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Jimmy at Trinity

This account, written by a Trinity School classmate of Jim Carroll's, was posted in the Comments section of Carroll's obitiuary by Daniel Kreps in Rolling Stone. I felt it deserved to be an article in its own right. (Note: I'm not 100% certain "Robert" is Robert Catenaccio, but I'm pretty sure . . .). -- Cassie

Robert | 9/15/2009, 9:47 pm EST

It was the end of the first day of ninth grade – we were supposed to call it “form III” – and we were all getting on the bus to go to Central Park. There were no freshman teams that season, so even the guys like Ace and me who’d been on the football team last year were signed up for intramural touch football. Then this new kid climbed on the bus, one of the oddest looking kids I’d seen, because not just his hair but all the skin you could see was a bright orangey-red. Myself and a pair of my clownish smart-student buddies quickly dubbed him “The Red Kid”, but Eager had been in a class with him, I guess, and greeted him with “Irish to the back of the bus, Carroll!” That note of harsh Hibernian humor must have made him feel more at home at his new school, among the WASP,s and the Jews.

When we got to the ball field we chose up sides: Ace and I were the captains, and he picked Jimmy. Evidently he was onto something. I was tallest and fastest on my team, and I thought I could cover anybody – I’d been playing football in the summer with Mickey Riley and Jimmy Behr, the last another red-headed Irishman despite his German name, and they were four years older. Carroll was several inches taller, though, and obviously well into puberty; he had the body of a true teen, while the rest of us were still boys. Ace played qurterback and Jimmy went out, faked me, cut left diagonally and got a step on me. The ball arrived in front of him; he caught it on the tips of the fingers of his left hand, froze it there, then brought it in softly to his palm. He wasn’t running hard, but he cruised in for a touchdown, jogging just ahead of my hands. His head was tilted down, face expressionless, not a word said. That scene was reapeated several times that afternoon, and then, to my always mounting frustration, on every weekday throughout that fall, like a bad dream that I was trapped in.

Not so long ago, down in Chelsea, Jimmy was laughing at me, his little falsetto laugh: ” You could never cover me, with that one-handed catch. And you were so competitive, Robert!” He paused, and then he said, generously but not sadly, I think, “I bet you could cover me now.”

Robert | 9/15/2009, 10:21 pm EST

When I’d come to Trinity two years earlier Ace had been the king of the class, really, not much of a student but a tennis star – tennis being the top sport at the school – and the best at basketball and football, too. Besides that, he had an older brother in the school, so he knew everybody who mattered in the higher grades. But most importantly, he was sly; he always knew what was going on. Somehow he had gotten to know Jimmy right off, which wasn’t easy in those days, and he knew what his scene was. Being a ranked tennis player, he understood the world of serious junior athletics, so he knew what it meant that this shy new kid had been on the All-City Freshman team, had been recruited out of Rice. The rest of us didn’t have a clue. I told people I figured Jimmy would play J.V. for a year, but Ace told me I was crazy. But even Ace didn’t really get it, not fully. We three went down to the gym at lunch break; it was a huge, drafty, barn-like building, with a court two feet longer than regulation, for some mysterious reason. They must have been talking before I got there, because Ace had already bet Jimmy twenty dollars he couldn’t make five out of ten from midcourt. Midcourt! From there, against our old white wooden backboard, the red line of the rim looked like a tiny nick you might get shaving, if in fact any of us had needed to shave. Stock still on his tree-trunk legs, loose at the shoulders, Jimmy flicked his left wrist, shooting from near his chest. He missed one close, then swished five of the next six. He picked up the twenty. Ace and I realized that we had just seen something outside of reasonable expectation. “Are you going to go pro?” Ace asked. “No,” said Jimmy, “I don’t have the desire.” He said it that way, using the sports cliche to achieve a near double meaning, as if he were formally distanced from himself, writing a scouting report, sarcastic, wistful, damning.

Robert | 9/15/2009, 11:12 pm EST

When basketball season started, the varsity looked to be pretty good. Despite his half-court display, which we two witnesses had underplayed, Jimmy was still an unknown quantity; our best guess was that he would be about as good as Steve Smith, big and fast with a soft touch, who had been an all-sports superstar in eighth grade when we were in seventh, and had then gone to Deerfield.

Still with us were a handful of rough seniors, one good sophomore, and a junior, Naceo Giles, who had been brought in the year before, and who was beautiful to see. His game was simple and elegant: it minimized his weaknesses, which were ball handling and improvisation, and built a perfect structure on his strengths: quickness, elevation and flawless form on his jump shot. Nace was a beautiful guy altogether, poised, cheerful, intelligent and extremely handsome. The one black kid in the upper school, he was friendly to everybody, even pipsqueaks like me, and was universally admired. The previous year he had taken a weak team and made it halfway decent.

The first game of the year took place after J.V. practice, and my friends and I were going to shower and come back upstairs to watch. As always, I was the slowest, and when I got there Ace had already been sitting in the stacked bleachers for a while.

“You’ve got to see this ,” he said, “Jimmy’s going wild.”

What I saw was a different Jimmy from the one I knew, as if he had strapped on his six guns and been transformed. Our home uniform was white and gold, and he himself was shades of white and gold, a fringe of orange hair blowing off his forehead, spinning off the fulcrum where he felt the weight of his man leaning on him, playing the defenders for laughs, using them as comic props for flashing moves, long floating set shots, an array of mid-range jumpers and running hooks, look-away passes flicked behind his back off the dribble, which caught his stiff-fingered teammates by surprise. His point total was in the twenties, then the thirties, now, as the game was near ending, the forties. Ace, in the know as ever, told me that the school record was forty-eight, by Rivera, the smaller member of the great Kosmeyer and Rivera tandem from ten years previous: we passed their team photo every day as we went to and from chapel on the grand white marble staircase. The coach, Dudley Maxim, who had been coaching for the past thirty years, sat Jimmy down near the end, when he had forty-five and the outcome of the game was not in doubt. We were giddy with excitement, and a kind of fancied patnership in the glory. We couldn’t have imagined that he would never again try that hard for a whole thirty-two minutes, never care that much again. He had made his point. He only needed to show us once.

Robert | 9/16/2009, 12:55 am EST

The culture of Trinity in the sixties was still hard-core British boarding school: all boys, queer masters, uniforms, forms instead of grades, Anglican hymns, corporal punishment, unremitting competition for marks. Eight times a year, the better students had their grades posted in the school paper, and, at the end of the year, the top three in each form received large cash prizes. By the early seventies all that had been washed away, of course; and our class of ’sixty-eight had played some part in taking the starch out of the old place.

Jimmy had been a very good student at Rice, and, some years before that, had been skipped a grade; but, even though now he had been made to repeat freshman year, he was to find that Trinity was in an altogether different league: much softer in sports, much harder in academics.

Except for geometry, there were faster and slower tracks in all the courses. Geometry we all had to take equally, and the classes were assigned at random. It was the only class that Jimmy and I had together in four years. He sat on my right, and my best fiend Nicky sat on my left.

Nicky had been, without serious rival, the most mocked and bullied boy in the school for the previous two years, for obvious reasons. He had wide hips and narrow shoulders – i.e., gynecoid – , his hair, glasses, clothes, tie and bookbag were in perpetual dismal disarray, and he was freakishly smart. Troops of boys would lay in wait for him, and then chase him down the underground corridors, calling out “We like NIcky! Nicky’s our friend!” They would smash his bookbag, scatter his books and papers. At such times, as he told me, he was therefore not impressed with the sincerity of their chant.

Nicky and I were math-crazy for a few years, with the tense enthusiasm of early adolescent rivals, playing math games, reading math books, multiplying large numbers in our heads, memorizing logarithmic tables and perfect squares. These borderline autistic antics were certainly not Jimmy’s preferred pass-times, nor did natural bent of his intellect so incline.

Yet Jimmy did try his best, for a while. Our teacher, Sorrel Paskin, was a thin, burning young man with heavy black glasses and a goatee, who openly wooed me as his favorite, (as later on, to his deserved disappointment, in Physics and Philosophy) granted a sour,grudging regard to Nicky, and set himself to hector and humiliate Jimmy to the very limit of his power. An autocratic master can evidently hold the class at his mercy; the converse is also true, if less easy to see. Maybe Mr. Paskin thought we students, or I, would somehow join in the disparagement, the disdain. In fact, many or most of the masters were sadistic bullies, and some of the students could usually be cowed or jollied into playing along, especially if the target was an unpopular boy. Nothing of the sort happened here; rather, the class as a whole, and I, in particular, felt empathic distress, which we were powerless to act upon, as Jimmy was belabored with chains of sarcastic questions that he evidently couldn’t answer. I knew that physically, and even in some parts of his mind, Jimmy already was a man, but here in the classroom he had to submit, which was visibly hard for him, despite the ingrained deferential attitude of a trained Catholic boy. His voice strained but didn’t break. He was a little too old to cry. But his hopeful attitude towards the school, and even his sense of himself, began to change from that time foreward. And, in somewhat similar ways, perhaps, I think the same was true for all of us.


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