I am fuming but I will get to that part in a minute. First, let me just point out the trouble I had figuring out what I should use as a headline for this sketch. See, this is a Frankie story, a Francis Xavier Riley story, maybe you already know the name, Frankie, king of the old North Adamsville working class neighborhood schoolboy night in the early 1960s. That part, the boy part is simple, the other part is less so because this is a story, or is going to be a story, once again straight from the horse’s mouth, the Frankie mouth.
I have been letting Frankie spew forth whenever a subject comes up that is from “pre-markinian” times, the time before we became fast friends in the seventh grade North Adamsville Middle School (then junior high) days. And the subject here is how Frankie “courted” his ever lovin’ sweetie, Joanne, a sweetie whom he “went steady with” from middle school all the way through to the end of high school. And that courtship, its twists and turns, is linked to the observance, the non-heathen observance of Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17th (although any real Irish partisan, heathen or non-heathen knows, or should know, that the observance of Easter 1916 is the real Irish deal). So once again because he did okay, or at least good enough, on his previous two endeavors (the weirdly interesting king of the skees carnival story from his innocent dream pre-teen days and his saga, christ that is the only word to describe it, of his “conversion” from no name football wannabe to midnight sun-glassed king hell king of the late 1950s, early 1960s be-bop North Adamsville schoolboy night) he gets to speak his piece here.
Now for the fuming part. In that just mentioned football conversion saga Frankie said, although it was not strictly part of the story (or part of the deal in my letting him use this space for his spewing), that he wanted one and all to have an example of how his be-bop “beat” style worked magic on the, frankly, bewildered North Adamsville Middle School girls (and whatever other stray frails he could corner with his pitch). And the story he wanted to tell, the primo, numero uno, ace example one story was how he captured (and kept) the elusive, ever lovin’ Joanne. So rather than just coming out in manly fashion, manly working -class fashion, and asking for space he tried an "end around." Just to goad me into another story he mentioned that somehow in that desperate late 1950s night I was smitten with Joanne, and that she was smitten with me, before he honed in on her and worked his magic. Needless to say once said Frankie magic was applied that previous configuration was ancient history.
So just to set the record straight before Frankie, Francis Xavier Riley, spins his misbegotten yarn let me say my piece:
In order to set the background to this dispute up for those who don’t know I had arrived from the Adamsville Middle School just at the beginning of 1959, about half way through seventh grade. As a twelve year old boy, almost thirteen, after some delay I had developed a very healthy interest in girls. In their girlish charms, if not their giggles. Of course, as anybody who went through the experience knows, which means just about everybody, the social pecking order in middle school (and high school too, but maybe a little less so) is etched in stone for the duration about the second or third week of school.
So I was nothing but an "outsider," an outsider waiting to be an insider if I could hitch onto somebody else’s star. That star, no question, was Frankie. But Frankie’s “style” was different, not a football or sports thing, or an intellectual thing (although that is what it was, it just didn’t look like it at the time), or a best- looking thing (wiry Frankie did have pretty decent Steve McQueen-type looks though). What he had, and what made him a magnet for me (and, strangely, those girls with their girlish charms, not giggles that I was attracted to) was this be-bop, “faux” beat thing. He will describe it better in his story but it certainly caused a stir, especially the eternal “midnight sunglasses that he wore” part.
Now what does all that have to do with Joanne, my attraction to her (or her to me)? Well, everything. See Joanne was the smartest person in the seventh grade class. Book smart for sure. Answering teachers’ questions smart, definitely. She also was pretty, but no more so, and maybe a little less so, than some of the other less bright girls. And she had, had when she wanted to have it, a very winning smile. Moreover, and here is when Frankie seems to have gotten his signals crossed for once, she was friendly toward me, me, an outsider, friendly in a universal kindly way, even before I started running around with Frankie (or she did either).
As any observant person could see there was nothing to the whole thing but kid’s stuff and, as I thought about it later (and just now as I am re-thinking about it) Joanne had a huge dose of Roman Catholic fellowship and rectitude, meaning doing the right social thing. Frankie is right about the part that we, Joanne and I, were civil to each other in his presence later but that is after a whole bunch of other things happened to sour our relationship. But enough of this because this is stuff that Frankie will, I am sure, tell you about. Let me just finish with something I wrote in another Frankie story, one that I told so I know it’s true. I will swear on a book with seven seals the following- when it came to Joanne, and this was true even before Frankie whiz kid moved in, she was okay, but not someone that I would jump off a bridge over. There were girls, some of those other less bright girls, whom I would have jumped off that bridge for, and gladly. But not her. That should put paid to this subject.
Francis Xavier Riley comment:
See, I told you I still had the kingly touch. I knew, and know now, just how to get to Markin, Peter Paul Markin, get him where he has to defer, humbly defer, to my "goading" as he called it. Of course, and here is the beauty of the king’s touch, I knew, and I damn well should know even fifty years later, that old Markin never carried the torch for Joanne. But see I just threw that little doubt in his direction and he jumped at it. And then that“social” thing, that Peter Paul Markin sense of fair play, that overweening sense of his about giving the other side a chance to speak their minds (if only, as he used to say, to hang themselves) came into play. A piece of cake. And for those who don’t know, or don’t understand, how old Markin could have got bested for the kingship of the old neighborhood in the old schoolboy nights this is a prime example. His failed attempt was so utterly a failure that we all, everybody except Markin that is, spent more than a few off moments, a few nothing dull moments, giving it a big laugh every now and again when we needed a laugh. But enough of that I have a story to tell, and by hook or by crook, I’m going to tell it.
See, as anyone can see from the last paragraph, it is about knowing human psychology. No, not some book, Sigmund or Anna Freud, Ernest Jones, Melanie Klein, Carl Jung, christ, even R.D. Laing goof thing. Hell no, it is about observing people and what they like and don’t like, what makes them pay attention to your patter and what doesn’t. Now the big thing about this is, let’s face it, for a red-blooded boy like me, not just to inspect people in general but girls, girls with girlish charms, all the way back to middle school girlish charms. I already told you before about my short-lived football scrawny kid career and how through perseverance, perversity, and perdition I figured out my place in the sun by my wits(a thing Markin was always yakking about, but you've probably figured that out by now)and by knowing what Markin insists was "arcane" knowledge. But see it was just that arcane knowledge part, weak as it was, and it really was looking back on it, and the way the knowledge was presented both by style and by fit that made the difference. On behalf of the interest of that honey you were aiming your stuff at.
Markin never really got it, got how the knowledge and presentation worked together, and probably still doesn’t from what I can see. Let me give you the wrong example before I tell how this thing worked to bring me and my ever lovin’ Joanne together back in the day. Markin, after he started hanging around with me for a while, decided that he would try my method out after he saw that the foxiest girls, the cutest girls, and well, as always in a pinch, those just girls with their girlish charms (giggles and all, see, that is where Markin and I had big differences always-the giggles go with the charms-get it Peter Paul) who were hanging around me before school, during passing time, lunch time and, a little, at least in middle school, after school.
So, and so help me this is true, even he won’t forget this one, Markin decided that he will go up to this cute girl with a French name, Barbette or something like that, and start in on every known fact about the French revolution, the French revolution of the 18th century, you know the Jacobins, Girondins, Marat, Robespierre and those guys- the "liberty, equality, fraternity" guys. See, this is something he is interested in, interested in like crazy if I remember. Yah, I know you know, no dice. But here is the thing-a couple of weeks later as Barbette started to hang around the outer edges of our circle she confided in me (no secret here as I told Markin at the time to try to straighten him out) that she thought Markin was okay but that she was afraid, get this, afraid of him because of his flipping out (my term) over something she knew nothing about. I admit that I never got too far with old Barbette myself, but at least I didn’t scare her half to death.
Hey, I actually have a better example now that I think about it. A lot of this arcane knowledge thing was, as you can figure, playing the percentages. Probably Barbette was a “no sale” anyway. But Evelyn, Evelyn Smythe, was a different matter. Yah, now that I think about it forget Barbette as an example and pay attention to this one. Okay, Evelyn through my intelligence network of sources (that’s part of the secret to success too) was seriously into church, her church, her Episcopalian church and its history. I found out, and its shows you an example of good intelligence work, through my sources that she had given a class report on said subject. Bingo. Now Evelyn is nice, Evelyn is cute, Evelyn is smart (although not as smart as Joanne), and Evelyn has that winning smile we were always on the lookout for in those days. But see, Evelyn was a, a, how should I say it, Protestant so she was a “no go, no way” for one Francis Xavier Riley, one Francis Xavier Riley to the cold-water tenements, the Irish Catholic, more Roman than the Romans Catholic, tenements born. No way that, outside of the gates of hell, that Patrick “Boyo” Riley, and on this issue one Maude Grace Riley, nee O’Brian, were going to let their blessed son within twenty non-school paces of said Evelyn Smythe.
Not seventh grade Frankie anyway (later I had more Protestant girl friends that I care to remember, if for no other reason than they weren’t so religion crazy, Roman Catholic religion crazy, mainly) But see ecumenical Markin, Peter Paul Markin, Irish Catholic brought up, and church mouse poor, but with a heathen Protestant father (except for that he was a good man whom everybody liked, even Boyo) decided he will take a shot at sweet Evelyn. Now his approach, since he knows from my intelligence report that she’s also some kind of history nut, is to start talking about the word "anti-disestablishmentarianism," then the longest word in the English dictionary, and for all I know still is, and related somehow, although don’t press me on this to Puritan stuff or English stuff, because, again, he’s crazy, crazy as a loon for Puritan heritage English colonial stuff. I mean really crazy. I think that he was born on Plymouth Rock in another life, maybe. Now sweet Evelyn was, if nothing else, polite and she heard him out. And since I was near the scene of this encounter I heard him say as she drifted off, “and my father’s a protestant too.” Like the co-religionist link is going to clinch the thing. Christ.
No sale, amigo. But here is the kicker, a couple of years later, when Joanne and I had, uh, uh, one of our “misunderstandings” I ran into Evelyn one night down at the seashore. Now by this time she had blossomed into a certified twist, although I also knew that she was still into religion because she belonged to some Protestant girls' club, some religiously-oriented girls' club. But see she had that winning smile still, that winning smile that we were on the lookout for in those days, and by then after another earlier Joanne“misunderstanding” I had already sold my soul to the devil and taken a Protestant girl out, and liked it. So, because in the meantime I had started to get a little Puritan nutty like Markin I started on my patter and mentioned that word anti-disestablishmentarian and what it was all about. We must have talked for about two hours about this and that on the subject; two hours can you believe it.
But see here is where the lesson is. Peter Paul got the context all balled up so bad he was arguing about the beauties of Oliver Cromwell, or the Quakers or something. Those were not Evelyn’s forebears. He had the wrong side, although, as usual, he had it right for the side he liked. Evelyn couldn’t figure it out. What she could figure out, and figure out fast, if not necessarily accurately in Markin’s case, was that she was a minority in a heavily Irish Catholic working- class neighborhood and so Markin was probably putting her down for being a Protestant. Christ, again. As a postscript I will mention that sweet, smiling Evelyn and I had a couple of nice weeks together before "ball and chain" Joanne and I stopped our "misunderstandings." I won’t give the details of Evelyn's and my tryst because, see, and especially Markin see, she is now an Episcopal priest, or something like that and does not need that kind of publicity.
So you can see that the be-bop pitter-patter was (or is) not for amateurs, or the faint-hearted, and requires some skill. Especially for hormonally-charged twelve and thirteen year old boys who are only vaguely, at best, aware that this thing requires skills, finely-honed skills. All of this is to say that whatever skills I had in, let’s say October and November of 1958, needed to be used in the hard nut to crack case of one Joanne Marion Murphy, one lace curtain Irish Catholic, more Roman than the Romans Catholic, Joanne Marion Murphy, to the lace curtain single house working- class family born.
Markin mentioned in his “introduction” that Joanne was smart, check, pretty, check, had a winning smile, check, and was, as he put it and rightly so I think, universally kind out her religiously-derived social sense, check. What she was not, at least for a long time, was very interested in one Francis Xavier Riley and his cohorts, amigos, and “faux” beat aficionados. She had moved into the neighborhood, neighborhood in the widest sense because no way did she live near my cold-water flats district or Markin’s cottage-like (to be kind) dwelling on the wrong side of the tracks, in sixth grade but went to Adamsville Central Elementary School and so I did not pick up her scent until middle school, the first day of middle school, no, the first hour of middle school, jesus, no, the first minute. Sure she had all the checked things above but she also carried herself, her twelve year old self, in a very intriguing way and so I took a note, literally, took a note on her. But for a while nada, nothing, nowhere and partly because that intriguing carriage included what to me, shanty boy me, was that lace curtain Catholic by the rules thing despite smarts, pretties, winsome smile, and kindliness I thought no way.
No way one Francis Xavier Riley was going to get involved with that scene, not with that frail, no way I said, did you hear me? Truth. Once I started to have a first little success with my girl-directed be-bop pitter-patter Joanne kind of went off the radar even though I saw her every day in class, every day. Truth again. I had no angle on this girl, no angle at all. See the other less bright girls kind of got caught up in the sunglasses, be-bop words, long-gone daddy, rock ‘n’ roll, heartthrob thing. And I loved that, loved the idea that I could be the max daddy king of that scene with a few breaks. So it was not until a couple of real frailly frails came round my table, good-looking girls, maybe not beautiful, not twelve year old beautiful anyway, but smart enough, whimsical enough, and daredevil enough that I noticed Joanne starting to pay attention in my direction. You know that look, that look a guy twelve or twelve hundred is ready to leap off bridges for, and as Markin mentioned before, gladly. Well, if someone is giving old Francis Xavier Riley the look well what is he going to do but look back, right?
This went on for a while, as such things do. But you can't depend on the after-effects of "the look" to determine your whole twelve-year old life so what you need, and need badly is intelligence. Any king of the hill, any poor boy, boondocks, third-rate king, hell, any king of the pizza parlor night (in-waiting at that point) needs all kinds of intelligence from whatever source. In this case it was like manna from heaven as my younger sister, Catherine Anne (not Kathy Anne, not Kate, straight Catherine Anne with no bluster nicknames like with my older brothers Tommy and Timmy), was friendly with Joanne's younger sister, Mary Margaret (there are more Marys with various middle names, more Elizabeths, ditto with middle names, and more Catherines, with or without Annes, in this early 1960s Irish working class neighborhood than you can shake a stick at but that is another story, a Markin sociology of the neighborhood story for another time, I am sure) over at North Adamsville Elementary School. This intelligence was gold because it seems that beyond that "look," that jump off the bridge look that I just mentioned, Joanne liked me. But wait a minute no teen saga can just end like that, a story goes with it. See, Joanne was put off by my devil-make-care-attitude which seemed to her, pious girl that she was, kind of sacrilegious, but on the other hand she liked the cool midnight blessed sunglasses. Yah, women.
Let me get back to that pious part for a minute because it will explain lots of things, lots of things that even Markin didn't get. Like when Joanne and I would later have our "misunderstandings" and break-ups which is usually when I looked around for another girl. Not the slanderous way Markin made it seem like I was 24/7 on the hunt even when Joanne and I were in our glory days. See, and here is where the intelligence from Mary Margaret (hereafter, Moe, which is a reasonable nickname and she liked it as well) was invaluable, although if I thought about it I should have after hearing the gist of it ran, ran like hell to Africa or some place like that. See, even worst that in mother Maude's household the religion, the hard core Roman Catholic religion, the more Roman than the Romans religion, its superstitions, its dogmas, and its graces were pervasive via Joanne's mother (Doris). And while mother Maude, and to a lesser extent mother Arlene (Markin's mother), bore down, and bore down hard, with their religious tyrannies toward us boys the girls took the serious brunt of the damage to their fragile psyches. No question.
See here is the set-up. Pious mother (learning from pious mothers back to Stone Age Ireland, and elsewhere I suppose) had a funny standard. They, with the boys, would give kind of a sacramental dispensation for wayward behavior up to, and including, the occasional armed robbery (I am not kidding that happened with one of Markin’s brothers, and others, too many others in the old neighborhood) except, of course, holy of holies, taking the lord’s name in vain and stuff like that. With the girls though, and maybe with some malice, I don’t know, but at least in the family of Doris Anna Murphy, nee Mulvey, it seemed so. They, the girls that is, were held to a higher standard of behavior and were supposed to act as such, at least for public consumption. (I found out later that the public consumption part was all that really mattered for some later flames who, as Markin very succinctly pointed out, had twelve novena books in their hands and lust in their hearts, great lust, praise be). This is the backdrop to my struggle to win Joanne’s affections.
But see that was only part of it, the religious part, the Roman Catholic religious part (I won’t say again the more Roman than the… , ah, forget it) part of it. Let me show you how I got it wrong at first though to show you how tough it was to get my signals straight. Based on my intelligence service (My Catherine Anne-Moe intelligence) I took my best shot at Joanne by going on and on about the Church (you know now what church), about ritual, about various disputes, theological disputes, City of God, Thomist, Counter-Reformation, Virgin Mary disputes, about the meaning of the religious experience in one’s life, etc. Basically blarney, okay (I am also being polite here as I, like Markin, prefer to be so in the public prints).
I swear I thought I was making some headway when all of a sudden I started balling things up, balling them up like I just learned them rather than had them down pat like I should. Now remember this is before Pope John XXIII’s Vatican Council II thing and we were all confronted with the mysteries of the Latin mass, a weird language that confronted us kids like the bloody English language did when those heathens stepped into (and over) the old sod Ireland, plebeian anti-Semitic hatred of the Jews (hell, they killed our savior, didn’t they), and other doctrinal stuff that didn’t mean much. I tried to be cute, meaning I tried to bail out as best I could, by reciting what I knew (and knew haphazardly) about Christian doctrine.
Without boring everybody with how I held forth on such esoteric things like how many angels can fit on the head of a needle and other Thomisms the long and short of it is I busted flat, busted flat hard. No sale, no wannabe sale, nada, nothing. Joanne stiffly proud, stiffly piously proud, just kind of dismissed me out of hand, with the flip of a wrist. Vanquished. Gone. In short, she just walked away. (Later, she told me she actually liked my pitter-patter but that on Church matters, you know what church matters, I should leave it to the priests, and guys like that. Fine.)
But that little setback was obviously not the end of my hopes, not even close, because, as I gathered from my Catherine Anne-Moe CIA connections my approach was all wrong. How? Well, Joanne, as it turned out, was pious, no question, pious for public consumption anyway, but that her Catholicism was very much colored by the Irish aspect of it. An Irish expression drilled into her by her grandmother, Anna, who apparently was next to, or close by, when old Saint Patrick did his demon-devouring tricks in the old country. Okay, no problem I will just be-bop on John Bull’s tyranny, eight hundred years of oppression, the bastard Oliver Cromwell (sorry Markin), and the heathen English at Wexford and Drogheda (and in the North).
See here is where it gets tricky again though, actually weird is a better word, because as Irish as the shamrock as I am, I didn’t know a lot about the history of the old Catholic, blighted (like the potatoes too often), priest-ridden (oops) Irish. And I didn’t want to get all balled up like I did with Christian doctrine (or like Markin with Evelyn and her Protestant ways). But I got well fast as I studied up on my own, and again giving the devil his due, Markin filled me in on some stuff. (Wouldn’t you know it took a half–arsed Irishman with a bloody protestant father, although everybody liked old father Prescott, would be giving me, a full-blooded son of the old sod Irishman chapter and verse, christ).
In any case one day after school I was walking up Atlantic Street (or was it Appleton) and I noticed Joanne coming out of the old Thomas Crane Public Library branch, the one that was nothing but an old unused storefront that they used until they built a larger one up in Norfolk Downs (by the way although the Irish and Italians build modern Adamsville, or modern in those days, way back when back in Plymouth Rock times every name was bloody English so all the streets names and section names reflect either that or the Indian (oops), Native-American, influence). When Joanne saw me walking her way she gave me the cursory, kindly (really kiss-off okay, twelve year old kiss-off) nod to acknowledge my existence but no little “the look” (discussed previously and the reader is presumed both to remember such details and to “know” the look from his or her own life experiences). Nevertheless this is my golden opportunity-out in the street-no crazy classmates around, no Markin fouling the waters around, and no distractions. Yes, just the right time to do my sing-song, pitter-patter be-bop night paean to the plight of bloody, but not bowed, Ireland and its churchly concerns.
I will say I “stepped up to the plate” on this one. I even brought in the Book of Kell, for christ’s sake, and how the Irish Church, the blessed Irish church and the monasteries were fountains of knowledge , wisdom, …faith (she said later she loved that one) when the dirty-handed, unwashed English were eating their meals off the hip in their dingy little hovels. Suddenly she said“Stop.” My heart fell, oh my god, I’ve blown it. No, not this “scholarly” twelve year old. Well maybe. Joanne said she knew I was up to something (she had intelligence, exclusive intelligence, from, ah, Catherine Anne and Moe) and although I had actually had a fair number of facts balled up (about bloody Oliver Cromwell and Wexford and Drogheda for one, that damn Markin put his secular spin on the thing and made the hated Cromwell the hero, although from this reference you can see what kind of ammunition I was throwing out like this was a meeting of the Central Committee of the Irish Republican Army, (IRA), or something). She was “impressed”, impressed as hell (my term, okay) that I thought enough of her to go to the bother. And then she gave me a winsome smile. (Hey, Markin is not the only one susceptible to that smile.) Home run.
On the basis of that smile I “asked her out.” Now twelve year old “asking out,” then anyway, and probably now too, was usually something like going to a dance after school, or maybe getting a bite to eat at the soda fountain (including listening to the jukebox, coins in hand), bowling, yah, bowling, or a matinee movie thing. But see here is where old Frankie knew how to segue into this proposition based on his recent pitter-patter. I asked Joanne to go the upcoming March 17th Saint Patrick’s Day Parade over in South Boston with me. Nice touch, right.
Now in those days, and you can ask your parents and grandparents about it if you are too young to remember the be-bop 1950s night, the parade was actually held on March 17th, whatever day of the week it fell on so that meant“skipping” school that year. See in Adamsville March 17th, unlike in Boston, was not a day off-a holiday and even in Boston, officially, it was not a day off for blessed Saint Patrick. It was to celebrate the bloody British defeat in Boston- Evacuation Day- a worthy reason in its own right. Joanne “freaked” out at this idea at first. But then I worked on her, and worked on her, with the notion that it was her patriotic duty, her grandmother Anna memory honor duty, to go and pretend we were in the old sod for the day. Yah, I know bringing in grandma was off base but, well, but… As an added kicker, and to show my honorable intentions, I told her that Markin was also going although I had not asked him at the time (and didn’t want him around anyway). That day she said no, but over the next several days she started to weaken.
In the meantime (although I guess my intelligence network was on “vacation”or, like the current day CIA, “out of the loop” because I didn’t know this) Joanne was working on her mother by putting up an argument that it was her religious duty to stand up for the Irish Church on that day (christ, she sounded like me after a while). Finally mother Doris said yes and Joanne said yes. Of course, as this was going on, old Peter Paul, old true-blooded, down with John Bull’s tyranny, Markin wimped out, yes, wimped out, saying he did not want to miss school. As it turned out (and was Joanne’s expression after she heard that Markin had wimped out) three was one too many (and both Joanne and I agreed on this one, with a little snicker, many times later).
And the reason that Joanne said that, to make a long story short because you really don’t need me to go into the details of the parade-marching bands, drill teams, bagpipes, twirlers, drunken green-faced rowdies and all that- or the results of my efforts, was that she figured (as she told me later) we would probably get around to kissing (be still my heart on hearing this even now) and she didn’t want Markin to blab it all over school. And guess what? We did kiss, kissed in honor of Saint Patrick, the Irish Church, the Book of Kell, and I don’t know how many other things, Irish things, naturally-hey, maybe even the blarney stone.
Now Markin in one of his foolish, damn foolish, commentaries once asked a question to his fellow North Adamsville high school classmates about whether, in the old days, anybody “skipped” school to go over to Southie and see the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. We know he wimped out, always. But note this, Frankie, Francis Xavier Riley, has a very big A (for absent) next to his name for March 17, 1959. And he is proud of it. I’ll even get a notarized copy of the damn North Adamsville Middle School transcript to prove it. So there.