A long read inspired by Jill Talbot‘s “Emergent” for English 404, Creative Nonfiction.
Something happened to me in the seminary—seventy miles northwest of the Bronx in Middletown, New York. I was fifteen years old when I left after two years, and the whole world looked different to me. 1964. I can’t swear on a stack of bibles that I changed only because of the seminary, but I’m sure it had a significant role. Those were the first two years of high school, ninth and tenth grade. I’m sure kids in those grades went through all kinds of stuff as I did. The bullying, the name-calling, hormones overwhelming you (all you think about is sex), pimples (many pimples), you’re short(er) than everyone else (hell, you’re on the basketball team called The Midgets). Yeah, I’ve heard from lots of people that my experience in those first two years of high school wasn’t any different from anyone else.
the thought of becoming a priest the ritual the vestments the prayers i dreamed it with all my heart i was thirteen years old
Life before the seminary was not idyllic, but it was simple. 1948-1962. My immediate world was the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx, the 149th Street shopping hub with Hearns and Alexander’s department stores, and the live poultry market on Westchester Avenue. St. Rita’s elementary was a catholic school with sometimes sadistic nuns, but at least I was an altar boy, and I loved going to church. We lived in the public housing, but I never felt poor. I had two parents and sisters and brothers and friends in the building and at my uncles’ and aunts’ homes with my many cousins that we visited often. The heartbeat of Spanish filled the air, and the smell of Rice and Beans and Lechon and Pasteles was always in my head.
While my father worked two jobs and didn’t seem to be there often, he still found time to drive us to mysterious places locally and upstate (although he never did take me to a Yankee game). We’d play stickball and box ball and Cowboys and Indians and all the child things like comic books and baseball cards, and did I tell you I never felt poor? Sure Renee kicked my ass when I was ten years old, and my parents sent me to Gleason’s Gym to learn to fight, and I sprained my wrist, hitting the hanging punching bag like the first or second time, and I never went back again. But I never got my ass kicked again. I don’t know why. Maybe they felt sorry for me.
i prayed but I wasn’t overly religious i think it was more about a spirituality seeking something that I felt or saw in the sky or clouds from the window in the projects even then i knew
I was angry. Depressed. The summer I left the seminary, I think I didn’t leave the house for two weeks. My parents moved to a twenty-one-story high-rise public housing project building during my second year at the seminary. I didn’t know anyone. I enrolled in a public high school out of my district, and it was a long bus ride up Westchester Avenue to get there, and it was coed, and no one seemed to care who I was.
I was just one more kid in a big school from 1964 to 1966 when the world outside was beginning to become more real to me through the nightly news and the newspapers that my father would leave on the bathroom floor after his two-hour-long meditation sessions. It all seemed more real to me than any other time. Something inside me grew into a festering blister from fifteen to seventeen. I could feel it. I sensed it. I saw it in the mirror—sad eyes. Pimples on my face that I was convinced came from whatever was aching inside me.
i would look into the eyes of religious statues and swore they were speaking to me but it was only my imagination wishing that something or someone would save me would show me a world outside my world that there had to be something more there just had to be
The seminary was full of young men only: Irish, Italian, Polish, and any other combination except Black and Puerto Rican. I was the only Puerto Rican-Dominican in my first year there. Someone, I’m sure it was a priest, thought it would be cute to call me Poncho. Throughout the nearly two years there, that was my nickname. I was so naive that I didn’t think anything of it. I responded to it. But something told me that I better not tell my parents. It was my compromise for peace. I got along.
It was my first time spending this much time with kids that didn’t look like my friends in the projects. They were at St. Rita’s, but we were much younger, and after school, they went back to their neighborhood, and I went back to mine. This time, I was sleeping in the same dorm and later in the same room, eating with them, studying with them, playing with them, and going to morning mass with them every day. And it was all cool until it wasn’t.
It wasn’t like we were enemies or that I was fighting with anyone. It was just that occasionally, someone would shout at me a word that I had never heard before I went to the seminary. Spic. What the hell did that mean? Wait, Spic & Span like in the cleaner? Then, it would settle down, and they would return to Poncho, and we would all go about our teenage lives. As time went on, something didn’t seem right. I had been home for Christmas, Easter, and summer and had begun to feel my body changing (damn those hormones), the kids back home trying their hardest to not curse in front of me, treating me like I was a priest already, not feeling like one of them. Not feeling like one of the kids at the seminary.
the loneliness of prayer and the silence of retreat where all that mattered was that i pray to god and the saints and i never questioned the universe even as i looked up at that overwhelming night sky in the middle of nowhere and it was almost like i could touch the planets and the billions of stars looking for heaven and finding my soul whining for something i couldn’t name
I left in April or May of 1964 before the school year finished. One morning, I snuck out of the chapel and went to the bathroom to cry and mope that I didn’t want to be there anymore. The priest came out of the chapel and found me in the recreation room and got angry that I was feeling miserable. I told him I wanted to go home and, without missing a beat, he told me to go home. That was it. Within a couple of hours, I was on a bus from Middletown, New York, to the South Bronx. Done. No good-byes. Banished. But at least I was not going to be called Poncho or Spic anymore.
when did i tell myself that the peace i wanted was not going to be found in that church building or in the chalice or the beautiful songs and prayers in latin (it was a dead language for a reason) the emptiness i felt wasn’t there because i didn’t find g o d it was because i couldn’t find my truth
The seminary opened my mind to the possibilities of the world around me. In a rural New York setting (the seminary was next to a Dairy Farm) far from the projects, I learned that there was a larger world outside the South Bronx. Whether it was learning Latin and Caesar’s Gallic Wars or History or Math, I became more curious about ideas about identity and current events and sex and injustice. I never wanted to be called Poncho or Spic ever again. There was a war in a far-off place called Vietnam, Black and White people were being attacked on southern city streets and backwoods, and there was a man named Martin Luther King Jr. who was getting much attention. I was pouring it all into my mind and soul, and I grew increasingly uneasy about what to do with all those feelings and knowledge.
i changed into someone i didn’t recognize for the remainder of my high school years i didn’t want to be a priest anymore i barely went to church and didn’t mean it when i did
I found a girlfriend. I protested the Vietnam War, and I dreamed of fighting the KKK and Bull Connor and the horrors I saw on television and in newspapers every day. I changed, and I knew that something wasn’t clear to me until I graduated from High School. I had grown away from my parents (I questioned their authority in so many dumb ways), tried to find a roadmap for which way my life was going, and just kept walking blindly, searching for something that I expected I would find.
i’m still searching will never stop and i’m okay with that. amen.