They called him “the whiskey priest”, but strictly speaking this was a misnomer, because Father Frank didn’t care too much what he drank, so long as it had alcohol in it. People also called him a “defrocked priest”, but this was wrong, too; he had never been officially dismissed from the clergy; no, one day he simply walked away from the diocesan “rest home” he had been sent to (for the sixth time), and he never came back, nor did he return to his post at Old St. Pat’s down on Mulberry Street, where he had become infamous for his drunken sermons and for quaffing a whole chaliceful of sacramental wine in one go.
Father Frank now lived in the Parker Hotel, the cheapest flop on the Bowery, and he made his living, such as it was, by begging on street corners, wearing an old army overcoat over his cassock and collecting donations in an ancient tambourine.
“Alms for the poor!” he would call, shaking his tambourine. “Alms for the poor!”
Sometimes, especially if he had been sipping from a bottle, he would get creative and call out: “Alms for the damned! Alms for the wretched and the hopeless and the misbegotten, like myself, yes, like myself!”
It’s true he kept all the donations for himself, but was he not poor after all? Was he not wretched and hopeless and misbegotten?
He had a sideline of sorts, ministering to his fellow bums on the Bowery, dispensing in alleyways the sacred host in the form of Uneeda biscuits, for which he asked in return only a slug or two of Tokay or whatever other libation might be offered. He would also hear confessions, seated on an overturned Andy Boy crate, and always giving a penance of three Hail Marys and three Our Fathers, no matter what the sins, of theft or sloth, of blasphemy or onanism, or even of murder.
When he had the money Father Frank’s favorite stop was Bob’s Bowery Bar, and Bob let no one bother or make fun of him. A single rap on the bar with his Marine Corps ring was the only warning he gave. Bob was not a religious man himself, but in his time in the marines he had seen many mortally wounded men gain some solace in their last gasping breaths thanks to the presence of a chaplain and his murmured prayers.
One night, as he had done innumerable times before, Father Frank slumped forward with his face on his crossed arms on the bar, and as usual, Bob came over and shook his shoulder, saying, “Hey, Father, wake up. This ain’t the Plaza Hotel.”
But this time Father Frank did not wake up. He fell off his stool and down to the sawdust and spittle on the floor, and simultaneously his soul rose up to the gates of God’s great house on a hill.
“Well,” he thought, “I always knew this day of reckoning would come, so let’s get it over with.”
He walked up the winding stone path and finally mounted the steps to the porch, where St. Peter sat at his table with his smoking pipe, his great book open before him. He wore a colorless old canvas jacket, and he looked at Father Frank over his wire-framed glasses.
“No need to go through a great rigamarole, St. Peter,” said Father Frank. “I know I’m guilty, so just point me the way to Hell, and I’ll be on my way.”
“Guilty of what?” said St. Peter.
“Of being a drunk,” said Father Frank. “A hopeless degenerate drunk.”
“Look,” said St. Peter, after a very brief pause, “take this.” He scribbled something on a pad with his quill pen, then tore the sheet off and handed it to Father Frank. “Go in that door there, and hand this over inside.”
Father Frank looked at the piece of paper.
“You mean I’m not going to Hell?”
Again St. Peter took a very brief pause.
“It seems to me,” he said, “as if you’ve already been in Hell for what –” he glanced at the great book before him, “for fifty-three years. Or don’t you agree?”
Father Frank went in the door, handed over the slip of paper to the man there, and a docent led him through many long corridors and cavernous rooms and finally to a bar much like Bob’s Bowery Bar.
“Just sit anywhere you like, Father, table or bar, and a server will be right with you.”
Father Frank found an empty stool at the crowded and smoky bar.
“What can I get you, Father?” said the bartender.
“I’ll take the blood of Christ,” said Father Frank.
“Up or on the rocks, Father?”
(Art by the fabulous Rhoda Penmarq. Kindly click here to read the fully-illustrated version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home.)