Friday, September 5, 2014

A new historical novel of the South Bronx in the 1970s


http://www.lulu.com/shop/michael-cooney/the-great-monroe-high-school-fire/paperback/product-21789356.html
 
 
 
The Great Monroe High School Fire is an historical novel set in an era that many would rather forget, a time barely a generation ago when New York City was beset by an epidemic of crime, drugs and arson. Unlike the 18th and 19th century conflicts whose even minor episodes are celebrated with pride here in our small upstate towns, the City's descent into near anarchy in the 1970s is not noted with any historical markers or monuments in neighborhoods like the South Bronx or Bushwick. Much of the neglect both in the 1970s and today, of course, is about race. But some, I believe, is also because it is hard to find heroes in that era. This book attempts to remedy that lack.


The new novel is based upon a forgotten episode of the violent 1970s, an unsolved arson fire that did major damage to James Monroe High School in the South Bronx. The school was built in 1924 when the expansion of secondary education became a primary means of integrating first and second generation European immigrants into American life. For a time the largest high school in the world, Monroe had become racially segregated by the early 1970s, not by law but in fact. The African American, Caribbean and Latino families who had moved into the Bronx neighborhoods served by the school faced a different world from the Italians, Irish, Germans and Jews who had preceded them. A flood of drugs and a rising crime rate collided with a school system still recovering from the racially divisive strikes of 1967 and 1968. And then came the fires, waves of arson that consumed so many of the old neighborhoods of five story walk-ups, from Vyse Avenue to Kelly Street.

Young men in the Monroe neighborhood thirty years later


The story is told by Giuseppe Sanchez in a mix of Spanish, Italian and street slang combined with a vocabulary he has learned from reading and eavesdropping. (A glossary is provided at the back of the book) The story told by the boy, whose mother is Italian and father Puerto Rican, begins when he goes to Junior High 22 on 167th Street near the Grand Concourse and meets his closest friend, Sapo.



When we got to 22 in sixth grade, the place was like the Bronx Zoo only the animals in the zoo was more civilized. First day, my English teacher Mr. Z opens the door because someone’s knocking and this gidrul spits right in his face. I almost felt sorry for the guy, a young teacher just out of college. I don’t know why he waited two whole months before he walked out of class one morning and just disappeared.

To get back to Sapo. He bumped into me in gym class for nothing so I shoved him into the wall. We each landed a couple of good punches before big fat Mr. Greenfarb came over and sat on us until we quit fighting. We were homeboys from then on.

The two of us had each other’s back and even when the whole Career Guidance crew went after us, we did okay. The CG guys were all at least 15 but too dumb to be sent to high school so they had to stay in one room all day long and weren't allowed to associate with normal kids except when they had to eat. One day in the lunchroom Sapo made some comment about them being retards and they all went after us, knocking over chairs and tables like the maniaticos they were. Sapo and I kept picking up trays of Sloppy Joes and Tater Tots and throwing them until the CGs were slipping and falling all over themselves. This kind of shit was happening every day in that school.

Giuseppe, who prefers to be called Joey, and his friend Sapo come into conflict with the principal at 22 and respond by turning to hooky playing and graffiti. When Joey and his mother are forced to move to the Little Italy neighborhood on Arthur Avenue, the two friends lose touch but reunite a couple years later at Monroe. After a stint at Spofford juvenile detention center, Sapo is now into dealing marijuana. Joey becomes a willing recruit, if only to impress Siobhan, a Fordham College student who has befriended him.
 
Graffiti began to be recognized as an art form in
the 1970s and is still flourishing near Monroe


Siobhan, like many Fordham students then and now, is Irish-American and far better off than anyone Joey knows. His infatuation with her, however, fades when he realizes she is only interested in him for the marijuana he can provide. (It should be noted that in more recent decades, Fordham has reached out to include far more students from Joey's economic class and has played a major role in training teachers for City schools. And unlike NYU, Fordham never abandoned the Bronx.)


Although Sapo continues to draw Joey into dangerous situations, including a botched drug deal in which both are nearly killed, he is very different from his peers in several ways. One is the fascination with reading which he owes to his mother:



I remember one time she was washing the dishes and I was drying them. “And if you make sure you have good habits, your whole life will be better.”

Like what kind of good habits, Mom?”

Reading is the best habit you can have.”

But you always say you’re too tired to read.”

That’s because I have to work. If your father had been a good man instead of a disgraziato, I would have had time to read. And I don’t mean just trashy love stories but serious books. I could have gotten my diploma and maybe take night classes.”

Not too long after that conversation she came home lugging a cardboard box. “You know old Mr. Feldman who died? His wife gave me some of his books that she thought you might like.”

And you know what? I really did like them. Mr. Feldman must have saved every book he ever read because a lot of them were kids’ stories from fifty years ago. There were all these stories of a boy inventor named Tom Swift. Some of his inventions were not exactly new any more, like his Amazing Motorcycle or his Fantastic Camera. But some of the stuff, like a flying submarine, still hasn’t been invented. Mr. Feldman also must have liked war stories when he was a kid because there was a whole stack of books about these two boys who were having adventures in World War One. They had sword fights with Germans and all kind of things that probably never happened but even so, the stories were way more interesting than TV.”

Another major influence on Joey is his English teacher, Miss Bonsecour, whose interest in the boy strikes many as inappropriate. She not only gives him books but takes him to the Metropolitan Museum. When she is targeted for removal by a new principal, a series of events is set in motion, culminating in the arson attack on the school, an attack which was completely ignored by the City's media and political elites at the time.

For Joey the fire had a larger meaning:

I’d read in the Monroe library how the old Library of Alexandria was burned down back in Roman times. The ancient scrolls that contained all the knowledge in the world were destroyed and people became incredibly ignorant. And that's when the Dark Ages began.”
 

The book is aimed at both young adult and adult readers, and is suitable for high school students. (Language is a bit R-rated.)

The Great Monroe High School Fire can be purchased in paperback at either Amazon.com or Lulu.com for $9.95. The kindle version is $2.99.
https://www.createspace.com/4982438
 
http://www.amazon.com/Great-Monroe-High-School-Fire-ebook/dp/B00NA5SEGO/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1409922114&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Great+Monroe+High+School+Fire
 
Also, for those who wish not to patronize Amazon, The Great Monroe High School Fire is  available in paperback at Lulu.com for $9.95
 
 
(Monroe was finally closed in 1994. The building now houses several small schools for different age children and appeared to be quite successful during a recent visit. Those interested in educational reform in the Monroe neighborhood during recent years may want to take a look at Five Years at Fannie Lou, available for 99 cents on kindle. The short book focuses on portfolio-centered assessment at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, a successful new small high school not far from the scenes of the novel. The district, it should be noted is still among the poorest in the US.)
 
 

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Good Catholic Girl




http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00GY8UJP8



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.






Paul’s first glimpse of Kathleen Mazzetti is on the 41 bus as it slowly makes its way up Webster Avenue:

 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.