Even as we forge ahead with renovating the rental "unit" downstairs in the CrazyStable, I'm still processing my visit to my childhood home--the Ur-Stable--in Little Neck, Queens, a few weeks ago. In a weird reversal of the urban memory play of generations past, where you go back to the cozy old working-class nabe you grew up in and find instead a crime- and poverty-ridden ghetto, I returned to my "Wonder Years" middle-class suburb and discovered a ghastly ghetto of McMansions. To my great relief, the big, gracious old house of my youth has been restored with the kind of taste and sensitivity that only lots of money can buy. To my horror, many surrounding homes of my childhood friends (and some tormentors) have been erased, and replaced with the kind of grotesque eye-popping cookie-cutter ostentation that...only lots of money can buy.
Yes, I'm talking about the Plague of the Tear-Downs. The entire row of homes across the street has been rubbed out, as if by a giant child's eraser, and replaced with a succession of gaudy look-alikes straight from the "Win Your Dream Home!" layout of the Publishers' Clearinghouse Giveaway. Lots of corkscrew conifers, in-ground lighting, "cathedral"-ceilinged entryways with Radio-City-height chandeliers. Lots of stucco. Lions, griffins, and other faux-regalia guarding the residents within. And, in a final insult, a fresh teardown underway directly across the street--my playmate Elizabeth's house, a pleasant Tudor that could have lasted another 75 years with care, is now a plywood-guarded pit raked by a backhoe. I spent many aspirational hours in that house; they seemed to have everything we didn't (wall-to-wall, color TV, a station wagon, a mom who could drive and play cards with the members of the Ladies' Auxiliary, Madame Alexander dolls.) They also had their share of sorrow...and while I know that bricks and mortar don't actually hold memories or life experiences like some metaphysical sponge, the sheer recklessness of it filled me with disgust. Hell, the environmental insult alone: In an age where the kiddies are taught the mantra of "reuse, return, recycle," and posh catalogs peddle socially-conscious fripperies made of recycled milk bottles, how many cubic acres of landfill are we filling each year with solid, lovely houses that just didn't live up to the aesthetic and spatial demands of a hedge-fund manager or mobster?
(Here's a bonus atrocity nearing completion halfway down the block. Love those classically proportioned toothpicks in front.)
But the saddest "tear-down" of all in Little Neck is not the houses but the people. What people? I really have no idea. In the Sixties, these houses (or their predecessors) were owned by firemen, cops, restaurant managers, and the like. Their children filled the streets after school with the sound of baseball bats hitting the pavement, jumprope rhymes, and bicycle bells. In summer, the backyards were an aural patchwork of creaky porch swings, the Mets (at least in '69) on countless transistor radios, and the screech of kids jumping into backyard pools. Last summer, when I visited the same spot, the now-manicured streets were empty and silent except for the roar of hedge-clippers and leaf-blowers wielded by a crew of day laborers. No kids, no bikes, no toys on porches or lawns, no dads cutting grass or lighting barbecue grills...it was like that Twilight Zone episode (above) where the deserted town turns out to be the plaything of a giant laughing child. (Maybe the one who keeps ripping out the perfectly nice houses and demanding bigger ones.) I don't know who the new people are, entombed within their lavish homes, but with houses selling for aroung a million, it's a safe bet they aren't cops like my old playmate Garret's father, or firemen like Betty's dad.
So...the body of my old neighborhood is going fast, under replacement by the real-estate pod people , but what about its soul? That's shifting shape, too. The reason for my visit to Little Neck was to pay my respects at the funeral of my dad's old Army buddy, Robert Groh, who just died at 91. Daddy and Bob Groh served together guarding FDR at Hyde Park, and were pleasantly surprised to find themselves both raising families in Little Neck's Catholic parish of St. Anastasia. I hadn't been back to St. Anastasia for Mass in decades, and it was a startling portrait of the deepest change of all.
When I attended St. Anastasia School, an "SAS" emblazoned on my uniform jumper, it was the height of the baby boom in a heavily Irish and German suburb. The school was bursting at the seams, with Sisters of Mercy keeping ironclad discipline over classes of 50 (two per grade). There weren't many amenities nor much "individual attention" or "nurturing of creativity," but the school was an effective factory for turning out literate Catholic citizens. It was here I received my First Communion at the old Latin Mass, awash in incense and Gregorian chant; a few years later, we were astonished to see that the nuns had not only hair but legs as they cast aside their old habits and names. A few years after that, I got a birthday guitar from E.J. Korvettes and wielded it (God forgive me) with a dozen of my 8th-grade peers on the altar (now stripped of its angel statues and altar rail), regaling the hapless parishioners with inexplicable selections like Crosby, Stills and Nash's "Teach Your Children" and, yes, "Kumbaya." We had four priests at the rectory, the newest of whom was a dead ringer for the young Elvis. Men walked on the moon, the Church was "opening a window" onto modern times, the 1964 Worlds' Fair had recently encamped nearby with its visions of Futuramas and monorails, and growing up meant (on TV, anyway) wearing tie-dye and pushing daisies into the barrels of guns. Or maybe it meant dying, like the young men on the "honor roll" at the end of Channel 5's nightly news broadcast; I was just a kid, and I couldn't be sure. But for all the changes in hair and morals and skirt lengths and politics that my parents bemoaned, and for all the changes in the Church itself, the one thing we knew would always be there was...the Church.
And it is still there...but the open windows seem now to speak more of abandonment than fresh air. The parish website recounts a familiar, wistful litany: changing demographics (in this corner of Queens, to a heavily Korean population), old-line Catholics moving on and forgetting to have more than one baby, tuition rising and the school, once topping out at 1,600 or so students, now below 300. Bob Groh's funeral offered a revealing glimpse of a place in dire transition; the old pastor emeritus (who actually used the words "the halcyon good old days" on the parish website) seemed to purr with nostalgia at having pews filled for a bright winter's morn with a few Bergdorf blondes and robed judges mourning the passage of their colleague. (Bob, a state Supreme Court judge, had been a pillar of the community; my dad, an insurance salesman, had been a mere brick.)
As Bob's flag-draped casket was carried out, I saluted another member of the "Greatest Generation" and knew my dad would welcome him home. I walked around Alameda Avenue and listened to the period bells ringing inside the school, marking the hours for the remnant of a student body. I gazed at the rectory, wondering for the hundredth time if Father Elvis, later accused of molestation in the very years I received the Eucharist from his hands, was guilty or innocent. (It's a case with Rashomon-like ambiguities.) It's not terribly original, in this century or the preceding two, to wonder how the hell the world could change so much in the course of a lifetime (or what I hope is half a lifetime). But even more discomfiting than change itself is the realization that my Catholic suburban Wonder Years were not halcyon days, at least not for everyone.
I tell myself, and believe, that "the Church" is us and Him, not "them" in the rectories and diocesan offices, not the buildings or the style or the trimmings. But the model that created "us" as Church (at least the model for my generation) is sputtering to a halt in a ditch, and no one seems to have any burning ideas for how to revive or replace it. If we're looking at a future of almost no priests, almost no schools, dwindling populations, half-empty churches, and one cobbled-together parish for every half-dozen or so parishes of yesteryear, what will this downsized and consolidated "Catholic Church" look like as a faith community?
I hope it won't look like a McMansion--big, ornate, mostly childless, and mostly empty.