Growing up in the remote goodlands of the northeast Bronx

Life Lessons 1940

Pelham Bay—it’s sounds a trifle rustic, which it was then and remains still. And the Irish and Italians who lived there enjoyed its mild confusion with Pelham Manor, its more genteel Westchester neighbor to the north. There was nothing particularly genteel about Pelham Bay, except perhaps on a Sunday morning in the years before the Great War, when the Irish faithful of that remote Bronx Eden put on their otherwise unused suits and hats, closed the unlocked doors of their homes behind them, and filed decorously down the tree-lined streets to Mass at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption. They settled quietly in their pews –nobody talked in church in those days—and heard Mass. It was more than the celebration of a Mass, however; Sunday Mass was a celebration of a community, of a culture, of a way of life.

My northeast corner of the Bronx was a closed ethnic enclave, sheltered on one side by Pelham Bay Park and the Sound and on the other by “the swamps”—“Francis, were you playing in the swamps?”—which were later transformed into the far more dangerous Hutchinson River Parkway. The only way out of the reservation was southward on the Lexington IRT. The Lexington Avenue subway had swept up into the East Bronx in the 1920s and carried northward along its line pioneering clots of Jews, Italians and Irish. The Jews got off before 177th St., but here in the more remote northern fastnesses, straight on to the end of the line, the Irish and Italians settled themselves into one and two family houses and in the five and six storey apartment buildings that sprouted up along the new Pelham Bay line. I grew up on the sixth floor of one such Bronx middle-class tower, in a two-bedroom, one bathroom apartment with both a living room and a dining room, which were made into bedrooms as the demographics demanded. There were a lot of people who came and went and used the single bathroom on those premises. Downstairs there was an elevator operator and swanky foyer furnishings in the building’s ‘30s salad days, but over the years they all slowly and quietly disappeared, piece by piece.

The family nucleus was four sisters, my mother and aunt, who had already taken mates, and younger twin sisters, who celebrated their nuptials in an usual  double wedding in Our Lady of the Assumption when I was nine. The wedding was remarkable but the honeymoons were instructive, even for a nine year old. One twin went off on a train to Niagara Falls, the other, I noted, boarded the Queen of Bermuda. She had married well, and when she returned, her apartment boasted the first cornice and valance ever seen in Pelham Bay and a white artificial fireplace where red bulbs flickered flame-like from beneath the pristine birch logs. I was dazzled. We had no such frivolities at the Buhre Arms. We led a sensibly plain and rhythmical life: every Friday evening without fail we sat down to the Irish Catholic seder of filet of flounder, peas and mashed potatoes; the carpet was taken up from the linoleum every Spring and put back every Fall; and their cellophane wrappings stayed on the lampshades for all eternity. The men all had jobs and the women all stayed at home and took care of the children, which was, for a satisfying long period, only me. I grew up totally innocent of sexual abuse, chores and the Great Depression.

Ours was an Irish-Catholic household because the ladies professed that faith, my mother fervently, the others merely devotedly. Their husbands did too, though with no apparent fervor or devotion. They went along without complaint or demur. My father and uncles were not so much cool in their faith as restrained. Or maybe just uninterested.  The restraint, if that’s what it was, was not so much religious as cultural. Piety was not strongly represented in the male DNA, but, more consequentially, the ladies were Irish and the gentlemen were not. It was Irish-Catholicism that the former practiced, and my father and uncles could not and did not share that particular burden.

The Quinlan girls were Irish in a peculiarly American way. They were neither echt Gael straight off the boat nor professional “Aye and he’s a sweet bit of a lad, your Francis” Irish. They had no memories of the Old Country, no known ties to any thatched cottage in Ballyhooly, no painful memories of any Troubles save their own. They were deracinées: Irish in name. affiliation and identity, but lower middle-class Bronx to the bone. We prayed Irish and ate Italian, surely the way God intended it. As for identity,  I stood with the guys. I was not an O’Donnell or a McGowan and so I was some Other; also, I suppose, pure Bronx, minus the ethnic malarkey.

But I too was an Irish-Catholic . I went to the distant Irish-Catholic Our Lady of the Assumption, not the Italian-Catholic St. Theresa’s down the block. I was ministered to by an Irish-Catholic clergy and educated by Irish-Catholic nuns. My Italian friends, Sal and Joey and Nunzio, went to public school where they had field days and assemblies and GO cards but no experience of catechism or novenas or those many religious holidays that pretty much ruled the academic calendar until the Jews discovered Hanukkah and Purim. The Italians made their First Communion and were confirmed but that was pretty much it, liturgically speaking. We young Irish-Catholic pilgrims trekking to Country Club road were lifers. We were given, and took, the whole package: Forty Hours Devotions, Nine First Fridays, the Three Hour Agony.

I witnessed it all close up. Every Sunday for ten years I served, in cassock, surplice, collar and ribbon-bow tie, as an altar boy at the 8:30 Mass, which was reserved for the school children, just as the final, and almost unsavory 12:45 Sunday Mass was intended as a kind of liturgical safety net for their older and more dissolute brothers and sisters. Immediately after the reading of the Gospel I took my modest seat at the side of the sanctuary and observed Father Francis Flattery mount the pulpit and explain to my contemporaries arrayed in rows before him that life was not just a series of larks and japes, as they seemed inclined to think, but a terrible holy war against sin and depravity. His youthful audience seemed to be attending, and so too his acolyte, though the latter more in the manner of a stagehand sitting in the wings than of the genuine paid admissions out front. And like an elephant gun, Father Flattery lost something in translation to profile.

When my interest in Father Flattery flagged—ten years is a very long run for a one-man show—I could look past his shoulder at the large plaster lady dressed in blue and with a halo of gold stars about her head who faced me from the opposite wall of the sanctuary. She had a faint smile on her rouged lips, whether in approval of what she was hearing or at the young altar boy on whom she had fixed her gaze, I could not tell. I occasionally smiled back, just in case. At her feet were inscribed her credentials: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

I sometimes wondered how she could be the Immaculate Conception, but I never bothered Father Flattery with such trifles. I wrote if off as a mystery, a useful category supplied to me by the catechism and which I generously applied to the incredible, the inexplicable and the uninteresting. The Immaculate Conception was in fact deeply uninteresting. Who would care to be born without even the inclination toward those attractive theological felonies that Father Flattery never wearied of denouncing from his pulpit? But the lady’s other claim to fame, her bringing off a Virgin Birth, now that was interesting.

There is presently no parish of the Virgin Birth, not even in the Roman Church, which is fond of splattering things like “Precious Blood” and “Seven Sorrows” across the backs of small boys’ warm-up jackets. A pity, really, since, unlikely as it may seem, there were eight or nine Irish households in just that one Bronx parish where virgin births were occurring with some regularity. Respectfully, it may be that the Church pays far too much attention to sex without procreation, which is no big deal now, and ignores what seems to have been Mary’s special gift to the ladies of her favorite Isle, a cool and bloodless procreation untroubled by either passion or sex. You think not? I have it on my mother’s own testimony, repeated many times under the gravest of oaths, that I myself was the product of such spiritual concourse.

My mother was so stunned and gratified by the miracle worked on her behalf that she never dared try it again; like our Savior, I had no siblings. There was a rather long theological explanation of why that was so, endlessly spun out ex cathedra in our kitchen. My father was excused from that particular lesson, and indeed he seemed to attend my mother’s catecheses hardly at all. He did work nights as a stagehand in various theaters in the city and slept a good part of the day at home, and so I suppose his was an excused absence. He did, however, impart his own silent instruction to his spiritual offspring in the form of early editions of the Daily News and The Mirror which he left on the kitchen table every morning before going to bed.

From the age of ten I gratefully devoured every word of every page of those twin Scriptures. There was matter in those Testaments, theological matter of great profundity. Like an early Christian I began by immersing myself in the Old Testament, the Lindberg kidnapping, the Spanish Civil War, the baseball standings, the psalms of Nick Kenny. But those were the things of a child, as Paul said, and as the Holy Spirit did His work in my loins, I felt the power of the New Covenant. A new leaf turned and I bent with astonishment over texts where Errol Flynn and Charlie Chaplin and the unfortunate Wayne Lonergan defended themselves against multiple and frequent charges of paternity, rape and sexual mayhem. I was new to grace. I was not quite sure what it meant, but I knew it meant something.

I was naturally enrolled in –where else?– the Our Lady of the Assumption Grammar School where I proceeded quietly but observantly through the successive stages of my education. I sat in classes with children named Finbar Murphy  and Crucifixa Fabrizi and regarded the young scholars at public tuition at P.S. 71 as heathens, Italians  and apostates, as surely they were. I got beat up by the bigger and taller Irish bullies at the Assumption, as we called it, for my moral edification and by the bigger and taller Italians at P.S. 71 on general principle. But at some point in their growth both groups graduated and turned to other things and I could turn my attention to their little brothers.

Not only did I faithfully serve the 8:30 Mass every Sunday; I was recruited for acolyte attendance at the Stations of the Cross, endless Benedictions and a very Perpetual Novena to the Miraculous Medal. The Miraculous Medal, which I also wore around me neck, got a lot of play in those quarters because it was given, for reasons never quite clear to me, to St. Dominic, and it was his nuns who shaped the minds and consciences of the children of Our Lady of the Assumption Grammar School. They didn’t do too badly, those ladies. They didn’t much abide slacking off or fooling around, but they had the Baltimore Catechism quite by heart and were no slouches at teaching spelling, arithmetic and penmanship. Some of the more loutish scholars occasionally got a yardstick across their extended palms, but they richly deserved it, most of them, even in the considered opinion of their peers. Tommy Sullivan in fact should probably have been bastinadoed back to his Maker, the little shit.

The meting out of corporal punishment was seemly, as was everything else in that well-ordered universe. I watched its turnings closely and absorbed each new moral lesson with great care. Early on, the race went to the swift and the strong, I noted, but later it was another group altogether, the smart and the fair, who seemed to collect all the laurels. And they were invariably females. The nuns, I could see, invariably favored the girls. And why not, I thought; the girls of the Assumption were cleaner, better mannered and did their homework without fail in a neat, legible hand. Much like the nuns’ own, in fact. Female virtue was clearly part of the moral order, like rainfall, and the sisters rained showers of gold stars on sweet little Theresa Duffy and that hazel-eyed boy-killer Joan Cavanaugh for forty days and forty night, give or take seven years. The rest of us thrashed about in the flood and tried our best to stay afloat.

Catholics don’t much approve of sex education in school. The premise of their displeasure is that such explosive stuff should be handled within the loving bosom of the family and not be imparted in a public classroom by odd ladies and gentlemen with God knows only what wildly immoral beliefs. I have no quarrel with the conclusion, but a glance at the archives reveals that the premise has not been fulfilled even once over the last nineteen hundred-odd years. And there were no odd ladies and no gents at all on the staff of Our Lady of the Assumption, of course, only impeccable nuns, and they were as reluctant to get down to nuts and bolts as our parents were. Which left it squarely up to us to educate ourselves. No wonder some of us were misapprised.

Those were more leisurely times, or else our diets were very different, and so the advanced seminar called “Puberty” was not scheduled until the eighth grade. It may seem like an extravagant waste of time, waiting so long to introduce the young into the mysteries of sex and love and so forth, but it took at least that many years to sort out the other nuances between the sexes and to get firmly cemented into place all the theoretical moral framework before the inevitable moment when Marcella Hennessy, that paradigm of all the then known virtues, burst into spectacular and quite unanticipated sexual bloom.

Marcella and a number of the other broomstick maidens had miraculously sprouted breasts over their twelfth summer, and though I was surrounded by adult breasts all the time, this new variety seemed somehow different in both purport and consequence. I still wonder how children survive adolescence. Imagine discovering at the painful age of thirteen that next to the often praised moral and intellectual virtues, there was another, entirely unsuspected category of good overlooked in both catechism and sermon, the swelling virtues of the body. At thirteen no one had to tell the adolescent male that breasts are the stuff of contemplation. Their virtuous nature is intuited, even by childish philosophers, and the judgment is reinforced by youthful powers of analogy: would Kathleen McCarthy or Joan O’Brien, those prodigiously legible, star-studded virgins of the Assumption, harbor anything filthy or disgusting under the neat blue and white uniforms? Don’t be silly.

Analogy did not extend as far as my pants pocket, however, where I was harboring my own new growth during class hours. Oddly that disturbance of my loins did not occur during football or baseball games or while listening to the radio or doing my homework; but it was unfailingly there in my pocket at the OLA  from catechism at 9 A.M. to the end of geography at 3 P.M. And I had no idea where to stow it. The bulge in my pants seemed huge and obvious, and I suffered a physical dread of being summoned to the blackboard, of wedging myself and it out from under a too-small desk, of carrying it up the aisle masked by a piece of otiose notepaper and then holding it down with an eraser while I did blackboard sums in full view of my amused or horrified classmates.

My grades became enlarged as well. That was gratifying, but it was not an isolated event. As usual, there was new teacher in that new grade, one Sister Gabriel, and it was immediately and electrifyingly apparent that this dimpled Irish nun was the herald of some new moral order. It was no longer those ageless female paradigms of virtue who got her attention but the pariah class of adolescent males. Our mindless pranks, practiced over seven years of school to universally bad reviews, now provoked smiles instead of frowns, applause almost, from our new judge. Soon we were to be found hanging around after class, hungering for further approval and dizzy from this cosmic and unexpected change in our fortunes. She laughed brightly and often at our childish jokes and we bayed and howled at hers. She pushed us and urged us and we responded, in more ways than one.

Somewhere far out in the silent woods, too remote to be visible to our youthful eyes, a collision course was being charted. The vulpine Errol Flynn, who had hitherto existed only in the pages of the Daily News, and the virginal Theresa Duffy, who lived only in the shadow of an Immaculate Conception, were heading inevitably toward each other’s arms.

Like every teacher since Socrates, Sister Gabriel had her special favorites. She preferred the roguishly clever to both the simple rogue, like Eugene Dolan, or the simply clever, like Hugh Carolan. It was as if I, who was too clever by half to seem a rogue and far too roguish to decline into sheer cleverness, had been laid out and constructed to her specifications, and she paused only for as long as was seemly before bestowing patronage and favors on her young protégé.

They were small at first, like bearing an occasional message to the Principal’s office downstairs. Then an urgent trip to the Rectory, which was a half hour away and so carried with it the inestimable bonus of missing catechism and half of algebra class. Then the Big One: I was put in charge of the stationery supply room where, as the dispenser of the material goods of education to the entire school, I became as rare in the classroom as one of those Chinese children on whose absent behalf we were always collecting tinfoil.

From circumstantial evidence I calculated Sister Gabriel’s age at somewhere near thirty-five. She had entered the convent at sixteen, she later told me, fresh from the Ould Sod, had probably had little more than a high school education herself but knew what she taught and taught it marvelously well. It’s difficult to say if she was consciously attracted to the thirteen year old boys she instructed, but they were to her, and she was careless with them. She permitted us familiarities. We, all of us in her charmed circle of favorites, roughhoused with her. We knew what her hands felt like, and her arms and shoulders. There was glancing contact with hip and thigh, all heavily swathed in yards and yards of white ecclesiastical broadcloth, but unmistakably soft, female flesh. We were close enough to feel her hot breathing, and she, I’m sure, ours.

Sister Gabriel’s virtue, and perhaps her vocation as a nun, was saved by her own cunning in arranging that I got a better offer, Regis High School. It was she who encouraged a number of her admirers to go down to Park Avenue and 84th Street on a dull March morning and try our hands at a scholarship examination, which was in fact the only way to gain citizenship in that Jesuit Athens. She had smiled and dimpled and winked us into sitting in her classroom on Saturday mornings and working out algebraic puzzles. She taught us to spell after a fashion, and introduced us to the subtle distinction between the subject and object of a sentence. The Jesuits loved subtle distinctions: they took us all.

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