The Holy Cart

by

06/08/2009

400 East 82nd Street New York, New York

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

My primary focus in grammar school was scheming ways to get out of class. At the start of seventh grade, I weighed my options. The parish claimed it needed money all the time. It ran fifty/fifty clubs, cake sales, bingo, casino nights, you name it. The low earner on the ledger was the religious article store in the rear of the church beneath the school. The store sold crucifixes, religious statues, bibles, catechisms, etc. The store was a flop. Kids never went in. The woman who worked there, Mrs. Hutzpacker, was mostly deaf, six feet tall, looked like Boris Karloff and scared the heck out us. She’d come up to your face and yell, “I CAN’T HEAR YOU, SPEAK UP”, whether you said anything or not. It was unsettling.

The store’s sluggish business gave me reason to approach my teacher, Sister Mercedes.

“Sister, you know the religious article store is going down the tube?”

She gave me a funny look, but I kept talking.

“If kids won’t go to the store, let’s bring the store to the kids. I’ll go to each classroom on Friday selling religious articles and do my best to separate weekend money from each kid’s pocket.”

I watched the nun’s expression.

Her lips pulled to one side of her face and her eyes narrowed bringing her bushy brows together as one. Her “mmmmm,” and chin stroking finger meant I had a pilot program. She knew I had years of business experience selling milk and toast during morning recess. Besides, the priests and nuns were unified on only one thing: anything other than illegal drug sales was a legitimate way to raise money for St. Stephen’s parish.

I started slow, selling a few catechisms and rosary beads. The first two weeks, I made a measly six dollars for the parish. I worried I might have to go back to class – then my clarion called. Joe Skrapits approached me in the classroom.

“Hey Pryor, do you have a St. Anthony statue for sale?”

“No, why?”

“My father’s always losing things and cursing around the house. Mom says she’s had it and she’s leaving all of us unless Dad stops his ranting and raving. Mom’s a great cook, Dad can’t cook, and I love to eat. St. Anthony is the patron saint for finding lost articles, stupid.”

Normally, I would’ve been hurt by the insult. Not that time. I replied, “Thank you Joe, I’ll fill your order next Friday.”

I grabbed my milk box and ran out of the classroom. I discovered my secret weapon – the Catholic Church’s roster of saints – a lineup more powerful than the 1961 New York Yankees. Oh yes, Joe Skrapits would get his St. Anthony statue next Friday, and I’d spend my week researching everyone’s birthday. Each day of the year, the Catholic Church celebrates a martyr or a pious saint. My plan was to storm my way into the heart of every kid and get them to purchase a statue of the saint who shared their special day.

I didn’t stop with birthdays. Every profession has a patron saint. I sold three Michael the Archangel statues to kids whose dads were cops. Attila Krupinzca bought a St. Vincent Ferrer statue for his grandfather, a plumber. I sold a St. Julian to Marianne Stranklee whose uncle was in a Hungarian circus. St. Julian is the patron saint for jugglers. Gaza Zak had four cats, a parakeet and a turtle. Gaza purchased a Saint Francis of Assisi. I told Gaza, “Unlike Doctor Doolittle, St. Francis really did talk to the animals.”

Freddy “Straight to Hell” Smith was always getting into trouble with the nuns, his parents, with everybody. He also had a wicked neck twitch. I palmed a St. Jude Thaddeus and slipped it to Freddy.

“Here Freddy, put this in your pocket and keep it there.”

“Why?”

“Just do it. Trust me.”

I didn’t have to the heart to tell Freddy that St. Jude is the patron saint for hopeless cases.

With the sudden burst in sales, I needed to expand my operation. Sister Mercedes, now functioning as my business manager, borrowed a metal two-shelved cart from “Mom,” the school lunch lady. I circled the steel steed, knelt on one knee and said, “I dub thee, The Holy Cart.”

Traveling the school’s halls, I reminded everyone to save their pennies till Friday, when the Holy Cart rolled into town with gifts and notions for every occasion. I assured my fellow altar boys that the Holy Ghost loved making sales calls with me.

“Each Friday he leaves his perch on the side of the altar to fly alongside the Holy Cart on its rounds. We’re a liturgical team!”

My colleagues made circles around the sides of their heads while whistling.

Father Edward, our Monsignor, heard about my venture and decided we’d have a talk.

“Thomas, you need to promote the Church when you visit the classrooms. Say things to get the children excited about religion.”

I gave this some thought. From the library, I borrowed a thick book titled, “The Lives and Deaths of 1000 Saints.” Great stuff. Gory murders, disembowelments, stone crushings, more methods for dying violently then I ever imagined. It was a quick read.

Armed with this knowledge, I developed a routine for my Holy Cart visits. Every week, I brought three “Fun Facts about the Saints” with me. I’d try to mix it up, one famous saint, one obscure saint and a third saint who had an extremely bad day.

Sometimes, I’d pick a bizarre one.

I described the saint to the class, “Wulfstan was smitten by a fair young lady at a village dance. To distract himself from the impure thoughts running through his head, Wulfstan threw himself into a nearby thicket of thorn bushes. He stayed there till the impure thoughts painfully passed away. God was so impressed by the saint’s efforts, that he prevented Wulfstan from ever having those feelings again.”

I closed the book with a slap and said, “Isn’t that great kids?”

All ears were perked up for this one. Sister Mercedes seemed edgy during the telling.

My best seller was a plastic statue of Mother Mary in an alcove appearing to the faithful. The alcove was a miniature missile silo with two pieces meeting in the front like a curtain. You slid the pieces apart to reveal Mary inside a grotto with open arms standing on a rock. The problem with the item was the manufacturer made the alcove before he made the Mary statue. The alcove was long and thin. Mary was an afterthought. The only way to fit Mary in there was make her long and thin – real long and catwalk thin.

The quirky product tested my sales skill. First time I looked it over; I didn’t know what to say. I recovered and stepped up to the front of the class.

“Folks, I have something special for you today. Something the Church has hidden for years, but now proudly presents to you for the first time.”

I turned away from the kids, picked up the item and spun back to the class opening the alcove doors.

“I give you Skinny Mary, Pre-Pregnancy Mary, the Mary with a twinkle in her eye and a song in her heart.”

I opened, closed and re-opened the alcove doors.

“The Mary who plays ‘Peek-a-boo.”

The class took a deep breath in, and then exploded. Based on normal nun behavior, I expected to be wrestled to the ground like a presidential assassin. It didn’t happen. Sister Mercedes stood to the side of the class covering her mouth but not enough to completely remove the evidence she was laughing.

As a kid, there are rare blue moons when the stars align and everything falls in place despite your best efforts to blow the bridge up, and you with it. If you’re a kid and reading this, save those memories and bank them. When you grow up and stuff happens to you all the time, you can use your recollection as a balm. It doesn’t always work, but a well oiled memory can sometimes ease the pain.

 

Thomas Pryor’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, A Prairie Home Companion, Underground Voices Magazine and Ducts. His story blog, Yorkville: Stoops to Nuts, is listed in the Blog Roll of the New York Times City Room.

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