I woke up on a cold Sunday morning in early December, right around 7:30.
Our five-room, railroad apartment was freezing. It was so cold you could see your breath when you talked. But I wasn’t talking to anyone at this time because everyone was asleep. I opened my mouth and blew smoke out like I was smoking a cigarette; just like my mother.
My older brother and I shared a bedroom. There were two windows facing ninth avenue; the windows had frost on them. If you looked out the window you could see the Holy Name convent across the avenue. When the windows were frosty I’d write something on them then wipe it away. The convent was where the nuns lived. Often times I would see them sitting in their bedrooms holding their rosary beads praying.
It would get so cold at night in my bedroom that I would take a towel, roll it up and place it on the windowsill to try to stop the cold air from coming in. I’d also be forced to wear my green parka coat to bed. And I always kept my white tube socks on my feet.
We lived through many mornings like this in the winter time; You can thank our landlord from hell.
On Saturday nights, after running her store all week-long on ninth avenue she would escape to Long Island where she owned a vacation home; she’d shut the heat and hot water off in our building for the weekend. Maybe that was a reason I wouldn’t take a shower.
I’d often hear my mother arguing with her during the week downstairs in front of her apartment door. We lived on the third floor, our landlord lived on the second. Sometimes the argument would be about the heat, the rent being late or the noise that we made above her. We liked to listen to loud music and run back and forth through the apartment. This lady was so unfriendly, I never said hello to her when I passed her in the hallway.
As I made my way from the bedroom to the kitchen, always tiptoeing because I didn’t want to awaken anyone, I noticed mom was missing from her bed. It was not uncommon to see her bed empty or some guy next to her; Mom loved to go out on the weekends to party with friends and sometimes would not return until early Sunday afternoon.
I pulled out a box of cereal and snatched the carton of milk from the fridge. Grabbing my bowl of cereal with both hands I made my way to the living room and put on my favorite show, Davey and Goliath. Before leaving the kitchen, I turned on the four burners on top of the stove to warm up the apartment. That was our source of heat on the weekends. I can recall turning on the oven…and we weren’t cooking any food!
As I sat on the carpeted floor in front of the T.V. I scooped up spoonfuls of my favorite cereal, Captain Crunch. Mom always made sure we had plenty of cereal. Sometimes we had to settle for Corn Flakes. I hated Corn Flakes.
The worst part was when we would be out of milk. I once poured water on my cereal, it was awful.
I was twelve years old and in the seventh grade at Holy Name of Jesus. I wasn’t into school at all, but I loved sports. On the weekends we spent a lot of time in the boys and girls school yards. I was lucky, I lived right across the street from school. On Sunday mornings you were required to attend mass. We were catholic, or so I thought we were. For my tenth birthday mom bought me a cross on a chain. I wore it everywhere.
We made Holy Communion in second grade, went to church every Sunday and had to go to confession every now and then. I was always nervous in the confessional booth speaking to the priest behind the curtain. Once when I confessed that I had stolen a candy bar from a classmate, I thought he was going to jump through the curtain and rip my head off.
After confessing my sins, the priest would order me to say a couple of Hail Mary’s and an Our Father and things were back to normal. I walked out of church and down the steps onto the avenue, I felt like a new kid.
My teachers at Holy Name were strict. We had nuns and a couple of
priests brothers teaching us the golden rule. The priests brothers were meaner than the nuns but I was scared of all of them. If you got into trouble, you got whacked with a huge wooden paddle.
If you missed church on Sunday they called you out Monday morning. I often wondered why I couldn’t attend mass on Saturday night at 5:30 or even a later one on Sunday; I always had to be there early in the morning.
Out of all the kids in school, how in the world did they know I was missing from mass?
After watching Davey teach Goliath a lesson on integrity and polishing off my cold breakfast I got dressed and went to the boys schoolyard. We were forbidden to enter the schoolyard until mass let out so I’d sit outside the fence on Howard Place all alone until someone showed up. In between mass I’d run in the yard and get a few shots up at the basket, not letting the ball hit the ground though. Because if you made any noise, a priest would come out and chase you away.
I saw a bunch of people in groups walking down Prospect Avenue coming from church. They were all dressed up. Hats, gloves and scarves included. They all looked so happy. I could see the mother and father leading the way and of course their kids not far behind. I never experienced that feeling; I don’t think mom or dad ever stepped inside a church on Sunday morning.
There were many reasons why I skipped mass on Sunday. One, I was embarrassed of my clothes. Mom made me wear hand-me-downs. I was forced to wear my brothers old shoes, shirts and slacks. Second, I never had any change to throw in the collection box they passed around. And when mom did give me some money for the poor box, I’d use it at Rae and Otto’s. I often times would think of snatching a bill out of the straw box connected to the long wooden stick the guy stuck in front of my face but everyone was hawking you. And three, well, I just didn’t have the patience to sit still for an hour and listen to the priest. I could never understand his message. But I did like communion though. When I did go to church I always looked forward to the wafer the priest gave out. I could have gone for seconds.
After the last mass of the day, it was time to play ball. Kids from the neighborhood started showing up. Before the older guys would arrive, we’d play taps against the fence, then around the world. When we had enough to play three-on-three, it was on. We played up to eleven. If you won, you stayed on, lost and you had to sit because someone had winners.
Despite the cold weather, we still played basketball in the schoolyard. And the following morning, I was going to be called out for missing mass.