April 7, 1974   no responses

The summer of 1974 was the start of my Disco years in New York City.

I had just completed my MFA thesis at Brooklyn College and was now on my own. I was staying temporarily with my good friend Dennis who was the set designer for my graduate production. He lived in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn before the lesbians, yuppies, chic shops and million dollar brownstones – the Park Slope of Irish Bars, Chinese Laundries, Food Coops and middle class teen rednecks.

“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”

Dennis was a tall and lanky, very bohemian, sensitive artiste – straight. He was very generous and open to let me room with him in his tiny studio until I figured out my life. We shared a pullout sofa bed in a tenement walkup on Seventh Avenue and First Street, facing a noisy public school yard. It was a platonic relationship even though I wouldn’t have minded a bit of “gee was I drunk” one night since he was handsome Pole with a kielbasa to prove it

“Ah Memories, Light the Corners of My Mind.”

Armed with my recently acquired MFA in directing from Brooklyn College, I was ready to take New York by storm and become a famous Broadway stage director.  For the summer interim however, I received a scholarship to study directing at the Shakespeare Institute in conjunction with the Stratford Theatre Festival in Connecticut.

Lodging and classes were at the University of Connecticut at Bridgeport. Evenings and seminars with the cast were held at the theatre in Stratford.  Bridgeport was an iconic 1960’s urban renewal mess of a city. One side faced the then polluted Long Island Sound, one side faced the PT Barnum Museum, and the other side faced ghetto squalor.

“Livin’ Just Enough for the City”

Loretta

I Discovered Disco and Loretta in the summer of 1974. Loretta was also attending the “institute,” as we mockingly call it to this very day. Loretta was a 22-year-old English Major from the hollers of West Virginia, a girl destined to escape her Mennonite ancestry and blossom into a then unknown Hilary Clinton-like dynamic woman.  She was a demure high school English teacher in the one-stoplight town of Romney who fell in love with New York City and soon fell in love with me. We became the Disco version of Scott and Zelda as we escaped the “institute” every weekend for madcap escapades in the city.

“I Can’t Help It, If I Am Still in Love with You”


Our favorite hangout was The 82 Club in the East Village on E. 4th Street. The pre- “Rent” East Village and The 82 Club were the height of depravity. This hideaway was as close to a cabaret of the Weimer Republic as one can imagine with drag queens, chanteuses, superstars and us.

Like Sally Bowles and Christopher Isherwood we played on Saturday nights at being totally decadent and in love. Early Sundays mornings, we would crash on Dennis’s pull out sofa, all three of us exhausted in drunken abandon. Dennis was usually the first to rise, and he would get up and moan, “I need my coffee” and make us the first cappuccinos we ever tasted. On Sunday night, Loretta and I would sleep in each other’s arms all the way back up to Bridgeport on the local Metro North train, waking up at every stop to chant with the conductor: Stamford!  Darien!  Westport!

“You’re My First, My Last My Everything”

The beat, the drive, the rhythm of Disco turned me into a dancing fool. I never was the teenager who watched Dick Clark’s American Bandstand dancing around the living room or went to the school dance. I don’t remember the exact song or moment it possessed me but suddenly at 26, the music swept over me and took control of me like the ballerina in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Red Shoes or like a manic Sicilian girl with twirling skirts, dancing herself into a trance to the Tarantella trying to ward off the malocchio.

“Rock the Boat Baby”

I bought a portable record player (the boom box of the day,) and became a proselytizer of dance, a young Pan, a Disco Dionysus. I spent money I did not have n 48’s and LPs. I had to have the latest extended DJ version of a song, which you could only buy at a store on Carmine Street in the Village.

I had Disco parties in the UConn cafeteria after our studies or after we retuned late from an evening performance at Stratford. We danced at Club 82, on the beach of the Sound, in the scene shop at Strafford and on the hardwood floors of Dennis’s apartment. Loretta and I even danced to our own inner beat on the empty D train as it crossed Manhattan Bridge high above the East River.

“Dancin” in the Street”

The Disco beat was steady and pulsing. It’s trance like mantra released my inhibitions. It was if I took an elixir and turned me into an impish Puck/Donkey of Midsummer Night’s Dream or a devilish, grinning Mr. Hyde. You didn’t need to know dance steps and the movement was sexy and fluid. You could be dancing with anyone in the swirling crowd around you. I sometimes pretended Dennis was my partner as I danced around an unsuspecting Loretta as we all spun around her “Disco bag” she had recklessly thrown down on the dance floor of Le Jardin, ourr own Arden Forest.

Club 82

“Get Dancin’”

We studied Shakespeare all summer and we all had to present a project for accreditation. In retrospect I must have been unconsciously inspired by my dancing craze and summer love.  I directed a choreographed/acted version of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. The poem was accompanied by the music of Arnold Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night – a very Anthony Tudor/Agnes DeMille dance/drama piece

Venus and Adonis comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid told of how Venus took the beautiful Adonis as her first mortal lover. They were long-time companions, with the goddess hunting alongside her lover. She warns him of the tale of Atalanta and  Hippomenes to dissuade him from hunting dangerous animals, he disregards the warning, and is killed by a boar.

“Must Be the Night Fever”

I also fell “a little bit in love” with the director Michael Kahn, while assisting at Strafford. This was the season of his “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with Elizabeth Ashley, Keir Dullea and Fred Gwynne. He also directed a beautiful production of “Romeo and Juliette” set during the Risorgimento in Italy. I dreamed of becoming Michael’s assistant and protégé and lover. He never did and I never told him.

“If You Love Me, Let Me Know,”

The dancing stopped one night in August. After our cafeteria dinner, as we listened to “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” from Elton John’s new album.  Someone turned the TV on and we froze like figures in a game of “Statues” as we gathered around to hear the rumored news.

“Good evening.

This is the 37th time I have spoken to you from this office, where so many decisions have been made that shaped the history of this Nation. Each time I have done so to discuss with you some matter that I believe affected the national interest. I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as President, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time President and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad.

Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.”

“Shame Shame Shame”

We all listened in silence as President Nixon resigned on Aug. 8, 1974. And the sun did go down over the Long Island Sound.  I can’t say August 8th is the “day the music died.”  Even though it was the last days of the “institute my inner beat and Disco were about to explode.

We danced and danced all though that hot summer nights in Manhattan, Stratford and Bridgeport. Loretta and I became beloved friends and soul mates. A woman I could love without fear or responsibility and expectation – a masquerade, a pas de deux, and shadow play of Romeo of Juliette. How fitting we were studying in the hometown of PT Barnum, appearing in our own Midway Freak Show with acts of curiosity and sideshow romance.

Sam, Barry and me

“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”

Loretta returned to Romney, West Virginia only to move in with me the following year with a her friend Fran. I returned to Park Slope and started to notice an influx of women in overall and flannels. Thirty years later, straight Dennis came out. Timing is all. He now has a lover who looks curiously like me. Ahem.

Garfield Place

“Rock the Boat Baby”

The Disco Years had just begun with nights at Studio 54, Peppermint Lounge and the Sanctuary. The era of liberation and sex was dawning – poppers, pot, polyester shirts, and potluck Disco parties in my first apartment on Garfield Place. I rented it with Dennis’s younger brother, Robert and “gee we did get drunk”.

 I was the “new boy was in town” – not Tony Manero of Saturday Night Fever strutting down 86th Street but Tony Napoli strutting down Broadway like a character in Fame.  I was dancing down the street and catching the night fever, dressed in platform shoes, white tight pants, Nik Nik shirt with gold chain bracelet or Puka Bead necklace and blow-dried styled hair. I was ready to take NYC by storm.

“Stayin’ Alive”

Loretta, Fran and me

 January 28, 1970   no responses

I discovered my diary written in 1970/71. It was retrieved this past summer from a box in my family’s attic. This was a crucial time in my life. I had been in the seminary for five years and was on the verge of taking vows. I was disenchanted and frustrated in using my talents of directing plays for preaching peace and good will. A big decision had to be made. I am sharing this with you. It is a window onto my soul at that time in my “sentimental education”.

Note:

The following entries are eactly as written:

**********************************************

Friday, December 11, 1970 – 5pm

Sometimes I feel so very sad. I don’t know why. Wait – I really do but the thought of it makes me so sad – I seek compassion and so I forget it. I am scared of life. What will happen next year? Standing in the bathroom suddenly I shuddered  – “ I am going to die. Then what?”  At times like these all my wildest dreams seem wild, foolish, no longer pleasurable fantasy but a foolish venture. Where do I go? Do I stay? Do I go? I don’t know.

Saturday, December 12, 1970  – 5:30 pm

The joy of having accomplished something is overpowering. I feel like busting out and singing  – so I put on a record and make believe I’m Leonard Bernstein conducting my bookshelf with a Bic pen.  Yet when one does accomplish something we can feel two ways. We can either be so eager to do more or we can completely relax and not want to do a blessed thing until time forces its accomplishment. Right now I have finished a term paper, listing to some glorious Tchaikovsky and just enjoying every God damn minute of it!

Monday, December 14, 1970 – 7pm

Well, I’ve done it agai! For some unknowable reason (or some hidden reason which I can’t even acknowledge) I circle in like a hawk and tear my prey to shreds. At times I’m funny like Don Rickles but like Don Rickles the insulting goes just a bit too far – and a great deal beyond that. What really hurts me, beside the fact that I am truly sorry for this way of acting towards a person, is the insincerity in which my friends view my apologies.  I really do mean what I say  – not when I’m insulting though! I am truly sorry and I always resolve to keep watch over my tongue. But sometimes I get carried away and I don’t know how to reconcile myself to my friends, especially ones whom I love dearly and should never act it that manner at any time, for any reason.  I am a fool.

Wednesday, January 6, 1971  – 2pm

Funny today is the Epiphany, and I decided to leave the seminary. I’m scared, very scared; not about what I’ve chosen but how to execute the future. I know I want to enter drama, movies or TV. I think TV is a good, solid starting place. I’ll be leaving my friends and that is what scares me. I don’t want to be alone. I want people to love and people to care for me. Am I capable of living alone, out there? Why has God cursed me? If I didn’t have my friend Charley, I don’t know where I would be. At least I can be reasonably sure that I am loved. But can a girl love me, or more to the point, could I love her? I don’t want to be alone!  I have been hiding here for too long!  I know what I want and I must do it.  But oh God, what lies ahead in the darkness. If only I could see!

Wednesday, June 9, 1971 – Noon

Well, it’s been a long time; so much has happened as a matter of fact, a hell of a lot. Why the gap? I think I was so involved with Hadrian VII (a play that I directed as my swan song at the seminary) that nothing else mattered. Now everything matters. I have left the seminary. Actually, factually, I have closed the door on that span of my childhood. I am now a young man who must face up and grow. Everything is happening too very fast – Everything at once. I have left.  I face the world.

I love! Yes a new love, (I had met a man who did makeup on the production I just directed) but now the possibilities are open,. It is no longer a dead end street. At least I now have a chance to love and be loved.  This person is wonderful, beautiful, and plainly fantastic. As always however, I am scared of no response on the others part.

“Being in Love” is only half of my romantic dream.  I have been in love – many times but here is another half – their loving me. All the past loves were petty and flirt. This one, only 1-½ months old, is mature and warm and sincere. It’s just that will the person love me? Can I “win” their love?

Love, Love, Love. How I hate that word.  How I love it. Without it would be banality, with it – storm, exciting spring rain. Pour on me – Pour!   Pour!  Pour!

             *********

Years from now when you talk about this – and you will – be kind. …”

 January 21, 1969   no responses

In January 1969, I was in my second semester as a junior at St. Joseph’s Seminary. Located in Yonkers, Dunwoodie as it was also known, was the university to study at if you wanted to be a priest for the Archdiocese of New York.  It was also known as the West Point of seminaries for its strict rules, classic curriculum and educational regimen.  If you drive across the Cross County Parkway in Westchester from east to west, the castle like turrets spring up over a hill as you approach the Thruway. I used to sing “Camelot!’ as I sped up the hill in my Fiat 500.

I entered the seminary for humanistic reasons more than theological or deistic ones. I was going to change the world and help my fellow mankind – this is in the nascent days of the Vietnam protest and the era of peace and love. I thought I could use my great love of theatre and talent as a director in my ministry – harking back to the days when Mystery Plays were performed to teach the faithful.  In time I discovered that the church did not see this as a viable teaching tool.  I did get to direct plays at the seminary though and produce a children news show on ITV, the station of the Archdiocese.  RCA had donated to St. Joseph’s the color television studio they had at the 1964 World’s Fair.  Maybe the C in RCA stood for Catholic!

For my public speaking class, I prepared a short speech on the poetry of TS Eliot.  The date set for my delivery was January 15, 1969.  There was a movement afoot to make that date a Federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. who had been assassinated the year before. A few miles away in North Tarrytown, 1,500 employees of the Ford Motor Plant were planning to take the day off in protest if their factory did not close in King’s honor.

A few of us seminarians approached the Dean of Discipline to ask if we could suspend classes for the day and commemorate Dr. King with readings and meditations. . A flat NO was the response.  We were very angry at this response but as powerless as the plebes at West Point.

But I had a plan and it would also get me out of having to give a speech, which I was dread to give due to my stuttering. So far my speech impediment was undiscovered but I was fully aware that it was against Canon Law to ordain a priest with this handicap. This sword of Damocles would hang over my head to the very end of my seminary days.

January 15th arrived. I went to class and sat through fellow classmate speeches on the “Influence of St. Helen’s mother-love on her son, Constantine the Emperor”;  “Jesus: the message was the medium” and the “Song and Second Vatican Council.” (which gave us “kumbaya”). The countdown to shame came up to my number.  I walked up the lectern to deliver mine: “The use of time in the poetry of TS Eliot.” I gave the class and my professor a hard stare. I dramatically threw down a copy of my speech to the floor. I said in a very loud voice (this helps in not stuttering) – “I am not giving my speech today in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.!” I walked quietly out of the class. My professor was as speechless as I was.

The next day I was called into the Rector’s office and given a scolding on not conforming and being a radical. As a further example, he pointed out I was wearing brown penny loafers (bought on 8th St. in Greenwich Village) and not the regulation black ones to match my black pants and shirt with Roman collar.  I was silent. I was sent to the chapel to pray and meditate on my transgressions. I went to my room instead and read “Soul on Ice” by black author, Eldridge Cleaver. Meanwhile sixty autoworkers were suspended that day and so was my dream of becoming a priest.

It is a cold and frigid, Monday January 21, 2008 – Martin Luther King Day. I am sitting at my desk at work over looking Times Square, typing this. As I look down at my Allan Edmonds brown penny loafers, I laugh ironically – the Briggs Office is open for business…

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes

 June 18, 1968   no responses

So can you guess I am standing on the parapet of the base of the Statue of Liberty? And did you notice there are no World Trade Towers?  So here I am in 1968. I took my 12-year-old sister on the Short Line Bus from Newburgh, NY for a day trip to NYC.

As you can see we visited the Stature of Liberty in the morning. We had lunch at Tad’s Steak House ($1.99) in Times Square on 50th Street. Or sirloins were followed by a matinee performance of the then racy production of the Broadway musical Cabaret (before the awful “revisionist” Roundabout Production in 1988 – UGH!).  Tickets were $4.95 for good orchestra seats for matinees shows.

After the show we ran to Port Authority to catch the 5 pm bus back to Newburgh where I was in exile.

 December 25, 1967   no responses

  Part One

O Holy Night

 

It came to pass in 1967 when John V. Lindsay was mayor in New York that I went up to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and caught the bus to Newburgh, NY. It was my first Christmas Eve home after being away at school at Cathedral College. I hurried through the station, clutching my little suitcase close to me, these being the ‘Midnight Cowboy” days in the big city.

Over Thanksgiving break I had decorated our front door of our home with two strings of big GE colored bulbs, the ones with little ridges on them giving them a depth of color. Every room of our house was elaborately decorated by my Mother. In the parlor, much to my disappointment, we had an artificial Christmas tree. This was because my mother was afraid of a fire starting ever since back in Brooklyn in the 1920′s , her two year old baby sister had caught on fire and died of severe burns.  So I used to spray the fake tree with pine aerosol to give it an ersatz scent. Ornaments  that we had collected over the years were all hung with care and lots of aluminum tinsel were draped on the bright plastic shiny branches. On top of the TV set was a manger we had bought at Woolworth’s. It had a complete set of figures made out of some hard mysterious chalk material – Holy Family, shepherds, angels, sheep, camel, donkey and Magi. Fake garland wound its way down the staircase banister along with Christmas Cards taped up all over the wall. In the bathroom was a Santa Hat toilet paper roll knit cozy. The kitchen was filled with waxen elves accented by holly & ivy potholders and dish towels. The dining room table was covered in a 1940′s style white linen tablecloth embroidered with brilliant red poinsettias with a big crystal bowl of fruit and nuts set in the center. Mr. R. H. Macy would have been proud.

Preparations for a modified traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner of “Seven Fishes” started in the afternoon. First came the spaghetti with white clam sauce. My mother sort of cheated on this dish using a can of Progresso clam sauce as the base to which she added fresh clams. Earlier in the day I had to open a dozen clams using a screwdriver and hammer. I never got the hang of shucking; usually smashing the shells open with the hammer which splintered into the clam milk. It took me a long time to strain the shards out. My other job was to clean the shrimp. I spread newspapers over the kitchen table and pulled off the outer shell carapace and violently tugged off the legs. I then used a small paring knife to devein the shrimp removing that ugly black line of detritus that ran the length of their bodies. My hands stunk to high heaven of the sea. Like Susan Sarandon in the movie “Atlantic City,” I cut lemons wedges and slowly wiped the briny smell off of my hands.

The celebration started at 5pm soon as it was dark and I dramatically snapped on the outdoor lighting. Crowlely’s artificial eggnog was served spiked with some rum as we watched the evening news on TV. Dinner was served later than usual, at 7pm – spaghetti with white clam sauce, shrimp Creole, fried shrimp and flounder with Tartar Sauce served with baby peas and broccoli. We quickly cleaned up and with great difficulty, put my brother and sister to sleep. I set out a plate of almond cookies for Santa and took a bite of one so it looked like he really had been there. Then I went upstairs to put on my jacket and tie.

My father stayed home as Mom and I went to Midnight Mass at our Italian parish of Sacred Heart Church. We would have to get there by 11pm to get a good seat. The church was in semi-darkness as the choir serenaded us acappella with a ceremony of carols. At midnight, the main doors of the church opened and a solemn procession started down the center aisle. First came three altar boys attired in special red cassocks and white lace surplices – one altar boy carrying a large gold crucifix flanked by the other two carrying candles. Another altar boy swinging a thurible, sanctified the way for the entrance of our pastor as celebrant. He was followed by the two assistant priests acting as deacon and sub deacon for the High Holy Mass. They wore ornate stiff Sicilian chasubles weaved with gold threading. At last came the youngest, most angelic altar boy carrying a statue of the Baby Jesus on a silver pillow.

The procession stopped in front of the side “Mary Altar” where an elaborate Neapolitan crèche lay away in darkness. The mass began there at the side altar and not on the usual main altar. It was very hushed with no singing. Then Msgr. Cantatore intoned – “GLORIA IN EXCELIS DEO…!” The organ blasted out and the choir lustily continued the Greater Doxology – “…ET IN TERRA PAX HOMINIBUS…” The steeple bell started to peal wildly and the altar boy almost breaking his wrist clamorously rang the brass hand bells. And suddenly all of the church lights shone to reveal an elaborate Neapolitan crèche with hundreds of figures, complete with working waterfall and a river running through Bethlehem. The monsignor took the Baby Jesus off the pillow and placed it between Mary and Joseph. “…BONAE VOLANTATIS!”

Msgr. Cantatore gave the usual holiday sermon in broken English but making it perfectly clear that he was expecting big bucks in the collection basket when it went around. The ushers walked down the aisles in military precision extending their sliding extension pole baskets to reach the center of each pew. Those who had money made a great show of putting in 10 or 20 dollar bills so everyone could see. The rest of us furtively tossed our one dollar bills in or made sure our coins silently fell to the bottom of the basket.

At communion time, my mother and I waited with anxious hidden glee for the soprano, Concetta Coniglio to sing her solo. We daren’t look back up over our shoulders to the choir loft to see this bovine, hefty woman, dressed in a peacock blue diva dress who imagined herself to be great Italian opera star, Renata Telbaldi Every year she would sing “O Holy Night.” We tried to hold back our laughter as she struggled to hit the big high C at the end of the carol. The sensation was akin to fingernails scraping across a blackboard or the squeal of the Lexington Avenue Line subway car rounding the tight corner at the Union Square Station at 14th Street.

O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!

The organ started the musical introduction as I got on the long line for Holy Communion behind Mrs. Peluso who was wearing a red fox stole with bristly hairs electrically charged from the cold. As I got near the alter rail, so did Concetta closing in on “Fall on your Knees” – the front car of the Cyclone roller coaster inching up to the perilous top before the loud cry of all the riders as they descended the steep incline. I piously knelt down at the altar rail trying not to listen to Concetta edging up closer to the bel canto precipice. Father Lombardo solemnly placed the wafer on my tongue but it sort of stuck to the roof of my mouth.  I started back to my seat all the while trying to manipulate the wafer off when “Renata” rang out that top sour note. Trying to stifle a guffaw, the wafer spit out of my mouth out and landed on the back of Mrs. Peluso’s fox stole sticking to the red fur. With the snap of a static charge, I sacrilegiously, surreptitous plucked it off the stole and put the host back in my mouth now tasting of musk and Jesus. Back in the pew, I knelt down and didn’t look up again till the end of mass as the choir sang “Tu scendi dalle stelle”.


Part 2

Fall on Your Knees

On the steps of the church after the mass was over, everybody was joyously wishing each other “Buon Natale” or Merry Christmas. It was then, like a star in the East shining down on the Christ Child I spotted Marc Burnett. I hadn’t seen Marc since we performed in the Passion Play the previous Easter where he played Jesus and I played Judas and we played each other, so to speak. I went over and gave Marc a seasonal warm hug and said hello to his Mom, Mrs. Burnett. She was leaving to go to her mother’s house to spend the evening and Marc quickly asked if I wanted to come over to his place for some hot chocolate. I gingerly asked my mother if I could go to Marc’s house for awhile. He would drive me home when we were done. She gave me a curiously knowing permission to go.

Marc lived in a large house in Balmville, one of the more upscale neighborhoods surrounding Newburgh. The night had turned frigid as we hopped into his father’s car and turned on the radio. The sky was overcast with nary a star, so it was quite dark out as we made our way through the back roads. Pretending to change one of the stations, I slid a bit closer to Marc (this was the era before seatbelts). My thigh lightly touched his as we chatted and caught up on our freshmen college semester.

Like the witches house in Hansel & Gretel, Marc’s Tudor Style home glowed with blue Christmas lights as we pulled up into the long driveway. Jumping out of the car, we ran to the front door and tumbled into the warm living room. It looked magical as a giant tree cast a rainbow of hues all across the room and our faces. Marc took me downstairs to the finished basement where he had a small pipe organ installed. He was a consummate organist and played me some pieces by Handel and Bach. I sat with my eyes closed listening in fascination. I felt like Christine listening to Lon Chaney play in “The Phantom of the Opera.” However before I could “unmask” him, Marc quickly got up at the end of a Bach Passacaglia and suggested we make hot chocolate and go to his room.

With steaming mugs warming our hands, we went upstairs and entered his bedroom quietly. He said he wanted to take a shower as he closed the bathroom door behind him. I turned off the lights and lay on the bed facing the bathroom door, imagining Marc getting undressed. I turned on the table radio on the night stand when I heard the sudden rush of the shower. I could also hear my heart beat as I smelled the iron rust like smell of the hard well water that began to mix in with the pungent scent of Irish Spring Soap. The windows of the room began to mist up with fog as the room grew hotter. The shower stopped.


After what I thought was an eternity, the door opened slowly and there stood Marc swaddled in an emerald green towel tied around his waist. With the bathroom light reflecting off the medicine cabinet mirror, Marc looked like the Resurrected Christ I remembered from the spring Passion Play. The deep green pile contrasted so well against his rosy white ivory skin set off by his fiery red hair that rose just above edge of the bath towel. On the radio, Jim Nabors was singing “O Holy Night” as Marc quietly lay down next to me. We held each other as I heard Nabors’ sing “O Night Divine.”

There was no room in the inn…

Suddenly waking up I looked at the clock radio and realized it was almost 5:30am. We ran out to the car in the cold dawn. Marc warmed up the engine as I hastily scraped the ice from the front windows. As we drove back to my house the snow began to fall and I thought of the final famous sentence from the short story ”The Dead” by Irish author, James Joyce which I had just read in English Literature class.

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

 

It didn’t take long to get to my house in New Windsor since the roads were empty on this Christmas morning. Marc turned off the car lights as we turned the corner onto Cross Street. I got out without saying a word and almost slipped on the ice in the driveway. I quietly opened the front door of our house, ran upstairs and put on my flannel pajamas without waking my brother and sister. I ran back downstairs and since I was famished wolfed down all the Santa cookies. I pulled out my LP copy of “Messiah” conducted by Eugene Ormandy with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  I silently opened the lid of the stereo, put on LP #3 and turned up the volume all the way.  I plugged on the lights of the Christmas tree and put the Baby Jesus in the manger. Suddenly the “Halleluiah” chorus blared out throughout the house.

I heard a couple of th-thumps from the upstairs bedrooms as Karen and Michael came running down. Mom in her floral nightgown came out of the downstairs bedroom, while my Dad slowly walked down the staircase from the upstairs bedroom he shared with me and my brother. My father acted as Santa as we dove into the mountain of gifts, opening them up in wild abandon with gift wrap strewn all around us – toys, perfumes, pants, coats, scarves, sweaters, shirts, and ties. My mother collected up the bows for next year.

My Mom had gotten me the original cast album of  The Apple Tree which was the second Broadway Show I had seen that fall. As I was reading the liner notes, I was struggling to remove a piece of cookie stuck in my teeth. Try as I may I couldn’t get my tongue around it to dislodge it. Finally ungracefully, I poked my finger into the crevice and out came a small almond chunk with a mysterious red threadlike strand. I chuckled as I flicked it behind the Christmas Tree.

Ah-h-h! We all feigned great delight at a pair of gloves my brother received from Aunt Laura when our dog Marigold jumped up and began licking me all over. She smelled the Irish Spring Soap. I ran over the Stereo and put on The Apple Tree and played Eve’s plaintive song to Adam as sung by Barbara Harris. I hummed along to myself and cleaned up the mess and tossed all the paper into a big hefty bag and got ready for Christmas Day Lunch.

Eve:

What makes me love him?
It’s not his singing,
I’ve heard his singing,
It sours the milk
And yet, it’s gotten to the point
Where I prefer that kind of milk.

What makes me love him?
It’s not his learning.
He’s learned so slowly,
His whole life long
And though he really knows
A multitude of things
They’re mostly wrong.

He’s not romantic,
And yet I love him.
No one occasion
He’s used me ill
And though he’s handsome
I know inside me
Were he a plain man
I’d love him still.

What makes me love him?
It’s quite beyond me,
It must be something
I can’t define.
Unless it’s merely
That he’s masculine
And that he’s mine

 

 December 24, 1967   no responses

                                                               

Part One
“Cantique de Noel”
or
“O Holy Night”

And it came to pass in those days when John V. Lindsay was mayor of New York, the city was in crisis, and war was raging in the East that Anthony went up from Manhattan to the Hudson Highlands – it being Anthony’s first Christmas Eve at home after being away at Cathedral College, a preparatory seminary on the Upper West Side. The journey took two hours, leaving neon and grit and passing unto mountains and malls.  Anthony’s mother met him at the little, tawdry bus station, in the abandoned and violent city of Newburgh that tumbled down Broadway to the Hudson River. Their flight passed houses festively lit in blue and white, under stop lights of red and green, past a Dickensian spectral cemetery on the right, a vast field of hay opposite, finally sharp left turn down a country lane, and right onto tar and gravel street to their home in the town of New Windsor, New York – December 24th, 1967.

                                                     ******************

sevenfishessign[1]

It was slightly snowing as my mother pulled into the macadam driveway, arriving at our two story Cape Cod house. Even before I had dropped my bag and taken my winter coat off, my mother demanded that I decorate the front door for Christmas. “What would the neighbors say” (actually our next door neighbor lived in a trailer so who could cast stones?). I kept my winter coat on, went down the cellar steps and dug around in semi-darkness to retrieve some decorations. I pulled out three strings of big GE colored bulbs, the ones with little ridges on them giving them a depth of color that warmed your hands on this cold night. I ran them around the frame of the front door and the two side windows, making sure it was all balanced, the colors were in sequence and all the bulbs worked (if one went out, they all did).  I stood back, plugged them in and admired how nice they looked, like a small Ginger Bread House complete with a witch inside. I unplugged them and made my way back to the basement, hung my wet coat on the clothesline and went upstairs.

Mom had elaborately decorated all the downstairs rooms. In the parlor, much to my disappointment, we had an artificial Christmas tree. My mother was afraid of fire ever since her baby sister caught on fire years ago and died of severe burns.  So I sprayed the fake tree with pine aerosol to give it an ersatz scent. Fragile glass ornaments that we had collected over the years were hung with care and lots of aluminum tinsel were tidily draped on the bright, shiny twisted and stunted green, plastic branches -  having been packed, repacked and crammed to many times into its brown carton box.

On top of the TV set was a manger we had bought at Woolworth’s. It had a complete set of figures made out of some hard mysterious chalk material – The Holy Family, shepherds, angels, sheep, cows, camel, and donkey. The Magi: Melchior, Caspar and the Negro King, Balthasar were placed on the side lamp table as we moved them at it closer to January 6th.  Fake garland wound its way down the staircase banister along with Christmas Cards taped all around the big living room hanging wall mirror. In the bathroom was a knit Santa Hat toilet-paper roll cozy. The kitchen was filled with slightly melted waxen elves accented by my mother’s handmade holly & ivy handmade potholders and dish towels. The dining room table was covered in a 1950′s style white linen tablecloth embroidered with brilliant red poinsettias. A big Check Slovakian cut crystal bowl of fruit and nuts sat in the center set off by two matching candles sticks. We never lit the candles. A sprig of fake mistletoe hung in the foyer by the dirty beige wall telephone. Mr. R. H. Macy would have been proud.

Preparations started in the late afternoon for the traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner of “Seven Fishes.” First came the spaghetti with white clam sauce. My mother sort of cheated on this dish using a can of Progresso clam sauce as the base to which she added fresh clams. I had to open a dozen clams using a screwdriver and hammer. I never got the hang of shucking. I resorted to smashing the shells open with a hammer which splintered shards into the clam milk. It took me a long time to strain the shards out. My other job was to clean the shrimp. I spread newspapers over the kitchen table and pulled off the outer shell carapace and violently tugged off the legs. I then used a small paring knife to devein the shrimp removing that ugly black line that ran the length of their little pink bodies. Like Susan Sarandon in the movie “Atlantic City,” I cut lemons wedges and slowly wiped the fishy smell off of my hands.

The celebration officially started as soon as it was dark. I dramatically snapped on the outdoor lights that I had hung that afternoon and put the Baby Jesus in the crèche. We drank Crowley’s artificial eggnog spiked with some rum as we watched the evening news on TV. Dinner was served later than usual, at 8pm. Christmas Eve diner was at the kitchen table – Spaghetti with White Clam Sauce, Shrimp Creole, fried shrimp and sautéed flounder with Tartar Sauce accompanied by baby peas and broccoli. Not quite seven fishes but we counted seven mouthfuls to reach the magic number. No dessert tonight except for cookies we still left on a plate by the tree. We quickly cleaned up, wiping dishes and scrubbing pots. It was getting late. I grabbed a Christmas cookie from the Santa dish as I sprang up the staircase and put on my suit and tie to get ready for Midnight Mass. My father, brother and sister went to bed and I turned off all the inside lights and warmed up the car.

Midnight Mass at our Italian parish of the Church of the Sacred Heart was as dramatic as any verismo opera – pomp, pageant, incense and music. We would have to get there by 11pm to get a good seat. The church was in semi-darkness as the choir serenaded us a Capella with a ceremony of carols. Everyone was in their holiday finery, ladies in brightly colored dresses and men in jacket and newly gifted Christmas ties. Ushers in tuxedoes sat these scions of Italian Immigrants filling every row of pews to their fullest capacity. Our ancestors would not recognize this new modern church built in 1964. The old church was built by hand by its Italian parish’s stone masons, carpenters and electricians. In their honor the old steeple bell was hung high in the new metal Louise Nevelson like croft. We all waited in anticipation to greet our new pastor, Monsignor Salvatore Cantatore who started in September. We all still mourned the passing of Msgr. Salvatore Celauro. I guess you had to be a Salvatore to be prelate at Sacred Heart. Just before twelve all the lights of the church were extinguished.

Then at the stroke of midnight, the main gold doors of the church were thrown open and a wintry blast blew through the darkness.  A solemn procession proceeded down the center aisle. First came three altar boys attired in special red cassocks and white lace surplices – one altar boy carried a large gold crucifix, flanked by the other two carrying candles, now the only light in the entire church, symbolic of the solstice, the year’s shortest day when light starts to return.  Another altar boy swung his thurbile in lusty arcs, sanctifying the way for the entrance of our new pastor as celebrant. He slowly walked down the aisle, dimly lit by the two beeswax lit tapers.  Just behind him, followed Father Leo and Father Lombardo, our two assistant priests acting as deacon and sub deacon for the High Holy Mass. They ambled like two penguins loaded down with ornate stiff heavy silk Sicilian chasubles embroidered with gold and silver threading. At last came the youngest, most angelic altar boy carrying a statue of the Baby Jesus on a silver tufted pillow.

The procession continued past the main altar, turned right and stopped in front of the side “Mary Chapel” We all stood in silence nary a cough, only the quiet shuffling of our wet boots on the terrazzo floor. Then our pastor dramatically turned around facing the congregation and choir and loudly intoned in Latin: “GLORIA IN EXCELIS DEO…!” The organ blasted out, the choir lustily sang, “ET IN TERRA PAX HOMINIBUS BONAE VOLANTATIS,” the old steeple bell pealed wildly and one altar boy almost sprained his wrist clamorously ringing his brass hand bells. And suddenly all of lights of the church were turned on, revealing  an elaborate Neapolitan crèche with hundreds of carved Nativity figures, gamboling over the country side, crossing a river with working waterfall on their way to the stable in Bethlehem. The choir continued as Msgr. Cantatore took the Baby Jesus off the pillow, raised it high in the air and gently placed it in the crib between Mary and Joseph. The Christ Child was born bringing light and grace back to the troubled world.

The procession went back to the Main Altar to start the holy service, Msgr. Cantatore chanting the Kyrie.  He made his name sake proud, Cantatore meaning singer in Italian or Cantor in Hebrew.  However his-a English wa-ssa nota so good but at the end of his holiday sermon he made it perfectly clear that he was expecting big bucks in the collection basket. The ushers walked down the aisles in military precision extending their sliding extension pole baskets to reach the center of each pew. Those who had money made a great show of putting in 10 or 20 dollar bills so everyone could see. The rest of us furtively tossed our one and five dollar bills in or made sure our coins silently fell to the bottom of the basket.

As it neared communion time, my mother and I knew what was coming next as we looked at each other with anxious hidden glee for the soprano, La Diva, Concetta Malavoce to sing her big solo. We daren’t look back over our shoulders up to the choir loft to see this zaftig woman, crammed into her old peacock blue bridesmaids dress. With grand expression and sour notes she imagined herself to be great Italian opera star, Maria Callas.  Every year during communion she would try to sing the famous French carol, “Cantique de Noel or O Holy Night.” My mother and I sometimes unsuccessfully couldn’t control our giggles when she began, “O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining. It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.” We knew this was leading to the famous High C at the end. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining. Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.” She just couldn’t quite reach that difficult high note but if you looked back up at her you think she was at La Scala with all of her claque applauding widely. “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

Her aria continued as I got on the long line for Holy Communion. I followed behind Mrs. Peluso who was wearing (draped over her shoulders, not hiding her décolletage) a red fox stole with long bristly hairs electrically charged from the cold. As I got near the alter rail, Concetta closed in on “Fall on your Knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!” It was like being on the front car of the Cyclone as Concetta voice rose higher, inching up to the perilous top as she screamed out and the roller coaster descended. ‘Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born”  I piously knelt down at the altar rail trying not to listen as she edged up closer to a bel canto precipice. Father Lombardo solemnly placed the wafer on my tongue – “Body of Christ” I murmured “Amen.” The wafer stuck to the roof of my mouth.  I started back to my seat trying to manipulate the wafer off with no success.  Then La Diva rang out that top sour note. “Oh Night, Oh Night, Oh Night Divine”!

The wax in my ears moved, my eyes winced, I choked trying to stifle a giant guffaw when the wafer spit out of my mouth out and landed on the back of Mrs. Peluso’s fox stole sticking to the red fur. I quickly sacrilegiously plucked the wafer off the stole that had stuck to the red hairs of the fur. I put the host back in my mouth now tasting of musk and Jesus. Keeping my head down, I almost missed my pew. I knelt down and my mother gave me a nudge and it was mighty hard not to laugh. The choir sang the famous Italian carol, “Tu scendi dalle stele” during the second collection. The sub deacon and deacon cleaned and put the chalices in the tabernacle and opened up the missal to the final page. Father Leo held up the book, as our pastor turned around to face the congregation and intoned. “The Mas is ended. Go in Peace!” Mom and I rang out, “Thanks be to God!” and thanking God we didn’t have to hear Concetta Malavoce till Easter!

 

       Part 2
“Fall on Your Knees”

And it came to pass, that the congregation departed the church with haste.  But some went to the front of the church and found both Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger. And they adored. And when they saw it, they made known concerning the saying which was spoken to them about this child. And outside, a bright star and moon shone in the heavens.

                                                  *****************************
P6060745[1]

On the steps of the church everybody was joyously wishing each other “Buon Natale.”  Msgr. Cantatore was smiley widely, the collection must have been a good take. All the ladies were fawning over him and their husbands preened and lit cigars or cigarillos. It was then, like a star in the East shining down on the Christ Child, I spotted Marc Burnett looking like the Apollo Belvedere. I hadn’t seen Marc since we performed in the parish passion play the previous Easter where he played Jesus and I played Judas and we both played with each other between Stations of the Cross. I left my mother who was smoking a Kent and went over to give Marc a seasonal warm hug and say hello to his Mom, Mrs. Burnett. She said she was leaving with her mother to spend the evening there. I never met Mr. Burnett since they were scandalously divorced.  Marc quickly asked if I wanted to come over to his place for some hot chocolate. Of course, I glowed! I gingerly asked my mother if I could go to Marc’s house for a while. He would drive me home later. She stomped on her Kent, giving me a sly knowing look and gave me a passive/aggressive “yes” to go. A mother always knows….

Marc lived in a large house in Balmville, one of the more upscale neighborhoods surrounding Newburgh. The night had turned frigid as we hopped into his mother’s car and turned on the radio. The sky was overcast with clouds and now nary a star, so it was quite dark out as we made our way through the back roads. Pretending to change one of the stations, I slid a bit closer to Marc (this was the days before seatbelts). My thigh lightly touched his as we chatted and caught up on our freshmen college semester, mine in New York, his in Boston. I laid my hand lightly on his thigh. There was static in the air. He placed his on mine, steering with one hand.

Like Little Ride Riding Hood’s Grandmother’s house, Marc’s Tudor Style home glowed with red Christmas lights as we pulled up into the long driveway. In the frosty air, our breath almost seemed tangible as we jumped out of the car, ran to the front door, kicked off our boots and tumbled into the warm living room. A giant Christmas tree cast a magical rainbow of hues all across the room and our faces. We stood in front of the tree for a long time as I stared at the tree and the colors washing over Marc’s handsome face. He caught me staring and our eyes met. He quickly suggested we go downstairs to the finished basement where he had a small pipe organ installed. He was a consummate musician and played me some pieces by Handel and Bach. I sat on a lime green bean bag with my eyes closed listening in fascination, enraptured by the full sound of the organ, its waves of music washing over me, penetrating my soul. I felt like Christine listening to Lon Chaney play in “The Phantom of the Opera.” However before I could “unmask” him, Marc ended a Bach Passacaglia with a flourish, stood up, bowed and suggested we make hot chocolate and go to his room. I applauded madly.

We made the hot chocolate in silence, as I hoped this was only the prelude to our evening’s theme and variations. With steaming mugs warming our hands, we went upstairs and entered his bedroom. He said he needed to take a shower as he closed the bathroom door behind him. I turned off the lights and the clouds must have disbursed for now the whiteness of the new snow and the light of the moon cast a silver shadow across his bed.  I walked over to his little twin bed, took off my jacket and tie, opened the top button of my white shirt and loosened my belt. I lay on the bed facing the bathroom door, imagining Marc getting undressed. I turned on the table radio on the night stand and found a Christmas station. I heard the sudden rush of the shower. I could hear my heart beat as I smelled the shower’s iron rust smell of the hard well water that began to mix in with the pungent scent of his Irish Spring Soap. The windows of the room began steam up with fog as the room grew hotter. The only light was from the radio dial. The shower stopped.

After what I thought was an eternity, the door opened slowly and there stood Marc wearing only fern green towel tied around his waist. With the bathroom light reflecting behind him off the medicine cabinet mirror, Marc looked like the Resurrected Christ I remembered from the spring passion play. The deep green pile contrasted so well against his rosy white ivory skin set off by his fiery red bush that rose just above edge of the bath towel. On the radio, Jim Nabors was singing “O Holy Night” as Marc stood over me. There was no room in the inn in this little twin bed.  I stood up and we held each other without speaking a word. I heard Nabors’ sing “Fall on your knees”.  He did.…

C’est l’heure solennelle
Ou l’Homme Dieu descendit jusqu’a nous
Pour effacer la tache originelle
Et de Son Pere arreter le courroux”.

Oh Night Divine!

Afterwards, we had fallen asleep so close to each like two sleeping puppies. Waking up I looked at the clock radio and realized it was almost 6:30 am. Like Cinderella, I had to be home by 7 am for the opening of the Christmas presents. I almost fell over putting on my clothes. My prince and I ran out to the car in the cold dawn. Marc warmed up the engine as I hastily scraped the ice from the front windows. As we drove back to my house the snow began to fall and I thought of the final famous sentence from the short story I had just read in English Literature class, ”The Dead” by James Joyce..

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

It didn’t take long to get to my house in New Windsor since the roads were empty on this Christmas morning. We held hands the whole short ride home. I wished we could have drove to New York City to my little dorm room on W. 86th Street and be together all Christmas Day. Marc turned off the car lights as we turned the corner onto Cross Street. It was still dark on this silent night but Mom had left the Christmas lights on. I adventurously leaned over took my angel’s face in my hands and kissed him oh so gently and oh so sweet. I calmly got out without saying a word, but I turned back and gave him a long look. “Buon Natale!” I almost slipped on the ice in the driveway.

I slowly opened the front door of our house, glided upstairs and put on my flannel pajamas without waking my Dad, brother and sister. I ran back downstairs and since I was famished wolfed down all the Santa cookies that had been left out the night before. I pulled out my LP copy of the “Messiah”conducted by Eugene Ormandy with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  I silently opened the lid of the stereo, put on LP #3 and turned up the volume all the way. The “Halleluiah” chorus blared out throughout the house. I plugged on the lights of the Christmas tree and put the Baby Jesus in the manger.

I heard a couple of th-thumps from the upstairs bedrooms as Karen and Michael came running down. Mom in her floral nightgown came out of the downstairs bedroom, while my Dad shuffled down the staircase from the upstairs bedroom he shared with me and my brother. My father donned a Santa hat and we dove into the mountain of gifts, as he handed them to us one at a time. We opened them up in wild abandon with gift wrap and ribbon strewn all around us – toys, perfumes, pants, coats, scarves, sweaters, shirts, and ties. I collected up the bows for next year.

Oooh! We all feigned great delight at a pair of gloves my brother received from Aunt Laura. Oooh! Karen got a scarf and I got a key case from her. My mother liked the Jean Nate Bath Oil I gave her and dad loved his flannel shirt. My Mom got me the original cast album of The Apple Tree which was the second Broadway Show I had seen that fall. Of course, I had asked for this, so it wasn’t a surprise. As I was reading the liner notes, I was struggling to remove a piece of cookie stuck in my teeth. Try as I may I couldn’t get my tongue around it to dislodge it. Finally ungracefully, I poked my finger into the crevice and out came a small cookie chunk with a mysterious red threadlike strand. AHA! I chuckled as I flicked the hair on the Christmas tree and swallowed the cookie. Our dog Marigold jumped up and began licking me all. I think she smelled the Irish Spring Soap.

Everybody went to their rooms to get dressed for our Christmas luncheon of Baked Ham served in the dining room; there would be dessert. I took the “Messiah” off the player and put on “The Apple Tree.” All alone in the living room, I sat under the tree and listened to the overture and openings songs of the musical based on the short story, The Diary of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain. The tree glowed, I half suspected it to grow like in” The Nutcracker”.

The parlor was still empty. The snow started faintly falling as I swooned a little looking out the window. Then came Eve’s plaintive song to Adam wondering what made her love him after spending a life time in and out of Eden. The beautiful Barbara Harris sang the song with great love and melancholy. Her performance in all three of the short stories that made up “The Apple Tree” would haunt me forever. I hummed along to myself and mouthed the words. I daren’t sing them out loud lest someone walk in and see me crying. Listening intently to the lyrics, I thought of the night, the cold, the Christmas lights, the Baby Jesus, even imagining Concetta singing “O Holy Night” in perfect pitch, my aunt who died long ago in Brooklyn, the gifts, the red fox fur, of The Magi and of my Marc-

“What makes me love him?
It’s quite beyond me,
It must be something
I can’t define.
Unless it’s merely
That he’s masculine
And that he’s mine.”

New Year’s came and went and on January 6th, the Epiphany, the lights came down from the front door and put back in the basement, the Christmas tree was dismantled and crammed back into that brown carton and the little figures of the manger were carefully wrapped in tissue paper and put in a shoebox till next year. The next day my mother drove me to the bus station and I went back to seminary. I didn’t see Marc again till fifteen years later when in 1981 perchance I ran into him at a play in Boston. The play was called “Fools”.

 July 9, 1966   no responses

Cooking in an open fireplace in summer can cause the kitchen to become extremely hot so in Early America it was common for people to build a separate building called a “Summer Kitchen” where much of the food would be prepared during the summer months.

Well in Italian American neighborhoods, mothers would get up at 5am in the morning to cook the evening meal. The family would gather round when sun went down to enjoy mom’s pasta and bracciole. In the suburban Italian American home, like my house in Newburgh, we installed an oven in the basement so mom didn’t have to get up at 5am! And when it was really hot we ate at a table in the cellar too!

Then when I was a teenager, we got a barbecue and I was in charge of grilling. I used to love pouring ton of charcoal lighter fluid on the briquettes. I would light a match, stand back and wait for the great WHOOSH as the flames leaped in the air. I got the best white-hot coals that way until the wind blew them out. LOL

 June 17, 1966   no responses

It was a tempestuous spring evening; the sky was dark with ominous flashes of neon white lighting, apocalyptic, rolling thunder and cascading sheets of warm rain. When the lights darkened in the auditorium of Newburgh Free Academy, a tidal wave roar of applause and cheering swept over the footlights to backstage. Anthony, startled, reeling, spun around into his teacher, Miss Laura M. – his hands on her breasts to break the fall. They quickly broke apart as the curtain went up on the The1966 NFA Faculty Follies.

**********************

It was the fall of 1966. Anthony was a high school senior, sort of a loner, dark, Italian, and dark in mood not unlike Goethe’s Werther which he was reading that semester. He had been elected vice-president of the student club, the Jay Tees, since no one else really wanted to work with Brad Reynolds who headed up a jock clique in it. The Jay Tees had needed a fund raising idea for their annual scholarship fund. Anthony came up with the idea of holding a “Miss Touchdown” contest. Students would donate a dollar to buy a vote to crown the prettiest girl the winner who would be revealed during half-time during the big Thanksgiving football game between the Newburgh’s ‘Goldbacks ‘and rival city, Poughkeepsie’s “Pioneers”.

Brad Reynolds, the self important, poppy-cock big guy of the Jay Tees and quarter back on the NFA “Goldbacks” laughed that such a butch idea came from the ‘queer’. No one called him ‘queer’ to his face but Anthony sensed that everyone knew from Brad’s constant insinuations. Of course it didn’t help that he had blown Brad one drunken night behind the goal post after a game, Brad intimated and pushed Anthony down on his knees. “Suck it” he said gruffly. And Anthony did. Brad moaning and smug thought he was the one in control. But it was Anthony who got him drunk, lured him out to the field, and played the ‘queer”. So who was in control?

The contest was a great success although Anthony didn’t get to see “Miss Touchdown” be crowned and ride around the football field in an open convertible Cadillac. His parents insisted on leaving early that morning for Thanksgiving dinner in Brooklyn at his grandmothers.

However Anthony could not stop thinking about Brad, both sexually and with a great sense of fear. Brad was holding it over Anthony’s head. “I am gonna call your mother and tell her what you do”, he threatened when he wanted another blow-job.  And every time the phone rang at home, Anthony would jump to answer; afraid it might be Brad. The sense of danger mixed with the thrill of sex was a potent aphrodisiac.

Anthony went to confession the very next day after the goal post incident. He waited till Father Lombardy’s confessional was empty.  Father Lombardy was the Italian speaking priest of the parish and Anthony hoped he would not understand him when he told him his dark sins. “Bless me Father for I have sinned, it has been one week since my last confession. I cursed five times, was mean to my mother twice, had three impure thoughts and did one bad act.”  “One bada act?” “Shit”, Anthony thought, he understood. “Whata ya mean?” “Well I sort of touched another guy.”  “Ah. Did he touch you back?” “No Father.” “Ah” – silence – “Ten Our Fathers, five Hail Marys and one Glory Be.

 

Anthony ran out of the confessional box, knelt down at the main altar where the Sacred Heart of Jesus stared down on him and said his penance quickly. Only the old lady, Penny Anny was in the church as she always was, mumbling some prayers in Italian.  He put in a quarter in the poor box, lit a candle and left. He got on his bike and resolved to sin no more.  Anthony was going to Cathedral College in New York City that September after graduating from high school to study to be a priest.  In an act of supreme self delusion, he eased his conscience by thinking that sex with a man didn’t violate his future vow of celibacy.

With the flush of victory, the Jay Tees December decided to do hold another fund raiser in the spring.  Many ideas were bandied about: a dance, an auto gymkhana, a roller skating party, a hootenanny and a car wash. Anthony was basking in the bittersweet glow of “Miss Touchdown” and feeling a bit cocky. Unlike the other seniors who were out drinking this past Saturday night, Anthony had stayed at home and watched the popular, TV variety show Hollywood Palace.

“Let’s do a Teachers Talent Show!  We all would love to see the teachers make asses out of themselves.  We can have it in the auditorium, charge admission. It will be great.  I’ll direct it!”  Everyone was surprised at this idea and excited by the possibilities. Everyone except Brad who was feeling jealous of all the adulation Anthony was getting. He stood up and looked down on Anthony seated on a cafeteria metal chair.  “How the hell are you gonna get them to do it. It will never happen.” A murmur of agreement slowly bubbled up from his buddies.

Anthony stood up. “Well, I can make it happen,” he brazenly tossed back at Brad.  All waited for his response to this bold challenge to his leadership.  “Well smarty pants, well let’s see if you can make it happen.  You have till the next meeting. If not, we are doing my idea of the gymkhana. Put your money where your mouth is.”  He touched his crotch and snickered and they all group laughed at the inside joke. Anthony did not reply but quickly left when the meeting was over.

Miss Laura M. was the new substitute teacher at NFA. She had moved from Dayton right after her fiancé had broken off their engagement. She had met John in the Theatre Department at Ohio State. They had just performed together in “Look Back in Anger” when he told her he was leaving to find himself and be an actor in New York City.   In late August, she drove all the way from Dayton to Newburgh in her pink and cream, Rambler with only her clothes, books and her still to be finished theses on the poetry of Keats. Gamine, pretty in a boyish way, her smile betrayed her inner loneliness of being away from her family and the loss of John who she had loved with a deep pure love.

She was Anthony’s substitute English teacher when his regular teacher took a sudden leave of absence.   Being new to teaching, she glowed with a naive enthusiasm especially when she talked about Keats or when she acted out the parts in Shakespeare’s plays – Rosalind in As You Like It or Viola in Twelfth Night. In a few weeks, Anthony was emboldened to show her the poetry he had written, poems of adolescent bleak despair, longing and loneliness.   She was impressed and understanding and even read one of them out load to the class. Brad guffawed under his breath, assuming they were about him.

Anthony had known when he came up with his Hollywood Palace idea for the talent show that Laura would be teacher and ambassador to the faculty to make his idea a reality. Laura thought it was a brilliant idea and a way to ingratiate herself to her new colleagues.  At the next faculty meeting, much to her and his surprise they all thought it would great fun. It would be held in April. Laura would direct and Anthony would act as “coordinator” between the Jay Tees and the teachers. Instead of The Teacher’s Talent Show, Anthony came up with calling it – The Faculty Follies.

At January’s meeting, Brad was none too happy when Anthony announced it was a go. When he mentioned that Miss Laura M. was the teacher and would direct, he smirked; “That bitch, I bet I could fuck her, no problem.”  Then Brad gave him that look. Anthony had to do penance again that night.

Anthony was now spending his homeroom and lunch times in the Faculty Room planning the show. He got to know all the teachers and was becoming a bit of a pet. Sometimes after school, working on the show with Laura, their conversations would drift to movies, books, music and life.  She told him about her fiancée and didn’t understand why he had to leave to find himself without her.  He told her about his wanting to be a priest and wanting to be a director.  He even told her all about the bullying he suffered from Brad. He admitted he was still virgin and had to remain so to be ready for seminary. She questioned his logic on this, asking him wouldn’t it be better to find out now about sex before it was too late.  They became fast friends, “two lost souls on the highway of life” like he remembered handsome, Tab Hunter singing to Gwen Vernon in the movie Damn Yankees. It would get so late, he sometimes missed the school bus and she had to drive him home.

Two months whizzed by and the big day arrived. Anthony had brought flowers for Laura for opening night. Even though there was a torrential rain storm going on, it was completely sold out.  Backstage was chaos. It was a typical high school back stage: no wings or fly space. Brad who decided he was going to give the curtain speech thanking all the students, faculty and friends for coming and announce the amount of money raised for the scholarship.  He was nowhere to be found.

Anthony had written and assembled most of the show from old vaudeville routines and TV skits. These comic olios highlighted the teachers who had real talent: a black music combo called the “Jazzmen’; a folk song duet – the “Mossy Stones”; and a Dixieland group – ‘Wee Three’.  There were two main segments. “Wild Nell – the Pet of the Plains”, a spoof of silent movie westerns and the finale set in a Greenwich Village coffee  house with all of the teachers dressed as beatniks in berets, sporting Van Dycks, and smoking “cigarettes.” Anthony passed out the fake reefers and all the cast sang Bob Dylans’ “Rainy Day Woman.”  The entire audience sang along.

 “Well, they’ll stone ya when you’re trying to be so good,

They’ll stone ya just a-like they said they would.

They’ll stone ya when you’re tryin’ to go home.

Then they’ll stone ya when you’re there all alone.

But I would not feel so all alone,

Everybody must get stoned.”

The curtain calls had just started when Brad stumbled in, wet from the rain storm and having had a few too many beers. He staggered over to Anthony, loudly called him “sister boy” and grabbed the bouquet out of his hands.  He lurched onto the stage careened into Laura and pushed the flowers on her. He started to slip from his wet shoes as Anthony grabbed him and held up him, putting his arm around him like two buddies. Avoiding embarrassment, Brad managed to make the thank-yous and announce that $1,000 was raised. As the curtain fell, he pushed Anthony aside and ran off.

 

The Faculty Follies was a great success. The principal himself, Mr. Fowler came back stage and thanked them all.  A cast party for the teachers had been arranged at the Pine Tree Tavern.  Anthony was elated while still shook up by what happened on stage. Laura too was shaken and said she wanted to skip the party. She suggested they go to her place for a cup of tea.

It was a short ride through the waning storm. He had never been to her house and was very curious how it would be decorated. It was a simple one bedroom apartment tastefully done.  They were both soaked from the rain and Laura suggested she put their clothes in the dryer. Hesitantly he went to the bathroom and tossed his clothes back out into the living room. She handed him through the door a plain white robe to wear. She put the kettle on and the LP of Herb Alpert’s “Whipped Cream & Other Delights.”

They sat together on the couch, both in robes silently listening to “A Taste of Honey.”   “Anthony, it was very brave of you tonight how you handled that bully. No matter what he says about you, be proud o f who are.” She reached over and held his hand. “Oh, I almost forgot. I have a surprise for you!” She dug around in her purse and handed him a small silver cardboard box tied with blue ribbon; the kind of box a set of earrings would come in. He untied the bow, took off the lid and pulled the tissue paper back.  “Oh Laura, it’s a, a, a cigarette…,” he stuttered. “No silly, it’s a joint! I thought after our show it would be a perfect present. If there is one person I know who should get high, it’s you.”

He held it in his hand, turned it over and over and took a whiff of it. She pulled a lighter out of that purse and lit the joint. “Just take a puff, but inhale it and keep in down.”  He did and of course, he coughed and of course they both laughed. It was good to laugh. They exchanged puffs back and forth.  As “Love Potion #9” was playing, they both became quiet listening to Alpert’s fine trumpet styling.  He looked down and quickly closed his knees and pulled the robe over to hide his growing embarrassment.

She took his hand and silently led him to her bedroom. She lay down him down on the sun yellow chenille bedspread with white trim, dimmed the lights and lit some candles.  He stared at the ceiling as she controlled the situation, setting up the scene. “Anthony, close your eyes and be quiet. Don’t think about anything.” She took off her robe and gently started to caress him all over but never kissing. She moved down his body and he could feel her breathe on his hardness.  He kept his eyes closed and surrendered himself to the moment, listening to the rain and the distant music from the next room. She took off her robe and lowered herself slowly till had taken him in. He was amazed how warm and moist it felt. Catching the rhythm of the music, Laura glided up and down as Anthony rose up in counterpoint to the beat.  She whispered, “Tony, Tony” till he moaned in pleasure, “Laura”.  The rain was coming down hard now and splashing up against the window panes.

.

The record player arm lifted up at the end of the LP and moved back to its resting place. They were both startled by the whistling of the kettle. She grabbed her robe and ran to the kitchen. He quickly put on his robe and sat on the edge of the bed. She brought them both back a cup of tea. They stirred and stirred their brew not daring to look at each other from opposite sides of the bed. After a brief while she said, “Anthony, I didn’t want to tell you till now but I am moving to New York City.  John called me last week and says he wants me to come live with him. He has a small place in the Village.” He sipped his hot tea and almost burnt his tongue. “I understand Laura; I can’t w-w-wait to get out of Newburgh myself. I hope things work out for you and John. And about tonight…” She shh-ed him before he could go on and she kissed him lightly on the mouth and held his face in her hands. “Years from now, I will always think fondly about tonight.  I hope you will too.” He didn’t know what to say. “Oh I will” was his only response. A few more sips of tea. “Maybe we can meet up in the city when I am in school. The three of us can all go to a Broadway show together!” She didn’t respond but laughed gently. Their clothes were dry now. They got dressed and she drove him home.  The rain had stopped to a drizzle and the wet streets of Newburgh seemed to glow a bit.

She dropped him off at this house and he gave her a quick peck on the cheek before she pulled away. As he was about to go down the driveway, he noticed a strange car parked in front of his neighbor’s house. All of a sudden, the overhead light inside went on and Brad looked over and gestured to join him on the front seat as he unlocked the passenger side door and kicked it open.   Anthony stood there for a long moment, then walked over, closed the car door, gave a confident wave “goodbye.” Brad stepped on the gas and sped away. Anthony ran up the driveway into his house and turned off the front porch lights and went to bed. The rain had stopped. The phone never rang.

That Saturday after the show he went to confession. “Bless me Father for I have sinned. It’s been two weeks since my last confession. I cursed three times, hit by brother once and did one bad act.”  “Ah, with thata boy again?”  Anthony smiled and said, “No Father with a woman.”  He then thought he heard Father Lombardy whisper “Deo Gratias.” But what he really said was “One ‘Glory Be’ and say an Act of Contrition.”

“O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin. Amen.”

*******************

In June, Sharon Kish, the Senior Class President asked Anthony to direct the ‘Senior Class Night’ show – “What a Day for a Daydream.”  It was another great success. He graduated that June and was awarded a PTA Scholarship for outstanding contribution to the school. Anthony entered Cathedral College in New York City that September of 1966 to study for the priesthood, saw his first Broadway Show and grew up to be a director and homosexual.  Brad Reynolds went off to Vietnam and got married and had three kids and still lives in Newburgh. Anthony never saw Laura again.

“Well, they’ll stone you when you walk all alone.

They’ll stone you when you are walking home.

They’ll stone you and then say you are brave.

They’ll stone you when you are set down in your grave.

But I would not feel so all alone,

Everybody must get stoned.”

  http://www.nfayearbooks.com/1966/pg61a.jpg

 


 May 5, 1966   no responses

The Freshman & Sophomore Years

1966 -1968

In the fall of 1966, I attended Cathedral College, a preparatory seminary for the Archdiocese of New York.

Cathedral College was based on the old 6 year school system of 4 years of high school combined with college freshman and sophomore years. The final 6 years of junior and senior college years and 4 years of graduate work would be at St. Joseph’s Seminary up at Dunwoodie, Yonkers, NY. The school itself was on the corner of West End Avenue and W. 87th Street.  The dorm, known as the Bishop Ford Residence was on W. 86th Street between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West.

The West Side was not what it is today, the residence of the up and coming sophisticate. It was a raucous, dangerous, teeming collection of artists, pimps, drug dealers, Bolsheviks, liberals, homeless, struggling actors, musicians and students. The avenues were lined with decaying storefronts of Irish bars, Flea Market Thrift Shoppes, Chinese Laundries, Greek Coffee Diners, Jewish Dairy restaurants and SRO hotels. No one ventured above W. 72nd Street then known as Needle Park unless you lived up there.

After graduating NFA, Newburgh Free Academy, I enrolled myself for the study of the Roman Catholic priesthood. Of course, this was a big step for a boy to take. My mother, who you think would be ecstatic about being the mother of a priest, was not. She wanted me to get a job and contribute to the household. I had higher aspirations, priesthood or not and this conflict would escalate with her in the coming years.

The Bishop Ford residence was set up for the students from the upstate counties of the diocese. Classes were held Monday to Friday and we were free to go home on weekends.  The residence was a classic five -story limestone townhouse -first floor was parlor and dining room, second floor chapel and the upper floors were the sleeping rooms.

Since I was a freshman and sort of upper class to the high school attendees, I got to share a dormer room on the top floor facing 86th Street. My two roommates were Bob and Charles. Bob was in the top bunk, me on the bottom and Charles had his own single bed. There was a sink in the room, one closet and one communal bathroom per floor.

The day my mother dropped me off was very emotional. My father waited in the car since he could not come in due to his Parkinson’s disease.  My mom came up and as I dropped my valise on the floor we both burst into tears.  It was the first time I would be away for any extended period of time.

 My roommates were great guys. I am still in touch with Bob who lives in North Carolina. Every night, Bob would hop onto his top bunk, reach down and shake my hand and say good night when it was lights out. I dreamed of Charles in his single bed and longed to be next to him. I lost touch with Charles years later after an intense homo-erotic friendship.

Me, Dad and Mom

I was so excited to be back in New York City after my forced exile in Newburgh. I didn’t need a car to get around and I was free from my parents glare. The subway was my chariot. During the first week of classes I snuck out to see my first Broadway show at a Wednesday matinee.  For $3.75, I saw “Funny Girl” starring Mimi Hines who was great and had just replaced a then unknown to me, Barbra Streisand. I became a Broadway Baby and attended theatre at least once a week.  As a freshman, I got the keys to the front door so I could sneak in at night after curfew.  Some of the shows I saw that first year were:

Fiddler on the Roof

Man of La Mancha

Hello Dolly

Cabaret

The Rose Tattoo

Marat/Sade

Annie Get Your Gun

The Apple Tree

Right You Are, If You Think You Are

I Do! I Do!

Ilya Darling

Galileo

Hallelujah Baby!

Mame

Royal Hunt of the Sun

The School for Scandal

Cathedral College was a great place to study. I received a classic education of Latin, Greek, English Literature, Philosophy etc.  I had 32 classmates from all walks of life form Staten Island to Saugerties. They were mostly middle class immigrant sons: Irish, Italian, Polish, Puerto Rico and one Negro. We studied hard, prayed a little and played a lot in Central and Riverside Parks.  We wore jacket and tie to school and prayed in the chapel before dinner every night. Our Irish cook and sort of den mother, Mary prepared wonderful home-style meals on the first floor dining room of Bishop Ford. The two priests who resided with us never ate with us. In the evenings, sometimes we pulled all those college pranks what adolescent boys are wont to do from shorting of sheets to water balloons to snapping of towels in the showers.  We night we entirely dismantled a freshman room and set it up

in the basement.

To save the five dollar round trip bus fare to and from Newburgh, I stayed the weekends at my grandmother’s for the first few months. I would take the R train to the last stop at 95th Street in Bay Ridge Brooklyn.  My Polish grandmother would make dinner for me and my two uncles at 7pm. My uncle Eddy owned a fruit and vegetable store in the Sunset Park section and my Uncle Joey was a night watch man at Metropolitan Life. By 8pm both were gone for the night, one off prowling and drinking with his doll and the other uncle off to his nightshift.  I was alone with my hard of hearing grandma who went to bed at 8pm.

The first weekend there I turned on the radio after grandma went to bed and listed to very first opening night of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. Since grandma was asleep and deaf anyway, I turned up the volume way up and listened to Samuel Barber’s, new opera, “Antony and Cleopatra”.  It was difficult opera but Leontyne Price was in glorious voice.  I fell asleep on the kitchen table listening to Cleopatra’s final aria: “Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have Immortal longings in me.”

On Saturday, I helped my uncles in their store while my grandmother washed my clothes by hand and hung them out to dry from the 3rd story clothesline strung across the alleyway. It was an old fashioned fruit and vegetable store. The Old Norwegian ladies would select their produce and I would weigh it on a big white enameled scale that hung from the low ceiling. I would calculate the price in my head and write the amount on a small brown paper bag and put apples, potatoes or turnips in it. After all the weighing was done, I grabbed a brown shopping bag, took the pencil from behind my ear, licked the point and wrote all the amounts down ant tallied them up. I made change, put all the purchases in the shopping bag and handed the bag to the lady. I always was courteous and remembered to thank them very much and wish them a good weekend. Sometimes I delivered the packages and got a quarter tip.   My uncles gave me 5 dollars and I used this to see my beloved Broadway shows. The store was closed on Sunday as were all the stops except for the drugstores.

Before Saturday supper, my grandmother would polish my Uncle Ed’s shoes and  in a childlike game sort of way, he would say , “Thank you Mama”, and  give her a one dollar. She would then hand him a white stiffly starched shirt and he was off gallivanting around. I was alone again and I would often be susceptible to Saturday night fevers. Sometimes I went to the Harbor Theatre on Fourth Avenue to catch a double feature. Sometimes I walked under the Verrazano Bridge looking for love.  I never found love by the Straight and Narrows.

Sunday was 10am mass at the neighborhood parish church, St. Patrick’s.  We all ate a full Sunday dinner at 2pm that grandma had been preparing since the day before. At 3pm with my little suitcase filled with clean clothes and sheets, I   made a dash on the R Train to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to sing Vespers with the rest of my classmates. That night I usually went to the movies in Times Square with Bob. Sometimes it was a road show presentation with assigned seats and intermission – “The Sand Pebbles” or “Hawaii.”

I was intensely lonely that fall on the weekends. I was so happy when one my classmates, Paul asked me to come with him to visit his folks in Brewster New York one weekend. His parents were very Waspy so I felt I was visiting the set of “The Donna Reed Show.” I did my own laundry for the first time in their basement as Paul and I fooled around a little.  We did manage to catch the movie “Valley of the Dolls” that weekend. Wow did that movie affect me.

“When did I get, where did I
Why am I lost as a lamb
When will I know, where will I How will I learn who I am”

 

My love of theatre crossed over to the other side of the boards. I was assistant director on our school production of “Inherit the Wind” and “Murder in the Cathedral.” Every Christmas tide, the graduating class hosted Gaudeamus. This was a musical celebration held on the last day before we all went home for the holiday. I wrote and directed our musical satire based on “Damn Yankees” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” In my version of the musical mélange, we made fun of our Greek professor Father Wilders who is tempted by the devil and goes back to classical times to coach the Olympics! The highlight was a filmed sequence within the play which I edited ala Richard Lester. The cast got dressed in togas which I borrowed from my Sacred Heart Parish Passion Play costume collection and did a madcap version of the Olympic Games farcically reenacted in Riverside Park.

After Christmas break, I began going back home to Newburgh for weekends. I would grab my weekend suitcase, rush out of choir practice class at 2pm, catch the Broadway IRT Downtown local, ran like a banshee through the underground connecting tunnel to Port Authority to catch the 2:45pm ShortLine bus.

My parents picked me up at 4:45pm and dropped me off at my weekend job at the A&P. I worked in the Produce and Deli Dept. till 9pm and worked all day Saturday till 7pm. I was lucky to have this standing weekend arrangement with the A&P Manager, Mr. Smith who had take a shining to me. I was a very good employee. Of course, this was money to pay for the bus fare and all of my theatre going.

After work and a quick bite to eat at home, it was usually a movie with my Mom at the local Squire Cinema on Saturday night. I was slowly turning into a surrogate husband and I could feel the jealousy of my mother growing as I escaped every Sunday back to the city. That winter was when I first saw the film, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” I had heard or seen nothing like it before on the screen but the tensions, language and the dynamics eerily reminded me of my parent’s many furious arguments.

Martha: What a dump. Hey, w-what’s that from? “What a dump!”

George: How would I know?

Martha: Oh, come on, what’s it from? You know!

George: Martha…

Martha: What’s it from, for chrissake?!

George: What’s what from?

Martha: I just told you. I just did it. “What a dump!” Huh? What’s that from?

George: I havent’t the faintest idea.

Martha: Dumbbell.

So was the beginning and the end of my first two years of college. Bob would leave the studies for the priesthood after we graduated and go on to Marymount College up in Riverdale to become an engineer. He married a lovely nurse, moved to North Carolina and they had three handsome boys.

In 1969 Charles and I continued on to St. Joseph’s Seminary and continued on….like the symbiotic relationship between Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo in “Midnight Cowboy.” Continued on, little white, valise in hand… continued walkin’ on…

“Everybody’s talking at me. (click)
I don’t hear a word they’re saying,
Only the echoes of my mind.
People stopping staring,
I can’t see their faces,
Only the shadows of their eyes.

I’m going where the sun keeps shining
Thru’ the pouring rain,
Going where the weather suits my clothes,
Backing off of the North East wind,
Sailing on summer breeze
And skipping over the ocean like a stone.”

(To  be continued)

 February 1, 1966   no responses

EddiesDelicatessen.jpg image by edc3

As in most supermarkets, customers entered through the Produce Department to help generate sales. This was not unlike the major department stores having the jewelry and perfume on the main floor so the ladies hit that area first. Since the wives bought their husband’s clothes the men’s department was always on the upper less trafficked floors; unconsciously being drawn up the escalators through two or three floors of enticing women’s wear. In our store, the Produce Department led right to the Deli Department. So as you pushed your cart casually picking up some lettuce and tomatoes, you soon found yourself facing the appetizing display of the Delicatessen Department.

Harry Burns was the gruff manager of the Deli who reminded me of the character actor, Harry Morgan, the cigar chomping colonel on M*A*S*H. Nobody got along with Harry and he could never keep his help. Exacerbated, Mr. Smith, our store manager, would have to sometime relieve Mr. Burns for his mandatory union breaks and lunch hours. So after the latest clerk walkout, Mr. Smith asked me if I would do him a favor and transfer over to the Deli Department. It meant I had to join the Local Butchers Union, and pay dues but I would get a higher salary. It also meant not working with Dominic but the Produce Department was right next door, sharing the same swinging doors to the back area and I could relieve him for his breaks. I would do anything for Mr. Smith so I said yes.

The A&P delicatessen (from the German for delicacies) featured traditional items found in the old German, Jewish and Italian Delicatessens and Appetizing stores in the immigrant neighborhoods of New York City. The modern design was inspired by the old storefronts which all had a certain look. They were immaculately clean with black mirrored panels with mosaic tiles giving it a pristine antiseptic spa feel. The refrigerator cases were the most important; long gleaming polished aluminum cases looking like windows on the art deco ocean liner, SS Normandie.

From the German came all the classic cold cuts of hams, liverwurst and bologna; chains of bratwurst; white and yellow American cheese; cardboard tasting Swiss and drywall Muenster; golden skinned roasted turkeys, lustrously glazed baked hams, Neolithic Fred Flintstone sized roast beef rounds, toasted salmon croquettes, La Brea tar pits of baked beans and baked macaroni in foil cups; crab cakes with homemade tartar sauce only on Fridays. In long shiny trays were mounded two versions of potato salad – mayonnaise or German style; macaroni, tuna, chicken, egg, health, carrot &r raisin salads, Cole Slaw and for dessert creamy rice pudding, Nesselrode pie, tapioca and Jell-O mold filled with canned fruit.

From the Italian came baked spaghetti in a thick Franco-American style sauce; Spaldine sized meatballs; sweet and hot Italian sausages with glistening green peppers with onions in olive oil; peppery red capicola; leathery Mortadella with inset diamonds of green pistachios; white moldy skinned tubes of Genoa salami and sopresatta; hot and sweet pepperoni; onyx black and briny emerald green olives; – cracked, pitted or whole; marinated mushrooms buttons and dynamite proof nougat Torrone.

From the classic Jewish Deli came almost rust colored slabs of lox both belly and Nova Scotia, saffron chunks of Sable, whole golden white fish with Eddie Cantor eyes; cold smoked chubs, kippers, sturgeon and herring roll mops either pickled or creamy sauce; hockey puck sized potato or kasha knishes; sour and half sour green flecked pickles, bursting redolent of garlic; flakey corned beef and black spice encrusted, pastrami; kosher franks – cocktail and foot long; cream cheese with pimento and chives; pot cheese aka farmers cheese; iconic tawny chopped liver; boxes of Joya chocolate covered jelly rings and Turkish halvah, dried fruits & nuts and slabs of Jewish cheesecake – plain or pineapple. http://usrefrigeration.com/alpha/catalog/images/Deli%20Service%20Case%201.jpg

On the back wall hung bins holding Kaiser Rolls flecked with poppy seeds that got all over you when you picked one up; obdurate bagels – plain, sesame seed, onion, poppy and salted; sad little bialys; small Italian subs and long slender French; sour rye bread with seeds or plain and egg laden challah on Fridays for the Sabbath.

Below the Deli case was a ledge of densely pre-packaged breads from Germany; six packs of Anne Page frankfurter and hamburger rolls; bags of pistachio nuts; Polish Chrusciki dusted in powdered sugar; assorted Stella Dora cookies baked in the Bronx; cans filled with international foods – sour cherries, hearts of palm and anchovies; and varieties of mustards and horseradish.

In the middle of the working counter were two magnificent slicers with one dedicated just for slicing the Kosher-style items. At the far end stood a noisy rattling bread slicing machine while the other end held a rack of variously sized sharp knives. Underneath the ledge were racks holding different sized white bags to put the purchases in after wrapping them in brown butcher paper hanging on huge rolls. And a flip-up wooden counter shelf ran the length of the case. A swinging nautical portal door separated the public area from the back kitchen where food preparation and cleaning took place out of the customers view.

Well it didn’t take me long to figure out Harry Burns was as sweet as lobster meat with a hard shell exterior like Captain Von Trapp as played by Christopher Plummer. He had the attitude of a curmudgeon not suffering fools lightly including customers. Once he figured out that I knew what I was doing and was doing it well, he let his guard down and would trust me and made me his protégé. He would tell me ribald dirty jokes like a Borscht Belt comic.

Mr. Burns taught me how to roast 2/3 lb. chickens on the rotisserie, baking just enough to last through the day with no left-overs. I would take the birds out of the packaging and wash them in the prep sink in the back room. I gaily tossed kosher salt over them after patting down the wrinkly old lady like skins with paper towels. I pierced the gaping cavities through on a long black rod and fastened them in place like a Spanish Inquisition torturer with big iron medieval looking clips. I set the rods containing 4 or 5 chickens each in position in the oven and they revolved and revolved dripping on each other to a golden baste. When done I set them in white paper cardboard boats kept warm by an amber heat lamp so they resembled some alte cocker tanning on Miami Beach. When purchased they were put in aluminum lined bags to keep them warm like marathon runner finishers.

I had to bake huge galleons of roast beef. First I would take the 15 lb piece of meat out of its vacuum pack and wipe all the congealed blood off with my hands massaging the meat with kosher and onion salts; my palms stinging from any cuts I may have had. Sticking a thermometer in just right was an art so it would come out a perfect medium rare. It took constant watching. Once I was waiting so long on a trying customer that it came out well done. The store employees got to enjoy free dry roast beef sandwiches slathered with mayonnaise and horseradish to keep it moist!

Hams were easy. Well the hardest part was opening the tins of Krakus Polish Hams with a key that was affixed on the bottom of the can. You inserted the eye of the key on one end and carefully rolled all the way around the lid. They often broke and I used to cut my hand on the long thin strip of sharp tin that I now had to pull off with my fingers. Harry smartly invested in pliers which did the trick as I now could cleanly lift the ham out of the sharp edged tin and take it out of its plastic condom like encasing. I scored the surface with a paring knife in a nice diamond pattern putting a clove in each intersection, sprinkled on powered cloves, covered the entire masterwork in dark brown sugar, swirls of Gulden’s mustard and a jar of Hawaiian glaze oozing over all; crowned with beautifully decorated canned Dole pineapple rings and garnished with toxic maraschino cherries – done in about 45 minutes to an hour.

 

Slicing the meat was tricky. As Harry’s apprentice he instructed me very seriously and sternly on the use and safety procedures of the slicing machines. You flicked a little toggle switch to turn on the whirring blade as you adjusted it for the proper slicing thickness. Harry warned me dramatically like the Sorcerer in Disney’s Fantasia to always, always use the safety guard plate to hold the top of the meat in place with one hand as you pressed down on it as you caught escaping slices with the other; ladling them in a neat pile on white waxen paper. Concentrate on the task or the consequences may be a slice of thumb in Mrs. Schwartz’s chicken roll. Of course as the wicked young apprentice, I didn’t always listen as I waited on Andrew, one of Ralph’s roguishly handsome but arrogant friends. I kept looking over my shoulder to stare at his pecs under his NFA Tee shirt and engage him in foolish flirtatious conversation as I was slicing roast beef for his sandwich when – WHISH! – the top of my thumb caught the blade quickly. More blood than harm, Mr. Burns magically stopped the bleeding and helped me bandage it up. Andrew’s roast beef sandwich was moist that day!

I made myself tasty sandwiches at a discount for my lunch break experimenting with exotic combinations like ham and lox on a bialy or tuna and chive cream cheese on challah. I particularly liked the Braunschweiger liverwurst, very soft and was almost spreadable on bread with a soupcon of Dijon mustard. I sometimes had my break in the tiny lunch room behind the Produce case with Joe the Butcher but sometimes I would make an extra sandwich and bring it over to Ralphs’ who lived behind the store. I only took a half hour for lunch which gave me plenty of time to wolf down a sandwich and enjoy some of Ralph’s appetizing non-Kosher frank. Of course, lunch was only an excuse to visit him and sometimes I would wrap up my lunch and take it back for my afternoon break if I hadn’t had time to eat it and had already had my fill. Ralph enjoyed our tryst in a sadistic way; always threatening to tell his friend Andrew that I was a queer. I used to live in fear till I figured out that if he told him; he would have to own up to our being “pigs in the blanket.”

Waiting on customers was fun, engaging and also challenging. There were the regulars who came in every day and bought their bagel with smear or knish sliced in half with mustard. Then there was the pain in the asses who watched every move you made so you sliced everything to their precise order or to ensure I was not cheating them on weight or giving them the first slice before cutting their order. Even thought they protested that the first slice was dry and stale; they made me give it to them to taste. As I put the package on the scale to weigh they would peer up like Talmudic Scholars making sure the weight matched the price. “God Forbid!’ I made a mistake.

Slicing lox is a craft. I used a special knife that was long and thin that I dipped in hot water before I started my exquisite carvings. With voices sounding like Eve Arden or Molly Picon, I was always commanded to slice the lox on the bias as thin, thin, thin as possible. I think they thought they got more if I sliced it thinner! “Slice it thin!” shouted out Our Miss Brooks. I used to save the lox skins and wings for my favorite old Jewish lady, Mrs. Finkelstein who did Yahweh knows what with them. She carried off the little white bag holding it close as it if contained s the jewels of King Solomon’s Mines. Mrs. Gold always gave me a hard time, making me open up new pieces since she didn’t want the “stumps! or asking for the biggest rye which was sold by the piece, or making me go through the whole pile of sable for the perfect jewel. I was always polite to her as I packed the cold cuts, pressing down on them, mushing them a bit in passive aggressive glee. This was very successful with the braunschweiger!

Once again on Saturday night I had to clean the cases. This meant wrapping all the meats tightly in cellophane then putting all the now stale bread in big brown paper bags for the bakery return pickup on Monday. I ladled all the salads back into their big rotund metal tubs and stored them in the locker. Finally I would hose the case down with hot water so it was sparking clean for Monday. Cleanliness is next to godliness in a Deli. On Monday mornings, if Harry had off, I would take inventory having to weigh all the items, checking them off a huge master sheet. Then I had to tally it all up against last week’s totals, ask Mr. Smith for the gross Deli sales for the week and figure out the profit made. Good training for an unsuspecting future entrepreneur.

Within a month, the brand new Squire Village Cinema opened with the area exclusive premiere of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. For the gala opening, they had old-fashioned aeroplane up on the marquee which only lasted a week when a snow storm crushed it paper wings. I could now go to the movies right after work and walk home sometimes stopping for a “nightcap” at Ralph’s. When The Sound of Music finally came to Squire Cinema, I took Ralph to see it and share it with him. In the darkened theatre, taking a cue from Maria D’Auito at the gazebo scene where the Baron and Maria sang and kissed, I tried to sidle my leg next to his. I kept it hovering at such a humming bird hair breath width away he never felt it as I held my coat over my lap. Ralph fidgeted in his seat whenever a song came on (which only moved his leg closer to mine) and only became interested at the last scene when the Nazis arrived at the cemetary.  I ingeniously grabbed his arm when Rolf blew the whistle on the escaping Trapp family. The following month, I tried to get him to go see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by lying to him telling him there was nudity and lots of cursing, condemned by the Legion of Decency, but I ended up going alone. Most of it was over my head, but sitting in the empty matinee day theatre, I laughed out loud at some of acerbic lines tossed out by Elizabeth Taylor in a fright wig: “What a dump!’ What’s it from, for Christ’s sake?…some damn Bette Davis picture, some god-damned Warner Bros epic.” – “You make me puke!” and “You married me for it!”

 http://pro.corbis.com/images/JS1566112.jpg?size=67&uid=%7B55E93CC1-9FE6-4B5D-8B1B-89D87FC1FBEA%7D

Once in a while Ralph and Andrew would come to the store and stand behind my customers, sniggle and make lewd gestures. When it was Ralph’s turn to order, he leaned over the counter and slyly intimated that if I didn’t mark the price down he was going to tell his buddy Andrew – EVERYTHING. I made him two dry roast beef sandwiches at a good discount and threw in a container of stale potato salad from the back room at no cost just to get rid of them both.

One afternoon Ralph asked me over for “lunch.” I brought over some liverwurst sandwiches for us. I carefully opened up the sandwiches on his bedroom dresser and set out napkins and two bottles of Stewart’s Root Beer. He silently gestured me like the Gestapo to his bed. Jeopardy was playing on his black and white TV set as I unzipped his metallic fly on his dungarees. He pretended to watch the game show as he put his hands behind his head, flexing his muscles, sniggling as was his wont but now interspersed with stifled moans. Among his moans I thought I heard another snicker, I paused but was gruffly put back in place. I continued our luncheon until I heard a thither again. At that moment, the white slatted wooden closet doors whipped open and Andrew sprang out yelling, “Surprise! You’re on Candid Camera!” He had been watching all along through the interstices. Like a front runner he leapt onto the bed and gestured to me that I was to sit between the two boys. We were silent. “Today’s Jeopardy’s Final Question is in the category Theatre. He wrote The Importance of Being Earnest…” before I could open my mouth to answer Rolfe pushed my down on Andrew. They both grunted in tandem during the seven minutes of commercials. When Jeopardy’s MC, Art Fleming came back on, I took it as my cue to get the hell out of there since I completed my duties quickly. I jumped over Ralph, tripping on the rug, grabbing the dresser for balance as my hand smashed down the braunschweiger sandwich. I took a swig of Root Beer to wash my lunches down. Slamming the door, I yelled out “Oscar Wilde” as I ran back through the loading dock to the A&P.

 

Harry gave me a glare since I was late returning from lunch. Still breathless, I waited on the next customer trying to cover up my excitement with my apron. “Slice it thin! Make sure you slice it thin!” I sliced it as thin as I could so you could read the NY Times through it. I calmed down during the afternoon but still felt used and exposed but strangely excited at the same time  - feeling like a nun who had stolen a kiss like Julie Andrews looking up at Christopher Plummer in the gazebo except that it was not the Baron I who was kissing me but the Hitler Youth Rolf/Ralph.

 

Perhaps I had a wicked childhood

Perhaps I had a miserable youth

But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past

There must have been a moment of truth

 

For here you are, standing there, loving me

Whether or not you should

So somewhere in my youth or childhood

I must have done something good

http://us.movies1.yimg.com/movies.yahoo.com/images/hv/photo/movie_pix/twentieth_century_fox/the_sound_of_music/_group_photos/christopher_plummer1.jpg

Later on in the afternoon, feeling famished, I wolfed down a gall like mixture of Head Cheese dipped in white vinegar. I was angry at Ralph for putting me in that “position” and I am sure he thought he “got the guest” but who really got the guest?!  I knew what I wanted and I went for it. Ralph never came into the store again or did we ever have lunch again but I did meet Andrew a few times in the woods up by Thomas’s Rock. I now spent my lunch time either perusing the Broadway Show Album bin at the drug store next to the A&P or withthe adults – Mr. Smith or Dominick or my new friend Joseph the butcher. That “Walpurgisnacht” and for a few more nights, I would jump when the phone rang at home hoping it wasn’t Ralph blowing the whistle on me. Shortly, the Seminary would take me out of Newbugh and harms way and bring me to the Toyland or should I say Boyland of New York City. It wouldn’t take long for this Martha to come into his own and learn how to play “hump the host.”

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

“I’m not, Ralph, I’m not.”

http://misedjj.files.wordpress.com/2008/09/rolfe.jpg

Finale:

I eventually left the A&P when Mr. Smith joined Grand Union Supermarket and took me along with him. I became the Deli Manager during the summers between college semesters, roaming Orange, Ulster and Rockland Counties, relieving the regular mangers for their summer vacations.  My sister Karen replaced me when I went to graduate school. Thirty years later, she is the successful manager of a very busy Stop & Shop in Wallkill, NY and will retire with pension before me!