Sunday, March 23, 2003

Just got back from my old home town Bridgeport -- home also of Joe Ganim, disgraced mayor, P.T. Barnum, celebrity mayor, and Jasper McLevy, five-term Socialist mayor (helluva town). Mom had a scare and is in St. Vincent Hospital, resting comfortably with good vitals, thanks for asking.

I was born in St. Vincent's, and hospitalized there at the age of 12 (my vitals are currently good, too -- again, thanks for asking -- though I currently have a vicious sinus infection). Physically the place is completely and rather nicely renovated, but when I walked in I felt a nostalgic twinge. Late in the visit, I walked out to get myself and another visitor some chow, and walked past my old grade school. Back then it was St. Patrick's. Boys wore charcoal grey slacks, green jackets with an "SPS" crest on the breast pocket, and green-and-grey plaid ties. If I could get one man-sized, I'd wear this every day. The girls wore green-and-grey checked jumpers, calf socks, and black patent-leather shoes. Yes, you saw the next joke coming, and I refuse to do it. There were two entrances, one marked BOYS, one marked GIRLS, and these were engraved in stone over the portals to Catholic indoctrination (the light stone building was built in 1922, by Freemasons, one expects), and for the first year at least we by God lined up when the old gnarled nun rang the big brass bell and lined up and MARCHED, single file, into the appropriate doors. We had corporal punishment, too, that first year -- kneeling on rulers and the like -- which, when Vatican II finally caught up with the archdiocese, was eschewed in favor of psychological intimidation (though I do recall Sister Mildred, exasperated with Willie Carpanelli's intransigence, knocking him out of his seat -- old habits die hard, ha ha).

In 2003 this building houses something called Maplewood Annex. It's not a Catholic school anymore. No one has knocked the crucifix from the crest of the facade, but the new school's mission statement says it means to "provide each student with the opportunity to attain his/her highest potential academically, socially, and cognitively," so a lot has changed.

I walked around the place, noted that the hurricane fence around our old recess yard was, in places, knocked down (one local kid was standing on a defeated stretch of chain-link as I passed), that the GIRLS and BOYS inscriptions were covered by whitewashed wooden canopies, and that there was some sort of play-set for the younger kids (we'd had only jump-ropes, wiffle ball, and childish cruelty to occupy us). I walked down Wells Street, where once we'd met Mrs. Gillespie or my Mom for rides home after school. The houses along that strip are downcast now -- clapboard chipped, paint worn, front walks cracked and weedy. The lower middle class, happy and comfortable in the McLevy days and even when I was a boy, is desperate and despairing now, though its children (and, at this late date, many of the parents) are unaware that it was ever any different, and cheerfully rove the downcast streets, looking for whatever joy the poor town has to offer.

At the diner a waitress and her friend smoked long cigarettes and chatted with me while the food was being prepared. Both had suffered great losses in the past year. The waitress' boyfriend had been shot dead. The friend's sister, after a long fight with drugs (during which she'd been shot, stabbed, raped, and kidnapped), succumbed to an overdose. "The whole family had just gotten together," the friend said. "We were laughing and happy. I guess God waited till we were together to take her for a reason."

The waitress said she was mad that her boyfriend had been taken. At whom? I asked. "I never thought about that before," she said.

When I came back to the hospital, a nurse put my Mom on a nebulizer -- a face mask connected to a tube that pumped light steam into her nose and mouth. There was some broncho-dilator mixed with the steam. She liked it, became giddy. She offered me the mask, tried to pull it from her face; we stopped her. "Lookit those soldiers on TV, racing to Baghdad," she said. "They're racing to get killed."

The train ride home was long and tedious. At one point a state trooper roamed the aisles slowly, looking into our faces.

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