When I was a youngster, I was all in. And that was not the easiest thing back on South Fifteenth Avenue in Mount Vernon, New York. Trust me on this. I grew up in a neighborhood that was predominantly Italian, which meant that it was also predominantly Catholic. In fact, I was the lone Protestant on the block as well as the only one of my play group that attended public school. That made me instantly out of sync. When they had days off for All Saints Day and the Assumption, I was off for the Jewish high holy days. The public school students weren't necessarily followers of Yom Kippur, but the faculty sure as heck was. At an early age, I realized the upside and the downside of being Lutheran. There was never any real eating restrictions---thumbs up. But you got major league screwed on holidays---thumbs down. When was the last time you got to stay home from school for Pentecost?
Being the religious outsider, I lost out on participating in all active arguments on saints. I could tell you the line-ups of every major league baseball team, but couldn't tell the difference between an Ignatius or a Basil. I also never got to chime in on the unified hatred all my friends had for some teacher like Sister Mary Sinutab, who allegedly wielded a mean ruler full of 2 inch nails.
And, apparently, I was missing out on something else in those schools. So said my next door neighbor Monte.
Monte was an A+ student at one of the Catholic schools, one of those places where all the kids were forced to wear chocolate-colored pants with chocolate-colored jackets and chocolate-colored ties. I used to get to eat over his house from time to time. One night after dinner, instead of tuning into "Get Smart," Monte pulled out a school workbook and proceeded to instruct me in the Catholic faith. Per his teacher, Sister Margaret Advil, I, as a Protestant, was going to Hell. I was not to pass Go. I was not to collect 200 dollars.
In short, a one way ticket, all expenses paid and no questions asked, to H E Double Hockey Sticks.
To further explain my impending peril, he turned to the page in his religious schoolbook where they apparently segregated the Protestants. There was a cartoon of a small boy. That was me, Monte said. In the center of the boy's chest was a black circle. That was the dirt on my inner soul for being a Protestant.
I began to rub my chest. Could I feel this stain growing inside of me? Was that cough I was getting a result of this or just a second hand by-product from my mother's cigarettes? I wondered if my parents or my grandparents at home knew if they were doomed as well.
Monte also let me in on a little more magic he learned from his school. On Good Friday every year, between the hours of 12 Noon and 3PM, the skies around the world get dark, as God weeps over the crucifixion of Jesus. When my nine-year-old logic tried to challenge Monte on this, I was rebuffed. It's impossible that it gets darker all over the world, I contended. But, no, I was wrong, according to Monte who studied at the feet of Sister Alice Robitussin.
Good Friday came a few weeks later. And wouldn't you know it? The darkest clouds ever blanketed the sky right between 12 Noon and 3PM. Amazing! Monte was a genius. Obviously, that Martin Luther was a real snake oil salesman. Where do I sign up to be a Catholic? How fast can I get my soul cleaned and can they hem my new chocolate-colored pants at the same time?
Well, I noticed that nobody else really talked about the fact that the skies got dark that afternoon. My parents didn't mention it. My grandmother said nothing. Walter Cronkite did not make it a lead story on the nightly news. Monte and his teachings were exposed even further when subsequent Good Fridays turned out to be totally lovely days. And, when my grandfather died a few years later, nobody at the funeral talked about his black hole or the fact that he was in Hell as we spoke.
Over time, I came to learn about the intricacies of all religions and made my own choices as wisely as my knowledge could sustain. Hopefully, Monte's school workbook has been discontinued at Sacred Heart School. I can only imagine what else was included in the curriculum back then. Dick and Jane Stone a Presbyterian?
As for Monte himself, the A plus student hit the skids big time in high school. He went a little crazy via drugs, etc.. He still lives in the same house he grew up in. He buried his parents (probably in the backyard). And he looks like somebody on an open call for "Helter Skelter: The Musical" with wardrobe from the Charles Manson collection. I've heard subsequently that he had a very prestigious career at something or another.
Usually once a year on one of my NY trips, I take a drive down the old block. It has turned over several times economically and ethnically. All the homes look like liquor storefronts in the worst areas of the Bronx.
I have noticed Monte's house painted lime green. The front yard is covered in weeds. It is a complete eyesore. And there in the front stood Mountainman Monte. A homeless man with an address. I thought about stopping for a second. But I drove on. Indeed, I am happy that, as a child, he had a belief that gave me some comfort. And I was also content that I had mine.
Hey, who knows who has the right path? At least we all have one to take.
Dinner last night: Angel hair pasta with bacon and tomatoes.