Visions Of My Father

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FOR A LONG TIME I HAVE WANTED TO write about a vision of my father I experienced on a New York City subway train riding downtown to a literary meeting. As a historian I am skeptical of visions. I pride myself on my rationality, I rely on facts. But as a novelist I believe in visions. Now I see a way to tell the story in the context of other visions of my father that have pursued me lifelong.

 

Ever since I came to New York, I saw him whenever I drove down West Street, the wide cobblestone road along the Hudson. Every morning at six in the year 1898, my father got off a ferry from Jersey City and sold copies of the New York World there.

By 7:00 A.M. West Street would be jammed with horse-drawn cabs and wagons and scurrying commuters off the ferries. In the winter the temperature would frequently hover around zero. To set a good corner and hang on to it, a newsboy had to fight. That was where my father learned to use his fists.

He was ten years old in 1898. I always see him as a skinny kid with a cap over his reddish blond hair, wearing a ragged jacket or a sweater or both plus an old scarf around his throat. Blowing snow whips across West Street. “Hey, getcha Woild !” he yells.

On a good day he would make twenty-five cents. That was a lot of money for someone whose father made fifty cents a day rolling barrels around the Standard Oil refinery in Bayonne. At eight o’clock the commuters would dwindle. My father would spend a cent for a cup of coffee and head back to All Saints School in Jersey City. He had to be there by nine.

I always saw him in gray dawnlight on West Street, small, fists clenched, fiercely determined. It is always cold and snowy. His teeth are crooked and protruding. He is an ugly little kid. His eyes glare at me. Could you do this? he seems to ask. He whirls and punches a newsboy who is trying to take his corner. “Getcha Woild !” he shouts at me.

Snow and cold are also part of a less painful vision of my father that stirs when I stroll along Sixty-ninth Street between Third Avenue and Lexington Avenue. On the left side of the street is a huge modern apartment house. On the right is a row of turn-ofthe-century carriage houses—now garages with apartments above. One night in 1920 my parents were visiting friends who lived in one of these houses.

The man, Eddie Shanaphy, was my mother’s first cousin. He was a chauffeur for the millionaire James Brady. The gray Rolls-Royce Eddie drove was in a garage below them. His wife, Mae, enjoyed living in the aura of the very rich. She was always talking about the “Madam,” Mrs. Brady: what she wore, what she said, where she traveled.

It was a snowy night. On Third Avenue the El loomed in the streetlights. Trains rumbled past, shaking the windows. For some reason my father always liked snow.

When he was twenty-one, my father walked into a dentist’s office and pointed to his crooked teeth. “Pull them out,” he said.

In 1920 my father had recently returned from France, where he had won a commission for his performance under fire at Saint-Mihiel and in the Argonne. He had been appointed to a good job in Jersey City by the boss of the Democratic party and mayor of Jersey City, Frank Hague, who was looking for war heroes to give his political machine more voter appeal.

On the first floor of the carriage house, my father had seen several sets of skis on the wall. “Let’s try those toboggan shoes out in Central Park,” he said.

Everyone had had a few drinks. They were young, and they wanted to pretend they were rich. In those days skiing was mostly a rich man’s sport. You had to travel to Switzerland or Colorado to try it. They bundled into their winter coats and pulled the skis off the wall and trudged the four blocks to Central Park.

It was well after midnight. The park was dreamlike, all white, random lamps glowing. The skis did not require boots. There were clamps on them, like old-fashioned roller skates, and binders that wound around the ankles. For two hours they slithered and floundered and flopped in the snow, laughing at one another.

I always see my father in the middle of this great snowy stillness, surrounded by the giant apartments of the rich, helping my beautiful darkhaired mother to her feet, brushing her off, urging her to try again. He careens downhill himself, crouched low for balance. His friends yell their admiration. He smiles. Why not pretend to be rich for a night? He had survived German bullets and shells in France. He had helped beat the Kaiser. Maybe the world was his oyster.

My mother thought it was. Like many people, she saw vast potential in my father. He was good-looking. He emanated confidence and command. She thought she could polish him for a march to big things by cleaning up his grammar and lower-class Irish accent. She succeeded in both departments. But he never attempted to rise beyond the wards and precincts of Jersey City. She never understood why.