“When the Old Brewery at The Five Points was demolished, its reputation as the most squalid tenement in New York was assumed by Gotham Court, sometimes known as Sweeney’s Shambles, at Nos. 36 and 38 Cherry Street, although the claims of this fearsome pile were disputed by The Arch Block, which ran from Thompson to Sullivan Streets between Broome and Grand. Among others the block contained the famous dive kept by a giant Negro woman known variously as Big Sue or The Turtle. She weighed more than 350 pounds and was described by a contemporary journalist as resembling a huge black turtle standing on its hind legs.” ( from Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury).
In 1975, my first art studio in Manhattan was just steps away from The Arch Block at 46 Grand Street, between Thompson and West Broadway. The run-down tenements and small brick buildings of the Arch Block had long been demolished, and by the early 1920’s, they had all been replaced by a large industrial building which stands its ground to this very day.
But it was in one of those darkened back rooms of the Arch Block, on Thursday, October 1, 1891, that The Baby Jack was born.
It’s even possible that Jack’s father stopped into Big Sue’s on the corner to have a two-cent beer to celebrate his young son’s birth, as he had no doubt done too many times before, although this time, he may have considered the blessed event as “just another mouth to feed”.
About a third of the children born on the Arch block died as babies, so regardless of what their fathers thought about them, they did not have to feed their mouths for long.
Not so with The Man Jack.
Even when Jack’s father was dragging him to prize fights in New York as a boy, and leaving him sitting next to an empty chair in the audience for five or ten minutes, watching with wide eyes as his father climbed into the ring to win a few dollars by going toe-to-toe with some palooka to warm up the crowd before the Young Stibling fight, or some other bout, his father could never have guessed that his young son’s mouth would need to be fed that day– and every day forward– for over a hundred years.
At the turn of the century, at the foot of the Sixth Avenue El, on the Northwest Corner of Grand and West Broadway, The Man Jack was just The Boy Jack, then, an eight-year old kid selling The New York World and The Journal American to black-hatted men in heavy coats, who smoked cigars and flipped him two cents for his trouble. The Boy Jack often watched as Teddy Roosevelt, then Police Commissioner of New York, walked past him and down Grand Street to visit his friend who had a drugstore on the Northeast Corner of Grand and Thompson.
The Young Man Jack grew up loving horses and when he was old enough, he drove a wagon and two horses. In one of his heavy coat’s pockets were sugar cubes and he kept a few apples for his horses and one or two for himself in another coat pocket. He had an iron hook in his fist, its curved steel shank stuck out between his middle and index fingers and he’d quickly and deliberately sink it into large wooden cases or bales of cloth or other dry goods, with a pleasing CLUNK or THUK and leverage 600 pound bundles on and off his wagon using just that hook and his five-foot three and a half inches and 145 pounds of bone and muscle.
He and his horses and his wagon with its big wooden spoked wheels bumped along cobblestone streets dodging street cars and ladies in long skirts, all the way from the docks on the Hudson River to the garment factories in Lower Manhattan in the days before the Triangle Shirt Waist Fire.
One Winter day, around 1910 or 11, when Young Man Jack was around nineteen or twenty years old, he was sitting in his wagon waiting to make a pickup on the docks near Desbrosses Street when a brash, ill-advised “Irishman” driving his own team of four horses pulled in and got a little too close for comfort. It could have been a cold winter day and perhaps The Irishman kept a clear glass pint whiskey bottle in his inside coat pocket for himself instead of apples.
Young Man Jack called out to the Irishman,
“Hey—you almost ran over my horses’ hooves….”
Although Young Man Jack stood but five foot three and a half inches, The Irishman sized-up Young Man Jack incorrectly when he told him to,
“Shut your mouth– or I’ll get down off this wagon… and shut it for you.”
As I stood there listening to Old Man Jack, it was again a cold winter morning, about 70 years after the event actually happened.
In all likelihood, the man Young Man Jack had faced that morning–The Irishman— never spoke of that day to anyone. And didn’t like to think about it either.
As we stood face-to-face and Old Man Jack told me the story, out on the sidewalk in front of my studio, just down from where The Boy Jack had sold newspapers 80 years earlier, just outside our old apartment building on Grand Street, the same tiny one-bedroom apartment where he and his wife had lived since 1932, the one without a tub or shower, where they raised their daughter, the same daughter who came by car from New Jersey with her nice, insurance man husband on Sunday mornings and took them first to church, and then out to dinner afterward for years, then brought them back home in the late afternoon, Old Man Jack quickly dropped down into a slight crouch, his old knees, the very ones he had prayed on for years in the Church of St. Alphonsus, slightly bent.
I was young and he was old, but I confess to being a little intimidated by him as he faced me, his short, but trim 88-year-old body now assumed its fighting stance.
His gnarled hands once again formed themselves into bare fists. In the blink of an eye, he was Young Man Jack again.
It was a magical transformation.
Even more startling to me was that suddenly, I had been unwittingly cast into the role of The Irishman.
He started his story.
His body bobbed and weaved as his words brushed past my left ear.
“As I climbed down off my wagon, he took a swing at me and missed….” Jack ducked slightly to avoid The Irishman’s blow as he spoke.
“You didn’t even give me a chance to take off my coat”, Jack protested to The Irishman.
Old Man Jack, elbows bent, fists at the ready, head cocked slightly to the side, a wary look in his old grey eyes, shifted his 138-pound frame back on its heels slightly and gave a barely perceptible twist to his left, as he now told me how,
“He came at me again– and missed with a left hook– and as he went by, I dropped him with my right…..”
The Irishman, who was still wearing his winter coat, struggled to his knees in the snow.
And then he slowly looked up at Jack through his one bloody eye.
“I’ve had enough…” was all he had to say.
No doubt The Irishman’s team of horses, who had been watching the whole thing from a few yards away, and saw him fall, exhaled a mocking cloud of steam, indicating that, though they were but beasts, they too, had lost all respect for The Irishman.
Young Man Jack looked down at The Irishman on his knees in the snow.
And then Young Man Jack gave him some good advice, which I am quite sure The Irishman remembered until his dying day.
“Don’t ever mess with a little guy.”