Thursday, October 16, 2014
***Out In The Be-Bop 1960s Night- Ain’t Got No Time For Corner Boys-Harry's Variety
A YouTube film clip of Tom Waits performing his song Jersey Girl that formed part of the inspiration for this post.
From The Pen Of Frank Jackman
Riding down the old neighborhood streets a while back, the old North Adamsville working class streets, streets dotted with triple-deckers housing multiple families along with close-quarter, small cottage-sized single family houses like the one of Tim Murphy’s own growing to manhood time in the early 1970s. He reflected as he drove on how little the basic structure of things had changed with the changing of the ethnic composition of those streets. Sure many of the houses had been worked on, new roofs, new siding, maybe a deck add-on for the ritualistic family barbecue (barbecues that his family on the infrequent occasions that they actually had one were taken at Treasure Island a picnic area that provided pits for the grill-less like his from hunger family on the site), maybe an add-on of a room if that home equity loan came through (or the refinance worked out). The lawns, manicured or landscaped like some miniature English garden, reflected some extra cash and care that in his time was prohibited by the needs to fix up the insides first or save money for emergencies like the furnace blowing out in mind-winter. In all the tradition of keeping up appearances as best you could had been successfully transferred to the new inhabitants (keeping up appearances being a big reason work was done back then in those old judgmental Irish streets, maybe now to for all he knew).
Whatever condition the houses were in, and a few as to be expected when there are so many houses in such a small area were getting that run-down feel that he saw more frequently back in the day by those not worried by the “keeping up appearances” ethos, the houses reflected, no, exclaimed right to their tiny rooftops, that seemingly eternal overweening desire to have, small or not, worth the trouble or not, something of one’s own against the otherwise endless servitude of days. Suddenly, coming to an intersection, Tim was startled, no, more than that he was forced into a double-take, by the sight of some guys, some teenage guys hanging, hanging hard, one foot on the ground the other bent holding up the infernal brick wall that spoke of practice and marking one’s territory, against the oncoming night in front of an old time variety store, a mom and pop variety from some extinct times before the 7/11 chain store, fast shop, no room for corner boys, police take notice, dark night.
Memory called it Kelly’s (as almost every local institution was called from that small dream of ownership and out of hard manual labor variety store to the Dublin Grille bar that transfixed many a neighborhood father, including his father Michael Murphy to the shanty born, or else had an Italian surname reflecting the other major ethnic group, and at times mortal enemies). Today the name is Chiang’s. From the look of them, baggy-panted, latest fashion footwear name sneakered, baseball cap-headed, all items marked, marked with the insignia (secretly, and with no hope of outside decoding) signifying their "homeboy" associations (he would say gang, meaning of course corner boy gang, but that word is charged these days and this is not exactly what it looked like, at least to the public eye, his public eye) they could be the grandsons, probably not biological because these kids were almost all Asians speckled with a couple of Irish-lookers, shanty Irish-lookers, of the ghost be-bop night guys that held Tim in thrall in those misty early 1970s times.
Yeah, that tableau, that time-etched scene, got Tim to thinking of some long lost comrades of the schoolboy night like the hang-around guys in front of Harry’s Variety several blocks away (Harry O’Toole, the most “connected” guy in the neighborhood after Jimmy Mulvey who ran the Dublin Grille, since he ran the local “book”), although comrades might not be the right word because he had been just some punk young kid trying to be a wannabe, or half-wannabe, corner boy and they had no time for punk kids and later when he came of age he had no time for corner boys being unlike his older brothers, Red and Digger, a serious student and not a hell-raiser like them giving Martha Murphy nothing but the miseries. (He gave Ma Murphy his own miseries later but that was when all of society, all youth nation society, was going through a sea-change and he just travelled in that stream to her angers and dismays, especially his wardrobe and physical appearance.)
Yeah, that scene got Tim to thinking of the old time corner boys who ruled the whole wide North Adamsville night (and day for those who didn’t work or go to school, which was quite a few on certain days, because most of these guys were between sixteen and their early twenties with very jittery school and work histories better left unspoken then, or else if you wanted to make something of it they would oblige you with some fists). Yeah, got Tim thinking about where the white tee-shirted, blue-jeaned, engineer-booted, cigarette-smoking, unfiltered of course (Luckies the “coffin nails” of choice, sneering (learned from watching, closely watching and repeatedly Marlon Brando in The Wild One and James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause at the retro- Strand Theater up on Main Street), soda-swilling, Coke, naturally, pinball wizards held forth daily and nightly, and let him cadge a few odd games when they had more important business, more important girl business, to attend to. Either a date with some hot “fox” sitting in some souped up car looking like the queen of the Nile or putting their girls to “work,” pimping them in other words. Tim had been clueless about that whole scene until much later, that pimping scene, he had just assumed that they were “easy” and left it at that. Hell he had his own sex problems, or really no sex problems although if he had known what he found out from Red and Digger he might have paid more attention to those “loose women.”
Yeah, Tim got to thinking too about Harry’s, old Harry’s Variety over there near his grandmother’s house (on his mother’s side, nee Riley) over there in that block on Sagamore Street where the Irish workingman’s whiskey-drinking (with a beer chaser), fist-fighting, sports-betting after a hard day’s work Dublin Grille was located. Harry’s was on the corner of that block. Now if you have some image, some quirky, sentimental image, of Harry’s as being run by an up-and-coming just arrived immigrant guy, maybe with a big family, trying to make this neighborhood store thing work so he can take in, take in vicariously anyway, the American dream like you see running such places now forget it. Harry’s was nothing, like he had said before, but a “front.” Old Harry, Harry O’Toole, now long gone, was nothing but the neighborhood “bookie” known far and wide to one and all as such. Even the cops would pull up in their squad cars to place their bets, laughingly, with Harry in the days before state became the bookie-of-choice for most bettors. And he had his “book”, his precious penciled-notation book right out on the counter. But see punk kid Tim, even then just a little too book-unworldly didn’t pick up on that fact until, old grandmother, Jesus, Grandmother Riley who knew nothing of the world and was called a saint by almost everybody, everybody but husband Daniel Riley when he was in his cups “hipped” him to the fact.
Until then Tim didn’t think anything of the fact that Harry had about three dust-laden cans of soup, two dust-laden cans of beans, a couple of loaves of bread (Wonder Bread, if you want to know) on his dust-laden shelves, a few old quarts of milk and an ice chest full of tonic (now called soda, even by New Englanders) and a few other odds and ends that did not, under any theory of economics, capitalist or Marxist, add up to a thriving business ethos. Unless, of course, something else was going on. But what drew Tim to Harry’s was not that stuff anyway. What drew him to Harry’s was, one, his pin ball machine complete with corner boy players and their corner boy ways, and, two, his huge Coca Cola ice chest (now sold as antique curiosities for much money at big-time flea markets and other venues) filled with ice cold, cold tonics (see above), especially the local Robb’s Root Beer that Tim was practically addicted to in those days (and that Harry, kind-hearted Harry, stocked for him).
Many an afternoon, a summer’s afternoon for sure, or an occasional early night, Tim would sip, sip hard on his Robb’s and watch the corner boys play, no sway, sway just right, with that sweet pinball machine, that pin ball machine with the bosomy, lusty-looking, cleavage-showing women pictured on the top glass frame of the machine practically inviting you, and only you the player, on to some secret place if you just put in enough coins. Of course, like many dream-things what those lusty dames really gave you, only you the player, was maybe a few free games. Teasers, right. But Tim had to just watch at first because he was too young (you had to be sixteen to play), however, every once in a while, one of the corner boys who didn’t want to just gouge out his eyes for not being a corner boy, or for no reason at all, would let him cadge a game while Harry was not looking. When he thought about it though, now anyway, Harry was so “connected” (and you know what he meant by that) what the hell did he care if some underage kid, punk kid, cadged a few games and looked at those bosomy babes in the frame.
Yeah, and thinking about Harry’s automatically got Tim thinking about Daniel (nobody ever called him that, ever) “Red” Hickey, the boss king of his schoolboy night at Harry’s. Red, the guy who set the rules, set the style, hell, set the breathing, allowed or not and when, of the place. He didn’t know if Red went to some corner boy school to learn his trade but he was the be-bop daddy (at least all the girls, all the hanging all over him girls, called him that) because he, except for one incident that Tim will mention below, ruled unchallenged with an iron fist. At least Tim never saw his regular corner boys Spike, Lenny, Shawn, Ward, Goof (yes, that was his name the only name Tim knew him by, and he liked it, that is Goof like his moniker), Bop (real name William) or the Clipper (real name Kenny, the arch-petty Woolworth’s thief of the group hence the name) challenge him, or want to.
Yeah, Red, old red-headed Red was tough alright, and has a pretty good-sized built but that was not what kept the others in line. It was a certain look he had, a certain look that if Tim went to the trouble of describing it now would go way overboard describing it as some stone-cold killer look, some psycho-killer look but that would be wrong because it didn’t show that way. But that was what it was. Tim thought he had better put it this way. Tommy Thunder, older brother of his junior high and high school best friend and a corner boy king in his own right, Frankie, Francis Xavier Riley, a big bruiser of a legendary North Adamsville football player and human wrecking machine who lived a few doors up from Harry’s went out of his way not to go near the place. See, Red was that tough.
Red was like some general, or colonel or something, an officer at least, and besides being tough, he would “inspect” his troops to see that all and sundry had their “uniform” right. White tee-shirt, full-necked, no vee-neck sissy stuff, no muscle shirt half-naked stuff, straight 100% cotton, American-cottoned, American-textiled, American-produced, ironed, mother-ironed Tim was sure, crisp. One time Goof (sorry that’s all he knew him by, really) had a wrinkled shirt on and Red marched him up the street to his triple-decker cold-water walk-up flat and berated, berated out loud for all to hear, Goof’s mother for letting him out of the house like that. And Red, old Red like all Irish guys sanctified mothers, at least in public, so you can see he meant business on the keeping the uniform right question.
And like some James Dean or Marlon Brando tough guy photo, some motorcycle disdainful, sneering guy photo, each white tee-shirt, or the right sleeve of each white tee-shirt anyway, was rolled up to provide a place, a safe haven, for the ubiquitous package of cigarettes, matches inserted inside its cellophane outer wrapping, Luckies, Chesterfields, Camels, Pall Malls, all unfiltered in defiance of the then beginning incessant cancer drumbeat warnings, for the day’s show of manliness smoking pleasures.
And blue jeans, tight fit, no this scrub-washed, fake-worn stuff, but worn and then discarded worn. No chinos, no punk kid, maybe faux "beatnik," black chinos, un-cuffed, or cuffed like Tim wore, and Frankie, Francis Xavier Riley, king of the faux beatnik junior high school night, including among his devotees Tim, a little too bookish Tim, who was as tough a general, colonel, or some officer anyway, as corner boy Red was with his guys. Frankie example: no cuffs on those black chinos, stay home, or go elsewhere, if you are cuffed. Same kingly manner, right? Corner boys blue-jeaned and wide black-belted, black always, black-belt used as a handy weapon for that off-hand street fight that might erupt out of nowhere, for no reason, or many. Maybe a heavy-duty watch chain, also war-worthy, dangly down from those jeans. Boots, engineer boots, black and buckled, worn summer or winter, heavy, heavy-heeled, spit-shined, another piece of the modern armor for street fight nights. Inspection completed the night’s work lies ahead.
And most nights work, seemingly glamorous to Tim’s little too bookish eyes at the time, was holding up some corner of the brick wall in front or on the side of Harry’s Variety with those engineer boots, one firmly on the ground the other bent against the wall, small talk, small low-tone talk between comrades waiting, waiting for… Or just waiting for their turn at that Harry luscious ladies pictured pinball machine. Protocol, strictly observed, required “General Red” to have first coin in the machine. But see old Red was the master swayer with that damn machine and would rack up free games galore so, usually, he was on that thing for a while.
Hey, Red was so good, although this is not strictly part of the story, that he could have one of his several honeys right in front of him on the machine pressing some buttons and he behind pressing some other buttons Red swaying and his Capri-panted honey, usually some blond, real or imagined, blonde that is depending on the bottle, swaying, and eyes glazing, but he thought he had better let off with that description right now, as he was getting a little glassy-eyed himself at the thought, and because like he said it was strictly speaking not part of the story.
What is part of the story is that Red, when he was in the mood or just bored, or had some business, some girl business, maybe that blond, real or imagined, just mentioned business would after Tim had been hanging around a while, and Red thought he was okay, give him his leftover free games.
Now that was the “innocent” part of Red, the swaying pinball wizard, girl-swaying, inspector general part. But see if you want to be king of the corner boy night you have to show your metal once in a while, if for no other reason than the corner boys, the old time North Adamsville corner boys might be just a little forgetful of who the king hell corner boy was, or as Tim will describe, some other corner boy king of some other variety store night might show up to see what was what.
Tim must have watched the Harry’s corner boy scene for a couple of years, maybe three, the last part just off and on, but he only remembered once when he saw Red show “his colors.” Some guy from Adamsville, some tough-looking guy who, no question, was a corner boy just stopped at Harry’s after tipping a couple, or twenty, at the Dublin Grille. He must have said something to Red, or maybe Red just knew instinctively that he had to show his colors, but all of a sudden these two were chain-whipping each other. No, that’s not quite right, Red was wailing, flailing, nailing, chain-whipping this other guy mercilessly, worst, if that is possible. The guy, after a few minutes, was left in a pool of blood on the street, ambulance ready. And Red just walked way, just kind of sauntering away.
Of course that is not the end of the Red story. Needless to say, no work, no wanna work Red had to have coin, dough, not just for the pinball machine, cigarettes, and soda, hell, that was nothing. But for the up-keep on his Chevy (Chevy then being the “boss” car, and not just among corner boys either), and that stream of ever-loving blond honeys, real or imagined blonde depending on the bottle, he escorted into the seashore night. So said corner boys did their midnight creep around the area grabbing this and that to bring in a little dough. Eventually Red “graduated” to armed robberies when the overhead grew too much for little midnight creeps, and graduated to one of the branches of the state pen, more than once. Strangely, his end came, although Tim only heard about this second hand, after a shoot-out with the cops down South after he tried to rob some White Hen convenience store. There is some kind of moral there, although Tim thought he would be damned if he could figure it out. Red, thanks for those free games though.