It is the fall of 1961. I am with my father. He has returned to his homeland for the first time after thirty-five years in America. The two of us stand silently under a sullen Irish sky in the high, dry grass among the fallen stones of the old country farm house in County Sligo where he was born and raised. He is quiet for a long time, shakes his head, and then leads me down a deserted dirt road and says, “You see that crossroads there, Mick? Oh, the life that used to be had there of a Sunday morning after Mass, the boys and girls, the fun, the flipping of coins, the laughter and the gambling, and my own father among them. The good times…all gone.”
Those good times my father recalled were not good enough to keep him in the land of his birth. In 1928, one year before the depression, at age 22, he boarded a boat that landed him in New York City where he spent the rest of his life. The woman he married, my mother, Mamie Gallagher, had arrived in New York one year before him. At age 16, she was the oldest of five children when she left her family’s small farm in County Leitrim and said good-bye forever. She never saw her parents again.
My father was an Irish fiddler. My mother sang songs with a beautiful, soft, operatic voice. They were the life of every gathering they went to, and they threw many a party themselves. When I think about them and the Bronx apartment where they raised my brother, sister and me all those years ago, I think first about those parties.
It is a Saturday morning in the early 1950’s and Mom and Pop start to move the couch, chairs and table from the living room into the “kids'” bedroom. They then get down on their knees in the living room and begin the ritual that truly signals a night of music and dancing. They roll up the rug. With grunts and pushes and lots of, “Easy does it there!” they hoist the big, well-worn, maroon rug and banish it to the bedroom for the night. They then rim the bare room with bridge chairs rented for the occasion, and the room is transformed into a dance hall.
Later, my mother shops for a big ham, cold cuts, all manner of potato and macaroni salads and coleslaw from the German delicatessen. At the Jewish bakery she buys several loaves of rye bread, marble cake and cookies. The local beer distributor sends over a keg of beer that is hauled up the five flights of stairs and set up in the kitchen sink. Bottles of Four Roses and Canadian Club whiskey stand on the kitchen table ready to be mixed later with ginger ale for “high balls.”
By evening the men and women arrive decked out in their best. The women all heavily lipsticked, perfumed, powdered and corseted into dresses dotted with rhinestones. The men in starched white shirts with wide ties tightly knotted, their faces shiny, clean-shaven and smiling. Their big, hard, hamfisted, laboring-man hands extend in greeting and often enough crush a dollar bill into the little hand of the boy who carries their coats and fedoras off to the kids’ room.
My uncle John, a bartender at the local Leo Sullivan’s Saloon, serves the drinks and before long my father, wearing a red and yellow bow tie, takes his seat next to Mike Ryan, the accordionist, and they strike up the first dance of the evening. It is always the same lilting tune: “The Stack of Barley” — the original Irish tune that gave bath to America’s “Turkey in the Straw.” At once, men and women are up on the little improvised dance floor swinging each other, laughing, dancing and whooping. They stomp the bare floor of our little living room while others stand around clapping their hands, tapping their feet, shouting encouragement. My father’s elbow gyrates madly on the fiddle, his left foot tapping the floor to the driving rhythm of the music. Highland flings lead into an Irish hopped-up version of the “Verse of Vienna,” followed by set dances and old time waltzes. And one special night, as the fiddle and accordion music floated out the window onto the steamy night air, my Aunt Margaret, in a pink dress, her curly blond hair pried high on her head, led the entire crowd around every room of the apartment in a conga line that went on forever.
As the evening gets later, they settle down to sing. Happily crammed together into our little Bronx apartment, these country people — now transformed into hard-working New Yorkers — begin to recall the quiet beauties of the land they left behind. They sing of the valleys, streams, and meadows of their youth: “Come by the Hills to the Land where fancy is free, and stand where the peaks meet the sky and the lark meets the sea.” Then my mother sings, “Last night I had a pleasant dream, I woke up with a smile. I dreamt that I was home again in dear ole Erin’s Isle.” For many of the people in the room, going home again to Ireland remained only a dream.
They sing funny songs too about Eliza’s two big feet and of Paddy McGinty’s Goat — famous for eating up all of Kate’s “folderols” upon her wedding night. And then, always towards the end, my mother and father sing “their” song together, she sitting in her chair, he standing beside her, his ann on her shoulder, the roomful of friends in rapt attention.
“When you and I were seventeen,
Life was but a dream
The world was just a field of green
And you my charming queen.
Oh, do you recall
When love was all
And we were seventeen?”
At times like this I’d wish that the clock stood still and tomorrow would never come, that the lights would never go out, nobody would ever go home, and everything would stay like this forever.
But, of course, it never did.
The neighborhood where I was born and raised during the 1940’s and 50’s was known as Highbridge, after the aqueduct-like footbridge that spans the Harlem River from the Bronx to Washington Heights. It was a small neighborhood, only about ten blocks long and six blocks wide set atop a high bluff with the natural boundary of the river on the west, the Jerome Avenue elevated subway on the east and Yankee Stadium to the south. It had the feel of a small village about it. A few wooden houses with picket fences from an earlier generation were still yoked together on some leafy streets, but most of the buildings were five and six story apartment houses constructed in the 1930’s. In my day, the people who lived there were mostly Irish and Jewish.
Most of the Irish who lived in Highbridge had come to America in the 1920’s in a wave of immigration after Ireland gained independence. Like my own mother and father, these Irishmen and women were mostly from farms in the west of Ireland, from the counties of Galway, Mayo, Clare, Roscommon, Longford, Cavan, Kerry, Leitrim, Donegal, and Sligo.
They gave birth to a generation of Irish Americans during and after World War II who saw the South Bronx as a great place to be raised but not a great place to stay. We sons and daughters of these immigrants always knew we would leave Highbridge one day. The urge implanted in us to move “up” meant moving “out.” I moved out in 1962 to join the U.S. Navy and never came back.
As we departed, the new immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Africa, the West Indies, and African Americans from the South came seeking the same passage to America that our parents made a generation before. But this was a time when the epidemic of drags was taking root and infesting neighborhoods all over the city. Highbridge was hit particularly hard by the scourge of heroin and crack, and by the 1980’s, the 44th police precinct had the highest crime rate in the entire city.
Over the years, after I left, I’d drive through the old neighborhood on occasion and I’d usually come away with a heavy heart. The sense of village had vanished. Apartment houses on Woodycrest Avenue that used to sing with the life of bustling Irish families had become burnt-out tombs. The neighborhood library on Shakespeare Avenue appeared sealed over like a war-torn bunker with protected fences. And although the church of Sacred Heart still stood like a mighty fortress in faded white splendor, it was now locked shut after morning Mass.
As time passed, I began to realize that Highbridge owned a part of me I could not fully explain. And so, I came back to the old neighborhood. I now teach English at Bronx Community College, only blocks away from where I was born and raised.
Although it is slowly emerging from the dark days of the 1980’s, Highbridge is still a changed place from what I knew as a boy and I’ve learned you can never really go home again. As a son of immigrants in this community I have come full circle to become an older teacher to the new immigrants. Along the way I have discovered that in spite of all the changes and differences, much is still the same here. This little corner of the Bronx is, after all, part of the long and on-going story of America.
Leocadia Rodriguez, a student, age 28, lives on the same block where I was born and raised. She writes about the day she arrived alone in America from the Dominican Republic as a 16-year-old girl, hopeful one day to become a nurse but fearful about her prospects. I read this and see my own mother who also arrived in New York as a teenager and registered in high school with the hope of becoming a nurse. During the depression she struggled just to survive and sent whatever meager money she made back home to Ireland to help bring her brother and sister over to America to join her. In the years to come she went on to live a long and triumphant life in New York City, but she never did finish those courses to become a nurse. Maybe Leocadia Rodriguez will. ♦