An excerpt from:
EXILE ON BRIDGE STREET (March 2016)
by Eamon Loingsigh
or The Death of a Gypsy
January 1917 and the bite is murderous. The whipping wind whistles off the water where under the bridges we bundle, hands covering ears. The sky is as hard-looking as the cement under our feet, and the same color too. Broken only by the Brooklyn Bridge above us, that sky over the city is as mean and thoughtless as some of the men that show hungry on the docks looking for a day’s wage. Same look in the gray eyes of them.
From inside the tenement walls come skirling flue pipes wheezing in the gales, and glims of light flash through crevices as if the tenements whelmed with many families were out to sea rudderless. Children bunch in front of the coal fire and the pot belly stove, if they have it. In memories, and the bones of our memories where reside the unconscious thoughts and recognitions in the marrow is a feeling where remembrances are signaled when our bellies rattle with the hunger and when the weather attacks the skin. It is a silent song that voices rarely dare to share, and no one cares to disturb the silence of it, for it is no more than a cognizance in our blood. But we all know it as it truly is; the past speaking to us. Coming out in our eyes and our need for fight. We know, even as most stories were withheld us due to the shame of our caste, we know of and are haunted in the mind’s eye of our fathers and our mothers and theirs, the elements hard on our bodies and the hollow yearn for alimentation. Evicted from the land. Evicted from our community and the closeness for which our people so long had found strength.
Remember in us the scalps dug in the onset of winter under some stray hill a few miles from the icy Shannon. And the scalpeens and lean-tos of the shanty emigrants of Jackson Hollow south of the Navy Yard here in Brooklyn. The seasons of cholera and yellow fever that swept through Irishtown from the human cargo dumped on the shoreline, amassed there. And those shoeless and gaunt in Darby’s Patch before Warren street was ever paved and before Dinny Meehan, our leader, had come to it.
Unsaid. Simply known, we work in the wintry conditions and the empty air that strips the body to a barrenness where survival is top of mind. Just how we like it. I am sixteen years of age and with two bailhooks, I dig into the work. Piercing wheat sacks. Picking them up with my back and legs and thrusting them up into a traincar shadowed by the long torso of a transport steamer. Dinny Meehan working right alongside us, watching over us and reminding us that in this work we live. Down here. Below the Anglo ascendency and his laws, forever. Forever reminding us where we come from. Forever living by the underbellies of ships, outside in the weather, with memories remembered only in the distance of our blood.
After a word with Dinny, the pavee fighter Tommy Tuohey heads south alone. A man of any and all weather, Tommy strides down Columbia Street. Down Furman Street where to the right is the shit-green New York Harbor, left and above him is the bluff that separates the Brooklyn waterfront from the old Dutch and English mansions of another time, now divided and subdivided for the peasants and the newly arrived. He walks. Passed the old Penny Bridge on Montague street that now brings the workingmen from the street grade above to the warehouse and pierhouse roofs below to the blacked out area where the ships let off and the gangs that take to their ways there.
Of course, Tommy knows nothing of such histories for he lives only in the weather on his skin. A free man who lives in the love of the company of others and in the contests of will
and individual struggle, ignorant by nature and by choice of the constructs of the settled people and seeks only work for his next meal and drink and talk. Tommy Tuohey is walking toward his death now, and turns on Imlay Street in the morning air, an emissary for the gang run by Dinny Meehan from Bridge street in old Irishtown, The White Hand. He is going to die, for Bill Lovett and his followers have decided on the dawning of this day to take Red Hook and to strike out on their own.
A late-night drizzle had turned much of the sidewalks to sheets of ice and men walk gingerly with their legs opened, hands on wood fences and brick walls for balance along the two giant masonry buildings owned by the New York Dock Company. Not many of the men in Red Hook own gloves or winter-wear in general and instead stand round donning the same coats they wore at summer, but with long underwear underneath and vest and hat, hopping in place. The breath that come out of their mass gives them the appearance of ranging cattle and heads of beef. Awaiting the line to be called for to pick men to unload, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder patting down their own upper arms like cows swatting away flies dumbly.
Walking through their gaggle, Tommy Tuohey looks up and points at the barge just dragged up off the Imlay bulkhead, “Who dat spakin’ widda captain?”
“Darby Leighton,” says a man Tommy doesn’t recognize.
A tug driver and his son look to Tommy, then turn their backs. The father rushing his son back onboard with a hand under his elbow and quick he is to the throttle and the river.
“Dat right?” Tommy says looking up to Leighton who’d been banished from the gang since 1913.
“Ya scared?” says another man.
“Scared o’ what?”
“Scared? Are ya scared?”
“I’m not scared of a damn thing. Kinda question’s this, ye feckin’ sausage?”
Among the horseshoe shape of longshoremen gathered underneath the ship on the Red Hook docks Bill Lovett turns round, his ears red and splayed off his head, cheeks rosy in the biting wind. Many others turn toward Tommy Tuohey too as he approaches. Next to Lovett is the teenager Richie Lonergan who leans on his one good leg, the peg of his other is there for balance only.
“Da hell goin’ on here Bill?” Tommy says, the big gray motile sky churning like the current of the bottom of the ocean, swaying the obscure clouds. And moaning like great dinosaurs in the waterway distance are barge horns, and the hoo-hooing of tug whistles mingles with the ca-click, ca-click, ca-click of elevated trains inland. As Tuohey stands over Lovett, the labormen envelop them in the fighter’s circle
Lovett reaches behind him and pulls from the back of his trousers a .45 and puts it on the chest of Lonergan, who looks at the gun in his hand and pulls back the hammer as naturally as a boy and his toy. And from the cold morning comes a sharp clapping blast that would divide the soldiers of the dawn into two factions just as the Anglo above them all had hoped, conquering the natives again. Starving out their communal ways so as to splice their souls and throw their ethnic bonds and ancient codes into a great and inner strife.