“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists.. it is real.. it is possible.. it’s yours.” Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Excerpt from my book "When Capone’s Mob Murdered Touhy.”
When Roger Touhy returned to the Valley he invested most of his small fortune into a used car dealership not far from the tiny house in the Valley where he was born.
"My automobile business," Touhy said, "was bringing me in from $50,000 to $60,000 a year. But the big money was in alcoholic beverages. Everybody in the racket was getting rich. How could the bootleggers miss, with a short ounce of gagging moonshine selling for $1.25, or an eight-ounce glass of nauseating beer going for 75 cents?"
The Touhy brothers, Johnny, Eddie, Tommy and Joe had already gotten involved in the booming bootleg business via Terrible Tommy O'Connor. They worked mostly as hired enforcers, but they occasionally hijacked a syndicate beer truck. It was almost natural that Roger join them and eventually he entered the bootlegging business. They entered the business through the back door, leasing a small fleet of trucks with drivers, from syndicate boss Johnny Torrio's enormous bootlegging operation. Using the money they earned from those leases, Roger and his brothers bought a franchise from Torrio for the beer delivery routes to rural northwestern Cook County, the area where Roger grew up.
The beer delivery business could be lucrative as long as expenses were kept to a minimum, so the notoriously tight-fisted brothers opted not to pay for police protection. As a result, Chicago and Cook County police, probably working in a 50/50 split with Johnny Torrio, or at the least working under his orders, made a practice of stopping and impounding the brothers' trucks, probably kicking back half the fines collected to Torrio.
When the expenses started to mount it occurred to Tommy Touhy that the police would never suspect a commercial vehicle of delivering booze. They decided to test the theory. The boys bought two used Esso Gasoline trucks-Esso being the forerunner to Exxon-and they made several successful shipments that way. It was a practice they continued to use even though most of the drivers the Touhys employed were off-duty cops. Virtually every truck the Touhys owned was disguised as a meat delivery truck. After that, their trucks were never stopped and the brothers shipped all their beer in commercial vehicles, either marked as gasoline, meat or coal delivery trucks.
Ambitious and flush with cash from the beer routes, the brothers entered a bootlegging partnership with two north side Chicago hoods, Willie Heeney and Rocco DeGrazio, both of whom were amateur narcotics dealers who would eventually reach top spots in the syndicate under Frank Nitti and Tony Accardo. The Touhys and their new partners pumped out rot-gut beer from a rented garage and made enough money to open a short-lived nightclub a few doors down from their brewery. Using their profits from the brewery and speakeasy, Roger and Tommy opened a string of handbooks, and then used the cash from that to buy Heeney and DeGrazio out of the business.
Now the prosperous owner of a beer delivery service, a small brewery, several handbooks and a car dealership, Roger asked Clara Morgan for her hand in marriage. She accepted and the couple married in a simple church ceremony in Chicago on April 22, 1922.
For the next three years, the brothers worked to develop their various enterprises, building up their suburban beer routes and expanding into labor extortion and gambling, but like most other Irish hoods, resisting the easy money of prostitution. Then, in late 1925, as Johnny Torrio was just beginning to expand his criminal empire, the brothers leaped out of the small time by entering a partnership with Matt Kolb, a five-foot three-inch, 280 pound former ward politician, syndicate bagman and pay-off expert, who ran a $3,000,000 rot-gut whisky and needle beer brewery not far from Roger's car dealership.
Earlier in the year A1 Capone, who was then still Johnny Torrio's chief of staff, told Kolb that he was out of business unless he paid 50 percent of his gross to Rocco DeGrazio, Roger's former business partner and Capone's new business agent on the north side. Although Kolb acted as bagman for Johnny Torrio, he despised Capone. Rather than work for him, Kolb called Roger and Tommy Touhy and by mid-year their partnership was in place. It was a simple arrangement: Kolb was the money man, Roger was business manager and Tommy was the muscle.
It was Kolb who encouraged Touhy to move his operation out to the suburbs, largely because his brothers were already operating in the area and because Kolb understood that peace would never reign in Chicago as long as prohibition was in force. But Kolb also held considerable clout with the new County Sheriff, Charles Graydon, who had owned an ice packing business several years before. The brothers knew Kolb was right: peace would never reign in Chicago's underworld with so many different-and violent-street gangs vying for a limited amount of business. But that wasn't the case out in the rural northern portion of the county. In fact, when the brothers first started peddling the syndicate's beer they were stunned at the amount of business, both existing and potential, that was out there. Better yet, there was barely any competition for the market and there were scores of people willing to operate speakeasies if Kolb, who was worth a million in cash, put up the money to open them.
By 1926, the Touhy brothers and Matt Kolb were operational in suburban Des Plains, a small but prosperous community where they started a cooper shop, brewery and wort plant. They expanded that to ten fermenting plants, working round the clock, each plant being a small brewery in itself with its own refrigeration system and ice-making machine with a bottling plant. The investment paid off. By the end of the year, the partners were selling 1,000 barrels of beer a week at $55 a barrel with a production cost of $4.50 a barrel.
They sold their beer to 200 roadhouses outside of Chicago, mostly in far western Cook and Will County, north to the Wisconsin Lake region. Richer than ever, they hired more muscle men and with Tommy Touhy leading the assault, the brothers punched, shot and sold their way into a considerable portion of the upper northwest region of the city, "Our business"
Roger said, "was scattered over a lot of mileage. A barrel here and a barrel there. Nobody realized that Matt and I were grossing about $1,000,000 a year from beer alone....I didn't become a giant in the racket, but you might say I was one of the biggest midgets who ever scoffed at the Volstead law."
Since making wort-the main ingredient for beer as well as bread-was legal, Roger and Kolb claimed their entire operation was a bakery since "I was producing enough wort for all the bread baked in a dozen states. It was a big enterprise and I paid fifteen cents tax on every gallon I made."
To counter Chicago's off-beer season-the winter months-they set up a slot machine business, placing 225 machines in gas stations, dance halls and chicken dinner stands. 'The only way to make money faster" he said, "is to have a license to counterfeit bills."
They kept the local politicians happy, aside from bribing them outright, by doling out 18,000 free bottles of beer every week through one of Kolb's underlings, Joe Goebel of Morton Grove. The County President, Anton Cermak not only took the beer which he resold or gave away to the party faithful, but had Touhy print his name and picture on the front label.
To keep the cost of police protection low, always a priority with the Touhys, they hired off-duty Cook County highway patrolmen. "Our local law," Roger wrote, "was mostly Cook County Highway Patrol. I figured out a way to keep the roads open for us, with top priority for our beer trucks. Whenever we had a job open as a truck driver or what not, I hired a cop right away from the highway patrol to fill it...we paid no man less than $100 a week, which was more than triple what the patrol guys got for longer hours."
In as far as the Touhy gang went, at least before 1927, there really wasn't any gang, not in the traditional sense. Rather, the entire operation was run more along the lines of any other prospering subur- ban-based business. Jim Wagner, Touhy's bookkeeper, told the FBI that the Touhy gang had an average of twenty to twenty-five members before the war with Capone, that the gang had no official headquarters only an after work hangout, an old gas station "in back of Mrs. Kolze's white house in Shiller Park."
Another hangout was Wilson's Ford dealership in Des Plains run by Henry Ture Wilson, who, according to the FBI, not only sold most of the Touhy gang discounted Fords, but also dealt in stolen cars. Wilson's stockroom manager, Otto Rexes, ran a handbook for Roger out of the place as well. Roger also purchased most of his beer delivery trucks here under his garage's name, the Davis Cartage Company. On most Saturday nights gang members could be found at the Dietz Stables, a dance hall in Ivanhoe in Lake County.
After the war with Capone started, the gang leaped in size to about fifty men who worked for Touhy on a regular basis, according to Jim Wagner, one of the first men to work with Touhy when he moved out to Des Plains.
George Wilke, who was also known as George Fogarty, had been one of Touhy's minor partners in the beer business for three years but left it, 'because living in the country gave me enough sinus troubles to have to move to Florida."
Walter Murray, forty-two, was a truck driver and laborer in the organization. Murray wore false upper teeth, yet all of the lower teeth were missing except for the two front ones. Like most of the men who worked for Touhy, Murray was from the Valley and had a wife and four children and no criminal record.
Jimmy Clarence Wagner, forty, worked as Touhy's bookkeeper, although he and his brother John ran a small painting business out of Elmwood Park. Married in 1918 and with a ten-year-old son, James Jr., the family lived in Chicago until 1926 before finally moving out to Des Plains. Wagner had enlisted in the army during the first war and served as a sergeant in the artillery corps. After his discharge from the service he worked for Edison Kees as a flooring salesman until 1920 when he became involved with the city employees' annuity fund as a clerk for three years. He then went to work for his brother-in-law Leonard Thompson who knew Matt Kolb. Kolb introduced him to Touhy, who in 1930 hired him as a truck driver at $50.00 a week. Soon he was promoted to collector. He never used "muscle," never carried a gun and always had friendly dealings with his customers.
Willie Ford was a collector who lived in Des Plains for four years, leaving in 1929 and then returning after the shooting war with the DeGrazios had started. His brother, Jerry Ford, was a truck driver living on 4th Street in Des Plains. Willie Ford later became Touhy's chief enforcer and strong-arm man. Ford's roommate was Arthur Reese, a gang regular and enforcer. Other enforcers included Jim Ryan who was, at least on paper, the foreman in charge of the drivers and lived on Grand Avenue in River Forrest. His brother, Clifford Ryan, lived across the street from the Des Plains elementary school. Working under Ryan were enforcers John (Shaner) Crawford and Joseph (Sonny) Kerwin. John "Red" Ryan, one of Paddy the Bear's sons, had worked for the Shelton gang for a while and was a member of the gang along with Martin O'Leary and Old Harv Baily who were associated with the Touhy gang on a regular basis. Roy Marshalk said Wagner "was not a collector or a driver. He always rode with Touhy everywhere." Like everyone else, Ford was reluctant to discuss the dangerous Marshalk who was actually, after Tommy Touhy, the gang's chief of staff and high executioner.
Most of the bodyguards were former Cook County Highway patrolmen like Buck Henrichsen who also worked as a laborer and was known as a "muscle man." Henrichsen brought in his younger brother called "Buck Jr." and a second highway patrolman, Mike Miller, who acted as Tommy Touhy's personal bodyguard. Other bodyguards included August John La Mar and Louis Finko, two very dangerous men, as well as Roger's childhood friend Willie Sharkey and for a brief period, Gus Schafer who in 1930 was new to the area.
In 1933, Touhy's bodyguard Willie Sharkey said, 'We always carried guns on beer runs to protect ourselves and friends from the syndicate, after 1930 we seldom left the north side and the vicinity of Des Plains and very seldom went into Chicago or else we would have been placed on the spot. But we left town right after any of the newspapers pinned us with a crime. Tommy (Touhy) took care of that."
Excerpt from my book "No Time to Say Goodbye: Memoirs of a Life in Foster Care.
Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! - I have as much soul as you, - and full as much heart! ― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
I am here because I worked too hard and too long not to be here. But although I told the university that I would walk across the stage to take my diploma, I won’t. At age fifty-seven, I’m too damned old, and I’d look ridiculous in this crowd. From where I’m standing in the back of the hall, I can see that I am at least two decades older than most of the parents of these kids in their black caps and gowns.
So I’ll graduate with this class, but I won’t walk across the stage and collect my diploma with them; I’ll have the school send it to my house. I only want to hear my name called. I’ll imagine what the rest would have been like. When you’ve had a life like mine, you learn to do that, to imagine the good things.
The ceremony is about to begin. It’s a warm June day and a hallway of glass doors leading to the parking lot are open, the dignitaries march onto the stage, a janitor slams the doors shut, one after the other.
That banging sound.
It’s Christmas Day 1961 and three Waterbury cops are throwing their bulk against our sorely overmatched front door. They are wearing their long woolen blue coats and white gloves and they swear at the cold.
They’ve finally come for us, in the dead of night, to take us away, just as our mother said they would.
“They’ll come and get you kids,” she screamed at us, “and put youse all in an orphanage where you’ll get the beatin’s youse deserve, and there won’t be no food either.”
That’s why we’re terrified, that’s why we don’t open the door and that’s how I remember that night. I was six years old then, one month away from my seventh birthday. My older brother, the perpetually-worried, white-haired Paulie, was ten. He is my half-brother, actually, although I have never thought of him that way. He was simply my brother. My youngest brother, Denny, was six; Maura, the baby, was four; and Bridget, our auburn-haired leader, my half -sister, was twelve.
We didn’t know where our mother was. The welfare check, and thank God for it, had arrived, so maybe she was at a gin mill downtown spending it all, as she had done a few times before. Maybe she’d met yet another guy, another barfly, who wouldn’t be able to remember our names because his beer-soaked brain can’t remember anything. We are thankful that he’ll disappear after the money runs out or the social worker lady comes around and tells him he has to leave because the welfare won’t pay for him as well as for us. It snowed that day and after the snow had finished falling, the temperature dropped and the winds started.
“Maybe she went to Brooklyn,” Paulie said, as we walked through the snow to the Salvation Army offices one that afternoon before the cops came for us.
“She didn’t go back to New York,” Bridget snapped. “She probably just—”
“She always says she gonna leave and go back home to Brooklyn,” I interrupted.
“Yeah,” Denny chirped, mostly because he was determined to be taken as our equal in all things, including this conversation.
We walked along in silence for a second, kicking the freshly fallen snow from our paths, and then Paulie added what we were all thinking: “Maybe they put her back in Saint Mary’s.”
No one answered him. Instead, we fell into our own thoughts, recalling how, several times in the past, when too much of life came at our mother at once, she broke down and lay in bed for weeks in a dark room, not speaking and barely eating. It was a frightening and disturbing thing to watch.
“It don’t matter,” Bridget snapped again, more out of exhaustion than anything else. She was always cranky. The weight of taking care of us, and of being old well before her time, strained her. “It don’t matter,” she mumbled.
It didn’t matter that night either, that awful night, when the cops were at the door and she wasn’t there. We hadn’t seen our mother for two days, and after that night, we wouldn’t see her for another two years.
When we returned home that day, the sun had gone down and it was dark inside the house because we hadn’t paid the light bill. We never paid the bills, so the lights were almost always off and there was no heat because we didn’t pay that bill either. And now we needed the heat. We needed the heat more than we needed the lights. The cold winter winds pushed up at us from the Atlantic Ocean and down on us from frigid Canada and battered our part of northwestern Connecticut, shoving freezing drifts of snow against the paper-thin walls of our ramshackle house and covering our windows in a thick veneer of silver-colored ice.
The house was built around 1910 by the factories to house immigrant workers mostly brought in from southern Italy. These mill houses weren’t built to last. They had no basements; only four windows, all in the front; and paper-thin walls. Most of the construction was done with plywood and tarpaper. The interiors were long and narrow and dark.
Bridget turned the gas oven on to keep us warm. “Youse go get the big mattress and bring it in here by the stove,” she commanded us. Denny, Paulie, and I went to the bed that was in the cramped living room and wrestled the stained and dark mattress, with some effort, into the kitchen. Bridget covered Maura in as many shirts as she could find, in a vain effort to stop the chills that racked her tiny and frail body and caused her to shake.
We took great pains to position the hulking mattress in exactly the right spot by the stove and then slid, fully dressed, under a pile of dirty sheets, coats, and drapes that was our blanket. We squeezed close to fend off the cold, the baby in the middle and the older kids at the ends.
“Move over, ya yutz, ya,” Paulie would say to Denny and me because half of his butt was hanging out onto the cold linoleum floor. We could toss insults in Yiddish. We learned them from our mother, whose father was a Jew and who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in New York. I assumed that those words we learned were standard American English, in wide and constant use across our great land. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties and moved from the Naugatuck Valley and Connecticut that I came to understand that most Americans would never utter a sentence like, “You and your fakakta plans”.
We also spoke with the Waterbury aversion to the sound of the letter “T,” replacing it with the letter “D,” meaning that “them, there, those, and these” were pronounced “dem, dere, dose, and dese.” We were also practitioners of “youse,” the northern working-class equivalent to “you-all,” as in “Are youse leaving or are youse staying?”
“Move in, ya yutz, ya,” Paulie said again with a laugh, but we didn’t move because the only place to move was to push Bridget off the mattress, which we were not about to do because Bridget packed a wallop that could probably put a grown man down. Then Paulie pushed us, and at the other end of the mattress, Bridget pushed back with a laugh, and an exaggerated, rear-ends pushing war for control of the mattress broke out.
Poverty is the worst form of violence. Mahatma Gandhi
On the night the cops came, the flame from the oven gave the room a wonderful yellow and blue glow and eventually we tired and lay quietly and watched its reflection on the faded cold yellow walls. We thought we would sleep well that night because we had not seen any cockroaches around the house. Most of the time they were everywhere, in our clothes and our beds and in the food cabinets, and one of us would have to stay awake and brush them off the bed so the others could sleep without having the bastards crawling all over us.
Bridget had placed our wet shoes and socks on the open oven door. Seeing them, I studied the bottoms of my feet through the flickering light. They were wrinkled from snow that had flooded through the worn soles of my mismatched boots. Although my feet were cold, they burned.
One by one, we faded off into a deep sleep, our small bodies exhausted from a day of trudging through the deep snow that covered the winding sidewalks of Waterbury, all of which seemed to be uphill. We were awakened abruptly by a pounding noise against the door and the muffled, deep voices of men in a hurry. We pushed more closely together on the mattress.
“If it’s the Kings,” Paulie said, referring to the Puerto Rican gang that roamed the neighborhood at will, “they got knives.”
The Latin Kings were a teenage Puerto Rican gang that hung out on the streets, drank rum and Coke, and wore black leather jackets and blue jeans. They were tough, very tough. Cop cars avoided driving past the street corners where the Kings gathered. They took what they wanted from stores and stripped down random cars for parts. They were the real neighborhood law.
The Kings ruled over the South End and mostly fought the black gangs from the North End and sometimes the Italians from the Town Plot neighborhood. Their fights, “rumbles” they were called, took place in empty parking lots. Twenty-five to thirty gang members on each side charged into each other with knives, tire irons and chains. Their rumbles lasted no more than five minutes, maybe ten, and then they broke off, carrying their wounded with them if they could. Sometimes, if the wounds were bad enough, the gangs left them behind for the cops to bring to the hospital.
They mostly left us alone, but Bridget was approaching her teen years, and she was already tall for her age and attractive and some of the Kings had taken to following her home and groping her.
But this night, the bright beam from a cop’s long silver flashlight filled the room. That it was the cops instead of the Kings made no difference to us. They were both trouble.
A cop with a round red face appeared at the window, his mouth open, his eyes squinting across the room. Our eyes locked. He turned from the window and yelled, “Yeah, they’re in there,” and then turning back to us he looked at me and tapped on the glass.
“Sweetheart, open the door, like a good kid,” he shouted through a frozen smile through the frozen glass. We stared at him. We weren’t about to open that door to him or anyone else.
“It’s okay,” he assured us. “We’re not gonna hurt you, so open the door.”
“No!” Denny shouted.
“Little boy,” the cop said politely in a way that seemed strangely menacing, “please open the door,” and a cloud of cold breath floated from his mouth.
“Your mother,” was Denny’s answer, his answer to many things in those days.
The cop turned away from the window, wiped his running nose, and shouted, “Okay, kick it in.”
“Hide under the bed!” Bridget yelled, and following her command we grabbed Maura and scurried into the living room where it was dark, and slid under the bed with its worn box spring, no mattress.
“Push up against the wall,” Paulie shouted. “They can’t reach us there.” And we did, covering Maura with our skinny frames.
In our part of town, and among people like ourselves, the policeman was not our friend. The policeman was to be feared. Policemen locked up our parents and our neighbors. We saw them beat up men who were too drunk to stand. They poked people with their nightsticks, “paddy clubs” we called them, and drove past us and screamed at us to “get out of the street” and threatened us with putting their foot up our asses, and they would, too. We feared the cops for good reason. And now they were banging down our front door.
I had a cold, or what I thought was a cold. I kept losing my balance and falling down, and couldn’t move very quickly because of that, but figuring on an all-night siege, I slid out from under the bed and ran back to the kitchen just as the cops broke the door off its frame with a loud, violent crack. They rushed in as I opened the warm refrigerator door and found the rolls of olive loaf that I had taken from the Salvation Army Christmas dinner earlier in the day. That’s why the cops were there. Not for the olive loaf, but because somebody at the Salvation Army told them about us.
We sometimes feel that what we do is just a drop in the ocean, but the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.
We’re goin’ up to the Salvation Army,” Bridget had informed us that morning. “Put your coats on.” The Salvation Army had a large complex across town that included, among other things, a store for secondhand goods, a playroom for children, an after-school center with a television that worked, and a kitchen serving meals to the needy and where canned goods were given away.
“I don’t wanna go,” I said.
“You want to sit alone in a dark house?” she replied.
I didn’t want to go because the galoshes I had didn’t match and I looked a sight. I had worn them to school once and had been ridiculed for it, beginning my lifelong contempt for school and for those goddamned boots, which I refused to wear again.
“I’m not going because these boots are stupid,” I said.
“You gotta go, Johnny,” Bridget said in a way that closed all dissenting opinions.
“I can’t go with two stupid boots that are different colors, and I think one of them is for girls,” I shouted, in a way that closed off all dissent. Her large brown eyes locked with mine and instantly our ruddy complexions turned crimson. Tempers were about to flare. In this way, Bridget and I were kindred souls. In a similar situation, a meek and mild Paulie would surrender after a token protest, and good-natured Denny would do whatever was asked of him, but, like Bridget, I could be prickly when pushed. Bridget knew how to handle me.
“I need help carrying the baby,” she said softly, which shot directly into my guilt center.
“And,” she added, “they got free food there today because it’s Christmas,” which shot directly into my attention center for food. All food was a subject that interested me greatly, then and now.
So I put on the mismatched boots that were worn at the soles and let in the snow and rain, and Bridget led the way with the rest of us taking turns holding the baby. That afternoon we walked slowly up the hill. Waterbury is nestled in the center of three enormous and steep hills, which made walking anywhere an arduous task. But walk we did, to the North End, formerly the city’s Italian neighborhood, where the Salvation Army offices were decked out in wreaths and holly and Christmas trees, and vast herds of children ran wild in the main hall. A Santa Claus, far too slim I thought, handed out one wrapped present to each child, and each present was the same, a balsa-wood airplane in two pieces. And there was food and it was free. Free food: A fantastic idea when you’re hungry, and I was always hungry because we seldom ate well, or regularly, and sometimes we just plain didn’t eat at all. Many nights we went to bed hungry, which after a while wasn’t all that bad because we learned that drinking vast amounts of water would fight off the pangs of hunger until the morning arrived.
The Christmas dinner was modest: chips, soda, a pickle, a carrot, and olive loaf sandwiches. I’d never had olive loaf. Mostly, the only meat we ate was Spam, cold from the can if Bridget wasn’t around to fry it for us, and we had that only when the welfare check came in. Occasionally, when there was extra money and Mother was not overwhelmed, she prepared the dishes her Irish immigrant mother had taught her: boiled smoked shoulder with cabbage, and potatoes drenched in butter and floating in evaporated milk, with large doses of salt and pepper.
It was a good time when the welfare check arrived because it made us temporarily rich and happy and we bought all the things that other people enjoyed every day. But then the money ran out and we were poor again. After a while there was no food left in the house and we followed our mother up to the neighborhood stores, and watched her beg the grocer to give us credit for food and milk and diapers for the babies.
“I promise, I swear to God himself,” she would plead, “to pay youse first thing the welfare check comes in.”
Sometimes they helped us, sometimes they wouldn’t, and sometimes they would offer, with a leer, goods in exchange for my mother’s services, because she was a very attractive woman. Although short, she was well-built and buxom, with an enticing and mischievous smile, magnificent auburn hair, soft brown eyes, and a milky-white complexion.
Men tended to give her whatever she wanted and she was a talented manipulator, but the utility companies were different. They couldn’t be charmed or have their heads turned by a pretty face, and they didn’t give credit.
The electric company was the worst. They turned off our lights and left them off until they were paid in full. Then the water was turned off or the landlord sent around a collector, usually little more than a goon, to threaten us about the rent. The routine never changed. Several times a year, it all became too much for my mother and she placed the babies with my Aunts or her friends, and disappeared, leaving Bridget to mind us.
Bridget did her best with everything, but it was too much even for her noble soul, because being poor is hard work. It is all-consuming, and the poor spend endless hours trying to figure out ways to combat being poor. That’s what Bridget did, God bless her. She had no childhood at all, miserable or otherwise, because her life was filled with the righteous mission of fending for us.
Her childhood was like being punished for something she didn’t do. And that sense of being second-rate—it never leaves you. No matter how long you live or how much money you get, you never leave poverty. It stays with you, in your mind, forever, and leaves its victims with a sense of permanent unsettledness. This much I know to be true: The world’s greatest heroic acts are conducted in the minor battlefields of life by obscure warriors like my sister.
When the food ran out, and that happened a lot, Bridget, like our mother, walked us up the street to the corner grocery, but unlike our mother, Bridget had no intention of haggling for credit.
“Paulie,” she commanded, “you stay outside with the baby so the guy don’t recognize us,” and then turning to Denny and me, she bent close and whispered, “Youse two go in when I wave to you, and go to the back aisle and get something good.”
In other words, we were there to steal food while she kept the storeowner busy slicing a pound of minced ham we couldn’t afford and had no intention of buying. A simple plan that never really seemed to work out. Denny and I would crawl into the store on our hands and knees and steal whatever foodstuffs were at eye level but, since we couldn’t read and we were ruled over by our empty stomachs, some of our choices were interesting.
“A five-gallon can of imported olive oil,” Bridget yelled at Denny after the expedition had ended. “What the hell am I supposed to do with a five-gallon can of imported olive oil?”
“Eat it,” a highly offended Denny replied. He had based the worth of his prize on its weight.
“Eat it?” Bridget yelled back. “We don’t even got a can opener to open it with, ya schmuck.”
“Go back and steal one,” he countered.
I said nothing. I said nothing because my product of choice was worse. I had taken Brillo soap pads. I don’t know why. At the moment it had seemed like a good idea.
“We could bring it down the block to the deaf guy’s store and exchange it for money,” Paulie mumbled. We all stopped and pondered what our usually taciturn brother had said. You had to hand it to Paulie. The kid didn’t talk much, but when he did, it always made sense.
When you finally go back to your old hometown, you find it wasn’t the old home you missed but your childhood.
Waterbury is Connecticut’s fifth-largest city, although for us, as children, it was the biggest city in the world. Waterbury. Three hundred years of immigrants’ dreams, heartbreak, hope, and tears built this city as much as those things built this country. The factories were massive. Some plants, like Chase and Farrel’s and Scovill’s, extended for miles and employed thousands of men and women in three shifts, seven days a week, every day of the year. These shops that brought hundreds of thousands of Poles and Jews and Italians and Irish to the city are almost all gone now, but for centuries, they churned out brass, copper, and steel, and they changed the immigrants whose children and grandchildren changed America.
In their old countries, these lowly souls were the little guys, the perpetual hapless losers. It’s true that they were the tired, the hungry, the desperate and the poor, but they were also a people with lions’ hearts who got knocked down and got back up again only to be knocked down again by laws written for the sole purpose of knocking them down, until one day they stood up and left. They went to a new land to build a new nation: one where the rules were fair and getting back up again actually accomplished something.
They built Waterbury, these sons of Italy and Ireland, these daughters of Warsaw and Minsk. And the city they built reflected them. It would never be a cultural center or place of great learning, because they were not cultured or educated people. But it was a city of spacious parks and beautiful and awe-inspiring churches. It was a city divided into dozens of little countries, as Italian or Irish or Polish as any place in Europe. Their restaurants offered a working man’s fare of simple, hearty dishes, most with unpronounceable names and heavy with ingredients handed down for hundreds of years.
The factories rolled on, nonstop, seven days a week, every day of the year. The immigrants, men and women, dragged their tired bones home from the mills to the third-floor walk-ups perched on the sides of Waterbury’s hills that they called home, and they ate and they slept and they went back to work again.
When they dreamed at night, they dreamed their oldest and best dreams, which were all possible here in the new world, in the Brass City. They dreamed about the children they would have, children who would speak English and grow to be tall like the other Americans, the regular Americans. They dreamed good dreams. They dreamed American dreams.
Even in the early twentieth century, the Waterbury mills paid a fair wage and offered reasonable benefits for a good day’s work. And little by little, year by year, decade by decade and generation after generation, life got better, and gradually, great men and women rose from the humble streets of Waterbury.
So the city was rich and prosperous but we, and many others, were poor and unprosperous and lived in a poor neighborhood called the Abrigada, a Spanish word that means shelter, or a hiding place, and for us it was both. The Abrigada clung to the side of Pine Hill, one of Waterbury’s three massive hills.
Perched on its top was a surreal place called Holy Land USA, a Waterbury landmark as eccentric and interesting as the city itself. It’s mostly gone now—a few decades-old buildings and statues still stand—but in its heyday, Holy Land USA was an eighteen-acre private park filled with dozens of miniature plaster houses and cobblestone streets that were supposed to be replicas of ancient Jerusalem and Bethlehem. But even for the most devout Christian, it was a comically odd place. There was a giant fiberglass Bible, a replica of the Garden of Eden, a two-hundred-foot catacomb, grottoes and dozens of statues of saints and angels, most of them handmade in Waterbury by volunteers. Topping it off, literally at the very top of Pine Hill and Holy Land, a fifty-foot-high steel cross lit the night sky in a white amber glow that could be seen for miles. At the very bottom of Pine Hill, where we lived, was the Mad River, lined with a dozen red-brick factories.
In the 1880s the Abrigada was a massive Irish neighborhood, one of the largest in New England, whose main thoroughfare was then called Dublin Street. But by the time I was born, the Irish were long gone and so were the Italians who followed them out of the neighborhood. There were some Irish and Italians left, but mostly they lived up on the top of the hill, not down by the river with us and the Puerto Ricans.
We lived on Pond Street. Pond Street. A fine, picturesque name for such a God-awful place. It’s an irrelevant street, a dead-end still paved with cobblestones when I was a boy. There are only five or six houses on the whole street but there is an apartment house on the corner. Every now and then, young Puerto Rican men spilled out of the building, knives in hand, slashing at each other, leaving dark- brown blood stains on the building’s dirty grey walls. Across from the apartment house was a long factory, its bricks covered in decades of black and brown soot. Behind that was the river, the Mad River that puked out a rotten-egg smell that soaked into everything and everybody, even into the car seat cushions, so you carried it with you out of the neighborhood.
Next to the red brick factory was a long empty parking lot with enormous potholes, and at the end of the lot was another factory, soot-covered and dirty like the dozen other shops that lined the river’s edge.
The colored ladies—that’s what we called them then and it was meant politely— brought men in cars to the lot and parked facing the river. When a car started to rock we pelted it with stones until the woman came out, half-dressed, and chased us, which is what we were hoping for, but she never caught us, not down there, not in our neighborhood.
So she would stand by the car cursing us while her customer slid down the seat to hide himself from the neighbors, who came out to see what all the commotion was about. In the daytime, you could find used rubbers all over the place and when they dried, if you threw them in the river, they’d float for a while before they sank or the chemicals destroyed them.
It was loud and it was bright on Pond Street because the factory that took up the whole of the other side of the street never closed and the windows were always open, even in the winter, because all of the foundries were hotter than Hell itself. The smashing and banging and hammering from inside the shops poured out of the massive windows into our kitchens and bedrooms and heads, and at night the shop lights gave the entire street an otherworldly glow.
Our neighbors were the worst possible people in the world. They had nicknames like Benny Nose and Fat Eddy and Guinea Ann, who had no teeth and ran out of her house sometimes, naked for the world to see, and screamed in the middle of the street and then suddenly stopped and listened and then walked somberly back into the house. Joe Mullins rubbed your private parts when there was no one around and he’d give you Drake’s Cakes and Birch Beer soda if you let him do it. He was missing an eye, lost in the war. There were a lot of men like that in the Naugatuck Valley, mangled people who were missing legs and eyes and hands and jaws and fingers, all lost to the dogs of war. Missing body parts and death, not paper cuts and boredom, are usually the wartime fate of the working poor.
They were, almost all of them, alcoholics, and drug addicts, and perverts of one kind or another. They were ugly and Pond Street was an ugly place, but then again, it’s ugly being poor and it turns all things around it ugly.
Our leaning house sat adjacent to the local public elementary school and, even though it was only feet away, we rarely went. We were street urchins, and happy street urchins at that. We were completely and thoroughly undisciplined; the concept of school, of having to be someplace at a specific time where we were required to sit at a desk in silence while someone else talked, was beyond us. We tried it, decided it was not to our liking, and rarely returned.
The concept of order was beyond us. I don’t mean that figuratively. I mean that literally. Leadership in our family life was almost an elected position and there was rarely a central adult figure to tell us what to do, and when it came to being told what to do we responded best—in fact, now that I think about, the only way we responded— was through threats or bribes. Since elementary school teachers were not practitioners of the bribe/threat theory of education, we did what we wanted.
The first day that Denny went to kindergarten, to everyone’s amazement he didn’t put up a fuss. He got up, got dressed, and went to school. The next morning he pitched a holy fit. My father went into the room and said “What’s wrong?”
“They want me to go to school!”
“But you went yesterday.”
“Yeah, and now they want me to go back again!”
I remember once when I was being taken to the principal’s office, in a headlock. As we went down the long hallway I heard the sound of feet beside me. It was Denny. In a headlock. Headed to the principal’s office. Another time, Denny brought a dozen eggs to school so he could show them what throwing a hand grenade was like and presented said demonstration on the boys’ room wall.
At one point, I became enamored with the Walt Disney version of Babes in Toyland, a children’s film. I even had the book version. For me, in the fall of 1962, Babes in Toyland was the most important world event that had even happened. Strolling late into the school and stepping in front of the class, I launched into a monologue on the wonders of the film.
“Who’s seen the movie?” I asked.
“John,” the teacher said softly, “sit down.”
“I’m workin’ here,” I replied, borrowing the phrase from my father.
Not fully understanding the order, I sat down in a chair in front of the class and continued my spiel.
“John,” the teacher yelled, “face first against the wall!”
I stared at her for a while and then assumed the position against the wall.
It would have ended there had I not topped off the conversation by calling her “shmutz” as I turned to face the wall. I didn’t know she was Jewish.
Instead of school, on most mornings when it wasn’t too cold or rainy, Bridget led us on one adventure or another around town. We started each trek with an early-morning stop on lower North Main Street where a wholesale bakery was staffed by enormously fat, red-faced German people with thick accents, noticeable in a town that was then filled with people with many accents. They were the Becker family, who were, I later learned, leaders of the American Nazi Bund during the Second World War. The local police would use against them the old religious-based laws enacted by the state’s Puritan founders to keep them in check, asking them on a Sunday if they had shaved that morning. If they said yes, they were arrested, because it was illegal to shave on the Sabbath in Connecticut between 1692 and 1942. But in the winter of 1962, they delighted in feeding us doughnuts until our eyes swam in warm, sugar-coated dough. From there it was on to the parks.
Despite its drawbacks as an industrial city, Waterbury, the Brass City, The City of Churches, is also a city of parks, with dozens of them, of all shapes and sizes, some built by the Olmsted brothers who designed Central Park in Manhattan.
The parks were dotted across the cityscape, some hidden in forgotten corners, some bursting with thick, lush green grass and others filled with monkey bars, swings and wonderful Victorian-era bandstands painted white, red, blue, and other colors of summer. On the wooden ceilings of several of these bandstands were elaborate and beautiful drawings of the Italian countryside, hand-painted by craftsmen who pined for their homeland. Several of the parks were built around freshwater ponds, complete with sandy beaches, grills and picnic tables, and when I was a boy, droves of children converged at these ponds and lakes and splashed away for hours in the water turned tea-brown by pine needles from the trees that lined the water’s edge.
On those days when it was too cold to spend the day in a park, and there are many days like that in New England, we went to the movies. Because we were part of the New York distribution system for films, we got great movies before the rest of the country. We got classics like La Dolce Vita, a film that I watched after sneaking into the theater. I understood it too, not through the words but through the photography, through good content, director’s guidelines timing, color, and pace, and through the facial expressions—the same way that I enjoy films today.
The Hustler was one of those movies that could be watched and understood without hearing any words. So were One Eyed Jacks with Marlon Brando and Cape Fear with Robert Mitchum, a film that scared me then and unsettles me still today. It was the golden age for children's films like One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
There was, of course, a seemingly endless array of war films and I assumed most of them, like The Guns of Navarone, were documentary footage of my father’s foray through war-torn Europe, just as watching the film version of West Side Story was like watching gussied-up home movies of Pond Street.
We saw all these wonderful films in the grandeur of the Palace Movie Theater in the center of downtown Waterbury. Originally one of the premier silent film and vaudeville showplaces of New England, the Palace opened in 1922. It was then, and remains today, a magnificent place. Even as a child, I understood instinctively that the Palace Theater (pronounced “thee-ate-tor” in Waterbury) was a special and beautiful place. Everything in my world was dirty, broken, used, and grimy, but the Palace was what I imagined heaven to be. It was done in the Grand Renaissance Revival style, with an eclectic mix of Greek, Roman, Arabic, and Federal motifs, with an enormous grand lobby of imported Roman marble.
We discovered a dozen different ways to sneak into the theater, and after we were inside, sank into one of the enormous crushed purple velvet chairs, raised our heads back to take in the entire giant screen, and got lost in whatever film was playing that day. It didn’t matter. I watched anything they showed because it was like visiting another planet.
Those peaceful afternoons in the Palace set into motion my lifelong affair with motion pictures and storytelling, and it was here that I learned about the world outside Waterbury and Pond Street.
We lived on the worst possible street in the worst possible city in New England, surrounded by crowded poverty and ugliness. But on the screen, I saw places I never could have imagined. I watched John Wayne strut across the wide-open West or Peter O’Toole race across the white sands of the Arabian desert, and I wanted to know more about those places. Are there really places like that in the world? Big wide-open spaces, big enough for a horse to walk around in, big enough for vast herds of cows to stand around and do whatever it is vast herds of cows do? Are there places where the people aren’t ugly and scarred and poor and dirty and filled with desperation? Is there a place in the world that isn’t filled with filthy old factories and rats the size of cats? And when you get there, are the rivers really blue instead of multi-colored chemical runoff? And you can drink from them? Where is this place, and how do you get there? All I knew was there on Pond Street, the poorest place in the wealthiest state in the union.
If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance. -George Bernard Shaw
I was born in Waterbury on January 6, 1955. Called Little Christmas, or Russian Christmas, January 6 is a holiday in the Eastern Orthodox religion. In fact, we were all holiday people. My mother was born on Valentine’s Day, something my father saw as a cruel but humorous trick of fate. Paulie, named after my mother’s father, was born on Halloween, and Maura was born on Christmas Day and was brought home in a big red stocking. A few years later, on Labor Day, my brother Jimmy was born. I was named after my Father’s uncle, John Sullivan, a Boston railroad conductor. Denny was named for John Sullivan’s brother, Denny Sullivan, a Boston policeman.
My father was the grandson of austere, hardworking, highly devout, teetotaler Irish immigrants who came to America in the late 1890s from a village in remote western Ireland. My grandfather, Patrick Tuohy, was the exact opposite of his parents, and not by mistake, I should think. He was a two-fisted, quick-tempered, committed labor socialist with a penchant for drink and hard narcotics. He was a carpenter by trade, but rarely worked steadily at his craft, or at anything else for that matter. Patrick was an interesting man who tried his hand at everything from chicken farming to politics. He briefly struck it rich in the early 1930s, when, while on a drunk, he parked his car on a railroad crossing, fell asleep and was struck by a train. He survived, but with severe damage to the brain. He sued and The New Haven Railroad assumed it was their fault and settled for six figures. He moved to Chicago, God only knows why, where he ended up serving a short prison sentence for financial finagling. Busted, he returned to the safety of his Depression-wracked working-class Irish neighborhood in Naugatuck, Connecticut, called Kelley’s Hill, because so many Irish lived there on that patch of hillside. This is where my father and his eight siblings were raised.
My father was a handsome man with watery, soft blue eyes, who was always fit and trim. Unlike all of us, who were ruddy, he carried a darker complexion. He was the kind of handsome that people defer to. I noticed that when he spoke to women, they curled their hair in their fingers. He looked like a winner. Men held doors for him and cops let him out of speeding tickets because he had that rare ability to be almost instantly liked. People wanted to take care of him. It was fascinating to watch. People who barely knew him would smile at him and pat him on the back. I saw it but I never understood it, because, if the truth be told, he was not a particularly nice person. In fact, he barely tolerated most people, but that didn’t seem to matter when his magic kicked in.
My father, who was also named John, was a seventh-grade dropout who served in the army in World War II as part of the Connecticut Yankee Division. He detested his father, something he told me many times over the years. He recalled him as a belligerent bully.
“He was a no good son of a bitch,” he’d say as we drove along in his paint truck. “Just a no good son of a bitch.”
I never asked why he was a no good son of a bitch, because as soon as the words left my father’s mouth, he would look into some mist of yesterday that only he could see, and disappeared into it for a few minutes. However, my father adored his mother, Helen Sullivan of Boston, whom he always described as nothing short of angelic. When she died in 1943, my father was stationed with the Military Police on Fishers Island just off the Connecticut coast. My aunts told me that at his mother’s burial, my father had a complete emotional breakdown.
“He tried to leap right into the grave ditch with her, Johnny,” my Aunt Maggie, his older sister, told me. “It took all of us to hold him back, and then he just sat down and cried and cried.”
I am sure it is true, but I cannot, for the life of me, see my father becoming even slightly emotional over anything, least of all the way they described him. He was not a man of great emotion or depth, at least not that I ever saw. Despite his good looks, charms, and instant likability, he was a very shallow man and not very bright.
“Something in him shut off after she died,” Aunt Maggie whispered to me as she shook her head in that dramatically mournful way that the Irish have when discussing death.
Maggie insisted on being called Margaret but never was. “Margaret is more high-class,” she said. A New England spinster, she was a vicious gossip who had an uncanny and unsettling resemblance to the actor Margaret Hamilton who so brilliantly played the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. The chin, the mouth, the laugh. Perhaps she was right about my father and something snapping inside of him.
He left the military police and the safety of Fishers Island behind him, joined the infantry, and lugged a Browning automatic rifle across Europe. He won, in less than a year, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Purple Heart. He killed Nazis by the drove, according to the New York newspaper accounts that I read, but never once, in all of the many times he spoke of the war, did he acknowledge that he had shot anyone at all. Instead, his war stories were told and retold to me through the eyes of a small town New England kid, fascinated, scared and mesmerized by a world gone mad.
“We used Belgian money for toilet paper,” he said once, at the dinner table, of course.
“You know why?” he asked.
This was not a conversation I wanted to enter into, so I stared at my mashed potatoes and hoped it would go away.
“You know why?” he asked my mashed potatoes.
“No, Da. Why was that?” I said, and gave him my complete and full attention.
He would lean back in his chair, smile that pirate smile of his, and say, “Silk—it was made with silk. Not the whole thing, but a lot of it.”
He waited for my reply but I figured at that point it was pretty much all I needed to know about Belgian money and toilet paper.
After several seconds he said, “It was very soft.”
And then, wrongly assuming we had left the world of Belgian toilet paper behind us, I had started to eat again when he added, “and very wide, too.”
At the war’s end he returned to Waterbury and worked as a union house painter, the only job he ever knew outside his brief stint as a soldier.
My mother was born into a working-class family in Harlem, New York. Her mother, Nellie Connelly, was a hard-drinking, rebellious girl who left her native Northern Ireland in the late 1920s to work for an aunt as a chambermaid in a midtown Manhattan boarding house. But Nellie worked there only briefly, under the tyrannical Old World rule of her aunt, before being pulled away by the flashy new world of America. Within a year, she was living in Brooklyn earning her way as a housemaid.
My mother’s father’s family were Prussian Jews, the Zellners, who arrived in upstate New York in 1832. They made a small but respectable fortune in the dry goods business and later, in the twentieth century, in high-end furniture sales. They were also instrumental in building one of the first synagogues outside New York City, in the city of Elmira, New York, a cutting-edge transportation center that counted Mr. and Mrs. Mark Twain among its summer residents.
My grandfather, who was born Maxmillian Zellner and died as Paul Selner, but whom everyone knew as Milton, was drafted into World War I and served as one of General George Pershing’s drivers, though he didn’t know how to drive when he volunteered for the job. “I figured, ‘How hard can it be?’” he explained to me. “Nice job, and you never hear about them generals getting shot at.”
After the armistice, he elected to stay in Manhattan instead of returning upstate, and landed a job selling men’s suits at Gimbel’s, once the largest department store chain in the country. He’d been interviewed and hired for the position by Mr. Gimbel, the son of the Bavarian immigrant who founded the chain.
Milton, a short, stocky, swarthy man, met my grandmother, a tall, sallow redhead, at a political luncheon for young adults sponsored by Al Smith. A few weeks later he asked her to marry him, but she refused until he agreed to become a Roman Catholic. He had never practiced Judaism, so he converted without any hesitation. He was baptized at Saints Peter and Paul church in Brooklyn and given the Christian name Paul, after Saint Paul, Saul of Tarsus, the Jewish persecutor of Christian Jews—a bit heavy-handed in the symbolism, I think.
They had eight children, seven girls and one boy, most of whom lived brief, tragic and violent lives in the slums of Brooklyn. Several drank themselves to death at an early age, as my grandmother did, only ten years after she was married. Eddie, the only son, was murdered in a fight with his daughter’s boyfriend. He was stabbed more than fifty times.
When my mother was in her early teens, my grandfather forced her to leave school and raise her brother and sisters. Later he farmed her out as a housemaid, and eventually, he raped her. She carried those emotional scars with her for the rest of her life and several times she tried to kill herself. Toward the end of her life, she was finally diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, a form of mental illness that causes extreme mood swings. The illness may be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and it more than probably is genetic.
She watched television late into the night or simply sat alone in the kitchen sipping tea with milk and piles of sugar. When she did retire for the evening, she rarely slept through the night. Occasionally, when the depression set in, however, she slept for hours and rarely rose from the bed at all.
Her depression showed itself in dozens of other ways. She always had trouble concentrating, recalling things and making even simple decisions—hence her urge to seek out the opinions of those truly frightening, howl-at-the-moon crazy, God-awful creatures who surrounded us on Pond Street.
She complained endlessly of headaches, backaches and digestive problems and her appetite could and often did range between binge eating and self-imposed starvation, all of which caused her weight to swing drastically.
She never held a job. Although this was not unusual for many women of her generation, throughout her life she lived on welfare. She entered the hospital for virtually everything and anything, with the state paying the tab, and more than one unscrupulous doctor scheduled her for surgeries and operations she didn’t need. Eventually, and true to form for people with bipolar disorder, she developed migraines, thyroid illness, obesity, Type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Throughout her life, my mother’s fits of mania were breathtaking. At one moment she could be upbeat, positive, happy, and full of life and energy, talking so rapidly about moving out of the slums into a house in the country that it was nearly impossible to follow her thoughts. Then, suddenly and without warning, she flipped to the dark side and slid into a deep and frightening depression that left her overwhelmed with hopelessness.
Although she often felt sad to the point of numbness, I don’t recall ever, not once, seeing my mother cry, even during her dark moments of depression. However, there were, apparently, constant thoughts of suicide. She made several attempts as a girl and later as a young mother. Talk of death, her own death, was a constant theme with her, no matter what the mood. The comments on death weren’t always negative, especially during her normal intervals. Rather, they were simple, off-handed comments woven into the fabric of everyday conversation.
The depression didn’t last as long as her uncontrollable fits of temper did. Unlike the upbeat moods or the depressions, we could see the dark moods coming. She became snide and very irritable and then the violence started.
There was another side to her, of course, as there is another side to all of us. Although almost completely uneducated, she was extremely intelligent, unlike my father. While my father’s humor was plentiful but pedestrian, and his political outlook simplistic and jingoistic, her humor was surprisingly complex, as were her political philosophies.
By the time I was born, the grinding poverty of her life, the after-effects of her father’s rape which plagued her for many years, and the daily tensions of mothering seven children had overwhelmed her and she cracked. She suffered some sort of mental collapse and never fully recovered from it.
In the early 1950s, my mother’s younger sister, Maureen, met my uncle Bobby when he was passing through New York on leave from the Army. They married a year later and Bobby, a native of Waterbury, moved his bride to Connecticut. A few years later my mother followed. By then, she already had two children: my eldest sister, Bridget, a redhead like my mother, whose father was a punchy Long Island boxer turned bartender named “Irish Eddie” Boyle; and my tow-headed brother Paul, who was born from a short-lived affair between my mother and a Brooklyn musician named Jimmy Welch, also an Irishman.
My father met my mother in a downtown tavern in the early 1950s and they moved in together in 1954. They never married. They were solidly lower-class working people, poorly educated and not terribly cognizant of anything outside their world, but decent people. They were both movie-star handsome and they had many fine attributes when they were not drunk or crazy, but otherwise my parents were very different. All these years later, I do not know for the life of me what brought them together.
My mother was a vivacious, outgoing, beautiful redhead with a thick Brooklyn accent. She was an outspoken, opinionated woman who would be heard and would not be pushed or buffaloed. My father was her exact opposite. He was happy to fit comfortably into the background. His temperament was grounded, much more so than my mother’s was, and he went out of his way to avoid confrontation.
While my mother had a thirst for learning, respected the educated and held education in high regard, my father was not particularly inquisitive about anything. Nor was he particularly bright, something he recognized and accepted about himself. Like my mother, he was also nearly illiterate, and also like her, he enjoyed a good time far more than he should have and shared her genuine fondness for people.
In their own way, they were both instantly likable, amiable people, happy to accept the simple things in life and with no desire to rise above their modest places in the world. I don’t believe they were together because they loved one another but rather because they hoped for what could be, and because they probably understood that oftentimes even the tiniest bit of hope can create the birth of love.
What I like about cities is that everything is king size, the beauty and the ugliness. -Joseph Brodsky
Denny and I wandered through the North Square alone because we wanted to stand outside the Negro music store and listen to Sam Cooke and Chubby Checker on the loudspeaker that played music out into the street.
Inner-city black culture in the 1960s was distinctly different from white culture in the 1960s. What separated it most was dress. Stylish young black men wore porkpie hats, skin-tight pullover shirts, jet-black pants and black, blue or beige pointed shoes with three-inch heels. “Puerto Rican fence climbers,” we called them.
At the corners of North Main, Summers and Hill Streets, they would stand—pose, really, outside the R&B Record Shop. Somebody had nailed an ancient loudspeaker over the store’s front door, allowing all that magnificent, pure soul music played inside the shop to pour out on to the dirty streets and wash away the factory-town gloom.
In the summers we listened from a tiny park across the street from the record shop, waiting for a Sam Cooke record to play and watching the young men sip beer from cans in brown bags.
Soon flocks of teenage black girls, their hair done beehive-style, came out of the apartment houses from around the neighborhood and flirted with the boys or gathered in intimate circles across the street to whisper and laugh. Sometimes they’d dance. There was a song by Chubby Checker and Dee Dee Sharp called Slow Twistin’. It was a sensual song with erotic lyrics that didn’t have a damned thing to do with dancing.
Baby baby baby baby take it easy
Let's do it right
baby take it easy
Don't cha know we got all night
Cause there's no no twistin'
Like a slow slow twistin' with you
America twisted to that song and in 1962, everybody in America, from the President on down to us, was doing the Twist, but I knew even then that the colored people, at least in the North End of Waterbury, twisted differently from everyone else.
When they danced to the Slow Twistin’, man, oh, man. It reeked of sex. And even though I had only a vague notion of sex, watching them slow twist in the North End on a warm summer’s evening as the sun set, bodies twisting in deliberate slow motion without moving their feet, just a slow body wiggle, I knew there was more going on than a dance fad.
Who needed black-and-white television with bad reception when we had this?
Eventually a squad car prowled by, and came to a near stop, watched the dancing, and a red-faced Irish cop snarled out the window, “This look like a dance hall to youse? Get outta the goddamn street and behave yourselves.”
The cops talked to the colored like that back then in Waterbury and they got away with it, too. That was in 1961. Six years later, a new generation of young blacks decided they weren’t going to take it anymore. One night they turned the old Italian North End into a battleground against the cops and their abuse into a race riot that lasted, essentially, two more summers, before it ended.
One time when we were up at the North End, we found a nickel on the ground and bought us a Drake’s Cake with it. Being older—I was almost seven and Denny was closing in on six—I handled the transaction and divided the spoils.
Denny complained, loudly, that I gave myself the larger share. “But I’m hungry,” I told him, and he said, “You’re always hungry,” and made a grab for the pastry, but I ran for it, across North Main Street. Denny chased me and was struck by a car and I watched him fly across the road and slam on to the pavement. I heard his head bounce on the road and watched his arms spread out, and saw his eyes roll back of his head. I put my hands over my eyes because it would go away if I did that and it didn’t happen. But it did happen, and his legs were broken, and once again, we went to Saint Mary’s, where the nuns knew us well.
Every time we went there alone the Sisters sent out one of the janitors to find my mother or my father and bring one of them back to the hospital. The Sisters never called the cops because this was a family matter and all the cops would do is try to break up the family.
When death comes it will not go away empty. -Irish proverb
At the Salvation Army Christmas dinner, some lady kept asking where our mother or father was.
“I don’t know,” I answered several times.
“You don’t know?” she laughed. “Why, how could you not know?”
She obviously had no children of her own, because anyone with kids knows you never ask a child two questions in the same sentence because it makes them paranoid, and you never laugh at a child’s answers. Above all else, children want to be taken seriously by adults.
“Where do you think she is, sweetheart?” she asked again.
I answered truthfully, “She could be back in Brooklyn, but Paulie says she shacked up, probably with a colored guy; I don’t know.”
She kept asking the same stupid question and I kept giving her the best answers I could and I spoke slowly, too. I’d heard of adults like this, the slow people who talked to the angels, and I figured she was one of them, because how many times can you ask the same question and not understand the same answer?
The last question she asked me was, “Where do you live, darling?”
“Seventeen Pond Street,” I answered.
So we had been done in by the stupid lady at the Salvation Army. But everyone in the neighborhood knew about us. They knew that sometimes my mother locked the door to keep my father out and then disappeared herself, down to the taverns, her infants in tow. She’d drink herself into a stupor or simply forget about us and we’d return home to find ourselves locked out. We learned to cover our small fists in a shirt or coat and punch out a windowpane and let ourselves in through a window. But most times we sat patiently and waited for an adult to let us in. Sometimes we’d cry from hunger, frustration, lack of sleep, or all of those things, and, overwhelmed, go to a neighbor’s door and knock and ask for food or a place to nap or simply someplace to be where we weren’t alone. It happened a lot, and then, one day, Jimmy died and it didn’t happen anymore for a while.
He died from spinal meningitis, a rare disease almost always caused by a bacterial infection from dirt or filth. It cloaks itself as a common cold and that’s what we thought he had, a common cold. He was less than two years old, too young to express himself and describe the other symptoms that accompany the killer, like light and sound sensitivity, confusion and delirium.
He was a happy baby, Jimmy was. My father called him by his given name, Shamus, his granduncle’s name, old Irish for James. We were all happy that my father’s habit of naming us for past relatives ended there, because his grandfather’s name was Cornelius Aloysius Tuohy and who the hell wants a name like that to lug around, as if things weren’t bad enough already?
We taught Jimmy to drink beer, to blow out matches, and to dance the Twist in his high chair, the same high chair we all used once, and that’s where he was on that beautiful bright morning when he died: in his high chair. He had a cold. He nodded his head and fell asleep and he never woke up again. We tried to wake him up but he wouldn’t wake up.
We laughed about it and then my father touched Jimmy’s head and put his ear to his little chest and then pulled him from the high chair. He held him in his arms tightly, tightly, tightly and rocked him back and forth, and he closed his eyes and let out a moan so deep it scared us, and then without a word he ran with Jimmy from the house and across the bridge to Saint Mary’s, but Jimmy was dead in his arms.
When he came back, he stood in the doorway and told my mother, “He’s dead. My little boy, he’s dead, oh Jesus Mary mother of God,” and she stood and she stared at the empty high chair and then walked into the living room and fell straight down on her knees and it must have hurt because she went down so hard, and we all watched her. Nobody made a sound and she reached up and started to pull out her hair in big red clumps and then she made fists and shook them in front of herself, but there were no words coming out of her and I was scared.
“My boy is dead,” my father said, directly to her, and he sort of spit the words out. He didn’t yell, he just said it, but in a mean way. Then he walked up to her and bent over to her ear and yelled at her, “My boy is dead.”
Bridget curled her fingers and started to shake, and then we were all scared because, we figured, Bridget isn’t crazy like they were, but now we thought maybe she’d finally gone crazy too.
At the hospital, they say that Jimmy died from filth in our house and maybe he did, because Denny’s head was filled with ringworm. Our house, our clothes and all, had that dirty smell, that unique smell of poverty that permanently burns its way into your nostrils and never leaves, so you always recognize it and it’s everywhere in this world, and how awful is that?
I don’t think it was our dirt that killed him. I think it was the water from the Mad River that killed him. On all of the streets in the Abrigada, our neighborhood, we could see the river, and you could smell it because it was filled with hundreds of thousands of pounds of chemicals and other waste from the dozens of factories on its trash-strewn banks.
The factories ran seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day in those days, and poured a combination of the chemicals and industrial waste into the river. Raw sewage and the factory waste made the water turn colors. Sometimes it was a deep unnatural blue, and other days hundreds of islands of orange or yellow drifted along like some sort of grand pollution parade in celebration of industrial arrogance.
We discovered that we could slip into the openings of the street gutters and land in the big circular cement pipes that opened on to the riverbank. In the summers, we all went down there to cool off, and we took Jimmy with us sometimes, and he played in the water and maybe he drank it—I don’t know; he probably did.
The wake was held on Willow Street in a funeral parlor that had been the childhood home of the actor Rosalind Russell. It was the finest house we had ever been in and it made us nervous. Paulie even went out back to the parking lot to take a pee because he was too tense to go inside. My father’s union, the house painters, paid for almost the entire funeral including the tiny bright-white casket we buried poor Jimmy in. It was a closed casket, and I, not fully grasping the meaning of death, was concerned with Jimmy’s loneliness. It troubled me that with the casket closed, as grand a casket as it was, Jimmy wouldn’t know about all the people that had come to see him off, including aunts and uncles and cousins from as far away as Brooklyn and Brockton.
We had been in the news, and onlookers, perhaps the same ones who drove slowly past our leaning little house on Pond Street so they could stare at us, came as well. All of them brought something, just as tradition called for. There were tables of sandwiches and casseroles and sausages and meatballs with mountains of pastas and cakes. In the back room was another table, covered in a white cloth, made into a makeshift bar with a stock of liquor that would rival any of Waterbury’s taverns.
I wish Jimmy could have seen Denny, Paulie and I dressed just like him in fire-engine-red sports coats, white shirts, red ties, black pants and two-tone bucks, just like the kind Pat Boone wore on TV.
The wake started at three that afternoon and went on late into the night. The women, drenched in black dresses that reached their ankles, sat in the front room with my mother and Jimmy’s casket, in chairs that lined the walls, talking in hushed tones or whispering novenas over their rosaries.
Every now and then one of the women slipped out to the back room where the men gathered in circled chairs, sipping whisky and beers and smoking Chesterfields and L&Ms. They talked about the things they had seen in the war, how the Russians were going to blow us all up, and how “this new guy,” John F. Kennedy, was “wet behind the ears” and didn’t “know his ass from his elbow,” a mental picture I found confusing but funny.
The visiting women would have a few drinks, a little conversation and return to the main room with my mother. But, as the night wore on, more and more of them staggered down the narrow hall to the back room and didn’t return, and by the end of the evening most of them had to be carried out to their cars so they could drive home. The world was a different place back then.
At the wake the next day, almost everyone who was there wore sunglasses—not because of the sun, because it was mid-March in Connecticut, but because they were hung over. Since it was a funeral, no one seemed really out of place.
Jimmy’s Mass was in the same Church he was baptized in two years before. The church, built by and for the city’s Italians, was French Gothic and had a magnificent copper dome with an icon of God, complete with white beard and white robe, in the middle of it. On the side of the main hall were elaborate grottoes filled with lit votive candles. Because it was Lent, something we knew nothing about, the statues were hidden behind plush purple covers.
“Why they got those things covered?” I asked Paulie, who didn’t know either, but he said, “They must be going out of business.”
We buried Jimmy between my father’s parents. We were the only ones at the burial, me and Paulie and Denny and Bridget and Maura, and our mother and father. It was a brisk day, and from where we stood in the cemetery we could look down on the whole of the city. Jimmy was lowered into the ground and the very minute that his grave was covered over with dirt, the sun burst out from behind the clouds, the wind stopped, and I watched the grimness that had gripped my mother and father and Bridget over those past weeks slip away. I saw it leave as clearly as I have ever seen anything in my life. It was over. It was time to move along. Because Jimmy’s death and its cause made the newspapers, for a few days people from other neighborhoods drove by our little leaning house on Pond Street and stared at us. The welfare people and the people from the Salvation Army brought us boxes of clothes and canned food and blankets.
The nuns came by every morning and every night. They lived nearby in an ancient red-brick convent and we walked by sometimes and saw them strolling across the large manicured lawns, praying their rosaries or sitting in rocking chairs on the expansive Victorian veranda.
The convent was surrounded by a tall, black wrought-iron fence, and we assumed it had been placed there for their protection, or perhaps for our protection because they had done something wrong, and were under some sort of house arrest that forced them to wear strange clothes.
The wonderful thing about these nuns was that they always seemed to have some sort of exotic fruit available that appeared, magically, from under their long, flowing sleeves. They walked down to the fence where we stood and handed us oranges, plums, and apricots. It was a treat because in the 1950s and early 1960s fruit was still relatively expensive compared to its cost and abundance today, and we didn’t eat much of it. So the nuns were our friends and they knew our names and it was good to have them in the house.
The person we weren’t so pleased about was the priest. One day, not long after Jimmy had passed on—that’s what the Waterbury Irish called it, passing on—the priest from the nearby parish came to our house, spoke to my mother, drank tea, and then, without asking, tacked a framed picture of Jesus Christ to our kitchen wall. I guess he assumed that we knew who Jesus Christ was and what Jesus did for a living and who his father was and all, but we didn’t know, and unless Jesus arrived with a week’s worth of groceries instead of a picture, we didn’t care either.
So while he smiled adoringly at the picture of Jesus and saw the son of God and the savior of mankind, we saw a colorful painting of a guy dressed in different-colored blankets who didn’t look like anyone did in 1960. He had long hair and a beard. We could live with that. What troubled us was that his heart was not only exposed, it was on fire and it had the initials “INRI” tattooed on it. And he was smiling. His heart’s on fire, somebody tattooed it and he’s smiling.
We stood there and just stared at it until Denny finally asked what was on everyone’s mind: “What the hell happen to dis clown?”
Denny had a way of unsettling the religious. A few years later when we were in a Catholic elementary school, the nun asked the class if anyone knew any songs about foreign lands. Denny immediately raised his hand and assured the Sister he knew a great song that his father had taught him.
Would he be kind enough to sing it to the class then? the poor woman asked. Never stage shy, he leapt to his feet and, standing before his fellow second graders, he belted out his song in fashion that would have made Al Jolson proud:
On the other side of France
Where they don’t wear pants
All the streets are made of glass
you can see the people’s ass
The nun stopped him before the third verse, which included a rhyme with the word “Ritz.” Although we used God’s name in vain on an hourly basis, we knew nothing of God except that he was invisible, which we liked, in much the same way that we liked watching ghost stories.
It’s something short of amazing that we knew so little of God, since so many people seemed hell-bent on introducing him to us. They said, all of them, that God loves the poor, which we thought was stupid and figured he must not know any poor people. They told us that if we didn’t get to know God that we would have to deal with the devil, and they’d give us graphic descriptions of him and we would think how much more fun the devil seemed to be than God. In our lives, the devil made sense.
It’s also amazing that we knew so little of God, because in Waterbury, the City of Churches, he had outposts all over the city. But no matter how good a tactician the Catholic God was, or how well he has us surrounded, we had no interest in him because we could tell by the way adults spoke about God and church that it wasn’t a happy thing. They never smiled or laughed. Even the nuns, those happy nuns with their magically appearing fruit, lowered their voices and furrowed their brows when they spoke of him, and we figured, who needs this?
We much preferred the God of the colored people up in the North End, the only people in the city with a church made of wood instead of granite. On Sunday mornings we could hear them sing and shout out to God in what we assumed was something akin to a weekly birthday party. The Puerto Ricans were even more fun than that. They took their statues out on parades once a year so people could tape money to them. Now those religions, we thought, those were our kind of religions.
. . .and our few good times will be rare because we have the critical sense and are not easy to fool with laughter -Charles Bukowski
For a while after Jimmy died my mother and father stopped their fighting because they were too wounded to fight, and we lived in peace. Soon, after the pain went away, happiness reigned. On Sundays, if my father’s car worked, we piled in and rode down to the ocean, to a place called Savin Rock, each of us coming home that night exhausted, smelling of sea salt, filled with even more freckles than we left with, and badly burned by the sun, no matter how careful we were to avoid it.
We took long, aimless rides in the soft beauty that is Connecticut’s countryside. Our father—Bridget and Paulie considered him their father as well—sang in a remarkably good tenor voice. He sang old Irish songs, which I later learned, were mostly written by imaginative if schmaltzy Jewish composers from Tin Pan Alley in Manhattan. On these long rides through the wealthy rural villages and towns of western Connecticut’s Litchfield County, we would pick out a grand house and by matter of vote, pretend it was ours.
Knowing nothing of the other side of life, all of us in the car mistakenly assumed that the people who lived in these wonderfully large houses were happy and contented in their world because they had things, and we resented them for it.
Sometimes, when we spotted an extraordinarily large house—and Litchfield County is drenched with them—my father pulled up the drive way and honked the horn over and over again until some inevitably tall, lean, pale-skinned and annoyed Yankee appeared from inside the house. My father would say, “Never mind,” and drive away, and we would roar with laughter and one of us, or all of us, would turn and give the poor soul the finger, and then we would beg to do it again, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t do it again, too.
In those days, those scant precious few good days, I imagined that I felt like those people in the big houses felt all the time because for a moment we were loved and cared for by sober, calm parents who took joy in us. It makes a difference, a big difference when you’re appreciated, when you’re loved. In those moments you don’t care as much about not having anything.
I could, and did, take on all the weight of poverty because I had no choice, but the toughest part of poverty is loneliness, of being unloved. That is a burden that never lessens and never gets off your back. But now, in these good times, love insulated us, for a while anyway, from all the bile that poverty poured over us.
In the good times we stopped to swim in freshwater lakes and streams. There were nights at the drive-in movies and dinner at hot dog stands that had play areas for children. My father worked regularly around the valley as a house painter in those times of peace, and new shoes and clothes were bought for us, and we went to school like everyone else. On Friday and Saturday nights we all of us, strolled down to Shaum’s Bar and Grill on Main Street downtown and settled in.
We never went into the barroom area. That was closed to us. It was open to women, but they couldn’t drink there. In those days, Connecticut still had strict old blue laws. One law prohibited serving women at the bar. Instead, most of the taverns that dotted the city then, especially the older ones, had an adjoining, large room with dark wooden booths where a waiter brought drinks to the ladies. These back rooms usually served food, hearty European ethnic dishes that inevitably included some sort of potato dish.
The whole place smelled like old stale beer, but in some spots it smelled like old vomit. The glasses were dirty and the tables never cleaned, so hands and elbows stuck on them, and using the toilets was an act of bravery. Late at night, if you looked way in the back, you could see couples in the darkened booths kissing, and sometimes you could see the lady’s hand jerking the guy off beneath the table.
We spent the night there, feasting on Wise Owl potato chips, free peanuts and ancient boiled eggs served from a jar filled with dubious red water. We downed gallons of sweet white birch beer while watching the black-and-white television perched high up in a corner to protect it from the occasional flying beer mugs tossed during the drunken brawls that erupted.
Television, even when we had to bend our necks to see it, was a treat for us, because we seldom had a television, or at least seldom had one that worked for any length of time. A new television set in those days—most people had black and white—were large, complicated and expensive luxury items, out of reach of the very poor. In our house, at any given time, we had at least three televisions, one atop the other, the newest used one sitting above the last one that no longer worked.
When there was nothing on television to hold our attention, which was likely since the whole of television land back then consisted of only three channels, we begged, borrowed, and stole pocket change to play Elvis or Patsy Cline on the jukebox, over and over, while we danced in our own fashion around the room. That was our music: Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, and Eddy Arnold. We were, proudly, New England hillbillies.
By the end of the night, my parents were comfortably drunk, and in the early morning hours they woke us from our deep sleep in those imposing dark oak booths and we walked home. On those nights, those good nights when we were together, all of us, there were smiles instead of screams and laughter in place of curses, and if I were offered the world in place of one of those memories, I wouldn’t take it.
The good times never lasted more than a few weeks, though, and then everything went back to the way it was. When they were like that, constantly drunk and at each other’s throats, they didn’t care how it affected us. I think the way they looked at their relationship was that it was a trial and we were the results, trial children. They were, as Fitzgerald might have put it, careless people, my parents—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their poverty or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
It was always the same, never varied. After a few weeks of peace, they started to drink and argue and then fight—physically fight, in brawls that drew blood, during which furniture was tossed across rooms and through windows. My mother drew butcher knives or flung heavy black iron frying pans with incredible accuracy.
If my father was sober, he would stop fighting when the cops showed up, and they put him a squad car, drove him to a saloon downtown and let him go if he promised to stay away from the house for the rest of the night. But if he was drunk— and he was drunk a lot—he took a fighter’s stance and then they belted him across the knees with paddy clubs until he fell down and then cuffed him in a claw, a sort of handcuff designed to break the wrist if the person resisted. By the rules of slum life, it was acceptable for the cops to beat him if he resisted, but that’s where it ended. Pulling him into the squad car for an additional working over wasn’t allowed, but sometimes the newer cops tried it. When they did, neighbors slashed the tires on their squad cars or flung heavy objects from their apartment windows and broke the cars’ windshields. The neighbors’ reasoning was that if the cops could give Dad a beating the cops could give them a beating, or their sons and daughters or husbands and wives, when their day came. And in that neighborhood, everybody had a day, sooner or later.
In that decade, the 1960s, there would be many police riots besides ours. The cops would stop the beating but the violence against the squad car brought more cops who went wild; the neighbors fought back, and soon we had a small but respectable neighborhood riot on our hands. Sometimes the older cops, the ones who had been around longer, had the good sense to issue their additional beatings inside the house and away from the prying eyes of neighbors.
After the drinking and fighting started, my father would disappear, reappear and then leave. The last time he left, in December of 1962, he kept going until he hit Bridgeport, some twenty-five miles away on Long Island Sound, where he lived for the next ten years. Without his union painter’s money, we’d go back on welfare. My mother spent her days in bed and her nights in a bar, and she stopped caring about what happened to us.
“We are not rich by what we possess but by what we can do without.” Immanuel Kant
A lot happened to us. Paulie, chased by some Puerto Rican boys, fell from a high ledge near the Baldwin Street School and landed on pile of broken beer bottles, cutting the left side of his throat several inches across. He managed to walk out onto Baldwin Street and stood in the road with blood gushing out of his neck and flagged down a lady in a car who took him to Saint Mary’s Hospital. Broken legs and slashed necks and the dead sleeping babies happened because we were poor and because our parents were ignorant and overwhelmed from being poor, and we were always poor, all of the time, and we were always in trouble because of it.
The winter before the cops came to bang down our door, my mother almost burned herself to death and that, too, was caused by poverty and ignorance. They had turned off the heat in the house, so my mother sent Paulie and Bridget to walk across town to take the baby up to my Aunt Maureen’s house to stay warm, but it was a long walk across town and there was no money for a bus and they didn’t want to go.
“Youse gotta go,” my mother yelled. “If there’s another dead baby in this house, it will be the end of us all. We won’t be together anymore, the cops will come and put me in jail and the welfare people will get youse and toss you into big schools.”
My mother told Paulie and Bridget that Aunt Maureen would take the baby for sure but she might not take them in too, so they should see if she’d give them the money for the bus back. If she wouldn’t, they should ask Uncle Bobby, a tile man who drank too much wine; he’d help us. And she pushed Paulie and Bridget out the door into the cold and the wind, that awful biting wind that rushes down from Canada or up from the ocean, and it slaps your face no matter what winter it is.
We were lucky we had Maureen, my mother’s youngest sister. You don’t usually have relatives when you’re poor. Either they can’t afford you or you can’t afford them. Of the fifteen aunts and uncles we had, only Maureen talked to us. All the others stayed clear of us because we borrowed money, or asked them to take one of us in. My father’s family, a cold and humorless bunch, were the worst. They didn’t want us coming around to their houses because we were loud, crass, and vulgar and because eventually we beat up their children and stole their toys, hiding them under our shirts, because we didn’t have any, and even their dogs left when we came around.
With Paulie and Bridget gone with the baby, Denny and I crawled into bed and squeezed up against each other to stay warm and watched the flame from the four burners on the gas stove in the kitchen that were supposed to keep us warm, but didn’t.
We watched our mother talk to herself, again, which meant she was drunk, again, and we saw her lean unsteadily forward into the flame to light another unfiltered Pall Mall cigarette. Her hair fell into the fire. A strand from her tattered overcoat followed and both went up in flames, slowly at first, and then ignited her entire body in a matter of seconds. She screamed in terror and pain, her hair burning, and she screamed and called for dear God and tried to pull off the coat that was on fire too.
Denny and I leaped from bed, knocked her to the ground, rolled on top of her, beat down the flames and threw beer on her, and hit the flames over and over again until they went out. It was over in a minute, but most of her red hair was burned off and her coat was scorched to her back. I ran out to the hallway and screamed and screamed until the neighbors came. A few minutes later, we saw the red and blue lights from the ambulance and cop cars. She was going to the hospital, no heat in the apartment, the cops would take us away to the orphanage run by the welfare people, and we’d be beaten to death or something. I took Denny into the bedroom and helped him on with his shoes and jacket and we slipped out the window and made our way down across town to Aunt Maureen’s house. We got away that time.
The fire, like Jimmy’s death, Paulie’s fall, and Denny’s accident, all made the newspapers. Waterbury, despite its size, is really just another small New England factory town, a family town where those sorts of things don’t go unnoticed. Nor did they. The cops had us in the back seat of a squad car, and from that moment, we would no longer be a family.
In 1962, six year old John Tuohy, his two brothers and two sisters entered Connecticut’s foster care system and were promptly split apart. Over the next ten years, John would live in more than ten foster homes, group homes and state schools, from his native Waterbury to Ansonia, New Haven, West Haven, Deep River and Hartford. In the end, a decade later, the state returned him to the same home and the same parents they had taken him from. As tragic as is funny compelling story will make you cry and laugh as you journey with this child to overcome the obstacles of the foster care system and find his dreams.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John William Tuohy is a writer who lives in Washington DC. He holds an MFA in writing from Lindenwood University. He is the author of numerous non-fiction on the history of organized crime including the ground break biography of bootlegger Roger Tuohy "When Capone's Mob Murdered Touhy" and "Guns and Glamour: A History of Organized Crime in Chicago."
His non-fiction crime short stories have appeared in The New Criminologist, American Mafia and other publications. John won the City of Chicago's Celtic Playfest for his work The Hannigan's of Beverly, and his short story fiction work, Karma Finds Franny Glass, appeared in AdmitTwo Magazine in October of 2008.
His play, Cyberdate.Com, was chosen for a public performance at the Actors Chapel in Manhattan in February of 2007 as part of the groups Reading Series for New York project. In June of 2008, the play won the Virginia Theater of The First Amendment Award for best new play.
From Professor William Anthony Connolly
This incredible memoir, No Time to Say Goodbye, tells of entertaining angels, dancing with devils, and of the abandoned children many viewed simply as raining manna from some lesser god.
The young and unfortunate lives of the Tuohy bruins—sometimes Irish, sometimes Jewish, often Catholic, rambunctious, but all imbued with Lion’s hearts— is told here with brutal honesty leavened with humor and laudable introspective forgiveness.
The memoir will have you falling to your knees thanking that benevolent Irish cop in the sky, your lucky stars, or hugging the oxygen out of your own kids the fate foisted upon Johnny and his siblings does not and did not befall your own brood.
John William Tuohy, a nationally-recognized authority on organized crime and Irish levity, is your trusted guide through the weeds the decades of neglect ensnared he and his brothers and sisters, all suffering for the impersonal and often mercenary taint of the foster care system.
Theirs, and Tuohy’s, story is not at all figures of speech as this review might suggest, but all too real and all too sad, and maddening. I wanted to scream. I wanted to get into a time machine, go back and adopt every last one of them. I was angry. I was captivated.
The requisite damning verities of foster care are all here, regretfully, but what sets this story above others is its beating heart, even a bruised and broken one, still willing to forgive and understand, and continue to aid its walking wounded. I cannot recommend this book enough
Excerpt from my book Baby Boomers Guide to Songs of the 1960s
Excerpt from my book Baby Boomers Guide to Songs of the 1960s
Music TV 1960
The Miracles became the first-ever Motown act to perform on Dick Clark's American Bandstand on December 27, 1960.
The Dick Clark Show (also known as Dick Clark's Saturday Night Beechnut Show) was a weekly musical variety show broadcast on ABC at 7:30-8 PM (Eastern Time) on Saturdays from February 15, 1958 through September 10, 1960, sponsored (except for the first two shows) by Beechnut Gum.
The Porter Wagoner Show premiered and became the most successful country music television show of all time. It ran in syndication for 21 more years and in 1968 created a Country Western icon in a young singer named Dolly Parton.
Music TV 1961
The Clancy Brothers are invited to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, launching their career and garnering newfound respectability for the Irish American show band tradition
A&M Records, one of the first artist-owned record labels, releases its first hit song, Herb Alpert & His Tijuana Brass' "The Lonely Bull".
Otis Redding begins his career recording for Stax/Volt in Memphis, soon becoming the label's best-selling artist.
Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs record the theme to the sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies.
The song "Walk Right In", originally recorded by Gus Cannon & the Jug Stompers in 1930, becomes a major hit for Erik Darling's Rooftop Singers, and an unusually successful single for the American folk revival, otherwise mostly LP-based at the time. The song also prompts a comeback career by Gus Cannon, who had retired from music to work as a gardener in Tennessee.
Peter, Paul & Mary begin recording for Warner Bros. They insisted on complete artistic control over their recordings, a rarity in the era.
The release of Booker T & the M.G.'s' Green Onions marks the beginning of Memphis soul
Charts Toppers for 1962
Return to Sender
I Can't Stop Loving You
Can't Help Falling in Love
Good Luck Charm
Excerpt from my book “On the Waterfront: The Making of a Great American Film”
Kazan’s very accurate portrayal of the shape up in Waterfront, capturing the desperation, violence and degradation in the practice,
stunned and appalled 1954 America. It was not supposed to happen here. Schulberg and Kazan made it clear to the American public that it was happening here and that the brutality and injustice of the shape up’s were real and not a Hollywood fabrication used to dramatic effect. The public was outraged. Although a definitive link cannot be made between the films portrayal of the shape up and the closing of the practice by local, state and federal investigators, it was only after Waterfront’s premier that the degradation ceremony was officially ended, even Father Corridan and a series of others had tried for two decades to end before the film was written.
The film also made another clear statement; the Mafia controls the docks because the Mafia had the power. It was dramatic statement in 1953 America, a nation almost completely without knowledge of the Mafia or a national organized crime group. Schulberg linked the organized crime structure by connecting the dots; exploitation of the workers was a direct result of organized crimes influence over even the smallest detail on the docks.
A substantial amount of credit belongs to Schulberg who, disgusted after watching an actual shape in Brooklyn with Father Corridan in 1951, penned a quick article on what he had seen on the waterfront for the New York Times Sunday Magazine titled "Joe Docks, Forgotten Man of the Waterfront”. He wrote about the shape up's at dawn on the docks where hiring bosses picked the men to work that days four hour shift depending upon his mood and how much money they were willing to kick back to him. Schulberg also alluded to the practice repeatedly in the shooting script.
In Schulberg’s directional hints in the script for the shape up scene, he captures its full degradation by describing the scene as “animalistic and barbaric.” His camera is careful to show the reaction of Father Barry and Edie as they watch.
This scene also introduces the films only African American player Don Blackman, a professional wrestler who was well known by sports fans in the 1940s and 1950s. Blackman played the role of Luke, the sympathetic dockworker. He had one line. He also appeared in the 1958 release of Hemingway’s work, The Old Man and the Sea, Affair in Trinidad (1952) The Egyptian (1954) The Witch Doctor (1953) and Scream, Blacula, Scream! (1973)
The depiction of a lone African-American on the docks is not inaccurate. As the film grows older, the reality of the century old struggle and animosities between working class Irish and Blacks in New York, grown out of a desperate struggle for the lowest paying jobs available, and grows dimmer. It leads modern viewers to believe that the lone African American speaking role in the film was tokenism, which it was not. By 1953, when the film was made, the New York Irish, although far outnumbered by Italian Americans, were still a presence on the waterfront as is witnessed by the Irish American killer employed by the Anastasia mob to keep the locals in line. As a result, social war between the New York Irish and Blacks was very much alive and in place on the piers in 1953 and the Irish, who populated the hiring bosses as well as the dockworkers, simply locked the Blacks out.
Throughout the film, the viewer needs adjust Waterfront to its time, which is unfortunate because it causes the film to lose some of its edge that it had when it first appeared in theaters.
As Schulberg pointed out "This is a movie of the '50's, reflecting a time when Blacks were not in the work gangs except in the lowest pissant jobs. I took a slight liberty in putting my friend, ex-fighter Don Blackman, in it. Incidentally, today's Jersey waterfront, under the Genovese family, has a white local and a black local, both run by racketeers, dangerous men.” 47
Boris Kaufman, the films cinematographer captures the degradation of the shape up scene from camera positioning. When Big Mac, the supervisor and one of Johnny Friendly’s gang, blows his whistle to call the workers to shape up, Kaufman’s camera is behind Big Mac’s
enormous figure, obscuring the longshoremen. There is no doubt of his ultimate importance on the docks. He has the power on the docks the dockworkers have none.
During the scramble for work-tags, Kaufman brings the camera low to the ground, capturing desperate facial expressions; all of the characters movement is downward towards hell itself. The downward position, is used again later in the film after the fight scene and the deposed Johnny Friendly is pushed into the water from the docks, into the depths of hell as it were. This act balances Friendly’s murder of Joey Doyle (who is pushed from a rooftop). Clever scripting allows a second balance, Joey Doyle’s father pushes Friendly into the water.
For the shot where Edie joins the fray to get a work chit for her father, Kaufman shots her within the chaos of the fray. When Edie tries to wrestle the tag away from Terry Malloy, he easily overpowers her, muscle and brawn rule on the docks. After Terry learns that she is Joey Doyle sister, he meekly surrenders the chit and the films conflict, muscle versus morality, is established.
"Paul Is Dead"
So, was the "Paul Is Dead" incident a hoax, or perhaps a marketing ploy, or merely just a bunch of coincidences that all fit together nicely? It’s unclear why or who started the rumor started but the only thing it proved was almost anything could be misconstrued to validate someone’s belief but here’s the conspiracy theory of what happened. Supposedly, on Wednesday, November 9, 1966, at five O'clock, Paul McCartney was driving a motorcycle home from a relative’s house (Actually, on Wednesday, November 9, 1966, Paul McCartney was riding a motorcycle on his way to his Aunt’s house and had an accident.) when he spied an attractive meter maid, and inadvertently drove through a red light into a busy intersection and crashed into an oncoming car. Paul was dead and, worse yet, disfigured, including having his hair burned off, in the resulting crash and, because his teeth were knocked out, no dental records could be used to identify him. Only the other three Beatles and their manager knew the true story. To keep the Beatles money machine rolling a Paul McCartney look-alike contest was held, and the winner was a man named William Campbell (The winner was never announced, the story goes) who underwent plastic surgery to make him look even more like Paul. In 1969, the Paul is dead rumors started to surface and many more clues to the truth about Paul's death were said to be found in the Beatles music, especially when some were played backwards. Other clues were found on the album covers;
On Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band front cover the clues were said to be that all the figures on the cover are looking at a freshly dug grave. Paul is holding the musical instrument and its black, symbolizing death. Further, he is displaying three fingers, meaning only three Beatles left? This was the first album that the group wrote their name as "Beatles," rather than "The Beatles." Meaning that they were no longer The Beatles of old and to prove it, they say, the yellow hyacinth in the shape of a left-handed guitar only has three strings. The doll in the red, black and white stripes has a car model on her lap next to her right hand. This model with red interior is supposed to symbolize the car Paul was killed in and the red interior is his blood. The other three Beatles' are standing sideways behind the drum, except Paul who is standing forward. Now here’s a good one, on the drum is written in the center "Lonely Hearts." Using a mirror, place it perpendicular to the center of the drum. Splitting the words "Lonely Hearts" in half, the combined writing reads - 1 ONE 1 X HE DIE meaning, they say, that the "1 One 1" equal three, or that Paul is gone, and the "X" is meant to cross out Paul and the hand raised over Paul's head means "death." On the back cover Paul is facing back, George's right-hand index finger is pointing directly to the words "five o'clock," the supposed time of the car crash and the song lyrics "Within You, Without You," are printed over Paul's body.
Clues found in the albums songs include Lovely Rita’s line "When I caught a glimpse of Rita," and "I took her home, I nearly made it." A Day in The Life: "He blew his mind out in a car, he didn't notice that the lights had changed. A crowd of people stood and stared, they'd seen his face before..." Good Morning, Good Morning "Nothing to do to save his life." "People running around it's five o'clock." She's Leaving Home "Wednesday morning at five o'clock." Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band The reference to Billy Shears is supposed to refer to Billy Campbell, the Paul look-alike.
Clues found Magical Mystery Tour Album include Paul is in the "black" walrus suit on the cover, in the booklet, Ringo's drums read "Love the 3 Beatles.", in the photo of the Beatles in white tails, Paul is the only one with a black carnation, the other three have red flowers. When the album cover is held to a mirror, the word "Beatles" is a phone number, 231-7438. The legend is if the number is called a recording came on saying, "you're getting closer." In the song I Am the Walrus, at the end the words from King Lear heard "O, untimely death!" and combined with the legend "The Walrus Was Paul." It’s another clue.
In Yellow Submarine, the clues are said to be found on the covers.) Lennon's hand is raised over Paul's head, indicating "death."
On The Beatles (The White Album) the song and term Glass Onion is supposed to mean a coffin with a glass top and the 'Don't Pass Me By: "You were in a car crash...." and Revolution 9, in which the words, "Number nine, number nine," repeated many times are supposed to say when played backwards, "dead man, turn me on dead man." The reference to the number 9 is supposed to be that of McCartney having nine letters.
On the Abbey Road Album it’s the way the Beatles' dress - Lennon in white for a holy man, Ringo comes next in black as the undertaker and George, in jeans, is the grave digger. Paul is in bare feet. The police vehicle parked to the right in the photograph is a morgue wagon (It wasn’t) and the Volkswagen parked on the left side of the street has a tag that reads, "LMW 28IF which was construed to mean "LMW - Linda McCartney Weeps" and "28IF" means that Paul would have been 28 years old IF he had lived.
HERE IS AN EXCEPT FROM MY BOOK "THE BOOK OF AMERICAN-JEWISH GANGSTERS"
(Max Zellner is a pen name, it was my grandfather's born name. During World War 1 he changed it to the less German sounding Paul Selner)
Ruby, Jack. Assassin. Born Jacob Rubenstein. It’s a twist of fate that the Chicago Outfit’s assault on the city’s labor union in the late 1930s would be the eventual cause of driving Jack Ruby out of Chicago’s west side, to Dallas Texas, and into infamy. Chicago’s crowded West Side—it had 50,000 residents per square mile when Jack Ruby was a boy there—was home to some of Chicago’s most colorful and poverty stricken ethnic enclaves, including the largest Jewish population in North America
Jack Rubenstein, Ruby’s given name, was born in the once notorious Lawndale district, near Maxwell Street. Ruby’s childhood years were a fitting portrait of life in Lawndale. His father, Joseph, was an abusive, heavy drinker, who beat his much younger wife, Fanny Rokowsky, the couple having been tossed together in an arranged marriage, then commonplace in their native Poland. Fanny Rubenstien, Jack’s mother, was a women plagued with her own demons, who often beat and verbally abused her children. A quick-tempered redhead, and the daughter of respected doctors, she was uneducated, crude and emotional. Eventually, unable to control her outbursts, she was committed to a series of mental asylums, causing the family to break apart when Jack was just ten years old, although he lived on and off with his mother when she wasn’t hospitalized.
Ruby seldom attended school and as a result, he flunked out of 3rd grade, although he later claimed to have finished the 8th grade. Instead, Ruby and his childhood friend, Barney Ross, who would go on to be one of the toughest prize fighters ever to rule the ring, were street hustlers, scalping sports tickets and doing anything else they could to earn a living, including running numbers for Al Capone’s minions, occasionally delivering payoff envelopes to the police and prosecutors downtown. Ruby quickly grew into a tough kid and earned a reputation as an awesome street brawler who, win or lose, never backed down.
In 1923, under court order, Ruby and his brother and sisters were taken from their parents’ care and submitted to the care of foster homes for several years, but foster homes didn’t change Ruby much. He still roamed the streets, still fought and still got into trouble.
In 1933, Ruby and several other teenagers from the neighborhood traveled to California, ending up in San Francisco selling horse racing tip sheets at a mob-owned track. It was here that he might have become involved in the Outfit’s little known but very lucrative marijuana smuggling operation out of Mexico into Los Angeles. Ruby returned to Chicago in 1937, and became involved with the Scrap Iron and Junk Handlers Union, local 20467, where he worked, for $22.50 a week, as an enforcer although his official titled was union organizer.
Ruby’s friend and mentor, Leon Cooke, a lawyer by training, whose chief goal was to raise wages for the membership to something more reasonable then the 15 cents an hour they were making, organized the local. But in the late 1930s labor plundering was the Chicago Outfit’s chief source of income, so when Johnny Martin, a small time hustler associated with the Chicago syndicate’s leading labor plunderer, Murray Humphreys, came to Humphreys for permission to take over the Scrap Iron Workers, Humphreys gave his permission. Within days, Martin, with the mob behind him, had moved in on the union and appointed himself President. At the time, Martin was also on the City of Chicago’s payroll as a Sanitary District Clerk and was under indictment with mob boss Paul Ricca for trying to hide taxable income from the federal government. Jack Ruby, although hired by Cooke, soon fell under Martin’s command and was made the syndicate’s bagman inside the union.
As for Leon Cooke, no one is really sure what happened, except that there was a power struggle within the union, and Cooke was shot dead. From what police were able to reconstruct of the crime, Cooke barged into Martin’s office and told him he wanted him out of the union. Martin argued back. After a few minutes, Martin drew a revolver and shot Cooke three times in the back, and then took the only witness to the shooting, the office secretary, as his hostage, and fled down a back staircase. Eventually Martin was arrested and released, claiming self-defense although he couldn’t explain, nor did the State’s Attorney office ask why, if it was self-defense, Cooke was shot in the back.
For the first few days after the shooting, Jack Ruby was the primary suspect in the incident and was even picked up and questioned by police about his role in the murder, but was released after two hours.
Later, in an odd twist of fate, Robert Kennedy reinvestigated Ruby’s role in Leon Cooke’s killing for the McClellan committee Kennedy concluded that Ruby played no role in the murder. He noted that the Cook County State’s Attorney chief investigator, the notoriously corrupt Tubbo Gilbert, moved in on the union shortly after the shooting, and confiscated all of the union’s records and charters. Those documents, along with all police records pertaining to the Cooke shooting, Kennedy noted, disappeared forever and so Jack Ruby’s real position within the Union will probably never be known. After Leon Cooke’s murder, Jack Ruby hit the streets and started telling people that he intended to take over the union, but it was all talk. Most things about Jack Ruby were all talk. The syndicate had its own plan for the Junk handlers. The union was renamed the Waste Handlers Material Union, local 20467 of the American Federation of labor, and in 1939, Paul Dorfman, one of the syndicate’s chief labor racketeers, was moved in to run the operation, causing the AFL-CIO to dub the local “largely a shakedown operation.”
Ruby stayed on with the union as its bagman under Dorfman for several more months before leaving to work with for Ben Zuckerman, also known as “Zuckie the Bookie,” a gambling big shot who was a power in the 24th Ward and was connected with “Dago” Lawrence Mangano, a Mafia hood with high ambitions. Zuckerman was murdered by the mob in 1944. Mangano met the same fate. Many years later, Congressional investigators wrongly assumed that Ruby was run out of Chicago by Lenny Patrick for operating one of Zukerman’s handbooks on Patrick’s territory, without permission, and that Patrick gave Ruby 24 hours to clear out of Chicago.
It was an impressive story, one that Ruby often told himself, but it probably wasn’t true. Like most syndicate hoods, Lenny Patrick was concerned with making money and wouldn’t have run Ruby out of town, a good handbook operator is hard to find. Instead he would have let Ruby off with a warning and then put him to work on a 60-40 split. If Ruby was run out of Chicago, it was probably because he wasn’t a producer, a moneymaker or because he was skimming from the take before giving Patrick his cut. But all the evidence points to Ruby not having been chased out of Chicago.
In 1947, Ruby had followed his sister, Eva, to Dallas where she had opened a nightclub/restaurant called the Singapore Super Club, a name borrowed from a notorious mob hangout on Rush Street in Chicago. After Ruby bought the place, he changed the club’s name to the Silver Spur.
Ruby reappeared in Chicago in 1949, when his name showed up on a list of potential informants willing to work with the Kefauver committee while it was in Chicago. The Committee’s lawyer, Lou Kutner, who was accused of accepting $60,000 to make sure that the committee didn’t call the Chicago mob’s leadership to testify on specific issues, arranged for Ruby to meet with the committee’s chief counsel, Rudolph Halley. Halley noted to Kefauver that “Ruby is a syndicate lieutenant who had been sent to Dallas to serve as a liaison for the Chicago mobsters” and that “Ruby was the payoff man for the Dallas Police department.”
As unlikely as those facts might be, Ruby failed to provide the committee with any information causing Halley to suspect that the hood, with Kutner’s knowledge, had been sent to him by the syndicate to provide the committee with false information. A few years after Ruby left Chicago for Dallas, gangster Sam Giancana took over the policy rackets in Chicago’s enormous Black ghetto and the mob began to understand just how much money there was in penny and nickel gambling. Inspired by the fortune they were soon taking out of Chicago’s poorest neighborhood, Tony Accardo, the acting boss, ordered the Outfit to capture the policy racket on a nationwide basis.
Before the end of 1946 the Chicago Outfit’s gambling arm was active in Iowa, Kansas, Indiana, Michigan and then turned an eye on Dallas, Texas, which was a logical move for the Outfit. Dallas was a wide-open, rich city that supported an enormous gambling and prostitution racket run mostly by freelancers. Accardo had paved the way for a takeover by corrupting Will Wilson, District Attorney, and had, through Eddie Vogel, the old Capone slot machine distributor, put up $168,000 to help elect Governor Beauford Jester. Now Accardo wanted to make sure that Dallas County Sheriff Steve Guthrie was with them as well. To find out, Accardo sent Pat Manno, a crew boss from Chicago’s North side, and two small-time fixers named Paul Jones and Jack Nappi, down to Texas, with orders to get in touch with Guthrie and bribe him so the Outfit could move in and organize the city.
One of the first things Jones did when he arrived in Dallas was to get in touch with Jack Ruby. He later told the FBI that he contacted Ruby because he had been given assurances by mobsters Jimmy Weinberg and Paul “Needle Nose” Labriola that “Ruby is all right, he’s with us” but it’s more likely that Jones looked up Ruby because he had been doing business with his brother Hyman for decades. In fact, the week before he was arrested for trying to bribe Sheriff Gutherie, Jones arranged for Hyman Ruby to distribute 70 gallons of whiskey into the dry state of Oklahoma.
While out on appeal he had several meetings with Ruby’s sister Eva, whose boyfriend was involved in a bait and switch scam. Both Eva and Hyman said they had known Jones since 1945, and Federal agents suspected that Jones and Hyman operated an opium smuggling operation out of Mexico and had hauled them both in for questioning. Later that year, Jones was arrested for importing one million dollars, in 1945 currency, worth of opium across the border at Piedra Negras.
After a few days of following Sheriff Gutherie around town, Jones approached him on the golf course and after some chitchat asked “How would you like to make some real big money?” The Sheriff said he was interested and Jones promised him $150,000 a year if he cooperated with the syndicate when once it started to operate slot machines and floating crap games in the city. But, right after the game, Gutherie went to the Texas Rangers for help and was provided with recording devices and a photo surveillance team who collected enough information over the next few months to send each of the hoods involved to prison for a decade.
Gutherie said that during one of the meetings that Jones named Jack Ruby, whom he knew, as the man who would be brought in to run the Dallas operation for Accardo.
Two decades later, when Gutherie reported that information to the Warren Commission, FBI agents were sent to retrieve the four tapes made of the conversation, but two of the tapes, including the one where Jones named Ruby as his contact man, were missing. Gutherie knew Ruby of course, which was probably why the hoods tossed his name into the bribery attempt. “Anytime I wanted to find any member of the syndicate who was doing business in Dallas,” Sheriff Gutherie said, “I just went to look for them at Jack Ruby’s Silver Spur.”
Sachs-Tobman: In the 1980s, Al Sachs,(1926-2002) a gambler and Herb Tobman, (1925-2006) a business investor, took over the mobbed owned and troubled Stardust hotel-casino. The previous management, Allan Glick and Lefty Rosenthal were booted out by the government due to their ties with the Cleveland and Chicago Mafia.
Sachs had been around the casinos since the 1940s when he worked as a dealer for the Chicago Outfits big dollar poker games held in the then Jewish neighborhood on the West Side, the games were supervised by Lenny Yaras and Lenny Patrick. He had also worked as a manager in the Havana casino, pre-Castro. In 1955, he opened the Royal Nevada casino (Which became the Stardust hotel). In 1958, he was a minor investor in the very mobbed -up Tropicana. He returned to the Stardust in the early 1970s but argued with Alan Glick and left to become the manager of the Aladdin in 1977.
Herbie Tobman, who worked as a Catskill Mountains resort bellhop and later as a Las Vegas gas station attendant in his late 20s, was a real estate investor, furniture store, cab company and diner operator. In the 1950s, he was the general manager of the Moulin Rouge casino, the first racially integrated casino in the state of Nevada. In 1971, he became the general manager of the Aladdin casino.
The problem with Sachs and Tobman was, that no matter what casino they managed, money seemed to disappear from the count room although they denied, loudly and often, that they allowed the Mafia to skim from the casinos and that they were little more than figure heads.
In 1979, the partners formed Trans-Sterling Corporation to take over the Stardust. At about the same time, Joe Yablonsky became special agent in charge of the Las Vegas FBI office. One morning Yablonsky and a junior agent were having coffee in the Riviera casino coffee shop when Yablonsky spied Herb Tobman across the room talking to Mobster Moe Dalitz and his partner Morris Kleinman. On the way out, Tobman stopped at Yablonsky’s table and good naturedly put his arm on the junior FBI agent and, nodding to Yablonsky said I guess you don’t mind who you’re seen with."
It was intended to be a joke but Yablonsky failed to see the humor. He declared war on Tobman and Sachs by opening a standing investigation into their dealings, which included charges of skimming from the Fremont and the Stardust. The investigation went on for four years. The investigation had its awkward moments. Yablonsky, who was Jewish, joined the Temple Beth Shalom where Dalitz and Tobman were regular worshippers.
By 1984, Sachs and Tobman were tossed out of casino business by allegations of skimming and were fined a record $3 million as part of the agreement to surrender ownership of the Stardust and their gaming licenses.
Sagansky Harry J. Gambler. AKA Doc Born January 6, 1898 Died January 28, 1997. Sagansky ran a large-scale bookmaking operation in Boston in the 1950s. A 1918 graduate of Tufts University Medical College, Sagansky opened a liquor store in central downtown Boston at Scully Square (operating from 1919 until 1931) where he began taking numbers as a side venture. By the early 1930s he was flush with cash from the gambling business and heavily invested in nightclubs across the city. Boston State Police estimated his gambling kingdom to be valued at almost $100 million.
He was arrested on gambling charges in 1941. He also served a two and half year state prison sentence for attempting to bribe a Malden Mass. city official for gambling protection. A police raid of his apartment in Brookline once turned up an insurance policy on James Michael Curley, who had been mayor of Boston, governor of Massachusetts and a congressman.
The policy named Mr. Sagansky as beneficiary. Mr. Curley said the policy was security for $8,500 he borrowed from Mr. Sagansky. In the 1950s Sagansky came to the attention of the Kefauver hearings, which officially recognized him as running the largest gambling operation in New England. Sagansky died in his sleep at age 99.
Schachter, Harry AKA Harry Greenberg. A childhood friend of Bugsy Siegel who later worked for Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. On November 22, 1939, Siegel and his brother-in-law, Whitey Krakower, murdered Schachter outside of his home, in an ambush, at 1804 Vista Del Mar Drive. Other suspected in the killing were Frankie Carbo (Who was later accused of murdering Siegel) and Al Tannenbaum.
OTHER BOOKS BY JOHN WILLIAM TUOHY...........................
Noting 'nonexistent' U.S. mandates for paid parental leave, Adobe extends family leave policy
Tech company latest to take initiative to retain top talent by filling in gap from absence of laws allowing parental leave in U.S.
By Barbara Ortutay
NEW YORK (AP) -- Adobe is the latest tech company to extend its paid parental leave policy after Netflix said it would offer corporate employees up to a year of paid leave to care for new babies.
Adobe Systems Inc. said Monday that it will offer parents who are the primary caregivers 16 weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. That's in addition to 10 weeks of paid medical leave following childbirth, so a new mother could take a total of 26 weeks off -- up from the current nine weeks.
Non-primary caregivers will receive four weeks with full pay, up from two weeks previously. Adobe will also cover up to four weeks of family leave to care for a sick family member. The 10 weeks of medical leave that applies to childbirth is an increase from seven weeks.
Adobe defines primary caregiver as the parent who takes the main responsibility to care for a child during work hours. The non-primary caregiver is the other parent. So if a gay couple working at Adobe adopts a baby, one of them would get to take 16 weeks off and the other, four weeks, depending on who cares for the child during work hours.
The new policy applies to Adobe's 6,000 U.S. employees and takes effect Nov. 1. San Jose, California-based Adobe makes popular software such as Photoshop and Acrobat.
"Caring for yourself and your family at home helps you be your best at work. But in the U.S., government mandates for paid leave are currently slim to nonexistent," Donna Morris, senior vice-president of people and places at Adobe, wrote in a blog post Monday. "That means companies must navigate the tough balance between supporting employees during major life events and meeting business goals. Too often, employees have not had the support they need."
Technology companies looking to lure and keep top talent are sweetening the benefits they offer to highly sought-after workers. This includes perks such as free massages and meals, along with parental leave and vacation policies that go above and beyond the rest of corporate America.
Netflix announced last week that it is giving mothers and fathers paid leave for up to a year following the birth or adoption of a child. The company said the leave is "unlimited," meaning that parents can take as much or as little leave during this year as they would like. The new baby-benefit policy covers all of the roughly 2,000 people working at Netflix's Internet video and DVD-by-mail services, according to the Los Gatos, California, company.
Microsoft Corp. followed suit, saying it will offer 20 weeks of paid leave to new mothers, up from a current 12 weeks paid and eight weeks of unpaid leave. New fathers will get 12 paid weeks, instead of four paid and eight unpaid.
The U.S. and Papua New Guinea are the only countries among 185 nations and territories that don't have government-mandated laws requiring employers to pay mothers while on leave with their babies, according to a study released last year by the United Nations' International Labor Organization.HERE'S SOME GREAT ART FOR YOU TO ENJOY..................
Betti’s Boopin’, Popeye’s Swooning in Coney Island, Charles Fazzino
By the water’s edge, Sally Swatland.
Carmen and Fuensanta, Julio Romero de Torres
Cézanne at his Les Lauves studio in 1906, in a photograph by Gertrude Osthaus, wife of the museum director Karl Ernst Osthaus.
According To Psychologists, Coloring Is the Best Alternative To Meditation
By Jenny Brown
As of the time of this publication, six of the top 20 selling books on Amazon are adult coloring books. Coloring is a hobby that we typically think only little toddlers and kindergartners would enjoy, but it turns out that even adults can benefit from it.
Coloring is a low-stress activity that allows an individual to unlock their creative potential. More importantly, it helps relieve tension and pent-up anxiety because it unlocks me
mories of childhood and simpler times. As psychologist Antoni Martínez explains to The Huffington Post, “I recommend it as a relaxation technique. We can use it to enter a more creative, freer state. I recommend it in a quiet environment, even with chill music. Let the color and the lines flow.”
mories of childhood and simpler times. As psychologist Antoni Martínez explains to The Huffington Post, “I recommend it as a relaxation technique. We can use it to enter a more creative, freer state. I recommend it in a quiet environment, even with chill music. Let the color and the lines flow.”
Ben Michaelis, psychologist and author of one of the bestselling adult coloring books, Outside the Lines, says, “There is a long history of people coloring for mental health reasons. Carl Jung [founder of psychology] used to try to get his patients to color in mandalas at the turn of the last century, as a way of getting people to focus and allow the subconscious to let go. Now we know it has a lot of other stress-busting qualities as well.”
Basically, if you are having a rough day at work or just a bad day in general, then feel free to take out some crayons or colored pencils and start coloring. As a parent with children, I’m sure that you will have some coloring books lying around the house. Pick one up and relax!
GOOD WORDS TO HAVE
Contumely Harsh language or treatment arising from haughtiness and contempt; also an instance of such language or treatment. The word is a borrowing from Middle French (whence it had earlier arrived from Latincontumelia), and it has since seen wide literary use. Perhaps its most famous occurrence is in Hamlet's "To be or not to be"
Tellurian (te-LOOR-ee-uhn): Relating to or inhabiting Earth. An inhabitant of Earth. From Latin tellus (earth). Tellus, also known as Terra, was the goddess of the earth in Roman mythology. Earliest documented use: 1846.
I LOVE BLACK AND WHITE PHOTOS FROM FILM..................
Ernest Hemingway in Italy during World War Two
During the First World War, Ernest Hemingway volunteered to serve in Italy as an ambulance driver with the American Red Cross. In June 1918, while running a mobile canteen dispensing chocolate and cigarettes for soldiers, he was wounded by Austrian mortar fire. "Then there was a flash, as when a blast-furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red," he recalled in a letter home.
Despite his injuries, Hemingway carried a wounded Italian soldier to safety and was injured again by machine-gun fire. For his bravery, he received the Silver Medal of Valor from the Italian government—one of the first Americans so honored.
Commenting on this experience years later in Men at War, Hemingway wrote: "When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you. . . . Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you. After being severely wounded two weeks before my nineteenth birthday I had a bad time until I figured out that nothing could happen to me that had not happened to all men before me. Whatever I had to do men had always done. If they had done it then I could do it too and the best thing was not to worry about it."
In February 1912, the inventor Franz Reichelt had gained permission to test his self designed parachute from the Eiffel Tower. The press and Pathé cameras were all invited to witness his jump. The first time Reichelt went up the tower, he actually turned back after getting scared. However, after some persuasion from his manager, he climbed the tower again. The film shows Reichelt teetering on the edge and after hesitating for awhile, he jumps off but plummets straight down to his death.
The top photo shows an LAPD policewoman named Florence Coberly, who in a dangerous undercover operation, was asked to lure a serial rapist named Joe Parra. This would require placing herself in harm’s way so police could catch him just before the act. Supported by more than thirty cops hidden in unmarked cars and stationed around the neighborhood, Coberly did exactly that, drawing the suspect, which in turn drew her backup. Parra tried to run, and photo two shows him after he was gunned down. These shots are from 1952, a year at the end of which she would win the LAPD’s Policewoman of the Year award.
PHOTOS I'VE TAKEN.....................
Beaufort South Carolina
People taking pictures of people:Florida
I'm an amateur photographer, I travel a lot so some years ago and I noticed that everywhere I went there was someone taking a photo of someone else. It's part of the human condition and I think it’s fun so I started snapping pictures of people taking pictures.
THE ART OF WAR...................
“Let me tell you a wonderful, old joke from Communist times. A guy was sent from East Germany to work in Siberia. He knew his mail would be read by censors, so he told his friends: “Let’s establish a code. If a letter you get from me is written in blue ink, it is true what I say. If it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter. Everything is in blue. It says, “Everything is wonderful here. Stores are full of good food. Movie theatres show good films from the west. Apartments are large and luxurious. The only thing you cannot buy is red ink.”
“There is no path to happiness: happiness is the path.” Gautama Buddha
Coca Cola Is Funding Bogus Research to Tell You Their Drinks Aren’t Bad for Your Health -
Soda giant is doing an image overhaul, deflects
Coca Cola’s Coke and all soda drinks (and even some types of flavored water) are deemed “empty calories” by leading nutrition experts, in that they provide a massive sugar punch and no actual nutrients. If Coca Cola has its way, you won’t hear that anymore.
The company is actually pouring serious funds into semi-bogus research that aims to deflect attention from the issue of the (empty) calorie intake that is associated with drinking fizzy drinks. It aims to do so by pointing to another culprit for the raging obesity epidemic: lack of proper exercise.
Coca Cola says exercise, eat and drink whatever you want
In other words, the soda giant is looking for ways to encourage consumption of its products, preferably in all those new supersized containers, by claiming that the culprit for obesity isn’t the number of calories ingested but the fact that we’re not moving enough.
Obviously, this is a far smarter move than just denying the existence of the obesity problem, but it’s still a very damaging one, a New York Times piece argues, citing several health experts.
Coca Cola has recently started a new nonprofit organization called Global Energy Balance Network, which came out guns blazing, arguing that there is “no proof” that your soda-drinking habit is linked to the fact that you’re carrying a few (or more) extra pounds.
In fact, studies already published by the organization argue, not even your love of fast food and high calorie treats are to blame for your weight problem. You only have it because you don’t work out enough.
In a sense, this is true: if you don’t exercise to burn the extra calories you ingested and your body has no need for, you will gain weight. However, by stressing that only exercise (or lack of) matters in the fight against the extra pounds, you ignore one very important element in the equation: diet.
You can’t have sustainable weight loss without combining regular exercise and a balanced diet, whereas Coca Cola is trying to say, through their semi-bogus research, that if you work out more, you can drink as much soda and stuff your face with as many French fries as your heart desires.
Coca Cola is just as bad as tobacco companies
Coca Cola is blowing smoke in our faces, the NYT piece argues, and as evil as that might sound, it’s not exactly a new strategy.
In fact, tobacco companies have done it first, back in the day when the public was still divided on whether to believe or not the warnings on the long-term health impact of smoking.
They too funded research that “proved” there was no direct link between smoking and a higher mortality rate, and even though all the organizations running the studies were transparent about their funding, that doesn’t mean they were impartial.
Coca Cola is doubling down these efforts, by doing a bit more than just have studies published to show that it’s not partly responsible for the obesity problem, the NYT says. It’s also taking action to encourage people to get out and move more, which is perhaps the best thing to come out of its rebranding attempts.
“In recent years, Coke has donated money to build fitness centers in more than 100 schools across the country,” the publication writes. “It sponsors a program called ‘Exercise is Medicine’ to encourage doctors to prescribe physical activity to patients. And when Chicago’s City Council proposed a soda tax in 2012 to help address the city’s obesity problem, Coca-Cola donated $3 million [€2.68 million] to establish fitness programs in more than 60 of the city’s community centers.”
The soda tax proposition eventually fell through.
Danish classrooms built for empathy, happiness
With school back in session, The Local's opinion columnist Jessica Alexander argues that the very way Danish classrooms are organized help contribute to the country's happiness.
In my ongoing research about cultural differences and how the “Danish Way” of doing things really does impact happiness, I had some enlightening discussions recently with my two 18-year-old Danish nieces.
We went over many things but, ironically, one of the most banal observations became the most intriguing. Strangely enough, we spent a lot of time talking about desks. Yes, school desks took the top seat as we discussed where they were placed and how they might contribute to our different cultural mindsets.
My nieces, Anne and Linnea, have both just came back from spending a year abroad in America as exchange students. One studied in Nebraska, went to prom and was on the swim team. The other lived in Ohio, became a school dancer and went to homecoming. This is not like going to New York, California or Disney World, places many Europeans associate with the US experience. These were real American experiences for a real amount of time and I was extremely curious to hear their thoughts from a Danish perspective.
Our unexpected focus on desks began when both of them mentioned having difficulties remembering where their assigned seats were in their American high schools. I found this very odd indeed. Having spent my entire school career knowing exactly where my seat was in every class, I couldn’t understand why they would have trouble remembering this. That was until I understood how desks are arranged in Danish classrooms.
From a child’s first desk-sitting experience in Denmark, they are placed in groups, never individually. This continues right up through upper secondary school, when are often circular tables or variations of connected shapes. The main rule is that they are always together, never separate. The seats are not assigned per se. They change seats throughout the year so that they end up spending time sitting next to different students. Even if it isn’t openly discussed, students know that the teacher mixes students of varying abilities so that kids of different strengths and weaknesses can help each other. This is called cooperative learning and my co-author and I talk about it in more detail in our book.
This seating arrangement unwittingly encourages empathy because students have to try to understand another student’s issues in order to help explain how to solve them. It is also a very different set of skills to have to explain something to another person rather than just remember it individually. Interestingly, many studies show that teaching others actually enhances individual learning and memory retention much more than rote memorization.
In the US, desks are almost always more or less in individual lines apart from the rare extra curricular class like art or laboratory work. We American students know where our assigned seats are throughout the year and this doesn’t change. Looking over at someone else’s work ‘to help them’ randomly would most likely be considered interrupting or cheating. Unless it is a specified group project, you do your own work and let others do theirs. The ‘smart kids’ and ‘hard workers’ will rise to the top. Those who can’t pass the tests and do the work will fail. That’s the way it is in school – and in life so to speak.
“In Danish school, it would be weird if we didn’t help those around us,” Anne told me. “The idea that you work alone in class is really strange for us. I think you would almost be considered an outsider if you didn’t help others or if you only worked alone.”
“I remember there was this sign all over our schools growing up. It rhymed and we all knew it. It was ‘spørg igen, spørg en ven, spørg en voksen’”- that is, if you have a problem you can’t figure out, you should first ‘ask (yourself ) again’, then ask a friend (your classmate opposite), and if that doesn’t work, ask an adult (the teacher),” she said.
This kind of thinking encourages trusting in your own abilities and turning to your classmates for help rather than only going to the teacher. This way you don’t see your fellow students as someone who might steal your work but rather as someone you can depend upon. Cheating is a lot harder to do when you are actively encouraged to help each other.
It makes me wonder if educators elsewhere put their heads together, they might come up with the idea to put desks together too. Being at the head of the class in terms of more trust and connectedness could be a whole new indicator of success in the very difficult subject of Happiness.
Jessica Alexander is an American author who co-wrote 'The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World'. She has been married to a Dane for over 13 years and has always been fascinated by cultural differences. She speaks four languages and currently lives in Rome with her husband and two children. Her book can be purchased via Amazon and Saxo.
This North Cliff , the street where I grew up
This is the Assumption where I went to school. The next drawings below are of the Assumption church
This, and the picture below is the Ansonia Public Library
This is the YMCA where I learned to swim
This is the Masonic Temple at the end of my street.
This is the State Armory at the very end of my street, across from the Y
HERE'S PLEASANT POEM FOR YOU TO ENJOY................
by Dana Gioia
We stood on the rented patio
While the party went on inside.
You knew the groom from college.
I was a friend of the bride.
We hugged the brownstone wall behind us
To keep our dress clothes dry
And watched the sudden summer storm
Floodlit against the sky.
The rain was like a waterfall
Of brilliant beaded light,
Cool and silent as the stars
The storm hid from the night.
To my surprise, you took my arm-
A gesture you didn't explain-
And we spoke in whispers, as if we two
Might imitate the rain.
Then suddenly the storm receded
As swiftly as it came.
The doors behind us opened up.
The hostess called your name.
I watched you merge into the group,
Aloof and yet polite.
We didn't speak another word
Except to say goodnight.
Why does that evening's memory
Return with this night's storm-
A party twenty years ago,
Its disappointments warm?
There are so many might have beens,
What ifs that won't stay buried,
Other cities, other jobs,
Strangers we might have married.
And memory insists on pining
For places it never went,
As if life would be happier
Just by being different.
Michael Dana Gioia (born December 24, 1950) is a poet and writer who also served as the Chairman of the federal agency the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). He was born in Hawthorne, California to Italian and Mexican parents, attended Stanford and Harvard Universities, and spent the first fifteen years of his career writing at night while working for General Foods Corporation. After his 1991 essay "Can Poetry Matter?" in the The Atlantic generated international attention, Gioia quit business to pursue writing full-time. Gioia has published four books of poetry and three volumes of literary criticism as well as opera libretti, song cycles, translations, and over two dozen literary anthologies. In August 2011, Gioia became Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California where he now teaches. He currently divides his time between Los Angeles and Sonoma County, California.
As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly
Can Poetry Matter?
Poetry has vanished as a cultural force in America.
If poets venture outside their confined world, they can work
to make it essential once more
by Dana Gioia
AMERICAN POETRY now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.
What makes the situation of contemporary poets particularly surprising is that it comes at a moment of unprecedented expansion for the art. There have never before been so many new books of poetry published, so many anthologies or literary magazines. Never has it been so easy to earn a living as a poet. There are now several thousand college-level jobs in teaching creative writing, and many more at the primary and secondary levels. Congress has even instituted the position of poet laureate, as have twenty-five states. One also finds a complex network of public subvention for poets, funded by federal, state, and local agencies, augmented by private support in the form of foundation fellowships, prizes, and subsidized retreats. There has also never before been so much published criticism about contemporary poetry; it fills dozens of literary newsletters and scholarly journals.
The proliferation of new poetry and poetry programs is astounding by any historical measure. Just under a thousand new collections of verse are published each year, in addition to a myriad of new poems printed in magazines both small and large. No one knows how many poetry readings take place each year, but surely the total must run into the tens of thousands. And there are now about 200 graduate creative-writing programs in the United States, and more than a thousand undergraduate ones. With an average of ten poetry students in each graduate section, these programs alone will produce about 20,000 accredited professional poets over the next decade. From such statistics an observer might easily conclude that we live in the golden age of American poetry.
But the poetry boom has been a distressingly confined phenomenon. Decades of public and private funding have created a large professional class for the production and reception of new poetry comprising legions of teachers, graduate students, editors, publishers, and administrators. Based mostly in universities, these groups have gradually become the primary audience for contemporary verse. Consequently, the energy of American poetry, which was once directed outward, is now increasingly focused inward. Reputations are made and rewards distributed within the poetry subculture. To adapt Russell Jacoby's definition of contemporary academic renown from The Last Intellectuals, a "famous" poet now means someone famous only to other poets. But there are enough poets to make that local fame relatively meaningful. Not long ago, "only poets read poetry" was meant as damning criticism. Now it is a proven marketing strategy.
The situation has become a paradox, a Zen riddle of cultural sociology. Over the past half century, as American poetry's specialist audience has steadily expanded, its general readership has declined. Moreover, the engines that have driven poetry's institutional success--the explosion of academic writing programs, the proliferation of subsidized magazines and presses, the emergence of a creative-writing career track, and the migration of American literary culture to the university--have unwittingly contributed to its disappearance from public view.
TO the average reader, the proposition that poetry's audience has declined may seem self-evident. It is symptomatic of the art's current isolation that within the subculture such notions are often rejected. Like chamber-of-commerce representatives from Parnassus, poetry boosters offer impressive recitations of the numerical growth of publications, programs, and professorships. Given the bullish statistics on poetry's material expansion, how does one demonstrate that its intellectual and spiritual influence has eroded? One cannot easily marshal numbers, but to any candid observer the evidence throughout the world of ideas and letters seems inescapable.
Daily newspapers no longer review poetry. There is, in fact, little coverage of poetry or poets in the general press. From 1984 until this year the National Book Awards dropped poetry as a category. Leading critics rarely review it. In fact, virtually no one reviews it except other poets. Almost no popular collections of contemporary poetry are available except those, like the Norton Anthology, targeting an academic audience. It seems, in short, as if the large audience that still exists for quality fiction hardly notices poetry. A reader familiar with the novels of Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, or John Barth may not even recognize the names of Gwendolyn Brooks, Gary Snyder, and W. D. Snodgrass.
One can see a microcosm of poetry's current position by studying its coverage in The New York Times. Virtually never reviewed in the daily edition, new poetry is intermittently discussed in the Sunday Book Review, but almost always in group reviews where three books are briefly considered together. Whereas a new novel or biography is reviewed on or around its publication date, a new collection by an important poet like Donald Hall or David Ignatow might wait up to a year for a notice. Or it might never be reviewed at all. Henry Taylor's The Flying Change was reviewed only after it had won the Pulitzer Prize. Rodney Jones's Transparent Gestures was reviewed months after it had won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Rita Dove's Pulitzer Prize-winning Thomas and Beulah was not reviewed by the Times at all.
Poetry reviewing is no better anywhere else, and generally it is much worse. The New York Times only reflects the opinion that although there is a great deal of poetry around, none of it matters very much to readers, publishers, or advertisers--to anyone, that is, except other poets. For most newspapers and magazines, poetry has become a literary commodity intended less to be read than to be noted with approval. Most editors run poems and poetry reviews the way a prosperous Montana rancher might keep a few buffalo around--not to eat the endangered creatures but to display them for tradition's sake.
How Poetry Diminished
ARGUMENTS about the decline of poetry's cultural importance are not new. In American letters they date back to the nineteenth century. But the modern debate might be said to have begun in 1934 when Edmund Wilson published the first version of his controversial essay "Is Verse a Dying Technique?" Surveying literary history, Wilson noted that verse's role had grown increasingly narrow since the eighteenth century. In particular, Romanticism's emphasis on intensity made poetry seem so "fleeting and quintessential" that eventually it dwindled into a mainly lyric medium. As verse--which had previously been a popular medium for narrative, satire, drama, even history and scientific speculation--retreated into lyric, prose usurped much of its cultural territory. Truly ambitious writers eventually had no choice but to write in prose. The future of great literature, Wilson speculated, belonged almost entirely to prose.
Wilson was a capable analyst of literary trends. His skeptical assessment of poetry's place in modern letters has been frequently attacked and qualified over the past half century, but it has never been convincingly dismissed. His argument set the ground rules for all subsequent defenders of contemporary poetry. It also provided the starting point for later iconoclasts, from Delmore Schwartz to Christopher Clausen. The most recent and celebrated of these revisionists is Joseph Epstein, whose mordant 1988 critique "Who Killed Poetry?" first appeared in Commentary and was reprinted in an extravagantly acrimonious symposium in AWP Chronicle (the journal of the Associated Writing Programs). Not coincidentally, Epstein's title pays a double homage to Wilson's essay--first by mimicking the interrogative form of the original title, second by employing its metaphor of death.
Epstein essentially updated Wilson's argument, but with important differences. Whereas Wilson looked on the decline of poetry's cultural position as a gradual process spanning three centuries, Epstein focused on the past few decades. He contrasted the major achievements of the modernists--the generation of Eliot and Stevens, which led poetry from moribund Romanticism into the twentieth century--with what he felt were the minor accomplishments of the present practitioners. The modernists, Epstein maintained, were artists who worked from a broad cultural vision. Contemporary writers were "poetry professionals," who operated within the closed world of the university. Wilson blamed poetry's plight on historical forces; Epstein indicted the poets themselves and the institutions they had helped create, especially creative-writing programs. A brilliant polemicist, Epstein intended his essay to be incendiary, and it did ignite an explosion of criticism. No recent essay on American poetry has generated so many immediate responses in literary journals. And certainly none has drawn so much violently negative criticism from poets themselves. To date at least thirty writers have responded in print. The poet Henry Taylor published two rebuttals.
Poets are justifiably sensitive to arguments that poetry has declined in cultural importance, because journalists and reviewers have used such arguments simplistically to declare all contemporary verse irrelevant. Usually the less a critic knows about verse the more readily he or she dismisses it. It is no coincidence, I think, that the two most persuasive essays on poetry's presumed demise were written by outstanding critics of fiction, neither of whom has written extensively about contemporary poetry. It is too soon to judge the accuracy of Epstein's essay, but a literary historian would find Wilson's timing ironic. As Wilson finished his famous essay, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, E. E. Cummings, Robinson Jeffers, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Robert Graves, W. H. Auden, Archibald MacLeish, Basil Bunting, and others were writing some of their finest poems, which, encompassing history, politics, economics, religion, and philosophy, are among the most culturally inclusive in the history of the language. At the same time, a new generation, which would include Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin, Randall Jarrell, Dylan Thomas, A. D. Hope, and others, was just breaking into print. Wilson himself later admitted that the emergence of a versatile and ambitious poet like Auden contradicted several points of his argument. But if Wilson's prophecies were sometimes inaccurate, his sense of poetry's overall situation was depressingly astute. Even if great poetry continues to be written, it has retreated from the center of literary life. Though supported by a loyal coterie, poetry has lost the confidence that it speaks to and for the general culture.
Inside the Subculture
ONE sees evidence of poetry's diminished stature even within the thriving subculture. The established rituals of the poetry world--the readings, small magazines, workshops, and conferences--exhibit a surprising number of self-imposed limitations. Why, for example, does poetry mix so seldom with music, dance, or theater? At most readings the program consists of verse only--and usually only verse by that night's author. Forty years ago, when Dylan Thomas read, he spent half the program reciting other poets' work. Hardly a self-effacing man, he was nevertheless humble before his art. Today most readings are celebrations less of poetry than of the author's ego. No wonder the audience for such events usually consists entirely of poets, would-be poets, and friends of the author.
Several dozen journals now exist that print only verse. They don't publish literary reviews, just page after page of freshly minted poems. The heart sinks to see so many poems crammed so tightly together, like downcast immigrants in steerage. One can easily miss a radiant poem amid the many lackluster ones. It takes tremendous effort to read these small magazines with openness and attention. Few people bother, generally not even the magazines' contributors. The indifference to poetry in the mass media has created a monster of the opposite kind--journals that love poetry not wisely but too well.
Until about thirty years ago most poetry appeared in magazines that addressed a nonspecialist audience on a range of subjects. Poetry vied for the reader's interest along with politics, humor, fiction, and reviews--a competition that proved healthy for all the genres. A poem that didn't command the reader's attention wasn't considered much of a poem. Editors chose verse that they felt would appeal to their particular audiences, and the diversity of magazines assured that a variety of poetry appeared. The early Kenyon Review published Robert Lowell's poems next to critical essays and literary reviews. The old New Yorker celebrated Ogden Nash between cartoons and short stories.
A few general-interest magazines, such as The New Republic and The New Yorker, still publish poetry in every issue, but, significantly, none except The Nation still reviews it regularly. Some poetry appears in the handful of small magazines and quarterlies that consistently discuss a broad cultural agenda with nonspecialist readers, such as The Threepenny Review, The New Criterion, and The Hudson Review. But most poetry is published in journals that address an insular audience of literary professionals, mainly teachers of creative writing and their students. A few of these, such as American Poetry Review and AWP Chronicle, have moderately large circulations. Many more have negligible readerships. But size is not the problem. The problem is their complacency or resignation about existing only in and for a subculture.
What are the characteristics of a poetry-subculture publication? First, the one subject it addresses is current American literature (supplemented perhaps by a few translations of poets who have already been widely translated). Second, if it prints anything other than poetry, that is usually short fiction. Third, if it runs discursive prose, the essays and reviews are overwhelmingly positive. If it publishes an interview, the tone will be unabashedly reverent toward the author. For these journals critical prose exists not to provide a disinterested perspective on new books but to publicize them. Quite often there are manifest personal connections between the reviewers and the authors they discuss. If occasionally a negative review is published, it will be openly sectarian, rejecting an aesthetic that the magazine has already condemned. The unspoken editorial rule seems to be, Never surprise or annoy the readers; they are, after all, mainly our friends and colleagues.
By abandoning the hard work of evaluation, the poetry subculture demeans its own art. Since there are too many new poetry collections appearing each year for anyone to evaluate, the reader must rely on the candor and discernment of reviewers to recommend the best books. But the general press has largely abandoned this task, and the specialized press has grown so overprotective of poetry that it is reluctant to make harsh judgments. In his new book, American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity, Robert Bly has accurately described the corrosive effect of this critical boosterism:
We have an odd situation: although more bad poetry is being published now than ever before in American history, most of the reviews are positive. Critics say, "I never attack what is bad, all that will take care of itself," . . . but the country is full of young poets and readers who are confused by seeing mediocre poetry praised, or never attacked, and who end up doubting their own critical perceptions.
A clubby feeling also typifies most recent anthologies of contemporary poetry. Although these collections represent themselves as trustworthy guides to the best new poetry, they are not compiled for readers outside the academy. More than one editor has discovered that the best way to get an anthology assigned is to include work by the poets who teach the courses. Compiled in the spirit of congenial opportunism, many of these anthologies give the impression that literary quality is a concept that neither an editor nor a reader should take too seriously.
The 1985 Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, for example, is not so much a selective literary collection as a comprehensive directory of creative-writing teachers (it even offers a photo of each author). Running nearly 800 pages, the volume presents no fewer than 104 important young poets, virtually all of whom teach creative writing. The editorial principle governing selection seems to have been the fear of leaving out some influential colleague. The book does contain a few strong and original poems, but they are surrounded by so many undistinguished exercises that one wonders if the good work got there by design or simply by random sampling. In the drearier patches one suspects that perhaps the book was never truly meant to be read, only assigned.
And that is the real issue. The poetry subculture no longer assumes that all published poems will be read. Like their colleagues in other academic departments, poetry professionals must publish, for purposes of both job security and career advancement. The more they publish, the faster they progress. If they do not publish, or wait too long, their economic futures are in grave jeopardy.
In art, of course, everyone agrees that quality and not quantity matters. Some authors survive on the basis of a single unforgettable poem--Edmund Waller's "Go, Lovely Rose," for example, or Edwin Markham's "The Man With the Hoe," which was made famous by being reprinted in hundreds of newspapers--an unthinkable occurrence today. But bureaucracies, by their very nature, have difficulty measuring something as intangible as literary quality. When institutions evaluate creative artists for employment or promotion, they still must find some seemingly objective means to do so. As the critic Bruce Bawer has observed,
A poem is, after all, a fragile thing, and its intrinsic worth or lack thereof, is a frighteningly subjective consideration; but fellowship grants, degrees, appointments, and publications are objective facts. They are quantifiable; they can be listed on a resume.
Poets serious about making careers in institutions understand that the criteria for success are primarily quantitative. They must publish as much as possible as quickly as possible. The slow maturation of genuine creativity looks like laziness to a committee. Wallace Stevens was forty-three when his first book appeared. Robert Frost was thirty-nine. Today these sluggards would be unemployable.
The proliferation of literary journals and presses over the past thirty years has been a response less to an increased appetite for poetry among the public than to the desperate need of writing teachers for professional validation. Like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers. And in the process the integrity of the art has been betrayed. Of course, no poet is allowed to admit this in public. The cultural credibility of the professional poetry establishment depends on maintaining a polite hypocrisy. Millions of dollars in public and private funding are at stake. Luckily, no one outside the subculture cares enough to press the point very far. No Woodward and Bernstein will ever investigate a cover-up by members of the Associated Writing Programs.
The new poet makes a living not by publishing literary work but by providing specialized educational services. Most likely he or she either works for or aspires to work for a large institution--usually a state-run enterprise, such as a school district, a college, or a university (or lately even a hospital or prison)--teaching others how to write poetry or, on the highest levels, how to teach others how to write poetry.
To look at the issue in strictly economic terms, most contemporary poets have been alienated from their original cultural function. As Marx maintained and few economists have disputed, changes in a class's economic function eventually transform its values and behavior. In poetry's case, the socioeconomic changes have led to a divided literary culture: the superabundance of poetry within a small class and the impoverishment outside it. One might even say that outside the classroom--where society demands that the two groups interact--poets and the common reader are no longer on speaking terms.
The divorce of poetry from the educated reader has had another, more pernicious result. Seeing so much mediocre verse not only published but praised, slogging through so many dull anthologies and small magazines, most readers--even sophisticated ones like Joseph Epstein--now assume that no significant new poetry is being written. This public skepticism represents the final isolation of verse as an art form in contemporary society.
The irony is that this skepticism comes in a period of genuine achievement. Gresham's Law, that bad coinage drives out good, only half applies to current poetry. The sheer mass of mediocrity may have frightened away most readers, but it has not yet driven talented writers from the field. Anyone patient enough to weed through the tangle of contemporary work finds an impressive and diverse range of new poetry. Adrienne Rich, for example, despite her often overbearing polemics, is a major poet by any standard. The best work of Donald Justice, Anthony Hecht, Donald Hall, James Merrill, Louis Simpson, William Stafford, and Richard Wilbur--to mention only writers of the older generation--can hold its own against anything in the national literature. One might also add Sylvia Plath and James Wright, two strong poets of the same generation who died early. America is also a country rich in emigre poetry, as major writers like Czeslaw Milosz, Nina Cassian, Derek Walcott, Joseph Brodsky, and Thom Gunn demonstrate.
Without a role in the broader culture, however, talented poets lack the confidence to create public speech. Occasionally a writer links up rewardingly to a social or political movement. Rich, for example, has used feminism to expand the vision of her work. Robert Bly wrote his finest poetry to protest the Vietnam War. His sense of addressing a large and diverse audience added humor, breadth, and humanity to his previously minimal verse. But it is a difficult task to marry the Muse happily to politics. Consequently, most contemporary poets, knowing that they are virtually invisible in the larger culture, focus on the more intimate forms of lyric and meditative verse. (And a few loners, like X. J. Kennedy and John Updike, turn their genius to the critically disreputable demimonde of light verse and children's poetry.) Therefore, although current American poetry has not often excelled in public forms like political or satiric verse, it has nonetheless produced personal poems of unsurpassed beauty and power. Despite its manifest excellence, this new work has not found a public beyond the poetry subculture, because the traditional machinery of transmission--the reliable reviewing, honest criticism, and selective anthologies--has broken down. The audience that once made Frost and Eliot, Cummings and Millay, part of its cultural vision remains out of reach. Today Walt Whitman's challenge "To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too" reads like an indictment.
From Bohemia to Bureaucracy
TO maintain their activities, subcultures usually require institutions, since the general society does not share their interests. Nudists flock to "nature camps" to express their unfettered life-style. Monks remain in monasteries to protect their austere ideals. As long as poets belonged to a broader class of artists and intellectuals, they centered their lives in urban bohemias, where they maintained a distrustful independence from institutions. Once poets began moving into universities, they abandoned the working-class heterogeneity of Greenwich Village and North Beach for the professional homogeneity of academia.
At first they existed on the fringes of English departments, which was probably healthy. Without advanced degrees or formal career paths, poets were recognized as special creatures. They were allowed--like aboriginal chieftains visiting an anthropologist's campsite--to behave according to their own laws. But as the demand for creative writing grew, the poet's job expanded from merely literary to administrative duties. At the university's urging, these self-trained writers designed history's first institutional curricula for young poets. Creative writing evolved from occasional courses taught within the English department into its own undergraduate major or graduate-degree program. Writers fashioned their academic specialty in the image of other university studies. As the new writing departments multiplied, the new professionals patterned their infrastructure--job titles, journals, annual conventions, organizations--according to the standards not of urban bohemia but of educational institutions. Out of the professional networks this educational expansion created, the subculture of poetry was born.
Initially, the multiplication of creative-writing programs must have been a dizzyingly happy affair. Poets who had scraped by in bohemia or had spent their early adulthood fighting the Second World War suddenly secured stable, well-paying jobs. Writers who had never earned much public attention found themselves surrounded by eager students. Poets who had been too poor to travel flew from campus to campus and from conference to conference, to speak before audiences of their peers. As Wilfrid Sheed once described a moment in John Berryman's career, "Through the burgeoning university network, it was suddenly possible to think of oneself as a national poet, even if the nation turned out to consist entirely of English Departments." The bright postwar world promised a renaissance for American poetry.
In material terms that promise has been fulfilled beyond the dreams of anyone in Berryman's Depression-scarred generation. Poets now occupy niches at every level of academia, from a few sumptuously endowed chairs with six-figure salaries to the more numerous part-time stints that pay roughly the same as Burger King. But even at minimum wage, teaching poetry earns more than writing it ever did. Before the creative-writing boom, being a poet usually meant living in genteel poverty or worse. While the sacrifices poetry demanded caused much individual suffering, the rigors of serving Milton's "thankless Muse" also delivered the collective cultural benefit of frightening away all but committed artists.
Today poetry is a modestly upwardly mobile, middle-class profession--not as lucrative as waste management or dermatology but several big steps above the squalor of bohemia. Only a philistine would romanticize the blissfully banished artistic poverty of yesteryear. But a clear-eyed observer must also recognize that by opening the poet's trade to all applicants and by employing writers to do something other than write, institutions have changed the social and economic identity of the poet from artist to educator. In social terms the identification of poet with teacher is now complete. The first question one poet now asks another upon being introduced is "Where do you teach?" The problem is not that poets teach. The campus is not a bad place for a poet to work. It's just a bad place for all poets to work. Society suffers by losing the imagination and vitality that poets brought to public culture. Poetry suffers when literary standards are forced to conform with institutional ones.
Even within the university contemporary poetry now exists as a subculture. The teaching poet finds that he or she has little in common with academic colleagues. The academic study of literature over the past twenty-five years has veered off in a theoretical direction with which most imaginative writers have little sympathy or familiarity. Thirty years ago detractors of creative-writing programs predicted that poets in universities would become enmeshed in literary criticism and scholarship. This prophecy has proved spectacularly wrong. Poets have created enclaves in the academy almost entirely separate from their critical colleagues. They write less criticism than they did before entering the academy. Pressed to keep up with the plethora of new poetry, small magazines, professional journals, and anthologies, they are frequently also less well read in the literature of the past. Their peers in the English department generally read less contemporary poetry and more literary theory. In many departments writers and literary theorists are openly at war. Bringing the two groups under one roof has paradoxically made each more territorial. Isolated even within the university, the poet, whose true subject is the whole of human existence, has reluctantly become an educational specialist.
When People Paid Attention
TO understand how radically the situation of the American poet has changed, one need only compare today with fifty years ago. In 1940, with the notable exception of Robert Frost, few poets were working in colleges unless, like Mark Van Doren and Yvor Winters, they taught traditional academic subjects. The only creative-writing program was an experiment begun a few years earlier at the University of Iowa. The modernists exemplified the options that poets had for making a living. They could enter middle-class professions, as had T. S. Eliot (a banker turned publisher), Wallace Stevens (a corporate insurance lawyer) and William Carlos Williams (a pediatrician). Or they could live in bohemia supporting themselves as artists, as, in different ways, did Ezra Pound, E. E. Cummings, and Marianne Moore. If the city proved unattractive, they could, like Robinson Jeffers, scrape by in a rural arts colony like Carmel, California. Or they might become farmers, like the young Robert Frost.
Most often poets supported themselves as editors or reviewers, actively taking part in the artistic and intellectual life of their time. Archibald MacLeish was an editor and writer at Fortune. James Agee reviewed movies for Time and The Nation, and eventually wrote screenplays for Hollywood. Randall Jarrell reviewed books. Weldon Kees wrote about jazz and modern art. Delmore Schwartz reviewed everything. Even poets who eventually took up academic careers spent intellectually broadening apprenticeships in literary journalism. The young Robert Hayden covered music and theater for Michigan's black press. R. P. Blackmur, who never completed high school, reviewed books for Hound & Horn before teaching at Princeton. Occasionally a poet might supplement his or her income by giving a reading or lecture, but these occasions were rare. Robinson Jeffers, for example, was fifty-four when he gave his first public reading. For most poets, the sustaining medium was not the classroom or the podium but the written word.
If poets supported themselves by writing, it was mainly by writing prose. Paying outlets for poetry were limited. Beyond a few national magazines, which generally preferred light verse or political satire, there were at any one time only a few dozen journals that published a significant amount of poetry. The emergence of a serious new quarterly like Partisan Review or Furioso was an event of real importance, and a small but dedicated audience eagerly looked forward to each issue. If people could not afford to buy copies, they borrowed them or visited public libraries. As for books of poetry if one excludes vanity-press editions, fewer than a hundred new titles were published each year. But the books that did appear were reviewed in daily newspapers as well as magazines and quarterlies. A focused monthly like Poetry could cover virtually the entire field.
Reviewers fifty years ago were by today's standards extraordinarily tough. They said exactly what they thought, even about their most influential contemporaries. Listen, for example, to Randall Jarrell's description of a book by the famous anthologist Oscar Williams: it "gave the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter." That remark kept Jarrell out of subsequent Williams anthologies, but he did not hesitate to publish it. Or consider Jarrell's assessment of Archibald MacLeish's public poem America Was Promises: it "might have been devised by a YMCA secretary at a home for the mentally deficient." Or read Weldon Kees's one-sentence review of Muriel Rukeyser's Wake Island--"There's one thing you can say about Muriel: she's not lazy." But these same reviewers could write generously about poets they admired, as Jarrell did about Elizabeth Bishop, and Kees about Wallace Stevens. Their praise mattered, because readers knew it did not come lightly.
The reviewers of fifty years ago knew that their primary loyalty must lie not with their fellow poets or publishers but with the reader. Consequently they reported their reactions with scrupulous honesty even when their opinions might lose them literary allies and writing assignments. In discussing new poetry they addressed a wide community of educated readers. Without talking down to their audience, they cultivated a public idiom. Prizing clarity and accessibility they avoided specialist jargon and pedantic displays of scholarship. They also tried, as serious intellectuals should but specialists often do not, to relate what was happening in poetry to social, political, and artistic trends. They charged modern poetry with cultural importance and made it the focal point of their intellectual discourse.
Ill-paid, overworked, and underappreciated, this argumentative group of "practical" critics, all of them poets, accomplished remarkable things. They defined the canon of modernist poetry, established methods to analyze verse of extraordinary difficulty, and identified the new mid-century generation of American poets (Lowell, Roethke, Bishop, Berryman, and others) that still dominates our literary consciousness. Whatever one thinks of their literary canon or critical principles, one must admire the intellectual energy and sheer determination of these critics, who developed as writers without grants or permanent faculty positions, often while working precariously on free-lance assignments. They represent a high point in American intellectual life. Even fifty years later their names still command more authority than those of all but a few contemporary critics. A short roll call would include John Berryman, R. P. Blackmur, Louise Bogan, John Ciardi, Horace Gregory, Langston Hughes, Randall Jarrell, Weldon Kees, Kenneth Rexroth, Delmore Schwartz, Karl Shapiro, Allen Tate, and Yvor Winters. Although contemporary poetry has its boosters and publicists, it has no group of comparable dedication and talent able to address the general literary community.
Like all genuine intellectuals, these critics were visionary. They believed that if modern poets did not have an audience, they could create one. And gradually they did. It was not a mass audience; few American poets of any period have enjoyed a direct relationship with the general public. It was a cross-section of artists and intellectuals, including scientists, clergymen, educators, lawyers, and, of course, writers. This group constituted a literary intelligentsia, made up mainly of nonspecialists, who took poetry as seriously as fiction and drama. Recently Donald Hall and other critics have questioned the size of this audience by citing the low average sales of a volume of new verse by an established poet during the period (usually under a thousand copies). But these skeptics do not understand how poetry was read then.
America was a smaller, less affluent country in 1940, with about half its current population and one sixth its current real GNP. In those pre-paperback days of the late Depression neither readers nor libraries could afford to buy as many books as they do today. Nor was there a large captive audience of creative-writing students who bought books of contemporary poetry for classroom use. Readers usually bought poetry in two forms--in an occasional Collected Poems by a leading author, or in anthologies. The comprehensive collections of writers like Frost, Eliot, Auden, Jeffers, Wylie, and Millay sold very well, were frequently reprinted, and stayed perpetually in print. (Today most Collected Poems disappear after one printing.) Occasionally a book of new poems would capture the public's fancy. Edwin Arlington Robinson's Tristram (1927) became a Literary Guild selection. Frost's A Further Range sold 50,000 copies as a 1936 Book-of-the-Month Club selection. But people knew poetry mainly from anthologies, which they not only bought but also read, with curiosity and attention.
Louis Untermeyer's Modern American Poetry, first published in 1919, was frequently revised to keep it up to date and was a perennial best seller. My 1942 edition, for example, had been reprinted five times by 1945. My edition of Oscar Williams's A Pocket Book of Modern Poetry had been reprinted nineteen times in fourteen years. Untermeyer and Williams prided themselves on keeping their anthologies broad-based and timely. They tried to represent the best of what was being published. Each edition added new poems and poets and dropped older ones. The public appreciated their efforts. Poetry anthologies were an indispensable part of any serious reader's library. Random House's popular Modern Library series, for example, included not one but two anthologies--Selden Rodman's A New Anthology of Modern Poetry and Conrad Aiken's Twentieth Century American Poetry. All these collections were read and reread by a diverse public. Favorite poems were memorized. Difficult authors like Eliot and Thomas were actively discussed and debated. Poetry mattered outside the classroom.
Today these general readers constitute the audience that poetry has lost. Limited by intelligence and curiosity this heterogeneous group cuts across lines of race, class, age, and occupation. Representing our cultural intelligentsia, they are the people who support the arts--who buy classical and jazz records; who attend foreign films and serious theater, opera, symphony, and dance; who read quality fiction and biographies; who listen to public radio and subscribe to the best journals. (They are also often the parents who read poetry to their children and remember, once upon a time in college or high school or kindergarten, liking it themselves.) No one knows the size of this community, but even if one accepts the conservative estimate that it accounts for only two percent of the U.S. population, it still represents a potential audience of almost five million readers. However healthy poetry may appear within its professional subculture, it has lost this larger audience, who represent poetry's bridge to the general culture.
The Need for Poetry
BUT why should anyone but a poet care about the problems of American poetry? What possible relevance does this archaic art form have to contemporary society? In a better world, poetry would need no justification beyond the sheer splendor of its own existence. As Wallace Stevens once observed, "The purpose of poetry is to contribute to man's happiness." Children know this essential truth when they ask to hear their favorite nursery rhymes again and again. Aesthetic pleasure needs no justification, because a life without such pleasure is one not worth living.
But the rest of society has mostly forgotten the value of poetry. To the general reader, discussions about the state of poetry sound like the debating of foreign politics by emigres in a seedy cafe. Or, as Cyril Connolly more bitterly described it, "Poets arguing about modern poetry: jackals snarling over a dried-up well." Anyone who hopes to broaden poetry's audience--critic, teacher, librarian, poet, or lonely literary amateur--faces a daunting challenge. How does one persuade justly skeptical readers, in terms they can understand and appreciate, that poetry still matters?
A passage in William Carlos Williams's "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" provides a possible starting point. Written toward the end of the author's life, after he had been partly paralyzed by a stroke, the lines sum up the hard lessons about poetry and audience that Williams had learned over years of dedication to both poetry and medicine. He wrote,
My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Williams understood poetry's human value but had no illusions about the difficulties his contemporaries faced in trying to engage the audience that needed the art most desperately. To regain poetry's readership one must begin by meeting Williams's challenge to find what "concerns many men," not simply what concerns poets.
There are at least two reasons why the situation of poetry matters to the entire intellectual community. The first involves the role of language in a free society. Poetry is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning. A society whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language will become the slaves of those who retain it--be they politicians, preachers, copywriters, or newscasters. The public responsibility of poetry has been pointed out repeatedly by modern writers. Even the archsymbolist Stephane Mallarme praised the poet's central mission to "purify the words of the tribe." And Ezra Pound warned that
Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clean. It doesn't matter whether a good writer wants to be useful, or whether the bad writer wants to do harm. . . .
If a nation's literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays.
Or, as George Orwell wrote after the Second World War, "One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language. . . ." Poetry is not the entire solution to keeping the nation's language clear and honest, but one is hard pressed to imagine a country's citizens improving the health of its language while abandoning poetry.
The second reason why the situation of poetry matters to all intellectuals is that poetry is not alone among the arts in its marginal position. If the audience for poetry has declined into a subculture of specialists, so too have the audiences for most contemporary art forms, from serious drama to jazz. The unprecedented fragmentation of American high culture during the past half century has left most arts in isolation from one another as well as from the general audience. Contemporary classical music scarcely exists as a living art outside university departments and conservatories. Jazz, which once commanded a broad popular audience, has become the semi-private domain of aficionados and musicians. (Today even influential jazz innovators cannot find places to perform in many metropolitan centers--and for an improvisatory art the inability to perform is a crippling liability.) Much serious drama is now confined to the margins of American theater, where it is seen only by actors, aspiring actors, playwrights, and a few diehard fans. Only the visual arts, perhaps because of their financial glamour and upper-class support, have largely escaped the decline in public attention.
How Poets Can Be Heard
THE most serious question for the future of American culture is whether the arts will continue to exist in isolation and decline into subsidized academic specialties or whether some possibility of rapprochement with the educated public remains. Each of the arts must face the challenge separately, and no art faces more towering obstacles than poetry. Given the decline of literacy, the proliferation of other media, the crisis in humanities education, the collapse of critical standards, and the sheer weight of past failures, how can poets possibly succeed in being heard? Wouldn't it take a miracle?
Toward the end of her life Marianne Moore wrote a short poem called "O To Be a Dragon." This poem recalled the biblical dream in which the Lord appeared to King Solomon and said, "Ask what I shall give thee." Solomon wished for a wise and understanding heart. Moore's wish is harder to summarize. Her poem reads,
If I, like Solomon, . . .
could have my wish--
my wish . . . O to be a dragon,
a symbol of the power of Heaven--of silkworm
size or immense; at times invisible.
Moore got her wish. She became, as all genuine poets do, "a symbol of the power of Heaven." She succeeded in what Robert Frost called "the utmost of ambition"--namely "to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of." She is permanently part of the "felicitous phenomenon" of American literature.
So wishes can come true--even extravagant ones. If I, like Marianne Moore, could have my wish, and I, like Solomon, could have the self-control not to wish for myself, I would wish that poetry could again become a part of American public culture. I don't think this is impossible. All it would require is that poets and poetry teachers take more responsibility for bringing their art to the public. I will close with six modest proposals for how this dream might come true.
1. When poets give public readings, they should spend part of every program reciting other people's work--preferably poems they admire by writers they do not know personally. Readings should be celebrations of poetry in general, not merely of the featured author's work.
2. When arts administrators plan public readings, they should avoid the standard subculture format of poetry only. Mix poetry with the other arts, especially music. Plan evenings honoring dead or foreign writers. Combine short critical lectures with poetry performances. Such combinations would attract an audience from beyond the poetry world without compromising quality.
3. Poets need to write prose about poetry more often, more candidly, and more effectively. Poets must recapture the attention of the broader intellectual community by writing for nonspecialist publications. They must also avoid the jargon of contemporary academic criticism and write in a public idiom. Finally, poets must regain the reader's trust by candidly admitting what they don't like as well as promoting what they like. Professional courtesy has no place in literary journalism.
4. Poets who compile anthologies--or even reading lists--should be scrupulously honest in including only poems they genuinely admire. Anthologies are poetry's gateway to the general culture. They should not be used as pork barrels for the creative-writing trade. An art expands its audience by presenting masterpieces, not mediocrity. Anthologies should be compiled to move, delight, and instruct readers, not to flatter the writing teachers who assign books. Poet-anthologists must never trade the Muse's property for professional favors.
5. Poetry teachers especially at the high school and undergraduate levels, should spend less time on analysis and more on performance. Poetry needs to be liberated from literary criticism. Poems should be memorized, recited, and performed. The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized. The pleasure of performance is what first attracts children to poetry, the sensual excitement of speaking and hearing the words of the poem. Performance was also the teaching technique that kept poetry vital for centuries. Maybe it also holds the key to poetry's future.
6. Finally poets and arts administrators should use radio to expand the art's audience. Poetry is an aural medium, and thus ideally suited to radio. A little imaginative programming at the hundreds of college and public-supported radio stations could bring poetry to millions of listeners. Some programming exists, but it is stuck mostly in the standard subculture format of living poets' reading their own work. Mixing poetry with music on classical and jazz stations or creating innovative talk-radio formats could re-establish a direct relationship between poetry and the general audience.
The history of art tells the same story over and over. As art forms develop, they establish conventions that guide creation, performance, instruction, even analysis. But eventually these conventions grow stale. They begin to stand between the art and its audience. Although much wonderful poetry is being written, the American poetry establishment is locked into a series of exhausted conventions--outmoded ways of presenting, discussing, editing, and teaching poetry. Educational institutions have codified them into a stifling bureaucratic etiquette that enervates the art. These conventions may once have made sense, but today they imprison poetry in an intellectual ghetto.
It is time to experiment, time to leave the well-ordered but stuffy classroom, time to restore a vulgar vitality to poetry and unleash the energy now trapped in the subculture. There is nothing to lose. Society has already told us that poetry is dead. Let's build a funeral pyre out of the dessicated conventions piled around us and watch the ancient, spangle-feathered, unkillable phoenix rise from the ashes.
Dana Gioia's essays and criticism have appeared in many periodicals, including The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, and The New Yorker. He is a translator and anthologist of Italian poetry, including the Mottetti of Eugenio Montale (Graywolf, 1990). Mr. Gioia is also the author of two books of poetry, Daily Horoscope (Graywolf, 1986) and The Gods of Winter (Graywolf, 1991). His May 1991 article in The Atlantic Monthly became the title essay of his book Can Poetry Matter? (Graywolf, 1992).
Copyright © 1991 by Dana Gioia. All rights reserved.
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The Porchless Pumpkin: A Halloween Story for Children
A Halloween play for young children. By consent of the author, this play may be performed, at no charge, by educational institutions, neighborhood organizations and other not-for-profit-organizations.
A fun story with a moral
“I believe that Denny O'Day is an American treasure and this little book proves it. Jack is a pumpkin who happens to be very small, by pumpkins standards and as a result he goes unbought in the pumpkin patch on Halloween eve, but at the last moment he is given his chance to prove that just because you're small doesn't mean you can't be brave. Here is the point that I found so wonderful, the book stresses that while size doesn't matter when it comes to courage...ITS OKAY TO BE SCARED....as well. I think children need to hear that, that's its okay to be unsure because life is a ongoing lesson isn't it?”
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It's Not All Right to be a Foster Kid....no matter what they tell you: Tweet the books contents
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From the Author
I spent my childhood, from age seven through seventeen, in foster care. Over the course of those ten years, many decent, well-meaning, and concerned people told me, "It's okay to be foster kid."
In saying that, those very good people meant to encourage me, and I appreciated their kindness then, and all these many decades later, I still appreciate their good intentions. But as I was tossed around the foster care system, it began to dawn on me that they were wrong. It was not all right to be a foster kid.
During my time in the system, I was bounced every eighteen months from three foster homes to an orphanage to a boy's school and to a group home before I left on my own accord at age seventeen.
In the course of my stay in foster care, I was severely beaten in two homes by my "care givers" and separated from my four siblings who were also in care, sometimes only blocks away from where I was living.
I left the system rather than to wait to age out, although the effects of leaving the system without any family, means, or safety net of any kind, were the same as if I had aged out. I lived in poverty for the first part of my life, dropped out of high school, and had continuous problems with the law.
Today, almost nothing about foster care has changed. Exactly what happened to me is happening to some other child, somewhere in America, right now. The system, corrupt, bloated, and inefficient, goes on, unchanging and secretive.
Something has gone wrong in a system that was originally a compassionate social policy built to improve lives but is now a definitive cause in ruining lives. Due to gross negligence, mismanagement, apathy, and greed, mostly what the foster care system builds are dangerous consequences. Truly, foster care has become our epic national disgrace and a nightmare for those of us who have lived through it.
Yet there is a suspicion among some Americans that foster care costs too much, undermines the work ethic, and is at odds with a satisfying life. Others see foster care as a part of the welfare system, as legal plunder of the public treasuries.
None of that is true; in fact, all that sort of thinking does is to blame the victims. There is not a single child in the system who wants to be there or asked to be there. Foster kids are in foster care because they had nowhere else to go. It's that simple. And believe me, if those kids could get out of the system and be reunited with their parents and lead normal, healthy lives, they would. And if foster care is a sort of legal plunder of the public treasuries, it's not the kids in the system who are doing the plundering.
We need to end this needless suffering. We need to end it because it is morally and ethically wrong and because the generations to come will not judge us on the might of our armed forces or our technological advancements or on our fabulous wealth.
Rather, they will judge us, I am certain, on our compassion for those who are friendless, on our decency to those who have nothing and on our efforts, successful or not, to make our nation and our world a better place. And if we cannot accomplish those things in the short time allotted to us, then let them say of us "at least they tried."
You can change the tragedy of foster care and here's how to do it. We have created this book so that almost all of it can be tweeted out by you to the world. You have the power to improve the lives of those in our society who are least able to defend themselves. All you need is the will to do it.
If the American people, as good, decent and generous as they are, knew what was going on in foster care, in their name and with their money, they would stop it. But, generally speaking, although the public has a vague notion that foster care is a mess, they don't have the complete picture. They are not aware of the human, economic and social cost that the mismanagement of the foster care system puts on our nation.
By tweeting the facts laid out in this work, you can help to change all of that. You can make a difference. You can change things for the better.
We can always change the future for a foster kid; to make it better ...you have the power to do that. Speak up (or tweet out) because it's your country. Don't depend on the "The other guy" to speak up for these kids, because you are the other guy.
We cannot build a future for foster children, but we can build foster children for the future and the time to start that change is today.
No time to say Goodbye: Memoirs of a life in foster
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Organized Crime in Hollywood
The Mob in Hollywood
The Bioff Scandal
Paperback 54 pages
Organized Crime in New York
Joe Pistone’s war on the mafia
Mob Testimony: Joe Pistone, Michael Scars DiLeonardo, Angelo Lonardo and others
The New York Mafia: The Origins of the New York Mob
The New York Mob: The Bosses
Organized Crime 25 Years after Valachi. Hearings before the US Senate
Shooting the mob: Dutch Schultz
Gangland Gaslight: The Killing of Rosy Rosenthal. (Illustrated)
Early Street Gangs and Gangsters of New York City
Paperback 382 pages
THE RUSSIAN MOBS
The Russian Mafia in America
The Threat of Russian Organzied Crime
Paperback 192 pages
Best of Mob Stories
Best of Mob Stories Part 2
Mob Recipes to Die For. Meals and Mobsters in Photos
More Mob Recipes to Die For. Meals and Mobs
The New England Mafia
Shooting the mob. Organized crime in photos. Dead Mobsters, Gangsters and Hoods.
The Salerno Report: The Mafia and the Murder of President John F. Kennedy
The Mob Files: Mob Wars. "We only kill each other"
The Mob across America
The US Government’s Time Line of Organzied Crime 1920-1987
Early Street Gangs and Gangsters of New York City: 1800-1919. Illustrated
The Mob Files: Mob Cops, Lawyers and Informants and Fronts
Gangster Quotes: Mobsters in their own words. Illustrated
Paperback: 128 pages
The Book of American-Jewish Gangsters: A Pictorial History.
Paperback: 436 pages
The Mob and the Kennedy Assassination
Paperback 414 pages
BOOKS ABOUT THE OLD WEST
The Last Outlaw: The story of Cole Younger, by Himself
Paperback 152 pages
BOOKS ON PHOTOGRAPHY
Chicago: A photographic essay.
Paperback: 200 pages
Boomers on a train: A ten minute play
Paperback 22 pages
Four Short Plays
By John William Tuohy
Four More Short Plays
By John William Tuohy
High and Goodbye: Everybody gets the Timothy Leary they deserve. A full length play
By John William Tuohy
Cyberdate. An Everyday Love Story about Everyday People
By John William Tuohy
The Dutchman's Soliloquy: A one Act Play based on the factual last words of Gangster Dutch Schultz.
By John William Tuohy
Fishbowling on The Last Words of Dutch Schultz: Or William S. Burroughs intersects with Dutch Schultz
Print Length: 57 pages
American Shakespeare: August Wilson in his own words. A One Act Play
By John William Tuohy
She Stoops to Conquer
The Seven Deadly Sins of Gilligan’s Island: A ten minute play
Print Length: 14 pages
BOOKS ABOUT VIRGINIA
OUT OF CONTROL: An Informal History of the Fairfax County Police
McLean Virginia. A short informal history
THE QUOTABLE SERIES
The Quotable Emerson: Life lessons from the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Over 300 quotes
The Quotable John F. Kennedy
The Quotable Oscar Wilde
The Quotable Machiavelli
The Quotable Confucius: Life Lesson from the Chinese Master
The Quotable Henry David Thoreau
The Quotable Robert F. Kennedy
The Quotable Writer: Writers on the Writers Life
The words of Walt Whitman: An American Poet
Paperback: 162 pages
Gangster Quotes: Mobsters in their own words. Illustrated
Paperback: 128 pages
The Quotable Popes
Paperback 66 pages
The Quotable Kahlil Gibran with Artwork from Kahlil Gibran
Paperback 52 pages
Kahlil Gibran, an artist, poet, and writer was born on January 6, 1883 n the north of modern-day Lebanon and in what was then part of Ottoman Empire. He had no formal schooling in Lebanon. In 1895, the family immigrated to the United States when Kahlil was a young man and settled in South Boston. Gibran enrolled in an art school and was soon a member of the avant-garde community and became especially close to Boston artist, photographer, and publisher Fred Holland Day who encouraged and supported Gibran’s creative projects. An accomplished artist in drawing and watercolor, Kahlil attended art school in Paris from 1908 to 1910, pursuing a symbolist and romantic style. He held his first art exhibition of his drawings in 1904 in Boston, at Day's studio. It was at this exhibition, that Gibran met Mary Elizabeth Haskell, who ten years his senior. The two formed an important friendship and love affair that lasted the rest of Gibran’s short life. Haskell influenced every aspect of Gibran’s personal life and career. She became his editor when he began to write and ushered his first book into publication in 1918, The Madman, a slim volume of aphorisms and parables written in biblical cadence somewhere between poetry and prose. Gibran died in New York City on April 10, 1931, at the age of 48 from cirrhosis of the liver and tuberculosis.
The Quotable Dorothy Parker
Paperback 86 pages
The Quotable Machiavelli
Paperback 36 pages
The Quotable Greeks
Paperback 230 pages
The Quotabe Oscar Wilde
Paperback 24 pages
The Quotable Helen Keller
Paperback 66 pages
The Art of War: Sun Tzu
Paperback 60 pages
The Quotable Shakespeare
Paperback 54 pages
The Quotable Gorucho Marx
Paperback 46 pages