Uncle Frank (The Ballad of Gus Dominguez)

My great-grandfather Gus Dominguez was born to parents who had emigrated to the US from Cuba and Germany. Gus spent a decade in a Brooklyn orphanage and then part of his teenage years living on the streets. His daughter, my grandmother Hazel, had given me a copy of a typewritten transcript of some of his memories of those years, as told by him. I kept this transcript in a notebook and recently pulled it out to read to my children. I had remembered there were some pretty colorful moments in the story and thought they’d be interested to hear it.

After that reread I thought it would make a pretty good folk ballad, so that’s what I did for my song last week. I sat with Gus’s story and rhymed it into a song, trying to keep it as faithful to his telling (in content, style and wording) as possible.

Nathan generously contributed several hours of work adding guitar and drum tracks to help keep this long song musically interesting.

And I spent lots of time perusing the Internet for photos of 1900s Brooklyn and Philadelphia. And cats and cigar stores and saloons. This was such a fascinating way to feel more connected to my great-grandfather and the time and place in which he grew up. Many of the photos I found were from a book published by Danish immigrant Jacob Riis, called How the Other Half Lives. The typewritten words are from photos I took of the transcript my grandmother gave me. Incidentally, I learned that she was named Hazel after Gus’s sister Hazel (unnamed but mentioned in his memoir), who died from the 1918 flu, shortly before Gus’s daughter, my grandmother Hazel, was born.

Uncle Frank has a lot of nerve
Coming to see me after all these years
Since he turned us all out of his home
And left us at the Home of Saint John

We weren’t even Catholic till he sent us there
To keep four kids out of his hair
I used to be Lutheran, not that it matters
I’m just a poor boy, beaten and battered

Uncle Frank
Uncle Frank

The laundry man took me when I was sixteen
I saw he had four kids and seen what it’d mean
To stay there washing all day and all night
Keeping those children all in my sight

Laundry Man
Laundry Man

So I went tramping alone on the streets
Looking for food and a place to sleep
I saw a stable and found nearby
A covered wagon with blankets inside

So that’s where I slept, at the Navy Street gate
Where I seen a man with a familiar face
A sergeant Marine who was my brother Fred
He took me on board and made sure I was fed

Brother Fred
Brother Fred

I still had no room so I asked around
And worked for a lady hauling milk around town
It didn’t pay cash but I got a home
And two meals a day and she got me some clothes

But then she took sick and she closed up shop
And once again I was out of luck
She gave me two dollars so I could eat
And I headed back out on the Brooklyn streets

Brooklyn Streets
Brooklyn Streets

I slept in hallways, got up at sunrise,
Found some meals for a decent price
My two dollars lasted for six more days
I kept looking for any kind of work that pays

Inside a saloon on Fulton Street
Was a lunch laid out with so much to eat
I looked at that lunch, hungry as a bull
Dreaming of feeling my belly full

The bartender said you look half-starved
Help yourself, I thanked my lucky stars
Twenty customers watched me eat
Threw coins in my hat till I had tears on my cheeks

Kind Strangers
Kind Strangers

They gave me eight dollars ten cents and their smiles
And told me where I could live on that for a while
Twenty-five cents for a night of sleep
In a sailor’s flophouse on Tremont Street

Then a man took me in and I worked for his brother
Scraping rusty pipes, sealing ships’ boilers
It was dirty work but a decent life
Till he came home drunk and started beating his wife

I tried to butt in and he smacked my face
So I knew I had to get out of that place
Next time he got drunk and beat her again
I picked up his poor cat, and threw it at his head

Out the window went the poor cat
I ran away and never looked back
I’m sorry for the cat, I don’t know how it did
But I had to leave if I wanted to live

Poor Cat
Poor Cat

I found a good job as a captain’s boy
The storms were rough but I was employed
Near the Cuban coast I got drunk with a friend
The captain hit me hard and said my job had to end

At least they paid me – forty dollars
I was a rich man, I went to the track
My bet paid off, I bought some new clothes
Worked for a while as a stable hand

I started to look for the other kids
Searching through all the Dominguezes
I found the school where my sister was
And that she was being well taken care of

I rented a room on Navy Street
And then one day who should I meet
My old man himself, waiting for me
I greeted him as if he hadn’t left me

He asked me to go with him to PA
Said he’d explain it all on the way
He’d married again, had two more kids
And changed his name cause of something he did

I said, what did you do? Did you kill or steal?
Then he told me a story and it was all real
He got engaged and then changed his mind
Cause he’d found out she was the high-flying kind

She didn’t want to let him go
But he didn’t want to keep her and so
He threw acid in her face
So now the police were on the chase

He changed his name to Frank Hidalgo
And from now on I should call him Uncle

Uncle Frank
Uncle Frank

He ran a cigar shop in Philadelphia
My brother Fred came in and recognized him
Fred sailed right at him, cussing and mad
Frank ducked behind the counter and I got bashed

Then Fred started crying and I tried to explain
But he just left and didn’t come back again

Brother Fred
Brother Fred

I finally found Charlie, my other brother
Through an ad in the New York newspaper
He came to Philadelphia, turned out alright,
And then our house caught fire one night

And who do you think started that fire?
Yeah you got it right – that cowardly liar
A lighted cigar, a hall filled with clothes
Good old Uncle Frank, right on the nose

Uncle Frank
Uncle Frank

My mother died when I was six
This story shows how dear a mother is

Immigrants’ Children


These are my kids, seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time last summer.

These children are good red-blooded Americans. Which means their genetic code is a patchwork produced by immigrants. They are here because a religiously persecuted sect called the Schwenkfelders fled Germany in the 1700s and settled in Pennsylvania. And they are here because another group seeking religious freedom left Sweden and settled in Minnesota. Their immigrant ancestors also include English and Irish, French, Spanish and Scot; and one Austrian grandmother on my side who by family accounts remained an undocumented immigrant her entire life. My children also have at least one non-immigrant ancestor, from the Native American Choctaw tribe.

I don’t know what my kids are up to in this photo – I took it but I didn’t pose it and I don’t recall if I knew what they were doing (maybe trying to catch bird poop?!), but just now, I like to imagine that the immigrants who made them are rising up and reaching out through them, towards that hope of freedom, a new start, a land of opportunity. I like seeing the sun shining on their young hands, and I hold out hope that love and compassion and courage will flow through those hands as they grow up in this deeply divided nation and inevitably encounter suffering, unkindness, and injustice in many forms.

And I pray for their mother to let them inspire her, to speak up and stand up for the vulnerable, to help them make their way peacefully and bravely in this world, to not be afraid.

And for today’s immigrants, in so many ways so like my own ancestors and my husband’s, and those of my neighbors, of my friends, of so very many of my fellow Americans – I pray peace, safety, freedom, and opportunity. And I stand with them, on the legs I inherited from immigrants, their hopes and dreams still alive in me – and in these children.