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Catholic Reform School

My Catholic education taught me never to trust a priest under or over 30. They became quite vicious if anyone threatened their sense of authority or in any way profaned their pride, which I was constantly doing. Here they had given up their lives in the service of God. They got up at five every morning to say Mass, and wore lousy black gabardine slacks that itched, and had tossed their sex lives in the wastebasket and, goddamnit, they expected the laymen-serfs to click their heels and pay proper respect.

My four years in Catholic high school were a boot camp in guerrilla warfare against overweening authority. I served my sentence at Riordan High School, a newish cement-walled institution that served as sort of a respectable Catholic reform school for the children of lower-middle-class San Francisco Italian and Irish families and was otherwise distinguished by having been named after an Archbishop who had been killed by a train.

The student body was a monstrous assembly of truants who enjoyed committing battery on the men who had consecrated their bodies to God. The unenviable title of the worst of our bad lot was generally considered a tossup between myself and another student who had the unpleasant habit of boarding a streetcar and unzipping his pants and urinating in the fare box. 

In the World War II epics popular at the time, John Wayne always painted tiny Japanese suns on the fuselage of his plane each time he bagged a Zero. Similarly, the lads at Riordan maintained a running box score on how many religious we were able to send down in flames.

Our teachers were the Brothers of Mary, an uninspired religious order whose ranks held the usual number of failed hedonists and sexual malcontents. The brothers, who preferred double-breasted black business suits to the more traditional clerical robes, were on the spectrum of religious vocation between the dull gray of the consecrated eunuch and the purple glory of the priesthood. In addition to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, they took an additional vow, that of special devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, an inamorata they referred to with some intimacy as the “BVM.” The order was like a religious displaced persons camp for grade four and lower civil servants.

The all-male Riordan student body was warned about the physical dangers of public high schools, not the least of which was the hazard of bloody Kotex pads that shameless Protestant and Jewish girls were said to drop carelessly on dark stairways. 

Our contact with the outside world was largely limited to mandatory special pleading to the Lord to free Cardinal Mindszenty from an atheistic holding cell in Hungary, and reading about contemporary events in the brown pages of a jejune publication called the Junior Catholic Messenger, which featured front-page photos of the eminent Catholic junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, buzzing about the Senate subway doing God’s work in Washington.

Catholic high school proved an excellent place to learn the nature of bureaucracy and the fine art of bamboozling. I gained access to the school sherry supply and discovered the wonderful world of banquets and cocktail parties, the entrance to which could be gained by creating sundry committees, letterheads and other artifacts of eleemosynary hoodwinkery. I and my childhood buddy, a kindred musketeer named Gerry Davalos, got happily drunk every Saturday afternoon excepting Advent and Lent by putting on our good suits and walking into strange wedding receptions in the Catholic catering halls of the Sunset District, where we pretended that we were the groom’s relations to the bride’s people, and vice versa. 

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