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
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
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
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!”
smiled and told me her name was Kathleen and we began talking as if old friends who were continuing a
conversation we’d been having just the
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
“Well I guess I
want to be a writer.” She
nodded, as if she’d known it all along.
husband was a writer. He died a few years ago.”
“A real published
were an exotic species to me.
“What was his
never heard of him, coming from North America. Jim Phelan”
“’Bell Wethers’.”[short story by Phelan]
eyebrows shot up in surprise, rearranging the deep lines in her face. Her eyes
which I remember as gray-blue seemed to sparkle.
“Yes, that’s Jim’s.”'
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:
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.
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.
we lay there and fell asleep in each other’s arms. And it was the same the
night after that.
I felt I had to go on my separate way. I should have stayed withher.
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 Christy—the 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,
11. The Sunnyside of the Deathhouse, poetry (Ekstasis, 1996)
12. The BUK Book, Musings on Charles Bukowski, biography/appreciation (ECW,
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 GlitterSG
Reet, Petite, and GoneRP
NOTE:The letters in bold after certain books above, are for referencing quotations from
Christy's writing in my own text. In addition, EMrefers to emails written by Christy, TC to telephone conversations with Christy, and UPtounpublished 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.
Gunslingers and Freaks
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 streetguy
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
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
"We're related to the Clantons?"
I thought she meant Jimmy Clanton, the guy who sung "Venus in Blue
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
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
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
'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
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 husbandJoe,
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
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 types—known 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.'
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 street.' 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
'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:
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 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
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.
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)
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 wouldhave to lean on him.'
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
'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
Jim Christy aged eleven and a half at his brother David's 3rd Birthday
And so, even at theage 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
Christy had befriended a stripper, 'Liberty Bell', in the tavern across the road, who had in turn made it good for him with the
[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
"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
"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
' "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?"
"Your kid, inna dressing room witha
"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
"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
"It does. How do you know?"
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
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