Larry Kearney was born in Brooklyn in 1943. Publications include Dead Poem (White Rabbit), Five (Tombouctou), Kidnapped (Foot), Oz and Damaged Architecture (Smithereens), Streaming (Trike/O Books), Passion, Transmission, and The Only Available Substance/Please Keep My Word (with Sarah Menefee) from Worm in the Rain Publications, a personal press through which he has published a large number of titles.
Lathe hand, Kearney Engineering
Draftsman, Kearney Engineering
Brooklyn Public Library
Machinist, Franklin Machine Works
Power Room installer, Western Electric
Editor, Sierra Club
Manager, David Wold International
Desktop Publisher, Nadja
Correspondent, Latin American Trade Finance
Teacher, New College
Teacher, Dunham Academy for Gifted Students
My father was working class independent. In the thirties he’d organized a strike and while everyone had supported the action, no one turned up on the line. He was a tool and die-maker and designed and produced numerous machines for Naval Research and the chemical thermometer industry, among others. He ran a one man shop, except for me, and in bidding on jobs filled out forms that asked whether he had five hundred employees or less.
He was disappointed that I didn’t want to go into the business, and felt I had a certain talent for it. I could have pointed out that the books he read to me, and the stories he told me, and the fact that he once sat on the side of my bed in the dark and told me that he’d always wanted to be a writer and live in San Francisco, had something to do with the way my mind was. But the topic never came into the open, and he acquiesced gracefully to what I chose to do.
When I say he was working class I mean that as a complete definition. He had no desire to move up in social status. All he wanted to do was be the best at what he did and be paid for it appropriately. He found that being the best at what he did, and solitary, didn’t automatically translate into appropriate pay. As a matter of fact, it was something of a drawback. He struggled all his life with the middle-men, and the glad-handers.
He was literate, and particularly well-read in history, and he once told me that the reason he didn’t argue politics with the people in our building was ‘you can’t argue with people who don’t read.’
After making a pilgrimage that involved climbing a hill on her knees in the rain to reach an officiating priest, his mother had died at their home in Galway. He was nine then, and an altar boy. He never went to church again. He was sent to live with an aunt in Gourock where he was persecuted daily as a Paddy, and where he finally escaped into a torpedo factory during World War One where he worked as a thirteen year-old lathe hand.
As a teenager, he traveled around Ireland with a fair, putting up and taking down the tents, and in his early twenties, he went to England then shipped out on a United Fruit Company steamer. There’s a confusion of passports from the time, with subtly different names on them, and my impression was always that he’d had to get out of England fast. On the way back from Central America, after a bout with malaria, he jumped ship in Delaware and took a job at the Wiimington Hotel, where he was a table captain.
He met my mother in Brooklyn where she’d been living for four years after her arrival, with family, from Glasgow. She was seventeen, and her father had been a welder and steam-fitter in the Clydeside shipyards.
The whole of my father’s political perception, and he never told me anything that didn’t turn out to be absolutely true, was in, “They all talk about how they care about the worker and all their patriotism, and they wrap themselves in the bloody flag, but everything we’ve got we had to fight for and as soon as they get the chance they’ll take it back and kill anyone who gets in the way. They’re the same people, Lawrence, and don’t ever forget it.”
What he gave me was an abiding love, and a built-in bullshit detector, and a standard—a view of the world quite apart from any notion of upward mobility, or tugged forelocks. There was room in his world for the arts (he took me to see Renoir’s The River, and Olivier’s Henry V, and Powell’s, the Red Shoes when I was five and six and seven). and laughter, and courtesy. He offered me the world, such as it was.
Things got tough in the late sixties, and he was working longer and longer hours. The war in Vietnam enraged him, and he became president of the local democratic Club and turned it toward Gene McCarthy. He marched with my mother in DC, where they got tear-gassed for their presumption.
The world as it was and will be, and the power of those who cared about power, created the conditions that prevailed and ate his life entirely, finally. He died in ’74, poor and very sick.
He gave me a solid place from which to view the world, and a solid sense of what you needed to do, no matter what your job, in order to see things accurately and behave as a gentleman. He believed in that, gentleman, and to him it meant someone who will never choose to damage you for his own gain.
In the evenings, when he sat on the edge of the bed talking, every nuance and meaning and choice of phrase was imbued with who he was—working class and independent—and everything that’s kept me alive against considerable, self-inflicted odds, came out of those evenings.
There was, too, an occasional, mysterious and aloof savagery in him. I could feel it floating somewhere. What it said to me was “If it slighted me, I’d burn down the universe.” and I understood it somehow, instinctively, as the prop that was holding up his kindness.
I’m very much like him though not nearly as good, and I work as hard as he did because I owe it as part of a simple, working-class contract.
To pay attention, and not be taken in, and to do what you do as well as you can, you know?