Sometimes you find a book that captures your imagination, stirs something within your human spirit, and connects with something lost that may never be found again. Tis, the memoir of Frank McCourt’s beginning in New York City as an Irish immigrant “straight off the boat,” is such a book.
I have the added pleasure of hearing him read it on tape in the car. This brings out some of the color and emphasis that a reader simply misses. Half-way through tape two I’m hooked.
On the boat trip over he worries about his ugly teeth, dreams of meeting beautiful tan women, and encounters a pushy priest who constantly orders him around. As a young man of 19 from a small Irish village he doesn’t quite know what to do. Should he try aftershave? Should he apologize for using the bath mat, thinking it was the towel? What should he do when the priest becomes drunk in a NY restaurant and the waiter demands money from the priest’s wallet? What should he say to a girl who asks him to dance?
As a poor young man in a strange land, McCourt finds saying “hi” an impossible feat. He’s always misunderstood, judged falsely, and treated poorly. He’s lost and somewhat innocent, but never shies away from the passion, emotion, and sin that lurks behind his quiet, brooding facade.
I can’t explain why McCourt’s story is so gripping. Possibly because he shows America for all of its prosperity, glitz, and culture along with the inexplicably detestable elements of greed, racism, and class structure. I can never again look down at someone who is struggling economically.
McCourt shares how people judged him and I can’t help thinking that I’ve done that. I must have heaped shame or guilt on someone and not even known it. If I had, I would not have cared that this poor creature will go home replaying the scene over and over again.
Take waitresses for instance. I was hounded by friends of mine who worked as waitresses to leave good tips. For a while I didn’t want to comply. If I received bad or mediocre service, I felt it was my duty to give the waitress what she deserved. Thankfully they broke through to me.
Who the heck am I to judge a waitress? Maybe it’s the management’s fault that she has too many tables. Maybe this is her second job. Perhaps she goes from a kitchen full of flirtacious co-workers into a dining room of snobby patrons and she wants to dump cold water on one group and slap the other.
Grace. It is so hard to cut other people a break. It’s easy to make allowances for ourselves, but never for others.
Perhaps the lack of grace in Frank McCourt’s memoir is what shouts out. It’s the condition of our society. It’s the condition of our day-to-day lives.