Friday, April 11, 2014

A Good Catholic Girl

Inspired by actual events, “A Good Catholic Girl” is set in the Bronx of a half century ago and is available only on Kindle. The story is told by seventeen year old Paul Hanlon who befriends a newcomer to St. Finbarr’s, a small co-ed Catholic high school in the Norwood neighborhood:

Back then Catholic high schools in the Bronx were strictly boys-only, girls-only.  The girls wore plaid skirts and went to a nice place like Mount St. Ursula where nuns inspired them to continue their education at nice Catholic colleges like Marymount.  As to boys, they met them at well-chaperoned mixers where they drank Pepsi out of paper cups, nibbled on Lorna Doones and waited to be asked to dance. And despite what people always said, the nuns did not say “Leave room for the Holy Ghost” when couples were dancing too close. They were romantics, those nuns. They believed in love.

The story is told by Paul Hanlon who befriends a newcomer to St. Finbarr’s, which is unusual in being the only co-ed Catholic high school in the borough:

All I could see were some tough looking Italian girls and I didn’t want any trouble with the greaseball boyfriends they were sure to have.  Then I spotted the familiar green and black plaid skirt of a St. Finnbarr’s girl. But what was she doing taking the 41 bus? Everybody in that school but me lived in walking distance.

She seemed to be pretty plain, with blue plastic glasses, and she was all bent down, hunched over her bookbag. I watched her for maybe ten or fifteen blocks and she never took her eyes off the floor.  I kept trying to think of a way to catch her eye, maybe smile to make her feel less shy. But by then we had come to the stop for St. F’s, and I followed her off the bus. She walked along as if she knew the way but I don’t know how she could even see where she was going. She kept looking at the sidewalk and never once lifted her head. Poor kid, I thought to myself, she must be scared out of her mind. 

Although Paul wants to make sure that none of his popular friends think there is anything between him and the very shy and isolated new girl, they do become close:

Some mornings I would find a seat next to her on the bus and we’d get to talking about this and that. She had two little sisters and no brothers. One time she asked me if I must be lonely because I was an only child.

I said no, I had lots of friends.

Her mom was Irish and her father was Italian. They didn’t have much money and lived in a one bedroom apartment on Arthur Avenue, the Bronx version of Little Italy. Her father was a janitor at Teddy Roosevelt and when she went there, she hated to see him having to sweep up the mess the kids left in the cafeteria and she’d feel really sorry for him. When I asked her why she left the public high school, she clammed up.

We’d talk about other things, like what kind of music she liked, which was old Mario Lanza records of her mother’s.  And how she’d been taking care of her sisters every afternoon when she got home so her mother could go to her night job in the laundry at St. Barnabas Hospital.

Even though we liked to talk on the bus, I’m embarrassed now to admit that I didn’t want to be seen with her around school.  She just wasn’t that good-looking and I didn’t want anybody to think she was my girlfriend. That’s why I kind of avoided her except when there was an excuse to be together, like on the bus or as lab partners in Chem. 

Just before Christmas vacation, I noticed that Kathleen was starting to look down at her feet all the time, like when she first came to St. Finnbarr’s. I couldn’t even get her to say much of anything on the bus, which was unusual. I wondered if she was mad at me, if I had said something to hurt her feelings. She told me nothing was wrong but I thought she looked scared.
Paul soon discovers the source of Kathleen’s fear. An older boy from her neighborhood has long been obsessed with her and that is what drove her to leave Teddy Roosevelt High. And now he has followed her to the tiny North Bronx high school where her parents though she would be safe:

 “I’m afraid,” she told me. “I’m afraid all the time.”

“What can he do? Bullies like him are always punks if somebody stands up to them.”

“My father stood up to him when he came to our house looking for me and Tony punched him in the face.”

“When was this? After you got the order of protection?”

“Last week.” She was looking for a Kleenex in her bookbag.

“Come on, don’t cry,” I told her. “Your father can go to the court now and they’ll put Rovazzi in jail. That’s what an order of protection means. You’re protected by the law now.”

“My father said he won’t go to the police.”

“But why not?”

“He’s afraid Tony’s father will do something even worse if he makes more trouble."

“What’s that punk’s father got to do with it?”

“He’s a big man in our neighborhood. He’s got connections and my father said he could really hurt us, even my little sisters, if we make any trouble for his son.”

“Is he in the Mafia or something?” I tried to make a joke of it. “Who is he? Al Capone?”

“Something like that.”

As her stalker’s behavior becomes more and more threatening and the police refuse to take her fears seriously, Kathleen believes she will be never be safe as long as Tony is alive. At first Paul thinks she must be joking:

“He must know you don’t like him. Why doesn’t he just give up?”

“There’s something wrong with him. He’s not like a normal person.”

“If you can think of anything I can do, you have to tell me.” That’s what I said to her.

“You could kill him.” Kathleen looked up at me, her blue eyes matching her blue plastic glasses. “You could kill him. That’s the only way you could make him stop.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Not really” was her answer.  She was a pretty small girl but at that moment she scared me.  After a minute or two, we both laughed and brushed it off as a joke.

“We could find out where he eats and poison his lunch.”

“Or we could tamper with the brakes on the big Oldsmobile his father gave him,” she smiled.

“We could lure him into the subway and push him in front of a train,” I laughed.

Her face suddenly became as serious as anybody’s I ever saw.  “Now that’s a plan that just might work.”

Like I said, she was starting to scare me. She wasn’t kidding about wanting to kill this guy.  And I believed her when she said that was the only way to stop him, especially after what happened that June.

Read the entire story “A Good Catholic Girl” on Kindle for $.99.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Greater Love: a Tale of the Underground Railroad in Little Falls, New York

Greater love than this, no man has
     -John, 15:13

Greater Love, available for $.99 on Kindle, is a new short story about the Underground Railroad in Little Falls, New York. The historical record of he activities of the Underground Railroad in that immediate area is very limited, but Richard Buckley has found evidence that there was a station at Little Falls, centered on the African Methodist Episcopal church which stood– as far as I can determine - on West Main near Furnace Street.  A leader in that congregation, Enoch Moore, was himself an escaped slave and a chief organizer of the town’s branch of the secret network that guided fugitives from the slave states all the way to freedom

Southern Exiles on their Way North by Thomas Nast, Harpers Weekly 1858

Enoch Moore appears in the story, which is set in 1853 when the Fugitive Slave Act, passed a year earlier, had unleashed legions of southern slave-catchers armed with the legal authority to pursue fugitives  anywhere in the U.S. and to deputize free citizens in the North to aid in their manhunts.  Under the Act, anyone aiding a fugitive would face a $1000 fine (at the time an enormous sum) and a six month jail sentence.  

Richard Buckley’s research makes it clear that the anti-slavery efforts in Little Falls were not confined to African Americans.  In Greater Love, two leading white citizens of the town are active in aiding fugitives:  Judge Nathaniel Benton and former congressman and attorney Arphaxad Loomis.  Loomis, who had liberated the town from the death grip of the Ellice Estate twenty years earlier,  was clearly a man of strong ideals and I believe that it corresponds with his character to imagine him as an ardent member of the Underground Railroad.

Much of the drama is set in an actual cavern which extends for an unknown distance in the vicinity of West Monroe Street and Topnotch Road.  The cavern, whose very existence has been almost completely forgotten, was known in the 19th century as Hinman’s Hole and evidently resembles Howe Caverns in its geology, consisting of a series of tunnels and an underground stream.  It appears that the only time it was explored was in the 1840s when a group of students from the Fairfield Academy descended into its dangerous depths. (The cave also probably resembles Schroeders Pants Cave in Dolgeville where cave explorer James Mitchell lost his life in 1965)
Hinman’s Hole is depicted in the story as a refuge for a family of fugitives who are being closely pursued by a band of southern slave-catchers. The possibility that the cave was actually used as such a hiding place is in the category of myth.
What is very true is that the East-West route from Troy to Rochester was an important branch of the Underground Railroad during the 1840s and 50s. Frederick Douglass in Rochester and Harriet Tubman in Auburn played a major part in the final stage of moving thousands to Canada.  Another, less well-known former slave and anti-slavery leader was the Rev. JermainWesley Loguen, who was educated at the Oneida Institute near Utica and centered his activities in Syracuse. According to Richard Buckley, Rev. Loguen had visited the AME Zion church in Little Falls. 

          Jermain Wesley Loguen                

Louguen, who escaped slavery in Tennessee. spoke eloquently against the Fugitive Slave Act and had been helping fugitives for many years. In his memoir he describes an 1839 escape in Syracuse when a slavemaster named Davenport came north with what appeared to be his wife, infant child, and older daughter Harriet. The older daughter was a slave, despite her white appearance, and Davenport’s intent was to sell her for $2500 to a local man “for the worst of purposes.”  The citizens of Syracuse sprang into action and spirited her off to Canada and the city remained strong in the anti-slavery cause through  the next two decades.


Stephen and Harriet Myers House , Livingston Ave. Albany

 Anti-slavery feeling also ran high in the Capital District where Stephen Myers assisted in setting the fugitives on the east-west route.  Troy was the scene of a famous and successful effort to forcibly free a runaway, Charles Nalle, from the custody of slave-catchers.  Harriet Tubman, who happened to be in the area, took a leading role in breaking Nalle out of jail in an 1860 episode which gained national attention and inflamed secessionist sentiment just before the Civil War.

Plaque Commemorating the 1860 rescue   of Charles Nalle on State Street in Troy

Amsterdam was also an active center, with shoemaker Chandler Barrett providing refuge. People in a number of very rural Mongomery County hamlets, including Ford’s Bush, Fonda’s Bush and Ames, are said to have sheltered fugitives and helped them on their way.

 Engraving of the Erie Canal at Little Falls, 1839

The fugitives probably made most of the journey on foot. The Erie Canal, opened in 1825, was possibly used but canal boats were mule-drawn and proceeded at no more than a walking pace. 
The world’s first regularly scheduled steam railroad had opened between Schenectady and Albany in  1831 and within ten years it was possible to travel all the way to Niagara by train, and many fugitives seem to have used the railroad.  However, the influx of southern slave-catchers after 1852 probably drove many  fugitives back to foot travel, possibly through rural regions far from the main travel routes of the Mohawk Valley. Buckley mentions the role of Zenas Brockett, whose farm was in Manheim, and that farm becomes a destination in mentioned in the story.
It is certainly safe to assume that many tense moments occurred in and near Little Falls as fugitives were secretly moved from one refuge to another.  Resisting slavery in this way became a federal felony in 1852 and the risks to liberty and reputation were high; it is not surprising that little to no record of such resistance has been passed down.  The feelings of Northern whites about slavery were divided, with abolitionism a minority view throughout the 1850s.  The Ladies Aid Society of Little Falls might organize an ice cream social to benefit the AME Zion church, as they did according to Buckley, but if leading citizens like Arphaxad Loomis directly assisted in hiding fugitives, they might well have concealed their violations of  law.

And if slave-catchers from the South mysteriously vanished in Little Falls, as they do in this story, their disappearance might well have been concealed by the strongly anti-slavery political leaders of the village.
Recommended reading:
Unique Place, Diverse People; The Social and Political History of Little Falls, New York by Richard Buckley:
Available at the Little Falls Historical Society, 39 South Ann Street, Little Falls NY 13365

The Rev. J.W. Loguen, as a Slave and as a Freeman, a Narrative of Real Life by Jermain Wesley Loguen