PEN International Talk on Humor – 2

At this point in my talk, I began to feel comfortable. In fact,  you could say I was on the verge of overcoming my lifelong horrible-terrible-painful shyness. But if you said that you would be wrong. I found myself whistling slightly between words, as if my dentures were slipping, which would have been very odd indeed since I don’t wear dentures and had not been in a boxing ring since college. Nonetheless, I soldiered on and continued with my talk… 

Another excerpt from “Dogs, Cats & Expats.” This passage comes in the middle of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Nuns,” a chapter in which I reflect upon my green and salad days growing up Catholic, eventually how I quit going to church and what it means to now live in a very Catholic town, a mere two blocks from a bell-ringing church. I was taught Spanish by Latin American nuns in the lower grades and have the report card to prove it. The card lists 18 grades, including one for Spanish. I earned an “A” in that class. Go figure. The nuns graded us on everything from Arithmetic to Purity of Thought, although I believe they called that last category Deportment. I also took one year of high school Spanish, which means if my car breaks down in the middle of Mexico I can ask for directions to the nearest library. And I spent nine months while serving in the United States Navy on the island of Puerto Rico.  Yet I am still unable to master Spanish, other than deliver clipped greetings, pose simple questions, sometimes understand answers, and tell people my name—all in present tense, like a three-year-old.  

Here’s a short passage from…

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Nuns

… In spite of the occasional knuckle-wrapping, the worst form of punishment I suffered was whenever two nuns would take turns shaking me by my collar while rattling off Spanish to each other at the lethal rate of five-thousand words a minute. In such moments I knew I was a gonner.  I expected the hairy, smoldering claw of Satan to break through the cement floor, snag me around the legs, and pull me to the fire and brimstone fate I so justly deserved. I felt sad for my mother. She’d arrive at 3:30 that afternoon to pick me up and I wouldn’t be there.

The nuns were refined sugar compared to the parish priest, Father Mistretta. A tall, broad-shouldered Italian-American weaned on the streets of Brooklyn, Father Mistretta was, in a word, tough. His powerful voice could make grown men shake. His angry glare could shatter mighty souls into bits of nothingness. His use of language was colorful in the way that a longshoreman’s vocabulary had spunk. I believed Father Mistretta could put the fear of God in God.

High Mass, although rarely performed today, was the opera of my Catholic childhood. It involved costumes, pageantry, and loud singing and seemed to run forever without an intermission. The priest, decked out in his most elegant vestments, would parade around the inside of the church, swinging a brass incense burner as if he were trying to qualify for the hammer toss. With bowed head, assistants followed, carrying lighted candles. Someone played the organ, everybody sang.

In short, a High Mass was and is very theatrical. An important support role was assigned to a deacon, who would follow the priest, step by step, while holding something that looked like an umbrella over the priest’s head. The significance of the umbrella always baffled me since it rarely rained inside our church.

One Sunday high mass my own father played the role of deacon, dressed in a cassock and holding that umbrella thing, as he walked behind Father Mistretta, who chanted, sang, prayed, and swung incense with a vengeance. Unfortunately, my dad was much shorter than the tall priest and the umbrella kept banging into the back of Father Mistretta’s head. You could almost hear the sound effect of each collision. In my mind I was watching a reenactment of a cartoon from the pages of Mad Magazine. THWACK!  KREEEK! KA-THUNK! With each bump, the priest would grimace and look annoyed. At one point, Father Mistretta had had enough, stopped singing, turned and said to my dad loud enough for all to hear: “Watch what you’re doing!” My dad backed off and left a comfortable space between himself and Father Mistretta, making the umbrella more implied than applied.

But it is in the nature of the Catholic priest to forgive, as well as to seek charity. Within months, Father Mistretta asked, once again, for my father’s help. A new movie was showing at a local theater and Father Mistretta was excited to see it. The good father was a good New Yorker and, of course, did not drive, so he asked my good father to take him. I tagged along.

The film, according to what Father Mistretta had heard, was about a street-smart priest living in Brooklyn. A parishioner suggested it could be about Father Mistretta’s own early years, so off we went one evening to the Tower Theater, an art deco movie house on Main Street in nearby Roseville.

The movie opened with great promise. We watched as a man in his early thirties boxed in the ring, getting the better of his opponent. The film cut to the locker room where we watched the same man, now showered and dressed, put on his cleric’s collar. We followed the priest as he walked through his own slice of Brooklyn, clearly well known and respected. People greeted him as he passed by: “How ya doing, Fah-ther?”… “Morning, Fah-ther”… “Smack anybody today, Fah-ther?”

The priest paused on the street in front of his rectory, the church standing tall and holy next to it. After a beat, the priest opened the gate and entered. The camera moved in for a close-up of the sign in front: “Saint John’s Episcopal Church.”

As if sitting on a launched booster rocket, Father Mistretta shot out of his seat and shouted at the big screen, “He’s a damn Episcopalian.”  The disappointed priest stormed out of the theater, banging into knees and apologizing as he headed for the door. My father and I followed closely on his heels.


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