Never Forgetting...

 

There’s a contemporary chestnut that states, “If you remember the 60’s, you probably weren’t there.”
Depending on who you were and what you did, you could say the same for the ’80s. Boston’s Theater District was the fancy name for what was better known as The Combat Zone. Strip clubs, streetwalkers and porn shops ruled the region. There actually was a couple of legitimate theaters, along with some cabarets and comedy club or two.
It was very much the setting where young Bruce Wayne and his parents got mugged on their way back to the car.
I ran with a circus of Land Pirates, Poet Warriors, and Indulgence. Paige and I shared a casual FWB relationship that bordered on Sid and Nancy, stopping just short of actual heroin.
One morning in her Tremont Street high rise, I woke to a muffled sound in the hallway. I stumbled to the door and opened it to a blaring klaxon of the fire alarm and a smoke-filled hallway. I was still half blasted from the night before but I tried to do the impossible. I tried to wake up Paige. She was still passed out cold.
Like they say, things were kind of moving in slow motion. Not being able to get Paige up and running was creating an “Oh Geez, what do I do, what do I do” but I wasn’t, thankfully, panicking.
I drunkenly stepped into my pants, trying not to lose my balance and crack my skull, and slipped on whatever I wore on my feet the night before. I don’t remember what Paige had on, but it was enough to cover up things that needed to be covered up. I have no idea if I got her shoes on.
I grabbed a blanket and dragged Paige’s dead weight to her feet and, thankfully, she evolved into a closed eye mumble stumble state and somehow, someway, I got her down the stairwell. I don’t remember what time of year it was, but the air was cold and crisp enough to bring her around and get her head a little clearer.
This was her wake up call. She cleaned up her act big time, years before I did, but she never judged me.
We just didn’t run in the same circles anymore.
For the next ten years, she would always answer my occasional three am drunk phone calls. They weren’t booty calls. I would call to tell her how miserable I was and how much I envied her.
When my second drunk driving arrest required mandatory AA meetings, I turned over a new leaf and continued going long after my charge was dismissed. Paige invited me to join her at her meetings whenever I was back in Boston. She got me my one year coin.
She became some kind of motivational speaker and life coach. I never knew the details, but I knew she was doing something good. She would always introduce me to people as the guy who saved her life. The way she put it, it sounded like I effortlessly threw her over my shoulder and rode out of the burning building on a white horse. It was a little embarrassing but she was always so happy to tell the tale.
I took off on a three-year drive around North America, Wherever I stopped, I would take something that wasn’t nailed down in the hotel room, a channel list for the TV, a card that introduced the maid by name or maybe a card from a nearby pizza delivery joint. Whatever it was, I would flip it over to the blank side, write Paige’s address, throw a stamp on it and drop it in the mailbox. No message. It was just a way of saying, “All is well.”
A few years later my sobriety wasn’t bringing me a lot of positivity, but I stayed sober. I got married and both of us quickly became aware that neither of us was who the other thought they married.
I stopped gigging and got a very well paying job that was mind-numbingly dull and soul-crushing so that we could have medical insurance.
During the ’80s, I kind of forgot to do my taxes and I had a one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollar debt to the IRS that was in limbo but still racking interest and penalties. When they saw that I had a regular paycheck they garnished my wages and I had to scramble around evenings and weekends to keep us afloat.
August 2001, Paige called. In the years that had gone by, she had married a very well to do fellow and they lived in a big house just outside of Boston. She was throwing a huge birthday party for her mom out back in the really big backyard. Her mom had always been a big fan of my work and Paige wanted to add me to the list of performers she booked for the party. Awesome.
I went right from work, left my suit jacket and tie in the car, opened a few buttons and worked out a spoken word bit over a walking bass line with the ‘house’ band.
It was nice to see Paige and her mom. Paige and I were never intimate again after the fire, but we had history and she was someone very special despite our paths that led further apart over time.
Tuesday, September 11th, the world stood still. The skies were ghostly and silent. People began quietly talking with other people who they hardly knew.
Two days later my phone rang. It was Paige’s best friend, crying hysterically. Paige was in the plane that hit the second tower. She was on her way to some seminar in California. The hijackers purposely picked long-distance flights because those planes had the most fuel.
She was out of her mind with grief, but before I could grasp what she had said, she added, “You saved her life once. Why couldn’t you have done it one more time.”
It was a one-two punch and I guess it was the camel’s last straw. That and everything else that was going on turned me into a functioning but emotionally numb robot for the next several years.
Then, after a divorce, out from under that impossible debt (via bankruptcy) and back to my ‘real’ job, I moved back to New York City and wanted to contact Paige’s mom. It took some doing, but I made contact. She was happy to hear from me and I always sent her a little note on Paige’s birthday and on that… other thing.
Then several emails went unanswered. Somebody finally told me that they think she passed away.
I never delete email addresses of people who have died. I’m afraid to. I don’t know why. I just am. Paige and I didn’t have email, even after the web took over everybody’s life.
I have something else.
During my travels, Paige was intrigued with my roughin’ it lifestyle. The hotel rooms were few and far between. I’d camp out in my car most the time.
Paige gave me a book. It was a book about camping and woodcraft from the early 1900s. It was fascinating and ingenious.
I throw out a lot of things. I don’t keep books after I’ve read them. But I still have that book. I think it’s the only book I actually have and it’s traveled with me through all my living situations.
I hardly ever called her just 'Paige'. It was often Paige Marie or Paige Marie Bridee (both her middle names). To me, it sounded like a halcyon time, with sunny skies, blooms on bushes, ladies in Laura Ashley dresses and men in seersucker suits.
The photo up top is from the wall along the Union Square Subway Station in NYC. I still haven’t gone to see her at the 9/11 memorial. From what I hear, I don’t think I could handle all the people taking selfies.
Hi, Paige Marie Bridee. Thinking of you today. All is well. I hope you like what I wrote.

Part Six: Second Chances (from Wake Up and Eat: Observations of cats from Feral to Domestic)

Having Baby slip away across the rainbow bridge was the first time I had ever held a cat while it passed away. On two occasions I had gone with people when their cats had to be taken in to be put to sleep. The first time was with Irene, and I gave her (and Cleo) time alone in the other room. The second time was with my stepdad and I stayed in the room with him.

I got my first cat when I was twelve. My mom divorced when I was two and it was just the two of us for many years. She refused visitation rights, which was just as well as he ran off to Florida with another woman and started another family. She didn’t even want child support.

We tried several times to get a pet. One puppy from the pet store died in a matter of days, probably from distemper. Then we got a bunny and, shortly after that, we somehow got a dog. It was a grown scraggy terrier mutt. The dog scared the bunny to death (that can happen very easily) and then he snapped at me when I tried to move his bowl while he was eating. I think he got his walking papers the next day.

I don’t know where the snarly mutt came from or where he went. I was only about nine at the time. A good guess would have been from my grandmother who lived a few blocks away. She was your quintessential crazy Bronx dog and cat lady right out of Central Casting. It was only a four-room apartment but she always had a core group of six dogs and an ever-changing circus of cats. All strays, cats and dogs alike, and none of them fixed. One of the two bedrooms was a bare bones space for whatever was in heat. It never completely worked.
The linoleum in the fair sized living room was stained and warped from years of piddle puddles.

Long story short, that was how I got Tiger.

We were living in Queens by then. I honestly don’t remember how Tiger made it to our apartment. Suddenly I had a cat and I had a feeling this one was going to stick around longer. Tiger just made herself at home and assumed the duties of being my cat. She followed me wherever I went without being obnoxious. She slept on my bed with me. We didn’t have any cat toys back then but she liked a rolled up ball of paper just fine.

I would like to think, and I’m probably right, that Tiger just wanted a home and she was happy to have one. There is one other explanation and maybe both explanations are true.
Tiger turned out to be a Madonna in Waiting. A pregnant cat getting ready to nest. This is even true with many pregnant ferals as well. They’ll be very friendly to anybody who looks like a kind soul with a safe place to be in during their vulnerable state. Sometimes this turns out to be a permanent relationship. Sometimes it’s just, “Hey, see ya. Thanks a lot,” especially after her litter gets old enough to be taken away and given homes. You’d be surprised how many Madonnas will actually be convinced to take a spot inside after they’ve carefully checked it out. They might even stay forever but they’ll probably want to remain an inside/outside cat.

I used to have a habit of going through the motions of hanging my coat on a hook in my closet but, most of the time, just letting it slip off and fall on the floor. Hey, I was good at science and math. Not so good on home economics.

One of my uncles gave me a really cool black leather coat with a black and gold fleece lining. You guessed it. Tiger gave birth to five or six babies on my coat. I couldn’t blame her. She had good taste.

A year later, long after her babies were adopted and long after that coat was thrown out, I heard some tiny cries from outside the window and down in the alley between the two apartment buildings. It was two tiny kittens all alone. I ran downstairs and checked it out. I couldn’t figure out where these babies came from so I just scooped them up and brought them upstairs.

I showed them to Tiger and I told her, “Tiger, you have to take care of these babies.”

She stepped up to the task immediately and then something miraculous happened. She started nursing again and the rest was history. Just like when she had her natural litter, she cried and searched for these kittens after they were old enough to be adopted. This is always heartbreaking to watch but it passes.








Just like my crazy cat grandma, getting pets fixed just didn’t seem like something people did back then. I don’t remember even ever seeing a Vet office in either my Bronx or Queens neighborhoods. Poor Tiger went through several heats, crying out for a boyfriend. She never strayed outside but we made extra sure all windows and doors were secure during these episodes. Who knows, it probably kept male suitors from getting inside as well.

Shortly after my mom and I first moved to Queens, before I got Tiger, I became a recluse. I don’t know why. I had been placed in the top track for my last year in elementary school. Nothing in particular bothered me, but I would just come home after school, eat cookies and sleep until my mom came home from work. By the next year I was the second fattest kid in my 7th grade Junior High School class.






My mom was seeing a fellow quite regularly and, sure enough, they sat down with me about what I thought about them getting married. Sure, why not. He was a good guy. Some time later, they told me that my mom was expecting and I was fine with that too.

Either I was having a suppressed reaction to my mom getting married or I was tired of being the fat kid who got beat up in school. I don’t know which it was but I became anorexic. I’m not bandying the term around lightly. We didn’t even know what anorexia was back then. Okay, I also gained five inches and I was pushing 5’8”, but it wasn’t the ‘stringbean effect’.

From 7th grade to the end of 8th grade I ate one ‘meal’ a day- a piece of meat and a piece of broccoli. When I came home for lunch, my mom was at work and I had one diet cookie (there was a product called Metrecal back then). I didn’t eat dinner until I moved my bowels and I did five hundred situps every night. Okay, so the situps were in bed and it was a lot more comfortable than a gym floor or mat but five hundred situps no less. I was obsessed with staying under 99 pounds. I had gone from being the second fattest kid in 7th grade to being the second skinniest kid in 8th grade.





There were a number of Specialized High Schools in New York City. At some point during 9th grade my home room teacher suggested I take the test for The High School of Art and design. I received a date to come to the school (it was in Manhattan), bring a portfolio and take further tests while I was there. A lot of kids showed up that day. They must have given the student body the day off because they divided us up into small groups and placed us in all the classrooms.

We left our portfolios at the teacher’s desk, grabbed a copy of the test and sat down. I couldn’t find it to show you, but my portfolio included a pencil sketch of Tiger sleeping by a radiator. The only part of the test that I remember was to draw something right then and there at your desk, just to prove you were the creator of that portfolio. The assignment was to draw a young woman shopping for clothes. A few weeks later I was informed that I passed and I was instructed to show up for orientation on the first school day in September.

Everything had come together. For the first time I had a whole family with a sister or brother on the way. I think the joy and confidence I experienced by getting accepted to Art and Design stabilized and normalized my weight. I had a great cat.

Then it all went upside down and backwards.

My sister was born that June and, during that summer, something disturbing was going on with her. After a couple of doctor office visits, it was determined that a LOT was going on with her and none of it was good.

She was diagnosed with severe brain damage, epilepsy, minimal seeing ability (from what they can gauge at that age). Seeing a tiny baby have a seizure that could kill a horse was something I wish on no one. Even greater than my dashed hopes of having a sister, something all my friends and cousins seemed to have, my parents were beyond devastation.

They had very little patience for your average American teenager, let alone a teenager who was about to enter a circus of beatniks, freaks and hippies. I was walking on eggshells at home, trying not to make my step father go ballistic or my mother burst into tears, both from their frustration and heartache.

I stayed away from home more and more. There was one of those small security chains inside our apartment door. My stepfather put it on at 10 o'clock sharp and they went to bed. If I came home anytime after that the chain would make a racket while it kept the door from opening, followed by my stepfather raising high holy hell for having to get up and take off the chain.

I spent several nights in Central Park, where I ran into the real life denizens depicted in the musical Hair. I’d pick the longest subway lines and sleep in a far corner seat back and forth from first stop to last stop and back again.

The God of Irony must have laughed his ass off when I got a job at a Drug Abuse and Mental Health hotline. I always volunteered for the overnight shift. I’d do my homework, take a nap, talk some kid down from an acid trip, rinse, repeat.

There’s a reason why I have dragged you through this unexpected ‘woe is me’ biography. I was angry and I didn’t even know how angry I was. I took it out on Tiger. I took it out on the one living thing that deserved it the least. The one creature that would have been there, and she tried, to be there for me no matter what.

When I was home, I’d kick her out of my way. I’d throw her off the bed when she wanted to join me. She just kept coming back, wanting to be with me and probably very confused at what was going on.

For the year after High School, I just stumbled around the city, going from one part time job to another. Things felt so disconnected that in my mind’s eye, it seemed like I was talking to my mom on the phone. She told me Tiger was walking around crying a lot and they thought there must be something wrong with her and they were going to take her to be put to sleep.

If I managed any response, it was no more than, “Okay. Whatever.”

This amazing cat didn’t know what was going on. She was probably dying from a broken heart. She was put in a box and left with strangers who probably threw her in a cage until it was time to grab her, jab her and put her to sleep forever.

It wasn’t until years later that I fully recalled and reconstructed how I treated her and how I wasn’t there for her. If there is a hell, I’m probably going there for what I did to her.

We moved to Boston. I actually, for the first time, got a girlfriend. She and her roommates had a bunch of cats. Suddenly they had to move and, for some reason, the cats couldn't come with them. My job, unbeknownst to my parents, was to bring them one of the cats. I pretty much came in, said, “Hi. Here’s a cat. Bye.”

They called her Snoopy. I believe she had vet visits during her life. When the time came, my mom was with her when she was put to sleep. The vet mentioned that she had recently had to do the same to one of her cats. I think the last thing my mom heard was the vet asking Snoopy to say hi to her cat when she saw her. My mom cried for days.

Sometime after Snoopy, the lady next door told my folks that there was a scraggy little calico cat in the lot behind their house. By the end of the day, my folks had her upstairs in their apartment and they let her eat and sleep in a nice dark safe corner under the couch. Veterinary care was now a thing people did in my family. They gave the cat some crazy fancy name, like Miss Lulu Belle or something, but, as far as I know, they channeled Holly Golightly and just called her Cat. Add to that, my step father was the only person she’d let anywhere near her. I think that was the only way she could have had vet visits.

Over the span of Miss Lulu Cat’s tenure we lost my mom and then, not long afterward, my sister. Oh yes, I didn’t mention that my parents kept my very challenged sister home for all of her forty five years. For all those years, she never improved beyond an adult crib and a special wheelchair that propped her up into a sitting position. My parents hand fed, changed her diapers and bathed her.

My step dad, who I've actually referred to as my dad for years, was a changed man. In what seemed like a blink of an eye everything he had built his life around was gone. My parents always took separate vacations, as they had a few bad experiences with respite programs. One of them was always with my sister.

I came back up to Boston twice to handle the final arrangements for my mom and, then, my sister. At least he still had Lulu Cat Belle.

This was around the time that I went back to the Bronx and formally started looking after the cats out back.

You heard all the names- Hobo, Old Man, Chad, Frankie and, yes, there really was a Ben Affleck. I named Liza and Elsa after Liza Minelli and Elsa Lanchester. I just referred to them by their first names, especially in Irene’s presence. Despite her history of having several cats, and despite the many occasions I cat-sat for her while she was away, she would kind of give me that sing-song “I don’t know about you” when my interests would suddenly take off in a curious direction. Think of it as Sherlock Holmes and Mrs. Hudson.

Frankie was one guy who spanned many phases of The Space Monkeys. Yeah, I needed an official name for my colony just in case I did get recognized by the TNR program.





He started out as a member of the ‘missionary soup kitchen’. He always seemed a little punch drunk. His beautiful blue eyes always had a terrible chronic eye infection that I would have gladly paid to get treated but, as I mentioned, it was just daunting. I wished he had been around during the Cat Lady experience. We might have trapped him and got him all fixed up from here to the moon but hindsight is a wish that you already know didn’t come true.

He would come and then go for longer and longer periods of time until I’d be certain he was dispatched by one of the many dangers out there. Then he’d show up again.

He had the markings of a Siamese, except his face didn’t follow the Siamese color schemes I had seen. He had a black cowl and a bright white muzzle. It looked like he had a Batman mask. When I told Irene that I named him Frankie, she thought it was an homage to Frank Sinatra’s famous blue eyes. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that Frankie was short for Frankenstein because he looked like he was made out of two different cats.

A friend of mine pointed out, “Heater, all cats are made out of two different cats.”

(note: It’s also been pointed out that he might have been a ragdoll cat. As G.I. Joe says, “And now you know… and learning is half the battle.”)

Okay, so we’re back to Grem, Liza, Elsa and the Three Amigos.

I had wisely reached out on GoFundMe for help taking care of even this brood. Not only did people provide enough for a steady supply of cat food, they made it possible for me to send away for some real cat shelters.






I added some insulated drapes I had plus I lined each ‘cabana’ with those heat reflective cat mats that I mentioned. Not too shabby, if you ask me.

I noticed Grem had a strange trait and still does to this day. She’s sociable to a fault when it comes to cats outside the colony. She hides when any person other than me is in the area, which I prefer, especially when she’s outside.

But she’d run up and want to play with any newcomer that wandered through the yard. As you might guess, this was not taken well. Also, Grem didn't know how to fight. She knew how to play fight with her friends, especially Buddy Amigo, but she would constantly get her ass kicked by transients. These strangers would run off when I came outside but, on many occasions, she'd run off after them.

The need to turn her into being a full time house cat was weighing heavy. I wish I had never transitioned her back into the outside, even if she did spend half her time indoors. Again, think back to what I said about hindsight and wishes.

When her outside days were uneventful, life was good, but she was getting into more and more fights each week.To compound the situation, some idiot down the block got a Bengal cat. I don’t know what generation it was. Bengals are supposed to be downbred and ‘diluted’ with each generation of breeding with a non Bengal. That was moot as all Bengals are illegal in New York City anway. This one was always getting out. It was an unfixed aggressive male and, before long, Grem was its favorite target.

Living in a tiny basement rear studio apartment made it a lot easier to keep an eye on things but I wasn’t glued to the window and, yes, I actually had places to go to during the week.

It was on a quiet late Autumn afternoon and I was engrossed in writing something at my desk, much as I am doing right now. Six feet away, on the other side of the back door, the most desperate cries mixed with the sounds of rumble and tumble broke the silence into a million shards. The Bengal had Grem in the corner where the door met an outcropping wall and seemed to be tearing into her like crazy. I burst through the door and the Bengal took off for the woods. I picked up Grem and examined her. No blood and no other wounds that could be seen, but she was shaking like a leaf with her pupils dilated to full black.

I just held her in my arms and whispered, “I’ll never ever let anybody hurt you.”

She began her life in a drainage ditch. Somehow she got trapped by some TNR group and, somehow, I called the Cat Lady and got pressed into housing that week’s group of caught cats… one of which was Grem.

She even dodged, with my help, whatever might have happened to her when that racoon was trying to get into her cage.

After all that, I was not going to let her get brutally maimed or even killed by a vicious animal that had no business being in the population. As angry as I was, I wasn’t going to kill or hurt the Bengal. I’d just chase it off with the garden hose, even when Grem wasn’t outside. It wasn’t his fault. Idiots bring illegal exotic creatures into the city all the time. News stories about full grown alligators and tigers being raised from infancy and kept in an apartment didn’t even get a raised eyebrow from the average New Yorker.

I had the TNR cage that was a gift from a GoFundMe sponsor but I was adrift at sea with no paddle as far as getting anything I trapped fixed. Of course, I devilishly daydreamed of trapping the Bengal, getting him neutered and then letting him back out.

Something had to happen, for better or worse, to break out of this scenario. Once again, wurtzite boron nitride and Mount Augustus were laughing at my helplessness.Time and space suddenly went up and down and over and out and it was crystal clear. I remembered Tiger and how my insensitivity and neglect played so much into her terrible ending. I will never forgive myself for that but, in some kind of weird inversion, the mission now was to take care of Grem. Maybe I would not only save her, but my soul as well.

Something happened. For better or worse, it did indeed happen.

Agnus Dei by Heater Case

 



Agnus Dei

by Heater Case


I was born in late October, so I always started every grade a little younger than the others. I was still five years old when I started first grade.


I was told to listen to the nuns, to obey the nuns.


They all had two names, two first names. These were names of saints, of course, and gender didn’t matter. Thinking back, they all had names like news anchors and disk jockeys.


Our first-grade nun seemed as new to all of this as we were. She was young and sweet and we all loved her. She taught us songs. She had us make up songs. She was fun.


Three of us, another boy, a girl and myself, were her favorites.


We all heard stories about the other nuns and the kind of discipline that was being dished out. But, if this is what a nun is like, it couldn’t be that bad.


I was told to listen to the nuns, to obey the nuns.


After the holidays, she seemed changed. Even at my young age, I thought she seemed quieter, distracted, sad.


One day in late Spring and she called me to the back of the room for something. I don’t remember what the issue was but something was wrong. I think she thought I did something wrong. I don’t know if that was the extent of it or if I told her that I didn’t do whatever she said I did.


A full swing of her robed arm and a full-on smack across my face.


I was stunned. Yes, it stung like a son of a bitch, a lightning strike followed by a burning on the entire left side of my face. But I was more stunned than hurt.


I felt like I was standing at attention before her, below her gaze. I just looked up at her and tried not to cry. My lip trembled. I guess tears started to well up.


Then she suddenly broke down and she hugged me. She pulled me in tightly against her and held me. I remember getting her thick robes wet with tears and runny nose. I don’t know if she actually said she was sorry but I heard it in her hug.


The other nuns had gotten to her, I guess. I don’t remember seeing her after that first year. I wonder how long she lasted, which path she took after that. I wonder if she left or if she was sent away for being too soft.


Second grade started and corporal punishment became the norm. It seemed like they not only hit kids when they were ‘bad’, but they hit them when they were good.


I remember being called to the front of the class to answer a question. The nun had me back up until I was flush against the blackboard. Then she grabbed a handful of hair on the top of my head. She asked the question.


I gave the right answer. I remember this because she then proceeded to bang my head against the blackboard, not enough knock me out but enough to hurt, with each syllable in her reply.


“That’s. Right. You’re. A. Ver. Ry. Good. Lit. Tle. Boy. Are. N’t.You?”


My mom and I lived with my grandparents, her parents, at the time. My father left us when I was two. As I often describe that household, there were always a couple of stray uncles and aunts laying around. The idea of nuns keeping discipline brought chuckles about ‘rulers on the knuckles’ and ‘a paddle on the behind’.


I was told to listen to the nuns, to obey the nuns.


The nuns were always right.


We spent six to seven hours a day with these women. We were told at home to give them the same respect we gave our families. There was a Stockholm Syndrome aspect to it all. The candy store on the corner must have made a pretty penny from selling us plastic rosaries and cheap vinyl clip-on pen and pencil holders that snapped on and hung from our belts, just like the sisters.


We strove to please them and we watched in rigid silence as they punished others.


They must have punished the girls at one time or another, but it seemed like the boys got the worst of it.


Third grade. I had a brand new pair of shoes. They were chafing the back of one of my feet, above the heel, especially after a good round of running around the schoolyard at lunchtime. We were back in class and I quietly used my other foot to slip my shoe halfway off my foot to get some relief.


The asshole one row over and one seat back thought it would be hilarious to kick that shoe out from under my foot and it slid a good ten feet under the other desks. The nun was well into showing something, maybe long division, on the board and turned to see me raising my hand.


“What!” she yelled. She seemed incredulous that I had the nerve to interrupt her.


“Could I go get my shoe?”


“What?”


“Could I get my shoe? It’s over there.”


She glared and, in an angry low voice said, “Go get your shoe.”


I got up and grabbed it and turned to go back to my seat.


“No,” she said, “come up here.”


I came up to her desk.


“Now take off your other shoe.”


I was confused, but of course, I did as I was told.


“Now throw them both in the trash can.”


At this point I was getting pretty frightened, but…


I was told to listen to the nuns, to obey the nuns.


The nuns were always right.


I threw both my shoes into the wastepaper basket.


“Now go back to your desk and sit down.”


I did.


She then went and opened the metal door in the wall next to the blackboard and pulled out the telephone handset for the school’s intercom. She turned her back to the class and whispered into it.


Then she turned around, looked across the room and said to me, “I just spoke to the Principal.”


The principal was also a nun, of course.


“At three o’clock, everybody gets to go home except you. A bus is coming for you. You’re being taken to reform school and you’re going to be put in a stone cell and you’ll sleep on a pile of hay. You’ll only be allowed to see your parents for ten minutes a year.”


I started crying my eyes out and pleading with her not to do this. Every time I went up to her desk she just laughed and then screamed at me to go back to my desk.


I don’t know if she ever went back to the long division lesson. I just put my head on my desk and cried into my arms for the remainder of the school day.


This must have been close to two hours, from wayward shoe to exhausted from crying.


The bell rang. I looked up. I looked at her. She just glared at me while the other kids went home. I imagined the men from the reform school were going to come in at any moment.


She said, “Get your shoes.”


I got my shoes, my brand new shoes, out of the wastepaper basket.


She said, “Put them on.”


I put them on.


And then simply said, “Go home.”


That was it, ”Go home.”


Confused, trembling, somehow even grateful to this monster, I walked out of the class as fast as I could. I did not run. There was to be no running in the building.


I was told to listen to the nuns, to obey the nuns.


The nuns were always right.


I went to my grandparents’ apartment. By then, my mom and I had moved out into an apartment across the courtyard from my grandparents and the stray uncles and aunts.


I was nine years old and perhaps one of the original Latchkey Childen. My mom would wake me up just before she left for work. She would kiss me goodbye and I would lock the door behind her. Then I’d get dressed, make my own breakfast and leave for school, locking up the apartment with my very own key. I would spend a few hours after school with my grandparents until my mom came home.


I told nothing of what happened to my grandparents. I didn’t tell my mom. I went back to school the next day and it all seemed like nothing had happened.


I don’t remember any other physical or psychological assaults that might have happened the rest of third grade. They might have happened. I just don’t remember.


Fourth grade came around and something was going wrong with me. I couldn’t retain anything that was being taught. I stopped doing my homework. My family would ask why I wasn’t doing homework and I’d just tell them that they didn’t give me any.


I was failing tests left and right. My fourth-grade nun began regularly humiliating me in front of the class. The other kids, probably to stay on the nun’s good side, joined in the taunting.


I had been an A+ student since first grade. Now I was The Stupid Boy. The Village Idiot.


Every day I walked home after school and told my family that I had no homework. Every morning I got dressed, locked the door, walked to school and would spend the day getting every answer wrong.


I was ten years old and I felt like I was drowning. I didn’t want to be The Stupid Boy. I didn’t want everyone making fun of me. I was really trying to get a grip on whatever was happening to me.


I guess there weren’t any child psychologists that were readily available in the South Bronx in 1963.


I would think so hard and try to get things right but I couldn’t.


One afternoon, the nun was teaching about the characters in the bible. She was talking about Abraham. After a while, she asked the class, “and who came after Abraham?”


I was positive I knew this. This was my ticket out of this hole. I had to get picked to answer this before anybody else stole my one big chance from me.


I raised my hand and frantically waved it back and forth to get her attention away from the other children. I can’t remember the look on her face when she noticed me, but she noticed me. She called on me, which meant I had to stand up to answer.


She asked, almost curiously, one more time, “Who came after Abraham?”


I knew I had the right answer. I just knew it, and that would change everything.


“George Washington.”


I really thought that was the correct answer. I really thought I wouldn’t be The Stupid Boy anymore.


Something was wrong. Everything was quiet.


Then the laughter. Everyone was laughing at me.


I was still The Stupid Boy


The nun was fuming. There was so much anger in her eyes but she released it in a low measured sentence.


“That’s it. If you fail one more test I’m moving your desk to the front of the class.”


I was in shock at my own disappointment in myself. I didn’t know what to do. At least I couldn’t hear the laughter anymore.


She told me to sit down.


I sat down.


I was thinking that maybe it wasn’t all that bad. If I failed the next test, maybe sitting in the front of the room wouldn’t be all that bad. But I couldn’t fail that next test. I just couldn’t.


The following week, we had another test. We all passed the test papers to the front of the room.


The next day, she had marked all the tests and alphabetically called each kid to come up and get their test paper. This was usually the case. You were to take the test paper home, have it signed by your parents and bring it back the next day.


I knew my name was next. When she called it I stood and started to walk forward and she stopped me right there.


“Stop. You’re sliding your desk to the front of the room. Right now.”


I was told to listen to the nuns, to obey the nuns.


The nuns were always right.


Our desks were little chairs of metal and wood, with a swiveling palette that was the writing surface. They were easy to push. I had been sitting about three-quarters of the way down my row and I slid my desk into the aisle and started scooting it up.


I wondered how this was going to be arranged. Was the whole row going to slide back one space? Was I just going to park in front of the first desk and stick out like a sore thumb? Awkward, but doable.


“Keep going,” she said.


I was told to listen to the nuns, to obey the nuns.


The nuns were always right.


I thought maybe she was going to have me slide my desk right up alongside her desk. Maybe being so close would be the answer to my problem.


But she said, “Keep going.”


Straight ahead was the cloakroom. A cloakroom was a large space behind the blackboard that ran the width of the front wall. It had a door on either end. It was lined with coat hooks and had an overhead shelf for hats, boots and whatever else.


“Keep going.”


She couldn’t be serious.


“Keep going.”


I was in the cloakroom. My desk was in the cloakroom. She told me to sit at my desk. I sat at my desk.


“I am not going to have you infecting this class anymore,” and with that, she closed the door.


The light wasn't on. The light switch was outside the door. But there was a small thin window, like a bathroom window, high up on the far exterior wall. A dim splash of light from the wall across the way barely lit the room.


And I sat there. I was stunned. I just sat there in the dim light until it was time to go home. The other kids came in for their coats and laughed at The Stupid Boy who was now The Stupid Boy In The Cloakroom.


And then I went home, first to my grandparents, then home when my mom picked me up after work. I said nothing. Not to my mom. Not to my grandparents. Not to the stray uncles and aunts.


The next day, I got up, made breakfast, got dressed, locked the door and went to school.


It was obvious from the nun’s scowl that I was to return to my desk in the cloakroom. I think she might have actually told me to close the door myself. I sat there until lunch, went to lunch, came back, sat in the cloakroom and the went home.


I can’t remember for how long this went on. I felt nothing. Time passed. I think it was a couple of weeks when I decided to purposely try to get hit by a car on the way home.


Suicide was a sin and I’d go to hell, so I had to make it just kind of happen.


Every day when I walked home, I would cross the several boulevards and avenues without stopping, without looking.


Nothing would happen. There were no Hollywood screeches to a halt and yelling. I always made it home. I just knew I couldn’t calculate it in any way because that, indeed, would be suicide.


Finally, one night, I woke up my mom and I told her what was happening and what I had been trying to do.


This has been the hardest thing I ever tried to write. It’s taken a week as I could only write a small part before I started trembling and had to stop for a while. This is the first time I ever shared this other than with a close friend or my therapist.


My mom took the next day off from work and went to school with me. She stormed into the Principal Nun’s office and demanded my nun be called down to face her. I sat in the hallway on a bench outside the closed door.


It sounded like a muffled thunderstorm. The only sentence I could make out was my mother screaming, “You call yourselves wives of God? You’re wives of the Devil!”


And then, it was over. I was still in a fog. I was in the building where so many things had happened to me for so many years. Things which I thought were condoned by my family. Yet, here was my mother fearlessly reading these sadists the riot act.


As clearly as I remember all those previous events, I’m unclear as to how the rest of that year, my fourth grade, finished. I think I went back up to my classroom. I assume I moved my desk out of the cloakroom and back into the classroom.


I don’t remember anything else. I’d been through a lot. I don’t know if I continued to skip homework. I don’t know if I was included in any more tests. I just know that I made to summer vacation and spent that summer, as always, up in Greenwood Lake. My grandfather rented a bungalow there every summer.


I don’t know what else my mom had told them, but I gather the nuns took a wide berth around me from that day on. I had a great summer vacation and I returned, believe it or not, to start fifth grade in that same school. I felt refreshed and clear-headed. My grades were back where they belonged. I don’t recall ever having a hand laid on me or being punished in any way at all that year.


To be honest, it was a half year. We moved to Queens right after the holidays. There were two schools within a few blocks of each other. St. Joseph’s and PS 70. My mom let me choose where to finish fifth grade. I don’t think I have to tell you which one I picked.


I never entered a Catholic school again after that. I don’t think I even set foot in a church more than a couple of times, if at all, since then.


I’ve heard other people talk fondly of the nuns they grew up with and how they still go back to see them. I guess I can grasp the notion that they experienced the kind of nuns you see on TV. Definitely not the ones I spent four and a half years with.


These were women who were as unqualified to be educators as they were to be maidens in service to their god. Yes, god with a lowercase g.


What sustained and perpetuated this coterie of child-hating bullies? I was a small kid. Looking at old photos I feel like I had the stature of a Howdy Doody puppet. I am now 6’3” and 250 lbs and yet I still feel like I’m the one who will get in trouble for telling this. As I write this, I still feel like that little boy who cried his eyes out for hours and was scared to death that he was being sent to a dungeon. I can still feel the ‘wedding ring’ that each nun wore and how it stood out from the rest of their hand each time I got slapped across the face.


I am polite whenever I have to deal with a nun in public. I keep it short and I hide the shudder that goes down my body when I see them.


I was told to listen to the nuns, to obey the nuns.


The nuns were always right.


Not anymore.


One would think I would wish them all to hell, but you know what?


I’m better than that.


And I’m better than them.

*****