Thursday, December 17, 2015

Christmas Eve at Rosen's Deli

It's Christmas Eve and Paddy Kelly is on his way home from work at the Post Office. He stops at Rosen's Deli and orders a brisket of beef sandwich on pumpernickel rye with a smear of horseradish and a "new" kosher pickle on the side. 

Ever since he came from Ireland to Chicago years ago, Paddy has preferred the "new" kosher pickle to the standard kosher pickle because it's crunchier, he says. It's more like a cucumber, he told his wife, because it isn't cured as long as the standard kosher pickle. He loves the sound as he bites into one, a sound he magnifies whenever he brings his wife to Rosen's. Maggie Kelly likes the new pickle but doesn't like the sound of Paddy chomping on it in public.

"I'll take a potato latke, too, Sol," Paddy says to Mr. Rosen, the proprietor of the deli and eldest son of a rabbi killed at the Treblinka Concentration Camp by the Nazis during World War II. Sol was the only survivor in his family. His parents and four siblings were gassed at Treblinka. At 76 Sol has now almost come to grips with the murders except on Jewish holidays when everything about the Treblinka camp dashes back into his mind. If it weren't for the American soldiers getting there on time, he would have gone to the gas chamber as well.

"You want coffee now Paddy?" Sol says, stationed in his white apron at the big silver urn, cup in hand. The apron is a patchwork of all the condiments Sol has dispensed during his long day. Mustard stains are particularly hard to get out, according to Mrs. Rosen, a tiny woman, who reminds Sol of that whenever she's behind the counter helping out. 

"Coffee later, Sol, with a piece of cheesecake. No dinner tonight. Maggie's not feeling well. I'll eat here and take noodle soup to go. I hope she'll feel better in the morning. She'd never forgive herself if she's too sick to go to Mass on Christmas Day."

It's always quiet on Christmas Eve at Rosen's Deli but this time it's quieter than usual. Two regulars, Ruben Cohen and Ruben Goldberg, are the only other customers They are sitting on their usual thrones at the counter, with an empty throne between them, facing each other in almost matching fedoras and arguing as always about the definition of certain Yiddish words.

Cohen and Goldberg have been arguing about the fine points--and not so fine points--of the Yiddish language for years with no sign of detente. Right now, the argument is over whether "kunilemel" and "shmendreck" are Yiddish synonyms--or not. Ruben Cohen says it's worse to be called a shmendreck than a kunilemel and Ruben Goldberg maintains that is not accurate. 

"They're both the same, Cohen!" Goldberg proclaims, prior to a slurp of coffee.

"Are you telling me you'd just as soon be called a shmendreck as a kunilemel," Cohen yells at Goldberg. 

If a selection had to be made, Goldberg would probably be judged the scholar of the two in that he usually completes the crossword puzzle in the Chicago Sun-Times in half an hour. Cohen, on the other hand, is currently a cab driver with a degree in accounting. He's between jobs, which is usually the case for Ruben Cohen, and he hasn't got time for crossword puzzles. But he'll do your taxes accurately for a lot less than H&R Block.

"Time is money," Cohen says to Goldberg as he heads for the door. "I got no time for crossword puzzles on Christmas Eve. I'll be getting quite a few fares for Midnight Mass. It's tough for the old-timers to walk a few blocks. Ask Kelly over there. He'll tell you that's the truth.

Paddy Kelly, in the meantime, is lost in thought as he finishes his cheesecake and coffee and walks up to pay his tab at the front of the store. Once again Sol is there wrestling with his ancient register. Some days it works and some days it doesn't. Sol shakes it at least three times before putting in a call to the repairman. On Christmas Eve, the charge would be higher and it's high enough, Sol says, on regular days.

"How's Mrs. Rosen, Sol?," Paddy asks. "Haven't seen her in weeks."

"Cancer, Paddy," Sol says. "They operate next week. Things don't look good. The docs say everything depends on what they find. Up until now she's had good health for a woman her age."

Paddy has no idea what to say. He knows Minerva Rosen better than Sol. Years ago it was Minerva Rosen who handed him his first new pickle. And then she gave him his first knish. Two days after that, she brought over his first steaming bowl of sweet and sour cabbage soup. 

Paddy had eaten a lot of cabbage in Ireland but nothing as delicious as Mrs. Rosen's sweet and sour cabbage soup. He always comes in for a bowl on St. Patrick's Day before heading to the party at the Knights of Columbus Hall. 

The Rosens cater that event every year. For weeks afterward arguments continue among the guests, most of them immigrants from Ireland, as to which corned beef is better--Rosen's kosher corned beef or the version they ate on holidays back in Ireland, provided their families could afford it. Otherwise they ate boiled cabbage and potatoes with a piece of pork tossed in for flavoring.

Paddy has always preferred Rosen's corned beef but he would never risk his life by saying so in front of the other Knights.  

"Sol, at church tomorrow, Maggie and I will pray hard for Mrs. Rosen. I hope to God the surgery works. Sometimes praying is all that anyone can do."

"I know," Sol says as the register finally springs open. "You have a good Christmas, Paddy, and we'll see what the doctors say next week. The best to you and Maggie."  

Donal Mahoney
New Year's Resolutions

Jim Daley and Joe McCarthy had something in common. They died at 80 going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Walt O'Brien, their protege, found this out when he called the homes of both men on New Year's Day, an annual custom for Walt, something he started doing years ago just to find out how his old mentors were doing. 

Jim's widow spoke to Walt on the phone and told him Jim had died from a stroke on Halloween. They had found his body in the morning, half in the bathroom and half in the hallway, cold as a mackerel fresh out of the sea. Jim's widow said she was a sound sleeper. Walt thought she should have heard his body fall since Jim was a big man, all belly and buttocks, as Jim himself would put it. 

Joe's widow said her Joe had tripped on the bathroom rug on All Soul's Daybanged his head on the commode and died in intensive care a week later, never emerging from his coma. She was happy the priest got there in time to administer the last rites before Joe stopped breathing. His last breath, she said, was a gurgle.
Jim and Joe had been more like uncles to Walt than mentors. They came into his life when Walt was in grammar school. It was just after his dad had been killed in Korea and Walt needed all the support he could get. 

Over the next 50 years Walt had stayed in touch with both men, calling them on New Year's Day from different cities. Their advice over the years helped Walt survive three job lossesa foreclosure, two car wrecks and four divorces. Sometimes their advice dealt with the big issues of life. But sometimes they commented on smaller phenomena as well. 

Last year, for example, Jim had warned Walt that growing old meant not being able to put your underwear on standing up. 

"I have to sit on the bed now," Jim had said, sounding almost depressed for a man known for his jocularity. 

Right after Jim told him about the underwear problem, Walt called Joe and asked if Jim was right. Joe too confirmed he now had to sit on the bed to get his underwear on. He told Walt every man has to sit down at some point in life, provided he lives long enough.

"Age has its requirements," Joe said. "There's a happy medium, I suppose. If I had died a few years ago, I wouldn't be having this problem right now."

At 60, Walt could still put his underwear on standing up but it was getting more difficult. He had to hop on one leg, pogo-stick style, to get the job done. But sitting down was not an option. Walt was a proud man who had overcome bigger problems in life and he'd keep hopping for as long as he could. 

One time, however, he almost fell but landed in a chair. His fourth wife Belinda still laughs about it even though they're no longer married. She even called two of his ex-wives and told them about it. They couldn't stop laughing.

Walt knows that one day he will have to sit down to put his underwear on unless he dies before that. He figures he has at least a few good years left. But after hearing that Jim and Joe had died trying to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night, Walt decided to take certain steps to avoid a similar mishap in his own life. 

First, he installed night lights along the baseboards going from the bedroom to the bathroom. At midnight the hallway now shines like a small expressway with no traffic at all.
Then Walt made some New Year's resolutions, a step he had never taken before. As a result he now eats salads and fruit plates instead of double cheeseburgers and lots of ice cream. What's more he reads the Bible now and then in the morning. He's even quit drinking beer late into the night.  
The new Walt now sits back in his leather recliner, sips wine coolers out of old jelly jars and listens, over and over, to his favorite recording of an old Irish reel called "Toss the Feathers." It’s played beautifully, he says, by the McNulty Family, most of whose members, he figures, are by now dead.
When he was a boy, Jim and Joe had introduced Walt to traditional Irish music and even taught him a few steps of the reel, jig and hornpipe.
Once in awhile, when he's had enough wine, Walt tries to do a few of those steps and he succeeds to his own satisfaction.
And, of course, he still puts his underwear on standing up, one hop at a time. 
Donal Mahoney

Donal Mahoney

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

An Opinion on Events at the University of Missouri

I was born, reared, educated and worked as an editor in Chicago for many years. I now live in St. Louis, Missouri, where work brought me long ago. In retirement, I stay busy writing a little of this and a little of that. 
But I am distracted now but not surprised by the racial discord at the University of Missouri, a year or so after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. I find racism in St. Louis much different than I remember its counterpart in Chicago. But I am white and still a Chicagoan, albeit an expatriate, and perhaps that skews my thoughts. I like the people of Missouri but I’m not one of them. I lived too long in Chicago that almost as many years in Missouri cannot counteract.
I find that unlike in the Chicago I recall, where racism was often loud and abrasive, racism in St. Louis has until recently seemed largely silent.
But as an outsider I find racism in St. Louis is part of many white folks’ emotional DNA while perhaps it is not in Chicago, at least to the same degree. I can’t speak, of course, for blacks in either state except to note the obvious. Until recently blacks in Chicago addressed issues more forcefully than in St. Louis. And then came the killing of Michael Brown.
Missouri was and is still considered by some to be a Southern state. Not so Illinois. Nevertheless, I have found that many whites in Chicago and in St. Louis respond to blacks negatively but for different reasons.
In Chicago, blacks moving into a white neighborhood meant property values would drop, a happening anathema to white property owners and to be avoided if at all possible. Blacks were also considered to be bearers of crime, doubtless due in part to the poverty they lived with then and many still live with now. To what degree the lack of opportunity caused by racism in whites is a contributing factor is difficult to calculate but impossible to deny.
In Chicago, I found that not many whites, myself included, knew any blacks well. As a teen I almost got to know one black man while I was working at a summer job in a soft drink factory. He was an older man who worked the day his son was executed by the state later in the night. He never said a word during his shift. A white supervisor told me about the impending execution the way a good reporter might, sans any emotion. 
The black worker looked no different that day doing his repetitive job than he did any other day, putting empty soda bottles into holes in a conveyor belt so they could be washed and sterilized. Except for two breaks and lunch, he could not stop inserting the bottles. If he stopped, the conveyor belt would stop. He used both hands to stuff the bottles in the holes as the machine clanged on, the conveyor belt rising and disappearing into the steam of the soapy boiling water. It was like watching a dwarf stand in front of Niagara Falls running in reverse.
In my time in Missouri, I have lived in St. Louis and in a rural part of the state. I have found whites and blacks may know each other better in St. Louis than in Chicago even if they do not like each other any better.
In the past, rural whites and blacks in Missouri lived in fairly close proximity as blacks often worked for whites on their farms. Perhaps from their rural ancestors, urban blacks and whites in St. Louis bring with them attitudes and opinions about each other that have not been driven off despite the different kind of life many of them now lead in an urban area.
After three decades in Missouri, following four in Chicago, I am still surprised that blacks have not rioted in St. Louis long before now, not that whites in St. Louis have given them greater cause to do so than whites may have done in the Chicago I knew.
But the lethal silence of racism in Missouri that I sense must have aggravated and now continues to aggravate problems over three or four generations. As a social illness, I find this silent racism not unlike AIDS in that until it begins to show, one doesn’t know if someone else, white or black, is a carrier.
When I first emigrated from Chicago, I told my wife, a University of Missouri Journalism School grad with four books in print, that I thought St. Louis was another Watts in gestation, that some day the lid would blow, and the destruction, seen and unseen, would be incalculable. It hasn’t blown yet but there are days I think I hear the water boiling. 
The day Michael Brown died was one of those days. The day the president of the University of Missouri resigned in the face of black protests was another. I have to wonder if there isn’t among blacks protesting at the University of Missouri some subliminal connection to what happened in Ferguson. I also have to wonder if the roar of the black students now isnt louder as a result of what happened in Ferguson. Is it all part of the new continuum called Black Lives Matter?
Despite local, national and international coverage that might lead some to a different opinion, Michael Brown was no angel nor was Darren Wilson, the white cop who shot him. One was a young black man and the other a young white cop raised in the simmering silent racism that I, as an outsider, believe is pandemic in St. Louis and parts of rural Missouri. 
I realize that many natives of the state will resent and dissent from this opinion. I disagree with them but understand they have a different emotional DNA than I do. I’m not saying mine is better. It’s just different. Growing up in Chicago I learned to yell in the face of any kind of oppression, real or imagined. Black folks there did so as well. Not so in St. Louis, until recently. 
I don’t believe racism over time will evaporate in Chicago, St. Louis or other parts of the United States. The Pulitzer-prize-winning black poet Gwendolyn Brooks, back in Chicago in the Fifties, wrote something to the effect that racism in America will disappear when we are all "tea-colored."
From my experience over many years in both cities, I see no reason at the moment to disagree with Gwendolyn Brooks. But as do others on both sides, I have hope. Hope is the advent of progress. We need more hope fueling our actions and less gnashing of teeth. 
Donal Mahoney

Thursday, November 12, 2015

It had been some night at Rudy’s bar when Jack and Carla were finally asked to leave.  Jack had wandered in several hours before and made himself comfortable at the bar.  He was alone, but then wasn’t everyone in New York City, and was beginning a trip travelling around a country that had long fascinated him.  He’d only arrived a couple of days previously but already felt a kinship with the city and the people he’d met who lived there.  Carla was another in a growing list and she’d made it clear from the off that she simply loved men with English accents.  He gladly let her sit next to him and as the night grew later the conversation hadn’t diminished, they talked about music, books, films and booze.  She told him of all the other great bars she’d visited in the city but none, she said, none could come close to the pure degeneracy of Rudy’s. 
Leaving the bar Jack suddenly realised that he wasn’t just drunk, he was completely drunk out of his mind.  It had, he suddenly realised, been some session.  Carla stumbled on her high red heels as they feel through the door in to the great New York morning.  Jack breathed in and the New York City air filled his lungs and it made him feel quite purple.  It was a dense, smog-ridden air and Jack wasn’t used to it.  Not even in London would he have to endure such horrible street odour but this morning it didn’t matter, this morning he was with a beautiful woman and she had just suggested that they go to her place to recover.
There was no time for recovery as the minute they were through the door to her apartment Jack was on her.  He was kissing her lips, sliding his tongue deep into her mouth.  She reciprocated his moves and within minutes they were fucking wildly on her bed; it was to last a while and finally when they came back up for air they were completely exhausted.  They lay in each others’ arms, translucent in their coital after-glow, dozing off to sleep occasionally only to wake back up to check that what they’d just experienced had actually happened.  Eventually Jack came too and he noticed, according to Carla’s clock-radio, that it was 7pm.  He rolled over and looked at her before moving in to kiss her back; even that tasted good, like a golden sun being dropped on your tongue.  She rolled over to rest on her back and her eyes opened and upon seeing Jack a gorgeous smile appeared across her face.
“Evening lover,” he stated matter-of-factly.
“Well hi there my English man,” she purred, releasing her body from the confines of the silk sheets that covered her bed.  She leant in and kissed him and he melted.  His heart, he had thought, was hard, found it impossible to love but here he was, could he be falling for an impossible woman?
A few hours later and their lust finally exhausted Carla climbed from the bed and headed off to the kitchen after pulling a clean t-shirt, bra and panties from a drawer.   Returning with 2 large mugs of coffee there was no need to talk about where they could go.
An hour later and they were outside again, out in to the full-on glare of city-life at midnight on a Tuesday.  In New York that meant things were about as normal as things got, there were still lots of people around, a lot of them working deep into the night, some were going home after a shift at work or a drink in a bar, some were just going out, the young kids hitting the clubs.  It was just another New York City night.
When they arrived at Rudy’s that morning the bar-tender greeted them like long-lost family, remembering their fondly from the night before.
“Good to see the pair of you again, that was some shift you put in last night.  These first two are on the house, now what’ll ya have?”
The night deteriorated from there and by 7am they were again, drunk, drunk so much they had no idea what to do when they left.  Carla wanted to carry on drinking, sad that Jack had told her he couldn’t get serious, not here, not now, he was only at the start of his trip and that wasn’t something he was going to give up, not for anything. 
Finally, after being ushered on to the street, Jack knew what he needed to do.  He ran to a nearby waste-bin and proceeded to empty the contents of his stomach into it and for some bizarre reason felt a whole lot worse.  Carla sat on the curb between 2 parked cars, holding her hair back and doing like-wise down a drain.  Several minutes later and the worst of the storm had been weathered when suddenly Jack was hit by an epiphany. 
“Hey, you live here, you ever been to the top of the Empire State?”
“No, no I aint...”
He needed no other prompt and a couple of minutes later they were stood at the bottom, looking up.  Minutes later and they were flying up to the top of the earth in an elevator and as soon as they walked out Jack knew just then that everything would be alright.  Taking in the view of the New Jersey shoreline and the huge urban spread of the cities’ 5 boroughs Jack realised just how vast his adventure was going to be.
“A man could get lost in New York City,” he said, pulling Carla in tight, “let’s get out of here.”
With their respective heads sorted and the 2 hour change-over at Rudy’s running out it was clear where they were going.  They were going to get lost...

Ladies Night at the AMVETS Hall

It was Ladies Night at the AMVETS Hall and most of the older ladies in town had come to try their luck at bingo. On Ladies Night there was no stench of cigars, pipes and cigarettes filling the air as it did on other nights when their husbands would be there playing poker, talking about the harvest or the planting season to come. 

No cuss words, either, on Ladies Night, at least not many. One lady sometimes got carried away when she needed only one number to win and some other lady would shout out “Bingo!” Then you might hear a quick “Damn it!"

It was either play bingo or stay home and watch TV or maybe crochet. It was too early to put up the quilting frame. Right after Thanksgiving was the right time for that. Otherwise not much else to do on a Tuesday night in a small farm town on a fall night.

Irma and Hazel had been playing for an hour and neither had won anything. Irma was fed up so she decided to ask Hazel about something that had been bothering her. She couldn’t talk about it at home because her husband would go bonkers just thinking about the possibility.

“Hazel, I don’t care either way but what’s gonna happen if she’s elected president,” Irma said, taking a sip of her cocoa. 

“What’s she going to do with him around the White House all day? 

"Can’t chain him to the water cooler. I doubt they still have those. Maybe she could hire only male interns.

Hazel wasn’t really interested in politics but she too had thought the idea of a woman president was intriguing. But she would wait until the election got closer to see who was running in both parties before she made her decision. She could vote either way and had done so in the past. 

Usually, though, both women voted for the candidate they thought would do the least harm to farmers and that was often a tough call.

“Irma, my husband wouldn’t even think about voting for her,” Hazel said. "He might vote for a woman but not the wife of that fellow. It was tough around the house during those years when he’d come in from plowing and turn on the news. 

"And like you say I don’t know if she’s elected what she would do with him around the White House all day. 

"She’ll be very busy as president and I don’t think they have water coolers any more. But hiring male interns might be a good first step." 

Irma thought Hazel had a good perspective on the situation. But right now it looked like a good possibility the lady might be elected if the election were held today. So she reminded Hazel about Bozo, the fat Basset Hound she and her husband had on the farm a few years back. There was quite a commotion when Bozo started climbing over the fence and heading for the place across the road where the "fancy lady,” as she was known in town, lived. She wasn’t a farmer but she used the place to breed her dogs. 

“You remember her, Hazel, the lady who bred toy poodles and won all kinds of prizes at dog shows. She sold their puppies to city folk who drove out to buy the pup they liked best. I think she got a lot of money for those little things. They were cute but not much use on a farm.

"Well, Hazel, you probably remember when one of her litters had pups that looked a lot like our Bozo. Two of them had the same black patch over one eye, and all hell broke loose. Then another litter came with three pups that looked like Bozo. And the fancy lady had a lawyer drive out from the city and threaten to sue us if we didn’t do something about Bozo. 

"My husband didn’t like her any way but Bozo was nice to have around. That dog kept the rabbits to a minimum and that meant we got more vegetables out of our kitchen garden. Well, after listening to the lawyer, my husband finally gave in and had Bozo neutered. We had to pay her lawyer’s fee and quite a large sum for the puppies that looked like Bozo.

“Bozo was never the same, Hazel. He lived another couple of years and slept most of the time out by the barn. He never jumped over the fence again. And no more half-poodles with eye patches turned up again across the road. But the rabbits in our kitchen garden got fat. We were happy when the fancy lady moved to a bigger place about 100 miles from here. 

Hazel had to admit that neutering was a drastic step and it didn’t turn out too well for Bozo. But if Irma was suggesting what Hazel thought she was suggesting, then there would be peace in the White House and the new president could hire female interns as well.

“I think my husband would even pay for the operation,” Irma said.

“I think mine would, too,” said Hazel. 

“Maybe they could pitch in half each,” Irma said.

Then she boomed out her first “Bingo!”

Maybe it would be a profitable night after all.

Donal Mahoney

Monday, November 9, 2015

Fake With Your Left

Far away and long ago stuff happened in Gramps’ life that he’d like to forget but he can’t, even though he can’t always remember what he had for breakfast, lunch or dinner. 

But anything that happened 40, 50, 60 years ago he remembers clearly. His grandson, Patrick, is in grammar school and has to write an essay about an event that shaped Gramps' life when he was a kid. Patrick keeps asking Gramps to tell him about it. In two weeks he has to hand in his essay. 

“Tell me something good," Patrick keeps saying. "I have to get an A."

Gramps remembers many childhood events that might make a good essay but the one that stands out is not something he should tell Patrick about. His parents would disapprove. 

It happened during WWII, when Gramps was Patrick’s age, and although it had nothing to do with the war, it created commotion in the family home. Gramps was in grammar school himself back then. 

Young Gramps was a good student, earning straight A’s in his first three years of school. His behavior at times was a problem but the nuns usually gave him a pass because he was good in his studies and did well on tests, something unusual among the boys in his class. 

The girls always did well but they studied. Young Gramps studied too because he couldn’t go out to play until his homework was done. He would be quizzed in the kitchen by his mother while his father sat in the living room listening to his answers. His father would yell when he could go out. 

Then young Gramps’ handwriting became a problem. In the transition from printing to cursive, his penmanship was so poor he brought home a grade lower than an A in penmanship and that disturbed his father who despite little formal education in Ireland had a signature that would rival a calligrapher’s art. 

What’s worse, young Gramps' father could sign his name with both hands at the same time. One of the signatures would be written backwards and when held up to the mirror it looked exactly the same as his regular signature. He had been a prisoner of war, a guest of the English, after the Easter 1916 rebellion in Ireland and had plenty of time to practice signing his name backwards with his left hand. This was during his two-year confinement on Spike Island, off the coast of Ireland, where the British housed Irish prisoners. 

Young Gramps’ father had been 16 when imprisoned for running guns for the Irish rebels and 18 when the British freed him as long as he left Ireland. He chose to come to the United States.  

Unlike his father, young Gramps had trouble writing legibly with just one hand. It was a big enough problem that he was made to sit at the dining room table after supper and practice his writing.

But a nun then discovered Gramps couldn’t read the blackboard from the third seat in the middle row. Speculation began that perhaps poor eyesight was affecting his handwriting. 

A visit to Dr. Max Erman, an optometrist and the only medical professional in the neighborhood, determined that Gramps was nearsighted and would have to wear spectacles the rest of his life. This news turned out to be a greater tragedy for his father than the news about young Gramps' bad handwriting. 

“God help us, Mary,” Gramps remembers his father saying to his mother. “The boy will be in all kinds of fights at school. Glasses aren’t something boys should have to wear. That’s how the other boys will think.” 

His father was right in some respects. Spectacles on boys in the Forties were not common in grammar school, at least not at his school. Girls wore glasses and had no problems. Boys didn’t pick on girls unless they wanted to stay after school for the rest of their lives, as the nuns were quick to tell them. 

When Dr. Erman put the new glasses on young Gramps, he had to admit he saw stuff he didn’t hadn’t seen before. His little sister, he discovered, had freckles. He was happy about being able to see better but in light of his father’s attitude about a son wearing glasses, young Gramps kept quiet about this new advantage. 

When they got home, however, his father decided young Gramps needed to be ready for any teasing that might take place at school. Despite protests from his mother, he took the boy down to the basement and told him to take his glasses off. Then he showed him how to put up his fists. And, as young Gramps remembers well, his father got down on his knees and put up his own fists and proceeded to teach Gramps how to defend himself.

Young Gramps quickly learned how to fake with his left and cross with his right, a standard maneuver his father had used to advantage as a boxer after emigrating to the United States from Ireland. It seemed to be a nice trick, but young Gramps didn’t think he’d have to use it. The nuns patrolled the schoolyard during recess.

But during the lunch hour on the first day young Gramps wore his glasses, Larry Moore came out of nowhere looking to have a fight. Fights back then were always fair. No kicking or anything like that. Only fists were used. The fight would go on till one boy quit or the nuns broke it up and levied their punishments—something just shy of staying after school for the remainder of life. 

Young Gramps beat Larry Moore that day. The fight didn’t last long and no nun saw it. Young Gramps faked with his left and crossed with his right and Larry Moore got a bloody nose. And young Gramps beat Billy Gallagher the next day using the same combination. 

But the following day Fred Ham, a boy big for his age, came looking to have a fight as well. He didn’t know young Gramps but he knew that he beaten Larry Moore and Billy Gallagher, both reputed to be pretty tough, although Fred had won fights with both of them. 

Against the much bigger Fred, young Gramps faked with his left, crossed with his right, and hit Fred in the eye. There was no blood but Fred got a black eye that brought an end to other boys looking to have a fight with young Gramps. 

Much to his surprise he caught no flak from his father who took the phone call from the nun who had called to report the fights young Gramps had been in. In fact, his father, while verbally deploring such behavior over the phone, seemed rather pleased to discover his tutelage had worked out so well. His mother, however, was obviously disgusted.

“This isn’t Ireland, Tommy,” she said to his father. “We can’t have a boy going around beating up other boys just because he has to wear glasses.” 

Those memories were all clear in Gramps’ mind but at the moment he didn’t know how to explain to his grandson how this event—having to wear spectacles and learning to fight at an early age—had been a seminal event in his grammar school life. 

His grandson was alive now in a new day and age at a time when mothers wanted sons to play soccer out of fear they might get hurt playing football. And schoolyard fights in the suburb where his grandson lived were probably unknown. At least Gramps had never heard of one. 

The only real competition his grandson faced at his age was largely in the classroom where boys and girls tried to get the best grades possible. The hope was that one day they would win a scholarship to college. 

As a result, Gramps finally told his grandson he’d have to think about what to tell him for his essay because his mind wasn’t as sharp it used to be. 

"If all goes well, Patrick,” Gramps said, "I should have a good story when you come home from school tomorrow.”

But probably not as good as the one that had just run through his mind after more than 60 years. 

Gramps knew it was the best he could offer. 

But not to young Patrick.

Donal Mahoney
Mike Fitzgibbons and His Morning Paper

For 35 years, Mike Fitzgibbons had never missed a day driving off at 4 a.m. to buy the newspaper at his local convenience store. Snow, sleet, hail or rain couldn't stop him. There was only one paper being published in St. Louis at the time but Mike was addicted to newspapers. He had spent his early years reading four papers a day in Chicago--two in the morning and two in the evening. He worked for one of them and enjoyed every minute of it. However, an opportunity to earn more money as an editor for a defense contractor required his large family's relocation to St. Louis. Mike needed more money to feed a wife and seven children.

"Words are words," Mike said at the time. "Being paid more money to arrange words for someone else seems like the right thing to do."

Writing and editing were the two things in life Mike could do well enough to draw a salary. It broke his heart to retire many years later at the age of 68 but it seemed like the best thing to do. His doctor had told him he might have early Alzheimer's disease and that he should prepare for the future since the disease would only grow worse. Mike never told his wife or any of the children about the problem. His wife was the excitable type, and all of the children had grown up and moved away, many of them back to Chicago where all of them had been born. Each of them had acquired a college degree or two and had found a good job. Most of them were married. Mike and his wife now had 12 grandchildren and were looking forward to more. 

"You can never have too many heirs," he told his wife one time. "Whatever we leave, it will give them something to argue about after we're gone. They won't forget us." 

After the doctor had mentioned the strong possibility that he had Alzheimer's disease, Mike decided to have the daily paper delivered to the house instead of driving to the store every morning to buy one. And on most days that seemed like a good decision. But not on the infrequent days when the deliveryman soared by Mike's house without tossing a paper on the lawn. 

The first time it happened Mike called the circulation department and received a credit on his bill. He did the same thing the second time, managing to keep his temper under control. But the third time occurred on the morning after the Super Bowl. For Mike this was the last straw. Three times he told the kind old lady in the circulation department to tell the driver Mike was from Chicago originally and in that fine city errors of this magnitude did not go unanswered. A credit on Mike's bill, while necessary, would not suffice. 

When his wife Dolly got up, he asked her, "How the hell can I check the stats on the game without my newspaper?" She was only half awake. Mike was a very early riser and Dolly, according to Mike, was a "sack hound." 

A kind woman, Dolly had always tried to be helpful throughout the many years of their marriage, so Mike understood why she eventually suggested he drive to the QuikTrip and buy a paper. Then he could read about the game and check the stats, she said.

"That's not the point, Dolly," Mike said. "I have a verbal contract with that paper for delivery and they are not keeping their side of the bargain. A credit on my bill is not adequate recompense." Mike loved the sound of that last sentence as it rolled off his tongue. He always loved the sound of words whether they were floating in the air alone or jailed in a sentence or paragraph. 

What made matters worse, Mike told Dolly, is that without his newspaper he would have no way to check on the obituaries of the day. The obituaries were Mike's favorite part of the paper. Back in his old ethnic neighborhood in Chicago, the obituaries were known as the Irishman's Racing Form. 

Back then, many retired Irish immigrants would spend the day reviewing the obituaries in the city's four different newspapers. Finding a good obituary primed them for conversation at the local tap after supper. The tap was run by the legendary Rosie McCarthy, a humongous widow who did not suffer any nonsense in her establishment. But she did offer free hard-boiled eggs to customers who ordered at least three foaming steins of Guinness. Eggs were cheap in those days. It was rumored that Rosie had to buy 10 dozen eggs a week just to keep her customers happy.

"Rosie knows how to hard boil an egg, Dolly," Mike had told his wife many times over the years. And his wife always wondered what secret Rosie could possibly have when it came to boiling eggs. 

One reason the obituaries were of such great interest in Mike's old neighborhood involved the retirees wanting to see if any of their old bosses had finally died. Some of those bosses had been nasty men, so petulant and abrasive they'd have given even a good worker a rash. There was also the possibility that over in Ireland, the Irish Republican Army might finally blow up a bridge with the Queen of England on it. The IRA had been trying to do that for years. Many bridges had been blown to smithereens but not one of them had "Herself" on it. 

"The IRA keeps blowing up bridges, Dolly," Mike would remind his wife. "You would think one of these times they'd get it right. They know what she looks like."

In addition to reading four newspapers a day as a young man, Mike had had other hobbies during his long and tumultuous life. He had bred rare Australian finches for decades and had won prizes with them at bird shows. However, after his last son had graduated from college and moved away, Mike sold more than 200 finches and 40 cages because he no longer had a son available to clean the cages. Five sons had earned allowances over the years cleaning the cages at least once a week. All of them ended up hating anything with wings. One son had even bought a BB gun and would sit out in the yard all day while Mike was at work. That boy was a pretty good shot. No one knows how many woodpeckers and chickadees he managed to pick  off. 

After Mike sold his birds, he took the considerable proceeds and plowed all of the money into rare coins. For the next ten years he collected many rare coins but when he retired he figured he may as well sell them because none of his children had any numismatic interest. Not only that, none of them would have known the value of the coins if Mike died. Some of them were very valuable--the 1943 Irish Florin, for example, in Extra Fine condition would have brought more than $15,000 at the right auction. Mike loved that coin and kept it, along with all the others, in a large safe in the basement. Guarding the safe was a large if somewhat addled and ancient bloodhound. Mike had bought the dog from a fellow bird breeder when it was a pup. The bloodhound wasn't toothless but he may as well have been. He wouldn't bite anyone no matter how menacing a robber might be.

"I love that dog, Dolly," Mike would tell his wife every time she suggested that euthanasia might be the best thing. "That dog, Dolly, is as Catholic as we are and Catholics don't abort or euthanize anything," Mike said.

When Mike finally sold all of his coins, he had a great deal of money that he viewed as disposable income. Dolly, however, viewed it as an insurance policy in case Mike died first. Mike had a couple of pensions but he had never made Dolly a co-beneficiary. In fact he convinced her to sign waivers so the payout to him would be larger. Dolly didn't want to do it but signing was easier than reasoning with Mike. His temper seldom surfaced but when it did, things weren't good for weeks around the house.

"I get mad once in awhile, Dolly, but I always apologize," Mike would remind her. 

Mike finally decided to put the coin money into guns--big guns--although he had never shot a gun in his life. He refused to go hunting because he saw no sense in killing animals when meat was available at the butcher store. The kids used to joke that maybe deer and pheasant were Catholic, too. 

Some of the guns Mike bought were the kind you would see in action movies. Mike always liked action movies. The more the gore, the happier Mike was. But he had to go to action movies alone because his wife hated gore but she liked musicals. No musicals for Mike, although he would always dig into his pocket to give her the money for admission, complaining occasionally that the cost of seeing musicals kept going up. 

"I don't want to spend good money to see a bunch of people in costumes and wigs singing songs together when Frank Sinatra, all by himself, sings better than any of them." Sinatra had a good voice, the kids thought, and it probably didn't hurt that he was Catholic. One of them once suggested to Mike that it might be nice if they played a recording of Sinatra's "Moonlight in Vermont" at church. Mike didn't agree or disagree because he thought some sacrilege might be involved.

Mike remembered his gun collection on the day the deliveryman had failed to throw his newspaper on the lawn. He decided that the next morning he would sit out on his front porch at 3 a.m. with a big mug of coffee and the biggest rifle he owned. When the delivery van drove down his street, he planned to walk out to the curb, rifle in hand, to make sure he got his paper and to advise the driver of the inconvenience his mistake of the previous day had caused.

"There's no way this guy's a Catholic," Mike said to himself. "Three times now he has skipped my house with my paper."  

The next morning things went exactly as planned--at the start. Mike was out on his porch with his rifle and coffee at 3 a.m. when the van came rolling down the street. Mike got up and strolled down the walk toward the van, his rifle resting like a child in his arms. Mike couldn't have known, however, that the van driver had been robbed several times over the years and that he carried a pistol in case someone decide to rob him again. When he saw Mike coming toward him down the middle of the street carrying a rifle, the driver decided to take no chances. He rolled down the window and put a bullet in Mike's forehead. 

One shot, dead center, was all it took, and Mike, still a big strapping man, fell like a tree. 

The next day the story about the death of Mike Fitzgibbons made the front page of his beloved paper and Mike himself was listed in the obituary section. The obit advised that friends of the family could come to the wake at Eagan's Funeral Home on Friday. It also pointed out that a Solemn High Funeral Mass would be said for Mike on Saturday at St. Aloysius Church, where Mike had been a faithful member and stalwart usher for decades. 

Two days after the funeral, a neighbor was shoveling snow for Mike's widow. He happened to look up and saw the missing newspaper stuck in the branch of one of Mike's Weeping Willow trees. Mike had an interest in Weeping Willows and had planted a number of them over the years, too many some of the neighbors thought for the size of his property. This was the first time a newspaper had gotten stuck in one of the trees, his wife said. And it would be the last time because she had canceled the subscription to the paper the day Mike died. Like her husband, Dolly was a woman of principle and she thought canceling the paper was the least she could do in his memory. She had never read the damn thing anyway.

Donal Mahoney
It's Almost Sunday Morning
In the summer of 1956, any Saturday at midnight, especially when the moon was out and the stars were bright, you would be able to see Grandma Groth sitting on her front-porch swing waiting for her son, Clarence, a bachelor at 53, to make it home from the Blind Man's Pub. He would have spent another evening quaffing steins of Heineken’s.
Many times that summer before I went away to college, I'd be strolling home at midnight from another pub, just steps behind staggering Clarence. But unlike Clarence, I’d be sober so I'd always let him walk ahead of me and I'd listen to him hum "The Yellow Rose of Texas." Sometimes, very quietly, I’d join in. I don’t think he ever heard me.
However, on the last Saturday night that Clarence and I came down the street in our odd tandem, I didn't see Grandma on her swing even though the stars were out and the moon was full. For some odd reason, on this particular night, she wasn't waiting to berate him. 
 So far so good, I thought, for Clarence. He won’t have to listen to Grandma give him hell. But then, not far from his house, and without warning, he toppled into Mrs. Murphy's hedge. It was like watching a sack of flour fall, in slow motion, off a truck.
When I finally got him up, I managed to maneuver Clarence slowly down the sidewalk toward his house. He didn’t make a sound but it wasn't easy moving a man that big who was essentially asleep on his feet.
Somehow I got him through his back door only to encounter Grandma, a wraith in a hazy nightgown, standing in the hallway, screaming. She began thrashing Clarence with her broom, pausing only for a moment to tell me, 
"Go home to your mother now so you won't be late for Mass. It's almost Sunday morning!"
 After that, she resumed thrashing Clarence. He never made a sound, just took the blows across his back, head bowed, without moving. But Clarence was a man who said very little even when he was sober.
 After that sad night in 1956, I never saw Clarence again, either marching to work in the morning, his lunch pail gallantly swinging, or staggering home at midnight from the Blind Man's Pub. 
But many a midnight after that, years later, I'd be coming home from the other pub and I'd see Grandma reigning on her front porch swing, broom in hand, waiting. Maybe Clarence was coming, I thought. But if he was, I never saw him.
I remember coming home from college every summer and asking the neighbors if they had seen Clarence. Not a sign of him, they said. But on a Saturday night when the moon was out, they’d still see Grandma, on her swing, waiting.
Now, so many decades later, as I stroll home at midnight, after an evening at the Blind Man’s Pub, I can see the moon is as big as it was the last night I saw Clarence.
Suddenly I realize I’m older now than Clarence was the night he disappeared. And even though Grandma's been dead for many years, I can see her in the starlight. She's sitting regally on that swing, broom in hand, waiting. So for old time’s sake, I give her a big wave, hoping to hear her say, just one more time, 
"Go home to your mother now so you won't be late for Mass. It's almost Sunday morning!"

Donal Mahoney

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Country Boy and City Bumpkin

Although I emigrated from Chicago to St. Louis, Missouri, a long time ago, I have never been anywhere near the small town of Ellsinore, Missouri, the birthplace of the late Albert Ray Morlen, barber extraordinaire. Al cut my hair in his St. Louis shop for at least 30 of the 47 years he did business there. He may not have been Andy Griffith but he was close to a clone and no one marketed the glory of his small hometown better than Al. And he did very well promoting belief in Jesus Christ as well.

His family had owned the only grocery store in Ellsinore back in the Forties and Fifties. He came to St. Louis looking for work. Finding none, he went to barber school and never looked back. He was a tonsorial artist unrecognized as such by most of his customers who were blue-collar men wanting little more than a trim or a crewcut plus an update on neighborhood news. Al not only gave them what they wanted but often a more liberal education as well. His specialty was theology. 

Al was a country boy and a Baptist and I was a city bumpkin and a Roman Catholic but we got along famously over all those years. If no one else were in the shop, we would discuss the differences in our two faith traditions. Al never flirted with Catholicism or I with his Baptist faith but when I first went to him he was convinced Mormons and Catholics were nothing more than cults and he didn’t hesitate to say that. After all, souls were at stake. Mine in particular unless I saw the light that he turned on every time I got a haircut. 

But after many years cutting my hair, and many long discussions, he one day told me he had changed his mind. Only the Mormons qualified as a cult. He had been wrong about the Catholics but he was still not too fond of all those statues. And since most of his customers were Catholic, he often had to attend funerals and still could not understand what was up with all that standing and kneeling. He never knew what was coming next. 

I could understand his problem since I had a attended a Baptist wedding once and we sat for the entire service. Big difference in the mechanics as well as the substance of the two faiths and not easy to explain, one to another.

It may have been on the same day that Al told me Catholics were not a cult that he also told me I was “saved,” whether I knew that or not. I knew this was no small thing coming from a Baptist, never mind one as solid as Al in his faith.

I had spent 19 consecutive years in Roman Catholic schools in Chicago without ever being told I was “saved,” a concept not accepted in Catholicism in the Protestant sense.  But then I had never been tempted to be a priest, either. So when Al told me I was “saved” and just too dumb to know it, I took that announcement as a Medal of Honor whether I could wear it or not. 

I demurred vociferously, of course, and said I was always in the process of being “saved” and hoped I would never fall off that path. I had a history of many tumbles in my time. 

I tried to explain the Sacrament of Penance to him and its biblical roots but that did not go over well. Nor did Purgatory and Martin Luther’s throwing the Book of Maccabees out of the Bible in the 16th century because of its allusion to Purgatory. But it was the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist as discussed in John 6: 41-59 that may have made some impression on him. Nevertheless, he remained steadfast in his appreciation of the grape juice and crackers used at his monthly Baptist communion service. 

I told Al, however, that despite canards to the contrary, Catholics believe that the grace of God alone can save someone and that “works” are not the deciding factor in salvation as some non-Catholics might have you believe. 

I added, of course, a reference to 2 James: 14-18 as the proof text which says “faith without works is dead” and told him Catholics believe that as well. Without works, faith is moribund, for all intents and purposes, but Catholics in no way believe works will get you to heaven. Works of mercy are what you do if you do believe, and you believe as a result of the gift of faith that comes freely from God. You can’t earn faith or heaven from the Catholic perspective but dying in serious or mortal sin can help you go to hell. Al didn’t agree with that. 

Al regularly invoked his belief that faith alone guarantees salvation, that when one accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior he or she went to heaven at death. No pit stop in the car wash of Purgatory. He did not buy into the idea of dying with mortal sin on one’s soul as a means of finding hell as one’s eternal destination. 

As a result, I used to remind him on occasion of a notorious adulterer in his home town shot to death by an angry husband. Al would always tell me that if the dead man had accepted Christ, he went to heaven and he thought legendary Cozy must have done that somewhere along the line. Maybe so, I said, but if he were a Catholic he’d have a lot of explaining to do, and we would leave it at that.

I never accepted Al’s offer to visit Ellsinore simply because I don’t like to “travel.” He told me I’d be welcome down there as a visitor and would love the catfish and barbecue but as a Catholic I might want to get out of town before dark. 

In a sense he was joking, of course, but in another sense maybe not so much. Solid fundamentalists, whether in southern Missouri or elsewhere in the United States, often have a deep-seated suspicion of papists whom they view as souls needing to be saved. In contrast, Catholics I know harbor no great animus toward Fundamentalists with whom we share similar positions on abortion, euthanasia and other issues in our society today. We disagree on many things but on core issues there is great similarity whether either group admits that or not. 

I used to read Al's hometown paper in his shop while waiting for a haircut and I had come to love from afar the people in that area. I would rejoice when I saw the rare obit in which the deceased “was of the Catholic faith.” I would circle that fact and give it to Al as part of my gratuity on the way out if only to prove we papists had infiltrated his part of the woods.

I also admired a senior columnist in the paper who at times not only voiced suspicions of cults (her readers knew who the cults were even if Al had pardoned one of them) but she also had serious questions about other Protestant denominations. She was a member of the Church of Christ. 

I told Al that as a good Baptist he might not pass muster with the columnist or perhaps the Church of Christ. I later learned this denomination had split in two and neither of the two, as I understand it, accepts the theology of the other. Martin Luther’s 16th century earthquake still has tremors today with reputedly more than 23,000 sects or ecclesial communities already established and more being born as disagreements in doctrine occur. 

I was often tempted to send the columnist a letter indicating that as a traditional Catholic who reads her column every week, I felt obliged to tell her we papists are Christian and believe that Christ is our Lord and Savior and anything she may have heard to the contrary is buncombe and balderdash. I never sent that letter. I didn’t think that kind of thing would be helpful in bridging the gap.

Al Morlen was truly one of a kind. Every time I go elsewhere for a haircut now I think of him. I have met a lot of people cut from rare cloth in Chicago and St. Louis but no one like Al Morlen, a Christian first and a barber second. 

The man had to emigrate from his beloved Ellsinore, Missouri, to earn a living and he did that successfully. He reminded me of my parents who had emigrated from Ireland, circa 1920, to earn a living as well. They too succeeded, making it possible for the likes of me to pick up a couple of degrees coming out of a neighborhood where few went on to college. And like Al making the long hike from Ellsinore, my parents brought their faith with them.

Donal Mahoney