, From That Special Place: New World Irish Stories
After my badgering her for weeks, my mother finally agreed to buy me a black leather motorcycle jacket. I was ten years old and believed, with the absolute faith of children, that this article of clothing would solve all of life’s problems for me.
We journeyed together to far-distant Manhattan for the prized jacket. This was not the sort of purchase that Alexander’s, the most prominent Bronx department store, could be entrusted with. Never even mind Bobkoff’s, the cut-rate army and navy store that supplied half the borough with its sartorial needs. We were a working-class family—by today’s measurements, we would be considered poor. So buying such a jacket was a major fiscal undertaking. My mother handled the whole matter with the seriousness that one might approach buying a new car today. Not that I, at ten, knew or cared what it cost. I just wanted that jacket to enter my life and drive out all that was bad.
To acquire the jacket, my mother concluded, it would be necessary to take the subway downtown to Bloomingdale’s, the epitome of upper-class WASP entitlement. This was an intimidating prospect for people of our station in life, and our embarking on this quest I see now as an act of love and devotion on my mother’s part.
It has been one of the burdens of my adult life that my happy memories of my mother seem buried irretrievably beneath the stark and painful recollections I have of the long illness and suffering that preceded her death when I was sixteen and she fifty-five. But I do have some faded happy memories. I remember skipping down the street with her when I was a boy, the two of us singing "here we go loop de loo/ here we go loop de lie." I remember helping her wax the linoleum floors till they gleamed. I remember her singing songs around the house, most of them calling to mind in some way her homesickness for Galway, though she disliked Irish farm life, which she fled in the 1920s for the promise of America, and left the New York City limits rarely and reluctantly.
Her brother Thomas repaired tracks for the New York subway system. Right through college, I could evoke the name "Tommy Flynn" to just about any employee of the subways and they would know immediately whose nephew I was. To distinguish him from his own uncle Tom back in Galway, he was called Thos by everyone in the family, except his wife, my Aunt Tess, who called him Flynn and Flynny, which I always thought was funny and slightly disrespectful of her, but, then again, Aunt Tess was a remarkable and often disrespectful human being.
I’m sorry to say I don’t remember actually being in Bloomingdale’s that day with my mother. What I do remember is sitting in the subway car with her, the two of us looking out the window, it being a sunny, clear day. We sat on those seats that always reminded me of shellacked corn on the cob. The train was still on the el tracks before going underground, when she nudged me and said, “There’s your Uncle Thos. Give him a wave.” As the train whizzed by, my uncle saluted us, and my mother and I waved to him, the entire exchange taking but a moment. It’s one of those vivid moments that play over and over in my mind. My tall, lean, handsome uncle standing on the tracks, a universe away from Coorheen in Galway, giving his sister and nephew a smile and a wave as we rushed by on the IRT. Sweat shone on his arms, a handkerchief was tied around his neck, his pipe was stuck in his mouth. He smoked until a few years before he died, and I always loved the smell of his pipe. I credit him as a big influence in my own addiction to tobacco. I think he was holding a sledge hammer that day on the tracks. Brother and sister, so far from home, speeding past each other on the elevated train system of New York, not a green field in sight, nor a pig or a cow (at least as far as I knew) anywhere in the vicinity. That remembered scene has more voltage for me than a hundred videos about the Irish in America.
The coat itself measured up in every way to my ideal: it was buttery soft and sported about twenty zippered pockets. I found out only recently that my brother apparently resented my getting the coat, and had to settle for imitation leather himself, the family coat fund having been no doubt seriously depleted by the purchase of my black leather beauty. I feel bad about that now, but back then it was every man for himself.
I don’t think I went into Bloomingdale’s again until around 1980, when the band was hired to join a number of other Irish musicians in providing entertainment for the gala opening of the store’s huge marketing campaign to sell Irish-made products. The name of the campaign, announced via a giant banner that covered half the building’s facade, was “Ireland—That Special Place.” We musicians were placed around the store to add a bit of picturesqueness to the event, which featured big-name guests like the Irish ambassador and Hugh Carey, then the recent ex-governor of New York.
I remember that a representative of our record label was on hand, a large, needy soul always in search of approval. She was on edge, and I told her to take a Valium. "Do you have any?" she asked with urgent hopefulness bordering on desperation. I looked in my band bag, and sure enough, there was Valium. The others in the group joke that I could make house calls, I lug around so much in the way of medicinal products. But my feeling is that pain is bad, can strike at any time, and it’s best to be prepared. I gave her the pill, and an extra for later, and she was happy, if only very briefly.
Meanwhile, the rest of the musicians were guzzling the free drink and gobbling the free food, at first discreetly, but later with abandon. One old friend, but a mean drunk, slithered up to me at one point and hissed, "You’re a snake." I’ll never forget the venom he sent my way. The next day I asked him what he could possibly have been thinking, since I’d never done him a bad turn, but he said he had no memory of the incident, and apologized. Before the night was over, he smashed his guitar on the street, I guess so they could be smashed together.
But it was the inimitable fiddler Brendan Mulvihill who, in my opinion, displayed the most imagination and daring that night, as the event was winding down. Somehow managing to not attract the attention of the security guards and store staff who were patrolling the premises, Brendan crept up to a vignette featuring four life-size mannequins in a fake horse-drawn cart, and re-arranged the figures into obscene positions, with one male mannequin’s head disappearing under the dress of a female dummy, and another female nosing the fly of her partner. We all had fun that night, but the dummies had the most. Brendan moved the entire cart to a very conspicuous spot in front of an elevator, so that it would be the first thing seen by anyone getting off on that floor the next day.
I once ate a spoonful of my Uncle Thos’s pipe tobacco. I hereby recommend smoking tobacco over eating it. I also bought a little pipe when I was eight and began experimenting with smoking, in preparation for taking up the habit full-time at thirteen. My uncle told me that during hard times in Ireland, they would sometimes smoke tea, and so I tried that too. I recommend drinking it over smoking it.
I don’t remember what became of my motorcycle jacket. Such a prized item would certainly have had an extended life. I suspect my mother sent it to Ireland when I outgrew it. My family in Ireland tells me that my parents were always very generous and helpful through the years. In 1997, I visited my Auntie Nora, the last of my mother’s siblings, who was then 86. She lived in Kilchreest, not far from where she and my mother were born. I asked her what my parents sent over in the old days.
"Wonderful things," she says. "Wonderful Yank things."
"Like what?" I ask. She thinks for a moment.
"Frocks," she replies. "Lovely frocks. The box would come and be filled with them." They used to fight, she says, over the wonderful clothes from America sent by my mother, the likes of which you couldn’t get even in Dublin. She says she doesn’t remember a black motorcycle jacket.