All the Saints
By Michael Walsh
Published by Warner Books
March 2003; 0-446-51815-8; 352 pages
Me and Marty was up on the roof puttin' down a sick pigeon when Ma called us in for supper.
Some folks will tell you to use an ice pick, but me I prefer to use a knife. A nice sharp knife, it has to be: real sharp, otherwise you might not kill your bird straightaway, and I always believed in being both quick and sure.
"Martin Aloysius Madden!" she shouted, and Marty's head swiveled on his shoulders like a lazy Susan that just got spun but good. Marty was more afraid of Ma than he was of getting hit by a locomotive on Death Avenue, which was to say pretty damn afraid, because Martin never had no taste for violence or any of that sort of thing, which is also why he wasn't helping me much with the pigeon. "Owen Vincent Madden! Both of ya get in here right this minute!"
We could tell Ma was mad because that's what her using our two Christian names signified. In this she was pretty much like all the other Mas in the neighborhood, who would shout out the litany of given names of their miserable broods at full blast up and down the Avenue when they was especially peeved or put out.
Still and all, I didn't much like my full moniker in them days. My dear departed Da had always called me Owney, right up to the end on the dock in Liverpool. But since Da's death, no one else had called me that, and so it was by the name of Owen Vincent that I was first known in the great City of New York, although that was one of the things I determined to change as soon as I could, since I felt that a new land called for a new identity of my own choosing and the time to start was now.
"I'm not Owen Vincent, Ma. I'm Owney Madden of Tenth Avenue! And this here fella is me brother and sidekick, Marty." I glanced over at Martin, who was still wrestling with the pigeon, and the pigeon was getting the upper hand.
"I don't care who you're after callin' yourselves, you boys get down here right away," ordered Ma, and so now Marty and I had a problem, which was to kill this bird in jig time or let him go, which was hardly bein' merciful. Marty was all for freeing him because the bird was flopping around something fierce and trying to peck his hand, which was making it difficult for me to get the point of the knife into his mouth.
I, on the other hand, was for sending him on to the other side, because Ma was always complaining about how the pigeon shite on the windowsills looked disgusting, and here was I, trying to do her a favor, not to mention put this bird out of his misery, because that's the kind and moral thing to do. "Hold him tight, for sweet Jesus' sake," I said, but Marty was having his hands full and I could see he was about to lose control.
The bird didn't like the idea of going over to the other side any better than the rest of us, and it fought like hell, beating its wings and trying to bite my brother's fingers off, so I grabbed it away, figuring to do the job myself. I could hear Ma's heavy tread in the stairwell that led up to the roof from our flat on the top floor. Ma was a short woman who since our Da's death always dressed in black and wore her hair, which was already turning white, pulled back in a bun. She seemed old to us kids, but when I think back on it, she couldn't have been but a couple of years beyond thirty. People got older younger back then.
She poked her head through the door that led to the roof and was searching for us in the twilight, although luckily for us, her eyes were having trouble focusing in the dark. "What are you boys doin'?" she yelled. "Get down here and wash up before your supper gets cold. It's rude to keep me and May waitin'." Across the North River, I could see the sun setting behind Jersey and I might have enjoyed the view if only the damn bird would keep still, cooperate and die.
"We're over here, Ma," piped up Marty just as that pigeon sank its beak into the heel of my thumb. I let out a yelp and dropped the knife, the knife my Da bequeathed me, which damn near flew over the edge of the roof and down the grimy ventilation shaft that must have seemed like a good idea to the reformers who built the dumbbell New Law tenements, but were mostly used as swill slops and garbage dumps by us tenants. That's goo-goos for you: always tryin' to fix one problem and creating two or three others. Which of course just gives them more to fix.
So there I was, one hand around the bird's neck, the other reaching for my knife, and my brother, Marty, just standin' there stupid.
Story of my life.
Just before the dreaded hand could clamp my ear and hoist me to my feet I managed to bring pigeon and knife together and that was the end of the job.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph and all t'e saints," said Ma, looking down at the mess. "What in t'e name of God are ya doin'?"
"Nothin', Ma," says Marty.
Story of his life.
Then I was gone too, bein' dragged downstairs by my Ma and into the kitchen, which is where we took all our meals and where, truth to tell, we mostly lived on account of there wasn't much room on the top floor of 352 Tenth Avenue, New York, New York, just a tiny parlor with a stick or two of furniture; a bedroom, where Ma and my sister, May, slept alongside Ma's steamer trunk brought over from Ireland, which doubled as her hope chest; and a little kitchen where the bathtub lived along with the rest of the family. On cold winter's days we slept there, me, Marty, May and our Ma, boys with boys and girls with girls, wrapped up in blankets like penthouse Eskimos, which is pretty much what we felt like in the morning after the stove fire had gone out.
Now, Tenth in those days wasn't anything like it is today, what with the West Side Highway, the Lincoln Tunnel and Dyer Avenue and all. Tenth in those days-when it really was Tenth Avenue-was lined with five-story red-brick tenements, the kind where nobody felt superior to nobody else, on account of everybody was the same, which was to say poor, except for the landlords. There was a streetcar line running down the middle of it, and the rail yards were just across the way, which maybe wasn't so scenic, but the fact that there were fewer buildings on the west side of the avenue meant that there was a lot of light in the afternoon, and when you've lived in New York for a while, you realize that light is something that money can't buy, and here we were getting it for free.
I was still thinking about that bird as Ma yanked me downstairs. "Owen," she said, "you ought to be ashamed of yourself torturin' t'at poor t'ing. Tomorrow you'll go to church and say ten Hail Marys for the repose of its soul."
"But, Ma," I protested, "it's free now."
"Free as a boid, Ma," added Marty. He had already adopted the pronunciation of the neighborhood. I never saw anybody become an American as fast as Marty did. Me, I was hedging my bets. I figured it was better if the Americans thought I was English and the Irish knew I was Irish. Safer too.
"It don't matter whether it's hurt or not," replied Ma, who was never anything but Irish, even though she'd lived in England for a third of her life; like most real Irish, she never did learn to pronounce her th's. "You was after hurtin' t'at bird, and in God's mind t'at's all t'at matters."
That didn't make no sense to me then and it still don't. "But if nothin' happens, then you ain't guilty," I retorted as politely as I could, given that she still had me by the ear. "I mean the coppers gotta catch ya before they can arrest ya, right? Plus ya gotta've actually done it. Otherwise it's just-" I looked to Marty to help me out, the dumb cluck.
"Hearsay," says he.
"Somethin' like that," says I.
Ma settled this fine point of legal understanding by giving me a sharp yank on the lobe and letting me go. "Don't talk back to your mother, boy," she said. "God's listenin'. And so's Mary."
By now we were in the kitchen, where May was slicing a potato into the soup. Like Ma her name was Mary, but we called her May, because that's what the Irish did. "Owen, are you in trouble again?" she asked, smiling, and I guess if you asked me who was the first girl I ever loved, I would have to answer May-not in any filthy-dirty way, mind you, but purely because she was my six-year-old sister.
"I was just takin' the air, May," says me with a wink, and I knew that she knew I wasn't. There was this kind of secret communication between us, which I never had with Marty. Whenever there was trouble between me and Ma, May always stuck up for me, which was more than could be said for Marty.
"Liar," said Marty.
I threw a mock left at his head like I was the Black Prince, Peter Jackson himself, the Australian colored boy what could put down a white man with one punch. Even back then I loved the fight game, like my Da had, and couldn't help be a little bit proud that in the very year I was born Gentleman Jim had fought Black Peter to a sixty-one-round draw on his way to the heavyweight championship of the world.
Marty tried to duck but he never could duck very well and I caught him flush on the cauliflower. I couldn't help but follow through with a right to the old steak and chips, which dropped his jaw as he gasped for breath, and I woulda clipped him one right on the jaw, just like my Da had taught me, when . . .
May's hand was bleeding. The peeler had slipped as she turned to look at us, and had nicked her finger. I was at her side in a flash, squeezing the wound and holding it tight under some fresh water. May never said nothin', just stood there very calm, letting me take care of her.
"I hope she don't get no blood in the spuds," said Marty, "or start into bawlin'. You know dames."
I was about to take another poke at him when Ma said, "No more fighting, you two." She had that tone in her voice that even the dumbest kid could understand, and I wasn't the dumbest.
"You know what Da made us promise," May said, her own pain forgotten.
At the mention of Da's name, Ma's anger was suddenly replaced by sorrow. "You know how I hate fighting," she said softly. "You know why I hate fighting."
We knew. Even though it was fighting what had got the Maddens, most of us, to America. And it was fighting that, I knew, was going to keep us here and help us make our way in the world. That was what I had already learned in England, and me I never had to learn things twice that really needed learning.
So we stood there, the four Maddens, a girl between me and my brother and our Ma standing off to one side, observing. Somebody had to lead and it might as well be me. "Let's eat," I said. The spud soup went down warm as we finished grace and we finished dinner, almost in that order.
We pushed our bowls away in anticipation of what we called the sermon, which was our mother's post-supper words of wisdom. Mary O'Neill Madden looked every bit of her thirty-two years, an unimaginable age to us then, as she addressed us.
"Children," she said.
It's funny how everyone considers his life to be unique and unusual, when in fact it's usually pretty much of the same old malarkey-absent husband, abundant alcohol, unruly offspring, bad companions, irresistible temptations, ugly sins. Then you live a few years and realize that every man jack of us is pretty much the same, with pretty much the same story, and somehow they came through it and somehow you did too, except of course for them what didn't. But it's the living that writes the stories.
So looking back on things, I guess Ma was no different from any of the boat women who came to America to raise their children, most often by themselves. Sure, there was kids that had fathers on our block, but most of the time the old man was either working or drinking, or both, in which case sure as shooting there would come a day when he would not come home, having fallen off a beam or drowned diggin' a ditch. So the point of whether you had a Da or not was moot. Which meant that it was up to the Mas of our world to try and keep the kids on the straight and narrow, and not lose them to the streets, which was next to impossible. For Ma-every kid's Ma-was Ireland, or Italy, or Germany; Ma was the old ways that had done the likes of us such dirt that we had to flee them. So we fled her, because what else could we do?
"You, Martin," she began, as she always did, with the oldest. "You're all of thirteen years now, and it's time you were after t'inkin' about what you'll be doin' for a livin'."
"Yes, Ma," said Marty, shuffling his feet, the way he always did when he was nervous, which he always was in the presence of our Ma. "A fireman or somethin'."
Now, that I knew for a fact was a dirty lie, for sure wasn't Marty already starting into mixing it up with some of the boys on Tenth Avenue and the surrounding streets, and hadn't he already got himself into some sort of trouble or other. This trouble was principally caused by various tough lads resident on 30th Street and the environs who, seein' what they thought was a soft touch, would request of my brother various loans and remittances pursuant to his passage along 30th Street and environs. Which example he was after following, much as I tried to dissuade him-not for any moral reason, like the kind they taught you down 34th Street at St. Mike's, but for the most practical of reasons, which was that he lacked the talent for it.
Anyway, a paddy could always be a fireman, and at least he had the decency not to lie to her face and say a copper.
"A fireman," she repeated. Ma had nothing against firemen; in her book a fireman was the third rung of the career ladder, right after priest and policeman or maybe navvy or sandhog because there was always paying work for the Irish digging the tunnels for the aqueducts from upstate or the subways that were borin' in over on Seventh Avenue or both.
"You, May?" she said, out of courtesy. May hated to be left out of this kind of discussion, even though she was a girl and it didn't much matter. Her answer never changed.
"Married, Ma," she said, "to a rich man who'll live on Fifth Avenue and always treat me swell."
Now it was my turn. I don't know why it was always my turn last, except that I suppose Ma knew I was smarter than my brother and that when I set my cap for something, I generally did it. I knew that Ma was hoping I'd shoot high, all the way for priest, because the job was steady and the pay was regular. But I'd somethin' else in mind, something better than priest. Something that would combine the toughness of a fighter, like my Da had been, with the cannon-enhanced authority of the cop and the suasion of the padre, although morality had nothing to do with it.
"And you, Owen," she said. "What might you be after becomin'?"
I didn't have to think either long or hard. "A Gopher," says I, ducking.Copyright © 2003 Michael Walsh
Reprinted with permission.
A century ago one man rose from New York's violent Hell's Kitchen to rule the empire of Prohibition New York: Owen "Owney" Madden, the most feared and influential Irish crime figure of the twentieth century. From Broadway to Tammany Hall to Hollywood, Owney Madden changed the way Americans drank, talked, walked, dressed -- and saw themselves.
Now acclaimed author Michael Walsh has created a fictional memoir that brings to life in Madden's own memorable voice the sights and sounds, and the passion and violence, of one of history's most memorable gangsters.
He ran booze and became a leading beer brewer during Prohibition. Together with his friends Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano, and Meyer Lansky, he was one of the ruling council of gangsters that formed the original "Crime Commission." And he fought a duel to the death with his best friend and worst rival, Dutch Schultz. At a time when police were coppers, guns were heaters, and good news was jake, Madden emerged to define the pure essence of a mobster.
and hot-tempered, he was also fiercely protective of his family and determined
never to let the cold hand of hunger again come near his mother, brother,
or beloved sister, May. As a kid from the slums he dedicated his life
to crime, killing his first victim when he was still a teenager; but as
a man he was as suave as he was brutal. He founded the swankiest joint
of its time, the Cotton Club, where he hired Duke Ellington. He produced
Mae West's Broadway shows and used his influence to give childhood friend
George Raft his big break in Hollywood. His control of the fight racket
gave Joe Louis a shot at the heavyweight title. This was crime's heyday,
and Madden took full advantage, buying -- and selling out -- politicians
as easily as he bought bathtub gin and prizefights. Based on years of
research that uncovered Madden's hitherto unknown ledger books and personal
papers, AND ALL THE SAINTS invites you to enter a world of rum-runners
and rubouts, mugs and molls, café society and glamorous speakeasies
time when Packards sped from coppers down Manhattan streets as New York's
toughest tough guy made the city his own.
Michael Walsh was the music critic of TIME magazine for sixteen years and has also served as the music critic for the San Francisco Examiner and the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. In 1995, he was the executive producer and writer of the PBS program Placido Domingo: A Musical Life. He is a guest commentator on NPR's Performance Today, and remains a frequent contributor to many national magazines. He is also a professor of journalism at Boston University.