The Long Way to Bensonhurst

There are days when doubt clouds my mood.

But not Tuesday.

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I was headed out to Bensonhurst to scope out a possible column that morning. On the way out along the Grand Central Parkway, I suddenly thought of my friend, Jack, a classic post-Vatican II Irish street priest, with a big personality and a love of people to match. These were no small virtues more than 20 years ago, when his north Brooklyn parish was seemingly beset on all sides by violence and poverty.

We met during those crazy days after a particularly random murder in his neighborhood managed to shock a city benumbed by thousands of homicides each year. He took me around and introduced me to people. He showed me how they were trying to turn the place around.

We hit it off and became friends.

About a decade ago, his health took a turn for the worse when he fell down the rectory stairs. Forced to retire to the priests’ residence in Douglaston, he managed to get out and celebrate Mass at a Long Island parish. Though we spoke regularly by phone, I last saw him a few years ago when I did his portrait marking the 40th anniversary of his ordination.

Fast forward. His health had declined. Precipitously. Last December he called me, and I could barely make out what he was saying. The holidays intervened, and I never got back to him.

Until Tuesday. After thinking about Jack, I called him. A health aide answered the phone and passed it to him. I could not understand a single word he said. I was so disturbed, that after I hung up, I called a mutual pal from his old neighborhood, who said Jack’s muscles had weakened, including the ones in his larynx, which made it almost impossible to understand him. He said he last visited him on St. Patrick’s Day—bearing a bottle of whiskey—and that Jack definitely recognized him. But he told me that his condition was alarming, he was thin, shaky and bed-ridden. He looked nothing like the strapping, silver-haired Irishman we all loved. I promised our mutual friend I would visit him soon at the Immaculate Conception residence in Douglaston, most likely in the next few weeks.

By now, I had long missed my exit to go to Bensonhurst. In fact, I was clueless about where I was. Realizing I was heading out to Long Island, I took the first exit that looked like it might get me heading south. I got off the highway, made a turn and prepared to find my way to Bensonhurst. 

Within seconds, I stopped.

I was exactly in front of the Immaculate Conception residence. 

Of course, I went inside and visited with my old friend. We smiled when we saw each other.

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