Chapter 3

The Utica Years

After the death of my grandfather, my Aunt Leona invited my brother Dick and I to Utica. Through his connections my father obtained a pass for us on the railroad. My aunt lived in a three-story apartment house in a suburb of Utica called Yorkville. The Utica Drop Forge Company abutted her back yard and all the factory seconds were thrown out in a pile near the fence. The Utica Drop Forge made all kinds of pliers and wrenches - crescent, box, end, in fact all kinds of mechanicís tools. My auntís foster son, about our age, and my brother and I used to crawl under the fence and help ourselves to all kinds of tools to play with. These seconds are no longer thrown out, but retail for five or six dollars apiece.

One incident sticks in my mind about our short visit. Early in life my aunt became fond of wall-to-wall carpeting. While we were there the sewer pipes in the basement became plugged. Since my aunt lived on the ground floor, each time the people in the two floors above her flushed their toilets, it spilled out of her toilet, all over her beautiful rugs. I can still remember my aunt begging the people upstairs not to flush their toilets, but due to the periodic calls of nature, her pleas fell on deaf ears. Besides, since there were so many families above her, she had no way of knowing who was ruining her rugs. Before we returned home, our last act was to hose down her apartment after the sewer was fixed. The nature of the debris was sufficient to stunt my growth for some months, since my labors in these Augean stables ruined my appetite whenever they came to mind, which was generally at mealtime.

Since my father was unable to find work in Ogdensburg, he again prevailed upon his friends for a railroad pass to Utica. We left Ogdensburg with only the clothes on our back. Our parents told the neighborhood to help themselves to all the furniture we had left behind. We moved in with my aunt and Don Davidson, whom we always called Big Don. He was the only one working. He worked as a cook at the Ashcroft Lunch, a small diner on North Genesee Street, and he always managed to fill his pockets with leftover food to feed our large bunch.

The Packing Plant

We moved to several houses on Genesee Street, all of which were too small, until we finally moved into a large mansion. This place had three stairways between floors and had more rooms than we could ever use. The rent was very low.

 There was a catch, of course. We were almost entirely surrounded by the Gold Medal Packing Company. It is a boast of packing companies these days that they sue all of a pig except the squeal. They made no such boasts then. Directly in back of our house was a pile of viscera at least ten feet high. Next to our house on the side was a fertilizer plant. Animals arriving DOA were winched onto enormous tables to be dismantled. The employees never seemed to be in any particular hurry in this operation. If stench was any indication, the carcasses would have fallen apart by themselves, given time.

Next to the fertilizer plant was the packing plant itself. We went there a few times to observe operations and although this plant was probably typical of the industry, seeing the cruelty inflicted upon these helpless animals, I was unable afterwards to consume any products under this label. Sheep and hogs had a sharp hook fastened through their leg and around the tendon, and were then hauled squealing or bleating through the air on a conveyor to the next stations where their throats were cut. I never knew how cows were handled as I quickly lost interest in this sort of thing.

As you can probably imagine, the flies were so thick outside the house that we generally kept a hand before our faces to avoid breathing or swallowing them. In belated gratitude, however, it was probably the flies that slipped through our defenses that supplied the protein to sustain us in those days of short rations.

 The Eire Canal

A section of the old Erie Canal ran in front of our house. In it were several barges which were sunk. As the water was only four feet deep, they were mostly out of the water. It would be interesting to know the cargo of these mule-drawn boats before they were towed to the places where they sank and the mules, and even the Erie Canal, vanished forever.

Parents Split Up

My parents broke up about this time. My mother went to Union Station in Utica and asked one of the engineers from Ogdensburg for a pass back to Ogdensburg. As bad luck would have it, my father followed her and ever afterwards claimed that she obtained the pass for a consideration which was too ridiculous to even consider.

 My mother came to Ogdensburg to stay with her sister Lena. Since this left rather a large family for my Aunt Lena to care for, my father decided to board some of us at another place. He, too, prevailed upon a friend on the railroad to obtain a pass and brought my brother Dick, my sister Berenice and I to Ogdensburg. He had an old friend on Pine Street named McPherson who had a small house. One unique feature about the house was that he obtained half a dozen storage batteries which he hooked up with some 6-volt lamps and he had the only electric lights on the street.

With the Lajoie Family

We stayed there for a few weeks until another old friend across the street, Jack Lajoie, became a little greedy for the money my father was paying McPherson. Both families would get out in the street and shout at each other. Mr. Lajoie would holler at Mr. McPherson to go home and wash his neck. This must have been a devastating insult because Mr. McPherson would hop up and down with rage. Mr. Lajoie apparently convinced my father that he was more capable of taking care of us or else he offered a better price, because he soon moved us in with the Lajoies. This family had five kids, three of them about our age, and a relative who raised pigs on a small farm a mile or so from town. That farmer would go around town collecting garbage for his pigs. If he came across any vegetables which were not too badly spoiled, he would bring them to Lajoieís. This was the main part of our diet.

One thing that fascinated me was the fact that Mrs. Lajoie nursed her baby openly. Though I politely tried not to look, I must say that she had enormous nipples, long and warty and about the length of the ordinary commercial rubber nipple, although she was rather flatchested. At this time my observations were rather academic since I had then little use for girls, and Mrs. Lajoieís dispensary of infant culinary department turned me away from them even more. I never considered them a point of beauty until some years later, when I had a complete reversal of my opinions.

My father, true to form, fell far behind in his payments, so Mr. Lajoie demanded he come and get us. I might add here that separating us three from the rest of the family gave us the idea that we were the least wanted of the family, and so my brother Dick, Berenice and I were and remained closer to each other than to the rest of the family.

Back to Utica

My father then rented a house on Meadow Street in Utica. This was a step up for us because the house had both gas and electric lights. The gas lights were much brighter than the electric. There were small gas jets on the wall for dim illumination and the main lights used a mantle just as the gasoline lanterns of today. The gas, however, was coal gas made not far from us, and as my mother and many other people she knew had nearly lost their lives from this type of gas, she used it only in the gas stove and had the gas in the rest of the house turned off. Natural gas is not dangerous to breathe. There is danger only of it replacing the oxygen or perhaps of an explosion when concentrated. But coal gas is poisonous and a leak anywhere could be fatal.

The house was about half a block from the Barge Canal harbor and an equal distance from the yards of the New York Central. We went to a school across the yards called Franklin School, which was in a district populated mostly by Negroes, Italians and Polish. Next to the street the school was on was Bleeker Street and then Whitesboro. Since this was the height of the prohibition gangs, and also the toughest part of the city, the frequent murders in this section went unnoticed for the most part.

Since we were the only people of Anglo-Saxon extraction in the school, all the ethnic groups were against us and we were always in fear of being beaten up. This situation came about because the area in which we lived was all industrial with the exception of the one-block street we lived on which put us in the school district of those people with which we did not belong. There was a large bridge across the railroad property which we were supposed to cross, but by walking across the tracks we saved more than half the distance. This was dangerous, however, because the main lines out of Utica were here and since there was so much traffic, it was hard to see a train coming and estimate what track it was on. We might have to dodge half a dozen high speed trains in that maze of track and it was always difficult to tell what track they were on.

The Ashcroft Lunch

One of the most pleasant things that happened was that my brother Pete got a job at the Ashcroft Lunch with Big Don. After he worked there for a while we used to go over early in the morning and have pancakes on the house. My brother, too, used to put leftover roasts and other things in his pockets and bring them home when the diner closed. Iíve often wondered if Mr. Ashcroft suspected how many people he was feeding on the side.

Pete mad a friend named Basil Brazzle who also worked at the diner. Basil used to test the griddle to see if it was hot enough by spitting on it. If the spit rolled up into a ball and rolled off the griddle, it was hot enough. I always avoided mooching a meal there when Basil was on in the morning. Basil had a wealthy uncle who had the best restaurant in town, on the bottom floor of the Hotel Utica, but he preferred to make it on his own. My Aunt Leona always referred to him as Basil Asshole, but she thought a lot of him and he always hung around her place. My Aunt and Big Don both had hearts of such a size that they loved everyone and anyone was welcome at their place. Although they both used rough language, it was so natural with them that no one ever considered it as swearing. Big Don later worked for Basilís uncle at Brazzleís restaurant where he specialized in casseroles and salads until he retired.

Prohibition

Next to the Ashcroft Lunch there was a large warehouse, apparently abandoned, since there was never any activity around there. One day, Federal agents and police raided it and it was found to contain several hundred kegs of beer. As this was during prohibition, the officers rolled all the kegs out of the building to the rear and smashed in the tops. They then turned them on their sides rather than upending them, which showed a certain amount of sympathy on the part of these officers for all the local drunks. Everyone in that section brought any container available to cart beer home. My own father worked all one night hauling beer until he had every pot and pan in the house filled with it. My mother complained that we had nothing to cook with or drink out of, so he washed the bathtub out and dumped it all in there. He and a few friends went on a binge until the beer went flat, but by that time there was little left.

My father narrowly escaped death a short time later when he stopped in with a friend in a saloon on Genesee Street. They had money for one shot, and then left. But nine men who drank there all day died because the proprietor had used wood alcohol in his drinks. You might wonder what a saloon was doing selling drinks during prohibition, but everyone hated this law and no one was about to obey it. Saloons ran wide open all over Utica and other cities under the noses of the police, who were either paid off or enjoyed a little nip themselves. The only ones who worried about enforcement were Federal men, and very few of those.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving came while we were in Utica and the Salvation Army sent us a basket. Up until then we had no charity from any outside source, and my mother started to cry. She was so humiliated that she wanted to send it back. Since there was little or no food in the house, my father talked her out of it. I think that at last my mother had to face the fact that we were poor - very poor.