Ash Wednesday

Clara’s
Clara’s Father’s
Clara’s Father’s Father’s
Clara’s Father’s Father’s Father

Many said Charlie Sweeney was just hanging around to meet his first great grandchild. He never did, but thanks to her early arrival he knew of her whereabouts and had seen pictures before he passed away on what was her expected due date.

He was old and frail but his mind didn’t leave him first. He checked out quickly at home. Pretty much the way he wanted it.

Too bad, because I would have liked him to sing Clara Toora Loora Loora just once the way he sang me to sleep many times.

Charlie Sweeney was a great man, a great lover of song. If it was St. Pat’s Day, for sure he was the one at the front of the party with the microphone leading the sing along. He knew all the Irish songs and he knew all the Big Band hits and all the songs of the great crooners and all the show tunes of his day and any song penned about New York City. And he sang constantly.

1919. Nineteen Hundreds. The city of the century. He was born in a cold water flat on the lower east side of Manhattan in an area then known as the Gashouse District. His father was a New York City fireman, his father’s father a New York City bricklayer and who knows what his father’s father’s father did over on the Emerald Isle.

Charlie spent WWII on Governor’s Island just a ferry ride away from Manhattan. There he was a sergeant major with the military police put in charge of Italian POW’s who he befriended. Many former POW’s continued to send him Christmas cards long after the war.

He went on to become a vice president with a Manhattan savings and loans. If this brings to mind an image of New York bankers, martini lunches and fat wallets, it shouldn’t. This was a time when the S&L business was more like the depiction in It’s a Wonderful Life. Charlie retired just before the “thrift industry” took a bloated turn for the worse, disturbed at the greedy trends he saw as he left the boardroom.

He was a Grand Knight with the Knights of Columbus and damned proud of it too.

He read at Mass every Sunday, delivered the Eucharist and managed the local church financials.

He was the kind of guy who always got the two for one deal at the grocery. And the kind of guy who always gave that free one to the poor.

He didn’t drink much but cocktail hour was honored out at Rocky. He and his girlfriend (that’s how he referred to his bride of sixty five years) drank Rob Roys, the sweeter sibling of the Manhattan. Cocktail hour came earlier and earlier in later years, until it was almost synonymous with brunch.

If Charlie’s life sounds interesting to you, as it does to me, then it’s because interest was thrust upon him. He did not seek adventure. He wanted only to provide for his family and to be a faithful servant of his Lord.

His send off was sweet. After the military folderal and Father Buzzy’s prayer, cousin Ginna started singing Toora Loora Loora. She didn’t get to the second Loora before we had all joined in.

Oh man I tell ya,
if I go like him I’d be a happy ghost.

If I could live like him maybe I’d be a happy man.

Addendum One:
In 1995 a graduate History student visited with GP at his home in Rocky. The grad student was there collecting memories from the old Gashouse District. He recorded over three hours of interview with my grandfather who was 76 at the time and not quite at the top of his game but still his memory was incredible. Part One of an edited version of this interview is available on the Disclexington podcast. Enjoy this talk through New York City’s Lower Eastside Past.

Here are a couple of short excerpts with accompanying music/comedy tracks.

Florida Flats – Talking about the local politician’s nice digs, the creation of the song Sidewalks of New York, the Daily Worker & the Irish, and where to work in the Gashouse District. Followed by a carousel version of Sidewalks of New York.
Download here.

The Gashouse Song – GP was really excited about this one. He called it the Pièce de Résistance and made the grad student wait the entire three hours to talk about it. But I can only find one reference to this song online. It’s part of the repertoire of a Barbershop Quartet but their site doesn’t include the lyrics or melody or anything like that. He also talks about Vaudeville, black face artists, Jimmy Durante, etc… I put a comedy bit from Jimmy Durante at the end of this one.
Download here.

Addendum Two:
Here’s Clara’s first visit to a pub, immediately following her first visit to a wake. This is the same pub where the Richie Blackmore Elf Experience took place just hours after. Cousin Matt and I attempt to remember Mountain Dew.

2 thoughts on “Ash Wednesday”

  1. That video of Clara at the bar is super cute. The tapes are also very enjoyable, i can listen to old people talk about the old days all day long.

    i have some recordings of my grandfather, but he is already fairly sick and has a hard time keeping the thread of the story, but still they are precious. my GP also made some recordings with his mother, where she tells some incredible stories from the 19th century.

    I’m flabbergasted.

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