I’m standing inside the refrigerator door, playing three-card monte with the ketchup, the mustard, and one of those midget jars of tartar sauce. It’s an unoriginal con among seven-year-olds—pretending to rummage the fridge in order to eavesdrop—but it works, right up until the cold gets to be too much to bear.
In a last ditch effort to buy myself more time, I try to warm up by bouncing on the balls of my feet, leaving my hands free to continue the condiment-shuffle, but eventually I have no choice: I break down and start using my goose-bumped arms to rub my goose-bumped legs, even though I know that’ll be the tip-off.
On the other side of the refrigerator door, it’s summertime in Queens, and my father and his brothers (two cops and a fireman) are sitting around a splayed box of Entenmann’s, an exploding ashtray, and an ever-growing pyramid of empty Coors cans, telling stories. I’ve hung in there long enough to hear my uncle Dennis tap a Pall Mall up and out of the soft pack in his shirt pocket, and start in …
“ ’Member that night you, Jackie, Tommy and ’em were drinkin’ down by the bridge and none a’yuhs could figure out how yuh got so lit—”
“DO I?” my father says, “Mommy damn near killed me for dat stunt!”
“Char-lie Ret-in-ger,” drawls my Uncle Thomas, proud the name finally came to him.
“Yup! Little shit had been slippin’ vodka into the beers! I crawled home —EH! WHO’S IN THERE?! C’MERE!!”
And that was it. Dad caught me.
“Back outside to play, you! Go on now. This stuff ain’t for young ears.”
Like always, I drag-assed out of the kitchen, desperate to hear the rest of that story, knowing that as the beer flowed and the ashtrays filled there would be even better, raunchier ones. Of course, I’d try to eavesdrop a million more times in my young life, but I can’t remember a single one when I wasn’t eventually busted and shooed off.
Satisfaction wouldn’t be mine for a good twenty more years, and when it did come, it wasn’t at all how I figured it might. By age eighteen, when I was conceivably old enough to have been offered an invite to the table, the crew had split up—like so many of the families I grew up with, all three brothers left Queens for cheaper real estate in the South. My uncle Thomas and uncle Dennis wound up a few hours apart from one another, in central Florida, while my father headed to Georgia. And that marked the end of the epic kitchen-storytelling sessions.
College and a bartending job at a local bar owned by my mom’s side of the family brought me from Queens to Manhattan in 1998, around the same time as the Clancy brothers’ southern migration. A decade later, I was still living on the Lower East Side (God bless rent stabilization), still tending bar, long since graduated, but not exactly sure what all else I should be doing with myself. Until I read Richard Price’s The Wanderers.
I wasn’t the world’s biggest fiction reader, but as a birthday gift that year, I got a copy of what was then Price’s most recent novel, Lush Life, on the grounds that I might like it because it was set in my neighborhood and featured the seventh precinct, where my father was assigned in the early eighties. A day after I finished it, I headed to the Strand to snatch up anything else I could find written by Price. I walked out with an armful of his novels, including a seven-buck, beat-up copy of The Wanderers.
I took it with me to work the next morning on what I figured would be a slow-as-hell day shift. Lucky I guessed right, because once I started, I couldn’t stop. For the few poor customers that did come in that day looking for beers and a bit of chitchat, I offered up little more than a “what’ll it be?” before popping the caps and sliding the bottles over the bar with my right hand, all the while one-handing the book in my left.
The novel, Price’s very first, is partially an autobiographical coming-of-age story about a group of teenage boys growing up in the Bronx in the 1960s. And, for better or worse (the worse being that the book makes no bones about the serious violence and racism these guys both perpetrated and were victims of), reading it was like finally getting the full story from the dozens of tidbits I’d overheard eavesdropping on my father and my uncles as a kid. This was dialogue that could have come from their mouths, and it wasn’t stereotyping King of Queens fluff. At just twenty pages in, I had been transported right back to the inside of that refrigerator door. Only this time, I got to stay.
Over the following days, as much as I loved that book for what was in it, I was equally struck by what wasn’t: the voices or stories of New York’s working-class women. Straight away, I called friends and polled bar regulars who read way more than I did, presuming I’d be given a litany of recommendations. I even went back to ask a clerk at the Strand. No luck. As far as anyone could figure, the last notable book written about women like me, by a woman like me, was Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn … seventy-three years ago.
In the coming weeks, I went around relaying this bonkers/bullshit/infuriating fact to anyone who’d listen, eventually adding the joke, “So, looks like I’m gonna have to write a book about us borough girls my damn self! I’ll call it, A Tree GREW in Brooklyn—a Long Fucking Time Ago!” Until finally, shocking no one more than myself, it started to occur to me that maybe this wasn’t just a joke after all, maybe I should actually give it a shot. So, I did.
And, if nothing else, I hope a year from now maybe a Vietnamese American woman born and raised in Louisiana will pick up a copy of The Clancys of Queens, read it in a day, and say, “It was pretty good. But what I really want to read next is something more like The Nguyens of New Orleans … Well, shoot, maybe I’ll have to write it.” And she’ll do just that.