We Hold These Truths...
"Go fetch John O'Shea and bring him home," Vi told me not long after breakfast. "You know where he is this time of day?"
"Molly's Coffee Shop," I answered. "What if he won't come with me? You know how he is. What will I do then?"
"Pat his arm but don't try to take it," Vi cautioned. "Tell him it's Uncle Sam's birthday and Glory made a cake. He'll pretend you're not there but betcha a dollar to a doughnut he'll follow you home."
"Glory made a cake?" I was immediately interested. "What kind?"
"I'm going. I'm going."
When, in the course of human events
John O'Shea was just where I thought he'd be... in Molly's Coffee Shop, sitting in the corner where the counter met the wall... hunched over his plate and talking to his omelet.
It was the three-egg special with ham and cream cheese in the middle and cooked with the same great care Molly would have taken to make breakfast for the Mayor. Molly, in her early middle years, was rotund with just the kind of roundness that made children eager to sit on her lap. Her heart of gold knew no limits and long before I came to live with Glory and Vi and Max, I ate my share of free meals at Molly's counters.
John O'Shea was one of the constants of my childhood, a homeless man who shunned shelters and was often violently frightened if anyone invaded his personal space. Once, when I was very little, I slipped on the ice and in one lucid moment, he forgot his fright and picked me up and held me until I was steady again.
It becomes necessary for one people to dissolve
the political bonds which have connected them with another...
No matter the weather, he wore a long heavy coat, a tattered woolen scarf trailing behind him on the ground. He rarely smiled but when he did, the first thing you noticed were that his teeth were tobacco-stained the bright yellow of a Ticonderoga pencil. And if you happened to get a little too close, you could smell the unpleasant life he led.
No one knew for sure where he came from but all knew he was a fixture in our neighborhood, familiar to us and so alien to the rest of the human race. Evenings found him at the edge of alleyways, making love to his gin and tonic, a gray battered cat dozing in his lap. Mornings found him at Molly's, talking to his eggs and saluting his gods with black coffee. Every now and then he'd cock his head and listen as his gods engaged John O'Shea in heated conversation.
I've always found it ironic that when man talks to God, it's considered prayer, but when God talks to man, it's diagnosed as schizophrenia. I slipped onto the stool beside him and waited for him to acknowledge me. Molly slid a plate with two jelly doughnuts in front of me along with a tall glass of cold milk and gently patted John's arm. She knew he wasn't afraid of me.
Eventually, he turned his head and looked at me with those lost gentle eyes of his. I dared to put my palm on his arm and was gratified when he put the tip of his index finger on the back of my hand.
"Vi says to come home with me. It's Uncle Sam's birthday and Glory made a cake," I told him.
"Mmm," he hummed and went back to his eggs, beginning a softly spoken political discourse on why the Redcoats were doomed from the start. "King George," he began and the rest was lost to me as he vacillated between French and German, occasionally lapsing back into English but with a thick Irish brogue.
I finished my doughnuts and milk and said I'd wait outside. It was only moments before he came out and followed me home.
the representatives of the United States of America,
in General Congress, assembled,
John O'Shea was a pied piper of sorts. Whenever he walked down the street, a small curious entourage followed - this time it was a couple of giggling boys, a bag lady with a shopping cart, the two cats John always fed, and Annie, the barmaid who was a bit ditzy herself and half in love with him. And when he sang softly as he walked, they stayed with him longer. His singing voice was a sweet baritone, the only time he was the most coherent and articulate.
"Happy birthday to you," he sang. "Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, Uncle Samuel. Happy birthday to you."
Mrs. Cohen clapped her hands as we went by her food stand, the smell of her hot knishes mouth watering. Her son Aaron crossed his eyes at me as we passed them. He's going to be bigger than a house if he keeps eating all those knishes. Woofie, the scraggly dog with half a tail sniffed the air as we passed and joined the growing crowd behind us. The cats hissed at Woofie but Woofie was a lot like John O'Shea, generally oblivious to the world around him.
Appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world
for the rectitude of our intentions,
do, in the name, and by the authority
of the good people of these colonies,
Max stood in the open doorway when we arrived and arched a brow in John's direction. "No more singin till you be clean again, ya hear me, John O'Shea? And no cake neither. Vi ain't gonna let you sit at her table till you wash. Can't eat no cake till you be clean."
"Just one song," John mumbled. "I need to sing just one song."
"Make it quick," Max said as if he was angry with John but I knew he loved the sad sweet man. There was history between them, one I'd never know.
Solemnly publish and declare,
that these united colonies are,
and of right
ought to be free and independent states;
"God Bless America, land that I love," the vagrant that he was crossed an arm over his chest, his hand covering his heart. "Stand beside her, and guide her through the night with a light from above."
The small crowd stood silent when John O'Shea sang, his patriotic heart on display, naked for all to see, the raw emotion of his voice ringing in our ears as memories caused tears in his eyes. His coat was unbuttoned and as he stood there singing, I got a quick glimpse of the shirt under his coat... his hand wasn't just covering his heart. It was covering his Purple Heart.
"From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans, white with foam. God bless America, my home sweet home."
Max led John O'Shea to the bathroom and closed the door behind the two of them. When they emerged, he wasn't wearing his long woolen coat. If I didn't know who he was, I might not have recognized him. He was so much leaner without his coat and for the first time since I'd known him, his face and hands were clean.
He hesitated to sit at the table but Vi said something for his ears only and Glory put a big piece of chocolate cake in front of him. Max urged him to sit and I put my hand out so he'd take the chair by my side.
"It's America's birthday," he said softly and bowed his head. One could only wonder what memories haunted him, what events had brought him to this place in life, and what price his personal freedom and independence.
"Sing for us, John," Vi said softly.
"O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain!" his voice rang out, his head held high.
"America! America! God shed His grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea!"
John O'Shea would revert back to the silent sullen and moody man that frequented the neighborhood where I grew up. He would go back to nursing his gin and tonic and talking to his morning eggs. Dogs and cats and giggling children would follow him as he walked the streets and grownups would mostly shun him. But today, on this special American holiday, he was our guest of honor.
I looked around the dining room table... two ladies of the evening, a pimp, a vagrant who was mostly drunk and lost in life... and 10-year old me. We were at ease with each other, sharing laughter and good conversation and chocolate cake in honor of Uncle Sam's birthday. Whenever I think of that day, I cherish the memory.
We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable rights,
that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Happy Birthday America!