other dream was of some far-off island in the Pacific, with swaying palm trees, grass shacks under coconut trees and lovely native women running around freely with just a handkerchief covering them. It was a dream of swimming and fishing, of eating delicious foods and enjoying rest and contentment with never a need of anything, of being the number-one friend of the mighty island chief or, better still, being the chief himself.
Since I always lived around the docks and ships, it was only natural for me to yearn to be aboard a ship, if only to escape my immediate surroundings. As the heated battles increased at home, the pressure to run away increased. At least twice a year, I would give it a try. Once I got as far as Princeton before bumping into a pair of state troopers. Another time I begged a ride on a truck. "Where ya goin'?" asked the driver once I was seated comfortably next to him.
"To Lincoln Highway," I told him.
"Yeah, but where on Lincoln Highway? That runs all the way from New Jersey to California."
"Oh, any place out West where the cowboys are," I answered airily. The driver looked at me suspiciously, saying no more, and went a few miles down the road. He pulled over to a cop and told him I was a runaway. Into the local clink I went. Within several hours my mother was contacted, and again I was on my way home.
One time, a Greek kid on the block and I managed to get to the railroad yards. We opened a boxcar, climbed in and closed the door. An hour later someone walked along the tracks, checking the cars. He locked our door and put a seal on it. We were well-hidden behind cases of machinery and stove grates. The train moved out and rolled all night. When we awoke in the morning, we were somewhere in the state of Delaware. Our car was antiquated. We could see the daylight through some of the cracks. We were locked in, and now we were hungry. Each minute our panic and starvation increased. We had visions of the door being opened and someone finding two young boys dead of starvation. There was only one thing to do--get the hell out. We took the stove grate and used it as a battering ram. For the next forty minutes, we rammed and rammed that door until we had a hole in it big enough to jump out when the train slowed. Once out on the highway, we were picked up by cops. One more trip to the wild-and-woolly West aborted! One thing can be said, however: each trip took me further away from home and closer to my dreams.
One of the most difficult things for me as a kid was rising early in the morning for the trudge to school. Every morning I would say the same thing: "Tonight I'm going to go to bed early and get enough sleep." But it never happened.
My mother had a cleaning job downtown. She went to work at midnight and returned no earlier than 8:30 in the morning. That meant I had to wrestle with three alarm clocks she set up surrounding my cot. The water from the oatmeal would be sitting on the stove. "Just light it," she would say, "and when the water boils, pour some oatmeal in the pot." Somehow it never tasted good when I made it, so I let it go. I would grab a piece of bread, smear on some lard and a dash of salt and run out the door, chewing on the bread until I got to class.
One day at school, a blackboard eraser, sitting near an open window, fell from the sill to the street. The teacher asked me to recover it. I found it and was on my way back to class when a horse and wagon stopped at the curb. It was a bakery wagon. The driver had already finished his rounds with fresh doughnuts and crullers and had picked up the stale ones. He was stopped near the school, rearranging his load. My stomach was growling from hunger. "Hey, mister, could you spare a hungry boy some stale doughnuts?"
The driver looked down at me. Even the horse turned its head. He handed down four or five long twisted crullers covered with sugar. Before I even took the time to thank him, I had eaten two of them, to the driver's astonishment. "Don't you get anything to eat at home?" he asked.
"Not very much," I answered.
"Be here the same time tomorrow," he said, "and I'll give you some more."
Every day for a week, I managed to excuse myself from class and pick up some stale doughnuts. Each time he handed me a larger amount. I had too many for one person to eat, so I began to share them with a few of my close friends. The teacher had no inkling of what was going on. When she found out, she insisted that all the doughnuts be brought to class and shared equally with all the kids who were hungry. I never knew so many kids were that hungry. They all lined up for their share. By that time, the doughnut man was delivering 50 to 75 stale doughnuts to me each morning. I tried to think of something nice to say to him for the kind thing he was doing for the hungry kids in my class. One day I said, "Mister, I hope that if you should die you'll go to Heaven right away, and your horse, too." He smiled. "Thanks, kid."
Hell's Kitchen was by no means a haven for the poor. The only thing the people in the neighborhood had in common was their poverty. The area itself had a high crime rate. A legend on our block had it that if anyone walking through our neighborhood had a new suit of clothes on, the odds were ninety-nine to one that he would be stripped naked before he reached the end of the block.
All sorts of gangs operated out of Hell's Kitchen. The big guys carried the "smokers," or guns. They hung out at the neighborhood Social Club. Everyone respected them out of fear. After these big toughs came the teenagers. They had their own leader and their own spheres of influence. It was always the big desire of the teenagers to advance to the rank of the "heavies," because the latter had the best fringe benefits and the most respect.
One morning I woke up amid a lot of noise. From my window I could see the street filled with cops. A manhole plate in the middle of the gutter was open. An informer had called the police and told them to lift the manhole cover. From the hole, the cops pulled out a guy who had been strangled with piano wire. He was some minor hood from another neighborhood who had overstepped his territory and tried to exert some muscle. The cops thought it futile to hunt down his killer. Murder was a rather common occurrence in the poor sections of New York City. The police couldn't have been happier if all the gangsters and toughs bumped each other off. What fascinated me was how the hell someone could come along and throw a body down the manhole in the middle of the street--a very busy street, at that--within 50 feet of my window. And no one had seen or heard anything! That took organization.
We lived on the ground floor. The ground-floor apartments in that neighborhood all looked like forts or jails. Steel, covering both the front and rear windows, made it harder for burglars to enter. There was an unwritten law: when you heard the cops' whistle or the police siren, you pulled down your shades. You saw nothing, heard nothing, even when the hoods forced their way into your house to escape the police. It was standard practice and common knowledge that, if the police caught you with a gun, you were beaten into unconsciousness. Perhaps a broken jaw or arm was another reward for carrying a pistol and getting caught. At any rate, you generally went to the hospital before going to the station house. I had watched several such beatings, then stepped over the spilled blood of the victim.
It was the night before Christmas. I was up late after running back and forth to the stable with pushcarts. The avenue had settled down to just a few straggling drunks reeling their ways home. In the middle of the block, about twenty feet from me, I saw two men stop a drunk. They saw me, too, but paid no attention. They asked the drunk for a match, then immediately started to go through his pockets as if assisting him in the match hunt. It was only when the drunk objected, aware of what was happening, and then tried to resist, that the brass knuckles rapped him across the chin, and he was dragged into a hallway a few feet away. When I came on this scene, at least five men were stretched out in that hallway, oblivious of each other. Within half an hour five more came stumbling along. Each fell for the same, "Got a match, buddy?" that got him a rap across the chin and the haul into the hallway. These two characters were so cool they didn't even look up the street to see if there was a cop around. They couldn't have made much of a haul, since most drunks would have unloaded most of their cash in the saloons. I suppose they were hard-pressed themselves to pull such bottom-of-the-barrel stuff. I told my mother about it when I walked into the house. Her reply was, "Shut up and go to bed."
The kids called him "Judas." He was a hefty goat with a beautiful set of horns. He was well-groomed, well-fed and seemed to understand that he was special, that he had a job to do and he was doing it well.
Down on the Westside Waterfront was the slaughterhouse. Its main supply of pigs, cattle, lambs and sheep arrived by way of barges from farming areas further up the Hudson. The length of one city block separated the pier where the animals disembarked from the door of the slaughterhouse. Before the arrival of a barge, slaughterhouse workers lined up wooden fences from the gangplank to the slaughterhouse door to keep the animals from drifting or roaming away from their destination. On hot summer days we used to lean on that fence, watching.
One particular day a barge of sheep arrived, easily more than a thousand. The gangway was erected, but the sheep balked. A few workmen tried getting behind them. Several moved down the gangway, but a moment later ran back onto the barge. Then a workman signaled toward the slaughterhouse and down trotted Judas. He passed us with an air of importance as we sneered, stuck our tongues out and cat-called. He ignored us. About 500 feet from the gangway he stopped and let out a "baaa." The sheep came running down the gangway. Judas turned and loped toward the slaughterhouse, a thousand bleating sheep behind him. I was impressed with the magic which allowed Judas to lead a thousand sheep to slaughter. (Years later another Judas, named Hitler, did the same thing to the Germans, and the world still talks of the "magic" this man worked on a whole nation that brought it close to annihilation.) One day Judas disappeared. We asked what happened. A shipment of goats arrived and Judas got mixed up among them, losing his bell and collar. His fatal mistake did not end the game; another Judas replaced him, and he, too, knew his job.
Problems between my mother and stepfather were mounting. The bigger they got, the more difficult to solve they became. On one of my mother's scrubbing jobs, the forelady (a slavedriver in my mother's estimation) insisted that lye be used in the scrub water. Another scrub woman, in the course of her work, became enraged with the forelady and slammed a lye-water soaked mop onto the floor. A splash of this water got into one of my mother's eyes. It bothered her for many years thereafter and led to her losing 90 percent of her sight in that eye. The day came when her eye bothered her so much that she could not go to work. As a result, she lost her job. When the stepfather came home drunk and belligerent, she became extremely unhappy. He demanded something to eat. She told him to go back to the place where he spent his money to get fed. One argument brought on the next. They became heated. The more they argued, the hungrier the stepfather felt. Finally, in a burst of hopeless frustration, he advanced toward Mother and slapped her across the face. She stumbled, then regained her footing. It was her first husband all over again. Quickly, she went to the bureau drawer and pulled out a stiletto that Brother John had sent her from his navy trip to South America. She drew it from its sheath as the stepfather advanced. He did not see the silvery razor-sharp blade come toward him since he was hell-bent on repeating the slap. The stiletto point caught him just above the groin; it entered about an inch. He jumped back from the pain and threw his hands down as the blood came rushing out. His eyes lit up with fear. He looked soberly at my mother as she stood motionless, the stiletto still clutched in her hand, poised and watching blood drip down his shoes. Harry Longlegs hurried out of the house and up the street, where he hailed a cab to take him to Bellevue Hospital.
As the shock of what he had forced her to do subsided, my mother expected the police to arrive and arrest her for attempted murder. They never came. At the hospital, the doctors recognized a knife wound right away. They summoned the police. Harry Longlegs knew that there was a strong code of ethics involving the family when it came to dealing with the police; you never informed on or involved the family. He told the police someone tried to rob him and, when he resisted, they stabbed him. The police accepted the story; it was a logical happening in a place like New York City, especially Hell's Kitchen.
If Harry Longlegs learned anything from that experience, it was that my mother was no longer going to allow anyone to slap her or push her around. From that day on, he had a new respect for her, although it did not increase his desire to find a job. Never again did he raise his hand against her.
Anyone visiting New York City for the first time might imagine that it was a paradise and playground for young kids. Not by a long shot. There were some parks, a few YMCAs with swimming pools, but on the whole, the poor NYC kid, desperate for a swim, dove into the filthy Hudson River during summer months. The smaller kids crowded around fire hydrants along the East and West Sides of New York, their only relief in the city's poor sections from the sweltering summer heat.
The kids I hung out with always headed for an open pier on the Hudson River, the swimming pool for kids up and down its length. Every pier had outside ladders on which you could climb back to the deck. Swimming in the Hudson was playing in the big leagues; when the tide was out, it was still at least ten feet deep. So, if you went to the bottom, there was no walking ashore. The particular pier from which we swam also happened to be one which people came to in the dark of night to dispose of unwanted items: bed springs, old pipe, wire. To these cast-offs the kids swimming there never paid any attention; we'd just strip naked and dive in.
It was Saturday. The weather was devastatingly hot. Every window in New York City was open, yet escaping the heat was impossible. I decided to head for the pier and take a swim. On my way I picked up two other kids. A block before we reached the pier, we heard the clanging of an ambulance behind us, speeding in our direction. We could see a crowd at the pier. We just figured that the weather had brought out a lot of kids. The ambulance raced past us. Obviously now, it was headed straight for the pier. We quickened our pace. Then we were running to get onto the pier and down to where the ambulance had stopped. When we joined the milling people, we understood what had happened. The tide had been at its lowest level in months. If you looked carefully, you could see an outline below the murky water: a bed spring. A kid we knew, considered a good diver, had dived straight down. Those on the pier waited for him to come up. He never did. They called the cops. The cops called the harbor patrol, then a fireboat. When I reached the scene, they had found the boy. They were hauling him up. Attached to him was a huge milk container. He had made his dive without taking into account the low tide. His head had entered and become stuck in the can. The firemen dislodged his head, put him in a basket and hauled him away in the ambulance like a slab of meat.
The patrol boats left the scene. The local fire truck returned to its station. The cops went about their duties elsewhere. Kids coming on the scene stripped, jumped in and swam around, as if nothing had ever happened. I left. I had had my last swim in the Hudson River.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book One