Thursday, August 27, 2015

Cozy Was His Name

Cozy was his name and women were his game and the pelts of many ladies hung from rafters of his mind. He loved them all for the hour or so he’d spend with them and many ladies never tired of this country boy who could talk beautifully while their husbands were away hunting or fishing

Cozy never came a-calling while a husband was around although husbands in the rural countryside and town had heard of Cozy's reputation but they never thought of him consorting with their wives. Not their wives. And there were many women thereabouts who would never look or talk to Cozy. But other ladies kept him busy talking which Cozy loved to do before it was time to get down to business. 

The odd thing is, Cozy was a religious man, went to church every Sunday, met some lovely ladies there, prime prospects for later in the week. He was "born again,” in a spiritual sense, in his late teens and believed that when he died he was going to Heaven. His wife married him right out of high school, had no idea he was the philanderer he had turned out to be and loved him dearly. She was proud that Cozy, like everyone else in their church, was "born again." 

“Once saved, always saved,” Cozy would often say at the local diner without any prompting. And many in the town and countryside agreed with him. But not everyone. 

There was another church in town where congregants were also "born again" but the belief at that church was one could lose one’s soul if one lived in sin despite one’s faith and failed to repent before one died. Cozy and his wife never went to that church. When they died, they were going to Heaven. They were “born again” and that settled it for them.

One husband of a lady Cozy used to call on regularly became suspicious when he had come home earlier than expected from a hunting trip and found his wife singing “Amazing Grace" and dressed the way she had never dressed for him. She wasn’t expecting him until deer season ended the following day. But in the ashtray was a dead cigarillo, or small cigar, and no one the husband knew smoked cigarillos except Cozy, who always seemed to have one in his hand or jutting from his mouth. A small liquor store just outside of town stocked this particular brand just for Cozy. No one else bought them.

The husband didn’t say anything about the cigarillo, just went about his business farming and tending to the family garden as time went by as it does when one makes one’s living from the land. He loved to garden, was always weeding, and used to tell his wife that a garden was like a soul. 

“You have to keep a garden free of weeds just as you have to keep a soul free of sin,” the husband would say at times when his wife was sitting around drinking coffee and working crossword puzzles. “Weeds come up every day,” he’d say. “And sins are just as plentiful. They can kill you.

The husband was "born again" as was Cozy but he and his wife attended the other church, the one that didn’t hold to the belief that “once saved, always saved.” Their pastor taught that a believer steeped in sin without repentance would go to Hell, no questions asked. Christ died for everyone, the pastor preached, but He didn’t suffer hypocrites gladly.

“Break the commandments and die without repenting and you will wake up in Hell,” the preacher often said, pounding the pulpit, especially if some congregant in the pews had been rumored to be up to no good recently. This pastor's congregation was not as large as the one at Cozy’s church. “Once saved, always saved,” without restriction, had greater appeal for many of the families who farmed the area.

Not too long after finding the cigarillo in the ash tray, the suspicious husband arranged another hunting trip out of state, this time for pheasant, and told his wife he would be gone a week and hoped to come home with a mess of good meat for the freezer. She wished him good luck, but shortly after he left the house with all his hunting gear, she gave Cozy a call.

“I’ll be over in an hour,” Cozy said. "Can’t wait to see you.”  

Cozy arrived on time, swathed in Mennen After-Shave lotion, but was unaware the husband, instead of going on his hunting trip, was hiding behind one of the outbuildings, rifle in hand. He let Cozy go in the house, then went up on the front porch and waited for the lights to go out, quietly entered the house and put two bullets in Cozy’s buttocks, the first thing he saw. Then he stood over Cozy and called the sheriff. No one can remember what the charges were but Cozy got two years. He served them quietly and was paroled early for good behavior, albeit once again during deer season.

Cozy really liked the wife of the man who had shot him, perhaps even loved her, so as soon as he had packed away a big breakfast of biscuits and gravy at the local diner he gave her a call. She was glad to hear from him and said her husband would be gone for another three days and he was welcome to come over. 

“Can’t wait to see you, Cozy. I bet you have a lot to say,” she said. 

The problem is, her husband had heard about Cozy’s early parole in town two weeks earlier. Once again he was hiding behind the same outbuilding, rifle in hand, when Cozy, swathed in Mennen After-Shave lotion, arrived. This time he shot Cozy between the eyes and Cozy never took another breath.

The funeral at Cozy’s church was not that well attended. A few older women who always prepared food for post-funeral services were there with their fried chicken and apple pies as were their husbands if they were still alive. But nowhere in the pews were any of the ladies who had been regular consorts of the dead man. 

The pastor explained that Cozy, "born again" long ago, was in Heaven now. He said nothing about the man who had shot him. The shooter had not been charged with murder since Cozy had been caught violating another man’s property, namely the man’s wife. No one disagreed with that principle in this farm area. Property there, especially a man’s wife, was not to be violated. 

The big argument in town, however, was whether Cozy, "born again" but a lifelong adulterer, was in Heaven or in Hell. It’s an argument that still goes on today between congregants at the same two churches who gather at the diner in town after services on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. But they are not alone. Essentially the same argument—“once saved, always saved”--resounds among millions of believers throughout the United States and perhaps the world at other churches, large and small, as well.

Donal Mahoney

Patsy Foley Was Roly-Poly in 1947

It may have been the devil himself who prompted the kids in my schoolyard back in 1947 to chant "Patsy Foley's roly-poly from eating too much ravioli."

At first, no one could remember who started the chant. Patsy, a sweet and ample child, was in the third grade. As happenstance would have it, I was in that same third grade, infamous already as the only boy wearing spectacles in our class. After I got the glasses, I had three schoolyard fights in three days to prove to Larry Moore, Billy Gallagher and Fred Ham that I hadn't changed a bit. You would think I would have forgotten their names by now. Not a chance. I didn't like being messed with in third grade. 

Since the chant would often begin and gather volume during recess, the nuns who ran the school eventually heard it and did their best to put a stop to it. This was a time when nuns, God bless them, were empowered by parents to swat the butts of little miscreants if any of them interrupted the educational process. Despite their voluminous habits, the nuns were adept at administering discipline, let me tell you, as my butt, on more than one occasion, could attest. 

Now, 65 years later, when the chant pops into my mind, I begin to wonder what prompted me to say it. Early on, I certainly loved to hear the sound of words bouncing off each other--as if words were pool balls scattered by a cue. Later on I would use words to earn a living. They were the only tools I was any good with.

As I remember it now, the chant started one day after a school practice in church involving Gregorian chant. Some of the other kids later alleged that they had heard me, of all people, on the way back to class, chanting "Patsy Foley's roly-poly from eating too much ravioli." 

I probably had some idea of the problem my chant might cause. But I loved the sound of it too much to stop. 

If Dick Clark had been on American Bandstand back in 1947, he might have said the chant had "a nice beat" to it, but kids weren't dancing much in 1947. World War II had just ended and school was a serious matter. Even kids who didn't like books usually tried their best. 

Since I was only in third grade, one might think that I might have had some emotional or mental problem that caused me to chant that phrase over and over. That could be. If a child did something like that today, he or she might be examined for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Maybe I had something like that. But in my mind the reason I chanted about Patsy Foley is that I liked the sound. It didn't hurt that my father was always saying things at home that had a bit of a turn to them. I remember how I used to enjoy the cadence of what he said and repeating it when he wasn't around. He used words differently than other fathers in the neighborhood and he delivered them in a melodic Irish brogue.

My mother, who was bereft of verbal rhythm, would sometimes ask my father a serious question when he was fresh home from a hard day's work, climbing alley poles as an electrician. Usually her question would pertain to some family matter that she had been fretting about all day. And my father, sitting on a chair in our little kitchen while stripping off his gear, might say in response, "And what would Mary Supple say to that?" 

It's a shame that over the years my mother, sister and I never found out who Mary Supple was because her name was frequently invoked. Nor did we ever find out who John Godley was, either, even though my father would sometimes substitute John Godley for Mary Supple in that same response. He never said these things in anger, although he did have a terrific temper. He could erupt at any time and you didn't want to get in the way of the lava. 

At other times, when my father was asked a question by my mother at an inconvenient time, he might look her in the eye and say, "Ten thousand Swedes ran through the weeds chased by one Norwegian," a line that did not originate with him but was one that he repeated with a special flair. The words certainly sounded good to me, whatever they meant. We didn't know any Swedes or Norwegians and had no idea if there might be some conflict going on between them. True, World War II had just ended but we didn't think the Swedes and Norwegians had been actively involved. 

Sometimes my mother on a Sunday morning would ask my father if he was going to get dressed for church. He might have been taking a sip of his fifth cup of tea at the time. He wouldn't get angry but he sometimes would lean back and sonorously intone one of the many Burma Shave billboard slogans that dotted highways in that era: "Whiskers tough old Adam had 'em. Does your husband have whiskers like Adam, Madam?" I liked the sound of that slogan as well. Today, it still pops into my mind during arid moments. And as my wife will attest, she has heard it frequently over the years. 

I think it's pretty easy to see, then, why I, as a third-grader, instead of concentrating on multiplication and division, preferred to chant "Patsy Foley's roly-poly from eating too much ravioli." I am glad, however, that the nuns took it upon themselves to discipline me and did not call my parents instead. After all, my father was paying tuition to send me to that fine school to get a good education. He did not send me there to engage in tom-foolery, a pursuit that he, of course, would have known nothing about even if his legacy among relatives said otherwise. 

Besides, in my mind, no nun, no matter how mountainous she may have been, was a match for my father. He had been a boxer after he had emigrated to America from Ireland, a relocation occasioned by the British army after they had imprisoned him as a young man for activities in the Irish Republican Army. My mother said he loved boxing and had won eight straight matches before "some big black guy" broke his nose. After that, he never boxed again, she said, because he "didn't want to lose his good looks." He was a handsome man indeed, despite a nose that looked as though at any moment it might call geese to fly lower.

Years later, some neighbor ladies at a block party made some nice comments to my mother about my father's appearance. When she came home, she told my sister what they had said and forewarned her that "handsome is as handsome does." In many ways, that's quite true, even though that line didn't originate with my mother. Come to think of it, though, I like the sound of that line as well and might have chanted it more than once had I heard it in third grade.

Donal Mahoney

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Punxsutawney Phyllis and Election 2016

In America, people flock to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on February 2 every year and wait for Punxsutawney Phil, a legendary groundhog, to emerge from his temporary home on Gobbler’s Knob and tell us whether winter will linger or spring is near. This is Groundhog Day in America and Canada, and it has been celebrated since 1887.

If Phil sees his shadow and goes back in his hole, legend has it there will be six more weeks of winter. If he sees no shadow, spring is on its way. Whatever happens, the story is reported on television and in newspapers for all to enjoy.

But little has been said about another legend who lives nearby--Punxsutawney Phyllis, an ancient woman with long greasy gray hair, one big eye and chipped teeth. Kind neighbors call her a crone. Unkind neighbors call her other names. 

Phyllis makes her home in a poison-ivy-covered hovel not far from Gobbler’s Knob. She becomes important once every four years during primary season before Americans go to the polls to elect a new president or return the incumbent to office.

Phyllis doesn’t care whether she sees her shadow or not when she comes out to fill her bucket at the well. She has potions to brew and is interested only in taking the water back to her house. But certain political pundits have visited her for years during primary season not to ask who will win the election but to ask what major issue will determine the winner of the election. 

Although we have no confirmation as to its veracity, it is said that it was Phyllis who told James Carville, prior the election of President William Clinton, the major issue that would determine Clinton as the winner of that election. 

Carville is still remembered today for saying what Phyllis is alleged to have whispered in his ear prior to chasing him off her property with the long broom some say she rides on Halloween.

“It’s the economy, stupid,” Phyllis supposedly said to Carville. So far no one has denied that statement originated with her.

Recently, a small group of reporters waited outside Phyllis’s hovel to ask her what big issue would determine the 2016 election. Phyllis is in her nineties now and not well but even when she was healthy, she was less than friendly. Nevertheless, when asked this year about the issue that would determine the 2016 election, she threw her head back and howled,

“It’s all about the wars, stupid, and whether the U.S needs more bombs to defend the nation and the world.

The reporters asked her whether she thought more bombs were needed to repel, if necessary, ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, remnant factions of Al Quaida, and other militant groups that create constant havoc in Asia, Africa and in pockets elsewhere in the world. It is commonplace for them to kidnap and rape women and children, behead prisoners, and wreck historical sites.

Phyllis looked to the sky again, threw her head back and howled that America has enough bombs and other armaments. And since the U.S. cannot build a high wall around the entire nation, the country needs instead several thousand exorcists willing to parachute into wars throughout the world and do what exorcists do best. Send devils back to Hell. 

These aren’t devils who will come here looking for jobs and a better life. These are devils who will bomb the U.S. to pieces if they can or will come here furtively to savage American life from within. These devils need to be sent home now from those beleaguered nations around the world they currently terrorize.

So far no reports of Phyllis’s observations have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post or other newspapers. Nor has anything been said on radio, internet or TV news channels. Silence has greeted her prediction. At the end of the day, as so many people now like to say, perhaps we’ll find out on our own if Punxsutawney Phyllis is right again, as she may have been when she is said to have tipped off James Carville decades ago.

Donal Mahoney

Saturday, August 15, 2015

How One Writer Avoids Writer’s Block
After writing nothing for 35 years, I returned to writing in 2008, concentrating on poetry and then branching out into fiction and nonfiction. The long hiatus was caused, I rationalized, by demanding jobs, mostly as an editor of other people's copy. Work left me without interest or energy to work on my own writing. 
But when I retired my wife bought me a computer and showed me where in the basement my cardboard boxes full of unfinished poems had been lying dusty in storage all those years. More importantly, she later told me, in a kind way, that reading a poem of mine was often like "looking through a kaleidoscope while listening to harpsichord.”  
That phrase became embedded in my mind so I had to write something to go with it. It was a poem called “Kaleidoscope and Harpsichord,” since published.
When I hear a phrase or word I like, I often write something ahead of it, around it and after it. I try to give it a home in a poem, story or essay. Perhaps it’s a prompt, as some poetry editors might call it, although I have never thought of it that way.
I worked that way back in the 1960s when I first started writing before employment and family obligations interrupted me. As a student, I would jot a phrase or word on a napkin in some midnight diner and put it in my pocket. Weeks later I'd find it and I'd start writing a piece around the phrase or word. I doubt that many writers work this way. But it's always been that way for me. 
I never know where a phrase or word will lead me and sometimes that's fun but other times it can be difficult. But once I get a poem or story going, I forget about the phrase or word that inseminated it and care only about finishing the piece. 
Let me offer an example. Once I told my wife to take me to a taxidermist when I die because that's where I wanted to go instead of to the local mortician. I told her that in semi-jest, of course, but “take me to the taxidermist” wouldn’t leave my mind. Finally it led to a poem of sorts. For better or worse, it may serve as an example of how one writer has always avoided writer’s block. 

Donal Mahoney
The Ronald and the Pyramid Scheme

Sonya was Ronald's sixth wife. It was no secret that like his wives before her, Sonya had married him for his money. Most of them, like her, had emigrated to the United States from Europe. It seemed European women had greater tolerance for living with Ronald, thought by many to be a boorish American billionaire At least three of his wives bore him children before divorcing him and acquiring a big settlement and alimony for life. One of those women never called him anything but “The Ronald,” which name became public over the years and was used occasionally to mock him in the press.

“I have no idea why she called me that,” he once told a reporter. “But it has a nice ring to it, don’tcha think?"

The divorces usually occurred shortly after the wives would discover that Ronald was cheating on them with a woman younger and more beautiful than they were. He had a pattern of doing this. After a wife would divorce him he would marry the latest paramour and later on she would divorce him as well. For a brilliant and wealthy man, apparently the irony of this pattern never struck him. He simply kept doing the same thing and ending up in Divorce Court. His former wives were all living nicely now on Ronald's money.

“I try to treat my women well,” Ronald told another reporter, “even when they have outlived their usefulness."

When Sonya married Ronald, however, he was in his early 80s and had ceased to chase other women. He was relatively content with her, happy to devote his time to making certain his considerable investments and properties were being handled properly. Sonya, however, kept hiring private detectives to check on him. 

At 80, it’s safe to say Ronald had lost a step. Moreover, he had never completely recovered from losing the nomination of his political party for the presidency of the United States. He was around 70 at that time and Sonya, who preferred fashion to politics, nevertheless thought he would have made a good president in some respects. 

As she told a lady friend at a country club one evening, “Ronald loves the United States, understands its economy, and doesn't need the salary the office pays. He would have been a billionaire before becoming president and not a millionaire after leaving office. But voters in the primary decided he lacked the temperament to be president. I can see their point. He’s smart as a whip but tough to live with, I can tell you that."

Ronald did have his share of personality quirks. He often spoke first and thought later. And he had a problem with the poor, not that he wanted to. It was a reflex reaction, not something he had thought about. After all, why were they poor? He had worked hard and made billions.

In addition to investments and hotels, Ronald built and owned many golf courses and, in fact, many poor people were employed at those courses in minimum-wage jobs. It made good business sense to hire them, he said. Someone had to do that work and they were willing to work for that amount of money. In time, some of those employees would move up in the ranks and become members of the middle class, thanks to employment opportunities Ronald’s companies made available. If someone was qualified to work at a higher level, Ronald had no problem promoting them and paying them whatever salary the job warranted. 

“Pay people what they’re worth," he often said. “It stops turnover. Who wants to be looking for new employees all the time? Good ones are hard to find."

Ronald was a philanthropist as well if not for the best reasons. He made major donations to worthwhile charities because he wanted tax cuts the donations would allow. He had a degree from a prestigious school of economics but he let accountants handle his taxes. He still liked to decide on his own investments and where and when he might build another great golf course. At last count, Ronald had built more than 15 golf courses and they were splendid specimens. Golf tournaments were held on his courses and tourists loved to say they had played at one or more of them.

“Give the public what it wants at a fair price,” he told Sonya one night at dinner, “and they will come back again and tell their friends about the good time they had. I’ve made good money that way. It lets me buy you the things you like. Have I ever said no when you wanted to buy one of those fancy dresses?”

Sonya had to admit that Ronald was not tight. She never had to ask him for what some wives probably would have called an allowance. But the walking-around money Ronald gave her every week would have paid the rent for many women working in the stores Sonya liked to shop at. Sonya was happy on a financial level and that is why she was upset to see Ronald slightly upset one evening. He seldom was upset about any matter. Usually he did the right thing and put the problem to rest. 

One night, however, he told her over dinner at a very nice restaurant that a major piece of property he had purchased in southern Texas to build yet another golf course was no longer viable for that use. The man who had defeated him for the nomination of his party a decade earlier and was subsequently elected president had failed to do anything about the border problem. For more than 10 years migrants had continued to stream into the United States and set up communities in and around the property Ronald had bought to build another luxurious golf course. The area was no longer a tourist attraction so building a golf course there would have meant wasting money. Sonya didn’t mind listening to him at lunch or dinner.

“Sonya, I’ve decided what I’m going to do with that property. I’m going to build a pyramid there and instead of being buried after I die, I’ll have my body put in the pyramid. I’ll take my money with me in the form of gold bullion and wait for science to discover how to restore life in the dead. Someone will do that some day, Sonya. There’s a lot of money to be made by the scientist with the commercial smarts to market the proposition. I’ve always said there’s no future in dying.

Sonya really didn’t know what to say so she just listened.

Ronald had heard about cryonics which required that a corpse be kept at a low temperature to preserve certain organs while waiting for someone to discover how to restore life. He planned to have his corpse prepared according to that discipline so that when science found the answer to restoring life, he could emerge from the pyramid and live once again. In fact, he planned on buying the leading company currently at work in the field of cryonics. 

He told Sonya he might even run for president again once he came back. He figured a little time off in the pyramid would give him time to plan his campaign.

“Sonya, I think I would be elected this time. After all, I'd be only the second person to have risen from the dead.” 

Donal Mahoney

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Some Day Soon

Dexter Dalrymple had no idea why anyone would want to interview him. Who would care at this point what he'd have to say. Maybe his family and a few old friends, in deference to his age and wealth, hoping to find themselves in his will some day soon. But he had agreed to this interview and there he was now, at 82, sitting across from this financial reporter, a young lady, perhaps 22, the age of his granddaughter who had just graduated from college. 

His granddaughter was the light of his life. He would leave all of his money to her if it wouldn't make everyone mad.

Dexter knew the only reason this young lady wanted to interview him was that he's worth roughly $5 million, the harvest of over 50 years of investing in the stock market, all on his own, with no advisor. A remarkable achievement, he realized, for a man who had dropped out of high school with more than a little shove from the principal. 

"Investing in the stock market is easy," Dexter had once told a financial advisor who had sought his business, "provided you have the brains and the balls to do it right. It's no place for the chicken-hearted." 

The advisor went back to the office without a new client but he had met someone he--and many other people over the years--would never forget whether they bought and sold stocks or not. Dexter was a character, right up there with W.C. Fields whose old films he loved to watch in his home theater. 

Many times Dexter had told Penelope, his wife of 60 years, that the smartest thing he had ever done was to marry her and the second smartest thing he had done was to quit drinking and smoking. 

"I may have had too many milkshakes since then but that's why someone invented statins--to keep my cholesterol down," Dexter would tell anyone in earshot, sometimes more than once a day. 

Every man has at least one weakness or maybe two, and a daily milkshake at 3 p.m. was the last one Dexter would admit to in a long life of making big money, collecting cars and admiring women, not always from afar. 

"What was the greatest moment in your life?" the young reporter asked in her opening question, pushing back the waterfall of auburn hair falling over her left shoulder. 

Nice hair, Dexter thought, but not a very good opening question for a young financial reporter interviewing a millionaire. She was supposed to find out how he made all that money. He didn't plan to tell her everything--maybe a few things because she seemed like a nice person--but at least she could ask the right questions.

Dexter coughed and said, "I'll tell you the truth as long as you keep it between the two of us. The greatest moment in my life was the day I realized I was finally old enough that one woman was enough, that I could  be faithful to one woman, my wife, and go back to the Church, and worship God the way I did when I was a kid in school and women weren't a distraction."

The young reporter looked befuddled because she had expected Dexter to tell her about some big deal he had made in the stock market. She knew he was one of the wealthiest men in America. He was a little odd, she knew, but in her young life she had already discovered that many successful men were a little odd in one way or another. But Dexter was on a roll now so she stayed silent and decided to let him finish. 

"When I went back to the Church, " he said, "it was truly the greatest moment in my life. Better than making money or anything. To know that I could finally be faithful to my wife was a great satisfaction. I felt better doing that than making money. It's easy to make money. Not so easy being faithful. Not even with a milkshake every day. 

"Remember now, this is just between the two of us. Don't put that in the paper and don't tell a soul. People will think I'm nuts. I know I'm nuts but why confirm it for the public." 

The young reporter said there would be no need to include that information in her article. She simply wanted to know what Dexter had done to make millions of dollars without any formal education and without any financial advice. 

"Most millionaires rely on a financial advisor to keep up with the stock market," she told Dexter. "What makes you different? Is it that you never give up?"

Dexter thought for a moment and then said that not giving up was very important because the stock market is the roller coaster the cliche would have it to be. One has to be in it for the long haul, know when to buy and when to sell. Never lose interest. Never stop, except maybe for a milkshake every day. And always keep an eye out for the next big opportunity. 

"By the way, young lady, do you have any plans for lunch? I have a table over at the Mark IV," Dexter said, rolling his wheel chair toward the door. 

"Years ago I owned that restaurant and sold it for a nice profit to a gentleman who said he would have a reserved table waiting for me for the rest of my life.
"Scallops are the special of the day on Friday. Or if you like steak, theirs is well marbled. Marbling is important, on steak or on a woman. But don't quote me on that. 

"We can finish the interview over there. I hope you have a big notebook. I think I'll have quite a bit to say. 

"My driver is waiting downstairs."

Donal Mahoney

Caseworker, 1962

In 1962, I was a caseworker, not a social worker, in the Cabrini-Green Housing Project in Chicago. In that era, the difference between a caseworker and a social worker was simple. A social worker had a degree or two in social work and was qualified to work with the poor. A caseworker usually had a degree but not in social work. And a caseworker usually had too many clients to have time to do social work even if he or she had a social work degree and knew how to apply it. 

To be hired by Cook County Department of Public Aid as a caseworker in 1962, all one had to have was a degree in anything and the ability to pass a test. I passed the test and was assigned as a novice caseworker to Cabrini-Green, perhaps the “toughest" housing project in Chicago at that time. I was assigned to two high-rise buildings with 458 families. I remember their addresses as clearly today as the address of my childhood home. Some things one always remembers.

Being a caseworker in Cabrini-Green was not a job coveted by many. But I was fresh out of grad school, had a pregnant wife, and absolutely no interest in business where salaries, of course, were higher and “careers” potentially much better. I may not have had any training in social work but I really didn’t need any formal training to keep filling out and filing new forms for the many changes that occurred in the lives of the families in my “caseload.” 

There are many stories of clients and their lives that I remember because they are impossible to forget. But the one I remember best may illustrate why some "poor people," even today, 50 years later, fail to climb the ladder of success as many middle-class and upper-class families wish they would, if not always for compassionate reasons.

My story involves a young black man, married with two children, who managed to graduate from a local junior college despite living in Cabrini-Green. I happened to see a notice in the neighborhood posted by a major grocery chain looking for a manager trainee at its nearby store. A high school diploma was required. I thought my client was more than qualified.

When I went with my client to the store to make his application, I thought nothing about the workers, at least the ones I saw, being all white and the customers being all black. This was 1962 and that composition would have raised no eyebrows in most stores in the neighborhood surrounding Cabrini-Green. I still thought my client had a chance to get the job. He had a degree from a junior college, looked comfortable in a white shirt and tie, and spoke “white English” in public. He seemed very intelligent. 

I was probably about the same age as my client but I came from an all-white section of the city, home to blue-collar immigrants, and my father paid my college tuition. My client worked to pay his tuition and feed his family at the same time. Although I thought he would get the job at the grocery store, he never thought he would. But since I was his caseworker, he went along to fill out the application. Sadly he turned out to be right. And I learned a lesson that day that made a deep impression on me as a novice caseworker. 

I can only hope that things are different today, and to some degree I suspect they are. Qualified minorities do get hired in many situations they would not have in 1962. Times change, in some ways for the better but not always for the better. And some things remain stiflingly the same.

Over the decades since, I have often wondered what might have happened to my client and his family. I thought about him again this morning when his mirror image appeared as a news reporter on a TV station in St. Louis. The young reporter looked almost exactly like my client and talked almost as well as he did. The reporter, however, looked as though he knew he would get the job at that station in 2015. My client knew the grocery store would not hire him in 1962. 

In St. Louis now, black reporters and black anchors are not the exception to the rule, especially since the 2014 death of Michael Brown in one of our inner-ring suburbs, Ferguson. 

I imagine the TV station required the young reporter to have a degree and probably the ability to speak “white English” in public. How he talks on his own time is his own business. After all, I was able talk any way I wanted to when I went home from my job at Cabrini-Green. My kids used to say I sometimes slipped into my father’s Irish brogue when things didn’t go exactly as I had planned. At times I still do. Our roots are always with us.

Donal Mahoney