Chapter Two: “Soldiers of Christ”
By the time they had gotten to the eighth grade, Joey and Mick were no longer a duo, there was a third member of their entourage, Johnny Toussaint, or as he was sometimes called, Johnny Two Saints or Johnny T.
Johnny wasn’t one of the original gang. He had suddenly appeared among them in the fall of their sixth grade year. Now, having to integrate oneself into a group where the factions have already formed is difficult at best, but in Our Lady of Lourdes school yard, there was no place to hide. Without a gang, without someone to watch your back, Johnny had as much chance for long-term survival as a canary in a room full of starving cats.
Johnny T’s second problem was he was dark in a sea of pale Irish faces—even darker than the southern Italians and Sicilians. So, he stood out which, when you got no one to back you up, is never a good thing in Our Lady of Lourdes school yard.
Then, there was the English problem—Johnny didn’t speak it very well—in fact, he didn’t speak it at all.
Cast adrift in a sea of first, second and even third generation immigrant kids, speaking unaccented English—unaccented, that is, to a working-class New Yorker’s standard—was a necessary pedigree. Even the Irish kids right off the boat lost their brogues by the second grade. But, Johnny T didn’t just speak accented English; he really didn’t speak anything much resembling English at all.
The final blow came his first day in the sixth grade at roll call.
In Parochial school, the good sisters insist on using “formal” Catholic names, not street names. So, Joey Simon was “Joseph Simon,” because Joseph was a saint and the foster father of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Mickey Dwyer was “Michael Dwyer,” because Michael was an Archangel, beloved by God. So the entire sixth-grade class quickly learned that Johnny T’s formal, catholic name, pronounced according to the good sister’s south-end Boston accent, sounded like “Jean Mary Baptist Two Saint.”
This was seemingly the final nail in Johnny’s coffin. Not only was he a boy with two girl’s names, he was named “Two Saint.”
Then, as if matters couldn’t possibly have been made worse, the nun announced that Johnny and his family came from a place in the Caribbean called Haiti.
Now, the sixth-grade scholars of Our Lady of Lourdes elementary school, despite having studied geography since the fourth grade, had only a dim understanding about the Caribbean and had no idea about a place called Haiti. Some of them knew that at one time, and maybe still, the Caribbean had been infested with pirates. But, Johnny “Girl Names,” who was kind of dark, skinny and runty, didn’t look like no pirate to them.
Some of them knew that the Caribbean was a place where rich people went on vacation. But, Johnny “Two Saint” obviously wasn’t rich; rich people didn’t live in the parish. And, they certainly didn’t send their kids to Our Lady of Lourdes parochial school.
What they did know was the Puerto Ricans, who were moving into the upper west side of Manhattan by the thousands, came from somewhere in the Caribbean. And, the Cubans, who were buying up houses and apartment buildings all over Corona, were from somewhere in the Caribbean. They also knew that both Puerto Ricans and Cubans tended to be dark… some were actually Negroes… they had strange sounding names, and they didn’t speak English very well, if at all. They had heard their fathers and uncles refer to these people as “spics.”
Therefore, by the inescapable logic of the Our Lady of Lourdes school yard, the new kid, the outsider, was at least a spic, maybe a nigger, as their fathers and uncles had also said.
All this took less than an hour to process and spread throughout the school. Johnny T didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of making it through his first week in the school yard.
Except for Mickey Dwyer, and by necessary association, his best friend, Joey “the Jew” Simon, intervening.
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Genre – Literary / Historical Fiction
Rating – PG13