A forty-five minute ride from the Bronx outback to an Ignatian Eden

The Downtown Local 1943

Of course you can never go home again. I knew that. I never went back to smell the lilacs that bloomed, and perhaps still do, about the Bronx school and convent of Our Lady of the Assumption on Country Club Road, or even to contemplate the ivy that surely still runs round the lead-mullioned windows of the Graduate College of Princeton University. But it’s difficult to resist when you’re invited, and so in 1966 I got on the Lexington Avenue local and did go back, this time uptown, to Regis High School to judge a Greek exercise and possibly, though not very likely, persuade one or two of those nice bright boys to foreswear Harvard or Yale and seek matriculation at New York University. Both the school, my school, and the nice boys who went there looked much the same as they had in September, 1941, when I made my own trembling entrance. They were, I could see, still very polite and a trifle pale from too much study and too many hours spent in their sunless concrete courtyard.

Regis High School has an elegant classical facade on 84th Street, facing the equally elegant baroque of the Church of Saint Ignatius Loyola across the street and looks down upon all the elegant blond girls filing into Saint Lawrence Academy next door. There are no facades, and no girls, on the 85th Street side of Regis High School, only a dark tunnel through which the cream of New York Catholic boyhood slouched in to get themselves whipped into something remotely resembling a manly froth. The Jesuit faculty came in from Saint Ignatius’ through the 84th Street entry, joking a little on the way with the Saint Lawrence girls, than ambled amiably across the marble lobby and mounted the marble stairs at the front of the building. Their charges meanwhile emerged from the tunnel, squinted up at the distant patch of sky above the atrium courtyard and pushed and jostled their way up the dark slate staircases at the rear, freshmen all the way to the top floor, sophomores and juniors on four, the happy and far less numerous seniors on three.

The Jesuit system is unabashedly based on privilege and its denial, and Regis was and is its most finely calculated and most successful example. The students were all there on privilege, a privilege costing them nothing and won by completive exam. The privilege, once bestowed, was then constantly threatened with withdrawal. A lapse below 75 in any subject meant instant probation; a lapse in two, summary dismissal. Gone. The brave among those discharged wretches picked up the shattered pieces of their lives and begged admittance to Xavier or Fordham Prep or some other Jesuit high school where one could shamefully buy oneself a place by paying tuition; the desperate disappeared into the flailing arms and ravening jaws of the Christian Brothers at All Hallows or Saint Anne’s or, God help us, La Salle. Regis alumni still suffer a little frisson, I am sure, when they open the sports pages of the New York Times and their eye chances to light on an obscure high school box score and the name “La Salle Academy”.

Or so it was supposed, since the losers in that all-win Regis universe were banned from human intercourse as totally as if they had been excommunicated or assassinated. No one ever dropped back and told us what All Hallows was like. The survivors, on the other hand, though annually diminished in number, waxed fat, as survivors will, in wisdom and age and grace, and by their senior year they were even permitted access to those gleaming marble stairs, though not to the facade entrance and never ever to the Saint Lawrence girls across the street. When Socrates had his shackles removed in prison, he rubbed his hairless leg and remarked how marvelously like pleasure was to pain. There was a lot of leg-rubbing at Regis high School between freshman and senior year, and yes, the pain was much like pleasure.

The pain came first, as it inevitably must. The Jesuits, embarrassed at being anticipated by the Dominicans in the invention of the Inquisition, riposted by devising the half-sheet, which, like its older and better known counterpart, was administered to those of the faithful suspected of temerarious theology or faulty syntax. Like all works of genius, it was a simple contrivance, a sheet or ordinary lined notepaper torn neatly –“neatly, Maloney!”– in half, and on one half was indited each day at the beginning of every class the principal parts of parco or the pluperfect subjunctive of faire or whatever other piece of obscure or troublesome information was demanded by Mr. Torquemada, S.J. or old Father Sacher-Masoch, S.J., fresh in from the Austrian province on the Society of Jesus. “Time’s up. Pass to the front of the room.” In that fashion the young scholars learned not only the principal parts of parco but the rapid and careful calculation of just how many of those fatal half-sheets one could blow before descending below the ominous grade of 75 and a future at Power Memorial High School.

The Jesuits made their students produce, daily, weekly, monthly, and on command. Each weekend the future university professor propped a copy of Father Donnelly’s English Composition in front of him on the dining room table and wrote charming paragraphs on the Council of Trent or the Second Punic War in the style of Robert Louis Stevenson or John Cardinal Newman. And at lunch hour I and my peers assembled on our own time in the school cafeteria and continued the exercise by composing charming if scurrilous passages on the Jesuit faculty in the manner of James Joyce. The Jesuits made us what we were, voluble, ironical, sarcastic wise-mouths; masters of the one-liner, the five paragraph tale, the epic harangue; clever sophists, charming cavilers. Much like the Jesuits themselves, in fact.

It was a long way on the Lexington Avenue local from Pelham Bay in the land’s end of the Bronx to Park Avenue and 85th Street in Manhattan. At first I carried the Bronx downtown with me, like a moral lunch-box stuffed with fears and values. But the Bronx, like a cheap wine, did not travel well, and so I soon left it where it was and nourished myself exclusively, I thought, on a Regis diet. Rich stuff it was too, concocted by Jesuit master chefs for palates that only yesterday had been feeding on pap. It was exhilarating in a way no high school was ever intended to be and few probably are. I rushed into that dark tunnel every morning and had to be dragged out through it every evening when the last Jesuit was turning out the lights. And when we were forced to leave, we retreated to a cafeteria on the corner of 86th Street and Lexington and played the whole thing over again. If the Jesuits had asked me to leave Regis, I would not have gone to Fordham Prep; I would simply have killed myself.

Regis High School was not an athletic powerhouse, to be as kind as possible on the subject, and so the Jesuits dispensed their stroking not to the high and the mighty but to the lithe and the literary, virtuosos who could dive five storeys into a limp epigram or lift their own weight in sophistries. Their ideal was neither an adolescent William F. Buckley, who probably could not have taken the heavy body-punching, nor a young Jimmy Breslin –crude, All Hallows material, obviously– but a vigorous Catholic Norman Mailer, a little slapdash perhaps, our Norman, but obviously too bright for his own good and with a mischievous bravado that the Fathers would have savored after hours in the privacy of their own residence. And the Robert Louis Stevenson wouldn’t have done him a lot of harm either.

Little Norman’s Mailer’s preoccupation with sex might have made his putative Jesuit mentors a trifle nervous perhaps, but they could have handled it. All of us young scholars were preoccupied with sex, it seems likely, or rather with its carriers, both foreign and domestic. My old familiars, the subliminally sexy Sister Gabriel and the local Pelham Bay belles, still showed up for Sunday Mass at Our Lady of the Assumption and then vanished from sight on weekdays, my wimpled Dominican tutor to her latest recruits in arm-wrestling, the Assumption girls without regret or pursuit to their own new places of learning. Their replacements, who had the advantage of not bearing the stigma of eight years of contemptuous grade school familiarity, I began to glimpse standing distractedly on subway platforms, or clinging closely together for comfort and safety in movie houses, or hurrying across Fifth Avenue to the Metropolitan Museum. Some of the bolder among them even ventured into Regis High School for some pious project that very imperfectly cloaked  a mating ritual. No danger there: the Jesuit Scholastics protected the visitors’ maidenly chastity by simply charming them away from the loutishly baying predators among the Regis student body. Somewhat like benevolent older brothers, those young Jesuits, filled only with chaste regard. Really.

There was a Spiritual Father at Regis who taught religion—no one had yet thought to call it “theology”—to the seniors  and who heard the students’ confessions, if they chose, not in the medieval whisper-it-into-my-ear-through-a-screen-darkly mode favored in church, but man-to-man, across a desk in his office. It was like a therapist’s dream, a session of somewhat studied free association by the patient, which ended each time with a guaranteed efficacious absolution. It was also a student’s dream: it could be done during class hours. And so whatever the difficulties of face-to-face encounters over the delicate terrain of sin, they had to be balanced against the more lethal penalties attached to not having prepared that day’s Latin assignment. I enjoyed those confessional sit-downs. They seemed somehow very adult, and more, the Reverend Thomas Burke, S.J. seemed to be suggesting, if I had it right, that when it came to that astute moral theologian who was my mother, I was likely more sinned against than sinning.

The trouble was, I never quite believed Thomas Burke, S.J.  Regis was a large and liberating experience, but it was surrounded by a system that was set as deeply in concrete as our lunch-hour courtyard and that no amount of deskside palaver could dislodge or even crack. Nor was it likely intended to. Tom Burke was certainly not preaching libertinism, much less immorality; he was probably attempting nothing more dramatic than trying to bang some perspective into our fanatic heads. But the times were as fanatic as I, and Mother Church and her surrogates, who taught me all I knew, still managed to cry louder than Tom Burke. Peace, Burke said. Didn’t I know there was a war on, the others shouted in response.

What was it, I sometimes wondered later, with “war babies,” those hopeful embryos planted in wartime but obviously intended to reap the fruits of the peace to follow? I was of what appeared to me at least the far more problematic generation of “war adolescents.” Never mind the condition of the world when I was born; what counted was that my adolescent consciousness woke to bombs that would never fall on me, devotion to a cause, heroism in a combat as deadly as any faced by a GI. As I thoughtfully turned the pages of newspapers in 1938, 1939, 1940, 1941, the entire universe seemed at war: Spaniards against Spaniards in Spain; Italians and God only knew who in Ethiopia; the Chinese and Japanese at some place called the Marco Polo Bridge; and then the British, French, Poles, Greeks, Russians and Germans across the face of Europe; and, of course, I and my beleaguered contemporaries in the Bronx. Overseas the combat was physical; at home the warfare of adolescence was relentlessly moral, but no less fierce or bloody for that.

It was on the home front that I learned about the moral ambiguity of war. The battle lines of that other, distant conflict against the Nazis and the Japs were drawn with Manichean clarity; one could weep untroubled tears for the fall of remote Warsaw or Singapore, cheer Midway or Stalingrad without qualm. But the adolescent’s battle against sex, which is what Catholic morality inevitably seemed to come down to, was fought on a very darkling plain in the most impenetrable version of the fog of war. The Pelham Bay front was filled with double agents who fought the good fight in confessional and retreat and then rushed over to the Evil One’s lines to offer their surrender. How to weep for one’s own fall when it was so relentlessly, if remorsefully, pursued? All of us young braves who trekked in early every Friday morning for Mass at Regis High School allowed ourselves to be measured for a virtue as thick as three-inch armor plate and then, the fitting done, we dashed forth to throw ourselves on the nearest sexual bomb.

Not that there were many such lethal weapons around. No one of us ever suffered the Million Dollar Wound, as even we suspected. There were doubtless a great many self-inflicted flesh wounds in that combat, dutifully recorded on the chaplains’ casualty lists in dark confessionals in the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island, and there was bold and continuous hand-to-hand combat in blacked-out parlors and hallways and movie houses of the Catholic Outer Boroughs. But recusant squeals echoed like air raid sirens and rayon dresses crackled like radar at the first approach of sweaty palms, and as the defenses of the Home Counties tightened, more bombs were dropped harmlessly on the warriors’ own bed sheets than on those highly speculative targets at the Dominican Academy and Cathedral High School for Girls. Talk about faulty intelligence.

The parish of Our Lady of the Assumption was like basic training, a warm-up contest before live ammunition was issued in high school. I almost made it in basic, but that blitzkrieg assault on the camp of Sister Generalissimo Gabriel proved to be a poor preparation for the war of attrition that followed. Three months into St. John Francis Regis High School and both sides had settled into the trenches to fight it out to the end in the Great Catholic War of the Sexes, one side busily inventing levers, wrenches, pulleys and winches to pry apart those firmly bolted knees, the other loudly vowing death before dishonor. Didn’t I know there was a war on, my mother often asked –the Second World War was in progress for no more than five minutes before she had fully integrated it into her moral theology. Yes, I surely knew there was a war on. What I didn’t know was how long it would last and how painful would be the wounds.

I suffered my first wound very early on, not in the groin, as I had fervently expected, but in an organ I never till then suspected that I possessed, the heart. The enemy’s name was Rosemary Maloney, and on a summer afternoon in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York she took one perfect arrow from her quiver, put it carelessly in her bow, and shot it plumb through the heart of the mail boy. She may not even have been aiming, just taking some target practice, but she killed me nonetheless. Even a lioness saunters over to her kill and at least sniffs the carcass. I had to crawl to her, however, cruel Amazon, to hang out around her desk in Foreign Exchange, to bleed on her precious transfer forms and inter-office envelopes. I learned to talk through a permanently constricted windpipe and gaze soulfully at my slayer through eyes swollen all but shut with passion. After a while, a century or so by my eccentric reckoning, she professed to notice, to smile a faint, non-committal smile at the youth expiring in his own sweat at her in-box.

It was only a summer job for me and so she and I parted in September. Or rather, I parted, to begin my senior year at Regis High School. But not before that fatal connection. By September I had managed to snare some small part or her attention. Unasked, I blurted out my life, from immaculate conception to passionate present. Yes, I was returning to school, to my first year in college, as a matter of fact.

It was not a slip of the tongue; it was a deeply calculated lie. I knew she was no longer in school –she really worked in that bank– and I unerringly concluded that she was older than I. And despite the lessons I had received at the knee and thigh of the good Sister Gabriel, those twelve months difference between Rosemary Maloney and myself seemed the equivalent of miscegenation, an impeding impediment to our relationship as enormous and forbidding as the first degree of consanguinity. So I simply lied a year onto my age.

Not so simply after all. With a flick of my forked tongue, the future Jesuit prematurely promoted himself from high school into college, and since there really did seem to be a war on, as my mother insisted, I also promoted myself into the draft. What was I doing in college when all those other fine young men were marching off to the service of their country? You’re not 4F, are you, you miserable thing? Deformed? Perverted? A coward? Certainly not! You see, you villainous freckled ball-buster, I’m in a special officers’ training program at Manhattan College.

It was not merely a lie; it was an entire life cut not from whole cloth but from recruitment posters, conversations I overheard on the subway, and the movie careers of Dane Clark and Dennis Morgan. For as long as I knew her, I could never tell Rosemary Maloney what I was really doing and had constantly to explain why I wasn’t doing what I might supposed to be. Growing older is never graceful perhaps; I never realized that it could also be exhausting.

Since I could no longer stare at Miss Maloney across the pillared halls of the Federal Reserve Bank, I took to writing her long and hopefully seductive letters sprinkled with realistic details of a life in a college whose very whereabouts I did not know. She replied occasionally and told me about Jim Rice, a fellow mail boy who was drafted into the navy (he said), who was gloriously serving the nation in Olathe, Kansas, and who had time enough left over to write to her every day. Alarmed, I called her at work and she put me on hold while the urgent business of Foreign Exchange went forward. Didn’t I know there was a war on?

Finally we had our first date. I had saved my daily high school lunch money for two months, and so when I met her on the corner of Liberty Street and Maiden Lane, I had enough change in my swollen pocket to wine and dine the entire Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve Bank. I was attired in what I imagined a college man might wear, a plaid suit, and she was wearing a pleated navy blue skirt and a white blouse cut like a sailor’s. I melted at the sight of her, and when Rosemary smiled her sweet smile I almost dismissed the ugly thought that there might be some connection between her outfit and that patriotic scribbler in Kansas. I took her tentatively by the arm and led her to dinner at Toffinetti’s –she said the food was cold– and then at her offhandedly cruel suggestion we went to the Paramount and sat, untouching, through “Anchors Aweigh”.

She was not only cruel; she was outlandish: my beloved lived in Brooklyn. I knew that from the beginning, but, like Manhattan College, I had no idea where it actually lay. And on the subway out to that remote and mysterious fastness, I had the sudden chilling thought that my reputed college might possibly lie, despite its name, in Brooklyn. Maybe next to where she lived! The reality was even more stunning, however: Rosemary Maloney lived alone! All girls lived with their parents; by an act of God and nature, Rosemary no longer had parents. She lived alone! The Book of Life was about to open and who knew what golden lines might be inscribed therein.

Very early on the next Monday morning I was enshrined as the Hero of the Senior Class of Regis High School. I had a girlfriend who lived alone! No one, not even the most pathological boaster, would have floated that story on speculation. It was titillating enough that I was dating an older woman; that alone would have guaranteed beatification, after a manner of speaking, and my portrait hung in the halls. But an apartment without parents, that fell just short of defying belief, just short because it was such a perfect fulfillment of all our adolescent fantasies.

High school was filled with talk, much of it sexual and all of it, in that day and that place, the most transparent fiction. There was a desperate will and need to believe that we were all playing in a high-scoring game, Us 123, Them 0, but we all understood with perfect clarity that the opposing teams in the Sex Bowl were locked in what was, and promised to be well into overtime, a scoreless tie. The reasons were grossly theological, but even if that formidable hurdle could have been cleared, there was simply no place for the eager athletes to lose their virginity. No one owned a car or even had access to one, and there were no convenient hay-mows, chicken coops or corn cribs where an urban Lon McCallister might work his will on a smiling Jeanne Crain. We tried to imperil our eternal salvation when and where we could, which was usually in the balcony of the Brooklyn Fox or Loew’s Paradise. But not me. God in His mercy had given me not only a perfect Occasion of Sin but even a suite in which to conduct the whole deliciously sordid affair. Rosemary Maloney would have to, in a phrase that rushed around the halls of Regis High School like a cyclone, put out.

So I had, perhaps, little choice but to defame your perfect chastity, Miss Maloney, at least by implication. I never told my perspiring audience the terrible truth that in a year of courtship, of months of sinuous petition, of rhetorical gambits unknown even to Aristotle and Longinus, never once did I so much as set foot across the forbidden portal of Apartment 2H on Eighth Street and Fourth Avenue in the borough of Brooklyn. The two lovers grappled only in the dark and silent tiled hallway outside her door. I twisted and writhed and pressed, and Rosemary, because she was so kind and compassionate, or perhaps because she feared mayhem, stood there for a precisely clocked quarter of an hour before she dismissed her admirer to the subway and home.

Neither one of us had the slightest notion of what we were about, it seems certain. It was foxes and hounds from the start, a kind of grisly chase where the Bronx hound caught the scent and was off and panting, and the Brooklyn fox, when she heard the baying, said to herself “Here we go again” and dove into the woods. I pursued and she evaded out of the purest instinct, uncontaminated by anything remotely resembling principle. And once it started, the headlong pursuit and the evasive flight, I didn’t have the wit or the courage to leave off, nor she, alas, to yield.

Surely it must have been easier to be chaste when you had geography on your side. Rosemary knew that sooner or later I would have to face up to the fact that it was two hours by subway from her Brooklyn wilderness to that Bronx outback where I lived. And that was after we finished our public revels and I had brought her home. But I needed those two hours; it took at least that long to convert my anger and frustration into a false memory of a fragrant evening. And then I had all day Sunday to distill that lousy wrestling match into an orgy so vivid as to be almost indescribable to all those True Believers who collected on Monday morning at 85th and Park to carry me shoulder high through the tunnel into Regis.

I could never produce the fabled Rosemary Maloney in the flesh, of course. Even my accumulated lunch money would not have covered the cost of renting Manhattan College for the day and transporting the students and faculty of Regis to its campus, wherever it was. Her absence merely enhanced the wonder, however. And she showed no great interest in my carefully constructed college career, or in me, for that matter. I was not even sure she liked me. I stood before her like some highly inflamed Saint Joseph, and she, like her more famous predecessor, professed not to notice that I loved her.

Well, not exactly loved. I was inflamed alright, infatuated in that wondrous way that only adolescents are simple-minded enough to bring off. But Rosemary’s place in these proceedings is historical, not romantic. After seventeen years of standing ovations, of getting exactly what I demanded for my comfort and consolation, that careless colleen with the careful hair was elected by fate to say “No!”, to slip me my very first rotten Macintosh from the Tree of Aye and Nay. I was deprived of my innocence not in the public baths or between the thighs of an Austrian governess with braided pubic hair but by being held at arm’s length in a Brooklyn hallway by a girl with freckles on her nose who didn’t think to ask what I wanted but who denied it anyway. I was astonished, really.

Unlike the patient Saint Joseph, I did not pocket my rejection slip with patient good humor and return to the adze and the awl. How Rosemary solaced her apparent celibacy, I didn’t know and quickly ceased to care. But I took every conceivable measure to end mine, or at least to put a serious dent in it. If she didn’t want to put out, I swore I’d find someone who did. There had to be thousands of girls out there who were ready to help, I thought.

What was I up to, that young man on the threshold of a life of absolute dedication to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and to his Blessed Mother, a/k/a Our Lady of the Assumption, and who was still sniffing around the hindquarters of other blessed virgins? I never asked myself that question at the time, that I do recall, and for the rest, all the witnesses are dispersed and the evidence destroyed, all save one piece. It would not stand up in court, even an ecclesiastical one, I know, because the defendant was decidedly a minor when the incriminating photograph was taken. But it is, let us say, interestingly circumstantial.

I was about fourteen or fifteen at the time, and I still remember the occasion of the photo. Father Flattery wanted to commemorate his acolytes of the sanctuary, and so one sunny Saturday afternoon in mid-summer all of us of that Sacred Band, Jimmy O’Donnell, Tommy Baker, Harry Cornish and Joe May, put on our red cassocks, white surplices, high starched collars with large, red-ribbon bows, and even a small red shoulder cape and red sash with gold fringe reserved for Very Special Events like Midnight Mass, Easter and Confirmations, went out and stood on the lawn next to the rectory and had our pictures taken one by one.

I just recently rediscovered mine in the apartment in the Bronx where such treasures are stored up against rust and the thieving moth. It’s a full-length portrait, from the Bronx-Romanesque rectory porch behind my neatly combed head down to the slightly unkempt carpet of Catholic grass under my white shoes. I am not relaxed. My arms hang somewhat tensely at my sides, already too long for that boy’s cassock. There is no expression on my face; I am returning the camera’s stare with the adolescent’s careful, non-committal mask. They will be getting nothing from me.

No, the camera is getting something from me. I can see it from close in, and perhaps because I am still inside that child man: there is a small smile playing around the corners of my lips. It is microscopic but unmistakable, concealed by not quite concealing. I stare into my own dark eyes. There is something there too, something, but even now, with all my exegetical advantages, I cannot make out what.

What was I up to? Nothing, I would now guess, absolutely nothing. Just a perfect young man with a voracious appetite softly, if imperfectly, concealed in repose. And with what he mistakenly thought was unlimited credit in heaven and on earth.

 

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