Be Better Than Me
Whenever I tell people that my father went to Mount Saint Joe Catholic high school they always seem surprised. I’m not sure if this is because they know me or my father.
“Most of those guys are probably in jail by now,” my dad said as he pushed his plate away, finishing his omelet. "Yeah we used to raise hell for that poor bus driver. And we weren’t much nicer to the Keough girls.”
My father grew up in Little Italy in Baltimore, attending Mount Saint Joe with other guys from the neighborhood. He always spoke of his past with an odd sense of pride in the mundane. It always drew me in more.
I desperately want to know more about my dad's past. The timeline is such a mystery to me. I only have bits and pieces like an unfinished puzzle. I have this pipe dream that someday I’ll write a biography about my father.
My father coughs to speak up again. I regain focus.
“This one time the bus broke down. It was early September and it was hot. We had this junk bus that would overheat and break down and the bus driver would have to go walking down the road.”
The waitress fills up his diet coke. It’s 9 am. Some men drink coffee my father drinks diet coke. Always has. I think he always will.
“This one time we locked him out and he would holler at us to let him back in, but the best time was when we unbolted one of the back bench seats.”
“You unbolted it?” I asked. “How did you unbolt it?”
My dad shrugged, “someone had tools, I guess.”
These are the details I’m always curious about. Sure we had our own shenanigans in high school, but never disassembled a bus.
“Yeah we unbolted the seat and unloaded it through the emergency door in the back of the bus. Oh yeah we had to disarm the alarm for the emergency door too.” He said. “You what?!” I said.
“Yeah well we unloaded it and were just sitting on it there in the grass on the side of the highway. The bus driver came walking up from far off in the distance and he stops and was looking to see what we did. All of the sudden he starts running and he gets to us and says ‘What are you doing?!’ We just calmly told him we took the seat out. Well he wasn’t too happy and told us to put it back, which we did.”
He takes a drink and chews his ice.
This is my father's life to me. I have story after story of his life, but never a full picture. How did we end up here? What made him what he is today. Anecdotes that never come together. I desire to know every last detail but never ask. Why? Maybe it’s out of respect, maybe it’s out of fear. I’m not sure.
After breakfast we walk around Little Italy. We walk by St. Leo The Great church where my dad was once an altar boy. From there we pass by St. Leo school where the Carmelite nuns once taught him. We continue on talking about the feast of Saint Anthony and the feast of Saint Gabriel.
He pointed out the houses of Tommy Pompa, and Mike Apicella and told me about how they would throw snowballs from Federal Hill at the cars on Key Highway.
We stop in front of a house with a wrought iron gate with an A on it. The A is for Azzaro. A family name. This used to be his grandparents' house, a house he lived in. I remember coming here as a kid. He points down the street to a blank door on a brick wall.
“There used to be a bakery down there and your great grandmother would send me out on cold mornings to pick up bread so fresh that it would burn my hands through the paper bag.”
We stand in silence. My dad looking into the past. I wish I could read his mind.
“You really should write these stories down.” I tell my dad “I think you have a story to tell.”
This boy from Baltimore grows up in a broken home and makes it; not only does he make it, but he breaks the cycle of a broken family.
“Maybe” is all he says to me.