From the Left



The Brown Catholic Air

Marc Munroe Dion on

When President John F. Kennedy died, he took the brown Catholic air with him.

The brown Catholic air was in the corners and stairwells of Catholic schools in the working-class neighborhoods, along the brown wood bannister, and it was across the street in the church, in the brown corners, where the sexton hadn't pushed his broom deep enough to reach one small cobweb.

And the old women walking from their houses to morning Mass and the brown Jerusalem olive beads on my grandmother's rosary and my brown school shoes.

It was already going, of course. There is a picture of Jackie Kennedy reading Jack Kerouac's "The Dharma Bums" in the early 1960s. No one did more than Kerouac to blow away the brown dust of comfort and belief, and yet Kerouac wrote brilliantly about brown Catholic air and red brick walls and dusk between factory buildings.

The floor in the corner store was brown, scarred wood, and I stood on it to buy penny candy while my father picked up The Racing Form.

And the brown wood wainscoting halfway up the walls of my living room at home, and my dog, a brown boxer, and the brown, fragrant cigars of my uncles, and brown beans baking in a brown pot on a Friday night, and my mother's brown car coat, thick wool and her "going out dress" which was dark brown.

And a black and white television in a brown wood cabinet, and the brown wood of the crucifix over my bed. When my father bought me my first real sports coat, it was brown corduroy.

Meatloaf and gravy and the strong brown tea my grandmother drank.

Kennedy's picture in the hallway in a scalloped frame of dark brown wood, a frame like the one around the picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in our front room, which we called a "foyer." Open the big brown wooden door and you were looking at the mahogany desk where my father paid the monthly bills, just under the bleeding heart of Jesus.


We were still a few years from "psychedelic" art with its bulging paisley tumor shapes in chartreuse and orange, still a little bit from black light, five years or so from the time when anything could be made hip if you put the word "electric" in its name, and many a dive bar was repurposed into a youthquaker hangout when the owner painted the walls purple and changed its name from "The Ridgeway Cafe" to "The Electric Zoo."

In popular mythology, John F. Kennedy was a flash of light. He was crisp white shirts and big white teeth, the man who would capture the moon and Marilyn Monroe.

And he was, or at least he rode the prancing white horse of victory in World War II and union jobs and the sons of dirt farmers going to work in gray suits and red ties.

The brown Catholic air would have ended without Kennedy, pushed out by easy money and quarter-acre house lots. It is just that he died as the brown air started to lift off the urban parts of the country, and the Irish, Polish, Slovakian, Italian bungalow and apartment house neighborhoods broke up, and the brown wood-floored corner stores closed.

And he is dead now, dead a long time, the last president of brown air America, the last president to stand in the quiet forest of American certainty.


To find out more about Marc Munroe Dion, and read features by Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit Dion's latest book, a collection of his best columns, is called "Devil's Elbow: Dancing in the Ashes of America." It is available in paperback from, and for Nook, Kindle, and iBooks.




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