The only sign of life out there
in Jersey land was the well-lit rest stops named after dead poets that would occasionally
flash by. As she drove through the darkness and loneliness of the Jersey Turnpike
she started to think again of the Brooklyn boys she grew up with in the 50s.
How many were even still living? Were they happy with their lives? What ever happened
to them? Irish boys, the lot of them. First generation. Some of them tough as
nails. Some of them mysteriously hearing the calling to become Catholic
wondered what happened to Billy Coffey. At 16, he dropped out of Manual Training
High School in South Brooklyn, and hung out for a while with members of one of
the local street gangs, The Jokers. One night he even went to a gang
fight with them in the Long Meadow over in Prospect Park. But there was another
side of him that attracted her to him, a sensitive side. He wanted to be a writer.
Janice Joyce was three years older than him. She thought about how she
used to drive him around Windsor Terrace in an old Ford she had. She was a little
wild back then, punched holes in the muffler with an ice pick so people would
hear her coming. He was just 17, and running around with a fake draft card. He
always had a paperback book in his back pocket, Jack Kerouac, The Dharma
was something shy about him, but she remembered the night the two of them drank
some beers in the back room of Vals Bar on Prospect Avenue. They sat in
one of the red leather booths, talking over a pitcher of Rheingold Beer while
slow songs like Dream played over and over again on the Wurlitzer
and cigarette smoke filled the air. The two of them slow danced to it. And later
on, they walked over to Prospect Park and climbed the long rows of steps to the
top of Lookout Mountain where you could look down on Windsor Terrace. And she
thought again, about how he wasnt shy when he kissed her. He rolled down
the hood from her parka and held her face in his hands, and he whispered he loved
to think of titles of some of the books he had read and tried to get her to read.
Then she started to say them aloud. It was a way of staying alert as snow flakes
whipped across the windshield and melted into the darkness of the turnpike, leaving
a boring calm over her eyes. A Stone For Danny Fisher, The Dharma
Bums, Marjorie Morningstar, The Amboy Dukes, Nine
Stories by J.D. Salinger, You Cant Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe,
Battle Cry by Leon Uris, From Here to Eternity and Some
Came Running by James Jones.
He read this mixture of dime store paperback novels that were part classic, part
pulp fiction. And it educated him. He never bothered to further his education
past a GED. But there was something special about him when he talked. He had a
way of looking at things differently. He once told her somebody with a good
writers eye has the ability to slow down the ordinary things happening around
them so that they could record them. Its the ordinary things that count,
she was coming over from Jersey to try to find out what happened to him, a failed
marriage to a retired NYPD narcotics cop behind her. Before that, she married
an Air Force Major and moved to Rantoul, Illinois. That didnt work out either.
Just thinking of it again made her say aloud, fuck Rantoul, fuck him.
She hated that one so much she couldnt even utter his name. They were married
three weeks when she shoved a cake in his face and walked out.
She had heard that Billy was divorced, and that he was living alone. He became
a cop. Her cousin Ursula who worked as a ticket taker in the Pavilion Movie Theater
on Bartel Pritchard Square told her this. Ursula never married, and had spent
her whole life working at the same theatre since it was called The Sanders.
That was back in the days when they used to have matrons patrolling the aisles.
Ursula did that for a while and she hated it. Then after she died, Janice never
heard anything else about him. Occasionally she would see his by line in the Daily
News, feature stuff about bars and neighborhoods, about ordinary people. She was
glad that he got to write. She thought of writing to him at the Daily News often.
But she never did.
There was only one Irish bar left in their old neighborhood now, Farrells
Bar on the corner of 16th Street , and it served as a sort of information center
for anyone who was born and raised there. Ursula had told her that she heard that
he lived somewhere out on Long Island, but he still came back to Windsor Terrace.
She had seen him many times walking down 9th Avenue, a small pad in his hands.
Someone in Farrells might know how to get in touch with him, she thought.
They might know where he was living now. Two hours off the Jersey Turnpike, she
pulled her car up in front of the bar. She had heard that the yuppies who had
moved into this area in droves, spilling over from more expensive Park Slope which
bordered it, called the avenue by its official name, Prospect Park West,
but to the locals that remained it would always be called 9th Avenue,
or the Avenue.
They called it The Hillbecause
it stood on the highest point of Brooklyn. In the 40s, Irish came from counties
all over Ireland as word spread back home that Windsor Terrace, with its Catholic
Church and school, Holy Name, that took up an entire city block, was a welcome
place for Irish immigrants. But for the past few decades, the yuppies had put
their own claim on the neighborhood.
From the street, she could see that the bar looked empty. For a moment, she wondered
if she should walk in there. Something told her not to. She brushed some snow
off her jacket, and went in anyway. She was coming home.
Inside, there was no one there except the bartender. She walked toward the middle
of the bar, stopped, put a twenty-dollar bill up and looked around. Christ, what
memories lay here. She was here as a young girl, hardly eight years old. She could
see herself walking through the back door, the family entrance for
the women who lived in the neighborhood in the 50s. Women were not aloud
to stand at the bar until sometime much later.
Her mother would have her help her pull this shopping cart with wheels on it through
the back door after wheeling it all the way up from an A an P store on Prospect
Avenue. And she would order a glass of beer for herself, and a glass of coca cola
for her daughter. Then she would hand the bartender a handful of quarters and
ask him to play some Irish music on the jukebox for her. Ah, you are a grand
man, Dan she would say as the music came on. When she was 12, Janice stepped
danced here once on Saint Patricks Day.
The bartender, a middle-aged guy with closely cropped hair, watched her as she
settled down. She ordered a shot of scotch, and a small glass of Budweiser on
the side. The bar looked like it was caught in a time warp. They still had no
stools here. She once heard it was because the owners felt that if you couldnt
stand up you had too much to drink.
is everybody? she said. Its the weather, he answered in
a bored voice that told you he wished he
was somewhere else tonight. For
a minute I thought you were closing up.I was thinking of it, but you
can stay. He looked up at the clock on the wall. Ill probably
be here at least another half hour.
Up towards the front of the bar a large television is playing an old James Cagney
movie on Turner Classic Movies. He doesnt seem to really be watching it.
James Cagneys voice from television as character Rocky Sullivan: "Now
I know you're a smart lawyer, Frazier, very smart - but don't get smart with me.
You mind if I play the juke box? He shrugs
his shoulders and turns off the sound on the television.
plays a row of Black 47 songs.
your old grandmother
Recite her immigrant prayer
the drinks down, and returns with her change.
You get a lot of people
coming in here that used to live here? she asks.
He stares at her.I mean people who lived in the neighborhood and come back.
Do you get much of that?
He shifts his weight around. Hes
a big Irishman, has this white apron wrapped around his middle. Hes fielding
the question now. You can see that in his eyes. Its the way he tightens
up the lids and stares. Its like hes watching the question drop out
of the sky like a fly ball. Gives you the feeling that hes not too sure
he wants to answer your question because it might lead to another one. Hes
probably a cop or a firefighter, she thinks.
Yeah. Sometimes. You
know how it is. Some people like to visit their old neighborhoods. I suppose.
Me, I just want to retire, move the hell out of here. Go over to Jersey, maybe
Staten Island. Let the goddamn yuppies turn out the lights when their through
screwing this place up. He walks away and heads down to the end of the bar,
and pours himself a glass of club soda from a tap under the bar.
The jukebox plays more Black 47 with Larry Kirwan:
But hold on, darlin,
this time tomorrow
You'll be over the worst
Brooklyn girls just break your
He puts his apron-covered knee up on the sink well
and cups his chin as he stares down at her.