Friday, April 23, 2010

***The “Shame” Culture Of Poverty- Down In The Base Of Society Life Ain’t Pretty

Click on the headline to link to a "Wikipedia" entry for the late Irish-American writer and my muse on this post, Frank McCourt.


Recently in reviewing Frank McCourt’s memoir of his childhood in Ireland, “Angela’s Ashes”, I noted that McCourt’s story was my story. I went on to explain that although time, geography, family composition and other factors were different the story he tells of the impoverished circumstances of his growing up “shanty” in Limerick, Ireland, taking all proportions into consideration, was amazingly similar to those I faced growing up “shanty” in a Boston, Massachusetts suburb a generation later. The commonality? I would argue that down at the base of modern industrial society, down at that place where the working poor meets what Karl Marx called the lumpen proletariat the sheer fact of scarcity drives life very close to the bone. Poverty hurts, and hurts in more ways than are apparent to the eye. No Dorothea Lange photograph can find that place.

I also mentioned in that McCourt review that the dreams that came out of his Limerick childhood neighborhood, such as they were, were small dreams. I immediately picked up on his references to what constituted “respectability” in that milieu- getting off the “dole” and getting a low-level governmental civil service job that after thirty some years would turn into a state pension in order to comfort oneself and one’s love ones in old age. That, my friends, is a small dream by anybody’s standard but I am sure that any reader who grew up in a working poor home in America in the last couple of generations knows from where I speak. I can hear my mother’s voice urging me on to such a course as I have just described. Escaping that fate was a near thing though. The crushing out of big dreams for the working poor may not be the final indictment of the capitalist system down at the base but it certainly will do for starters.

In the recent past one of the unintended consequences of trying to recount my roots through contacting members of my high school class has been the release of a flood of memories from those bleak days of childhood that I had placed (or thought I had) way, way on the back burner of my brain. A couple of year ago I did a series of stories, “Tales From The ‘Hood'”, on some of those earlier recalled incidents. Frank McCourt’s recounting of some of the incidents of his bedraggled upbringing brought other incidents back to me. In “Angela’s Ashes” he mentioned how he had to wear the same shirt through thick and thin. As nightwear, school wear, every wear. I remember my own scanty wardrobe and recounted in one of those stories in the series, “A Coming Of Age Story”, about ripping up the bottoms of a pair of precious pants for a square dance demonstration in order to ‘impress’ a girl that I was smitten with in elementary school. I caught holy hell for that (and missed my big chance with the youthful “femme fatale” as well-oh memory).

I have related elsewhere in discussing my high school experiences in that series, that I did a couple of years ago at the request of one of my high school classmates, that one of the hardships of high school was (and is) the need , recognized or not, to be “in”. One of the ways to be “in”, at least for a guy in my post-World War II generation, the “Generation of ‘68”, and the first generation to have some disposable income in hand was to have cool clothes, a cool car, and a cool girlfriend. “Cool”, you get it, right? Therefore the way to be the dreaded “out” is….well, you know that answer. One way not to be cool is to wear hand-me-downs from an older brother. Or to wear oddly colored or designed clothes. This is where not having enough of life’s goods hurts. Being doled out a couple of new sets of duds a year was not enough to break my social isolation from the “cool guys”. I remember the routine-new clothes for the start of the school year and then at Easter. Cheap stuff too, from some Wal-Mart-type store of the day.

All of this may be silly, in fact is silly in the great scale of things. But those drummed-in small dreams, that non-existent access to those always scarce “cool” items, those missed opportunities by not being ‘right’ added up. All of this created a ‘world’ where crime, petty and large, seemed respectable as an alternative (a course that my own brothers followed), where the closeness of neighbors is suffocating and where the vaunted “neighborhood community” is more like something out of “the night of the long knives”. If, as Thomas Hobbes postulated in his political works, especially "Levithan", in the 17th century, life is “nasty, short and brutish” then those factors are magnified many times over down at the base.

Contrary to Hobbes, however, the way forward is through more social solidarity, not more guards at the doors of the rich. All of this by way of saying in the 21st century we need more social solidarity not less more than ever. As I stated once in a commentary titled, “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” (See archives March 2009), one of the only virtues of growing up on the wrong side of the tracks among the working poor is that I am personally inured to the vicissitudes of the gyrations of the world capitalist economy. Hard times growing up were the only times. But many of my brothers and sisters are not so inured. For them I fight for the social solidarity of the future. In that future we may not be able to eliminate shame as an emotion but we can put a very big dent in the class-driven aspect of it.

***A Bit Of The Odd Manner- Irish Style- The Childhood Saga of Frank McCourt- In Honor Of Easter 1916

Click On Title To Link To An NPR Story On The Passing Of Author Frank McCourt On July 20, 2009

Book Review

Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir Of Childhood, Frank McCourt, Flamingo, London, 1997

Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes is probably the easiest review that I have had to write since I have been doing such reviews in this space. Why? Frank McCourt’s book of childhood memoirs is my story. No, not in the details of his life’s story, or mine. But rather in how being Irish, being poor, and being uprooted affects your childhood, and later times as well. And those traumas, for good or evil, cross generational lines. McCourt, we are told as his story unfolds, was born in America of immigrants of the diaspora after Irish independence who, for one reason or another, returned to the old country in defeat in the 1930’s. As McCourt notes right at the beginning, that fact in itself provides a rather ironic twist if one is familiar with Irish history (at least until very recently). He is, in any case, thus a child of the Great Depression and World War II, the generation of my parents, as it was refracted through Ireland during that period. I, on the other hand, am a child of the 1960’s, the “Generation of ‘68” here in America born of the dreaded Irish Catholic-English Protestant combination- and raised in an Irish Catholic enclave. Nevertheless the pages of this memoir are filled to the brim with the results of the emotional (and sometimes physical scars) of being “shanty” Irish in this world that hit home, and hit home hard, to this reader.

That said, we do not share the terrible effect that “the drink” had on creating his dysfunctional family with his father’s, Malachy McCourt, crazed need for the alcohol cure to drown his sorrows and his bitterness and the fact that his great moment in life was his bit for “the cause” (of Irish independence). A familiar story in the Irish community here and in the old country but my father seldom drank, although he too was constantly out of work and shared with Frank’s father that same bitterness about his fate. He was uneducated, lacking in skills and prospects and as a “hillbilly” Protestant Southerner from coal country down in Kentucky was thus, an ‘outsider’ in the Boston milieu like Frank’s father had been in Limerick. That is the commonality that caught my eye (and sometimes my throat) as I read of Frank’s youthful trials, tribulations and adventures. McCourt’s ability to tap into that “mystical” something is what makes this a fine read, whether you are Irish or not.

Throughout the book McCourt’s woe-begotten but fatally prideful father is constantly referred to in the Irishtown working class poor ghetto of Limerick (and elsewhere, as well, but the heart of the story is told from there) as having an "odd manner". This reflects a certain clannishness against those from the North of Ireland (Dare I say it, the area then known as Ulster) and a sneaking suspicion amount that crowd of some alien (meaning English Protestant) heritage. As the book progresses that odd trait is transferred (by heredity?) to Frank in his various wanderings, enterprise and desires. What joins us together then is that "odd manner" that gets repeatedly invoked throughout the book. Frank survived to tell the tale. As did I. But in both cases it appears to have been a near thing.

There is more that unites us. The shame culture, not an exclusive Irish Catholic property but very strong nevertheless, drilled in by the clannishness, the closeness of neighbors, the Catholic religion and by the bloody outsiders- usually but not always Protestants of some sort (as least for blame purposes- you know, the eight hundred years of British tyranny, although very real to be sure). All driven by not having nearly enough of this world’s goods. Every time I read a passage about the lack of food, the quality of the food, the conditions of the various tenements that the McCourt family lived in, the lack of adequate and clean clothing I cringed at the thoughts from my own childhood. Or the various times when the family was seriously down and out and his mother, the beloved Angela of the title, had to beg charity of one form or another from some institution that existed mainly to berate the poor. I can remember own my mother’s plaintive cry when my brothers and I misbehaved that the next step was the county poor farm.

And how about the false pride and skewed order of priorities? Frank’s father was a flat out drunk and was totally irresponsible. From a child's perspective, however, he is still your dad and must be given the respect accordingly, especially against the viciousness of the outside world. But life’s disappointments for the father also get reflected in the expectations for the son. The dreams are smaller. Here, the horizons are pretty small when a governmental job with its security just above the “dole” is the touchstone of respectability. Sean O’Casey was able to make enduring plays from the slums of Dublin out of this material. And Frank McCourt enduring literature. Thanks, brother.

Note: The movie version of “Angela’s Ashes” pretty fairly reflects the intentions of Frank McCourt in his childhood memoirs and follows the book accordingly, without the usual dramatic embellishments of that medium. The story line is so strong it needs no such “touch-ups”. Particularly compelling is the very visual sense of utter poverty down at the base of Irish society in Frank McCourt’s childhood.

The two songs below are constantly being sung by Frank McCourt's father when he is "on the drink" to give a little musical flavor to this entry.

"Roddy McCorly"

O see the fleet-foot host of men, who march with faces drawn,
From farmstead and from fishers' cot, along the banks of Ban;
They come with vengeance in their eyes. Too late! Too late are they,
For young Roddy McCorley goes to die on the bridge of Toome today.

Up the narrow street he stepped, so smiling, proud and young.
About the hemp-rope on his neck, the golden ringlets clung;
There's ne'er a tear in his blue eyes, fearless and brave are they,
As young Roddy McCorley goes to die on the bridge of Toome today.

When last this narrow street he trod, his shining pike in hand
Behind him marched, in grim array, a earnest stalwart band.
To Antrim town! To Antrim town, he led them to the fray,
But young Roddy McCorley goes to die on the bridge of Toome today.

There's never a one of all your dead more bravely died in fray
Than he who marches to his fate in Toomebridge town today; ray
True to the last! True to the last, he treads the upwards way,
And young Roddy McCorley goes to die on the bridge of Toome today.

"Kevin Barry"

In MOUNT JOY jail one Monday morning
High upon the gallows tree
Kevin Barry gave his young life
For the 'cause of liberty
Just a lad of eighteen summers
Yet no true man can deny
As he walked to death that morning
He proudly held his head up high

Another martyr for old Erin
Another murder for the crown
The British laws may crush the Irish
But cannot keep their spirits down

Just before he faced the hangman
In his dreary prison cell
The British soldiers tortured Barry
Just because he would not tell
The name of all his brave companions
And other things they wished to know
Turn informer or we'll kill you
Kevin Barry answered no

Another martyr for old Erin
Another murder for the crown
Whose cruel laws may crush the Irish
But CANNOT KEEP their spirits down

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

***The Smells, Ah, The Smells Of Childhood- Ida's Bakery Over on Sagamore Street, For Arlene, Class Of 1965

Click on the headline to link to a Website devoted to oatmeal bread recipes. Hey, I never said I wasn't quirky on some of these links.

Al Johnson, Class of 1964,comment:

The Smells, Ah, The Smells Of Childhood- Ida's Bakery Over on Sagamore Street, For Arlene, Class Of 1965

There are many smells, sounds, tastes on the memory trail in search of the old days in North Quincy. Of course one cannot dismiss that invigorating smell of the salt air blowing in from Quincy Bay when the wind was up. And that never to be forgotten slightly oily, sulfuric smell at low tide down at Wollaston Beach, the time of the clam diggers and their accomplices trying to eke a living or a feeding out of that slimy mass. Or the smell of marsh weeds from up at the disfavored Squantum end of the beach. Or the sound of the ocean on those days when the usually tepid splashing against the shoreline turned around and became a real ocean and acted to calm a man’s (or kid’s) nerves in the frustrating struggle to understand a world not of one’s own making.

I know I do not have to stop very long to tell this crowd, the crowd that will read this piece, about the tastes of that HoJo’s ice cream back in the days. Or those char-broiled hot dogs and hamburgers from your back yard barbecue pit or the ones down at the beach. But the smell that I am smelling today is closer to home, as a result of a fellow classmate’s bringing this to my attention. (Although if the truth be known I was already on the verge of “exploring" the subject). Ida’ Bakery over on Sagamore Street, the next street over from my grandparents’ house on Young Street across from the Welcome Young Field.

You, if you are of a certain age and neighborhood, remember Ida’s, right? She ran a bakery out of her living room in the 1950s and early 1960s (beyond that period I do not know). Now I do not remember all the particulars about her, about her operation, about what she made but I remember the smells of fresh oatmeal bread. Or of those Lenten hot cross buns. Or of the 1001 other simple baked goods that put my mother, my grandmother, your mother, your grandmother in the shade. And that is at least half the point. You went over to Ida’s to get high on those calorie-loaded goodies. And in those days that was okay. Believe me it’s was okay. I swear I will never forget those glass-enclosed delights but I need a little help here. I do not remember much about the woman, her life, where she was from, or any of that. If you do, let me know. This I do know- in this time of frenzied interest in all things culinary Ida's simple recipes and her kid-maddening bakery smell still hold a place of honor.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

***The Face Of Old Irish Working Class North Quincy- Another Moment In History -In Honor Of Kenny, Class Of 1958

Another Moment In History- A Guest Post, Of Sorts

Kenny Kelly, Class of 1958?, comment:

A word. I, Kenneth Francis Xavier Kelly, at work they call me Kenny , although my friends call me “FX”, am a map of Ireland, or at least I used to be when I was younger and had a full head of wavy red hair, freckles instead of a whiskey and beer chaser-driven mass of very high proof wrinkles, and my own, rather than store-bought, rattlers, teeth I mean. For work, ya I’m still rolling the barrels uphill, I, well, let’s just say I do a little of this and a little of that. I am also the map of North Quincy, from the Class of 1958 at the old high school, or at least I should have been, except for, well, let’s leave that as at a little of this and that, for now, as well. I’ll tell you that story another time, if you want to hear it.

Let’s also put it that I grew up, rough and tumble, mostly rough, on the hard drinking-father-sometimes-working, and the plumbing-or-something-don’t-work- and-you-can’t- get- the-tight-fisted-landlord-to- fix-anything-for-love-nor- money walk up triple decker just barely working class, mean streets around Sagamore and Prospect Streets in Atlantic. You know, those streets right over by the Welcome Young Field, by Harold’s Variety (you knew Harold’s, with the always active pin-ball machine, and much else), and the Red Feather (excuse me, Sagamore Grille) bar room. Now I have your attention, right?

But first let me explain how I wound up as a “guest” on this “tales of north quincy” blog. Seems like Al, that’s the half-baked, manager of this blog, linked up some story, some weepy cock and bull story, about the Irishness of the old town, “A Moment In History… As March 17th Approaches” to the “North Quincy Graduates Facebook” page and my daughter, Clara, Class of 1978 (and she actually graduated), saw it and recognized the names Radley, O’Brian and Welcome Young Field and asked me to read it. I did and sent Al an e-mail. (Or Clara did, after I told her what to write. I’m not much of hand at this hi-tech stuff, if you want to know the truth)

I don’t know what he did with that e-mail, and to be truthful again, I don’t really care, but in that e-mail I told him something that he didn’t know, or rather two things. The first was that I “knew” him, or rather knew his grandmother Anna Radley because her sister, Bernice, and my grandmother, Mary, also an O’Brien but with an “e”, who both lived in Southie (South Boston, in those days the Irish Mecca, for the heathens or Protestants that might read this) were as thick as thieves. When I was just a teenager myself I used to drive his grandmother over to her sister’s in Southie so that the three of them, and maybe some other ladies joined them for all I know, could go to one of the Broadway bars (don’t ask me to name which one, I don’t remember) that admitted ladies in those days and have themselves a drunk. And smoke cigarettes, unfiltered ones no less, which his grandfather, Dan Radley, refused to allow in the house over on Young Street.

I know, I know this is not the way that Irish grandmothers are supposed to act, in public or private. And somebody, if I know my old North Quincy, and my North Quincy Irish, is going say why am I airing that “dirty linen” in public that Al talked in his story about Frank O’Brian (that I gave the title of above) and what am I doing taking potshots as the blessed memories of those sainted ladies. That is where my second thing comes in to set the record straight – Al, and I told him so in that e-mail (or Clara did) with no beating around the bush, is to me just another one of those misty-eyed, half breed March 17th Irish that are the our curse and who go on and on about the eight hundred years of English tyranny like they lived it, actually lived each day of it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am as patriotic as the next Irishman in tipping my hat to our Fenian dead, and the boys of ’16, and the lads on the right side in 1922, and the lads fighting in the North now but Al’s got the North Quincy Irish weepy, blessed “old sod” thing all wrong. No doubt about it. So, if you can believe this, he challenged me, to tell the real story. And I am here as his “guest” to straighten him out, and maybe you too. Sure, he is helping me write this thing. I already told you I’m a low-tech guy. Jesus, do you think I could write stuff like that half- baked son of an expletive with his silly, weepy half-Irish arse goings on? I will tell you this though right now if I read this thing and it doesn’t sound right, fists are gonna be swinging, old as I am. But let’s get this thing moving for God’s sake.

Let me tell you about the shabeen, I mean, The Red Feather, that bar room on Sagamore Street. That’s the one I know, and I am just using that as an example. There were plenty of others in old North Quincy, maybe not as many as in Southie, but plenty. If you seriously want to talk about the “Irishness” of North Quincy that is the place, the community cultural institution if you will, to start. Many a boy, including this boy, got his first drink, legal or illegal, at that, or another like it, watering hole. Hell, the “real” reason they built that softball field at Welcome Young was so the guys, players and spectators alike, had an excuse to stop in for a few (well, maybe more than a few) after a tough battle on base paths. That’s the light-hearted part of the story, in a way. What went on when the “old man”, anybody’s “old man”, got home at the, sometimes, wee hours is not so light-hearted.

See, that is really where the straightening out job on our boy Al needs to be done. Sure, a lot of Irish fathers didn’t get drunk all the time. A lot of Irish fathers didn’t beat on their wives all the time. A lot of Irish fathers didn’t physically beat their kids for no reason. (I never heard of any sexual abuse, but that was a book sealed with seven seals then.) And a lot of Irish wives didn’t just let their husbands beat on them just because they were the meal ticket. And a lot of Irish wives didn’t make excuses for dear old dad (or pray) when the paycheck didn’t show up and the creditors were beating down the door. And a lot of Irish wives didn’t let those Irish fathers beat on their kids. And a lot of Irish mothers didn’t tell their kids not to “air the dirty linen in public.” But, don’t let anyone fool you, and maybe I am touching on things too close to home, my home or yours, but that formed part of the scene, the Irish scene.

And, maybe, because down at the Atlantic end of North Quincy the whole place was so desperately lower working class other ethnic groups, like the Italians, also had those same pathologies. (I am letting Al use that word, although I still don’t really know what it means, but it seemed right when he told me what it meant). Figure it out, plenty of fathers (and it was mainly fathers only in those days who worked, when they could) with not much education and dead-end jobs, plenty of triple decker no space, no air, no privacy rented housing and plenty of dead time. Ya, sure, I felt the “Irishness” of the place sometimes (mainly with the back of the hand), I won’t say I didn’t but when Al starts running on and on about the “old sod” just remember what I told you. I’ll tell you all the truth, won’t you take my word from me.