Tenement Tales of New York
James William Sullivan
reviewed by Mick Mykola Dementiuk
“Pat Murphy, boy of eight years, whose clothes were dirty, whose hair was tousled, face smudged, and hands blackened…” Thus begins Tenement Tales of New York, an out-of-print book, published in 1895, and whom we have to thank Ephemeral New York for bringing it to our attention.
I enjoyed reading this book of tales; it brought old New York to my touch and grasp. Such as Slob Murphy, the rowdy boy of New York streets in the late 1880-90s, who injures his hand and is at death’s door as a result. He has remorse for all the street fighting and shenanigans he’s done over his short years and seeing a vision of his dead mother, says the Lord’s Prayer and passes away. A bit maudlin but I suppose that fits in with the time. His friends and acquaintances sadly look upon his passing, till someone says, " Wot's dey a-goin to do wit' his old cloze ? " Each hungry for getting something or other to take care of them; a shrug at the dead boy. Meanwhile his father, who is angry, but dares any police office to get at his son’s dead body. He speaks with a typical Irish accent, reminiscent of Charles Dickens characters, declaiming, avowing, and swearing. In a way, it sounds like a pleasant blarney which we no longer hear in these parts. (Oh, how New York has changed…) We follow the funeral procession to a solemn burial and what else? his father ends up dead drunk, and life in New York goes on…
In another tale, Minnie Kelsey’s Wedding, a girl sits in a tenement all bundled up from the chill and looking out a window. “(D)oors slamming, children wailing, women scolding, boys hallooing, all mingling with the endless clatter of kitchen labors.” She had arrived in the city expecting a very different life but very quickly was trapped in its poverty and go-nowhere existence, nothing but a factory girl working day after day at the same tedious labor. Still, she has friends who invite her to attend a ball, and though she isn’t sure of going she says yes. At the ball she sees the man of her dreams. At first she intimidated when she hears other gossiping about his fiery nature and that he has a different girl every weekend. But alone with her the two-timing man proposes… A schmaltzy story, still with the rest of the tales in the book it fits right in.
Cohen’s Figure is about a sewing machine operator, a boring lackluster job, but which has been done for countless year after year, while Luigi Barbieri concerns a new Italian merchant at Mott Street fruit emporium, who arranges every fruit on his stand but still can’t get any customers, just a few. “If he could but learn to speak fluently to the Americans, like his padrone, he might some day become a man of influence himself. He might even aspire to an East Side grocery store, with a stock of Italian goods.” He helps a little girl from getting run over by a truck and he himself is struck down. The only tears someone sheds is the vague obituary "I wonder what killed off the last one — laziness or bad whisky?"
Leather’s Banishment is about a boy pick-pocketing a woman on the subway and disappearing with her screaming behind him; he’s done this countless times and will do it again. In Not Yet dreamer Ivan, whose always dreaming of ‘castles in Spain’ reads the paper and takes the subway each morning to work, where he labors before his sewing machine and reads reports from Russia and Germany. At work it’s payday and suddenly he feels cheated, being fined for a ruined jacket collar which did didn’t do. Is outraged by the injustice but what can he do? He sinks back into his socialist dreams of the future where the world is all right and fair. Instead “…from the open doorways of the tenements, and falling into the broken lines of passers- by hurrying along on the sidewalks, were poor-looking work-people,— men, women, children.”
While in A Young Desperado a rich 7 year old boy accidentally wanders into the poor neighborhood where the poor kids attack him. He meets other boys; one takes him around the city, on buses and cars and tells him that he eats about once a week. Teaches him the way of the streets...
These different tales about immigrant life in New York City in the 1890s show that the city is always throbbing and booming, and always one step ahead of everybody. In many of the stories we get glimpses of what it was like among the poor folk. What this book does is bring the street life into clear focus and vision, the different crowds, the traffic on the street, the rubbish, the debris and the countless other little things which were a part of living in New York, uptown, downtown, the poor are everywhere, East Sire, West Side, all around the town…so to speak. Still, I enjoyed it very much; captures the mood of New York and how it was so very long ago. As it is drastically changing now it has been constantly changing on and on…
An aside: Though I very much liked reading this there is a more recent book about New York in the early 1900s The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker A book that will certainly set your old New York imagination spinning. A grand book!