I want to tell you a little more about Bridgeport, the neighborhood where both Maggie and I were born and raised. As I said before, it was a blue collar community whose residents were hard working people. Very few men worked in offices or had professions; most labored in factories or on loading docks. Many were plumbers, electricians, carpenters or drove trucks for a living. If you were lucky enough to know the right politician, you might become a fireman, policeman or garbage man. Women, on the other hand, were seldom in the work force and were expected to stay home to take care of the house and children (This did begin to change during World War II when women entered the workforce because most men where in the military). Because most men in Bridgeport did not have jobs that paid well, they often worked long hours to make enough money to live from pay check to paycheck. When they did have some time away from their jobs to relax, they often spent it in a tavern with their hands wrapped around a large glass of beer. Taverns were every place.
Bridgeport was also very Catholic. Because many of its residents came from Poland, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania and other Catholic European countries, each nationality seemed to think it had to build its own church so it could minister to its own people. Not only was it necessary to have an Irish Catholic Church on a particular block, but within the next few blocks there was also two Polish Catholic churches and one Lithuanian.
This always seemed somewhat strange to me – having so many churches and taverns so close to each other; each seeming to do just the opposite of what the other was doing. It was as if God and the Devil were doing battle – or as if Bridgeport had a split personality. Following is my observation of what seemed to happening in Bridgeport.
Bridgeport Is Schizophrenic
Bridgeport is schizophrenic. It doesn’t know if it’s a haven for saints or sinners. A short walk from my house in any direction reveals the obvious – there’s a battle going on, a battle between God and the devil, a battle for the souls of the poor European immigrants who settled here. It isn’t a raging battle, not one with daily clashes, not one with blood flowing in the streets, but it’s a battle none the less, and everywhere you look you can see the fortresses that house the embattled souls.
There’s a Catholic church on almost every other block – six within a seven block radius: St. Mary of Perpetual Help, St. Bridgett, St. Barbara, Immaculate Conception, St. George, and St. Gabrielle. And each has its own school. God has staked His claim - “These are my people.”
Yet, the devil is not intimidated. Almost every block in Bridgeport has a tavern – sometimes on the corner, sometimes in the middle of the block – sometimes in both places. There’s Curley’s, The Gin Mill, Fanukins, Johnnie K’s, Ziggy’s, Spike and Pickles, Matches, Johnny Wall’s, Monty’s, and a host of others - some with no names, just a place with a liquor sign in the window and a wooden bar inside. The devil’s definitely challenging God and needs twice as many places to have any hope of winning.
God’s sanctuaries are opulent. They’re large edifices with massive domes and stained glass windows that cast rainbows across the mirrored marble floors and the rows and rows of parishioners sitting reverently rigid in varnished oak pews. The deeply inhaled fragrance of fresh-cut flowers and the sweet scent of incense wafts through the air as the booming sound of the pipe organ and cherubic voices of the choir echo throughout the church. The priest bellows from the pulpit about the sins of man and the glory of God. It’s a setting for the greatest gift of all – receiving the body and blood of Jesus Christ as you humbly kneel at the communion rail.
The devil’s dens are different. They’re dimly lit, narrow caverns with dingy, paint peeling ceilings and broken bladed fans droning slowly overhead. Blinking yellow, blue, and red neon beer signs flicker across patrons slumped low on ripped vinyl stools. The rancid smell of stale beer permeates every corner as men sing in cacophonous groups to records blaring from the flashing juke box. The bartender berates a drunk for throwing up on the bar then brusquely throws him out the back door; merely another day for the patrons bellying up to the bar for another shot of whiskey or a pint of draft beer.
The tug of war between the devil and God for the souls of this humble community is a relatively close battle. The colossal sizes of the churches are suitable for large crowds. Services are full on Sundays, well attended on Good Fridays and special novenas, and overflowing on Christmas and Easter. However, there are 365 days in a year and Sundays and Catholic holidays account for only a small portion of them. Taverns are open six days a week, and though no single tavern can match the capacity of any church, each draws a respectable crowd every night. So, all in all, the average attendance at churches and taverns in any given week is fairly equal.
Sometimes both can take credit for capturing a wayward soul. You can barely walk a block in any direction without bumping into someone staggering from a bar – sometimes stumbling to the nearest church to pray for forgiveness. On Christmas Eve, young men wobble from the local tavern to attend midnight mass; often sitting in the back pews for a hasty exit should the evening’s libations require it. If they make it through the mass, after drinking most of the night, you can chalk one up for God and the devil — a virtual tie.