It was already 7:15 am when my mother yelled up “Rise and shine! Rise and shine!” imitating Gertrude Lawrence as Amanda Wingfield in the film version of The Glass Menagerie. I jumped quickly out of the bed almost tipping over my filled-to-the-brim, blue plastic pee pot. I had gotten through the night without wetting the bed again. I gingerly carried the pot down the steep stair case to the bathroom and emptied it into the toilet bowl, only splashing a few yellow drops on the gray linoleum floor tiles, making a Pollack-like design. I grabbed a face cloth and cleaned my face, ears and arms pits; we only bathed once a week on Saturday night. I brushed my teeth with Ipana toothpaste humming “Brusha Brusha Brusha” like Bucky Beaver on the TV commercial, which made foam drip down my chin making me look like a rabid dog – GRRR.
After drinking a big glass of orange juice, wolfing down a big bowl of Rice Krispies topped with a mound of sugar, I ran back upstairs and put on my school uniform of blue pants, crisp white shirt and woolen knit school tie with a big embroidered SHS on it. I began my daily chores. My mother, like Joan Crawford, was obsessive about order and cleanliness – “What if someone was to visit? Make sure you have clean underwear on! What if you are hit by a bus?” - No one ever visited, saw my underwear, and no one I know was ever hit by a bus!
I started by making the upstairs beds, washing and drying the breakfast dishes, vacuuming the living & dining rooms and dusting all the furniture. On Wednesdays I had to take all the doilies off from under the lamps on the end tables – not just dust around them. The hot air heating system always left a white Pompeian coating of gray ash every night. It was almost 8:00am as I ran out to the corner making the school bus just in time.
Wednesday was “released time” day which meant we got out early so the heathen public school kids could come to Sacred Heart School to get religious instruction. Our day always began by standing next to our desks to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to a flag on a wooden dowel hanging precariously over the blackboard, and a saying a short prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. You could tell the time of day by the regimen of the lessons: history, math, geography, art, and religion etc. taught by our very strict sixth grade teacher, Sister Thomas James. Towards the end of the morning we were studying the Baltimore Catechism in preparation for our Confirmations in June. Around 11am I raised my hand to be “excused” to go to the bathroom. The OJ was taking its toll. I often asked to be “excused” since I had a problem holding it in and was often emphatically, sadistically denied since I was the class clown. Sr. Thomas was getting her revenge. As the pressure grew, I began moving my legs back and forth and crossing them to keep it in.
After an in-depth graphic description of how the Indians tortured St. Isaac Jogues by pulling out his finger nails one by one, I raised my hand again and made an urgent plea. “No, Mr. Smarty Pants. You can wait till school is over.” Of course my classmates all laughed at me so I made an ugly face behind Sister’s back which made the class laugh even louder. She spun around and gave me such a glare that I thought she caused the fire house siren to wail out, but it was only the noon siren – 45 minutes to go. Could I last?
We all jumped and sat up straight when our principal Sister Vincent rapped with her gold wedding band on the on the glass pane on our classroom. She called Sr. Thomas James out into the hallway and whispered something to her, both of them standing still like penguins guarding their eggs in an Arctic storm. I could see tears in their eyes – the Pope must be dead, I thought. Sister Thomas closed the door and she slowly turned to us and said “Dear children, I have very sad news, Mario Lanza is dead. He had a heart attack in Rome; he was only 38 years old.” Our whole class made a collective sigh. A few of the girls grabbed their lace handkerchiefs as I pulled out my pocket one. We all knelt down next to our desks and said a prayer for him.
In our Italian parish of Sacred Heart, Mario Lanza was a god, an idol, our hero. He was the most famous tenor in the world, a working class Italian American who made good and became a handsome romantic Hollywood movie star. The nuns all had a crush on him and I had most of his albums. I had a crush on him too ever since my mother had taken me to the Ritz Theatre to see the MGM musical, The Great Caruso. When my parents went out shopping and I was all alone, I would shut off the lights in my bedroom, put on one of his albums, lay on my bed in the dark, and become enveloped in his warm, bell toned voice. I believed he was singing just to me.
Deep in my heart dear, I have a dream of you…
The bell of our church started to peal slowly like it did when there was a funeral and I couldn’t hold it any longer as it slowly ebbed down the sides of my dark navy blue gabardine pants; trying to release it a little bit at time so no one would notice. I kept staring straight ahead, listening intently to every word Sister said when BRRRINGG, the school bell rang. It was finally 12:45pm and we were “released” for the day.
I ran to the Boy’s Room, went to a stall, sat down and poured out a steady stream – WHEW! The left side of my pants leg was soaked right down to the cuff. If my mother found out she would throw a fit and hit me. “It’s your own fault you wet the bed, you’re too lazy to control yourself!” I pulled my pants back up when I realized this was my lucky day. I could take a later bus home from the Polish Parish of St. Francis and hang out in Newburgh for awhile and air out my pants till they dried. Maybe I could get away with it if it didn’t smell so bad. I waited for everyone to leave before I headed over to Broadway, the main street of Newburgh. I would go to the public library to listen to some Mario Lanza records before catching that later bus.
We had just moved from the City, leaving all our relatives and my friends behind. Newburgh was sixty miles north of New York and it was once voted “All American City “with its many tree-lined streets and High Victorian style homes. I was walking bow-legged in time to the funereal tolling bell so the breeze could pass through my pants and dry them out. I often sang when I walked; turning the corner onto Broadway I began to sing one of Mario’s hit songs from the movie, The Student Prince. Actually only Mario’s voice was heard in the film since he had gotten too heavy and unreliable from drink to be in it.
Be my love for no one else can end this yearning;
This need that you and you alone create…
My first stop was Schwartz’s Department Store to see if any new Broadway original cast albums had come out. I already had this season’s Gypsy and The Sound of Music, and I was waiting for my pre-order of Fiorello to come in. I checked out soundtracks but continued empty-handed down the steep wide avenue past South William Street and the Jewish Section. I sauntered along Broadway, window gazing in a lost lonely reverie, singing lustily now.
Just fill my arms, the way you fill my dreams.
The dreams that you inspire with every sweet desire…
I stopped mid-song embarrassed when an elderly Jewish lady came out of a haberdashery shop. I pretended to look at some Ladies lingerie in the shop window. Humming now, I picked up my pace to the Broadway Theatre where the tear jerker, Imitation of Life starring Lana Turner was showing. Who wouldn’t cry at the final scene when the light skinned daughter who passed for white cries out and flings herself on the coffin of her dead colored mother? “I am telling you, it’s my Mama! Please Mama! Mama! I didn’t mean it! Mama, do you hear me? I’m sorry Mama. I killed my mother! I’m sorry Mama! I did love you!”
Feeling hungry I went next door to Texas Wieners and sat at the counter where I ordered a hot dog smothered with sauerkraut and onions and a cherry coke. I spun round and round on the red vinyl covered stool, pressing the crease down my pants with my thumb and forefinger. The hot dogs weren’t as good as at Pete’s up by Sacred Heart but they were pretty tasty when they put their special sauce on. I was trying to squeeze some yellow mustard from a dirty plastic container when an old Negro man came in and sat down next to me. I was so startled; this was the first time I had seen a black man close up. I spun around a bit too quickly and a bright yellow blob of mustard shot on my pants along with a big glob of the Texas Weiner special reddish sauce. I smiled nonchalantly as I reached over and pulled a paper napkin from the metal holder. I only made things worse by smearing the mess into the fabric of my trousers.
The Negro gentleman ordered as he was reading the Newburgh News aloud to himself. “It’s a damn shame, damn shame, so young, only 38,” sharing the news of Mario Lanza’s death with waitress behind the counter who pulled out her white doily handkerchief from her white uniform and dabbed her eyes. “What a voice” I stammered out as the man glanced over and continued reading from the sports page. I gobbled down the frank, gave a quick smile back to the man, and walked out using my schoolbag as camouflage to hide the stain. I glanced back for one more look at him when I banged my nose on the door and made a quick exit.
I bobbed into Sears & Roebuck to check out the new stereos, stuck my nose in the lobby of the Hotel Newburgh where Mrs. Dickey who worked with my father stayed, and loitered in front of the Ritz Theatre where the The Gene Krupa Story was playing. I lingered over the lobby cards that showed Sal Mineo playing the drums. I noticed a few empty storefronts now on Broadway, and since this busy section was sort of deserted, I continued singing.
Be my love and with your kisses set my burning
One kiss is all that I need to seal my fate…
Mount Beacon loomed across the Hudson as I tuned left onto Grand Street, past the YMCA and Irish Parish of St. Patrick’s to Newburgh Free Library. The Library was a Victorian Gingerbread fantasy and the interior looked like the movie set of The Music Man, complete with metal spiral staircase up to the wrap-around-balcony where Professor Harold Hill could have sung “Marion the Librarian.” I threw my jacket and school bag down on the seat next to the turntable to save myself a spot. I looked up the catalogue number for LP of The Student Prince with Mario Lanza and found the disc, put on a pair of headsets, and started to listen. I closed my eyes and in my mind I was a student studying at Heidelberg, as I started to sway my hand and pretend I was hoisting a stein of beer.
Drink! Drink! Drink!
To eyes that are bright as stars when they’re shining on me!
Drink! Drink! Drink!
To lips that are red and sweet as the fruit on the tree!
Miss Smith, the librarian, tapped me on the shoulder, startling me and whispered to stop humming along. The jolt made me kick the base of the record player and it skipped ahead to the famous “Serenade.” Prince Karl with his fellow students sings to his beloved Kathi, under the tavern girl’s window. I discreetly wiped a tear from my eye, just in case anyone saw me. I looked at my Timex and realized I was late for the afternoon bus home. I quickly put the LP carefully back in its sleeve, holding the edges by my fingertips and checked it out and ran out the door. Miss Smith sighed as she stamped the return card with her date stamp, commiserating with me on our tragic loss.
It was a quick walk up the bluff to St. Francis on Benkard Avenue. I barely caught the bus so I had to sit on an aisle seat next to a fat Slavic girl munching like a beaver on pretzel logs. I kept my school bag on my lap to hide the rosy sauerkraut stain which was now redolent of a faint smell of uric acid.
The bus dropped me off on Rte. 94 and I walked with dread the two blocks back to our Cape Cod house. My mother was already home from the factory, preparing dinner when I rushed in. “Hey Ma, don’t be mad but I spilled sauerkraut on my pants so I am gonna put them in the hamper.” I demurely went to the bathroom, pulled off my slacks buried them deep in the hamper under some other dirty clothes, then ran upstairs in my BVD’s to my bedroom. I threw on my dungarees, started to read the liner notes of The Student Prince and flopped on the chenille bedspread, escaping my mother’s wrath. Or so I thought-
“Prince Charles, come down here now! So you think you can fool me, Little Man!”
I was caught. My mother only called me Prince Charles when she was extremely mad at me which was often (Prince Charles was born 4 days before me and she and Queen Elizabeth came to term at the same time). My mother’s outbursts would rise up like a tsunami swift, high and sudden. I bolted down the stairs almost tripping on the last tread and knocking the Pixie off the wall.
“I told you on Wednesdays, you had to take the doilies off when you dusted! Look at this!”
With a flourish she lifted up the lamp and snapped up the doily. There underneath was a perfect palimpsest of the doily outlined by the dust.
“A pig lives better than this!”
“M-M-Mama…”I started to explain to her about Sr. Thomas not letting me be excused but I couldn’t get the words out fast enough.
“Spit it out!”
“Mama, I didn’t mean it! Mama, do you hear me? I’m sorry Mama. I was late for the bus. It won’t happen again, I’m sorry Mama!”
“I say you are sorry, go up to your room and go to bed; no dinner for you, lazy ass.”
With a spring in my step I ran up stairs, shut the sliding vinyl panel door and almost laughed as I jumped on the bed – a bravura performance. – I never stuttered onstage. I got away with the peeing in my pants. I took an imaginary bow in front of the dresser mirror like in the ending of All About Eve. I finished my homework and went back to the liner notes on the LP, thinking about the handsome Edmund Purdom who played the Prince lip-synching to Lanza. Damn I thought, I should have bought the soundtrack to The Gene Krupa Story at Schwartz’s so I could fantasize over Sal Mineo in his big drum solo with the Glen Miller Orchestra, playing “Cherokee” in a wild frenzy. “Do you hear that Ma? They approve!”
I got out a new pair of pants and set out my clothes for the morning. Downstairs dinner was over and the evening was settling in as my parents started to watch TV. The news was filled with the untimely death of Mario Lanza. My brother had fallen asleep next to me when I went over to my little phonograph and put on my copy of The Student Prince. It was dark out now. I moved the player next to my side of the bed and just barely turned up the volume so only I could hear it. In the distance the opening theme music of Wagon Train wafted up from the living room. I put the needle down on Track 6 to listen to Mario Lanza sing the famous “Serenade.”
Over head the moon is beaming
White as blossoms on the bough
Nothing is heard but the song of a bird
Filling all the air with dreaming
The TV was turned off. My mother went to bed downstairs and my father got into his bed next to mine. His eyes told me it was alright to keep the music playing. He gently snored. It was a sad day for me. Mario Lanza had died and I had wet my pants. I started to drift in and out of sleep listening to Mario’s golden voice serenade me.
Could I hear this song forever
Calling to my heart anew, my Darling
While I drift along forever
Lost in a dream of you
I gave a loud burp caused by the afternoon hot dog. My thoughts strayed back to the day; therere was something strange about my walk down Broadway in Newburgh, the “All American City.” It was late now so I gave the matter no more thought. * The house was still. The needle of the record reached the end of the album and it must have been clicking over and over for a long time before I woke up and shut it off but I still heard Mario.
I hear your voice in the wind that stirs the willows
I see your face in the stars that shine above
(Hold me closer, tonight we love)
The willows bending, the stars that shine
The chamber pot was underneath the bed. I strained but there was nothing. I was hungry but instead of sneaking to the kitchen I got back into bed. It was safe up here, downstairs, my pants and my sins were buried in the bathroom hamper. Mario’s voice lingered in my dreams.
The shore lights blending, they’re yours and mine
Drifting along, in my heart there’s a song
And the song in my heart will not fade
Oh, hear my serenade, my moonlight serenade
“Rise and Shine! Rise and Shine!” I didn’t wet the bed that night. I got quickly dressed in my clean pair of pants, white shirt and tie. I skipped the OJ, removed all the doilies, dusted all around them and caught the bus on time. The school day went by fast –
# 63 Is original sin the only kind of sin?
Original sin is not the only kind of sin; there is another kind, called actual sin, which we ourselves commit.
#64 What is actual sin?
Actual sin is any willful thought, desire, word, action, or omission forbidden by the law of God.
On the way home, I gazed out the school bus window; Newburgh looked the same. When I got home I rode my old Schwinn bicycle to the dry cleaners and dropped off the laundry. On the way back, coasting on my bike down a long, long hill, I raised my hands in the air, singing all the way…
Overhead, the moon is beaming
White as blossoms on the bough
Nothing is heard but the song of a bird
Filling all the air with dreaming
Could this beauty last forever?
I would ask for nothing more, believe me
Let this night but live forever
Forever and ever more
(click for video of Serenade)
Newburgh, New York
“In the early 1960s, Newbugh fell into urban squalor and soical unrest like most small American cities. The city’s response to the economic decline was an ambitious urban renewal. The city’s historic waterfront area, an area composed of several square blocks which included numerous historically significant buildings, was completely demolished. A grand complex that was planned for the urban renewal area was never built. To this s day, the blocks which slope down to the river remain open, grassy slopes, offering sweeping views of the Hudson but generating no property taxes for the city. In the early 1960s, city manager Joseph Mitchell and the council attracted nationwide attention and the admiration of political conservatives when they attempted to require welfare recipients to pick up their payments at police headquarters. Mitchell later announced a program aimed largely at blacks on welfare, who many in the community blamed for its economic problems. After opposition by both state and federal officials, the program created a national controversy and never went into effect.”