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.”