Excerpt from “American Wake”
Dennis came over with a new friend in tow. “James, this is Honora. She’s off to America as well.”
James nodded and debated whether to be polite or just ignore that she existed. That proved difficult. Her green eyes hung like emeralds against her pale skin. His brother had a way.
“Seeing she’s alone I promised that we’d look after her.”
“Grand,” muttered James, grabbing his duffel and heading down the steps onto the platform. Mallow to Cork took another hour, which seemed interminable as Dennis and Honora chatted away about America and what was in store. “Our Uncle Dennis is a big man over there, he’ll put us to work,” boasted Dennis.
Honora’s sister, a maid to a “Lace Curtain Irish” family in the Rosevale section of Manhattan, lined up a position with a well-to-do family with a grand house on the corner of 40th and 12th Avenue.
“Queenstown!” bellowed the engineer, interrupting James thoughts. He had ventured this far south before, and other than his two-week disappearance when he was 12, neither had Dennis. The tracks of the Queenstown station wedged between the Harbor and a 60-foor high stone wall. It’s the kind of bulwark you’d expect to see keep out the fucking Huns, mused Dennis.
Only 30 yards stood between the tracks and the quays that would lead them to out the Aurania, but an imposing wrought-iron fence blocked that path. Passengers herded into the station where those booked for tomorrow’s departing ships checked their luggage.
The trio followed the crowd to the U.S. Consulate, where a line snaked through the station. While ostensibly to complete paperwork, the real test for entrance into America was the ability to speak English. When they reached the front of the line, a surprisingly cheerful American fellow in a black suit asked for their names, destination, and having gotten answers in English, waved them through. Dennis thankfully, pulled no pranks.
Next came the inspection station, a two-hour ordeal where they were poked and prodded like cattle, and then deloused to make them fit to get on Cunard’s ship. Two men were pulled from the line. Ship inspectors took no chances; if a passenger failed a failed medical or mental inspection once they reached United States, they’d be sent back home at Cunard’s expense.
Those lucky to have accommodations set out for them. Dennis and James were not lucky. Honora had an aunt who lived in Queenstown, and her mother had given her an address and a note if she needed it. But as she’d never met this long-lost aunt she was inclined not to use it.
James placed his hands on the metal railing and peered out at the tall ships in the Queenstown harbor. “Which one’s the Aurania?” he asked a porters hustling past with a trunk. The man’s response was a grunt.
“We need to find a room before dark,” James told the lovebirds. As the three emigrants walked along the cobblestone streets, tradesmen bombarded them with offers — everything from soap to biscuits to a New York map to a last go with an Irish girl. James bought a comb, while Dennis teased Honora with an offer to pay for her romp with a prostitute. She blushed and turned away.
“I never knew Ireland could look like this. If I’d lived here, maybe I’d never got it into my thick head to leave,” said Dennis. They passed Jacob’s Ladder, but the men in three-piece suits stepping into carriages were a signal the hotel was not for their crowd. Dennis watched as a finely dressed couple stepped into a carriage, resisting the urge to beat the man senseless and ride off with the carriage and girl. Pubs bustled with passengers seeking one last pint before tomorrow’s departure. Dennis lingered, but a sharp look from James kept him moving.
The bellhop at The Marbury Hotel took one look at the traveling party and shooed them away. The same happened at the next two places they stopped, leaving the trio weary, hungry, and frustrated. “No room at the inn,” said Dennis, “I am feeling like Joseph and Mary.”
“Don’t be disrespecting the Holy Father,” scolded Honora.
Shadows crept in as they approached the Colour House, a small inn a mile from the harbor. A stout middle-aged woman tossed someone’s shabby belongings onto the stoop, barking, “Out with ya!” A smallish, scruffy man stumbled out behind her. Margaret Crohan didn’t broker drunks vomiting in her inn.
James stepped up. “Would that mean you’d have a room?”
Margaret eyed him. “It’s a mess from him, I can’t let it.”
“That’s not a problem. Give me a bucket and I’ll clean it myself.”
Margaret pointed at Honora. “Is this your wife?” Sliding his arm around her waist, James nodded. “And she’s three months pregnant. That there is my brother.” Honora did her best to look pitiful. Dennis, for once in his life, kept his mouth shut.
“It’s one pound, and your brother can sleep on the floor. And no drinking,” instructed Margaret, looking beyond James to glare at the drunk stumbling away in the darkness. James handed over the pound and asked for a bucket. Dennis and Honora waited in the sitting room. Dennis leaned over and whispered, “Remember to treat your husband well tonight.” That earned him a hard jab to the ribs.
Margaret ignored them as she counted the day’s take. James returned, and his willingness to spare her the cleanup had an effect. “There is another sitting room upstairs. No reason for you to share a room. I’ll make it up for your brother and you two can have some peace.”
Honora blanched at the news she’d be sharing a room, alone, with a man she met earlier that day.
Before Dennis could chime in, James said, “That’s very kind.”
Margaret or no Margaret, Dennis didn’t intend to spend his last night in Ireland lying on a couch in the sitting room while James spent the night with Honora. As the reluctant couple settled in, he padded his way downstairs in the dark, quietly opened the door and slipped out.
It didn’t take long to find what he was looking for. Connie Doolins was a seedy little pub about a quarter of a mile from the harbor. Men and women lingered outside, arguing and slinging profanities. The boisterous men would leave tomorrow for America or Australia or London.
The shouting women spent their lives in Queenstown, making money off men just like them. For their last nights in Ireland, the men wanted stout, card games and women, usually in that order. Dennis would have all three and more by night’s end.
James woke with a start before remembering why he’d slept on a hard, wooden floor in a strange room with a woman. The first rays of sun crept through the window. Honora, wrapped under the blankets, slept. He ventured out to wake Dennis.
The sitting room was empty, so James went downstairs. He glanced at the clock. 5am. No sign of him. Agitated, he went back upstairs to wake Honora. They lingered until 6:45. Margaret was furious a boarder was missing. How would that look if Dennis showed up dead? Police were never good for business.
“I shoulda known the lot of ya were no good.”
The once-trio-now-duo made their way to the harbor, already crowded with passengers waiting for registration and final inspection. They queued up in line when James heard a familiar voice say, “Heya.” He turned to see Dennis. His nose had ballooned, and blood and dirt caked his shirt.
“You stupid fuck, you want to get sent back home? You’re a stupid fuck, ya know that?”
Dennis grinned as his brother strode off. Three blocks from the port, James found Flynn’s Clothiers and reluctantly paid two pounds for a white dress shirt. Cursing under his breath, he returned to see the last passengers being processed. It was 8:45. Honora wiped the blood off Dennis’ face and did her best to brush the dried mud off his clothes. Dennis stripped and put on his new shirt, puffing out his chest proudly.
“A new shirt to go to America!”
When they reached the front of the line, the inspector glared at Dennis’ nose, but otherwise stamped their paperwork and pointed toward the holding pen. They slipped under the rope line and began their wait. There were about 250 of them, all baking in Ireland’s last joke at their expense: the hottest day of the year. James squinted to catch sight of the Aurania. The new ship accommodated 1,200 passengers.
At 11am, it was their turn to load onto a quay. They handed over their tickets and shuffled down with the rest of the unwashed to Third Class Steerage. Each passenger received a compartment that comprised a series of beds, pushed together to hold sixteen people, and a long table to eat meals. A faint hint of light peeked through the porthole.
Honora, spotting her cousin Nellie, settled into a women’s compartment nearby. At exactly 3:34pm, the Aurania passed Queenstown and James got his last look at Ireland. As their voyage across the Atlantic began, the Aurania’s 478 passengers and crew were in high spirits at the thought of a swift journey, hoping they’d arrive in America in time to celebrate July 4. The ship sped through from Liverpool to Queenstown in less than a day, traversing 1,485 miles of water in the first four days at sea.
On day five, as Dennis and Honora took a morning walk on the deck, they noticed ominous dark clouds. The storm hit fast and hard. The ship, in calm waters, needed no encouragement to roll, and now it was listing back and forth as waves pummeled the vessel. Crew worked furiously to keep the engines operating; no one wanted to risk the sails in this weather. The next twenty-four hours did not discriminate among the classes of passengers. It was pure hell for all.
Dennis didn’t know his stomach could do such foul things, spending the day huddled on the floor of the cabin too weak to crawl away from his own vomit. Nothing in Ireland’s gentle weather had prepared him for this beating.
The storm slowed down their progress, but the captain promised to make up time, and made good on his word. On July 3, the tug Germania came into view and the passengers let out a whoop. By the next day, with three other tugs and most of the cabin passengers transferred to the steam-boat Virginia Seymour, the Aurania limped its way into the Staten Island Quarantine Station.
This was the moment passengers and crew dreaded.
Passengers waited in steerage while doctors, accompanied by a small army of policemen, checked their vaccination certificates. Those without papers, like Dennis and James, waited on the needle. James held out his arm as the doctor dipped his lancet in the bottle, wiped it on his shirt, cut and crosscut the skin, and then rapidly stretched and closed the incisions with his thumb. He handed James a certificate.
The health officer’s job was to determine whether there was disease on the ship that would automatically force passengers to go into quarantine for a minimum of forty days. The extra days at sea made everyone nervous that he might err on the side of caution, but thankfully, with the urging of Capt. Hains that all was well, they received permission to harbor.
Passengers spent their first night in America cooped up, barred from leaving their steerage. They lay in their quarters, trying to come to grips with the suffocating, sticky air that was a usual New York night in July. A drenched James found sleep impossible. Dennis snored happily beside him.
The brothers were among the first on the deck the next morning. The announcement, “Barges coming in a half-hour,” lifted everyone’s spirits, and soon the deck teamed with trunks and suitcases. But at 2 P.M., a porter announced a delay in the return of the barges. James and Dennis were among the last to give up hope of getting off the ship that day. They picked up their duffels and headed back inside. They had no food left, but a bunk mate shared an apple. That evening was the ugliest on the boat, as frustrated passengers took out their anger on each other. Fistfights broke out in steerage, though thankfully none involved Dennis.
On July 7, James spotted the barges. The first passengers bade farewell to the Aurania in the late morning, while the foursome made it onto the second barge. Once the crew lowered the gangplank, the masses streamed off the Aurania and got their first glimpses of America. They were met with shouts. “Leave your luggage! Men to the right, women and children to the left!” guards announced.
Honora and Nellie lost sight of Dennis and James as the mob propelled them forward. Herded like cattle into the Great Hall, they queued up in three massive rows separated by metal railings. Exhausted from the trip, the ladies descended the stairs to the Registry Room, not realizing this was their first test. Sharp-eyed inspectors scrutinized each passenger as they struggled up, looking for shortness of breath, potential heart defects or other health issues. If a doctor suspected an ailment, he chalked a mark onto their clothes. Several passengers received three or four marks, which didn’t bode well for them.
Dennis eyed his brother James, tall and lean. He’s a perfect specimen for American factories, he thought. Dennis idled next to him, humming off-key and chattering to the doctor, who grabbed his jaw to inspect his broken nose.
“When did ya break it?” the doctor barked.
“I didn’t, the other guy did.”
The doctor shook his head and passed him on.
Others were not so lucky. Inspectors noted one man’s struggle to get up the stairs and placed a “P” on his jacket. He was pulled from the line, confused, and led to an examination room. Another man, just behind James, shouted out in protest when a dreaded “X” was chalked on his shirt. That meant mental testing. Escorted away, he insisted he wasn’t deranged. It didn’t help matters.
While the testing was unpleasant for Dennis and James, it was traumatic for Honora. She’d never been so much as touched by a man, and now she inspected like a prize calf. She said not a word as the doctor, coarse and impatient, used a buttonhook to lift her eyelid to check for disease. Honora froze when he lifted her shirt to check her heart rate.
She was shuffled to the next station, where her ship medical examination was reviewed. Nellie endured the same treatment, but after lifting her eyelid the doctor paused. Honora watched as a second doctor checked Nellie’s eyes. The man wrote “CT” in chalk on her shirt.
“What does that mean?” Nellie asked. The doctors said nothing but pointed her to a policeman. He took her by the arm toward an office.
Honora looked back in panic. “Where is my friend going?”
“You travel with her?”
Honora was subjected to a second inspection. The doctor sent her on her way.
“Where is my friend?”
“Back to Ireland. She has a trachoma.”
Without a word, the guard pushed Honora forward. A short, slight man stood behind a desk.
Honora didn’t move.
“Papers!” he barked, never looking up.
Honora thrust her documents on the table.
“Are you married?”
“Where’s your family?”
“My sister is in New York.”
“Is she married?”
“How much money do you have?”
“Show it to me.”
Honora pulled out her cash, dropping some to the floor as the inspector huffed with impatience.
“There is only twenty-eight dollars here.”
“That’s all I have.”
The inspector eyed her. “How do you expect to live?”
“With my sister.”
“What does she do?”
“She’s a maid.”
“I don’t know.”
Honora watched as the man shuffled her papers, seeming to weigh a decision. Like other immigrants, Honora knew little about the process, but knew the phrase, “Liable to become a public charge.” It meant a one-way ticket back to Ireland.
The inspector handed the papers back at her. Looking down, she saw the top one stamped “Passed.” She nearly broke out in tears.
James and Dennis waited in the reception room, watching as hundreds of family, friends, and well-wishers milled around searching for loved ones. It had been five hours since they left Honora and Nellie, and they grew restless.
Their Uncle Cornelius was due to greet them. They’d never met him and had no picture, so they searched for a near-replica of their father.
Honora finally turned up without Nellie. She introduced the brothers to her sister Maggie, who’d come to America two years earlier. Maggie labored as a servant for a well-to-do Irish banker in New York. He hadn’t thought it through, but it was the first instant Dennis realized that Honora wouldn’t be following them to Waterbury. His heart sank.
An hour later, Uncle Cornelius had not turned up and Maggie was anxious to get back to the banker’s house. She was five years older than Honora with the same dark hair and eyes, but ordinary-looking and plump. She didn’t like when Honora asked if they could put up James and Dennis for the night. The brothers had helped her sister get to America, though, so Maggie had little choice.
“They can’t stay with the Sullivans, they’ll never allow it, but I know some boys down the fare who will keep them for one night,” she said, emphasizing her words so there’d be no confusion.
The late afternoon sun burned down on them as the group set out. James was sure that there was less oxygen to breathe in America, and his clothes were drenched as if he’d just been dipped into the Maine River. As they snaked through the streets, James carrying Honora’s case, it wasn’t the humidity that bombarded their senses. It was the stench: sharp like a burnt pretzel, yet subtle at the same time.
The smell so pervasive it stuck to his clothes. It wasn’t good or bad, and James didn’t like or dislike it. But no matter where he traveled, and for the rest of his life, the smell of the New York streets would always mean America to him.
After a month in America, James and Dennis had learned three things. Waterbury was much closer to hell than Scartaglin. What else could explain the suffocating heat the brothers endured every day? They’d never seen a day hotter than eighty-eight degrees in Ireland, and even then, practically no humidity. During a ten-day stretch in late July, the temperature topped one hundred degrees each day.
Each morning, James and Dennis left the boarding house on Baldwin Street to walk the mile to the collection of brass mills. They waited outside while others brushed by them to enter the mill. The pair loitered, along with a mixture of Irish, Italians, and Lithuanians, while the boss picked the day workers he needed. Over the last month, James had been chosen six times; Dennis never. The rejected men walked the streets in search of other opportunities. They helped build a saloon on Elm Street, but found no steady work.
By 3pm, exhausted from the heat, the men returned to their boarding house, followed hours later by those who’d found jobs. Dennis’ resentment ate at him. More than once he had picked a fight with a returning laborer and been kicked out of the boarding house.
The second thing the brothers learned was that Honora used them. Once they reached her sister’s home in New York City, she turned cold. They spent their one night in New York at a friend of her sister’s, tried to say goodbye the next day but were told she was sleeping.
Third, their Uncle Cornelius was full of shit. His boasts about being an influential man in the American Sinn Fein movement were just that. Instead, he had a well-earned reputation as a blowhard, a drunk and a buffoon. Being related to him was a liability.
The brothers had reason to hope their prospects might brighten. The largest brass mall in Waterbury, Scovill Mill, was fully reopening in a week after a fire in one of the main building crippled production and threw six hundred men temporarily out of work. For James and Dennis, it couldn’t come soon enough. The woman who ran the boarding house had threatened to seize their meager possessions unless they paid up the three dollars they owed.
On their first day of gainful employment at Scovill, Dennis and James buried a horse. It was 7:30am on August 19, and James and Dennis waited for work in what was already a sweltering eighty-five degree Monday. Humidity drenched their shirts. James eyed the collection of buildings that made up the Scovill compound, watching as the mill’s permanent workers — clerks, machine-tool setters, and cutters — walked by them to return to their jobs.
Once they entered, the foreman picked the dailies. He needed to make up for the lost production caused by the fire, and the men he’d pick would do nothing but the harshest work. “I need casters!” he yelled. Most of the assembled men raised their hands, James and Dennis among them. Three dozen men were chosen for the job.
“Rollers!” the foreman bellowed. In the hustle, Dennis was knocked down. With pleading eyes, he stared at the foreman. James Linnehan chose twenty men. That was all he needed.
“Fuck yer mother,” Dennis said under his breath. The gaggle of rejects shuffled away around to East Main Street, with Dennis continuing to disparage Little Jim’s mother. His anger consumed him and he headed back toward Scovill to pick a fight. “Shit, piss, and corruption!” James hustled to stop the bloodbath.
When they turned the corner, Little Jim was cursing out a soft-bellied man. “Who the feck left the fecking horse near the fecking pond!”
Little Jim eyed James and Dennis. “Hey, ya two want to bury a horse?”
And so they did. James dug his shovel into the dry gravel. The horse lay next to them, having expired hours ago. The flies that swarmed didn’t discriminate between the horse’s carcass and Dennis and James’ flesh, making the grave digging slow and painful.
The horse and wagon had been left by the side of the Brass Mill Pond after a morning shipment of coal. Having finished the grueling task, the workers stripped for a swim. Perhaps the horse was drawn to the water or just stupid. Either way, by moving toward the water he dragged the buggy and wagon, which pushed the animal deeper into the man-made lake.
He never stood a chance. The swimming men tried to pull the wagon back up, but in his struggle, the horse dug deeper into the mud and drowned. The brothers tied the lines to the shaft and used it to drag the dead carcass onto the side of the pond. Dennis and James were handed a pick and shovel. It took six hours to dig the hole, leaving them drenched in sweat.
They stripped, took a quick swim — their first in America — and sought out Little Jim. “What else ya got?” asked James.
Little Jim surveyed the men. “Can ya paint?”
The brothers spent the next four hours on scaffolding, painting the roof on the burnishing shop. It was 7:30 by the time one of Little Jim’s men told them to knock off.
“But we ain’t done yet.”
“Come back and finish it tomorrow.”
It was the best thing they’d heard since they’d arrived in Waterbury.
After a week of odd jobs, a foreman led them into a huge room by the mill. The wide-open windows did little to ease the temperature. Across the wall, six massive black furnaces operated sixteen hours a day. Each had a metal ramp attached to its front and a winch that opened the furnace door.
Linnehan gestured to James. “Muffles,” pointing his thumb at the furnaces.
He nodded to Dennis to follow him and called, “Pickle Tub!”
The foreman led Dennis to a room containing four massive tubs. Dennis’ eyes immediately burned, and the chemicals stung his chest as he breathed. The foreman pointed for him to join a group of three around a tub. Eleven hours later, Dennis and James met outside the mill and headed home. Neither man spoke, but each wondered whether leaving Ireland was such a wise move. From then on out they worked in the Pickle Tub, sometimes the Muffles.
Other times a foreman tasked them with repairing a roof or slogging soot out of the canals that cooled the machines. Three months later, Mr. Livingston and signed them up as full-time permanent employees of Scovill. Their weekly pay was fourteen dollars.
From buttons to watches to fixtures to pins to casings to canisters, Scovill delivered the goods that made Waterbury “The Brass Capital of the World.” As long as the country needed brass, Waterbury’s future was assured — and with it, it seemed, that of the two brothers.