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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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By John Toohey, '33

The Magpie, January 1933, v. 34, n. 2, p. 45.

John Beirne was what is rather inadequately called my best "friend." The word "friend" is itself so bare a definite person is needed to give it its full, rich meaning. And even then, he was so much more to me than that—confident companion—sometimes even father confessor. And all that was wrapped up in a rather ordinary looking boy, fairly tall, unhandsome, but with rather clean-cut features—but maybe I'd better start from the beginning.

I couldn't tell you the exact date on which I first met him. We didn't really meet—he just slid quietly into my life. We were both kids then—I was about eight and he was nine. We used to play football together, down on the Drive, on the cool October afternoons. Then, one day, he told me he had to go to work. That was his first introduction to a life that was filled with it for him. I can remember that day almost perfectly. He was leaning against a fence, smiling at the thought. I was standing near him, laughing.

"You won't keep on working, John. In two weeks you'll be back playing again. I know." This with the childish sophistication of eight.

He shook his head. The smile waned.

"Naw, Red. There's where you're wrong. I'll be workin'."

"You see"—he hesitated—"my family needs the money."

We looked at each other—and it was there that the friendship was really born. He wouldn't have told the other boys—they might have laughed. I didn't—I understood.

Although I didn't realize it then (you never do)—the next years were among the happiest of my life. I used to call for him faithfully, after my dinner, and walk with him on his deliveries— a tall, skinny red-haired kid and a pale, stubby little tailor's boy, trudging through the streets together, he with one suit, I with another, talking earnestly about God knows what—pals. We had a lot of fun in that tailor shop. There was an old negro who used to come around and press clothes once a day.

He was quite a character. To begin with, he was immense—over six feet four—and the clothes he wore would have shamed a scarecrow. His trouser cuffs were fully four inches above his battered high-laced shoes, and his unmatched coat— well, an able bodied midget wouldn't have looked bad in it. He had a great, stringy moustache that drooped almost pathetically over his dirty brown jowls and large, surprisingly white teeth. He was a born story teller, though. There in the dirty, smoky little shop, bent grotesquely over the ironing board, Sylvestre talked, almost for hours, his deep bass rumbling through the hiss of the steam.

"Yes, Ah used to work in the Mint. Mmm-mmm! There was a job"—his brown eyes sparkled. "Man, oh man. Whah—" he'd put the iron down and turn, wagging a finger, "wha dey used to bring out big bushel baskets full uh money"—he'd tap his barrel chest proudly, "and Ah'd count it. You boys know I'm a good arithmetician—wha they was so many twenties ah never did see so much money. And you boys know Ah've been places—."

We knew. To hear him tell it, he'd been everything from a floor-walker in a corset factory (he really told us that) to a San Francisco bartender. We knew that he was an amiable old liar—but isn't that the prime requisite of a story teller?

John finally gave up his job in the tailor shop for a better one in the Public Library. The hours were easier and the pay was better. It left him more time free and almost all of it we spent together. John was never bad company—I was never bored when I was with him. We just seemed to get along perfectly. Friday nights we used to go to the theatre. We both liked everything—a perfect audience. Other nights we used to take walks on the Drive or sit in a window of the pool room watching the crowds. It was on one of those nights that the Great Idea was born. Why couldn't we take a trip around the world? Work our way on steamers. Let's see. Next year I'll be seventeen, you'll be eighteen. Plenty old enough. The idea seemed perfect—we conjured up glorious day-dreams—across the moors of England and the lowlands of France on bikes, with the cool wind streaming in our faces—the Taj Mahal at silent midnight with a full moon picking out the dome in dull silver—steaming slowly through the Red Sea on a tramp steamer with the sun beating down and a crystal sea swishing beside us—Honolulu, with waving palm-trees fringing a sinking sun and the soft, tinkle of guitars—wonderful, boyish dreams. We realized that that was all they were—but it was grand to dream them, and maybe——.

One Thursday evening I went up to John's house to call for him. I found him in bed. He was propped up on a pillow, still smiling, but rather feebly. Pain was lurking in his eyes and in his tightly clenched hands.

"Hello, keed, what's the matter?"

"Hello, Red"—he caught his breath and bit his lip. "Gee, Red, I got an awful pain. Here."—he pointed to his stomach.

"What is it?"

"I dunno. My mother, she put the bags on it, but it's still there."

I didn't know what to do or say.

"Stomach ache, maybe?"

"New, no stomach ache like this."

"Get a doctor?"

"He's coming tomorrow."

There was an uncomfortable silence. Then—

"Well, I gotta go. See you tomorrow—huh?"

"Yeah. Turn off the light, will you? Maybe I can get some sleep. So long."

"So long."

The next day I hardly thought anything about it. Just a little bellyache, probably. I called up Friday night to say that I couldn't come I think I was going to play cards. A strange voice answered the telephone.

"Could I talk to John, please?"

"John isn't here."


"They took him to the hospital last night."

"Oh"—Down went the telephone. Hospital. John was taken to the hospital. My God. I bolted the rest of my dinner a ran to St. Luke's, four blocks away.

"Ward One—to your right."

I ran through the corridor and into the Emergency Ward. I got a flash of John in a bed with a large, tube-like machine over him. His mother was sitting by his side. She looked up, saw me and hurried me outside into the corridor.

"What is it, Mrs. Beirne?"

"Appendicitis, Jackie. They operated last night."

Her pale mouth quivered.

"Jackie—I'm afraid he's going."

My knees buckled slightly. Cold sweat broke out on my

"No ha— he just can't be— why—"

She was crying now, sobbing softly into a handkerchief.


"What does the doctor say?"

"He won't tell me anything—I know!"

"Wait—you—you try to—I'll get my mother to come over here. Right away."

My mother. Where is she? Not home now. Hair dresser. Go there. He can't be—dying. Not John. Not the John I know. Not him. No.

I finally reached my mother and sent her over to St. Lukes. Then I went and tried to play billiards—couldn't do it. My mind wasn't on the game. It was over in the hospital. John is dying. Lying alone on a little bed, fighting uselessly. John is dying.

The kid who laughed with me only two days ago—he's dying. I couldn't stand much of that, so I went over to the hospital again. My mother was just coming out with Mrs. Beirne. We brought her over to our house to stay in case anything happened during the night. I tried to calm her down, soothe her, saying silly, incoherent things.

"He's all right—appendicitis not always fatal—even peritonitis—lots of people get well—as live as you are now—he's all right—."

Nine o'clock came and passed—ten—eleven—no word from the hospital. John's mother was in the back, lying down, when the phone rang. My mother answered it, Mrs. Beirne hovering around, terror haunting her eyes.

"Hello. Yes. Yes. Oh—I see. Thank you."

My mother turned. Mrs. Beirne knew.

"He's gone, isn't he?"

"Yes. John passed away a few minutes ago."

It's impossible for me to describe what that meant to me. It was as if something had been ripped out of me. No more John. I rushed back into my room to put my clothes on. John is gone. God, it isn't fair. It isn't fair. He never had a break. I jerked viciously at the tie-rack. The tie stuck. Ya-a-a-ah! The ties fell to the floor unheeded, a jumbled mess of color. No around the world trip now. No Singapore with him—no Honolulu— why did it have to be him? Why John?

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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