Saturday, March 29, 2008

Do Nuns Have Feet?

The Madonna House was a two-story red brick building that was clearly visible from my bedroom window. It had a huge curved wooden door; with a large crucifix suspended ever so stoically above. Each time the oval gothic style portal opened, nuns would appear or disappear.
I’d gaze at them through the ninth floor window of the eighteen-story apartment house known as Knickerbocker Village and watch them making their way down Market Street. When they traveled in groups they were like an apparition from the middle ages. I could clearly see them—their long black habits and veils waving together in the wind, the metal keys suspended from their belts, and the wooden crosses, which adorned all of their necks. Their habits covered every part of their bodies except the center of each nuns face. The East River was just one block away and when the wind would blow it was as if they were gliding en masse and their feet never touched the earth. I ‘d be alone each afternoon and I’d watch them sail across Cherry Street on to Market Street and then they would pass under the crucifix, through the wooden doors, and slowly disappear into the great red fortress known as The Madonna House. In my eyes they were a fleet of dark ships floating home into their mysterious and vast red brick harbor.
I was a troubled child, a troubled nine year old growing up on New York's lower east side. Besides being raised in an extremely violent neighborhood I was also disturbed by the fact that my parents were communists. The second stage of the House of Un-American Activities Committee was in full swing and my greatest fear is that the FBI would come knocking on my door and take my parents away. This was a well-founded fear as they did just that to our neighbors Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
 This was the environment I grew up in— physical threats on every corner and a precarious political agenda permeating the air in our home. I never let on to my parents that I was aware of all this political intrigue.
In 1955 instead of verbalizing fear and asking for help a nine year old starts to sleep walk, have constant nausea and become extremely anxious and begins to visibly shake from time to time.
At one point I became so frightened of the elevator that I’d always opt to climb the nine flights rather then enter it alone. My parents started to notice my restless behavior and decided that I needed a creative outlet and arranged for me to have piano lessons at The Madonna House.
I’m nine years old and I’ve never once talked to a nun and now once a week I’m fated to enter those big wooden doors and God only knows what goes on in there.
At least I knew who Jesus was. I had been told a number of times by some of my Catholic friends that my religion was personally responsible for his demise. I was extremely worried about being in contact with the nuns. Why did they have so many keys on their belts? How did they seemingly just glide down the street? Would they be angry with me because I was Jewish? I needed some help and advice and I knew it wasn’t going to come from my parents.
I did have a Catholic friend, his name was Tony d’Angelo and he lived on the sixth floor in the apartment down the street. Tony and I played baseball together, we were both Dodger fans, and we liked to hang out in the luncheonette read comics and drink cokes real fast and get a wicked sugar buzz. Tony was twelve and had 5 brothers and three sisters, it seemed like his mother was always pregnant. They also had one of those crucifixes (a real big one) mounted on the wall a few feet over their diner table. It was easily two feet high and the same length wide.
The Lords only son was featured in such great detail that one could easily see the nails plunging into his hands and feet. His head was lowered and the sculptured lines on his face revealed the intense pain he must have been experiencing. “Tony” I said pointing at the immense metal crucifix on the wall “how could you look at that guy when you eat”? “Ah it’s nothing” Tony replied “it’s been there for so long I don’t even see it any more, you get used to it. My father’s mother gave it to us, and then “boom” she drops dead the very next day. So my dad likes to keep it over the dinner table because it reminds him of his mother Teresa.”
“Well why don’t you just put a picture of your fathers mother on the wall instead” I asked? “Well” Tony replied “my mother wasn't too crazy about my dads mom but she’s very religious so this way they’re both happy, while she’s seeing Jesus my dad’s seeing his Mom.
“Funny thing” Tony continued, “every Saturday before my dad goes to the track he gets up on a chair and rubs Jesus’ head. Now check this out every Wednesday night before my mom goes to bingo she rubs his feet.” I then explained to Tony about my upcoming piano lessons at the Madonna house and my many fears about coming face to face with a nun.
Tony knew the Madonna House as he attended a Catholic Youth Group there once a week. Tony told me he didn’t know what all those keys were for either but he was pretty sure they didn’t lock up little boys and girls with them.
“Look it’s like this” Tony said, “first take off your hat when you go in, don’t say nothing dirty or disgusting or you’ll have to go to confession and you won’t like that.
As a matter of fact just ask them what room you piano lesson is in, and if your scared keep your head down and don’t say nothing stupid, take my word for it nobodies going to bite you or slap you with a ruler.”
I then told Tony that I had this fear that a nun could read your mind with a secret device that sat on top of their head underneath the crown of their wimple.
Tony looks at me rolls his eyes and says, “Who told you that stuff”? “No Neal they’re just people you know people doing a job just like a cop does his job, a fireman does his job and well a nun does her job”. “What job is that”? I asked? “Oh “Tony replied “it’s like there all married to God and they give their life to him and serve him. So you know they never go out on a date with a guy or you know they never do the nasty, you know sex with anybody.”
This latest bit of information actually comforted me, as at least I knew that nun’s and I had something in common. Not that I knew anything at all about sex but I knew it existed and it had something to do with being naked.
Tony did tell me about the time his sister dropped a candy wrapper on the floor and one of the Nun’s made her carry a very large and heavy rock around the building three times. This sounded a little harsh but nowhere near any of my creative vision of whips, fires, and devils with flaming pitchforks and of course eternal damnation in a place where the only thing to eat was tuna fish.
The day soon arrived for my first piano lesson. I elected to avoid the elevator and took the stairs down the nine flights to the lobby. I created a sort of rhythm with my feet as I made my way down the steps and I would also hum a little tune in counterpoint to the noise my shoes made. I did that “dance” each time I would ascend or descend the stairs; it was one of the rituals a child performs when alone to help keep him or her self-sane. I felt a sense of relief as I crossed over the baseball field, as this was always a safe place for me.
It was an extremely clear and bright afternoon, which only heightened the black habits of the nuns against the red brick building. I was really trying hard not to look too Jewish, as I wanted my first trip to the Madonna House to be as painless as possible.
I approached the large door there were three nun’s speaking outside. They were conversing in English they were not speaking in Latin or in any secret nun language that I had imagined.
Proceeding inside I went to the front desk and I walked as quietly as I could so as not to attract any attention. I did notice that as well as nuns there were also people in normal clothing just as I was. I stood in front of the information desk and waited for the nun to raise her head.
I noticed that she seemed to be dressed differently then the other sisters. I learned latter that she was a beginner nun called a novice. She lifted her head, she was young and pretty, she had a black veil pinned to the back of her head that accented her beautiful red curly hair. She looked at me, smiled and said, “oh yes your here for your one O’clock piano lesson, let me show you to the room.” Not only could I see her feet I could see clear up to her ankles, and the little man on her Cross-seemed almost to be smiling. I was so relieved, but not for long.
I entered the room and immediately recognized my piano teacher; it was Mr. Bloom he worked for the kosher butcher. I saw him only yesterday boning a chicken. He was bald and had a funny little mustache and wore wire rimmed eggshell glasses. It was the first time I saw him without a bloody apron and a cleaver in his hand and he still looked frightening. Mr. Bloom I exclaimed! I didn’t know you were Catholic? He scrunched up his face, removed the cigarette from his lips and looked at me with his little beady eyes and said “what Catholic, I’m Jewish just like you, I rent the room and give piano lessons, case closed, now sit down and show me what you know and try not to waste too much of your parents money.
He was arrogant, mean and horrible all at the same time. I tried to learn my scales but it’s hard to perform music when one is shaking inside. I returned a few times and each time the pleasant young nun would greet me with a smile before I entered the room with Mr. Bloom.
She’d always ask me if I had learned any pieces yet. I told her that I was working on “Volga Boatman” and the first part of “Ode to Joy” which in it’s own way seemed fitting since my father’s family was German and both my parents were communist.
It was during my third lesson that Mr. Bloom really cut me to the quick. As I was making the best pass I could at Beethoven, Mr. Bloom (with cigarette smoke bellowing out of his mouth) barked out “your fingers, there so stiff, there like bayonets”.
I never learned how to play the piano; but I did get to talk to a few nuns and they all seemed very helpful and very much human. My parents were not pleased when I told them that I’d rather play baseball with my friends on Saturday afternoons then take piano lessons. I was somehow getting used to them being annoyed with me as they both always seemed to be in a state of agitation.
I did have one less fear, as I looked out my window and watch the nuns walked down Market Street I realized that my friend Tony was right. Just like everyone else nuns had a job to do and like a policeman a fireman and a soldier they wore a uniform as well.

A rare look inside The Madonna House which was located on 173 Cherry Street, between Market and Pike Streets,
From the nypl digital library collection.

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