Booger McNulty and Me
In 1948 Booger McNulty’s coal yard stirred
constant gossip among the citizens who lived
in little bungalows on narrow blocks
in my far corner of Chicago.
That was more than 60 years ago,
a time when families took Sunday walks
and went back home in time to hear
Jack Benny on the radio.
A Sunday walk didn’t cost a cent,
a price my parents could afford.
When my parents took a Sunday walk,
my sister and I always had to go along,
and every time we’d pass Booger’s place,
I’d hear my mother ask my father
what could possibly be on the other side
of Booger’s 10-foot fence.
Hoping to avoid a conversation,
my father always said he didn’t know
but he believed it couldn’t just be coal.
Back then, every kid in the neighborhood
wanted to climb that fence and look around.
But Booger didn’t feature visitors.
According to the boy whose keister caught
a chunk of coal from Booger’s slingshot,
there was nothing on the other side
except for pigeons and a lot of coal.
In the bungalows surrounding Booger’s place,
immigrants from everywhere slept off beer and garlic
when they weren’t working, which was pretty often,
according to my mother. My father always worked,
digging graves with the other men,
most of them, like him, from Ireland.
He dug graves because some Bulgarian
broke his nose, after which my mother ruled
no more boxing. He’d been undefeated until then.
I was ten in 1948 and I’d climb Booger’s fence
when I was certain he was gone for the night.
Inside the yard I’d climb the piles of coal
until I got tired and then I’d go home
and take a bath before my father saw me.
My mother never let my father see me
cloaked in the soot of Booger’s coal
and she always made me promise
never to go back to Booger’s again.
But on Easter Sunday in 1948,
I went over Booger’s fence a final time.
My mother had taken pains that morning
to get me dressed for the Children’s Mass
and sent me off with a caution to be good.
I always went to Mass, every Sunday,
and I would pray and sing the hymns
and usually I was good but this time
the weather was so nice I decided
to go to Booger’s instead.
He wouldn’t be there on Easter.
It would be just me and the pigeons.
But I was gone for hours that day,
and since no one knew where I was,
a furor in the family flared up,
as I’ll explain later.
At school on Monday, Timmy Duffy,
unlike me a favorite of the nuns who taught us,
told me every other boy in class had made it
to the Children’s Mass on Easter.
“And where were you?” he asked.
I told him I’d been sick and thought
with all the polio going around,
I didn’t want to cripple anyone on Easter.
Timmy accepted my excuse because
we were all praying for Mickey Kane,
who’d spent a year in an Iron Lung.
“And so,” said Timmy, “even though
you weren’t there to help, we sang
as loud as we could on Easter,”
something our class always did to keep
the nuns in the aisle from paying us a visit.
I may have sung no hymns that Easter
but I probably looked pretty spiffy
scrambling over Booger’s fence
in my new blue suit, white shirt and tie.
I had a wonderful time in the sun
with pigeons careening in the air.
I was free to climb my favorite pile of coal,
toboggan down on my duff,
and then climb a different pile
and toboggan down again,
far more fun than any sled in winter.
Hours later when I got hungry,
back over the fence I went
and headed home for dinner.
Every Easter Sunday, we’d have
ham and yams, Brussels sprouts
and rutabaga, favorites of my father
from his youth in Ireland.
But when I got home that day,
we didn’t eat right away
after my father saw me.
As I recall, his reaction was
more Neanderthal than usual.
“Molly,” he roared to my mother,
with his hand on the back of my neck,
“the little bastid says he went to Booger’s!
He never went to Mass!”
And then, despite my mother’s protests,
he grabbed from behind the attic door
a belt that had been hanging there for years,
waiting for a felony like mine to happen.
I knew right away what I had to do
and so I dropped my pants and bent
over at the waist as far as possible.
Without a word, he stropped my arse.
I didn’t cry, gosh no, since tears
would have brought additional licks.
We were Irish, don’tcha know,
so we didn’t cry and we didn’t watch
English movies on TV, either.
The accents of the actors would remind
my father of the Black and Tans,
the English soldiers who imprisoned him
on Spike Island, off the coast of Ireland
when he was just 16.
They grabbed him barefoot in a stream
sneaking guns to the IRA.
In 1920, Irish boys ran guns for the IRA
barefoot through the bogs and streams,
provided they were big enough.
Decades later in Chicago, a stranger,
dressed like a Mormon on an urban mission,
rang our bell and told my father
he was from the IRA and had a medal for him
in honor of his service 40 years earlier.
He said “It took a while for us to find you.”
My father hung the medal in his closet
next to the tan fedora he wore to Irish wakes.
He always went to wakes, hoping to meet
someone “from home.”
So there I was that Easter Sunday,
standing in our tiny parlor with my pants
napping at my ankles, the result
of a wonderful morning at Booger’s
and a terrible afternoon at home.
Now, 60 years later,
when that Easter Sunday comes to mind,
no matter where I am, I whisper,
just in case he still can hear me,
“Pops, I haven’t missed a Mass on Sunday
since I got that Easter stropping.
I guess I learned my lesson.”
And then I tell him, as politely as I can,
that if he can get a pass from wherever
the Lord has stored him, he can verify
my Mass attendance with my wife and kids,
the last of whom, a son, moved out on us
Christmas Eve, 2010, even though
the boy promised his mother and me
a ride to Midnight Mass in his new Hummer.
Two feet of snow we got that evening.
My father would have loved that snow.
Back in ’67, when we got 30 inches of it,
some of it in drifts as high as Booger’s coal,
he was just delighted by the winter scene,
so much so that he had the two of us
shovel frantically for hours,
albeit in our usual Trappist silence.
When we got back to the house,
he told my mother,
with more than a dollop of flair,
the hairs in his nose were frozen.
Thank God my mother had his tea ready,
steaming hot, as it should be, in its cozy
next to his favorite chair.
And she gave me lots of cocoa,
swirling hot with marshmallows
floating on the top.
Now every New Year’s Eve at midnight
(and this has been going on for years)
I see those same marshmallows
when it’s time for me to hoist a glass
and make my toast to Holy Week 1948,
the week that I absorbed without a tear
Booger’s slingshot and my father’s belt.
“Praise the Lord,” I shout,
“and pass the ammunition.”
As the years go by,
fewer guests know what I mean.
But most of them
never had a chance to hear
Jack Benny on the radio.
The young ones always ask
where I got my old fedora.
A couple of them have even said
they’d have it blocked and cleaned.
But most of them, I’m certain,
even though they went to college,
never saw a relic.
They think the old fedora’s
just a hat.