I sat for hours on the steps of the wooden porch in front of the apartment and watched darkness fall, and it felt like old times, waiting for my mother to stagger home, except now I was alone. The other kids were scattered all over. Bridget had married and moved to New York and had two children off her own. Paulie had joined the Air Force. Christian was living in a foster home somewhere and Denny had been tossed out of the Wozniaks’ home for a series of infractions and rebellions, and was living with the family of a high-school friend. Remarkably, the state placed another child with the Wozniaks, a girl from Waterbury, also half-Irish and half-Jewish, and I wonder what the odds were of that? Walter threw her out after a few years after learning she had dated a black kid.
My mother came home at about nine that night. I spotted her walking up the street, the ever-present Pall Mall cigarette, stained with red lipstick, dangling from the side of her mouth. Her hair was still dyed bright orange. She was much heavier than I had ever seen her before, but the bright print dress she was wearing was too loose on her hefty body, and on her swollen feet she wore white sneakers. She looked like what she was, a dirt-poor and overweight woman on welfare who was barely hanging on. Walking beside her and holding her hand was my half-sister Kathleen. About five years old, she looked like a miniature version of my mother.
Both were happy and excited to have me move in, and we sat on the porch, Kathleen resting on my lap, and I told them what had happened at St. John’s and my father’s and at Kevin Johnston’s and at the group home in Hartford.
After an hour or so, we went into the apartment. It was on the ground floor and was spacious, if worn out. There were stamped copper ceilings, plenty of long windows without drapes or blinds, and the floor of every room had linoleum that carried the faint odor of roach spray. The four rooms contained almost no furniture, only an odd assortment of junk from the Goodwill store.
“Ain’t it a nice place though, huh, Johnny?” Mom asked. She was proud of it, and I was happy for her.
“Yeah, Ma,” I lied. “It’s really nice.”
We ate a late-night meal of pork and potatoes, and it tasted better than it probably was because I was still feeling elated that my journey had ended.
“I’m gonna move Kathleen’s stuff into my bedroom and you can have her room,” she told me.
“No, Ma,” I protested. “Don’t do that, please.”
“Naw,” she said. “A teenager should have things.”
For a while after I arrived, my mother managed to avoid her manic-depressive mood swings. She kept the house clean, prepared full meals and, although I don’t know how she did it, she managed to save a few extra dollars to give me as pocket money, no matter how much I protested. I didn’t need the money because I had nothing to spend it on. School wouldn’t start for another two months, so I didn’t know anybody to spend it with. I used the money to go to the movies at the Palace Theater, and, as I had all those years ago, lost myself in film. Black-and-white television was our other main source of entertainment. It was a long, hot summer.
My mother talked about moving to a larger apartment in a better part of town, but that wasn’t going to happen. She was on welfare and food stamps and didn’t have the income to support herself and Kathleen, much less a growing teenager. We walked everywhere, just as we had done years before. I had a driver’s license but no car and no hope of owning one. Nothing was going to happen.
After a few weeks, my elation turned to sadness, and then to depression, and then to hopelessness. I felt as if I had reached the end. When the food stamps ran out, we had to cut back on meals, and I was gaining weight from all of the starches we used as fillers. The clothes I wore were from the church donation box and looked it. My best shirt was a skin-tight polyester long sleeve with a cigarette burn on the back. My affliction, which had left me alone for a while, came back. I screamed inside my head, “I don’t belong here!” but I was there, in the middle of poverty, pain, defeat, and drudgery once again, a place where men stumbled home drunk, raped their daughters, and fought with their sons over the last beer in the broken refrigerators. I didn’t belong here with these angry people, with the rats, and the rat poison. But I got along. I wandered the streets that summer, looking for something to do when I found the city library, and that was where I escaped from hell into paradise.
The Silas Bronson Library was a sleek, modern glass building settled into an expansive park, a popular cruising area for homosexuals on the prowl and teenage hustlers willing to help them out for a fee. One afternoon I was sitting on a park bench, reading, oddly enough, Moby-Dick, when I was approached by a very respectable-looking man in his late sixties.
“I’m sixteen, under age,” I snapped. “Go away, or I will call the police.”
He was outraged, and snapped back, “Then why are you here?”
“To read,” I said, holding up my copy of Moby-Dick, although in retrospect that probably wasn’t a good idea.
The library had a respectable book collection and I spent most of my days haunting its aisles, scanning the shelves for titles by the great American novelists. I found most of them, and I usually devoured them in a day, lying on the bench in the park with my book and one of my mother’s massive brown-bag lunches.
I dissolved into the books I found at the library, which could take me places, answer my questions, and leave me with more questions. I learned the great truths and common principles from those works, mostly because I had no one else to teach me those things. Books are great teachers and they teach with ease for those hungry to learn. And I was learning. I was learning to live with poverty, the toughest teacher of all because it gives you the test first and the lesson later. The ancient Greeks called it pathemata mathemata—to learn, eventually, by suffering.
One day at the library I found a stack of record albums. I was hoping I’d find ta Beatles album, but it was all classical music so I reached for the first name I knew, Beethoven. I checked it out his Sixth Symphony and walked home. I didn’t own a record player and I don’t know why I took it out. I had Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony but nothing to play it on.
At home the unique smell of the Mad River in the summer wafted into our apartment and glided unopposed into every corner, because we had no air conditioning and every door and window was open. When dark approached, we had to close and lock them all— it was a dangerous neighborhood—and let the stale, humid air get pushed around by a small fan.
Behind the smell of the river came the scent of beer that the neighbors were drinking on kitchen chairs they had carried out onto the sidewalk. And behind that came the low pulse of salsa music played from a transistor radio.
I sat at the kitchen table, stared out the open back door, and soaked in the mildly warm breeze and the street music.
“Are you hungry, Johnny?” my mother asked as she came in from the near-empty parlor. It was pointless to say no, because she always made something for me anyway.
“No, Ma, I’m okay, thank you,” I said.
She pulled liverwurst and Polish mustard from the refrigerator and started to make me a sandwich.
“I got this at the library,” I said, showing her the album. “Beethoven. This is his Sixth Symphony, so he wrote six of them. I think he wrote more, I don’t know. You know what this is about?”
“No,” she said as she piled the meat high onto black bread and slathered it in the spicy mustard. “But I heard a him. Is he dead?”
“Yeah,” I said. “He died like a million years ago, but when he was alive, he would go for walks in the woods and then write down in music the way he felt about walking in the woods and all that. He was deaf.”
She handed me my sandwich with a glass of ice water and sat down at the table with me.
“Deaf? They should have got him a different job, the poor bastard.”
I handed her the album cover. She looked at the drawing of Beethoven on the front and said, “He needs a haircut. ” She added, “He looks like he could have been a boxer.”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Well, he coulda been,” she said. “Maybe that’s how he went deaf, he got hit too many times in the head.”
I took the album and read the back: “As the composer said, the Sixth Symphony is ‘more the expression of feeling than painting’.” I looked up at her and said, “It has five movements.” The smile was already on her face before I finished the sentence. “Go ahead,” I said. “Say it and get it out of your system.”
“Five movements,” she laughed. “What’s this guy eatin’ he gotta go five times?”
“Okay, Chuckles,” I said. “Are we done with that?”
“Can I continue?”
“Yeah,” she said, and then whispered, “Movements.”
“This is known,” I said, “as the Pastoral Symphony, Ma, because Beethoven, the guy who wrote this, he liked to go out into the woods and write about the way he thought a cloud would sound like, or a tree bending in the wind or even what a blade of grass would sound like on a sunny day. How wild is that?” I paused and said, “Each of the movements—I’ll wait while you giggle, go ahead,” I said, and waited.
“No,” she said, giggling. “I won’t laugh; go ahead.”
“Each movement is like a journal of what he saw and then turned into a song.” I rested for a second and added, “He’s even got a storm in here, you know. What a storm would sound like.”
I looked at her and awaited her response.
“He got a girl, this guy?” she asked
“Beethoven?” I said “I dunno, Ma. Yeah, probably. He went deaf later on.”
“Some of the deaf got girls,” she said. “I don’t know what they talk about, but they got ’em.”
She stood up to make me another sandwich “You know, Johnny, you ever meet a nice girl, you want to bring her around, don’t be ashamed, I’ll clean the house up good.”
“I know, Ma, but I’m not looking for a nice girl, I’m looking for a bad girl,” I said. “Please don’t make me another sandwich. I still got this one.”
She didn’t listen. Minutes had passed without my eating something, and God forbid I should collapse from starvation.
“Why don’t you play it?” “We don’t have a record player,” I said. “But some day, I will. Someday I’ll listen to it.”
The next day, when I came home from the library, there was a small, used red record player in my room. I found my mother in the kitchen and spotted a bandage taped to her arm.
“Ma,” I asked. “Where did you get the money for the record player?”
“I had it saved,” she lied.
My father lived well, had a large house and an expensive imported car, wanted for little, and gave nothing. My mother lived on welfare in a slum and sold her blood to the Red Cross to get me a record player.
“Education is everything, Johnny,” she said, as she headed for the refrigerator to get me food. “You get smart like regular people and you don’t have to live like this no more.”
She and I were not hugging types, but I put my hand on her shoulder as she washed the dishes with her back to me and she said, in best Brooklynese, “So go and enjoy, already.” My father always said I was my mother’s son and I was proud of that. On her good days, she was a good and noble thing to be a part of.
That evening, I plugged in the red record player and placed it by the window. My mother and I took the kitchen chairs out to the porch and listened to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony from beginning to end, as we watched the oil-stained waters of the Mad River roll by. It was a good night, another good night, one of many that have blessed my life.
In September, I enrolled in Wilby High School in Waterbury as a sophomore, the fourth high school I had attended in three years, and the last.
In 1962, six year old John Tuohy, his two brothers and two sisters entered Connecticut’s foster care system and were promptly split apart. Over the next ten years, John would live in more than ten foster homes, group homes and state schools, from his native Waterbury to Ansonia, New Haven, West Haven, Deep River and Hartford. In the end, a decade later, the state returned him to the same home and the same parents they had taken him from. As tragic as is funny compelling story will make you cry and laugh as you journey with this child to overcome the obstacles of the foster care system and find his dreams.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John William Tuohy is a writer who lives in Washington DC. He holds an MFA in writing from Lindenwood University. He is the author of numerous non-fiction on the history of organized crime including the ground break biography of bootlegger Roger Tuohy "When Capone's Mob Murdered Touhy" and "Guns and Glamour: A History of Organized Crime in Chicago."
His non-fiction crime short stories have appeared in The New Criminologist, American Mafia and other publications. John won the City of Chicago's Celtic Playfest for his work The Hannigan's of Beverly, and his short story fiction work, Karma Finds Franny Glass, appeared in AdmitTwo Magazine in October of 2008.
His play, Cyberdate.Com, was chosen for a public performance at the Actors Chapel in Manhattan in February of 2007 as part of the groups Reading Series for New York project. In June of 2008, the play won the Virginia Theater of The First Amendment Award for best new play.