Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Yesterday was the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas (January 28th). I grew up hearing the name St. Thomas Aquinas from my mother, not because she was a scholar of this doctor of the Church, but because her family, and my father’s, belonged to a parish called St. Thomas Aquinas, on the East Side of Cleveland. I never saw her church—we lived on the West Side—but once, as an adult, I was amazed to notice, in the garden of a fancy restaurant in that neighborhood, architectural fragments that had been salvaged from the Church of St. Thomas Aquinas. I duly reported to my mother that I had seen archeological ruins of her youth.

I read a biography of Thomas Aquinas (Tommaso d’Aquino) while I was in Naples, several years ago: “The Dumb Ox,” by G. K. Chesterton. Thomas was a big, beefy guy, from a noble family in Aquino, in Campania, whose brothers actually kidnapped him from his religious order because his mother didn’t want him to be a mendicant. She was fine with his being a priest, but a Dominican? He finally escaped his family and went to Paris to study. It was there that he acquired the nickname the Dumb Ox, because of his size and because he wasn’t big on class participation. There is a church in Naples with a painting of Christ crucified that Thomas is said to have levitated in front of. I saw the painting, but did not levitate.

Thomas Aquinas was a great writer, so I’m told, able to reconcile the teachings of the Church with Aristotle, and to formulate various arguments that were useful to the Church in its quest for temporal power. I bet he would have been great on alternate side parking. It doesn’t do to get too smug about this alternate side parking business. I thought I had it all figured out: stroll down to the independent coffee shop, where people are arguing about movies at nine in the morning; get in the car, parked perfectly legally till 9:30 in front of a building whose management has painted the curb yellow (remember, anyone can paint his curb yellow); cruise a few blocks, buzzing the Sanctuary, as always (one of the six cars in those highly desirable spots had smoke coming out its exhaust, but I don’t think he was leaving; it was still a few minutes before nine, and I think he was just taking the chill off), and count on finding an ample spot that will be good at 10 A.M., on this gentle block where the street sweeper has been coming early.

But I get to the block, and there is a solid line of double parkers. I am at mid-block, opposite an S.U.V.—a Honda Element—with one space between it and a fire hydrant. I don’t know why the Honda hasn’t moved, but it is crucial to my strategy: if all the cars in back of me find spots behind the Honda, I can wait till the sweeper goes around the Honda, then get in tight behind it and score that place before the hydrant.

A shiny black Camry comes along and double parks in front of me, making me nervous. She will have to move up with the whole line of double parkers who got here ahead of her and hope there is enough space on the far side of the hydrant. The hydrant is in front of a church of sorts—let’s call it St. Oxymoron. Generally you’re not allowed to park in front of churches, and this one is no exception, but instead of a No Parking sign it has this hydrant as well as a curb cut to nowhere.

The Broom finally comes at 9:17. An officious-looking guy up ahead has appointed himself Commissioner of Alternate Side Parking and is directing traffic. He seems to want to put an S.U.V. in my spot. But my strategy works: I am on that Broom’s ass. The Camry does not clear the curb cut, but the Commissioner gives her a little more space and, anyway, the curb cut is meaningless: there’s no place to drive into except the plate-glass window of St. Oxymoron.

The Alternate Side Parking Effect is somewhat muted on this Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas. Nothing looks like Paradise. The building across from me is a neapolitan jumble of old yellow brick and, on the ground floor, a curved glass brick wall. Flimsy balconies have been stuck on, and the residents are using them for storage (electric fans, coolers). Over the windows of the first few stories are what look like ram's horns, but higher up, over the fifth-floor windows, are strong beautiful stone heads framed with thick curls and draped with what look like sculpted wreaths of monumental apples and walnuts.

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