Bobo Genarro

The six-year-old boy slipped while climbing from an old salvaged lifeboat to an open deck crab boat tied to one of the floating Greene Street Boat Club docks at the at the foot of Greene Street in the Gammontown neighborhood of Jersey City. He couldn’t swim, no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t reach the top of the seaweed slick hull of either boat, bowlines were stretched tight and just out of reach. The frightened boy struggled, as he reached up, his head sank below the water’s surface. In this moment his entire innocent, pitifully short life flashed across the bright screen of his mind and his panic faded.

Suddenly a large hand broke the surface of the water and jerked the little boy by the back of his brother’s hand-me-down tee shirt and swung him onto the dock. As soon as his ass hit the dock he was up and running and didn’t stop until he was a block away. He sat shaken between a chain link fence and a railway boxcar and let the Sun dry his soaken clothes. After three hours he returned home completely dry and no dirtier than usual after a day playing at the docks.

It was different with Bobo.

Bobo Genaro was a ginnie runt. I liked Bobo. Probably because his father ran a grocery store and we could always persuade Bobo to steal some potatoes which we most of the time burned to a crisp in a fire we would start on one of the vacant lots burning wood shipping crates. The best potatoes had a burnt crust from the wood embers in which they were buried. We flavored the steaming inside with salt that Bobo stole along with the potatoes.  Bobo always wanted to hang around with us but he was a lot smaller than me, or “Lodgu”  (They called “Lodgu” Walter in school), or Dennis Dahl or Felix. But whenever he could steal some potatoes from his father’s grocery store he was welcome.

Bobo always blamed me for killing his dog. One day he and I had found a rusty old kitchen knife and we spent most of the day practicing knife throws against an old wood fence in his back yard. Bobo’s dog was excited to have others in his back yard. Overnight someone shoved that knife into the dog. Bobo was sure that I had sneaked in and murdered his dog. Nothing I ever said could change his mind. But we still played together.

Bobo lived on Warren Street in a flat above their grocery store and we lived on Greene Street just around the block.  Our favorite playground was “under the docks”, partially collapsed piers used in the nineteenth century by barges hauling coal for a now nonexistent iron foundry. Emptying into the Hudson River, the inlet itself was called “The Foundry” which source was the end of the sewer line, which carried away the waste after all of us in the Gammontown area flushed our toilets. The water would slowly drift in and out with the tides and the surface was a salt and pepper texture of human turds and used condoms. (We called them rubbers) A hundred yards down, the flow was increased by the addition of chemical waste products from the Colgate Palmolive Peet factory.

Later most of that factory burnt to the ground. After the fire was out, they hauled hundreds of dump truck loads of soap and other products that were unsaleable because the firemen tried to put the fire out with water from “The Foundry”. No one would buy shit stained soap or hand lotion. But we kids climbed the dump trucks and threw the cases onto the street, our Mama’s would use that stuff, after all, it didn’t cost anything.

One day Bobo disappeared and by nightfall the entire neighborhood watched from the banks of “The Foundry”. My little brother Joe and I stood quietly beside Mama and Pop as two rowboats drifted across the water, each in it’s own lantern light and firemen tossed the body hooks fishing for poor Bobo because that was the last place anyone had seen him.  It was about 8:00 PM, they had been fishing for Bobo’s body four hours when someone hooked something. They dragged Bobo’s body out of the slime. He was probably playing among the many rowboats docked at the Greene Street Boat Club, slipped, knocked himself out, falling into the water and only nine years old when they dragged him up out of the shit caked mud on the bottom.

We didn’t know at the time that Bobo’s death was a sacrifice. It was rewarded three month’s later by the actions of a man made watchful of the neighborhood kids playing around the docks because he had stood along with us on the banks of The Foundry on that fateful night of Bobo’s death. It was he who had seen my brother Joe fall in to the water, reached down and gave little Joe back his life.

We never baked potatoes after Bobo drowned.

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Mama’s Story

A small tribe of eastern Europeans, the Lemko’s, lived in the northern foothills of the Carpethian mountains separating what is now Poland and the Ukraine from Hungary. The land was poor and provided a bare existence for these farm laborers. Over the previous centuries they had mostly been left alone. Most farmed for shares and crossed the Carpethians each year to harvest crops of the more fertile lands of Hungary for cash money. They then returned to their thatched roof log cabins in the rocky foothills of the least attractive part of a region that came as spoils of war for numerous tribes, empires, kingdoms and nation-states over many centuries. Galicia is now shared by Poland and the Ukraine, the western region in Poland and the eastern region in the Ukraine.

Starting in the early 1870’s, and until the beginning of WW I, peasants from that region would emigrate to the U.S., work and scrimp for as long as necessary to earn enough money to return to their villages to purchase farmland. Most earned what was considered their fortunes through breaking and hauling anthracite coal from the deep mines in Pennsylvania. Peter worked the mines and Anna bore three children during the years it took to save enough money to return home and buy some land. Consequently Peter and Anna along with their children Eva, Mary, and William lived in their  small farm near Gorlice, a village in the Galicia region of the Carpethian mountains and now part of Poland.

During World War I the area came under the occupation of the Germans and Peter was conscripted to drive for a German officer. He had learned to drive during his stay in America. He had also learned the outspoken American directness which ultimately lead to his death and a lifetime of hardship for his widow and children.  One day, his simple request for food for his family lead to an argument with the German officer escalating to a fistfight and ending with a bullet in Peter’s head.

Anna and Eva sat on opposite sides of the table stuffing circles of thin dough each folded over a dollop of mashed potatoes and edges pinched. These pierogi’s, boiled and later fried with onions in fatback were to be the night’s supper. There would be no meat for supper. Life was hard since Peter’s death and the family was running out of money.

This was Eva’s last day at home. Young Eva, at the age of thirteen, was now an indentured servant for a prosperous farmer who paid the Widow Krill a sum of money for five years of little Eva’s life. Thus began five years of hell for my mother. All these years Mama slept in a barn on a wooden pallet with straw for a mattress and pillow. They fed her potato soup, and if she were lucky there would be a chunk of potato and maybe a piece of pork fat in the broth. She worked on the farm from sunrise to sunset and spent nights alone in the barn while Widow Krill and the other children struggled on the small family farm 40 miles away. Little Eva’s only hope and comfort during these five years was a folded up birth certificate proving she was born in the United States and an American citizen by birth. Once Widow Krill asked daughter Eva for that birth certificate. Widow Krill could get a lot of money from a Jewish merchant who wanted to send his daughter to the United States…Mama refused. After five years, at the age of 18 mama borrowed some money for a steerage steamship ticket to the United States and she never looked back and never saw her mother again and she never forgave her mother for abandoning her during those long hard years. Her brother and sister followed her to America several years later.