If society has made no other advancements in the last 30 years we have at least begun to recognize the dangers, and evils of bullying. Recently, the local news has been awash with stories of High School hazing incidents and bullying of LGBT students that have ended in tragedy, and suicide. As a parent, I am glad to see that schools and administrators are taking these issues seriously, even if there is still much room for improvement. During our youth it was pretty much an accepted fact of life that the strong kids survived by feasting on the weak. In fact, I have often wondered if we read Lord of the Flies in English class as a “How To” book instead of as social commentary.
Still, I have to think that I had it better than most kids my age. The worst thing I remember about my freshman year at Notre Dame was the ritual hazing that we went through as JV football players. Growing up, I wanted nothing more in life than run out onto the field at Vandetta Stadium as the ND Fight Song played. I would have suffered any humiliation or pain to live that dream, so I never considered quitting, no matter how much grief the Varsity players and coaching staff gave us. Not that we were stripped naked and beaten with paddles or anything. No, the hazing was more psychological than it was physical. For the most part the coaches just looked the other way, and considered it part of a character building exercise that everybody had to go through.
After football practices the JV’s weren’t allowed to shower when the Varsity was in the shower. Sweaty, exhausted, and muddy, we had to sit and wait until they were almost done. This wasn’t a coaching rule, just one the Varsity players had created. When we were finally allowed into the shower, the freshman all had to share a single shower head in the corner, and take turns getting wet, soaping up, and rinsing off. Huddled in the corner we kept our distance from the Seniors because they’d pee on you if you got too close to them. It was disgusting to be standing there shivering, waiting for your turn under the shower head, and feel an odd warm stream of water hitting you in the legs. Guys really are Neanderthal’s. If boys aren’t ruled over with an iron fist it doesn’t take long before they are painting their bodies, brandishing spears, and dancing around a bonfire.
I’d like to say that I was more enlightened than most and that when I became a Senior we made sure to treat the freshman with dignity and respect. But I would be a liar. I can distinctly remember throwing little Danny Palmer into the hallway wearing nothing but his jockstrap, and locking the door behind him. We also gave Tim Kryman a swirly, because had the temerity to talk back to us, and disrespect our “authority”.
As a freshman, I was in awe of the upper classmen on the team. I was so terrified that they’d single me out for torment that I tried to fade into the wood work at every opportunity. My friend good friend Tim, on the other hand, refused. Tim had tried out for football, but had to quit early in the season because of his bronchitis. He became the “trainer” and spent the weekday afternoons picking up blocking dummies and filling water buckets. He was picked on terribly by the Varsity players, but he had spunk, and he was never too afraid to smart off to them.
One day we were standing next to my locker changing after practice, when the starting Running Back for the Varsity walked by and intentionally brushed into Tim. Tim never hesitated, and told him to “Watch out asshole!”. My heart stopped beating, and my jaw fell open. The Senior spun around and grabbed Tim with both hands and threw him up against the lockers. I began to wonder how I was going to explain to Tim’s weeping Mother that her son had been killed and dismembered, but instead Tim spat in his face, and came flying back off of the wall with both arms swinging. I don’t think the Senior ever expected him to fight back. A knock down, drag out, roll around on the floor of the locker room, fight ensued until the coaches came in and pulled them off of each other. I have always respected Tim for that. The obnoxious little punk had balls. I think it was the Sicilian in him.
But not all the Seniors were that cruel to us. Pat Clark used to look out for me, and Randy Mazur, despite making me remove his cleats for him after the games, was a pretty decent guy too. They never participated in the more sadistic tortures. I did the opposite of Tim and laid low, doing as I was told. I was puny, at about 100 lbs, and had been placed as wide receiver. The first three JV games of the year I didn’t get to play because there was a sophomore ahead of me at the position. But then he got promoted to Varsity and I finally got in a game.
Our JV’s hadn’t won a game in two years at that point. It was near the end of the game and we were losing by several touchdowns when the coaches finally started calling pass plays. By some wonder of fate, the other team had either resorted to putting their cheerleaders into the game, or was too tired from scoring touchdowns, but Jimmy didn’t get sacked, and actually threw the ball my way. I caught something like four passes for 40 yards, and never scored a point, but overnight I had become somebody.
In practice the next day the JV coach had me run pass patterns and catch the ball so our Varsity coach could see that I really could catch a pass, and with four games left in the year I got picked to be one of the four freshman to suit up for Varsity. Suddenly, the Varsity players knew my name, and started saying hi to me in the hallways. I didn’t mind my minor celebrity, it was better than cowering in the corner of the shower.
I’d like to think that my promotion to Varsity was because of my natural athletic ability finally shining through. Unfortunately, it was just because of a NY State HS rule that all schools needed to have at least 22 players to have a Varsity team. We only had 18 upper classmen (Sophomore’s included) so I got to be one of the 4 lucky freshman to wear an oversized Varsity jersey, and stand on the sideline during the games.
I didn’t play a single down on Varsity until about half way through Sophomore year, but I was there! My friends Jimmy and David also got called up to Varsity and we spent so much time standing on the sidelines by the cheerleaders over the course of the next year and a half that we not only memorized the cheers, but we knew the choreography too. (My favorite was “Be Aggressive! B-E Aggressive. B-E A-G-G-R-E-SS-I-V-E…”)
It’s funny. In one of my old yearbooks I have a picture of me standing on the sidelines, watching the cheerleaders. I am just this little kid hidden deep inside of a helmet and jersey. My God but we were children! I was never as strong willed, or as self confident as my friend Tim. If I hadn’t have had the good fortune of catching a couple of passes, I doubt I would have made it through my freshman year. By the time that football season was over, there were only a handful of stoners that I needed to look out for. The jocks pretty much left me alone, and it was understood that I was “protected”.
Such is the fate of being a teenager. It doesn’t take much to go from the most popular, to the least, or back again. A catch, a joke, a date, a text message, or throwing up at a dance can all transform your world overnight for better, or for worse. I am so afraid of what the future holds for my kids. At that age, everything in life seemed like it was life or death. We lived on the edge of a knife every day. It seemed like one small slip up and it could all be over. I lived it. I remember it. How on earth do I convince them that none of it really matters? If you have any ideas, please let me know.
The wind outside is howling, and tearing at the house like a pack of wolves. Jeepers what a storm. Even the Indomitable Moxie and Maggie the Wonderdog won’t go out in it. Instead they are curled up beside me on the couch, sleeping. I can’t imagine a better way to spend a cold rainy evening.
I forgot to mention, but last Saturday night we hosted the 5th grade Girls soccer team from Our Lady of the Subdural Hematoma, along with their parents and siblings, for a campfire and S’mores party. The prior week was one long preparation for a two hour campfire. So on Friday evening, 20 Prospect Jr. and I got out the shovels and dug up the old annual garden to make a fire pit. We’ve been meaning to re-purpose the garden for some time.
We aren’t really the gardening type, but when we moved in the previous occupants had built a three tiered garden over an old tree stump. We considered taking it out, but the ground around it was raised from the roots of the old tree, and we already had 10 other stumps, plus bushes to grind up. So the garden has made it for 15 years, hosting an assortment of annuals and weeds. Lately though, Maggie the Wonderdog has decided that it is a great place to dig, and the old wooden beams had rotted out and begun to crumble.
So our project was to turn the old garden into a firepit for the party. Our old retired neighbor across the street gave us the drum from an old washing machine to use as the fire ring. Why he had an old drum from a washing machine behind his shed, I didn’t ask. He comes from my parent’s generation, so I’m sure that as a child of the depression he learned to save everything, because you never know when you might need it. I can hear him now explaining to his wife how fortunate it was that he stored that old washing machine behind the shed for the last 20 years.
So 20 Prospect Jr. and I dug a three foot deep hole in the dirt, as the dogs sat on the back porch thinking,
“What the hell!? How come when we dig holes there you smack us on the ass? Flippin’ humans!”
We buried the drum until just the top 4 inches protruded above the ground. The firewood was delivered on Saturday morning, and the afternoon was spent cleaning the house. (because you never know where the party guests might go snooping when they come inside to use the bathroom.)
By 6:30 the fire was roaring, and by 7pm the guests began arriving, 16 kids and 10 adults. (Damn Catholics, we breed like rabbits) Then for the next two hours the adults stood around the fire exchanging parenting notes about illnesses, after school activities, and which kids at school were most likely to end up in juvenile detention by age 14. Meanwhile, the kids, age 4 to 12, spent the evening playing some sort of game that involved them running around the back yard, screaming at the top of their lungs, and taking turns tackling each other and dragging each other off to the jail under the swing set. Apparently they have a future in law enforcement. Or a religious order. Don’t let it be said that they no longer instill discipline at parochial schools.
By 9:30 pm, the party was over, and we were left with a lifetime supply of hot cider, marshmallow, and graham crackers. How or when we learned that being a good host means setting out 3 times as much food and drink as necessary, I have no idea. But whenever we have a party, or go to someone else’s, it seems to be the norm. Maybe it was those trips to Grandma’s as a kid when she served three kinds of meat, and four kinds of potato for Christmas dinner.
So we put the kids to bed, and as the fire burned low, Mrs. 20 Prospect and I collapsed into the lawn chairs, and watched the embers glow in the darkness. Even the dogs were exhausted.
And so another week came to a close on the front porch, and another one dawned. This one holds the promise of more school, piano lessons, hockey practices, and finishing Halloween costumes. And if the weather itself hadn’t clued us in to the change of seasons, this is the week of hockey tryouts for 20 Prospect Jr. For five nights this week the kids will play and scrimmage to determine which ones make the “A” team, and which ones are relegated to the “B” team. Why they need five nights to figure this out is beyond me. Popes have been elected with less deliberation.
Fifteen years ago tomorrow was greatest day in my life, and I have to say, life has only gotten better since.
How I ever managed to get you to marry me I’ll never know. I guess all those candles Mom lit paid off. Thank you for fifteen wonderful years of marriage. I look forward to growing old with you. Well, not the “old” part, just the “with you” part.
I love you Mrs. 20 Prospect!
Variations on the Word Love
by Margaret Atwood
This is a word we use to plug
holes with. It’s the right size for those warm
blanks in speech, for those red heart-
shaped vacancies on the page that look nothing
like real hearts. Add lace
and you can sell
it. We insert it also in the one empty
space on the printed form
that comes with no instructions. There are whole
magazines with not much in them
but the word love, you can
rub it all over your body and you
can cook with it too. How do we know
it isn’t what goes on at the cool
debaucheries of slugs under damp
pieces of cardboard? As for the weed-
seedlings nosing their tough snouts up
among the lettuces, they shout it.
Love! Love! sing the soldiers, raising
their glittering knives in salute.
Then there’s the two
of us. This word
is far too short for us, it has only
four letters, too sparse
to fill those deep bare
vacuums between the stars
that press on us with their deafness.
It’s not love we don’t wish
to fall into, but that fear.
this word is not enough but it will
have to do. It’s a single
vowel in this metallic
silence, a mouth that says
O again and again in wonder
and pain, a breath, a finger
grip on a cliffside. You can
hold on or let go.
This will probably be our last year of trick and treating. 20 Prospect Jr. is in 4th grade, and Lil’ Miss 20 Prospect is in 5th, and both are starting to see it as a “little kid” thing to do. So when the snowflakes fly, and the winds whip this Halloween, we will be setting out for what may well be my last Trick or Treat. I’m feeling a little melancholy over it. I can’t believe they have grown up so fast. It seems like just yesterday I was carrying them home, one in each arm, along with two pumpkins full of candy, because they were too tired to walk back up the hill.
(insert manly tears here.)
Growing up, Halloween was always my favorite holiday. Behind Christmas of course. (Gotta give the fat man and the Christ child their due.) Although when I think back upon my years of Trick or Treating, it isn’t always with fond memories.
The first year I was old enough to go out alone with the other neighborhood kids was 1974. I was six years old, and I had decided that I wanted to be a ghost. In my mind I could picture my ghost costume, right out of Charlie Brown, a white bed sheet with two holes cut for eyes. I begged Mom to help me make the costume, and she obliged by digging through the laundry room, until she found a yellowed, thread bare old bed sheet that she was willing to sacrifice. I explained to her exactly how I wanted it to look. How it would fit over my head, and I would be able to lift my arms and look just like Caspar, only scarier. She nodded, and told me she knew just what I meant. Then she took her scissors and cut one big hole right in the middle of the sheet.
It was big enough to put my head through.
Then she explained to me that it wasn’t safe for a six year old to go trick or treating with a bed sheet over his head, and how this would help me see where I was going.
I stood there speechless, the tears welling up from deep within.
There was no way I was walking out that door with my head sticking through a hole in a bed sheet. I didn’t look like a ghost, I looked like the angel from the Nativity Scene. The kids were going to laugh at me. She suggested that maybe if I had a mask to wear over my face it would look better. So we dug around the basement for awhile until we found a tiger mask. So as the kids in the neighborhood gathered out in front of 20 Prospect, I set off with the Army Soldiers, Frankenstein’s, Cowboys, Dracula’s, and Planet of the Apes as the only Ghostly Tiger in the City of Batavia. Maybe even the world.
At every house we came to a little old lady would open the door and ask “and what do we have here?” then proceed to name each and every costume until she came to me. After an awkward silence, I would mumble “Umm… I’m a ghostly tiger”.
I swore right then at age six that I was never going to do that to my kids.
So when Halloween 1975 rolled around I had great hopes for redemption. This year I would have the best costume on the street. So the week before Halloween, Mom took me to Fay’s Drug Store to buy a fancy store bought costume. I looked over the Planet of the Apes, the Astronauts, the Frankenstein’s, and the Superhero’s and I found the best costume I had ever seen.
This was it! This was the one! It had a plastic Dinosaur mask with a snout that protruded like a Crocodile’s. I begged Mom to buy it for me, and she did! On the night of Halloween I sat at the dinner table, squirrely with excitement. That’s when Mom informed me that my Big Bruddah had a High School Football game that night at Niagara Catholic in Niagara Falls, and that we would have to leave early to go to the game so there would be no time for trick or treating with my friends. Instead, my sister took me to five houses on our street. That night I rode all the way to Niagara Falls sitting in the backseat with my Dinosaur mask on, pondering the fact that Mom clearly did not grasp the concept of Halloween.
So for Halloween 1976 I turned to my Dad. That was the year of Star Wars, and I had gotten a toy light saber, made out of a flashlight and a hollow plastic tube. I wanted to be Darth Vader, so Dad put on his thinking cap, and then gathered up a pair of welding goggles, one of granny’s oxygen masks, and a toy German Army helmet, and took them out to the barn and spray painted them black. Mom even got into the act by sewing me a black cape, and letting me wear her knee high black leather boots. The night of Halloween I stepped out onto the front porch, flicked on my light saber, and started breathing like James Earl Jones with a nasty head cold. The neighborhood was in awe. What followed was the greatest Halloween ever, as I spent 3 hours walking the streets of Batavia basking in the celebrity of an adoring public, until my pillow case was full to over flowing with sugary goodness.
I was Darth Vader again the next year.
So as Trick or Treat Version 2.0 is coming to an end, the kids and I have been working on their costumes this week. As he was reading the Lord of the Rings last month, 20 Prospect Jr. decided he wanted to be a ring wraith. That’s my boy. Nine years old and already on his way to Saturday nights playing Dungeon and Dragons with his friends as the cool kids are out drinking in the woods. I hesitate to introduce him to Star Trek for fear he makes it through High School without ever having a date.
And Lil Miss 20 Prospect? She wanted to be a devil. Do you think we could find a devil costume suitable for an 11 year old girl? No. Not unless I wanted to send her out of the house dressed like a stripper. So to the makers of kids Halloween costumes I would like to say “What the hell people? What is it with the porn star outfits for pre-pubescent girls? ARE YOU SICK!?!”
Thanks, I needed to get that off my chest.
So instead they will both be going as ring wraiths in costumes that are best described as a black burka, with a toy sword. I’m afraid the folks in the neighborhood will just think they came from the Islamic Center around the block, and call Homeland Security.
Such is life in the big city.
Two years ago, when Lil’ Miss 20 Prospect wanted to be a ghost, I knew exactly what she meant. I went to bat for her and argued with Mrs. 20 Prospect that there was no danger or safety hazard in sending a nine year old out into the dark with a bed sheet over her head. It only took 34 years to get redemption.
The air outside is as crisp as a fresh apple this morning. Have I told you how much I love October? There’s just something about the bite of the wind, and the sound of dead leaves scuttling across the sidewalks that makes me all misty eyed, and it’s not just my allergies.
Halloween was one of my favorite holidays as a kid. One of the benefits of being Catholic was getting November 1st, All Saints Day, as a day off from school. While all my heathen friends were coming down from their sugar high, and staggering off to school on the morning of the 1st, we’d be home in our Jammies watching Captain Kangaroo, vibrating with excitement, and popping M&M’s and Smarty’s like some strung out Hollywood starlet.
Of course, that was back when parents never worried about giving kids sugar. Cripes, Mom used to let me drink a quart of Pepsi before bedtime. Is it any wonder I was an insomniac at age 10? Oh, those were the days, Sugar Pops for Breakfast, Hostess Pies for Lunch, and Ice Cream after dinner. In the summer time we’d walk around the block to Rhinehart’s and blow our change on candy bars, and Bubble Yum. I still get heart palpitations when I think of mainlining those Pixie Sticks.
Now we “know better”. I feel sorry for our poor kids. I’m glad my parents never spent their days reading “What to Expect When Expecting”, or any of those other educational parenting books. No, I’m happy I was a bottle baby, and that the bottle was full of Black Velvet. Actually, by age 20 I had ingested so much sugar I totally lost my taste for sweet stuff, although it does seem to be returning now in middle age. Most likely because our kids are so conscientious about eating candy, that the Halloween stuff would still be around at Easter if Mrs. 20 Prospect and me didn’t sneak into their rooms at night, and steal their Butterfingers, and 100 Grand bars.
I have no idea how we managed to have such well behaved and sober children. Don’t get me wrong, they still love Halloween as much as the next kid. They just seem have something called “restraint”. This chromosome obviously did not come from the 20 Prospect side of the family.
So as October winds down, we are busy trying to pull together some homemade Halloween costumes, and finishing off their annual “Saints Project”. Being statue worshiping Catholics, each child at Our Lady of the Subdural Hematoma is assigned a Saint, and required to do research and present a report to the class. I think this is intended to offset the Paganism of the secular holiday, by exposing the kids to positive role models. There’s just one problem with this. Most of the recognized Saints were obviously insane.
Perhaps it was all the lead paint and mercury that they fed people in the Middle Ages, but the lives of some of these Saints is more gruesome than some of the horror movies I’ve seen. Seriously, there is a wealth of material for a good slasher flick right there in the Pantheon of Saints. How I never noticed this until now puzzles me, but thinking back on it I am glad my bat sh!t crazy Nuns never made me read the life story of St. Lucy. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep at night.
So for the past week the children and I have been reading hair raising stories of self flagellation, self mortification, and asceticism that make me wonder just how many S&M aficionados there are sitting next to us in the pews on Sunday. Seriously, if Mass involved detailed descriptions of the lives of these Saints, the pews would be packed with weirdo’s.
(I would like to pause a second, to ask my protestant, and agnostic readers to hold their comments until the end of the post please)
So, I will spare you some of the more gory trivia we have learned, and instead present you with the Top Ten little known facts about the J-Man. Because if there’s anything that all 30,000 different Christian denominations can agree on, it’s that the J-man is totally awesome.
I mean it.
Umm… suddenly I have a bad feeling about this…please excuse me while I go perform penance for the following blasphemy…
Ten Little Known Facts about Jesus
10.) The 69’ Mets? That was totally his idea.
9.) Kept raising the family cat from the dead until his Mom made him stop.
8.) He knows the number of angels that fit on the head of a pin, but he’s not telling.
7.) That thing about celibate priests? He was totally messing with us.
6.) If you thought turning water into wine was cool, wait till you see what he can do to Oregano!
5.) He’s got a tattoo of Our Lady of Guadalupe with “Mom” written under it.
4.) Boxers, not briefs.
3.) Organ music gives him migraines.
2.) Used to walk on water to freak out his babysitters.
1.) Said to Pilate, “You call that a cross? Shit, I could have given you the name of a good carpenter if you’d have just asked.”
My mother is a Saint. Well, if not a Saint, at least a Christian Martyr. Lord knows she has spent her lifetime informing us of her sufferings. Her martyrdom has not gone unrewarded. My siblings and I like to joke that she has a direct line to the man upstairs. And by the “man upstairs”, I am speaking of course about the late Monsignor Schwartz.
As I have said before, Mom and Dad spent just about all their free time helping out at the parish in one way or another. Popcorn Balls, the Drum Corps, the Lawn Fete, Girl Scouts, St. Vincent DePaul, Bingo, the parish was their social life. My earliest memories involve sitting at my brother’s 8th grade basketball games, or at my sisters’ Girl Scout meetings, or riding in the van behind the little St. Joe’s Drum Corps as they marched in parades. Even when I graduated and went on to High School, Mom and Dad stayed involved at the parish. So it was no surprise that when I decided to find my first summer job, Mom was able to pull some strings and get me in at the parish.
It was not the first time that she cashed in some of those indulgences to find one of us employment. When my sister and her fiancé moved back to 20 Prospect after their graduation from Paul Smith’s College, Mom talked to Monsignor and got her fiancé a job for the summer. He worked at the Parish Cemetery mowing grass, and digging graves with the two full time grave diggers. As you might imagine, the grave diggers weren’t exactly what you might call normal folk. They seemed harmless enough, but were always just a little bit “off” if you know what I mean. One would bring his wife and kids to work with him, and they would sit in the station wagon while he dug graves and tended to the cemetery. For the entire day, day after day, all summer long, they sat there in the car just staring out the windows. No books. No radio. No talking. The five of them just sitting there in the station wagon.
So I was understandably relieved when Mom told me that Monsignor didn’t need me in the cemetery, but he could use my help around the Church and School. The benefit to working for Monsignor is he paid you under the table. When payday came I would stop by his office and he would pull out his money clip and peel off tens and twenties while he quizzed me about my plans for the evening, and told me not to spend it all in one place. No one knew where his money came from, but the good Monsignor never seemed to be hurting for it. He managed the parish like a family business. He would never pay for a service he could guilt a parishioner into doing for free, so I felt honored that he was willing to part with his beloved cash for 40 hours of janitor work.
Of course, his frugality did not apply to himself. He always drove the newest, and biggest Cadillac there was, and spent most of his summer afternoons golfing. Growing up I always had the impression that being a priest was a lucrative profession. For a poor German kid from Buffalo’s East Side, he used his force of personality and business acumen to great effect. As school children we lived in fear of him. If not for the threat of Monsignor’s volatile temper, Sister Eileen, our Principal, would have had no power over us.
The first morning of work, I showed up with a knot in my stomach and shaking knees. Even at 17 I still lived in fear and awe of Monsignor. He led me over to the school and introduced me to the janitor that I would be working with all summer. On the walk across the parking lot he prepped me for what to expect. “Bill is a special guy. He’s not exactly like other people. You need to take a little extra time to explain things to him. I know you’ll get along OK, but be sure to keep an eye on him, and let me know if he starts doing anything he shouldn’t.”
This was not the re-assuring speech I had expected for my first day in the working world. Apparently in the eyes of Monsignor I was the responsible one. When we got inside of the building it took us a while to find Bill. “See what I mean?” Monsignor said, “You need to keep your eye on him or he disappears and hides on you”. Eventually we caught him in an upstairs hallway, hurrying to get to the back stairs before we saw him.
Monsignor introduced us, and explained to Bill who I was, and what I would be doing. He just looked back and forth from Monsignor to me, and nodded his head “Uh-huh”. Monsignor ended by asking him 3 times if he understood him, before he left. When he was gone, Bill turned and started walking down the hallway.
I didn’t have a clue what to do, so I just followed him. He stopped in a janitor’s closet, and started busying himself with buckets. I asked him if I could help and he looked at me like he had never seen me before in his life. I explained again who I was, and why I was there. He nodded, “Uh-huh”, then went back to filling his bucket. I could see this was going to be a long summer.
I followed him around until I figured out that he was mopping the floor in the cafeteria. All 4,000 square feet of it. So I suggested that maybe I could help him with the mopping, and he paused for a moment then said “Uh-huh.” He left the bucket, and walked back to the janitor’s closet to fill another. Now we were getting somewhere. I picked up a mop and started in.
I discovered that the pink soap they used to mop the floor was the same pink soap that they put in the bathroom soap dispensers. Just the smell of that pink soap transported me back to my years at St. Joe’s. I also discovered that there is more to mopping a floor than just swabbing a mop around. Bill showed me how to do it, and every five minutes when I started doing it a different way, he would stop, come over and show me how to do it again. The day ticked slowly by, but by the end of it the cafeteria had been mopped. At four o’clock, we said goodbye, and I told him I would see him tomorrow. He looked at me, and said “Uh-huh”.
The next morning, I introduced myself all over again. He seemed to vaguely recall having met me before. I followed him around until I discerned what task we were up to that day, and then I started in helping. By 9 o’clock Monsignor had stopped by to see how we were doing. He gave Bill his list of instructions for the day, and reminded him three times, making Bill repeat the instructions back to him before he left. After he was gone, Bill winked at me and smiled. “The big guy golfs on Tuesdays, so he won’t be back until two o’clock.”
This was the longest conversation we had to this point, and I was heartened that I wouldn’t have to take a vow of silence all summer. I tried to strike up conversation with him as we worked. It wasn’t much use. You could ask questions, but mostly he just replied with an “Uh-huh.” That got old fast.
The morning of the third day, when I arrived at school Bill looked up, smiled and said “What’s the good word?” He seemed to finally be warming up to me, but to be honest I was just relieved to see he remembered who I was. Eventually, over the course of the summer I learned the two or three subjects that Bill liked to talk about. He had worked as a janitor at Dohler Jarvis until the layoffs. He was married and lived out in the country. He had sisters in the area, who he said “keep him out of trouble”.
By the 15th morning of being greeted with “What’s the good word?”, I thought I was going to lose my mind. I am ashamed to admit it, but spending the days washing walls, mopping floors, and cleaning out desks in silence was better than holding the same three conversations over and over. Trying to talk about anything else never really worked.
Bill’s life at St. Joe’s was one of routine. He had certain chores, that he did a certain way, on certain days. So long as we stuck to the plan, he was good. Whenever he got a task that was new or different, he’d get very nervous and start mumbling to himself. I only saw him get testy a few times, after Monsignor had stopped by and chewed him out for forgetting something.
I liked Bill. He truly was a gentle and harmless soul. He worked hard at what he did, and took great satisfaction from life’s simple pleasures. Tuesday morning’s were his favorite, because if there was pie left over from Bingo on Monday night, the kitchen staff would always leave it in the fridge for him.
As for me, my summer dragged by. I appreciated having the beer money, but the boredom was excruciating. And then there were the ghosts. Working in my old elementary school just conjured memories of my childhood. I could walk in the footsteps of my past, sit in the desk I sat at in 7th grade, and stare up at the same mute statues of Saints. Every room, every object, held a memory. I would try to think of the present, but kept finding myself drifting back into the past.
I began to feel like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, only without the axe.
All work and no play makes Mr. 20 Prospect a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Mr. 20 Prospect a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Mr. 20 Prospect a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Mr. 20 Prospect a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Mr. 20 Prospect a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Mr. 20 Prospect a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Mr. 20 Prospect a dull boy.
Sorry, got a bit carried away there. Where was I? Right.
So one morning when I got to work I found Bill with his car door open, lying on the floor of the car, looking under the front seats. I walked up behind him and asked “What’s the good word?”
“I got a mousy in here.” He replied.
It was only 8 o’clock in the morning, and I was still hung over from drinking behind the Blind School the night before, so it took a few seconds to wrap my head around that.
“Why do you have a mouse in your car?” I asked.
“He was in the garbage” he replied, as if this made perfect sense.
Now I was really confused. “If he was in the garbage, how did he get in your car?”
“He got out.” he told me.
“When?” I asked.
“When I was driving to work.” He answered.
This Abbot and Costello routine continued for about fifteen minutes until I pieced together that he was bringing his garbage to work to throw it in the dumpster, when a mouse ran across the dashboard, and down the seat. After a further 15 minutes of fruitless searching, we left the windows open so the mousy could get out and went inside before Monsignor caught us goofing off.
That was the highlight of my summer job right there. I have never been so glad to see a summer end as I was that year. I think that was the moment that I realized that I don’t handle boredom very well. Still, the next summer I was back, cleaning the school, and taking Monsignor’s cash. It was too lucrative to turn down. When I said goodbye to Bill before I left for college, he just smiled, and shook my hand, then went back to mopping the floor. I saw him again in later years, whenever I happened back in town for the Lawn Fete. I’d walk up to him to say hello, and he’d always ask me “What’s the good word?”
It’s been 25 years since that summer. In that time I have worked a lot of different jobs, in a lot of different places. I have worked with people from different races and creeds, from every continent but Antarctica. One of the things I have learned along the way is that the dignity of a job does not come from the title, the salary, or the place it holds on a organizational chart. It comes from the worker. Any job can be done with dignity if the worker chooses to. I realize now that Bill was the first person to show me that.
But I’m still not sure what the good word was.