When you finally go back to your old hometown, you find it wasn’t the old home you missed but your childhood. -Sam Ewing
Waterbury is Connecticut’s fifth-largest city, although for us, as children, it was the biggest city in the world. Waterbury. Three hundred years of immigrants’ dreams, heartbreak, hope, and tears built this city as much as those things built this country. The factories were massive. Some plants, like Chase and Farrel’s and Scovill’s, extended for miles and employed thousands of men and women in three shifts, seven days a week, every day of the year. These shops that brought hundreds of thousands of Poles and Jews and Italians and Irish to the city are almost all gone now, but for centuries, they churned out brass, copper, and steel, and they changed the immigrants whose children and grandchildren changed America.
In their old countries, these lowly souls were the little guys, the perpetual hapless losers. It’s true that they were the tired, the hungry, the desperate and the poor, but they were also a people with lions’ hearts who got knocked down and got back up again only to be knocked down again by laws written for the sole purpose of knocking them down, until one day they stood up and left. They went to a new land to build a new nation: one where the rules were fair and getting back up again actually accomplished something.
They built Waterbury, these sons of Italy and Ireland, these daughters of Warsaw and Minsk. And the city they built reflected them. It would never be a cultural center or place of great learning, because they were not cultured or educated people. But it was a city of spacious parks and beautiful and awe-inspiring churches. It was a city divided into dozens of little countries, as Italian or Irish or Polish as any place in Europe. Their restaurants offered a working man’s fare of simple, hearty dishes, most with unpronounceable names and heavy with ingredients handed down for hundreds of years.
The factories rolled on, nonstop, seven days a week, every day of the year. The immigrants, men and women, dragged their tired bones home from the mills to the third-floor walk-ups perched on the sides of Waterbury’s hills that they called home, and they ate and they slept and they went back to work again.
When they dreamed at night, they dreamed their oldest and best dreams, which were all possible here in the new world, in the Brass City. They dreamed about the children they would have, children who would speak English and grow to be tall like the other Americans, the regular Americans. They dreamed good dreams. They dreamed American dreams.
Even in the early twentieth century, the Waterbury mills paid a fair wage and offered reasonable benefits for a good day’s work. And little by little, year by year, decade by decade and generation after generation, life got better, and gradually, great men and women rose from the humble streets of Waterbury.
So the city was rich and prosperous but we, and many others, were poor and unprosperous and lived in a poor neighborhood called the Abrigada, a Spanish word that means shelter, or a hiding place, and for us it was both. The Abrigada clung to the side of Pine Hill, one of Waterbury’s three massive hills.
Perched on its top was a surreal place called Holy Land USA, a Waterbury landmark as eccentric and interesting as the city itself. It’s mostly gone now—a few decades-old buildings and statues still stand—but in its heyday, Holy Land USA was an eighteen-acre private park filled with dozens of miniature plaster houses and cobblestone streets that were supposed to be replicas of ancient Jerusalem and Bethlehem. But even for the most devout Christian, it was a comically odd place. There was a giant fiberglass Bible, a replica of the Garden of Eden, a two-hundred-foot catacomb, grottoes and dozens of statues of saints and angels, most of them handmade in Waterbury by volunteers. Topping it off, literally at the very top of Pine Hill and Holy Land, a fifty-foot-high steel cross lit the night sky in a white amber glow that could be seen for miles. At the very bottom of Pine Hill, where we lived, was the Mad River, lined with a dozen red-brick factories.
In the 1880s the Abrigada was a massive Irish neighborhood, one of the largest in New England, whose main thoroughfare was then called Dublin Street. But by the time I was born, the Irish were long gone and so were the Italians who followed them out of the neighborhood. There were some Irish and Italians left, but mostly they lived up on the top of the hill, not down by the river with us and the Puerto Ricans.
We lived on Pond Street. Pond Street. A fine, picturesque name for such a God-awful place. It’s an irrelevant street, a dead-end still paved with cobblestones when I was a boy. There are only five or six houses on the whole street but there is an apartment house on the corner. Every now and then, young Puerto Rican men spilled out of the building, knives in hand, slashing at each other, leaving dark- brown blood stains on the building’s dirty grey walls. Across from the apartment house was a long factory, its bricks covered in decades of black and brown soot. Behind that was the river, the Mad River that puked out a rotten-egg smell that soaked into everything and everybody, even into the car seat cushions, so you carried it with you out of the neighborhood.
Next to the red brick factory was a long empty parking lot with enormous potholes, and at the end of the lot was another factory, soot-covered and dirty like the dozen other shops that lined the river’s edge.
The colored ladies—that’s what we called them then and it was meant politely— brought men in cars to the lot and parked facing the river. When a car started to rock we pelted it with stones until the woman came out, half-dressed, and chased us, which is what we were hoping for, but she never caught us, not down there, not in our neighborhood.
So she would stand by the car cursing us while her customer slid down the seat to hide himself from the neighbors, who came out to see what all the commotion was about. In the daytime, you could find used rubbers all over the place and when they dried, if you threw them in the river, they’d float for a while before they sank or the chemicals destroyed them.
It was loud and it was bright on Pond Street because the factory that took up the whole of the other side of the street never closed and the windows were always open, even in the winter, because all of the foundries were hotter than Hell itself. The smashing and banging and hammering from inside the shops poured out of the massive windows into our kitchens and bedrooms and heads, and at night the shop lights gave the entire street an otherworldly glow.
Our neighbors were the worst possible people in the world. They had nicknames like Benny Nose and Fat Eddy and Guinea Ann, who had no teeth and ran out of her house sometimes, naked for the world to see, and screamed in the middle of the street and then suddenly stopped and listened and then walked somberly back into the house. Joe Mullins rubbed your private parts when there was no one around and he’d give you Drake’s Cakes and Birch Beer soda if you let him do it. He was missing an eye, lost in the war. There were a lot of men like that in the Naugatuck Valley, mangled people who were missing legs and eyes and hands and jaws and fingers, all lost to the dogs of war. Missing body parts and death, not paper cuts and boredom, are usually the wartime fate of the working poor.
They were, almost all of them, alcoholics, and drug addicts, and perverts of one kind or another. They were ugly and Pond Street was an ugly place, but then again, it’s ugly being poor and it turns all things around it ugly.
Our leaning house sat adjacent to the local public elementary school and, even though it was only feet away, we rarely went. We were street urchins, and happy street urchins at that. We were completely and thoroughly undisciplined; the concept of school, of having to be someplace at a specific time where we were required to sit at a desk in silence while someone else talked, was beyond us. We tried it, decided it was not to our liking, and rarely returned.
The concept of order was beyond us. I don’t mean that figuratively. I mean that literally. Leadership in our family life was almost an elected position and there was rarely a central adult figure to tell us what to do, and when it came to being told what to do we responded best—in fact, now that I think about, the only way we responded— was through threats or bribes. Since elementary school teachers were not practitioners of the bribe/threat theory of education, we did what we wanted.
The first day that Denny went to kindergarten, to everyone’s amazement he didn’t put up a fuss. He got up, got dressed, and went to school. The next morning he pitched a holy fit. My father went into the room and said “What’s wrong?”
“They want me to go to school!”
“But you went yesterday.”
“Yeah, and now they want me to go back again!”
I remember once when I was being taken to the principal’s office, in a headlock. As we went down the long hallway I heard the sound of feet beside me. It was Denny. In a headlock. Headed to the principal’s office. Another time, Denny brought a dozen eggs to school so he could show them what throwing a hand grenade was like and presented said demonstration on the boys’ room wall.
At one point, I became enamored with the Walt Disney version of Babes in Toyland, a children’s film. I even had the book version. For me, in the fall of 1962, Babes in Toyland was the most important world event that had even happened. Strolling late into the school and stepping in front of the class, I launched into a monologue on the wonders of the film.
“Who’s seen the movie?” I asked.
“John,” the teacher said softly, “sit down.”
“I’m workin’ here,” I replied, borrowing the phrase from my father.
Not fully understanding the order, I sat down in a chair in front of the class and continued my spiel.
“John,” the teacher yelled, “face first against the wall!”
I stared at her for a while and then assumed the position against the wall.
It would have ended there had I not topped off the conversation by calling her “shmutz” as I turned to face the wall. I didn’t know she was Jewish.
Instead of school, on most mornings when it wasn’t too cold or rainy, Bridget led us on one adventure or another around town. We started each trek with an early-morning stop on lower North Main Street where a wholesale bakery was staffed by enormously fat, red-faced German people with thick accents, noticeable in a town that was then filled with people with many accents. They were the Becker family, who were, I later learned, leaders of the American Nazi Bund during the Second World War. The local police would use against them the old religious-based laws enacted by the state’s Puritan founders to keep them in check, asking them on a Sunday if they had shaved that morning. If they said yes, they were arrested, because it was illegal to shave on the Sabbath in Connecticut between 1692 and 1942. But in the winter of 1962, they delighted in feeding us doughnuts until our eyes swam in warm, sugar-coated dough. From there it was on to the parks.
Despite its drawbacks as an industrial city, Waterbury, the Brass City, The City of Churches, is also a city of parks, with dozens of them, of all shapes and sizes, some built by the Olmsted brothers who designed Central Park in Manhattan.
The parks were dotted across the cityscape, some hidden in forgotten corners, some bursting with thick, lush green grass and others filled with monkey bars, swings and wonderful Victorian-era bandstands painted white, red, blue, and other colors of summer. On the wooden ceilings of several of these bandstands were elaborate and beautiful drawings of the Italian countryside, hand-painted by craftsmen who pined for their homeland. Several of the parks were built around freshwater ponds, complete with sandy beaches, grills and picnic tables, and when I was a boy, droves of children converged at these ponds and lakes and splashed away for hours in the water turned tea-brown by pine needles from the trees that lined the water’s edge.
On those days when it was too cold to spend the day in a park, and there are many days like that in New England, we went to the movies. Because we were part of the New York distribution system for films, we got great movies before the rest of the country. We got classics like La Dolce Vita, a film that I watched after sneaking into the theater. I understood it too, not through the words but through the photography, through good content, director’s guidelines timing, color, and pace, and through the facial expressions—the same way that I enjoy films today.
The Hustler was one of those movies that could be watched and understood without hearing any words. So were One Eyed Jacks with Marlon Brando and Cape Fear with Robert Mitchum, a film that scared me then and unsettles me still today. It was the golden age for children's films like One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
There was, of course, a seemingly endless array of war films and I assumed most of them, like The Guns of Navarone, were documentary footage of my father’s foray through war-torn Europe, just as watching the film version of West Side Story was like watching gussied-up home movies of Pond Street.
We saw all these wonderful films in the grandeur of the Palace Movie Theater in the center of downtown Waterbury. Originally one of the premier silent film and vaudeville showplaces of New England, the Palace opened in 1922. It was then, and remains today, a magnificent place. Even as a child, I understood instinctively that the Palace Theater (pronounced “thee-ate-tor” in Waterbury) was a special and beautiful place. Everything in my world was dirty, broken, used, and grimy, but the Palace was what I imagined heaven to be. It was done in the Grand Renaissance Revival style, with an eclectic mix of Greek, Roman, Arabic, and Federal motifs, with an enormous grand lobby of imported Roman marble.
We discovered a dozen different ways to sneak into the theater, and after we were inside, sank into one of the enormous crushed purple velvet chairs, raised our heads back to take in the entire giant screen, and got lost in whatever film was playing that day. It didn’t matter. I watched anything they showed because it was like visiting another planet.
Those peaceful afternoons in the Palace set into motion my lifelong affair with motion pictures and storytelling, and it was here that I learned about the world outside Waterbury and Pond Street.
We lived on the worst possible street in the worst possible city in New England, surrounded by crowded poverty and ugliness. But on the screen, I saw places I never could have imagined. I watched John Wayne strut across the wide-open West or Peter O’Toole race across the white sands of the Arabian desert, and I wanted to know more about those places. Are there really places like that in the world? Big wide-open spaces, big enough for a horse to walk around in, big enough for vast herds of cows to stand around and do whatever it is vast herds of cows do? Are there places where the people aren’t ugly and scarred and poor and dirty and filled with desperation? Is there a place in the world that isn’t filled with filthy old factories and rats the size of cats? And when you get there, are the rivers really blue instead of multi-colored chemical runoff? And you can drink from them? Where is this place, and how do you get there? All I knew was there on Pond Street, the poorest place in the wealthiest state in the union.
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.