• matt smith

Churches and Bars

(Editors Note — The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming book that has to do with Buffalo, and the church, but not really bars...)


Down the block from the Blarney Castle bar in Buffalo, maybe some 500 feet away, is Holy Family Church at the corner of South Park Avenue and Tifft Street.


Further up the road, at the corner of South Park and Ridge Road, sits the historic Our Lady of Victory basilica, just a few buildings down from the Ice House Pub.


And on Abbott Road in South Buffalo, located a few doors away from St. Thomas Aquinas Church — known to the locals as “St. Tommy’s” — is Doc Sullivan’s tavern.


Churches and bars. Even a blind man can easily find one, the other, or both in Buffalo, NY. And both will offer salvation.


My parents raised me in the church. Buffalo raised me in its bars. Both have their regular parishioners, and both are stupid with sinners. And I have sinned in both.

When I say my parents “raised me in the church,” I don’t want to give the impression they were some kind of holy rollers. They weren’t. They were simply born into the church through their parents and brought up the same way I was: baptism, First Communion, church every Sunday, confirmation, married in the church, Last Rites if they were lucky (and I think they were), and Mass of Christian burial at death. My old man went to Catholic school his whole life. But he was far from a saint. And, though I was sent to public school through eighth grade, I was sent to an all-boys Catholic school for high school, only because my father wanted me to go someplace where I could be smacked around if I stepped out of line — given the fact that while growing up, I was always stepping out of line.


“Getting knocked on your ass,” my old man would say, “is a great way to find Jesus.”


I can tell you this about my school, which was run by Franciscan friars who were not shy about administering corporal punishment: My old man was wrong. I did get knocked on my ass quite a bit. But I never did find Jesus.


* * *

I have always had a confusing relationship with Catholicism. I have loved it. Hated it. Appreciated it. Neglected it. And took it for granted. I defended it. Criticized it. Ignored it. Committed to it. Endured it. And ultimately, walked away.


I did not do so lightly — especially being from Buffalo, NY.


Buffalo is a very Catholic town, like Boston but without the glitz. The church looms large in my hometown, casting a huge shadow over the city and reaching far into its psyche. It wasn’t unusual when attending a family gathering to have a priest on hand — Monsignor Lorenzetti, Father Michael K., Father Pat — not as some kind of special celebrant or even guest, but as an unofficial member of the family.


While growing up, if we were on vacation — in Florida, or Virginia, or wherever — and my parents met someone from Buffalo (which oddly always seemed inevitable), it was never ‘what part of the city are you from?’ Instead, it was ‘what parish’ are you in? Even 20 years later, while working for a newspaper north of New York City, I learned a fellow reporter was from Buffalo. When he learned of my hometown, sure enough, he asked ‘what parish?’ If I was out with my mother during the holidays and she ran into a friend, the second question after ‘How was your Christmas?’ was never, ‘what did you do?’ but rather, ‘what Mass did you go to?’ And, when listening to my parents or grandparents or aunts or uncles talk about where someone lived or just bought a house, typical locators, such as City Hall, or the park, or the mall, were never used. Instead, so-and-so’s house was near St. Tommy’s, or Holy Family, or the Basilica, St. Ambrose or St. Martin’s.

The presence of the Church in Buffalo and in our lives was something I simply took for granted. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t try. I was a Cradle Catholic, and as such, taking my religion for granted was my birth right. I excelled at going through the motions. I went to church every Sunday as a kid because I had no choice. I recited the Nicene creed (which I learned through osmosis) robotically. “Studied” the Old and New Testament every week at Sunday school without retaining a thing and prayed to God only when I was in trouble. And I was in trouble all the time, so I prayed often.


The reason I was in trouble so much I pin squarely on the shoulders of, not Satan, but my friends in Catholic school. They were awful, and I loved them for it. Though I went to public school until eighth grade, all the kids I hung out with in my neighborhood went to the K-thru-8 Catholic school in my parish. (Why my parents — considering their own Catholic school education — did not send me there, I’m not exactly sure. But I can only assume, knowing my father, it had something to do with money. To say that he was tight would be an insult to cheap people. When I was 5 years old, I went to Buffalo Sabres hockey school. My mother didn’t drive, so a neighbor would come over, dress me in all my hockey equipment, including my skates, and then my mom would toss me into a cab with my stick in hand and helmet on, sans cage since my father refused to cough up the $7 until I outgrew my helmet, thus, making me the only kid in my league to not play with any face protection for several years. “Don’t be a baby. Most hockey players don’t’ have teeth,” he’d tell me. It was the early 1970s. No one thought twice about sending their 5-year-old in a cab alone with some strange man who would transport me several miles away. And there were no cellphones, so it’s not like I could text my mother when I got to the rink. She just assumed everything would be ok. Faith, whether in God or a shady cab driver, is a funny thing. Anyway, one night as I was driven home via taxi from hockey school, my old man was waiting in the driveway. I saw him standing against his ’71 Chevy Impala and I knew from the look on his face that he was pissed. The poor taxi driver had no idea what was awaiting him. But my father’s anger had nothing to do with any suspicion that his 5-year-old son was — or had been put — in danger or mistreated in any way during my journey in a taxi alone. No, my father was pissed because it came to his attention the night before that the driver had taken me home the long way, which added $1.43 to the fare my old man had to pay. That amount — using a 1970’s monetary conversion formula I just made up right now — was about $8.21 cents to a working man like my father. And he tore into this cabby like you read about.)


Anyway, my friends in Catholic school were like corrupt cops or crooked stockbrokers who knew how to work the system from the inside. They were far worse than any public-school hoodlum. (And later, during my high school years, the girls from the all-girls Catholic schools would make the worse Catholic school boy look downright saintly.) My Catholic school friends were wolves in sheep’s clothing. Devils disguised as angels, their halos hiding their horns.


When I was 13, a video-game arcade opened not too far from my home. It was the era of Pacman, Asteroids, Galaga, Donkey Kong, Frogger, Centipede and Tempest. I had a serious Asteroids addiction My mother had this change can on her dresser from which I would pilfer quarters all week so that by Friday I would have enough money to keep me in Asteroids for hours. I dreamt of the game during school every day, while I was supposed to be doing homework in the evening and in my sleep at night. I was constantly jonesing to man the controls and blow up the floating rocks and flying saucers that sped toward my triangular gun ship. This was serious business. This was war. The fate of the planet depended solely upon me.

But there were two problems:

One, my old man forbade me to hang around the arcade, convinced I’d mix in “with the wrong crowd and get hooked on the dope.”


And two, every time I was trying to save the planet, I would inevitably run out of money.


The first problem, I could handle myself with some good old-fashioned lying about my whereabouts. I’d tell my father I was somewhere else, hide my bike someplace within walking distance of the arcade so he wouldn’t spot it driving by and I was good.


The second problem, I could do nothing about. But, as I would soon come to learn, my Catholic school friends could. Like any good crime syndicate, my friends knew of a recurring source of revenue that kept their pockets flush in times of need — and kept me in Asteroids up to my ass.


I was not proud. I knew I was bound for hell. But I was 13, and I was banking on God having a short memory … or at the very least, my old man never finding out. After all, God could only send me to Hell. But my father could paddle my ass.


One Sunday afternoon while at the arcade, tragedy struck. I had no more quarters to feed the Asteroids machine. My pockets were empty.


I walked around the arcade aimlessly. Dejected. Depressed. I grabbed the throttle on the Galaga machine and began tapping its ‘fire’ button manically, even though I wasn’t actually playing. That was interesting for about 29 seconds. I wandered away and stopped at Centipede, where I stood and watched some 9th grader play, but I became bored quickly again. I never understood how kids could gather around games and just stand there and watch someone else play. But every machine at the arcade was regularly packed with spectators. I didn’t get it. What fun was watching? Weirdos.

I walked away and turned the corner toward the front door when I saw my buddy Frog walk in. Frog was a spunky little kid, a year younger than me. He was a hustler, quick on his feet, who — despite not even being a teenager yet — could shovel shit out his mouth with the best of them.


“What’s up?” Frog said after swaggering his way through the door.


“I’m outta money,” I said. “You have any I could borrow?”


“Nah, I don’t have a cent on me.”


“Then why are you here?”


“I was hoping my girl would be here,” he said smiling. Besides being a fast talker, Frog was also a 12-year-old lothario.


“Your girl? Who’s your girl this week?”


“Donna,” Frog replied in almost a pant.


“Oh Jesus,” I said, shaking my head with a fake disgust I hoped would mask my jealousy. I also had a crush on her, but unlike Frog, I had no game and therefore was not going to do anything about it. “Well, I haven’t seen her.”


“Shit,” Frog said. “So, now what?”


“I dunno. I guess I’ll just go home. I’m broke.”


“Hey,” Frog exclaimed, his eyes growing bright. “I know where we can get some money.”


“Where?”


“Church,” Frog replied.


“Church?”


“Yeah. Just follow me.”


I knew this was not going to be a good idea. I knew we were about to do something very wrong. I didn’t know what, but nothing good ever came from a bad kid — especially a Catholic school kid like Frog — eagerly wanting to go to church in the middle of the day without his parents forcing him. Still, I had an addiction. And addictions need to be fed. People all over the world were doing bad things to feed their addictions. Heroin, gambling, Asteroids. That’s the way addictions worked. So, I at least took some comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone.


Frog hopped on his bike and I hopped on mine. He led the way, speeding faster and faster the closer we got to our church. We our bikes and walked in the back door, landing in a corridor between the school’s classrooms and the church itself. Frog walked up to the church door in the hallway and peered through its window to make sure there was no one up on the altar or in the pews. It was empty. Thank the Lord!


“C’mon,” Frog whispered, waving his hand.


I followed him into the church and we scurried to the back where the racks of candles, in which people would slip coins and small bills into before lighting a wick in someone’s memory. Why they couldn’t do that for free, I never understood. Though as much as I didn’t know about my religion, but I knew enough that if there was a way to make a buck the Church was on it.


I still had no idea what we were going to do, so I just followed Frog’s lead. My stomach felt like there was tsunami inside it; butterflies replaced by Satan himself.

Frog pointed to a cup on top of the candle rack filled with long match sticks. “Give me one of those,” he ordered.


I handed him the match. He looked around both of his shoulders to see whether anyone else was in the church with a guilty look that screamed “Hey everybody, I’m about to do something really bad!” And that’s exactly what he did. He shoved the stick in the long slim slot at the base of the rack, where people shoved their coins and dollar bills. And with a quick, singular motion, he used the matchstick to swipe as much money as he could from the slot and into his palm. Looking up at me, he smiled and said: “We do this all the time in school.”


Catholic school kids — Hell must be full of them.


I felt sick. Frog may have punched my ticket to Hell, but I was a willing accomplice. And instead of telling him to put the money back, I instead exclaimed: “Let’s go back to the arcade!” It’s ironic. My old man didn’t want me to hang around the arcade because he was afraid of the influence potheads might have on me. But he forced me to go to church every Sunday, where I was surrounded by my Catholic school friends who turned me into a soldier in their organized crime family.


Never once did I not feel bad about the candle-money heist. I felt guilty then, and I still feel guilty about it 39 years later. Around the same time, I was preparing in my weekly religious education class that my parents made me attend to make my first reconciliation — confession to all you non-Catholics. As luck would have it, this coincided with a new shift by the Church, moving penance from the traditional confessional booth in which you spoke to a priest through a small window slot, to a small room in which you confessed to a priest face-to-face without any barrier between each other. This terrified me. How could I ever confess all the shit I had done wrong staring straight into a priest’s face? The booth provided anonymity. Now, there was no hiding from all that I had done.


Making matters worse, as my first reconciliation grew near, I learned that it was considered a sin to — um — gratify oneself. What? That’s a sin? I was 13. Gratifying myself was a full-time job. There was no way in Hell I could look into the eyes of a priest and say, “And another thing: I keep polishing the Bishop!”


No. No way. Without the confessional booth barrier? There was just no way I was going to confess to that or stealing the candle money. So, I lied. I lied in my first reconciliation.

During a sacrament in which you are to confess and ask forgiveness for your sins, I actually sinned. I just made up the lamest sounding shit I could think of and never brought up stealing or whacking off. In fact, the experience was so traumatic, it was my only reconciliation. I never went back to confession ever again. I decided right then and there that any further asking for forgiveness was going to take place in silent prayer at night during which I would talk directly to God myself without the Middle Man. The flaw in that plan, however, was despite continuing to rack up the sins, I really didn’t pray that much as a kid — until, that it is, alcohol entered my life a few years later.


(To be continued...)


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