Bruce Murphy is an award-winning journalist, longtime editor of Narrative magazine features, published poet, and produced playwright based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Oh You Can’t Get To Heaven
(Excerpts from a Memoir in Progress)
From WTP Vol. X #6
Every memory is a piece of time, but I always find myself first recalling the where, not the when. My earliest memory is of our house in St. Francis, of me with my father, helping him shuck corn in the backyard. It was late summer, when the sweet corn ripened, and I was just three.
That backyard seemed to stretch on forever toward a railroad track in the distance, providing whole worlds for me to explore. I was sitting on a bench, unwrapping the cobs with my father, who loved fresh corn and praised my mother’s cooking. “Your lovely mother,” he repeated, and I sensed he understood the thrill of my relationship with her.
His words had a warmth that seemed to wrap you in their sound. He usually towered above me but became smaller and softer-voiced when he sat. In the distance, I could see the high rows of corn my mother had planted and the dusky, sunlit horizon, and I knew we would soon be spreading butter and sprinkling salt on the ears we’d stripped of their covering.
I was the second youngest of six children, and knew it meant something special to spend time alone with my father. I was “Brucey” to my older siblings and cousins, but only Daddy called me B.T., for Bruce Timothy, my middle name, suggesting we had a secret understanding. St. Francis never changes in my memory. It remains a patchy picture of paradise, but we were soon to leave our suburb for the city, for Milwaukee, where my father would run a tavern, and where I would reach the age of reason. It was the first of many moves we would make…
Fatback and Corn Liquor
“Won’t go hunting with you Jake, but I’ll go chasing women,” my father sang, and the customers hooted with laughter. “So put them hounds back in the pen and quit your silly grinning.” He had never hunted, never fished, never chased other women for that matter, but he was the “personality behind the bar,” as my mother said, the owner and grand man the customers came to see—except when he wasn’t there.
“Oh, the moon is bright and I’m half-tight, and life is just beginning.” It was his trademark song on the “jute box,” as it always sounded to me. The customers at Murphy’s bar plugged the neon-lit showcase of 45s with coins and inevitably played “I Won’t Go Hunting with You Jake,” unless the “reprobate,” as Pa liked to call himself, wasn’t tending bar. “Where’s Murph?” they asked. “Where’s the old man?” My mother made excuses.
“Murph has gone and done it,” his letter to friends and business associates said, announcing the new tavern. He had quit yet another job, and now the family life was punctuated by jukebox numbers and country and western tunes, by “Running Bear” and “El Paso” and “Wolverton Mountain.” The tavern was launched with two grand opening nights with live music by accordion player and singer Concertina Millie, “of Radio and Television Fame on WTMJ and WTMJ-TV,” the letter announced.
The bar was just two blocks from our house, on 30th and Vliet, across the street from the Tastee Freeze, where you could get a dip cone with a waxy chocolate topping that hardened perfectly on the neatly swirled ice cream, and a hot dog for 15 cents.
The Vliet Street bus would take us all the way to Hoyt Park in Wauwatosa, where we swam all day and bought Milk Duds and Holloway bars. Usually, it was Sharon, Cathy and I. The three oldest, our brothers Brian, Brett and sister Pat, rarely hung out with us.
Those three helped clean and stock the bar, playing the jukebox for free—their one benefit until my brothers began sneaking the booze. It was the music of our lives. “The Tennessee stud was long and lean,” my mother sang while cooking or cleaning, but she usually flattened out the tune to a tired monotone. “The color of the sun and his eyes were green.”
On Saturday mornings, she left for the bar, to stock it and open by noon. Cathy, Sharon and I each had our assigned weekly chores, but there was no reason to rush. We’d watch “Captain Kangaroo” and “Sky King” and cartoons like “Heckle and Jeckle” and “Woody Woodpecker” on TV, eat graham crackers with peanut butter and Campbell’s Cream of Tomato with Saltines, and play my father’s old 78s and newer 45s, vintage records a friendly cop on the beat had given him.
We played cornball orchestral versions of “Lisbon” and “Near You” and punched out the deliriously inane lyrics of Louis Jordan’s “Fat Back and Corn Liquor.” But the ultimate was “We’re in the Jailhouse Now”; we’d howl with laughter at Jimmie Rodgers’ nasal twang and all but die at choice lines like “When a big policeman came and knocked him down.”
When we weren’t laughing, we were bickering. Most arguments ended with Cathy and me turning on Sharon, calling her “string hair” and “Sow-ie Lee,” recasting “Sharee Lee,” my mother’s pet name for her.
By 5:30 or 6, Ma would walk in the door after seven hours at the tavern, knowing she had to make supper, and find us all just starting our chores. We were furiously at work, as though we’d been slaving away all day.
”You brats! What have you been doing? Can’t you give me any help? God almighty!”
I felt mean and ungrateful, a rotten kid washing the basement bathroom floor, which gave me the creeps, down on my knees while daddy longlegs crawled by. I could hear my mother above in the kitchen slamming pots and pans and gradually getting quieter. “I saddled up and away I did ride,” she sang, more tired rebuke than music-making, though she liked Marty Robbins.
But there were no getaways for a good Catholic mother with six kids. Ma started putting in longer hours at the tavern, waiting to be relieved by the personality behind the bar. “Murph is looking forward to seeing you,” his ad in the community newspaper declared with a photo of the man himself, who would increasingly stretch out his time away from the bar, watching “Maverick” or “Perry Mason” and drinking down rounds of his shot and a beer.
One Sunday the dining room was set for supper, and he picked up the table and flipped it on its side. There was a crash of china breaking, and Pa was yelling about the food. The breaded pork chops were burned, the air acrid with barely visible smoke, as though an unseen fire had engulfed the dining room, ruining everything. No one dared say a word. After my mother stopped crying, she cleaned up the mess.
I don’t remember if we ever ate any of the food, but we must have. Somehow, I ended up sitting on the back stairs that led to the basement, the stairs I had just washed, guiltily and badly, the day before. The door opened.
“B.T.?” It was my dad standing there. Was he mad at me?
“Mind if your pop sits there?” It seemed all wrong, him sitting on the back stairs. He looked tired and sorry, but still edgy enough to flare up again, and still drinking from a nearly head-less glass of beer, the way he liked it. I couldn’t quite understand what he was talking about, something about sailing and tacking against the wind. He had pretty, almost girlish lips, but a big, slightly crooked nose that had been broken. It was a family joke, the different ways it got so big: he fell on a lumber pile when he was a kid; he broke it playing football. Or did he break it more than once?
“Don’t pick your nose,” he warned when catching us in the act. “You wanna get a nose as big as your father?” Or he’d say, “You like eating snots? We could give you a plate of boogers for Christmas.”
It was my father’s brand of humor. Such was his sober side, a kidder yet still domineering, his nose jutting forward aggressively, daring someone to break it again, his size 13 feet thudding on the floor as he walked. But he could also be dreamily entrancing, recalling his days sailing on Lake Michigan or describing the latest Ellery Queen mystery he was reading.
Whenever he talked about Ma, she was always “your wonderful mother” or “your lovely mother.” His rhapsodies wrapped her in a gauzy aura of saintliness, and that became my usual way of seeing her.
But if he worshipped her, why would I find her crying by the coal bin in the basement? Why was she afraid to go out in public because he’d given her a black eye? It all mixed up with those stories of the martyred saints so revered by the nuns who taught us catechism and pious lessons in life at school.
McKinley Boulevard was where I became conscious of how often explosions rocked my family. Pa would slap my mother, kick her, punch her, throw her to the floor, and we watched her take it. Once he threw a pewter cup at her and she was quick enough to duck. The thick oak beam it hit was left with a permanent gouge.
One minute Pa was raving about what a talented athlete Ma was as a young woman. She was good at everything, swimming, baseball and tennis. “And hockey and Lacrosse” we kids would add, yukking it up. And the next minute he erupted with a violent assault, knocking her off that pedestal.
We were all on guard for changes in Pa’s mood, and his choice of swear words was a barometer of the prevailing emotional winds. It was “goddamn son-of-a-bitching bastard” when he was maddest, with “goddamn son of a bitch” less angry, “goddam it” a further step down and “son of a bee-atch” his unique creation that offered less to worry about. Only when God was damning things did everyone make themselves scarce, though there was soon a call for “Anne!” which inevitably meant she needed to solve or be blamed for whatever problem had arisen.
When Pa was sober, we could laugh at the “holes” in his head, the two places where his brush-cut hair receded the most, leaving a Mohawk-like advance at the center, echoing the forward-thrust of his nose. When Pa was jolly with drink, he’d respond to kidding with a roguish “Oh, I’ll give ya the back of my hand.”
But the joke had an ominous undertone, for we often saw that phrase in action, even when he was sober. Sitting in the back seat of the Packard, we might suddenly get smacked by the back or front of his hand, whichever got there more easily, because we were too loud.
“Oh, Irv, not the face,” Ma said. He turned to her: “You want it, too?” That shut her up, and the kids stifled their crying, for fear of triggering another outburst. We all shrank into ourselves, as Pa’s expanded presence seemed to suck all the air from the car.
In the sudden silence you could sense conflicted feelings in him, pangs of regret mixed with smoldering anger at us for provoking him. He wanted to be better, but we made him do it, dammit.
We kids never discussed these incidents, even by ourselves, which Pa dismissed as one of those times he “blew his top.”
And Ma never revealed her feelings, always seeking a secret place to cry.
“Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone,” she sang, going about her chores. “He’ll Have to Go,” by deep-voiced Jim Reeves, was another jute box favorite of hers, filled with longing for someone unnamed.
My father had hit his 40s on McKinley Boulevard, but was still ambitious to get ahead. One Christmas, a business associate gave him an expensive gift, a deluxe collegiate dictionary with each letter in gilded type elegantly cut into the pages for ease of flipping to it. “He must think I’m a big wheel,” he exclaimed, and for the rest of the night we joked about it to each other: “You must be a big wheel.”
But he was clearly pleased at the notion. He was a high school truant who had worked to better himself, attending college courses at Milwaukee Vocational School and rising from one job to another. He worked at Thurner Heating, as a traffic manager for the Bank of Commerce, credit investigator for the Chamber of Commerce, traffic manager for Junior House, which manufactured women’s clothes, and a salesman for Aetna Insurance.
The insurance company had a contest to sell the most policies, with the winner getting an all-expenses-paid trip to St. Louis. On a weekly basis, he recalled with scorn, the sales staff was expected to stand and sing “Meet Me in St. Louie,” as the song went. Pa didn’t win.
So he quit that job and went back to Junior House for another five- year run and when Ma brought the family there on the rare occasion she drove the car you could tell he was a big deal, if not a big wheel, to the workers he managed.
But there was always a boss or owner above him who never did things the right way. We knew he knew more than the bosses because he told us so. Every promotion came too slow. He was a man in a hurry and “the grass was always greener” somewhere else, my mother said.
That was the attraction of owning a “saloon,” as he called it. He could be his own boss. But his enthusiasm curdled. The hours were long. The customers annoyed him. He wanted to own the building and he didn’t like dealing with the landlord, an old lady who lived upstairs from the tavern.
Not that he actually dealt with her. My mother visited to pay the monthly rent. “Does the noise ever bother you?” Ma asked. “Oh no,” she said, “I just turn off my hearing aid.”
She was the perfect landlady, my mother said. But nothing was ever perfect enough. Pa was sick of renting and besides, people were warning that the neighborhood would go as the “coloreds” moved in, though the one Negro boy in my class seemed fine to me. After six years on McKinley, and two years of running a tavern, Pa wanted out of the house and business both and found a home in suburban Wauwatosa. So we saddled up and away we did ride.
The Mirror Shop Reflects Quality
The Murphy family arrived at St. Jude’s parish on Easter Sunday of my fourth grade year, attending church the morning after we moved to Wauwatosa. We were late for Mass, as usual, because Ma always had trouble getting Pa out of bed, which had become one of her added duties over the years, along with winding his watch, helping him dress and making sure his shoes were shined and handkerchiefs pressed.
Compared to the guilty Gothic darkness and high-rising naves and arches of St. Michael’s, which seemed centuries old, St. Jude’s was newly built, modern and easy to grasp, with low ceilings, pastel colors, and bright stained glass windows that seemed to let the sunlight pour in approvingly. It was a church made for Easter, not Good Friday.
The Mass featured a spectacular choir with joyous harmonies, accompanied by trumpets, something we’d never heard at a church before, and their brassy high notes seemed to shout out the parish’s wealth. This was the land of doctors and lawyers, many lace-curtain Irish Catholics who had fled the city and whose sons attended Marquette High School. Pa sold the home and tavern for a good profit, and now we had arrived, it seemed, the specific location being 84th and Robertson in the lovely bedroom suburb of Wauwatosa.
McKinley Boulevard had big homes built with German craftsmanship and ours was by then more than a half-century old. The neighborhood was in the heart of a city still booming with breweries and manufacturers, loud factories and three shifts of workers.
Wauwatosa felt far removed from that world, a pastoral respite with ranch homes and wide, manicured laws on curving lanes and cul de sacs freed from the city grid of streets. There was so much green space to be found in the splendor of Honey Creek Parkway, whose sun-dappled waters wound through the neighborhood, and the endless parkland, lagoon and woods of the mostly undeveloped county grounds located just two blocks from our new home. I had never seen such perfect lawns. One neighbor—a Japanese American in this all-white neighborhood—had a perfect putting green in the backyard and was often there practicing.
There was a subtle snobbery at St. Jude’s that permeated the parish, beginning with the sermons of Monsignor Holleran, who gave the faithful the clear message this was a blessed and special place. I was ten years old and found everything thrilling, but was terrified that my new fourth grade classmates might expose me as an imposter, a ruffian from the city who didn’t understand their jokes and byplay. The comments of some kids about the neighborhood I came from—kind of dark there, wasn’t it?—let me know I didn’t belong.
But after a few nervous weeks of trying to fit in, I stepped up to bat with the bases loaded in a playground baseball game. Sports were a big deal in Wauwatosa, where the high school football games between Pius and Marquette high schools could lead to after-game brawls at Gille’s custard stand, the neighborhood hangout. I hit a high fly that somehow got over the head of the leftfielder. It might have been a fluke, but was a grand slam nonetheless, and I can still see the girls cheering and Susan Duffy, perhaps the cutest, with a pert nose, honey-blonde hair and unabashed eyes, yelling “way to go, Murphy!”
After that, I was aces with all the kids who counted at St. Jude’s. By seventh grade, I had lots of friends and doted on Susan, the first crush I ever had. Once, I confided to Pat Lawler and Doug Bowring that some people thought the St. Judeans were snobs. They might have suspected the “some people” was actually me, but they were happy to explain the facts of life. We’re just cooler than other kids so they’re jealous, Lawler let me know.
I accepted the explanation as I accepted everything about the third and most wonderful home of my young life. My family’s moves now seemed a natural progression of rising toward Wauwatosa and prosperity, which would be our permanent place in life.
St. Jude’s was our family’s favorite parish, where all three priests, Monsignor Holleran, Father Brady and Father Weiland seemed so impressive. I saw all three close-up after I became an altar boy. On early summer mornings, Father Weiland, the youngest, tallest and thinnest of the three, walked around the lovely grounds of the parish, with his breviary in hand, stopping periodically to read from it. Father Brady, who looked pure Irish, was the family favorite and gave a memorable goodbye sermon after learning he would be transferred to another parish, breaking into tears in front of the congregation. It felt like he was being banished from paradise.
We moved to Wauwatosa partly to be closer to Pa’s latest venture, a clothing store called the Mirror Shop, located at the new “Times Square” shopping center on 76th and Capitol Drive. Irv Murphy, after all, was an expert in the business after his work with Junior House, and so he sent out a letter to all those friends and business contacts who had earlier learned about Murphy’s tavern, with a tagline: ”The MIRROR SHOP Reflects Quality,” and this chatty come-on:
Murph has gone and done it again!
Everyone enjoyed his last venture. Now Murph has come up with something even better.
Murph has obtained the MIRROR SHOP! What a lucky guy!
Our MIRROR SHOP has merchandise of the latest styles and best quality at down-to-earth prices: for all gals—and children—and even the wee ones. AND you’ll fall in love with the styling and cuteness—just what you want.
The opening line was a classic, one we could use to comic effect any time Pa spilled his beer or tilted his rear end from his seat to fart, which always grossed us out. “Murph has gone and done it again!”
He had done it all right, moving with reckless bravado to an entirely new business. But most of the work at the store was handled by my mother and her sister Kay, all the more so after its failure seemed likely and my father began mentally running away from it. Inside of a year the business want bankrupt, and in the meantime Pa had gotten a job as a home fuel salesman for Mobil Oil, which my mother might have taken as a sign we could now settle down. But no, he was already looking around for another bar to buy.
Soon rumors about me spread at St. Jude’s, that my father owned a tavern, something unheard of in Wauwatosa. There was only one bar in the entire community, something my father often lamented. All these Irishmen and nobody drinks? “A bunch of hypocrites,” he would declare and then head toward Milwaukee for a few rounds.
I couldn’t figure out how the rumor had spread. To goad me, some kids sang “in the cellars of Murphy’s saloon,” to the tune of “when the caissons go rolling along.” I laughed it off as irrelevant and explained, only if asked, that my father worked for a very big company, Mobil Oil. As for the tavern he had recently bought, and where we kids hung out on Sunday afternoons after the tavern league baseball games, I couldn’t imagine any boy from St. Jude’s venturing down to 31st and North in Milwaukee to see who owned a certain establishment where my parents were putting in long hours.
The new bar was most certainly not in a cellar and “small but cozy,” as described in the latest letter to all those faithful followers of Irv Murphy’s entrepreneurial exploits:
No one thought it was possible! Murphy’s done it a third time! He’s opened up another jumping joint — MURPHY’S RED LITE—Fun -Fun – And “more” fun.
If you’re looking for the time of your life—a real good time—We’ll see you at Murphy’s Red Lite.
I thought the name referred to a stoplight: customers, stop here. But the spare boxes of tavern matchbooks we found in the kitchen drawers suggested something shameful. Each matchbook featured women with nearly naked breasts, larger than I had ever imagined possible, with winking captions like “Just Laugh It Off!” or “Have a Ball!” It was the first time I had seen women in bras, much less one with her straps in hand, laughingly ready to let them go. I was fascinated but bewildered that these images came from my father.
Cathy and I checked out every matchbook when my mother wasn’t looking, which was often, since she was regularly at the Red Lite. Cathy ran around the house lamenting her flat chest and proclaimed, “just laugh it off!”
Cathy did not understand, as I did, the critical importance of keeping secret the cellars of Murphy’s saloon. One day, as we sat on the roof of our garage, in the trashy Murphy style that seemed wonderfully rebellious to some of the neighborhood kids, my sister was about to let slip this shameful information. I could see it coming and jumped off the roof, shouting insanely that I had to go to the bathroom and headed indoors, where I fully intended to stay forever.
By then, however, I had heard my father’s tirades about how Mr. Denio, the man who sold us our lovely Wauwatosa home, had cheated us and we had to sell. It made no sense and I didn’t want to go, but I was embarrassed by how long the “For Sale” sign stood on our lawn, and the periodic questions about our progress from Mr. Mendini, whose son Dan played pickup baseball games with me.
I always offered the vaguest replies, as though the sign was really just a lawn ornament and we were quite likely to remain his next-door neighbor forever, which was my fervent hope. Mr. Mendini, in turn, would offer a knowing smile, which suggested nothing was so entertaining as the convolutions of the Murphys while forgiving me entirely for the bad luck of being part of such a strange family.
When they learned I was moving to West Milwaukee, the name meant nothing to my classmates. It was simply part of the “sou side,” which seemed an inconceivable destination. The city’s South Side was a punchline, along with the “Polacks” who lived there. This time it was my good friends doing the singing, so the message was less barbed than the “cellars of Murphy’s saloon.” They had cheekily adapted a hit tune by an R&B group of the day to wish me luck on “South Street, South Street.” But it still stung.
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