Sometimes life is too hard to be alone, and sometimes life is too good to be alone. -Elizabeth Gilbert
After the cops banged open our front door on Christmas night, they rushed into the house, groping around in the dark. I grabbed my plate of olive loaf from the kitchen and made a run for the cover of the bed in the living room. A massive red-faced cop scooped me up by my shirt collar and sat me hard on the floor with a single fling of his arm, and my blessed olive loaf flew across the room and disappeared into the night.
The other cops lifted up the bed, and Paulie, Denny, Bridget, and the baby scurried out, faster than cockroaches, in three different directions across the room, each intending to make a run for the front door where some of the older cops were standing.
I decided to join them and leaped up off the floor, but I was dizzy, as I was all the time, and fell forward. I got up, but the cop who had pushed me to the floor grabbed my coat collar and yanked me backwards, bent down to my level, stuck a long finger in my face and said, “You sit down or I’ll crack you one!”
I think that if I were forced to pinpoint a time and place in my life when my hair-trigger temper and penchant for violence, those two thieves that have robbed me of so much peace in my life, began, it would be at that moment. Our parents, for all that was wrong with them, never raised their hands against us or scolded us, and I was too young to tell the difference between an implied threat and the real thing.
I suppose I could have done what the cop said and sat down, but there was something about the sound of his voice, and that finger in my face, and that snarl of his, that disappeared when I landed a roundhouse right to his jaw and dug my teeth into his ear when he fell back. He was a big man. Factory town cops are big because everyone else in a factory town is big, too. He shoved me away and his lips grew tight and he said, “You son of a bitch,” letting out each word slowly and deliberately, and landed me across the room with an open-handed smack across the face. Denny and Paulie were on him before I hit the floor. Paulie had him by his knees while Denny tried to take the cop’s gun from its holster so he could shoot him. The other cops joined in, overpowered us, and dragged us, one by one, out of the house, past the gathered neighbors and into the back seat of their squad car.
They drove us silently to the police station on Grand Street, a broad and impressive road lined with marble government buildings. Inside the station they told us to sit on long, gleaming wooden benches, and the desk sergeant, a great pumpkin-shaped man with a shirt that was too tight and a gun belt that hung almost up to his ribs, wagged his finger at us and warned, “Don’t misbehave. Be quiet. Sit still and don’t move.” He turned and pointed to a black metal door and said, “If you misbehave or try to run away, I’ll toss you in a cell.”
Yeah, big deal. He couldn’t scare us. Our whole world was threats. Besides, a night in a jail cell with your own cot that you didn’t have to share wasn’t really punishment. But to press the point, the sergeant rested his thick hands on his gun belt and gave us a firm looking over.
“Who, who, who,” Paulie stuttered. “Who—”
“Come on, kid,” the cop said. “Spit it out.”
“Who dresses you?”
As the hours passed, we sat in exhausted silence. It was past midnight and we faded off into sleep. About an hour later, two cops in heavy winter coats stood in front of us snapping their fingers and clapping their hands loudly.
“Come on, get up,” one of them said. “This isn’t a hotel.”
“It is for them,” the other one said.
They knew us. We threw rocks at their patrol cars and then disappeared into the streets. We laughed at them when they ventured into our neighborhood. And now they had us. They ushered us back into a squad car and drove us a few blocks to Saint Mary’s Hospital, where I had been born. On the way over, the cop on the passenger side said, “Should we just toss them in the river or what?”
“Naw,” said the cop behind the wheel, “they’ll just bounce off the ice”.
Three smiling nuns in bright white robes were waiting for us at the hospital’s front entrance. They were delighted to see us, and the cops, being cops, changed their tune, removed their hats for the nuns, rubbed our hair, smiled at us and gently turned us over to the Sisters, who put us to bed in clean, cool white sheets.
“In da mornin’,” one of them said in a brogue heavy with a western Ireland accent, “It’s breakfast in bed for ya.”
It was good that we were in the hospital. Maura was malnourished and Denny had untreated ringworm and I had pneumonia that took away some of my hearing and left me forever dizzy. Many years later, when in a moment of desperation I joined the U.S. Army, I was sent to the recruiting station in New York City where I was given a physical examination, and promptly sent back to Waterbury, to the back seat of the Chevy Imperial in which I lived.
“Kid,” a well-meaning sergeant told me, “if we bottled everything that’s wrong with you and spread it around, we could take over the world without a shot.”
After our breakfast in bed, our state-assigned social worker arrived, by car, I assume now, but that day I would have believed that she descended from the heavens on a cloud carried by smiling cherubs. Her name was Mary Catherine Hanrahan, Miss Hanrahan to us, who hailed from Marblehead, Massachusetts, and had recently graduated from Smith College. She was tall, blonde, beautiful, young, and stylish. Everything about her seemed new and fresh.
I studied her face and concluded she looked like Marilyn Monroe.
“You’re as pretty as Marilyn Monroe,” I announced and she blushed red and nodded her thanks.
“Marilyn Monroe,” Denny felt the need to add with his heavy lisp, “is fuckin’ beautiful.”
She threw her head back and laughed and said, “Thank you, Denny. I didn’t know that. Thank you for clearing that up.”
Then she bent down to our level and whispered, “I am not with the police.”
“Yeah,” Denny said, looking sideways down the hall. “Fuckin’ cops though, huh?”
She gently pulled Denny closer and whispered, “We’re not going to say the F word anymore today, okay?”
Always willing to get along, Denny slapped her on her backside and said, “You got it.” She turned her attention back to us and said, “I work for the State of Connecticut. You are not in any kind of trouble at all. I’m your friend.”
We surrendered to her immediately. She smiled a lot and she seemed kind and genuinely happy to be with us. As tough, ragged, and suspicious as we were, we wanted peace and happiness, and like all kids everywhere, we wanted adults to be nice to us. We didn’t want to be chased from stores nor have angry cops blow cigarette smoke in our faces and threaten us with jail, or listen to our mother curse us.
We piled onto her, elbowing our way to her attention by telling her things we knew, but always making sure that Maura, only four years old, got the bulk of the attention. She stood up and looked down at us and with a clap of her hand sang, “We’re going shopping!”
Holland Hughes was Waterbury’s premier department store. Its front entrance was done in distinguished grey stone and highly polished brass and a man in a green and red uniform at the revolving front door greeted customers and kept out indigents, possible troublemakers, the badly dressed and children who weren’t with their parents.
Although the store was way out of our meager price range, it didn’t stop us from taking a weekly excursion down to the toy department and playing with the products until one of the sales clerks tossed us out. We got around the doorman and his “no-parents-no-entry” policy by breaking up into two and walking in alongside some unsuspecting woman.
Otherwise we had gone to Holland Hughes every Christmas to have our photo taken on Santa’s lap. Now, as we trudged through the store with Miss Hanrahan towards the grandiose brass and copper elevator and waited for the extravagantly uniformed operator to open the doors with his white-gloved hands, Denny said, “Santa Claus lives here.”
I rolled my eyes, exasperated. “He doesn’t live here. He has an office here.”
We were going up to the store’s central business office to get a reimbursement certificate to purchase our clothes. We sat quietly on a long, shiny mahogany bench while Miss Hanrahan went to speak with one of the women behind the wooden counter.
When she strolled by the manager’s office, the manager, a big-bellied man with a crewcut, and a black janitor, who was leaning heavily on a broom, stared her up and down. The manager said something to the janitor, who laughed at the remark harder and at more length than he should have, and then pushed his broom away to another room.
I watched Miss Hanrahan speak to the senior clerk behind the counter, a tall, lean, middle-aged woman with a long nose and a generally disapproving demeanor. She looked constipated.
They spoke for several seconds and then I heard the clerk’s voice crackle across the room, “Do you have serial numbers for the children? No? And do you know why? Because we didn’t issue you one because the policy is for you people”—the “you people” seemed to hold a specific acrimony for her—“to phone ahead twenty-four hours, and you haven’t done that, have you, young lady?”
Miss Hanrahan offered the woman her Miss Hanrahan smile and said, “I understand that, but this is an emergency. All the children have is on their backs, and it’s cold.”
The old lady leaned her neck out as long as a viper and hissed, “Do you have serial numbers for them?”
“No, I told you that,” Miss Hanrahan answered quietly with a taut smile.
The clerk’s face grew tight and she stared hard at Miss Hanrahan for several seconds. “You told me that?” she mimicked. “Young lady, I will not be spoken to in that fashion, am I understood?”
Miss Hanrahan’s faced flushed red, but she remained composed and apologized. “I’m in a bit of a hurry. The children haven’t eaten since yesterday, and I’d like to take them downstairs for a bite. I’m sorry if I was rash.”
“You’re taking them down to the cafeteria to eat?”
“Yes, I am. I thought it would be a nice treat for kids.”
The clerk was already shaking her head. “Oh, I’m sure it would be,” she said. “A nice treat indeed, at the expense of the American taxpayers of this state!”
I watched the pleasantness slip from Miss Harahan’s face. “I’m paying for the meal. Not the taxpayer.”
The lean old woman was unimpressed. She leaned forward and pointed a long, bony finger at the young woman. “And who pays you, Little Missy? Let me ask you that!”
Miss Hanrahan tugged her skirt and looked past the woman and said nothing.
“Take a seat, dear,” the woman said. “This is going to take a while to sort out.”
The clerk had won the opening scrimmage and Miss Hanrahan returned to the bench where we were waiting.
“You should have smacked her one,” Denny declared, loudly enough for the old woman to hear. Then he added in his best Ralph Kramden voice, “Whammo! Right to the moon!” Then he crawled up to his rightful place on Miss Harahan’s lap. Paulie, always the diplomat, looked at the bright, white marble floor and murmured, “She isn’t nice.”
I decided to change the subject by giving Miss Hanrahan a nice pick-you-upper.
“You got a real pair on you, sister,” I said with a smile that was intended to encourage her. But her eyes narrowed and she stared straight ahead for several seconds, probably in disbelief, and probably deciding whether to honor the remark with a reply. Finally, a faint but pleasant smile came over her pretty face and she turned to me.
“What did you say?”
“I said you got a real pair on you,” I said, and I gave her a reassuring pat on the back. I was proud that a friend of mine had a real pair, whatever that was, and that people noticed.
“Pair of what, John?” She was still smiling.
“I dunno.” I shrugged, distracted by everything else in the room.
“Why did you say that?” She was smiling now.
“I didn’t,” I said, and pointed to the manager in his office. “He did. When you walked by to get in line he said, ‘Sister, you got a real pair on you.’ And the other guy with the broom, the colored guy, he laughed really hard, but then he left.”
She looked into the manager’s office. He looked up and their eyes locked for a second. She gave him that demure smile that only she had, and he smiled back. After several seconds she stood silently, strolled over to the manager’s office, and positioned herself in a slightly provocative way against the open door.
“I was wondering if you could help me,” she whispered.
He smiled and nodded as she explained our plight and blamed herself for not understanding the store’s procedure in billing the state for dressing poor kids. The more she blamed herself and feigned incompetence, the more understanding he became. He was suffering from TBB, or Temporary Babe Blindness.
I tossed a glance at the women behind the counter. They were completely mesmerized by the conversation between Miss Hanrahan and their boss. The mean, thin clerk loudly sighed for the benefit of the other women, who predictably nodded and rolled their eyes. After several minutes the manager stood up, put on his suit coat, and guided Miss Hanrahan and us toward the brass elevator. When he reached out to press the down button, Miss Hanrahan grasped his bulky, hairy arm with both of her small, delicate and gloved hands and held it close to her.
“I’m so pleased there’s a real man here to take command of all this.”
Just as the elevator doors closed I looked up and caught a look of absolute horror, disbelief, and shock on the clerk’s face. Looking over to my left, at my eye level, I saw a smiling Miss Hanrahan discreetly give the old woman the finger.
Down on the sales floor of the children’s clothing department she reached into the racks and piled our outstretched arms with new clothes, with each of us exaggerating the weight with dramatic and well-acted grunts and groans. After a few minutes, the piles grew higher than our heads and we performed the mandatory pratfalls to the floor, arms and legs outstretched as though we had been completely crushed by the weight of the cotton fabric.
Miss Hanrahan tilted her head slightly to the right and gave a sad smile while she combed her slender fingers through the shock of Paulie’s sand-white hair.
“They authorized only twenty dollars per child,” she said. “They need so much, poor children.”
The manager put his hands on his round hips and stared at his feet, and said, “Well, we need the word from a higher-up for that.”
She opened her eyes wide and looked deeply into his face. “Oh,” she said sadly, “I thought you were in charge. I’m sorry. Perhaps you could phone someone in authority; maybe they would help.”
The manager paused and said with a tough-guy half-smile, “Little lady, I am the final authority here. You just let me take care of this.”
She grasped his meaty arm again and leaned close to him. “You’re too kind.”
He blushed and gave her an “Aw shucks, ain’t nothing” look, shrugged his broad shoulders and winked. “You just get these children what they need and let me take care of the rest.”
We marched to the glistening white-tiled food counter with a hundred and sixty dollars in new shirts and pants, a lot of money at that time. The manager also gave us lunch on the house tab. We dined on tuna-salad sandwiches, a new and exotic delicacy for us.
Later that day, with our new clothes and full bellies, Miss Hanrahan dropped us back off at Saint Mary’s Hospital. She hugged and kissed us all and told us she would be back in the morning to bring us to a new house to live in, and everyone relaxed. Even Paulie didn’t look tense. Everything was going to be all right. It was one of the greatest days of my life and I’ll never forget it.
Miss Hanrahan did come back the next morning, as promised, and her arrival on that morning changed everything in our lives forever, because the next step for us was foster care.
For the next decade, each of us would be whisked away, sometimes on a moment’s notice, from one foster home to another, and always in black four-door sedans with the Connecticut state emblem emblazoned on the front door with the motto, wrapped in vines: “Qui Transtulit Sustinet,” meaning “He Who Transplanted Still Sustains.” I always saw the humor in that, even if the state did not live up to its motto or its obligations.
I would spend the rest of my childhood and a good part of my adult life trying to return to Waterbury and Pond Street and the Garden of Eden on Pine Hill, the last places where I knew I belonged or didn’t feel out of place.
In folklore there is the story of The Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship that can never go home, and is doomed to sail the oceans forever because the captain and crew have been struck down with bubonic plague. When they try to dock, they are turned away. Their water and provisions run out and, eventually, all on board die and their souls are doomed to sail the seven seas for all eternity.
We were like that, roaming the state in those small black cars looking for a place to live. Over the next ten years, the five of us—Paulie, Denny, Maura, Bridget and I—would live in thirty-four foster homes, schools, and group homes before the system spat us out.
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.