. . .and our few good times will be rare because we have the critical sense and are not easy to fool with laughter -Charles Bukowski
For a while after Jimmy died my mother and father stopped their fighting because they were too wounded to fight, and we lived in peace. Soon, after the pain went away, happiness reigned. On Sundays, if my father’s car worked, we piled in and rode down to the ocean, to a place called Savin Rock, each of us coming home that night exhausted, smelling of sea salt, filled with even more freckles than we left with, and badly burned by the sun, no matter how careful we were to avoid it.
We took long, aimless rides in the soft beauty that is Connecticut’s countryside. Our father—Bridget and Paulie considered him their father as well—sang in a remarkably good tenor voice. He sang old Irish songs, which I later learned, were mostly written by imaginative if schmaltzy Jewish composers from Tin Pan Alley in Manhattan. On these long rides through the wealthy rural villages and towns of western Connecticut’s Litchfield County, we would pick out a grand house and by matter of vote, pretend it was ours.
Knowing nothing of the other side of life, all of us in the car mistakenly assumed that the people who lived in these wonderfully large houses were happy and contented in their world because they had things, and we resented them for it.
Sometimes, when we spotted an extraordinarily large house—and Litchfield County is drenched with them—my father pulled up the drive way and honked the horn over and over again until some inevitably tall, lean, pale-skinned and annoyed Yankee appeared from inside the house. My father would say, “Never mind,” and drive away, and we would roar with laughter and one of us, or all of us, would turn and give the poor soul the finger, and then we would beg to do it again, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t do it again, too.
In those days, those scant precious few good days, I imagined that I felt like those people in the big houses felt all the time because for a moment we were loved and cared for by sober, calm parents who took joy in us. It makes a difference, a big difference when you’re appreciated, when you’re loved. In those moments you don’t care as much about not having anything.
I could, and did, take on all the weight of poverty because I had no choice, but the toughest part of poverty is loneliness, of being unloved. That is a burden that never lessens and never gets off your back. But now, in these good times, love insulated us, for a while anyway, from all the bile that poverty poured over us.
In the good times we stopped to swim in freshwater lakes and streams. There were nights at the drive-in movies and dinner at hot dog stands that had play areas for children. My father worked regularly around the valley as a house painter in those times of peace, and new shoes and clothes were bought for us, and we went to school like everyone else. On Friday and Saturday nights we all of us, strolled down to Shaum’s Bar and Grill on Main Street downtown and settled in.
We never went into the barroom area. That was closed to us. It was open to women, but they couldn’t drink there. In those days, Connecticut still had strict old blue laws. One law prohibited serving women at the bar. Instead, most of the taverns that dotted the city then, especially the older ones, had an adjoining, large room with dark wooden booths where a waiter brought drinks to the ladies. These back rooms usually served food, hearty European ethnic dishes that inevitably included some sort of potato dish.
The whole place smelled like old stale beer, but in some spots it smelled like old vomit. The glasses were dirty and the tables never cleaned, so hands and elbows stuck on them, and using the toilets was an act of bravery. Late at night, if you looked way in the back, you could see couples in the darkened booths kissing, and sometimes you could see the lady’s hand jerking the guy off beneath the table.
We spent the night there, feasting on Wise Owl potato chips, free peanuts and ancient boiled eggs served from a jar filled with dubious red water. We downed gallons of sweet white birch beer while watching the black-and-white television perched high up in a corner to protect it from the occasional flying beer mugs tossed during the drunken brawls that erupted.
Television, even when we had to bend our necks to see it, was a treat for us, because we seldom had a television, or at least seldom had one that worked for any length of time. A new television set in those days—most people had black and white—were large, complicated and expensive luxury items, out of reach of the very poor. In our house, at any given time, we had at least three televisions, one atop the other, the newest used one sitting above the last one that no longer worked.
When there was nothing on television to hold our attention, which was likely since the whole of television land back then consisted of only three channels, we begged, borrowed, and stole pocket change to play Elvis or Patsy Cline on the jukebox, over and over, while we danced in our own fashion around the room. That was our music: Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, and Eddy Arnold. We were, proudly, New England hillbillies.
By the end of the night, my parents were comfortably drunk, and in the early morning hours they woke us from our deep sleep in those imposing dark oak booths and we walked home. On those nights, those good nights when we were together, all of us, there were smiles instead of screams and laughter in place of curses, and if I were offered the world in place of one of those memories, I wouldn’t take it.
The good times never lasted more than a few weeks, though, and then everything went back to the way it was. When they were like that, constantly drunk and at each other’s throats, they didn’t care how it affected us. I think the way they looked at their relationship was that it was a trial and we were the results, trial children. They were, as Fitzgerald might have put it, careless people, my parents—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their poverty or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
It was always the same, never varied. After a few weeks of peace, they started to drink and argue and then fight—physically fight, in brawls that drew blood, during which furniture was tossed across rooms and through windows. My mother drew butcher knives or flung heavy black iron frying pans with incredible accuracy.
If my father was sober, he would stop fighting when the cops showed up, and they put him a squad car, drove him to a saloon downtown and let him go if he promised to stay away from the house for the rest of the night. But if he was drunk— and he was drunk a lot—he took a fighter’s stance and then they belted him across the knees with paddy clubs until he fell down and then cuffed him in a claw, a sort of handcuff designed to break the wrist if the person resisted. By the rules of slum life, it was acceptable for the cops to beat him if he resisted, but that’s where it ended. Pulling him into the squad car for an additional working over wasn’t allowed, but sometimes the newer cops tried it. When they did, neighbors slashed the tires on their squad cars or flung heavy objects from their apartment windows and broke the cars’ windshields. The neighbors’ reasoning was that if the cops could give Dad a beating the cops could give them a beating, or their sons and daughters or husbands and wives, when their day came. And in that neighborhood, everybody had a day, sooner or later.
In that decade, the 1960s, there would be many police riots besides ours. The cops would stop the beating but the violence against the squad car brought more cops who went wild; the neighbors fought back, and soon we had a small but respectable neighborhood riot on our hands. Sometimes the older cops, the ones who had been around longer, had the good sense to issue their additional beatings inside the house and away from the prying eyes of neighbors.
After the drinking and fighting started, my father would disappear, reappear and then leave. The last time he left, in December of 1962, he kept going until he hit Bridgeport, some twenty-five miles away on Long Island Sound, where he lived for the next ten years. Without his union painter’s money, we’d go back on welfare. My mother spent her days in bed and her nights in a bar, and she stopped caring about what happened to us.
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.