September 26, 1999
(CNN) -- Frank McCourt grew up dreaming of that gold-paved, sunlit paradise across the ocean where he had been born, and to which he would one day return. "'Tis" is literally the last word of "Angela's Ashes," following and affirming the sentence "'Tis a great country" -- referring, of course, to the United States.
The priest asks if I have anyone meeting me and when I tell him there's no one he says I can travel with him on the train to New York City. He'll keep an eye on me. When the ship docks we take a taxi to the big Union Station in Albany and while we wait for the train we have coffee in great thick cups and pie on thick plates. It's the first time I ever had lemon meringue pie and I'm thinking if this is the way they eat all the time in America I won't be a bit hungry and I'll be fine and fat, as they say in Limerick. I'll have Dostoyevsky for the loneliness and pie for the hunger.
The train isn't like the one in Ireland where you share a carriage with five other people. This train has long cars where there are dozens of people and is so crowded some have to stand. The minute we get on people give up their seats to the priest. He says, Thank you, and points to the seat beside him and I feel the people who offered up their seats are not happy when I take one because it's easy to see I'm nobody.
Farther up the car people are singing and laughing and calling for the church key. The priest says they're college kids going home for the weekend and the church key is the can opener for the beer. He says they're probably nice kids but they shouldn't drink so much and he hopes I won't turn out like that when I live in New York. He says I should put myself under the protection of the Virgin Mary and ask her to intercede with her Son to keep me pure and sober and out of harm's way. He'll pray for me all the way out there in Los Angeles and he'll say a special Mass for me on the eighth of December, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. I want to ask him why he'd choose that feast day but I keep silent because he might start bothering me again about the rich Protestants from Kentucky.
He's telling me this but I'm dreaming of what it would be like to be a student somewhere in America, in a college like the ones in the films where there's always a white church spire with no cross to show it's Protestant and there are boys and girls strolling the campus carrying great books and smiling at each other with teeth like snow drops.
We take our bags to a room where there's one bed. The priest says, Leave the bags. We'll get something to eat in the coffee shop downstairs. Do you like hamburgers?
I don't know. I never had one in my life.
He rolls his eyes and tells the waitress bring me a hamburger with french fries and make sure the burger is well done because I'm Irish and we overcook everything. What the Irish do to vegetables is a crying shame. He says if you can guess what the vegetable is in an Irish restaurant you get the door prize. The waitress laughs and says she understands. She's half-Irish on her mother's side and her mother is the worst cook in the world. Her husband was Italian and he really knew how to cook but she lost him in the war.
Waw. That's what she says. She really means war but she's like all Americans who don't like to say "r" at the end of a word. They say caw instead of car and you wonder why they can't pronounce words the way God made them.
I like the lemon meringue pie but I don't like the way Americans leave out the "r" at the end of a word.
While we're eating our hamburgers the priest says I'll have to stay the night with him and tomorrow we'll see. It's strange taking off my clothes in front of a priest and I wonder if I should get down on my two knees and pretend to say my prayers. He tells me I can take a shower if I like and it's the first time in my life I ever had a shower with plenty of hot water and no shortage of soap, a bar for your body and a bottle for your head.
When I'm finished I dry myself with the thick towel draped on the bathtub and I put on my underwear before going back into the room. The priest is sitting in the bed with a towel wrapped around his fat belly, talking to someone on the phone. He puts down the phone and stares at me. My God, where did you get those drawers?
In Roche's Stores in Limerick.
If you hung those drawers out the window of this hotel people would surrender. Piece of advice, don't ever let Americans see you in those drawers. They'll think you just got off Ellis Island. Get briefs. You know what briefs are?
Get 'em anyway. Kid like you should be wearing briefs. You're in the U.S.A. now. Okay, hop in the bed, and that puzzles me because there's no sign of a prayer and that's the first thing you'd expect of a priest. He goes off to the bathroom but he's no sooner in there than he sticks his head out and asks me if I dried myself.
Well, your towel isn't touched so what did you dry yourself with?
The towel that's on the side of the bathtub.
What? That's not a towel. That's the bath mat. That's what you stand on when you get out of the shower.
I can see myself in a mirror over the desk and I'm turning red and wondering if I should tell the priest I'm sorry for what I did or if I should stay quiet. It's hard to know what to do when you make a mistake your first night in America but I'm sure in no time I'll be a regular Yank doing everything right. I'll order my own hamburger, learn to call chips french fries, joke with waitresses, and never again dry myself with the bath mat. Some day I'll say war and car with no "r" at the end but not if I ever go back to Limerick. If I ever went back to Limerick with an American accent they'd say I was putting on airs and tell me I had a fat arse like all the Yanks.
The priest comes out of the bathroom, wrapped in a towel, patting his face with his hands and there's a lovely smell of perfume in the air. He says there's nothing as refreshing as aftershave lotion and I can put on some if I like. It's right there in the bathroom. I don't know what to say or do. Should I say, No, thanks, or should I get out of the bed and go all the way to the bathroom and slather myself with aftershave lotion? I never heard of anyone in Limerick putting stuff on their faces after they shaved but I suppose it's different in America. I'm sorry I didn't look for a book that tells you what to do on your first night in New York in a hotel with a priest where you're liable to make a fool of yourself right and left. He says, Well? and I tell him, Ah, no, thanks. He says, Suit yourself, and I can tell he's a bit impatient the way he was when I didn't talk to the rich Protestants from Kentucky. He could easily tell me leave and there I'd be out on the street with my brown suitcase and nowhere to go in New York. I don't want to chance that so I tell him I'd like to put on the aftershave lotion after all. He shakes his head and tells me go ahead.
I can see myself in the bathroom mirror putting on the aftershave lotion and I'm shaking my head at myself feeling if this is the way it's going to be in America I'm sorry I ever left Ireland. It's hard enough coming here in the first place without priests criticizing you over your failure to hit it off with rich Kentucky Protestants, your ignorance of bath mats, the state of your underwear and your doubts about aftershave lotion.
The priest is in the bed and when I come out of the bathroom he tells me, Okay, into the bed. We've got a long day tomorrow.
He lifts the bedclothes to let me in and it's a shock to see he's wearing nothing. He says, Good night, turns off the light and starts snoring without even saying a Hail Mary or a prayer before sleep. I always thought priests spent hours on their knees before sleeping but this man must be in a great state of grace and not a bit afraid of dying. I wonder if all priests are like that, naked in the bed. It's hard to fall asleep in a bed with a naked priest snoring beside you. Then I wonder if the Pope himself goes to bed in that condition or if he has a nun bring in pajamas with the Papal colors and the Papal coat of arms. I wonder how he gets out of that long white robe he wears, if he pulls it over his head or lets it drop to the floor and steps out of it. An old Pope would never be able to pull it over his head and he'd probably have to call a passing cardinal to give him a hand unless the cardinal himself was too old and he might have to call a nun unless the Pope was wearing nothing under the white robe which the cardinal would know about anyway because there isn't a cardinal in the world that doesn't know what the Pope wears since they all want to be Pope themselves and can't wait for this one to die. If a nun is called in she has to take the white robe to be washed down in the steaming depths of the Vatican laundry room by other nuns and novices who sing hymns and praise the Lord for the privilege of washing all the clothes of the Pope and the College of Cardinals except for the underwear which is washed in another room by old nuns who are blind and not liable to think sinful thoughts because of what they have in their hands and what I have in my own hand is what I shouldn't have in the presence of a priest in the bed and for once in my life I resist the sin and turn on my side and go to sleep.
She takes the six dollars and tells me she needs another six for security, gives me a receipt and tells me I can move in anytime that day and she trusts me because I came with that nice priest even if she's not Catholic herself, that it's enough her sister married one, an Irishman, God help her, and she's suffering for it.
The priest calls another taxi to take us to the Biltmore Hotel across the street from where we came out at Grand Central Station. He says it's a famous hotel and we're going to the headquarters of the Democratic Party and if they can't find a job for an Irish kid no one can.
A man passes us in the hallway and the priest whispers, Do you know who that is?
Of course you don't. If you don't know the difference between a towel and a bath mat how could you know that's the great Boss Flynn from the Bronx, the most powerful man in America next to President Truman.
The great Boss presses the button for the elevator and while he's waiting he shoves a finger up his nose, looks at what he has on his fingertip and flicks it away on the carpet. My mother would call that digging for gold. This is the way it is in America. I'd like to tell the priest I'm sure De Valera would never pick his nose like that and you'd never find the Bishop of Limerick going to bed in a naked state. I'd like to tell the priest what I think of the world in general where God torments you with bad eyes and bad teeth but I can't for fear he might go on about the rich Protestants from Kentucky and how I missed the opportunity of a lifetime.
The priest talks to a woman at a desk in the Democratic Party and she picks up the telephone. She says to the telephone, Got a kid here...just off the boat...you got a high school diploma?...na, no diploma...well, whaddya expect...Old Country still a poor country...yeah, I'll send him up.
I'm to report on Monday morning to Mr. Carey on the twenty-second floor and he'll put me to work right here in the Biltmore Hotel and aren't I a lucky kid walking into a job right off the boat. That's what she says and the priest tells her, This is a great country and the Irish owe everything to the Democratic Party, Maureen, and you just clinched another vote for the party if the kid here ever votes, ha ha ha.
At night the waiter at Dempsey's smiles at the priest. Jack's not here, Fawdah. He's over to the Gawden checkin' out a middleweight from New Joisey.
Gawden. Joisey. My first day in New York and already people are talking like gangsters from the films I saw in Limerick.
The priest says, My young friend here is from the Old Country and he'd prefer to meet Joe Louis. He laughs and the waiter laughs and says, Well, that's a greenhorn talkin', Fawdah. He'll loin. Give him six months in this country and he'll run like hell when he sees a darky. An' what would you like to order, Fawdah? Little something before dinner?
I'll have a double martini dry and I mean dry straight up with a twist.
And the greenhorn?
He'll have a...well, what'll you have?
A beer, please.
You eighteen, kid?
You don't look it though it don't matter nohow long as you with the fawdah. Right, Fawdah?
Right. I'll keep an eye on him. He doesn't know a soul in New York and I'm going to settle him in before I leave.
The priest drinks his double martini and orders another with his steak. He tells me I should think of becoming a priest. He could get me a job in Los Angeles and I'd live the life of Riley with widows dying and leaving me everything including their daughters, ha ha, this is one hell of a martini excuse the language. He eats most of his steak and tells the waiter bring two apple pies with ice cream and he'll have a double Hennessy to wash it down. He eats only the ice cream, drinks half the Hennessy and falls asleep with his chin on his chest moving up and down.
The waiter loses his smile. Goddam, he's gotta pay his check. Where's his goddam wallet? Back pocket, kid. Hand it to me.
I can't rob a priest.
You're not robbing. He's paying his goddam check and you're gonna need a taxi to take him home.
Two waiters help him to a taxi and two bellhops at the Hotel New Yorker haul him through the lobby, up the elevator and dump him on the bed. The bellhops tell me, A buck tip would be nice, a buck each, kid.
They leave and I wonder what I'm supposed to do with a drunken priest. I remove his shoes the way they do when someone passes out in the films but he sits up and runs to the bathroom where he's sick a long time and when he comes out he's pulling at his clothes, throwing them on the floor, collar, shirt, trousers, underwear. He collapses on the bed on his back and I can see he's in a state of excitement with his hand on himself. Come here to me, he says, and I back away. Ah, no, Father, and he rolls out of the bed, slobbering and stinking of drink and puke and tries to grab my hand to put it on him but I back away even faster till I'm out the door to the hallway with him standing in the door, a little fat priest crying to me, Ah, come back, son, come back, it was the drink. Mother o' God, I'm sorry.
But the elevator is open and I can't tell the respectable people already in it and looking at me that I changed my mind, that I'm running back to this priest who, in the first place, wanted me to be polite to rich Kentucky Protestants so that I could get a job cleaning stables and now waggles his thing at me in a way that's surely a mortal sin. Not that I'm in a state of grace myself, no I'm not, but you'd expect a priest to set a good example and not make a holy show of himself my second night in America. I have to step into the elevator and pretend I don't hear the priest slobbering and crying, naked at the door of his room.
There's a man at the front door of the hotel dressed up like an admiral and he says, Taxi, sir. I tell him, No, thanks, and he says, Where you from? Oh, Limerick. I'm from Roscommon myself, over here four years.
I have to ask the man from Roscommon how to get to East Sixty-eighth Street and he tells me walk east on Thirty-fourth Street which is wide and well lit till I come to Third Avenue and I can get the El or if I'm anyway lively I can walk straight up till I come to my street. He tells me, Good luck, stick with your own kind and watch out for the Puerto Ricans, they all carry knives and that's a known fact, they got that hot blood. Walk in the light along the edge of the sidewalk or they'll be leppin' at you from dark doorways.
It's hard to know what to say to a priest in a bad mood with his back to you who's blaming you for everything so all I can do is go down in the elevator with my suitcase wondering how a man like that who forgives sins can sin himself and then blame me. I know if I did something like that, getting drunk and bothering people to put their hands on me, I'd say I did it. That's all, I did it. And how can he blame me just because I refused to talk to rich Protestants from Kentucky? Maybe that's the way priests are trained. Maybe it's hard listening to people's sins day in day out when there's a few you'd like to commit yourself and then when you have a drink all the sins you've heard explode inside you and you're like everyone else. I know I could never be a priest listening to those sins all the time. I'd be in a constant state of excitement and the bishop would be worn out shipping me off to the retreat house in Virginia.
Copyright © 1999 by Frank McCourt
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