Jim Thorpe by U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
When my father walked onto the construction site of the Western Electric Building on Broadway and Fulton, he asked a dark-skinned guy in hard hat where Richie Two-ax was.
The construction worker eyed my father’s neatly pressed slacks and asked, “Who are you?”
“I’m his friend? He told me to meet him here for lunch,” my father said.
“Your name Reilly?”
“Yeah,” my father said.
“Richie’s waiting for you.”
The guy with the hard hat pointed ten stories up to the high steel. And then he said, “Take the cage up.”
At the top, the elevator operator opened the cage and motioned to a group of guys who were sitting on wooden planks, suspended over two horizontal steel beams. They were eating their lunch with their feet hanging over the edge, kicking at the clouds.
“What’re you doing?” my father asked. “Where’s Richie?”
“He’s out there. Just walk.You’ll find him.”
“Are you crazy? I’m not going out there. Take me back down.”
Richie Two-ax was my father’s best friend. He was a bolt man, an ironworker, a Mohawk Indian who rode gray iron girders through the high blue sky as they were maneuvered into place by a huge crane perched atop the skeleton frame of the growing Western Electric Building in late 1950s Manhattan. It was his job to fasten girders together with bolts from the bucket strapped to his waist. Like most Mohawk men, he hung out in the Wigwam Bar on Nevins off Atlantic in a part of Brooklyn known as Little Caughnawaga , a ten-square block area which became home to about 800 Mohawks, ironworkers and their families, during the height of the construction boom in New York.
Little Caughnawaga was like any other ethnic neighborhood in New York, transformed by the arrival of the latest other. Long-time residents complained about the decaying neighborhood, but shop owners saw an opportunity and adapted by stocking new foods. The pastor of the local house of worship, Cuyler Church on Pacific Street, had the same business sense as the neighborhood shopkeepers. He learned the Mohawk language, offered a Sunday service to families in the neighborhood, and increased his flock.
Most of the Irish and Italian residents who lived nearby passed through Little Caughnawaga as tourists. It was alien turf for them, but for my father, it was a familiar place because of his friendship with Richie. For the last forty years, he has been telling and retelling stories about Richie with the regularity of the seasons. I call these his Richie Two-ax stories and I recently tried to stitch them together to figure out what the Mohawk ironworker was like. What I discovered was that the anecdotes my father had shared with me over the years, tell me more about him than they do about Richie.
The story about the time he was supposed to have lunch with Richie at the Western Electric Building is the odd one out of the lot because this is the only story in which my father voluntarily leaves his side. In every other story, my father is the classic, loyal friend.
For example, after the Manual Training High School Prom in 1958, they were walking through Duffy Square as three guys passed them. Richie didn’t like the way the guys leered at the girls, and they may have said something, so he went after them. My father gets really animated when he tells this part of the story: “He didn’t say a word, didn’t wait for me. He just went shithouse. Two big guys squared off against him, and when Richie dropped one of them with that right hand of his, the other one lost heart. The guy opposite me was more interested in getting his friends away from Richie than in fighting, so I helped him break it up.”
But it was hard to stop Richie once he started fighting, so soon the cops got involved. According to my father, “Richie was still hot when the cops showed up and there was a lot of pushing and shoving. One of the cops pushed Richie and he pushed back. Richie always pushed back. Didn’t take shit from nobody. And neither did the cops, so out came the Billy Clubs. The cop started pounding Richie, but he refused to go down. Two other cops jumped in and they eventually cuffed him and pushed him into a patrol car.”
My father talked to the cops after they had calmed down and explained to them what had happened. “The guys insulted the girls,” he said. “What would you do if someone insulted your girlfriend in the street?”
“He pushed me, kid,” one of the cops said.
“He’s a hothead,” my father countered. “Give the guy a break. He’s an ironworker.”
“He’s Mohawk?” the cop asked.
“Yeah. C’mon, cut him some slack. He’s a good guy.”
“Where does he work?”
“At the Western Electric Building on Broadway and Fulton.”
“Go see if he knows our guys down there,” the cop told to his partner. And after a brief conversation, which my father couldn’t hear, they released Richie.
My father was by Richie’s side in 1957 when they walked into fraternity dance at Prospect Hall, on Prospect Avenue between 5th and 6th, in Brooklyn: “As soon as we got in, someone threw a bottle of Bushmills in Richie’s direction. It didn’t hit him, but he knew it was intended for him. He had had a beef with some Italians a few weeks earlier. So he went after an entire table of them. No words. No warning. Just steel violence. It took four of us to pull him away. Richie started swinging at us when we pulled him off of one of the Italians, but I managed to calm him down. Once we had a few drinks and everything was fine.”
The best example of my father’s loyalty to Richie takes place on the night of the riot at the Wigwam Bar. This is my favorite Richie Two-ax story. Each time my father told his seasonal story about the Wigwam riot, his blue eyes lit up and he became animated: “One night, after we dropped off our dates, Richie told me he had to go see his cousin who was the barmaid at the Wigwam, and he asked me to come along. We walked into the bar just in time to see her rip a stone tomahawk off the wall, almost knocking down the huge picture of Jim Thorpe that was right above it. She swung it at a guy who had grabbed her arm, and she hit him square on the head.”
Sometimes, during this part of the story, my father reached up to an imaginary tomahawk and swung it down into the air. When he did this, I could almost see the picture of Jim Thorpe swaying on the wall.
He used to get up during the next part of the story, but the arthritis in his feet make him less animated today: “Richie jumped on the guy who had grabbed his cousin, and before I knew it, the place had erupted into a riot! I remember yelling, ‘I gotcha ya back, Richie,’ but before I could take a swing, a huge ironworker I didn’t know picked me up and carried me outside. I yelled at him when he put me down: ‘My friend Richie’s in there!’ Before the guy ran back in, he said, ‘This is a Mohawk fight. No white men allowed.’”
“I tried to go back in, but something was blocking the door. I looked around and saw a black and white police car down the block on Nevins, near Dean Street. So I ran up to the car and told them about the fight. The cops were ambivalent, and when they didn’t do anything, I told them, ‘Hey, my friend’s in there.’ One of the cops said to me, ‘Don’t worry about it, kid. It happens all the time. We’ll take care of it.’ Just then, a guy came flying through the plate glass window and the cops called for backup.”
My father avoided moralizing at the end of his stories and left it to me to figure out what they meant. It took me a while, but one night, years later, as I was watching a National Geographic episode on the salmon’s mating ritual with my young son and my father during a Sunday visit to Brooklyn, it hit me. My father had always been obsessed with the salmon’s difficult journey to return to its original spawning ground. He was particularly amazed at how a male salmon would sacrifice itself for its mate. If a female salmon had inadvertently landed on the shore as they leaped upriver, the male would join her and try to push her back in the water so she could continue her journey to lay her eggs where she herself had hatched. Or he would die trying.
As my father explained this ritual to my son, just as he had explained it to me, I realized that the salmon’s spawning ritual was the perfect explanation for my father’s persistent retelling of his seminal stories, which touched in his friendship with Richie, his membership in gangs, and his life on the streets of 1950s Brooklyn. Each of his seasonal retellings of these stories was his journey upriver, back to his spawning ground. And each time he brought me along, pushing me back into the river of his dreams.
Don Reilly received his MA in Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama from University College Dublin. He is an Associate Professor of English and Chair of the English Basic Skills Department at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey. Reilly is a reluctant suburbanite and lives in Wayne, New Jersey with his wife and children, but his heart remains in Brooklyn, the borough of his birth. He is currently working on his MFA in Creative Writing at the City College of New York.