Stories I Tell to Friends

BowesFather

1.

Lois and I have a brother/sister relationship (we agree that Lois is the brother) and after a long friendship we both feel we know all about each other. So one day last fall she says, “As a kid I had a crush on Captain Kangaroo. It was the mustache and the uniform.” And I’m not surprised. Between the reign of Howdy Doody and the rise of Sesame Street the Captain was the idol of small kids.

He appeared when I was maybe twelve and too old for his charms. In fact he seemed pretty fucking stupid with his singing puppets and all. Lois is six years younger and obviously felt differently.

Then she tells me, “Maybe around 1987 he and I got it on. I met him in a bar out in the Hamptons. The mustache wasn’t the same and he wasn’t dressed as the Captain which was disappointing. But I imagined him wearing the uniform. He could still do the voice and I made him call me Mr Greenjeans like that guy on the show. He was staying in someone’s guest house that weekend and it was in no way great. The kick came when I told my younger sister who’s still sentimental about him what happened.”

Then Lois says, “I figured you’d know how it is with uniforms. There was that cop boyfriend and that sexy West Indian guard.”

This bothers me. I’d actually loved those guys up to a point. Also I realize childhood and fitting in has been on my mind. So I say, “My time with uniforms was when I was little: firemen first, then cops.”

She’s interested and I tell her this story.

2.

My earliest memory of uniforms is from when I was maybe three or four, my mother was this disenchanted actress and my father was a young WW2 vet. We were living in Jamaica Plain in Boston in Fordham Court, an old horseshoe shaped apartment house on South Street. One night I awoke and my mother was taking my pajamas off and putting me in clothes.

A fire had broken out a bit further down the horseshoe and everyone was being evacuated. A young fireman came in, huge in his hat and boots and coat and looking very serious. He lifted me up, climbed out a window, carried me down the fire escape, handed me back to my parents, said I was a great kid and headed back up the stairs.

The night was full of the sounds of breaking glass and the grinding noise of ladders rising. I watched the firemen and especially the one who carried me. Because of him I wasn’t afraid.

They put the fire out but my mother and I were in a taxi headed for her mother’s house over in Dorchester. We passed the Franklin Park Zoo and up on a hill was the giraffe house, with the two giraffes out and their long necks outlined against the moon – like magic. And after that when anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I’d say a fireman because of that amazing night. Everyone would smile and nod like they approved.

A couple of years later we were living in the D Street Housing Project in South Boston. Built for returning servicemen, the place was tough from the start. My parents weren’t like the other blue collar and no collar people. I had a little brother now. My mother was not happy there. My father had been in the theater too and then the war and was not happy in general.

Maybe I was six, standing one day with other kids from the Projects on the sidewalk on D Street. The kids and I weren’t real close. I was too different. All of a sudden this police car pulled up and two cops got out. The kids were street-wise enough to back away and watch me get arrested.

The cops were my uncle Bill, one of my mother’s brothers, and his partner Casey. “We heard you wanted to be a fireman,” my uncle said and I nodded. He frowned his disapproval as did Casey. “Now why would you want to do that,” he asked. And I explained about burning houses and climbing up and down fire escapes and all the flashing lights and wonderful noise they made roaring through the streets.

Bill nodded and Casey got into their car, turned on the siren and red lights on the roof. “Just as good as a fire engine,” my uncle said and I wanted to argue but was intimidated. “Besides,” my uncle told me, “Firemen don’t go home at night. They live in the station and have to cook their own meals because there’s no one to do it for them.”

“And they don’t get to carry weapons,” said Casey, slipping his police special out of its holster for me to look at. The kids began to creep closer, fascinated.

The gun was madly interesting. But mostly it was the thought of not living at home and having to learn to cook that swayed me. ‘Okay, I’ll be a policeman.’ I said and they rubbed my head, patted my back hard and took me across the street for a double scoop ice cream cone with chocolate jimmies.

This could have been a spur of the moment joke: they saw me and thought it would be funny. But my father and all five of my uncles served in the army in WW2. Not a sailor in the family. It was never spelled out but sailors became firemen. And in an Army family the Navy was the enemy. Cops were soldiers. There was a right path and I’d been set on it.

3.

“It’s why you didn’t like Captain Kangaroo,” Lois says when I’ve told my story. We laugh but our conversation sticks with me; not the uniforms but the ways of that city I only visit now for funerals.

It’s still on my mind one snowy February day when my old lover, Georgie, is in New York and stops by. He and I smoke a bit and bounce in my bed a bit to remind ourselves of how we were. Due consideration has to be taken of my arthritis and his bad heart and he says, “The only thing more depressing than an old man is two old men.”

We watch a movie I’d somehow never seen, Bugles Over Broadway: G.I.’s and Hollywood Dames, Times Square 1943.

The sailors and soldiers headed overseas to fight for their country were played by young, unknown actors most of whom stayed unknown after the war. One singer/sailor falls in love with a dancer. Spencer Tracy, the kindly priest at a little church around the corner, marries them.

Women are the big stars, Merman and Grable, Davis and Bankhead, singing, dancing sending the boys off with a tear and a song. My old love and I identify with the dames.

Interspersed are novelty acts and walk-ons by comedians. In a simpler, crueler age, a cross-eyed comic who stutters tries to gain admittance to the USO center and Joan Blondell, guarding the door, asks, “Who sent you, the enemy?”

Then a guy playing a drunk in a top hat and tails suddenly falls down a flight of stairs and the words “Rubber Legs McCoy” come out of me. I’m almost as surprised as Georgie. “A prat artist,” I tell him like this explains something and he frowns his non-comprehension.

The movie ends with the stars and stripes flying and couples dancing and saluting. Georgie asks, “How did you learn about Rubber Legs?”

For a moment I don’t know. Then I remember. “My father and a pal from his theater days talked about him when I was a kid.” Georgie lies back amused waiting for more. And I tell him stuff I hadn’t thought about in over sixty years.

4.

I was maybe nine and we were living in a duplex apartment carved out of an old mansion in this tree-lined, hilly neighborhood, Ashmont in Dorchester. The front room was probably once a parlor. The curved windows had an antique blue tinge. Now it was mostly my father’s office. He was the president of the Boston Teacher’s Union which was fighting for recognition. It’s what he did when he wasn’t teaching.

Most of this I didn’t understand.  But he had a second phone in this office, which was a very big deal in 1953.

The family TV was in that room and I was watching it when my father and his friend Denny Fitzpatrick came in talking. “Jack Durham is the best lighting tech in New England,” said Denny. “But he attended a couple of Party meetings twenty years ago and now he can’t get work. Lee Falk takes the Black List seriously. You look at the comic strips Falk does and know the Phantom and Mandrake vote Republican.”

My father laughed. Back then Boston was full of guys who wrote and drew the comic strips I followed in the Globe and Record American. These same guys also ran theaters. This didn’t seem incredible to a kid. It’s just how things were. Until right then I didn’t realize the Phantom was a Republican. I knew Republicans were bad.

My father said, “Al Capp’s in the same boat as Falk and every single Little Abner character is a good, liberal Democrat. Capp’s got no choice. If his theater hires anyone or books a show with anyone, cast or crew, who’s on The List he’ll be smeared by Joe McCarthy.”

Denny said, “Someone gets shut out of a part because he was a kid pinko and I get hired. Makes me feel bad.”

My father told him, “You’re the best character actor north of Broadway.”

Half listening to this I watched Abbott, the fast talking, conniving straight man and Costello, the fat, confused Fool of God comic, argue with a landlord, a big bald-headed guy in a sleeveless T-shirt. He won’t let them back in their room because they owe something like twenty-seven dollars rent.

Before whimsical characters like Captain Kangaroo, way before educational shows like Sesame Street, children were entertained by over-the-hill burlesque comedians. My father hated TV except when he was watching it. And usually he yelled at me for being indoors instead of outside playing. But he and Denny were quiet and I knew they were watching too.

The set was a block of walk-up apartment houses that I understood was supposed to be New York. “Ah,” Denny murmured, “It’s a grey and desperate world they inhabit.”

Confused and angered by Abbot’s double talk, the landlord made sputtering sounds. “A flubber,” said Denny. The landlord slapped his forehead. “A one palm smack,” he said. The landlord slapped his forehead with both hands then dragged them down his face. “A double palmer and a slow burn,” Denny remarked. “This man knows his business, whoever he is.”

“Every routine, every gag any vaudeville clown ever invented these two steal every Saturday morning,” said my father.  Then he told me, “Get your fat head out of the way.”

Denny right behind me patted my shoulder like it was ok with him that I was there. He and his wife had no children so he actually liked kids. Denny went on to have a fine career hosting local children’s TV shows.

The phone rang and my father picked it up, listened and said, “Next Tuesday night, Central Labor Council. We need a turnout.” Calls like this always came in on a separate phone line. Sometimes the TV sound had to be turned off and my little brother and sisters and I had to be quiet while our father talked. Sometimes he got really happy or very mad. This time it was just him saying mysterious adult stuff I didn’t understand.

Then on screen Stinky the Spoiled Brat appeared and I watched in horror. He was a fat grownup dressed in velvet short pants and jacket, wearing a straw hat with a ribbon and carrying an enormous lollypop: Super Sissy. He sprayed saliva when he talked; cried, jumped up and down when he didn’t get his way.

Though he appeared almost every week, I always managed to forget about Stinky. The invisible audience laughed. But I found him scary. Even at nine I sometimes had to wear shorts and wondered if I’d end up like him.

Maybe that was written on my face, maybe Denny had second sight because he told me, “I know him. He came through with a show when your father and I did summer stock. Offstage he’s okay.”

My father hung up after saying, “I don’t care, EVERYBODY’S got to turn out for this.”

Denny asked, “Remember Joe?” and gestured toward the screen. “He was in that Bert Lahr road show. Lahr’s big obsession was finding some property he could take on the road every summer. Remember him saying, ‘I need to find something classy like Hampden had with that Cir-Ano the Bergerac.”

I didn’t know why but they laughed which was good. “That and money,” said my old man, “Lahr loved to see it come in. He’d sit in the box office before a show, in makeup and out of sight of the customers. He’d count the dough, arrange the bills and look on fondly as I put them in the safe.”

Georgie’s eyes lit up when I mentioned my father and Lahr. Later of course we’d know him as the man who played the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz. But kids our age didn’t know about the movie until it got shown on TV years later.

When Georgie tried to ask questions I shook my head gestured for him to wait. I told him how Denny and my father cracked up and I lost track of Abbott and Costello’s problems. Some guy in a battered high silk hat was coming down the front stairs when suddenly his legs turned to water and he fell flat on his face. Unlike the soundtrack audience I didn’t think this was funny. But it was a weirdly compelling glimpse into the adult world.

“Rubber Legs!” said my father. “He was in that Lahr show too.

“A true and versatile artist,” said Denny. He could do the trip, the slip and the pratfall. But that flat pan he just pulled was his masterpiece: Jimmy ‘Rubber Legs’ McCoy.’

He turned to me and asked, ‘You want to go into show business?’

“No. I’m going to be a policeman.”

“Steady work,” Denny said.

“I promised my Uncle Bill.

Somehow Rubber Legs falling down the stairs seemed to have ended the show. My father noticed the credits rolling and said, “OK you’ve seen enough TV. Go out and play.”

I knew better than to argue. As I left, my father told Denny, ‘McCoy’s another one who won’t be working. It’s amazing how many old hoofers, burlesque comics, even strippers, attended a meeting of the Young Communist League in 1936 and walked right onto some Black List. Old teachers even. It’s bullshit but get too close to that and no one wants to be near you.”

“McCarthy,” said Denny.

After the places we’d lived the duplex seemed huge and rich. The long hall was all dark wood and had a fireplace. There was a fireplace in the living room too. I could hear my little brother and sisters talking, the beagle barking in the backyard.

In the living room of our big and mysterious apartment was an Oz connection. By a bay window, under the stairs to the second floor was an alcove and in it was a player piano with a few old piano rolls. When I lay on the living room carpet listening to the Lone Ranger on the radio, I could look under the piano and see what appeared to be a book.

It was jammed in; poking it with a broom did no good. I couldn’t move the piano by myself and no one was interested in helping. But at a big, noisy family party for a birthday, maybe a christening, two of my mother’s brothers, Bill the cop and Mike who did stuff on the docks in South Boston, both great big guys, were there and quite smashed.

I told them no one was able to move the piano. A challenge: they took one look and hauled it out of the corner as my cousins applauded. I dove for the book which was big, green and a bit warped.

I opened it to a color illustration of a girl and a lion who was crying. Mesmerized, I sat on the stairs looking at the pictures. I’d never heard of The Wizard of Oz. Later I learned the Baum books weren’t approved of. Libraries in Boston didn’t have them.

My uncles shook their heads and pushed the piano back in place, maybe wondering about this nephew who Bill made promise to become a cop.

When I was in my teens, The Wizard of Oz started getting shown on TV. My father pointed out the Cowardly Lion and repeated the story about Lahr’s fondness for money and Cir-Ano. The house where we lived by then I remember as dark and miserable. I’d made some discoveries and each pushed me a bit further from my family, my friends, my city.

5.

“But honey, amidst the misery and despair. God had sent you a sign,” says Georgie, “The Wizard of Oz!” I shake my head and we both laugh. The weather has cleared enough that we go out to eat.

At the Thai restaurant I start to remember another story but know it’s not one Georgie would fully appreciate.

I tell it to Joey a couple of weeks later when he comes to New York to visit his parents and me. We’re friends of long standing. I love him but he’s straight which I find kind of tragic. We sit in the old café on my street and joke about the time we spent a few bad nights in jail. Then I tell him my story.

6.

At the end of ninth grade when I was fourteen, I flunked out of Boys’ Latin. Sex and trauma led to attention problems. Also a lot of my teachers didn’t like my old man and his attempt to unionize. Teachers there were all male and considered themselves professionals not laborers. One told me, “Sadly, your father and you have a lot in common.” I was upset but never told my old man.

The high school my father found for me was nicknamed, “The Country Club”, it was so easygoing and slack. A lot of the teachers were women and loved my father because the union promised to give them the same salary as the men. My first few weeks there, I met a guy, Bobby Mahoney, who was a year ahead of me, more than a year older, bigger and tougher. We became friends.

Bobby thought I was funny, and made me a sort of mascot at first. He and I lived several neighborhoods apart. His father and my father knew each other. Bobby’s father was “Big Bob” Mahoney, Chairman of the Boston Labor Board. He was the man you went to if it involved unions.

Big Bob didn’t believe my father was the right union type and my father blamed him for not supporting the teacher’s union. But neither said anything directly to me and I made a point of not thinking about it.

Since Mrs. Mahoney was always buying stuff, their house was kind of rich. But it was also a wreck because she took all kinds of pills and slept a lot. Big Bob always lay on the furniture with his shoes off and his shirt open, dropping lighted cigarettes and booze on cushions and rugs. He drank a lot, but in Irish Boston circa 1960 that went without saying.

Mrs. Mahoney thought I was polite and wanted Bobby to behave like I did which made him punch me in private. One Saturday late in my junior, his senior year she was away or upstairs passed out. Bobby had lifted some of her Benzedrine and it sang in our ears.

We went through the living room. Big Bob was spread out on the couch with a tall, full glass on the floor beside him, cigarette ashes everywhere, talking on the telephone.

He hung up as we came in and asked where we were going. We said to see Ben Hur. Actually we planned to sneak into Suddenly Last Summer, a picture condemned by the Legion of Decency.

Mahoney gave a look that made you think he’d read your every dirty secret. “Nice life,” he said. “Wish I’d had it that way when I was your age. It wasn’t like now where you go to school and spend the rest of your time watching movies and TV. Things were tight.” He curled his lip. “Leisure was for the rich. People like us had to work.”

Bobby ground his teeth, stared away like he’d heard this many times. “How’s your father?” Mahoney asked me and I said he was fine. Maybe they didn’t get along but my old man handed me the same line as Mahoney.

Both were raising their sons to be the people they hated when they were young. Mine said I had everything he’d wanted at my age. My old man’s father had died when he was fourteen in the depths of the Depression.

“I went to college, you know,” Big Bob said, took a swallow of whiskey barely touched with water. “It wasn’t my grades got me in. I played high school football, receiver and defensive end back when you played the whole game. I got hit in the head a few times playing. Made me stupid.”

He smiled but his eyes dared us to agree. He made a face like he tasted something sour. “After a year or two I get tossed out, bad grades and bad circumstances. I couldn’t see going home.”

“This guy I met, Paletto, knew his way around sports, suggested I try wrestling. ‘It’s all an act,’ he said, ‘like you’re in a movie or something. And dumb fucks will bet on it.'”

“Jackie Paletto, was a sportsman,” said a voice behind us. “I introduced you to him.” I turned. Bobby called his Uncle Frank the family muscle. Frank Mahoney was wider than Big Bob who seemed kind of refined next to him.

“My older brother,” Bob raised a glass. “He came down to Pennsylvania to see me. He and Paletto started poker games on campus, helped get me thrown out.”

“Your ass was already halfway out the door.” Frank, walked over to the bottle, found a glass and poured.

“So I took Mr. Paletto’s advice and went to New York,” said Big Bob. In this office right near Madison Square Garden I tell them about me and football and they like the idea that I’m this All-American type kid.

“And that’s it. They set me up on this tour. There were half a dozen of us going in a bus from town to town. No helmet or cleats in the ring. But they put me in a letter jersey and warm-up pants, all red, white and blue.

“We’d stay in these lousy little hotels and eat at diners. But we got paid. There was a guy supposed to be a cowboy with a big hat and lasso. He’d hogtie opponents which the ref somehow never saw. I’m in the ring with this guy from Hawaii supposed to be a sumo wrestler. Nice enough when he was sober; never hurt anybody on purpose.

“Queer as Aunt Millie’s underwear,” said Frank.

“You found that out?” asked Big Bob and Frank shrugged.

Big Bob said “Then they decided to pair me off with The Kraut. This guy would come down the aisle wearing a Kaiser Wilhelm helmet with the spike on top and everyone’d go crazy booing him.

“He was a nasty fuck. The idea in Wrestling is you don’t hurt the other guy; you just make it look like you do. You have to get along because you’re in the ring together maybe twelve times a week.

“The script was I fight him clean with these All-American moves I’m supposed to know from college. And he’d strangle me with a chain he hid from the ref; all part of the act. Maybe because the crowd’s throwing chairs at him, he hated me. At least once every match, he didn’t pull a punch, stepped on my foot. Name it.”

“You should have told me. I could have taken care of it,” said Frank.

Big Bob didn’t seem to hear. “The guy managing the tours was calling New York, telling them to put one of us on tour somewhere else. But the German and me were the draw so they didn’t.

“One night, in Youngstown out in Ohio, he’d twisted my shoulder the night before and the ref had us together in the center or the ring telling us he wants a fair fight and all this shit like it’s a sporting event. I did some place- kicking in college so I took a step back and booted the Kraut right in the nuts.

“The crowd went crazy. His face turned this purple color I’d never seen anyone get and I thought I killed him. But after a minute the color faded, his eyes were shining. He smiled this insane smile and said, ‘It nien hurt” and came after me. I tried to get out of the ring but he shoved me over the ropes. The customers scattered and I fell on some chairs and broke an arm.”

“But you healed fast,” said Frank. “Pretty soon we found work in the American labor movement.”

Big Bob said. “They needed young guys not afraid to take action against the enemies of the working man. After that, we found ourselves in the Second War to end All Wars. It was like going to confession. We came out of that with our sins forgiven.”

“We was heroes,” said Frank.

Bob looked at Bobby, then at me. “Some stuff you do early just gets classed as youthful indiscretion. Other stuff sticks to you forever.”

“Like a rap sheet,” said Frank.

“Like membership in the Communist Party,” said Bob. “Or having too many friends like that.”

I knew this was aimed at my father and me and I wanted to get away from them.

“I got something I need to talk to you about,” Frank told his little brother. Bobby took that as the moment for us to escape to more Benzedrine and a dirty movie.

A month or so later school was out for summer and Frank Mahoney all sunburned and fucked out of his head gave Bobby and me a ride and told us a story.

“I was at Revere beach and in this bar on the shore was a girl seemed nice, friendly, you know. Nice clothes. I buy her a few drinks and a few more. We go in the water, wading out. We’re in over our waists and I start getting friendly. She gets kind of shy. I’m feeling her up and I grab a handful of grapes. It’s some faggot. So I’m beating the living shit out of him and he’s screaming…”

When we got away from Uncle Frank I asked Bobby, “What was all that?”

“He thinks we’re queers,” Bobby said.

We had fooled around together off and on but now he was scared people would think we were fags. Bobby had graduated from high school and his parents sent him to a place where they’d prep him for college and we didn’t see much of each other after that.

7.

I tell my friend Joey about Bobby and me and add, “When we were in jail that time, it reminded me of my first day in the ‘Country Club.’ Even at age fourteen I knew enough to make friends with the toughest guy in the institution.”

Joey is very much amused. “That time we got busted and it took my family a while to bail us out, I knew you were sizing up the guys. And I started wondering who’d be my daddy.”

But he knows there’s more to the story. It’s one of the things I love about him, and asks, “Did you and Bobby ever get together again?”

“I looked him up a few years ago. Turns out he’s more an outsider than me. Bobby’s on the HIV cocktail living in the Boston suburbs with a partner. We could talk whenever we want but don’t somehow.”

I’m still thinking about this a bit later when Lois asks, “So if it wasn’t the uniforms what was all that stuff with the firemen and cops about?” So I tell her what I think.

8.

They were secret societies. Boston was a small enough place and Irish enough that a kid in trouble with the law who had a relative on the force could tell the cops that. If it checked out they’d let the kid go. Of course they’d contact the relative to give him the information. He’d decide what to do with it.

The summer that I lost my friend Bobby, I acquired new friends and got busted in a gay bar raid. The cops smacked me around but I gave them Uncle Bill’s name and they let me go. I was a bloody mess when I come home. My parents went crazy and practically locked me in the house. But I never told them the truth.

Uncle Bill took me aside at the next family gathering; said I needed to think how hurt my parents would be if they knew. He told me not to let it happen again. I noticed he was careful not to touch me. My parents didn’t find out but if I’d had doubts Boston wasn’t my town the bar raid and Uncle Bill being distant killed them.

That spring, I came home one night well past my curfew, a bit fucked up and expecting trouble. The house was the one I thought of as dark and miserable. My father was waiting for me as pissed off as always. The teachers’ union had already been voted down. Now he told me he’d been denied a raise and would have to look for a teaching job elsewhere. We’d have to move.

“It’s like a door got slammed in my face,” my father said. I remembered long before hearing one teacher ask another why my old man didn’t understand that trying to organize the union was going to get him ridden out of town.

That fall the family moved to the New York suburbs.  Eventually they moved back to the Boston suburbs but by then I was living in Manhattan. My father was now an editor. Later he and my mother wrote textbooks, did well.

At my father’s funeral I thought about Big Bob and Uncle Frank, the teachers and my Uncle Bill the cop, all the ones who couldn’t understand why my father and I didn’t understand we were misfits. By the time my father died their Boston has gone, bulldozed, gentrified, the Irish replaced by new immigrants.

Lois says, “And none but the misfits survive.”

 

BowesCutoutPost3Richard Bowes has published six novels, four short story collections and seventy stories. He has won two World Fantasy Awards, an International Horror Guild and a Million Writer Award. 2013 has been a busy year: Lethe Press published a new Bowes novel Dust Devil on a Quiet Street and republished his 1999 Lambda Award Winning Minions of the Moon. Also out in 2013 is an illustrated book of modern fairy tales, The Queen, the Cambion and Seven Others from Aqueduct and If Angels Fight a career spanning story collection from Fairwood. Recent and forthcoming story appearances include: F&SF, Icarus, Lightspeed, and the anthologies, After, Wilde Stories 2013, Heiresses of Russ 2013, Ghost’s: Recent Hauntings, Handsome Devil, Hauntings, Where Thy Dark Eye Glances, Fiction River, Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations, Best Gay Stories, 2014, Once Upon A Time. The photo heading this story is of Rick’s father, sleeping.