About the Author
Peter Ames Carlin has been a senior writer for People, a TV critic for The Oregonian newspaper, and is the author of Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney: A Life. Carlin lives with his wife and three children in Portland, Oregon. Visit PeterAmesCarlin.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
THE PLACE I LOVED THE MOST
THE TRUCK COULDN’T HAVE BEEN moving fast. Not down a sleepy residential street like McLean. If it had just turned in from Route 79—known in Freehold, New Jersey, as South Street—it would have been going even more slowly, since no seven-ton truck could round a 90-degree corner at a fast clip. But the truck had the height and breadth to all but fill the side road and sweep the other cars, bikes, and pedestrians to the side until it grumbled past. Assuming the other folks were paying attention to the road ahead.
The five-year-old girl on the tricycle had other things on her mind. She might have been racing her friend to the Lewis Oil gas station on the corner. Or maybe she was simply a child at play, feeling the spring in the air on a late afternoon in April 1927.
Either way, Virginia Springsteen didn’t see the truck coming. If she heard the driver’s panicked honk when she veered into the road, she didn’t have time to react. The driver stomped hard on the brakes, but by then it didn’t matter. He heard, and felt, a terrible thump. Alerted by the screams of the neighbors, the girl’s parents rushed outside and found their little daughter unconscious but still breathing, They rushed her first to the office of Dr. George G. Reynolds, then to Long Branch Hospital, more than thirty minutes east of Freehold. And that’s where Virginia Springsteen died.
The mourning began immediately. Family members, friends, and neighbors streamed to the little house on Randolph Street to comfort the girl’s parents. Fred Springsteen, a twenty-seven-year-old technician at the Freehold Electrical Shop downtown, kept his hands in his pockets and spoke quietly. But his twenty-eight-year-old wife, Alice, could not contain herself. Hair frazzled and eyes veined by grief, she sat helplessly as her body clutched with sobs. She could barely look at Virginia’s toddler brother, Douglas. The boy’s father couldn’t be much help either, given the pall of his own mourning and the overwhelming needs of his distraught wife. So in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy virtually all of the care and feeding of the twenty-month-old boy fell to Alice’s sisters, Anna and Jane. Eventually the others eased back into their ordinary lives. But the approach and passing of summer did nothing to ease Alice’s grief.
She could take no comfort in the clutching arms of her small son. Nearing his second birthday in August the boy grew dirty and scrawny enough to require an intervention. Alice’s sisters came to gather his clothes, crib, and toys and took the toddler to live with his aunt Jane Cashion and her family until his parents were well enough to care for him again. Two to three years passed before Alice and Fred asked to be reunited with their son. He went home soon afterward, but Virginia’s spirit continued to hover in Alice’s vision. When Alice gazed at her son, she always seemed to be seeing something else; the absence of the one thing she had loved the most and lost so heedlessly.
A semblance of family structure restored, the Springsteen home still ran according to its residents’ imprecise sense of reality. No longer employed by the Freehold Electrical Shop, Fred worked at home, sifting through mountains of abandoned electronics in order to repair or build radios he would later sell to the migrant farmworkers camped on the fringe of town. Alice, who never worked, moved according to her internal currents. If she didn’t feel like getting up in the morning, she didn’t. If Doug didn’t want to go to school in the morning, she let him stay in bed. Cleaning and home repair ceased to be priorities. The walls shed curls of paint. The plastered kitchen ceiling fell off in chunks. With a single kerosene burner to heat the entire house, winters inside were Siberian. For Douglas, whose DNA came richly entwined with darker threads, the peeling wallpaper and crumbling windowsills framed his growing sense of life and the world. No matter where he was, no matter what he was doing, he would always be looking out through the fractured windows of 87 Randolph Street.
· · ·
Doug Springsteen grew to be a shy but spirited teenager matriculating at Freehold High School. He loved baseball, especially when he was with his first cousin and best friend, Dave “Dim” Cashion, an ace pitcher and first baseman. Cashion was already considered one of the best players to ever emerge from Freehold. Off the diamond, the cousins passed the hours shooting pool at the small game rooms tucked between the stores, barbershops, and news stores clustering Freehold’s central intersection at South and Main Streets. Cashion, who was seven years Doug’s senior, launched his baseball career just after leaving school in 1936. He spent the next five years working his way from the local amateur and semipro leagues all the way into the major league farm system. He got there just in time for World War II to shutter the leagues and redirect him into the US Army.
Raised by parents for whom education amounted to a long distraction from real life, Doug quit his studies at Freehold Regional after his freshman year ended in 1941, taking an entry-level job as a bottom-rung laborer (his official title was creel boy) in Freehold’s thriving Karagheusian rug mill. He kept that job until June 1943, when his eighteenth birthday made him eligible to join the army. Shipped to Europe in the midst of the war, Doug drove an equipment truck. Back in Freehold following the war’s conclusion in 1945, Doug took it easy and lived off the $20 in veteran’s pay he received from the government each month.
As Fred and Alice made clear, academic and professional ambition were not priorities, if only because of their absolute disinterest in achievement—to say nothing of books, culture, or anything that gestured beyond the here-and-now. So if Doug wanted to live in their house and slouch through his life, that suited them perfectly. He was, after all, his parents’ child.
Doug barely made a gesture toward adult life until his cousin Ann Cashion (Dim’s younger sister) came by offering a night out. She had a friend named Adele Zerilli he might like to meet. So how about a double date? Doug shrugged and said sure. A few nights later the foursome were sitting in a cafe together, making polite talk while Doug snuck glances at the bewitchingly talkative dark-haired girl sitting across the table. “I couldn’t get rid of him after that,” Adele says now. “Then he says he wants to marry me. I said, ‘You don’t have a job!’ He said ‘Well, if you marry me, I’ll get a job.’ ” She shakes her head and laughs.
“Oh, God. What I got into after that.”
Married on February 22, 1947, Douglas and Adele Springsteen rented a small apartment in the Jerseyville neighborhood on the eastern edge of Freehold and experienced the postwar boom along with much of America. True to his word, Doug had landed a job on the factory floor of the Ford auto plant in nearby Edison. Adele already had a full-time job as a secretary for a real estate lawyer. A baby was on the way by the start of 1949, and the boy emerged at 10:50 p.m. on the evening of September 23, taking his first breath in Long Branch Hospital (since renamed Monmouth Medical Center), where his father’s sister had breathed her last twenty-two years earlier. He had brown hair and brown eyes, weighed in at 6.6 pounds, and was declared healthy in every respect. His twenty-four-year-old parents named him Bruce Frederick Springsteen and though they had their own home, instructed the nurse to write into the birth certificate that their home address in Freehold was 87 Randolph Street.
When his wife and child were discharged from the hospital a week later, Doug took them to his parents’ house and handed little Bruce to his mother. She held him close, cooing gently at the first new life that had entered their home since the long ago death of Virginia. When Alice peered into his eyes, her own tired face came alight. Almost as if she were seeing the glimmer that had once glowed from inside her own lost daughter. She clutched the boy to herself and for the longest time would not let him go.
She must have loved you to pieces, Bruce heard someone say not long ago. He laughed darkly. “To pieces,” he said, “would be correct.”
· · ·
Spending his first months in his parents’ small apartment, Bruce ate, slept, stirred, and cried like every other baby. And yet the blood in his veins carried traces of forebears whose lives describe American history going all the way back to the early seventeenth century, when Casper Springsteen and wife Geertje left Holland to build their future in the New World. Casper didn’t survive very long,1 but a son who had remained in Holland followed in 1652, and Joosten Springsteen launched generations of Springsteens, including a branch that drifted to the farmlands of Monmouth County, New Jersey, at some point in the mid-eighteenth century. After the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, John Springsteen left his farm to serve as a private in the Monmouth County militia, fighting multiple battles during a three-year hitch that ended in 1779. Alexander Springsteen, also of Monmouth County, joined the Union army in 1862, serving as a private with the New Jersey Infantry until the end of the Civil War in 1865. Throughout, and into the twentieth century, the Springsteens worked as farm laborers and, with the growth of industrialization in Freehold, factory workers.
Alice Springsteen’s family were Irish immigrants from Kildare who came to America in 1850, settling in the farmlands of Monmouth County, where they worked the fields and, in some cases, pushed their families up another rung or two on the economic ladder. Christopher Garrity, the patriarch of the family, sent for his wife and children in 1853. His daughter Ann met a neighbor, a laborer named John Fitzgibbon, soon after and married him in 1856. Two years later he invested the $127.50 it took to buy a family home at 87 Mulberry Street2, a street in a growing neighborhood of working-class homes just south of Freehold’s center. Ann Garrity marked their place by planting a beech tree seedling she had brought to America from Kildare. The tree flourished, as did Ann and John Fitzgibbon, who had two children in the years before John went to serve in the Civil War. As a sergeant in the Union army, John earned a chest full of ribbons for his courage on the battlefields of Fredericksburg and Charlottesville, Virginia, then returned home to father another seven children before dying in 1872. Remarried to a shoemaker named Patrick Farrell, Ann delivered a set of twins, including a girl named Jennie, whose own daughter, Alice, eventually married a young electronics worker named Fred Springsteen.
If only every member of the family could have grown as straight and strong as Ann Garrity’s beech tree. But as fate and genetics must have it, both sides of Fred and Alice Springsteen’s lineage came with a shadow history of fractured souls. The drinkers and the failures, the wild-eyed, the ones who crumbled inside of themselves until they vanished altogether. These were the relatives who lived in rooms you didn’t enter. Their stories were the ones that mustn’t be told. They inspired the silence that both secreted and concentrated the poison in the family blood. Doug could already sense the venom creeping within himself. Which may have had something to do with why he had fallen so deeply for Adele Zerilli, whose indomitable spirit would protect and nurture him for the rest of his life.
The youngest of the three daughters born to Anthony and Adelina, Italian immigrants who had arrived as teenagers (separately) at Ellis Island during the first years of the twentieth century, Adele spent her childhood in the Bay Ridge neighborhood at the southern tip of Brooklyn. The family’s luxe home came courtesy of Anthony, who had learned English on the fly and quickly earned his American citizenship and a law school degree. Taking a job in a law firm his uncle had founded to specialize in real estate, investments, and the like, Anthony’s bluster grew along with the firm’s success in the 1920s. Short but broad chested, possessed of a big voice, stylish wardrobe, and charisma to match, the thriving attorney moved through the world like a weather front, altering the barometric pressure of any room he entered. Adelina, on the other hand, pursued the life of an old-fashioned Italian lady, wearing traditional dresses, surrounding herself with reminders of the Old World, and refusing to utter more than a small handful of English words even as her daughters grew to be modern American girls.
When the Depression hit in 1929, Anthony wished he could go back in time, too. Reduced to moving his family into an apartment, he borrowed some of his remaining clients’ cash to keep his own investments afloat. Then he borrowed more. Then he borrowed too much. Meanwhile, Anthony had other indulgences, too, including an affair with a secretary who eventually claimed his heart. Anthony’s marriage ended first, and then the federal agents came knocking. “I guess the word is embezzlement,” Adele says.
Then the word was convicted, then sentenced. And as Anthony prepared to spend a few years away, he bought an inexpensive old farmhouse on sixty acres near the edge of Freehold and had it fixed up so his family could live as comfortably, if inexpensively, as possible while he did his bit in the grim caverns of Sing Sing prison. Only by then, Adelina’s broken marriage and abrupt financial descent had unstrung the observant Catholic so thoroughly that she decided to let her daughters make their own household while she took refuge with relatives. Told to provide for her younger sisters, the recent high school grad Dora took a job as a waitress and kept her sisters on a short leash. Weekly visits from an aunt who always came bearing a suitcase full of spaghetti and tinned tuna helped make ends meet. The girls could also count on the help of the man their father had introduced as George Washington, an African-American day laborer he hired to serve as his daughters’ chauffeur and handyman. And though his name wasn’t really George Washington (that was apparently Anthony’s invention), and he was a grown man in his thirties, he became a regular presence in the home. “All we knew about him was that he could dance,” Adele says. According to middle sister Eda, the action heated up at seven o’clock when the nightly Your Hit Parade came on the radio. That’s when they turned up the volume, pulled aside the living room rug, and kicked up their heels. “That’s when we learned how to dance,” she continues. “It sounds crazy, I know, but that’s how it went.” The vision makes Adele’s son laugh out loud. “They used to go to the balls, and the soldiers were on leave, and they went to dance, dance, dance,” Bruce says. “They had it all going on.”
Dora and Eda had sided with their mother in the divorce, while Adele was officially neutral but sympathetic enough to heed her father’s request to accompany his girlfriend on the journey to Ossining, New York, so she would have the right to participate in Sing Sing’s family visiting hours. When Dora got wind of her sister’s jailhouse visits, she filed papers with the Monmouth County courts to bring it to a stop. And when Anthony convinced Adele to join his beloved secretary on another trip anyway, Dora had her sister put on probation. “It was stupid, because I was a baby!” Adele says. So she must have been terribly aggrieved, yes? “Nope. I just couldn’t go anymore, and that was that.” When daughter Ginny contradicts her—“She never got over it”—Adele admits it instantly: “I still have th...
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