Dick Masterson's Blog

Thedore Roosevelt

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Street Arabs

His chest sunken, shoulders sloped, the boy stared through hungry eyes at the tall policemen.
“Whatcha going do with me?” he said to the six foot four frame of Paddy Ryan. A tough no nonsense cop who dictate's the law in Hell’s Kitchen with the end of his night stick. One of the few patrolman to walk the streets alone.
“Tell me lad, where’s your mother?” Ryan said, looking over at the dead man on the sofa.
“Me mudder’s dead, she died when I was little,” he sniffed. “Mister, what are you going to do with me?”
“Do ya have any other family lad?
The boy shook his head. “No.”
“Ya can’t stay here.” Ryan said. “I’ll be taken ya to the shelter. Tis the best all around. What happen to your old man?”
“He wuz sick, past a week now…he just laid around and groaned all day. I don’t know what wuz the matter with him—“
“And the doctor,” Ryan said. “Why didn’t some one call the doctor?”
“ I don’t think he cared,” the boy mumbled, “I don’t know.”
Ryan took out his pad and pencil, “What’s his name lad?”
The boy raised his dirty nicotine stained fingers to wipe his eyes, “John, the same as mine.”
“John what?” Ryan said.
“Moran.”
“Moran tis it. Did he work Johnny?”
“Yeah, as a night watchman.”
“Where would that be now?”
“Thirty-Seventh Street docks, when he woiked.”
“Did he say anything before he died?”
“Last night he asked me to help him get into the bed. I tried, but I couldn’t lift em. “Get a rope he say’s and help me pull me self up into the bed, he tells me. I can’t find no rope, so I tried to drag him across the room, but he wuzz too heavy. So’s, I goes down stairs and gets Hickey, he help me put em on the sofa.”
“Hickey! Who’d Hickey be ?” Ryan said with raised eye brows.
“The super,” Johnny said wiping his runny nose with the back of his hand. “He lives in the cellar.”
“What happened then lad?”
“I went out to get a roll, I was awful hungry,” he said holding his stomach. When I came back, he looked worse. His legs and belly all swelled up. Last night he groaned something like awful, then he stopped. In the morning, I called to him four or five times but he didn’t answer.”
“Tell me lad, do you think he twas dead?”
“I don’t know, maybe,” Johnny said looking down at the floor. “I went to school.”
Ryan stooped down to Johnny’s eye level, trying to keep his uniform coat from touching the grimy floor. “Did ya tell anybody about your old man?”
“No… jest some of the feller at school…I had to go to school, cause I knew the truant officer be looking for me. They came back to the house--”
“Who came back to the house?” Paddy interrupted.
The fellas, they took money out of his pocket and his watch. The big boy took most everything. Then the ran away, they didn't give me give me any of the money.”
“Who were they Johnny?” Gimme their names--”
“ I don’t know their names, I think one of em belongs to the Gophers.”
“The Gophers, tis it. I should of known, twas it Stampy, Stampy Malarky?”
“I don’t know Stampy, maybe. They jest come up and took everything.” Johnny said.
A bunch of cut throats, the lot of em.” Ryan said, standing up. Would you know em if ya seen em lad.”
“I don’t know.”
“After they ran away, what did you do Johnny?”
“I went downstairs to tell Hickey, he got the cops. I’m sorry the old man’s dead, he treated me good, he never kicked me; well not much any way. What are they going to do with me mister?”
“You’ll come with me son; they’ll put ya in the shelter, or else your gonna wind up as an Street Arab. Get ya duds now and come with .”
Johnny Moran had no one, a twelve year old boy, left to the streets of Hell’s Kitchen to become a member of the over ten thousand homeless children known as Street Arabs.
Hell’s Kitchen, a cess-pool, formed from the over flow of the slag that spilled out of the America melting pot, spurred on by the Irish Potato famine and waves of poor immigrants arriving with their meager belonging in a sack, slung over their back teeming into lower Manhattan. Looking for a better life, only to be greeted by persecution, corruption and violence that harden them into a mass rabble, to fight for their existence to live. Johnny would become a member of that rabble, to confront the perils of the streets and try to survive.
If he got in the way of a wagon, he would feel the lash of the drivers whip out of contempt. If he plays around the store front, the owner would give him a kick or cuff behind the ear to get rid of him If the policemen comes, he feels the sting of the night stick to go play someplace else.
Ryan placed Johnny in the detention room in the back of the Ludlow Street Station House, next to the prison cells.
Confronted by the steel bars in the next room, Johnny remembered what his father told him about jails. ‘Johnny me boy. don’t let the coppers get ya in the jail house, or you’ll curse the day you were born.’
He heard about the shelters from other kids and didn’t like what he heard. Bad food, hard work and beatings. The shelters had a section called the pit, where it was said they put the people they called the crazies; retards and the demented ones.
Left alone, Johnny Moran escaped, back to old neighborhood on Tenth Avenue. He joined a large crowd outside the tenement and watched as two negro’s slid the pine box in the back of the wagon. When everyone left, he went upstairs and found the door padlocked. He went down the cellar to see Hickey.
“All that’s left in the house Johnny, I locked in the cellar,” Hickey said. “Twasn’t much, but it’ll cover the back rent. If ya want lad, ya can stay in the coal bin till the morning, there’s and old mattress the dog uses. You’ll have scare em off though, don’t fret son, he won’t bite ya. Come morning, ya have to get out. I don’t want any trouble with the coppers mind ya.”
In the morning, Johnny met Timmy his closest friend outside the tenement.
“Johnny,-- I heard, is he dead?”
“Yeah.” Johnny said looking away, hiding his tears. “They took em away last night.”
“Whatcha gonna do?” Timmy said, bending down trying get his friends attention.
“I don’t know,” Johnny said,looking back at the tenement, “right now I’m hungry, I’m gonna find something to eat, he said feeling his empty pockets. “Ya have any money Timmy?”
“No, not a cent.” Timmy said pulling his empty hand out of his tattered pants to show Johnny. “So, what ya gonna do Johnny, where ya gonna stay. Maybe the coppers will help ya.”
“Naw! They want to put me in the shelter with all the drunks and crazies. I can’t go back to school, either, the cops will get me. I don’t wanna go to no shelter Timmy.”
“Where ya gonna do? Hide out Johnny, how ya gonna eat…I mean where ya gonna stay?”
Johnny looked toward the freight yards. “I don’t know yet, maybe I’ll hop one of those freights and go out West.”
“What ya gonna do out there,” Timmy said squinting his eyes against the morning sun. “Ya never rode a horse.”
“I can be become a Hobo like Hickeys brudder Eamon,” Johnny shot back.
“Hickey! Timmy said. "Ya mean the guy that lives in the cellar."
"Ya" Johnny said with fold arms. "See", he’s got a brudder… and he became a Hobo and went out West…long time ago, he wurks on a ranch and rides horse and everything. I’ll bet he carry’s a gun too, I’ll bet.”
“I don’t believe ya. My old man knows Hickey.” Timmy shot back. “He say’s he never was right after the war…always telling story, especially when he’s drunk. I bet he doesn’t even have a brudder.” Timmy said, kicking an empty into the street.
“Ya never make it Johnny. I’ll tell ya what, ya could hide out over in my house, there’s not much room. I’ll ask me old man. Okay?”
Timmy’s family consisted of his father, older brother Willie and his baby sister Maggie. Timmy’s mother died of the consumption when he was three. After she died their father turned to heavy drinking. He took the boys out of school and put them to work in the soap factory. Twelve year old Maggie, kept house for the family.
“Ya think so, ya think he would,” Johnny said. Do ya have anything to eat there? Lets go now and ask him.”
“Come lets go.” Timmy said. with his arm around Johnny’s shoulder. But first lets check old man Lebowitz fruit cart, he always has some stuff ready to throw away, may he’ll give us something.”
Old man Kelly let Johnny sleep in the cellar that night on bundles of papers and rags. In the morning he took Johnny down to the soap factory; the floor boss gave Johnny a skinners knife and sat him down on a wooden bench to scraped the fat off the hides of slaughtered animals. Johnny put in a ten hour day.
All the money Johnny made, he handed over to old man Kelly, in return for some food and unwanted physical abuse. The rest of the money old man Kelly spent on filling his growler. Any complaints from the boys, they felt the razor strop on their back or the toe of his boot.
Johnny now a year older, wanted out. The curses and physical blows set him on his way. Timmy begged to come along. Johnny told himself, it was tough enough for him, but to have Timmy, just a shaver would…well he just be in the way. In the end, Johnny gave Timmy the nod. They left on a cold night in December. Gathering up what little belonging they put them in a sack and headed for the freight yard to meet up with Jack Mullaney, a member of the Gophers that everyone called Smiley.
That night, Smiley took em over to Park Row, to the Herald building and told them about making money selling newspapers.
They would fill up their arms with papers, then go out on the streets of Hells Kitchen selling their papers. The fw pennies they made bought day old rolls and stale cider.
At the end of the day, all the newsboys fought for a spot over the exhaust grate of the press room for the warm air that spewed out from machines, machines that rumbled throughout the night the printed word.
The grates were full of newsboys. Smiley motion for Johnny and Timmy to help him lift the lid on the coal chute, so they could slide down into the coal bin and be near the furnace.
In the morning they took their place in line for the newspapers. More pushing and shoving until the boys got their share of newspapers.
The coal bin didn’t last long, two nights later the Police cleared the cellar out with their nightstick. Johnny and Timmy escaped with Smiley down to the banana docks along the East River. There they met members of the Gophers.
Frankie Madden, a member of the gang told Johnny, the gang has a hide out in an abandoned brewery, over in the Bowery, called the Rookery.
“Yeah.” Smiley said. That’s where we all hang out, if you want ya can join us."
“Yeah,” Frankie said, ya can bring the runt, who is he, your brudder?
“He’s no runt,” Johnny snapped back, pushing close up to the Frankie's face, who was older and a few inches taller. He’s my friend , he’s name is Timmy.”
“Okay, don’t get sore,” Frankie said, backing up. “I didn’t mean nutting, so what about it, ya coming?”
“Yeah will come.” Johnny sneered.
Well if ya do,” Frankie snapped back. “Ya have to join the Gophers, its one for all and all for one and we don’t like squealers. Got it..”
"Yeah, I got it." Johnny said eyeballing Frankie picking up his sack, “Lets go Timmy . stay with me, were gonna join the Gofers.”
An abandoned brewery that served as a refuge for the displaced and homeless. The wood rickety structure smelled of garbage and dead vermin. Despite the cold wind blowing through every crack in the rotting timber and the rats feeding on garbage, the boys made this their refuge and shared it with other Street Arabs.
Their newfound friends were the terror of Hell’s Kitchen feeding off the weak, dispossessed and extorting money from the push cart workers with the clenched fist.. At the end of every day, the gang met at the Rookery and shared their swag what ever it may be. Johnny and Timmy chipped in part of their newspaper money. Scraps from the slaughterhouses , stale bread, crushed fruit discarded by peddlers, kept the growl in the boys stomach to a minimum.
They drank spoiled cider, sold to them for a penny a glass. Nobody would drink it except the Street Arabs.
The winter took its toll from the Rookery, leaving the weak and sick frozen where they lay.
The gang looked out for each other in defense of other gangs that roamed through Hell’s Kitchen, especially the Fourteen Avenue Gang headed by Dutch Hendrich, a brute who battled his way through the cobblestone street stealing from and attacking other gangs that encroach on their territory. Johnny and Timmy survived many scraps. In return they learn to survive on the streets by their wit and bare knuckles.
Winter melted into spring, leaving the boys to suffer the hot humid summer month ahead. The boys that survive the winter had to face the summer decay of rotting garbage and rat fescues. The Grim Reaper was their Doctor.
The only relief they found during the hot summer months, was swimming in the River, tainted with the blood and bile of pigs, sheep and cattle waste from the near-by slaughterhouses.
That summer took other lives too, Timmy’s sister Maggie died from consumption, a liability when working in the soap factory. The extra money help fill old man Kelly’s growler. After Maggie’s death, old man Kelly went on the bum, the police the body on the Bowery.
Nobody knew whatever happened to Timmy’s brother Willie. Some say he just got lost in the system.
Winter came early to Hell’s Kitchen that year. The temperature dropped to ten above. Dutch Hendrich and his gang attacked the Rookery and burned it down, sending the gophers out looking for a place to stay. Johnny and Timmy then decided to break from the Gophers and go on their own. They found refuge in a hay barns, back of wagons and abandoned building,
During the day they spent hustling newspapers or helping Lebowitz with his fruit wagon for left over scraps.
The weather turned to snow followed by a cold wind, forcing the boys to look for warmer shelter. They found an open freight car and huddle in the far corner on some straw. They shivered most of the night. Timmy developed a cough that got worse.
Before day break they were roused by the railroad police and taken to the Ludlow Street Station.
The newly appointed Sergeant at the desk was no other than Paddy Ryan himself He stood up and peered over the desk at the two frozen boys wrapped in rags.
“Well if isn’t Johnny Moran,” he bellowed, “the last time I saw ya lad , ya was climbing out a window. Aye welcome home. And I see you brought a friend. Tell me now, what have you two Arabs been up to? Before they could answer. Ryan screamed across the desk. “NO GOOD, I PRESUME” Ryan screamed.
“Breaking into the railroad car., now tell me whatcha was ya doing in the freight car, the truth, or ya feel the back of me hand.”
Timmy’s his eyes weld up in tears.
”Ah, Mr. Ryan, Johnny sniffed, we needed a place to stay, honest. The Rookery burned… and well we needed place to stay... we didn’t take anything , honest we just wanted a place to stay for the night and get out of the cold.”
“I’ll tell ya what, ya become, STREET ARABS,” he roared. “Just like the rest of the divels in Hell’s Kitchen., didn’t I tell ya, ya come to no good. And who is this little shaver alongside ya?”
“Timmy, Mr. Ryan, he’s my friend.”
“Timmy, ya say, Timmy what? I sure he has a last name, what is it.? Paddy Ryan roared.
Johnny jumped back “Kelly, Timmy Kelly sir.”
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, may the saints preserve us, another Mick’s, what’s to become of us.”
“Murphy” Ryan yelled to the reserve men in the report room. “Come in here.”
“Yeah boss, what do ya need.”
“Is that man from the newspaper still here?”
“Yeah I think so, he’s in with the Captain.”
“Is he now” Ryan said. “Go fetch him, tell em to stop by the desk before he leaves.”
“Okay boss and what about these two Arabs?”
“Don’t mind yourself about the lads, just do what ya told.” Ryan sneered.
A tall well-dressed man with a high collared shirt, wearing a Chesterfield coat with felt a collar and completed with an ascot, walked out of Captain Kruger’s office.
“Sergeant Ryan,” he said. “My name is Trevor Wilkinson, I represent the Herald Newspaper, you wish to speak to me?”
Wilkinson , a born Englishmen came over to Hell’s Kitchen as a reformer with an idea to help in reforming homeless boys. He bought the Herald, a failing newspaper, hoping to revive it. He built a newsboy home next to it and hope to put his ideas of reform to work.
“Indeed I do sir. ”Ryan said. “Early today sir, ya told me ya newspaper has a place for newsboys, a place where they can work and also stay. A home I think ya said, tis that so sir?”
“Wilkinson looked down at the two boys, “Yes, that is correct, we take in homeless boys, give them a job selling newspapers and house them in a unit next to the plant. We introduce to them hard work, responsibility and self reliance. They get three meals a day and a place to sleep. Oh and by the looks of these two waifs, we introduce them to soap and water,” he smiled. “which is an agent to morale building, may I say more powerful than the pulpit.”
Paddy Ryan gave a slight smirk with a nod, “I get ya meaning sir. And would ya have a spot for these two dirty Arab’s in your home? I don’t even think they can write their own names. But with names like Moran and Kelly, I’m sure they’d be hard workers.”
Wilkinson stepped back, looked the boys over and nodded. “Yes Sergeant, I believe we can accommodate these two lads. The doors are open to all boys, and wider yet to the ignorance. I assume their homeless?”
“Homeless as a Tinker,” Ryan smiled back.
Johnny Moran and Timmy Kelly found themselves ushered into the news boy home, up the stairs into the washroom with a bar of soap in one hand and a towel in the other.
Tired, but clean. The boys crawled between two clean sheets and pulled the blankets up to their chin. Just lying there looking at the ceiling alongside rows of other one time Street Arabs. Timmy turned to Johnny and said. “Ain’t it nice?”
That was a long time ago. Hell’s Kitchen lost the fight with Johnny and Timmy. They both survived to adulthood. Timmy graduated from the streets to land a job inside the plant working the linotype machine and later he became foreman.
Sergeant Paddy Ryan they told me became Captain Ryan and his last act before retiring was to swear in a new recruit name Johnny Moran.

The End

No comments: