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James Carroll
From The City Below
(Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994)

From Chapter Three

The City Below IN SEPTEMBER John Kennedy was the nominee, and at Boston College the air was charged. Students at Catholic schools all across the country felt the jolt of politics that fall, but at BC the unprecedented energy shot through everyone, students and teachers alike, even the wizened old Jesuits long committed to a holy ignorance of events outside the classroom and the cloister. Kennedy made nuns giddy, and he made monsignors regret having become Republicans, but his candidacy was no mere replay of the Al Smith effort three decades earlier. John Kennedy's appeal went far deeper than religion, and the success he'd achieved already, simply by the character of his arrival on the national scene, gave his first constituents a visceral sense of vindication. His importance for Catholics, for the Irish, and especially for the Irish Catholics in the neighborhoods of Boston who had elected him to Congress lay in the way his new prominence made them feel connected to the larger world he was storming -- the world beyond the parish, beyond the neighborhood, beyond the parochial school, the Holy Name, the K of C, the Catholic societies and clubs that had kept separate not only sacristy ladies but lawyers, doctors, and even foresters -- connected to the world beyond the streetcar schools for the Catholic kids who were, almost all of them, the first in their families to go to college.

BC was as far from Charlestown as it was possible to go and still be inside the city limits. It was a gracious, sprawling enclave straddling the border between Boston and Newton. Terry Doyle arrived there with no notion of the cultural assertion made by its sham Gothic architecture, or of the social meaning of the college's location, near Chestnut Hill where the Brahmins lived. The cardinal's residence across Commonwealth Avenue was a more telling point of reference. He noted the mansion as the streetcar passed it, but he was focused on the college as the car slowed for the turnabout at the weather shed that marked the end of the line.

Read passages from An American Requiem

  • "An American Requiem," from the April, 1996, Atlantic
  • "Elvis Disappears"
  • "The Leap of Faith"
  • "A Defender of Justice"

    * * *

    Read a passage from The City Below, a novel

  • from Chapter Three

    * * *

    Read essays by James Carroll

  • "The Cardinal of Repression," from the July, 1992, Atlantic
  • "God's Patriots," from the July, 1992, Atlantic

    * * *

    An Essay on James Carroll

  • "The FBI and Leo Tolstoy" by Martin Green, from the July, 1994, Atlantic

  • Much as he'd wished otherwise, his thoughts on the interminable ride from Charlestown that first morning had kept returning to the world he did know. As he'd left the house, Nick had wished him luck Gramps had pinned one of the famous lapel shamrocks on his new corduroy sport jacket. And his mother had put a special sack lunch in his hands and kissed him. But he was sure they'd exchanged glances behind his back as he'd adjusted the clover flower on his coat and tugged his necktie into place.

    In the reflection of the streetcar window Terry had played over and over vivid scenes of his life in Charlestown. All summer the thought of this first day of college had filled him with eagerness, but what he kept seeing now in the mirror of the streetcar window had undercut his every pulse of happiness. The flower store with his red-nosed nip-sucking grandfather, the attic room with his brother, the rooms above the store with their shelves full of pill bottles and Madonna vases, their pictures of Curley, Cushing, and Pius XII -- these were the places he belonged. What was he doing going off to college? Who did he think -- in the masterpiece kneecapping question of his kind--yes, who did he think he was? One night Nick had laughed and said Terry's feelings were only fitting, since surely he'd been kidnapped in infancy by tinkers and sold to the peasants at the Kerry Bouquet. That not even Nick understood his feelings had been the real surprise.

    By the time he hopped off the streetcar opposite the entrance to BC, he felt hung over. He hadn't noticed them until now, but six or seven other guys got off too and headed toward the campus. They were as gangly and awkward as he was, with fresh haircuts that made their ears stand out dangerously. At Charlestown High, ears like that would get snapped from behind. All the boys wore new shoes and an air of timid isolation, but to Terry Doyle they seemed supremely at ease upperclassmen probably.

    None was carrying a brown paper lunch sack, and that stopped him just as he was about to trail across the street. Without consciously making a decision, but also fully aware of the meaning of the deed, he turned back abruptly to the streetcar platform and went directly to the green trash barrel into which commuters stuffed stale newspapers. He pushed the bag his mother had given him deep into the newspapers, appalled at himself yet knowing he had no choice. Just as automatically, he pulled the shamrock off his coat and stuffed it in after the bag.

    The demands stern Jesuits made on him that morning purged him not only of his morose self-doubt but of all feeling. "No salvation," he imagined them thundering, "outside of class!" In a welcome state of numb compliance, he went from intimidating orientation sessions in a succession of classrooms to the slow, snaking lines of course registration in the big gym. Even his ability to be impressed by the turreted campus was dulled when a warm, late summer drizzle began to fall. The rain made the figures passing each other in the quads slouch into themselves, yet Terry had concluded that not even his fellow freshmen were as lost in this new world as he was.

    When he had finally accumulated all seven of his class-admit cards, he went to Lyons Hall where a temporary bookstore had been set up at one end of the large cafeteria. He bought his textbooks and terraced them under his left arm the way other guys were doing. His heart sank as he prepared to go back out in the rain. His books would be ruined before he got home. None of these other fellows had even looked at him. Nobody had said so much as hi. He felt lonelier and more displaced than he ever had -- was this possible? -- in the Town. This whole thing was a mistake.

    But then Terry saw the tables against one wall of a congested corridor outside the cafeteria, each with a knot of guys clustered at it, each table, he saw then, with signs and barkers. Campus organizations were working to draw recruits. ROTC, he read, GOLD KEY SOCIETY, THE HEIGHTS. Terry walked slowly into the bustle, afraid that the disappointment that had so dogged him was evident. What would these eager, laughing upperclassmen make of him? He dreaded being branded.

    Then he saw it, a card table with a felt banner skirting its front edge reading YOUNG DEMOCRATS. Above the table a professionally lettered cardboard sign running vertically on a pole, like a delegation banner at a political convention, displayed the one shimmering word, blue caps against white. Not IOWA but KENNEDY.

    Doyle pushed through the ebullient throng to that table, but when he got there his point of reference changed entirely. The student standing by the table, clipboard in hand, waiting to sign him up, was a Negro. He was taller even than Terry, and much thinner. He wore the uniform chinos and blue oxford cloth button-down, but the deep brown skin of his hands and face set him absolutely apart from the others. He was the first Negro Terry had seen at BC that day. His eyes were big and round, and the whites of his eyes looked like glass, and set against that skin his teeth seemed made of china. Doyle had never seen such a smile on a man.

    "Why don't you take a picture? It'll last longer."

    Terry had not realized he was staring.

    "I'm Bright McKay." The young black put his hand out.

    Terry took it.

    "What's your name?"

    "Terry Doyle."

    "Hi, Terry. I'm a sophomore here, history major. Can I talk to you about Jack Kennedy? I think he's your kind of guy."

    "Yeah," Doyle said. "Yeah, you can."

    McKay's bony wrists and hands protruded from his sleeves like sticks, and it was easy to picture him on The Ed Sullivan Show with Harry Belafonte, singing the "Banana Boat" song. His cheeks were hollow, and his nubby hair was cut close to his scalp. A barber's clipper had furrowed a part on the left side of his head.

    As McKay rattled off his spiel -- "a chance for our future . . . our time has come" -- Doyle backed away, feeling as if he'd answered the door to a magazine salesman. Jet, he thought Ebony. "A turning point in history," McKay was saying, "when our country turns to us and we provide the leaders -- " Suddenly he stopped. "What's wrong?"

    "Nothing's wrong," Terry answered, but he knew he was blushing.

    "You look confused."

    "You said, 'We're the leaders now."'

    "Yeah, that's the point."

    Doyle sensed McKay's mystification, but hadn't a clue how to explain himself, that "we're the leaders now" meant, in his world, the Irish, the Catholics.

    "Wait a sec." McKay leaned in on him with eyes digging. "Wait a sweet goddamn sec. You think I'm talking N double-A C P. You think I mean 'we' as in 'We Shall Overcome.'"

    "No I don't."

    McKay laughed. He sat back against the edge of his table, hugging his clipboard. "Terry, my man. Terry . . . Terry . . . Terry. 'We' as in 'You and me, brother.' As in 'Young men shall dream dreams.' As in 'Our time has come!' People like us, people our age . . ."

    A door burst open in Doyle's mind. For the first time in his life he was being invited to think of himself as belonging to a group that was not his nationality or his race or his religion. He and this colored guy were "youth."

    McKay had read his mind, and Doyle wanted to ask, How do you do that?

    But McKay had resumed his spiel. "America under Ike has gone soft because there is no vision, and where there is no vision, the people perish . . ."

    As Terry listened, he was struck by the fact that the kid's accent was nothing like what it should have been. Belafonte: there was a lyrical curl in Bright McKay's voice that made him sound almost as if he were singing, and all the time he spoke, his smile never quite left his face. McKay repeatedly referred to the candidate as "Jack Kennedy," with such an air of familiarity that, at one point, Terry almost interrupted to ask, Do you know him?

    Where did you learn to talk like that?

    Even before McKay had finished, Terry Doyle had admitted to himself how drawn he was to him.

    "Any questions?" McKay said finally.

    "Yes, one," Doyle answered with a jauntiness unusual for him. "Where do I sign up?"

    McKay's grin grew, if anything, wider. He held his clipboard steadily in front of Doyle. "Right here, my good man. Right here."

    Aware of the relief he felt -- landfall! Kennedy! And was this a friend? -- Terry Doyle wrote his name as if that were what he'd come all this way to do.

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    Copyright © 1994 by James Carroll. All rights reserved.