Christmas on 42nd Street

Author: Robert F. Griffin, CSC, '49

42ndstreet Kevin Dooley

The world at Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street is quite remote from the villages dreamed of in the ballads of the white Christmas. Often the carols of redemption are heard there playing on someone’s transistor or picked up by a car radio, or as tunes offered to the neighborhood in the seasonal drumbeats and trumpets of the Salvation Army. But that intersection is a grim and busy place; and after the working day is over, the traffic to and from the skin flicks, the massage parlors and the porno shops is very heavy.


Then the street scenes seem etched in gray, edged in black and framed for death.


On one corner, there is a Childs’ restaurant; almost next to it, there is a sign advertising a blood bank where a donor is offered money for his sale of blood. It is an open invitation to exchange blood for the price of booze, though it seems there could be no health, no healing in the blood offered for sale by the winos and addicts of 42nd Street.


Sometimes, on the sidewalk outside Childs’, a street preacher will proclaim redemption to sinners whom the Lamb’s blood has washed; but in these sad neighborhoods, even God’s Son seems powerless to offer the transfusions of grace from which our immortal hopes are sprung, and the crimson sufferings on the Cross seem no more efficacious for life than do the commercial transactions taking place at the blood shop next to Childs’.


Truly, the world at Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street is quite remote from the villages dreamed of in the ballads of the white Christmas. In its intense commitment to the World Made Flesh, 42nd Street is quite impervious to the holiday mood celebrating the birthday of the Word Made Flesh in Bethlehem.


I am spending Christmas this year, as I did last year, and as I spent a month this summer, at Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street serving as a priest at Holy Cross Church, located near the infamous corner that is just one block west of Times Square. If you ask me why I go there, I will tell you: there are children there representing everyone’s hope for innocence; there are old people in love with Christ; there are working people who come into the parish daily from elsewhere; there are men and women who live there as parishioners, raising families, struggling to be decent, loving God as faintly or as fervently (like the rest of us) as their sufferings and joys permit.


Only on the surface is 42nd Street a jungle, though I may appear a fool to say it.


Behind every switchblade, there is a human being. Behind every street mask of pimp and prostitute, there is a face that tells its own story of the need for being loved. Under the debris and decay of every life, there is a human innocence to be restored. There is a Shepherd searching for every lamb that strays, and some of us who are hirelings will find our own salvation only in the company of other sheep led back to the fold.


My room in Holy Cross Rectory will be a basement room with barred windows that look up at the street. When I leave the venetian blinds up, it is invitingly convenient for panhandlers. They can come up, knock on the window, and arrange (if they are lucky) for car fare to all the mercy joints — the Salvation Army in Paramus, the welfare office in White Plains, St. Christopher’s Inn at Graymoor — where, they will claim, work and a fresh chance await them. On any given evening, all that ever stands between the skid-row types and their immediate rehabilitation is the priest’s willingness or ability (I must, by now, have turned down half the undesirables in the Times Square area) to pay the transportation fees to hobo havens that cost much money to reach. “It’s only three-fifty to Graymoor, Father; I’ll send it back as soon as I’m working.” Priests have died in abject poverty, waiting for those checks that were never mailed by winos who were never reformed.


I once thought of opening up a walk-in confessional at that basement rectory window. I would merely have to announce the hours when confessions would be heard; then I would sit there and wait for the street penitents to come out of the skin flicks. They would scarcely have to interrupt their walk to the subway before they found a penance tossed at them, and absolution delivered. In the end I didn’t do it. I thought it might seem tasteless to the Cardinal Archbishop of the city if he should hear of all those errant Catholics whispering their sins into a rectory window. Still, at a parish church like Holy Cross, the search for relevance must go on.


The rectory above the basement stairs is an old-fashioned type of house, nearly a hundred years old. It is the kind of place where Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley might have served Irish coffee to Barry Fitzgerald, where the Dead End Kids hummed Ave Maria as a background. The dark wood paneling of the dining room and the huge china closet shelving the monogrammed crystal and dinnerware of a departed monsignor reflect an elegance and affluence now vanished from the life of this very poor parish.


The central decoration of the dining room is a painting, notable for its shades of red, showing Cardinal Spellman kneeling before the pope, upon the occasion of Spellman’s receiving the red hat of the cardinalate. Also pictured, as a principal witness at this investiture, is the same monsignor whose monogram is emblazoned on the dishes. Every morning at breakfast I will be offended by the painting, seen on an empty stomach, with its sycophantic overtones and its depiction of the smug intimacy existing among priest, prelate, pope and God. One fears the simple arrogance of office of those so highly placed in the power structure as to play about at the papal feet. The papal court has never been healthy for American churchmen struggling for humility. Monsignors searching for virtue would do better to pitch horseshoes with representatives from the Longshoremen’s Union.


My rectory duties at Holy Cross will consist mostly in periodic marches to the front parlor where various indigents, for a variety of reasons, will be on the search for money. It will nearly always be the same story: an epic of innocent travelers, newly arrived in the city, who had their pockets picked in the subway; or else they were rolled in the streets, or perhaps betrayed by prostitutes with whom they had spent the night. Some will arrive with gaping holes in their clothing where their jacket or trouser pockets have been slashed open with a knife, so they will say, while they were slumbering at the movies. None of them will have identification or phone numbers of relatives with whom their identities can be checked. Their needs will be piteous, and every welfare station in town will be disinterested in them, closed, or out of business.


Only the priests can help them; but all the other priests, out of meanness, have refused them, and their only hope is in your Christian kindness. Otherwise, when they leave the rectory, they will die in the streets.


Sometimes, out of pity, you will give them the last dollar you own in the world, for it is not easy to see a grown man cry. Only afterwards will you wonder: Where did this destitute and starving derelict get the money to buy the cigarettes he was smoking? Destitute and starving derelicts can’t afford cigarettes in New York City, not at 60 cents a pack. Now it is your turn to cry, because this Marlboro man has your last dollar, and you’re almost as destitute as he claimed to be.


By now, it should be clear to you that, at Holy Cross, the cry for money is more often heard than the cry for salvation. Poverty is the nagging, daily problem of the pastor trying to finance a church, a rectory and a grade school attended mostly by children from outside the parish. Poverty is the problem of the parishioners to whom the pastor might appeal for money. Many of the younger families have moved out of the parish, and only the old people are left. They live on small, fixed incomes which are mostly paid by the city or the state. Finally, poverty is the problem of the crushed and needy who ring the doorbell of the rectory with legitimate needs which truly should be met in no other place.


Despite the suggestions of the chancery, bingo cannot save the church, not in a parish of old people who have neither the money to spend on games nor the inclination to venture out into the viciousness of a New York night where they could get mugged for the very turkey they have just won as a door prize.


I make such a big point of the appeal to the priest for money, because in a parish like Holy Cross, such appeals, uninterruptedly made, can create a vocational crisis. The priest constantly feels the irrelevancy of his vocation in a neighborhood where he could, he feels, make a bigger impact as an altruistic banker than as a dispenser of Christ’s mercies or as a witness to eternal mysteries. It becomes a serious problem for a priest, making him feel psychologically shabby, when he is everlastingly harassed for money he does not have, especially when the askers are professional beggars who make their living moving from one rectory to another with stories that, if true, would break a priest’s heart. The problem is knowing which tales of grief are true, and which are not.


The street population in New York seems to assume that in every rectory, there is a great pot of gold, the church’s treasury, stocked with inexhaustible funds. All a priest has to do is reach his hand into that pot, and he has the price of meals, hotel rooms, plane tickets, bus fares and Brooks Brothers suits available to any Catholic in the state of grace.


The trick is, of course, if you’re begging, to authentically appear as a Catholic in the state of grace. So winos come in clutching rosaries; atheists appear, asking to be invested with the scapular; pimps drop by wanting to renew their baptismal vows in an obvious passion for restored innocence. The most fervent confession, whether in the church or at the rectory, can turn out as the first step on the way to a touch. Last Christmas morning, at an early Mass, a panhandler interrupted me, with hosts in my hand, on my way back to the tabernacle. He asked me for the train fare to Scarsdale. It wasn’t enough, at that point, that he had just gone to Communion; the gift from the Lord that he really wanted was money.


Balance all such demands against the limited funds of a priest who needs to know that his few dollars given in charity are received by a sick husband out of work, or a grandmother suffering from malnutrition, and not by a professional solicitor for whom begging has become a game or a way of life. Because the mythical pot of gold, the church’s treasury, is assumed to exist, no priest is ever credited as being generous enough to have exhausted his personal resources through trips to the rectory door. There is often the hint that the Father could be bigger-hearted with his alms, if he really wanted to.


I remember an old man, last year, to whom I had given my last two dollars because he said he needed food. He sat there before me, money in hand, making noises that said he had expected a deeper dip out of the till. In a sudden fit of anger born out of a mood of hopelessness, I tried to snatch the money back, to keep it for myself. My fingers never stood a chance. The man, thinking I had gone crazy, was out of the chair, out of the door in an instant. His last words were, “You priests sure have bad dispositions.”


A question that must be asked is: Why do these ghost parishes continue to exist? The large parish plants, once useful before the parking lots replaced the tenements, are expensive to maintain, and they do nothing to reform the moral tone of the neighborhood. One feels that if Jesus Christ is going to renew the human shabbiness of 42nd Street, He is not going to do it through priests used up in a ministry of almsgiving, and the place where the sinners will be gathered should be more personal than the marble auditoriums built for the worshipping crowds of the Church’s ghetto years. That is why each time I offer Mass at Holy Cross this Christmas, before a congregation hardly bigger than the cluster of Apostles who first gathered for Eucharist in an upper room, I will dream of a storefront church, located on the corner between Childs’ restaurant and the blood bank, where the priest can be as much in competition for the souls of men as are the porno shops and the dirty-movie houses.


Storefront church or not, this once wonderful parish is dying. One day soon, the last little old lady is going to light the final candle before the Virgin’s statue. The last old man is going to bless himself with holy water as he finishes the visit made on the way home from work. Then there will be the darkness of a building closed, the sadness of a sanctuary lamp extinguished and the present structure of the parish will be dead.


At Christmas I must remember that Holy Cross Church is not my work, but Christ’s. One of the first lessons of Christmas is that God is born at midnight, in the heart of darkness. Even on 42nd Street, the Lord will prefer to light one candle than to curse the darkness.


It was Walter Winchell who wrote the epitaph for the showgirls who never made it big on the Great White Way stretching from 42nd Street to Paradise. “For every bright light on Broadway,” Winchell wrote, “there are a million broken hearts.” I wish Winchell could have met Edna Thayer. He might have forgiven Broadway all those broken hearts.


Last year, Edna was just another broken-down hoofer who attended daily Mass. One day she came into the rectory during the 12:15, pale and trembling with chills. She thought she was dying. We wrapped her in a blanket, and I held her in my arms while the housekeeper called the ambulance.


Edna didn’t want the ambulance. “I don’t have enough money for food,” she said. “I can’t afford no ambulance.” Eventually we found out that Edna’s most serious illness was hunger. After that, the word was out: keep an eye on Edna.


Last August, when I returned to the city, Edna was the toast of Broadway. Three nights a week, she sings for her meals at the Times Square Automat, the star of Horn and Hardat’s. At age 65, in the first stages of Parkinson’s disease, Edna belts out the tunes like Merman, and the crowds love her. She’s been written up in the Times, and she’s made an appearance on the Cavett show. At five-foot-two, weighing 165 pounds, Edna, that round, little dumpling of a woman with golden hair and Kewpie-doll face, is no pinup girl, and her voice in the lower registers sounds like Durante. But when she walks up Broadway these days, Edna owns the street.


Then there is Forty-second Street Joe. I met Joe last year, just after he had had an operation for throat cancer. An ex-wino, Joe was killing himself with cigarettes. I would see him at night in Childs’, chain-smoking and gagging on the phlegm, with a plate of mashed potatoes and gravy in front of him, and a pile of napkins he could spit into. When I left New York last Christmas, Joe’s weight was down to 85 pounds, but he still preferred cigarettes to food. When I returned to New York in August, he was dead. Joe was a sad little man, divorced from his wife, separated from his kids, and, in the end, he starved himself to death. The beauty of his life was to see how the winos loved him. They watched over him in the street at night, and they kept him alive with coffee. On the day Joe was buried, every wino on the block kept sober until after the funeral. The winos put him to rest at Gate of Heaven cemetery in a $1200 casket, and God alone knows where those derelicts got the money. It certainly wasn’t from the priests at Holy Cross rectory.


Stanley was one of Joe’s best friends; they had been classmates together at Bellevue. Stanley began drinking at the age of 14. He did the drug scene and hustled for trade on 42nd Street. At 19, he went for three years to Bellevue. Stanley knows every sad story 42nd Street has to tell, for he has lived them all. Only, he says, “I never murdered anybody.”


Today, at 37, Stanley, the Augustine of Eighth Avenue, is the most cheerful man in New York, and he preaches cheerfulness to everybody. In the morning, he cheers up the curates at the church where he works as custodian; at noonday, he cheers up the pastor; in the evening, he cheers up the housekeeper, whom he secretly hopes to marry.


On Saturday night, he dresses up like an alderman and goes over to Roseland Dance City, walking as though on broken glass because his feet suffer from bunions.


“Stanley,” I say to him, “how do you dance on those sore feet?”


“For everybody else,” he says, “it’s a dance. For me, it’s a concert.”


I smile knowingly. I know something about the concerts in New York, especially the summer concerts, where the symphony of the city is played.


I once knew an old lady, faded in beauty and down on her luck. She was shabby and toothless; her shoes were run over at the heels, and she walked with a shuffle, though she had once been a dancer. There were old men who remembered her as she had been when she was young. Instead of the wrinkles and sunken face, they recalled dimpled cheeks, rounded into loveliness. Instead of white, straggly hair, they thought of sunlight playing in and out of golden hideaways.


Holy Cross Church is like that old lady and still desirable for her departed glories. This church was once the parish of the Fighting Father Duffy, whose statue now stands in Times Square. This was the church of Monsignor McCaffrey, called honoris causa the Bishop of Times Square, who during the years of World War II brought over 25,000 people a week into the church to pray for the servicemen at the weekly novenas. The mayor of New York used to come to the rectory for dinner, to eat off the McCaffrey monograms in the dining room. The rectory is shabby now, and the church is chintzy with forms of piety now out of date — the Infant of Prague honored as the Christmas child comes to mind. But for the old people, it is their spiritual home. It is the Lord’s house, the sanctuary of the Eucharist in the land of Sodom. Many of them made their first Communion here as children; it is the place from which the priest will one day bring them Viaticum.


At Christmastime, I will be with those old people, saying Mass in a sanctuary full of poinsettias, struggling to help them believe the story of God’s love revealed in the birth of an Infant. It was not always easy — for them or me — to believe in God on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street.


Sometimes, it is not easy to believe in God in any neighborhood, when all the world looks like Eight Avenue, and all roads seem headed toward 42nd Street. That is why there must always be churches that survive to remind us of Bethlehem in the places remote from the villages dreamed of in the ballads of a white Christmas, so that the birthdays of God may be celebrated, the candle lit by Christ in the heart of darkness. In the symphony of the city, new movements are being written every moment. I pray that I will find music in the street sounds of 42nd Street at Christmas. I hope it sounds a lot like the carols of redemption.


The late Robert Griffin was University chaplain from 1974 until his retirement in the mid-1990s. This essay of his was originally published in the early 1970s in The Observer