Excerpt: A Long Walk Home

A native son comes back to town after 25 years to explore the city’s grandest ­boulevard—only to discover his long-held rage at religious fundamentalism, Philly-style

Copyright © 2007 by Bruce Buschel.
From the forthcoming book
Walking Broad by ruce Buschel, to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York. Printed by permission.

Broad and Snyder

 This is where the Fancy Mummers start their floats. Can’t fit all 20,000 Mummers on the same starting block, so the string bands start at Oregon Avenue, south of here, and comics at Broad and Washington, up a ways. The annual parade starts at 8 a.m. New Year’s Day and ends when you pass out. It’s the tradition, cuz.

And the tradition dates back to 400 B.C., when Roman peasants marched in masks at the festival of Saturnalia, celebrating the harvest and lampooning the wealthy politicos. Cut to medieval England: Troupes of costumed performers went from house to house presenting a “mummers play,” or folk drama, around Christmas. In Philadelphia, in the 1700s, immigrant revelers welcomed the New Year by unloading their pistols into the sky. Groups of five or 20, faces blackened for anonymity, strolled the streets reciting doggerel and receiving cakes and ale for their efforts. It was the one day a year when normal, decent men could dress up like women and clowns, could transgress taboos, could act out deep fantasies, turn the potentates into cartoons. Anyone and anything was fair game for burlesquing, including the newly inaugurated president, George Washington. One clown, Cooney Cracker, was so effective that he is said to have become the model for Uncle Sam.

The first formal Mummers Parade was staged on January 1, 1901, and the Philly City Council appropriated $1,725 for prizes. The money is closer to $400,000 now, though no club makes a profit, and the event remains uncommercialized, if not unchanged. Mummers have gone through stretches of racism, sexism, alcoholism, thugism, xenophobism; strutting privileges were passed from generation to generation; clubs were restricted, women were banned, blackface was smiled upon. Tradition cuts both ways, cuz.

Several years ago, all the tradition was ­halted — satire was suddenly out of bounds. Word got out that the Slick Duck Comic Brigade would have cops chasing priests who were chasing altar boys while nuns danced in go-go cages. Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua immediately called on all Catholics to “express their displeasure” at the “insensitive and tasteless skit.” He said, “I am horrified that any person or group can be so callous. While such mean-spirited mockery may be protected as free speech, it is still hateful speech and as such has no place in a city parade.”

The cardinal said nothing about grown men dressing up as cheerleaders, hunting dogs, cowgirls, nurses, prisoners, feather dusters, French maids, hobos, angels, devils or donkeys.

Accustomed to such haranguing, the Slick Ducks let the threats roll off their backs; they were convinced the public needed an outlet for its revulsion at the nationwide scandal, and they had the artistic license. Formal complaints were then lodged with the city by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Diocese of Camden and the Catholic League. Mayor Street, mindful of the Catholic bloc, was forced to say he’d scuttle the skit if only he could. He couldn’t. But in the end, the leverage of the church and the government, coupled with the buckling of the local television station, conspired to sink the Slick Ducks. They dropped out of the parade. Greek gods reached for their thunderbolts on Mount Olympus.  

Alas, the cardinal was more offended by the Slick Ducks than by sick priests. Two years later, a grand jury in Philadelphia concluded that at least 63 priests had sexually abused hundreds of boys and girls over the past decades. The jurors found the cover-up by two archbishops as disturbing as any of the sadism unleashed on the kids. Those two were Anthony Bevilacqua and John Krol, who had each, the jury concluded, showed “utter indifference to the suffering of the victims” while putting the legal, financial and moral reputation of the Archdiocese ahead of protecting the children entrusted to its care.

Led by Bevilacqua’s replacement, Cardinal Justin Rigali, the church attacked the grand jury as it had the Mummers, calling it anti-Catholic and wrapping itself in compassion for the priests, not the victims.

Just thinking about the cardinals and the Mummers puts a slight strut in my step. Mummers never march; they strut. As do all Philadelphians when they are feeling frisky. It’s in the DNA. You slouch some, hang your arms loose and wide, like a blue heron preparing for takeoff, flap your wings, bend your knees, and cakewalk, on your toes, chest out, head bobbing high and hard and insouciant all at the same time, like you’re building up to do whatever it is you are about to do. You never strut a straight line — you serpentine, some forward and then back, sideways and in circles. And you hear “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers.”

Broad and Girard

 There is fretting, but no strutting, at Girard Avenue. I take a deep breath. Girard used to be synonymous with power and wealth in this town. Girard Bank. Girard Estates. Girard Trust. Girard Park. Girard Row. Girard College. It has all but been elided from public consciousness. Not mine. Seeing the word on the street sign feels like magic mushrooms have just kicked in. The McDonald’s, the KFC and the Checkers (two burgers for $3!) become blurry and then evaporate. I hear people passing by, yet I cannot see them as I sink into the quicksand of involuntary memory. Girard. I want to run away. I stand as still as marble. I want to run now as I wanted to then, when I was young, when I was nine and 12 and 15, when I stood on this corner, after Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday, after a summer recess or a Sunday on the town, and now, as then, I am prevented from running by the unanswerable question: to where?

There is only here — whether in the form of memory or remorse or prescience or creation or pissing away a life, there is only here and only now — here at Broad and Girard, waiting for the Number 15 trolley that will take me to Corinthian Avenue, where I will see the 10-foot-high stone wall that surrounds the school, and will walk to the gatehouse and check in with the old guard, and wend my way back to the dormitory at Banker Hall or Merchant Hall or Mariner Hall, so yclept to memorialize the three professions of the school’s founder, Stephen Girard, a Frenchman who became the richest man in America, director of the Second Bank of the United States, financier of the War of 1812, and who, childless, a stranger in a strange land, left many millions of dollars for “poor white male orphans.”

Left all that money for me.

I walked through the gates in January 1954. I was seven. I was a newbie Hummer. Ever since a young boy with a foreign accent looked around and said, “This is my new hum,” students were called Hummers. Room, board, clothing, medicine, dentistry and education were free. You could live for 12 years at Girard without ever seeing or counting money.

My first night at Girard, a prayer was said at dinner that ended with “In Jesus’ name, amen.” At bedtime, we knelt by our metal cots and said the Lord’s Prayer in unison. The governess told me I had till the end of the week to memorize psalms 23 and 100, which was odd in an institution famed for its avowed nonsectarianism. There were 35 cots in my dorm, separated by metal lockers where boys kept clothing and any earthly possessions. Freshly laundered clothes — underwear, socks and two clean shirts — arrived three times a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We wore ties and jackets to school every day, knit vests when the weather turned bad. We marched everywhere in single or double file, alphabetical order.

All meals were silent. Baked scrod was served with spinach my second night at Girard. I could not stomach spinach. I left it on my plate. A governess noticed the wet green mound and insisted I give it a try. I soldiered onward. I vomited on the table. The entire third grade had to run laps around the playground when dinner was over because of my alimentary episode.

We went to the chapel on campus Wednesday morning and then again on Sunday morning, as we would for the next decade. The huge chapel was the largest house of worship I had ever seen, and brightest; our synagogue in Logan was tiny and dingy. I thought God had an aversion to bright light. This chapel seated 2,400 people under its 90-foot-high gold-leaf ceiling. It had stone columns, towering stained-glass windows, and an organ with more than 6,000 pipes. Over the years, in that chapel, I would sing hymns in the choir, carols at Christmas concerts, and pray to Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior. Among the 1,200 students, there were six other Jews, or six other kids either owning up to that fact or unable to disguise it.

That first Friday night, we went to Vespers. I had no idea what Vespers were. Even today, I am unsure — something vaguely Catholic, or ecclesiastical, a service of worship held in the evening. Sermons were followed by a movie. We saw lots of horror movies. We laughed at them. The Creature from the Black Lagoon would be mincemeat at Girard College. At my first movie, I was seated between two boys. When the lights went down and the movie began, I felt hands on my penis. No words were spoken. Soon, the two boys to my left and right led my hands to their penises. I had never felt another boy’s penis before, and no one had ever touched mine. I can’t recall if I had ever touched my own in such a warm, lambent manner, being only seven and all.

The two penises were large and smooth and tumescent, and different from each other, one straight and skinny, the other fatter, with an extra flap of skin. All this touching and being touched was strange, but not unpleasant. I looked around. No one paid any attention. Creature from the Black Lagoon was more captivating. All of this was done so matter-of-factly, so nonchalantly, the unbuttoning of my fly, the repositioning of my fingers, that I could only assume it was a time-­honored practice in this school, in this new place called the Hum, where I would live.

Unable to discern if this was an ordinary initiation rite or an ugly hazing, I went along quietly, with that unresolved duality. I was in a world where I didn’t know right from wrong. You’d think I would, but I didn’t. I was a newbie. These boys were two and three years my senior.

I remember their names to this day, and they remember mine. The uncircumcised boy was thrown out of Girard within a couple years for failing grades and misbehaving; the other graduated with me 10 years later. I had more sex my first year at Girard College than I did my first year at Temple University.