Mother Ran a Speak

We talk about the glamorous speakeasies of prohibition, but really most were probably like this.

Paying for homemade made booze in someone’s kitchen, with optional entertainment.

Mother Ran a Speak, Charles McCabe
From his collection, “The Good Man’s Weakness”, 1974

“If only I hadn’t gone to Dublin in the first place, and if only I hadn’t gone to that place where they play the music on Saturday nights, and if only the master of ceremonies had not used the word melodeon. Well…

“A melodeon is what most people call an accordion, or a squeeze box, or many other names, and it is something my mother used to play, sitting there on the best chair in the house, and looking pretty and satisfied, and the melodeon on her knee, and the sounds of things written by Tom Moore and Bobby Burns coming out.

“After my mother threw the old man out of the house she had to find some way to support the children, and she was too proud to peddle herself. Teh times being what they were, New York City in the 1920′s, the best thing she could do was make whiskey and peddle it.

“It wasn’t bad whiskey. I used to help her make it, in the big stone tub where I had my weekly bath on a Saturday night. There were a lot of copper coils involved, and the operation was very honest indeed, for my mother would never be involved in anything that wasn’t honest.

“She sold the stuff for a dollar a shot. The clientele was entirely male, naturally. I grew up in what was very like a cat house in atmosphere, except that booze instead of sex was sold there. My mother never did anything that wasn’t honest.

“There were cops and firemen, the elite of the neighborhood. They would come in and sit around the kitchen stove, and the old girl would take out the melodeon, and with that fixed smile on her face play, “Oh Paddy Dear and Did You Hear,” and that sort of sweet nonsense. The cops would get up, with their blue jackets off, and do a clog dance.

“Every once in a while, dazed and dreaming, I would wake in the middle of the night to got to the gents, which meant crossing the kitche, and I would see all of these fellows getting sloshed and my mother playing the melodeon, and she would say to me, “Sing for the boys.”

“And I would sing something called The Sweet Galtee Mountains, which had, at some point, thirty-two verses, dedicated to the thirty-two counties of Ireland, including the ones owned by the Protestants up there.

“And they would throw dimes and nickels on the floor and I would pick them up, which possibly explains why I am now in the entertainment business.

“With all those dollars she got for all those shots my mother became in time respectable and bought us a house in a neighborhood where the rich Jews lived, and I remember one of her strongest more injunctions.

“We would be having one of those catastrophic confrontations which the Irish call a family difference, and she would conclude it with the stern words, “You’re raising your voice, Charlie.” And then she would add, “The Jews will hear you.”

“What with one thing and another, it wasn’t a bad life. I grew up in the firm conviction that I hated my mother, and I’m sure she thought I was the world’s smallest stink. It has taken a long time for me to know that she loved me, and that I loved her. It was all a part of being Irish, or human.

“None of this would have come to mind, or been expressed, if that guy in Dublin hadn’t said the word melodeon. The sound of the box comes to me now, loud and clear, and I think of the courage of that dear good dead woman, and of our failure to know each other, and I am fit to weep.”