Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Ragged Dick the Match Boy

Horatio Alger department.

Popular writer two generations ago in the "Every Good Boy Does Fine" school.

He believed, at the turn of the last century that every American boy could do well, and hard work, no matter how lowly at times, would lead to riches and happiness. The American dream. "I'll give you a bully shine, Sir!
And "There goes Dick, on his wheel, delivering the paper in the morning."
Stories with titles that would make you giggle today. "Ragged Dick the Match Boy"

Hey, I'll bet that would fly in San Francisco.

But its really about the shoeblack kid who made good.

F. Scott Fitzgerald made huge mileage with his "The Great Gatsby" where a Horatio Alger-style characer was the very model of this kind of person, even got to Oxford while still shining the shoes of his classmates in the morning, still had something of a British accent and would address those around him in America as "old chap."

But face it. Fitzgerald doesn't say it, but Gatsby was something of a bootlegger, a common occupation in the Roaring Twenties and certainly very much a part of the American dream--or nightmare. For this was the era of the Chicago gangsters, Valentine's Day massacres and organization charts that seemed eerily precient when it came to the lately crooked corporations of today. And politicians who wake up sniffing coke from a hooker's derierre.

But back in Chicago ganngster days, it was all up front. These were bad dudes. The real organizatio charts perfectly described the CEO positions and those under them.

To wit:

Al Capone

"Frank "the enforcer" Nitti.

Chief Triggerman
Machine Gun Jack Mcgurn

Second Triggerman
"Three Fingered William White.

Robbery Expert
Murray "The Camel" Humphries

Business Manager
Jack, "Greasy thiumb" Guzik

MIKE "de Pike" Heitler

Certainly a more honest organization chart than the three-million-dollar -a -title CEO's and underlings today, who ride companies into the ground , rob old folks of their savings, bankrupt stockholders --nd still get away clean with tens of millions in back salaries.

So if Fitzgerald romanticized the Horation Alger character, The Great Gatsby, he was likely glorifying a gangster, the underside of the American Dream, but he transmuted it all to wonderfull art, and The Great Gatsby is on every second year university English course.

American literature stood alone in the Twenties, and for a time was he best in the world.

And three generations later came da Godfather and all the gangsers and crooks of films, that for some reason (at least to me) were elevated to high art.

But how many of us, even here in Canada, follow the Horatio Alger dream?

Mostly everybody.

Lower East End background, rising to writer, movie mogul, baseball star.

One for the Gipper.

I was brought up in what may as well have been the Lower East Side, North End --Hamilton, Ontario, where recess at at school was a brick- and- stick- throwing ring and you had to fight the Irish and the Italian, especially the Sicilians to prove yourself and many a day you'd be sporting a black eye while the nuns tried to keep order.
So "school of hard knocks" was almost cliche.

I escaped it all by joining the Air Force, which at times seemed another kind of trap, but at least it got me out of Hamilton.
People seemed somehow oppressed and under the actual thumgb of JACK, "greasy thumb" Guzik, for at any given time, there were four Mafia families operating in Hamilton, with connection to Buffalo and New York. Gambinis were known on both sides of the border.
So under the veneer of propriety and all the golden steel mills, The swell McMaster Univrsity and the tony homes in the West End and on The Mountain,Hamilton's glorious, sometimes tragic military tradition, the Protestant Ethic-- there was an underside of graft and corruption that goes on to this day. Consider all the attempts at urban renewal ;stone facades of City Hall , made of inferior materials, falling down from the building, threatening pedestrians. Walk down King or James Street doday and it looks like a war zone. Heaven forbid if "Greasy Thumb" Guzik walked away with all the money.

So yeah. I was a sort of Horatio Alger clone. "Give you a bully shine, Sir", and" matches!" and Hamilton Spectaror! Get it here!

But the Air Force got you to travel, to know what it was like to be in an elite, got you into univerity and you were doing the Horatio Alger thing big time.

Immigrant kid. Lessons in elocution, radio and TV speech, all of English literature, history, economics.
This could be too heady for old Ivan. I mean, my father was just a contractor.
Later a try at Northwestern University. Ivy League. Tough Luck, Henry Muck. "Contractor, huh?"

But there was the Univesity of Toronto, the equal of Northwestern and those intelligent "Chicago Gangsters" could, for me, go to hell.
I was rich, and very nearly retired by 32.

And then I did a Great Gatsby. It was not the aristocratic Daisy that I'd lost; I'd gotten Daisy, but like any another foolish immigrant who became noveau riche, like many a novelist who couldn't handle success and went on to physical and chemical excesses, that lead straight to the gutter, like talk show host Craig Ferguson had done( and for a very long time, till he beat out Conan O'Brien on ratings and became a successs again.Privately-- and I think -he can handle this--I think he's still Norman Rakewell, but he did 'er).

I didn't pull out of the spin, like Craig Ferguson.

I have lost a lot of teeth. I could not possibly go on the air now, either televison or radio. I sound like Daffy Duck.
I write like I make love: Everything goes in but the skill.
The alcohol has gotten to me.
My penis droops.

But wasn't it all grand? To have been Ragged Dick the Match Boy. And to have taken on Toronto. (Didn't say nothin' about winning).

And still today, for some reason, I am still saluted on the street in my own home town.

There is a letter in the mail, nestled in between some gaudy flyers.

"Sancho! There are windmills!"

Sancho Panza. "I kind of stay with the guy because he's such an asshole."



benjibopper said...

I always wondered if Jim Cuddy was describing Horatio Alger when he sang: It's getting so hard to find you As you fade into your world of reprisal As you slip into the comfort Of your denial Your patriotic smile..." but then he added, "You go down in style"...maybe he was talking Gatsby. But if you gotta go down, may as well do it in style. You got style, Ivan. By the mile.

I enjoyed this history of a region, very much.

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...

Hey, thanks, Benji.

ea said...

Hey, like Benji said -- you got style, Ivan, and you tell life like it is. You've lived a life without fear and you've ran like hell. See ya at the finish line!

~Boston Blackie (liz)

Ps -- I enjoyed your post!

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...

Hi Liz,

Thank you!

Sort of like Monique when I get a compliment. "Blush".

Yes, I enjoyed Boston Blackie on my battery radio as a kid. :)

Midnight said...

Cossack Spirit, is not to be forgotten.

When there is nothing else left, it is enough.

It will sustain you, for as long as you wish to keep your face in the wind.

Cheers! Na Zdorovlia!

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...

Too full of vodka right now to offer a glib response.

Here's to steppe dancing. Hey.

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...

Too full of vodka right now to offer a glib response.

Here's to steppe dancing. Hey.

Midnight said...

Ain't nothin' like,
a double shot!

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...




Just made me think how strangely close Ukainian is to Sanskrit.

One man's Mede....


Midnight said...

'Stop me, before I fuck again.'

--- George Carlin

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...


"F*ck You"--a novel, by Henry Miller.

laughingwolf said...

hamilton, eh?

old welland boy, me....

ivan@creativewwriting.ca said...

Welland beautiful, historic. Canals.

No offence ro our American friends, but here is pretty well where we won the War of 1812.

Now American tourists invade, and we like them.

Lana Gramlich said...

I grew up where "The Great Gatsby" is set, actually, which may explain why I'm more "go to hell," than "bully for you, sir!" *L*

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...

Spent some time on Long Island.

Maybe it's me.

More people seemed to want to tell me to go to hell too.

I think they just move faster and want to get there right away. So it's "get out of my way."

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...


If you think I'm mean you should see my pets. Wait till Bernita takes a bite out of you. :)

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...

John Dowson.

You out there?

You submitted a piece to this blog some weeks ago, but I couldn't post until I could carom it off something, figuratively, on the "pool table" of my blog.

All right. I have emailed you still another submission by one Alfred Warkertin who is impressed by your publishing credits and wants comments on his own short stories.

Comments not forthcoming.
I know you are a busy guy in local magazine journalism.

So what the hell. I'll reprint a short piece of yours out of York North Magazine.

Maybe thatt'll get you to move faster on criticizing Alfred's piece.

What did they say?

by John Dowson

“Well they said it was going to snow” said my neighbour as we shoveled our driveways. “Yes “I said “but they said it wouldn’t be too cold”. I stopped shoveling and said to myself, who are they, who said it was going to snow, who is this mysteries THEY? Are they a collective, and how come they know everything there is to know about everything there is to know? So I decided to checkout “they” on my handy Microsoft word file thesaurus, under tools on my computer. The thesaurus says that THEY could be the whole, the whole lot, the whole story, or even the whole world, so the whole world is they and they seem to know more about the weather than anyone in the whole wide world. There was a time, in the not to distant past that “they” was a weatherman. Yes the weatherman told us all about the weather and we would open a conversation with “the weatherman said it was going to snow today”. Then there came a time when the weatherman was no longer a man, it was a woman, so we started our conversation by saying “the weatherwoman said it was going to snow today”. Well that wasn’t politically correct, and we were told that we had to be gender neutral and use the term “person” instead of man or woman, so the weatherman or weatherwoman became, the weatherperson. However on the television nightly newscast, weatherperson just didn’t sound right especially when the news anchor said “now here’s our weatherperson Janie to tell us all about the weather”. Then suddenly on television there was a new person telling us all about the weather, it wasn’t the weatherman, it wasn’t the weatherwoman, and it wasn’t the weatherperson, it was “the Meteorologist”. Yes the meteorologist was born right there on television while we watched. However for us ordinary folk to open a conversation with “the Meteorologist” said it was going to snow today” just didn’t ring right with us, especially if you were in a hurry to get down to a serious conversation. So we reverted to back to our old friend “they”. If you use “they” you don’t have to clarify yourself, you don’t have to explain who they are and you can get right down to your conversation because the person you’re talking to always knows who they are anyway.

On one of my bi-annual dental check-ups I talked to my dentist, between rinses, about the use of this, they, word; we talk a lot between rinses. He said “funny you should say that, because when I was teaching at dentist college and I asked a student, “why did you do that up that way, their answer would usually be “they told me too”. My response would always be, who are they? I never did find out who they were. School teachers must get this all the time from their students, “they told me to”. To which the teacher’s response is, who told you, and the students answer is always, they did, and now we’re back to, who are they? Maybe “they” are “Emily” the voice of Bell Canada or “Tim” the voice of Rogers TV. The next time your prompted by Emily or Tim ask them, are you THEY?

the walking man said...

Rocinante come to human form is what you are old man. Your writing is the knight you carry on your back…Now that your drooping in the tilt maybe Dulcenia will look favorably upon you once again.

But if not, you can always hearken back to the Days of Gatsby and smuggle cigarettes.

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...


To the point.

I guess I could always sell crack.

http://ww.creativewriting.ca said...


The Highway crack dealer came riding, riding.