What I like about cities is that everything is king size, the beauty and the ugliness. -Joseph Brodsky
Denny and I wandered through the North Square alone because we wanted to stand outside the Negro music store and listen to Sam Cooke and Chubby Checker on the loudspeaker that played music out into the street.
Inner-city black culture in the 1960s was distinctly different from white culture in the 1960s. What separated it most was dress. Stylish young black men wore porkpie hats, skin-tight pullover shirts, jet-black pants and black, blue or beige pointed shoes with three-inch heels. “Puerto Rican fence climbers,” we called them.
At the corners of North Main, Summers and Hill Streets, they would stand—pose, really, outside the R&B Record Shop. Somebody had nailed an ancient loudspeaker over the store’s front door, allowing all that magnificent, pure soul music played inside the shop to pour out on to the dirty streets and wash away the factory-town gloom.
In the summers we listened from a tiny park across the street from the record shop, waiting for a Sam Cooke record to play and watching the young men sip beer from cans in brown bags.
Soon flocks of teenage black girls, their hair done beehive-style, came out of the apartment houses from around the neighborhood and flirted with the boys or gathered in intimate circles across the street to whisper and laugh. Sometimes they’d dance. There was a song by Chubby Checker and Dee Dee Sharp called Slow Twistin’. It was a sensual song with erotic lyrics that didn’t have a damned thing to do with dancing.
Baby baby baby baby take it easy
Let's do it right
baby take it easy
Don't cha know we got all night
Cause there's no no twistin'
Like a slow slow twistin' with you
America twisted to that song and in 1962, everybody in America, from the President on down to us, was doing the Twist, but I knew even then that the colored people, at least in the North End of Waterbury, twisted differently from everyone else.
When they danced to the Slow Twistin’, man, oh, man. It reeked of sex. And even though I had only a vague notion of sex, watching them slow twist in the North End on a warm summer’s evening as the sun set, bodies twisting in deliberate slow motion without moving their feet, just a slow body wiggle, I knew there was more going on than a dance fad.
Who needed black-and-white television with bad reception when we had this?
Eventually a squad car prowled by, and came to a near stop, watched the dancing, and a red-faced Irish cop snarled out the window, “This look like a dance hall to youse? Get outta the goddamn street and behave yourselves.”
The cops talked to the colored like that back then in Waterbury and they got away with it, too. That was in 1961. Six years later, a new generation of young blacks decided they weren’t going to take it anymore. One night they turned the old Italian North End into a battleground against the cops and their abuse into a race riot that lasted, essentially, two more summers, before it ended.
One time when we were up at the North End, we found a nickel on the ground and bought us a Drake’s Cake with it. Being older—I was almost seven and Denny was closing in on six—I handled the transaction and divided the spoils.
Denny complained, loudly, that I gave myself the larger share. “But I’m hungry,” I told him, and he said, “You’re always hungry,” and made a grab for the pastry, but I ran for it, across North Main Street. Denny chased me and was struck by a car and I watched him fly across the road and slam on to the pavement. I heard his head bounce on the road and watched his arms spread out, and saw his eyes roll back of his head. I put my hands over my eyes because it would go away if I did that and it didn’t happen. But it did happen, and his legs were broken, and once again, we went to Saint Mary’s, where the nuns knew us well.
Every time we went there alone the Sisters sent out one of the janitors to find my mother or my father and bring one of them back to the hospital. The Sisters never called the cops because this was a family matter and all the cops would do is try to break up the family.
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.