(Another piece dug from the drafts folder)
My grandparents were from the old country–mom’s side from Ireland, becoming cops, politicians and drunks. Her father was a brilliant something or other who did so well at what was then the huge company Bendix he could afford to move the family into a nice old Philly neighborhood and have a cross burned into their lawn by the local welcoming committee. They didn’t stay long, and I believe wound up back in a nice Irish neighborhood in Waterbury CT, with relatives up to their smiling Irish eyeballs in politics, and then somehow winding up on the Jersey shore, where my grandfather followed the long and hallowed Irish tradition of tossing success out the window to hang with the boyo’s at Harrigan’s Bar and sing the old tunes all day into the night. I loved the old loser. I take after him in many ways, but for the drinking. My grandmother and then my mother had to do the money making, of course, also an old Irish tradition. They were always the maids, remember, the men the drunks. Barry Fitzgerald made a whole career out of that role, that and the priest who takes a nip now and then. No maids in the family, though…my mother had a great job as a switchboard operator, back in the day when there’d be a whole battery of girls pulling and plugging cables and taking calls from the occasional movie star. I remember Grandma working at Newberry’s, behind the counter, fixing me a grilled cheese sandwich. Grandpa did a spell at a McDonalds later. Don’t know how long that lasted. Drinking, ya know. His one son, William Jr., my Uncle Bill, followed the same route, I love him dearly too. Wonderful old guy, now, teetering a bit, held in check by the very ancient variant of Catholicism he’s taken up with. The daughters–my mother and my aunts Barbara, Pat, Mary Sue–all took jobs and did well, lots of kids, nice middle class existences, but never above their station. No hanging around with rich Protestants, and the hell with the English. The queen can kiss my arse, Grandpa’d yell at the TV every time HRH appeared. I still can’t stand the color orange. I didn’t even realize why until I was 40. It’s in the green blood.
The other side, my father’s, came from Austria-Hungary. Talk about the old country, so old it’s been gone nearly a hundred years. The old man–my dad’s father–turned bitterly German, joined the Bund, got way too close to the upper echelon. Pretty sure he was on a name basis with Ribbentrop, or knew somebody who was. Ribbentrop was cultivating the Ausländer (ethnic Germans outside of Germany). He had plans. Some big shots in the Detroit Bund moved back to Germany before the war and took positions in the German government. My grandfather knew all of these men. I don’t know what became of them, though Ribbentrop they hanged. But that was years in the future, this was still in the midst of the Thousand Year Reich and times were good. My dad remembered beer halls in Detroit decked out in swastikas, Hitler on the shortwave. Stiff arm salutes and ridiculous uniforms. He was so young he thought it was fun. So did all the krauts there, a jolly beer drinking bunch a generation or two or even three off the boat, many of them the grandsons of refugees of 1848 who didn’t even know what their grandparents and great grandparent had fled from. My dad’s older brothers split home in disgust. Flint, Michigan was a dirty, bustling little industrial town back then, much of it desperately poor, a ghetto in every sense of the word but without a flood of handguns (they used knives and zip guns instead). My grandfather, an autodidact, spoke eight languages, running the gamut of the Balkan peninsula…he was forever getting called down to the police station to straighten out just what the drunk Hungarian was screaming at the drunk Croat. It was a rough time….the Spanish Flu had cut through Flint like a scythe, and all that 1920’s prosperity barely bothered the place at all. Then the Depression seemed like the end of the world. Things picked up a bit with the New Deal. The neighborhood streets were paved, sidewalks even, thanks to FDR. The historic GM strike that helped save the American labor movement was right there in Flint. My uncles had machine guns pointed right at them, a massacre worthy of the Czars was avoided at the last minute. My dad’s father hated FDR, seemed to hate anything but Germany. The English language was not allowed in the house.
Pearl Harbor came out of nowhere. My dad remembered his father sneaking off to the woods after Hitler declared war on the United States and burning boxes of documents. He was spared arrest due to health reasons, crippled as he was with dropsy, but a bunch of family friends sat in jails for the duration. My dad discovered just how serious it had all been when he was questioned by the FBI in the 1950’s while trying to get a security clearance. He had to answer all kinds of questions about his father’s nazi connections. He never went into detail but it was apparently not a fun experience. Dad’s older brothers all joined up during the war, George commanded an artillery battery in Italy, fighting the Wehrmacht from toe to top and I remember hearing that he saw one of the death camps at the end of the war. John flew B-17’s over Germany, Jake was a translator at Nuremberg. They came back afterward and laid it all out for the old man who was absolutely crushed….he died bitter and dropsy ridden a few years later. Every one said he was a real sonofabitch. I remember their closest family friends saying just that–your grandfather was a real sonofabitch. They left the bit about being better off dead unsaid. His eldest son died first, my dad’s beloved oldest brother, he was a brilliant pianist absolutely sodden with drink, no doubt from years playing for coin and refreshment in the speakeasies. He died in jail from pneumonia or the DT’s or both. A real Bix Beiderbecke way to go. There’s one recording of him, a lush, baroque, romantically German sort of beer hall jazz, virtuosic and utterly mad with Gershwin. My father’s family was so full of tragedy–a daughter had stepped on a rusty nail in Michigan and after tetanus set it they sent her home to the Old country where the locals applied folk remedies. I remember something about the laying on of spider webs. She died in the old country, during the Great War, of lockjaw. I try not to imagine that. My father’s family was rent with Nazi race pride, too, and a fierce Lutheranism so that when my Dad married a catholic–an Irish catholic at that–he was pretty much shut out. Some people are still fighting the Thirty Years War. None of his brothers came to my father’s funeral. All my mother’s sisters did. There was nothing but love on her side, crazy Irish love. We were raised Irish. To the core.
I never have grown out of the poor immigrant mindset. I really can’t abide the rich, as a class. I know it’s stupid. I know it’s counterproductive. Yet one of the reasons I grew more and more sick of that LA Weekly gig was having to deal with the rich more and more. They wanted to me to be their toy, the jazz writer who knew how to write, their precious little find. I couldn’t stand it. I turned down every opportunity to better myself, I slammed them in print. I always wound up hanging with the help at their soirées. I couldn’t stand watching all these young–and a lot of old–jazz players kissing rich people asses. I remember at one point realizing I could be hanging out with millionaires and movie stars and finding ways to make all sorts of money. Incredible perks. I was right there on the cusp, one weekend, an honest to god movie star coming up to me and politely asking for assistance with a project… I was the top guy in the room, and had never been so uncomfortable. I quit that LA Weekly gig the following Tuesday. We’re flat broke now but feeling much more honest. I’m a helluva writer, I know that, but I write for me, and for no one else, and I certainly don’t write so rich people can reduce this incredible jazz music to wealthy ornamentation as they’ve done with classical music. I refused to have anything to do with that. As the middle class died and left jazz to pampered students and the wealthy dilettante, well, I wanted out. I don’t come from money, I come from hard working–or not so hard working–immigrants, and it’s there I belong, down there in the toiling masses, unknown but to my friends.
So I’m broke, looking for work, writing daily for no one in particular, and quite content. I have lots of friends, and we all pull together and get by. And if that ain’t an immigrant story, I don’t know what is.
Sorry to write too damn much, but I always write too damn much. It’s just practicing. Saxophonists blow their scales, writers write long emails. Practice makes perfect, and it’s all about perfection, whatever that is.