I was in sixth grade inter­me­di­ate school at Saint Boni­face. It felt like mil­i­tary school with a bar­rage of rules and reg­u­la­tions to deal with: White shirts- tucked in, navy blue tie and slacks, black shoes. Hair/bangs trimmed above the eye­brows and ears. It was strict­ly enforced. Even though it had been a num­ber of years since my last parochial expe­ri­ence, I was able to assim­i­late into the mix. I wasn’t what you’d call a wall­flower and made an effort to be a friend­ly wise-crack­er with­out step­ping on people’s toes. The fact that I was from Cal­i­for­nia and could curse in Span­ish made me inter­est­ing for a good week or so.

In the school­yard, I impressed my peers by being able to take a punch to the stom­ach with­out col­laps­ing into a heap and my uncan­ny abil­i­ty to walk on my hands across the yard. We lis­tened to a smug­gled in tran­sis­tor radio and sang Bea­t­les songs at the far end of the paved park­ing lot. That led to my try­ing out for the Saint Boni­face All Boys Choir, where I man­aged to snag a spot as a sopra­no. I wasn’t self con­scious about it and enjoyed singing. Puber­ty, for me at least, was some way off and I had a love­ly high-pitched voice. At home, I’d crow “Ava Maria” in Latin ad nau­se­am near an open win­dow like a dement­ed cas­tra­to.

My sis­ter Lau­ra devel­oped asth­ma in that house. The smoke of the coal ash sure didn’t help. Occa­sion­al­ly, she would have a full-blown asth­ma attack and lay help­less as a fish out of water gasp­ing for air. Like that wasn’t mis­er­able enough, she devel­oped a nasty skin con­di­tion, eczema, which left her arms brit­tle, sore and cracked.

I awoke one morn­ing with pink sores on my arms and legs. I asked my mom if I was get­ting eczema too.

No, well maybe…” she said.

Lat­er that week, Joe had the same sores on his legs. Joe had itched his into bloody spores. That night, itch­ing and unable to sleep, I turned on the lights and dis­cov­ered our beds were crawl­ing with tiny bugs, bed­bugs. They weren’t the only infes­ta­tion in the house. We had cock­roach­es in the kitchen and I saw a large rat in the base­ment. You know, both rats and cock­roach­es eat bed­bugs so maybe between them it would cut down on the onslaught.

If that unpleas­ant­ness wasn’t enough to endure, our next-door neigh­bors were a tough bul­ly­ing lot who made life even more mis­er­able. Always up for a fight, they were tru­ly poor folk and angry at the world. Mr. and Mrs. Smith were semi-func­tion­al adults and full-blown alco­holics who couldn’t take care of them­selves and raised a clan of surly wild kids. I think at one time or anoth­er my younger sib­lings got into a fight with one of the Smiths, usu­al­ly just for look­ing at them and piss­ing them off. It was the typ­i­cal provo­ca­tion:

What are you look­ing at?”


Who you call­ing noth­ing?”

Then, a push, a slap and kick­ing, fol­lowed by a wrestling match in the dirt. Some­times we would win, some­times not. The cry­ing losers ran back to their respec­tive hous­es. When they weren’t fight­ing with us, they wailed on each oth­er. I have to inject here, that the Smiths had a daugh­ter around my age. I’m not sure how it hap­pened, but mirac­u­lous­ly, Mary was not so wild or mean and she was good look­ing and nev­er picked a fight with me. Though I was ready to wres­tle her in a heart­beat. She is an excep­tion to my harsh descrip­tion of the Smith clan.

I recall that win­ter was a cold, snowy one. Next to the ware­house across the tracks, Joe and I built a fort out of wood pal­lets. (No mat­ter where we were, we had to build a fort!) The snow was so heavy after a par­tic­u­lar storm that the fort could have passed for an igloo. Up the street was a bak­ery. A vent on the side of the build­ing blew out a warm and deli­cious aro­ma of fresh cooked bread. Loved that smell.

It was not a good time as we wait­ed for our tick­et to ride to Philadel­phia. But there were occa­sion­al times that were worth remem­ber­ing. That spring I was thrilled when my mom let me get a pair of pointy-toed shiny two inch heeled black Bea­t­les boots. Man, they were boss and felt mod and a lit­tle taller wear­ing them.

Although I was a Bea­t­les fanat­ic, some­how I became a Mon­kees fan. The Mon­kees show debuted on TV in the fall of 1966. Remem­ber: “Hey, hey, we’re the Mon­kees — and we don’t mon­key around.” The show was hor­ri­bly corny, and their songs, pop­corn. It was easy to digest and didn’t give you gas. Like most of the kids my age, I sang along with Davy Jones, “I’m a believ­er.”