(The following is taken from a chapter of the book so the reader can better understand the chapter that follows)
My Brother Danny Arrives
I didn’t know the social worker who brought Denny to us. He was a well-scrubbed young man in a sports coat and tie. There would be a lot of them in the years to come, and after a while, I stopped trying to remember their names. There was no need to remember who they were, because social workers really don’t serve much of a purpose in the daily life of a foster child.
I stood on the sidewalk with Helen, Walter, and Walter’s mother, whom we called Nana, and waited for Denny to step out of the car, which he did with his usual élan. Greeting me with that pirate’s smile of his and then turning his attention to Helen, he said, “You’re taller than a goddamn giant, over here, already.” He meant it as a compliment. Denny’s motto seemed to be, “Never use a big word when a little filthy one will do.”
For him, swearing was not intended to vulgar or rude, since he was much too young to understand that those words were both vulgar and rude. Rather, he looked on expletives as a sort of hearty condiment to an otherwise dull sentence and he couldn’t fathom why others didn’t utilize those words more often they did.
Later, when we went to parochial school, instead of telling an ashen-faced nun, “The pencil needs sharpening,” he would happily declare, before the entire class. “The goddamn pencil don’t work.”
For him, homework wasn’t difficult; it was “a real bitch with wings,” making each pronouncement through the corner of his mouth in a way James Cagney would have envied.
As well-intended as his words were, in our parochial, working-class world of the early 1960s, a seven-year-old spewing out a litany of curse words was breathtaking, and while it appalled Helen and Walter and Nana, I couldn’t wait for the next zinger to travel out of his mouth. Walter actually invited people over to the house to hear Denny swear.
Life in Ansonia
There are things about growing up in a small town that you can’t necessarily quantify. –
Life in Ansonia was completely different from our lives in Waterbury. In this new life, people had schedules. They didn’t spend their days recuperating from a drunk and whiling away the night in a barroom. They went to bed early and woke up early. They ate breakfast. They read newspapers and discussed important national issues.
So many small things were different. Now, when I reached for a drinking glass, I didn’t have to check the edge to see if it was jagged enough to cut my lips, or check the bottom of the glass for mouse droppings or drowned cockroaches.
Denny and I shared a large bedroom decorated in an American Indian motif and I had my own bed that I didn’t have to share, and it had clean sheets and plenty of blankets.
I developed an interest in major league baseball and the 1960s were, as far as I’m concerned (with a nod to the Babe Ruth era of the 1920s), the Golden Age of Baseball. Like most people in the valley, I was a diehard Yankees fan and, in a pinch, a Mets fan. They were New York teams, and most New Englanders rooted for the Boston Red Sox, but our end of Connecticut was geographically and culturally closer to New York than Boston, and that’s where our loyalties went.
And what was not to love? The Yankees ruled the earth in those days. The great Roger Maris set one Major League record after another and even he was almost always one hit shy of Mickey Mantle, God on High of the Green Diamond.
I developed a passion for collecting Topps baseball cards. In those days they were seven cents for a pack of five color cards and a stick of bubble gum that was so hard that when you threw it on the sidewalk it smashed into pieces. I was a frugal kid— Denny would have used the word “cheap”— but I always set aside a portion of my take from birthdays, snow shoveling, and lawn cutting to buy more cards to add to my collection.
Over the next eight years I collected several hundred cards and my collection was a Who’s Who of the greats. I had The Mick, of course, and Roger Maris -- those two I never traded. I had “The Scooter” Phil Rizzuto, Elston Howard, Ted Williams’ manager’s card, Yankees team cards from 1960 through 1968 and Willie Mays, when he was with the San Francisco Giants. You name the player, I had the card. They were meticulously arranged alphabetically by team, except that my filing system started with the Yankees, since it would have been insulting to put them at the back of the system no matter what the alphabet dictated. I kept my collection in shoe boxes, wrapped in string and hidden under my bed.
With time, there was predictability to my life, a comfortable, blissfully boring normalcy. I lived in one place and we were never going to have to move because the rent wasn’t paid or the city was knocking the building down. The utilities never got turned off. Things, small things that most people don’t notice, were enormously reassuring to me, like having the same mailman day after day, the garbage being picked up on the same day week after week—little things that remained the same, unchanging and sure. This was all new to me, and had a calming effect on my life.
On Wednesday nights, the Saint Dominic Savio Club for Catholic boys met in the school auditorium. On Friday, the day we abstained from meat as Catholics all over the world did then, there were drives down to the outdoor beach restaurants for seafood.
There was confession on Saturday, followed by an afternoon of swimming at the YMCA and an evening of black-and-white TV, watching monster movies on WPIX from New York.
The other regular feature of my new life was food. I adored food in the way that only someone who has known hunger can admire a well-made meal. In the best of times, my mother was a reasonably good cook, but she was a completely undomesticated person, so full meals were rare, and the menu at the Children’s Center was cafeteria food, and the Carpenter family in West Haven ate as cheaply and as little as possible. But all of that changed in Ansonia. Helen was an above-average cook who took enormous pride and care in what she served on her table, and almost everything she served was Ukrainian.
For the first time in my life, I was eating well and from plates—glass plates, no less, not out of the frying pan because somebody lost all the plates in the last move. Now when we ate, we sat at a fine round oak table in sturdy chairs that matched. No one rushed through the meal or argued over who got the biggest portion, and we ate three times a day. In the mornings, there were nalysnyky, a Ukrainian version of crepes. (Actually, crepes are the French version of nalysnyky.)
Every lunch and dinner consisted of some sort of potato or cabbage or both, always mouthwateringly good and served with melted butter, salt and pepper. There were enormous bowls of delicious borshch or chicken soup, always served with black bread made that day at the local Polish bakery. And there was a summer soup called chlodnik, made of chilled beets, which tastes much better than it sounds. At least once a week we had pierogies, boiled dumplings filled with either potatoes, cabbage, onions or cheese, and bigos, made of pieces of pork rolled in sautéed cabbage, and kotlet schabowy or breaded veal cutlet. Helen made her own kielbasa, a smoked Ukrainian ham sausage. By the end of the year, I had gone from gaunt to healthy and cherubic.
I came to enjoy Sundays most of all because, aside from mandatory church attendance, we had no schedules. Every Sunday morning I hustled down to the corner store and bought a dozen seeded rolls, fresh butter and a copy of The New York Daily News. Walter read it for the racetrack news. We would eat our rolls and butter. I would dress in a sports coat and tie and my good Sunday loafers and go sit out on the front wall to wave to the people I knew who were on their way to my Mass, the ten-thirty Mass, called the rich man’s mass because of the lateness of the hour.
Afterwards I would wallow the day away doing what I so loved to do, watching old movies on one of the four TV channels available back then. In the later afternoon, Helen served a massive pork roast with broiled potatoes. Then it was The Wonderful World of Disney and the Ed Sullivan Show at night, and before going to bed, we brushed our teeth, something we had never done before, and then knelt in prayer to recite the rosary before turning out the lights.
In the summer, we took camping vacations in Maine or went to Cape Cod. In 1964 I travelled to New York to the World’s Fair on a class trip. It was the first time I had been out of the Valley. The Fair’s theme that year was “It’s a Small World After All” and had exhibits from countries from all over the globe, which seemed especially exotic for a kid, because America was much less diverse place then than it is today, particularly in small-town New England.
In the middle of the fairgrounds on a long tarmac was a food stand built in the shape of a Chinese pagoda, and inside was an Asian woman dressed in a Japanese kimono with a Korean wooden knitting needle contraption in her hair that hadn’t been worn by women in the Orient since the 186os.
I had never seen an Asian person in the flesh, and even though I could clearly see that under the robe she wore a plain white sneakers, I assumed she represented the typical Asian of 1964.
She was selling something called egg rolls for a dollar each, a fairly steep price for the times. I forked over my dollar and bit into my egg roll. “Excuse me, Miss,” I said, deliberately speaking slowly so I could be understood, “but there’s no eggs in this.”
She threw her head back and laughed, and said, in a perfect Brooklynese my mother would have envied, “You’re killin’ me over here, you’re killin’ me.”
Although North Cliff Street in Ansonia, where I lived with the Wozniaks, was less than a half-hour from Waterbury, it was far removed from the world we knew on Pond Street. There were no drunks sprawled across the sidewalks, no smell of urine floated into my nostrils, and no hookers operate out of the back seats of abandoned cars.
Ansonia is a much smaller place than Waterbury. The entire town is less than six square miles in area with a near-constant population of eighteen thousand. They say the only colorful thing that ever happened there was when the redcoats marched through it.
Ansonia is as old as Waterbury. It was settled in 1652 by the English, who called it Birmingham, but eventually the name was changed to honor the owner of the local foundry, Anson Greene Phelps, a baron of the Gilded Age. By the 1960s, the old Yankees were gone, replaced by the Irish, Italian, and Poles, with a smattering of French-Canadians and blacks.
We were small-town American. I marched in the July Fourth parade with the Scouts, delivered the Ansonia Evening Sentinel and like everyone else in the city, lived for every game of the Ansonia High School football team, the Chargers.
Unlike Waterbury, Ansonia had no poor areas, not really. Some people had less than others, but I wouldn’t have called them poor. Generally speaking, we were all working-class people who lived modestly. Most of the neighborhoods were clean and orderly and families knew each other, sometimes for generations.
Ansonia sits on two hills overlooking Main Street where the massive, fortress-like Farrell’s Foundry sat square in the middle of the downtown and ran the length of the street below ours, at the bottom of the hill. In its heyday, Farrell’s employed hundreds of people and sometimes operated twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Most people who lived in Ansonia worked at Farrell’s or had worked there or would work there someday.
On the other side of the factory ran the Naugatuck River, like most rivers in the Valley in those days, badly polluted by centuries of factory waste, and it smelled horribly, although it didn’t catch on fire in a combustible explosion as the Mad River had back up on Pond Street.
My street, North Cliff Street, sat on the edge of one of the two hills, overlooking the factory roof, the river, and the dilapidated houses on Star Street. North Cliff Street was the center of my world for almost a decade and, to my thinking, about the finest and most important street in the city. Most of the magnificent Victorians and Queen Anne houses that had belonged to the factory owners and their managers still dotted the street, proudly peering down their long elegant roofs at us, the descendants of the immigrant working classes whose sweat and toil had paid for the creation of those houses.
My new home, one of those sprawling Victorians, was built by a wealthy industrial-age inventor named Chapel S. Carter, who patented the nail clipper in 1902. Walter’s father bought the property in the 1920s and divided it into an income-producing duplex. Walter was born in the house and lived there his entire life.
Walter’s weekend antiques business filled the house with very old and very valuable Victorian furniture, leaded-glass windows, and marble trim that gave the place a refined air. The entire house had an aroma of old wood and was heated with an enormous coal-burning furnace in the cellar that pushed the heat to the upper floors through ornate iron vents. But the ceilings were enormously high, much higher than ceilings in houses are today, so the heat seldom made its way up to the second floor where we slept. Throughout most of the harsh New England winters, the second floor was almost unusable, except for sleeping under mounds of heavy blankets.
Even as a duplex, it was a still a large house, with each side having six comfortably spacious rooms with a fireplace in the parlor. There was also a spooky attic with four gigantic empty rooms that vibrated and echoed the sounds of the ceaseless winds that blew in from Long Island Sound about fifteen miles away.
The basement was a series of rooms with low ceilings and solid concrete floors, and during the winters it was one of the few warm places in the house. A narrow porch ran the length of the back of the house.
A tiny front yard elevated from the sidewalk by a concrete wall held two wonderfully gigantic evergreen trees. Behind a larger back yard was an embankment of about ten acres of woods and long-neglected gardens that had belonged to the mansions that had sat along its rim decades before.
To the left of us lived the Potter family, a strange and secretive clan whose large house had an expansive lawn and included a big barn and a garage. To our right were the Dunns, an elderly Irish-American family that had lived on the street for generations.
The rest of the street clearly laid out what was important in Ansonia: church, patriotism, sports and death. There were two large funeral homes there, or funeral “pallors” as we called them., with emphases on the two nonexistent “R’s” in the word so it was pronounced “Par-lar”
The parlors close to our parish, largely an Irish-American operation were often the settings of large wakes, which were more like sedate social events. Some started in the early evening and went on into the night . Men wore suit coats and their best leather shoes. Women wore dresses, put on perfume, and wore high heels. The deceased was laid out in a coffin in the front room, or the “parlor room” as it was called, where the family greeted mourners. This was where everyone gathered after viewing the departed. And we used words like that—departed, deceased, and passed away and so on. The word “dead” was seldom used since it evoked a sense of permanency that opposed to our Catholic belief in the afterlife.
“We’ll all be together soon, Katherine,” was a common greeting to the widow, and they were almost always widows and seldom widowers. “But I’m sorry for your loss and sadness, darlin’.”
To the right of the parlor was another room for trays of food, casseroles mostly, that were brought by the guests for the bereaved. Much farther back in the house was a small room, drenched in cigarette and cigar smoke, where the men gathered, occasionally passed a pint, and talked politics and sports in hushed tones, using salty language.
“If the Yankees trade Mantle,” someone might whisper while jabbing a finger in the air, “it just goes to show you, right there, that Houk don’t know his ass from his elbow. Right there it shows you.”
The room was open only to those of a certain age and status and young boys and teens were generally barred from entering. If a young man in his early twenties or an out-of-town male relative of the deceased entered the room, the men stopped talking until the unwanted or unknown person left the inner sanctum. They weren’t being unfriendly. It was just that a stranger might not understand the ritual of enjoying a good, well-planned wake and the young couldn’t grasp the intricacies of it.
The viewing, as it was called, usually ended by nine o’clock and the undertaker politely showed the bereaved and their guests to the door and ushered them out to the front walk. Many nights I watched them from my bedroom window. The men lingered with the women, some politely drunk and slightly loud. Their conversations were lighter now that they were out of the sedate gloom of the funeral home. Someone might tell an off-color joke or a racy story about the departed that caused a much-needed laugh.
“It was a fine wake,” someone would say before the group broke up and walked to their cars. The other would nod.
“A fine wake,” someone would second.
It was important to say it was “a fine wake,” and “a good wake” because people would ask, “And how was the Donovan affair?”
“Oh, it was fine,” would be the reply. “We gave him a good send-off.” To report that the deceased had a wake that wasn’t enjoyed was a black mark on all concerned.
“Why are these wakes so important?” I once asked Helen.
“Well,” she said impatiently, “it’s a big deal. People don’t die every day, you know.”
She said a lot of dumb things like that.
In the middle of our street was a sturdy iron mailbox which was the neighborhood gathering spot and a sort of second home for a man named Moses O’Mahone, the neighborhood drinker, as harmless and affable as he was. In the warmer months, Moses—he did everything slowly, hence the name Moses—staggered out of his house to lean on the mailbox, where he was usually joined by some of the other men in the neighborhood. They talked for hours, stopping the conversation to stare into a passing car, and, depending on many, many intricate factors, might wave to the driver, who was required by those same intricate factors to wave back.
A little farther down the street was the Veterans of Foreign Wars post and at the other end of the street, the Disabled American Veterans club. These places, private saloons actually, were popular and always busy in those days, because the Second World War had ended only seventeen years before. The VFW lawn also doubled as our football and baseball fields.
Across the street from the VFW was the convent for the twenty or so nuns who taught at my school. Next to the convent was our school, and next to that our church and the rectory that housed four priests.
Although we were born Catholic and baptized into the church, Denny and I really didn’t know anything about religion. We were amazed at the happenings we witnessed at the first Good Friday mass we attended, a three-hour, solemn service intended to duplicate the three hours Christ spent on the cross before he died.
Every seat in the church was filled. The first few rows of the church were filled with the nuns, most of who were on their knees, their faces buried in their clasped hands, deep in prayer. Some were weeping.
In back of them were the older women from Ireland, most dressed in black. Not to be outdone by the piety of the nuns, they held small pictures of Jesus close to their hearts and their lips moved in silent prayer.
Up on the massive white marble altar, the priest, his back to us, was dressed in a royal purple gown. He was surrounded by a flock of equally august priests and ruddy-faced but brooding altar boys. He called out the Lord’s Prayer in Latin.
Dozens of candles flickered across the darkness of the cavernous church. Incense burned and every now and then the Priest called out loudly in Latin and we responded in Latin.
“Sed libera nos a malo”—“but deliver us from evil”—he chanted in what was more of a song than spoken words.
About fifteen minutes, on command from the priest, everyone fell to his or her knees and then bounced back up again.
“Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.” “Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”
We had never witnessed anything like this before and midway during the mass, Denny turned to me and lisped in a whisper, “Dese people are all fuckin’ nuts.”
Next door to the rectory was the State Armory, built in the 1880s as a castle, complete with towers, massive wooden doors with chains, and a great hall. On the Armory’s front lawn was an enormous cannon taken from a battleship, which, when you’re a boy, is about the best thing possible to have in your neighborhood.
Across from the Armory was the Masonic Temple, built to resemble an Egyptian palace and surrounded by a fortress-like thick, high concrete wall. The copper doors, at least ten feet high, had an exotic bird design etched into them. The temple, built when the city was mostly Protestant, was an unusual and mysterious place made even more forbidding by the fact that the Catholic Church discouraged its flock from joining the organization. There was a rumor going around, stretching back several generations, that the Masons met inside their creepy temple in secret and offered up kidnapped Catholic children to whatever god it was they worshipped.
Next to the Temple lived my close childhood friend, Stuart King, whose family was not only English, but Protestant and Republican, a rare combination in a city that was almost exclusively blue-collar Democrat, ethnic, and Catholic.
Stuart’s grandmother, Mrs. Moulden, lived with his family. She was a rail-thin, Old World, proper dainty woman from England, who spent her days in a rocking chair on the front porch, in a long dress that covered her arms and most of her neck. She spoke with what to our ears was an upper-crust English accent.
At the other end of the street lived Nigel Lucky who hailed from Liverpool and had spent nearly his entire life at sea with the British merchant fleet, having made his first voyage at age fourteen. He was at least seventy years old, about Mrs. Moulden’s age. Nigel Lucky lived with his son and ten or more grandchildren, who were tough as nails, tall, thin, and vulgar. Nigel was a flashy dresser, favoring improbable loud, mismatched colors, and topped off what he wore with a series of caps that he wore jauntily tilted.
I watched the scene play out a couple of dozen times. Each evening in the warmer months, Nigel Lucky took a walk around the block and each evening stopped in front of the Mouldens’ house where Mrs. Moulden sat on the front porch, hands folded politely over her lap. He turned to her, lifted his cap, bowed ever so slightly, and said, “Good evening, Mrs. King.”
She then leaned forward in her seat and replied, “Good evening, Mister Lucky.” And that was it. She sat back in her chair and he moved along.