A Republican’s Story

I’ve been writing this story for months, or years, depending on how you define “write.” I  write and delete, write and delete, until the story’s in tatters. There’s so little left. But it took all that unwriting to figure out that this story is about the telling. And this is how it begins: 

When my grandfather died, nearly 30 years ago, my father received a box of newspaper clippings, college diplomas, and curling black and white photographs that never found their way into an album. In these photos my father is not my father: he’s just another little boy made to smile for the camera.

Dad & classmates

The author’s father, top lefthand corner.

In this box there is a yellowed letter, written just after the 1960 Presidential election, as my father was finishing up his first semester of law school. The letter details his experiences working as a poll watcher in Philadelphia’s 16th ward:

Quote 1

In this letter my father laments how sections of the 16th ward were “herded into the polls” by various political bosses, and as a result, my father writes “Jack took the state.” Even though Nixon lost to “Jack,” my father didn’t see the day as a complete waste. His sharp eye for misconduct and willingness to scrap with Philly’s political machine caught the eye of the aforementioned Ossen, whom my father describes as a “real live political boss”:

quote #2

The letter is signed this way:

Your Staunchly GOP son

But before my father takes Ossen’s advice and runs (and loses) in his bid for political office — before all that it was 1961. Jack was sworn into office and, soon after that,  my grandmother died of cancer. My grandfather’s grief was so unmanageable, my Mom tells me, that my father took a year off from law school in order to tend to him. This story — of my father caring for his own father — surprises me: he was never very good with sick things. When I had the flu, it was my mother putting cool hands on my forehead and rinsing the puke buckets with Lysol. It was my mother who brought me flat ginger ale and made a fuss, not my father. Except for once.

 

When my brother and I were 13 and 8 respectively, my parents brought us to New York City to see Starlight Express (that’s right, Starlight Express) capped off with an extravagant post-show meal at Tavern on the Green, because if children love one thing, it’s fine dining. The wait for our food was interminable and my fancy dress, last worn at my brother’s bar mitzvah a few months back, was scratchy in the summer heat. Realizing their folly, my parents didn’t fuss when I ate all of the bread on the table — anything to keep me quiet.  I even ate the day-old fruit bread, sticky and sweet, and the culprit, according to the white-suited doctor who came to our hotel room later that night, of my violent food poisoning. By the time my meal arrived, the toxins had already started their work. I pushed my plate aside, cooling my cheek on the glass dinner table.

“What’s wrong with you?” my mother scolded, “We’re in a nice restaurant!” I got up from the table and dashed to the bathroom, but halfway there I lost control and vomited all over the slate dance floor. Kitten-heels and leather Florsheims parted like the Red Sea. I also threw up outside the hastily-hailed taxi cab and again in the tall ashtrays in the lobby of the Milford Hotel. I was sick all the next day, too, but I remember one thing made me feel better: my father holding me tight on the train platform in Penn Station. It’s the only time I can recall having my father care for me when I was sick. But, still, he did a good job.

Louis Klein, bottom right.

Louis Klein, bottom right. 

After one year of caring for my mourning grandfather, my mourning father returned to his law studies with a renewed desire to make something of himself, or at least to make something more of himself than his father had. My grandfather was a civil servant in the Navy Depot, and proud of it, as evidenced by the many photographs he saved and labeled with names and dates: Louis shaking hands with the 2nd Lieutenant at the William Penn Hotel, Louis smiling as the Admiral presents a check of $570.00 to the local USO affiliate, Louis at the Civilian Personnel Division Picnic, giving Miss Emma Lambing lessons in how to pose for the bathing beauty contest.

Louis and Emma Lambing

Louis Klein and Miss Emma Lambing

My mother tells me my father was always a little ashamed of his modest upbringing — that he could never understand why his college-educated father wasn’t more ambitious with his career, so happy to work for a small government salary, back pats from Admirals, and pool parties with Miss Emma Lambing . He also resented that my grandparents took in boarders for extra cash, renting out one of the twin beds in my father’s room to down-on-their-luck men. Once my father sassed off to one of these men and the enraged man chased my father around and when he finally caught him? My father spit in his face.

Louis H.S.

Louis Klein, just before going to college.

I try to imagine what my father was thinking as he lay in his bed at night, a strange man breathing there in the dark with him, and how frightened he must have been. I wanted to ask him about it, but my Mom said, “He doesn’t like to talk about it.” We did not talk about it.

What my father did talk about, though, was the day my mother, a tall, blonde shiksa from Pottsville, went for an after-work drink with her teacher friends.[1] He saw her from across the room and smiled in his sharp, navy-blue suit.  “Who’s the blonde?” he asked. “Sally Shellhammer,” they said. Everything before that, though, is spotty. The transmission doesn’t come through.

lsally

Sally Shellhammer

We never asked my father about his past but it existed, stubbornly, anyway. Of the few stories I have, there is one I like best of all, maybe because it involves me and maybe because it involves murder: it’s the story of Marla [2] and it’s a doozy. In the early 70s, in the city where I was born, there weren’t enough Public Defenders to go around, so private lawyers were often asked to do pro bono work. This is why my father was appointed as Marla’s defense attorney, by the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas, after she was charged with murdering her husband’s mistress.

Here’s what happened: one summer night, Marla was sitting at home, sewing (this detail is important), when she was informed that her husband was at the bar around the corner with another woman. Marla grabbed her purse (also important), ran to the bar, and found the couple seated on some barstools. As she argued with her husband, Marla reached into her purse and was surprised to discover that her sewing scissors were inside. As Marla stood there, sewing scissors in hand (and confused as to how they had gotten there), the mistress stood up from her barstool, tripped, and fell forward.

According to my mother, my father told the jury that Marla had not intended to stab anyone: when the mistress fell, she just happened to land on Marla’s scissors. Thirteen times. He pointed out that the wounds were unintentional and shallow. But, unfortunately, one of those shallow wounds was in her lungs. Had the ambulance arrived sooner, my father argued, the victim might have lived. Instead her lungs filled with blood and the mistress asphyxiated on the barroom floor, surrounded by the Saturday night crowd. This defense seems hard to believe but Marla was charged with manslaughter — not murder — and served just 4 years in the women’s prison. But this is not the amazing part of the story.

Listen:

Prison agreed with Marla. During her brief incarceration she became a devout Seventh Day Adventist and spent her days making small dolls out of clothespins, which my father would bring home to my mother. It’s hard for me to imagine my father, younger than I am now and still thin, going to visit Marla in jail. But he did. Stranger still: the image of my parents eating dinner, discussing Marla, and her case, and her dolls. This image is a yellowed photograph in my mind: the two of them sitting at the red picnic table in the yellow kitchen in the house where I grew up, even though they wouldn’t buy that house for another few years. But still, I see them sitting there. I think they’re holding hands.

My mother in the yellow kitchen with Muffin.

The author’s mother in the yellow kitchen.

My father was so taken with Marla that he offered her a housecleaning job after she served her sentence. Soon after that he and my mother agreed that Marla would make a fine baby nurse for their new little girl. Marla took the job: she slept on a cot in my nursery for the first two weeks of my life, changing my diapers and feeding me formula.[3]

The author and her brother in the yellow kitchen.

The author and her brother in the yellow kitchen.

The first time my parents told me the truth about Marla, I was incredulous: “You hired a murderess to take care of your infant daughter?” My father’s reply was always: “It was manslaughter, not murder,” or, “You really are prejudiced, you know. Against murderesses.” I think he deflected my questions with humor because this story — concrete evidence of a momentary lapse [4] in his “staunchly GOP” ideology — embarrassed him, like getting too drunk at a party and saying something that’s true and painful at the same time.

I don’t actually remember Marla since she took another job when I was very young. I can’t even conjure up an image of her face, just her soft calves, which I would sometimes hug on the waxy kitchen floor. At least I think I used to do that. In college I wrote a poem about Marla and her soft calves — it was a sestina — and maybe now the writing’s created its own memory [5]? One memory I’m certain is true is of the telephone ringing in that same yellow kitchen, one day, when I was around 5 years old. My mother beckoned:

“Come here, Marla wants to talk to you. She saw your picture in the newspaper!”

Who?”

“Marla. You know, Marla. She took care of you when you were a baby?”

I took the receiver:

“Amanda,” she cried, “you’re in the newspaper! I said ‘My baby’s in the newspaper!’ and I had to call.”

This conversation with Marla made me feel loved and important. I did not yet know that she was a murderess.

T-shirts the author worse when her parents were campaigning in the 1980s.

T-shirts the author wore when her parents were campaigning in the 1980s.

If you haven’t already noticed, I’m also a character in the story I’m telling right now. I play the part of the good Republican daughter raised by Republicans. I said that my father tried — and failed — in his political ambitions. My mother, on the other hand, tried — and succeeded — in her bid for Register of Wills, then County Commissioner, then Chairman of the Board of Commissioners.[6] My father enjoyed my mother’s success as if it were his own. He encouraged her and pushed her. “Klein, get into politics like me and go places,” he must have said to her. They were good Republicans.

flyer

Throughout those early days of my mother’s political career, I was a good Republican too. I posed for family photos and attended county fairs in places with names like Gratz and Berrysburg. I hung back and was dragged forward again to smile in the outfit my mother picked out for me the night before. I played my part well until the age of 16, when I became a vegetarian. This was their first clue. The second clue came when I turned 18 and I registered as an Independent.

“But you can’t even vote in the primary!” my parents protested.

“So I should be a Democrat then?”

“And break your mother’s heart?” my father asked, genuinely, because the word itself was an affront.

From that time forward there were many lengthy and uncomfortable political debates with my family. The irony of these battles is that my “political” choices and acts were so minimal: I wasn’t changing shit. I was just a Democrat who didn’t eat meat and listened to Ani DiFranco. But in my home, with my family, I was Jane Fonda on the tank.

Law school yearbook.

University of Pennsylvania’s Law school yearbook, 1963.

My father, especially, could not understand how I had ended up so different from him, and from the rest of our family. He found my decision to go to graduate school especially confounding. Why, when I could easily go to law school, just as he did and my brother did (and my brother’s wife too), would I choose academia? He expected an upward trajectory: his parents took in boarders, he took his kids to Tavern on the Green, and I go to law school. “Or at least a job that, you know, helps people [7],” my mother liked to/continues to say. I remember visiting my parents during the fall break of my senior year of college and assembling graduate school applications—for a PhD in English—on the dining room table. It was my life’s work condensed into twelve piles of black and white. My father assessed the scene before him and asked, quite seriously, “So when are you scheduling your LSATs?”

***

Louis and Goldye Klein im 1935.

Louis and Goldye Klein, Atlantic City,  1935.

This story began with my grandfather’s box of mementos, which I’m looking through now, for stories about my father. It’s filled with photographs of friends and relatives whom I’ll never meet when they were young and smiling on the Atlantic City boardwalk, but my grandfather’s sloping script tells me their names: Goldye, Utie, Julius. I repeat them in my head like a mantra: Goldye, Utie, Julius.

Minerva and Joe

Minerva and Joe Klein

Digging through the box, I find a picture of my Dad and his grandmother. I learn her name is Minerva. “I think they called her ‘Minnie,’” Mom tells me, but she doesn’t look like a Minnie. We’re both surprised by how much my Dad looks like my son, though that shouldn’t be surprising. We’re doing the same work, my mother and I, snapping the pieces together before they float away. I show her the pictures I find in the box, of her mother, my Nana — so  lovely in pin curls — and she tells me another story. I add it to the pile, I’ll use it.

Jeanette Shellhammer (aka, Nana)

Jeanette Shellhammer (aka, Nana)

My mom only knows so much. These aren’t her stories — they’re my father’s and now they’ll stay untold. So I’m crafting my own story out of scraps of paper so old and thin I can feel them disintegrating in my fingers. I write faster. Then I delete, revise, rearrange. The story’s still not right. But when I put them all together, I’ve built something. My own precious artifact. I hold it in my hands, press its smoothness against my cheek — like my mother’s hands during a fever, like the cool glass at Tavern on the Green, like Marla’s warm calves on the kitchen floor — and I put it in the box.

Louis and Joe Klein

Louis and Joe Klein

Notes

[1] My mother tells me “I was the best shiksa in town.”

[2] Marla’s name and certain other personal details have been changed for this story.

[3] Of breastfeeding in the mid-1970s, my mother assures me “It just wasn’t done”.

[4] Why does this story represent a lapse in my father’s worldview? Because my father was a Goldwater Republican from way back who opposed the concept of second chances; his favorite refrain was “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

[5] Ben Dolnik writes in “My Crush with Celebrity”: “Because one of the strangest things I’ve learned about being a fiction writer — particularly one who has been known to write autobiographically — is how the things you write begin to blend with, and then replace, the things you experienced.”

[6] My mother insisted that they call her “Chairman,” never “Chairwoman” and never “Chairperson” because, she tells me, “That’s just stupid.”

[7] These professions include: lawyers, medical doctors, and politicians.

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The Café Espresso

by Mary Shanley

When I moved to Little Italy in the fall of ’82, my ground floor studio on Mott Street was directly next door to the Café Espresso.  This did not appear to be a fact that bore much significance, as the café was a broken down mess of a place, with faded gold letters peeling off a window crusted with dirt and covered with a moss-green curtain that hung half off the rod.  I wondered, with all the chic cafes springing up around this suddenly chic area, who the hell would ever want to hang out in a dump like this?

I was soon to discover the Café Espresso was not in business to attract customers.  It was a strictly private gathering place, catering exclusively to a tightly knit circle of regulars; very much like the local Italian social clubs that dot the neighboring Mulberry and Prince Streets.  The social clubs, however, are usually named after a saint, and a statue of that saint is featured prominently in the window of the club.  For instance, the St. Francis Social Club, next to Ray’s Pizza on Prince Street, had a statue of St. Francis standing atop a family size box of Kleenex facial tissues.  This no frills look was very popular with the local social clubs.

Ray's Pizza on Prince Street

Ray’s Pizza on Prince Street

The Café Espresso did not feature anything prominently, except Nick and Carmine, who sat out in front of the Café, on straightback wooden chairs, every weekday from 11 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.  Being the friendly type, I introduced myself to Nick and Carmine during my first week in the neighborhood.  Nick, a shrunken specimen somewhere in his seventies sucked back a can of Budweiser while giving me the once over with his beady bloodshot eyes. His eyes darted out from behind oversized glasses that continually slid down his long, pointed nose. A few straw wisps of thin white hair hugged the lower lobe of his suntanned head, and though it was a mild autumn day, Nick was wearing a Herringbone overcoat.

While Nick spit and slurred his way through our introduction, Carmine, a younger, sleepy-eyed character, sat with his chair turned backward, in a kind of urban cowboy style, his large pulpy hands hanging casually over the back of the chair.  A man of a few words, he favored the grunt and mumble style of communication, replying, “Uh-huh” to my greeting, while scouting out the local streetlife in a shiny brown silk suit, no tie. His white sportshirt was open at the neck, revealing a mass of salt and pepper chest hair in a tangle of gold chains.  When I told Carmine that he reminded me of Henny Youngman, only with more hair, he turned to me with the slow-witted expression of a fighter that had taken too many punches to the head, scratched his chin, and returned his gaze to the street.

Henny Youngman

Henny Youngman

My daily encounters with Nick and Carmine developed into quite a chummy friendship. I had a lot of time on my hands while I was detoxing from drugs, so I often carried my wicker chair outside and sat in front of the café with the boys, shooting the shit and eyeballing the street, smoking cigarettes and guzzling coffee. Carmine really started to loosen up when he realized I was an expert in the area of early T.V. sitcom trivia. We’d try to stump each other with questions like, “Who played Lumpy Rutherford’s father on Leave it to Beaver?” or “Who was the actor Peter Graves’ brother, and what show does he star in?” Stuff like that. There was one subject I never discussed with the boys, and it was about what went on the Café Espresso when the regulars arrived.

images (1)

Every afternoon at 4:30, a steady stream of big, black luxury cars came cruising down the cobblestoned Mott Street and pulled up in front of the Café Espresso. Judging from the glimpses I got of these guys as they emerged from behind the tinted windows of the Lincolns and Caddys, they could have been straight out of mob central casting.  These guys all wore shades, expensive slacks with jackets that often fit rather snugly around the waist, piles of gold chains and bejewelled pinkie rings. The regulars hugged and kissed on the street before ducking inside the café. Not a soul ever reappeared outside the café until 7 p.m.

While the inside activity of the café remained a mystery, I did learn that the regulars favored the Boar’s Head brand of lunch meat.  Carmine, who with Nick, always went inside the café when the regulars arrived, began to present me with the regulars’ leftover salami, liverwurst and baloney.  I usually picked up leftovers from the day before in front of the café around two in the afternoon, along with the current copy of the Daily News. Quite a nice little arrangement.

Boar's Head

Boar’s Head

But this one particular afternoon, I didn’t arrive at the café until 4:45, and by this time, everyone was inside the café.  I didn’t think the boys would mind if I popped in to pick up my Boar’s Head and paper, so I opened the door to the Café Espresso.  Upon opening the door, I was struck with a blast of activity so fierce, I can only compare it to the heavy trading on the stock market floor. The café was stocked with small wooden tables, with four chairs to a table. There were one or two phones on every table, and every table was jammed with the regulars. They were talking on the phone, jotting down info, shouting, some laughter, the air thick with cigar and cigarette smoke, and more phones ringing.  The moment they noticed a stranger in their midst, everything stopped. Complete silence.

The silence was broken by the sound of Carmine yelling at me, “What the hell you doing in here? Get the hell outta here! Don’t you ever come in here when that door is closed!” and he starts with the strong-arm stuff, shoving me out the door. God! I couldn’t imagine what I’d done to warrant such an angry reaction, and tried explaining to Carmine as he turned to go back inside, “Hey Carmine, I was just….” But he didn’t listen, just slammed the door and went back inside.

I hot-footed it back to my apartment and sat with the shades drawn, nervously wondering just exactly how much hot water I was in. The fact that I was in my first few weeks of detoxing didn’t help my mind set. “You’re dead meat,” I thought, “You’re never supposed to see anything or know anything about what goes on in this neighborhood. You fucked up good this time…..”  My only hope was that the goodwill that had grown between Nick, Carmine and myself would count for something, and maybe the worst that would happen is I’d have to start buying my own Boar’s Head and newspaper.

That night, as I tossed and turned on my captain’s bed, I recalled the words of my friend Dale, who had recently moved out of Little Italy. She said, “Whatever you see or hear down here, always pretend you didn’t see or hear anything.”

The following morning I awoke at ten, showered, dressed and hit the street. I ran into Nick and Carmine at Johnny’s Donut Shop on the corner of Mott and Prince.  They were sitting at a table with Johnny’s Uncle Sonny, who I happened to also be friendly with. I took a deep breath, waved and said, “Good morning.”  Surprisingly, they returned my greeting with big smiles and Carmine called me over and offered to buy me breakfast. I hesitated, still a bit shaken from the previous afternoon, but figured this was a peacemaking gesture, so I pulled up a chair.

The conversation centered around Johnny’s new cappuccino/espresso machine and the upcoming, ten day San Genarro Feast. I mostly listened to the boys chat, while slowly eating my eggs over easy with jelly donut special. I was amazed at how well things were going!  I was cool. I knew they knew I was cool. I didn’t feel cool. Matter of fact, I was scared shitless, but playing it cool was the name of the game.

Only for the regulars

Only for the regulars

When I finally excused myself, I thanked Carmine for the breakfast and said bye to the boys. As I pushed my chair back, Carmine got up with me. He pulled me aside and asked, “So, you stopping by for your stuff this afternoon?” “Sure Carmine,” I replied, “why not?”  Carmine patted me on the back, “That’s good.”

About the author

Mary Shanley is a poet/writer, living in New York City. She has been reading and performing her work for the past 25 years. Allen Ginsberg suggested she send poems to Long Shot Literary Journal. Thus began a long and creative era of Mary’s poems and stories being published in Long Shot. She has also published her work in: Underground Voices, Poydras, The Newer York, Shangra la Shack, Garbanzo Lit. Journal, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Journey to Crone, U.K., Blue Lake Review, Hobo Camp Review, and many others.