Tipperary Hill: The Neighborhood
Memory is described by the late John O’Donoghue in Walking in Wonder* as “… a place where our vanished days secretly gather, as a kingdom full of the ruins of presence. It is fascinating that in memory nothing is lost or ever finally forgotten.”
Tipperary Hill was once an enclave of first and second generation Irish bordered by smaller groups from Ukraine, Poland and Italy. This colorful diversity was enlivened by posts from the ‘old country’ and furthered by new arrivals in the 1950’s, after immigration law was amended to include eastern Europeans.
There were daily visits from the mailman and the milkman, hucksters, trash men, coal men, insurance men… Seasonal visits from ice cream vendors, knife sharpeners, pony and camera men…
Veterans were home from WWII as a new generation prepared for Korea. We had large families. Mornings, armies of mothers navigated babies through the park. Older children timed their days with the lions’ roar or Mrs. O’Brien’s cowbell signaling dinner.
Our landlords, the Ryan/MacNamara’s from Upperchurch were childhood friends of my grandmother Katie Burke Donovan in Co Tipperary. It is likely the reason why my parents rented from the Ryan’s and how I came to be born on Tipperary Hill.
I grew up believing I knew Pa Ryan. I’d have bet everything Pa and Boots, his dog, sat with me on the front stoop morning and evening listening to the lion’s roar and greeting the neighbors. I believed until the day I dusted snow from the Ryan’s gravestone at St Agnes’ to discover Pa had died three years before I was born! Mama Ryan had kept a photograph of Pa and Boots close to her on a small lace-covered table. I must have internalized that image among my first memories.
Most days, I’d be on the sidewalk holding a bat and ball begging everyone to pitch to me. I batted a thousand against Joe Raymond, a lefty, including a crushing drive that carried over parked cars…nearly crowning Joe’s brother, Pete, who fielded the ball and tossed it back to me.
I knew every inch of the park; Buffalo Rock, Round Top, the pools and fields and courts, the clubhouse and zoo, the dark spooky steps once leading through the woods to Skunk City buried today beneath the tiger enclosure and, finally, the freshwater springs along Grand Avenue.
Early morning, I’d detour across dew-covered diamonds to run the bases, dodging ghostly tags rounding second and third, glancing over my shoulder to see hapless fielders chasing a long fly ball as I raced for home. Crossing the plate, feeling the crush of teammates and fans spilling on to the field.
One evening, parked above the old golf house on Round Top, long before the world heard of ‘The Son of Sam,’ a car pulled up, window to window, beside us. I had just made eye contact with the driver when he lifted a pistol and pointed it at us. The license number traced to Tuxedo, N.Y., a few miles north of NYC. I believe it could have been practice for other occasions. (Imagine the theme from Dragnet playing.)
I visited the zoo nearly every day. At first sight, the cavernous building seemed a wonder; a cage-filled, skylit-cathedral, an echo chamber and rainforest in summer storms. Yet, from the first day, I felt the privilege of seeing these creatures was somehow unequal to the burden of their confinement.
The cat’s started at 6 a.m. Steel bars kept me safe enough, although
the big male’s hyperventilations created high amplitude shock waves pelting my body, taking my breath away.
From age ten, I’d trail Dan Dan, the Monkey-Man, with a bucket as he hefted and shoveled mounds of raw meat under the bars. Moving from cage to cage, Dan spoke of Africa and India and cautioned me to stay alert, even as his stories may have distracted himself as well.
When sunrise was late, the monkeys were hysterical. “They move to the outside cages to watch the sunrise,’ Dan said, ‘Whenever the sun burns through a fog, you can count on the monkeys going apeshit.”
Dan showed me the shotgun he’d kept inside the basement door, in case a cat escaped. “What if you miss?” I asked. Dan’s cheek expanded as he shifted a plug of tobacco, spit and wiped his chin, “If I miss my soul will be the hands of God,’ he said, ‘My body will be in the hands of George Dawson, the undertaker!”
“What about the kid who saw the lion in the basement?” (I laughed because Goose Dwyer had told me the story.) “I told that kid, I’d take him into the basement to see the snakes someday,’ Dan said, ‘but he couldn’t wait. He snuck down on his own. The lion had had a heart attack. We moved it to the basement until we could arrange for an autopsy.’
“The kid saw the lion in the middle of the room and thought it was asleep. He panicked and wet himself, then started screaming after discovering the door had locked behind him. Goose Dwyer heard the screams and let him out. I haven’t seen the kid since!”
The bears’ den, isolated on the edge of the zoo, was always damp and dark. The huge bear paced incessantly as if searching for a way out.
We’d slip branches and leaves through a grate cut into the den’s roof. The sun projected silhouettes on the concrete floor. Had the roof collapsed, the notion of spicing the bear’s menu never occurred to us.
Behind the den, the road led to Little Round Top. Long ago, it was the most isolated place in the park. I remember it for runs and late-night parking. Today, the view facing the Syracuse skyline has been cleared, St. Lucy’s celebrates Easter mass here and early-risers congregate to enjoy the sun lighting the city.
One morning, I recognized a man from my paper route walking toward the den. The next time I saw him, he was off the road under a tree. It took a several seconds before I realized the man had hung himself! The noose was removed with the body, and it was days and more before the rope was cut from the limb and birds picked the strands away.
In Thomas Wolfe’s novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, the main character, George Webber, returns home after writing about his family and hometown only to be greeted with outrage, hatred and accusations of betrayal by family and friends who felt naked and exposed by the truths they have seen in his book.
I shared an experience with one of his characters. A few weeks after our first Finger Lakes book was published (1982), the Publisher forwarded a letter in which he had been castigated by a Town of Scott resident for presenting the town so indecorously. In truth, the day I turned off Rt. 41 for Glen Haven and saw the bright Red steeple and matching trash bags on Scott’s Main Street, I was reminded of a typical village in the Berkshires or Vermont and remember thinking: Photographic gold on the edge of Skaneateles Lake!
Yet, the writer had asked why. And while Wolfe’s protagonist had to deal with such matters, I simply distracted myself with the memory of another situation when the issue was questionable.
Long ago shortcutting through Myrtle Hill cemetery, I nearly tripped over a man on his knees, pounding the earth, crying, “Why did you have to die! Why did you have to die! ”
I leaned down to offer a litany of possibilities; family titles, sobriquets, pets to console him. At wit’s end, I was determined to dig a hole for himself if he didn’t give up the identity of your man in the ground.
Rising to take the measure of me, your man said, “It was my wife’s first husband!”
©John Francis McCarthy 2020
To be continued…