Down the Stretch We Come

The most noteworthy disparity between Budd Schulberg’s ‘final shooting script’ for On the Waterfront and the film itself is evident in the wondrous movie’s most celebrated scene (those wishing to up the ante to “all-time celebrated” will meet no resistance from this precinct!). In the shooting script Marlon Brando’s ‘Terry Malloy’ mournfully convicts his inveterately gambling, fight-fixing older brother for sabotaging Terry’s once-promising boxing career simply to cash in on the “short end money.” “It was you, Charley,” bluntly testifies the erstwhile middleweight from the backseat of a taxicab. In the published script Terry then continues: “You and Johnny.” The absence of these latter three words from the scene-as-filmed reduces Terry’s plaint from an indictment—an epiphany, really–of the Irish waterfront as an inhumane, ruthlessly hierarchical and endemically violent social system (Rod Steiger’s ‘Charley Malloy’ served as consigliere for the mob-associated local longshoremen’s union boss ‘Johnny Friendly’), to a family melodrama played out between orphaned brothers joined in a final desperate bid for a semblance of human connection if not intimacy.

This indelible “contender” scene (“one of the most memorable moments in twentieth century art,” smartly asserted Brando biographer Peter Manso)–shot in a faux taxicab hastily gerry-rigged on an uptown Manhattan sound stage—dramatizes the waterfront’s savage politics of emotional struggle (or is it the savage emotions of political struggle?) so powerfully; why dwell on three excised words? We dwell because Budd Schulberg enjoyed a preternatural gift for opening up—in a manner both unobtrusive and unthreatening—the Irish waterfront’s most deeply concealed emotional landscapes. Consider the quartet of male characters who dominate the great film: unmarried, childless figures all (though one among them, Karl Malden’s ‘Pete [Corridan] Barry’ was known as “the Father”). By contrast Budd inhabited for nearly seventy years various states of matrimony: he enjoyed four wives and five children whose births spanned more than four decades. Yet from nearly the moment he met Pete Corridan during the winter of 1950, Budd was quietly fascinated by the brutally masculine universe of the Irish waterfront and the women and families who lived there beneath its perpetual shadow of emotional and economic insecurity, if not neglect and/or periodic violence. So far as I know Schulberg was the only American writer who treated for publication the experience of longshoremen’s wives in the postwar decade.

Budd’s ‘You and Johnny’ coupling darkly evokes that wholly separate waterfront universe in which the mere sacrament of marriage pales before the manly mutual obligations, passions, and sacrifices that lent the Irish waterfront its grimly enduring mystique. At the outset of his bid to save Terry’s life—which will instead cost him his own—Charley Malloy rehearses a home truth his younger brother could scarcely have failed to grasp: for all his indulgent, avuncular affection for Terry, Johnny Friendly would never jeopardize the health of his organization for the sake of one ‘rubber lipped ex-tanker’ on the verge of finding his conscience just in time to offer damning public testimony against “some people we may know.” (In Waterfront, the novel (1955), Schulberg amplified the homoerotic dimension of Johnny Friendly’s affinity for Terry Malloy, a theme semi-subtly camouflaged in the film.)

I’m quite confident that Budd’s rendering of ‘You and Johnny’ emanated from the author’s deep understanding of the Irish waterfront’s unique “family” dynamics, in which the hierarchical and yes, patriarchal structures of the regnant church, political system and mob combined to obviate the prospects for companionate marriages, on the one hand, and the bonds of thick (blood) kinship generally ascribed to Catholic immigrant subcultures on the other. “You were my brother,” as Terry upbraids Charley in a belated protest over this hegemonic “unnatural” moral order: “you should have looked out for me a little bit.” In place of a brother’s loyalty the waterfront violently raised up its ‘Johnny,’ with Lee J. Cobb’s menacing character as stand-in for the likes of a Boss Hague or a King Joe Ryan or, most fearsome of all, a Bill ‘Mr. Big’ McCormack (the stevedoring magnate whose own cameo-surrogate in the film is inexplicably saddled with a boarding school accent, where the real Mr. Big’s spiritual authority proceeded along the familiar cadences of his up-from the waterfront dialect). To the waterfront rank and file—as Budd Schulberg well knew–such men as these functioned like prelates sans the incense and holy water; stripped down to the most primal exercise of power relations: wielding their judgments over matters of life and death, salvation or consignment to a watery North River grave.

The above reflections were prompted by events that bracketed the week just now ending. Since the publication of On the Irish Waterfront I have enjoyed written and spoken exchanges with descendants of figures treated in the book; some who had contacted me in the past to express an interest in our topic and only lately chose to identify their more intimate waterfront family connections. I’ve viewed this process as in affirmation of our desire to reopen the waterfront of history in the Corridan/Schulberg collaborative spirit. At the same time, I’ve readily acknowledged via these exchanges our deficiency at capturing the full measure—sometimes perhaps even the full humanity–of supporting characters who pass too quickly across a page or two before making their permanent exit from the narrative.

Among these making such cameos are the Jersey City Irish we dubbed “Hague people,” (“gangster, priest and cop alike”) who daily served the preservation of the Boss’s ancient regime. For while we were able to provide a counter-narrative highlighting the populist instincts and practical compassion against which the otherwise baldly thieving, skull-cracking Hague might ultimately be judged, no such complexity was ascribed to his retainers and minions–those who loved and were loved in return in the private realm of their families, shared stories with grandchildren and played cards with neighbors–even as their waterfront activities confirmed markedly less savory aspects of their character.

Perhaps there was in fact a dual mode of Irish waterfront family life analogous to the ‘two Catholic spheres’ that linked waterfront and church while allowing both their special preserves: if so the private sphere putatively enjoyed by waterfront families awaits its historian. In the meantime, when readers cite their ancient family loyalties I struggle in vain to foreclose my own painful experience.

Though I grew up plenty far removed from the decaying Irish waterfront spatially, we inhabited a Hell’s Kitchen of the spirit, transient zip code notwithstanding. Inviolable codes of silence reinforced by violence? (for violate the codes I did, with often manic gusto). For the longest time I assumed everybody grew up that way; on learning otherwise I concluded that all Catholics, at least, grew up that way, only to see that article of faith erode after enlistment in the rather (then) worldly field of U.S. Catholic history over a quarter century ago. And now years later here I’m imbibing tales of familial Irish waterfront camaraderie and even love. And yet…the dialogue proceeds and deepens apace, pregnant with hints of experiential affinities. Call it a spectrum, but there is emerging this wonderfully rich mystery of connection between reader/author/stories unlike anything known to me pre-Irish Waterfront.

To press this after a different fashion: your present-day historian of the Irish waterfront is no better situated than Charley and Terry Malloy to surmount the emotional travail grounded in legacies of violence featuring “You and Johnny” themes of our own. Yet we are paradoxically blessed, propelled down uncharted creative avenues even as we remain haunted…talk about your double-edged sword! And talk I did to this theme among overlapping and looping others, during a highly charged session last Thursday evening at the CUNY Graduate Center for the Humanities, alongside those superb historians and gracious gentlemen Joshua Freeman, our host, and Steve Rosswurm.

My M.O. throughout this ruefully waning autumn Irish Waterfront tour entailed incarnation via performance of various ‘You and Johnny’ motifs so to render the waterfront of history as mythically ‘real’ as, well, say Brian Friel’s McGarvey! Thursday night’s midtown antics indeed reconfirmed that our emotions and ideas originate in the same neural location: whether forged in primal reaction to poundings on the Irish waterfront’s suburban redoubts or—more likely–simply another vestige of the ‘cognitive difference’ prevalent among we three sharing the journey here in North Central Jersey; simply don’t know. I do know each time I resurface following such a draining if exhilarating public performance I recall Jack Kerouac’s cautionary nostrum, to the effect self-confession in literary form is a frazzler of the heart you were born with, believe me.

In Ti-Jean Kerouac have I always kept faith: speaking of literature and inspiration, a healthy dose of the extra pep on display at CUNY was generated by the appearance of Helene Stapinski, just as the festivities commenced. I later described the joyously anticipatory experience of reading Helene’s Five Finger Discount in a Glendale, Missouri basement in the weeks just prior to our return to Jersey in summer 2001, followed very shortly thereafter by our initial meeting at the Jersey City museum on Montgomery Street, just moments before Helene took to the stage for a memorable reading. Helene paused just long enough to suggest: I know you, right? So I’ve always cared to believe. Discount proved one of two cognate literary works (the other being T.J. English’s The Westies)  that never let me down, ever, when a shot of narrative energy was demanded while composing Irish Waterfront. And while we’re lauding Helene; tip the hat for her role in securing us a reading at Sunny’s, a venerable joint in deepest Red Hook, hard by South Brooklyn’s historic piers; a Jan 3 event that launches the Winter 2010 incarnation of Irish Waterfront, the tour. But first we close out a most heartening autumn at Garden City this coming Tues. evening Dec. 8. Warmest Irish waterfront wishes; hope to see all.


1 thought on “Down the Stretch We Come

  1. “..we inhabited a Hell’s Kitchen of the spirit, … Inviolable codes of silence reinforced by violence? (for violate the codes I did, with often manic gusto). For the longest time I assumed everybody grew up that way; on learning otherwise I concluded that all Catholics, at least, grew up that way, only to see that article of faith erode after enlistment in the rather (then) worldly field of U.S. Catholic history over a quarter century ago.”

    How did this “article of faith” erode after you became involved in Cath Studies? Are there truly areas of the Church that raise their children and other underlings without the threat of real-world or otherworld violence? The whole premise of the threat of the Catholic “Hell” is that God, the ultimate furious father, will condemn His child to an eternity of endless torture and unimaginable pain because the kid pissed Him off. Priests – like those pastors in Ireland that the Irish Church just apologized for – are only doing their duty when they beat their child charges, by acting in lieu of God. Their brutality, like those of Irish real-world dads,, was only *for your own good,” right?

    If you haven’t read Alice Miller, this might be a good time to bring her theories of “the gifted child,” and the need of the frightened and weak parent to break and subdue that child, into this discussion.

    On a more “real-world” political level, since this is an area in which you are rapidly becoming more influential, I heartily suggest listening to Chomsky’s lecture “The Unipolar Moment and the Culture of Imperialism”,, if you have a free hour for some dense politio-historical analysis. Essentially, he implies that the El Salvadorean “Jesuit Martyrs” of 1989 were killed *with the Vatican’s sanction*, in order to eradicate he threat of “Liberation Theology.” Liberation Theology posed a direct challenge to the hierarchical top-down power structure of the Church, and the elimination of these Jesuits essentially ended the power of Liberation Theology. (St Peter’s College in NJ has a whole site devoted to the “Jesuit Martyrs” - – what a connection!)

    Chomsky’s argument is that the Church essentially conspired with the Reagan administration to destroy the Central American peasants’ movements of the 1980s in order to preserve an economic caste system that was based on the exploitation of the powerless.

    At the point when Charlemagne allied the Catholic Church to Empire, its abuse of the weak became justified by its necessity for the ostensible fulfillment of God’s Will. Is it possible to turn the course of thisclanking armoured beast, that has been grinding along this path of bones and gold for 1700 years? It can’t be done by one man – or one book.

    But if enough of us can identify and analyze this continuing thread of “God-sanctioned” violent exploitation, as it appears in all facets of modern history, from the smallest familial interactions to the broadest geopolitical theories justifying wars, then we have helped to begin a new approach, perhaps a new basis for the entire concept of “civilization.”

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