Chapter II: Crime, School and Church
There came a period which seemed to have arisen without much warning. It seemed that all the work came to a halt. My mother was going out seeking work as usual, but she came home earlier looking frightfully disappointed. Going to the other side of the tracks to collect the washing had ceased. There was no money coming in. Even running down for a pitcher of beer was less frequent. For a while, we had been living it up. My mother was getting lots of work in New York scrubbing floors. We had two paying lodgers, and John had a part-time job in a battery shop a few blocks away from the tenement. There was always a sack of potatoes or onions on hand. Pig tails, pig feet and neckbones had been plentiful. Now, the two rooms were vacant, John had lost his job, and the meat disappeared from the table. We were making it on potatoes and onions. As time went on, the lard disappeared from the bread and the second helpings of potato and onion stew stopped. We were slipping backward.
I woke up one morning to a big meal of oatmeal, fresh bread and milk. It stayed that way for the next several weeks, until a day when Officer Kelley came to the door. In the form of passing on news, he stated that someone was stealing bread and milk from in front of the grocery stores in the neighborhood. They were about to get caught, unless "whoever it was" stopped doing it.
My brothers had been getting up at five in the morning, slipping out of the house and making for a different grocery store every day. In those days fresh bread was delivered to a big bread box outside the store before it opened. The milkman came around at the same time and deposited the milk bottles next to the bread. It was an easy touch. All one had to watch for was the patrolman who walked the beat. He had several blocks to cover, but you had to time yourself carefully. After that warning, the fresh bread and milk ceased coming into our house. When my mother raised this matter with my brothers, they claimed they got the food by working for the grocer, doing odds and ends.
When I heard the words "election time" around the house, we had boiled chicken and a few good meals. A few days before election day, the Democrats would woo the poor's votes by coming around with a basket of groceries. Generally a chicken or small ham sat atop the groceries, which consisted of about ten pounds of potatoes and onions, five pounds of beans, and two cans of corned beef. On election day, the ward heeler came to the house and took you by the hand to the polling place. It was obvious why the Democrats were constantly being elected. Unfortunately, elections were far between.
The clan was resourceful and survival-wise. Sister Kate went to the local slaughterhouse and got herself a job for 15 cents an hour. She worked three days a week, six hours a day. Her job, like that of the dozen other kids with her, was to cut and trim away all the old decayed meat on the hams that were sent to the slaughterhouse by the local butchers. The meat was then put into a cooker and a grinder. It wound up as the good old American hotdog.
In proportion to the amount of time on the job, the slaughterhouse would permit their employees to purchase some of these parts for a few cents. Every day that sister Kate worked, she managed to bring home some parts of an animal, and when no one was looking, she did what most of the slaughterhouse workers did--she shoved something under her apron and kept her fingers crossed as she went out of the gate.
Then John talked himself into a baker's helper job with some baker who saw a good opportunity to exploit young labor. From eight at night until one in the morning, he helped mix dough, make buns and crullers and scrub up the basement when the baking was done. The baker paid him ten cents plus all the stale bread he could take home.
Once again we were back among the eating and living part of society. As the wrinkles worked their way out of the stomach, both John and Kate rebelled against their poorly-paid jobs. First it started as a protest, but my mother told them to get back to work. So Kate allowed herself to be caught coming out of the gate with a ham under her apron. They fired her. Two days later, John told the baker he was tired of taking home stale bread and loaded himself down with fresh doughnuts, thus ending his promising career as a baker.
We were slipping again. One night I heard a commotion in the hallway. It was my two brothers working like beavers, stashing away all the equipment from Mullins Chandlery shop on the corner. They had broken into the place through a back window, and while they had intended to take only a few items to peddle, they found the taking so easy that they just continued to take, until half the hallway was full of fire axes, lanterns, bells, bilge pumps and what not.
The word got out and Officer Kelley made the arrest. In court the judge heard only bad things about them. There was a truant officer's report that the brothers spent more time out of school than inside, and that the truant officer had to chase them across rooftops, only to be attacked by them when he had them trapped. My mother tried to get the priest to say a few words on their behalf, but he refused on the basis that the only time they came to mass was when they were dragged into church. The judge was firm--too firm. He sent them both to New Jersey's toughest reform school, a place called Jamesburg.
John had always been the hothead, the shrewd one, the thinker and philosopher. He bided his time and carefully planned his escape. He told Buck about it and asked him if he wanted in. Buck felt that the risks were too great if both of them tried to make it and that John would stand a better chance on his own. After several years, the time came for John to make his break. The men were in the fields, hoeing potatoes next to a corn field where the plants were high. John made his break through the field, only to discover that five black trustees were right behind him, racing like fiends to catch him. The rewards for the trustees would be great. For catching an escapee, their time would be cut in half, and lots of other goodies would come their way. For the escapee, on the other hand, the first reward for being caught was a cold drenching by a fire hose, followed by a beating with rubber hoses, followed by more time added to the original sentence. All privileges would be wiped out. As John put it a number of years later, "When I saw those bums behind me, the very thought of those rubber hoses added new dimensions to those legs of mine, and I not only outran them, I didn't stop until I reached the hills and valleys of Wyoming." He changed his name and got a job stringing up telephone poles across the prairie, then he joined an oil rig crew.
Brother Buck remained at Jamesburg, where he spent a total of ten years for unlawful entry. He was discharged from Jamesburg without ever spending one day in its classrooms, unable to read or write.
So my mother had a little less to worry about now. Two boys under lock and key. Two less mouths to feed. Nonetheless, she still had to think about the three girls and one boy left in the clan.
I was dolled up one morning and, hand and hand with my mother, I proceeded off to school. St. Peter's Church and the school attached to it were about six long blocks away. After some formalities, my mother departed, and I was led into a room by a nun who was the teacher. The room was full of little kids sitting in little chairs. There were blackboards all around the room with ABCs and numbers written on them. A chair was pointed out for me to sit in. It was too small for me. (I was always big for my age. At age fourteen I was six feet tall.) A suitable chair was found. I sat facing the teacher. A strange sensation came over me. I felt trapped. No longer could I yell and run and jump. My world of fun and laughter had been changed. Now it was a strange discipline, without laughter, with everyone made to sit and face the nun in front of us. Our eyes followed her as she walked to and fro, motioning and gesticulating, pointing to odd-looking little marks that sat over some of the letters. Every now and then she would rap her stick on the desk to get the attention of her pupils who sat staring at the giant sitting among them.
The ABCs were easy for me. I already knew the alphabet and was able to match up words that fit with AT, like bAT, mAT, sAT, etc. All this had been taught to me at home by my older sisters and playmates. When the nun found that she couldn't teach me anything, and that I caused a distraction for the rest of her pupils, I was sent "upstairs" to another class.
Discipline in a Catholic school in those days was pretty tough. The teachers, all nuns dressed in black and white habits, wore rope belts around their waists. Attached to the belt was a crucifix about six or eight inches long that dangled from a set of heavy prayer beads. Also dangling from the belt was a hunk of rubber about a foot and a half long, an inch thick, and three inches wide. Its very presence, dangling there, wrapping itself around the cross or bouncing off the black habit, was enough to strike fear into the student. For the slightest infraction, you were called to the front of the class and told to face the students and put out your hands, palms up. In a manner befitting a czar, the nun would pronounce the sentence: "Five on each hand." If you pulled your hands back before the chunk of rubber landed solidly across your palms, you were given some extra raps.
Every Sunday morning all the school children lined up outside the church with their class groups. At ten minutes before eight, all marched inside, took their seats and waited for the mass to begin. If you were late for the lineup or failed to make mass altogether, you had to come up with a very special reason, because on Monday morning, after morning prayers, the teacher would announce: "All those who were late for mass step to the front of the class." I would swallow hard and listen to my heart pound as I walked up to receive my punishment, and "God's will" was "fulfilled."
There was never any doubt in my mind that the nuns used their power of excessive punishment to terrorize the students. The rubber strap and the long blackboard pointer were only two of the instruments used to inflict physical punishment. It wasn't that I committed more mischief than the rest of the kids, or that I was any less smart than the rest of them, that I received well above my share of physical punishment. I think now that it was because the nuns did not have any great admiration for my family, and my mother in particular. There was a prevailing attitude among some that the Irish were irresponsible drunkards and their children misfits.
During the early years that I spent at Catholic school, my mother could not afford to buy me shoes. I was the only one in the entire school who came to class without shoes. For the first week or two, there had been a little ridicule from the kids, but that died down. When I entered the school, the nuns told Mother that I would have to wear shoes. My mother said that within a few days I would have the shoes. Those few days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months, and it remained a point of contention between me and the nuns. When winter came, I walked into class with freezing cold, wet feet. The nun growled as usual when she looked down at my feet, but neither the church nor the school ever offered me a pair of shoes.
One day I was late for school, and I remembered a shortcut. It saved me a block, but I had to cross a stinking, mud-clogged creek that was a drain-off from a chemical factory a dozen blocks away. As luck would have it, I misstepped, and both legs sank into the stinky slime. Running and trying to wipe mud from your legs is an awkward maneuver, and when I entered the class about three minutes late It was obvious that all hell was going to break loose. Not only did I smell from the slimy mud, which was now drying on my legs, but I had left a series of footprints on my way to class. Mud still oozed between my toes. I was immediately admonished and not allowed to take my seat. The nun wrote a hasty note and told me to go home and give it to my mother. I left the class, humiliated.
I found my mother leaning over the tub, scrubbing clothes. I handed her the note. She couldn't read it since she had never attended school in Ireland. She took the note over to one of the bartenders at Paddy's saloon. He was a smart Irishman, able to read and write. She became rigid as the bartender read what the nun had written: her son was no longer welcome in her class unless he came properly dressed like the rest of the children. I think the part that hurt her most was where the nun stated that, in addition to her son wearing shoes, he should be properly bathed; didn't she know there was a law against sending children to school in an unsanitary condition? That did it. I had a hard time keeping up with my mother's pace as we headed for the school. Up the stairs she ran, throwing open the door and blazing in, with me trailing meekly behind. The nun turned and faced Mother, then looked at me. I wished I were somewhere else.
"Are you the one who wrote this note and sent my boy home?" my mother shouted at the nun. The nun looked at the class; they were all wide-eyed, sitting in expectation.
"I will not discuss anything about your son here. We will do it in the Mother Superior's office," she replied, slightly shaken.
"Like hell we will," my mother shouted back. "We'll talk about it here and now. Who the bloody hell do you think you are, with your God-almighty airs, to tell me that I don't keep my boy clean?"
"You will not talk that way in front of me or the children," said the nun as she tried to make her way past my mother to the door. Mother grabbed her by the shoulder and swung her around. The kids in the class became frightened. The nun turned white.
"And another thing," shouted my mother as she removed her hand from the nun's shoulder, "if you keep whipping my boy the way you have been, I'm gonna come up here and lay that rubber strap across your ass so you know how it feels!" At that moment, I felt that God had just written down my name on His list of those who must do their share of shoveling in Hell.
The nun quickly blessed herself with the sign of the cross. The shouting had brought another nun into the room. Realizing what was taking place, she made a fast exit to inform the Mother Superior. A few moments later Mother Superior came charging into the room. There was more shouting; all of a sudden it stopped and I found myself standing alone in front of the class. The trio had left for Mother Superior's office.
After what seemed like a hundred years, the nun and my mother returned. Mother led me out into the hallway. "Go to the washroom and scrub your legs with lots of soap and make sure they're nice and clean. Then go back to class." She turned and walked out of the building.
That afternoon at home I found out what had taken place in Mother Superior's office. In exchange for the nuns tolerating me at school without shoes or regulation clothing, my mother had given her word to never enter a classroom without first getting permission from Mother Superior. Furthermore, she was never to use the word "hell" in the manner she did in front of the nun and children and never, under any circumstances, was she to use the word "ass." The school was ready to accept the fact that her son had to travel quite a distance to reach the school, and therefore his feet would be dirty. He was to go to the washroom to clean up before entering class. That ended this particular battle.
For the next few days, I had a feeling that the nun was just waiting for me to step out of line so she could lay it on me. But I kept my nose clean. Also, she had tasted the wrath of my mother, and perhaps she would try to avoid it.
Holy Communion was approaching. For an entire month the class was engaged at least two hours a day in preparation for it. We had to study and to rehearse all the moves leading up to the altar and receiving the Holy Sacrament. Two weeks before the actual day, all the children were handed a list to take home to their parents which was to be read and complied with. It specified the clothing we were to wear for the occasion. It so happened that there was not one item on the list that I had or could easily get. My mother said nothing.
One week before the momentous day, we were asked to confirm that our parents would comply with the list of instructions. When called upon, everyone in the class said yes, their parents would comply. When it came time for me to answer, I said I didn't know. The nun asked me if I intended to wear shoes at the altar. I said that as far as I knew, there were no shoes for me, so I supposed I would go to the altar without them. On my way out the door that afternoon, the nun called me aside and told me to tell my mother that I would not be able to take communion this time because I obviously was not ready for it, my family having failed to make the required preparations.
When my mother heard this, she hit the ceiling. Next morning, hand in hand, we went to school. I saw the fire in her eyes and sensed the volcano that was building. This time the nun had anticipated my mother's move, and she and the Mother Superior were standing outside the classroom when we arrived. We were ushered into the Mother Superior's office. Mother Superior quickly moved to safety behind her desk and sat down. My mother wasted no time with niceties.
"My boy is going to make his communion, clothes or no clothes. The good Lord dressed all His life in a burlap sack. You want my boy to be all dolled up. Well, biddies, if you want him to be all dolled up and to wear shoes, then you get him the clothes and shoes because I can barely get the money to feed him. Come Sunday, you mark my word, may God strike me, he will be in church to make his communion."
That ended the second battle. My mother never allowed the nun or Mother Superior to utter a word on their own behalf. She took me by the arm, walked out of the office and told me to go on to class.
Two days before communion, I was called out of class by a nun I had never seen before. She took me uptown where all the stores were located. When it came time to make communion, I paraded up to the altar dressed in my little white suit and white shoes. That was my first pair of shoes, my first suit. For once, I felt like one of God's little lambs. As my mother sat watching me in church, I'm sure she didn't miss letting the person next to her know that I was her son.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book One