“Where are you from?” A simple question, really. For me, lately, the question for those who came from the same place, has become “Why are we so very different?”
Family, friends, role models, and bad influences evolved from the same concrete community. We breathed the same dirty air, heard the same gospels, and shared the same textbooks. Yes, our individual experiences varied greatly. Formative events occurred behind closed, but not soundproof apartment doors. So why then, do we carry such different outlooks, prejudices, hates, and loves? I only know bits and pieces of other people’s stories, so the best I can do is take a look back at my own.
We boast about where we are from, even though nothing we did brought us to that place. Others chose. My immigrant grandparents claimed a slice of New York as their promised land. They planted their shamrock and their seed, adding to the already crowded Bronx bazaar. Why that place, I don’t know. Perhaps the ambition to seek new adventures was drained from them on the sail across the Atlantic. The voyage left them in New York with only enough remaining spirit to find a community that sounded familiar. Perhaps they had none of that spirit at all, and it was darker things that set them to sea. Maybe they just wanted to be somewhere different. The Bronx was good enough for that, I suppose.
They passed this complacency on to their children, most who kept up the tradition of staying right where they were — moving only when other immigrants made it unsafe or uncomfortable. And so, with hands full of their children, they struck out for distant concrete pastures, making a move five miles further into the borough.
It was beautiful, this neighborhood. The telephone prefix changed from CYpress-8 to FOrdham-4, aligning with the newly memorized zipcode – 10468. It was a ready-to-explore solar system within the galaxy of area code 212.
This new place carried a whole cast and crew that made the story come to life: the good and the great, the wronged and the wicked all made appearances. There were no clear markers in this galaxy to distinguish who was purely good and who was not. Sometimes the good guy was the bad guy, the priest was the sinner, and the kindest role model delivered casual cruelty with a benign smile.
It would be a difficult task to identify a saint among all the sinners. for even the evil ones had streaks of grace veined into their marble-hard hearts. Some bore their ashes on their forehead; others bore them in their souls. So many metaphors, so many stories.
I remain fascinated by them all.
As the decades advanced from the roiling 1960’s to the boiling 1970’s, the safe place we loved was becoming dangerous. A burning, smoldering rage was eating through the city. The Hydra of poverty, drugs, and social injustice seemed unstoppable. A poorly understood war was taking barely-shaving boys on a romanticized exotic adventure. Some returned to the neighborhood adorned with medals and ribbons atop broken bodies and spirits. These were not the boys we sent off with a patriotic wave; they were frightening, broken men who now struggled through the streets they had happily roamed a blink ago. No longer able to find the peace and joy of carefree youth, they became the next wave of customers for the growing darkness of addiction. Heroin or Four Roses, it didn’t matter.
But for a while, there was a sense of safety.
Growing up in an over-sized family in an undersized apartment builds characters. I do not recommend it. It felt more like a crowded diner than a home. When the doors opened, we tumbled into our lives, grateful for elbow room and breathable air.
Everybody smoked, even the babies. We didn’t mean to, at least not initially. First, second, and third-hand cigarette fumes saturated every cubic foot of air. Kools, mostly, with the occasional Marlboro or Pall Mall from visiting relatives. The more health- aware smokers went with Parliaments, while the less concerned stoked up Camels. Bad choices, memorialized on nicotine-tattooed fingers. The resulting questionable teeth and dulled taste buds didn’t much impact our daily bread, which was mostly Wonder with an occasional loaf of Silvercup or Levy’s Jewish Rye.
All that smoking did not sit well with my asthma. Struggling to breathe was just part of my day. I don’t know if any of the smokers connected the dots. “Hey, I light this cigarette, and that boy starts to wheeze. We both light these cigarettes, and he starts to gasp. We all light these cigarettes, and he wheezes, gasps for air, panics, and occasionally passes out. None of the other kids seem to have a problem. Maybe he needs to go outside and run around.”
I smoked until I was thirty-eight years old.
To this day, I despise cockroaches and the smell of broccoli equally. In my childhood, one was unavoidable, the other never present. We waved at healthy food from a distance. Our vegetables came in cans or frozen rectangles. The canned ones left quite a bruise when thrown accurately. Iced boxes of peas and carrots eased a headache if applied first thing in the afternoon, during or after a good bout of drinking. We went through a lot of boxes but rarely ate the veggies.
Milk delivered vitamin D in waxy cardboard quarts. During the baseball season, collectible coupons were printed on the side of the container. These slick chits were redeemed for tickets to see the New York Mets at Shea stadium. With all the milk we drank, we should have seen a lot more Ed Kranepool. Getting to Shea meant lots of subway time, requiring complicated transfers and knowing exactly where you caught the 7 to Flushing. Yankee Stadium – the real one – was only a few stops on either the elevated 4 train or the underground D train. You’d pass it on the way downtown, which in Bronx geography was anywhere in Manhattan.
Milk carton coupons may have brought a few fans to the stadium, but the real star attraction was beer. It was big at the ballpark and big in the apartments.
Schaefer was the one beer to have, except when it was Rheingold. Much like cigarette smokers, different drinkers favored specific brands. Some of it was tradition, based on what a grandfather or uncle drank. The equation for apartment 3N was straightforward. Knickerbocker was for daily use. Volume trumped flavor, and cost determined volume. The empty cans piled into the brown paper bags that held all the household garbage. The whole sloppy mess traveled down three flights of stairs, then clattered into the row of metal trashcans the super dragged out to the street on collection days. The mingling helped obscure a non-sober reality, though it would often reveal itself in other, less subtle ways. Eventually, you run out of paper bags, trashcans, and vegetable boxes.
The unspoken goal of this routine was to change reality without leaving the house. Some of us carried this behavior forward well into adulthood, expanding the menu with combinations of liquids and chemicals readily available if you knew where to look.
I found them all, until I woke up one October day, a thirty-something adult with a young son, and said “that’s enough.”
On garbage day, burly New York City Department of Sanitation trucks clogged the streets, grunting their way through the neighborhood. The whole oeuvre was quite noisy. The garbage cans made a grinding, scraping squeal as they were dragged out of alleys and lined up at the curb. Metal lids often fell off the top of over-full cans, adding a cymbal crash to the score. Even deeper were the ashcans’ sounds, loaded with grit from the coal-fired furnaces that provided heat to many of the apartment buildings. The thicker banded steel barrels added a thudding low end as they joined the lineup. Occasionally a soggy bag of garbage found its way to the pavement courtesy of a random cat, rat, stray dog, or sloppy tenant. Splat, crash, scrape, scurry, curse, repeat every week. It smelled awful, it looked terrible and it was very noisy. Yet, it barely registered until a garbage strike turned the manageable into the truly hellacious.
Alternate side of the street parking rules triggered a line of double-parked cars on one side or the other. Horns alerted the double-parkers that someone was blocked in and needed to get out. A few quick taps grew longer and angrier as the minutes passed. A lot of factors drove response times. A crying baby or a particularly dramatic episode of The Guiding Light could slow things down. A stuporous snore could easily drown out the raging horn of a Ford Falcon or a Chevy Nova, while a pile of vegetable boxes lay melting in the kitchen sink.
With one side of the street cleared of cars, mechanical sweepers hissed and swooshed up the block, wetting the detritus before drawing it into the large rotating brushes that often left a soggy smutch behind.
Snowstorms fouled up even the best routines, forcing automobile owners, or industrious kids, to shovel out buried cars. Garbage trucks sprouted snowplows to clear the narrow streets, often reburying the vehicles that had been shoveled free. Timing was everything.
There is no snow where I now live, and here the clinking of wine bottles replace the crunching of beer cans. Three trucks now pick up the color-coded molded plastic bins that hold trash, recycling, and green waste. The trucks are not so loud, and the crews don’t yell out “YO!!!”as they roll down the streets. They pass quickly, and the mechanical sounds fade into the calming waves of the nearby ocean.
When we needed some daily bread, my mother wrote a short shopping list, affixed it to a clothespin, and tossed it from the window of 3N. The note floated down like a knuckleball to the waiting kid below who chased it, caught it, and carried it a few shorts steps past the alleyway separating our apartment building from the row of small shops that flowed down the west side of the street.
Harry’s grocery, a small, cramped shop run by Harry Migdol and his wife Betty, occupied one of the single-story storefronts. They were lovely people, a bit exotic for the neighborhood. Betty spoke with an eastern European accent that was definitely not a brogue. The business was not a supermarket, like Peter Reeves around the corner, or the A&P on University Avenue. It didn’t have a lot of workers like the deli on Fordham Road, across from the park. But it had the things that the people on the block needed: milk, bread, beer, cigarettes, canned goods, cold cuts, Raid, Brillo pads, and personal hygiene products.
Other neighborhood delis offered a more extensive range of portable meals, from bacon and egg on a Kaiser roll to hot meatball sandwiches. Some people call them wedges, and others say hoagies or subs. To me, they will always be called a hero. Harry offered up a daily miracle of sorts, turning cans of Bumble Bee into delicious tuna heros in the local version of the loaves and the fishes.
Harry’s was an excellent place to learn basic economics, trust, and accountability. Often, the need for staples did not align with the timing of a paycheck. The Migdols allowed for that reality. They kept a giant square cardboard ledger next to the worn cash register. They wrote down a customer’s initials and a running tally of what was owed. Sometimes those lines got pretty long. On payday, customers stopped in and settled their tab. Harry wrote a reminder on the brown paper bags that contained the day’s supplies if things extended out for too long. I can’t recall Harry or Betty ever getting upset, or embarrassing a neighbor who fell behind.
This kindness and compassion stood in sharp contrast to our parish’s practice of using numbered envelopes to solicit and track weekly contributions. At the end of the year, the Church published a glossy booklet that listed each parish family and the amount they gave. Some claimed it was an acknowledgment of the support. I saw it as a method to embarrass and coerce more from families who had nothing to offer. Yet another in a long line of confusing and antithetical actions that led me to question and ultimately reject that particular style of being Catholic.
The Parish Compound
A school or a religious institution often identify neighborhoods in the five New York City boroughs. Mine had both. Saint Nicholas of Tolentine Parish dominated the area. When asked what community we came from, most just said “Tolentine.”
An aerial view of this fortress of faith reveals a massive crucifix-shaped church that dominated the length of Fordham Road between Andrews Avenue on the west and University Avenue to the east. The fiefdom extended up both streets, with a line of buildings housing the religious staff that served the Church and schools that gave the area its identity. Broad and bustling University Avenue ran two lanes wide both north and south. Andrews Avenue, where we lived, sat crowded, narrow, and one-way only. South was up the block, and north was down the block.
Cathedral of The Bronx
The Church itself was a marvel, with an intimidating Collegiate Gothic ashlar and limestone facade. The soaring, gleaming main upper Church sat atop the more demure lower Church. Upstairs, the thundering organ and grim choir reverberated and echoed off stone arches and stained-glass windows. Below, the sounds of acoustic guitars and folk-inspired secular music ministered to the younger parishioners. Thick walls kept separate the sounds of Kyrie and Kumbaya.
To my younger self, that musical dichotomy was both apparent and unsettlingly mysterious. The massive, ominous sounds that came from the organ, combined with tightly regimented voices singing in what I assumed was always Latin, spooked me. The choir seemed to be mournful prisoners rather than joyful celebrants, though I was likely projecting my feelings onto it all. The combination of heavy music, lingering incense, droning priests, and a liturgy delivered in both English and Latin was just too much. Everything felt like a threat to my emotional and spiritual existence. Decades later, standing in a similar cathedral in Vienna Austria, I was brought to a different place by the beauty of Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, supported by a full choir, organ, and small orchestra, delivered in a language I still couldn’t understand. Yet, I knew the core spirituality and devotion to blind faith more than I ever did as a schoolboy.
Downstairs at Tolentine was a different story. Everything was in a state of change, and it was happening every Sunday morning at the 10:15 mass. The music had shifted a few centuries forward, and small combinations of guitarists and singers celebrated an old faith with contemporary sounds and language. Priests delivered Mass in English, and the overall feeling was more communal and less overbearing. It was still Catholic, though plenty of older congregants, and a like number of nuns and priests, probably disagreed.
This new take on an old ritual was astonishing and revelatory to a 12-year old boy. I was drawn to the music, and particularly to the acoustic guitars that filled the Church with hopeful and upbeat sounds, so very different from the thunder above. Individual voices blended into the tight vocal harmonies in a language I could understand!
I relentlessly pestered my parents for a guitar, finally succeeding in getting a cheap and nearly unplayable instrument that allowed me to try my hand at making music. After a while, I graduated to a better guitar, which I played alongside a few classmates at the new 9 AM Children’s Mass. That led to the formation of the ragtag band of fellow novice musicians, which led to a second iteration, and on and on. I followed this muse my entire life.
Aside from the music, I was also inspired and encouraged by Joe Girardi, a gifted guitarist and one of the 10:15 musicians. Joe would patiently answer my questions about guitar playing and even lent me an amp for a short while. He had absolutely no reason to be helpful, except that he was. At a reunion many years later, I had the chance to tell him how his talent and kindness inspired me to pursue my music passion. Here I am more than fifty years later still recalling his name, his talent, and his Guild acoustic guitar.
Sons of God. C–Am–F–G. Repeat until saved.
Black and White
The University Avenue side of the Church connected to the rectory, where the Augustinian priests lived and conducted much of the parish business, saying mass and administering the sacraments. Most also taught in the high school. These men wore long black robes, cinched at the waist with equally long and lethal leather belts. On casual days they would go with black slacks and shirt, with a collar choker exposing a small square of white at the throat. Not the whole collar, like Protestant ministers favor. Just enough to say, “Catholic Priest.”
The Dominican nuns who taught in the schools occupied the convent next door. These women also wore the cloth of their calling, complete with layers of robe, bib, and wimple. Headgear varied a bit, as this was a time of change in the Catholic culture. Older nuns went with the full boxy look, hiding even the suggestion of hair. The long billowy sleeves of the habit hid many things, but always a wad of Kleenex. They also wore long strands of rosary beads that could help rescue a small child from a deep well, should the need arise.
Younger nuns, emboldened by the cultural changes sweeping the world, broke out modestly styled dress-like habits showing actual lower leg and proper footwear. Headgear morphed into shorter, kerchief-styled veils, which revealed to disbelieving children that a nun might use a hairbrush.
The squad of nuns was augmented by a handful of lay teachers, women mostly, who seemed to be less hostile to the children. Perhaps having families of their own gave them a better sense of the human spirit inside these fragile young they were given to teach.
The grammar school came next, wearing the same facade as the Church. Rows of classrooms rose several stories to accommodate the endless armies of students produced in numbers that underscored the Catholic tenets of reproductive rights and wrongs.
Andrews Avenue sat one block to the west. The Church continued in the dominant position, followed by a second convent, then the older section of the grammar school, and finally, the high school. Here, red brick replaced the elaborate facades of the showier east side buildings.
On school days, young ladies in plaid skirts or pastel dresses entered through the north doors of the high school. Teen boys, forced to dress like little men in coat and tie, split off to the south entrance. Inside, swinging metal doors on every floor protected the sexes from each other. A vigilant army of priests, nuns, and lay teachers carried virtual tool kits containing shame, mild to moderate violence, and the ever-looming threat of mortal sin to keep the sheep from straying.
A pre-pubescent version of the scene played out in the nearby grammar school. Young girls dressed in plaid jumpers, white blouses, and navy-blue variants of bowties. Boys wore white shirts, navy blue pants, and neckties with STN stitched in yellow. There was no gender segregation in these classrooms. Fifty or more children sat stuffed together, presided over by a grim warden in a black and white habit.
We marched, some of us unwillingly, into an imposing faith, filled with threats of eternal damnation and the promise of a saved soul. We lined up timidly, sent to learn in overcrowded grammar school classrooms ruled by mother figures who would casually smack a child while serving the Prince of Peace.
Then, adequately seasoned, most students were funneled into the high school to carry on the great traditions of uniformity. First-year students were classified and labeled, with little chance to improve one’s alphabetical standing. Students learned science and history through Catholic eyes. Evidence of any effort to educate based on a student’s uniqueness was as invisible as the holy ghost who hovered over us all.
Not My Place
Other parishes may have offered experiences that ignited the imagination, encouraged creativity, and made learning an enticing activity, but it was not my experience, not in this place. There was too damn (Forgive Me, Father, I think I just sinned) much parochial for me. It was not a place to breathe, nor relax, nor grow. I did not like anything about it, and I often didn’t show up.
I made it through my sophomore year when my bad attendance record defeated my good grades. With an academic achievement plaque and a less than stellar letter from the guidance counselor, I set off to find a different high school. Thank you, Jesus!
Many students passed happily through this combined institution of learning, emerging with a good grounding in elementary education and a sense of discipline that helped them on through colleges and careers. Some graduates credit all of their success to this experience, viewing it as a steeling process that made them better, more resilient adults able to handle anything life might throw their way.
Others emerged less healthy, less enamored on learning, and less trusting of the Church. They live with spirits broken by the pain and humiliation of the type of character building favored by many of the nuns and priests. We found hope in The Beatitudes, and embraced the suffering found in The Stations Of The Cross.
Men and women found a balance where faith, common sense, and a reliable moral compass guided them through life. They lived and loved, did well for themselves and their families, and added much to the communities they joined. Fathers coached sons, and mothers guided daughters. Sometimes roles were shared across parental genders, handing off from one to the other as the children matured. Blue morphed into khaki as boys aged from Cub to Scout and passed from Den Mother to Troop Leader. Brown beanies turned into green berets as young girls became still-young women. Determined brothers, uncles, and grandfathers picked up shovels, rakes, and cold cans of beer to make a beautiful ball field out of a neglected plot between the train tracks and the river. Moms, aunts, and big sisters collaborated on school projects and Halloween costumes, and everyone staffed the booths at the annual parish bazaar.
Some stayed cemented in the life that was beaten into them, seeing the world through suspicious eyes and hardened hearts. They went out into the world and provided help to diverse communities, serving, protecting, and tending to the sick and afflicted. They saw things, these protectors, these servers, these healers, these comforters. And what they saw burned through their uniforms, their badges, and their shields and took small, ragged bites out of their humanity. Shift by shift, tragedy by tragedy.
Some still do these good works unto others despite a darkened heart. So many more see the pain and unfairness of life and fight through resentment and anger to find beautiful strands of light.
I’ve shared time and space with all of these characters. I have fallen, sometimes far and for too long, but somehow found my way back to my feet. I have been helped along by family and friends of every type. Hopefully, I have returned the favor.
I suppose I have started an un-finishable search based on an unanswerable question.
I believe that, despite differences in perception and remembrance, the spirit of the place I come from continues to live on with good intentions and good deeds. There are good, bad, and a whole lot of blended people who can dazzle us and disappoint us equally. The good, and the trying to be good, give me hope for tomorrow.
I believe that there can be faith without religion. As one of my favorite musicians sings: “I’ve got faith, but I’m no fool. It’s something to hold on to when the world becomes unglued.”
Though I will likely never embrace the Catholic Church, I have come to admire and respect several local parishioners I have met in this place where I now live. These good, committed people don’t preach or posture, don’t speak of damnation and fear. They live humble, compassionate lives of service to their community and their faith. They demonstrate their values of faith, hope, and charity.
And they do it lower church style, mandolins and all.