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Authors: Pete Hamill

The Christmas Kid

BOOK: The Christmas Kid
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T
his book is for—in no particular order—the people from my
Brooklyn hamlet: Tim Lee and Jack Daugherty, Patty Rattigan, Georgie Loftus, Dick Ganley, Frank and Red Cioffi, Geordie Stewart, Harry Kelly, Buck Vermilyea. It’s for Mr. and Mrs. Mike Caputo and their kids, Junior, Sonny, and Babe. It’s for Ann Sharkey and Mae Irwin, Carrie Woods and Cliff, for Mae, Marilyn, and Jackie McEvoy, Dottie and Pete DeRossi, Harry Kerniss, Walter Wagner, Jack O’Loughlin, and Sam Brody. It’s for Billy Begley, Hoppo Chambers, Gil and Kenny Hope, Mike and Sonny Fischetti, Mr. Greenberg, Mr. B., Mr. Fortunato, Mr. Gutter, Mom and Pop Sanew. It’s for Jim Brady, Wimpy Vento, Noona Taylor, for Billy Delaney, Vera, Paul, and Sara DeSaro, Harold Sicker. It’s for Marion and Dom, Cookie, Tommy, and Laura Ventriglio, Billy Rossiter, Jimmy Lanzano, Raymond Dix, Harry D’Arcy, Eddie Prybys, Nit-Nat DelVecchio, Billy Boy Sirico, Joe Kelly and No-Toes Nocera. It’s for Catherine and Rosie Rogan, Roberta Perrin, Mary Cottingham, Betty Kayata, Mary Christopher, Marilyn Lawless, Lorraine Hines, Betty Gahan, Dotty and Betty Long, Rosemary Malden, Jeanie Miller, Kathleen Quigley, Mary Lou Speck, Maureen Crowley, and Pat Colligan. It’s for Aggie, Bobby, and Tommy Lenihan. It’s for Josephine Wares. It’s for Georgie Lee. It’s for Dotty Condril and Dotty Meserole. It’s for Eddie Farrell, Tommy, Danny, and Eddie Mills, for Ray Garvey, Tweetsie Farrell, Jimmy Houlihan, Mike Lee, Bill Powers, Jake Conaboy, Richie Kelly, Ralph Squicciarini, Jackie Heegan, George Planco, Duke Baluta, John Yard, and Eddie Cush. It’s for Danny Gorman, Downtown Ronnie, and Donald O’Connor. It’s for Shrovelhead, Ray Grillo, Icebox McNiff, Mousey Malone, Lefty Murray, Blackie the Cop, Pinhead Lupinsky, Bubba Lee, the Fryars, the Spillanes, the Kanes, the Egans, the Wallaces, the Donnellys. It’s for Pat Fenton. It’s for Steve Jerro, Joe Attara, Eddie Lauterbach, Gerard McGrath, Harold, Tommy, and Billy Gates. It’s for Jerry and Whitey Mackie, Jimmy Blatz, Howdy Doodie. It’s for Joe Whitmore and his daughter, Pat, for Dinny Collins, for Jimmy and Peter Budgell, for John Duffy and Jim Shea, Unbeatable Joe, Mr. Semke, Jackie Metcalf, Ronnie Zeilenhofer, and Alvera the Bush. For Nat the Laundryman, Teddy from the fruit store, and Mr. Glass the glazier. For Vito Pinto, Boopie Conroy, Johnny Rose, Jack McAleavey, Mickey Horan, Eddie Griffin, Eddie Norris, Fabulous Murphy, Hot Dog McGuinness, and Joey Corrar. It’s for Willie Sutton. It’s for Toddo Marino.

All were residents of my Brooklyn shtetl. All remain alive as long as some of us are alive.

…I had my existence. I was there.

Me in place and the place in me.

—Seamus Heaney, “A Herbal”

MOST OF THESE TALES
were first published on Sundays by New York’s
Daily News
in the early 1980s. The original notion was to bring short fiction back into a newspaper, in the tradition of O. Henry in New York, Alberto Moravia in Rome, Kafū Nagai in Tokyo, and many others in many countries. These tales are set in Brooklyn, the large, dense, beautiful borough where I was born and grew up. I will carry the place with me to my grave.

Many of these stories are charged by the city’s most enduring emotion: nostalgia. Two factors still drive that emotion: the rapidity of change in New York and the immigrant roots of almost all its inhabitants. You go away for a month, and when you return your favorite coffee shop is being gutted to make way for another jeans shop. You ache for people gone, and places, and music, for lost loves, absent friends, vanished games, departed baseball teams. Immigrants might have been hurt into exile, as my parents were in the 1920s from Ireland, as millions are in today’s America, but they still yearn for old roads, familiar smells, special foods, for songs, for language, for old games, for parents and aunts and uncles, for homes where they knew every inch of each room, even in the dark. Whatever brought them to New York—bigotry, hunger, oppression, war—the Old Country was still the place where they once ran barefoot in the grass. Everyone’s present also contained a past. Then. Now.

The Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up is now called the South Slope. When I was young it was an unnamed wedge between the brownstones of Park Slope and the solid lower-middle-class houses of Windsor Terrace. The inhabitants were almost all immigrants and their children: Italians, Irish, and a smaller number of Eastern European Jews. They were virtually all blue-collar workers, many engaged in the commerce of the port: loading and unloading cargo, transporting it to distant places. Others worked in construction, as ironworkers, wire lathers, masons, carpenters. Many (my father among them) worked in factories, including the huge redbrick mass of the Ansonia Clock factory at 12th Street and Seventh Avenue. The Factory, as we all called it, was erected in 1881 (the same year as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral), and in 1982, when all the jobs were gone and I was writing these stories, it was converted into an excellent co-op, with a grand, cobblestoned courtyard. It’s still there.

There were saloons on almost every corner between 9th Street and 15th Street, some of them born as speakeasies during Prohibition. My father’s favorite was Rattigan’s, on the corner of 11th Street and Seventh, and it appears in more than a few of these tales. Like all the others, Patty Rattigan’s wonderful saloon served as an employment agency (“I just heard they’re hirin’ at American Can…”), a refuge, a music hall (“Give us a song, will ya, Billy?”), a debating society (“Hey, no politics, no religion, ya got it?”), and a social club. When someone died, they took up collections to help pay for the burial. Women were allowed into the back room, but not at the bar, and that back room was often full of people after weddings, graduations, and funerals. There were bad guys in the neighborhood, a street gang called the Tigers, along with various bookmakers and loan sharks. But most of the people were decent, including the Mob guys. Woe to the punk who hurt a child or an old person. If the cops didn’t find him, the Mob guys would. Even they believed in rules. So did the crowd at Rattigan’s. Most sins were forgiven as long as you always paid your debts, voted the straight ticket (the Democratic Party), and never, ever crossed a picket line.

Most adults in the neighborhood had come through the Depression and the war. Their most important four-letter word was work. They never envisioned having something as grandiose as a career; that was for their children. But work meant they could put money on the bar on a Friday night and still have something left in the morning. On holidays, graduations, christenings, Bar Mitzvahs, they could even buy gifts for their kids. As a child, I often heard their mantra: a day’s work for a day’s pay. Work gave them pride. With any luck, they would work until they died. And the world would stay the same. Peace. Steadiness. Even some happy endings.

The world didn’t remain the same. The Korean War meant that we had not seen the end of war. Young men who were thirteen when World War II ended were now being drafted and trained to kill for their country. If most Brooklyn veterans of the first of those wars used the GI Bill for housing benefits, the Korean veterans began using it for higher education. I was one of them, but I was certainly not alone. Everywhere in our country the tradition of following your father into his union started to end. But there were other huge changes underway. The arrival of television. And, much worse, the spread of heroin. In a neighborhood where none of us owned anything worth robbing, locks appeared on all the doors.

Years later, when I was a young newspaperman at the
New York Post,
my editor, Paul Sann, once stopped at my desk in the city room and handed me a collection of the stories of Sholem Aleichem. “Read this,” he said. “It’s about your tribe, too.” And so it was. Tevye the Dairyman was Murphy the Milkman. There were few saints, many sinners, some small heroes, a few cold villains. I understood then that in our world, each neighborhood was a kind of shtetl, an urban hamlet, complete with its own lore and legends and heartbreak.

But change never stopped. I wrote most of these tales in a city without personal computers, cell phones, tweets, digital cameras, or iPads. A world where “friend” was not yet a verb. The sources of the stories were varied: chance encounters on the Brooklyn streets, phone calls at the newspaper, letters from old classmates. My press card took me many places and to many stories. A court officer at a trial would stop me in the hall during a recess and tell me a tale. At a murder scene a detective would take me aside and tell me what happened to so-and-so from the Tigers. I’d visit grieving friends sitting shivah, or gathering at a wake, and once I was back out on the sidewalk, the tales came in a stream.

They are flowing still. I hope somebody is writing them down.

—Pete Hamill

I

IN THAT LOST CITY
of memory, the wind is always blowing hard from the harbor and the snow is packed tightly on the hills of Prospect Park. They are skating on the Big Lake and the hallways of the tenements are wet with melted snow and the downtown stores are glad with blinking lights and the churches smell of pine and awe. And when I wander that lost Christmas city, I always think of Lev Augstein.

He was to become our Christmas kid. But he came among us one day in summer, a small, thin boy, nine years old, speaking a language we had never heard. His eyes were wide and brown and frightened, and he wore short pants that first day, and he stood on the corner near the Greek’s coffee shop, staring at us as we finished a game of stickball. When the game was over, my brother, Tommy, asked him to play with us, but the boy’s face trembled and he backed up, his eyes confused. Ralphie Boy handed him the Spaldeen and the boy shook his head in refusal and said something in that language and then ran away on toothpick legs to 11th Street.

“He don’t speak English,” Ralphie Boy said, in an amazed way. “He don’t even speak Italian!”

Within days, we learned that the new kid was from Poland, which we located with precision in our geography books. Poland was wedged between Germany and Russia, and the language he spoke was called Yiddish. We also learned that the boy was living with his uncle, a cool, white-haired man named Barney Augstein.

“If he’s related to Barney,” my father said at the kitchen table, “then he’s the salt of the earth.”

Barney Augstein was one of the best men in that neighborhood, and one of the most important. He was the bookmaker. Each day, dressed like a dude, smiling and smoking a cigar, Barney would move from bar to bar, handling the action. Until Lev arrived, Barney lived alone in an apartment near the firehouse, and they said in the neighborhood that long ago, he had been married to a Broadway dancer. She had left him to go to Hollywood, and this gave Barney Augstein an aura of melancholy glamour. Ralphie Boy, Eddie Waits, Cheech, and the others all agreed that any nephew of Barney Augstein was okay with us.

We learned that the new kid’s name was Lev. Ralphie Boy showed Lev how to hold a Spaldeen, throw it, catch it, hit it, and the rest of us taught him English. We told him the names of the important things: bat, ball, base; car, street, trolley; house, roof, yard, factory; store. Soda. Candy. Cops. Lev stood there while we pointed at things and he named them, proud when he got the word right, but trembling when he got it wrong. “I hate when he does that,” Ralphie Boy said one morning. “It’s like a dog that got beat too much.” And we noticed two things about him. He never smiled. And he had a number tattooed on his wrist.

“A number on his wrist?” my mother said one night. “Oh, my God.” She was silent for a while, then glanced out the window at the skyline glittering across the harbor. “Well, make sure you take care of that boy. Don’t let anything happen to him. Ever.”

The summer moved on. Lev put on weight, and Barney Augstein bought him clothes and Keds and a first baseman’s mitt. We tried to explain all of life to him, particularly the Dodgers. Lev listened gravely to the story of the holy team, and if he didn’t fully comprehend, he certainly tried. He recited the litany: Reiser, Reese, Walker…

“He play baseball good?” Lev said, pointing at a picture of Reiser in the
Daily News
. “He play stickball good?”

“Good?” Ralphie Boy said. “He’s like Christmas every day.”

“Christmas every day?” Lev said.

II

One afternoon, Barney Augstein came around with Charlie Flanagan. They were best friends, though Charlie was a cop. Their friendship was one reason Augstein could work openly as a bookmaker in the neighborhood without being arrested. My father said their friendship went back to Prohibition, when they lived on the Lower East Side and worked as guards on the whiskey runs to Canada. Now Charlie lived alone. He and Barney went to the fights together, and bought their clothes from the same tailor, and even went to Broadway shows. We were sitting on the cellar board of Roulston’s grocery store when they came over together.

“Listen, you bozos,” Augstein said. “One of yiz has been teachin’ my nephew bad woids, and I want it to stop.”

“Nah,” Ralphie Boy said.

“Don’t gimme ‘nah,’” Augstein said. “I’m warnin’ yiz. If yiz keep teaching Lev doity woids, I’ll have yiz t’rown in fronta da Sevent’ Avenue bus. Ya got that?”

“Dat goes for me, too,” Flanagan said. “Barney wants his nephew to be a gent, not a hat rack like you guys. So teach the kid right. And if I hear he gets in trouble, I’ll lock yiz all up.”

They turned around and walked across the street to Rattigan’s Bar and Grill, a couple of cool older dudes in sport shirts. They were laughing.

III

The trouble started around Labor Day weekend, and it all came from Nora McCarthy. She lived up the block from Rattigan’s, almost directly across 11th Street from Barney Augstein’s house. She was in her forties, a large, box-shaped woman with horn-rimmed glasses, and she was awful. Everybody’s business was her business, and when she wasn’t working at the Youth Board, a job she’d received from the Regular Democratic Club, she was policing private lives. My father called her Nora the Nose. Now she had begun investigating Lev Augstein. On Labor Day weekend, when we were feeling forlorn about the imminent return to school, she came over to us after a game.

“What’s this new boy’s name?” she said, pointing at Lev.

“Why?” Ralphie Boy said. “What business is it of yours?”

“I live in this neighborhood!” she snapped. “I have a right to know when strangers show up. Particularly if they live with a known criminal. And particularly if they are young. Young people are my job.”

We all made rude noises and laughed. But Lev did not laugh. He looked up at Nora McCarthy, at her severe hairdo, her coarse skin, the mole on her chin, the square, blocky hands, the hard judgmental lines that bracketed her mouth, and he sensed danger. He backed away, but Nora McCarthy grabbed his wrist. She moved her thumb and saw the tattooed number and then she smiled.

“You’re a Jew, aren’t you?” she said. “You’re one of those DPs. Those displaced persons. Aren’t you?” She gave Lev’s wrist a tug. “But I bet you don’t have any papers. You got that look. That scared look. Tell me the truth.”

Lev pulled away, but she held on. And then Ralphie Boy came around behind her and gave her a ferocious kick in the ass, and she let go, and then we were all running, Lev with us, and we didn’t stop until we were deep in the bushes of Prospect Park. We sat there, aching from the run, and then laughing at what Ralphie Boy had done. Lev didn’t laugh. He didn’t know a lot of English but he sure knew what Nora the Nose meant when she said the word “Jew.”

That night, my father came home angry because he’d run into a furious Nora McCarthy. He hated giving the Nose even a slight edge and wanted to know why we’d done what we did. We told him. He started laughing hard, and gave us each a hug and told us to dress quickly because we were going to Barney Augstein’s to see a fight on Barney’s new television set. We walked up 11th Street in the chilly evening to Barney’s. Across the street, Nora McCarthy was at the window, inspecting the block. My father walked over, spit in her yard, and yelled up at her: “Benny Leonard was a Jew!” I didn’t know who Benny Leonard was, but I knew from the way he said it that if Benny Leonard was a Jew, then being a Jew was a great thing. Nora McCarthy closed the window.

Barney Augstein’s living room was packed. Charlie Flanagan was mixing drinks in the kitchen. A woman named Bridget Moynihan was cooking a beef stew. In the living room, seated in a large chair, there was a lean, suntanned, dark-haired man with an amused look on his face. Lev brought me over and said something in Yiddish to this man, and the man shook my hand politely, while Lev told me that the man was his Uncle Meyer.

“Nice to meet you, sport,” Meyer said to me. “You take care of this kid, okay? He’s been through a lot.” He looked down at a diamond pinkie ring. “His mother, his father, the whole goddamn family, except him. They all got it. Know what I mean?”

Then he turned his attention to the TV, talking about Willie Pep with Charlie Flanagan, and about Ray Robinson with Barney Augstein, and then about baseball, and somehow the talk got around to Pete Reiser.

“Pete Reiser,” Lev said. “Like Christmas every day.”

“Now,
there’s
a smart kid,” said Meyer, and they all laughed. Meyer and Barney argued for a while about the fight on TV, and then Meyer produced the fattest roll of bills I’d ever seen. “Put your money where your mouth is,” Meyer said, and smiled.

“Come,” Lev said, and led me to his room. It was very small—a bed, a bureau, a chair. But it felt like a library. There were stacks of comic books everywhere, grammar books, two fat dictionaries. And drawings that Lev had made: Batman, the Green Lantern, Captain America, Donald Duck. There were other drawings, too; buildings with spirals of black cloud issuing from chimneys; barefoot men with shaved heads and gray pajamas; watchtowers; barbed wire.

“You’re an artist,” I said.

“An artist?”

“Yeah, an artist.”

“Pete Reiser is an artist?”

“Yeah,” I said. “In a way.”

“Like Christmas every day,” Lev said. “An artist.”

IV

Fall arrived. The days shortened. Most of us went to the Catholic school, but Lev enrolled in public school, where Ralphie Boy became his protector. Ralphie Boy had been kicked out of Catholic school.

“The kid is scared all the time,” Ralphie Boy told me. “I gotta teach him how to fight.”

Every day now, the woman named Bridget Moynihan was coming to Barney’s house. She was about forty and lived with her mother and had a plain, sweet face. Barney hired her as a housekeeper, to make sure Lev ate properly and washed himself and always had clean clothes.

“I tried,” Barney said to my father one day. “But I just got no talent for being a mother. This kid is family, you know. I’m his only living relative. But a mother I’m not.”

They started to go to the movies together: Barney and Charlie and Bridget and Lev. They took walks, and went shopping together, too. Then at Thanksgiving, Barney prepared a big dinner. He asked us to come over after our own dinner and make Lev feel like he had a home. But Lev was in his room when we got there, and he was crying. Barney asked me to talk to him.

“Go ’way,” Lev said, turning his back on me, sobbing into his pillow.

“What’s the matter, Lev?”

“Go ’way, go ’way.”

“You don’t like turkey, Lev?” I said.

He whirled around, full of anger. “Too
much!
Is too
much!
All
food, food, food.
Too much!”

I was a kid then, but looking into the eyes of a boy who had survived a death camp, even I understood.

V

After Thanksgiving, the Christmas season began. Down on Fifth Avenue, store windows magically filled with toys and train sets and red stockings. Christmas banners stretched across the downtown streets, painted with the slogans of Christmas, about peace on earth and good will toward men. Christmas music played from the loudspeakers, and there were Salvation Army bands outside Abraham & Straus and men selling chestnuts and rummies dressed in Santa Claus costumes, ringing little bells. We took Lev with us as we wandered these streets, and he was full of amazement and wonder.

“But what is?” he said. “What is they mean, Christmas?”

“Hey, Lev, fig-
get
it,” Ralphie Boy said. “You’re a Jew. Christmas is for Catlicks.”

“Explain, please.”

A theological discussion of extraordinary complexity then took place. Was Santa Claus a saint? Did they have Christmas bells in the stable in Bethlehem, and who made them? Did Joseph and Mary put stockings over the mantelpiece, and was there a mantelpiece in that stable? How come the Three Wise Men didn’t come on reindeer instead of camels, and, by the way, where did they come from? If Jesus was the son of God, why didn’t God just show up in person? It got even worse as we roamed around. But Lev stayed with it, almost burning with intensity, as if torn between the images in those store windows and the fact that he was a Jew.

“Why is not for Jews?” he said.

“Because Jesus was a Catlick, Lev,” Ralphie Boy explained.

“No, he wasn’t,” my brother, Tommy, said. “Jesus was a Jew.”

“Come
on,
” Ralphie Boy said. “Stop kiddin’ around.”

“I ain’t kiddin’,” Tommy said. “Jesus was a Jew. So was his mother and father.”

“That’s right,” I said. “You could look it up.”

“Well, when did he become a Catlick? After he
died?

“How do
I
know?” Tommy said. “All I know is, while he was here on earth he was a Jew.”

“Ridiculous!” Ralphie Boy said.

If Lev had any doubts about the essential craziness of the goyim, they were not resolved by this version of the Council of Trent.

VI

Then Barney Augstein got sick and was taken to Methodist Hospital. There were whispered conversations about what was wrong with him, and then plans were made by Bridget and my mother and Charlie Flanagan. Bridget moved into Barney’s house, and my mother and Tommy and I came over every night to help Lev with his homework, and the women decided they could give a Christmas party anyway. They would combine Hanukkah and Christmas, get a Christmas tree, hang pictures of Santa Claus around the house, but leave out all the mangers and statues of Jesus. Barney was part of the planning; he called each night from the hospital and talked to Lev and then Bridget, and later Bridget would talk to my mother.

“He wants to get the lad everything,” Bridget would say. “Train sets, and chemistry sets, and a big easel so he can paint. A camera. A radio. And I have to keep stopping him, because he’s gonna spoil that kid rotten.”

Then on December 19, the first snowfall arrived in the city. Lev was in our house and we took him up to the roof and we stood there while the snow fell on the pigeon coops and the backyards, and obscured the skyline and the harbor, and clung to the trees, all of it pure and white and blinding. We scooped a handful from the roof of our pigeon coop, explained to Lev that it was “good packing,” and started dropping snowballs into the street, hoping that we would see Nora the Nose. She wasn’t there but others were, and soon Ralphie Boy was with us, too, and Eddie Waits, and Cheech, and we were all firing snowballs from the rooftops, as skillful as dive-bombers, and Lev was with us, joining in, one of the crowd at last.

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