The Police Take Shane to Jail
A beautiful day in late August of 1961 started so happy and ended so very sad.
I was in the kitchen with my father Shane and brother Ted. We were making pancakes on a small hot plate that was all we had for a stove, so it would take a little longer to make enough pancakes for the whole family.
Shane was in a happy mood, singing and dancing, as he showed Ted and me how to make pancakes. Shane made the best pancakes I ever had. He had a knack for them and they were delicious. Shane flung the frying pan in the air and flipped over the pancake inside it.
“Wow! Holy-cow! How do you do that?” I asked.
“This is the way you flip pancakes over,” Shane said as he swung the pan.
“Shane, can I try?” Ted asked. “I want to see if I can hit the ceiling with a pancake.”
Shane gave the frying pan to Ted, who was laughing and having a great time flipping with his dad.
We had already made thirty pancakes and were still making more. Shane told us about the time he and his father Eugene made pancakes together.
“That was one of the only happy times I can remember having with my father,” he said. “Boy, I wish my dad had been around more when I was your age.”
My little sister Kathleen and my mother were at the corner grocery store, buying milk and juice to go with the pancakes. Maura was over at Aunt Rose's house, babysitting her children. I set the kitchen table so everything would be ready when they got home. Just as I finished, there was a loud knock at our front door.
“I'll get it,” I said, as I ran to see who was at the door. When I opened the door, there were five cops standing there.
“Is your father home?” one of them asked.
“Yes, he's in the kitchen,” I said.
All five cops ran past me, almost knocking me over. They ran into the kitchen and one of them grabbed Shane and held him, as another put handcuffs on my father.
I started crying, “No, leave him alone. He’s being nice.”
Ted was standing there with the hot frying pan in his hand, staring with his big brown eyes and not saying a thing.
“What did I do this time?” Shane asked, as one of the cops read him his rights.
Then another cop said, “You’re going to jail for neglecting your children. We got a report from their school.”
The same cop grabbed the pan out of Ted's hand and threw it into the kitchen sink.
“Why is this little boy holding a hot frying pan over a dangerous hot plate? Don't you people even have a stove in this dump? Stupid, that’s why I'm hauling your skinny ass to jail!”
Ted whispered to me, “I hate cops. Did you hear him say that bad word to Shane?”
“I think Mr. Tats called them,” I said, “because he can't stand living next door to us.”
Three of the cops took Shane outside and put him in their police car and drove away. The other two stayed in the house with Ted and me, waiting for my mother to get home from the store. One cop sat in the kitchen, watching everything Ted and I did. I thought he looked like a devil, with evil eyes. I'm sure he was just looking out for us, but at the time, I didn't think so. The other cop walked around our house, going through our things and writing notes.
A short time later, my mother walked in with Kathleen, carrying a bag from the store.
“What wrong?” Cathy asked. “What happened? Where’s Shane?”
The evil looking cop said, “We took your useless husband off to jail.”
“What did Shane do this time?” my mother asked. “He was cooking pancakes with the kids when I left twenty minutes ago.”
“Lady, take a look at this house of yours,” the cop said. “It's a pig pen. There’s no glass in most of your windows upstairs. There’s not a single bed for these kids to sleep on.”
My mother explained that she had to throw all of the mattresses in the garbage because she thought she saw a bed bug in one of our beds. She said she was waiting for a check from the lawyer this week to buy us new beds.
The cop told my mother she would have to find a place with beds for all four of us kids to sleep until she got new beds, or he'd have to take us to foster homes. Cathy said she would, and the cops left.
Later that afternoon, my mother took Kathleen over to Aunt Rose's house, where she and Maura could stay a few days. Then she took Ted and me over to Aggie’s house, where we could sleep. Ted and I watched television, while my mother and grandmother went to bail Shane out of jail. Then they went to the furniture store to buy new beds.
The next day, Shane came home feeling shameful about not taking care of his own kids. He told Cathy, “I think if I find a job and stop taking all that Benzedrine, everyone will be happier and like me better.”
“I saw an ad in the window at the A&P. They need help,” Cathy said.
Shane smiled and said, “I think I’ll run right down to the A&P and ask about that job.”
That afternoon, Shane walked downtown to find a job. The first place he went was the A&P supermarket. He went into the store, walked over to the store manager, and asked about the job.
“Sorry, we filled that job this morning,” the manager said. “Maybe one of the 5&10’s need some help.”
Shane thanked him and said, “I think I’ll like working in a 5&10 store.”
Shane walked down the street, heading for the two 5&10’s in town. But when he got there, they told him they were not hiring. Shane tried the hardware store, the card store, the drugstore, and the barber shop, which my old friend Johnny's father owned.
“Shane, you don't know how to cut hair,” Mr. Freedman said, “but you look like you need a good haircut. Take a seat and I'll give you a free haircut. Then you’ll look better and someone in town will give you a job.”
After getting his hair cut, Shane thanked Mr. Freedman and went back to looking for a job.
Poor Shane must have asked every store and restaurant for a job. But not one of them would give him a chance and hire him. Shane finally came home, hanging his head and looking horrible.
When Cathy asked him if he’d found a job, he said, “No! It's useless. I can’t find a job. No one in town wants me working in their store. God damn, they don't even want me shopping in their stores! I think it will be better for you and the kids if I just kill myself.”
“Shane, stop all that crazy talk,” Cathy said. “You'll find a job soon.”
But my father never did find a job. He wanted a job, but no one in town would give him a chance. He just went back to being himself – sometimes great and sometimes crazy or mean. The only job I can ever remember Shane having was in New York as a mannequin dresser in the early 1960’s.
A Cold Sad Christmas
A few weeks before Christmas, my mother had to give our donkey Boaz to a friend of Aggie’s, an older woman named Tilley. Tilley lived on a farm in Jackson Township, New Jersey. Cathy realized we could not afford to keep and feed a donkey.
“Why can't we keep Boaz?” I asked.
“The donkey will be happier living in the country where he'll have plenty of room to run,” Cathy said. “Tilley will take good care of Boaz and she has enough money to feed him well.”
After Boaz was gone, a boy in my class said, “Your donkey’s dead! Your crazy father killed your stupid jack-ass and cut it up. All you ugly O'Neill kids eat the donkey for supper.”
We had been completely broke for over a month. Shane took off again, and no one knew where he was. Our house was freezing cold. All we had for heat was a small kerosene space heater. Our electricity had again been turned off for nonpayment and we had no money to get it turned back on. We were desperate, hungry, and we were all sick.
This is how we lived. One day we had money and the next we were completely broke. This was the third Christmas in a row we were broke.
The house was so cold there were icicles in the kitchen and bathroom, hanging from the pipes and window sills. It was so cold in the house, we could see our breath. All we could do to keep warm was to wrap up in blankets and run around as much as possible. At night, we all brought the cats into our own beds to help keep us a little warmer. We fought over who would get our dog Toby to keep us warm.
At least this time, thank god, we had oatmeal, pancake mix, and a little spaghetti in the house, so we didn't have to eat those nasty black-eyed peas.
After being gone for two weeks, Shane came home with some money he got from his lawyer. It wasn’t very much, but it was enough to get some food and our lights back on. He gave Cathy fifty dollars for the electric bill and for Christmas shopping, and another fifty dollars for food.
A few days before Christmas, it was so cold out we couldn't sleep in our house overnight, so my mother took us over to Aggie’s nice warm house, where we all got into comfortable beds with warm woolen blankets. This was a wonderful treat and I finally got a good night’s sleep.
The next day, Aggie and Grandpa Mack bought us two more kerosene heaters, so our house wouldn’t be as cold. They also called a friend of Mack's to come over to fix the windows Shane had broken.
In early January 1962, my mother got a check from our Aunt Oona to help the family. Oona began sending our family $200 a month, so we wouldn’t ever again be so desperately poor. After that, things were much better, although they were still hard at times.
Maura as a Teenager
That spring, my mother’s friend Emma and her husband Marty came over with a TV set for our family. This was the first time we had a TV set and we were all excited. My mother had never wanted a TV. She didn't think the shows were any good. But as soon as we got our TV set, she loved it as much or more than the rest of us. My mother sometimes stayed up until two or three in the morning, watching old movies on the late show and the late, late show.
Maura was now fourteen, and she was getting crabbier and crankier every day. All Maura wanted was peace and quiet, but in our house, that was impossible, particularly when Shane was around. Sometimes, when we were watching TV, Maura would come down every ten minutes and turn the sound down until it was so low, no one could hear it.
Maura finally had enough and decided to move in with Grandma Aggie. But this didn't last long. Within a month, Maura was back. I guess Aggie must have gotten on her nerves more than Shane did. Maura was now more miserable then ever, crying and complaining all the time, until one day she came up with a great idea.
“Gakie, is it OK if I make the closet under the stairs into a bedroom?”
“Sure Maura,” Gakie said. “I’ll help you fix it up.”
Maura got the closet ready to be her private room, where she could sleep in peace. She decorated the little room with all her favorite things. She hung magazine pictures of her favorite movie stars on the walls. My mother helped her get her bed and clothes into the room, but Maura did everything else by herself. Maura put a note card on the door, which said, “Keep Out!”
At first, Maura was happy with her new room, where she could sleep, read, or eat pudding without being bothered. But this didn't last long. The room was right under the stairs, and each time anyone walked up or down the stairs, Maura would yell, “Stop making so much noise!” Then she'd slam her door.
As soon as Shane found out Maura was sleeping in the closet, he’d stomp, jump and run on the stairs, making as much noise as he could, just to get on Maura's nerves. Soon, it wasn't just Shane who teased poor Maura. Ted, Kathleen and I would run up and down the stairs, making as much noise as we could, and get Maura so mad she would come out and chase us. But the worst was late at night, when Shane was in a bad mood and would walk up and down the stairs all night long. Finally, Maura moved back into her old bedroom – the room she said I could have and now threw me out of.
A few weeks later, I was in the dining room with my mother and Kathleen, watching television. Shane was up in his room, playing jazz records very loud, and Maura was up in her room, trying to sleep. Every five minutes, Maura came to the top of the staircase and cried, “Turn it down! It’s too loud! I can't sleep!”
We already had the TV so low we could hardly hear it. Then Shane turned his records even louder, so we had to turn the TV sound up. Shane then turned up his music again. By now, we had the TV set at full blast, in order to hear it over Shane's music.
Maura once more came to the staircase and yelled, “I can’t sleep! Turn it down!”
I yelled back up, “We can hardly hear it with Shane's jazz so loud.”
Finally, Maura came running down the stairs, with tears running down her cheeks and her face bright red. She came into the dining room, and started to sit down in a chair, as she cried, “I can't go through this anymore!”
As she sat down, the bottom of the chair broke and Maura ended up sitting on the floor.
My mother said, “Yes, you can. You just went through it!”
We all started laughing – even Maura.
© Copyright 2008 Sheila O’Neill. All rights reserved.
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