I may be looking at my past through a rose-colored rear view mirror, but I don't recall those feelings of ill will between me and my Irish friends in the neighborhood. Maybe I missed the friction by a generation, but I don't recall my parents harboring such feelings either. My Dad hung out at a place called Grim's Bar under the el on Broadway. The place was owned by the father of New York Yankee pitcher Bob Grim, and had a predominantly Irish clientele. Dad loved his couple of beers after work, and telling his stale jokes to anyone who would listen, even if they were Irishmen. Some of my best friends were Irish, and I always felt welcome in their homes. Our ball games were completely democratic and free of prejudice; if you could play, it didn't matter what your last name was.
Several good people of Irish descent had an influence on my life. One of my closest pals was Richie Bryan. We were in the same class at school, and played on all the same sports teams. Richie's father John was the coach of our baseball team, sponsored by Our Lady of Lourdes. Mr. Bryan not only knew baseball, but he knew kids too. More than once he would pull one of us aside and offer non-baseball advice. He would not tolerate poor sportsmanship or 'hotdogging' on the field, and any kid who tested him on this warmed the bench for a game or two. I don't know what John Bryan did for a living, but he always dressed in a suit, tie and fedora hat, except for our games. He was one of those men who never set out to influence anybody, but by his example, never failed to do so.
I've written before about Lillian Dowd, mother of my friend Tommy, but it seems appropriate to mention her again in this Irish-themed blog. The Dowds lived down the street near the corner of Rockaway Avenue. Because their corner stoop offered a great view of the bustling intersection, we would often sit there and watch the people go by. Sitting on stoops was a major activity in 1950s Brooklyn. Anyhow, most of the women on our block were housewives who dressed in those hideous flowered smocks or house dresses. Not Lillian. She always wore nice dress and heels, and smelled of dusting powder. She would frequently ask us to come in and have tea with raisin bread toast. She would make pleasant conversation at her dining room table, covered with an Irish lace tablecloth, She talked to us as if we were adults. Her genteel influence helped smooth out our rough edges, almost like a female Professor Henry Higgins tutoring a bunch of male Liza Doolittles.
Finally, there was Father John Schaefer, one of our parish priests. It's safe to say that 12-year old boys are not exactly comfortable in the presence of priests. We were afraid they'd learn our voices and that our anonymity in the confessional would be blown. The priests in our church were nice enough, but never really made an effort to reach out. Father Schaefer was different. Maybe it was because he was younger, and his boyhood days were not that far behind him. Whatever the reason, he seemed to care about us. He was heavily involved in running the school dances held in the church basement, and I once saw him stare down a group of punks from outside the neighborhood who had come looking for trouble. They backed down seeing the resolve in Father Schaefer's eyes. That man did more to keep young boys coming to church than all the other priests combined.
I'm grateful to my Irish friends and all the people who helped influence me for the better. If I could offer a word of advice to young people growing up, it would be to keep your eyes and ears open to such positive influences. God knows there are people who can put you on the wrong path if you let them. Don't shut anybody out of your life because of prejudice; they might be the ones who provide your life-changing moment. Happy St. Patrick's Day to all good Irish people..
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