An Irish Lullaby
At half-past ten in the morning, the breakfast rush had finally subsided at Lee’s Luncheonette & Old-Fashioned Soda Shoppe—just a short respite before the brunch and lunch crowd would begin to pile into the popular eatery. A whiff of the recently cooked breakfast bacon still lingered in the air, working overtime, still whetting the appetites of patrons as they entered.
Lee’s was a popular spot at about the midpoint of West Side Avenue—the main thoroughfare in the center of Jersey City, New Jersey’s West Side Ward—otherwise known as the Saint Aloysius Parish neighborhoods. New Jersey’s second largest city sat less than two miles across the Hudson River from New York City. A huge Roman Catholic population once thrived in Jersey City during its earliest days, and neighborhoods were typically identified by the numerous churches that were strewn throughout those vicinities to service the expanse of the Catholic populaces in each of the city’s districts. Those districts would later evolve into the latter-day city’s six wards. The city’s Irish Catholic population settled in the neighborhoods surrounding Saint Al’s. Time and the city’s decay saw the decline of that once leading population—it was a mixed neighborhood now, and no longer predominately Irish Catholic, although they still maintained a staple presence in that part of Jersey City.
Located a mere block and a half away from Saint Aloysius Church, Lee’s was now a Jersey City, as well as New Jersey, landmark. Stepping into Lee’s was like stepping back into time. The owners had preserved the eatery’s décor just as it had been on the day that Lee’s first opened. The stainless-steel restaurant fixtures still sparkled and shined. Even the original booth and wall jukebox stations remained and were functional.
The walls were adorned with framed photograph pictures that had been taken throughout the decades. The photos typically depicted customers throughout the years, and several local and national celebrities whom had happened by to sample some of Lee’s famous homemade ice cream. The crème de la crème of this gallery was a blown-up picture of President Kennedy sipping down a Lee’s milkshake, surrounded by the establishment proprietor, Lee Burke, and his family. When the then Senator Kennedy was campaigning for the presidency in 1960, a motorcade celebrating his candidacy was held in the strongly Democratic, Irish-Catholic bastion of Hudson County, New Jersey.
Then elected officials, New Jersey Governor Richard J. Hughes, Hudson County Democratic Chairman John V. Kenny and Jersey City Mayor Charles Witkowski hosted the event, which winded its way along the then Hudson County Boulevard, and culminated at Journal Square. From Journal Square, the Jersey pols escorted the soon-to-be President to Lee’s for a taste of ice cream. The youthful and charismatic Kennedy passed through the entire establishment shaking hands with every one of the patrons.
A red top lunch counter ran half the length of the eatery, terminating a few feet away from a set of swinging kitchen doors that separated the rear dining room from the front counter area. The shoe bottoms of the breakfast crowd had scuffed the shiny red and white checkerboard tile floor of the establishment that was mopped down nightly.
Lee’s front door swung open as the local beat cop, Patrolman Bernard McCarthy, burst into the establishment, dragging in along with him a gaunt, scruffy looking teenager with a mop top head of hair. The youth was handcuffed. McCarthy guided him over to the cashier counter of the restaurant, which was set apart from the lunch counter. The cashier’s station was positioned at the front end of the restaurant, almost abutting Lee’s huge storefront windows, which offered a grand view of the bustling West Side Avenue.
McCarthy guided his forlorn prisoner by pushing and pulling the hood of the youth’s sweatshirt, which the cop’s hand clutched in an almost death grip. Red bruises were apparent on the cop’s knuckles, seeming to match up with the welt that was welling up under the right eye of the teen, along with a split in his upper lip. The boy dabbed up the blood leaking from his cracked lip by sporadically running his tongue over the wound.
Behind the cashier counter stood Lenny Burke, the manager and the son of the proprietor.
“Is this him?” McCarthy asked.
Burke recognized the young troublemaker right away. Hours earlier, the youth had ordered a breakfast sandwich special, pretended to be groping through his pockets for money, then swiped the already bagged food off the counter and hightailed it out the front door. “That’s him. That’s the punk,” Burke confirmed.
“That’s all we needed—a positive ID,” McCarthy responded. “Don’t you worry none, Lenny, his cellmates at the county youth house will teach him some manners,” the cop continued, twisting the sweatshirt hood with his hand so that it began to choke his prey.
“And just who is it that’ll be learnin’ ye some manners of yer own, might I ask?” a voice laced with a distinct Irish brogue blurted out from behind the cop and the teenager.
The voice seemed to shrink the mountainous cop down to the size of a molehill. McCarthy recognized the voice right away. He turned around to greet the priest whose voice he knew. “Good morning, Father. Just taking care of MY BUSINESS, if you don’t mind,” he answered back to the priest.
“THEN I’LL JUST BE DOIN’ MY BUSINESS…if ye don’t mind,” the priest snapped back. The just under six-foot tall, lean and elderly reverend then stepped forward with all the swagger of Moses approaching the Red Sea. The priest’s full head of white hair added to his distinguished appearance. The cleric had been sitting at the end of the lunch counter closest to the cash register podium, staring into the mirrored wall behind the luncheonette’s counter. He had been fixated on the mirror while reflecting on his aging face. The priest had been lost in a daydream between the space where he sat and his reflection—pondering where he had already been in life, and where he was heading. He contemplated how so much time had flown by and whether or not he was relevant anymore…or if he had ever been.
The boisterous entrance of the cop and his prey snapped the priest out of his trance and he began eavesdropping on all of the goings on. The fear of irrelevance had gotten the best of him and he decided to get involved. Father O’Connor looked the cop and the teenager square in their eyes, as if he were almost reading their minds. Then the priest glanced down at the airtight handcuffs digging into the youth’s wrists. “He seems to be a mighty dangerous criminal yer luggin’ about,” he commented. “Are ye sure that he mighten be needin’ leg irons?”
Officer McCarthy just frowned, not wanting to confront the old codger.
Father Sean O’Connor was once the Monsignor of Saint Aloysius Parish, some twenty years prior. As is typical in the Catholic Church, no assignments are permanent, and after his stay as Saint Al’s pastor for all those many years, Father O’Connor was then shuttled about from diocese to diocese and parish to parish. Now seventy-five years old, O’Connor was semiretired and back residing at Saint Al’s, supplementing the pastoral staffing there. The parish was O’Connor’s sentimental favorite. As a close friend of the Diocese of Newark Archbishop, Mario Scaponi, landing this assignment, which would probably be the last call of his priesthood, was a breeze. But O’Connor dreaded the specter of the inevitable call that he knew would come one day soon—a call that would land him at a semiretirement community for priests at the Jersey Shore.
O’Connor clung to the hope of somehow becoming relevant in the world again. A world that, at least he felt, had seemed to pass him by. Though, as was customary, O’Connor still retained the honorary title of Monsignor, when he returned to Saint Aloysius, he insisted that everyone just still refer to him as Father—a title that he found to be endearing throughout the years, and one that seemed to make him feel young again.
“I was by the gramma school today, and I stopped in to see Misses McCarthy’s classroom, I’ll have ye know,” the priest noted, referring to the cop’s wife with whom he was very friendly. “Wonderful woman that ye have there, if ye don’t mind me sayin’ so, McCarthy. She seems to be much too good for the likes of a blockhead as yerself, though,” he teased.
Behind the cashier counter, Lenny Burke had grown impatient. “Now see here, Father,” he interjected, pointing towards McCarthy’s prisoner. “This punk robbed me earlier this morning!”
The priest turned towards Burke, a look of ‘I didn’t appreciate your butting in’ filled out his face. “My Lord, and how many thousands did he make it outta here with?” The priest’s sarcasm was meant to be apparent.
“He ordered a sandwich than ran off without paying!” Burke lamented.
“Oh, me heavens!” O’Connor remarked. “What was the weapon—a hungry belly?”
The priest then looked back into the face of the frightened teen, who would tremble in fear each time that McCarthy tightened the hold on his hoody—weary of being cracked in the face again by the burly cop. “Son, what might yer name be?” Father O’Connor asked.
The kid looked up at the cop, as if to seek permission to answer the priest.
“Answer Father O’Connor,” McCarthy ordered, jerking back on the youth’s sweatshirt hood.
“My name is Griffin Reilly, Father,” he answered.
“IRISH! Right after me own heart,” O’Connor said.
McCarthy and Burke rolled their eyes, sensing that what was about to ensue would be more agonizing for them than for Griffin Reilly.
“Griffin’s a beautiful Irish name, Lad,” O’Connor remarked. And where might ye be from?
“Boston, Father,” Griffin answered—that explained the dialect with which the youth spoke.
“BOSTON!” Ye don’t say. That’d be me own hometown as well,” O’Connor said.
“Jackpot!” McCarthy muttered under his breath.
O’Connor began to regale the youth with remembrances from his own childhood growing up in South Boston. Born and raised in the harbor city by first generation Irish immigrants in a modest home that included his grandparents. A nearby neighborhood tenement house hosted several aunts and uncles and was inhabited with plenty of cousins for playmates. That childhood experience explained the priest’s distinct Irish brogue, occasionally laced with his very distinguishable Bostonian accent. It also explained the priest’s witticisms—his grandparents were always flowering their conversations with an Irish maxim a minute. The priest, at times, was steep in proverbs when he spoke. O’Connor’s philosophical jargon was further complemented by his fondness for quoting the scripture. On occasion, he would sometimes mix the maxims with scripture, muddling the distinctions.
The O’Connor clan was a musical tribe as well. His father was an accomplished accordion player and singer. His mother, a pianist and singer. Under his mother’s tutelage, O’Connor learned to play the piano. Both his parents helped him hone his music skills at a young age. The priest’s singing voice was pure gold, carrying not a hint of his brogue or Boston accent, except when singing Irish folk songs and ballads. It was his beautiful crooning voice that O’Conner eventually became renowned for—parishioners loved hearing him entertain them at Masses, his pleasing voice often drowning out the choir’s singing of church hymns. They also loved O’Connor’s renderings of some Irish ditties and selections from the American Songbook, which he often sang at parish events and functions.
As O’Connor continued along his trip down memory lane, McCarthy and Burke stood by fidgeting, shaking their heads from side to side. Their faces were plastered with expressions that registered their frustration and impatience.
“Father O’Connor,” McCarthy interrupted, stepping all over the priest’s reminiscences, “I have police work to conduct here, if you don’t mind.”
“AND I HAVE THE LORD’S WORK TO CONDUCT HERE…if ye don’t mind,” O’Connor fired back. Then he turned to look kindly into Griffin’s sad face. “Do yer parents know that ye’re here? What’s yer story, Griffin?”
Feeling a bit more comfortable because of O’Connor’s presence, Griffin Reilly began to unload his tale of woe—almost as if he were more than happy to get it off his chest. The fragile youth explained that he was from a broken family. His dad had skipped out on him and his mom when he was but three years old. Mom was later swept off her feet by another suitor by the time that Griffin was seven. The heel wanted no part of the boy. Griffin’s mother married the cad and took off for the West Coast and a new lifestyle, leaving her son behind with her mother.
Griffin adored his grandmother, the only good soul to enter his life. But he felt as if he was becoming a burden to the woman. He took notice of how she would scrimp and save in order to provide for him. As the years went on, more and more money was required to keep pace with caring for a growing boy. With the exception of his grandmother, Griffin felt that to the rest of the world he was unwanted and useless. Running away was his way of relieving his grandmother of the burden that he felt he was to her.
O’Connor soaked it all in, empathizing with the crisis in the youth’s life. He continued his interrogation. “How long have ye been away from home, Lad?”
“Three days, Father,” Griffin answered, explaining that he had been camping out in the back of nearby Lincoln Park.
“Me son, is yer Grandmother Irish?” O’Connor asked.
“Then ye are her pride and joy—not a burden! She lives fer ye, Lad—trust me on that. And, trust me on somethin’ else—she’s broken hearted and worried sick about yer leavin’ home, she is,” O’Connor told him. He could read the youth’s face—Griffin wanted out of his predicament in the worse way. “Are ye Catholic, Lad?” O’Connor asked.
“Yes, Father—I used to be an altar boy at Saint Patrick’s Church.”
“TRIFECTA!” McCarthy muttered, rolling his eyes again and adjusting the uniform cap that sat atop his head. “Good night nurse!”
“An Irish altar boy from good ould Saint Paddy’s in Boston—what’s there not to like about the boy, McCarthy?” the priest commented.
Griffin was starting to feel more at ease.
“When was the last time that ye’ve eaten, before that sandwich that ye bought on account this morning?” O’Connor asked.
“Two days ago, Father,” Griffin answered. “I brought some candy bars with me, but I ate them all the first night in the park,” he explained.
“Wait! What do you mean, ‘bought on account?’” a confused Lenny Burke interrupted.
“I meant it was ‘bought on account’ because I’m gonna pay ye fer the sandwich now,” O’Connor answered.
A scowl formed on the manager’s face.
“How much was the sandwich?” O’Connor asked Burke.
“That was the breakfast special—four dollars!”
O’Connor slipped his hand into his pants pocket and pulled out his wallet. He unfolded it and slid out a five-dollar bill.
“But!” Burke began objecting, seemingly expressing the sentiment that he preferred that Griffin be arrested rather than he be reimbursed for the breakfast sandwich.
“BUT, NOTHIN! Officer McCarthy, you’ll be kindly escortin’ Griffin over to the high school and droppin’ him off at the Guidance Counselor’s Office, PLEASE. I’ll call over there and tell them to be expectin’ ye both.” O’Connor was already working out a plan for returning Griffin back to Boston. He placed the money down on the cashier counter between Burke and him.
“Now see here, Father O’Connor,” McCarthy spoke up, “he’s committed a crime, and—”
“Ye know, McCarthy, I just might be havin’ to walk over to the gramma school and plead me case to a higher court—-MISSES McCARTHY,” O’Connor threatened.
“What?” McCarthy was incensed.
O’Connor grabbed hold of the cop’s free arm and pulled him aside. The priest gave a quick jerk of his head, indicating that he wanted to tell McCarthy something on the sly. The cop leaned back to listen, but kept his other arm, still clutching Griffin, fully extended—attempting to keep the teen out of earshot of whatever O’Connor was going to say.
“Ye know, McCarthy, ‘twould be a real shame if Misses McCarthy were to find out that ye’ve been fibbin’ to her about bowlin’ on Thursday nights, and have instead been out playin’ poker with the boys. Especially when she tries so hard to stretch every penny of the family budget to make ends meet,” O’Connor told the cop in an Irish whisper, the likes of which Griffin and Lenny Burke could hear every word.
“See here, Father—I confessed those misgivings to you at church.” McCarthy was visibly perturbed. “It’s God’s word that confessions shall not be revealed,” he challenged.
“Yer confession is safe with God, McCarthy—just not me! God will keep his word, but as for me—that’s another story.”
O’Connor knew he could never reveal the cop’s confessions to his wife, but he also knew how much of a sucker that McCarthy was for a bluff—-which explained most of the cop’s poker losses. The priest’s gambit was to merely bluff the cop into submission.
“So, what’s it gonna be, flatfoot—are ye dealin’ with me, or am I dealin’ with yer wife?” O’Connor retorted.
“Do you know that you’re breaking the law—extorting me like this?” McCarthy warned.
O’Connor didn’t miss a beat. “I look at it as if I’m upholdin’ God’s laws—FEED THE HUNGRY!”
“If you weren’t a war hero, I’d be running you in,” the flustered cop warned.
“HEY!” O’Connor turned another shade of serious at the remark. “My war record is off limits—ye know better than that.”
“Sorry, Father, I got carried away,” McCarthy alibied, he knew how sensitive the Medal of Honor winner was about his war exploits. McCarthy had ventured into territory that O’Connor had always warned those who knew him dare not tread on. “Oh, well…” At this point, the cop was completely perplexed and ready to cave. O’Connor had him over a barrel. McCarthy made one last play. “But, Mister Burke, will have to agree to not press any charges,” he propositioned.
O’Connor stepped back towards the cashier counter.
“I don’t go to confession, Father, and I don’t play poker either—you’ve got nothing to hold over my head,” Burke said, shocking McCarthy, who dropped open his jaw upon learning that the manager had overheard his private aside with O’Connor.
Burke’s resistance didn’t faze O’Connor at all. “Ye know, Lenny, I suppose that I could take the matter up with yer father…then come back to watch ye cower when he starts ballin’ ye out. But let me put it to ye a bit more matter-of-factly: it was back when I was Monsignor of this parish—some twenty years ago—that I interceded and told the high school principal to permit the students to come to lunch here if they wanted. Yer Dad asked me to do him that favor.”
Now Burke’s jaw dropped. “What are you saying?” The manager was incensed.
“Ye’ve been doin’ a pretty good lunch trade here, thanks to the Saint Aloysius High School students. I could just as easily persuade the high school principal to suspend that lunchtime privilege granted to the high school. I remember when I hired Sister Joseph Eleanor as the principal—we’re tighter than Saint’s Peter and Paul, ye know.”
O’Connor had effectively tied Burke and McCarthy in knots.
“I’m not pressing charges, McCarthy,” Burke muttered, frustration evident in his face.
Griffin exhaled a sigh of relief, relishing his reversal of fortune, but attempting to maintain a stoic posture and avoiding to appear to be gloating. McCarthy let loose his grip of the boy’s hoody, then reached down and removed the handcuffs. Griffin rubbed his wrists where the metal rings had dug into his skin and left bruise marks.
“Griffin, did ye get yer juice and coffee as part of the breakfast special?” O’Connor asked.
“No, Father,” the boy answered, thinking to himself—is he kidding?
O’Connor gazed over at Burke. “Now, Lenny, ‘tis not wise to be shortchangin’ the customers.” The priest played it dead serious. “Tell ye what—the lad will settle for a milkshake.”
“But—” Burke began to object.
“But nuttin’,” O’Connor snapped back. “If I give the say-so to Sister Joseph Eleanor, this joint’ll be as empty as a hermit’s cave.”
Burke pondered the priest’s words. He was having second thoughts. He turned and looked towards Griffin, then asked him, “What flavor milkshake would you like?”
“Chocolate, Sir, thank you,” Griffin answered.
“Better fetch a coffee-to-go fer Officer McCarthy as well,” O’Connor added. He looked over at Griffin’s swollen eye and cracked lip, then glanced down at the cop’s swollen knuckles. “He’ll be needin’ somethin’ to keep his hands occupied while he escorts young Griffin over to the high school guidance counselor,” he concluded.
Burke headed behind the lunch counter to make Griffin’s milkshake. He directed the waitress stationed there, Mrs. McNish, to retrieve the coffee-to-go for McCarthy. O’Connor made small talk with McCarthy and Griffin while waiting for Burke to return. He also made use of the phone beside the cash register—calling the high school guidance counselor to announce Griffin and McCarthy’s soon-to-be arrival and explain the teenager’s circumstances. Burke returned and handed McCarthy his coffee and Griffin his milkshake.
“Will you be needing me for anything else, Father?” McCarthy asked. “There aren’t any bank robbers you might be wanting to have me release—are there?” McCarthy enjoyed ribbing the priest with his sarcastic remark, a sort of getting even.
“Not at all,” O’Connor shot back. “You’d have to catch them first, and seein’ how yer so busy huntin’ down dangerous criminals like Griffin, ‘tis certain that ye wouldn’t have the time to nab any bank robbers.” O’Connor showed he could be just as sarcastic. “Now stop yer actin’ the maggot with me, McCarthy!”
McCarthy shook his head and looked up towards the ceiling, as if he was asking God for help. He was overmatched. “Let’s be on our way, Son,” he said to Griffin, heading for the door.
“Griffin,” O’Connor called out, distracting the teen from his milkshake. “I have a bit of sorcery in me, ye know. I can look into someone’s eyes and see right down to their soul. I see a good person with a big heart inside of ye, Son. YE MATTER! Yer not insignificant—yer SOMEBODY! YE DAMN WELL MATTER! Don’t ye ever forget that! Make sure ye understand what I said, Griffin—YE ARE A SOMEBODY!”
O’Connor’s words struck a nerve in Griffin—it triggered a tear to stream down the teen’s face. O’Connor had mouthed the words that the youth had longed to hear from a mother or father for all the years he was without one. Griffin handed off his milkshake to McCarthy and made a beeline towards the priest. He threw his arms around O’Connor, burying his face in the priest’s cleric jacket and sobbing uncontrollably. “Thank you, Father. Thank you,” he repeated over and over. Griffin finally knew what it felt like to have a dad or an older brother to go to bat for you.
Griffin hugged the priest tighter and tighter, as if he were squeezing out the past thirteen years of pain from his life—the angst of a life without a father to turn to when he needed one. The keen O’Connor had sensed the youth’s condition right away. The priest knew firsthand how hard it was for the kids who came from single parent homes, or were being raised by a grandparent, courtesy of his experiences with them at Saint Al’s grammar and high schools.
“I’m somebody. I’m somebody. I matter,” Griffin repeated over and over again, still holding tight to the priest who understood it all. Griffin would remember this day and that significant moment for the rest of his life. He would consider it the single most important event that turned him around—the moment when he lit up inside like a Christmas tree, beaming with meaning for his life and a belief in himself. The day he came to understand that he was somebody.
The scene had tears welling up in McCarthy’s eyes as well.
“That’s all right, Lad. This is what happens when we come to realize that we do matter after all,” O’Connor said, placing his hand atop Griffin’s mop top head of hair and patting it. Then he reached down and peeled the boy off of him and tilted Griffin’s chin up with his hand. “We’ll talk later, Lad,” he told him. “I’ll be over to the school in just a bit to see how ye made out with the guidance counselor. Ye can call yer Grandma from there—she’ll be happy to hear from ye. Then we’ll arrange to get ye back home to good ould Boston.”
Griffin ran his sweatshirt sleeve across his face, wiping away the tears. He thanked the priest again and moved back towards the door. McCarthy handed him back his milkshake then they both exited Lee’s, heading down the block towards Saint Aloysius High School. O’Connor slogged back to his space at the counter, marked by a half-finished, now cold, cup of coffee and a half-eaten cheese Danish. He moved with a barely noticeable gimp to his gate. He ordered a fresh cup of coffee and another cheese Danish from the waitress. The other patrons at the counter buried their noses back in their own business, the entertainment provided by the commotion of Griffin’s near arrest was over. Sitting on his stool, O’Connor leaned back and glanced towards the rear of the eatery, peering above the swinging panel doors and into the dining room area.
“Looking for someone, Father?” Misses McNish asked, setting a fresh cup of coffee and another cheese Danish down in front of him.
“Hmmm—yes, yes,” O’Connor acknowledged. “Has Misses Fitzgibbon been in yet?”
“Aubrey? She usually stops in closer to the lunch hour,” the waitress answered.
O’Connor dove into his cheese Danish and coffee. He began pondering over the grave matter that he had wanted to discuss with the woman who wasn’t there. He plotted out his next move.