Sunday, July 12, 2009

Huge Hall

Strange days have found us, and through their strange hours we linger alone. Bodies confused, memories misused...
I had that album, Strange Days by the Doors. The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley wrote, but even in the sixties that seemed too long and crazy a name for a band, so the Doors it was. Jim Morrison, lyrics. He'd be 65 now. Doing a six-month gig in Vegas, I don't know. Imagine that. He's up there shouting, "Mother, I want to— send you a greeting card!" Wouldn't that push the boundaries? Some people would walk out, their sensibilities violated. And everyone would talk about it. I know Jim would have the guts to do it. But I digress.

I've given myself a challenge. I can barely half-remember college days. Can I do high school days at all? Some little pieces of it are still there in the grey cells. Strange days. Not a child, not grown.

Look at that: junior year and my signature was still almost Palmer method cursive. History, Greek, German, Ape, Latin, Theology, Math, and I had to start off the week with P T.

Now say you have a class that is normally held on the fourth floor, but for some reason today it's been moved to the nearly identical room on the ground floor. The teacher always seems a little on edge. One of the boys takes a seat near the open window. At some point he stands and announces, "I just can't take it any more!", and jumps out the window. The teacher panics! It's the fourth floor! Well, it isn't, today, and the boy has had to go into a crouch as soon as his feet touch the ground three feet below the window, in order to disappear convincingly. It's lovely to think about. I wasn't there when this one happened. I wonder whether anyone was.

Or say you have a somewhat claustrophobic teacher. The boys notice that ever since the classroom floor has been cleaned, it's easy to slide the desks and chairs around silently. A plot is hatched. Each time the teacher turns his back to write on the board, everyone moves forward, no more than a half inch. He turns back, and things seem normal. Don't they? Thirty minutes later, the desks and chairs are at least a foot forward from their original positions, but as long as no one cracks, things still seem normal. But it's like the room is closing in. The suspense is overwhelming. How far can we go?

I'm not sure whether I was there when that one happened. Stephen Wright had this bit in his comedy act. After running through a series of jokes about things he did, he starts the next one, "and then I...", pauses, and adds "oh wait, that wasn't me". I liked that he was rambling through someone else's memory. No. I don't think I was there for the moving of desks and chairs.

If I had perpetrated these things, I would have got jug. I got jug once for nothing. My Latin class right before lunch was in a second floor room opposite the stairs, and that day I was in the desk next to the door. As soon as class ended, I just got up and walked down the stairs. I was the first one down. The Prefect of Discipline Emeritus— a hell of a title, isn't it— was waiting at the bottom of the stairs and pulled me over. He told me I should not run in school. I agreed. I hadn't been running, so it seemed safe to agree. He took my name and told me to report for jug. "Now, what did you learn?", he asked. I had no idea what to reply. He kindly did not add a day.

The derivation of the word "jug" was unknown to us. It's "Justice under God", according to some web pages, but I suspected it was the beginning of something in Latin about being put under a yoke. If the weather was clement, a fine high school word, jug meant you went outside after school with the other bad boys and walked in a line around a little campus lawn an indeterminate number of times. The path we trod passed through a little gazebo with four stone pillars holding up the roof, and on a dare, you could step out of line, hide behind a pillar, and rejoin the line the next time it came around. What fun. Unless you happened to step out during the last time around. Then you'd be stuck there. Now once again, did I see this happen, or was I only told of it?

Here's one I know I did. It was in a biology class. I was one of those kids who did all the homework and never caused any trouble. Don't hit me. Probably for that reason I was paired at a lab bench with a boy known as a little bit of a troublemaker. What they failed to reckon was that I liked the idea of making trouble as long as nobody got hurt. The legs of the benches were attached the floor with something like an L bracket. We noticed the leg on my side was a little loose, so we decided to push up on the bench any chance we got, to see how long it would take to completely pull out the screw. It took a few months. It was totally stupid petty vandalism. But it gave us a reason to look forward to that class. I was sorry when the screw pulled out, but just because then we couldn't do it any more. They never caught us for that one.

The Jesuits liked to be relevant as much as possible, and one of them had the idea of teaching about ethics and stuff by listening to popular music and discussing the lyrics. The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, whatever. I'm not sure they got to Dylan. One day there was something new in the classroom: a stereo system. Now I had at home a thing called a record player, a box about a foot square, with a turntable and an arm and a small speaker built into it. That was how you played records. They sounded all right if that was all you knew. But in this classroom they had a nice big speaker on each side and a decent turntable and amp. And I had no idea what was about to happen to me. We were going to discuss "Revolution", off the Beatles' latest album. Lyric sheets were handed out, and we were going to take a few minutes to listen to it first. The stylus dropped and a few seconds into the music SWEET ANGELS MY BRAIN WENT BLANK AND MY HEART EXPLODED.

I MEAN IT WAS AMAZING. Sheltered boy, I had never heard rock music played at proper volume over a decent sound system. I COULD HEAR EVERYTHING. The guitars, the drums, the vocals, everything, crystal clear, or at least a hell of a lot clearer than I had ever heard before. Lyrics? I don't care about stinking lyrics. I want to hear more music on this INCREDIBLE sound system! I was so hooked. To this day I want to hear music as loud and thumping as I can stand it. My poor ears. "What's that? Eh?" And mind you, this was "Revolution 1", the smooth version on the white album. If they had played the other take of the same song, "Revolution" the B side, with the shouting, distorted guitars and heavy drums, I don't know what would have happened to me.

That explains something about me. It was one of those formative moments. You're probably waiting to hear about another formative moment, if you've read the College Stories in some of my previous posts. I didn't realize it at first, but those stories make it seem as if the main thing I did for four years was check out girls. I am not ashamed of my orientation. After all I could have written about classes I took, or the guy who was my roommate in Carman, but you'd go to sleep. Anyway I am sure that now you are expecting to hear about the girls I knew in high school. I have three words for you: all, boys, school. There was, for a while, an after-school discussion group about some subject I forget that we could attend together with girls from the remarkably named nearby school Mount Saint Ursula. Of course I did go off on those expeditions. No friendships were formed there, but at least I got to, like, talk to some of them. Ah, now you see where I come from.

My after-school activity was the bookstore. One thing I learned that has stuck with me was to keep the pile of bills in the cashbox with all the heads facing the same way. Father Fahey, the Jesuit in charge, kept stressing this. The other day I saw a young cashier in our local supermarket doing exactly the same thing when I handed her a twenty and a few singles. You know what, I usually turn them all the same way myself, but I've been trying to break free of some little habits I have, so I didn't do it that day, and then I saw her turning them to make some manager happy. She's going to blog about it in whatever kind of blog people will have forty years from now, some kind of direct injection to brains I expect. "One thing I learned that has stuck with me", she will begin, and then have to explain what paper money was. I'm going to turn my heads the same way from now on, as a kindness to my fellow sufferers. I wonder how many customers do it. The ones who have worked in stores probably do.

This isn't much of a story, is it? It's more of a slice of life, full of random moments that maybe add up to something. It's Azumanga Daioh but with boys and no pictures. Maybe you'll get a feel for life at Fordham Prep years ago. Maybe not.

Father Fahey in the bookstore, and I think that's Ray.

Some of us were travelling downtown one day. As we were walking through a passage in the subway, our friend Ray asked the rest of us, "Am I hungry?" Sorry, Ray, that unanswerable question is the thing I remember you for. No, wait, the other thing is that one day Ray brought in an old 78 called the Okeh Laughing Record, and we must have had a record player in the back of the bookstore, because I know we played it. It is what the title says it is. Google the title if you want to hear it. They don't make them like that any more.

I was riding with somebody to school on the Third Avenue El. Only the Bronx portion of it still remained, and it was worked with ancient subway cars from the 1920s that were on their last legs. We got on at 149th St, and at the next station, one of the doors didn't close. I got up and pushed it shut so the train could start, and at the next stop my friend did the same, and we took turns at each station where it opened on that side. We said nothing about it. It was the el. Pieces of stuff fell off it to the street, doors didn't close, situation normal. We just wanted the train to make it to our stop. Our car was empty when we got off at Fordham Road. The train was probably stuck for a while at the next station, with no one left to close the door.

My best friend in school was Frank. His last name alphabetized right next to mine. That's how you met people in Catholic schools. You had to sit or stand next to them in alphabetical order all the time, so you might as well talk to them. In grade school sometimes the nuns had us line up in size place instead. Maybe that made a nice visual impression to some artistically inclined authority figure. The catch is that for young kids, size place kept changing. Alphabetical didn't, except maybe when a new kid showed up. My friend Michael recalls someone in his school who was always last in line, whose name turned out to be Zyzyk. Them's the breaks, but it's kind of a distinction though, really, if you think of it.

What adventures did I have with Frank? I don't know. He worked in the bookstore too, and I guess we left at the same time and took the same bus, but it's all gone now. I think mainly we kept each other's spirits up as we survived each day. We were both studious nerds. Oh no, what did I say up there? "I could have written about classes I took, or the guy who was my roommate in Carman, but you'd go to sleep." Sorry, I'm approaching that now, right?

Uh... OK, once we went down to Frank's father's office in midtown. He was with P & H, a manufacturer of construction and mining equipment. He had a toy truck on his desk, one of those huge yellow dump trucks they use on earth moving projects. The name P & H stands for Pawling and Harnischfeger. Yeah, Harnischfeger. That's a great comedy name. The hammer slips and you curse, "Harnischfeger!". Or you say a list of things and end with "and a henway, and a harnischfeger". There are so many possibilities. Oops, did you get to this web page by searching your family name? I'm sorry. But, come on.

Frank, me, and some random kid, at the bookstore.

I think my brain is degenerating back to high school humor. Well, that's my excuse. Look, the athletic field was Coffey Field, and Father Fahey kept referring to it as the Coffey Grounds, and we loved it. That was the stuff. He died in my senior year, a big loss. All of his students loved him. The school arranged a bus trip for us to the Jesuit Seminary in Yorktown for the funeral ceremonies. We thought of him as an old guy. I see from his dates in my yearbook that he was a year younger than I am now, and that's not old, I swear.

Speaking of old guys, one of the best teachers I ever had was Mr McDonough, Geometry, then in his fortieth year of teaching. And he was the opposite of burned out. It was what he loved doing. He taught with great clarity, and besides the logic of Euclidian postulates and constructions and proofs appealed to me. When you gave a good answer in class he gave you a McDonough Funeral Home pencil, a place run by his brother, and he made sure everyone had got at least one pencil by the end of the year. During exams he would get up for a few minutes and do a little soft-shoe number, singing some old pop tune in a soft voice, and then sit down as if nothing unusual had taken place. That's just about what I would do. He had the Mr Chips tweed jacket and a polite soft-spoken manner, but he was not to be underestimated. Once he was holding a wooden cone, and telling us about how to calculate the volume of cones, when some boy kept talking to his friend in the back. Mr McDonough informed Mr Soandso (we were all Mr) that if he didn't keep quiet he would be asked to sit on the cone, and added that that would shut him up. Big laugh all around. After us he taught ten more years of boys. They made him stop at fifty.

I recall another teacher too, Mr Martin, Advanced Placement English, known as Ape. We read Marshall McLuhan, from which my immature brain formed some concept of how the medium is the message. I should be thinking more of how a blog differs from print, shouldn't I? These long rambling weekly posts... oh never mind. Mr Martin posed the question to us one day, "what is the difference between fiction and non-fiction?". One of the usual suspects was called upon. Mr Suchandsuch informed us that the difference was that fiction was not true. "NO!", Mr Martin shouted, and he picked up an eraser and threw a fastball to the kid, just missing his head. I vowed to myself never to call fiction untrue. To this day, I will not say it.

Huge Hall was our name for the building Fordham Prep was in, Hughes Hall. It wasn't that big. That's why we called it Huge. We noticed that the steam radiators had a date in the 1880s cast into them, and being the youngsters we were, with our minds on the present, that seemed too impossibly old to be true. But it was. It was less than a hundred years ago at the time. Some of the classrooms still had the old iron desks attached to the floor, the wooden desktop equipped with a pencil groove and a hole for the ink bottle, the wood worn beautifully smooth by generations of boys. The walls had real slate blackboards. It was a great atmosphere. It reeked of tradition.

Hughes was too old to be a steel building. The support system was the external stone walls and a single row of iron columns down the center on the long axis, visible only on the ground floor where space was opened up for a gym. Yes, a gym with padded iron columns within it! Oof! The stone wall on the ground floor was three feet thick, making for nice window seats.

Some of our classes were in Dealy, once a near-twin building to Hughes but renovated to death with all new interiors, a classroom building shared by the College and the Prep. The Prep at this time was still a school within Fordham University.
My class card you can see near the top of this post has quite a few classrooms marked D for Dealy.

Huge Hall is now a first-year college dorm. No going back.
Παντα ρει και ουδεν μενει. Και ωδε συνεβανικαις. Some of us in Greek class made up that second sentence. It was our "Kilroy was here". But the catchy rhyming first sentence is "everything flows and nothing stays", from Heraclitus, roughly 500 BC, by way of Plato. See, I learned a few things there. Heraclitus didn't seem especially depressed that everything changes, either. He was just saying that's how it is.

Next time
: Two Degrees.


  1. Fascinating. I lived through this from 1961-65 at the Prep. Thoroughly enjoyed your observations. Ironically - principal at the school!

  2. Hughes was used as a filming location in the Exorcist believe it or not, or at least that's what Fr. O'Malley always said. Since he was in the movie, I always believed him.