Thursday, November 30, 2006

place notes

I was raised to know that this side of the river was home and that safety lay just a couple of miles west across a fragile border, that Belfast was big and dangerous, dark and Scottish, that London breathed fire and clutched at the world like a coal-driven mechanical octopus, that Dublin was the real Vatican, and New York, well, New York was the true Oz with wizards that were honestly all powerful.

When I was a young man making my way in that grand American metropolis I shared a gigantic home from the 1880s with three friends. It sat on a street in the center of Brooklyn in a neighborhood called Midwood. The street dead-ended into the sunken tracks of the Brighton Line. The house had seventeen rooms and we could furnish nine. It had fourteen foot ceilings on the first floor, and twelve foot ceilings on the second and nine foot ceilings on the third, and in the winter we could heat about a total of ten feet of that, mostly over our heads. But if you walked three blocks north to the Newkirk Plaza Station or three blocks south to the Avenue H Station the platforms promised the choice of "Trains to New York" or "Trains to Coney Island" and we knew we were suspended between worlds of wonder.

We actually lived between Foster Avenue and Glenwood Road. When the City of Flatbush laid out the streets here after the Civil War they decided to alphabetize the main roads, beginning at Albemarle Road, and continuing through Beverly, Courtelyou, etc. But just past us the creativity had failed, and Brooklyn inherited Avenues H through Z. It kept us humble.

In Derry the streets held different names. Ferry Quay and Bishop's. St. Patrick's and St. Columb's. Butcher, Shipquay, Duke, Magazine, and Racecourse, but then Derry grew from conflict and occupation, and Brooklyn from hope and optimism.

I would take what was then the D train but is now the Q or maybe the B and ride from Newkirk Plaza to Manhattan
and change for the local at West Fourth Street right under Greenwich Village and then go to Twenty-Third Street and walk eastward until I got to the Police Academy which, for entertainment's sake, shared a block and afterschool bars with the School of Visual Arts. When that winter turned to summer and I was exhausted from nine hours of college each day, five days a week, I might let that D train carry me past my house all the way to the ocean, where I might strip to my boxers and fall face first into the Atlantic. Before I'd retrieve my clothes I might stand there for a few minutes and stare off to the east at places left behind.

copyright 2006 by Ira Socol. photograph - Irish Hunger Memorial at Battery Park City - copyright 2006 by Ira Socol

Saturday, November 25, 2006


The clouds have fled from overhead, retreating to a rim around the horizon, and I lie on the cold stones under the waning moon's glow as the meteors leap from the constellation Perseus and race toward the red spot that is Mars. On Mars they have a day thirty-nine minutes longer than ours. That would give me a few more minutes to sleep, or more likely, to not sleep, to be awake when the rest of this island is dreaming, staring into the lonely dark heavens.

The air is filled with the smells of low tide. Salt and fish and the slippery brown seaweed that makes climbing out of the sea so difficult. My ears roll to the sound of the water sloshing back and forth between the Welsh coast and here. This ocean surrounding us is both barrier and opportunity. It depends on how you choose to wake up and see the day.

Behind me I hear the bells of the church in Sandycove striking five. Their call is gentle, a sweet warning. I pull off my clothes. At this hour this can again be the "Gentleman's Bathing Area," no women or togs. I dive into the chill blac
k endless sea without care for the sharp rocks lurking just below the surface. But I have always been luckier than smart, and miss them all, finding nothing save the comfort of a rich embrace.

I stay within this until I can not stop shivering, and then I pull myself up along the old railing, pull my pants and jumper on over wet skin, and begin a long walk home as the sun climbs over the edge of this world.

copyright 2006 by Ira Socol

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


There were always sounds in the night, and my mother could not sleep. I would hear her down below me, moving from the front windows to the back windows, checking the street, checking the alley, looking for lights that were on that should not have been on, listening for footfalls that should not have been there.

Still too young to run in the darkness I slid deeper and deeper into the tiny space at the edge of the attic's eaves, rolled tighter and tighter into the thick wool of blankets, wrapped my arms around my head, and imagined I was in a berth on a sailing ship escaping west to the lands beyond the sea.

At dawn I would come down the stairs, tired and aching and disappointed that I had not reached a distant port. And she would just smile, and ruffle my hair, and put the bowl of thick porridge and sweet butter on the table for me as she drank her coffee.

Day by day, month by month, year by year, her smile grew thinner, and much less easy, but she would never let it fade completely away.

copyright 2006 by Ira Socol

Saturday, November 18, 2006

That afternoon at the pub in Kinawley

[testing out rhythms here...]

The legend held more answers than I thought anyone might possess. In a redolent Gaelic rhythm I heard how I had chosen to push the stakes in the war higher by deciding to delay my call to the police. How I knew the lunch hour would bring the maximum danger and get the world's attention again when Vietnam and the election in the States was already letting this Irish problem slip off the front pages. How I had made three calls and sent the Army and the Constabulary on a wild chase with confusing calls mentioning different locations. The detail was astonishing: even that word, "Boom," along that rural road as we walked from the telephone, and the far too casual laughter that followed, had been recorded, though now it had been assigned to my lips. But it was the melody that played most eloquently. In this oral tradition that had reached from Belfast back to Derry and then out into hills and villages, and had been repeated in these whispered sagas over more than thirty years, I had not just been instigator and star, but my crimes and the British desperation to catch me had lead the loyal Provo cadres of Derry to arrange a run south, from where I had periodically snuck back in to lead other attacks. I heard myself become a turn-of-the-seventeenth-century The O'Neill keeping the English east of Lough Neagh in ancient and Catholic Ulster, hitting and running in the lost forests; a 1798 Wolfe Tone mixing romantic poetry and rebellion; a 1916 The O'Rahilly rallying the volunteers in the Post Office as O'Connell Street burned under British naval artillery; a 1921 Michael Collins provoking the British into self destructive responses at every turn.

The man who sang this saga to me this had been born into the rebellion during the Great War in an Ireland still ruled directly from London and reigned over by an English King. He punctuated the tale with a chorus describing his earliest memories – the arrest of his father by the Black and Tans and how he returned beaten and tortured and never the same again, the canons rumbling down the streets behind Army trucks, the shock in the mouths of the adults when they found themselves on the wrong side of the partition, the attacks of the IRA in the twenties, and again in the fifties, the frustrating glory of the 1949 declaration of The Republic – "Poblacht na hÉireann," the phrase spilled like a tenor aria even as he told of the RUC busting into the pub to silence the celebration. He smelled of slightly fruity pipe tobacco, a lifetime of Guinness, and the old-fashioned liniments of persistent arthritis. He drank his pints in thick, short bursts and went to the loo between every pint. He stopped at one point to assure me that "Guinness is life, Guinness is the best for what may ail ya," but that whisky would kill. "Whisky and sometimes rebellion," he whispered, and laughed. His face was red and his eyes cloudy but blue. I guessed I was chalk white with fear. Who knew these stories? Who believed them? How dangerous was this journey back? "You'd be quieter than I expected," this seanachaidh told me. "I think I might be less of everything than you expected," I said in desperation.

copyright 2005-2006 by Ira Socol

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


David's father kicked the shit out of him at least once a week from when he was five or maybe six or, fuck, maybe three, until he was fifteen, until we were fifteen. Usually Friday or Saturday night. Usually late. Or very late. When the bars closed he would come home and something, maybe a misplaced toy at the beginning or a bike left out or a dish not washed or a jacket not hung up or finally the car not parked exactly right or parked with too many miles or, well, in the end you know it does not matter, it has nothing to do with whatever it is about at the moment, and he would climb the stairs and burst into David's room. If David was lucky just he would come only with his hands or maybe his belt wrapped around a fist, if David was not lucky then the belt would be loose with the buckle flying or there might be a hurling stick or a baseball bat.

Most Sundays I'd get high with David sitting watching the water flow by, the slow gestures of the tides as they move around the world, the call of hunting seabirds, the way the wind might shatter the surface of this arm of the ocean, and he would be black and blue, and he would have a hard time moving, and he would talk about revenge – starting wit
h specific ideas that might melt into generalities and then fall into pointless anger which I'd watch float into the sky on our exhaled smoke.

That was not saving David though. It was poisoning me, keeping me angry about too many things that had now receded into the past. Stuff I might otherwise have put away.

And so I was ready, probably more ready than he might have ever gotten, when the plot was suggested as we watched a scratchy print of Cagney singing in Yankee Doodle Dandy at David's house late on a February Saturday night. And when David's father stumbled in and saw in the movie his target, "fucking queers!" he yelled and went after my friend. I clocked him from behind with his own hurling stick. And somehow saw myself defeating two demons for the price of one.

he concussion put him in the hospital for four days. I spent two weeks in a juvenile lock-up where I did heroin for the very first time, until David's mother made it clear that no one would be pursuing legal action.

Neither of us ever got hit by a father again.


copyright 2006 by Ira Socol

Friday, November 10, 2006

Friends and Family

I push my way throw the captain's office door, like I'm a cop on TV or something and tell him and the lieutenant that I don't want to do this, but before I say it I already know that won't matter, so I say it, they look at me, I look at them, and I turn and walk back out and go upstairs to the strange little third floor room that is our locker room and many other things and I bang on the steel doors for a minute and then groan and light a cigarette and stare out the window at the Midtown skyline at sunset – it is stunningly beautiful from here – glowing golden just to the north, across the East River. It is the last moment of the day. I chain smoke three Camels and the final one glows against the dark night and the luminous mosaic of the world's greatest city.

"This is just a gun case," I say to myself. "I've done them before." I'm trying to sound like I know more than I do, like I've done more than I have. Convince myself first, I figure. I stick a fourth cigarette in my mouth and sit cross-legged on the table looking at the pictures in the thick file they've given me. Of course I can drop into this group. Of course. I close the file. I put it on the shelf in my locker. I take the nine off my belt and drop it on the shelf too. I grab the old five-shot .38 and wrap the holster onto my ankle. And then I drive home.

This will end badly. Yes it will. Not just because this is political. It matters to people. It's not just money involved. I know that
. Everything else I've done this year is really just business. And this is more. But that's just part. And so is the fact that, well, I could just – possibly – know someone involved. The big part is the ambivalence. Mine. And the danger that in one critical second the wrong emotion will surface. I may be young, I may be an idiot rookie in way deep over his head in these deep cover jobs, but I know all this. The captain knows this too. The lieutenant knows too. Everyone does. But I know it more. And they know that I know it more, but they are using me anyway – because it makes the most sense.

For the next three months this will play out. I will even fly to London and take a ferry to Dublin and fly back to New York from there with a fake passport and a flimsy visa and back story I barely need to rehearse. Covering the bases. I will drink in the last pathetic remnants of Hells Kitchen bars. I will commit a few crimes, do some good drugs, sleep on roach-covered floors, and day by day get closer to all those guns – all reported stolen by the M
etro-Dade Police Department as expected – that are aimed at people I have been taught are my enemies.

This will end badly. It will end in the kind of recurring nightmare I know I need no more of. Already. As young as I am. But it is the way things work. I am the person for the job. Of course.

Carolyn is watching LA Law when I get home to the little house on City Island. "You're early," she says. "Yeah," I grab a beer from the refrigerator, drop onto the couch next to her, kiss her a touch too deeply. "Yeah, nothing going on tonight."

copyright 2006 by Ira Socol

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A History of the Bogside

Too many pints and too much time in this dark corner and the rain washing down the windows by the front and echoed even more darkly in the mirrors behind me and I have not truly slept more than three hours of the seventy-two since I made it back home.

"The area that is now known as the Bogside was originally underwater, as the Foyle flowed around the hill of Doire, of the oak grove," said the tattered old book hidden in the bottom corner of the classroom shelf. That stream on the western side of the island, it said, came to be called, "Mary Blue’s Burn. It flowed along the line of Rossville Street to the west of the Lecky Road and out into the Foyle near the bottom of Bishop Street. The burn was crossed by three causeways – probably built by monks – and these followed the lines of William Street, the Bog Road, and Stanley’s Walk."

As I sit at the foot of William Street today it is not hard to see those ancient Christians, disciples of St. Patrick himself, moving along the muddy highground in their rough cloth hooded
gúna. The natives came here for fresh water and fish and the wild plants that flavored their food and drink and to meet the spirits of their world. Later they came to fight the invaders and later still to live at the feet of the "British" for centuries as they squeezed out a living making first whisky and cloth, then shirts and ships and phonographs. Now my friends make hard drives, unless they have escaped elsewhere.

I have come back on one of those annual pilgrimages of redemption. Though it all looks different in fact – the houses are new, the Rossville Flats are gone, there is color here and no barbed wire – when I walk the streets I still see the old outlines rising up from the footwalks and hear the footsteps of my friends, and the thunder of the fighters, and the shouts of frightened parents.

I have seen many people over the past three days, though I have not seen her. She is now across the river, past "The Waterside," in some pleasant new estate I am sure, with her husband and her four children, or however many still live at home. She sent me an email saying, "this time, will you see me?" And all I could answer was, "I will try."

Throughout the nineteenth century the Bogside retained a rural feel with the type of housing and lifestyle of the inhabitants," that book had told me long ago, when I would sneak it from its spot and read that rather than focusing on maths. "Many houses were inhabited by unskilled labourers from the mountain districts of Donegal who subsidised their income by maintaining small potato patches and keeping pigs and feeding them with waste from Abbey Street distillery. Even the Catholic skilled tradesmen who earned quite superior wages could live nowhere other than the Bogside, and often they too rented out potato patches to supplement their income."

Last night I ate bangers and mash with Cillian and his family. It was served with the kind of thick potato soup that would warm me up on nights such as this, and the smells of the kitchen were overpoweringly familiar. Cillian caught me up with where everyone has gone, as he does year after year while his wife tried to convince me to return and offered match-making support.

"You need a woman from here," she told me. "One who knows where ya come from." "American women know where I come from," I said. "Nah," she was absolute. "They think you are Irish and some happy leprechaun or some such thing. They do not know a thing about Derry."

The book had not gone much past partition. "In 1921 Derry nationalists found themselves opposing Derry’s inclusion in Northern Ireland. With the northern parliament assembling in June Derry’s nationalists turned south for support but the signing of the Anglo Irish Treaty in December was greeted with dismay in the city." That stopping point was good enough. The rest of the story was personal.

I look into the mirror. The grip of the silver on the back of the glass has weakened. It makes everything look much further away. I turn back, I do not like looking in mirrors. Derry has always been the victim, I think. It is always haunted by what might have been. It is a place of dreams, but dreams unfulfilled.

Cillian and Sean and Brendan push through the door, shaking water off their heads. "He's blasted already mates," Sean announces, pointing in my direction. "Called Kate yet?" Cillian asks. "Not yet," I mumble. "Fuckin' coward," Brendan says. "Always have been," I say, realizing the reason for my exile, "always have been."
copyright 2006 by Ira Socol

Friday, November 03, 2006


Great Uncle Sean had lived in Brooklyn. Or was it Great Great Uncle Sean? Or Great Great Great? It was hard to know. He had sailed to America as a boy, on board the magnificent Cunard liner Campania, on a speed-record setting, Blue Riband-winning, run to New York in 1893 or 1894. The story included all of the detail. The sunshine of the day of departure. The looming shadow of the massive Cathedral of Saint Colman above the harbor. The steam ferry carrying him and hundreds of others from the quays out to the waiting ship. Five days, nine hours, twenty-nine minutes from Queenstown. The first twin-screw steamer. His steerage bunk back above the thundering engines. A glass like August pond stretching from this Emerald Isle to Liberty's outstretched arms, untouched on this journey by the wild tropical storms that bedeviled so many crossings.

I could alm
ost sing the tale. The telling had its own specific melody that flowed around the smells of thick beer and pipe smoke and peat fires and sweat held in woolen jumpers. Sean arrived at a gigantic Hudson River pier and followed cousins across the Brooklyn Bridge and out to a place called Flatbush. I could not imagine that. There were two pictures in a family photo album kept under a table in the front room. One showed two houses in an empty field. The other showed huge crowds moving toward a place where baseball was played. I could not connect them into a scene I could understand, so I simply saw old gangster films but with horses instead of cars. When he grew older he became a policeman. That was crucial. He made it in America. He worked in a towered police building in Brooklyn. He had a badge. He had a gun. He was a person with power.

We knew no one with power, except for the priests and the bishop. We knew no one who had been across the oce
an. But we had objects that had returned by post over the generations and over the years. There were mugs with the New York skyline etched into the glass. There were heavy brass weights shaped as the symbols of the 1939 World's Fair. There were those photos in the album and a pen with a pocket clip that looked like the Empire State Building. And I went to sleep each night under a blanket whose label read "Macy's Herald Square" with a red star. Thus, dreams were born.
copyright 2006 by Ira Socol