"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

18 Oct 2014

A Philosophy of Tramping—Jim Christy, Part 1




Preamble

Having now written profiles on twelve tramp writers born before the end of the nineteenth century—and still not having exhausted the list—I've decided to take a break from dead vagabonds and immerse myself in the life and works of one who is still very much alive; in fact, only three years older than myself.

But these are three very significant years. I was only twelve years old in 1960, whereas Jim Christy was fifteen; old enough to be actively involved in the counterculture of the early 60's, even though, as he makes clear, 'I was never a hippie'. Also old enough to have a memory of the jazz, bebop and Beat generation that preceded it, and which had a much more profound influence on Christy's tastes and style. They were three years also that meant one was old enough to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War—of which more later. As the 60s unfolded, I could only look on in envy and admiration at those emerging vagabond musicians and style gurus who were already at the end of their teens and entering their twenties: Dylan, Jagger, Hendrix, etc. But having spent the last two years of the 60s in Africa, it was the repetitive rhythm of Congolese soukous and imported James Brown albums that intoxicated me. The latter preceding 60s rock and also passing it by with his influence on the funk and hip-hop scenes that were already emerging—such is the serendipity of popular culture. End of music digression.

I will, of course, return later to the Beats and other vagabond writers of the first half of the twentieth century, such as Kerouac. But I could not resist the opportunity of writing about a contemporary drifter; all the more so because this time I am able to have a direct dialogue with the object of my interest. So how did I come upon Jim Christy in the first place? It is not as though this modern day vagabond is a household name. Regrettably, although Christy has an impressive list of published books (31 to date), plus plays, art exhibitions, travel, adventure, and yes, like seven of the Victorian vagabond writers in this series, was a pugilist also; even in his adopted home of Canada, he remains as obscure as many of those tramp writers born a century earlier.

This again raises a phenomenon I have discussed previously. Those with no interest in the vacuity of celebrity, whose energy is focused on discovering the world at eye-level and beneath their feet rather than star-gazing; who may even deliberately exile themselves from mainstream society to find solace in the margins of 'civilisation', the odd, the abject, the quirky and the downright weird. In turn, such people are often rejected by 'mainstream' society as weird themselves; a threat to everything that makes life safe and predictable (in Christy's case, this included his father's disappointment that he dodged the Vietnam draft instead of doing the patriotic thing, and deferred from following the family tradition of becoming a gangster). Significantly, in terms of their writing, their books also defy easy categorisation—even if Christy's work has been compared to the 'hard boiled' genre credited to the earlier tramp writer, Jim Tully. This disregard of literary convention poses a challenge for publishers and booksellers alike: how to market their work and where to display them on the shelves—as though that is the primary criteria for great literature! But again, I digress. How did I stumble across this modern day literary vagabond?

Paradoxically, I was introduced to Christy by one of the Victorian born tramp writers I referred to earlier. Well, not in person of course, but during my research into Jim Phelan, I came across a chronicle written by Christy of his connection to Phelan. After Phelan's death in 1966, his third wife, Kathleen Newton (who Phelan had tramped with for the last twenty years of his life), allegedly travelled to Spain. Jim Christy is the last person to have reported a sighting of Kathleen, nearly five years after Phelan's death. The tale continues in Christy's own words:

     'In early January, 1970, twenty-four years old, I was on a ferry, traveling to Morocco from Spain.  Most of the passengers appeared to be Arab, many in western garb; the rest, or so it seemed, were young western men and women, hippies, in other words. But walking the deck half an hour after boarding I saw a white woman, older than the rest, and certainly no hippie. She had grey hair, a lined face and to me, she was nearly ancient, fifty, at least. She must have seen me look her way because a minute or so later a voice at my side said, You look different from the rest of them.
     "I could say the same about you!
      She smiled and told me her name was Kathleen and we began talking as if old friends who were continuing a conversation wed been having just the other day.
      After a few minutes, she asked me what I did. I shrugged, told her I worked various jobs. She nodded, and said, Yes, but what do you want to do?
     Well I guess I want to be a writer.
     She nodded, as if shed known it all along.
     My husband was a writer. He died a few years ago.
     A real published writer?
     Writers were an exotic species to me.
     Yes, widely published.
     What was his name?
     Youve probably never heard of him, coming from North America. Jim Phelan
     “’Bell Wethers. [short story by Phelan]
     Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, rearranging the deep lines in her face. Her eyes which I remember as gray-blue seemed to sparkle.
     Yes, thats Jims. '

The young and the mature tramp fell into an immediate bond of fellowship, 'by the time the boat docked, we might have been the closest of friends.' And so it was that Jim Christy and Kathleen Phelan became tramping partners for a few treasured weeks in Morocco:

     'We avoided Tangiers, tramping the roads and calling at small towns, and all along the way people seemed drawn to her. I saw men who would ignore other foreigners, approach her, smiling, and it was as if they wanted just to be in her presence. People offered us rides on camels and in donkey carts. We had tea sitting in the fields with shepherds. Men and children approached to tell her things. The women regarded her from a polite distance.

[...]

     We stayed in other small towns, in lodging places that were unadvertised, beautiful rooms behind unmarked doorways, rooms arranged around mosaic courtyards with fountains. Our relationship was chaste, we took separate quarters for five nights. On the sixth night, Kathleen came into my room and asked if she could get in bed with me. She saw the question in my eyes and answered it, “I don’t want to seduce you. I just want to be close. I haven’t been held since Jim died, and that’s nearly five years ago.
     And so we lay there and fell asleep in each other’s arms. And it was the same the night after that.
     Finally, I felt I had to go on my separate way. I should have stayed with her. I have often regretted going off. Before we parted, she gave me a pamphlet of writings by Jim Phelan that she sold along the road to support her travels. She inscribed it on the cover, to commemorate a meeting on the road in Morocco.' (UP)

How Christy ends up on a boat to Morocco, and how he fulfils his ambition of becoming a writer, is a long story. But first, his list of literary achievements to date, and then (with his help) I'll attempt to start telling the story of Jim Christythe last American road kid.


Christy's Bibliography ... and a note on referencing

  1.     The New Refugees: American Voices in Canada, editor (Peter Martin 
        Associates, 1972) NR
  2.   Beyond the Spectacle, essays (Aline Press, 1973) BS
  3.   Palatine Cat, poems (Four Humours Press, 1978)
  4.   Rough Road to the North (Doubleday, 1980) RR
  5.   Streethearts (Simon & Pierre, 1981) SH
  6.   Traveling Light, short stories (Simon & Pierre, 1982) TL
  7.   The Price of Power, biography (Doubleday, 1983)
  8.   Flesh and Blood, (D&M, 1990) FB
  9.   Letter from the Khyber Pass, CD and intro (D&M, 1992)
10.   Strange Sites: Uncommon Homes & Gardens of the Pacific Northwest (Harbour,
        1995) 
11.  The Sunnyside of the Deathhouse, poetry (Ekstasis, 1996)
12.  The BUK Book, Musings on Charles Bukowski, biography/appreciation (ECW,
       1997) with photos by Claude Powell
13.  Shanghai Alley, [Gene Castle Series] (Ekstasis, 1997)
14.  The Long Slow Death of Jack Kerouac, biography/appreciation (ECW, 1998) JK
15.  Junkman, short stories (Ekstasis, 1998)
16.  Between the Meridians, short stories (Ekstasis, 1999) BM
17.  Princess and Gore [Gene Castle Series] (Ekstasis, 2000)
18.  Cavatinas for Long Nights, poetry (Ekstasis, 2000)
19.  Terminal Avenue [Gene Castle Series] (Ekstasis, 2002)
20.  Tight Like That (Anvil, 2003)
21.  The Redemption of Anna Dupree (Ekstasis, 2005)
22.  In the Wee Small Hours, poetry (Lyricalmiracle: Toronto, 2005)
23.  Scalawags: Rogues, Roustabouts, Wags & Scamps, (Anvil 2008) SW *
24.  Nine O'Clock Gun [Gene Castle Series] (Ekstasis, 2008)
25.  Marimba Forever, poetry (Guernica, 2010)
26.  Real Gone (Quattro Books, 2010) RG
27.  Sweet Assorted: 118 Takes From a Tin Box (Anvil, 2012) SA
28.  Jackpots (Ekstasis, 2012) JP
29.  This Cockeyed World, poetry (Guernica, 2013)
30.  The Big Thirst, poetry (Ekstasis, 2014)
31.  Rogues, Rascals, and Scalawags Too, (Anvil Press, 2015)

UNPUBLISHED WORKS

Shift and Glitter SG
Reet, Petite, and Gone RP

NOTE: The letters in bold after certain books above, are for referencing quotations from
Christy's writing in my own text. In addition, EM refers to emails written by Christy, TC to telephone conversations with Christy, and UP to unpublished works not identified above.


TO LISTEN TO CHRISTY'S JAZZ POETRY CD, "GOD'S LITTLE ANGLE" CLICK HERE


So far on this site I have not used any form of referencing published works, most of which are out of copyright anyway. But the hell with it, I'm not writing for the academic market, not for any market. My work is out there for free. So I will beg, borrow and steal as the fancy takes me.

But in Christy's case, I am not writing about a long dead author. Even though, as I have already mentioned, like those long since passed-on vagabond authors' books, Christy is no more a household name or best-seller than they. But then that is my mission in writing this Philosophy of Tramping: to slowly but surely shine a light on writers who deserve to be better known. And the reason they are not better known is because—as the tramps they are, their writing simply reflects the world they inhabit and the way they see it. Real literature defies the artificial genres that feed the appetites of a reading public who have to be told what to read. The life we live between being born and dying isn't a plot driven narrative with a beginning, middle and an end. Vagabond literature reflects life as it is, which for the most part is just the present passing—like the view out of a moving, open boxcar door.

But again I digress. I have referenced Christy's writing because this biography is a work in progress of a life in progress, and a work that might require several 'chapters'. I might well wish to return as the writing progresses, change bits and add others. I am not referencing passages to comply with the protocols of copyright, nor because I expect scholars to cite them in their dissertations—even if, like the other tramp literature on this site, Christy's work has far more to offer than many who are cited in scholarly texts.  


Vagabonds, Mobsters, Gunslingers and Freaks

Angelo Christinzio
Jim Christy was born in Richmond, Virginia on July 14 (Bastille Day), 1945. His father, Angelo Christinzio (born in Philadelphia just after his parents arrived in America from Molise in Italy) met his wife, Kathleen Dolby, a native Virginian, while Angelo was stationed there during World War II. Christy describes his father as, 'an Italian street guy who couldn't be separated from those streets'. Those streets were the tough Italian neighbourhood of South Philadelphia, chronicled in Christy's novel Streethearts (1981) and also Sylvester Stallone's Rocky films—Christy would appear as an extra in Rocky IV at the age of forty-nine, but more of boxing and Stallone anecdotes later.


Christy's Mother, Kathleen Dolby, with Angelo
And so, after his discharge from the army, when Christy was little over a year old, Angelo Christinzio returned to the streets of South Philadelphia, where he lived with his wife and new son in a second floor apartment on Seventh and Catherine streets: 'My father had inherited a job from his father in the Democratic political machine, which was controlled by what some people insist on calling the "mafia".' Philadelphia's Godfather, Angelo 'The Gentle Don' Bruno, was Christy's actual godfather.

As though connections to Philadelphia's crime family were not provenance enough for the fledgling vagabond, his cultural heritage on his mother's side (described in the chapter titled 'It Ain't OK' from Between the Meridians) is even more notorious. Christy is great-nephew of Billy Clanton who, along with Tom and Frank McLaury, were murdered by Wyatt Earp, two of his brothers, and Doc Holliday, in the one-sided 'Gunfight at the OK Corral'. Billy was only nineteen when he died, and although unarmed at the scene, Christy's other great-uncle, Ike Clanton, escaped with his life; only to be shot in the back six years later by a lawman straight out of a mail-order private detective course and 'wearing the tin badge that came with the course for 25 cents extra.' The Clantons, their older brother Phineas, and the McLaury brothers, were part of a loosely knit gang of over 200 known as the 'Cowboys'. So called because they rustled cattle across the border in Mexico to sell back in the US—hence the genesis of the term. But this is all well documented elsewhere—so long, that is, as one avoids the Hollywood myth created by Earp himself.

Bodies of Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton (right),
displayed in their caskets in the mortuary window
Christy was unaware of this aspect of his lineage until, at the age of thirty-six, drifting through Virginia on his way up country from Florida with a friend, he stopped off at the house of his aunt:

Christy with his maternal grandmother Reatha Dolby, 
half-Rappahanock Indian (photo Myfanwy Phillips 1979)
     'There, drinking coffee at the kitchen table with my aunt Louise, was my mother. After the surprise, we took to reminiscing about my grandmother who had passed on two months earlier at the age of 95. "She left plenty of papers about the family history, all sorts of stuff about the Clantons," my mother announced.
     "Who are they?"
     "I declare! You know who I mean. The 'Clantons'."
     "We're related to the Clantons?" I thought she meant Jimmy Clanton, the guy who sung "Venus in Blue Jeans."
     She leaned across the table and whispered conspiratorially, "The outlaws. The OK Corral?" ' (BM 218)

And so, after pouring through pages of documents confirming that Billy's father, Newman Haynes Clanton, was his great-great-grandfather (not to mention defamatory information that is not expanded on), Christy made the pilgrimage to Tombstone:

     'I stroll into an old Wild West hotel with polished tile floor, marble-topped registration desk and wide, dark wooden stairs that swoop away in a sweeping curve. I half expect to see Katy Jurado slinking down the stairs, fingernails like weapons trailing along the banisters. It could be 1947.' (BM 219)

Newman Haynes Clanton
Later, after climbing the rise to Boot Hill, Christy stood by the graves of Newman and Billy Clanton, before returning to the Crystal Palace saloon in town for a well earned drink. In Between the Meridians, there follows thoroughly researched particulars about the Cowboys and the Earps. Christy takes on the legend, dispelling the lies that have been handed down as historical facts. Not least, because the author (via his proxies) of the events of 6th October 1881, and perpetuated in at least twenty film and TV versions, was none other than Earp himself—mightily edited to present himself as a hero, or, as the opening line of 'It Ain't OK' ironically suggests, 'Brave, courageous and bold.' Christy's actual characterisation of Earp, ably assisted by recent forensic evidence of the real facts (including a hand written transcript of the Earps' trial for murder following the shootings) presents a very different picture.

Having previously been in trouble with the law in several other towns, the Earps and their cronies were latecomers to Tombstone, and ready to take advantage of, rather than eliminate, the lawlessness of the town; in particular to control the towns gambling and levy taxes of which they would be the main beneficiaries. Christy portrays the gang as scheming (Republican) political opportunists. Wyatt was soon fired from his job as deputy sheriff and took up a job as a saloon bouncer, where he continued to organise the gambling. Virgil Earp was defeated in his bid for the Marshall's job, and a long feud commenced with those who had displaced the Earps. The rest of the events leading up to the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral are better read in Christy's book. Below is Christy's characterisation of Wyatt Earp:

     '... the thing with Wyatt was, he had to be real close to kill you. It is a fact that Wyatt liked to sidle right up, usually accompanied by two or more brothers, and preferably when you had your back turned. Wyatt let off seven or eight shots at Ike, who was about ten feet from him, and missed.' (BM 215)

Of Doc Holliday, Christy describes him as Earp's, 'alcoholic, tubercular, lying, cutthroat, Georgia peckerwood, dentistry college graduate sidekick'.

As a descendent of the Clantons, one might think well, he would say that wouldn't he. But Christy has a track record of saying it like it is, regardless of personal interests. Indeed, as a journalist, he has a history of going against editorial bias and political partisanship, even to his own disadvantage (see Christy's report from the Rhodesian Highlands on the Elim Mission massacre in 1978). And as a cynic of the Diogenes school, Christy would not let anything so arbitrary as family affect his mission of exposing the truth. As with most of the tramp writers I have discussed on this site, Christy is first and foremost an individual. If, on the face of it, his politics appear to veer to the left, he is not a member of any tribe, political or otherwise. He despises politically correct, left-wing liberals as much as he does right-wing bigots, and chooses his friends from across political and cultural divide. Even as a journalist, he maintains his personal integrity and speaks for no one but himself, attacking hypocrisy and public lies wherever he finds them.

But although Christy does not subscribe to any particular tribe, he can equally feel right at home with any tribe he chooses to identify with. Nothing about Christy is predictable, even at the age of twelve he took pleasure in defying cultural norms such as music and fashion. Indeed his way of dressing was so individual that, at the time, it defied any recognisable classification: as one schoolmate observed, "Christinzio, you dress like a nigger", while downtown, 'The wops on the corners laughed at me. Called me a hillbilly. Screw them.' (SH 176) Difference sometimes made him the cool dude, other-times a suspiciously, suspicious character—which in provincial America is not that difficult to achieve. And so, as well as finding himself in the company of minor and major celebrities, from an early age Christy often also sought out and befriended the underdog, the cripple, the tramp, the circus freak, etc. For example, at ten years old, when his mother, brother and himself, had to take a trip to visit her family in Virginia while Christy's father was clearing up some 'business' at home, he befriended a kid with polio. Their adventures are described in Streethearts, as are Christy's first acquaintance with hoboes (SH 67-81). But like all genuine tramps, Christy was equally comfortable with his own company and more than able to distract himself in the most banal and abject of circumstances. Below is the existential Christy contemplating his immediate surroundings from his New York apartment room in 1967:

     'My room was at the back and my window looked down into a vast courtyard, as did all the other back windows of the entire block of tenements. The open space was filled with concrete rubble, bricks, plumbing pipe and whatever had been thrown out the back windows, including kitchen chairs and huge records. I used to sit at the window and ponder those records. On what kind of machine could they have possibly been played? There were no doors that gave onto this courtyard. One day I saw a dead cat sprawled across the top of an old-fashioned cabinet radio, and over the course of several weeks, I watched as it decomposed and became a skeleton.'  (RG 53)

Ancestors aside, Christy describes 'weird folks and oddities' as being a normal part of his childhood, and so encountering them when he hit the road or travelled with carnival 'freaks' seemed nothing out of the ordinary:

     'They just seemed natural to my environment and so I took them for granted later and throughout my life. There was an Italian barber, perhaps a distant relative, who had what seemed like a little more than half a leg, attached to the leg was a huge well-polished black ankle boot. He had a buxom, bleached blond wife. My father's mother and his sister, were big gun carrying women who took numbers (illegal lottery). That sister, my aunt Lena, and her husband Joe, had a monster child that they kept in a locked room There was an iron-grill doorway. He could only grunt. Ran around in there all day like a highly energized gorilla. They called him "Boom-Boom." There was a deaf and dumb couple, aunt and uncle. My uncles Angelo and Pasquale owned a tavern where, at age ten, I saw a guy, a crook, of course, shot and killed in front of me [described in more detail below]. There was an old piano in the back-room and sawdust on the floor. My first girlfriend had a brother who had suffered some brain injury at birth and I have vivid memories of my laying in this sort of elongated baby's crib. I would have been nine, ten, eleven, and he would have been sixteen or seventeen. He had limited movement. It was a horrible sight. A skeleton head with thin skin stretched over it. Then I'd go to the southland and everyone there was straight out of an Erskine Caldwell novel.' (EM)

The event that prompted Christy's change in surname and his first foray into tramping, is described below:

     'Eventually when I was twelve, he [Christy's father] got into some sort of trouble and we had to get out of the city. In just a couple of months, we left the city, had a brand new vehicle (a Buick, automobile of choice for Mob typesknown as "Those People") and we had a new name. I was not Christy until then; the name on my birth certificate, and still my legal name, is Christinzio. Not long after moving, I ran away from home. I was a month or so short of my 13th birthday. In the city I had shined shoes outside a burlesque House, associated with crooks, young and old, strippers, hookers, etc. ... I spent my first night at large, sleeping in a trash bin in an alley at back of a department store in Allentown. I was taken in by police two and a half months later, apprehended whilst sleeping on a bench in the park adjacent to Independence Hall, of Liberty Bell fame, in Philadelphia.' (EM)

The email fragment above summarises how Christy first turned to tramping at the age of twelve. The events leading up to this event are comprehensively described in Christy's fifth book, Streethearts, from which most of the following is now referenced.


Childhood

Christy had cosmopolitan leanings from an early age. Far too curious and adventurous to stick to his own neighbourhood, at the age of seven he risked his skin walking alone into an African-American precinct and proving that Italian kids were just as tough on the football field as the black kids, who were ready to show him how they treated intruders. For his trouble, he got invited to play regular matches with them and spent time at the home of his friend Dwight, whose older brother Tommy Edwards recorded the 1958 number-one hit 'It's All in the Game' (SH 20-21). Christy's narrative in Streethearts of the local street-market where he grew up provides a vivid description of the sights and smells of his childhood. It also provides a rich social history of a community long since disappeared:

'That little punk with the dog is me. The dog's
name was Tia, a Boston Terrier. Shot taken
at 714 Catherine Street, deep in the heart of
Italian South Philadelphia. Mario Lanza's
parents lived across the stree
t.' Jim Christy
     'The Market started at Christian and went south past Montrose Street which had always been the centre of the Italian community ... It was there in the cafés surrounded by pushcarts with goats bleating on the street, that the first criminal organisation had been born. ... The Market continued over Washington Avenue and down as far as Wharton. On a Saturday morning it was a teeming casbah like in the movies, only more strange, because there were no Arabs or Orientals but thousands of Italian ladies haggling with butchers and fruit sellers. ... If you looked all the way down Ninth Street you saw the green awnings rising and falling in the breeze, the tin roofs buckling and sagging as of it were an uneasy sea ... Above these roofs the buildings were brick, the second and third floors used for storage or apartments and kids and women leaned out over the sills and looked down on the street. ... Black marble surrounded windows with yellow Hermes olive oil tins stacked around the perimeter. Inside some of these stores were barrels of olive oil under hanging wheels of provolone and romano. Wooden bins with spices, the smell of oregano and fennel mixing with the cheese. Sausage, salami, pastrami, prosciutto. And from down a tiny street like Hall Street, garlic and tomato paste smell of someone's Saturday dinner. ... I walk along. Wilted leaves of escarole lie in the gutters. A man in a filthy apron is hosing blood and chicken feathers from the sidewalk. Near the side door of the produce mart a middle-aged man is lifting baskets of bell peppers, Italian tomatoes, fresh Jersey corn, clumps of bitter Romaine and exotic purple egg plant onto a wagon, while an old man stands by and watches, idly patting the old horse on the nose. ... The old nag drops a golden plop of steaming shit onto the asphalt and it becomes part of the smell of the street.' (SH 49-50)

Family Life in the Mob

Christy also daily witnessed the underworld life of the adults in his community. His father was a local ward politician and together with other cronies, would fix it for Italian folk in trouble in return for favours come election day. A guy shoots another guy who was hassling his wife, another guy's son just out of the army needs a job, etc, etc:

Jim Christy aged 9
     'All the dealings in the back rooms of those Italian social clubs were done openly and under the full protection of the powers that be, for they were those powers. There was none of the muttering, the glances at the door, the leaning over the table and the clandestine whispering that went on in the kitchen, in back of Aldo's [Leo's] luncheonette.' (SH 61)

Crooked as many of the dealings may have been, they also served an important social function. There is a fascinating description of Italian funerals in Streethearts, and Christy explains that no small amount of Democratic Party funds went towards paying for the funerals of those families who were too poor to pay themselves, not to mention also slipping the widow 'a clean white envelope of five ten dollar bills to tide her over the next few weeks.'

     'Sometimes strangers appeared and everyone looked at them wondering who they could be. And then the word got around. They were the well-off cousins from out of state. They were actually guys from other neighbourhoods hired by the bereaved to attend the wake in borrowed cars, new ones with New York license plates, probably stolen. They wore rented suits, acted as though they were rich.
     And always there were the professional mourners. Italian women who walked dry-eyed into the parlour or the funeral home, took seats at the front and began to wail. ... They would stare ahead stoney-faced in their wailing; then leave to go home to boil the noodles ...' (SH 60)

As well as the dubious activities conducted in the kitchen of his uncle Leo's luncheonette on Fifth and Catharine Street, Christy was witness to similar business conducted in a taproom run by two other uncles. One of the uncles—describe by Christy as 'so big and tough looking, yet he could completely disarm you with his gentle manner and quiet voice'—kept a revolver in a cigar box next to the cash register. But on the particular afternoon in question, the gun was rendered useless. Christy describes his uncles bar as follows:

     'The room had swinging doors. It was dark like a saloon should be, heavy scarred mahogany bar and wide plank floors thinly covered with sawdust. Two curtained windows let in a warm glow of sunlight. Another bigger room was off the taproom, with thirty or forty tables and a stage on which sat an ancient upright piano.' (SH 62)

Anyway, back to the event involving the revolver. Christy's uncles are at the bar and Christy is playing in the sawdust on the barroom floor. This is how he witnesses his first killing:

     'It happened slowly, like it was choreographed. In slow motion.
     The two shuttered doors swung open and a man in a suit and hat stepped into the taproom. Rio looked up.
     The man calmly, almost in a whisper, spoke a single word, "Reuben." He unbuttoned his suit jacket and reached inside with his right hand.
     I looked at the men along the bar. Two pairs of men moved left and right leaving only the one in the middle, Reuben. Sheepie.
     Sheepie turned and slid of his stool, his arms spread at his sides like those of Jesus in the paintings of him beckoning the lambs and the little children.
     From under the man's left arm came the blunt, shiny gun. The men all stared at the gunman's hand.
     Sheepie took a step forward. A short lick of flame burst from the revolver. Then, as Sheepie reached for his chest, came the sound of a muffled BLAMM! Sheepie bent like he was going to pick up a coin from the sawdust, and when he was in a crouch he turned slowly and fell over on his back.

[...]

     I watched as the blood spread and consumed his starched and snow white shirt. Then everybody moved like a photograph come to life. Rio grabbed the gun from the cigar box next to the cash register and rushed out of the bar.' (SH 63)
    
We hear no more of this event, except that Rio's gun failed to fire. But another incident, sometime following this one, required the ten year old Christy, his mother and brother David to spend the summer with relatives in Virginia while Christy's father got the trouble straightened out and moved their home to another part of town.

Fledgling Hobo

It was while in Virginia that Christy had his first taste of tramps and tramping. He had befriended a boy his own age with polio who, in spite of his disability, was resourceful and intrepid enough to introduce Christy to his second sexual adventure with two sharecropper's daughters in a corn shed; his first had been at the age of seven with his cousin 'Candy' in the space between the washing machine and refrigerator in the family apartment—unconsummated due to the premature arrival of his mother. Anyway, on the occasions that his Virginian friend was not around, Christy would wander the countryside with his possessions wrapped in a bandana.

Christy had already become familiar with the tramps and hobos who constantly arrived at his grandmother's house for something to eat; she being one of those kindly souls who never refused those in need:

     'I had seen men come around to the back porch, knock on the screen door and humbly offer to do a job of work in return for a sandwich or a slice of lemon meringue pie that was cooling on the kitchen windowsill. My grandmother always obliged them. ... The men always looked mysterious to me, they had weatherbeaten faces and slotted eyes.
     One man sat on the back porch at the huge round table and my grandmother set a meal before him and he said, "Thank you ma'am, I have my own utensils." ... He reached into the side pocket of his jacket and removed a red railroad bandana which he carefully unknotted. ... The bandana also held a plug of chewing tobacco, a watch without the wrist band and a fountain pen. He tapped the green pen and said to me, "Always write a postcard home when you're on the move, boy."
     I nodded politely, "Yes sir," and wondered why he told me. Was I going somewhere? Who knows, maybe I was someday. I thrilled to hear these guys tell stories, and wanted to see all the places they talked about.' (SH 68-69)

And so Christy imitated these tramps by setting forth with his own bandana full of the necessities of life:

     'In the afternoon, before turning back, I'd lie down under a tree and spread out my bandana, eat the corn bread and cold chicken, sip water and wipe my lips like any respectable tramp.
     When I had finished the food, I slid further down between the thick roots of the tree and stared up at the top leaves, at the blue sky peeking through. One by one I considered all the great and exiting things I could do in life. If I couldn't choose between them all, it didn't matter, I would certainly do them all.' (SH 71)

Aspiring Mobster

But all too soon Christy's summer vacation was ended and he returned to a new home in a new neighbourhood, twenty blocks south of the previous one:

     'There was a new gang, and they watched me closely that first day as my mother insisted on dragging me, by the hand, to the store. I knew there was a mommas boy rap I would have to surmount when I fought my way into the gang. And I did, and took my place in the pecking order, and soon had great new friends unlike on Catherine Street.' (SH 73)

It wasn't long before Christy was establishing business interests of his own and marking out his territory. First carrying groceries for local housewives, then setting up shop in the back of a bar to run a loan shark operation:

     'At first I kept tabs on who had dough and who needed it. I filed the information in my head and set out to circulate the money from the former to the latter. If I was not exactly getting five for two on the school yard ... I often doubled my quarters and sometimes dollars. If I discovered a kid needed money, I would offer it to him at my rate and he would pay up. If he grew reluctant to pay off I would  have to lean on him.' (SH 103)

When the inevitable happened and one kid refused to pay up, calling Christy's bluff and threatening his dominion, Christy had to take action to protect his reputation. He picked a time and a place that would guarantee an audience: the kid's classroom just before the next lesson:

   ' "I believe you owe me three dollars and fifty cents."
     "Your nuts. I don't know what you're talking about. Get outa here."
     I made a motion as if to turn away, then spun back, grabbed him by the collar and brought him down from the sill. He hit the desk opposite, I place one leg in back of his, reached around and grabbed him by the chin and slammed him back the way he came. Then I hit him as hard as I could in the gut. As he lay face down on the floor I pressed one foot between his shoulder blades and told Ignance to go through his pockets. While all this was going on the rest of the class was screaming and hollering.' (SH 105)

The next morning on his street corner patch, Christy's friend came running up to warn him that the older brother of the kid he had taken the money from was on his way with two other thirteen year old kids with the intention of doing Christy harm. Christy enlisted the help of two other ten year old friends who, in spite of the odds stacked against them, were determined to stick by their friend, but more importantly, were of an extremely courageous disposition:

     ' ... they hove into view, coming from Wolf Street down Mildred towards us, walking right in the middle of the street like three gunfighters. The guy in the centre was nearly six feet tall. On his left was Tone's brother who wasn't much shorter and was carrying a chain. The third kid wasn't very tall but he made up for it in width. I thought we could be in some trouble here.' (SH 107)

But the audaciousness of the younger kids won out. Bernie, the largest of the three ten year olds, broke the tall guys shins with a baseball bat, while little Ignace split the stocky kid's skull with a knuckle duster. Christy, having ducked at the right moment, had already disabled Tone's brother whose chain wrapped itself around a lamppost instead of its intended target. Two of Christy's assailants were hospitalised with their injuries, which enhanced Christy's reputation on the street, and opened the way to expand his operation:

     'You had to come to terms with violence, it was all around you, and to ignore it was to delude yourself. You had to walk out of the front door every morning and stride down the street and be cool and ready for anything. Not to do this was to go peeking and hiding, ducking and dodging through life, to shrivel up inside ... That was no way to live, in fact, it was a bit like dying, bit by bit, day after day. That was how I figured it. [...] It had nothing to do with whether you like violence or not. It was out there, that's all. But I didn't like seeing helpless kids get beat up or frightened out of their lunch money, which is what led me to get into the protection racket. It was different from the usual operation, since it was run by a guy who who took in stray dogs, so I called it the Robin Hood Protection Service.' (SH 108-109)

As well as being a street fighter, Christy had been an amateur boxer since 1955, aged ten. He fought for two years in the Police Athletic League before his family moved out to the suburbs (FB 13-15). He describes South Philadelphia as being immersed in boxing: 

     'Two males, ten years old or fifty, might greet each other on the corner by putting up their dukes, giving a little head bob, slipping an imaginary punch. It was natural and friendly. [...] Tex Cobb, who went fifteen rounds with Larry Holmes, was quoted as saying that in South Philadelphia, even the winos throw jabs.' (FB 16-17)

     'Everybody had an uncle or father who fought.' Three of Christy's uncles had been fighters and he remembers his own father fighting regular bouts with his friend Billy Winston, 'a good looking coloured boy ... anywhere there was enough space to set up a ring or mark off a sixteen-to-twenty-foot square.' Christy would often hang out in his Uncle Joe and Aunt Lena's luncheonette, where one of the regulars was Joe 'The Iron Man' Grim (real name Saverio Giannone) so-called because of his ability to take punishment without being knocked out. Christy's father's uncle was the lightweight Andy Juliano:

     'Three years before he died at age eighty-eight, Uncle Andy was in his yellow Corvair convertible at a traffic light on Moyamensing Avenue when two hoods jumped him. He laid both of them out with a tyre iron.' (FB 18)

But because boxing was part of Christy's everyday life, it did not feature in his childhood fantasies, or those of his friends. Instead they dreamed of major-league baseball stardom: 'They occupied a region apart from the world of ordinary men, far beyond fathers and uncles, and this was the sphere to which we aspired ...' But even playing baseball involved fighting. The nearest baseball field was at Third and Oregon avenues, six blocks away, that not only involved walking through other gangs' territory: 'We had to pass through two distinct black neighbourhoods and the kids would be waiting for us with fists, rocks, chains and brass knuckles', but, having reached the pitch, had to fight again to stay and play, against other groups of kids rivalling for the same opportunity (FB 19-20).

It seems that Christy had all the makings of a top notch gangster—had he chosen that line of work. But by the age of eleven he was already getting tired of the gang culture, and had enough sense to realise that such a life could only end in personal grief. In an ugly battle between black and white gangs at the school, one of Christy's friends lost a lung from a sharpened nail fired from a zip gun (block of wood with a groove from which a nail is fired with a heavy duty rubber band held back by a trigger). The black kid who fired the missile was found stabbed to death in an alley some days later (SH 111).

     'I knew damn well where it was going to end. It was going to end with me missing a lung like Johnny Santori or, worse, face down in an alley like Bad Thomas and, if not, I would be doing it to someone else and paying for it in joints with names like Rahway and Dannemora. It was all there, in the cards in my hand.' (SH 139-140)

Vagabond Entrepreneur


Jim Christy aged eleven and a half at his brother David's 3rd Birthday
And so, even at the age of eleven, not only did Christy have the sense to realise that the life of a hoodlum was a mugs game, more remarkably, and here is the emerging philosophy of the tramp and cynic, he knew that to go 'straight'—in the sense of settling down to the daily grind of a mundane job to support a wife and kids—was, in some ways, an even worse fate that that of the mobster. The life of a respectable, or even disreputable, vagabond adventurer was of much greater appeal to the young itinerant, and to this end he now set his sights on the more exotic surroundings of downtown Philadelphia's nightlife. His new patch, carefully researched so as not to muscle in on anyone's existing territory, was as a shoeshine boy at the entrance to the Trocadero Burlesque Palace (today's Trocadero Theatre in Chinatown) on the corner of Arch Street and N. 10th Street.

Christy had befriended a stripper, 'Liberty Bell', in the tavern across the road, who had in turn made it good for him with the Trocadero's manager:

     'From inside [the Trocadero] appeared a short, squat Italian, in a stained tuxedo that looked like he had rented it for his brother's wedding ten years ago and never taken it back. From the side of his mouth that didn't have the cigar, he growled for the men to pay up or move along. I thought he was going to chase me too, but he barked, "At's awright kid, I been expectin ta see ya. You da frienda Miss Bell's, ain't ya?" '

Christy had positioned his homemade shoeshine box so that his customers would have a partial view of the Trocadero's stage from the sidewalk through the theatre doors; a tantalising enough reason to stop for a shine—often not even bothering to check the result before dropping a quarter in the box. The shoeshine box Christy stashed in the tavern across the road with his friend the barman so as not to arouse suspicion by carrying the box around his own neighbourhood. On the Friday and Saturday nights that he worked, he told his parents that he was simply staying over at a friend's. Christy was made welcome in the girls dressing-room and Liberty started getting him to walk her home for her own protection—not that she couldn't take care of herself:

     'As soon as we are out on the street, men start falling out. Cars screech to a halt, horns honk, guys whistle, women look in awe all because she has somehow managed to contain her 48-23-38 body in a long pink skirt, very tight fire engine red sweater that matches her lips, and pink stiletto high heels. ... "Does iss happen everytime you walk downa street?"
     "What do you think? That's why I asked you to walk me home. Maybe they won't bother me so much. They'll think you're my kid or something."
     She seemed to be tottering on those heels and her breasts were so outrageous that I kept thinking she was going to pitch forward. I took a few quick steps to get in front off her.
     "Where are you going?"
     "I'm gonna catch you when you topple over."
     "Wise ass. Get over here." ' (SH 160)

But life was soon to change catastrophically for the young entrepreneur. One night when Christy was sneaking home from his duties downtown, he came across three big-shot mobsters in his parent's kitchen, one of whom he recognised as a former date of Liberty Bell. Christy stopped and listened to the rest of the conversation hiding behind the dustbins in the yard. His father was clearly being extorted into doing something he did not much like the sound of:

   ' "I can't. I just can't. I gotta wife and two kids."
     "Angelo, we all got a wife and kids. ...
     "But my wife doesn't understand any of this. And my boys are only twelve and five for chrissakes."
     "Ange, your poor little twelve year old, huh? He hangs around the Trocadero Burlesque with the broads anna bums, what're you tellin me?"
     "Whats'at?"
     "Your kid, inna dressing room witha broads."
     "My kid?"
     "The same."
     "How do you know that?"
     "I seen him in there. They give him wine in the bar acrossa street."
     "God, what've I done wrong?"
     "Kids today, Ange." ' [SH 186]

We are not told what Christy's father had been asked to do for the mob that so tormented him, but it must have been something devastating as, before the meeting was done, Christy could hear his father sobbing. That Christy's nighttime adventures had been exposed was no longer his main concern, in fact his father never mentioned it further, maybe was even secretly proud of his son's spirited resourcefulness. In any event, a week later the deed must have been done because Christy's father led the boy, eyes shut tight, around a street corner and proudly revealed, 'a big beautiful new Buick all wet from rain and gleaming under the misty streetlamps. Glistening dark blue with shiny chrome.' But it was not the new car that would change Christy's life, the rest of the pay-off for whatever his father had been asked to perform for the mob, was a change of home and a change of name, and only two days to say his goodbyes. The family were to relocate from the familiar streets of Southern Philadelphia, to suburbs way out north of the city.

As devastated as the menfolk of the family might have been at the prospect of moving to middle class suburbia, for Christy's Virginian raised mother, this was a dream come true. But Christy's reaction first:

     'I felt panic. No! This can't be happening. I looked out of the window at the red brick tenements, the cars squeezed at the curb, the telephone poles drooping their wires, the trash cans spilling crap onto the sidewalks, the neon glowing in the bars. The fights, the hanging out, the singing on the corner, the jibe and the bullshit. Downtown, tenderloin, honky tonks, Dolores and her long legs, Liberty strutting down Tenth Street, cabs honking ... The tears welled up in my eyes. The lump was there in my throat.

[...]

     "Aren't you thrilled?" ... Thrilled my ass. "I ain't goin."
     My mother smiled and took my arm. I looked at her sitting there happy as could be. I could see it in her eyes, they were glittering, as bright as the new Buick.
     "Of course you're going, young man." She shook my arm playfully and drawled, "Oh, you'll just love it. We bought the most beautiful house on a corner with a nice yard for you to play in. A yard with a nice lawn and trees. The neighbors are friendly and they're a better class of people. You'll have the time of your life."
     "I bet. Yeah, and I bet it has a garage too!"
     "It does. How do you know?"
     "Jesus Christ!" [SH 190]

Now as every dyed-in-the-wool, self-respecting vagabond knows—even at the tender age of eleven—the life now described by Christy's mother is not designed to fill one with exultation. The notion of a 'garage' had been a standing joke among Christy's friends ever since one of them had admitted that he did not known what a garage was, and was astonished at the idea that people actually kept their cars in little houses in their gardens. The following reaction from Christy, when his mother described the place they were going to live, is hardly surprising:

     'Brookdale! Yeah, right. Lawns and kids who wear white socks. Jumping over the brooks and capering across the goddamn dales. What is going on? I looked at my old man and I couldn't read him. There was nothing on his face. He wasn't happy; he wasn't unhappy. He was blank.' [SH 109]

On his last day in South Philadelphia, while the removal men were packing the van, Christy went Downtown to say his goodbyes to his new friends. But it would be a day to remember for more reasons than the impending move to the suburbs. Dolores with the long legs had always had a soft spot for the shoeshine boy, and between the matinee performances that Saturday afternoon, with the dressing room door firmly closed, Christy would finally complete his apprenticeship in the art of lovemaking, and from a virtuoso of the profession.

By the time Christy had said his farewells to Dolores and reached home, the van had departed and his parents were just putting their final belongings into the Buick:

    'We took off for goddamn Brookdale. It was a million miles away but it only took an hour and a half to get there.
     Naturally it was even worse than I had expected. The men were mowing tiny lawns, the women were wheeling station wagons back and forth to shopping centres, and the kids really did have crewcuts. As soon as we pulled up in front of the new house I saw them down the street, on their English bicycles or standing around in white socks and loafers, tossing footballs in the air and looking at me. This was one neighbourhood I wouldn't have to fight my way into.'

From that moment, Christy started planning his escape. His forays into real tramping and vagabondage would soon follow. But that is the subject of my next post, and also the subject of unpublished works by Christy, that at this point require locating in his archive system—which is as rebellious as the author himself...

PROCEED TO PART 2

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jim,
    I wasn't ready to crash after walking Chase late tonight, so I Googled around & realized I'd exhausted my usual sites earlier. So I thought I'd revisit the Jim Phelan site & take another look. Once again, there was the nice intro to the Phelan piece, with the mention of you. I skimmed the piece once more, & then took a further look around for something else to read - YIKES! - I found the whole Jim Christy story, well written & researched!!! It's a project I've known someone should do sooner than later, but felt that it would take too much time & effort to do myself, esp. as I know how private a person you are (but with the contradiction that you love to tell all those great stories - most of which I've heard in person, but what a treat that someone has taken the time to WRITE THEM DOWN online & preserve your history for posterity).

    Mucho congrats! And the blogger/writer is rather a modest dog himself, with no immediately obvious authorship of this extensive bio (just part 1 so far), or of the blog itself.

    Of course I'd love to repost this on Riffs & Ripps, & I'll have to send the modest biographer a thank you email for assuming such an important literary project.

    FUCKING AMAZING STORY! ... even tho I knew the half of it ; )

    p&p!
    Chris & Chase Wrfffffffffffzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz (now I think Chase wants me to read it out loud to him - maybe tomorrow)

    zenriver@sympatico.ca

    http://www.cynicalreflections.net/2014/10/a-philosophy-of-trampingjim-christy.html

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