Born to Run (2016)
There was a circuit we could ride on our bikes that took us completely around the church and the rectory and back alongside the convent, rolling over the nuns’ beautiful, faded blue slate driveway. The slightly raised edges of the slate would send vibrations up through your handlebars, creating tiny pulsing rhythms in your hands, bump—ump—ump—ump … concrete, then back around we’d go again. Sleepy afternoons would pass with our winding in and out of the St. Rose compound, being scolded through the convent windows by the sisters to go home and dodging stray cats that wandered in between the church basement and my living room. My grandfather, now with nothing much to do, would spend his time patiently wooing these wild creatures to his side in our backyard. He could get near and pet feral cats that would have nothing to do with another human. Sometimes the price was steep. He came in one evening with a bloody foot-long scratch down his arm from a kitty that was not quite ready for the love.
The cats drifted back and forth from our house to the church just as we drifted to school, to home, to mass, to school again, our lives inextricably linked with the life of the church. At first the priests and nuns were just kind faces peering down into your carriage, all smiles and pleasant mystery, but come school age, I was inducted into the dark halls of communion. There was the incense, the men crucified, the torturously memorized dogma, the Friday Stations of the Cross (the schoolwork!), the black-robed men and women, the curtained confessional, the sliding window, the priest’s shadowy face and the recitation of childhood transgression. When I think about the hours I spent devising a list of acceptable sins I could spout on command … They had to be bad enough to be believable … but not too bad (the best was yet to come!). How much sinning could you actually have done at a second-grade level? Eventually, St. Rose of Lima’s Monday-through-Sunday holy reckoning would wear me out and make me want out … bad. But out to where? There is no out. I live here! We all do. All of my tribe. We are stranded on this desert island of a corner, bound together in the same boat. A boat that I have been instructed by my catechism teachers is at sea eternally, death and Judgment Day being just a divvying up of passengers as our ship sails through one metaphysical lock to another, adrift in holy confusion.
And so … I build my other world. It is a world of childhood resistance, a world of passive refusal from within, my defense against “the system.” It is a refusal of a world where I am not recognized, by my grandmother’s lights and mine, for who I am, a lost boy king, forcibly exiled daily from his empire of rooms. My grandma’s house! To these schmucks, I’m just another spoiled kid who will not conform to what we all ultimately must conform to, the only-circumstantially-theistic kingdom of … THE WAY THINGS ARE! The problem is I don’t know shit, nor care, about “the way things are.” I hail from the exotic land of … THINGS THE WAY I LIKE ’EM. It’s just up the street. Let’s all call it a day and just go HOME!
No matter how much I want to, no matter how hard I try, “the way things are” eludes me. I desperately want to fit in but the world I have created with the unwarranted freedom from my grandparents has turned me into an unintentional rebel, an outcast weirdo misfit sissy boy. I am alienating, alienated and socially homeless … I am seven years old.
Amongst my male classmates, there are mainly good souls. Some, however, are rude, predatory and unkind. It is here I receive the bullying all aspiring rock stars must undergo and suffer in seething, raw, humiliating silence, the great “leaning up against the chain-link fence as the world spins around you, without you, in rejection of you” playground loneliness that is essential fuel for the coming fire. Soon, all of this will burn and the world will be turned upside down on its ass … but not yet.
The girls, on the other hand, shocked to find what appears to be a shy, softhearted dreamer in their midst, move right onto Grandma’s turf and begin to take care of me. I build a small harem who tie my shoes, zip my jacket, shower me with attention. This is something all Italian mama’s boys know how to do well. Here your rejection by the boys is a badge of sensitivity and can be played like a coveted ace for the perks of young geekdom. Of course, a few years later, when sex rears its head, I’ll lose my exalted status and become just another mild-mannered loser.
The priests and nuns themselves are creatures of great authority and unknowable sexual mystery. As both my flesh-and-blood neighbors and our local bridge to the next life, they exert a hard influence over our daily existence. Both everyday and otherworldly, they are the neighborhood gatekeepers of a dark and beatific world I fear and desire entrance to. It’s a world where all you have is at risk, a world filled with the unknown bliss of resurrection, eternity and the unending fires of perdition, of exciting, sexually tinged torture, immaculate conceptions and miracles. A world where men turn into gods and gods into devils … and I knew it was real. I’d seen gods turn into devils at home. I’d witnessed what I felt was surely the possessive face of Satan. It was my poor old pop tearing up the house in an alcohol-fueled rage in the dead of night, scaring the shit out of all of us. I’d felt this darkness’s final force come visit in the shape of my struggling dad … physical threat, emotional chaos and the power to not love.
In the fifties the nuns at St. Rose could play pretty rough. I’d once been sent down from the eighth grade to first for some transgression. I was stuffed behind a first-grade desk and left there to marinate. I was glad for the afternoon off. Then I noticed someone’s cuff link reflecting the sun upon the wall. I dreamily followed its light as it crawled up beyond the window toward the ceiling. I then heard the nun say to a beefy little enforcer in the center first-row desk, “Show our visitor what we do in this class to those who don’t pay attention.” The young student walked back to me with a blank expression on his face and without a blink let me have it, openhanded but full force, across my face. As the smack rang through the classroom I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I was shaken, red-faced and humiliated.
Before my grammar school education was over I’d have my knuckles classically rapped, my tie pulled ’til I choked; be struck in the head, shut into a dark closet and stuffed into a trash can while being told this is where I belonged. All business as usual in Catholic school in the fifties. Still, it left a mean taste in my mouth and estranged me from my religion for good.
Back in school, even if you remained physically untouched, Catholicism seeped into your bones. I was an altar boy waking in the holy black of four a.m. to hustle myself over wintry streets to don my cassock in the dawn silence of the church sacristy and perform ritual on God’s personal terra firma, the St. Rose altar, no civilians allowed. There I sucked in incense while assisting our grumpy, eighty-year-old monsignor before a captive audience of relatives, nuns and early-rising sinners. I proved so inept not knowing my positions and not studying my Latin that I inspired our Monsignor to grab me by the shoulder of my cassock at one six a.m. mass and drag me, to the gasping shock of all, facedown on the altar. Later that afternoon in the play yard, my fifth-grade teacher, Sister Charles Marie, who’d been present at the thrashing, handed me a small holy medal. It was a kindness I’ve never forgotten. Over the years as a St. Rose student I had felt enough of Catholicism’s corporal and emotional strain. On my eighth-grade graduation day, I walked away from it all, finished, telling myself, “Never again.” I was free, free, free at last … and I believed it … for quite a while. However, as I grew older, there were certain things about the way I thought, reacted, behaved. I came to ruefully and bemusedly understand that once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic. So I stopped kidding myself. I don’t often participate in my religion but I know somewhere … deep inside … I’m still on the team.
This was the world where I found the beginnings of my song. In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. I found a land of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward. It was a glorious and pathetic place I was either shaped for or fit right into. It has walked alongside me as a waking dream my whole life. So as a young adult I tried to make sense of it. I tried to meet its challenge for the very reasons that there are souls to lose and a kingdom of love to be gained. I laid what I’d absorbed across the hardscrabble lives of my family, friends and neighbors. I turned it into something I could grapple with, understand, something I could even find faith in. As funny as it sounds, I have a “personal” relationship with Jesus. He remains one of my fathers, though as with my own father, I no longer believe in his godly power. I believe deeply in his love, his ability to save … but not to damn … enough of that.
The way I see it, we ate the apple and Adam, Eve, the rebel Jesus in all his glory and Satan are all part of God’s plan to make men and women out of us, to give us the precious gifts of earth, dirt, sweat, blood, sex, sin, goodness, freedom, captivity, love, fear, life and death … our humanity and a world of our own.
The church bells ring. My clan pours out of our houses and hustles up the street. Someone is getting married, getting dead or being born. We line the church’s front walkway, waiting, my sister and I picking up fallen flowers or thrown rice to be packed away in paper bags for another day to shower upon complete strangers. My mother is thrilled, her face alight. Organ music, and the wooden doors of our church swing open upon a bride and groom exiting their wedding ceremony. I hear my mother sigh, “Oh, the dress … the beautiful dress …” The bouquet is tossed. The future is told. The bride and her hero are whisked away in their long black limousine, the one that drops you off at the beginning of your life. The other one is just around the corner waiting for another day to bring the tears and take you on that short drive straight out Throckmorton Street to the St. Rose graveyard on the edge of town. There, on spring Sundays, visiting bones, boxes and piles of dirt, my sister and I run, playing happily amongst the headstones. Back at church, the wedding is over and I take my sister’s hand. By nine or ten years old, we’ve seen it all plenty of times. Rice or flowers, coming or going, heaven or hell, here on the corner of Randolph and McLean, it’s just all in a day’s work.