The beauty of the Catholic Church is that it is opportunistic, knowing a good idea when it sees one. I learned this early on during one Sunday afternoon at the St. Pius Bazaar.
Bazaars were just one of the many ways that my parish sheared the flock for some spare wool. Passing the hat is something every parish learns to master. You can't get two Catholics together without one of them passing the hat for the church secretary's new air conditioner. The best example of Catholic opportunism is the contribution envelopes the archdiocese made for kids. Every year, we were given a box of color coded envelopes that had blanks for our names and the size of our donation to the church. They were bright pastel colors, designed to make giving up the money in your piggy bank "fun."
The envelopes were grouped by week, and each month had its own color. This made it simple for the young Christian stewards to keep track of their contributions to the glory of Rome. Usually, the parents of the congregation would slip their kids a dollar or two to throw in the envelope and get it over with. My parents, unfortunately, believed that their children should learn the joys of coming up with this money on their own. We got twenty-five cents a week in allowance for doing our weekly chores, and that sum wasn't even listed on the envelope; it started at fifty cents.
I was working like a child in a South American Nike plant to scrounge up enough money for the collection, mostly because I was under the mistaken impression that I could buy my salvation. This impression was never corrected by the folks at CCD, even if it was never actually stated. I soon learned that the best way to handle this situation was to give them what they really wanted. After all, it said in the Bible that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the gates of Heaven. Therefore, I took to giving them the gift of prayer.
Because each kid was expected to place the envelope in the basket him or herself, I had certain freedoms that I could use to my advantage. For instance, the envelopes did not have our names on them. This anonymity allowed me greater flexibility to contribute to the church. While my brother Tom simply sealed empty envelopes and threw them in the basket, I was afraid that God strike me dead for doing it. So, while waiting to see if my brother got struck down, I came up with a better idea. I signed my envelopes, "Richard Stanton," and wrote left- handed to throw off the dogs. I took to writing short, inspirational notes and placing them in the envelope.
I started off small: "This paper is good for ten prayers for the faithful of the church." Soon, as I realized that this practice was not causing the priests to start an investigation, I became more generous to the church. "This paper represents a life given to Jesus" -- "Forty Hail Mary's and Fifty Our Fathers will be offered up, in your name, to the poor souls in Purgatory" -- "My contribution this week is to pull a pagan into the ways of the Church." Father Skull would collect the donations from the baskets in the back, and when our eyes would meet I would offer him a smile. Got you covered, Father, I'd think to myself, I'm prayin' for ya.
The church always put on two bazaars a year, the big moneymakers for the year. In reality, they were really giant garage sales with all proceeds going to the parish. People would basically clean all the junk out of their garages and try to sell that junk to someone else in the parish. Basically, it was an insulated economy of crap moving around the congregation. The next day you'd see someone at school with your "I Love Fairfield Soccer" shirt on, or someone would come up to you and say, "Hey! That's my Nerf football!" Mothers were famous for packing up items that they decided their kids wouldn't miss and selling them at the bazaar.
The week before the bazaar, the church bulletin would announce that all items offered for sale at the bazaar should be dropped off behind the parking lot. The advantage of this system was that no one's name was on the items, so some parishioners (my dad included) were shameless about what they stuck the bazaar with. You see, after the bazaar, anything not sold would have to be given to Goodwill or taken to the dump. One year my dad had me help him drop off an old mattress, several broken lamps, and a broken stove that had been in our basement for years. We dropped it off in the middle of the night.
"Why not wait until tomorrow?" I had asked, only to be told that he wasn't asking me to help him, he was telling me. "Why are we driving in with the car lights off?" I asked, but he ignored me. "Should we leave a note so they know that this stuff is from us?" I asked, looking at the notes on the other items.
"Get in the car quickly before someone else drives up," was all he said.
The day of the bazaar, I noticed that our contributions were not on display. I could only assume that someone had snatched them up as soon as they were put out. The women of the parish hovered over tables of homemade deserts while the men huddled around the grills cooking for the barbecue. We learned quite a few new words from these men as they burned their hands or dropped a burger on the ground. They cooked like the descendants of a carpenter.
There were only a few lame game tables set up for the kids of the church. "Fish Jonah out of the Whale's Mouth!" shouted one sign next to a wading pool. It featured a stick with a piece of string and a magnet attached to it. You had to pick up a cardboard Jonah out of the pool without picking up any of the surrounding fish (all of them had magnets on the back). I think the game should actually have been called, "Stick Magnet," with a sign that read, "Who knew a stick and string could be so much darned fun?" We would have responded better to, "Sacrifice Jonah to the Whale!"
Most of the games had the same prize: goldfish. Catholics, I have learned over the years, are very big into the whole fish thing. The apostles were fishermen, the sign for Jesus is a fish, and we can only have fish on Fridays. Therefore, for some reason every prize at church socials involves see-through plastic bags of sickly goldfish that will die inside of a week. I even stopped naming mine because it was easier to flush Number 17 down the toilet than it was to flush Lester. Knock over the bottles, get a fish. Toss the ring on the bottle, get a fish. Win the egg toss, get a fish. By the end of the bazaar, simply walking near a prize stand and breathing would win you a fish.
As the bazaar drew to a close, you could see the adults manning the prize tables getting antsy. The adults knew that if they didn't unload all of these fish soon, they'd have to find something to do with them. I had once asked Father Skull why we couldn't win scorpions instead, and he had made me say five Our Fathers right on the spot.
"Jesus didn't perform a miracle on scorpions and bread while up on the Mount," he said.
I took this as a sign to be grateful that Jesus had not performed any miracles on the human brain, otherwise we'd all be cannibals. Father Skull never liked to get into these religious discussions, which I found was ironic considering his choice of profession.
The currency of the bazaar was those small colored tickets (pastel, of course) with the numbers on the side. They used the tickets for the games, food, and when raffling off goldfish. My bothers and sisters and I had to buy our own tickets. My mom would ask us, "Who do I look like, Monny Mintmore?" whenever we begged for tickets. One year my brother had worked a raffle for school and had left several spools of colored tickets in his room. I took a handful of each color to the bazaar and ended up living it up like the pope in Rome. Still, there weren't many places to actually spend your money.
The only "game" I really liked was the Secret Pocket Lady. Secret Pocket Lady walked around the bazaar grounds with a monstrous, billowing skirt with about a hundred pockets sewn all over it. You would give the woman a ticket and pull out a secret treasure from whatever pocket you chose. I used to let my hands wander over the pockets ever so slightly, checking for bulk or shape. "Don't smear that chocolate all over Secret Pocket Lady's dress, honey," said the woman trapped inside the gigantic grab bag. However, it was the only time you could properly feel a woman up on church grounds without fear of excommunication, so I took full advantage. There is, after all, something magical about a grown woman asking a boy to put his hands in her skirt. Add the element of paying her for the privilege, and the church was practically training us to solicit prostitution!
"Ok, time to pick now! I've got other girls and boys to see," snapped the Secret Pocket Lady. She was a smoker, and she'd "rest" every fifteen minutes and light up behind the jungle gym. I summoned all my powers of intuition for this one, because this was my last ticket. I always saved Secret Pocket Lady for last because it was like gambling; if you pull out a great prize right away, you keep on playing. You ended up blowing all your tickets on a bunch of pastel Holy Cards, plastic mirrors, and chocolate rosaries. I knew that they always saved a few great prizes for the end, however: baseball card packages, watches, transistor radios. However, because it was late in the day, I wouldn't be surprised if they had tried to sneak some goldfish in those pockets.
"You want me to pick for you?" interrupted the Secret Pocket Lady. I could see her hands were shaking, and that if I waited any longer she'd light my head on fire and inhale me. At this moment Father Skull sauntered by and addressed the situation.
"If I were you," he said quietly, bending down to look deeply into my eyes, "I would pick from one of these here." He was pointing to three pockets: one off to the side of her leg, one directly over her crotch, and one right over her shoes. "I seem to remember that we put special prizes into those pockets!" Father Skull loaded up the Secret Pocket Lady every half hour or so.
I knew that the Secret Pocket Lady hated it when you dug your hand into the pocket over her crotch, kind of leaning into it to really dig down deep. I was too young to appreciate the sexual undertones at work here, but I loved the effect.
"Hey, hey-- whoa!" shrieked the Secret Pocket Lady as I performed the operation, "Jesus kid, you fit your whole arm in there?"
I pulled it out quickly when I felt that it was an envelope. There were a few money envelopes found in those pockets that very day containing five-dollar bills, and rumor had it that there was a ten-dollar envelope still hiding in the pockets of her skirt somewhere. The Secret Pocket Lady stamped off, probably worried that I still had another ticket on me. She was headed back to the jungle gym, pulling her cigarettes out of one of those pockets and lighting one. Wow, I thought, staring wistfully at the explosion of smoke she was now emitting; why couldn't I have found that one?
I returned to the task at hand and ripped the envelope open as
quickly as I could. Inside was a piece of green paper upon which was
inscribed, "Forty Hail Mary's and Fifty Our Fathers will be offered
up, in your name, to the poor souls in Purgatory." The note was in
my handwriting. I looked up to see Father Skull staring at me as he filled
the popcorn machine. He was smiling.
© 2002 Robert F. Walsh, all rights reserved
appears here by permission