Thursday, April 25, 2019

“A Graceful Man” by William McKitty - 2018 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

“A Graceful Man”


William McKitty

I shared my first taxi ride with my mother and father in late August 1947. At their request, the cab driver circled Ebbets Field, the cathedral of baseball in Brooklyn. I had been born a week earlier in Unity Hospital. My father related the story to me years later. He said it was to order my priorities, but he added he was repeating the story because he didn’t think I was paying attention at the time. 

My father, William Francis Vincent McKitty, was born in New York City in 1906 when horses outnumbered automobiles.  He lived with his parents and an older brother.  His father was a sandhog before there was an OSHA.  Death underground was not infrequent.  My father didn’t speak about it, but family lore had it that his father, Stephen, died in a tunnel implosion.  His older brother, Tom, had just left high school, but to help support the family, my father had to quit in his sophomore year, to get a job.  He never spoke a word of woe about his leaving school.  He did what he would continue to do the rest of his life.  In the face of grinding adversity and loss he soldiered ahead without complaint. 

My father was rooted in his middle class values, his Catholic religion and the Brooklyn Dodgers, not necessarily in that order.  He believed in doing the right thing particularly when no one was watching. His childhood and early teenage years were spent in Hell’s Kitchen, on streets broadly meaner than the worst places in the New York City of 2018.  There was then no societal safety net.  Being economically lower class meant having your face pressed against the cage of the growling beasts of hunger, sickness, homelessness and death, on a daily basis.  The regular succumbing of family or neighbors to these beasts would spotlight the precarious hold on respectability and life itself, that any lower class family would have. A lesser man might have emerged from that crucible of fear a career criminal or a damaged soul.  He might have been petty, selfish, bitter or simply nasty. He was none of those things. My father acknowledged what his childhood was and moved on from it. He worked to achieve the comfort of being solidly middle class for himself but more importantly for his family.

            When I was 2 we moved from south Brooklyn to Farragut Road in Flatbush, indian territory according to my grandfather. From here my father would take me by bus or train to various and usually free spots that a pre-school child would like. He had a policeman friend at the First Precinct, who worked at the stables there for the Police Department. We would stock up on sugar cubes and take the subway to Manhattan. He would catch up with his friend while he held me up horse nose high to feed sugar to the horses. On balmy days, we would take 2 buses to Fort Hamilton in Bayridge. He would smoke Camels, looking out over the bay while I played on a huge pyramid of Civil War cannonballs. It was only years later, I realized how much I learned from him on our trips.  These lessons usually came in the form of talks about baseball, world events or movies. I understood that, “When it’s low and away, go to right” was more than a tip to a right-handed batter, it was also a life lesson about not forcing solutions. He was direct, clear and never over explained. He always conducted himself as a gentleman. He tipped his hat to all women and immediately surrendered all bus or subway seats to them. He was reserved, soft-spoken and impeccably polite in all weathers. But he was no push over.

In my late teens, I had to go back to St Agnes Church on Sackett St to get a copy of my Baptismal Certificate. My father had to go to the Brooklyn Union Gas Company on Remsen Street, in Brooklyn Heights. 

As we walked down Carroll Street we passed Monte’s restaurant. Monte’s was famous among the initiate for its southern Italian cooking especially the cheesecake. It was also considered neutral territory by the New York mafia types. Across the street from Monte’s was the office of Dr. Gennaro our family doctor and physician to many of the neighborhood mothers and grandmothers of the aforementioned local wise guys. 

He stopped and looked with amusement at the doctor’s office and back to Monte’s.
“A number of years ago the dumbest crook on earth went into Dr. Gennaro’s office, waved a big revolver around, scared the hell out of the women in the waiting room and held up Dr. Gennaro. In those years people paid him cash. Everybody was pretty shook up. Gennaro went across the street to Monte’s and told the guy behind the bar what happened. He sits Gennaro down, pours him a drink and tells him to come back that evening.”

My father chuckled and shook his head.
“Gennaro goes back that night and sits at the bar. The bartender reaches under the bar and produces Gennaro’s wallet. He hands it to the good doctor and says, “Count the money, there’s probably too much.”
“So Gennaro is pretty dumbfounded. But it gets better. The bartender says, “I’ve been told to assure you that this will never happen again, if you follow me. If it did it would be a miracle.”

We walked toward the Gowanus Canal, lavender lake to the locals. The final resting place of 100 years of industrial waste and numerous unlucky mobsters. We soon passed St. Ann’s Church. My father tipped his hat and noted he used to go to confession there as a young man. I knew in those years the parish was largely Italian immigrants. Many of the priests spoke only a little English. When I pointed this out to him, he just smiled. 

Our next stop was Remsen Street.  He had an appointment at the Gas Company on that block.  For some odd reason, they were giving him a one time extra pension payment of $2,000.  He was uncharacteristically expansive.  He told me about playing basketball in a new league.  The old league had allowed double dribbles i.e. bouncing the ball with both hands; the new league did not.  To keep from fouling, he played the game with one hand behind him holding the waistband of his shorts.

“You played one handed?” I said in disbelief. 
“That would be a fair description”.
 “That had to be over 40 years ago. What made you think of it?”
“Well, we just passed St. Francis College.  I guess I never told you that I played for St. Francis,” he said mightily trying to hide a grin.  
“How could you have played for a college team when you didn’t finish high school?” I asked completely bewildered. 
He stopped, flashed a broad smile and looked at me saying not a word.  Seconds passed, people were steering around us, on the sidewalk.  Then I had it, the only possible answer. 
“You were a ringer! They paid you to play for them!”
He nodded and started walking.

He had parted the curtain a little, in front of St. Ann’s and shown me a hint of the rascal part of him.  Now he opened the curtain and I saw him in the round.  I saw the rascal but more a young man willing to do what he could to keep the beasts of Hell’s Kitchen at bay and hold his own in top level city basketball.  

At a time when garbage was collected six days a week in Flatbush, by the same crew, homeowners got to know them, at least by sight.  At Christmas time, it was customary to invite the crew up onto the porch for a quick shot of whiskey.  It was a small gesture of thanks and a wish for a happy new year.  One afternoon the doorbell rang.  I ran downstairs to open the door.   A man in a sanitation department dress uniform stood there.  He asked if my mother was home.  She was but so was my father who was working nights that week.  He came down the stairs and looked quizzically at the man who said “Merry Christmas.  Anything for the boys?”

My father said, “Who are you?’  In a low and no nonsense tone of voice.  The man replied he was one of the crew who serviced our house assuming my father worked nine to five and would never have seen the crew.  

My father said, “No you’re not.”  As the man started to argue, my father stepped forward and pushed the man who stumbled backwards losing his balance.  My father turned him, grabbed his belt and shirt neck and threw him over the front  porch railing into the front yard.  He got up, slipped but lurched forward and ran.  My father didn’t yell any threats or curses.  He turned and walked upstairs with me.  In answer to my mother’s question, he said, “Someone had the wrong address.”

In the early 60’s, I had a summer job at Holy Cross Cemetery.  My father asked me if I could find a certain gravesite for him.  We went the next day.  I found a small stone less than a foot square almost hidden in the grass.  He nodded his head and looked down at the marker.
“This is where my wife and three children are buried.”
I had no words.  I knew of his first wife, my two sisters were in fact my half sisters.  I knew my mother and father lost their first child at birth.  I didn’t know there had been two other children with his first wife.  

“I am not much of a cemetery goer.  It doesn’t mean you forget the dead or stop loving them.  You remember them in your prayers.  But life is for the living.  I haven’t been here in many years and I just wanted to come again.  Thanks for finding the grave.”

The best I could do was nod.  I had come to understand and appreciate him more the older I got.  But a second later everything had changed for me.  It’s not that I was all grown up at that moment; I am stilling working on that over 50 years later.  But in the face of his unspeakable pain and loss, I was in awe of his dignity, his faith and his quiet grace.  At 16, I was trying on the clothes of different men to see what suited me.  But I knew that day, in all things that really mattered, what it meant to be a man.  Of course, I never told him this; it didn’t need to be said between us. 

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