Not twenty minutes ago was I barreling up Rte 1 in N. Ctrl Jersey when Rod Stewart demanded yet again that Maggie wake up, and just like every other time that song’s pierced my airwaves over the past three decades or so, I’m right back in that barren room in northwest Bergen County, having slammed the door on returning from a new and alien school. A scared and scary-looking five feet nine, 100 pound fifteen-year old, maybe, if you’d handed me a few rolls of quarters to carry. Staring at those four papered-over walls with daydreams featuring what I believe the great Frederick Exley once described as “sanguinary intent.” I’ve made at least two lifelong friends from discovering we shared that precise experience autumn 1971; staring at those four walls while Rod Stewart rasped on; he’s whining over getting kicked in the head while all we got are those miserable walls for wailing gone unheard.
This is in the way of a tribute to Gracie, my moms, who doth indeed grace a paragraph in the acknowledgments of Irish Waterfront, alongside Jimmy Breslin, who I discovered via Gracie’s intercession circa 1965 when—as a very lonely, pent-up and exceedingly under-employed housewife married to a corporate soldier oft-away “on business”—she took to her room late of evenings and began dialing the rotary phone: hi-ball in hand, day-old copy (delivered via U.S. postal service) of the New York Herald-Tribune on the nightstand folded to reveal Jimmy’s latest column.
I wasn’t supposed to hear a thing but I missed nary a word, of her side of the conversation at least which often felt like the whole thing (just one of the many endearing/infuriating qualities she bequeathed me). I absorbed every word because I have ADHD ‘somethin’ wicked’—in the parlance of Southern New England where we lived at the time—which means I’m often more attuned to other voices/other rooms than to the conversation (or silence) right before me in which I mean to be engaged. And I was damn lucky to be wired so (again just like Gracie) because the stories and characters she poured over that line to bemused/temporarily captive lady friends!: Marvin the Torch; Klein the Lawyer, who were these mugs and where did my mom acquire such intimacy with the world according to Breslin?
The Trib soon folded but in summer 71 we were finally transferred back to her native North Jersey, where my visions of communing in person with Jimmy Breslin quickly yielded instead to Rod Stewart on the radio and those variously mustard-shaded papered walls. But then very gradually it began to open up: New York talk radio in those days was flush with personalities Gracie had encountered during her glorious stint working in advertising at 710 WOR-Radio, the NYC flagship of the Mutual Broadcasting System with studios at 1440 Broadway hard by Times Square. She knew about ‘em all, not only the wholesome standbys like Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy, and Ed and Pegeen Fitzgerald on WOR but such denizens of the night as Barry Gray, to the left of the dial on WMCA AM 530.
Until proven otherwise I’ll maintain conviction that I was the only Irish-Catholic sixteen year old to tune in each night to the Barry Gray program; among his regular guests was a very young Jeff Greenfield, who I finally had the privilege of meeting at Glucksman Ireland House just prior to the Breslin-fest on Dec. 7 (please see our post of Dec. 20 for more on that memorable event). If you had told me circa 1972 while I huddled, ear pressed to forbidden post-midnight radio that two decades later I’d be blessed by presence of Jeff G’s brilliant daughter in my American Studies lecture course at Yale (and that she’d bring him to a lecture only to have me in Ireland that day interviewing for job; curses!). If you’d told me a lot of things they’d have sounded totally preposterous to everyone around me except Gracie, though she surely must’ve nervously harbored more than her share of doubts too.
Gracie suffered emotionally for years: fifty-five to be precise now that I may report her own account, and it’s a heartbreak to see her in throes of “dementia” at a nursing home in these days. But the bottom line is we maintain the same loopy verbal and spiritual connection as always; she’s especially alert in recalling the old radio days and the days of those rakish, brooding, raging newspaper columnists of the great metropolis especially her favorite, Jimmy Breslin. “He’s still around;” as she’s informed me on numerous occasions this autumn.
Love you Gracie: this one’s for you: no “links,” digital images none of those things you were not made to experience much less understand. I was never so proud of my mom as on a sweltering late-60s summer afternoon which for some reason found us attempting to deposit refuse at the town dump in Cheshire, Connecticut, when some dopey citizen driving behind us in his town-and-country station wagon accused her of “holding up the works.” Gracie was anything but tough, God bless her, but she fixed on this faux-Yankee her finest Honan-girl “puss,” as they used to say, and muttered for me to hear at least: “later for you, pal.” We’re with you Gracie, not in Rockland but Morristown and indelible Jersey memory.