Thursday, July 17


"Mostly, I just prosecuted my religion teachers for heresy."

If I had not already once met the hilarious, seriously devout, and surprisingly prudent soul behind The Bad Catholic's Guide to Wine, Whiskey and Song, I do believe I would think he was the product of my fevered imagination, or a partly-digested meat-pie. First, there is the wonderful insanity of the abovementioned book (with its suggestion you celebrate St. Dymphna's day by having over the tin-foil biretta crowd), and now, surprising snippets of la vie Zmirak that have begun to emerge in his column over at

I had a pretty colorful (and, it must be added, very happy) childhood--a Cuban revolutionary grandfather; a lawyer mom who once cross-examined a ventriloquist dummy on the stand, and who also taught me everything I know about art; a father (also a lawyer) whose hobbies have included at various times, archery, pizza-making and teaching himself Homeric Greek; and then there's my stint as a quiz-bowl All-American. But Zmirak's episodic memoirs make my life and times look positively beige, and more power to him for it:
When the alumnus interviewing me for my long-shot, first-choice college asked me what I’d done throughout high school, I truthfully answered: “Not much. Mostly, I just prosecuted my religion teachers for heresy.”

He chuckled. “No, seriously.” Then he saw the look on my face—and whipped out his note pad.

I recounted how I’d compiled a dossier on two of our religion teachers, who’d repaid my parents’ tuition by denying… pretty much everything which any martyr has ever died to affirm—from the virginity of Mary to the authority of the pope, from the bodily Resurrection to the Eucharist. I explained how I’d moved from confronting them in class, to notifying the principal, then the bishop, then at last the Papal Nuncio—the pope’s ambassador to the U.S.

“What did your school do?”

“They threatened to expel me. But I had my attorney draft a letter warning them we’d sue. They backed down after that.”

“Where’d you get an attorney?”

“My mother met him at one of her poker games. You know, at the church.” I told him how at that time in Queens, the diocese made up its deficits by holding all-night, high-stakes poker games at Catholic grammar schools. The Irish cops wouldn’t crack down on them, so the games metastasized, and soon filled up every parish in driving distance. And my mother attended so many, that to this day when I hear phrases like “St. Sebastian” “St. Rita,” “Most Precious Blood” and “Corpus Christi,” my first thought is: “Oh crap, another poker game. We’ll be eating Spam again this week.”

All this took place in the late days of the long-lived, much-loved, semi-retarded Bishop Francis Mugavero—who died in 1991 with a spotless record: He’d never turned down an annulment.

I described how the cafeterias at schools from Astoria to Glendale filled up three nights per week—including Fridays in Lent. On one of these sacred evenings, when the priest who sold the chips started handing out bologna sandwiches, my mother rebuked him: “It’s bad enough you’re having this game two days before Palm Sunday,” she rasped. “And bad enough that I’m here. But now you’re serving us meat?” So the pastor stood up and gave every poker player in the room a “special dispensation” to eat his sandwiches. I described these lunchrooms filled with addicted housewives, compliant cops, and shady gents of Mediterranean background with pointy loafers. The middle-aged attorney was fascinated.

“Were they… Mafiosos?”

I shrugged. “Or wanna-bes. All I know is that whenever they used profanity, my mother would reprimand them: ‘Hey! Watch yer mouth! You’re in the presence of a lady.’

“They’d stare at her, swallow…then apologize. They realized what they were dealing with.”

He must have decided that I offered Yale something… distinctive.
Indeed. In the end, Zmirak concludes, all this exotic potential psychic trauma all has worked out for the best:
Instead of a highly efficient Teutonic machine, my psyche works much more like one of Rube Goldberg’s old inventions, creaking along in the manner of the Habsburg monarchy, with Turks and Croats side by side, with Sigmund Freud and Karl Lueger smoking cigars at the same café. And that’s how I like things, thank you very much.
Keep on creaking, John. If only there were more out there like you. Come the counter-revolution, we will grant unto thee a wealthy sinecure with an amusing official hat, like Grand Imperial Farrier-General. All I ask in exchange is someday you write a proper autobiography, hopefully with copious illustrations.

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