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“Hilarious, touching, beautiful . . .” —Detroit News
“A totally enjoyable novel with at least one laugh on every page.” —Fresno Bee
“. . . you’ll never forget it.” —Publishers Weekly
Growing up on Chicago’s South Side in the 1960s, Eddie Ryan is learning a lot—and not just from the Brothers at his all-boys Catholic high school. Eddie’s world is populated by peculiar adults, oddball classmates, and puzzling ...
“Hilarious, touching, beautiful . . .” —Detroit News
“A totally enjoyable novel with at least one laugh on every page.” —Fresno Bee
“. . . you’ll never forget it.” —Publishers Weekly
Growing up on Chicago’s South Side in the 1960s, Eddie Ryan is learning a lot—and not just from the Brothers at his all-boys Catholic high school. Eddie’s world is populated by peculiar adults, oddball classmates, and puzzling girls—the greatest mystery of all. He takes it all in through the prism of his Catholic upbringing, which often deepens the mystery, but sometimes clarifies it, too. Entering Eddie Ryan’s world will delight not only readers who grew up there with him, but also those too young to remember.
This new edition of Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? includes a new introduction as well as discussion questions designed to help deepen the reading experience for both individuals and reading groups.
Set in the 1960's, this is the story of Eddie Ryan, who did everything he could—and quite a few things he couldn't.
Introduction Tom McGrath
I know John Powers. Actually, I’ve never met him, but I know him because he tells the stories of my youth. We grew up as near-contemporaries on the South Side of Chicago in the late fifties and early sixties. I’m sure if we engaged in the Catholic South Sider’s second favorite pastime, asking “Do you know So-and-So from Saint Whozit’s?” within thirty seconds we would discover multiple connections and thus be able to locate each other in the South Side’s unofficial social register.
My friend, Tim Unsworth, likes to say, “There are only six people on the whole south side.” I agree, and three of them are my cousins. Unsworth served as a brother at Powers’s high school around the time Powers was living out and collecting hilarious anecdotes to fill this book. Unsworth recalls the time he needed to organize a fundraiser involving the families of students and alumni. He gathered a team of four dads to review a roster of some 2,100 names. Unsworth came away amazed there were a mere handful of people on the list who weren’t known, related, or otherwise connected to at least one of the four men through family, job, parish, bowling league, or other shared history. Life for the people on that list was a network, a web, an entire social cosmos where everyone knew the same stories and played by the same rules. And the rules were set forth by the church.
Thus, Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? arrived on the scene in 1975 like an astute anthropologist’s report from the field, detailing the mores, social structures, and courting rituals of a rich and complex culture in full flower—just as it was about to change forever. Perhaps because it observes a world on the brink of change the book was not only popular when it was first issued but also continues to touch hearts so deeply. It captured and conveyed a way of life that had been so fully “the way things are” even as people were coming to realize it had now become “the way things were.”
The book is blessed with a title that, in a single phrase, conjures up that vivid time and place with characters whose foibles and longings are all exposed. Did any nun actually ever warn a classroom of pubescent girls to keep their provocatively glossy pumps tucked away in the closet? Possibly, but it doesn’t matter. Powers spins his yarns on the level of myth, not veracity. With exaggeration and mischief he tells tall tales that people can find themselves in.
You probably know Powers, too, or somebody like him. He’s the good friend you hung out with who observed everything and missed nothing. The one who would have you in stitches just recalling the common events of your daily life together. The one who could recount your shared history in a way that not only opened your eyes to life’s hilarity but also its humanity and its gold. Readers believe Powers’s stories because, to one degree or another, and in their own situation, they’ve lived the life those stories evoke.
After all, who didn’t recoil from the class bully or egg on the class clown? Who didn’t suffer an inept teacher who was driven to nervous breakdown by merciless students? Who didn’t walk into a dance absolutely certain that everyone in the place was staring at the pimple on their chin? Eddie Ryan and his pals lead us through such rites of passage, vintage 1962. We reenter the world of basketball rivalries and after-school jobs, sock hops and first dates, “permanent records” and lasting memories. We relive the excitement of first cars and first loves along with the agony of first car-repair bills and Christmastime breakups.
When we meet him, Eddie Ryan is on the verge of two new worlds, both of them seemingly beyond comprehension: successful adulthood and meaningful faith. And if you read the book on one level, most of what he is offered is bad advice and miscues about his future. Of course, that bad advice and those miscues provide much of the humor of the book. (Considering the church’s decision to deal with Catholic teens’ budding sexual desire by keeping boys and girls separate leads Powers to say, “most likely the church would try to get your mind off food by starving you to death.”)
The priests, brothers, and, especially, nuns of that era were popularly ridiculed for their tactics and obsessive fussing about dating and sex. Every Catholic student of a certain age has their own story to tell of nuns on purity patrol brandishing rulers to measure hemlines and keep slow-dancers at least a phone book apart from one another, or priests whose nervousness at discussing “the marital act” made Barney Fife look like a cool customer. And yet the emptiness of today’s courtship rituals, exposed most sadly in the so-called reality-dating programs, amply demonstrates that these celibates’ worries about sex that is divorced from care and commitment were not misplaced. What’s more, that group of nuns, priests, and brothers, along with a dedicated array of lay people, shaped and prepared that generation of young women who would take their place as lawyers, doctors, CEOs, and entrepreneurs in record numbers. Many of the first feminists, whether they claimed the name or not, were classroom nuns who stoked the ambitions of girls and young women. I know. I’m gladly married to a product of such formation and training.
As in any good story, there’s more to Eddie Ryan’s story than first meets the eye. He may be able to easily dismiss ill-conceived advice on sex, relationships, and his own potential, but he can’t dismiss the broader medium that carries that wayward message—his community. The urban Catholic world of his era was an extremely effective and far-reaching force capable of forming a cohesive culture and passing on its values. Big corporations pay megabucks to consultants who can help them approximate even the smallest degree of that culture-building capability.
Yet the all-encompassing brand of cultural Catholicism so essential for early immigrants as they navigated their passage into a new world had begun to fit a little too snug for second- and third-generation teenagers. These teens, products of America’s wealthiest generation up till then, saw themselves on the forefront of Kennedy’s New Frontier. Ready to throw off all constraints and take on the world, every cautionary message of church and family they heard came across as “thou shalt not.”
And this left Eddie Ryan and his cohorts in a quandary. There he stood with his “overactive gullibility gland” but also a heart attuned to “the possibility of miracles.” The challenge for all of us in that era was to lose the gullibility while remaining open to the miracles. Sadly, some jettisoned both.
Those moving into adulthood would need miracles. Floating in the background of the humorous accounts of elusive love and fortune are rumbling echoes of the era: troubled race relations, objectification of women, ridicule of homosexuals, all of which were the shadow side of a closed society. And there on the distant horizon was the looming reality of ???Vietnam. While Eddie and his buddies wondered idly what they would do with their futures, for many in that generation, an active military draft was already deciding their fate and their names are now etched on a mournful wall in Washington, D.C.
As the cohesiveness of that insular world began to disintegrate—as much from the obvious success of Catholics in America who now could choose where and how to live—those problems of the larger society and wider world could no longer be ignored. And in Rome the church took note with a world-changing council and an openhearted document called The Church in the Modern World.
Those who endured the teenage rites of passage in the sixties shared a conviction that life would soon be better, and we would be the ones who would make it so. Our generation would save the world, renew the church, and end racism, poverty, and war in our time. Such cockiness fueled a lot of good. And it fueled a lot of arrogance as well. Either way, it wasn’t enough. Saving the world has proven as elusive as Una, “the one” who Eddie Ryan longs for, the one who got away.
Eddie Ryan’s uncle Elmer tells him, “These are your fun years.” And though Eddie heard those words when his heart was most raw with agony, he would later come to agree. The adolescent years, whether fun or frustrating, are the time when we learn some of life’s most fundamental lessons. Eddie’s tale shows that ordinary life contains within it clues to all the good that life holds—like hope, heroism, friendship, kindness, humor, and even longing. And, of course, love.
Oh, the South Sider’s favorite pastime? That would be telling stories. And John Powers knows how to tell stories. So sit back and get ready to revisit the days of your youth, or as Eddie Ryan put it, “the kingdom that has been prepared for you for all eternity.”
Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?
Just Call Me Hardrock, Randy
Acknowledgments: Mary, Margo Powers for that night at the roller rink. John F. and June R. Powers. Gay and Dr. Joseph V. Gioioso for their contributions. Joey, Randy, Marie, Danielle. Dr. Martin J. Maloney of Northwestern University and Bill Wright for both their professional and personal assistance.
For twelve straight years I had been on this earth when, for no apparent reason, God decided to stick me by allowing me to become a teenager.
The first six months of being thirteen weren’t hard to take because they were spent in the eighth grade. When you’re sitting atop the world of grammar school, nothing can go wrong. But within days of graduating from St. Bastion Grammar School on Chicago’s South Side, my body began disintegrating in a series of slow explosions.
Early one summer morning, as I got out of bed, I casually went to scratch my forehead. But instead of finding my forehead, my fingers landed on something that felt like a gravel road. That could mean only one thing. I raced out of the bedroom to my private place of worship, the mirror above the bathroom sink. As I stared into the mirror, I saw at least twenty pudgy red pimples staring back at me.
I remembered what my mother had told my older sister about pimples when my older sister had started getting them. They were caused by two things, said my mother, sweets and dirt.
My mind jumped back to the night before when I had eaten a Snickers bar for dessert. No, that couldn’t have been it. A Snickers bar might give somebody two or three pimples, but twenty?
It had to be dirt. My mother was always telling me how cruddy I was.
I didn’t want to look at them. I turned off the bathroom light (fortunately pimples don’t glow in the dark) and spent the next hour and a half washing my face. When I turned the bathroom light back on, I discovered that the only thing that looks worse on your forehead than twenty pimples is twenty clean pimples. Clean pimples look shinier and a lot more disgusting.
It was time to be terrified. I was quite aware of the fact that pimples were nothing to play around with. If they got bad enough, they’d scar you for life. A perfect label on your face, announcing to anyone who cared to know: This person never washed his face and ate everything he wasn’t supposed to when he was a teenager.
My mother was a very neat type of person, but one thing she never managed to clean out was the medicine cabinet. Every three weeks, she’d take all the jars, boxes, and bottles out of the medicine cabinet, scrub down the inside of the cabinet, and then put all the jars, boxes, and bottles right back in. When I was a kid I had a couple of cases of constipation, separated by years of bowel stability, that were cured from the same bottle of castor oil. As my hand groped around inside the medicine cabinet, I knew that the jar I wanted was still in there somewhere.
When my older sister had developed pimple problems, she had used Nolsteen Face Cream on them. I don’t know if the stuff helped or not, but her pimples went away. My sister, of course, did everything else my mother told her to do, like staying away from sweets and keeping her face clean.
That was when my sister was in grammar school and she was still trying to pattern her life after the Blessed Virgin Mary, who had a strong reputation for being sweet and pure. There was no way my sister was going to excel in the first category and I think she knew it. She could be sweet to nuns, adults, and a few of her friends, maybe with little kids, too, but that was about it. So she tried to be big in the second category. Knowing the way my sister thought, she probably felt that a pimple on her forehead was a real threat to her purity image.
My groping hand finally found the blue jar of Nolsteen Face Cream behind a dead tube of toothpaste and an unopened jar of aftershave lotion, which was within a few years of reaching heirloom antiquity.
It took ten minutes of pounding, twisting, and swearing to get the top of the jar off. Some of the face cream had dried and molded around the edges of the cap. The jar was only half full. But the cream, instead of being white and soft, was brownish and as solid as a rock.
I poured a few drops of warm water into the jar, which softened the Nolsteen Face Cream, and stirred the facial stew with my finger. Then I scooped some of the glop out of the jar, slapped it on my forehead, and smeared it all over my pimples. As I watched in the mirror, the Nolsteen Face Cream instantly dehydrated, turned grayish black, crusted, and fell, in one large lump, into the bathroom sink. My pimples were shinier than ever.
I went out and bought another jar of Nolsteen Face Cream. It helped a little. After I applied the cream from the new jar, some of the pimples didn’t seem to glow quite as brightly.
But all of that was just the opening skirmish. The war of pimples had hardly begun. It would be years before I was to emerge victorious. The campaign would be a costly one. Thousands of candy bars, cupcakes, dishes of ice cream, French fries, and Cokes would go unconsumed. The pores on my face would absorb dozens of bottles of Nolsteen Face Cream, tubes of Fresh Air Complexion Cream, and lemon-soaked pads. For the duration of the teenage years, my fingers would automatically go on pimple patrol every time I got near a mirror and almost every other second that I wasn’t occupied with doing something else.
Sometimes, for instance, I’d be sitting in school, doing nothing except sliding my fingers across my face, when I’d suddenly touch something that would send pounds of pain pulsating through my skin. It would feel as if my finger had just pushed a nail through my face. But as soon as I got to a mirror, I wouldn’t be able to see any pimples in the area from where the pain was pouring. That was the worst type of pimple, the one you couldn’t see, for the moment at least. It was still on its way up and hadn’t quite reached skin level.
For the next few days, that pimple would be a land mine on my fingers’ pimple patrols. They would forget it was there until one of them glided across it. Then pain would flare out from the unseen pimple in eighty million directions. Even worse, I was already feeling ashamed over a pimple that I hadn’t even seen yet. Such pimples always surfaced on weekends.
During the final months of eighth grade, I had noticed that small lumps were beginning to grow under both my knees. I didn’t think they were anything to be alarmed about. A couple of weeks before I had become aware of the growths; one of the parish priests had come into our eighth-grade classroom to talk to us about “growing up.” He said that within the next few years we could expect many changes to occur within our bodies. I just figured that the lumps under my knees were examples of what he was talking about.
A few days after graduation I noticed that the lumps were becoming extremely sensitive. If I bumped them against anything, they’d just about kill me with pain.
One Saturday morning my mother was vacuuming in the living room. She had the furniture pulled out when I accidentally walked into the cocktail table, which was exactly lumps-high. My mother thought it was rather strange that I should nearly pass out from the pain of walking into a cocktail table, so it was off to the family doctor.
Its official name, according to our doctor, was Osgood-Schlatter disease. There was only one cure for it. You had to rest the leg; that is, put it in a cast. I had to wear a cast on one leg for six weeks, then have it removed and wear another cast on the other leg for six more weeks.
I told almost no one about what was really wrong with my legs. At first I mentioned it to a few friends, but they just looked at me like I was nuts. What a dumb name, “Osgood-Schlatter.” Most physical afflictions at least sound respectable. “He has a compound fracture.” “He has a vitamin deficiency.” When you hear stuff like that, you sort of feel sorry for the person involved. But “He has Osgood-Schlatter disease” sounds stupid. Who ever heard of a disease that sounds like it was named after a guy who played left field for the New York Yankees?
I just told people I had broken my leg. When, a few weeks later, they saw me limping around on the other leg, I told them I had broken that one, too. That might have seemed dumb to them but not as dumb as the truth would have.
It wasn’t too bad, walking around with a cast on my leg. The cast started just above my ankle and ended a few inches above my knee so I could fit my pants leg over it. The only extremely annoying part of wearing it was that when the weather got hot, the skin beneath the cast itched like mad.
There were only a few times when my stiff leg really embarrassed me. When I went to Mass on Sunday, people would stare at me because I’d never kneel when I was supposed to. I’d just sit there with my stiff leg lying across the kneeler. Everyone around me probably thought that I was terrifically lazy or something.
Another time I was on a crowded bus when this man standing above me tried to put some change back in his pocket. As he did so, he accidentally dropped a quarter on my lap. The quarter’s edge hit the cast perfectly and bounced almost all the way back up to him. You could hear it “ping” all over the bus. He apologized to me at least thirty times. He must have thought I had a wooden leg.
A few kids mocked me about it. Not many, though. Gordon Lester was the only kid who developed his teasing tactics into a full-time job. Lester was a tall, gawkish sort of kid who gave every indication of growing up to be a dishwasher, and not a very good one at that. Whenever he saw me, he’d start mocking me and calling me “Chester,” which was the name of a stiff-legged character on the television show Gunsmoke.
An easygoing friend of mine, Tom Lanner, got Osgood-Schlatter disease about the same time that I did. I had a newspaper route then. Since I couldn’t ride a bike, I had to walk the route. Lanner came over a few times to help me. That was when Gordon Lester really got his laughs.
Lanner and I, both stiff-legged, would hobble down the street together. No matter how we did it, we still looked insane. If we limped at the same time, we felt as if we were doing a comedy routine. If we limped out of step, we had a tough time talking to one another, since our heads kept bobbing past each other like two horses on a merry-go-round.
Gordon Lester would be right behind us, laughing on every limp. He didn’t bother Lanner or me too much. He wasn’t doing it to be mean. Lester was just a very simpleminded person who grabbed his giggles when he could.
When Gordon Lester first started laughing at us, I tried to keep him at a distance by threatening him with the unknown future. “Keep it up, Lester,” I’d say, “and someday I’ll be laughing at you. Someday, something’s going to happen to you, and then I’m gonna laugh my ass off.”
That only made Gordon Lester chuckle more, so I gave up and tried to ignore him. Not that I believed what I was saying. I knew that nothing was going to happen to Lester to even out the score. Life never works out so neatly. But that time it did.
Not more than a couple of weeks after I had the last cast taken off my leg, Gordon Lester was messing around the foundation of a new building that was going up in the neighborhood, fell in, and broke his leg in four different places.
Being basically a decent guy, I didn’t mock Gordon Lester the way he had mocked me. I didn’t ridicule the way he walked or call him “Chester.” I couldn’t. He was in the hospital, in traction, for three weeks, and then his family moved out of the neighborhood.
Midway through the summer, with one leg in a cast, the other still lumpy, and my face looking like a miniature golf course, my voice began going crazy. Its lunatic leanings would become most obvious when I’d try to sing around the house, which I often did when there was no one else at home.
My throat would be merrily molesting some song when, without warning, my voice would break stride and leap up two or three octaves, scramble around for an instant, and then plunge straight down to at least three octaves below where it had originally been. For a while, whistling was also something of a problem.
Although most of my anatomy was busily going bananas that summer, the top of my head was beginning to regain its composure. In the early months of eighth grade, I had developed a case of dandruff unlike any the world had ever seen before. My father thought that maybe the dandruff was caused by my hair being too long so he talked me into getting a baldy sour. All that did was make my head look like the top of a snowcapped mountain. Our family doctor later informed my mother that the dandruff was caused by nervousness. Gradually, though, the dandruff had begun to clear up to the point that now, if I peered very closely into the mirror and parted my hair just right, I might see a glimpse of my scalp.
During those summer months I was also beginning to smell—a sure sign, according to my Uncle Frank, that I was nudging into manhood. That was the way Uncle Frank defined masculinity, by smell. According to the rest of the family, Uncle Frank had been a “man” ever since he had been old enough to refuse to hold a bar of soap.
Somewhere in all those years I spent in grammar school I remembered some nun telling us that every seven years our body cells created a whole new body. During those summer months of being thirteen, I was beginning to feel that my only hope of saving my body from self-destruction was if I could reach my twentieth birthday.
It was now the middle of August. I was within two weeks of starting high school, yet I had very little idea of what it was. I’ve always had that problem. Sometimes I’ll look back on a particular phase of my existence and I’ll think about what came up right after it. Then I’ll wonder why I didn’t realize what was coming so that I could better prepare myself for it. I’ve never been able to see around the corners of life. Maybe it’s impossible for anybody to do it. I don’t know.
I was aware of some of the things about high school, since I knew quite a few people who had already gone there. My older sister was in high school. I knew, therefore, by observing her, that although grammar-school homework took up only a snack tray, high school homework was a full dining-room–table project. I also realized that there weren’t “grades” in high school but rather “years” like “freshman year” and “sophomore year.”
My sister tried to convince me that high school was a place where you had to work yourself to death. She never got home from school until six or seven o’clock. She was always staying late to do extra work. I didn’t believe her when she told me high school was that tough. My sister was the kind of person who loved to kill herself doing anything. She could work up a sweat brushing her teeth.
The high school kids who lived in my parish, St. Bastion, thought they were pretty cool. Each one would walk around the neighborhood in his high school jacket with the cream-covered sleeves as if God had just offered him a deed to the world and he had turned it down.
Even if a high school kid didn’t own a high school jacket, you could still tell he was in high school by the way he carried himself around. There were two basic “high school” walks; the “Shit, Man, I’m Cool Walk” and the “I’m Big Stuff Walk.”
The “Shit, Man, I’m Cool Walk” was performed with the head bowed, shoulders slumped, hands hanging casually from the pants pockets, side or back ones, feet shuffling, and a sneer on the face. The overall effect of all this was a “Proud Bum” look.
The “I’m Big Stuff Walk” was done with the head held extremely high, the shoulders stiff, the hands jammed into the pockets, but with the elbows straight and the entire body leaning slightly forward. In this walk, when a kid took a step forward he would push himself straight up on the balls of his feet. If a high school kid properly executed the “I’m Big Stuff Walk,” when he moved down the street he would look like a slightly tipsy, weak-springed pogo stick.
When I was in the lower grades of grammar school, I used to watch the high school kids play basketball in the school yard, their jackets piled in a heap behind the post. The only time they’d talk to me was when one of them missed a pass and the ball would go bouncing across the school yard.
“Hey, kid, get the ball for us, will you?”
“Sure, sure.” I’d run after the ball, grab it, and run back with it. Then I’d fling the basketball back to the biggest guy as hard as I could.
Sometimes I’d see a high school kid coming out of Russie’s Restaurant, jingling the change in his pocket. Grammar school kids never went to Russie’s. Even an order of fries cost a quarter. Besides, Russie didn’t like grammar school kids. He believed that when grammar school kids got hungry they should go to a delicatessen, not a restaurant.
If a high school kid I knew walked by me on the street, he’d occasionally say hello. Not actually “hello.” He’d just sort of grunt in my direction. He might not even do that. But if he was walking along with a group of other guys, he’d totally ignore me. People always think they’re hotshots if they’re with a crowd of other people who think they’re hotshots, too.
A few times when I was little, like in second or third grade, one of them would come along, shooting the bull with some girl, and as he walked by me he’d pat me on the head. That really enraged me. But I was too small to do anything about it.
The Catholic school that I attended, St. Bastion, was a bore. All we ever did was write in our workbooks, do arithmetic problems on notebook paper, using a ruler of course, or read silently or out loud from one of our textbooks.
Occasionally, to break the monotony, you’d pretend that you had to go to the washroom. One kid would raise his hand and if the nun gave him permission to go to the washroom, then a few minutes later another kid would raise his hand. It would just keep going like that. The nun must have thought that all our kidneys were connected.
Actually I only went to seven years of grammar school. In the first week of second grade, I got sick and spent the rest of the year at home. When I came back to school the following September, the nun took one look at me, decided I was tall enough, and sent me on to the third grade.
Most of the nuns didn’t seem to have much use for me, maybe because I never did my homework. Well, almost never. During the first seven grades of grammar school I did it twice, once in fourth grade and once in sixth. I remember those two days quite distinctly. They were the only days of grammar school that I didn’t sit in terror waiting for the nun to deliver the words that always came. “All right, those who didn’t do their homework, stand.”
My grades in grammar school weren’t too good, either. Often the nuns, rather than giving me a “U” for “Unsatisfactory” on my report card, would instead give me an “S” that stood for “Satisfactory for this child’s ability.” A nice way of saying I was a moron.
The nuns did that deliberately because they knew an “S” would get everybody even madder at me than a “U” would. After each report card day that was smudged with a batch of “U’s,” my father would threaten to kill me, my mother wouldn’t allow me to watch television, my older sister would ignore me, and if the dog went in the house, he’d let loose in my room.
But there was no such thing as failure when you became an eighth grader. Eighth graders are the gods of any grammar school. Like gods, they have no equals. When I got into eighth grade, I suddenly began doing all my homework and getting reasonable grades. Most of my dumb friends began doing well, too. The giddiness of wrapping up grammar school somehow does things to your head.
During the final days of eighth grade, the nun warned us that we should spend our upcoming summer vacation getting ready for high school. She even told a few kids who were weak in English that they should read their English-grammar books during the vacation.
Every now and then a nun would make it so obvious that she was crazy, like when she asked someone to read an English-grammar book during the summer vacation.
No one in the class took the nun’s warnings seriously, except maybe a few girls who took everything the nun said seriously. Nuns were very “get ready” people. “Get ready for lunch,” “get ready for a spelling test,” “get ready for the principal’s visit,” “get ready for prayers,” “get ready for heaven.”
The vast majority of Catholic high schools in the Chicago area were not coeducational. The church hierarchy probably felt that both sexes could concentrate better on their schoolwork if the other sex wasn’t around. Most likely the church would try to get your mind off food by starving you to death.
There were about five Catholic boys’ high schools within commuting distance of my parish. I had decided to attend Bremmer High School, which was only two miles away, simply because it was the closest. Tom Lanner also hoped to go there, but as late as April of eighth grade he still wasn’t sure that he could do it.
Bremmer charged a few hundred dollars a year for tuition, as did the other Catholic high schools in the area. The average Catholic family, in order to handle the expenses of a Catholic education, had to give up some of the frills of the finer life, such as a later model car or a few inches on the new television screen. But with Lanner, tuition money was a major problem.
He and his younger sister lived with their aunt, who, besides being very nice, was also very old and poor. His parents were dead, at least his mother was. Lanner wasn’t too sure about what had happened to his father. Since seventh grade, Tom had been working part-time jobs to bring money into the house. There was only a week remaining for high school registration when one of Lanner’s uncles came across with some money that, combined with what Tom had already saved, totaled enough to pay for the tuition at Bremmer.
Felix Lindor, better known as “Felix the Filth Fiend Lindor,” proud possessor of the world’s dirtiest mind, was going to Bremmer High School in September. Felix had a mind that worked like the floor of a livery stable. Anyone who knew him for even a few minutes could easily envision Felix’s eventual epitaph: “Buried Under Six Feet of What He Loved Most.”
Felix Lindor and I had been members of the same Boy Scout troop for a few months when we were in the sixth grade. Felix had that unique ability to be dirty under any circumstances. On the Saturday morning of our annual crosstown hike, we were all asked to meet in St. Bastion Church so that we could, as a troop, go to confession and then attend Mass and receive Holy Communion.
The confessionals had small red lights above each door. When someone knelt down on the kneeler inside the confessional, the red light would flash on, indicating that the confessional was now occupied. The purpose of the red light was to deter anyone from accidentally opening the door in the middle of someone else’s confession.
With folded hands and solemn face, Felix Lindor glided into the confessional and closed the door. The red light flashed on. Then it flashed off. It flashed on again. Felix was apparently getting on and off the kneeler. All of us being Boy Scouts, we realized that he wasn’t just flashing a red light on and off, but was sending us a message in Morse code. The message suggested self-procreation.
A few weeks later, Felix was asked to resign from the Scouts when he was caught making obscene knots.
Felix Lindor was the social seer of the eighth grade. When one became an eighth grader, two forms of social behavior were virtually mandatory. First, you had to learn how to walk around the neighborhood for hours and arrive at nowhere. Second, you had to develop the ability to reply incoherently whenever an adult threw a question at you. For instance, if you were walking out the door and your mother asked you where you were going, you would say, “You know, ma, I’m going over to . . .” at which point you would drag your hand across your lips, shredding the remainder of what you said into muffled mumblings. The first few times you tried it on an adult, he or she would often insist you speak the language. But after being properly conditioned, the adult would accept such utterings as communication.
Everyone in the neighborhood would wait until eighth grade before acquiring such social maneuvers. But Felix, from the time he had been old enough to walk and talk, had been tramping around the neighborhood going nowhere and making unintelligible sounds to every adult who tried to converse with him.
Timmy Heidi, who lived at the end of my block, was also going to Bremmer High School. The biggest surprise of eighth grade came on the day that Heidi was announced as the winner of a four-year scholarship to Bremmer. Out of five hundred students who had taken the entrance exam, two hundred, including Heidi, had chosen to take a special scholarship test. Heidi had scored the highest grade.
The nuns at St. Bastion Grammar School were insulted. For eight years, they had given Heidi low grades and told him how stupid he was. After all that, he had the nerve to question their judgment.
If it had been some other student, especially a girl, the nuns would have gone berserk with joy. It would have been the talk of the entire school. Heidi would have been asked to go on a lecture tour to the lower grades so that he could tell the little kids how hard he had to study to achieve it, how proud his parents were of him, and how the nuns had helped him to do so well, and all other kinds of garbage.
Heidi’s parents were extremely good Catholics. They had eleven children. Their religious fervor had been restrained only by the onset of Mrs. Heidi’s menopause. Heidi once told me that the reason he wanted to go to Bremmer High School was because, at Bremmer, each student got his own locker. Heidi figured that would be as close as he’d ever get to having his own room.
Heidi’s father was one of those who thought that if he didn’t have a television or radio in the house, people would think he was intelligent. Or maybe it was because, when you have eleven kids, you don’t need any more distractions.
During the summer after eighth grade, every time the White Sox played a night game I could expect a phone call from Heidi asking me if I had heard the final score on the television or the radio. By the end of the summer, Heidi’s father got tired of his using the phone every night; so even that narrow avenue of sports information was denied to Heidi.
It was the night before my first day of high school. I was lying in bed with a layer of Nolsteen Face Cream smeared across my face, listening to the White Sox game on the radio, when I heard a large billowing voice, with nonhuman qualities, bellow outside my window: “Hey, Ryan, are you listening to the White Sox game?”
I got out of bed, limped over to the window (I still had a cast on one of my legs), and tried to pull up the window screen. But it kept sticking along its ridges. After about five tugs, I finally got the window screen high enough to slide smoothly.
Poking my head out. It was a perfect summer night. Two-blankets cool with a star-riddled sky. But I could see nothing. My window, which was on the second floor of the house, opened directly above the driveway of our neighbor, LeRoy Vanson. LeRoy owned a meat truck that he always parked overnight in the driveway. Now all I could hear was the quiet hum of the refrigerator engine on LeRoy’s truck.
Being Catholic, I had always been aware of the possibility of miracles. And, like most Catholics, I constantly held out the vague hope that one would happen to me. Once you’re involved in a miracle, you’re a sure bet for heaven. That night, staring out the window, I hoped, for but a small second, that just maybe I had been chosen.
That’s who was talking to me: God. He was going to chitchat a little about the White Sox’s chances for a pennant and then get into the business end of why he had come to see me.
“Eddie, I want you to build a shrine here in LeRoy’s driveway in honor of me. After you move the meat truck, of course.”
The night air crackled with static. Somewhere in the black, the big voice boomed again. “Hey, Ryan, are you dead or alive?” I was almost sure then that it couldn’t be God. Who would know better if I was dead or alive?
Unlike the first coming, when they were caught unaware, this time my ears were tuned for the voice. Something quite familiar was detected. If it was God, he sounded a lot like Timmy Heidi.
Motionless, I continued to hang out the window. A few silent minutes passed. I was ready to pull the window screen down and go back to bed when I again heard the unknown speaker clear its voice of static, readying itself to deliver what was to be its last message. The words were spoken very matter-of-factly but, nevertheless, left no doubt that they were not a case of divine intervention. “Hey, asshole, can you hear me over there?”
The next morning, Timmy Heidi was at my door. We had made previous plans to travel the two miles to Bremmer High School together.
“Why didn’t you answer me last night?” he asked.
“I wasn’t sure it was you. How did you make your voice so loud?”
“One of those battery-operated megaphones. My father’s using it on the job he’s working now, when he has to talk to guys who are three or four floors above him.”
“Hey, that’s neat,” I said.
“Yeah,” Heidi agreed weakly, “but I got something that’ll work better.” He leaned down, reached into the schoolbag at his feet, and pulled out a pile of wire and two plastic microphones that were entangled in the mess. “I got it for Christmas this year. I strung it up a couple of times between my house and the garage and it works great.”
“So what do you wanna do with it now?”
“When the White Sox play a game,” Heidi began, “there’s no way for me to find out the score till the next morning. There’s no television or radio in the house, I ain’t allowed to use the telephone anymore, and if I use that megaphone again, my old man says he’ll poke my eyes out.”
“Did he really say he’d poke your eyes out?”
“Something like that. Anyway, I figure I can string this walkie-talkie between our two houses, and then I’ll be able to call you to get the scores.”
“That’s crazy,” I said, “we live more than a half a block apart. It’ll never stretch that far. Besides, we’ve got to get to school. We don’t want to be late on our first day.”
“Maybe it will,” said Heidi. “We can try it. It won’t take long. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. You go up to your bedroom, Ryan, and open the window. I’ll toss you one of the mikes and then I’ll start stringing it out.”
I went upstairs, opened the window, and pulled up the screen, which again kept sticking along its ridges. Heidi was already standing below, untangling the wires of the walkie-talkie. In a few minutes he had the walkie-talkie reduced to a group of neat coils looped around various pickets of the fence, which ran alongside my backyard and continued along the edge of the property between my house and LeRoy’s driveway. Heidi put one of the microphones in his hand and then carefully unwound the first coil from the fence picket. He looked up at the window.
“Are you ready, Ryan?”
Heidi dropped the coil of wire at his feet and tossed the microphone up in the direction of my window. It floated lightly toward me, paused briefly, and then proceeded to skim a few bricks on its way back down to Heidi.
“You didn’t throw it high enough,” I yelled.
“Honest to God?” Heidi said in mock shock. “Look, Ryan, it’s not gonna hit you in the head. You gotta stretch for it.”
“I’m not gonna fall out of the window for the damn thing.”
“Just catch it.”
“All right, all right.”
Three more attempts fell short. A fourth attempt sailed right by the window but I missed it.
“Wait a minute, Ryan,” said Heidi, “we’re not getting anywhere this way. Look, I’m gonna get up on the fence and stretch out my arm toward the window. Now if you stretch out, there’ll only be a few feet between us. I can just flip it to you.”
It worked perfectly, to a point. I easily caught the microphone. But as Heidi jumped off the fence, his feet fell on the wire, which was now running up to my bedroom window.
At that precise moment I was standing just inside the window, taking a close look at the microphone. It had two little buttons on it, a red one and a black one. I pushed its red button.
The microphone responded immediately as it attempted to yank me out the window. The side of my head slammed into the window, then quickly slid under and past it. I was about a third of the way out the window when my mind blitzed to the conclusion that if I dropped the microphone, I might very well save my life.
Sinking against the wall beneath the window. Never again would I push a red button. The side of my head felt as if someone had tried to jam a watermelon through my ear. My heart was beating somewhere beneath my navel.
As I sat there, I could hear new pimples popping up all over my forehead from the streams of sweat that were careening across my face. I began feeling the weight of the dandruff as it multiplied itself on top of my head. Both armpits were pumping out sweat. Under the cast, the skin started itching like mad from the puddles of perspiration now floating over it. On the other leg, the knee was swollen with pain. I had smashed it against the wall when I had almost gone out the window.
I tried calling out to Heidi, but all my voice could produce was a barely audible squeak followed by a moan four octaves lower in tone, which sounded as if it had come from my toes.
The ears slowly became conscious of a stereophonic nagging. Below the window, Heidi was hollering at me for throwing the microphone at him, while my mother was yelling up the stairs.
“Eddie. Eddie, are you ready for your first day of high school?”