We sometimes feel that what we do is just a drop in the ocean, but the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.
We’re goin’ up to the Salvation Army,” Bridget had informed us that morning. “Put your coats on.” The Salvation Army had a large complex across town that included, among other things, a store for secondhand goods, a playroom for children, an after-school center with a television that worked, and a kitchen serving meals to the needy and where canned goods were given away.
“I don’t wanna go,” I said.
“You want to sit alone in a dark house?” she replied.
I didn’t want to go because the galoshes I had didn’t match and I looked a sight. I had worn them to school once and had been ridiculed for it, beginning my lifelong contempt for school and for those goddamned boots, which I refused to wear again.
“I’m not going because these boots are stupid,” I said.
“You gotta go, Johnny,” Bridget said in a way that closed all dissenting opinions.
“I can’t go with two stupid boots that are different colors, and I think one of them is for girls,” I shouted, in a way that closed off all dissent. Her large brown eyes locked with mine and instantly our ruddy complexions turned crimson. Tempers were about to flare. In this way, Bridget and I were kindred souls. In a similar situation, a meek and mild Paulie would surrender after a token protest, and good-natured Denny would do whatever was asked of him, but, like Bridget, I could be prickly when pushed. Bridget knew how to handle me.
“I need help carrying the baby,” she said softly, which shot directly into my guilt center.
“And,” she added, “they got free food there today because it’s Christmas,” which shot directly into my attention center for food. All food was a subject that interested me greatly, then and now.
So I put on the mismatched boots that were worn at the soles and let in the snow and rain, and Bridget led the way with the rest of us taking turns holding the baby. That afternoon we walked slowly up the hill. Waterbury is nestled in the center of three enormous and steep hills, which made walking anywhere an arduous task. But walk we did, to the North End, formerly the city’s Italian neighborhood, where the Salvation Army offices were decked out in wreaths and holly and Christmas trees, and vast herds of children ran wild in the main hall. A Santa Claus, far too slim I thought, handed out one wrapped present to each child, and each present was the same, a balsa-wood airplane in two pieces. And there was food and it was free. Free food: A fantastic idea when you’re hungry, and I was always hungry because we seldom ate well, or regularly, and sometimes we just plain didn’t eat at all. Many nights we went to bed hungry, which after a while wasn’t all that bad because we learned that drinking vast amounts of water would fight off the pangs of hunger until the morning arrived.
The Christmas dinner was modest: chips, soda, a pickle, a carrot, and olive loaf sandwiches. I’d never had olive loaf. Mostly, the only meat we ate was Spam, cold from the can if Bridget wasn’t around to fry it for us, and we had that only when the welfare check came in. Occasionally, when there was extra money and Mother was not overwhelmed, she prepared the dishes her Irish immigrant mother had taught her: boiled smoked shoulder with cabbage, and potatoes drenched in butter and floating in evaporated milk, with large doses of salt and pepper.
It was a good time when the welfare check arrived because it made us temporarily rich and happy and we bought all the things that other people enjoyed every day. But then the money ran out and we were poor again. After a while there was no food left in the house and we followed our mother up to the neighborhood stores, and watched her beg the grocer to give us credit for food and milk and diapers for the babies.
“I promise, I swear to God himself,” she would plead, “to pay youse first thing the welfare check comes in.”
Sometimes they helped us, sometimes they wouldn’t, and sometimes they would offer, with a leer, goods in exchange for my mother’s services, because she was a very attractive woman. Although short, she was well-built and buxom, with an enticing and mischievous smile, magnificent auburn hair, soft brown eyes, and a milky-white complexion.
Men tended to give her whatever she wanted and she was a talented manipulator, but the utility companies were different. They couldn’t be charmed or have their heads turned by a pretty face, and they didn’t give credit.
The electric company was the worst. They turned off our lights and left them off until they were paid in full. Then the water was turned off or the landlord sent around a collector, usually little more than a goon, to threaten us about the rent. The routine never changed. Several times a year, it all became too much for my mother and she placed the babies with my Aunts or her friends, and disappeared, leaving Bridget to mind us.
Bridget did her best with everything, but it was too much even for her noble soul, because being poor is hard work. It is all-consuming, and the poor spend endless hours trying to figure out ways to combat being poor. That’s what Bridget did, God bless her. She had no childhood at all, miserable or otherwise, because her life was filled with the righteous mission of fending for us.
Her childhood was like being punished for something she didn’t do. And that sense of being second-rate—it never leaves you. No matter how long you live or how much money you get, you never leave poverty. It stays with you, in your mind, forever, and leaves its victims with a sense of permanent unsettledness. This much I know to be true: The world’s greatest heroic acts are conducted in the minor battlefields of life by obscure warriors like my sister.
When the food ran out, and that happened a lot, Bridget, like our mother, walked us up the street to the corner grocery, but unlike our mother, Bridget had no intention of haggling for credit.
“Paulie,” she commanded, “you stay outside with the baby so the guy don’t recognize us,” and then turning to Denny and me, she bent close and whispered, “Youse two go in when I wave to you, and go to the back aisle and get something good.”
In other words, we were there to steal food while she kept the storeowner busy slicing a pound of minced ham we couldn’t afford and had no intention of buying. A simple plan that never really seemed to work out. Denny and I would crawl into the store on our hands and knees and steal whatever foodstuffs were at eye level but, since we couldn’t read and we were ruled over by our empty stomachs, some of our choices were interesting.
“A five-gallon can of imported olive oil,” Bridget yelled at Denny after the expedition had ended. “What the hell am I supposed to do with a five-gallon can of imported olive oil?”
“Eat it,” a highly offended Denny replied. He had based the worth of his prize on its weight.
“Eat it?” Bridget yelled back. “We don’t even got a can opener to open it with, ya schmuck.”
“Go back and steal one,” he countered.
I said nothing. I said nothing because my product of choice was worse. I had taken Brillo soap pads. I don’t know why. At the moment it had seemed like a good idea.
“We could bring it down the block to the deaf guy’s store and exchange it for money,” Paulie mumbled. We all stopped and pondered what our usually taciturn brother had said. You had to hand it to Paulie. The kid didn’t talk much, but when he did, it always made sense.
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.