The 17th Christmas
By Pete Hamill, Contributor
January / February 2019
The Greyhound roared up the Jersey Turnpike in the rain, its fierce power leaving the cars behind, the thick wheels ripping through the gathering pools of water with the driving stateliness of a cruiser. The bus that was carrying us home for that 1952 Christmas smelled of stale smoke and damp wool; on that detail, memory does not fail. Sailors stood in the aisles, soldiers dozed in their seats, and all the racks were heavy with duffel bags and seabags. Across the wide back seat there were four paratroopers who had come on board at Philly, and they were singing with the help of a bottle of Four Roses. The darkness was punctuated by struck matches or bright explosions of white light from cars passing in the other lanes, and we stared out at the rain-glossy roads, past the small neat tons and the clumps of dark forest, out past the neon of roadside taverns, past the blue-white glare of gas stations and the bright wilderness of those first crude shopping centers, to the place where our girls were.
I was in love then with a girl named Kathleen Q., and I sat at my window seat, watching the raindrops carve small rivers across the glass and trying, as young men have always done, to conjure her face. Stuffed in the waist of my Navy blues was a wallet that contained photographs of her: an angular girl with thin legs and wrists, wearing a long dark coat, standing in Prospect Park with benches curving around behind her in the direction of Monument Hill. Her face had a look of wan sadness. All through boot camp in Bainbridge, I had looked at those gray sad pictures at random hours of the day or while standing guard duty at garbage dumps at night or whenever I tried to match the neat, precise Catholic girls-school handwriting of her letters to someone who actually existed. But after a while she had become those photographs, and in the darkness that night, going home at 60 miles an hour after three months away, I tried to remember the texture of her skin, the timbre of her voice, the sound of her laughter, and tried to control what was happening in my stomach as I fought off the anxious knowledge that she might no longer be there.
At some point the paratroopers started to sing Jo Stafford’s “You Belong to Me,” a big song that year in the Navy bases and the Army camps, because it was about women promising fidelity to men who were going away. We were boys, of course, but we were trying very much to be men, and a lot of us were going away to die in Korea. As we approached the flats of Jersey, they were singing about the pyramids along the Nile and the jungles when they’re wet with rain and how you should remember, darling, all the while, that you belong to me. I moved deeper into the seat, thinking about taking Kathleen Q. home to her house on Seeley Street the night before I went away, sitting with her on her porch, talking about the great cities of the world and how I wanted to see them all, while she looked at me with puzzled blankness; thinking about that September night and its sense of fracture; thinking about how I was seventeen and a half now and on my own at last; and always thinking about her and how I was coming home for Christmas with its promise of warmth and snow.
The bus dropped us off at the old terminal on Thirty-fourth Street. The place smelled of gasoline fumes and frying hot dogs and too many people. I remember a blond girl breaking from a crowd and rushing to a guy in an Army uniform; a group of guys in wraparound coats and what we used to call gingerella hats grabbing an Italian guy and hoisting him into the air as if he were Audie Murphy and had just captured the whole Chinese Army; a silent chorus of blacks in civilian clothes waiting for buses bound for the South; several older women crying as other young men boarded buses for departure – all of it played against the harsh mechanical roar of engines and city noise and a jukebox playing somewhere.
Nobody was there to meet me. I hadn’t really expected anyone; we had no telephone at home because we could not afford it; even if we could, I would not have had the money to call from Maryland with the exact time of arrival. I told myself that it didn’t really matter. As I stepped into that bus terminal crowd at midnight, it seemed to matter more than I ever thought it would; even today, after a thousand airports, some trace of that first empty return stays with me. When I arrive somewhere late at night, a part of me always hopes that a girl will call my name.
I went out onto Thirty-Fourth Street, with the seabag on my shoulder, and walked to Eighth Avenue to take the subway home. Suddenly, a drunk lurched across the wet street and a taxi screeched to a stop in front of me. “Damm son of a bitch,” the cabby yelled; the drunk spun away like a stunned dancer, and I started to laugh. I hadn’t seen a drunk in three months, and I knew I was back in New York.
At Jay Street-Borough Hall I crossed the platform and got on the D train. That was our train, the one that serviced the neighborhood, the one that took the young guys to their first jobs as messengers on Wall Street, the one where you might see a familiar face. But I didn’t recognize anyone, and as the train pushed through the tunnel, making the hard metallic turn at Bergen Street and out onto the high trestle over the Gowanus Canal, I wished I had arrived earlier and that I could have called Kathleen. Below me, the Gowanus looked like a smear of fresh tar, and the Kentile sign burned against the sky, and in the distance my slice of Brooklyn lay in brooding darkness.
When I got out at the Seventh Avenue stop, the rain was over. I looked through the window into Diamond’s Bar and Grill, but my father wasn’t there. He wasn’t in Fitzgerald’s either, and before going up to the house, I crossed the street and looked into Rattigan’s. Someone waved from the bar and I waved back, but I didn’t see Billy Hamill anywhere.
We lived at 378 Seventh Avenue between Eleventh and Twelfth streets. There was a small butcher shop to the left and Teddy’s Fruit Store on the right, and when I went in, I saw that the mailbox was still broken and the hall smelled of backed-up sewers and wet garbage. There were, of course, no locks on the doors and I stood for a moment in the yellow light of the 30-watt bulb, shifting the seabag to the other shoulder. Two baby carriages were parked beside the stairs, and in the blackness at the back of the hall, I caught a glimpse of battered garbage cans with their long day’s cargo. I started up past the apartments of all the other’s: first floor right, Mae McAvoy; on the left, Poppa Clarke; second floor right, Anne Sharkey and Mae Irwin; left, Carrie Woods. Carrie was a tiny sparrow of a woman who kept dogs and drank whiskey, and the dogs began a ferocious attack at the locked door, trying to get at me as I passed. There were traces of dinner smells in the hall. I was almost there.
Our door was not locked. I dropped the seabag in the hall and went into the darkness, groping for the light cord. I found the cord, and a transformer hummed for a few seconds, and then the round fluorescent light on the ceiling blinked on. The room was as I remembered it: a white-topped gas range where the old coal stove had once stood against the far wall, the sink to the left beside the window that had never been opened, a Servel refrigerator with a broken handle next to the bathroom door, a closet beside the front door with a curtain covering the disorder within, a table in the center of the room, linoleum on the floor, and a clothesline running the length of the room because we had no backyard. Roaches scurried across the table, panicked by the harshness of the sudden blue-tinged light. I could hear movement in the darkness of the railroad flat, and then my mother was coming through the rooms. “Oh, Peter, you’re home,” she said, and embraced me and hugged me. And then she stopped and stepped back and told me how good I looked and how I had put on some weight and what did I want to eat. The tea kettle was on before I could answer, and then I started asking about my brothers Tom and Brian and John and Denis, and my sister Kathleen, and my mother asked about my boot camp and what it was like and where I was going when Christmas leave was over and how she hoped it wasn’t to Korea. The tea was strong, served Irish-style with milk and sugar, and my mother said they had waited for me to come home before getting a Christmas tree. Behind us in the darkness, there were sounds of people sleeping and the sweet smell of children and milk and diapers.
“Where’s Dad?” I said after a while.
“Oh, he’s sleeping.”
“Sleeping one off?” I said.
It must have seemed cruel, but she ignored it.
“He waited up for you,” she said. “But none of us knew what time you’d be coming.”
“Tell him to wake me when he gets up in the morning.”
Later I lay under a blanket on the living-room couch, listening to the familiar sounds of home and safety, of forms breath-ing in the darkness, steam hissing in radiators, and the buses moving heavily on the street outside. I started to doze and was banged awake by the scream of fire engines hurtling down Eleventh Street to some random tragedy. I lay there for a long while, thinking about how uncomplicated and simple a matter it was to love my mother but how my father was another matter. I thought again about Kathleen Q., uneasy still, and somewhere near dawn I fell asleep.
Christmas really did mean something in that neighborhood, if you were poor and Irish. The Depression was still a fact there, lingering like the roaches after the rest of the town had raised the money for an exterminator. My mother had arrived in America on the day the stock market crashed; my father came in 1923, on the lam from anti-Catholic bigotry in Northern Ireland. They were the Irish without property, and in that year in the early fifties, there seemed little hope that they would ever really own anything. Food always came before possessions. So Christmas became one of those brief seasons of celebration, when you held back the dark with tinsel and laughter and noisy evenings and cheered the fact that you had moved through another year.
At lunchtime the next day, my father came home; he worked across the street for the Globe Lighting Company, on the third floor of the old Ansonia Clock Factory, which had been for a while the largest factory in America and was now a dirty red-brick pile. I could hear him coming up the stairs, one step at a time, humming quietly some fragment of an old song. He was a short, compact man then, with glossy black hair, and there was a picture on the wall of one of the bedrooms that represented all the mystery of him to me. The photograph was brown and beginning to fade, and it was a group portrait of young men in soccer uniforms who played for a team of Irish exiles called St. Mary’s Celtics. One of them was my father.
In 1951, I had worked for a year in the sheet metal shop at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and men there told me about how good my father had been, when he was young and playing soccer. He was fierce and quick, possessed of a magic leg, moving down those Sunday playing fields as if driven by the engines of anger and exile, playing hardest against British teams, the legs pumping and cutting and stealing the ball; hearing the cheers of strangers, and everybody drinking after the games until the late hours in the speakeasies, singing songs they learned across an ocean. Until one day, in one hard-played game, a German had come out of nowhere and kicked, and the magic leg had splintered and my father fell as if shot, and someone came off the bench and broke the German’s jaw with a punch, and then they were pulling slats off the fence to tie against the ruined leg and waited for an hour and a half for the ambulance to come from Kings County Hospital while they played out the rest of the game. The players and the spectators were poor; no one owned a car. And then at the hospital he was dropped in a bed, and there were no doctors, and across the room detectives were questioning a man whose stomach had been sliced open in a fight, and the ceiling reeled and turned, and there was no feeling left in the magic leg. When the doctors finally showed up the next morning, the leg was thick with gangrene, and they took the leg off above the knee. When he talked about it later, he never mentioned the pain. What he remembered most clearly was the sound of the saw.
And so I had grown up with his presence in the house but never had the kinds of things other kids had with fathers. We never went out to play baseball or kick a football around a field. He was a stranger I had come to love from a distance. He drank a lot in Rattigan’s across the street, and at night he would come in with some of his friends and they would sit in the kitchen and talk about fights, with my father illustrating Willie Pep’s jab on the plastic knob of the lamp cord or throwing Ray Robinson hooks into the wash on the kitchen line. He loved to sing, and I always liked the outrage and the passion that he would force into the lines from “Galway Bay,” about how the strangers came and tried to teach us their ways, and scorned us just for being what we are… We were what we were in that neighborhood, and we didn’t care what the strangers thought about us. I loved that hard defiance, and I would lie in the next room listening to them, as they brought up the old tales of British malignance and murders committed by the Black and Tans. But I didn’t really know him; he had left school at 12 to work as a stonemason’s apprentice and had struggled for a while at night school at Brooklyn Tech; but he didn’t really know how to deal with me when I tried to do homework, and in many ways he was still Irish and I was American. I loved the way he talked and the way he stood on the corner with a fedora and raincoat on Sunday mornings, an Irish dude waiting for the bars to open, and I loved the way he once hit a guy with a ballbat because he had insulted my mother. I just never knew if he loved me back.
He came in that day and said, “Hello, Magee,” and shook hands and embraced me, and then sat down to tomato soup and cheese sandwiches and talked about how that son of a bitch O’Malley was talking about taking the Dodgers out of town and how Archie Moore was fighting Joey Maxim for the light-heavyweight championship that week and how Eisenhower looked like somebody’s aunt. I didn’t have much to say, and after lunch he went out, telling me he would see me later.
I put on a pair of pegged pants and a zipper jacket and told the kids I would be back in a while but that I had to make a phone call first. I went over to Mr. B’s to call Kathleen, because the candy store had a booth with a door on it. Her mother answered. She said hello, but the tone was evasive and cool, and something moved and flopped again in my stomach, and I thought about how her letters had come every day for a while and then had tailed off and become ambiguous. I hung up and went out to get the Seventh Avenue bus down to St. Joseph’s to see the girl I thought was mine.
The funny thing now is that I have no idea why I loved that girl; all I can remember was breaking up with her. I waited for her outside that school, which was in downtown Brooklyn. There were Christmas decorations everywhere, sponsored by the big downtown department stores. Christmas music blared from Davega and Modell’s, and I stood there rehearsing things to say, wondering what I should do. I suppose all of us were the same in the fifties: Would we kiss her or waltz her away or come quietly to her and surprise her? I never knew how to handle such things and still haven’t mastered the craft. It didn’t matter because suddenly she was there, in a swirl of girls in green uniforms, and she was awkward and shy and perhaps a little ashamed, and I knew it was over.
We went home together on the D train and walked through Prospect Park toward her house, and she tried to tell me how it was better this way, how I was in the Navy, and she, after all, was still in high school, and wouldn’t it be better to wait for everything until I was discharged? I said that would be three and a half more years, and I didn’t want to wait, and didn’t she understand, and a lot of other things that I can’t remember now. We sat on a bench in the cold, looking out over the lake in the park, the whole area deserted and gray, and the heights of Monument Hill rising behind us, while thin shelves of ice gathered at the edges of the lake, like frost on a window.
Was there another guy? I asked. And she sat there quietly while I shivered in the zipper jacket, and she tried to tell me how I could finish high school in the Navy and later go to college and how she loved to read my letters and how good my drawings were. But she never answered the question, and then she was saying good-bye. I left her on the corner of Seeley Street, feeling cold and desolate and went down the block to a bar called the Parkview and started to drink beer with the bricklayers. Someone made Moore a lock over Maxim and talked about this kid Floyd Patterson beating both of them, and then two ironworkers started to argue over the best way to operate a crane, and around seven-thirty I was pretty drunk. I called her on the telephone, to tell her I loved her and that I wouldn’t go back to the Navy if that was what she wanted. I would go AWOL, maybe I could change my name, and it would all be okay. She hung up on me, and I walked out into the night.
I couldn’t call home and wanted badly to see my brother Tom. But I went instead to a place called Boop’s on Tenth Avenue and Seventeenth Street, where all of us used to drink with someone else’s draft card and where the bookmakers watched the fights and where there were a lot of Italian hard guys I liked a lot. I called Timmy Lee and he came up, and then a few of the others showed: Tommy Conroy, Joe Kelly, Joe Griffin from the Gremlins, Vito Pinto, Jack McAlevy. Most of us were home on leave, and we were all happy to be together, playing boss and underboss with the Italians, listening to the jukebox and bragging about imaginary sessions with imaginary women in the towns where there were no neighborhood witnesses. Around midnight, Joe Griffin said to me, “Hey, I hear Kathleen is going out with Tommy Twiggs. What happened?” And I said I didn’t know about it; when did that happen? He shrugged and said forget it, forget her, there’s more than enough ass in the world. But she’s not ass, I said, and Joe, who was a happy short guy with a great smile, said something about how they’re all the same under the covers and ordered another round.
Around three o’clock I took a guy named Porky into the back room for a talk. I was bleary with beer. Porky was one of the older guys, hard if he wanted to be, the biggest Joe Miceli fan in the world, and I liked him a lot. I asked him if he could get me a gun.
“Hey, whatta you want wid a gun, kid?”
“I want to kill someone.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, kid.”
“He took my girl.”
“You are 17, 18. Girls, there’s millions a girls. You’re, what, in the Navy? See the world. Forget this bitch, whoever she is.”
And I thought after a while that Porky was right, and we went back to the bar, with Porky draping his arm around me, and I guess he told the other Italian guys to take care of me, because for the rest of the two weeks’ Christmas leave they treated me as if my closest friend had been hit by a truck. That night we closed Boop’s, together, to go back to the Seventh Avenue end of the neighborhood. I woke up in the morning with a thick tongue and dirty fingernails, and my shoes were spattered, and I couldn’t remember coming home. There was someone I was supposed to call, but I couldn’t remember who it was. It certainly wasn’t my lost girl.
We bought the tree all right, with my brothers Tommy and Brian and me going down to the main neighborhood shopping street of Fifth Avenue, arguing with the guys selling the trees out of stake trucks like hot suits. We didn’t have money for lights, but there was a lot of angel hair and aluminum streamers and gaudy balls from other Christmases and that crepe paper in a brick pattern to plaster all over the chimney.
On Christmas Eve my father was out, and the children had gone to bed early. I sat for a while in the kitchen with my mother. Christmas was always the most difficult time of the year for her, because she wanted so much to make her children happy and didn’t have the money to buy anything very fancy. She made do with stockings filled with tangerines and walnuts, bought on credit at Jack’s grocery store, or managed to stretch her credit at one of the department stores, but every subsequent Christmas there seemed to be one more child to please, and it wasn’t easy. The women like her waited until Christmas Eve and headed for the stores on Fifth Avenue to get the remainders at cut rates.
“I’m going out to do the last-minute shopping,” she said.
“Is there anything you want?”
“No, get some stuff for the kids. I’m okay.”
She shook her head slowly over the cup of hot tea, looking quite sad in the land where the streets were paved with gold. I told her I still had about $20 from my leave pay, but she told me to keep it, that she had enough to manage. But then she started quietly to cry.
“God,” she said, “I just wish I could do everything right. I just wonder what God is doing this for.” I didn’t know what to do or how to react; she had always been the strong one in the family, the one who didn’t drink and who helped us to survive. I left $15 on the table and went out into the night.
I decided it was time to drink for the first time in Rattigan’s. There were strict unspoken rules in that neighborhood; if you were under age, you did not drink where your father did his drinking, because he should not be responsible for what you might do. I was still under age, but they knew I was in the Navy and I decided to go in. Rattigan’s was a dark place with an unused food counter to the right and a long mahogany bar across the far wall, with a lot of whiskey bottles and piled in rows, a television high over the left, and Schlitz signs bubbling against the back mirrors. My father was sitting on a stool near the entrance to the back room, sipping a beer and talking to some friends. I went right to him.
“Hello, Dad,” I said.
“Hello, Magee,” he said, and he seemed genuinely pleased to see me. I put the five on the bar. “You drinking?” I said casually. “Of course,” he said. And George Loftus, a short, wizened bartender, pulled us a couple of drafts. My father started introducing me around. I remember meeting a huge cabdriver named John Mullins, a guy named Johnny the Polack, a cop named Joe Whitmore. The place filled up, as men relieved of children came in for some solace. Near the windows at the other end of the bar there were three guys in their twenties drinking whiskey.
After a while, my father started getting boozy and sentimental. He had his arm around me and started telling me how proud he was that I was serving my country, and when I sat on the stool beside him, he squeezed my left leg. “Christ, I wish I had your legs,” he said, and that reminded him of something, and he started to sing. The other guys loved to hear him sing then, and he did “Patty McGinty’s Goat” and “O’Hara from Tara, McNamara from Mayo,” and the “Green Glens of Antrim.” He was into “Galway Bay” and had reached the point where the strangers came and tried to teach us their ways, when one of the younger guys at the other end shouted down the bar.
“Hey, knock it off, I can’t hear myself t’ink.”
The bar suddenly went silent. My father got off his stool, the song snapped shut, and stared down the bar. “Who’s the wise guy?” he said. The three guys were laughing now, and one of them said, “I’m terrified.”
That was all my father needed. He went down the bar, limping heavily on the wooden leg, and as the first of the young guys turned, my father hit him right on the chin with a hook, and the guy went down. The one next to him turned, ready to punch, and I hit him with a right hand, and he went down. The third guy put his hands out, palms forward, placing himself out of it, and the first guy got up, and my father knocked him down again. Together we beat them a little more, and then we dragged them out the door and left them on the sidewalk. The noncombatant member of the trio went out the back door. It was just like a western, and my father and I went back to the bar together with our arms around each other, joined in a union based on drinking and violence that we had never had before.
“Where was I, Magee?” he said.
“The strangers came and tried to teach us their ways…”
Before he resumed the song, he turned to Joe Whitmore and said, “This is my son Peter, in whom I am well proud.” I don’t know where he got that line, but we closed the place, singing together into Christmas morning. When we got back upstairs to the kitchen, he showed me what Moore was going to do to Marciano, throwing the short right hand at the lamp cord, the way he used to do it with his friends, and after a while we went to sleep.
When I went back after New Year’s on the bus, there were more soldiers and sailors than before. They talked in the quiet night, about going to Korea and their girls and what they had received for Christmas. I didn’t care that much about Brooklyn now, with my girl gone and most of my friends in the service; in some odd way, I felt free, as the bus moved west to Oklahoma and other strange and exotic places. I hadn’t received much for Christmas in any ordinary way; but my father loved me back, and there was no other gift I wanted. ♦
First published in Irish America magazine in January 1986.