Thirty years ago Toronto held its second WorldCon, which oddly enough was also my second WorldCon.
I was living in Chicago at the time, fighting the war on poverty as a VISTA volunteer while directing chess tournaments on weekends and writing stories at night to supplement the fifty dollars a week I got from VISTA. Even with three jobs, I could not have afforded to fly. Fortunately Alex and Phyllis Eisenstein offered me a lift. The con still strained my budget, though as a professional writer, I was able to write off everything: hotel room, meals, travel. According to my tax return for 1973, it came to $130.03.
The late, great Robert Bloch was the Guest of Honor at that TorCon, as he had been at the first Toronto WorldCon back in 1948. Bloch gave his speech at the Hugo banquet. Theater-style Hugo presentations didnt come until Big Mac, the ground-breaking Kansas City WorldCon of 1976. Before that, there was always a banquet, and the Guests of Honorthere were only two back then, Pro and Fandelivered their addresses before the rocket ships were handed out. The speeches and the awards combined to give each convention a center that modern WorldCons no longer have.
On the other hand, Bob Bloch and the guests before him also had to contend with clattering plates and groaning stomachs, and restless audiences impatient to find out whod won the Hugos. Ive given enough speeches of my own to know that when you come after the baked Alaska and before the bowling trophies, its best to keep it short and funny. Which is what Bloch did, as I recall.
Thats not what Ill be doing, though. Even with thirty years distance between us, the author of Psycho is too tough an act to follow. He was blessed with a mordant wit, deadpan delivery, and a perfect sense of comic timing. He was sort of a cross between Bob Hope, Alfred Hitchcock, and Connie Willis, though he had a cigarette holder instead of a dress with a Peter Pan collar. Besides, if you try to give a funny speech and no one laughs . . . well, there are a few things in life more painful, like root canals, SFWA business meetings, listening to William Shatner sing "Rocket Man," but still. . . .
Im not going to give the fans-are-slans speech either. Mind you, I love fans. I am a fan. Were a swell bunch of fellows and gals, no doubt of it, but were not superior to the general run of humanity, were not the last best hope for Earth. "Youre the ones who will be leading us to the stars," Ive heard speakers tell con audiences. You hear the same speech at Nebula banquets, only there its the Eliot Rosewater speech. "Youre special!" the speaker says, "youre unique! Theres no one as great as you guys, no one else who really knows whats going on, no one with your amazing perception and insight!" Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah for us. Its a speech suitable for all occasions, and Im sure Buick dealers, taxidermists, and the Woodmen of the World enjoy hearing it at their conventions too. But I wont be giving it today.
Nor am I going to talk about the state of the field. The truth is, I dont know much about the state of the field. No one does, except maybe Charlie Brown, and hes not telling. The field has simply grown too big. Gardner Dozois and David G. Hartwell can speak with some authority about the state of short fiction, but even they cant read all the novels being published, and novels have been the heart of SF and fantasy for many years now. If you want to hear about the state of the field, go to some of the panels, and youll hear a goodly number of bright people talking about some aspect of the little piece of the field that theyre currently involved in. If you listen to enough to them, some picture may emerge. Where the state of the field is concerned, were all blind men trying to describe the elephant.
Instead Ive decided to talk about the one subject on which I am unquestionably the worlds foremost authority: me.
After all, theres no rubber chicken or baked Alaska here, and Im not handing out any rocket ships this afternoon . . . or getting any either, mores the pity. Sure, maybe a few of you wandered in here by mistake, looking for the gaming room or the panel on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I have to presume the majority of you are here because youve read my work.
I dont want to talk about my work, though. Not as such. Those of you who have visited the hucksters room will know that I have a huge new retrospective collection out from Subterranean Press. GRRM, its called, half a million words of my work, SF, fantasy, horror, with extensive commentaries where I discuss how and when I came to each genre, my literary influences from F. Scott Fitzgerald and J.R.R. Tolkein to Stan Lee and Gardner Fox, how I came to write this story, what inspired that one, where the other came from. All the stories behind the stories are there, if that sort of stuff interests you. I wont rehash it here.
Instead Id like to talk about the place where all my stories come from. Everything Ive ever written from Garizan the Mechanical Warrior to A Song of Ice and Fire.
Id like to talk about Bayonne, New Jersey.
For those of you whove never been there, which I presume is most of you, Bayonne is a peninsula, so close to New York City that its almost part of it. Brooklyns due east across New York Bay, Manhattan is northeast, and south across the Kill Von Kull lies Staten Island, one of the citys five boroughs.
In colonial days, New York and New Jersey both claimed Staten Island, which is much closer to Bayonne than to Manhattan. The matter was finally settled by a boat race around the island. New York won, and New Jersey remains pissed about it to this day. Like Italy, Bayonne is shaped like a boot, although Bayonnes boot looks as though it was made for someone with a clubfoot. The city is three miles long and one mile wide at its widest point, down by the foot.
I was born in Bayonne Hospital on September 20, 1948. Both of my parents had been born and raised in Bayonne, as had three of my four grandparents. Despite its proximity to New York, Bayonne was in no sense a bedroom community, then or even now. It was a city unto itself . . . a world unto itself, really. You could buy just about anything you might need in the shops on Broadway, and there were plenty of jobs out on the Hook, and more on the Navy base. Bayonne was a place where generations of people were born, grew up, went to school, found work, got married, had kids, bought their own house or moved upstairs of their parents, grew old, and died, all within the three square miles of the city.
A densely populated industrial city of approximately seventy thousand people, Bayonne had been the largest oil refining center in the country during World War II. Many of the legendary battleships and destroyers of World War II were fitted out in Bayonnes Navy base and drydock before steaming forth to fight Tojo and Hitler. It was a working class city, dense, urban, ethnic.
A century before, the city had been a very different place. In the early nineteenth century, Bayonne had been a community of small farmers and fishermen, renowned for its oysters. Surrounded by its bays, it became a center for yachting and boat building after the Civil War, and a holiday retreat for wealthy gentry. New Yorkers would take steam ferries across the bay or sail their yachts up the Kill Von Kull to stay at Hotel LaTourette, a huge Victorian resort hotel. Surrounded by old oaks and rolling lawns, the LaTourette offered fine dining, fishing, sailing, croquet, and splendid views across the water to the wilds of Staten Island.
That was all long before my time, of course . . . though my mother remembered the LaTourette. She was born in 1918 and grew up in a house on Lord Avenue, between 3rd Street and 4th Street. Bayonnes days as a fashionable resort were long over by the time she was a girl, but the LaTourette still stood beside the water down at the foot of Lord Avenue, boarded up and decaying. To my mother and her brothers and sisters, it was "the haunted house." They would dare each other to knock upon its boarded up doors, and the boys would throw rocks at the windows of the old Victorian monstrosity. Woods surrounded it, my mother used to tell me; there were only a few houses below 3rd Street when she was a girl.
The Bayonne of my own childhood was much changed. There were no woods and no haunted houses, though we did have a lot of pizza parlors. The best pizza in the world comes from Bayonne. By the 1950s, the city was predominantly blue collar and overwhelmingly Catholic. We had Irish Catholics, Italian Catholics, and Polish Cath-olics. Each nationality had its own church, its own school, and its own parades on its own feast days for its own saints. I had a foot in two of those camps, since my father was half Italian and my mother was half Irish.
Though neither of my parents was religious, they sent us off to Mass every Sunday, even though they never went themselves. We attended St. Andrews, the Irish Catholic church on 4th Street.
Of course we did. My mother was a Brady.
Margaret was the youngest of eleven children. Her father, Thomas Brady, was the son of James Brady, who had emigrated to the United States in 1854 from Oldcastle in County Meath, Ireland, following in the footsteps of his brothers and cousins. Many of those Bradys had wound up in Bayonne, where they married other Irish, had children, started businesses, and did very well. One ran Bayonnes largest coal and ice company. Another built the citys first brick building, Bradys Hall, a tavern and dance hall for Irish workingmen. Political meetings were held at Bradys Hall as well. Bradys served as county health commissioner, sheriff, and mayor of Bayonne, and were prominent members of St. Andrews Parish.
James Brady, my great-grandfather, prospered as well. After a few years as a laborer, he founded a building supply company in 1872, dealing in gravel, concrete, plaster, and wood. A lot of building went on in Bayonne between the Civil War and the Great Depression, so the company did very well, despite the fact that James had been blinded in a construction accident.
Moving building materials by horsedrawn wagon over the roads of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was slow and sometimes difficult. Since Bayonne was a peninsula, it was often easier and cheaper to ship wood and concrete and gravel by water, so James bought some land on the Kill Von Kull near the defunct Hotel LaTourette and built a private dock for the company. James had his offices on the dock and, according to family legend, he would listen to the barges being offloaded onto his wagons and know at once whether he had gotten all the tonnage he had paid for, just from the sounds.
His sons followed him into the business, which became known as James Bradys Sons. The family became wealthy. Not Rockefeller wealthy, mind you, but Bayonne wealthy. When James died in 1907, my grandfather Thomas and his brothers took over James Bradys Sons, and the company continued to prosper. Between the turn of the century and the Great War, they were among Bayonnes most prominent and successful families. St. Andrews Church is full of statuary and carved marble altars donated by various Bradys, with little plaques to commemorate the donors. Thomas married into another prominent Bayonne family, the Walls, whose ancestry was English and French. My grandmother Catherine had three sisters, all close to her in age; the four Wall girls were so inseparable at social events, my mother told me, that everyone referred to them as "the Room." But Thomas Brady took one of the Walls from the Room, wed her, and built her that house on Lord Avenue not far from Bradys Dock. Together they had those eleven children . . . the last of whom was my mother, Margaret, from whom I heard these tales. By the time I was old enough to hear all this, tales were all that remained. James Bradys Sons went smash during the Great Depression. The sudden and unexpected death of my grandfather Thomas Brady in 1931 was the mortal blow to a company already staggering. His brothers tried to carry on, but they were not the kind of businessmen that Thomas had been. In family legend, Mayor Hague, the Boss Tweed of Jersey City, also played a sinister role in the downfall of the Bradys.
My mother always described Hague as a bloated corrupt figure notorious for preying on widows and orphans. Somehow, with connivance of one of my mothers surviving brothers, the black sheep of the family, Hague allegedly managed to loot James Bradys Sons of all its cash and assets, leaving my grandmother Catherine penniless. When she tried to sue, every lawyer she hired suddenly became a judge and dropped her case. The company was broken up and sold off, the dock was taken over by the city. Even the house on Lord Avenue had to be sold.
By that time, only my mother, the youngest of Thomas Bradys eleven children, was still living at home. A number of her siblings had died in childhood; the others had grown up, moved away, and started families of their own. My mother was actually younger than a number of her nieces and nephews. When the wealth and the house were gone, she and her mother moved into a modest apartment. Once out of high school, she took a job at Westinghouse, and supported my grandmother until Catherine passed away in 1941. Some six years after that, Margaret met my father.
His name was Raymond Collins Martin . . . that "Raymond" is where the first of my two Rs originated. My mother called him Ray, and everyone else called him Smokey.
Both my parents smoked, like everyone else in Bayonne in the fifties. Sometimes one or the other of them would give me some money to get them a pack from a cigarette machine. My mother smoked unfiltered Chesterfields, my father Lucky Strike . . . but whenever they sent me to the cigarette machine, I would come back with Old Golds and claim the machine was out of their brand. Something about the name "Old Gold" made me think of pirates and sunken treasure.
Whenever I smoked my chocolate cigarettes, I pretended they were Old Golds too.
Maybe Smokey started with choc-olate cigarettes too. I wouldnt know. I know almost nothing about my fathers childhood.
Well, one thing . . . he played marbles. There was an old round thirties-style Animal Crackers tin filled with his old marbles, and inside was a yellowed newspaper about Raymond C. Martin winning the county marbles championship. He never offered to teach me the game, though, never so much as opened that old tin.
My father loved sportsfootball, baseball, and boxing, especiallybut he was a watcher, not a player. We never had a game of catch, never threw a football around the yard. He did try and teach me how to ride a bike. Id been a demon on a tricycle, and loved whizzing around on my two-wheeler with the training wheels, but once you took those off I had a tendency to lose my balance, crash, and fall.
I got so many scabs and bruises that I begged to put the training wheels back on, but my father would have none of that. If I could not ride without the training wheels, I would not ride at all, he decreed. We tried for a week or so, but I kept crashing and falling. Soon Smokey lost patience and gave up in disgust, but he still refused to give me back those training wheels. I never rode a bike again.
My father was a veteran of World War II . . . and according to one man, at least, a war hero. He kept a shoebox full of old photographs from his service, small grainy black and white snapshots taken with some old Brownie. The pictures look to have been taken in North Africa. Theres sand, tents, barechested GIs . . . and my father, grinning into the camera, looking impossibly young. In one picture theres a camel in the background. In most of the others Smokey has a Camel dangling from his lip . . . he didnt switch to Luckies until after the war. Some of his buddies are in the pictures, clowning around with their rifles, posing with their arms around his shoulders. I dont know their names. I never will.
In the shoebox there was a portrait shot of a dark-haired, dark-eyed young woman. Italian by the look of her, Id say . . . but who she was and what she meant to him . . . well, thats something else Ill never know. My mother didnt know either, though Im sure she wondered.
Though he had no medical training, the army made Smokey a medic when they shipped him overseas. He served in North Africa, in Sicily, and in Italy, and saw quite a bit of combat. He never talked about the war, but I know that once he risked his own life to save some badly wounded men. His captain called it "conspicuous gallantry" and nominated him for the Congressional Medal of Honor. My sister Darleen still has the letter that he wrote. The captain was killed soon after writing that letter, however. Smokey came home from the war with only a Purple Heart . . . that, a big fat wad of cash, and a honkin big sapphire.
My father was a gambler, too. Maybe it was in the army that he traded in his marbles for a pair of dice . . . but judging by how well he did, I think he must have known a few things going in. He was good at poker, better at blackjack. He played the numbers every week, and hit once in awhile, but never big. Once or twice a year he went to the track. Every fall he liked to bet on college football. He was pretty good at picking games till I went away to college . . . then some misplaced sense of loyalty made him bet on my school. That would have been great if Id been at Notre Dame, but, alas, I chose Northwestern.
He even bet on me. I learned to play chess in seventh grade, and by high school Id become pretty good. One night I was at home, reading the pirated Ace paperback edition of The Two Towers, which had just come out. Id been waiting half a year since Fellowship, and I was Sam and Frodo, making their way toward Cirith Ungol, when the phone rang. My father wanted me to come down to Bilmars and play a game of chess. I tried to tell him that I was reading a book, but there was no arguing with my father. So I walked to Bilmars, where I found Smokey in the back room with this short bald guy with no legs. We played a game of chess and I won, after which I figured Id go home to The Two Towers, but no, the guy with no legs insisted on another game. I won that time too, and pretty easily. He was a better player than my father, who knew how the pieces moved and not much else, but he wasnt really good. He thought he was, though, and demanded a third game. So we played again. My father bought me Cokes and I crushed the little man with no legs, again and again and again, until finally Id had enough.
As I was leaving, Smokey pushed a twenty into my palm. My allow-ance at the time was a dollar a week, most of which I spent on comics and Ace Doubles, so that was a huge windfall. It wasnt till later that I learned that Id been playing for fifty dollars a game. My father liked to say that hed taught me how to play chess, but it wasnt true. He tried once, but ran out of patience as quickly as he did when trying to make me ride that bicycle. No, it was my cousin Richie who taught me chess. I learned poker myself in college, along with hearts and contract bridge. Smokey never even taught me craps . . . and craps was his game, the one hed played during the war, among the camels and the carnage.
He played it well enough to win that honkin big sapphire and the ten thousand dollars hed brought back from Europe. Ten grand was a small fortune in 1946. My father could have bought a nice house with that money. He could have bought a great car. He could have bought five cars. He could have bought a house and a car. He could have gone into some sort of business. He could have invested in the stock market, in which case his ten thousand dollars would have grown to several million by now. Instead . . . well . . . he enjoyed it. Women, beer, nightclubs, the track. He had a good time. Ten thousand bucks went a long way then.
Smokey never owned a car. Never drove. He always said that drinking and driving didnt mix . . . and since he sure as hell wasnt going to give up drinking, he took cabs. When my mother took us kids out somewhere, we all took the bus. If my father was with us, though, everyone squeezed into a cab. He took cabs everywhere. My favorite story about him dates from that postwar period, when he was flush. He was taking a date to a nightclub in New York, and wanted to impress her. So he phoned for two cabs. He told the first cabbie the address and sent it off empty. Then he got into the second cab with his date and said, "Follow that cab."
I never saw that side of him myself. I heard the story from my mother, whod heard it from his friends. She was not the woman in the second cab, sad to say.
By the time Margaret Brady met and married Smokey Martin, he had blown through all of the ten thousand dollars. All he had left from his Army days was that honkin big sapphire, which wound up on my mothers finger.
As much as my mother loved that sapphire, I suspect she would have loved a house even more. There was a major housing shortage in the years immediately following World War II. Many returning GIs could not find a place to live. Eventually a guy named Levitt would build Levittown, thereby inventing the suburb and solving the problem, but Bayonne had no place to put a suburb, unless you count the bottom of Newark Bay. So when my parents were married, they had no choice but to move in with Rays mother and grandmother in the big house on 31st Street and Broadway where he had grown up.
That was where I started my own growing up as well. The house was owned by my great-grandmother, Grandma Jones, a stern old matriarch of German descent. We lived there until I was four and returned to visit every Sunday for years after we moved away. Most of my actual memories of the house are from those visits. By that time, Grandma Jones was bedridden, but that did not make her any less fearsome.
Every Sunday, as soon as we arrived, my sister and I would be marched up to Grandma Jones bedroom to tell her what we learned in school that week, and woe to us if wed forgotten a lesson. No teacher I ever had in school was half as terrifying as Grandma Jones lying in that big four-poster bed.
Her house was huge . . . or at least it seemed huge to the child I was. Things are bigger when youre little. Three stories, plus an attic and a basement. It had a coal-fired furnace, so part of the basement was given over to the coal cellar. The coal truck would come by every month or so, lower a chute through the cellar window, and fill us up. The coal would rumble as it went down the chute; you could hear it all over the house. There was a formal dining room, a huge kitchen with a black cast iron stove. That might have been coal-fired too, I dont remember. A back porch as well, and a large fenced yard where I played. In the yard was another building that we called "the shed," but when I see it in the background of old family photos, it looks more like a stable to me. There were never any horses, though . . . that is, unless you count the broomstick horse I rode when I was playing cowboy.
It was in the backyard that I created my first character. I suppose I was about three. Most cowboys had one six-shooter, but some had two, and that was cooler. Somehow I figured out that three would be even better than two, four would be better than three, and so on. Instead of playing at being Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy or Red Ryder, I told my mother that I was that famous desperado, Lotsa Guns, who had guns in his boots and his cowboy hat and shoved through his belt and everywhere. Admittedly, most of my armaments looked suspiciously like sticks . . . but hey, I wouldnt be standing here today without a vivid imagination.
I am often asked when I first began to write. I have been writing since I could write, since I first learned to make letters and words . . . but before that, I was making up stories and telling them to people, as witness Lotsa Guns.
Sometimes I think that writing is a form of madness. At the very least, theyre close cousins. We dream of lands and times that never were and spend half our waking hours relating conversations that never happened between people who dont exist. You have to be a little nuts to think a sticks a gun. I wonder whether imagination isnt born of need as well. I had to make up stories and adventures. If I hadnt, it would have been very lonely in that backyard, with just me and my sticks. I had no friends or playmates. I did have a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, and a great aunt, all of whom read stories to me from a very early age. Some at least were Beatrix Potter stories, I seem to recall, about Peter Rabbit and his less celebrated kin, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail. There was one especially terrifying story about a weasel trying to eat the rabbits. I couldnt say whether it was Beatrix Potter or some other rabbit writer who penned that one, but its the one that I recall most vividly. That weasel terrified me, but it was my favorite story all the same.
Besides the stories, I also had a cat, a tough old one-eared Irish tomcat named Patsy who terrorized the local dog . . . and would have disposed of that nasty weasel too, I had no doubt. When I was two I got a little sister, Darleen, but she wasnt much fun at first, and later the main thing she did was eat the rubber tires off of all of my toy trucks.
I didnt know any other kids my age. Broadway was Bayonnes main thoroughfare, and by the 1950s it had become almost entirely commercial from 5th Street to the Jersey City line.
There were no neighborhood kids to play with for the simple reason that there was no neighborhood. Our closest "neighbor" was the Sunshine Laundry, next door. The laundry was a modern building with a flat roof, plate glass windows, and Bayonnes first automatic doors. I never got tired of trying to fool the electric eye, but somehow it always saw me.
Despite our being a residential island in a sea of shops, storefronts, and taverns, Grandma Jones refused to sell. She was a stubborn woman, used to getting her own way, and no one was going to make her move. Shed been a Gasman until she married George Jones, a captain in the Bayonne police. A framed photograph of the captain, looking stern in his police uniform, sat on Grandma Joness dresser, but that was all I ever knew of him. He was the George that I was named after. Their son was also named George . . . but in the house on Broadway, the dead father was always called Captain Jones, the living son Georgie Jones. There was also a daughter, my Grandma Grace, who married an Italian immigrant named Louis Martin and produced first my Aunt Gladys and then my father. By the time I came along Gladys had married, moved away, and started a family of her own, but my father, his mother Grace, his uncle Georgie, their mother Grandma Jones, and Grandma Joness younger sister Aunt Barbry all remained in the house on Broadway.
Not my grandfather, though. Although Louis Martin did not pass away until I was in college, he was as good as dead as far as our family was concerned. The only memory I have of Grandpa Louis is of him throwing me up in the air and catching me in the dining room of that house on Broadway during one of his infrequent visits. He was laughing and I was terrified, as I recall. Louis had been born in Italy, but had come to America with his own father when he was very young, probably no older than I was when he tossed me in the air. The family name was Massacola when they left the Old Country, but over here it was changed to Martin.
By all reports, Louis was a bright, handsome, charming man, but in our family folklore he was a scoun-drel. After having two children with my grandmother Grace, he abandoned her and ran off with a younger woman. He didnt run off very far, though. Bayonne people seldom left Bayonne, so Louis and his new lady only moved about twenty blocks up and three over. Supposedly they lived somewhere off the Boulevard, up past 50th Street. My grandmother Grace was a good Catholic, so she never granted Louis a divorce, but that did not prevent him from fathering several children on the other woman. There was no contact whatsoever between the two Martin families, or between my father and my grandfather. In fact, Smokey would get angry at any mention of his fathers name.
Since I never had the chance to ask his side of the story, I dont really know why Louis left Grace and abandoned his children, but I suspect he was fleeing his mother-in-law as much as he was his wife. My grandmother Grace was a sweet, kind, gentle woman, but Grandma Jones was made of sterner stuff. The captains widow ruled that house on Broadway with an iron fist, in small ways and big ones both. Take Christmas. My sisters and I never opened our presents on Christmas morning. Instead we were woken at midnight on Christmas Eve for milk and sugar cookies and gifts. This was a German custom that the Gasmans had brought over from the old country, yet Grandma Jones successfully imposed it on her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren, overruling the protests of three generations of non-German spouses.
Other instances of her rule were less benign. Her son, Georgie Jones, had problems in school as a boy. Today we might say that he had a learning disorder; back then, it was said that he was "nervous." Grandma Jones pulled him out of school and kept him at home. When teachers and truant officers showed up, she ran them off. So Georgie never received any formal education, which condemned him to a life of dependence and menial jobs.
And then there was the matter of Aunt Barbry, Grandma Jones spinster sister. Aunt Barbry was a woman with a past. Sometime during her youth, she had asserted her independence and run off with a man. An unsuitable man, it would seem, since she soon returned. Family is family, so Grandma Jones took her sister in. But Barbry was a soiled woman, so for the rest of her life she was not allowed to eat with the family. She would help prepare the meals, but while the rest of us ate in the dining room, she would eat her food alone at the kitchen table. As near as I can figure, this went on for fifty years.
Such was the house that my father grew up in, the house that his own father fled. Smokey fled it too, in his own way. He spent his days working as a civilian employee on the Navy base. After work hed come home, eat supper, then walk across the street to Whitey and Leftys and drink till it was time to go to bed.
In those days, New Jersey law did not allow women to be served in bars. Supposedly this was to protect the virtue of the fairer sex. A woman could still get a drink, of course. She could buy a bottle in a liquor store and take it home, or she could could go into a restaurant and order a highball or a glass of wine with her meal. She could not, however, walk into a tavern and climb up on a barstool. Most establishments got around the law by adding a back room where food was served . . . with drinks. In practice this meant that you had a dark, smoky bar full of men, arguing and drinking and talking sports, and an equally smoky but somewhat better lit back room attached to it, where all of their wives and dates were sitting, some of them with kids, nursing their beers and highballs and eating.
The food in question was sometimes burgers or hot dogs, sometimes clams or mussels, sometimes cold sandwiches . . . but most often pizza. "Bar pies," they were called, small, with very thin crusts, lightly charred on the bottom from the oven, no toppings but sauce, mozzarella, a little oil. The best pizzas in the world, actually; I dream about them still.
There were no bar pies at Whitey and Leftys, though. There were no wives or girlfriends either. There was no back room, only a long narrow bar with sawdust on the floor, where neither wife nor mother nor grandmother could intrude. If you discount the time he spent asleep, my father spent more time there than he did at home. Meanwhile, my mother stayed home all day and all night, with her mother-in-law, grandmother-in-law, aunt-in-law, and Georgie Jones. Is it any wonder that she dreamed of having a place of her own?
She finally got the chance in 1953. That was when we left the house on Broadway to move into the newly constructed low-income housing projects down on 1st Street, by the Kill Von Kull.
You all know what the projects are like, Im sure. Youve read the news stories about Chicagos Cabrini-Green, youve seen what goes on in the towers of Baltimore in HBOs The Wire. Grim, gigantic highrises made of brick and glass and steel, surrounded by asphalt and concrete, infested by rats and junkies and gangbangers, their walls scarred by graffiti, their hallways dark and stinking of urine, their elevators broken. More often than not, the projects have often been condemned as "warehouses for the poor." Life is cheap in the projects, and every day is a struggle to survive. And I lived there for fourteen years.
Of course, my projects were nothing like that.
They were brand new, to begin with, so new that the housing authority was still planting trees and doing landscaping as we moved in. No one had ever lived in our apartment before, everything was freshly painted, the stove and refrigerator were brand new and neither one ran on coal. The buildings werent even high rises. They had three floors apiece, six apartments to a floor, eighteen to each building. The buildings were built in clusters of three, each with its own playground with a slide and barrels and a sandbox. There were three clusters altogether, and in between them was a big open courtyard, with basketball hoops, a shower and wading pool for the summers, and clothesline where all the mothers hung their washing out to dry. The whole filled one square block, between 1st and 2nd Streets and Lord and Lexington.
They were actually very nice apartments . . . so nice, in fact, that people were clamoring to get in. The projects were intended for the working poor, which meant no welfare families on the one hand, and no one who made too much money on the other, but even so there was a waiting list before ground was even broken. By the time the apartments were ready for tenants, it was years long. We were among those lucky enough to get an apartment, though Im not sure how much was really luck. Families with children got priority, and veterans got priority, and we had both of those things going for us. And people who knew the local politicians got the best priority of all. Did I mention that my mother was Irish?
Our new address was 35 East First Street. In the beginning we had apartment 114, which had two bedrooms; later, when my sister Janet was born, we moved two doors down to apartment 116, which had three bedrooms, and I got a my room of my own. But 35 East First Street remained home until I went off to college, fourteen years later. It was a good address, and a better location. Our first apartment only had views of the back courtyard, but once we moved to 116 our windows opened on 1st Street, with its dock and park, and the Kill Von Kull and Staten Island. It was the best situated of any of the nine buildings that made up the LaTourette Gardens.
That was the official name for our apartment complex. No one ever called them anything but the projects, mind you, but officially they were the LaTourette Gardens. They had been built on the site where the Hotel LaTourette once stood. And right across the street, not ten yards from our front door, was Bayonne Municipal Dock . . . known in former days as Bradys Dock. The dock was still in use, though not for landing building supplies. Sport fishing boats used it during the weekends, departing as the sun came up and returning as it was going down. During the summers big excursion steamers left from there for Rockaway Beach. Once or twice a summer my mother would take us on one of those boats for a day of wading in the Atlantic and going on the rides at Rockaways big amusement park. I would have gone every week if I could have, but we rarely had the money.
The excursion goers always lined up early along First Street so they could claim the best seats on the boat once boarding would commence. On the weekends when we werent sailing ourselvesthat is to say, most weekendsId set up a lemonade stand to sell them drinks. Of course, I didnt know how to make lemonade, so I sold Kool-Aid instead. Sometimes my sister Darleen helped. It was always an exciting day for us kids when one of the excursion steamers left for Rockaway, with the crowds lining up along the street and the big three-decked boat tied up to the dock. It was even more exciting when it pulled away, with flags streaming and music playing and all the passengers standing by the rails, waving. Yet it always felt sad as well. I wanted to be on the boat, not left behind on shore with my sister and half a pitcher of Kool-Aid.
First Street offered other excitements, too. For one thing, there were other kids. Lots of other kids. It was the Baby Boom, and, as I said, families with children had been given preference when the projects opened. Kids were everywhereyounger kids, older kids, kids my own age, babies, toddlers, teenagers. That took some getting used to, for a kid whose best friend had been the electric eye at the Sunshine Laundry. Four years of being alone in the backyard had made me painfully shy, but I did make some friends eventually. Gregory La-Bruno, Skipper Baker, Billy Martin, who had the same last name as me, but wasnt related . . . and no, he wasnt the Yankee manager either. Mark Shapiro from upstairs, who went on to become a television star. His family were the only Jews in the projects, lost in a sea of Catho-lics. Bobby Strydio, the tough kid from across the hall who became my best friend and protector. No one wanted to mess with a Strydio. Bobby had two older brothers who were even bigger and tougher than he was.
Those projects kids were my first audience. Ive often told the story of how I would write up monster stories and sell them to the other projects kids for a couple of pennies or a nickel, complete with a dramatic reading.
That was a few years later, though.
Lotsa Guns hadnt known a lot of good games, but the other kids did. We played tag and ringoleavio and hide-and-go-seek. We played Red Light and Simon Says. We played stickball in the streets. That lamppost was first base, that tree was second, and that Studebaker over there was third.
One game they taught me almost got me killed. That was "King of the Hill." You all know the game, Im sure. Pretty simple. One kid stands on top of a hill and defends it against all the other kids. Theyre trying to pull you down and take your place, and youre trying to shove them off before they can reach the top.
We didnt have any hills near the projects, though, so we used parked cars, climbing up onto their hoods and over their windshields and shoving each other off the roof onto the asphalt. When youre six or seven years old, its a long way down from the top of a 1947 Plymouth. Anyway, my mother had told me half a dozen times that she didnt want me climbing on cars, but all the other kids were doing it and I didnt listen. That was when my father took over. I never climbed on another car again, and I didnt sit down for a while either.
Thats the only time I can recall Smokey ever striking me. Mostly he just ignored me. He was there every day, all those years that I was growing up, but he never said much. He would come home from the docks, eat supper, watch a little television, and head down to the corner bar. Hed stay there till closing, then come home and go to bed. The next day hed wake up and do it all again. I can remember how he put ketchup on his mashed potatoes and smushed them all around till they were pink, but Im damned if I can recall any of his dinner conversation. From time to time hed grumble about his hours, call someone "a hop in the ass," or tell one of us kids to pipe down and eat our food, but that was it.
I never knew my father to read a book. He did read the newspaper, though mostly just the sports pages. He was a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers and hated the Yankees with a passion, and I took his lead in that . . . though later I traded the Dodgers for the Mets. In football, he was a big fan of Johnny Unitas, even though he beat the New York Giants in the "Greatest Game Ever Played." Unitas was the greatest quarterback who ever played the game, my father always said. I liked Johnny U as well, but in the sixties, as an act of rebellion, I became a Jets fan and started claiming that Joe Namath was better than Unitas. My father thought the AFL was a joke, until SuperBowl III. When Broadway Joe defeated Johnny U that day it was not only the AFL getting the best of the NFL, it was me getting the best of my father.
We had only been in the projects for a year or two when Smokey lost his job. Hed been a civilian employee on the base, but there were cutbacks during the Eisenhower recession, and he was let go. Then there was a year or so of unemployment, before he got into the longshoremans union.
For the rest of his life he worked as a longshoreman. In the early years, hed be up at dawn every day to shape up on the docks. "Shaping up" was what you had to do, when you had no seniority and werent in a gangshow up every day, hoping thered be enough ships in so youd get some hours. Most days hed be back home by ten. By the time I was in high school, he was in a gang, working regular, and making good money, but those early years were rough.
For all of us. We were poor, no doubt of it. A point that was driven home hard when I started school. As nice as my projects were, compared to the horrors of a Cabrini-Green, the folks in the surrounding neighborhoods hadnt been exactly thrilled to see them go up. Most of them lived in single-family homes, after all. I dont recall any overt discrimination . . . yet somehow all of us projects kids got the feeling that we were . . . well, somehow not quite as good as the regular kids in our classes.
St. Andrews was the closest grade school to the projectswe called them "grammar schools"but Bayonne was so Catholic that the parochial schools had classes two and three times as large as those of the public schools. My mother sent me to #4 instead, Mary Jane Donohoe School, figuring Id get a better education in a smaller class. Her reasoning cut no ice with the parish priest, who came by to tell her that shed go to hell unless I was promptly enrolled in St. Andrews. When Smokey heard that, he threatened to punch out the priest if he ever came back.
MJD was only four short blocks away, so once I was old enough I walked to school each day, straight up from 1st to 5th along Lord Avenue . . . a name I liked almost as much as "Old Gold," for some reason. The best part of the walk was the block between 3rd and 4th streets. That one block alone was tree-lined, and the sidewalks were made of slate instead of cement. There were always acorns underfoot, and squirrels chittering in the trees, and the smell of burning leaves every fall. The houses between 3rd and 4th were older and larger than the ones between 4th and 5th or 2nd and 3rd . . . and one, I soon learned, was the old Brady house.
The house where my mother had grown up . . . the house her father Thomas had built . . . the house where her brother Jimmy once lived, the brother with polio, who built one of the first radio sets in Bayonne and had a pet canary who perched upon his shoulder . . . the house where another brother, Tommy, died of blood poisoning from a boil hed gotten by swimming in the polluted waters of the Kill Von Kull . . . the Brady house. But of course it wasnt. Someone else lived there now, someone we did not know.
I walked past that house twice a day, five days a week, for nine years. And every time I stepped outside my front door, I saw the dock across the street. The dock was surrounded by a chain link fence, but sometimes my friends and I would climb it. From the dock it was easier to reach the oily rocks along the shore when the tide was out. There was a watchman on the dock, though, and if he saw us hed come out of his shed and shout at us. "Get out of here, you kids," hed yell. "You got no business here." Yes, I do, part of me always wanted to shout back, youre the one whos got no business, my great-grandfather BUILT this dock. I was a shy kid, though, so I never said a word.
There is something in me that loves a sunset and finds it somehow much more moving than a sunrise. Twilight is my favorite time of day, and autumn is my favorite time of year. Among my favorite poems are Shelleys "Ozymandias" and Lord Byrons "So Well Go No More a Roving." I used one in a Beauty and the Beast episode and the other in my novel Fevre Dream. The original title of my first novel was After the Festival, and it was set on a rogue planet that had enjoyed a brief, bright moment in the sun and was drifting back into eternal night. The fantasy series Im writing at present features an exiled queen who dreams of regaining the throne her father lost and a noble family scattered to the winds after their ancestral home was despoiled and taken from them.
I wonder where I get all this . . . all this . . . well, "weird stuff," my father called it. Horror, science fiction, fantasy, it was all "weird stuff" to Smokey. He liked Westerns himself, anything with John Wayne in it, and never understood the kind of shows I liked. He died in 1975 of cirrhosis of the liver. The same year that I won my first Hugo. So far as I know, he never read a word I wrote.
The first advice they will give you in any writing course is, "Write what you know." When I was starting out I hated that advice. Write what I know? I wanted to write about dragons and castles and spaceships and aliens and distant planets. Well, Id never seen a dragon. The projects did not even permit us to have dogs and cats. I had to make do with parakeets, guppies, and lots of little dimestore turtles. The closest I ever came to riding in a spaceship was the back seat of a cab. I never flew on an airplane till my freshman year at Northwestern. As for those distant planets, hell, New York City might as well have been an alien planet as far as we were concerned. Midtown Manhattan was only forty-five minutes away by bus, but at most we got into the city once a year, to see Santa Claus at Macys and eat at an automat. Each summer wed take one or two trips to Rockaway Beach on the excursion boats. Elsewise, we never left Bayonne.
But I could sit in my apartment and look out the window. Day and night the freighters would go by, on their way to and from Port Newark, flying the flags of France and Norway and Liberia and half the other nations of the earth. I had a big book of flags I used to look them up in as the ships made their way along the Kill Von Kull. And after dark the lights would shine across the water of the Kill Von Kull. It was only Staten Island, but for me it was Shanghai and Paris, Timbuctoo and Kalamazoo, Marsport and Trantor, and all the other places that Id never been and could never hope to go. Sometimes Id go outside and lie in the grass, staring up past the roofs to the distant stars. I knew the names of some of them, Rigel and Sirius and Polaris, Deneb and Altair and Vega. But Id certainly never been there. Id never been anywhere.
Write what you know? I knew nothing but Bayonne. I had to ignore that advice, or I could never have written anything at all. Years and years later, when Wild Cards came around, I would use Bayonne and 35 East First Street to flesh out a character named Thomas Tudbury, elsewise known as the Great and Powerful Turtle. "Yes," I would admit sheepishly when asked, "I am Tom Tudbury, only without the kickass teke."
And thats true, and thats false.
Tommys me . . . but no more than all the others. Robb is me in "Song for Lya," as Dirk is me in Dying of the Light . . . though Arkin Ruark and Jaan Antony in that one are both me as well. Abner Marsh is me, as his proud sidewheeler Fevre Dream is the excursion boat to Far Rockaway, only the passengers drink blood instead of Kool-Aid. Sandy Blair is J-school me, Peter Norten is chess club me, Kenny Dorchester is me trying to lose weight. Holt in "The Stone City," hes the kid lying in the grass, staring up at distant stars. Trager is me on a dark night of the soul, bleeding poison from three wounds named Josie, Laurel, Rita. Jon Snow has me in him, and Sam Tarly. The women too, Lyanna and Shaara, and the girls, Arya and Adara . . . Daenerys Stormborn, searching for that house with the red door. And Tyrion Lannister? Oh, yes. The Imp is me in spades, the horny little bastard.
Write what you know, they say.Well, thats all that any of us ever do. Dont ever let them tell you different.
William Faulkner said that only the problem of the human heart in conflict with itself can make good writing, because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
And Robert Bloch spoke of the heart as well. He said he had the heart of a small boy. He kept it in a jar on his desk.
I have the heart of a small boy as well . . . but mines still here, for good or ill. I have no children, but I have a hundred children . . . and I was a child myself, just yesterday . . . and I remember.