I recall as a boy of maybe six or seven, walking down a street in the South Bronx with our mother, the six of us in tow. We ranged in age from nine to infancy, and—as children will do—the older of us gawked as we passed at the stack of furniture piled at the curb.
“Don’t stare at those poor unfortunate people,” our mother chided. “Something terrible has happened to them.”
As with the other times we’d witnessed such a scene, someone always stood guard. A man, someone’s neighbor, having been evicted for not paying his rent, watched over his worldly possessions, his face masked in a steely frown or grimace. Perhaps his wife had gone off with the children to ask some relative to take them in. Or it might be the mother and children who kept the watch, the father himself having gone in search of lodging or work. They were, by all appearances, just like us.
“Say a prayer,” my mother urged us as we passed by, seeming not to notice so as to avoid acknowledging their disgrace.
I realize now that such an eviction with a family’s possessions piled on the sidewalk was about the most humiliating calamity that could befall the Irish-Americans of the South Bronx in the early 1950s. The fear that one’s own family might be only a paycheck away from a similar fate was at times nearly palpable. “It could happen to anyone,” was a common refrain among those proud, poor, hard-working people. “There but for the grace of God . . . .” But the searing shame of such misfortune was inescapable.
Irish-American families by the mid twentieth century were four generations removed from the horrors of the Great Famine that had ravaged the population of Ireland in the 1840s. The details of the dead found beside the road, grass staining their mouths, had faded over the years. Yet the cultural memory of those dark times a century ago had been kept alive, eventually passed down in whispers or outrage to succeeding generations. One iconic image that lingered in the folk memory was the spectacle of a tenant farmer and his family, unable to pay their rent because of the potato blight, being evicted from their cottage by the agent of an absentee landlord. Inevitably, he would be accompanied by the local constabulary and some housebreakers, common people from other regions, themselves desperate for work. To avoid paying taxes on the empty cottages—or at times to clear the land for the more profitable expansion of sheep or cattle raising—the landlord would then tumble the cottages, forcing the evicted family to live in a ditch or take to the road, foraging for food along the way.
A century later, in the streets of the South Bronx, such images of dereliction among the famine Irish had largely retreated to the realm of the unconscious, fading like the sepia tint of an old photo of ancestors no one even recognizes anymore. Yet–despite the years–the treachery, fear, and shame of eviction still lingered in the folk memory of their descendants.