10 July 2005

A Beggar's History

The True birth myth of the New York Minute

We none of us are as we seem. History, personal or national, is a story we tell ourself. Sometimes these stories are outrageous falsehoods. Sometimes we tell pretty girls at parties that we are surgeons, or hang-gliding instructors, or currently publishing critically acclaimed novels. We tell people that we are twenty-two and working in Boston as a screenwriter. We say that we're originally from Delaware, like it says on the license. We say how about another martini.

And the New York Minute? Slang for a gang of Dublin street urchins in the 30s. They were thin and ragged street thieves. They stole pocket change and copies of Ulysses. They stole umbrellas in the sunshine and parasols when it rained. They lived in damp fog and cold old stones, alleys that smelled sticky of drying whiskey. They turned corners and wore caps and covered their faces with coal. They collected American vinyls and hid tubercular coughs. When they dreamed it was of steaming broth and warm weather and soft cloth. When they talked it was of gold covered streets and emerald baths, whole roasted pork, English servants, motorcars. They were as quick as New York and wanted the boats and the fast streets. Some of them sailed. A few of them made it. And one of them started stealing words instead of wallets. He horded them. He lived old. He had sons. His sons had sons. And when the old man died - and he died in an Irish way, upright and drinking in an Boston pub, singing one of the old songs on New Year's - when he died, he passed his ragged collection of stolen words on to one child. A boy.

Now, the boy never amounted to much. His good fortune made him indolent. He hadn't cupped small white hands over a guttering candle on an uncharitable Christmas morning. He hadn't needed his fingers to be warm enough to steal with. Desperation had never been his game. And so he let the name fade. He lost track of it. He was careless with the words.

And when they slipped, I stole them. All writers are street urchins at heart.

Other birth myths.

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