Two Memories by Gerard Garrigan, OSB


Yes, it was a long time ago, and in a place that now seems a world away, that I came to know old Josef. It was in the 1970s in the Bowery, years before Giuliani would clean up the Lower East Side, long before it gentrified. Josef was a bald, pudgy, so-called Bowery bum, having lived his life before the more dignified “homeless person” term entered popular parlance. Josef, having no home, stored his entire wardrobe on his person, layers of old sport coats on his back, God knows how many pairs of pants layered on his stocky legs. How excruciatingly hot this must have been on the streets in summer. Josef’s crowning fashion touch for me was his delightfully incongruous pair of white old-school canvas Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars basketball sneakers. Where he picked those up, I have no idea. I doubt he knew the storied hoops history of that classic basketball footwear.

Josef had somehow come by one lens from a broken set of eyeglasses and a tattered paperback Ukrainian-English Bible. Josef would engage me at the soup line at the Catholic Worker, at East First Street at Second Avenue on the Lower East Side, by sitting next to me, that lens in hand. He would evangelize me reading aloud from his Ukrainian-English Bible with his thick Ukrainian accent. “I the vin, ye the brinches. No one inter into the Fodder except true me.”

I remember once that someone started smoking there in the soup kitchen and Josef went crazy. He leapt up and started shouting, “No smoken! No smoken!” Then Josef pointed his index finger and mimicked the sound of a machine gun. “Eh! Eh! Eh! Eh! Eh! Eh! Eh.”

I came to understand that, while a boy, Josef’s parents had been killed by the Communists in the Ukraine. Then, during the Second World War, Josef was imprisoned by the Nazis when they overran his country. I took it that his outburst triggered by the man’s smoking was somehow a flashback to when someone would try to escape from the Nazi prison camp and the prison guards would mow the escapee down with machine gun fire.

I do not know whatever became of Josef. I assume he long ago went to his eternal reward, which I have no doubt he received for his faithful street evangelization efforts in the poverty-stricken and alcohol-ravaged Bowery. Years ago, I wrote a poem about Josef which I wish I could find. Its conclusion went something like this:

          Josef, your branch has been gnarled and twisted
         But has clung firmly attached to the life-giving Vine.

Please God, Josef, you have by now entered into the Father, through your beloved Christ, the life-giving Vine.

May you rest in peace.

♦ ♦ ♦

    Make Yourself Useful, as Well as Ornamental

          In tribute to my father

“Make yourself useful, as well as ornamental.”

When my father was working in our house, and I was not, both of which were not infrequent occurrences, he would quip to this lazy recumbent lout, “Make yourself useful, as well as ornamental.” I found his riposte at the time both unwelcome and unfunny. I would roll my eyes, as only an aggrieved adolescent can, and reluctantly and half-heartedly assist my father with the chore at hand. Though I failed to appreciate my father’s droll sense of humor at the time, I now, many years later, frequently repeat this and many other of his witticisms.

Often, I was absent when there was work to be done at home, usually off playing ball. I remember one occasion when I happened to be home when my father was assisting my Uncle Art in building a family room extension to our home. It was blistering hot, and since I was skinny enough, I was given the job of lying on my back to hammer up plywood beneath the fiberglass insulation under the addition’s floor. I can still feel the extremely painful itch of the insulation on my bare, perspiring chest. The next day of this work project, I made sure to conveniently absent myself to the ball field, so as to avoid being impressed into another day of this miserable involuntary servitude.

I did a lot of stupid things as a teenager, and still do. On the many occasions when I would exercise poor judgement, my father would needle me with a sly dig. Many a time my father would zing me with his favorite barb, “Clarence, you’re a boob.” This was an allusion to the old sitcom Leave It to Beaver. After the oafish Clarence “Lumpy” Rutherford, Wally Cleaver’s friend, would pull some bonehead stunt, his father Fred Rutherford would blurt out in exasperation, “Clarence, you’re a boob.” Repeatedly I proved by my intemperate behavior that I was, indeed, a boob, and my father was always quick to rub it in with that saying that irked me so because I knew it was true.

Not all of my father’s memorable words were directed to me. Sometimes he just said unusual things because he was unusual. My father was unlike all of the fathers of my friends. In our largely working class neighborhood, my father may have been the most well-read of our parents. He had grown up enjoying literature. I remember him telling me that when he was a boy, he would visit his Aunt Mame who had a set of Dickens. My father would read Dickens lying on the floor at his aunt’s, fall asleep, and have the most fantastic dreams.

Our house was full of books, most of them used. My father’s library was very wide-ranging and quite eclectic in its scope—literature, history, and theology were well represented. My father was very religious and had even spent a brief time in the seminary, and so the theological books in his collection were quite numerous.

My father would get up very early, pray his rosary, and then do heavy-duty theological reading by authors such as Jacques Maritain, Étienne Gilson, Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and others. Then he would go off to work and would meditate on his spiritual reading as he walked his route as a mailman. None of my friends’ fathers did anything remotely like this.

My father was also just plain eccentric. His brain was simply wired differently from others—I do not think that all of the wires in his brain connected. I believe I inherited my brain from him. His words would often betray his unusual mind, which was frequently absent. I remember once my Aunt Louise was visiting and she and my mother were conversing. My father blurted out, apropos of nothing that was being said, “I wonder why we never put ice cream on those Twinkies.” We all squirmed in our seats and averted our gazes from him in embarrassment.

My older brother Paul could not understand why our family was so abnormal. “Why can’t we be like normal people,” he would whine. Well, the reason was obvious to me. We could not be like normal people because we were not normal people, largely due to our abnormal father. This once distressed me and shamed me. Now I am grateful for my unusual family, formed largely by my eccentric father who in his most inimitable way drolly pointed out my misguided behavior, encouraged me to work, modeled for me the importance of reading and of prayer, and was always there for me. May he pray for me in heaven as he did on earth. And until I join him there, please God, I will pray in gratitude for him and get on, as best I can, with making myself useful as well as ornamental.

Gerard Garrigan, OSB is a Benedictine monk of Saint Louis Abbey in St. Louis, Missouri. Free digital copies of his poetry may be obtained by emailing him at

Image: Detail from To all appearances, it was a hand of flesh and blood just like my own, Odilon Redon, 1896. Metropolitan Museum of Art/Public Domain.

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