tworoads

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A Story


One New Orleanians' adventure through the Narrow Door
 and onto the Meaningful, Rewarding, and Challenging Road 
that leads to Life


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01 - Fly Me To The Moon (In Other Words).mp3

(Click the arrow above left to listen to the song)

     

Grade School Altar Boy          High School Cut-Loose         Grits and Fumps    

  The Navy     

James Madison U.         Old Dominion U.         Clemson U.         Ohio State U.        

Back Home to New Orleans


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 Anno Domini 1958 ~


    I remember it like it was yesterday.   I was in the first grade at St. Francis of Assisi in the old building.   It was a hot early September day during my very first week in school and Sister Mary Imelda was reading from the cathechism.   There was a Scripture text in there and she read it.   For the first time that I remember I heard God's word read.   She read....... 'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep.'    (Genesis 1:1)                            

    Being one who tends to look at the skies (always did, don't know why) my brown pupils wandered upward and out the open window.    It was hot as Hades with no a/c and the sky was a clear blue canvas.   Silhouetted against it was a lone bird which appeared almost suspended there.   As the Words of Life settled in my soul and my eyes were riveted to the sky something inside me seemed to stir.   The reading ended and Sister said some things.   But what I couldn't shake was what stirred inside of me when the very first Bible I ever heard were the very first words in the Bible.  


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                            Looking out a side window in this building                         For eight years I sat six days a week in my parish church. 
                              God touched my spirit in the first grade                             In those formative years I wondered often about God.                              

  I also had an unfortunate accident coming up the four steps on the left

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Grade School

   Family, bikes, soldiers and battles, baseball,  school, church, band, altar boys, a fight or two, fishing and crabbing, cub scouts, Hansons' sno-balls, Adam's ice cream, Borden's banana fudgesicles (I'd die for one right now), Carnival,  Corner grocery stores, The Mississippi River, running, jumping, wrestling, tackle football in the mud, Miss Dot's po-boys (Domilese's), Miss Munster's po-boys (Munster's) or Miss Shirley's po-boys (Norby's), Wisner Playground, Audubon Park with the lagoon and the bamboo jungle by the river  --  and all the stuff a boy does when he has an imagination, a bike, family and friends, safe institutions, a boy spirit and a neighborhood to roam.
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04 All In The Game.mp3

(Click arrow on left to hear the next song)

 

Recollections: 
(2nd grade) pooping on myself  after Sister DeChantel let me go to the bathroom.   I remember pushing on the old green wooden bathroom door.  
But it was locked!   I had no recourse but to hold it in but the little items fell down my pants leg coming up the four steps that are under the awning on the left in the above photo.   I thought I might have escaped.  But the residue in my pants gave me away and one of the girls around raised her hand and told Sister that they smelled something coming from my desk and I was had.   Good thing it was about time for the last bell.   Sister said through that clenched smile she always flashed on one side of her face:   "Michael, why didn't you just go to the bathroom?"   When I said it was locked she said that it was always open and she had a hard time believing me.   Charmagne LeBrun, Kathy Scullin, and some of the girls were utterly disguted about the whole thing.   I recall looking at one with begging eyes that said  "but the door WAS locked" and she gave me the most exaggerated eye-roll I'd ever seen.   The guys thought it was a hoot and I would be the talk of the playground tomorrow.  My cousin Kenny Trahan was in class too.   He lived next door to me in a shotgun double and took up the task early in life to not miss a chance to let people know when I did such things.   He liked to bring this up often after it happened and made sure it made the uptown rumor mill.   I still hear about that to this day.   One of the boys in that very room comes to our house every Tuesday night 52 years later for a time of spiritual fellowship.

 

This was part of my view (above) for Monday thru Friday, 8-8:30 am Mass in the first grade.   I recall looking up often at the ornate glass and ceiling and wondering about God.

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(6th-8th grade) Being an altar boy often got me out of class to serve a funeral.  For some reason Sister Eugenia tabbed me regularly for them.  I remember seeing a dead person for the first time.  It was something I couldn't forget.  And though I served so many funerals and got used to it I would always watch the dead body and wonder where the person was who formerly occupied it.   I had Sister Eugenia for 6th and 7th grades.   I remember her being hard on me and sometimes thought she singled me out for special 'treatment'.  The dead bodies didn't overly spook me.  But they did have an impact on me wondering about my own eternity. 

   Over time I began to enjoy getting yanked out of class to serve funerals.   Looking back I sensed that something was happening between God and me while I beheld all the dead bodies in those years.   I remember Oscar Becnel telling me that weddings were better because we got $5.00 tips.  I had a few of those but many more funerals.   My comeback to him was that I got out of class a lot.   And I know now that God was using Sister Eugenia in my life.   Her constant eye on me, giving me all those funerals and taking me aside a lot to tell me things was His special hand in my life.   He cared a lot more for me than I could see at the time.   I still remember Sister making me and Chris Young sing individual solos of "Kyrie Eleyison" before the whole class.   My face felt like when it feels from sucking down a few pounds of steamy, spicy crawfish -- hot as Hades.   And I'm sure it was as red as one too. 

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  (7th grade)  It was Easter Mass.   And we had the altar boy all-stars up there, and in more numbers than at a usual Mass.   I think Sister Eugenia wanted to show us all off together to the parish at one big Easter celebration.  All three parish priests attended in the Mass and I felt pretty good about being picked.   We were our usual mix of semi-pious good boys with a touch of mischief and in the beginning stages into the male hormone explosion.   Things went normal from the opening pitch until about the third inning.   Something was beginning to stir among the boys in surpluses and cassocks and I recall some eye contacts and a few grins and giggles.      

02 Forever.mp3

(Click on arrow on left to hear the next song)

  

    Grins and giggles in the vicinity of the altar could never, no not ever, be allowed to be noticed by Sister Eugenia.   Forget about it.   Such were the activities of those sent down to the altar boy minor leagues.   Funerals (which by now I was looking forward too) and weddings (which everyone else wanted) would be a thing of the past.  Grins and giggles were not to be seen altar side of the communion rail, which ran end-to-end across the entire sanctuary river-to-lake and separated it from the congregation.

   By the  seventh inning stretch and the ringing of the bells for the Offertory the testosterone was getting revved up.   To this day I'm not sure what stirred us but by then we were already in trouble and I could feel Sisters glare from behind us as we faced the altar.   Then it happened.     


   We were to rattle the four metal bells vigorously for the offertory and as one of the boys began to shake the bells one of the four ringers went flying across the sanctuary floor, hit the wall and careened off somewhere.   It was gut-buster.   Sisters' finest had lost it.   The group of semi-pious choir boys who were rarely in trouble momentarily fell out of grace in front of the entire parish.   The place was packed.   And so was Sister Eugenia's head.   I could feel her head's-heat all the way up there on the bottom step of the altar.   But the euphoria with the boys was carrying the moment and well, what the heck.   For some reason Monsignor Toups didn't make too much of a big deal back in the dugout (sacristy) afterward.   But word came to us that Sister wanted to see us outside between the church and school.   We were dead.  

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   Easter candy?  Fuh-git about it.   We'd probably have to repeat the seventh grade.   We might have to go to summer school for this.   Don't even think about weddings and funerals.    Mass was held weekdays 5, 6, 7, and 8 am.   8 am was for the school kids.   If we had 5 ,6 0r 7 am Mass to serve we wouldn't have to show up for school till 8:30.    5 and 6 am Mass was tough.   I'd have to get up and ride my bike about a mile in the dark to serve Mass, come back home and go back to school.   We'd only get the early Masses every month or so.   Now we'd be forever banished to them five days a week until high school.  

   And boy did we get an earful.   Her boys had let her down and she had never been more embarrassed in her entire life.   And now I had to tell momma and daddy.   Momma and Sister Eugenia used to compare notes on me and I know she secretly conspired to get Sister Eugenia to get me to sing the "Kyrie Eleyison" that day.   I can't prove it but I'm sure she had something to do with it.   Momma and Sister Eugenia were soulmates.   And I was there shared development project.   Daddy generally left this stuff up to momma.    Maybe he could save me.  

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   When he picked me up I decided to tell him.   He got quiet for a minute then expressed to me a grace that was an early example of what God would give to me many times in the days ahead.   He shrugged it off and told me to not worry about it.   He told me that he'd let momma know, relieving me of some dread.   I remember feeling what I'd later come to call the grace of God - -  Undeserved favor.    I had blown it and was now forgiven with no strings attached.   It was a freeing feeling.   A good freeing feeling.    Forgiven, just plain forgiven.   Then daddy changed the subject like it never happened.   Of course I still had momma and Sister Eugenia to deal with.   But in the days ahead both got over it pretty quick.  

       Sister Eugenia walked out of this door in the dark and laid the wood on us.  We stood facing her from where you view this.   We had it coming.  The green duplex you see on the left is the house we bought after my freshman year in high school two plus years later.   We moved right across the street from the SFA Convent and Church.  Now Sister Eugenia could keep an eye on my upstairs bedroom window while I was in high school.  What was momma up to?

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 (5224 Constance St.) playing "see who falls the best" in our backyard.  One of us would sit on the fence with a toy gun and the rest would take turns charging him from across the yard.  The fence guy would shoot the charger who would display his best (and exaggerated) fall after getting blown away.  After all were cut down the fence guy would choose the best fall and that one would get to sit on the fence and we'd do it all over again.   Some of the suspects are in the picture above. 

   Through these kind of shared times and bonding I learned the value of relationships.  The closeness that still exists in my relationships with those in the photo prepared me for friendships I would gain all over the world after going through The Wide Open Door a dozen years later.
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01 - A Change Is Gonna Come.mp3

(Click arrow to listen to next song)

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   When Hurricane Betsy struck in September of '65 I remember praying to God as our slate roof and chimney were being torn off and thrown into the alley.   Daddy worked for the city and was needed to man the station.   Paw-paw Jake Bonanno had lived with us for years and he was with us.  Water was coming through the ceilings and we were scared.    The 125 mph gusts howled through the narrow alley and our house shook.   And I wondered about God.

   When spring came in '66 I would be parting ways with kids who were part of my life, going to different high schools.   I had a weird feeling.   The future seemed dark in a way.   Not only was there a sense of major change coming for the first time but I also had a growing feeling of uncertainty that I couldn't define at the time.   Looking back I'd say that it was a sense of spiritual aloneness.  

   I've since learned a statement that goes like this:  "For what he say, and this is true, is far removed from what he do."  

   Though there were many in my life whom I looked up to in some ways I began to feel a void.   I wanted to know someone who I could model my life after who not only cared for who I was but who I could be sure had a certain security that I was looking for.   I would not have said it then but I was looking for a model who had a spiritual security and assurance that he or she lived out on the streets of life and crossed over into every aspect of his or her life including relationships with other people.  

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   I was born 50 yards from Munster's Bar,  100 yards from Grits Bar,  and 150 yards from Fump's Bar (the F&M Patio).   My uncle George owned the F&M Patio Bar building since the 1920's.   My momma was raised in the same building the bar was in.  My uncle and great grandma ran the bar so momma grew up in that environment.   Daddy lived in a shotgun along a row of shotguns not 50 yards away across the street on Tchoupitoulas.   My other Paw-Paw, like the men up and down the city blocks, frequented these bars and even worked part-time all his adult life in what was then 'Sugar Portland's Bar' and became 'Biggie Michel's Bar' and then 'Grit's Bar'.   The spirit and culture of this environment was passed down as part and parcel of my life complete with all of its friendships, laughter and lore, mischief, shenanigans, nuances, challenges and pain.   It would not be a stretch to say that within this culture I had many adult and peer connections that gave me a certain sense of belonging.   But along with this was a lack of spiritual security and assurance that I would come to notice after a few more turns in the road ahead.  

   For the first time I began to sense that something was missing in my life though I wouldn't have worded it that way at the time.   I'd occasionally have a notion that the deep security and assurance I was looking for inside was somewhere to be found.   Somehow I had not found the God who I had wondered about so much in younger years and I began to feel the lure of the neighborhood culture.   Maybe I'd find what was missing out there. 

   But there was high school.

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    Momma, Mary Bonano, with Mr. Fump, who would later rent the family            Paw-Paw and Mr. Henry at the window at Biggie Michel's

 bar @ Tchoupitoulas and Lyons Sts. from my great Uncle George Spilman.               Bar (later to be Grit's) where they both worked.

 Fump named the business "F&M Patio" with neighborhood friend Manny

     Guilliot.  The F&M name has been attached to that bar till today.

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What Becomes........mp3

(Click arrow to hear next song)

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High School


     Someone once said that if you don't know where you are going it matters not which way you take.

    (Fall 1966)  I tested for Jesuit High thinking I'd not get accepted.  But I did and began there in the fall of '66.  My momma (Sister Eugenia talked Jesuit up big) prodded me to apply though I had wanted to try De La Salle.  So I was a Blue Jay and jumped in freshman year.   Did okay first year but by summer '67 we moved to State St. across from the convent and church and I was feeling the lure of something else.  By start of sophomore year I wanted out and made a pact with myself that I was going to flunk out of Jesuit.  If I flunked out I couldn't go back.  I figured out how to play hookie at Jesuit and not get caught.   I'd show up some days and the guys were amazed that I wasn't getting caught.   I'd go to school, throw my books in my locker and sneak out.   Never got caught.  Don't tell your kids about this.   I managed to keep grades up high enough so momma was only slightly concerned and before last reports I really cut loose and was able to flunk 5 of my 8 classes.   That should do it I thought.   Momma was distraught.   Looking back I don't blame her.  She worked hard so we could afford the tuition.

    This was the entrance down a road that led me to throw caution to the wind and seek to find my way in life apart from most things that resembled God, Rules or Purpose.

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Here's how it happened:

    The touch of God had pricked my soul that morning in 1958 looking out the window at the sky in first grade in the old school building.  It was real and that's what I wanted, something real and personal with Whoever nudged me that hot September day.  But in the years following there were few, if any, times when I felt like He was real in my life.   So I tried to pray hard EVERY NIGHT before going to sleep in case I died during the night.    And I was beginning to notice how selfish I could be toward my little brother and sister, how I schemed to get what I wanted a lot, and how impatient I could be. 

    Somehow God seemed far away though I had tried real hard to be a good kid, be a good altar boy, listen to my elders, pray nightly, etc..  I was recruited to consider going into the priesthood around the 6th grade and thought that maybe I was the kind of person who ought to serve Christ full-time.  I had a notion that maybe somebody should serve Him some kind of way and the priesthood was for those who really wanted to go for it.   But a crush on Maureen Walsh did that notion in.  And my notion to serve Him was more out of a sense of duty  than out of any kind of personal connection or appreciation.

    By the start of sophomore year at Redemptorist High I was fully committed to find my way alone.   I had tried the best way I knew to seek out the God who I thought had touched me that morning in first grade in 1958.  But as far as I could tell He had made a guest appearance in my life and was now gone forever.   And the lure of my roots was stronger than ever.   So I gave ear to their call.
   

  

09 Yes, Indeed!.mp3

     (Click arrow to hear the next song)

     I began hanging around the corner of Laurel and General Pershing with my cousin and a bunch of guys.  We were 16 and couldn't get in the bars without ID's so we forged some fake Selective Service (draft) cards.  These were the ways of tatoo's and smoking cigarettes (though I avoided both), beer, wine, girls, boxing, bar-hopping, cars, street pranks, and other shenanigans that make young men feel like they are cool and tough.   During the summer I took up boxing at Vince Arnona's gym down on Tchoupitoulas near downtown.   The gym manager told me I had the tools and that puffed me up real big.   When daddy found my hand wraps in the washing machine he told me he'd kick my tail if I ever went back there.   Even in my rebellion I had a certain reverence and respect for my daddy.  It comes from my Italian upbringing.   I never went back.

     I worked a summer in the St. Thomas Housing Projects between Constance and Chippewa Streets.   Through that and going to Redemptorist High in the Irish Channel I became familiar with folk from that part of the river.   By this time there were connections with guys and girls from Race St. to Audubon Park, the River side of Magazine St..   We were a mix of whimsical, mischievous, cut-up young men and women with not a few outlaws thrown in.   We were a breed of kids who would move through each other's varying circles and corner barrooms up and down the river.  Many of our daddy's, uncles and cousins knew or knew-of one another from school, playground, bar, work, church, etc..  We might be in each other's faces one day and have each other's backs the next.  And we'd end up doing who-knows-what on any given evening with who-knows-who though each circle had a local area or turf.   There were some fights, excursions to other parts of town and into "the parish", a lot of walking, some driving, and catching buses.  


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    In this period of life I rarely thought about God though I had suppressed, nagging notions that something, maybe even Someone, was missing.  I recall riding the Magazine Bus alone from Canal St. to uptown going home from my girlfriend's house late one Friday night.   In the seat next to me was a pamphlet that talked of knowing Christ.   I threw it across the aisle.  I didn't want to think about that any more.  

   After vacating any notions of God I began to notice anger and a mean streak in my heart.  Freshman year I met a Good Counsel girl and we liked each other.  She was gentle and kind and a good girl.  We got along great and everything was cool.  But someone stirred me to play a mean trick on her and in order to look cool I went along with it.   This was an exceptionally mean thing to do and I hurt her deeply.  Her mom found out, and we got in trouble.   I acted like the whole thing was funny but deep down I was shocked that I could do such a thing and hurt someone so deeply who I actually liked.   What was wrong with me?


   

Grits and Fumps 

   I could walk in virtually any bar along the river and get served except for two.   The two I couldn't get served in was Grit's and Fumps.   Paw-Paw worked Grit's part-time days in his retirement.   And he told the owners not to let any of his grandkids in till they turned 18, the law at the time.   Fump grew up with my parents.   My blood runs through both of those places and somehow I felt drawn to them.   Looking back I think I was reaching back to my roots, my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, looking for something without asking.   When I turned 18 in October 1970 I walked in Grit's and felt like I'd died and gone to heaven.   Not long after, Orleans asked me to work the evenings racking pool balls and fetching drinks.   My cousin, (Goom-bah) worked the bar.   We were high school seniors and went to work 5 pm till 12 or 1 am.   My daddy had worked there when he was my age.   I made $10.00 a night. 

   At 5 pm I took over racking the balls from Willie, an African-American man who grew up with my daddy and uncles in the neighborhood.   He was always glad to see me so he could go home and have a drink or two or twenty.    Willie was good people.     One day one of Orleans' German shepherds took a bite out of Willie's leg and we rushed him over to Doc Petersen's for some treatment.   I had to drive him home and carry him up his steps on Annunciation St. like a newlywed carries his bride.   Willie was skinny so it was no big deal.   He said,  'Here I am all grew up wit' yuh daddy and here you awh carryin' me into mah house.'   

We got a kick out of that.

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The Navy 


James Madison U.


Old Dominion University U.


Clemson U.


Ohio State U.


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