As a kid, I dreaded Sundays. Sunday meant also-ran cartoons (all the crappy animated shows that had failed the previous season seemed to end up on Sunday mornings; no child in 1971 wanted to watch The Bugaloos or The Curiosity Shop on any day — trust me) followed by the bane of my existence: 11 o'clock mass at St. Jerome's.
I was something of a flashy dresser as a child, an eccentricity my mother indulged with handmade ensembles (I remember a vivid dashiki and a vest-and-pants number involving a paisley ascot) that made me look more like a refugee from a Vegas lounge act than a grade-schooler. But I wasn't allowed to wear anything psychedelic to church, not even a tasteful string of love beads tucked inside my boring blue suit coat. Once mass got going, I didn't understand all the talk about the Feast of the Transfiguration and the Second Coming of Christ, and the music was a total snooze — none of the hymns had a backbeat. I got through mass by reciting under my breath the furniture polish commercials I'd memorized from TV ("Madge, your glossy new table!" "I know, Milly! It's New Improved Pledge with Patented Dust-Busters!") and by flipping through the hymnal looking for song titles I could make amusing by grafting the phrase "up my butt" onto them. ("O God of Loveliness Up My Butt," "Bringing in the Sheaves Up My Butt," and "Taste and See the Goodness of the Lord Up My Butt" were at the top of my own private Sunday-morning hit parade.)
Church was boring, but it was a Tupperware party compared with catechism, an after-school God class I had to attend in preparation for First Holy Communion, one in a long line of sacraments that I, as a Catholic boy, was obliged to make. After I made my Communion, I'd get to eat one of the little white discs served at the end of Sunday mass, an act that might, I hoped, inch me closer to understanding of the Holy Spirit and the need to attend His mysterious weekly meetings. Every Thursday afternoon, I'd join the kids from St. Jerome's Catholic School to learn about transubstantiation and the Blood of Christ and how to eat a Communion wafer without chewing it, which I'd been told would cause the floor to open up and send me straight into the fiery depths of Hell.
This information was old news to the St. Jerome's kids, who had a whole hour of catechism every single school day.
"You mean you have to learn about God, even though it's not Sunday?" I asked Marvin Uzanti, who was planning to be an altar boy next year. Marvin was always cranky because he had to wear his school uniform — a white polyester shirt and a pair of black Toughskins — for an extra hour on Thursdays.
"Yeah," Marvin said, sizing up my lavender-striped elephant bells and SweeTarts necklace. "And we don't get to dress like homos, either."
None of the Catholic school kids were nice to me, and not just because I dressed like a midget lounge singer. They didn't like me because I was a public school kid — the only one out of the 20-odd students in our communion class who didn't attend St. Jerome's school; the only one who didn't know the difference between Jude and Jonah. I didn't want to be an altar boy, next year or any year, and in catechism, I never could answer a single question Sister Mary Andrew asked me.
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"No, Robbie," she'd patiently explain. "The Holy Spirit is not a ghost like Casper. And the reason he doesn't shout 'Boo!' is because it wouldn't be godly to." Or, "It's called a wimple because God wants it to be called a wimple," she'd say in answer to my question about her nun outfit. "And it's not an ensemble, it's a habit."
When Sister Mary Andrew wasn't preparing us for the life-changing moment when we'd, at last, be allowed to eat the body of Christ, her idea of a good time was what she called her "special guest speakers," all of whom were St. Jerome's employees she'd corralled into teaching part of her class for her, so that she could go grab a quick nap in an empty confessional. Father McGovern came by one Thursday to demonstrate the proper way to genuflect; another time, Sister Mary Sanguine blushed her way through an explanation of the Virgin birth that ended early when Marvin blurted, "You mean Mary could make babies without even doing it?"
But regardless of who was teaching it, I never could get a handle on the whole God thing. I finally gave up altogether as a teenager, and cinched the deal a decade ago by marrying a lapsed Jew. "Don't you at least miss the pageantry, the wild costumes, the weird songs about cannibalism?" he asked me recently.
Never, I told him. So long as I can occasionally attend a little musical theater, I'm fine.