July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
You can rise fast and far in America, but sometimes the cost of the journey is hard to tally
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.
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.
As you may have noticed, in this skiing vision of my father he is no longer ugly. His appearance is based on a photograph that sits on my bedroom bureau. He is wearing his crisp highnecked lieutenant’s uniform. A Sam Browne belt gleams on his chest. He stares into the camera, serious and proud. He is a handsome man.
That transformation is linked to another vision of my father that I used to have on Grove Street in Jersey City, site of the town’s most important building, the huge copper-domed BeauxArts City Hall. In 1909, when he was twenty-one years old, my father walked into a second-floor dentist’s office opposite City Hall. He sat down in the chair and pointed to his crooked teeth. “FHiIl them out,” he said.
“All of them?” the dentist said.
“All of them,” my father said.
It took about four hours and cost $200. My father had to go to bed for the rest of the day, the pain was so acute. He spent another $250 for a set of good false teeth. Within a week he looked in the mirror and saw a handsome man.
Whenever I walked past City Hall in Jersey City and looked across the street at the site of the dentist’s office, which was long gone, my mouth hurt. I felt my father’s pain. I admired his guts. I wondered if I could do something so daring. My father had done nothing less than change himself from an ugly lower-class Irish-American—a mick—to a man with good looks that belonged to no particular group. The price he paid in pain and money was unquestionably worth it.
There is something profoundly American about this transaction. An aura of wonder, even myth, surrounds this vision of my father. Yet it happened.
Another vision of my father is intimately linked to a baseball field called the Happy Nines. I played on it when I was a boy. He had played on it forty years before I did. It lay at the foot of a railroad embankment and ran out in a wide oval between switching yards on the third-base side and a street of decrepit one-family houses on the firstbase side. The outfield was deep for an amateur park—at least 350 feet.
The 1890s were the Irish-American era in baseball. John McGraw of the Baltimore Orioles, Ed Delahanty of the Philadelphia Phillies, and Bill Joyce of the New York Giants were setting records and making headlines. An ambitious kid dreamed of joining them on Olympus—the major leagues. You could make as much as five thousand dollars a year! Show girls like Lillian Russell hung on your arm.
The passion for baseball was so great among my father and his friends that they would start playing in early March. Often they would have to shovel snow off the Happy Nines. They got in four or five innings before school started. My father switched to selling evening papers in New York so he could take part in these games.
Their gloves were cheap and small. To get a better grip on the ball, they cut out the centers of the pockets, leaving nothing but bare flesh. When they winged the ball around the infield on a freezing March day, the pain was exquisite. Sometimes, playing on a cold April day at the Happy Nines, I felt vaguely ashamed of my big well-padded glove when I remembered this story.
Often a figure in black would stand in the early-morning light beyond the outfield, watching the boys of 1900 play. This was Msgr. Thomas Meehan, the pastor of All Saints Parish. He was a huge, big-bellied man who dominated the life of the parish and the ward for forty years. When my father graduated from the eighth grade in 1901, Meehan called him into the rectory and asked him what he was going to do.
“Become a ballplayer,” my father said.
“No, you’re not,” Meehan said. “We’ve got enough tramp Irish athletes. I’ve watched you play. You’re a good fielder, but you can’t hit a curve. You’re going to business school.”
My father spent the next year in business school, learning shorthand and typing and bookkeeping, skills he never used. Instead he got a job in a factory painting faces on watches. When he was twenty, he switched to selling watches, and later, insurance. Meanwhile, he went on playing baseball on various semiprofessional teams in and around Jersey City.
My father always played third base. I often had a vision of him at third on the Happy Nines, crouched low, yelling pepper to the pitcher. “Strike the bum out. He can’t hit the size of his hat!”
The batter slashes a wicked shot down the third-base line. My father does not even blink. He takes it in the chest, picks it up for the long throw, and gets him by a step.
At other times I saw him at the plate. He is in another crouch, wagging his bat. The bases are loaded, the count is three and two. The pitcher throws a curve. My father swings and misses. Monsignor Meehan was right.
My father was thirty-one when he got out of the Army in 1919. Too old to keep playing baseball, he became an umpire. He said he did it to make extra money, but I think there was another reason.
Behind the plate my father called them as he saw them. The fans, of course, frequently disagreed. One day at the Happy Nines a particularly obnoxious spectator cast every imaginable aspersion on my father’s ancestry and honesty. For the first and last time in his umpiring career, he answered back. The man leaped over the railing and came at him with a carving knife. The batter and the catcher fled. My father sidestepped the fan’s slash and knocked him flat. Two cops dragged the fan away.
That was the day my father decided to quit umpiring. My mother was in the stands and was terrified by the episode. He pretended to give it up for her sake. But I don’t think he was fazed in the least by his brush with death. He had had a hundred closer calls in the Argonne. The assault made him realize umpiring did not fit his growing political career. In baseballcrazed Jersey City an umpire was not a popular figure.
Turning in his spikes and chest protector was a hard thing for him to do. He kept his white rectangular ballsand-strikes counter in his bureau drawer all his life. Now it is in my bureau. I often finger it when I am looking for a clean handkerchief. I can see now that umpiring was my father’s way of clinging to that boyhood dream of baseball fame. He was almost forty years old before he let go of it.
Another vision of my father is attached to a battered compass in my bureau drawer. He carried it in his pocket throughout World War I. It still points to true north. In 1968 I took this compass with me when I wrote an article on the Argonne. It was the fiftieth anniversary of what is still the greatest battle in American history. The article was my idea. I thought I was going to recapture—or even capture for the first time—a sense of closeness with my father.
In 1917 he thought he was tough enough to handle the German army and survive without working up a sweat. When the chaplain urged him to take out the full ten thousand dollars’ worth of life insurance the government was selling, he scornfully settled for three. Buying the full amount made it seem as if you were scared of the krauts!
On his first night in the lines, the Germans shelled his unit for six hours. My father crawled through the whizzing shrapnel to the chaplain’s foxhole near the close of the bombardment and told the priest he had changed his mind. He wanted the full ten thousand. He did not expect to come out of the war alive.
He never bragged about killing Germans. Mostly he talked about his close calls. Once under heavy shelling his best friend, lying only a foot away, called to him, “Teddy—my leg. I’m hit.” My father groped to him in the dark and felt for the leg to put on a tourniquet. There was no leg. The man died minutes later. My father used to say that after the Argonne he regarded himself as living on borrowed time. I have often thought about that remark.
In my research I found my father’s regimental diary, and I was able to follow the 312th Infantry almost step by step across the vast valley of the Argonne, where more than a million Americans hurled themselves at Germany’s Hindenburg Line. I visited La Ferme Rouge, which the regiment attacked late in October 1918. It was still red, and the owner remembered les américains ; he had been sixteen years old in 1918. I prowled the Bois de Loges, where the 312th took heavy casualties attacking German machine guns. The owner of the red farmhouse, who often hunted in the bois , broke out a bottle of M’f6et et Chandon and toasted “the son of the man who freed the Bois de Loges.”
I felt tremendously close to my father for a moment. But a curious thing happened the next day. Exploring the site where the 77th Division’s Lost Battalion had held out against surrounding Germans, I slid down a steep hill into a gully in the Argonne forest. On my finger was a gold ring my father had given me with his name engraved inside. It had been given to him by Frank Hague after one of their electoral victories. The ring slipped off my hand and vanished into the shale. An hour of frantic digging failed to recover it. Alone in the still woods my father had prowled with his compass in hand, I suddenly felt separated from him in a new, more radical way.
When I returned from the Argonne, I talked to several surviving members of his regiment. One man told me, “He was the toughest sergeant in the regiment. We were all afraid of him.” As they marched toward the rumbling guns, one of the men in his company started giving my father a hard time. He was a wise guy who never obeyed an order without a bitch or disagreement. My father knocked him cold with a single punch.
When I wrote the article, I concluded there were two Argonnes, one the battle I had researched, whose strategy and tactics and random incidents could be recovered with the tools of the historian, and another one that was lost with the men who fought there. Part of the reason I reached this conclusion was the vanished ring—and my inability to understand the dangerous, angry man who knocked out that backtalking soldier.
He was not a complete stranger. In public my father was almost always the genial politician. At home he blew up without warning, particularly at my mother. She said he was an Irish type: “Street angel, house devil.”
Another vision is rooted in a 1932 picture of my father with his arm around me and my brother. We are at the beach, all in bathing suits. My father’s suit is black and old-fashioned—tank style, with shoulder straps. I am four or five, my brother is about two. We boys are skinny and look somewhat disconsolate. I don’t think it was anything serious. Probably the sun was in our eyes. But my father’s expression is troubled on a deeper level. His face seems full of doubt.
The picture was taken during the Depression, when the future was no longer rosy. But I sense my father’s mood also had something to do with marriage and fatherhood. His marriage was no longer happy. My mother had grown discontented with his decision to remain a local politician, to be a team player and run only for offices that the machine selected for him. He looks worried. He is grasping my brother and me around the waist with almost grim possessiveness.
That picture connects me to a painful memory. In my early teens I fell under my mother’s influence and grew to dislike my father. I thought the only thing he cared about was his political career. One Sunday, out for a ride in the country in our Cadillac, I sat in the back seat reading a book. My father impatiently wondered why he was taking the trouble and the gas to show me some beautiful scenery and I did not even bother to look at it.
“Who are you kidding?” I snarled. “You don’t care about me. You don’t care about any of us.”
The car lurched wildly. We slithered off the road, and my father leaped out. He was crying. I was frightened. He walked up and down along the side of the road. I got out and approached him fearfully. “You said I didn’t love you,” he sobbed.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You and your brother. You’re all I’ve got,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
That was when I realized underneath his toughness my father was a sensitive man. I can also see, now, that I had forced him to confront the boredom, the lack of accomplishment he felt as a local politician.
I always contrast the beach picture with another picture of my father, which I have on my study wall. This is from the 1920s. He is sitting on a folding chair at the railing of the Sandy Hook steamer, on his way to a weekend at the Jersey shore. He is wearing a dark suit and tie. His shirt collar rises high above his suit coat in the twenties style. He looks like a young executive.
The picture is in profile, and his face has a meditative look, as if he were thinking about his life, from the newspaper days on West Street through baseball and war to his present prosperous state. He looks young and strong—but sensitive.
Near that picture on my study wall is another photograph—an arty shot of my father when he was a powerful politician in Jersey City, sheriff of the county, leader of an important ward. Half his face is in shadow. He looks dignified and strong. But he has grown fleshy. There is an aura of tough worldliness in the half of the face that is exposed to the light. At first glance he could be a Mafia boss.
But a second glance conveys another impression. There is an unexpected sensitivity around his mouth. The overall effect is thoughtfulness. He is not simply an order taker or giver. Here is a man who has examined his life. There is even, in the shadowy half of the picture, another unexpected quality: resignation. There is scarcely a glimpse of the ferocity of my newspaper and baseball and Army visions—or of the buoyant 1920 skier in Central Park. Was this the man who was living on borrowed time?
By now my father was aware of life’s limitations. He knew he was never going to be more than a powerful local politician. That had its rewards. But it also had its frustrations. A political machine did not give an intelligent man much chance to grow. He spent his life dealing with people considerably less intelligent than he was.
Perhaps another frustration was to be irrevocably Irish-American. His transformation in the dentist’s chair had not taken him out of his boyhood world. It had only made him a leader of it.
I used to think he would have left that Irish-American world with relief, as I did. Throughout his life, although he was intensely interested in politics, I never heard him say a word about bleeding Ireland. He had no interest whatsoever in the country, although his father had a brogue so thick the old man was incomprehensible to me, at the age of six.
Now I am not so sure about my father’s readiness to escape his IrishAmerican world. Another thing he never talked about was his career as a salesman—only one fragment, which has left me with another vision of my father at the Happy Nines. A few years before World War I began, my father participated in an attempt to organize the debit men, as the insurance agents were called. The company retaliated by firing the strikers and bringing in scabs, who soon discovered it was dangerous work.
The debit men went from door to door, collecting a few cents a week from the families of the poor, who seldom bought more than enough insurance to be buried decently. My father saw one of these scabs working in his neighborhood. The man bolted down the railroad tracks. My father caught up with him at the Happy Nines and slugged him around until he promised to collect no more.
Other than that episode, which he mentioned without relish, along with the rueful admission that the company had broken the strike, my father never said a word about his salesman’s career. I suspect he hated it or at least found nothing in it to recall with pride. A watch salesman has to do a certain amount of groveling, and he was not the type. Insurance agents were not popular figures. They wanted money people often could not spare. Moreover, muckrakers early in the century had revealed that many of them kept collecting after the policies were paid up, cheating poor people of millions.
That vision of my father battering a scab at the Happy Nines is connected to another one. We are out on Lake Louise, a small tidal pond near our summer house on the Jersey shore. He is trying to start the outboard motor on our boat. It is a hot July day. He pulls and pulls, and the motor won’t start. My brother and I sit watching. From the shore of the lake comes a yell: “Hey, Fleming! Get a canoe!”
It is August Packer, a big, wealthy German-American jewelry manufacturer from Brooklyn. He is a born loudmouth who specializes in putting people down. He is renting a house on the lake. For an hour my father tries to start the motor while Packer yells derision and his guests sit on the terrace, laughing at us. Cursing under his breath, my father rows back to shore.
“Don’t say a word about this to your mother,” he snarls.
A week later Mr. and Mrs. Packer appeared at our door for a Sunday afternoon social call. My mother was thrilled. Mrs. Packer was very different from her husband. She was genteel, with a sweet, delicate face and dignified, reserved manner. She was the kind of woman my mother always wanted to associate with, instead of the ungrammatical lower-class types politics required her to ingratiate in Jersey City.
My father was taking a nap. My mother sent me rushing into his bedroom to tell him the Packers were here. She sat on the porch, conversing eagerly with them. Finally footsteps announced my father’s arrival. My mother’s face fell. My father was wearing the same dirty tan slacks he had worn at breakfast. Above them was his white tank-top underwear. He had not even bothered to put on a shirt. His hair was uncombed. Two buttons on his fly were open.
He conversed genially enough, laughing away more taunts about the outboard motor. But the Packers stayed only a few minutes and never called again. My mother talked about it for weeks. The following year she announced she was tired of the Jersey shore and pestered my father into selling the house.
What was my father doing when he refused to get dressed for the Packers? In his closet he had a half-dozen expensive sports coats. Was he saying, “Treat me like a mick and you get a mick?” It was a vivid display of the limits of his self-transformation.
All these visions coalesced in the vision in the subway car. It occurred at a rather crucial period in my life. After struggling to succeed as a writer with only modest success for ten years, I had been offered a job as an editor on a national magazine. I had been executive editor of another magazine before I quit to write, and I knew I could do the job well. Darkening my feelings was a recent encounter with one of the rats of the publishing world, who had contemptuously rejected a novel on which I had worked for two years.
As I wrestled with the job offer, I thought of the dismay with which my father had greeted my decision to become a writer. It was totally outside his experience. But he did not oppose it. He seemed to sense almost instinctively that an American father cannot control his son’s life.
Within the limitations of his political world, he even tried to help. “I’ll get you on the fire department,” he said. “You can write in the daytime, work at night. They spend most nights in bed.” I often joked about that in later years. Now I saw the love at the heart of the offer.
By the time my father died of heart disease, he had lost a good deal of weight. Relatives remarked how much the figure in the coffin reminded them of the man they had known before World War I. They told stories of his recklessness in those years.
One hot summer day a bunch of them had gone swimming in the Kill van KuIl, the swift-running stream that separates Bayonne, New Jersey, from Staten Island. My father did not want to admit he could not swim. He jumped in with the rest of them and sank like a stone. A friend pulled him out, half-drowned.
Another man told me about the time my father came out of All Saints Church after going to confession. A Protestant called to him, “Did you tell Monsignor what you did to your sister?” In a flash the taunter was lying on the sidewalk with a thousand dollars’ worth of new bridgework demolished. My father had to leave town for several weeks while friends calmed down the victim’s family.
These were the memories conjured by that lean, bony face, the resolute mouth, which even in death wore a faint, defiant smile. That was the man I saw on the East Side Lexington IRT. I was sitting in the rear of the car, in the seat by the conductor’s compartment. Across the aisle sat my father—the tough, reckless man who had slugged scabs and obnoxious Protestants and gone to war without a qualm. If he was a real person—a stranger—the resemblance was uncanny.
I could not stop staring at him. He stared back. He was tieless, wearing a tan Windbreaker and cheap blue pants. He looked like a stevedore or a construction worker—someone who made a living with his brawn. He seemed annoyed by my stare. The big hands in his lap closed casually into fists. I saw how raw—and dangerous—he was.
My father had attempted to transform himself in the dentist’s chair. But that was an external change. Underneath were the memories of those freezing dawns on West Street, the curt dismissal of his baseball dreams by Monsignor Meehan, the humiliations of the salesman’s life. The lieutenant’s commission and my mother’s grammar and speech lessons had only camouflaged his rawness and anger.
I also saw how different we were. But for the first time I saw it without self-reproach. I had transformed myself in ways that were incomprehensible to him. Although he was a thoughtful man, he was not a reader. A long book daunted him. I remember his amazement when I asked for War and Peace as a sixteenth-birthday present.
My historian’s self saw my father as an interesting study in American freedom—and its limitations. He had come a long way from illiterate immigrant father. We were into a new sociohistorical drama these days. But his experience suggested how slowly, how painfully, people change.
My novelist’s self saw the several ways I had envisioned my father and a glimpse of the way he may have envisioned himself. I saw I no longer had to feel sorry for him. In his vision he had done okay. Nor did I have to feel guilty because I disliked him for a while. He was not particularly likable, some of the time. Nor did I have to feel ashamed because I never matched his physical courage. Becoming a writer took courage too.
It was the courage, the tough resolve to defy everyone and everything, even fate, that meant the most to me at that moment. I decided to turn down the job offer and remain a writer.
Again our eyes met across the rattling, swaying subway car. My rational historian’s self felt defensive, embarrassed. It insisted the man was not a hallucination, only an uncanny resemblance. There were plenty of secondgeneration Irish-Americans in New York. Why shouldn’t one of them look like my father?
I pulled a novel out of my briefcase and began to read it. The train jerked to a stop. When I looked up, the raw, dangerous man opposite me was gone. My novelist’s self felt disappointed. I wished I had had the nerve to call after him, “Hey, getcha Woild !”