Saturday, August 17, 2019

RIP my old tormenter

Jack is the one wearing sunglasses
I have a hobby, or maybe call it a compulsion. Every now and then I'll think of someone from my past and wonder whatever happened to them. And thanks to the fact that we live in the Age of Internet, I can find out whatever happened to them, usually in under five minutes.

The Internet is how I found out that my old junior high school friend Rita was dead, although the obituary did not say how she died, which makes me wonder if she killed herself. I hadn't seen her in over ten years and we were less firm friends than on-again off-again friends as the mood took Rita. But I was shocked and saddened anyway.

The Internet is how I learned the long-haired hippyish young priest, Father Ed, in my New Jersey town had left the priesthood after being accused of raping a teenaged boy. I felt revenged because the last time I saw him I was pregnant and trying to figure out if I could marry my Jewish boyfriend in the Catholic Church to make my parents happy. But it was a no-go because we wouldn't promise to raise the child in the Catholic Church.

The former Father Ed said I lived "in the eye of a whirlwind." Who's in the whirlwind now, bitch?

Recently I Googled the name of my worst grade school tormenter and was doubly surprised, although after the first two Google finds just mentioned, I suppose I should not have been.

I attended Our Lady of Fatima school in Cornwells Heights, a suburb across the tiny Poquessing Creek from the north-eastern corner of Philadelphia. By the time my family moved to Cornwells Heights (we moved to New Jersey ten years later) it was transforming from a semi-rural to semi-urban suburb, with convenience stores and apartment buildings popping up around our neighborhood of single-family homes.

Our Lady of Fatima got most of its students from my neighborhood and the neighborhood up the road, called "Nottingham." Thanks to the Internet I found a billboard erected on Street Road while Nottingham was being built, to entice dwellers of row homes into the suburbs. The billboard said "Phila's Newest Suburb" and under, in quasi-ye olden tymes font the name "Nottingham" and under that a drawing of what looked like the carriage and horses conjured up by the fairy godmother in  Disney's Cinderella. The billboard promised three bedroom ranch homes starting at ten thousand dollars. 

My neighborhood was called "Stanwood," a name so bland I didn't know that's what it was called until I spotted it on a map long after my family moved away. I never heard anybody refer to my neighborhood by any name at all, just by individual street names. The homes and yards of Stanwood were a little larger than Nottingham's (which was known to all as Nottingham), but the children who lived there were just as likely to be foul-mouthed little monsters.

Our Lady of Fatima's student body was full of second-and third generation descendants of immigrants from Catholic countries in Europe. In my class there was a Sarappo, a Pileri, a Harrigan, a Dougherty, two Brennans (not related), a Grabowski, a Jankowski,  twin Matuseks, a Mussay and even a Finkelstein. I'm not sure what the deal was with Beth Finkelstein, if her mother was Catholic or her whole family were converts or they simply used the Catholic school as an affordable private school, as some non-Catholics do. And there was Christopher Elinich (the name is Ukranian) whom my mother considered a saint. I just Googled him and am pleased to report that he's a registered Democrat.

Christopher was not part of the gang of boys in my class who were my tormentors. There were cruel girls too, but the boys were the cruelest, contrary to the "mean girl" stereotype. And their cruelty was compounded by their filthiness. I assume they had fathers who were careless with their copies of Playboy and Hustler, or perhaps the boys had access to the adult magazines at the Seven-Eleven that sat on the outer edge of Notthingham. In any case it was clear that they had throughly perused girly magazines, and the more explicite ones, by the time we were in fourth grade and gleefully told those of us with no access to adult materials that you got babies when a man put his wee-wee inside a woman near where she peed. It took me several years to realize they didn't invent the entire thing just to be gross. They were also racist and as I recall at one point claimed that Puerto Rican women had hideously long underarm hair. That sort of thing.

As for awkward freckled red-haired girls with overbites, their name for me was "Red Dog" occasionally alternating with "Sea Monster."

They were all crude and mean but one in particular I always remembered as the worst, a boy named Jack (name changed) who was from Nottingham. Although I'm sure that the incessant cruelty from this gang of boys formed my character as much as anything else, I can't say that I thought much about them after we moved, but when I have thought of them over the decades, Jack always stood out in my mind as the worst. I don't remember specifically all that he said now, but I remember that in spite of the pain I was impressed by the creative and original ways he came up with to express his contempt for me.

If I met someone like that now, of course I have the psychic defenses of an adult and would not let it bother me so much, but when you are ten, eleven and twelve, which were the years of the worst bullying and cruelty, and you are trapped in the classroom with monsters five days a week, autumn, winter and spring, it resonates intensely, and you feel it for the rest of your life, as fading but still perceivable sensation.

Jack was the only one of the gang I ever confronted. From the station wagon, as my family drove to Sunday Mass, I saw him, sitting alone in the empty lot at the corner of Street Road and Mechanicsville Road, with buckets of flowers for sale. I didn't wonder why a twelve-year-old boy was sitting by himself on the side of a highway (Street Road was four lanes by then ) engaging in commerce. I didn't wonder where he got the flowers. I only saw an opportunity. He noticed me in the station wagon and made rude gestures at me as we cruised passed. Neither of my parents noticed.

Directly after returning home from Mass, I headed out to confront my tormentor. The lot he sat in, which is now a strip mall with a large parking lot (thanks Google Maps Street View) was at that time full of sand-colored dirt and rocks and a little bit of scrubby grass, the perfect Western-looking environment to have a showdown at high noon.

I admit I didn't plan my offense well, or at all. The lot was only a block away from home and I got there in five minutes. I stood there looking at him, and I told myself he felt threatened. But he had a long slender tree branch with him, perhaps anticipating I would show up, which he used as a whip. As soon as I got anywhere near him he would snap it at me. So all I could do was tell him how much I hated him and he just laughed at me. And of course he tormented me even worse the next day in school with his gang of little monsters.

It was a relief when my father announced we were moving to New Jersey. And I never saw Jack or any of the rest of my classmates again. Not counting Facebook, of course, where I discovered that one of the Matusek twins, Bernadette, is a big Trump supporter. Ugh.

At work last week I suddenly had the urge to find out whatever happened to Jack. I Googled his name, which is a fairly common one, and up popped his photo. I knew it was him immediately although it was a photo of a thirty-something man and I hadn't seen him since he was twelve. I could never forget that thin-lipped smirk. I clicked on his photo and from there found his obituary. He had died in 2011. The obituary said he was "a friend of Mike" but didn't mention any other family except his mother and sisters.

I found his sister's Facebook profile and eventually found his photo, the same one I found in my initial Google search, and his sister mourning his loss on her timeline. Turns out their family owned a flower store in Philadelphia. That explained why he was selling flowers, but even by the laxer child-safety standards of the time, I think it's odd they let him sit on a corner by himself, with a job that expressly involved speaking to strangers in cars.

Jack's obituary revealed he was almost my exact contemporary, he was born a day before me. It said that he sold the family flower shop in the mid-1990s and moved to Delaware. It said he loved traveling, creative writing, storytelling and dancing. It mentioned Camp Rehoboth.

That's where I found the real Jack. CAMP Rehoboth is, according to its web site:
a 501(c)(3) non-profit, gay and lesbian community service organization, originally developed to “Create A More Positive” relationship among all the people of the Rehoboth Beach area.
Jack's photos are all over the web site. The first one I found is from 1998 and he's looking tanned and healthy. In 1999 he can be seen in drag, in the photo at the top of this post. In 2005 he's pictured smiling, looking a little thin but strong with an earring in one ear and a tattoo.

He contributed several brief but appreciative comments in the CAMP Rehoboth publication "Speak Out" over the years. In 2006 he mentions he is sick:
Being on disability with a life threatening illness is difficult. I am thankful for all the help and support I receive from Epworth United Methodist Church, the CAMP Rehoboth Community Center, the Rehoboth Beach Film Festival, and many individuals. These people are always there to lend a hand, a shoulder to lean on, or a ride when I need one, and I now have the privilege to call them my family. 
With the help of those on my Recovery team, I not only live each day one at a time, but I cherish each day. My neighbors and friends help nourish my soul and keep me eating healthy. Meals on Wheels makes sure I eat properly everyday, their cheerful smiles make my heart leap with joy. The staff of the Wellness Clinic encourage me and monitor my health. My therapist keeps me focused. My mother, Grace, who embodies her name, and my biological family, bring me joy. Everyone here in Rehoboth makes this town truly a place for all.
By 2009 he looks old enough to be the father of the man in the 2005 photo. And in his last photo from July 2011 he's shrunken and in a wheelchair.

So much for shadenfreude. 

I don't know if he discovered empathy once he became a teenager or by the time he became an adult. But he certainly was able to express gratitude and appreciation. 

What I didn't expect from this research into the life of my childhood tormentor was how it would change my old pain. When I think of the boy who tormented me, the memory is altered forever by the knowledge that the boy would die in middle-age of a horrible disease. 

Rest in peace, my old tormenter.