"If we value the pursuit of knowledge, we must be free to follow wherever that search may lead us. The free mind is not a barking dog, to be tethered on a ten-foot chain."

Adlai E. Stevenson Jr.

A Library in Your Pocket

December 28, 2009

Road Rage: Zero to Homicidal in Two Blocks

I was first in line  at the four way intersection, but had to miss my turn because some pedestrians  were still in the crosswalk directly in my path. By the time my way was clear, another car had already started to turn out of turn so again I had no choice but to wait.

More often than I wish were true,  my reaction to such minor irritants is grossly disproportionate.  But this day,  I was unfazed.   I had just finished walking my two dogs, it was a sunny Sunday early afternoon and I was  feeling uncharacteristically  mellow and forgiving. Then came the horn from the car behind.

Fully prepared to ignore the obnoxious honking and continue on my nearly merry way, I proceeded through the intersection. The honker pulled out from behind and gunned it to my driver side.  "You fucking idiot," he screamed.  "Get off the road asshole,"  his girlfriend screeched.

I will be the first to admit I can be a fucking idiot,  I am often an asshole and there are many times I should get off the road. But this was not one of those days. I had done nothing wrong. As chance would have it, the honking couple caught the light at the very next block and  continued  their  tirade.  The girlfriend  screamed, "why do you have so many dogs?" Two is not a lot of dogs, I could  have responded, but before I could say anything, the honker shouted. "because she has no friends!"  They were giddy at their imagined triumph over me.

I could have told them that both prudence and the law dictated I give the right of way to those gone by.  I could have told them that  I  had only one dog for the past ten years and just acquired the second dog six months ago when it was abandoned in an alley by some asshole not unlike  themselves. I could have  taken an even higher road and said nothing.  I took the one less high and that made all the difference.

The light would be changing soon.  I didn't have time for rational civility and, frankly,  they didn't deserve it.  I yelled back first to the woman. "What did you say? I can't hear you because  your nose is so big."   To be honest,  she was not unattractive, but  her nose did have a modest Roman hook going on.  She was visibly wounded by the first strike. She tried to say something, but I drowned her out, shouting "big nose big nose big nose." I had her nearly in tears.

Next I  squared off on the honker who was screaming something unintelligible at me. I shouted back, "I can't hear you. Your girlfriend's nose is in the way. No wait. That's a reflection of her nose off your bald head."  Actually, he was a good ten years from bald. The honker tried to lunge at me, but was restrained by his seatbelt. They were now both visibly shaking.

"Big nose bald head big nose bald head!"  I was a  relentless moron.  When  the light finally turned green, he screamed, "We are going to follow you home and kill you."  She nodded in full blown, wide eyed maniacal agreement. I braked to force him ahead of me as we both made a right turn at the light. Pulling behind him, I took out my cell phone and pretended to take pictures of their car.  He made a sudden left and sped off and I proceeded ever more merrily toward home.

December 20, 2009

An Angel Among Shepherds

Casting of the Christmas pageant at Sacred Heart was an unnecessary reminder of my lowly place in the socio-economic strata of Catholic school life. My parents were divorced. Strike One. My mother worked as a waitress in a bar. Strike Two. I was left-handed. Strike Three.  According to the nuns constant scowls. I was surely destined to burn in hell as the spawn of Satan should.

My heart's secret desire was to be cast as the Holy Virgin Mary, but year after year, I was relegated to the army of angels, doomed to kneel on the wooden stage in a prayerful pose, silent witness to the birth of Christ, tin-foiled wings proving I was no more than a poser. My white toga, a recycled ghost from Halloween.  Deceptively precocious, it was not lost on me that Jesus came to save everyone on the stage except the angels.

My brothers, meanwhile, were always cast as shepherds in plaid robes, never wise men bearing gifts, never Inn keepers and most certainly, never Joseph. In the pre-pageant Halloween season, they donned their exact same shepherd robes, but called themselves Hoboes.

Our paternal grandfather was an actual shepherd in Sicily before immigrating to America. I suppose we may have real angels in our family too, but none that I've yet met.

The 1962 Pagan Baby Buying Contest

Every year at Sacred Heart Grammar School, each grade -- K through 8 -- was pitted one against the other in a no holds barred, fund raising contest to save souls. The particular souls we were challenged to  save were the souls of pagan babies.

For reasons never adequately explained,  all these pagan babies lived in Africa. I imagined them in full face paint, living in Tarzan tree houses. Like the poor folks who watched Richard Cory walking about town,  I secretly envied the pagan babies and wished to be in their place, spared only the salvation of Sacred Heart.

Now, as any formerly practicing Catholic knows, the only way to save a pagan baby is to baptize the pagan baby before death. Otherwise, a dead pagan baby is doomed to an eternity in limbo, flying and crying through endless clouds without parents, food or toys.

In the years I attended Sacred Heart -- 1959-66 -- pagan babies cost $5 each and came with naming rights and certificates suitable for framing.

Year in year out, Grades K through 6 barely raised enough to buy a single pagan baby's eternal salvation each while Grades 7 and 8, the most senior grades, historically fought it out for first place. Grade 8 usual edged out Grade 7 at the wire.  In 1962, however, history was re-written by my second grade class, quite evidently the most thieving group of junior degenerates ever to grease the halls of Sacred Heart.

In the heat of the week long Pagan Baby Buying Contest frenzy,  I daily stole all the change from my mother's purse while she was slept and kifed milk money left unattended by my more trusting classmates.  I even once stole money from the Pagan Baby Buying coin collection can, but to my credit I did turnit back in as my own daily donation. 

I can still remember Sister Mary Gerald's announcement on the loud speaker when the final monies were tallied.  "Grade 8 raised enough to buy 3 pagan babies, beating out Grade 7, which raised enough to buy 2 pagan babies."

The cheering of Grade 8 reverberated throughout the two story brick school. We in Grade 2 were apparently the only class who noticed that Grade 2's results had yet to be announced.  For a split second, it crossed my mind that we might actually be in trouble for our so obvious thieving. But then, Sister Mary Gerald announced that for the first time in the school's history, Grade 2 had beat Grade 8 and won Sacred Heart's Annual Pagan Baby Buying Contest.

My second grade class raised over $20, enough to buy 4 pagan babies and subsidize the soul saving efforts of the Grade 3 slackers.  Grades K through 7 erupted at the news, applauding and cheering loudly. It wasn't that any of these other grades were particularly happy for us;  they were just glad to see Grade 8 lose. 

At Friday confession, I asked Father Padaway for forgiveness for my many thefts for the benefit of pagan babies. Before the year was over, Father Padaway would drunkenly drive the parish Cadillac into the Deering Oaks Duck Pond and leave the parish (hopefuly by cab) soon afterwards. But that day, he was still on the job and sentenced me to an insane number of Hail Marys and Our Fathers.

Lucky for me, I was already well versed in the multiplication tables and breezed through my penance.