For the past 10 years, I tried to make up for lapses in weekly Sunday church envelope contributions by working as a volunteer at the St. Ann Novena food stand. To impose penance and exact a measure of punishment for not being a “good giver” I consistently requested to work at the Novena’s busy food stand’s hot dog/hamburg grille. Such task is not for people of Jeb Bush “Low Energy,”and upon start of daily tasks, the following practical thought always entered my mind: “In order to fend off the assembled flock’s appetite, how many divisions of Gutheinz hot dogs can the Passionists of St. Paul of the Cross mobilize during a 12 P.M. Novena Mass to Saint Ann?”
Stationed beside a grille within the walls of a food stand building, and looking east at a West Scranton home advertising, “For Sale,” I listened to worshipers sing, “O good Saint Ann, Saint Ann pray for us!” As a horde of Catholic faithful descended the slope, passed by rebuilt outdoor Stations of the Cross and headed toward the oasis-food stand, I quickly applied water, hand scraped grease from grille surface, and placed a dozen more hot dogs upon the surface. “Sizzle, sizzle, splash,” a threatening rise of hot white steam! Of course, a ball-buster peer volunteer shouted, “Fire, fire, call Scranton F.D.!”
O hell, the dangers Americans face – now grease stains upon my baby blue Father’s Day shirt, and why didn’t I listen to Mrs. Harrington who wisely recommended I wear an apron for wardrobe protection?
At the worst moments of cooking hotdogs and burgers for (at times) well over a hundred impatient worshipers, and with volunteer teenage kids yelling out, “Hey Mr. Chuck, I need four hot dogs and two cheeseburgers to go,” for mental sanctuary, I escape into the candle lit St. Ann’s Basilica grotto. But at very nice moments, for example, while restocking buns and sliced cheese, and respectfully checking out divine Scranton ladies dressed in Summer clothes, a Passionist priest would approach and anoint me with the honored St. Ann relic.
(Note: The Roman Catholic Church designate physical parts of deceased Saints, for example, a bone, strand of hair, as cherished relics. As global Catholics revere the memory of St. Ann, the alleged mother of Virgin Mary, I have several Baptist and Evangelical friends who believe Catholics, including me, are foolish to petition anyone besides Jesus Christ. Not knowing and subsequently unable to teach anyone what’s the truth on the “right” way to pray, but when “chips are down,” I admit to even petitioning the late-Mother Teresa of Calcutta for either a modest favor or “capital gain”!)
With a lingering touch of the relic upon wrinkled forehead, Sunday Mass, July 17, I paused to listen to the beautiful voices of St. Mary’s Gospel Catholic Church Choir, Birmingham, Alabama. From food stand counter, and doing strained knee bends to prevent excess stiffness, I listened to a female and male choir who sang non-typical, upbeat songs like this. Impressed and having taken “Ten Minutes Happy Jesu Hour” counsel with Chief Novena Chef Nancy, I learned that the (all black choir) volunteered to drive over 900 miles north in order to daily perform four times at weekend Novena Mass!
Admittedly, upon first hearing such Sam Cooke & the Soul Spinners style music, I confess to having cynically figured that Diocese of Scranton “dipped in” to the Annual Appeal appeal fund and hired the “Live” talents of the great Mavis Staples and her backup singers! Charred by decades of Guvmint/Top Ten “bully pulpit B.S.,” how nice (for me) to be found judgmentally wrong by Chef Nancy and so inspired by (unpaid) Alabama voices, who sang versions of Delta style blues for Scranton, “would God my woes were at an end, thy joys that I might see.”
1 P.M., and realizing most worshipers had feasted hardily and went home, I began to review events of the day and took account of my actions. During a rather slow period, a lady (mid-30s) entered food stand and “signed up” to do volunteer work. Long dark hair, tattoo on muscular calf, she wore a short yellow sun dress and displayed wholesome breasts which might have inspired Michelangelo to dismount the Sistine Chapel scaffold. Smiling, (I’d like to do the bossa nova with her), she walked toward hot dog grille, and sweetly asked, “O Chuck, do you need any help with the buns?”
Stunned and gawking, and plugged into a “higher level”spirituality of the of late-Jesuit/scientist, Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, I replied, “No… so far I can handle it, but maybe the young man making french fries could use another hand?”
“O that’s so sweet of you, Chuck, you’re always thinking about another person’s ‘cross to bear’!”
“Well, thank you my dear! Say, can you write a Letter of Recommendation to my wife, Carol?
“Hee-hee,” and like Rose Louise Hovick “born again,” she departed for the french fry station.
1:30 P.M., it’s never easy to be saintlike while volunteering at the Novena food stand. For example, at shifts end, I rather anonymously load a small box filled with Novena food, balance it between legs upon my Suzuki motorcycle, and bring stuff home for family dinner! One crabby lady takes special care to monitor my self rewards, and when I asked her for a styro foam cup of sausage, onions, and peppers, she meanly smirched, and doled out little more than two Barney Fife-size chomps to take home. Soon after, a tall 70-something volunteer, who weighed-in at least 350 pounds, approached grille and demanded another hot dog! Quickly, I placed the dog upon bun and handed it to the fellow.
“Hey, buddy! What made you put it on a crummy bun? Bah… I want to wrap the hot dog in a sugared pizza frita and put melted cheese and wimpie sauce on top of it!”
“Uh, here ‘ya go – that should keep you full until the next Novena service, an hour from now, eh?”
“Yea, hypothetically speaking, it should, sonny! Buon giorno.”
Again, time passes and I could really use a cold beer. Gradually, people scaled the Basilica hill and prepared for the 3:30 P.M. Novena. Families lay down blankets, rested upon lawn, loners sat upon stone wall, while hundreds gathered beneath a sprawling canvas tent.
Obsessively, I looked at Tracphone clock, hoped someone would soon arrive and offer to help during the next wave of hungry worshipers. As a West Scranton Intermediate School (female) student volunteer yelled, “Hey, Chuck, can you cook me two hot dogs to go?,” Mr. Joe R. entered into grille realm, reached out a big hand and said, “Well, Chuck, I’m here to help you until my ‘tee off time’ later at Pine Hills Golf Course!”
“That’s great news, Joe, ’cause it looked like I was going to be martyred at the grille until you showed up.”
Anyway, Joe’s appearance was a turning point for me. What’s more, he’s early 50s, good physical shape, confident, operates a vibrant real estate business, serves as a top organizer for the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade… and Joe’s quite a “Clinton romantic.” So to make positive impression, I quickly splashed water upon the grille surface, vigorously scraped, and once again, white hot smoke rose to the roof, frightened fellow volunteers! But what the hell…, that’s life in the hot dog catacombs?
“O cripes, too much water again, Chuck,” exclaimed Joe, “You’re bound to scare Scranton beat cops who are assigned to direct traffic on clogged St. Ann Street!”
“Billowing white smoke – most inconvenient; er, especially since neighbors may think a new Pope is elected?”
Off to shaky start, Joe and I bonded. He shared detail about real estate business, and emphasized that “Scranton is a real ‘buyer’s market!” Joe explained a highly competitive effort to acquire a large commercial/residential property in South Side, Pittston Avenue. He assured me that success in this endeavor will be a “crown jewel in my portfolio.” Knowing I had failed US Empire machinery of laissez-faire capitalism, I grinned, shook hands, and gushed, “I hope you one day become first among Scranton’s finest oligarch families and will work to resurrect our financially destitute city!”
Atop hill, a Passionist priest delivered a homily, and that meant, within 1/2 hour, the food stand would undergo surge by those who preferred to “eat out,” forsake cooking at home. On the ball, Joe stocked plastic bins with extra hot dog and hamburger buns. He said, “O well, Chuck, we might best take a seat, because soon we’ll be running our sinner butts off!”
Having taken seats upon metal folding chairs, I happened to make mention of a guy, perhaps in late-30s, who oddly walked around Novena grounds without stop, for almost three hours!
“He only stopped once to go out back and enjoy a cigarette, Joe. Thought he might be exercising, but by chance, I saw a volunteer offer him complimentary slices of pizza and a bottle of Snapple iced tea.”
“Uh, that seems a very Catholic thing for volunteers to do, but given our weird terror times, I’m pressed to figure he might be working the Novena undercover.”
“Mysterious situations, eh Joe? ISIS demons on the prowl at St. Ann’s Novena?”
“O yea, it’s very crazy, and let me tell you a true story that happened at Scranton’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade this past March? Duded up in a Sarno & Sons tux, with big green bow tie, I stood proudly in grandstand review of marchers and high school bands, right in front of The Steamtown Mall!”
“Quite an honor, Joe! Wish Poles had a big St. Stanislaus Day Parade… tell me more?”
“Yup! On the review stand with me were Mayor Bill Courtright, and a few heavy hitters, including businessmen, Friendly Sons of St. Patrick!”
“I’m with you, continue?”
“Well, I soon learned an F.B.I. agent stood right beside me and he’s packing heat!”
“Dressed in the tradition of Vatican Swiss Guards, I suppose?”
“Nope, this F.B.I. guy wore an apparent inexpensive suit and was equipped with an earpiece and an almost invisible microphone for communicating!”
“Hm, seems the G-Man looked out for either ISIL or diehard I.R.A. fanatics?”
“I suppose anything’s possible in Scranton, but soon I heard a voice cackle and identify that a man was sighted, he wielded a handgun, and is located only a hundred yards east of the grandstand on Wyoming Avenue. And to boot, he’s among an assembly of innocents on sidewalks!”
“Yikes… sounds like a potential replay of Bastille Day madness?”
“O yea, Chuck, serious shit going down and the F.B.I. man ordered one of several snipers to take aim and prepare to shoot!”
“Holy Mehmet Agca! What the hell happened next?”
“I don’t exactly know, but apparently, the suspect was rapidly profiled, and F.B.I. was informed that he was in-charge of starting the parade’s corresponding Brian P. Kelly Memorial Footrace by shooting off a pop gun into the cloudy Electric City sky!”
“So the suspect was not taken down and the foot race went forward, eh Joe?”
“That’s correct, no shooter, but in the interim, I nearly soiled my green jockey shorts!”
Deep into America’s “War Against Terror,” I instinctively placed a dozen more hamburgs on the grille, and come war or no war, Joe lay out buns and cheese for the anticipated Novena crowd rush hour. Understanding anyone’s a target anymore, I found a wandering (plain clothes) Passionist priest who wielded the St. Ann relic, and asked for another blessing. White smoke emoted from the grille, and Joe politely asked, “Father, can I please have one too?”