Chapter Two: “Soldiers of Christ”
On a chilly Sunday morning in early spring, the students of Our Lady of Lourdes elementary school in Astoria, a working-class neighborhood on the East River opposite northern Manhattan, were filing into the parish church for the nine o’clock mass. Each student wore the uniform of the parochial school. The boys, white shirts, blue ties, navy blue pants, black shoes; the girls, white blouses, blue cravats, navy blue jumpers with the school escutcheon emblazoned on the left breast over the heart, navy-blue knee-socks, sensible black shoes, no open toes.
The good sisters of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph, in their flowing black robes, starched white collars and headpieces, carefully policed their charges, rosary beads clicking as they made their rounds. Most importantly, the boys and the girls, especially the older ones, had to be kept strictly segregated as they assembled for mass—there could be no tolerance for allowing occasions of sin, especially among the older children. And, when they were assembled so closely together, as they had to be enclosed within the narrow alleyway beside the parish church, there was no telling where their hands were. So, boys to the front, girls to the rear, no mixing allowed.
Attendance was taken—the nine o’clock mass was mandatory for all students of Our Lady of Lourdes elementary school. Each student was examined for proper uniform, shined shoes, clean hands, fingernails, face, ears, haircut and missal. At ten to nine, the children were filed two by two into the church through the side door to occupy the front pews on the gospel side of the altar which were reserved for the school.
Mickey Dwyer was among the eighth graders with his best friends Johnny Toussaint and Joey Simon or, as Joey was sometimes known around the school yard, “Joey the Jew.” Not that Joey was Jewish. In fact, Joey’s grandfather, Giuseppe Benedetto Simonetti, a fervent—at least by Italian standards—Roman Catholic, had immigrated to America from the southern Italian region of Calabria at seventeen years of age, just after America’s war with Spain. The elder Simonetti had established himself on Henry Street on the lower east side of Manhattan, literally in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge. He immediately got himself what he considered good, steady work helping dig the new Interborough Rapid Transit underground railroad, or “subway” as it was called in America.
Between his twelve-hour shifts digging up the streets of lower Manhattan, Giuseppe took some time to contemplate his situation in his new homeland. Although he understood that America’s streets were not paved with gold, he decided that America was in fact a land of endless opportunities for someone who was smart, ambitious and willing to work hard, as long as one condition was recognized, assimilation. You had to be white and not too Catholic.
So, Giuseppe Benedetto Simonetti Senior resolved that he would never again speak his native dialect, nor Italian. He would learn to speak English without an accent. And, all of his children (should God be so kind to him) would finish at least eight years of school in the wonderful, free, public schools that America provided for all of its citizens.
As a sign of his resolve to be completely American, Giuseppe Benedetto Simonetti renamed himself Joseph Benedict Simon. The one thing the newly minted Joseph Benedict Simon would not compromise on was his faith in the Roman Catholic Church, which in his opinion offered the only path to eternal salvation, although sometimes it got in the way of his being hired for the better jobs.
The only flaw in Joseph Benedict Simon’s plan for complete and seamless assimilation into the American dream, except for the Catholic issue, was that the name “Simon” sounded Jewish to many New Yorkers. In fact, when Joseph Benedict Simon the Third started the first grade in the parochial school of Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Astoria, and the teaching sister, Sister Maria Paulina, who had, like Joseph the Third’s grandfather and father, grown up cheek and jowl with Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland along Hester Street on New York’s lower eastside, read his name, “Joseph Simon,” while taking attendance, she immediately blurted out, “Is that a Jewish name?”
To give the good sister her credit, she imagined that Joey’s presence in her classroom was the result of the miracle of conversion and baptism which would save poor Joey’s Jewish soul from the fires of eternal damnation. However, her announcing this assumption in front of the entire first grade class of Our Lady of Lourdes School became the crucible for Joey’s survival in the school yard and in the neighborhood for many years to come, since, in the Darwinian soup that was the school yard, any flaw, any seam, any difference, no matter how slight or how tenuous, was exploited in the ruthless competition for survival.
At first, Joseph the Third had to put up with the mocking cry, “Is that a Jewish name?” from his classmates. And, this was quickly picked up by the older, bigger boys. Eventually, due to the efficient ecology of natural selection operating in the school yard, which abhors the use of wasted syllables and is forever in search of a good alliteration, the cry quickly evolved into the moniker, “Joey the Jew.”
At first, Joey, being a first-grader and one of the smallest kids in the school yard, had to take it. He couldn’t go to the nuns with it. That was “ratting,” the worst crime imaginable to any kid growing up in the parish. And, he couldn’t make the kids stop. Most of them were a lot bigger and certainly crueler than Joey had yet had a chance to become.
Once, when a seventh grader, a renowned and infamous school yard bully known as “Nugy” O’Reilly due to his practice of smashing smaller kids on the top of their skulls with his knuckles, called him “Joey the Jew,” he ran home in tears and, in his terror and despair, made the egregious mistake of telling his mother.
Mrs. Angie Simon, whose formal, Catholic-school name had been Angelina Madelena Giudice, came from a family that had, within living memory, immigrated from a small village near Palermo. She herself had been born in the small back bedroom of a fourth floor walk-up apartment off Delancey Street where she had lived with her parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and an uncle or two, depending on who was working at any moment or who didn’t want to be found for any reason.
Angelina Madelena Giudice was no stranger to the laws of the school yard, having cut her teeth in Transfiguration parish on Mott Street back in the days of the Great Depression when, as she told her children, “things were hard.” Angelina Madelena knew there were a couple of immutable decrees for surviving in the neighborhood. First, never rat out anyone, especially to the cops, but certainly not to the nuns or priests. Second, never be a punk, a coward, or you’d never have respect and you’d be everybody’s punk. Finally, for girls, never be a puttana, or you’ll shame your family, never have honor and never find a husband.
Angelina Madelena remembered how she had learned that last lesson. When she was in the seventh grade, one of the nuns doing her daily neighborhood patrol for sinners and delinquents caught her and her girlfriend smoking in one of the playgrounds under the Manhattan bridge. Of course, the nun frog-marched her home and told her mother. When the nun left to take her girlfriend to meet her doom, Angelina Madalena’s mother slapped her across the face. “Solo una puttana fuma fuori dalla casa dove tutti possono vederla!” she shouted in little Angelina’s face, “Vuoi tutti nel quartiere di pensare si è una puttana? Vuoi vergogna di tuo padre, vergogna della tua famiglia?”
From this, Angelina Madelena understood that it was alright to smoke, just not outside where anybody could see it. To this day, Angelina Madelena only smoked in her own kitchen. Never outside on the street, never in front of her father-in-law, Papa Joe, who lived with them, and never in front of her children. So, when a weeping little Joey the Third burst into her kitchen, she had to quickly hide the Lucky Strike she had only half finished while getting her husband’s dinner ready for his imminent return from work.
“What’s the matter with you,” she asked her son, blowing a stream of white smoke up toward the ceiling, “You hurt?”
“No, Mama,” wept little Joey the Third, “A big kid at school called me a Jew.”
“A Jew?” exclaimed Mrs. Simon.
Now she was confused. Why would anyone call her son a Jew. Certainly, Mrs. Simon knew what Jews were. When she was growing up, they lived mostly around Hester Street. Her people never had any problems with Jews, unlike those damned Irish who were always drunk and always starting fights. The Jews kept to their neighborhood, the Sicilians kept to theirs. She knew the priests said that all the Jews were going to hell for killing Jesus. But, that was priest business, not street business. Besides, her neighbor on the first floor, Mrs. Goldstein, was Jewish and such a nice lady, always kind to little Joey. Mrs. Simon could not understand why God would want to send such a nice lady to hell. But, that was priest business. On the street, there were Jewish neighborhoods and Sicilians neighborhoods. There was Jewish business and there was Sicilian business. They never mixed. Typical of America. One country, many neighborhoods. Everybody kept to themselves, or there was trouble.
“Why’d this boy call you a Jew?” Mrs. Simon asked her oldest son.
“I don’t know, Mama, I don’t know! They do it all the time,” Joey sniffled.
Now Mrs. Simon knew she had a problem on her hands. She just wasn’t sure what. “Who is this kid?” she demanded.
“Just a kid, Mama, just a kid,” little Joey answered.
Good, Angelina Madelena Giudice of Delancey Street thought, he’s not an informatore. “So, why’re you coming home with this?” she demanded.
“He’s big, Mama! He could beat me up,” Joey sobbed!
Madonn’, thought Angelina Madelena, he’s a punk, un vigliacco!
She remembered, once in the Transfiguration school yard, when she was in the fourth grade, one of the eighth-grade girls, who was at least twice her size, had called her Angelina la Bambina, Angelina the Baby, for no better reason than to impress her girlfriends. The bigger girl got to say this only once before Angelina Madelena had her on the ground and was pummeling some sense into her. When the nun broke it up, she asked both girls who started it. Neither girl would break the school yard code; neither would speak. So, since Angelina Madelena seemed to be the aggressor, she was frog-marched into the school and given a few strokes with a leather belt. But, Angelina Madelena took her beating without making a sound. She knew even the nun respected her for not snitching, for standing up for herself and for taking her beating without so much as a whimper.
This was the respect, il rispetto, that every kid in the school yard had to earn and had to have. Without respect, you were nothing! So, Angelina kept her mouth shut, took her beating and got respect for it. That’s the way things worked in the school yard and in the neighborhood.
“Did anyone else hear him say this thing to you?” she quizzed her son.
“All the kids were there! They laughed when he said it!” Joey sobbed.
“So, you let this… this… punk say this thing to you in front of the whole neighborhood! And then you ran away crying?” exclaimed Mrs. Simon.
Without thinking, she grabbed her cigarette from the ash tray hidden behind the bread box on top of the ice box and took a deep drag. Joey was amazed. His Mama was smoking right in front of him. He knew she smoked, but never right out in the open like this!
She bent down into his face and lowered her voice so Papa Joe, her father-in-law, wouldn’t hear her, “Se non fate qualcosa, avete perso il vostro onore. Nessuno potrà mai rispettare.”
Joey now knew he was doomed! He should have thought this through before getting his Sicilian mother involved in a school yard fight. Not only was she standing right in front of him smoking a cigarette, but she was talking to him in Italian, using the magic words onore and rispettare. Using Italian in his family was like the priests using Latin in the mass. It was a sacred, magical and binding language. The language of the old country. The voice of their ancestors. The sound of obligato. But onore! Joey wasn’t absolutely sure what that entailed, but he knew that when his Sicilian grandfather and uncles used the word, it was in a hushed voice, accompanied by solemn nods, like praying in the church before God.
Joey was now bound by onore, the Italian language, and his mother’s cigarette to go back to that school and kick Nugy O’Reilly’s ass or die in the attempt.
Even at that young age Joey was sensible and had no inclinations to suicide. He left the apartment, apparently on a mission to regain his onore, but instead hid out for a couple of hours down the block at Mickey Dwyer’s, his best friend’s, apartment. Later, on his way back home, he scraped his knuckles on the side of a building and told his Mama that he had done the deed.
Her terse response, “Good! Serves the punk right! Now wash your hands for dinner! You got blood.”
Initially, Joey’s only viable strategy for dealing with the “Joey the Jew” problem, was to ignore it. Never respond. Never let them know they’re getting to you. Hopefully they’ll get bored with it and go find a new victim. Unfortunately for Joey, having a “Jew” in the parish was too much a novelty to be ignored or forgotten. Soon, the problem leaked from the school yard and permeated the neighborhood. Joey was safe on his own block on Crescent Street where he and Mickey lived. But, anytime he had to leave that area of sanctuary, going to the deli to buy bread and milk for his Mama, or going to the candy store to get his Papa’s newspapers and cigarettes, or walking to school, he was “Joey the Jew” to any kid who could make it stick.
This continued for some time with varying degrees of intensity and viciousness. Some kids actually believed Joey was Jewish. What a Jewish kid was doing attending a Catholic school in Astoria never seemed to cross their minds. But, Our Lady of Lourdes school was not known for the scholarship of its charges.
In the fifth grade, two things happened to Joey the Third. The first, he had a growing spurt and, almost overnight, the skinny little runt that Mickey Dwyer had known since the first grade, was over five feet tall and a good twenty pounds heavier. Second, Joey the Third decided that he wasn’t going to put up with this shit anymore. His new policy about the “Joey the Jew” issue was, if any kid said it to him—no matter how big, how tough, how well connected around the neighborhood—he would punch him in the face.
The implementation of this new policy was neither smooth nor flawless.
At first, Joey had to put up with a fair share of ass-kickings from the bigger kids. And, Mickey Dwyer, as Joey’s best friend, had to back his play. So he suffered his fair share of damage too. But, Joey declared he would rather take a beating than have to put up with this shit any more.
Joey soon noticed that despite losing a lot of his “Joey the Jew” fights, the harassment actually lessoned and finally stopped, as the word went around the parish that, if you opened your mouth to this guy, he was going to come at you. You might beat him, but you were going to know you were in a fight! So, as is the eternal code of bullies, they went to find easier victims.
So ended the era of “Joey the Jew.”
At least for the most part. Joey would tolerate some teasing from the kids he trusted, and Mick Dwyer always had his back in the bad old days.
So, when Joey showed up for assembly that Sunday morning, Mick greeted him saying, “Joey! What are you doing here? I didn’t know Jews had to go to mass!”
Joey just smiled and said, “Keep it down, Mick! I’m undercover. I heard at the synagogue that Catholic girls are easy.”
THE VIOLENT SEASON is an epic, expansive collection of heroic short stories centered on the gripping experiences of three young men and their families during the Vietnam War. The book presents a ‘coming-of-age’ narrative that begins in the lush river valleys of upstate New York and on the streets of New York City and provides an insightful perspective of youth and innocence plunged into the crucible of war.
As well, it transcends the “good guys, bad guys” portrayal of human conflict by presenting its readers with a depiction of good people, Americans and Vietnamese, caught up in unthinkably grim and difficult circumstances. THE VIOLENT SEASON celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and its ability to triumph over the horror and tragedy of war.
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Genre – Literary / Historical Fiction
Rating – PG13
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