Saturday, March 24, 2012

Saint Joan of Arc Church - Harrowgate - Philadelphia

photo: John Malloy

The man who baptized me or more accurately the man who was founder and pastor of my parish in Philly was a fanatic of sorts. He started out life as an Episcopalian, changed Christian registration to R.C. when in the seminary and went on to start a new R.C. parish. The parish was sort of in between a lot of other established parishes and the land in between those other churches began to be developed, houses built, and there was a need for a new church, school etc. in the first decades of the twentieth century in that part of Philly. 
Let me call this man Father Ed. He was of the old “God is to be feared” school of beliefs. He was an Old Testament kind of guy. 
He was dead by the time I reached first grade. I have heard stories about him. One from a home inspector who related the story about being an altar boy in my parish and being five minutes late for mass. Father Ed ranted into him at the end of service about how you can’t be late for God. The priest also made the boy serve everyday for a year at 6:00 a.m. mass as punishment. That priest made an impression on that guy but I don’t think that Father Ed made a friend.
Then, as it happens sometimes in life, a lady knocked on the door and said that she had been raised in our house and asked if she might get a quick nostalgic view inside. She then got into some stories about the neighborhood. The one story I remember most was about Father Ed. 
There was a Russian tailor in our neighborhood. He also did dry cleaning and his store was a block away from our house. We did business with the man. In the story of the visiting lady we finally understood why some of our neighbors took their dry cleaning three blocks away and not use the local guy. The Russian was also a Jew and a good tailor I might add. My parents, for working class, were flaming liberals. Being Jewish did not matter to them. That and my father liked to haggle. 
The lady went on to say that as a child, she and her friends used to taunt the man. Let me say anti-Semitism was rampant in America back then in the 1930's, at least in this neighborhood. Well Father Ed got wind of the fact that some of his parishioners and children were harassing the man and boycotting his business. Father Ed made it a point to visit the tailor and bring his dry cleaning four blocks from the rectory. In good weather, Father Ed sat on the store stoop and smoked a cigar together with the tailor as a means to make a statement of sorts to the neighborhood. Apparently Father Ed and the tailor became good friends as the result of this local anti-Semitism. - - Sabbath Tales


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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Poison Tree




Her grandfather, who had raised her, was exclaiming something loud in the back garden as we toured all the structures that now were built on the once empty patch of land.

The old man had been allotted this fairly large plot of land by the state. It had been sold to him very cheaply. I estimated the original lot to be about three quarters of an acre.

On that lush tropical landscape had once been many more trees than were now present and situated in between structures. Even so, the existing species of large trees and plants grew avocados, mangoes and bananas. These had helped feed a large family on a state road worker's salary.

The main house was plain. Large dormitory like rooms were where the boys and girls had slept. There was a common room or living room and a small kitchen. This structure had been built wall by wall, room by room, over the years. Extra savings went into concrete blocks on a regular basis.

The back of the property had once housed a large pig sty. Pork had been the cash crop that supplemented tropical fruits and the staple rice and beans diet. Pork had helped purchase the blocks. Piglets had been temporary play companions to poor children.

In fact, she had told me that as a child, the only dolls she played with were homemade things made of corn husks, the corn of which had fed the pigs. Corn silks adorned the corn husk dolls as hair.

The old man was quite animated.

The land now held five houses where at one time stood one.

As the nearby town grew outward, modest houses started to dot the countryside. Streets were paved. Second generations built a second story onto parents' houses.

Zoning laws changed in the expanded town. No pigs could be raised within the new city limits. Now only a few old hens pecked at the ground and made the occasional stew.

I asked for a translation. What was the old man shouting about?

Her cousin had inherited a one room house on the back of the property. He had recently married and his new bride had planted some shrubs to decorate this desolate corner of the original lot.

The literal translation of the bride's plantings came to words translated as "poison tree".

"It is a poison tree!" was what he repeated over and over again in Spanish.

The old man was upset. Everything on his property in terms of plants had been always been edible. Now, a stranger, the wife of a grandson was planting a decorative plant and not an edible one.

The old man's bubble had burst. The world outside his front porch could have changed in some measurable way over the years but it somehow had not touched a chord.

His sons had gone to college. One daughter was a registered nurse. The ones who had emigrated to the mainland had their own measure of material success in the post World War II boom in America.

He had at least thirty grandchildren and umpteen great grandchildren. All the changes over the last half a century registered in some proportion that matched the land that he stood on and owned.

Now, on this day, paradise seemed corrupted and lost. The people on the land now did not understand his vision for the land. The land must feed his family. A tree from the outside world had invaded.

The seeds of the destruction were planted. His vision, his temporary footprint in the scheme of things, was disappearing before his eyes. So he shouted in his own way.

His time had passed. Now he knew and recognized that fact.

This he expressed with great passion.




(excerpt from Fresh Kills on Kindle)


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