If there was ever a need for a sociological study, it is the first Catholic Church Friday Nite Fish Fry of Lent. Why Catholics can't eat fish on Fridays during Lent has always been a mystery to me. I never questioned it as a child, it was just something that we did. Mom would scold us if we even tried to sneak a piece of lunchmeat out of the fridge.
There's really nothing else quite like it. $7 all-you-can-eat battered-cod mixed with prayer and 150 screaming children with pink kool-aid moustaches running in their snow boots. The little old grey-haired ladies wearing too much make-up and hairspray cluster together at one end of the catholic school gymnasium underneath the basketball hoop while the familes pile themselves at the other. It is a never ending series of introductions, hand shakes, crying babies and styrofoam plates swarming with greasy fish.
The scent of warm fried food wafts out into the parking lot and down the block, but the french fries are cold, someone forgot to buy enough mayo for the coleslaw and crazy Mrs. Shepanhowacotskimackavich is hording all the sforks. There are no parking spaces left in the lot. There are flakes of fish batter in your beard. Girl scouts are wandering through the crowd, bearly able to lift the huge case of cookie boxes they've been instructed to pitch to you.
There is always the ubiquitous mongoloid child that everyone feels sorry for prancing about the gymnasium in between the long rows of tables pulling his shirt up over his face so that everyone can see his outie. There is the one guy who has lost his hair from chemotherapy that everyone looks at out of the corner of their eye and then says nothing. There is the young man with cerebral palsy making his way haltingly through the food line trying to balance his tray loaded with iceberg lettuce salad and juice while attempting to remain standing and not smack anyone in the shins with his crutches.
Your $7 entitles you to two trips through line. Of course, you have to go back for more because the fish is actually really good. The incredibly obese woman who doles out the french fries and baked potatoes will remark on what a big eater you are. She's been doing this for 30-odd years. You may have gone to high school with her or she may have been your fifth grade teacher, it's hard to tell though because of the years and the amount of hair you both have on your faces.
The new priest is meeting many of his parishoners for the first time. He's not what you'd expect. He looks like someone who was captured by the Vietcong, spent months undergoing prolonged waterboarding and has never quite gotten over his military experiences in Southeast Asia. Gaunt, nicotine stained fingers reach out to grasp your hand. "Nice to meet you, Father," you say, not really certain if you mean it or if God is about to run you over with an SUV later for thinking the things you are.
What can we learn from all this? People are just people. They follow a tradition because it is a tradition, no other reason. Is it fun to be involved in this? Perhaps. Perhaps it is the one time these folks actually meet their neighbors or the parents of the other kids in their son's elementary school class. Maybe it is the one time they meet or brush past their soulmate. Maybe it is simply a collective memory of a time in the distant past when folks actually gathered together as a community and celebrated the bountiful catch from the sea. Who knows, it's still a mystery to me.
Someone ought to do some research.