Excerpt from Chapter One
There is a story in our family that one day my mother was strolling along with my brother Frank and myself, and pushing our twins in a pram. A huge black motorcar stopped at the kerb, and out hopped a smartly dressed chauffeur, who opened the rear door for a bejeweled, befurred grande-dame type of woman who, putting the well-shod feet on the ground, commanded the mother to stop, which she did promptly. Then the grande dame waxed lyrical on the subject of myself--how, she had never seen a more beautiful little boy: the blonde hair, the gleaming teeth, the gorgeous skin, and the smile--and bow she would pay any amount of money to the mother to allow her to adopt me.
The mother, as the story is told, thought, and thought, and thought, and said it was an attractive proposition, but she couldn't think of a way to explain my disappearance to my father, who had not yet disappeared himself, so she reluctantly declined the offer.
In later years, 'twas often thrown in my face by the mother and the brothers that a great mistake had been made by my retention in the family circle. Privately, I was always of the opinion that a grande dame had gotten herself in the family way outside of wedlock and had paid my mother to take me. How else can it be explained, my easy and effortless assimilation into the good life, life in America?
The brother Frank had somehow got to the U.S.A. in 1949, at the age of nineteen, and then saved up enough money to send for me in 1952, when I was twenty. Two hundred dollars paid my passage on the good ship America. Talk about the good life: clean beds, clean sheets, pillow, light to read by, and the food! As many meals and as much as you wanted, and you could have sandwiches in the middle of the night if you wanted. And there was a swimming pool. It was still embarrassing to have patched clothes and mended shoes, and all of it too heavy for the summer climate toward which we sped.
What was I going to do in the U.S. of A., they asked me, and how in God's name was I to tell them that I'd left school at thirteen and had no certificates to prove I'd been to school at all, as I had failed the primary exams twice and was considered a dunce, doomed, doomed to mendicancy, criminality or, worse, manual labor to the end of my natural days, that's what they'd said.
But the Americans were kind, so I'd tell them I was going to be a doctor an engineer a surgeon a pilot a navigator--anything to bring a smile to the lips of these kindly folks. Truth is, I knew I couldn't do anything at all but tell stories and lies.
When I got here to the U.S., Frank was gone in the army to Germany and a family named McManus met me and guided me around. I had to register for the draft too, and found myself in the service for a couple of years, and out I came discharged, still not knowing what to do at the age of twenty-three.
I WENT TO THE DOCKS and, as I swore I wasn't a Communist or a member of organized crime, I was allowed to register for work. In England, you were called a "docker," but here in the U.S. you were a "longshoreman," a romantic-sounding name for a laborer unloading the ships. There was a comforting monotony to the job, especially if you were fit, strong, and not too high in the I.Q. department.
New York was still a thriving port, the terminal point for a greater variety of cargoes than the brother Frank and myself. Hell's Kitchen, a hard and ragged neighborhood on the West Side of Manhattan, next to the Hudson River, was dominated by the Irish, and it was said there used to be signs on the piers. There that read NO WOPS; in Brooklyn the Italians were in charge, and they put up signs on the piers there that said NO MICKS.
I'd wander from pier to pier, to the Jersey City, Bayonne, and Hoboken hiring halls, echoey, smelly places, with green walls, dirty floors, and the usual flickering fluorescent lights. We'd shape up early in the morning, freezing in the winter, us garbed in the longshoreman's uniform: heavy boots, heavy trousers, sweater, pea jacket, woolen cap, work gloves, and the cargo hook unsteady from last night's excesses. If there were a lot of ships, the greenhorns like me worked; if not, it was another arse-scratching day.
(C) 1998 Malachy McCourt All rights reserved.
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The Angel of Losses
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