June 21, 2013

Life in Hell's Kitchen

          Living conditions/lives of immigrant families in Hell's Kitchen...is the blog topic that was suggested to me for an upcoming blog tour. I  immediately thought, that’s exactly what our book, Forty Years in a Day, is about. The story begins in 1900 and follows the incredible journey of a young mother and her four children as they escape from Italy into the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, New York. Forty Years in a Day is layered with the struggles and successes of each family member and defines the character of an era. I believe the book answers the topic quite nicely, so how much more could I share? As if it were fate, a friend sends me a link to a YouTube audio of her Aunt who is being interviewed by her daughter. This elderly woman, Margaret Carlson, who has long since passed, had grown up in Hell’s Kitchen. She shares an amazing childhood memory that I think is the quintessential example of what living in Hell’s Kitchen was like. I would not be able to describe it with any more craft or poignancy than Mrs. Carlson; therefore, these are her exact words transcribed from Margaret Carlson's Memorial Video on YouTube. http://youtu.be/V55rDRi5Dw0  

I was born 1928. I was born in New York City—36th street and 11th Avenue. It was called Hell’s Kitchen. Bad neighborhood. On 11th Avenue there were railroad tracks and the freight trains use to go along the railroad tracks with the cows, and the pigs, and the sheep, and you could hear them all mooing. They were going to the slaughterhouse which was on 28th Street.

I guess I was about 5, and it was early on a Sunday morning, and I was running the streets on the other side of Eleventh Avenue, where I wasn’t supposed to be, but of course I was. Two men were laying on the street. We called them bottle babies. It was depressing days and there was no work for the men so the men use to hang out on the corner and get drunk. You know, they couldn’t afford food, but they could get drunk. And they were our fathers, we knew them. So these two men are sleeping, and one man gets up and he picked up a big cinderblock and he dropped it on the other man’s head. He looked at me, and I just raced right home. I raced up four flights of stairs. You always lived on the top floor cause it was cheaper.

I told my mother, “Mama, Mr. So and So hit Mr. So and So over the head with a brick.”

My mother said, “What’d did you say, Margie?”

“Mr. So and So hit Mr. So and So over the head with a brick.”

What a whack my mother gave me. She never hit us. My father’s hobby was hitting us. My mother never hit us. 

            “What’d you see, Margie.”

I was crying. “Mr. So and So hit Mr. So and So over the head with a brick.”

She gave me another whack. I landed on the floor, and I’m laying there, and she said to me, “What’d you see, Margie?”

I looked, and I’m thinking to myself she’s going to hit me again. I sat up, and I said, “I didn’t see nothin, Mama.”

She said, “That’s right, now go downstairs and play.”

That’s how I learned you don’t see nothin, you don’t know nothing.

So I get downstairs and there were lots, torn down buildings. Rubble. Empty lots we call them. And the lot was full of people. I was only little so I climb the rocks and I’m standin there and I’m lookin. The police have a man, blood all down his face, saying, “Did anybody see this? Does anybody know anything?”
           The West side was nice, nobody’s there, all of a sudden people are coming out of the woodwork. Of course,  nobody saw nothin. So I turn around to climb down the rocks and there is Mr. So and So staring straight at me, right behind me. I just ran home and that was the end of that. But like I said, I knew then—you didn’t see nothin and you don’t know nothin. That’s where I come from.

Thank you, Margaret Carlson, for your story
and for reminding us to count our blessings.


  1. Wow! Just like now in bad neighborhoods, nobody seen nothin'

  2. Great post. So far away from the world we live today, with cameras in everyone's pockets, information distribution channels and social networks like Twitter, and government programs like PRISM. The days of not seeing/not knowing are long behind us, but it's a refreshing reminder of a different time and a different way of life.

  3. How sad -- for the little girl and for the world. It makes me wonder how far back the "don't want to get involved" mentality goes...

  4. Wow. What you learn to do to survive. Hasn't changed in certain areas still today.

  5. Thank you every one for taking the time to leave a comment! I really appreciate the feedback!

  6. Oh, that gave me chills! What a terrifying experience for a five year old to be burdened with...life can be a cruel mistress to many, in many different ways.