Saturday, February 8, 2014

Tenement Tales of New York

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!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Raiding The Sanctuary

Raiding the Sanctuary
Redcatchers in Cambodia, May 12th-June 25th, 1970

by Robert J. Gouge

reviewed by Mick Mykola Dementiuk

     In thinking of writing this review I quickly realized how little I know about one of the main characters Ihor Dopiwka, whose jangled voice, one of many, echoes throughout its pages. I knew Ihor back in grade school for maybe seven, eight years, fifty years ago, when afterwards we quickly lost contact with each other and went our separate ways. Adulthood was upon us, holding a job, getting a girlfriend, playing out our adult responsibilities, like being married, raising kids, or else going off to war. Ihor went to war and fought; I stayed home and demonstrated against it. Two paths were taken, two opposite lives were being lived.
      This book is about one segment of the Vietnam War, America’s secret invasion of Cambodia May-June 1970, but to me the book is about one soldier in its ranks, Ihor Dopiwka, E/5-12, of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, a young man with whom I went to grade school. Ihor found me on the Internet and I instantly responded. It’s a miracle he didn’t get killed, as so many with him did in battle, but who had something I didn’t have: the courage to leave his home behind and go off to fight a war.
     Because the closest I ever came to the Vietnam War (1961-73) was in going to see the movie Apocalypse Now (1979) in my usual drunken state. Man, was that film totally weird but in a way was awesomely great! I saw it a few times afterwards, trailing the complicated story of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) as he followed the trail through Vietnam and Cambodia, going after the elusive American renegade/officer Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who even the American military wanted dead. This almost existential portrayal of the characters had me imagining Vietnam couldn’t be such bad place to be in, deadly and dangerous for certain, but morbidly seductive. Now who wouldn’t want to be in a Saigon hotel room drinking and fighting your own demons as Willard was doing in the beginning of the film? What valor, what pride, what bravado! Buaoh! (Throwing up…) Shaking my head, I think, “What drunken idiocy…”
     I spent most of the Vietnam War years drunk and inebriated, having successfully beaten the draft and once in a while going to an anti-war demonstration while trying to pick up a cute demonstrating girl. But to little or no avail. No War meant the same as No Pussy. I did see Ihor at one time as I marched on Fifth Avenue screaming/chanting at the blasé crowds sneering at us. Ihor stood looking at me, shaking his head, “Nicky, Nicky…” he muttered (using my childhood name); I instantly recognized him but just lowered my head, trying to disappear in the protesting crowd.
     The years went by; I graduated from college, cleaned my act up and struggled at becoming a writer. Yet being a writer was a snap, but still no publisher cared with what I had written, the manuscripts simply kept going out and just as easily they were returned. Time passed, new wars started, new demonstrations began same as it ever was. It didn’t matter whether I was old or young the angry world did what it wanted to do. Eventually, I did make a tiny headway into the publishing world and won the Lambda Award/Bisexual Fiction for my novel Holy Communion, which was about a young boy going through his religious ceremony at the innocent age of seven, an age when Ihor and I would’ve been, when we were just still obedient classmates.
     Ihor and I spent one summer together marauding on his street, 9th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue, playing tag, hide ‘n seek, stickball, if we could manage that since they were digging up his street for pipes changes. After the workers were gone in the evening, the mass of holes on the street must have looked like the foxholes of Ihor’s inquisitive imagination, a reality of his foreboding future, a reality that was now quickly approaching. On the street with Ihor lived other classmates, Bohdan, Zenon, Jaroslaw, and many others. We lived in a neighborhood which was crowded with other Ukrainians, 6th Street, 7th Street (where our church and school were), 8th Street, 9th Street, that if you went up or down a block someone would be there who knew you simply by your nationality; I myself lived with my parents on 13th Street, we weren’t that much far away from the Ukrainian community, still sort of living on the edge, you might say. Still, I played with Ihor and his buddies most every chance I got.
    But the years came and went and we shuffled in different directions, other high schools, other girlfriends, other interests and goals. This was the late 1960s and a new explosive world was beckoning, calling to us from different directions. Hair was getting longer, skirts were rising higher and higher, and Love was everywhere in the air.
     Since the draft was close upon him I suppose Ihor joined the military, as I’m sure many of the boys in the neighborhood were doing. I myself had drifted to California, joining the new Haight-Ashbury Hippies movement. Ihor went through boot camp and found himself with other new soldiers “in the hellhole of the world” (as it was called in Apocalypse Now), the country of Vietnam, with constant helicopters going chuck a chuck a chuck a chuck… 

“(With) a unique mixture of whites, blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics, the average age of the combat infantryman in Charlie (Company) was 20.5 years old. Nearly all had graduated from high school and a substantial number of them had earned college credit or had attended trade-schools before being drafted. Several of the “older” men were four-year college graduates.”

     Really, no different from the rest of American young society…
     Ihor’s service with the Redcatchers was as a sniper, hiding in the bush and firing at an unsuspecting Viet Cong, while still going through the turmoil of the rest of his men, waging in a constant battle they were under.
     This book Raiding The Sanctuary, is dated as May12th-June 25th, 1970 when they killed scores of enemy soldiers but themselves lost countless close friends and comrades.   
     I don’t know if Ihor continued serving with the Army afterwards or whether he himself was wounded in battle. All I can say after so many, many years, “It’s great that my friend, Ihor Dopiwka, is still alive!”