Sunday, June 10, 2007

St. Anne's

It has been said that you cannot go home again and nothing underscores that point more than when your childhood home is up for sale.

I am driving from New York to my home in Western Mass with my mother and she unloads two bits of information that disturb me: one, that Rudy Guiliani graduated from the same catholic grammar school as I did, and the other, that she was putting her house, our house, my house – the one I grew up in – up for sale.

The Guiliani fact depresses me. I admit this. He went to the same catholic grammar school as I did. His conscience was formed by the same priests and nuns as mine was. His formative years were influenced by many of the same factors as mine were; he walked the same halls, prayed the same prayers, received communion at the same rail as I did. Guiliani is older than I am and older than my brothers and sisters, so none of us remembers him or his family in our school. My mother tells me this, I surmise, so that I can partake of his celebrity post hoc. Despite being depressed by this fact though, it really doesn’t surprise me.

St. Anne’s School was a fairly large catholic grammar school in the heart of Garden City, Long Island. It was pretty well off folks who sent their kids there, mostly stock brokers and other Wall Street types; folks who thought life was pretty sweet, I’m sure, commuting on the LIRR each day, folks who thought they had it made, even those who worked at the World Trade Center years before its collapse.

We were from the other side of the tracks – literally – Garden City South, much more working class. You might even call us a sort of urban white trash if that term had been in vogue back then. Oh, it was not Compton or Cabrini Green to be sure, but everything is relative.

I say the fact that St. Anne’s produced a Rudy Guiliani doesn’t surprise me because most of the kids there wanted for nothing except maybe a conscience and a little humanity. I know this is a skewed perspective, decades after the events, but I went to school there as a complete outsider with few friends, thinking all the time that I was never cool enough for the cliques that always formed like mold at schools everywhere throughout this land. I was idiosyncratic, nebbish and quiet in ways that separated me, and it always seemed like I was the misshapen one. Turns out I wasn’t.

Some memories were formative.

Like when David Hughes and Tim O’Brien stopped me in the boys bathroom and wanted to see my baseball cards that I always carried around in my shirt pocket. Tim reached over to grab the cards and I slapped his hand away to stop him.

“Oh, smart guy, eh?” was the last thing I heard before he slammed my head into the cold hard tile of the boys bathroom. (In my memories, everyone talks like a 1930’s mobster!) I slumped like a sack of potatoes, saw stars and I believe I saw Jesus Christ holding a 1968 Gil Hodges baseball card in his glowing white hand.

In short, I did nothing. I rubbed the back of my head where a lump was rising to newfound glory. I got up, and never once spoke about it. I’d like to say this is where my path to non-violence began, but the truth is, I folded like a cheap bridge chair. I was afraid.

“Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence,” Gandhi wrote. Where was that bit of catholic social teaching when I needed it?So it doesn’t surprise me at all that St. Anne’s would produce a man like Rudy. What DOES surprise me is how they produced someone like me.

Rudy’s legacy will be his walking around New York City with a mask and a bullhorn after 9/11 promulgating the myth that redemptive violence is the answer to all that loss. Rudy seems to have learned nothing at all from St. Anne’s about the gospel whereas my outsider experiences there are exactly what the gospel message is about. I just find this funny.

Few experiences cause a personal seismic shift of your worldview. Having or losing a baby is one. Losing your last, remaining parent is another. Having your childhood home sold is another.

As I stood outside the house, I remember my seven other brothers and sisters growing up here. I remember climbing up to the roof to gaze at stars or play my guitar long before the James Taylor song. I remember jumping out of the second story window of my room, or climbing over the flat tarred roof of my sister’s room, to sneak out.

Our basement was semi-finished. I say semi-finished because in 6th grade two of my friends, my brother and I got it into our heads to have hamsters. We pooled our money together and walked down to Gardner’s Village near the Island Garden where the Nets used to play. They sold hamsters in addition to plants and other gardening supplies. We built cages out of scrap wood and chicken wire.

Now here is where a catholic education is severely deficient: four hamsters and not one of us had considered for a moment the sexes of any of these rodents; rodents whose prolific fecundity is unparalleled in nature; rodents whose gestational periods are measured in hours rather than months.

Why would we need to wonder where babies came from? We were trying to care for hamsters. Now you would think there is an outside chance the store worker might have grabbed four males, or four females. Instead, he grabbed three females and one very happy, very sated male. (The male lived quite a long life for a hamster which adds to the anecdotal evidence about the relationship of the amount of sex one has and longevity, but I digress.)

So of course we had dozens and dozens and dozens of hamsters. Litter after litter they came, little jelly bean wrigglers. “Oh look,” I can still recall hearing my own prepubescent rusty voice squealing, “the mama had babies.” Only to be replaced with, “Aw, look, the mama is kissing the babies,” finally to be replaced with the horrific “Oh, look the mama is EATING the babies!”

Yes, we learned the “dog eat dog” ways of nature through the squeezed views of chicken wire. We learned more about hamster breeding than we ever wanted to know. We tried to sell the progeny back to Gardner’s Village, but they wouldn’t give us money, they would only pay us in hamster food. Good thing too.

Soon we could not build cages fast enough, and they started escaping daily, ending up behind the wood paneled walls of this semi-finished basement. We were an ingenious group of kids, so we started removing the panels from the two by four studs. We put the panels on makeshift hinges so we could easily remove the walls at a moment’s notice without tools, or any loud banging so we could look for the fugitive rodent.

My parents only had a vague notion of what was happening. Keep in mind that my mother had eight of us to keep track of and my Dad – my poor Dad – worked two jobs to get the money to finish the basement as well as put food on the table. He would come home at 5:30 each night, have dinner, then go off to his second job as a manager at S.Klein’s department store toy department. He worked that job until 11PM when he would come home and watch TV for a couple of hours, dunking his cheap Pathmark Oreo knockoff cookies in his milk before he would go to bed, only to repeat the process the next morning.

The laundry room of the basement held a special sway for me personally. It was here, on the exposed concrete walls that I began scribbling my teenage poetry using chalk and chipped off pieces of gypsum board. The poetry was brooding, dark, enigmatic – all the qualities I believed good poetry should be back then. There were philosophical puzzles, rants, keen observations about the inner workings of a depressed teenage mind. Writing these thoughts on the walls expunged them from me, but more importantly, it made them permanent. I believed I would be immortalized on this concrete wall the way publishing makes real writers immortal. So long as this house stood, I thought, I would stand.

And as I looked at the house now on this spring day, I still think this is true. The move for my mother is completely practical: she will be closer to my siblings who now live further out on Long Island. She will walk away with some cash out of the deal, moving into a smaller house, with everything on one floor, important for a woman who is getting older and having a harder time walking. She knows this is going to be a hard thing to do: to untangle fifty years of living, to remove the memories of raising eight children. Each of us leaves a bit of us wherever we go. It is what humans do. So yeah, it's going to be hard.

My great fear though is that the next owner will tear the house down and my memories will no longer have a substrate on which to adhere. My poetry would be rubble, and then, would I cease to ever be permanent? The words in flaky chalk white, the dusty footprints of hundreds of hamsters: all just gone. Soundless. Would they squeeze onto the one hundred by hundred fifty foot lot one of those hideous McMansions that are going up all around this neighborhood? It would be a celebration of the kind of superficial living that those pricks I went to school with at St. Anne’s celebrated.

And that would be more than I could stand.

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