Saturday, December 19, 2009

A (War On) Christmas Carol - Pt VII

"Jackie, me boyo, let me tell you something. If ye want ta make it in America, ye're gonna half ta be better than anyone else around ye!" The blustery fat old man with the ruddy cheeks said to John Hughes. "No one likes us Irish, they think we smell and that we're drunks and hot tempered. And we're Catholic in a Protestant country. They don't trust us, think we're all spies fer the Vatican. We hold services in Latin, and they're afraid we'll be having them speak Latin if we ever get a chance."

The ruddy man laughed a belly laugh that shook the room. "So Mort, ye take care on th' streets! And don't be making time with no Eyetalian girl, eh, boyo? Ye fook 'em, en' marry an American girl, er an Englishwoman, got it?"

The streets of New York were filled with poor people, all struggling in the first throes of the Great Depression. Men forced to abandon their families to find work, or even just to survive for themselves. On nearly every street corner was a beggar. Or a floozy. Nobody stuck their necks out to help anyone else. Why should they? Hoover had asked big corporations to take one for the team, and they agreed, grudgingly, to try to hold onto more workers or lower prices, but ultimately greed got the better of them, and they laid men off in droves, hiring no one. And everyone looked for a scapegoat.

Women had it the worst of all. You could almost peer into their kitchens as they sat there, preparing food nearly every minute of every day, when they weren't scraping dirt off the floors or nursing a sickly child or washing clothes. And that was after they'd come home from housekeeping some other family's home for pennies a day, and being yelled at because the sheets weren't clean enough and the food wasn't fresh enough, and being manhandled by the man of the house when the wife wasn't looking, knowing they couldn't say anything about it or they'd get fired, so the hands could roam up the shirts and fondle and squeeze nipples or up the skirt for the womanly parts of a servant. And god forbid the man had a drink or two and caught her in the linen closet!

So why would an ordinary Joe go out of his way to help his fellow man, who'd be as likely to stab him in the back for a crust of bread as to thank him? 

"Especially the Irish," bellowed a street corner philosopher. John could hear him. They always made a point of speaking loud enough so all the families on the block could hear them. They stood there, goons on either side, and preached the most disgusting hate imaginable, about the filthy Mick immigrants, and the "shiftless niggers" who took all the jobs no one else would do. And they made sure they were heard by the people they hated. If it drove even one “sub-human” away, they'd done their jobs.

The Irish couldn't catch a break. Yes, things were better now than they were in the 19th Century, sure. An Irishman could walk down the streets without being in danger of his life. And to be sure, it could have been worse. They could have been Jews, and really have had people look down on them, but the simple fact is they were still different even if they were running the fire department and police department and picked up the garbage and drove the cabs and the trains. They were still drones, blue collar workers. 

And there weren't anymore signs saying "Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply", but that was more because there were just no jobs to be had. Oh sure, there was some help arriving. Governor Roosevelt had made stabs at trying to prop up the jobs market, but Mayor Walker seemed to not give a hoot that people were dying in his streets. And an Irishman to boot! It didn't help the Irish much that he was a boozer and a womanizer, so bad that the Cardinal had to denounce a fellow Irisher. No, no help at all.

Even Christmas got darker and uglier as he grew up. When he was a wee lad, he recalled that his mum, God rest her soul, and dad would take him to the pub on Christmas day, and they'd spend hours there, singing songs, greeting relations and friends, and then going around to different homes to savor foods and drink, and meet people. Now, it was church. Only mass. And home. And quiet. All too poor. All too troubled. All too grown up.

John Hughes took all this in across the course of his childhood, and as he grew up and watched his dad go from a jolly elf of a man, ruddy-cheeked and larger-than-life to a withered, bitter old man who counted every penny and cried foul anytime he thought anyone was cheating him, even if he made it up most of the time. He vowed his kid would get better from him than he got from his dad.

Ian turned to Ed. "Do ye see that? The poor Irish. Someone always had it in fer us, no matter how good things were. We were th' scratching post of America. So were th' Poles. And th' blacks. And th' Italians. And th' Jews..."

And with that, Ed flopped out of his armchair, half standing, half crouched in a bundle, as if he had been slapped in the face.