Tag Archives: Faith

The Show

Last January 6th, The Feast of the Magi, which is also known as Epiphany or Little Christmas, my wife and I are guests of some people in Coventry, Rhode Island who get together each year to celebrate the Feast Day, and the end of the Christmas season.

Little Christmas is the name we gave it when I was a kid growing up in Kingsbridge, a part of The Bronx, the only place I know aside from The British Isles which is distinguished by the definite article in its name.  I used to think Kingsbridge was a place filled with Catholics, Irish, Italians, a German or two and, even, maybe, someone not from one of those places.  I loved it for a lot of things, and remember them all.  But, my favorite memories were the smells from all the different kitchens, big ones, little ones, all kinds, ; which, I long believed, were all Catholic kitchens.  Because, even though St. John’s, which was the church and school I went to, was right next door to a Protestant Church, I never ever saw anyone enter or leave that place.  You are looking for a church to go to on a clear Sunday morning in Kingsbridge Fifty, sixty or so years ago, and you ask me or any of the guys I grew up with, and your will hear us all say, “St. John’s.” No one I knew knew of any others. Until I am about 14 I think the only kind of people there are are Catholics, and the only kind of food, no matter from where, is “Catholic” food.

Anyway, at the little thing in Coventry, a lovely name for a place, there were all kinds of folks.  We got there early because we came down from Nashua, and grabbed a hotel room nearby, so we could stay a bit longer than a half hour before having to drive home in a snowstorm.

Our host and hostess are really nice people.  She has her picture next to the word “homemaker” in the dictionary, even though she has a bunch of letters after her name, so the place was filled with lovely decorations in every room, more lights than Rockefeller Center and the smell of good old fashioned homemade, tried and true stuff wafting through the house from the kitchen and making me hungrier than a whale after a two thousand mile migration swim.

Thus it was that after the greetings and smiles and stuff, I grab a plate of good old food, pausing to let my nose enjoy itself, and wander into the room where the guys are sitting.  An old Jimmy Cagney movie, one with George Raft looking like he had his hair painted on, was playing background noise…more or less…for the conversation going on; a conversation about baseball.

We were at this place last year, so I probably sit in the same spot  where I sit now and listen to the baseball conversation; which conversation is probably the same one  as last year’s was I began to think.

I am not at all complaining, because I find such conversations fascinating; conversations which I have listened to and sometimes taken part in in places from The Kingsbridge Tavern and Toolan’s  in Marble Hill, to a place in Singapore called Raffle’s where I spent a few nights talking baseball with some cops from Australia a thousand years ago.  They are probably all the same, generally, guys talking about players and teams, averages and plays, managers and pitchers, and balls and strikes.  There’s a lot more of course, but that would fill a book.  And has.

I sat and listened for about a half hour, talking a bit with one of the wives who wandered in and probably felt like she was on Mars.  With her I do not talk about baseball,  because, frankly, I am a little afraid I might not measure up.  There are guys sitting beside me and standing around who can probably tell you the hand span of every manor league pitcher from 1898 until yesterday. My only claim to baseball history is I grew up in The City when Micky, Duke and Willy played there, and I saw Ted at bat.  What he did and when he did it, though is lost in King Solomon’s mind.

I forget what I talk to the nice lady about, but she tells me she remembers me from the year before, and I am scared, because I draw a blank, like one of those old maps filled with empty spaces and bad guesses. I practice smiling, and punctuating her conversation with eyebrow raises and smiles and “Uh, huhs” and big nods while she talks about stuff.  I get comfortable when she talks about the stuff on her plate, and what she likes about the spread.

Then she leaves and I go to the kitchen to fill my plate again.  The kitchen is a place I like.  It’s full of food.  I cook, and can ask food questions; things I know about, like herbs, and spices and sauces and stuff. There’s one or two guys there mining this or that dish and I go over to them to talk the”game”.  But, they know about what’s in front of them about as much as I know about pitching, or stealing a base.  They can use a serving spoon though.

The hostess is there too, making sure no one lacks for anything, and she gives me a short tour of the “field”.  I am happy for this, and try to ask a few questions about the things I see and how they got to be what they are.  She is happy to answer, and for a few minutes we go on about ingredients, and what was handed down from who, and  timing and staging.  I feel like myself again, warming to the topic.  But, then, the front door opens and another family tumbles in.  the Woman of the House goes off to welcome them. I am alone among the pots and bowls and dishes; alone but for those two guys from the other room, now talking batting averages.  They don’t even know I am there.

I look deep into the big bowl of mulled cider and see a darker mulled me looking back.  Then I nod and wander out.  You know, I think to myself as I wander into the parlor, which is nearly empty, and survey the Christmas Village spread across the top of the piano, I would love to have been a chef in a big deal place.  I look down at the little town and remember those times I fed a crowd; when I made it to The Show.

There were a couple of times like when we had about a hundred over for burgers, dogs and games at the Upper Biscayne Clubhouse.  They were great fun.  But I remember, back in the ’80s, when I cooked a meal for a couple of hundred people a couple of times.  It was a Seder celebration back when bunches of Catholics were getting in touch with their Jewish roots.  I am on the Parish Council then, and since I have such fun doing a couple of big deals at the house, I think it would be even more fun to throw open the doors at the parish.

I make a connection with the banquet manager at the Park Plaza in Boston, and he introduces me to the Executive Chef.  It is a highlight of my life when I meet him, and I regret I did not get his John Henry on a hambone or something.  What I do get is twelve boned legs of lamb that look like beach balls, and the fixins’.  All of this is gratis when I tell my friend upstairs in his banquet office it is for a church dinner.

It is from a top shelf hotel, so it is all top shelf stuff!  I do not think to ask him for the china, silver and glassware but I wonder what would have happened.  I mean they probably have freight cars full of that stuff.  On the way home, back to the parish with a trunk full of the goods I feel sorry for it because it’s going on plastic.

The first thing I find out is that we never cook all of that stuff in the one chicken oven at the Parish.  We need something on the order of a Bessemer furnace.  God rest her soul, my friend Barbara Keegan, who should have been, could have been, a D.I. at Quantico, orders up the kitchen at Bishop Guertin High school, and we are good to go.

The day, when it comes, goes off without a hitch; well without too many of them.  Barbra, now straightening out heaven’s kitchens, is on the lamb.  I am up at the parish polishing the plastic, setting the tables, preparing.  When the time comes I drive down there and remove six legs, place them in the back of the car and deliver them, like six pizzas, to the gathering wandering Israelites.

It is not too shabby, if memory serves.  Some folks even eat the bitter herbs.

But, I find out one thing.  Ham is a big deal in New England for Easter dinner.  There are quite a lot of folks who never eat Lamb.  This I cannot figure in a religion whose Savior is referred to as The Lamb of God.

My apple pie disappears, though.   And the Charoset which I make at home the night before.  I keep two of the beach balls and give four away.  Easter dinner is  big deal at our house that year.

I try the same thing once more, but, fewer people show up.  The next year someone suggests ham, or even turkey.

And, I ask to be traded.

The photo above is of my grandson, Joe, getting ready to steal second.  He’s twenty-one, soon, and a damned good cook.

 

 

https://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=VQnKB4-kQGI

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Delivery

When my father cashed in his chips on April 26, 1969 the responsibilities for the proper conduct of his obsequies fell upon my dead brother Tom (MP 56, Fordham 67), who was very much alive at the time, and my humble self.  And so, the next day we appeared at Williams Funeral Home, not too far from Joe’s Fish Market, and just across Broadway from the RKO Marble Hill accompanied by our grieving mother and sister to learn what could be done to honor a devoted letter carrier.

The funeral director, whose name I never can remember, but whose manner I shall not forget, sat behind his desk, which seemed about the size of a carrier’s flight deck.  It was the most slick and shiny piece of furniture there has ever been and was empty of everything except a black phone, his folded arms, long fingers knitted together so as to make me think of a bed of snakes, just below the inverted reflection of his face in the highly polished wood; that face a practiced and professional mask of compassionate sympathy, welcoming us in a properly consoling manner; both in reflection and in fact.

  “We accept cash or check,” were what I remember most his consolations.  That and the soothing words, “Payment is due within ten days, or late charges go into effect,” did much to ease the pain of loss.

My mother, stoically silent, merely nodded, opened the purse she held on her lap, produced a pile of bills and counted out the full amount.   “We would like to see the coffin,” my brother said, standing.  “You have a showroom, of course?”

With no more than the merest gentle smile, your man rose and gestured that we follow him, from his carpeted office through the door and down the carpeted corridor to a doubled door opening into a large room filled with beautiful examples of funerary magnificence.

To be sure, I was awed.  He gestured in such a manner that gave us to understand any of these was ours for the asking.  Thus invited, we strolled among les Objets des Morts, whispering comments and questions until we had narrowed our choices to two.  My dear sister spoke for the first time.  I know this sounds unusual for those who know her, but nevertheless…  She spoke and said, ” Are these the right size? “

For the first of several times during the next few days the, until then, composed, controlled, supremely confident gentleman, our very own Virgil I had come to think, appeared to lose himself in surprise.  “No one has ever asked that question,” he answered with the tiniest waver in his voice.  My mother, smelling blood, smiled ever so briefly and said,”We are.”  I thought I saw him stumble backwards, slightly.  My brother was nearest him, now, and said, “Our father was above average in height, though slimmed some by the disease which finally took him from us.  He suffered greatly in this life, and we would be grieved to know we were the cause of any further suffering for him on his “Last Journey”.” Turning to me, Tom added, “Peter, here, is closest to our father’s height.  We would like to see in which of these Dad would look his best.”

“Of course he’ll take off his shoes.”  The gentleman had raised only this objection after a nervous cough and a frantic look around, whether for help or a way out I have never known.

And so, barefooted since I wanted to feel the satin lining on my feet, I climbed in and lay down in the coffins feeling a bit like that little girl in the story.  The first one was too small by several inches, and I thought of my poor father spending only God knows how many years awaiting the Parousia with cramped aching feet.  But the second was just right, and upon my testimony, we all chose it for Dad.  He, or what is left of him, lies there still, waiting comfortably.

There were several details left to be attended to, so we returned to the office.  The next matter was the preparation and publication of an obituary for the deceased as our Master of the Rites informed us.  In response to Tom’s question he explained just what the charges would be in each of the several papers and offered himself as amanuensis in its production.  He removed a blank piece of paper from within one of the desk drawers and, smiling, paused expectantly.

My mother asked if this was included in the fee just paid.  Sadly, it was not; a piece of information which caught us short for the merest moment.  We were not people of means, and had little set aside for the honors which might have done my father justice.  His early death caught us unprepared. Then my brother offered what I think was a brilliant solution.  He said, “Why not: Ed Gallaher, dead!”

After he had found himself; only a short while, really, our guide gave us some bad news.  “There is a minimum charge.”

It was my sister, then, who suggested a solution.  We would approach my father’s favorite barkeep, Angie of The Kingsbridge Tavern on the corner of our block.  He was always good.  We’ll just add it to Dad’s tab, now in the low four figures.  And that was the end of that!

The last matter of business for the afternoon involved the number of cars for mourners, and, of course the hearse and flower car.  We would do this all without flowers, my mother said, since it was too early for dandelions she added, soto voce.  That left us with the matter of a hearse, and the positioning of cars.

And, here, I spoke up.  “My father’s last wish was to have a Mailman’s Funeral.”  He had been writing something on  piece of paper when I said this, and he slowly put down the pencil.  Looking directly at me he spoke, a little tremulously, “What do you mean?”

I guessed he had never heard of such a thing, so I explained that my father’s body would be carried from the funeral home on the day of the Funeral Mass by six pallbearers in full dress Letter Carrier’s uniforms placed in a mail truck and driven to the church.  Behind it we would all walk, led by the Mailman’s Marching Band.  The Mail Truck, to be driven by my father’s longtime mailman friend and partner, whose name I only remember as Ralphie Boy, would be further decorated with two brand new leather mailbags, one mounted inside out on each each door to signify that inside a dead letter carrier lay.  Further, a gold ribbon bearing the word “Cancelled” in black letters would be draped across the hood of the truck

“Really?” He said.  ” If they are available,” I answered.  “That would be good,” my mother interrupted.  “With the money we save on your hearse, we won’t need Angie.”

And so it was. Or could have been.  The fellow was kind enough to say he would absorb the obituary costs if we allowed him to take Dad to church in his hearse.  Such a deal we couldn’t get in a store as Moe the tailor used to say.

We took it.  He couldn’t stand, so we shook his hand and left.

There are other stories to tell about Dad’s wake.  But, I’ll save them.

John 11: 50

 

Here is a letter I have written to Fr. Robert Shanley, President of Providence College, and who is currently presidentially presiding over the very dignified and collegial lynching of a great scholar, a devout Catholic defender of the Truth, and a good and decent man.  I imagine him in his robes of office: aloof, yes, compassionate, of course, aware of all the necessary facts, without question, and deeply concerned for the lives, and souls and the, well, the reputations about to be supported or sacrificed for the greater good of the school and benefit of all mankind.  It is what presidents do…when not playing golf or hosting benefactors, delivering speeches and looking magisterial and compassionate, wise and consoling, boundlessly merciful and intuitively practical; when being, in a word, godly:

 

Rev Robert Shanley, O.P.

President

Providence College

1 Cunningham Square

Providence, RI 02918 USA

 

Dear Father Shanley,

You have been described to me by people better informed than I am as a philosopher, an art of which I have only a passing knowledge.  And as a priest, and a Dominican at that, I am reasonably sure that you are more than well versed in Catholic theology. Indulge me in a little bit of my own background, stories from my youth about philosophy and theology.

Father Anthony Rubsys, who went to Heaven, I am sure, in August, 2002, was a refugee from Communism who came to America during the Hungarian uprising.  He was a biblical scholar fluent in seven languages, a good and gentle, a loving, man.  He taught me in class and counseled me out of it.  He was extremely intelligent, extremely gentle and deeply concerned for The Good.  Why else not, I have often wondered while thinking about and praying for him; a man who saw and suffered much, all of it the result of when and where he lived before coming to this country, through the horrors of Nazism and the Second World War and the soul sickening weight of post-war Communist rule.

As an assignment in one of his classes, I wrote a paper on Thus Spake Zarathustra.  I was taken then with the Strauss tone poem, and stupid student stuff.  So I wrote the paper and handed it in.  Several days later Father Rubsys returned it with this note in his handwriting above my title, which was something like Superman, “Why do you waste your time on this when the faith has so much more to offer, to study?”  I cannot remember much beyond the title of the thing I wrote about. Nor can I remember much about the music, except what bit of it opens that film by Stanley Kubrick.  Few, I suspect, will remember much about it, if anything at all in another hundred or so years.  Almost no one knows the film’s music’s title.

Harry Blair was a much decorated World War II veteran, a tank commander in Gen. Patton’s Third Army, a tragic man, and a Shakespeare and Renaissance scholar.  I took every class of his that I could and got to know him very well.  He drank too much; but, I suppose, he had every reason to do that.  When he taught King Lear his classroom was filled beyond capacity. His rendering of the King’s speech in the storm on the moor brought more than one student to tears, myself included, as we listened to an old man pour out his grief at having given his life to his children and been misunderstood, spurned, betrayed, cast away.

I once had a letter published in the school’s newspaper…the editor was a friend of mine…and Harry read it, of course.  The letter called for the “aggiornamento” underway in Rome to be extended and applied at the school, for there to be a radical change in, well, just about everything.  I remember I called not only for windows to be opened but walls to be demolished and ended with “I would have no church at all!”  Brave words, I have thought more than once since.  Brave words for the inferno we face, now.  We sat together, Harry and I at the bar in the Pinewood drinking an afternoon beer and he showed me the issue of the paper with my letter, quietly asking me what had possessed me to write it.  Seriously I answered at length about all of the things I saw that were wrong and needed changing.  “You are very young,” he answered, and then we went on to talk of other things, though I do recall him wondering aloud about the lady I was soon to marry and asking how she felt, how I might feel when I was a father.  But, there he left it.

Bear with me, please, Father.  I do have a point.

There is no doubt that Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a philosopher like yourself, and a great and good man.  Were he a Catholic, I suppose his cause would already have been introduced.  In many ways he was a martyr for the truth, and a lover of the beautiful in people, in society and in all of creation; even when found in the Gulag, anterooms to hell built and maintained by hell’s servants here on earth.  Maybe that’s overly dramatic, but, nevertheless…  Joseph Pearce, who wrote an excellent biography of Solzhenitsyn, has written his own story, and a fascinating one it is.  He calls it Race With the Devil, and discusses his descent into violent racism and hate, and ascent from it through the grace of God.  Indulge me in a quote from Pearce’s book:

“My descent into delinquency was aided and abetted by the progressive philosophy adopted by the school. No effort was made to impose discipline, which resulted in the triumph of anarchy in the classroom… (The) disruptive elements made it difficult, if not impossible, for teachers to teach and for students to learn.”

I apologize for the size of the quote.  I cannot figure out how to change the font. Nevertheless, it’s the sad truth and the tragic cause of the matter at hand, and the inevitable result of the choice in this matter (and in how many others?) you and the faculty quislings who brought this complaint against Professor Esolen to you seem, for all of your wisdom, training, education and Catholicity, to have made.  That the “death” of one man is necessary.

And, I cannot understand why you did what you did; a great disservice to the students , confirming them in their stupid and uncharitable,  selfish and infantile behavior…at the same time causing pain, anxiety and worry to not only this good man and his family, but thousands of other people who have never yet met the man face to face but know and treasure him through his prolific good works, his brilliantly clear and consistently charitable mind, and his reliably masterful scholarship.

You are a priest and pastor, too, finally much more important callings than mere president.  Have you acted in this instance as either one?

I expect that  Caiaphas was thought a wise and good man, a president, so to speak, who gave no help when help was needed.  And, of course, we all know what to think of Pontius Pilate, who simply gave up before the angry mob.

Which of the two should one say best describes you in this matter?

Yours truly,

Peter Gallaher

PS:  I only know of one other person named Shanley, a fellow I came across many years ago when I was working.  He was a Wormtongue, covert slave to Saruman.  In other words a coward and a traitor.

 

 

Serenity In Storms

It seems that I am on a Father Rutler kick today.  Well, what/who better?  I picked this up from the National Review online.  One may safely assume that nothing Father Rutler writes or says will ever be quoted in or published in America, or Slate, or the National Catholic Review, or the Huffington Post or any number of like minded organs and journals; unless it be to criticize it.  But I do not wish to cheapen the man or what he has to say below.  I only wish to point out that if what he says, and, particularly, the way in which he says it finds favor with you do not look in any of those places.

I place it here for you as a piece for meditation on the day and its meaning.

Serenity in Storms
God and our nation.

By Reverend George W. Rutler

EDITOR’S NOTE: This sermon was preached before the President of the United States and guests assembled in the Church of our Saviour in New York City for a prayer service on September 2, 2004. It is based on Mark 4:41.

New York, N.Y. — In Galilee there was a storm and the waves of the sea shook the fishermen’s ship. What they called a sea was a lake and what they called a ship was a boat and what they called a storm was one of the countless storms that have rattled the world; but to die is to die, whether on a lake or a sea, whether in a boat or a ship, whether by one storm or all the tides and turnings of the universe. Through it all Jesus lay on a cushion asleep. The men woke him: “Master, don’t you care that we are dying?” Jesus rose. The men had awakened eyes that never sleep. Jesus did not rebuke the men. He rebuked the wind. How does one rebuke the wind? Did he groan or shout or cry a language unknown to us? He stared at the violent waves like a mechanic looking at a noisy machine: “Peace. Be still.” The sea became like glass.

Everyone here knows what storms are, and how many kinds there are. “Doesn’t God care that we are dying?” Rebuke the winds and they still blow. Only one voice can make “Peace” by saying “Peace.”

Frightened as they were of the storm, the fishermen were more frightened when the storm stopped. “They feared exceedingly, and said to one another, Who is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” Who is this? He is more than we are.

Our beloved nation has been through many storms. Today different races and ways of believing gather here, but all of us stand on the same acres where, in this month of September in 1776, the American Revolution ended almost as soon as it began. The King’s soldiers landed near where 34th Street is and captured 800 American soldiers. Soldiers? They were mostly farmers and shopkeepers. But they were soldiers because they would protect their country. George Washington galloped from Harlem Heights down to these streets. He rarely showed emotion, like the noblest of the ancient Romans. He had what some modern commentators with newly acquired Latin call “gravitas.” It means serenity in storms. General Washington seemed to lose it when he saw the New
York militiamen panicking. In one of the few recorded instances of Washington shouting, he cried out, “Are these the men with whom I am to defend America?” He struck some of them with the broadside of his sword, but they fled. An officer grabbed his bridle and pulled him away from the enemy that within moments could have captured him and ended the American dream. Right here.

Washington was a great man but he was only a man and he could not rebuke the wind. His men fled. But they were good men, like the fishermen of Galilee. They came back. We are here today because they came back.

“Are these the men with whom I am to defend America?” Yes, General Washington. These are the men. They are all you have.

Three years ago our nation suffered a terrible storm. Some thought God slept. “Does he not care that we are dying?” Some of us saw many things on September 11. In one moment in the midst of a big crowd running from the smoke, a young couple were pushing a carriage. The baby was calmly asleep. Like Jesus in the boat. Priests looked into the eyes of firefighters asking for final absolution before they went into the flames. Those eyes keep looking at us for they will never close. “Are these the men with whom I am to defend America?” Yes. These are the men and these are the women and these are the children of all creeds and races who cannot rebuke the winds themselves but who have a God who can.

When asked what kind of government we had been given, Benjamin Franklin said, “A republic, if you can keep it.” He meant virtue. There is no freedom without order and no order without virtue. Mockery of virtue has become an art form and the anti-hero is called a hero. G.K. Chesterton saw this already in the early twentieth century, for he said: “The decay of society is praised by artists as the decay of a corpse is praised by worms.” In classical Corinthian halls and great Gothic halls and bombed out halls of Parliament in the Battle of Britain, across the ages that divided them and in languages peculiar to each, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas and Winston Churchill said this: “Courage is the first of virtues because it makes all others possible.” Courage is the ability to react to the threat of harm rationally. Because it is rational it requires caution but caution, says Aquinas, is the prelude to an action, not a substitute for an action: if you want to be sure that your boat will never sink in a storm, you should never leave port. The cynic for whom all righteousness is only self-righteousness also calls courage bravado. True courage is the right use of reason in the face of evil.

Evil. We remember a man with a noble soul who was ridiculed for calling an evil empire evil. Ronald Reagan rebuked it but he knew that only God had the power to rebuke it and bring it down. He said: “There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what is right.” There is right and there is wrong and in our weakness we may confuse right with wrong and wrong with right, but God is never wrong and always right and so he can rebuke the winds. No mortal man or woman may call any other mortal man or woman evil but everyone has a moral duty to call evil evil.

In the nineteenth century a young man confessed his sins to a peasant priest in the village of Ars in France, Saint John Vianney. The floor began to shake, knocking the fellow over. Vianney picked him up, brushed him off, and said cheerfully: “Do not be afraid, my son. It is only the devil.” The young man was impressed but he admitted that he would never go to Vianney for confession again. It is only the devil. It takes courage to say that in the face of terrorism. It is only the devil. That is the simple answer but it is hard to say.

There is a picture of Saint Thomas More, the “Man for All Seasons.” There is a picture of courage. He coined two words: Utopia and Anarchy. There can be no Utopia in the storms of this world, and yet if the winds that blow are not rebuked there will be anarchy. Pope John Paul II declared Saint Thomas the patron saint of statesmen and politicians. Harry Truman said that a statesman is a politician who has been dead ten or fifteen years. That is not quite what the Pope meant. He said that Thomas More teaches that “government is above all an exercise of virtue. Unwavering in this rigorous moral stance, this English statesman placed his own public activity at the service of the person, especially if that person was weak or poor; he dealt with social controversies with a superb sense of fairness; he was vigorously committed to favoring and defending the family; he supported the all-round education of the young.” With such courage, Thomas More joyfully declared at his execution: “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

The first letter I ever received was sent to me by my father during the Second World War. He was sailing on a Liberty ship of the Merchant Marine on the Murmansk Run. His letter was addressed to me care of my mother because I was still in her womb. He told me to be good. He said his ship had gone through some storms and U-boats kept circling around, but “everything is fine.”

Today stormy controversies attend questions of biotechnology on the micro level and world politics on the macro level. The answers are not easy but they are simple: everything will be fine so long as human rights respect the rights of God. The deepest question is, “Why did God make you?” The simplest answer that calms every storm is this: “God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in Heaven.”

*   *   *

When I was still a boy I went to sea on a Liberty ship which could have sailed on the Murmansk run.  The ship still had the gun platforms fore and aft where sailors were placed to defend her if need arose.  I was the youngest by fifteen or twenty years of the sailors aboard, and there were several who were veterans of that time and place.  One of them I remember telling me calmly of being blown out of the engine room in the North Atlantic on one trip.  He was seventeen at the time, a year younger than I was when he told me.

The words of a hymn occur to me now, one I find coming to mind often, lately:

My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the real though far off hymn
That hails a new creation

Refrain:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing
It sounds and echoes in my soul
How can I keep from singing

What though the tempest round me roar
I hear the truth it liveth
What though the darkness round me close
Songs in the night it giveth

When tyrants tremble sick with fear
I hear their death knells ringing
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart
A fountain ever springing
All things are mine since I am His
How can I keep from singing.

Father Rutler may have the ability to quote an appropriate chant text, or a psalm or two on point.  All to the good I say if he does.  I am of more modest means and have to rely on the plain words of this old Quaker hymn I love.  I find myself up to his standard though, and he mine, in the reference to Question #2 of the Baltimore Catechism.  May I never lose sight of it, especially during storms when it matters most and is most true.

It Was A Cold And Rainy Night

Not too many days ago some friends of mine were chatting on line about the changes they saw taking place in Harlem; a kind of revitalization seems to be going on there.  The place is becoming “gentrified”.  That means it’s now becoming attractive to live in Harlem for white people.  That’s if you have enough money.  Some may not remember that about a hundred years ago white people did live in Harlem.  It didn’t take as much then, even if you allow for a dollar being a dollar back then.

My mother and her brothers and sister grew up there, and went to school and went to church there.  They lived in a lovely apartment building at 120 Mt. Morris Park South, and attended Mass each Sunday at All Saints Church, a Gothic structure which is on the list of National Landmarks.  So is, I believe, Mt. Morris Park.  Only don’t go looking for Mt. Morris Park on a map.  John Lindsay, who used to be the Mayor of New York, and wanted to keep on being the mayor, thought it would help him to stay mayor if he re-named the park.  So he called it Marcus Garvey Park.  Nothing changed on the ground, though.  Everyone in Harlem calls it Mt. Morris Park.

In City Hall it’s Marcus Garvey, and probably no one knows where it is.

What happened in Harlem?  A lot of things happened, I guess, the same kind of things that happened to the neighborhood where my mother’s mother grew up in the late 19th Century, Five Corners of movie fame; a combination of cheap labor flooding in, greedy landlords and grubby politicians looking for a little easy money and a way to stay in office.

I once arrested a heroin dealer who lived in one of the rooms in the apartment that my mother’s family once called home.  It had been subdivided because the City of New York said a landlord could do that if he wished to “expand” his property in order to rent more places for more money to more people.  Landlords in New York City swing a big bat.

Well, all of the talk about what a wonderful place Harlem has (once more) become to settle in and raise a family got me thinking of some of my own experiences not so long ago in another Harlem at another time, the Harlem of poor people, rich landlords and corrupt politicians.

I remember this one:

Why do these things always happen on cold days?  At night?  In the
rain?  I’m not setting a scene, just telling the facts.  I was still in
my first, probationary, year at the FBN.  I was going along with three
other agents to serve a search warrant at an address in Harlem, off
Madison Avenue, on the south side of the street, at about 118th Street.
We were looking for heroin, which was, and may still be, as plentiful as
marihuana in some places in Cos Cob where many the new colonizers of Harlem probably grew up.

The building was one of those one probably sees now filling up with
“nice” people, the right kind, the ones who work at the mid-six figure
salaries three or four miles south, and write e-mails back and forth to
each other asking for advice on schools in the area, where it’s safe to
walk and where’s the best place to get authentic Ghanian cuisine.

They’d be horrified to know that heroin was once kept in about every
nook and cranny the place had, and used all over it…perhaps in their
bedrooms.

Anyway, as the rain fell we descended the stairs to the basement and kicked in the door.  It was the building’s superintendent who was supposed to be the dealer du jour, and we had decided that the judge had issued us a no knock warrant on the way over from Rao’s or some other place the real powers ate in Harlem before white folks came back …we had had a late meal.  Inside a dim bulb gleamed in a filthy ceiling shedding its light on something straight out of a Dickens nightmare.  There was no furniture, only rags and heaps of rags, odd platforms of refuse, which could once have been furniture, and the two inhabitants, dark and furtive creatures vaguely human, or what  might have been.   They spoke.  They moved.  Their “quarters” were separated from the old furnace by a sort of half wall, and it dawned on me that they lived in what had been the coal bin.

“There’s not enough money in the world,” I thought, “to make me want to
look at, through or under anything for anything else in this place.”  It
was the same thought going through everyone else’s mind, I figured,
because the fellow whose “case” this was simply ordered one of the
wretches to give us the heroin he knew was in there.  She got up from
something or other and motioned him to follow her.  I joined him, more
out of curiosity than anything else.  I was still curious then.

We walked out of the coal crib to the rear of the place behind the
furnace.  It was getting quite dark, but this creature knew her way.  Did
I mention they were both female?  They were a lesbian pair, or so the informant had told the fellow with the “case”.  I mention that because, well because it was odd then.  Perhaps that’s all they could do, in that place at that time.  One makes “arrangements”.   Anyway, she
stopped and reached up to pull the string on another light, which
illuminated a scene I don’t think I’d seen before and know I’ve not
seen since for its squalidity.  There in a hole in the wall she removed
some package or other and handed it over to my partner. It contained
about an ounce or two of heroin, already bagged.  She was a retailer of
the product, of course.  Probably had never been in Rao’s.  Probably had
never been off 118th Street, or out of her hole for years.

We were in her bathroom.  I could tell because the floor was covered
with piles of dung and small pools of urine I think.  At least they were
wet spots.

Both women were arrested and removed to the Federal Detention Center on West Street, not far from those places today where lesbians and other
homosexuals gather in public and private .  Times change.  The FDC is something else, too.

I went home.  We lived on Cannon Place near the Jerome Reservoir.  I
removed all my clothing outside my apartment and left it there, keeping
my wallet, gun, badge and credentials with me.  Sheila was, not
surprisingly, surprised to see me enter the house in that state, but
understood when I told her why, and agreed that most bugs would not have had time to establish themselves on what I brought through the door.  She urged me, however, to shower and bathe, quickly.  The clothes were
bagged and thrown away.

I think of that night when I read about “renewal”, and hope that the
ones responsible for the conditions I experienced in 1966, and those two
women lived in, will get to enjoy the same in some hot place for eternity.