Chapter VII: Confirmation and Other
No Catholic family could consider its members Catholic if they did not make confirmation. Of the seven holy sacraments, baptism and confirmation rank as the most important.
My mother had been "diming it," that is, every chance she got she stowed away a dime, a quarter or anything she could afford. The money was to outfit me for that day. A month before the big day, I was sent to attend a special class at St. Bernard's School in the Greenwich Village area. The class, taught by a priest, centered mainly on the questions and answers contained in the Catechism. Not too long before we had made our Holy Communion, a rite to bring us into God's commune, to make us children of God. Now we were advancing into a higher order; we were becoming soldiers for the Lord, to let the devil know that he was now dealing with people who carried a certain immunity, a confirmed dedication, an invisible shield to wage war against the legions of the devil and what he stood for.
The last week of the class was taken up with drilling: how to walk to the altar without falling flat on your face or making a fool of yourself. For a whole week, Mother had been shopping for odds and ends to attire me. How she managed to save at all was a mystery, but save she did, enough to buy me a double-breasted suit, patent-leather shoes, white shirt and tie and a haircut. On the Sunday of confirmation, a hundred of us sat in a special section of the church. The ceremony called for the bishop, sitting in a chair in the middle of the altar, to receive each kid who, with bowed head and clasped palms, stopped first at the attending priest who sat only inches from the bishop. Between our palms, sticking out conspicuously, each of us held a card on which was written our full name and, in bold letters, the name of the saint each of us had taken as a middle name. In my case, it was St. James.
The church was crowded. We sat there nervously, knowing that our parents were watching our every movement. The moment came for the long, slow line leading to the altar. Every candle in the church was lit. The half-nauseating aroma of incense hung like a heavy cloud in the glow of the candles that emblazoned the altar, the statues surrounding the inner church, and those that lighted the way to the stations of the cross. I came to the first stop. The priest took the card from my hand and slowly read off the name to the bishop. This priest was a small, pudgy man with a red-apple face, white hair sparsely cropped, with small-rimmed glasses that sat on the lower part of his nose. In the school adjoining the church he taught history and was known as Brother Philip. The kids called him other names: Porky, Fatty, Roly-Poly and Lard Ass.
Placing a hand under my chin, the bishop raised my face and mumbled some words in Latin. As clear as a bell, he mentioned James, then gave me a slight slap across the face. This was to make me aware that I had reached the stage of awareness of the pains that man is able to inflict on man, so I was told. Now, strengthened by the holy sacrament, I bowed and trudged back to my seat, an earlier warning from the priest reverberating in my mind: that he would deal personally with anyone who so much as wrinkled the rug he walked on and that, by the time he finished kicking his ass around, he wouldn't be able to sit down for a month. Minutes later the big show was over. Unlike at West Point, our rites did not end with our tossing our hats in the air or blowing horns or otherwise making bigger jackasses of ourselves. We merely went quietly with our families to perform the remaining glorification of manhood, picture taking. Again my mother had put herself in hock. I posed for the hired photographer with the certificate of confirmation in my hand.
The joker running the photo studio, taking advantage of a natural motherly weakness at such times, had talked her into buying a great big picture frame and two dozen prints. A few were dispatched to relatives in Ireland; the rest were stored in the family trunk, for reasons I never did discover. The two-foot enlargement in the round, fancy, high-priced frame was hung in the "big room." My mother found a convenient place for it: it covered a place on the wall where a huge patch of plaster had fallen. Well, that was that. Another step toward sainthood, while the mother took another step deeper into poverty. The Church was satisfied, but the poor little guy at the corner grocery who occasionally gave my mother credit just had to wait a little longer for payment on his bill.
Very few rackets open to kids around my neighborhood weren't monopolized by some other kid, older and smarter in the way of making a fast dollar. I had had to content myself with doing things the hard way: rolling pushcarts to the stable or selling an occasional "Extra" edition of some newspaper. Now, however, I found a new outlet for my energy and a way to make a few cents. Up on Broadway, the "Great White Way," as it was called, was the theater section of New York. Once a show ended, the streets overflowed with people all eager to get home. Many searched for taxicabs, and that's where I came in. I would run up and down the street, hail a cab, and direct the driver to the spot where I hoped to receive a tip. When I wasn't searching for cabs, I was opening doors for people to get out. Many of the cab drivers cooperated. They were working stiffs themselves and knew what a buck meant. A lot of the time, cops would chase me away from the theater doors. At times, I would open as many as 25 doors before someone with a sympathetic soul would bounce me a dime. Yet some nights I made as much as $2.00, just catering to the theater crowd.
I came home from school one day right into the middle of a big yelling match between my mother and stepfather. As always after receiving his disability check, he was gassed up enough to be belligerent with my mother. Her complaint was that the money was needed more to keep the house together than to enrich the saloon keeper. When I walked in, the stepfather gave me a growl. In that instant I knew something was going to happen. To get the pressure off himself, the stepfather shouted at me. "Why don't you get a job and support yourself?" I looked at him, frowning, but said nothing.
"Damn it! Answer me when I talk to you!" he bellowed.
I was standing near the door. I put my hand on the doorknob. There he sat, tilted in his chair. "Why don't you get a job and support yourself, you drunken bum?" I yelled.
He raised his head, eyes bulging like those of a madman. He tried to get up, but I was out the door. I have no idea whether he ever made it to his feet. For the rest of the day, I stayed around the neighborhood, pouting and thinking things out. It seemed clear that my mother was never going to get rid of Harry Longlegs. That, I thought, was what made her so prone to take his side over mine. Conclusion: I had to cut out on my own.
As a matter of fact, Harry Longlegs continued this sort of life until he was 72. Long separated from my mother, alone, one rainy and cold night he stumbled out of a New York saloon and went staggering across the street toward his cheap hotel room. He was run over by a hit-and-run driver and left to bleed to death in the Ninth Avenue gutter. While few tears were shed over his death, my mother still thought enough of him to light a few candles and say a few prayers for him in church to hurry his soul to heaven. Perhaps, in their short life together, he did bring her close enough to happiness that, remembering him, her tears fell.
For the next two months, New York subway trains and stations were my home. Most New York subway stations were cold, drafty places, but I managed to find one that had heat: the Sixty-sixth Station on Seventh Avenue. IRT Lines had four wooden benches. One stood at the very end of the platform where few people ever lingered. The station was somehow protected from the chilly winds that characteristically blew through most other stations. I spent my days in whatever pursuits I could that would make a few dimes. Mostly I sold papers, especially "Extras," of which New York seemed to have at least one a day. When late evening came, I topped my day scouting cabs for the show crowd. Finally, a quick duck under the turnstiles to save a nickel, I'd ride to Sixty-sixth Street. There I'd find my bench and curl up for the night. No one ever bothered me.
One night I went to get my bundle of "Extras." The headlines announced that if two men named Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, the subways of New York would be blown up. It seemed that they were in the Boston penitentiary, awaiting execution. I had no idea what their crime had been or why they were being sent to the chair. Not too long after that, the headlines in my "Extras" said in big bold letters, "Sacco and Vanzetti Die in Electric Chair." I scurried to all my familiar places, screaming out the headline. In an hour I sold 100 papers. I headed for my Sixty-sixth abode. When I got off the train, six uniformed cops were standing guard on the platform, eyeing everyone who came off the trains. Obviously, they would not tolerate me hanging around the station while they stayed alert for "bombers." I got back on the subway and rode uptown. At every station, cops were all over the place. I had to stay on the train and ride it all night. Only a few years later was I to realize the significance of the Sacco and Vanzetti episode.
I ran into a kid around my age. He told me about oyster boats. "If you get down around the coast of Delaware, you can always get a job on an oyster boat," he assured me. That intrigued me to no end. For a week or two I thought about it constantly. With three dollars in my pocket and a little more knowledge of the highways, I set out for the coast of Delaware. Five days later, around six in the evening, while walking the ten miles toward Salisbury, Maryland, I was hit by a fast-rolling oil tank truck and knocked thirty feet off the road. I don't remember being hit, or even seeing the truck. All I heard was, "We got to get him to a hospital. Let's put him in the back." I woke enough up to see a faint view of the rear seat of a sedan. The next I recall was someone saying, "I done all I can for him. The hospital is only two miles toward town." I sank into unconsciousness again.
Now a woman's voice was saying, "We nevah accept anyone in the front door. Take him around back, please." I woke up in the morning, my arm in a cast, my head bandaged. I stayed in that hospital for the next three weeks until my mother and my sister Kate and her husband rode down in a Model T and took me home. I never did see the coast of Delaware and, to this day, have never seen an oyster boat. However, now I considered myself a "traveler." I was growing like a stringbean, tall and skinny. I always told people I was at least eight years older than I really was.
For six stitches in the forehead, a broken arm and a very painful banged-up leg, the court awarded me $1,000. Two hundred and fifty went to the lawyer right off the top.
I was back in school, making up for part of the time lost roaming the countryside. I was doing rather well, too. In two weeks I would be promoted to the fifth grade. But while I was running the scholastic hurdles, the real world, the one at home, was shaking. The stepfather was off in some convalescent home being well-fed and cared for by the government while we were going hungry. My mother went to the school principal. After an hour's discussion, a decision was reached. I would be allowed to leave school to go to work after I graduated into fifth grade on one condition: I would attend night school. I had little to do with the decision making. My mother agreed to everything. I was handed "working papers." This certified to all concerned, especially potential employers, that I had special permission from school to drop out and work, a decision the school made in exceptional cases. To me it was a welcome relief. I wasn't crazy about school. School was for kids. Work: now that was something to look forward to. It put you among men.
With working papers in hand and a list of want ads clipped from the local papers, off I went with two pieces of bread smeared with oleo and salt. For every ad I answered, it turned out there were three or four kids standing in line ahead of me. I had covered twenty-five ads and must have walked ten miles uptown, downtown and across town. I was slowly making my way home at about 3:30 when someone pinned up a sign outside a building: "Boy Wanted. Apply Room 404." In a flash I was in Room 404. Someone said, "It's a job doing odds and ends. Be here at eight tomorrow morning, ready for work." I dashed home and shouted the good news. Sauerkraut, neck bones and boiled potatoes that night for supper tasted good. I complained to my mother that the job was way across town. How about dough for fare?
"Go around to the church and ask to see Father O'Rourke. Tell him you have a job and need carfare. You'll give it back when you get paid. Fifty cents should do it."
A knock on the rectory door brought a pudgy priest to the door. He was picking his teeth. "Yes? What do you want?" he asked roughly, eyeing me closely. For some reason I became embarrassed at that moment about the decrepit coat I was wearing. Self-consciously, I reached for the collar and drew it closer around the back of my neck. I hesitated. "Yes? What do you want?" he asked again, more roughly now. "Are you deaf?"
"I want to see Father O'Rourke about getting 50 cents," I answered.
His eyes bulged a bit. A scowl appeared on his face. "Get away from here," he said, starting to close the door.
"Wait a minute," I shouted, "I came here to see Father O'Rourke about getting some money for . . ."
He cut me off. "Stay away from here, bum." He slammed the door.
That was all I needed. My mother was at the sink washing dishes. "Did you get the money for carfare?" she wanted to know.
"No," I told her. "He called me a bum and slammed the door in my face."
"Who called you a bum?"
"Some priest who answered the door."
She put on a coat, not even stopping to remove her apron, and rushed out the door, with me right behind her. I stepped back a foot or two and waited while she pounded on the rectory door. The light went on in the small alcove. As the door slowly opened, my mother was lashing away. "Who called my son a bum?" she hollered to the same priest who, only a few minutes earlier, had been assailing me. He looked astonished. She didn't give him a chance to say anything. "You fat-bellied slob! Who are you to call my son a bum?"
The priest raised his hands to his face as if expecting a blow from my mother. She kept talking, her voice rising. She criticized his occupation, the way he lived without working, his height, his weight, the way he dressed, his contempt for poor people, especially the Irish. She wondered loudly why he didn't go back to Italy or Spain or wherever he came from. In fact, she raised so much hell that two more priests came to the door. They tried to calm her. Failing that, one went off and brought the top man to the door: Father O'Rourke. He recognized Mother immediately. He raised his hand and my mother stopped talking. The other priests left the scene. Father O'Rourke led us into his office. In a deep Irish brogue that made Mother feel at home at once, he apologized for his underlings' crude manners.
Father O'Rourke was a big man in the parish. When he spoke, everyone sat up and took notice. After he found out what the shouting was all about, he calmly pulled out a desk drawer, pulled out a small box and took out five one-dollar bills. He handed them to my mother. Quickly, my mother thanked him and apologized for shouting at the priests. Father O'Rourke smiled, gave her the sign of her blessing, then walked us out to the door. He wished me well and told my mother he expected to see her at mass on Sunday. His last comment to her as he closed the door was, "Yes, the Lord does work in mysterious ways." On the way home I was given a lecture on the merits of having more Irish priests and fewer "Eye-talians."
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book One