Sorting Through My Father’s Hoard # 13: Damon Runyon, Part 1

Now it happens that I am considering what to do for my latest post on my old man’s hoard of books, since it is five years to the day since my old man hauls off to depart for other worlds and climes and leaves his ever-loving wife and daughters very lonesome, and I am naturally wanting my post to be a suitable tribute for the sad reminder. Although I know on this occasion the book I choose must not be too sad, because when I am writing the post for The Journal of A Disappointed Man I am crying in-between the typing and sometimes when I am writing the post for The Sword in the Stone I am sniffing so much I must stop typing for a long time, and even now writing this very opening paragraph I am getting teary, since even though it has already (or only) been five years, the pain does not get any less.

So I am determined that this time the subject must be a fun light-hearted book which I enjoy writing about, and what happens but I suddenly think of Damon Runyon.

Now you should know that this Damon Runyon is a very, very smart duck, who is writing for New York newspapers and covering sports and news stories over many years in the 20s and 30s and 40s. He apparently revolutionises the reporting of baseball and is heavy into boxing and gambling and shooting craps, and most importantly for my old man and for his daughters and for thousands more like us he writes plenty of poems about sports and short stories about guys and their dolls on Broadway. In fact he is writing so much about guys and their dolls that three other very smart ducks known as Frank Loesser and Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows take some of his stories – in particular The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown and Blood Pressure – and make them into a musical called Guys and Dolls, which is a show I fancy some of you hear of, and if you do not then I shall merely say you are more than somewhat deprived.

What is more, it is in these On Broadway stories that there can be found much ‘Runyonese’, wherein Runyon mixes both formal speech and slang like so much gin and tonic, and almost always stays in the tense of the present and gives contractions the old heave ho. If you notice that I am doing much the same as a tribute to his style, I am very glad you make it this far into this post, and I am also urging you to read Runyon’s work instead, since he does it far better and for far longer than an hour or so, and knows his own business best.

I am reading my first Runyon story at the tender age of perhaps ten years when I am given Detective Stories (chosen by Philip Pullman) by my ever-loving mother, among which I find Runyon’s tale. It is a story called Butch Minds The Baby, and it is quite probably my favourite story out of the bunch of detective stories as it is most entertaining to see a safe cracker try to bust open a safe while also keeping a watchful eye on his baby little John Ignatius Junior, who is brought along for the ride as Butch’s old lady is away at a wake all night.

However it is not all such fun and games on Broadway, for while the guys and the dolls are living it up they are also on occasion firing slugs and throwing pineapples and plugging either coppers or each other, and some of the stories are most sombre as well as most amusing. One of these stories is the only one I remember for certain my old man reading to me, and it is a story called Earthquake, and it goes as follows.

The narrator of these stories – who is not so much a sucker as to ever make his name or any real particulars about himself available to the discerning public – is one evening sitting in Mindy’s restaurant, when copper Johnny Brannigan sits down in his booth. Now the narrator knows that Johnny Brannigan is wild to arrest a guy by the name of Earthquake ‘who is called Earthquake because he is so fond of shaking things up’ and put him in the electric chair. This is because Earthquake, besides otherwise misconducting himself with shooting and stabbing and robbing, up and injures a copper, and it is so severe an injury that the copper dies, and Earthquake then takes a lam to Nicaragua.

It is here the narrator pauses to say a little more on the subject of Earthquake:

Earthquake is a guy of maybe six foot three, and weighing a matter of two hundred and twenty pounds, and all these pounds are nothing but muscle. Anybody will tell you that Earthquake is one of the strongest guys in this town, because it seems he once works in a foundry and picks up much of his muscle there. In fact, Earthquake likes to show how strong he is at all times, and one of his ways of showing this is to grab a full-sized guy in either duke and hold them straight up in the air over his head.

Sometimes after he gets tired of holding these guys over his head, he will throw them plumb away, especially if they are coppers, or maybe knock their noggins together and leave them with their noggins very sore indeed. When he is in real good humour, Earthquake does not think anything of going into a night club and taking it apart and chucking the pieces out into the street, along with the owner and the waiters and maybe some of the customers, so you can see Earthquake is a very high-spirited guy, and full of fun.

Personally, I do not see why Earthquake does not get a job in a circus as a strong guy, because there is no percentage in wasting all this strength for nothing, but when I mention this idea to Earthquake one time, he says he cannot bear to think of keeping regular hours such as a circus might wish.

Well, Johnny Brannigan does not have anything to say to me at first as we sit there in Mindy’s, but by and by he looks at me and speaks as follows:

‘You remember Earthquake?’ he says. ‘You remember he is very strong?’

‘Strong?’ I say to Johnny Brannigan. ‘Why, there is nobody stronger than Earthquake. Why,’ I say, ‘Earthquake is strong enough to hold up a building.’

‘Yes,’ Johnny Brannigan says, ‘what you say is very true. He is strong enough to hold up a building. Yes,’ he says, ‘Earthquake is very strong indeed. Now I will tell you about Earthquake.’

It seems that Johnny Brannigan is so much annoyed by the death of the copper, Mulcahy, that he follows Earthquake all the way to Nicaragua and to a town called Managua, where he happens to be sitting in a plaza direct across from a convent and despairing of ever finding his guy, when who should sit down on a nearby bench but Earthquake.

Of course Johnny Brannigan is very quick to boff Earthquake on the noggin and cuff him, and once Earthquake gets over the being boffed and cuffed they are having a quite civil conversation about the alcohol in New York and the nice warm seat being reserved for Earthquake, and the fact that Earthquake did not at all intend to scrag Mulcahy but was aiming at Brannigan. But all this chat is set aside when all of a sudden there is a real earthquake hits the town, and among all the breakage and guys and dolls running about the convent across the way now looks very sorry for itself indeed, and appears apt to tip over at any minute on top of the screeching children and nuns that are still inside.

Brannigan asks Earthquake if he is strong enough to hold up the one remaining door out of the convent that is fast closing up with falling stone and timber, so that Brannigan can get any kids and nuns out of the building, and Earthquake agrees, and also says that this is as bright an idea as he ever hears from a copper. So Earthquake wedges himself into the door frame and spraddles his legs and pushes the frame on either side of him, and soon enough there is space for Brannigan to shimmy in, whereupon he rounds up the nuns and the surviving female children and pushes them through Earthquake’s spraddled-out legs to safety. And at last only Brannigan and one old nun are left.

Then we go back to Earthquake, and he hears us coming across the rubbish and half-raises his head from off his chest and looks at me, and I can see the sweat is dribbling down his kisser and his eyes are bugging out, and anybody can see that he is quite upset. As I get close to him he speaks to me as follows:

‘Get her out quick,’ he says. ‘Get the old doll out.’

So I push the old nun through Earthquake’s spraddled-out legs into the open, and I notice there is not as much space between these legs as formerly, so I judge the old mumblety-pegs are giving out. Then I say to Earthquake like this:

‘Well, Earthquake,’ I say, ‘it is now time for you and me to be going. I will go outside first,’ I say, ‘and then you can ease yourself out, and we will look around for a means of getting back to New York, as headquarters will be getting worried.’

‘Listen, copper,’ Earthquake says, ‘I am never going to get out of this spot. If I move an inch forward or an inch backward, down comes this whole shebang. But, copper,’ he says, ‘I see before I get in here that it is a hundred to one against me getting out again, so do not think I am trapped without knowing it. The way I look at it,’ Earthquake says, ‘it is better than the chair, at that. I can last a few minutes longer,’ he says, ‘and you better get outside.’

Well, I pop out between Earthquake’s spraddled-out legs, because I figure I am better off outside than in, no matter what, and when I am outside I stand there looking at Earthquake and wondering what I can do about him. But I can see that he is right when he tells me that if he moves one way or another the cave-in will come, so there seems to be nothing much I can do.

Then I hear Earthquake calling me, and I step up close enough to hear him speak as follows:

‘Copper,’ he says, ‘tell Mulcahy’s people I am sorry. And do not forget that you owe old Earthquake whatever you figure your life is worth. I do not know yet why I do not carry out my idea of letting go all holds the minute you push the old nun out of here, and taking you with me wherever I am going. Maybe,’ he says, ‘I am getting soft-hearted. Well, good-bye, copper,’ he says.

‘Good-bye, Earthquake,’ I say, and I walk away.

Of course the narrator says that since Earthquake is a very strong guy indeed, it might be he is still holding up the convent door even now. Brannigan agrees that Earthquake is indeed very strong, but once another shock hits and he gets up to see what is left of the convent, ‘I can see that not even Earthquake is strong enough to stand off this one.’

(All this time I am sitting in my old man’s study, listening to the rumbly voice that he uses for tough characters and in this case for Earthquake. I am wondering at the slim line that there is between the jolly and the sad. I am wanting to read more of this Damon Runyon.)






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