I wake up on a cold, snowy, Sunday morning in late January. It’s a little after eight.
It’s freezing in our quiet, five-room, railroad apartment. It gets so cold some nights that Mom places towels on the windowsill to keep the cold air out. Mom also sparks up the oven to warm the place up.
We live at 228A Prospect Park West, right over Bob’s Hardware Store. Sometimes we go without heat. What can I say, times are hard. My father left us, he doesn’t pay any child support, mom is alone to raise three kids by herself. Mom has to work two jobs at a time, it sucks when she is unemployed.
My bedroom that I share with my older brother faces the avenue. The convent at Holy Name is directly across the street. I have a great view of the girls schoolyard. We live so close to school that during the week, the school bell is my alarm clock.
Walking in the kitchen wearing my PJ’s and a pair of white tube socks I stand in front of the open oven door to warm-up. I open the fridge to grab the carton of milk and pour a bowl of cereal. I hate to admit this but I used up all the milk. My younger sister is still sleeping and so is mom. When they get up they’ll be pissed that we’re out of milk. My sister likes cereal and mom makes a pot of coffee every morning. She likes her java light and sweet.
“Go to Key Food and buy some milk,” she’ll tell me.
From the kitchen table I hear someone snoring really loud, it’s coming from mom’s bedroom; It’s annoying. As I passed her room I saw someone next to her, I didn’t recognize him. He must be tall because I had to avoid his feet hanging off the end of the bed.
After I polish off my cereal I get up, go to my room, get dressed, grab my basketball and head out of the apartment. I leave my empty bowl on the table. Mom’s always on my case about putting my dishes in the sink.
“Ya think I’m your maid?” is what I hear often. Lately, mom has been on my case more than ever.
Being thirteen years old and in the seventh grade has been a challenge for me; it’s the hardest grade I’ve faced while going to Holy Name. I’m a teenager now but I really don’t know what that means. Thank God for the weekends though. Saturday and Sunday gives me a chance to take a break and to sleep in. I like Saturday’s but dread Sunday’s.
Well, I don’t like going to church. And this morning, the decision has been made, I’m not going. In school we learn about religion every day and HAVE to attend church on Sunday’s. They hold a mass at 5:30 on Saturday nights but I don’t think we’re allowed to go to that one.
Walking down the stairs leading to the front door I hear our landlord in her apartment as I pass by her open door. She’s a sweet old lady; she’s also the owner of the Hardware Store. We live on the top floor, she lives on the second floor right below us. When I play puff basketball in my bedroom she always comes up to complain that I’m making too much noise.
Stepping out onto ninth avenue there’s snow all over the place. Our sidewalk won’t be shovelled until tomorrow morning. I cross ninth avenue and see a few of my classmates walking up towards the church on Prospect Avenue. They’re bundled up with hats, gloves and scarves. Mom is always on my case about wearing my hat and gloves. I don’t own a scarf.
I look to my left towards Rae and Otto’s and see Tom B. coming out holding the Daily News.
“Hey Red, how about the Knicks last night?” he shouts to me from across the street as he turns the corner and walks down Windsor Place. His pace is a lot quicker than mine.
Heading down Windsor Place I hang a sharp right on Howard Place. Walking towards the boys schoolyard I see a couple of kids across the street coming down their steps of their house. I love the houses on Howard Place. I often dream of owning one.
“Red, you coming to church?” Paulie asks me. Paulie and I are in Miss Monzillo’s class at Holy Name. We’ve known each other since first grade.
“I’m going later,” I answer as I dribble my basketball. The sidewalk is plowed enabling me to dribble. Even if there is a few spots of snow, I don’t care, I still dribble.
I’m sure Paulie’s mother must think I’m crazy as they walk up towards Prospect Avenue and see me walking into the boys schoolyard. The yard is empty. I look around and I’m in heaven (who needs church) I think to myself; this is my sanctuary. Instead of lighting candles, I’ll light up the yard with my shooting.
My first few shots at the first basket by the entrance are in close, inside the key. But you can’t see the painted lines, all that’s on the ground is snow.
Mass hasn’t started yet as I still see people walking up Prospect Avenue towards church. When I stop seeing people, then I know the priest has begun. Which means I can’t dribble the ball. You probably think, “how is this crazy kid dribbling the ball in the snow?”
You got it, I am crazy!
I go from spot to spot on the court and launch jump-shot after jump-shot. The ball goes through the netless rim and I’m chasing it all over the court. I have gloves on which makes it difficult to shoot. My coat is beginning to get in the way as I step out past the top of the key. My shot’s a bit off as I throw an airball. Frustrated I remove my coat and toss it off to the side. Have you ever tried to shoot a basketball with a winter coat on?
My right sneaker lace is untied, I bend down to tie it back up. Yeah, I’m wearing sneakers in the snow. I don’t own boots. Plus, if I had boots how would I be able to jump while I shoot my jumper?
Looking over towards the church I see a priest standing behind the chain-linked fence. He’s looking at me, I’m looking at him. It’s a stare down. Sort of like John Wayne in “The Cowboys.”
Two gunslingers about to face off.
I’m frozen and scared though; John Wayne was never afraid. He led a bunch of kids on a 400 mile cattle drive fighting off bandits the whole way.
Priests scare me. They always seem to be angry. During confession I am apprehension, nervous, scared, thinking that he’s going to jump through the curtain and hit me for sinning. My palms are always sweaty and I gag right before entering.
“Bless me father for I have sinned; it’s been two months since my last confession…Please don’t yell at me.”
I drop my basketball. The priest is still standing there looking at me.
What’s his problem? All I’m doing is shooting around, not bothering anyone. Plus I’m sure the snow is drowning out the sound of the ball bouncing.
He’s tall. Has eyeglasses and he’s bald. He’s wearing a long white robe, sorry but I don’t know what they call it. It looks silk, something a king would wear in his castle. I’m sure they have a name for it and the altar boys probably know the name but I never talk to alter boys. They are a bit different from me. Plus, I have never been asked to be one. Tell you the truth, I have no interest in being an altar boy.
“GET OUT OF THE SCHOOLYARD!” The priest screams at me.
Staring at him I don’t say a word. I couldn’t, I was petrified. You know that feeling when you’re scared? Matter of fact, I thought I was going to piss my pants right there on the spot. My lips were frozen. As well as my cheeks. I couldn’t feel my face. I was numb. Mom had bought me one of those winter hats that you throw over your head and it covered everything but your eyes and nose. You see bank robbers wearing them in the movies. If I had it on there’s no way the priest would recognize me.
“NOW!” the priest shouts.
Still standing there I look at him some more. He looks like my father when he would yell at my mother and my brother. I’m thinking to myself, I’m screwed now. Because tomorrow in school they’ll call me down to the principal’s office. And you don’t want to end up there on Monday morning. The last time I was sent down I got 10 whacks from a thick wooden paddle.
“WHY WERE YOU IN THE SCHOOLYARD?” Father Flanagan said to me as he stood there looking like a New York Met on the “on-deck circle” at Shea Stadium.
To be honest, you know and I know that I’m not supposed to be in the boys schoolyard on Sunday mornings. The bouncing of the ball disrupts mass. I’ve probably been thrown out of the yard more than any other kid in the neighborhood. The priests throw me out at night too. But that’s another story for another day.
Guess what? I’m not frozen.
Slowly I walk over to where I threw my coat down, pick it up and walk out of the yard. With my back turned to the priest I can feel his two eyes on me. It’s the extra sense that I have. We all have it, we meaning people who grow up in Brooklyn.
As I exit the yard I peek over my left shoulder and he’s still there. Guess he’s making sure I leave.
As I walk down Windsor Place on my way back home I’m holding my coat in one hand, my basketball in the other. Too scared to put my coat on.
Maybe I should have gone to church this morning?