Thursday, July 21st: Joe's Pub, New York: Tickets here
It was Monday July 4th and it hadn’t been an easy week up till then. The previous Sunday June 26th was a wondrous day at the Sheen Theatre on Bleeker Street in the Village. The author Joseph O’Connor had invited us to perform at the Angela’s Ashes 20th Anniversary Concert in this newly renovated hi tech auditorium, it was a bill filled with a mish-mash of talented people, all strung together around one simple premise; respect for the deceased Frank McCourt and his hugely successful memoir. It was mostly an evening of spoken word - other than that, Jean Butler (of Riverdance fame) danced, Larry Kirwan my old cohort from Wexford sang, and I sang with my New York Ensemble. All performers were asked to stay within a four-minute framework, and most of us did, so it was a quickly-paced event that never allowed the usual greedy types to hog the limelight. At the end of the evening, Malachy McCourt and his youngest brother Alphie took to the stage in their own time, Malachy at eighty-four pushing his grey walker, and Alphie at seventy-six with his silver tie hanging out and swinging slowly from his forward-leaning gait, a dry under-pronounced pleasantness etched into his milky pale Irish skin, skin that suggested his hair had been ginger before it turned grey. Malachy beamed from ear to ear with long grey hair that curled over his large white dinner jacket, it was easy to see in him the child that Frank described in the book as so charming and inquisitive with his little pearly white teeth.
Before them, Gabriel Byrne had been at the podium - he had just come from the theatre where he had completed the final performance of the four-hour Eugene O’Neill play Long Days Journey Into Night. As had been the pattern throughout the evening, his presence was natural and understated and he spoke in a soft deliberate Dublin accent and compared O’Neill’s play to Angela’s Ashes in the way that they both dug deep into the microcosm of one family, the hidden shame, pain and truth. He also talked about how Frank could be charming company one minute and then in the next decapitate you with a knife. It was easy to become totally immersed as he delivered his gentle thoughts on why this evening was important, and why he was there and why we were there, he hadn’t much to say he said, and because he wasn’t trying, he was all the more powerful.
The same applied to Alphie and Malachy, they had no intention of knocking us out. Malachy sat down on his walker as Alphie underwhelmed with the might of a humble guru. Saddened by the fact that his brother Michael had died six months previous, he motioned the shape of an arc with his hand and said “I’m sure he’s around here somewhere. Michael was always fighting with Frank, I remember coming out of some place one evening with drink taken, and Michael had been arguing with Frank for some time, Frank just brushed him off with clever ripostes, finally Michael shouted, you’re nothing only a tortured version of James Joyce!, of course all of us, including Frank, just fell around laughing”. Alphie pulled out a hanky from his brown jacket and wiped his nose periodically, occasionally coughing with a dry throat, after a roll of droll humour, then he just quietly strolled off stage through the wing. Malachy pulled the goose-necked mike towards him and thought out loud “he’s probably gone for a drink, OK, so I’ll just say a few words, as King Henry the Eighth said to his many wives, I won’t keep you long!” Eventually Alphie returned, and they finished with a song, encouraging us all to sing along, and try we did, even though we didn’t have the foggiest what the words were, but the song was infectious. The humility of these two unpretentious men reminded me that you don’t have to jump through hoops to touch an audience; you just have to be honest. It was a magical event, and all I can think is that Frank McCourt and his masterwork had hovered over the whole affair and turned the mish-mash into a coherent homage.
That was Sunday. The next day, Monday, I was standing in my kitchen leaning against the countertop, still quietly pleased with the previous days happening. There before me seated by the door was Kevin, the owner of an Irish Wheaton Terrier called Murphy, and talking to him with her back to me sat Clare, in between them sat upon the floor was Murphy. We had been minding Murphy for Kevin for several days, and I had walked him, fed him, patted him on the head, rubbed him under the chin, and only made him wear his muzzle while I was walking him, he had sat on the couch with me when I was watching the European cup. It seemed cruel to make him wear the muzzle around the house, although he had to wear it because of some unclear personality trait. He is a medium size, very muscular dog that is excitable. I was waving my hands about, talking of who knows what, when Murphy with a vicious growl lunged at me and took a lump out of my index finger. I looked at Kevin with the fear of God in my eyes and the word HELP screaming in silence, pulling my hand away only suggested attack to the dog, now he went for my stomach tearing a hole in my shirt and puncturing the skin, his growl was as ferocious as his action, I felt completely helpless, if I moved, he would get worse, all I could do was let him attack it seemed. Kevin jumped up and shouted HEY, grabbing Murphy by the collar and pulling him back, a little too late for me.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I don’t know what happened” I said, shaken, embarrassed and uncomfortable, for the dog and the owner, while my blood was spilling all over the kitchen tiles. Clare, who was feeling all the same emotions as me about the dog and owner (Catholics) explained that I was probably bleeding that much because I take a baby aspirin every day. That split my emotions for a second, I was now feeling that some sympathy was in order, and that this was still real blood, so what if it was a little thinner! The dog and the worried owner left, my favourite shirt was ripped apart and we went to the emergency ward at Beth Israel where three hours later I got stitches in my finger.
That was Monday. Tuesday comes and it’s a hot one, Clare and I decide to go for a swim over at Asser Levy, an excellent Olympic-size public pool over on 21st Street and First Avenue. I point out to Clare that my favourite American Camper sandals are starting to fall apart, the rubber soles are flapping in the front and in the back, it had been going on for a while, but now they were getting dangerous. She had ordered a new pair with Amazon but they hadn’t come yet. Clare suggested that I wear them over to the Pound Shop along the way, and that we would get a cheap pair for three dollars there that would get me to the pool and back. After going though a heap of very bright plastic sandals we finally settled on a black pair that were a bit on the big side. The pool has its rules though, you must have a lock for the locker, no magazines, no phones, and you must shower before going in the pool. So Clare goes to the women’s to change and I go upstairs to the men’s locker room.
Clare reminded me that you can get verrucas in public showers, so I should wear my new plastic sandals to the shower, after all they are waterproof unlike my campers. I wet myself and my shoes, lock the locker and swing down the stairs, the wet stairs! BANG!! My feet went flying up in the air … the hard plastic shoes were now like boards in a water slide, I hit that hard stone stairs screaming involuntarily, beyond all Catholic restraint, my pain echoed up the stairwell so loud that the two jaded janitors came and asked me was I alright, my feet had gone so far into the black shoes that they were stretched over my ankles now, I had landed on my left arse, and it was swollen so bad I barely recognized it, I was half of a hippie person, half big bum, my neck hurt, the ring on my finger had carved a purple bruise where it tried to travel towards my wrist, every muscle in my body ached, and people were looking at me. I was in agony, and I was embarrassed, AGAIN!
I hobbled out to the swimming pool where Clare was frolicking around like a baby seal, I hobbled towards the ladder mouthing my agony towards her, finally, after boring a hole into the back of her head she glanced in my direction. “I have just had the worst fall of my life”, I mouthed towards her. She had “what now?” on her lips as I descended into the cool soothing water. On the way home Clare insisted on bringing the shoes back to the Pound Shop, I stood outside while she argued with two Chinese teenage girls about how dangerous the shoes were. I think this was her way of showing she cared, so I let her, even though I thought it was unreasonable. She got the three bucks back, and I hobbled home in my flappy campers.
To this day I am covered in bruise patterns, a myriad of colours like an angry sky, deep purples, black and blue, with a translucent sulphur yellow, they are in the front of my leg, the back of my leg, my left arse, reaching up over the front of my stomach where they almost meet the ones on my right stomach with the puncture wounds left by Murphy. The ground they cover is so vast, it’s clear now that I had so many spots that were hurt, I had lost track of them, but the bruises are there like a map to show where they were.
That was Tuesday. A few days later, I heard that Alphie went to bed for a sleep and never woke up. Another bruise, this one on the inside.
On Monday July 4th I sat by Clare’s cousin Amanda’s pool in Philadelphia, they had a party that was set to climax with a fireworks display by the local Chamber of Commerce come nightfall. It was absolutely pouring rain, and we sat huddled under umbrellas drinking beer and eating bread and cheese. A woman whom I knew, but wasn’t sure how, lamented that she hadn’t been to an Irish music festival in ages, she heard that the Milwaukee Irish beer festival was great as usual and when was I playing again?
“July 21st I’m at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan”
“Oh I can’t possibly go to something on July 31st, I have a school………etc”
“No it’s not on the 31st, it’s on July 21st”
“Oh that’s even worse, I can’t possibly go to a gig on the 21st….etc”
I jumped in the pool and watched the fireworks over the high trees, above the occasional lighted windows of a passing train, in the rain.