THE PLACE I LOVED THE MOST
THE TRUCK COULDN’T HAVE BEEN moving fast. Not down a sleepy residential street like McLean. If it had just turned in from Route 79—known in Freehold, New Jersey, as South Street—it would have been going even more slowly, since no seven-ton truck could round a 90-degree corner at a fast clip. But the truck had the height and breadth to all but fill the side road and sweep the other cars, bikes, and pedestrians to the side until it grumbled past. Assuming the other folks were paying attention to the road ahead.
The five-year-old girl on the tricycle had other things on her mind. She might have been racing her friend to the Lewis Oil gas station on the corner. Or maybe she was simply a child at play, feeling the spring in the air on a late afternoon in April 1927.
Either way, Virginia Springsteen didn’t see the truck coming. If she heard the driver’s panicked honk when she veered into the road, she didn’t have time to react. The driver stomped hard on the brakes, but by then it didn’t matter. He heard, and felt, a terrible thump. Alerted by the screams of the neighbors, the girl’s parents rushed outside and found their little daughter unconscious but still breathing, They rushed her first to the office of Dr. George G. Reynolds, then to Long Branch Hospital, more than thirty minutes east of Freehold. And that’s where Virginia Springsteen died.
The mourning began immediately. Family members, friends, and neighbors streamed to the little house on Randolph Street to comfort the girl’s parents. Fred Springsteen, a twenty-seven-year-old technician at the Freehold Electrical Shop downtown, kept his hands in his pockets and spoke quietly. But his twenty-eight-year-old wife, Alice, could not contain herself. Hair frazzled and eyes veined by grief, she sat helplessly as her body clutched with sobs. She could barely look at Virginia’s toddler brother, Douglas. The boy’s father couldn’t be much help either, given the pall of his own mourning and the overwhelming needs of his distraught wife. So in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy virtually all of the care and feeding of the twenty-month-old boy fell to Alice’s sisters, Anna and Jane. Eventually the others eased back into their ordinary lives. But the approach and passing of summer did nothing to ease Alice’s grief.
She could take no comfort in the clutching arms of her small son. Nearing his second birthday in August the boy grew dirty and scrawny enough to require an intervention. Alice’s sisters came to gather his clothes, crib, and toys and took the toddler to live with his aunt Jane Cashion and her family until his parents were well enough to care for him again. Two to three years passed before Alice and Fred asked to be reunited with their son. He went home soon afterward, but Virginia’s spirit continued to hover in Alice’s vision. When Alice gazed at her son, she always seemed to be seeing something else; the absence of the one thing she had loved the most and lost so heedlessly.
A semblance of family structure restored, the Springsteen home still ran according to its residents’ imprecise sense of reality. No longer employed by the Freehold Electrical Shop, Fred worked at home, sifting through mountains of abandoned electronics in order to repair or build radios he would later sell to the migrant farmworkers camped on the fringe of town. Alice, who never worked, moved according to her internal currents. If she didn’t feel like getting up in the morning, she didn’t. If Doug didn’t want to go to school in the morning, she let him stay in bed. Cleaning and home repair ceased to be priorities. The walls shed curls of paint. The plastered kitchen ceiling fell off in chunks. With a single kerosene burner to heat the entire house, winters inside were Siberian. For Douglas, whose DNA came richly entwined with darker threads, the peeling wallpaper and crumbling windowsills framed his growing sense of life and the world. No matter where he was, no matter what he was doing, he would always be looking out through the fractured windows of 87 Randolph Street.
• • •
Doug Springsteen grew to be a shy but spirited teenager matriculating at Freehold High School. He loved baseball, especially when he was with his first cousin and best friend, Dave “Dim” Cashion, an ace pitcher and first baseman. Cashion was already considered one of the best players to ever emerge from Freehold. Off the diamond, the cousins passed the hours shooting pool at the small game rooms tucked between the stores, barbershops, and news stores clustering Freehold’s central intersection at South and Main Streets. Cashion, who was seven years Doug’s senior, launched his baseball career just after leaving school in 1936. He spent the next five years working his way from the local amateur and semipro leagues all the way into the major league farm system. He got there just in time for World War II to shutter the leagues and redirect him into the US Army.
Raised by parents for whom education amounted to a long distraction from real life, Doug quit his studies at Freehold Regional after his freshman year ended in 1941, taking an entry-level job as a bottom-rung laborer (his official title was creel boy) in Freehold’s thriving Karagheusian rug mill. He kept that job until June 1943, when his eighteenth birthday made him eligible to join the army. Shipped to Europe in the midst of the war, Doug drove an equipment truck. Back in Freehold following the war’s conclusion in 1945, Doug took it easy and lived off the $20 in veteran’s pay he received from the government each month.
As Fred and Alice made clear, academic and professional ambition were not priorities, if only because of their absolute disinterest in achievement—to say nothing of books, culture, or anything that gestured beyond the here-and-now. So if Doug wanted to live in their house and slouch through his life, that suited them perfectly. He was, after all, his parents’ child.
Doug barely made a gesture toward adult life until his cousin Ann Cashion (Dim’s younger sister) came by offering a night out. She had a friend named Adele Zerilli he might like to meet. So how about a double date? Doug shrugged and said sure. A few nights later the foursome were sitting in a cafe together, making polite talk while Doug snuck glances at the bewitchingly talkative dark-haired girl sitting across the table. “I couldn’t get rid of him after that,” Adele says now. “Then he says he wants to marry me. I said, ‘You don’t have a job!’ He said ‘Well, if you marry me, I’ll get a job.’ ” She shakes her head and laughs.
“Oh, God. What I got into after that.”
Married on February 22, 1947, Douglas and Adele Springsteen rented a small apartment in the Jerseyville neighborhood on the eastern edge of Freehold and experienced the postwar boom along with much of America. True to his word, Doug had landed a job on the factory floor of the Ford auto plant in nearby Edison. Adele already had a full-time job as a secretary for a real estate lawyer. A baby was on the way by the start of 1949, and the boy emerged at 10:50 p.m. on the evening of September 23, taking his first breath in Long Branch Hospital (since renamed Monmouth Medical Center), where his father’s sister had breathed her last twenty-two years earlier. He had brown hair and brown eyes, weighed in at 6.6 pounds, and was declared healthy in every respect. His twenty-four-year-old parents named him Bruce Frederick Springsteen and though they had their own home, instructed the nurse to write into the birth certificate that their home address in Freehold was 87 Randolph Street.
When his wife and child were discharged from the hospital a week later, Doug took them to his parents’ house and handed little Bruce to his mother. She held him close, cooing gently at the first new life that had entered their home since the long ago death of Virginia. When Alice peered into his eyes, her own tired face came alight. Almost as if she were seeing the glimmer that had once glowed from inside her own lost daughter. She clutched the boy to herself and for the longest time would not let him go.
She must have loved you to pieces, Bruce heard someone say not long ago. He laughed darkly. “To pieces,” he said, “would be correct.”
• • •
Spending his first months in his parents’ small apartment, Bruce ate, slept, stirred, and cried like every other baby. And yet the blood in his veins carried traces of forebears whose lives describe American history going all the way back to the early seventeenth century, when Casper Springsteen and wife Geertje left Holland to build their future in the New World. Casper didn’t survive very long,1 but a son who had remained in Holland followed in 1652, and Joosten Springsteen launched generations of Springsteens, including a branch that drifted to the farmlands of Monmouth County, New Jersey, at some point in the mid-eighteenth century. After the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, John Springsteen left his farm to serve as a private in the Monmouth County militia, fighting multiple battles during a three-year hitch that ended in 1779. Alexander Springsteen, also of Monmouth County, joined the Union army in 1862, serving as a private with the New Jersey Infantry until the end of the Civil War in 1865. Throughout, and into the twentieth century, the Springsteens worked as farm laborers and, with the growth of industrialization in Freehold, factory workers.
Alice Springsteen’s family were Irish immigrants from Kildare who came to America in 1850, settling in the farmlands of Monmouth County, where they worked the fields and, in some cases, pushed their families up another rung or two on the economic ladder. Christopher Garrity, the patriarch of the family, sent for his wife and children in 1853. His daughter Ann met a neighbor, a laborer named John Fitzgibbon, soon after and married him in 1856. Two years later he invested the $127.50 it took to buy a family home at 87 Mulberry Street2, a street in a growing neighborhood of working-class homes just south of Freehold’s center. Ann Garrity marked their place by planting a beech tree seedling she had brought to America from Kildare. The tree flourished, as did Ann and John Fitzgibbon, who had two children in the years before John went to serve in the Civil War. As a sergeant in the Union army, John earned a chest full of ribbons for his courage on the battlefields of Fredericksburg and Charlottesville, Virginia, then returned home to father another seven children before dying in 1872. Remarried to a shoemaker named Patrick Farrell, Ann delivered a set of twins, including a girl named Jennie, whose own daughter, Alice, eventually married a young electronics worker named Fred Springsteen.
If only every member of the family could have grown as straight and strong as Ann Garrity’s beech tree. But as fate and genetics must have it, both sides of Fred and Alice Springsteen’s lineage came with a shadow history of fractured souls. The drinkers and the failures, the wild-eyed, the ones who crumbled inside of themselves until they vanished altogether. These were the relatives who lived in rooms you didn’t enter. Their stories were the ones that mustn’t be told. They inspired the silence that both secreted and concentrated the poison in the family blood. Doug could already sense the venom creeping within himself. Which may have had something to do with why he had fallen so deeply for Adele Zerilli, whose indomitable spirit would protect and nurture him for the rest of his life.
The youngest of the three daughters born to Anthony and Adelina, Italian immigrants who had arrived as teenagers (separately) at Ellis Island during the first years of the twentieth century, Adele spent her childhood in the Bay Ridge neighborhood at the southern tip of Brooklyn. The family’s luxe home came courtesy of Anthony, who had learned English on the fly and quickly earned his American citizenship and a law school degree. Taking a job in a law firm his uncle had founded to specialize in real estate, investments, and the like, Anthony’s bluster grew along with the firm’s success in the 1920s. Short but broad chested, possessed of a big voice, stylish wardrobe, and charisma to match, the thriving attorney moved through the world like a weather front, altering the barometric pressure of any room he entered. Adelina, on the other hand, pursued the life of an old-fashioned Italian lady, wearing traditional dresses, surrounding herself with reminders of the Old World, and refusing to utter more than a small handful of English words even as her daughters grew to be modern American girls.
When the Depression hit in 1929, Anthony wished he could go back in time, too. Reduced to moving his family into an apartment, he borrowed some of his remaining clients’ cash to keep his own investments afloat. Then he borrowed more. Then he borrowed too much. Meanwhile, Anthony had other indulgences, too, including an affair with a secretary who eventually claimed his heart. Anthony’s marriage ended first, and then the federal agents came knocking. “I guess the word is embezzlement,” Adele says.
Then the word was convicted, then sentenced. And as Anthony prepared to spend a few years away, he bought an inexpensive old farmhouse on sixty acres near the edge of Freehold and had it fixed up so his family could live as comfortably, if inexpensively, as possible while he did his bit in the grim caverns of Sing Sing prison. Only by then, Adelina’s broken marriage and abrupt financial descent had unstrung the observant Catholic so thoroughly that she decided to let her daughters make their own household while she took refuge with relatives. Told to provide for her younger sisters, the recent high school grad Dora took a job as a waitress and kept her sisters on a short leash. Weekly visits from an aunt who always came bearing a suitcase full of spaghetti and tinned tuna helped make ends meet. The girls could also count on the help of the man their father had introduced as George Washington, an African-American day laborer he hired to serve as his daughters’ chauffeur and handyman. And though his name wasn’t really George Washington (that was apparently Anthony’s invention), and he was a grown man in his thirties, he became a regular presence in the home. “All we knew about him was that he could dance,” Adele says. According to middle sister Eda, the action heated up at seven o’clock when the nightly Your Hit Parade came on the radio. That’s when they turned up the volume, pulled aside the living room rug, and kicked up their heels. “That’s when we learned how to dance,” she continues. “It sounds crazy, I know, but that’s how it went.” The vision makes Adele’s son laugh out loud. “They used to go to the balls, and the soldiers were on leave, and they went to dance, dance, dance,” Bruce says. “They had it all going on.”
Dora and Eda had sided with their mother in the divorce, while Adele was officially neutral but sympathetic enough to heed her father’s request to accompany his girlfriend on the journey to Ossining, New York, so she would have the right to participate in Sing Sing’s family visiting hours. When Dora got wind of her sister’s jailhouse visits, she filed papers with the Monmouth County courts to bring it to a stop. And when Anthony convinced Adele to join his beloved secretary on another trip anyway, Dora had her sister put on probation. “It was stupid, because I was a baby!” Adele says. So she must have been terribly aggrieved, yes? “Nope. I just couldn’t go anymore, and that was that.” When daughter Ginny contradicts her—“She never got over it”—Adele admits it instantly: “I still have the letter!”
Either way, the dancing never stopped. And even when the Zerilli girls became adults and took on jobs, careers, and husbands, were made to confront hardship, and even face down tragedy, the sound of music always got their spirits up, always pulled them to their feet, swept aside the carpet, and carried them away. “To this day,” Bruce says. “You get the three of those girls, and they’ll still dance. It was a big part of their lives. Still is.”
• • •
Adele became pregnant again five months into Bruce’s life, and when the Springsteens’ second child—a girl they named Virginia in tribute to Doug’s lost sister—arrived in early 1951, it didn’t take long for Doug and Adele to realize that their apartment was no longer large enough to contain their growing family. Without the money to rent a larger place, they had no choice but to retreat to 87 Randolph Street, searching for space among the broken radio parts, the unsteady furniture, and the drafty corners of the living room. And then there was Alice, so joyous in having her beloved Bruce in the house she could barely contain her excitement. Virginia, on the other hand, barely registered in her vision. “They were sick people, but what do I know when I’m so young?” Adele says. “I thought I was doing the best thing calling her Virginia, but it wasn’t.” Besides, Alice and Fred had already settled on their favorite. “With Bruce, he could do no wrong.”
From the day the family moved in, Alice catered to her young grandson like a sun king. She washed and folded his clothes, then laid out each morning’s wardrobe on his freshly made bed. When Adele and Doug were out during the day, both Alice and Fred kept the toddler fed, warm, entertained, and always within reach. Ginny, on the other hand, was lucky to get much more than the occasional glance. Quickly frustrated by her grandparents’ disinterest, two-year-old Ginny demanded to be left with other adults during the day. Adele: “She didn’t want to stay with them, so she never did.”
“That was very caught up with the role I was intended to play,” Bruce says. “To replace the lost child. So that made it a very complicated sort of affection and one that wasn’t completely mine. We [Ginny and Bruce] were very symbolic, which is an enormous burden on a young child. And that became a problem for everybody.” Consumed by his grandparents’ unyielding attention, Bruce assumed that they, and not his parents, were his primary caregivers. “It was very emotionally incestuous, and a lot of parental roles got crossed. Who you answered to and the different kind of responsibilities you had were very confusing for a young kid. Your allegiances were being pulled in different ways. Then we were beyond the point of no return.”
Bruce remembers his grandparents’ house as a strange, austere place, its cracked walls adding to an atmosphere already clotted with loss, memory, and regret. “The dead daughter was a big presence,” he says. “Her portrait was on the wall, always front and center.” Fred and Alice trooped everyone to the St. Rose of Lima cemetery each week to touch her stone and pick weeds and errant grass from the little girl’s grave. “That graveyard,” Ginny says, “was like our playground. We were there all the time.” Death was a regular presence, particularly with so many older relatives on the block. “We went to a lot of wakes,” Bruce says. “You got used to seeing dead people lying around.”
Death was one thing. But for Alice, whose Old World Catholicism came larded with superstition and other terrors, eternal damnation was more difficult to confront. Grandma Alice sensed the presence of Satan in lightning and thunder, so the first flash would send her into the throes of panic. Within seconds she scooped up the children and sprinted the block to the home of her sister Jane, who kept bottles of holy water to protect her family against such attacks. “People would huddle together,” Bruce recalls. “You’d have near hysteria.”
When Fred lost the use of his left arm to a serious stroke in the late 1950s, he brought Bruce along to help troll for cast-off radios and electronic parts in the neighborhood trash cans. The time together deepened the bond between grandfather and grandson, and drew the young boy deeper into the eccentric rhythms of his grandparents’ home. So while Adele’s work as a secretary kept her on a normal schedule, the rest of the family—including Doug, already riding the currents of intermittent employment and long stretches at loose ends—abandoned clocks altogether. “There were no rules,” Bruce says. “I was living life like I’ve never heard of another child living it, to be honest with you.” At four years old, the boy took to staying up late into the night. Rising from his bed, padding out to the living room, flipping through his picture books, playing with his toys, and watching television. “At three thirty in the morning, the whole house was asleep and I’d be watching ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and then seeing the test pattern come on. And I’m talking before the first grade.” Many years later, when Bruce finished school and took to living by the musician’s up-all-night schedule, he had an epiphany: “I just returned to the life I’d had as a five-year-old. It was like, ‘Hey! All that school stuff was a mistake!’ It was a return to how I lived as a very small child, which was upside down, but that’s the way it was.”
When Adele read to him each night, Bruce made a nightly ritual of a picture book called Brave Cowboy Bill. Written by Kathryn and Byron Jackson, illustrated by Richard Scarry (in a style not the least bit reminiscent of his Busy, Busy World books), and published in 1950, Brave Cowboy Bill became such a fixation for Bruce that Adele could recite it from memory on her eightieth birthday in 2005. Central character Bill, who looks to be about six years old, storms gently across the frontier, rounding up cattle rustlers, killing deer and elk for his dinner, befriending Indians—albeit at gunpoint (“We’ll be friends, he told them firmly . . .”)—kills a bear, dominates every competition in a rodeo, and then stays up all night singing songs by his campfire before coming home to dream of the frontier where “No one ever argued with the daring Cowboy Bill.” All of which serves as an intriguing glimpse into the aspirational fantasies of a boy from a home governed by such a skewed set of expectations.3
When Bruce became old enough to play outside with the other neighborhood kids, his visits to their well-kept family homes both confused and bothered him. Suddenly he realized that his friends’ bedroom walls were freshly painted, their windows didn’t rattle in the frames, and the ceilings in their kitchens stayed securely above their heads. All the adults seemed dependable; steady jobs, regular paychecks, and no edge of incipient hysteria. “I loved my grandparents so deeply, but they were very outsider,” he says. “There was an element of guilt and shame, but then I felt bad about being embarrassed.”
• • •
With Bruce moving toward school age in 1956, Adele signed her son up to start first grade at the St. Rose of Lima’s parochial school in the fall. To the extent that Doug had an opinion, he kept it to himself. But Fred and particularly Alice had other plans for their grandson. Bruce, they declared, didn’t have to go to school at all if he didn’t want to go. Fred hadn’t spent much time in school, and neither had Doug. So why make such a fuss getting an education Bruce wouldn’t need? Adele, whose father had insisted his daughters all finish high school, at the very least, was having none of it. “He had to go to school,” she says. “But [Fred and Alice] wouldn’t let him.” Already feeling shoved aside in her son’s life, and more than tired of playing the dutiful wife in such a topsy-turvy environment, Adele made her stand. “I said to my husband, ‘We’ve gotta get out of here,’” she says. If Doug argued about it, he didn’t win. Hearing that a pair of cousins were about to leave their rented duplex apartment at 39 1/2 Institute Street, just three and a half blocks east of Fred and Alice’s home, they took over the lease and moved in almost immediately.
It was, Bruce says now, the only way his mother could give her family anything like a normal life. But for Bruce, that realization was a long time in coming. As a six-year-old, he says, the abrupt change was devastating. “It was terrible for me at the time because my grandparents had become my de facto parents. So I was basically removed from my family home.” The boy’s anxiety eased a bit thanks to his daily visits to his grandparents for after-school supervision. It also didn’t hurt that the two-bedroom, two-floor apartment on Institute marked a significant step up in the family’s residential standards. “We had heat!” says Bruce, who shared the larger of the home’s two bedrooms with Ginny. Doug and Adele made do in a cramped room that seemed closer to a closet than a real bedroom. Worse, the house had no water heater, which made dishwashing, and especially bathing in the upstairs tub, complex operations. As Bruce recalls, bathing was not one of his more regular habits.
Already shaken by the abrupt change in his family’s home and parental structure, Bruce reported for school in an especially vulnerable, and angry, frame of mind. The nuns’ strict rules and work requirements first confused, then enraged the boy. “If you grow up in a home where no one goes to work and no one is coming home, the clock is never relevant,” he says. “And suddenly when someone asks you to do something, and says you have twenty minutes to do it, that’s going to make you really angry. Because you don’t know from twenty minutes.” Just as Bruce also had no idea how to sit still in class, absorb the nuns’ lessons, or see their pinched faces and ruler-wielding hands as anything more, or less, than earthly visions of a fuming God.
Bruce did what he could to fit in. He pulled on his uniform in the morning, then marched proudly to school with Adele clutching his hand. “He had his head held high when he walked in there, and I thought, ‘Good,’” Adele says. But what was going on during the school day? To see for herself, Adele took a break from work and stood across from the playground to check on her son during recess. “And there he is, against the fence, all by himself, not playing with anybody. It was so sad.” For Bruce, his tendency for social isolation came as naturally as his secret desire to be at the center of everything.
“Companionship is a natural human impulse, but I didn’t make social connections easily,” he says. “I was a loner, just to myself, and I had gotten used to it.” No matter where he was, his mind was meandering somewhere else. “I had a very vibrant internal life. I seemed to be drawn to other things, different than what the subjects were supposed to be at a given moment. Like how the light was hitting a wall. Or how the stones felt under your feet. Someone might be talking about a normal subject, but I’m sort of zeroing in on that.”
Bruce had his small circle of friends, mostly the boys he’d tossed balls and pushed trucks with in the yards around Randolph Street. His closest pal among them was Bobby Duncan, a slightly younger boy he’d befriended when they were both preschoolers. To Duncan, the young Bruce was a regular kid: passionate about baseball, content to spend an afternoon riding bikes to the candy store on Main Street, then pedaling back to his grandparents’ house to watch the children’s shows on TV, read Archie comics, or both. Duncan also noticed his friend’s differences. “He was like the lone rebel back then. He didn’t care what people thought.” Which presented such a striking distinction from the typical grade school boys that the other kids in the neighborhood were often at a loss. Particularly when they grew up enough to battle for stature in the traditional arena of sandlot fistfights. “I grew up on a black block, but we were surrounded by blocks of white families,” says David Blackwell, who lived a few blocks away from Bruce’s street. “We all became friends because we were all fighting. I had fights with all my friends, white and black. But something about Bruce . . . I don’t think you can find anyone at Freehold who tried to fight him.” If only because, as David’s brother, Richard, remembers, the Springsteen kid either ignored or was somehow immune to the childhood taunts that sparked battle. “You could be sayin’ some shit about his mother, and he’d just shrug, say ‘Okay!’ and keep on walking,” he says. “Nothin’ you can do about that. You gotta respect it. Let that boy go about his business.”
Bruce’s odd yet stubborn ways made him a juicy target for the nuns and their vaguely medieval humiliations and for the classmates who tittered at the odd boy’s hapless flailing. Bruce incited enough institutional fury to end more than a few of his school days in the principal’s office, where he waited for hours before Adele could come claim him. Faced down by his parents at the end of the day, Bruce always had the same explanation for his behavior. “He didn’t want to go back to Catholic school,” Adele says. “But I made him do it, and now I’m sorry I did. I should have known he was different.”4
• • •
Douglas Springsteen spent most of those years huddled inside himself, handsome in the brooding fashion of actor John Garfield, but too lost in his own thoughts to find a connection to the world humming just outside his kitchen window. Often unable to focus on workplace tasks, Doug drifted from the Ford factory to stints as a Pinkerton security guard and taxi driver, to a year or two stamping out obscure industrial doo-dads at the nearby M&Q Plastics factory, to a particularly unhappy few months as a guard at Freehold’s small jail, to occasional spurts of truck driving. The jobs were often bracketed by long periods of unemployment, the days spent mostly alone at the kitchen table, smoking cigarettes and gazing into nothing.
Doug felt more comfortable with his cousin and closest friend, Dim Cashion, who had pivoted from his years in the farm system of Major League Baseball to a position as coach for Little League teams and a player-coach in New Jersey’s semipro leagues. But even while Dim’s talent and charisma helped him lead generations of Freehold boys to the joys of baseball, it also came with the spiraling undertow of manic depression. The seesaw of black-eyed despair into neon auroras of unhinged energy could trigger fits of often uncontrollable behavior. “Kitchen cabinets came off the wall, telephones came off the wall, state troopers were called,” says Dim’s youngest brother, Glenn Cashion. And while Doug and Dim didn’t always get along, and sometimes went months without seeing each other (despite living within a block of each others’ homes), the cousins still passed their empty hours together in the same pool halls, still drank beer together, always linked by the same history and the same genetic information.
Eager to feel connected to other kids—and maybe even create a bond with his father at the same time—Bruce threw himself into the Indians, his team in Freehold’s Little League, coming off the bench to play right field. Bruce was perhaps more enthusiastic about baseball than he was talented. Jimmy Leon (now Mavroleon), who shared teams with Bruce for years, still recalls the time when a high fly ball floated across the summer sky toward his teammate’s outstretched glove. Money in the bank. “But then it just hit him in the head. So it was kind of like that.” Still, Bruce was proud to be a part—no matter how small—of the Indians’ undefeated season in 1961. Which became slightly less perfect when the team lost the championship series by coming up short in two straight games against the Cardinals, a team coached by Freehold barber Barney DiBenedetto.5
But no matter how sweet the boyhood moments, Bruce still had his old man’s fragile psyche to deal with. “You couldn’t access him, you couldn’t get to him, period,” says Bruce, recalling his many attempts to talk to his father. “You’d get forty seconds in, and you know that thing that happens when it’s not happening? That would happen.” When dinner was over and the dishes were done, the kitchen became Doug’s solitary kingdom. With the lights out and the table holding only a can of beer, a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, and an ashtray, Doug passed the hours alone in the darkness.
• • •
In February 1962 Adele gave birth to her and Douglas’s third child, a daughter they named Pamela. The baby’s arrival required the family to pick up stakes and move to a slightly larger duplex at 68 South Street, in a white house (equipped with both a furnace and running hot water) nestled up against a Sinclair filling station. Absent the burdens of history and expectation, baby Pam’s sweet presence was strong enough to evaporate the gloomy fatalism that defined so much of Doug’s family experience. The thirteen-year-old Bruce proved an especially doting big brother, so while it was officially Ginny’s responsibility to keep the baby changed, fed, and peaceful, Bruce was, by all accounts, more attuned to the baby’s needs. No matter what else Bruce was doing, the sound of his baby sister crying triggered immediate action. “I really took care of her,” Bruce says. “I did everything, the diapers and all that. So we were very close when she was very young.”
One day in 1962 Fred and Alice were chatting with Adele in her new South Street kitchen, visiting with the baby, and waiting for Doug to come home from his night shift at the plastics plant. Saying he felt a little under the weather, Fred went upstairs to take a nap. When Adele went up to check on him an hour later, the old man was cold and still; obviously dead. Running downstairs to tell Alice the terrible news, the older lady responded with a nod. Deciding to hold off from doing anything else until Doug came home, they sat together in the kitchen until the door opened. Doug responded with the same absence of emotion his mother had shown. He paused for a moment, said, “Oh, okay,” checked his pockets for coins, and then went to a pay phone to call the funeral home and alert a few relatives. When Bruce heard the news after coming home from school, he became hysterical. “It was the end of the world,” he says. “But we didn’t talk about my grandfather’s death. He was probably about sixty-two, sixty-three, or sixty-five when he went. I was quite close to him, but you never know how to react as a child. I remember the funeral, the wake, and all those things. But it wasn’t like today. Everyone was still . . . just different.”
With the Randolph Street house close to being condemned, the widowed Alice moved in with her son’s family. She spent most of her days helping care for Pam and also took the opportunity to shower more adoration over her fourteen-year-old grandson. Once again, she took to laying out his clothes in the morning, making his favorite treats, and glowing at his every word and gesture. Then Adele was playing the game too, making certain that Bruce had the one bedroom that was actually a suite, given its attached sunroom. And when Bruce realized that the sunroom had enough space for a real pool table, Adele and Doug scrimped for the money, then drove to another town in a snowstorm in order to bring it home in time for Christmas morning.
• • •
Alice had been hiding it for weeks, maybe for months: something was wrong with her insides. But without a fortune to pay the bills, what was the point of asking anyone to help? Adele took her to the hospital, and when the doctors concluded that Alice had cancer, they took her into their ward and kept her for the next three months, running the older woman through a litany of treatments, all debilitating, and many of them experimental. “I think they treated her like a guinea pig because she had no money or insurance,” Adele says.
When she finally came home, Alice was weak at first and then rallied. She seemed nearly back to her old self when Pam, then three years old, woke up in the middle of the night and asked her mother if it was okay for her to sleep in her Aggie’s bed. Adele thought it a bit strange—Pam had never asked to do that before. But she nodded and saw her daughter pad down the hall and slip through the bedroom door at the end of the hall. “I remember going into her room, her moving over and lifting the covers to let me in,” Pam says.
They both fell asleep that way, the little girl cuddled up against the older woman’s body, just as little Virginia had done so many years ago. Whatever Alice thought or dreamed about the past during her drift toward sleep will never be known. “When I woke up the next morning, I shook her to get up, and she didn’t move,” Pam says. Bruce, headed to school, had no idea. Bruce: “I’m sure I went through the room when they were there, only about fifteen feet from my own bedroom. That was a life changer; the end of the world for me. I don’t remember anyone making a huge deal about (my grandfather), but it was different when my grandmother died. My dad was really upset.”
The untended 110-year-old house on Randolph Street trembled on its long-fractured foundation. Vacated by Alice in 1962, it stood for only a few more months before the bulldozers rolled in. The house’s weathered framework fell into a cloud of dust, then became a chalky pile of detritus hauled away in a truck. Once cleared, the property was rolled flat and paved over, cast for eternity as a part of the St. Rose church’s parking lot. Bruce refused to look. “I didn’t go back for years after it was knocked down,” he says. “I couldn’t go back and see the space. It was very, very primal for me.” The stillness in the air, the desperate love of his grandparents, the adoration he’d earned simply by being himself. This was the seat of his consciousness. His roots as deep and entangled as the ones anchoring the Irish beech still in the soil out front.
“I thought back,” Bruce says of the warped house that never stopped feeling like home, “and realized it was the place I loved the most.”
Excerpted from Bruce
by Peter Ames Carlin
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