I grew up in New London, Connecticut and live in Rhode Island, but I am not a native New Englander. I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and came to Connecticut when The Old Man took a job in the manufacturing end of a ladies’ undergarment company.
I was still in three cornered pants when we moved to the land of creamy quahog clam chowder, steamed cheeseburgers, and lobster in the rough. The Old Man, Brooklyn to the core, felt none of the aforementioned Nutmeg noshes could ever please his palate better than a Nathan’s hot dog and root beer, corned beef or pastrami with on rye, or a Sunday morning bagel smeared with Philadelphia cream cheese and topped with thin slices of Nova Scotia lox, onion, beefsteak tomato, and dotted with a few capers.
Likewise the morning Norwich Bulletin or the evening New London Day, was but nothing but a sad shadow of his favorite tabloid, the New York Dailey Mirror. The Mirror was about 10% news and 90% a tout sheet for Aqueduct and Belmont race tracks, photo montages of the most current mob figure being arrested or whacked, and other such entertaining social scandal, red meat for The Old Man who had dropped out of high school.
Mom walked the other side of the journalistic street, She was a devotee of “The Gray Lady”, the New York Times, as befitteda proud honors graduate of Abraham Lincoln High School. The Old Man coughed up a nickel every day for the Mirror and happily splurged on Sunday for five pounds of the Times so that my mother could keep abreast of world events, fashion and, more importantly, work the Times crossword puzzle. After breakfast, the rest of her Sunday was taken up bent over the kitchen table, pencil in hand, a cup of tea and an overflowing ashtray at her elbow, as she worked to fill in the blanks of the 23 squares by 23 squares grid.
The Old Man and Mom were of different academic levels, but both were avid readers and nurtured that in us. If a newspaper, magazine, or book was in the house the rule was that it was fair game for all to read. We also had several collections of literary classics in a book case by The Old Man’s favorite chair. In particular I remember a green trussed complete collection of Mark Twain and a leather bound selection of assorted classics. Of particular interest to me was Rudyard Kipling, Conan Doyle, Jack London, and Herman Melville. The Old Man took me to the movies when I was in sixth grade to see Gregory Peck in Moby Dick. When I got home I dug the volume out of the book case and found that I shared a commonality with Melville and his story of the Great White Whale. It took him a year and half to write it and the same amount of time for me to read it.
Next to The Old Man’s chair was also a pile of pulp magazines such as True, Argosy, and Astounding Science Fiction, genres of which he was fond. It was in this heap of cheap newsprint that I found a paperback copy of Runyon à la Carte, a collection of Damon Runyon’s famous Broadway stories. I am certain that the Great White Way locale of the 1930s and the somewhat shady characters appealed to The Old Man’s nostalgia for the New York of his misspent youth.
Runyon’s stories are told in a perpetual first person present tense by an anonymous bystander who relates tales of Broadway’s gangsters, hustlers, conmen, grifters, and down on their luck professional gamblers. They carry names and professions such as Nicely-Nicely Jones, possibly the greatest eater alive, Nathan Detroit, who runs the oldest established floating crap game in New York, and “…three parties from Brooklyn wearing caps as follows: Harry the Horse, Little Isadore and Spanish John”. Of which he says, “Now these parties are not such parties as I will care to have much truck with, because I often hear rumors about them that are very discreditable, even if the rumors are not true. In fact, I hear that many citizens of Brooklyn will be very glad indeed to see Harry the Horse, Little Isadore and Spanish John move away from there, as they are always doing something that is considered a knock to the community…”
The narrator uses slang that is at both vernacular and comically convoluted, a gun is a “roscoe”, money is “scratch” or “potatoes”, and women are “dolls” or “Judies” or “ever-loving wives. Although only tangentially involved with them, he is familiar to and trusted by the Guys and Dolls that haunt Broadway, east coast race tracks, pool halls, night clubs, and once even my home town of New London for the Yale-Harvard Boat Race. The narrator has no visible means of support and simply describes himself as “being known to one and all as a guy who is just around”.
Along with a catholic taste in reading material The Old Man fostered a love of firearms in his boys. He had a couple of old shotguns that he used to supplement war time meat rationing when he work in a defense plant in Detroit and a brace of 22 caliber High Standard pistols that he shot weekly in the New London County Pistol League. Although he no longer hunted he used the shotguns to teach us safe gun handling, thinking correctly that a combination of firearms and adolescent hormones might be an accident looking for a place to happen. Our parents also encouraged our participation in the rifle team at New London High School which led us both to long, and occasionally distinguished, careers as smallbore and high power riflemen.
In my case it also meant some 40 years of reporting on the colorful characters and their shenanigans that make up the warp and woof of the fabric of competitive marksmanship, my favorite sport. Well versed in Runyon, and, like him, relating tales of those who inhabit a little known and esoteric world, I like to think of myself as “being known to one and all as a guy who is just around.” I owe my particular status to my parents love of literature and their unswerving support of my odd vices and to them I offer my thanks.