The Italians in the Basement—Part Four

[This is the fourth and final part of a story about the time during 1951-52 when the Grimaldis—my Uncle Marty, Aunt Kathryn, and cousin Geraldine—lived in the basement of my parents’ house in Brooklyn.]

Uncle Marty drew from his Italian heritage an encyclopedia of tools and their names. His manual dexterity exceeded my dad’s by at least two orders of magnitude, and he loved fixing, building, and bettering things. Whenever he had a free weekend, he would search through the house with my father for projects to take on. If I was lucky I could accompany them on their quest. It was while searching for just such a project that my dad revealed, in a closet in my parents’ bedroom that I had never even noticed before, a ladder to the roof. Because I was with them at the time, Uncle Marty invited me to come along to the rooftop, and my father agreed.

I don’t know what Dad and Marty were seeking that day, but when I stepped out onto the roof I was transported. I had never felt so full of light, so free of gravity, not even in the Statue of Liberty. I felt myself rising out of my body and hovering above my neighborhood. Dropping abruptly to my knees on the asphalt roof with a thrilling sense of vertigo, I crawled to the roof edge and got a God’s-eye-view of my street: the elder Mr. Crafa next door with his constant lawnmower; dapper Mr. Bruno, on his way home up the street to his wife and his two boys, who were on the way to becoming my friends; even Mrs. Welch on the stoop of the three-story apartment house next door, holding and cooing over one of the many stray cats she had taken in over the past couple of months.

In fact, my scope was now virtually infinite: Because 19th Street consisted of an unbroken series of row houses, every roof touched every other roof. I could have walked from Avenue Z nearly all the way to Avenue Y, and on a lazy summer day a couple of years thence, I did so. On this day, I closed my eyes and imagined such a walk. The people in the houses beneath my shoes would have no idea that someone—a boy—was walking on their heads. What sublime power, what ecstasy!

That day I was Newton receiving the gift of godly knowledge, or Francis of Assisi on his first levitation. That rooftop was a mind- and soul-changer that I owe to Marty’s enthusiasm for repair projects and adventure, and to his generosity toward a quiet five-year-old nephew. It was only one of a catalog of ways that Uncle Marty’s tenure in our basement affected my life.


The Catholic Church, singularly adept at hyperfine analysis and minute categorization, recognizes seven formal virtues. Four of these (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance) are called moral virtues. A person can earn the moral virtues through deep study, hard work, and vigilance. Anyone with sufficient motivation and commitment can develop the moral virtues.

But the Church also recognizes three theological virtues—faith, hope, and charity—so called because they have to be divinely infused into a person, not gained through an act of will or devotion. The theological virtues are in essence born, not made; you can’t go out and buy them, even with coins of piety. The soul can possess them only by God’s generosity. A person with them can be said truly to possess grace.

Uncle Marty stocked my young soul with a wealth of lessons that I learned chiefly by observation. I learned about driving nails cleanly, sawing across the grain, using the knuckles and hands as measuring tools, and many other practical things. I learned that a car ride could be an adventure and that, if you had nice things, you should share them. I learned never to be gloomy, always to see the good in people, no matter how raggedy or unusual the exterior, and to be quicker to laugh at yourself than at others.

The most important lessons he offered were the subtlest, and were delivered by actions rather than lessons. I don’t know about the moral virtues, since I’m sure he could be as imprudent, unjust, weak, and intemperate as anyone. But in his unfailing good cheer, confidence, and kindness, he incarnated the theological virtues that all the teachings of the nuns and priests who would come later could deliver only as abstractions. Marty’s pedagogy was corporeal. Looking back I see that he was faith, hope, and charity in the flesh, and I can only wonder that the grace of God so quietly resided in this humble man, and feel lucky that I had the chance to experience it.

The Italians in the Basement—Part Three

[This is the third of four parts of a story about the time during 1951-52 when the Grimaldis—my Uncle Marty, Aunt Kathryn, and cousin Geraldine—lived in the basement of my parents’ house in Brooklyn.]

Gerry was four years older than I, about the same age as my sister Roni. When her family first moved into our house, Gerry must have sniffed the air and instantly sensed a threat. She immediately formed a cynical entente with my sisters, reinforced by gender and age, and made me—the baby of the family, the boy—the object of relentless torment. I felt her hostility but was too young to do much about it. Except, of course, encourage her mother to fawn on me.

Gerry was a talented tormentor. She would pick on me relentlessly. If she knew a clever card trick, she would show it to my sisters and me. Then, when we all begged her to tell us how she did it, she would eventually tell my sisters, but when it came my turn, blandly inform me that “a good magician never reveals her tricks.” If she had a juicy bit of gossip, a joke, or a funny story, she would openly exclude me from her audience, banishing me with clever sayings like, “Go tell your mother she wants you” or “Why don’t you make like the wind and blow?”

Once she showed us a pencil drawing that she had done. It was a portrait of a girl in profile, and it was pretty good. The only odd thing was that the girl had two distinct swellings placed symmetrically on her torso: one in the front of her chest, which I knew was right, and another equally prominent in the same region of her back, which was something I had never seen before. So I asked her.

“Gerry, what’s that bump?”

“You mean this one,” she said, pointing to the breasts.

“No,” I said, “I know what that one is. What’s this one?”

“Oh, look at him. He knows what tits are. Not bad for a baby. How did you find out about those, Baby Eddie?”

“Everybody knows about those,” I stammered. “They’re real, you know. Girls have them.”

“Your sisters don’t,” she said.

“Uh, well, I guess not. But they will. You have them and our mothers have them.”

“You little sneak. You’ve been looking at things you’re not supposed to look at. You’re no angel after all—you’re a bad boy. Eddie is a peeper. Eddie is a peeper.

“Go away, you little peeper, before I tell your mother.”

Completely flustered, I slunk away. What a stinker, I thought.

Stinker was a pretty good stab at what Gerry was, given the developmental limitations of my vocabulary. She did things just like this all the time, making me the odd kid out on every occasion when it was just the four of us together. I finally gave up on her and went outside or to another room when she was around, although with all those Grimaldis in the house, there weren’t many vacant spaces at any given time.


Gerry’s problem could not have been that she was mistreated or starved for parental love. In fact, she was an only child who was treated extraordinarily well. In at least one area she was more catered to than we were: She had more toys and other good things than my sisters and I put together.

Let’s take one example. After her family’s TV, her best possession, in my view, was a fully articulated Howdy Doody puppet, dressed in cowboy gear, with more movable joints than a Chinese gymnast. Howdy was controlled by a ship’s rigging of strings and handles; if you worked at it you could probably make Howdy dance better than Fred Astaire.

Gerry never came close to mastering the strings, working at them and their paddles for no more than twenty minutes before giving up permanently. Devoid of patience and manual coordination, she missed Howdy’s potential, leaving him on day one a pile of wooden limbs and fishing line in the corner of her room.

Howdy Doody wasn’t a toy my ultra-frugal parents would ever buy. But every time I saw him or thought of him, I wished they had. I was of just the sort of patient and meticulous disposition to work out how to make him move—and unlike Gerry I was probably literate enough, even at age five, to work through the instruction booklet and illustrative pictures that came with him.

But she never gave me a chance. She kept him in her room and, undoubtedly noticing my envy, told me never even to think about touching him.

Gerry’s real problem, I realize now, was that she was a girl in an Italian household. For all the joy Italian girls may give their parents when they arrive, the blessing is necessarily mixed because, in a world populated by their natural predators (i.e., Italian boys), girls bring the onus of eternal parental vigilance. Boys, in contrast, cause no commensurate worries. For Aunt Kathryn, I clearly represented the son she never had, and Gerry knew it.

[To be continued]

The Italians in the Basement—Part Two

[This is the second of four parts of a story about the time during 1951-52 when the Grimaldis—my Uncle Marty, Aunt Kathryn, and cousin Geraldine—lived in the basement of my parents’ house in Brooklyn.]

Uncle Marty had one quirk that was insanely galling to my father. Once a week, he would come up from the basement, which had only a sink and toilet, walk through the living room, and go upstairs to our bathroom to take a shower. We would hear the water running and, sometimes, Marty himself crooning a popular tune or a sloppy Italian amore song. He was an emotive bather.

Marty’s baritone was not the thing that bothered my father. What really got to him was that, for all the Saturdays Marty indulged his shower habit, he never remembered to tuck the curtain inside the tub. While the rest of us were tuning in to his musical performances, my father must have been listening for the distinctive sound of water hitting the bathroom floor. The minute Marty went downstairs to his basement lair, my dad would speed upstairs and angrily mop the sodden bathroom floor. His colorful vocal stylings, which were also audible in the living room, involved neither pop tunes nor amore.

Of course, my dad, being Irish, never voiced his complaint directly to Marty; instead he griped about it to himself, tubside, and to the larger audience of his family sotto voce when he returned to the living room red-faced from his exertions. Marty’s tub manners chewed on my dad’s innards as long as the Grimaldis occupied our basement.


Marty was invariably cheerful and energetic, creative and enthusiastic; in daily life, he was a jet with a visible contrail. Even my father, who was irked by some of his habits, respected Marty’s Italianate manual abilities, which complemented my dad’s less tactile Hibernian leanings (which he probably would have called brains). And he liked—everyone liked—Marty’s affable nature and sense of humor. Marty was always good for a funny story—often a story in which he himself played the role of butt—or a joke he had heard, and he bore a bone-deep resemblance to Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, who also had the comic gift.

My father seemed especially bemused by jobless Marty’s utter lack of concern at a time when most people, with less reason, harbored a Sears Catalog of fears: not making ends meet, commies, a new Depression, atom bombs, polio, and gangsters, among others. Not Marty. I remember one time, after some interaction with Marty that I don’t recall, my father saying something to my mother that I processed even then as deeply portentous. His complete utterance, a florid compound sentence that I understood but imperfectly at the time, nevertheless stuck word-for-word in my mind. My dad, recovering from his encounter with Marty, shook his head slowly, exhaled, and commented, with both exasperation and admiration, “Marty could walk out the door and see the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse grazing their horses on the lawn, and he’d offer them a pail of water.”


Aunt Kathryn was a large Avon Lady obviously addicted to her products. She applied cosmetics with a heavy hand to every square inch of her body. She always smelled of perfume, which was not unpleasant, and cigarettes, which was, and wore rouge and bright red lipstick. Her physical expressiveness significantly exceeded the combined passion level of the entire Murphy household.

Kathryn was loud, flashy, painted, fragrant, and colorful, and when she came upstairs to visit us, she left lipstick stains on absolutely everything in the house. Her lipstick-stained cigarette butts adorned every one of the ten or so ashtrays that my mother strategically placed in every location where Kathryn might be tempted to alight.

Now, the presence of stained cigarette butts in ashtrays is one thing, but Kathryn managed to smear lipstick on just about all of our possessions, including objects that you would think were physically inaccessible. My mother once found and held out for inspection a decidedly Kathrynesque stain high up on a curtain in the living room; Kathryn would have had to have stood on a chair and jumped to plant it there. In the end, my mother gave up on asking Kathryn to be careful and shrewdly put out the red Christmas napkins when the Grimaldis came upstairs to visit instead of the white ones that she used for other guests.

Uncle Marty and Aunt Kathryn were comfortable with children: They loved me and my sisters and we loved them back. Kathryn’s natural exuberance led her to hug and kiss me frequently; when she did, I put up with the smell of cigarettes, which overpowered even the cosmetics, because I liked her and because every hug made my loathsome cousin Gerry jealous.

[To be continued]

The Italians in the Basement—Part One

As a devout Catholic, I grew up with the concept of grace. I heard the words “the grace of God” or “God’s grace” almost daily, and Mary, the Blessed Mother, was famously “full of grace.” Beyond God and Mary, the quality itself was loosely attributed to a handful of the more pious saints, but it was notoriously hard to define. Now I know that grace is a real human characteristic, but rare. You might expect to find it among the professionally devotional, but of all the nuns and priests who extolled it ardently and incessantly in my youth, only one—the young and virile Father Lahey—came close, and he had the Greek version, properly called charisma.

It turns out that grace itself can actually be right next to you and—because it most often seems to come in unlikely shapes—can take you by surprise. It took me a while to realize that my Uncle Marty had grace, and he himself would have scoffed at the notion. Perhaps that is an essential component of grace: If you have it, you don’t know it. You certainly never claim it.


It is to Uncle Marty that I owe my first car ride, which happened to be to the Statue of Liberty. The Grimaldis—Uncle Marty, Aunt Kathryn (my mother’s younger sister), and cousin Geraldine—were living at the time—summer 1951 to fall 1952—in our basement. The car ride was a gift from Marty to our decidedly carless family (my father had owned a car back in the 1920s, drove it sparingly, wrecked it somewhere upstate, and left it unrepaired by the side of the road—never to buy another).

On the appointed day, the three Grimaldis, my dad and mom, my sisters (Justine and Veronica), and I all piled into Marty’s venerable Plymouth. This was a large gray car with two full-size rows of seats and an additional rear-facing rumble seat. Roni and I, as the two youngest, were assigned to this odd seat until my cousin Gerry figured out that we enjoyed it. On the return trip, she and Justine joined Roni in the rumble seat, while I had to sit in the regular back seat with my mom and dad.

Because my family didn’t have one, merely to be in a car was exciting. Marty drove expertly, but fast—too fast for the parents, perfectly for the kids. Watching my neighborhood and the rest of Brooklyn recede rapidly backwards was a thrill. And the best part was yet to come: the parking garage in lower Manhattan. This was a six-story structure with a long spiral ramp to the parking levels. The garage was nearly empty but Marty chose to park on the top level to give us extra spiraling time. He knew just how much gas to give the Plymouth to make the ascent and descent as heart-stopping as possible. Everyone but Marty screamed with terror as the vehicle screeched its way up and, later, down the long ramp.


The Grimaldis were living with us because Marty had been laid off after the war from a longstanding job at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Other men might have garnished this apparent defeat with a loss of self-respect, but not Marty. He wasn’t pleased about it, sure, but neither was he deeply concerned. He was confident that prosperity was just around the corner, and just by being Marty and available, he got along.

For all of the year or so that he lived in our basement, Marty didn’t really have a job. Still, he somehow managed to have many things that we didn’t have, such as the Plymouth, a big console radio and record player that—unlike ours—actually worked, and a TV. He cheerfully shared these with us. Being a kind man, he probably didn’t notice that his only child, my cousin Gerry, resented sharing anything with me, but I did. On nights when my family was invited downstairs to watch Martin & Lewis or Uncle Miltie, Gerry routinely informed me that I couldn’t fit with her and my sisters on the sofa, which could easily, in fact, have accommodated all of us plus the infield of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I gave in, and no one was aware of her exclusionary policy except me; they all assumed that I liked sitting on the hard, linoleum floor.

Marty didn’t really look for work, confident that it would come if it wanted to. And just often enough, it did. One day, for instance, he came home with a large bag of gumballs. He told us that he just happened to be walking down the street that morning when a man with a trunkful of gumballs asked Marty if he could help distribute them.

Marty’s assignment was to fill the gum machines at every stop on the Brighton Beach subway line, uptown and downtown, and then return to the Sheepshead Bay stop, where the man was parked, by 4 PM. This he did, and diligently. When he returned at the end of the day holding a bag diminished by maybe half, the man happily assured him that the number of gumballs he’d gotten rid of was plenty, and not only paid him what he owed but told him to keep the rest of the bag for his kids. Which is why Marty came home a double hero. I’m sure Aunt Kathryn appreciated the money, but gumballs were the favored currency among kids.

[To be continued]

Verbs: Part Four—Tense: Section Three—The Future Tenses

The Simple Future Tense

Formation. The future tense is formed by adding will to the base form of the verb. Thus, we get I will go, you will stay, she will be there, we will return, you will wait for us, and they will be sad.

Negation and interrogation are handled in the usual way: For negation, you add not between will and the main verb (I will not go, they will not be sad), which is often contracted to won’t. By the way, you can’t rely on your automatic spell checker to correct wont to won’t for you, because wont is a properly spelled, though different, English word. The same is true of cant, a word that will not be “corrected” to can’t for you.

To form questions, as usual with compound verb forms, you simply invert the subject + will combination and place it before the main verb, as in Will we return? Will they be sad? and Will you stay? For the negative interrogative, you have a choice of two forms: Will you not stay? and Won’t you stay?

The shall form. There is another way, now archaic, to designate the future tense: the shall form, but you need not worry about it. The simple fact is that shall is disappearing. When I was a boy, the convention was to use shall to express the future with the first person singular and plural (e.g., I shall return and we shall be together), and will with all the other persons: You will have to wait for me, you will all write, won’t you?, and They will stay here with you. And to express emphasis, the reverse was the case: I will write you, I promise. You shall pay your bills.

No longer. Now, the word shall (and it negative shan’t) is retained as a frozen form in only a few expressions (Shall we dance?). It also appears in the (King James Version of the )Ten Commandments (Thou shalt not steal) and in a few legal formulas (The party of the first part shall maintain the vehicle in good working order…). The shall/will distinction that I learned is supposedly still sometimes enforced by well-born British people striving for linguistic nicety (or nice British people striving for well-bornness).

The only current use of shall is in the expression of offers, such as Shall I turn on the air conditioner for you? and even this is yielding to sentences such as Do you want me to turn on the air conditioner for you?

The long and short of it: You can safely forget about having to produce the word shall in speech or writing, but to make your reading of older English novels (not to mention legal documents and the KJV of the Bible), you should hold onto your recognition of the word. Put it in the same bucket in your brain where you store “Methinks.”

Usage. The simple future is most often used to describe actual or intended future events, but it serves other, related functions as well. These are the most common uses:

  1. to state a future plan or intention (I will take you to the ballgame tomorrow.);
  2. to express willingness to do something (I’ll do the washing up; Jerry will mow the lawn.);
  3. to state an order or command (You will obey me. They will be in my office at 9 sharp.);
  4. to invite someone to do something (in question form only) (Will you go to the dance with me?)
  5. to express unwillingness (in the negative form only) (I won’t obey your stupid regulations!)

Other ways to express the future. In addition to the future tense, other ways are available to the English speaker to indicate that an action is planned for, or likely to happen at, a future time. Here are five more:

The present progressive. One informal way to talk about events that are very likely to happen in the near future is to use the present progressive form. For example, I’m flying to Chicago next Tuesday and I’m staying with Jim and Louise. Louise is working all day tomorrow, but Jim is taking the day off and driving me around to several realtors to look at properties.

The simple present. The simple present can also serve as a future in informal discourse. For example, My plane takes off at 7 tomorrow morning clearly relates to a future event. This construction is quite common.

The to be + to construction. The construction to be + to (i.e., am to, is to, and are to) can be used to indicate a future obligation, as in I received word from my employer that I am to travel to France next week or According to the government, we are to leave the building at once.

The to be + about to construction. This construction provides one more way for English speakers to speak about fairly definite future events. For example, I’m about to lose my patience and you’re about to spend the evening in your room without television or Internet access.

The to be + going to construction. This construction (which is mirrored in French and Spanish, and in the latter is apparently supplanting the true future form) is very common. I’m going to see that new Turkish movie with Jonathan tomorrow and Is Ben going to help you move this weekend? are examples.

The Future Progressive Tense

Formation. I’m sure you will be happy to know that the present and past progressive tenses have a sibling that operates in the future. The future progressive tense is formed by adding will be to the present participle (the base form of the verb + -ing). Thus, we can say I will be requesting a raise at my next evaluation and Will you be staying the entire weekend? and we will be using the future progressive tense.

Usage. By now you’re an old hand at this and can undoubtedly figure out that the future progressive tense is used to refer to actions the will be happening over a fairly long but often indefinite period of time in the future. I’ll be seeing grandma when I go to Minneapolis next month and You’ll probably be staying up late a lot during your first semester in college are examples.

The Future Perfect Tense

Formation. This is a fairly unusual verb form and somewhat complex to work out on the fly, which makes it a more likely candidate for written than spoken English. It is formed by adding the past participle (the third principal part) to will have. Thus, By the time you read this, I will have landed in South America features a future perfect (will have landed) in the second (i.e., the main) clause.

Usage. This tense requires speakers (or, more likely, writers) to imagine themselves in the future after having completed some action that has not yet happened. In the sentence used as an example above (By the time you read this, I will have landed in South America.), the speaker was not yet in South America. The other event in the sentence, the letter reading, also had not yet happened.

The future perfect is a nifty but odd construction. Here are a few more examples, just for fun:

By this time next month, I will have turned 30.

When I see you next, you will have traveled around the world.

When Mom and Dad get back from Peru, you will have graduated from college.

By the time I finish this book, my characters will have aged ten years and I will have aged thirty.

By the time I retire next year, I will have been working 52 years. [This one is actually an example of a variant of the future perfect tense, called the future perfect progressive tense, which I have decided doesn’t need a separate section of this blog. Consider this sentence its section; you’re welcome.]


Verbs are very substantial parts of speech, with a lot of moving parts. So far, we have covered Person, Number, and Tense. By the time we finish our discussion of verbs, we will have looked at (note the future perfect!) those topics as well as Mood and Voice.

Next up: Mood.

Verbs: Part Four—Tense: Section Two—The Past Tenses

The Simple Past Tense

Formation. The past (technically the simple past) is just as easy to form as the present: It’s the second principal part of the verb uniformly across all of the persons and numbers for both regular and irregular verbs, with only one exception—to be again. There are two past tense forms of to be—was and were. All other verbs, regular and irregular alike, take the form of the second principal part: I baked, you helped, she ate, we cleaned, you mopped, and they rested.

Usage. The simple past is used to describe actions that took place in the past and are no longer going on. They are actions that happened and are complete. I drank the coffee means that the act of drinking occurred at some point in the past and is not going on now. Often an adverb of time accompanies the past form of the verb to pinpoint when the action occurred: I drank the coffee ten minutes ago, I baked a loaf of bread yesterday, I went to the dentist last week.

Other Past Tenses

There are three other past tenses used to indicate variants on past action. These are the past progressive (akin to, but by no means the same as, the imperfect in other languages), the present perfect (again, similar but not identical to the perfect in other languages), and the past perfect (similar to the pluperfect in other languages). Let’s discuss these briefly.

The Past Progressive Tense

Formation. This is the past-tense version of the present progressive, formed similarly. That is, the
form of the verb (which is also the present participle) is used with the simple past tense of the verb to be to form the past progressive. The past progressive of I walked is I was walking; of you told, it’s you were telling; of he lied, it’s he was lying.

Usage. The past progressive is used to describe ongoing, incomplete, or continuous actions that took place in the past. It is usually used with some indicator of another action happening at the time of the continuous past action. For example, we would rarely say I was walking the dog plain and simple; almost always, we would elaborate this statement with the mention of a simple past event, or we would produce this sentence in response to a question such as What were you doing last night when I called you? In response we might say I was walking the dog when I heard the alarm go off in the supermarket, or When you called me, I was walking the dog.

The past progressive has another use: It is used for the narration of past events that have a continuing or ongoing aspect. In such a narration, there is always a sense of an impending when just offstage, a when that interrupts the flow and thereby brings the narration to a climax. The kind of mystery novels that I enjoy may have long past progressive passages of this kind, as in:

Bolt was walking idly along the waterfront, minding his own business. He wasn’t expecting any trouble, nor was he looking for any revelations. He was simply doing his job. He was whistling a tune that came from nowhere, a habit he had developed after years on the job. He was just thinking that he was becoming more a creature of habit than was good for him, when the next seconds proved him right. He was turning mindlessly into the section of the wharf where the large foreign freighters docked, when a blow from the right caught him in the ribcage and doubled him over….

Past progressive vs. imperfect. Okay, so the past progressive is used to describe ongoing action in the past and in some kinds of narration. When is it not used? The answer to this question introduces some key differences between our past progressive and other languages’ imperfect tenses.

Differences. The main way in which English does not use the past progressive marks the key difference between that tense and the imperfect tense of many other languages. In English, the past progressive is not used to describe repetitive, habitual actions in the past—things we used to do or were accustomed to doing.

For example, an English speaker would have to use the “used to + base form” construction instead of the past progressive tense to express what the French can properly use their imperfect (l’imparfait) to say.

To be more concrete: When the French say Je visitais souvent le Louvre, this sentence is not translated into English as I was often visiting the Louvre, but as I often used to visit the Louvre. In fact, this peculiarity of usage provides a nearly foolproof way of distinguishing many nonnative English speakers from natives (that is, it’s a classic shibboleth). When you hear someone say, even in perfectly pronounced English, When I was living in New York, I was buying the New York Times every day, you know you are listening to a nonnative English speaker.

There are other ways an English speaker can communicate habitual past actions in addition to used to; for example, we can say “When I lived in New York, I had the habit of buying the Times every day.” Or, “… I was accustomed to buying the Times every day” or even “… I would buy the Times every day.” But we don’t say “… I was buying the Times every day.”

Of course, the French have their revenge, because for English speakers the reverse predicament materializes: The French imparfait seems to have been created primarily to drive English speakers mad; anyone learning French knows that it is nearly impossible for nonnative French speakers to grasp the subtlety of the distinction in usage between the imparfait and the passé composé.

Similarities. On the other hand, there are similarities between the two tenses. The imperfect tense of other languages shares many uses with the past progressive in English. It can be used like the past progressive to describe incomplete, ongoing actions in the past—a usage, as we noted above, that usually has a stated or implied “punctuator,” such as a when, to interrupt the flow of time.

For example, consider the two English sentences about dog walking cited above.

I was walking the dog when I heard the alarm go off in the supermarket.

When you called me, I was walking the dog.

These sentences describe an ongoing action in the past (the dog walking) that was proceeding when something else happened (the alarm and the phone call). These sentences can be translated nearly literally into French as one might expect, using the appropriate conversions: past progressive = imparfait and simple past = passé composé:

Je sortais le chien quand j’ai entendu sonner l’alarme du supermarché.

Quand tu m’as téléphoné, je sortais le chien.

The Present Perfect Tense

The present perfect is, despite its name, a kind of past tense. Let’s talk about its formation first, and then its usage.

Formation. To form the present perfect, you need the appropriate form of the present tense of to have plus the past participle (i.e., the third principal part) of the verb. These are all proper present perfect forms:

6 persons conjugated

To negate these forms, simply change the to have verb either by adding the word not, as in I have not bought, you have not seen, she has not broken, etc., OR by adding the contracted form of not, which is -n’t directly to the end of the to have verb, as in I haven’t bought, you haven’t seen, she hasn’t broken, etc.

For the interrogative form, invert the subject pronoun or noun and the to have verb form, as in Has Jamie bought the napkins?, Have you seen my glasses?, and Have we met? The interrogative form of the negative is formed pretty much the same way: invert the (pro)noun + to have form, and then continue with the negative and the main verb form. For example, Have the Claytons not responded?, Have I not read this book before?

Note, however, that the latter two sentences sound a bit odd to the native speaker—stilted and old-fashioned. What has happened is that we have used an uncontracted form of have not, instead of the more normal-sounding haven’t. Inverting the to have form virtually requires us to invert the attached –n’t as well. The more comfortable sentences are Haven’t the Claytons responded? and Haven’t I read this book before?

Usage. The present perfect describes actions that started in the past and either (1) continue into the present; (2) ended in the past but at some indefinite time and after some indefinite period.

An example of the first use is Jared has lived in Poughkeepsie for many years. The implication is that he started living there many years ago and still lives there. Similar sentences are I have always been a Democrat, I have loved you since the day I met you, and It has been a very difficult year.

An example of the second use is I’ve seen that movie already. It is clear that the speaker saw the movie at some indefinite point in the past and is not still seeing it. A more subtle inference is that the speaker doesn’t want to see it again. Note that this inference is not implicit in all similar uses of the present perfect. The sentence I visited the Metropolitan Museum three times this summer does not imply that the speaker doesn’t want to visit the museum again.

The distinction between the present perfect and the simple past is not always clear; there is considerable room for ambiguity, which can be used in aid of subtlety. Consider these sentence pairs:

I shot the sheriff.
I’ve shot the sheriff.

There is clearly a difference, but it takes some thinking to express just what the difference is. The first sentence is a simple report of a fact, or two facts: The sheriff is shot and I am the one who shot him or her. The second sentence is less definite. While the same two facts are conveyed, there is some additional extra-verbal information in this sentence that has to be pried out of it. The statement is not a simple, accomplished fact: the act of shooting lives on in the mind of the speaker. Perhaps there is a sense of innocent horror in it, as in Good God, I’ve shot the sheriff (and I didn’t mean to). Perhaps there can also be a sense of recency and hope in it, as in I’ve (just) shot the sheriff (and maybe he can be saved).

The present perfect is a subtle—even sly—tense, suitable for conveying a great deal of information which the listener or reader is left to interpret more or less by intuition. Consider some more sentence pairs and have fun with intuiting inferences that may be drawn from each of them without much stretching.

I’ve always loved you.
I always loved you. [Is there a hidden message here?]

I can see I hurt you.
I can see I’ve hurt you. [Which is probably the worse injury? Are the injuries of similar types?]

We discussed this in the past.
We’ve discussed this in the past. [In which instance is there likely to be another discussion now?]

I slept with your husband.
I’ve slept with your husband. [You could write a short story about this pair.]

I’ve got a cold.
I got a cold.

I hated you for that!
I’ve hated you for that!

You paid no attention to me.
You’ve paid no attention to me.

See what fun we can have by reading between the lines in the use of tenses?

The Past Perfect Tense

Formation. The past perfect is formed by combining the past participle (i.e., the third principal part) of the verb with the past tense of to have. Examples are I had been in the train station an hour and a half when the train finally arrived and Jeremy had not read the book before the class convened.

Usage. The past perfect always has two past time periods in mind: Event A happened and Event B happened. The past perfect is attached to the past event that happened first—before the other past event, which is described in the simple past. The form is I had Event A’d when Event B happened.

For example, I had just gone to bed when the phone rang. Both actions—going to bed and ringing—happened in the past, relative to the “now” when the speaker is speaking, but one of them, marked with the verb had, happened before the other, which is in the simple past.

Other examples are:

The train had already left the station when Marceline pulled into the parking lot.

We had finished dinner when you arrived.

The test had begun when you showed up.

Past-contrary-to-fact conditions. The other common use of the past perfect is in what are called (or at least used to be called by my Greek teacher) past-contrary-to-fact conditions; the more up-to-date term is counterfactuals. These are conditional sentences (i.e., sentences commonly marked by the conjunction if) that describe events that the speaker claims would have happened in the past if something else had happened (or not happened) first. Here are examples:

If you had spoken up at the altar, I would never have gone through with the wedding.

If Henry had not killed Anne, she might eventually have given him a son.

I would have been an honest man if I had never met Rogers.

I would be an honest man today if I had never met Rogers.

Note that in such sentences, there are typically two clauses: the conditional clause (the protasis or if clause), which uses the past perfect form of the verb, and the consequent clause (the apodosis or then clause), which uses the would form (technically the conditional tense, either past or present) of the verb. Sometimes the protasis comes first, and sometimes the apodosis does. (Okay, okay, these are weird, unnecessary words. But I just love this stuff.)

In either case, the action described in the protasis did not happen; and because it did not, the action described in the apodosis also did not happen. All this not happening gives this conditional structure its appellation of contrary-to-fact or counterfactual.

Two things to note: One, the word if is not needed; we can simply use the pluperfect, but inverted:

Had you spoken up at the altar, I would never have gone through with the wedding.

Had Henry not killed Anne, she might eventually have given him a son.

I would have been (would be) an honest man had I never met Rogers.

Two, the had–would structure is falling into disuse, apparently because many people find it cumbersome and difficult. I often hear people using would have in both the protasis and apodosis, as in If you would have told me about his gambling habit, I never would have trusted McCaffrey. I find I am having to get used to this structure because I hear it more and more often and the past perfect less and less.

[Continued in Part Four–Tense: Section Three–The Future Tenses]

Verbs: Part Four—Tense: Section One—The Present Tenses

In addition to person and number, which we covered in an earlier post, verbs have tense, mood, and voice. We begin our discussion of the first of the remaining characteristics now.

Tense. When applied to verbs, tense refers to time; indeed it derives ultimately from the Latin word tempus, which, as we all know, fugit. There are three basic times in which actions can occur: the past, the present, and the future. These time frames correspond to the three fundamental verb tenses. A fourth “tense,” the conditional, is really a mood, and I will defer discussion of it until I reach that topic in this blog.

I have divided my discussion of verb tense into three sections, which will appear as separate blog posts:

Section One (this section): The Present Tenses;

Section Two: The Past Tenses; and

Section Three: The Future Tenses.

Verb tenses and the principal parts. Formation of the various verb tenses depends on the knowledge and proper application of the principal parts of each verb. We discussed in an earlier post the principal parts into which English verbs are classified. For example, the table below presents the principal parts of some common regular and irregular verbs.


02 Principal Parts

Regular verbs. As you can see, the regular pattern is to add a –d or –ed to the present tense form to form the past and the past participle, while making associated spelling changes that themselves follow standard English patterns. For example, the final –y in try and cry becomes –ied in the past and past participle, and the end consonant of the present tense form is doubled in the past and the past participle of the words drag and stop as the normal way to preserve the pronunciation of the root verb’s vowel.

Irregular verbs. As for the irregular verb pattern, well, of course there isn’t one, but there are some recurring themes. For example, there may not be a think, thank, thunk (which would be parallel to drink, drank, drunk), but what there is—think, thought, thought—is at least similar (in a slant rhyme kind of way) to bring, brought, brought. Similarly, creep, keep, and weep follow the same pattern as sleep—and take has its parallels in shake and forsake (but not, I’m sorry to say, in bake, fake, make, rake, stake, and wake).

If you are learning the English language, you just have to memorize these words; fortunately, many of them are very common and manage to work their way into one’s “language sense” (or Sprachgefühl, as the Germans put it) subconsciously.


The Simple Present Tense

Formation. So, now that we have a sense of the principal parts and their formation, how do we apply the parts to express different times in English? Well, forming the present tense of almost every verb is easy: In five of the six persons and numbers, it’s the base form, and in the sixth—the third person singular—it’s the base form plus –s or –es. The exception is the verb to be, which uses am, is, and are across the cases and numbers.

Thus, we have I bake, you bake, and he/she/it bakes in the singular, and we bake, you bake, and they bake in the plural. The same is true for the irregulars: I go, you go, he/she/it goes, we go, you go, and they go. And for our friend to be, the forms are I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, you are, and they are.

Negation. To negate most present-tense verb forms, English makes use of not only a negating particle, not, but also the auxiliary verb do. Thus, we typically say I do not bake, he does not go, they do not like, and so on, rather than I bake not, he goes not, and they like not. Those forms were used until quite recently, but now postpositive negation (meaning negation positioned after the verb) is used only with a few special verbs: be and what are called the modal verbs: can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, and would.  We cannot grammatically say *I do not am, *he does not is, and so on. Nor can we say *you do not can, *he does not might, and so on. For these verbs we must use postpositive negation, as in I am not, you are not, he is not, and so forth (which when spoken usually appear in contracted form: I’m not, you’re not, he’s not, they can’t, you mustn’t, and so on).

Interrogation. This is another place in English where most verbs and the verb to be and a few others part company. The interrogative form of most verbs involves the use, again, of the auxiliary verb do. Thus, we say Do you bake? Does he go? Do they like? instead of Bake you? Goes he? and Like they? Those latter forms, the inverted forms, were used in English until relatively recently, but are now limited to a very few verbs, including be, do, have, and the modal verbs (see above).

Usage. The present tense is the one we use to speak about actions that:

  1. happen routinely or regularly (I go out with my wife to a restaurant every Friday; I visit the dentist twice a year);
  2. are happening now (I see storm clouds gathering in the southern sky; I hear the sound of bagpipes);
  3. are unchanging facts (Albany is the capital of New York State; The Nile is the longest river in the world);
  4. are about to happen, as a kind of informal or weak future (Classes start in two weeks; The sale begins on Saturday);
  5. are reported in newspaper headlines (President Obama visits Mideast; Bridge collapses, traps workers); and
  6. are narrated in the historical present, to make past actions vivid (Madigan enters the room slowly, sensing the air around him. He moves stealthily to his left, toward the open window. Suddenly his toe touches a soft, heavy object…).

The Present Progressive Tense

Formation. There is a variant of the present tense, called the present progressive, which is used to report ongoing actions that have not yet finished their course, as in Jack is making his way to the scene of the accident and The birds are flying south early this year. The mark of the present progressive tense (which is sometimes denied the status of a tense and called instead an aspect of the verb) is the –ing ending.

Usage. The present progressive is most often used to describe actions that are:

  1. continuous at the present time, as in I can’t talk right now. I’m cooking dinner. This  means that right now I am in the process of cooking;
  2. “in process” in an extended, indefinite present but not being performed at this exact moment. I’m working on a good solution to that battery problem doesn’t necessarily mean that the speaker is at that moment working on it, but that in general it is on the “in-progress” list and will be worked on off and on for some ongoing time;
  3. imminent and planned. For example, we can say Tomorrow we’re going to the movies or Next week we’re starting classes when we are talking about planned, imminent, definite future actions.

Aspect. A word about aspect in grammar is in order. Aspect is related to, but different from, tense. Both tense and aspect offer information about time, but, as an excellent article in Wikipedia says, “Aspect conveys other temporal information [than tense], such as duration, completion, or frequency, as it relates to the time of action. Thus tense refers to temporally when while aspect refers to temporally how.”

Aspect typically arises in a language, if it arises at all, with respect to the perfect tenses and the progressive tenses, in that these tenses are used to convey information about both the time at which an event occurs or has occurred, and the nature of the flow of time around the action. The three phrases I eat, I am eating, and I have eaten convey very different information about the act of eating. The first, I eat, relates a simple event that happens at a particular point in time; it begs for the addition of further information, such as I eat lunch every day promptly at noon. The second, I am eating, describes an ongoing event that is occurring over more than one point in time. The typical context would be something like I can’t talk now because I am eating. And the third, I have eaten, refers to a past event that was completed at an indefinite—not pinpointed—past time.

Present progressive and present participle. In the present progressive, the word with the –ing ending is in form and fact a present participle. When it follows a form of the verb to be, it may be either part of the verb (thereby forming the present progressive tense) or simply an adjective (thereby becoming a predicate adjective). Consider the word stunning in these sentences:

The dancer is stunning the audience with a series of acrobatic yet graceful moves.

The dancer is stunning.

In the first sentence, the word stunning, with the word is, is the present progressive form of the verb. In the second sentence, stunning is a participle used as an adjective after the verb is. In other words it is a predicate adjective.

The difference becomes especially apparent when the sentences are diagrammed.

stunning audience

stunning dancer

[Continued in Part Four–Tense: Section Two–The Past Tenses]

Fool of God

As I poke through my past like a rock collector, I sometimes encounter episodes lying face-down that I am reluctant to turn over. Among these are moments of utter, helpless, mystifying foolishness. Such moments are embarrassing, and yet it is at such moments, I believe, that the presence of God is felt, however obliquely, in the human soul. The intentional human hand slackens for a moment, as at a Ouija board, and the Maker forces his way through.

I am not thinking of the times of trivial foolishness that one lives through for comic relief. I have had my share of pratfalls and spilt drinks, of bumped heads, failed jokes, and malapropisms; these do not reach the level of divine foolishness.

I am trying here to describe moments when a breath of wind with roughly the numinous force of the Burning Bush inspires an action of radiant idiocy. We who inhale this wind become fools, for God’s sake.

We are all familiar with the character of the divine fool in medieval plays and stories, a God-inspirited being who stands outside the self and lives a life of ridicule and wonder, a creature to whom none of the norms of human commerce apply. Such fools serve a societal purpose, positioned as they are outside the circle and affording through vacant eyes a glimpse of what rages beyond. These ardent beings are touched in some way, and we know it instinctively. Joan of Arc is the most vivid example of such a fool: fiery life, fiery death.

But it is not the Joan of Arcs, with their political agendas and vast deeds, that interest me: My sights are set smaller. My suspicion is that each life, no matter how ordinary, harbors moments of divine foolishness, incidents that make sense only when viewed in an entirely different light and measured against the calculus of the blessings they bestow on those who witness them. I know that I have participated in more than a few such moments, and I have no pretensions to uniqueness.

Let me tell you about one of them.

It was an early March day in St. Mark’s school, third grade, 1955. Sister Mary Dominic was making a series of announcements before dismissing us for the day. One of the announcements was of interest. We were to come to class the next day wearing not our school uniforms, which for the boys were dark brown slacks, tan shirts, and green knitted ties that made large ugly knots, and for the girls green jumpers over white blouses with green ribbon ties; instead we were to wear our St. Patrick’s Day costumes. This was welcome news. By March my school uniform was ratty: I could use a change. Besides, the St. Patrick’s Day costumes for our class were neat that year and I thought I looked particularly good in mine.

St. Patrick’s Day was the third-most-important day in the nuns’ calendar, after Good Friday and Christmas. Many families in the parish—located in the Sheepshead Bay part of Brooklyn—were of Irish descent, and every year the Church sponsored a St. Patrick’s Day Pageant, or “Irish Night” as it was more simply called. All eight grades of the school took part, each with a presentation organized around a patriotic or nostalgic theme. In addition, parents who had talent or thwarted ambitions created comedy skits, dance numbers, or song routines that they would perform. The parents also built the sets, decorated the gymnasium, and sold the tickets, for this was an important fundraiser.

The nuns of St. Mark’s were in charge of conceptualizing, writing, and directing the children’s skits for Irish Night. Immense importance attached to this responsibility. Each class had to be rigorously practiced until it could perform its routine with devotion, radiance, and precision. Only age-appropriate blunders were tolerated, and only if they warmed up the audience.

It never occurred to me to wonder what anxieties Irish Night must have caused the nuns who were without performance talent, which was not after all the primary job requirement. They had to muddle through somehow, relying I suppose on their colleagues in the convent to be script doctors and consultants. Some managed by falling back on their true, non-theatrical talents. I remember one sister whose strengths were decidedly on the martial side of human affairs. Her class’s number that year looked like a lusty march on the Reichstag instead of the Easter Parade it purported to be.

Costuming was an important part of the children’s presentation, compensating entirely in some classes for lack of talent and inspiration. In my third-grade class the skit was a medley of songs on the Yankee Doodle Dandy theme. Parents had been made to rent or sew Uncle Sam costumes for their sons and some sort of frilly crinoline things with pantaloons and parasols for their daughters. Parents lacking financial or tailoring resources could sign their kids up for background roles that could be played in drab, simple costumes.

The flashy costumes were the ones we were to come to school in the next day, a Tuesday: for me, red and white striped pants, a blue cutaway coat, white shirt, red vest and striped bow tie, and a cardboard stars-and-stripes top hat. It made good sense to me that Sr. Mary Dominic might want to see us in our costumes before even the dress rehearsal on Friday afternoon, because it was vital that we get everything just right.

That night my mother ironed my Uncle Sam costume and hung it on my bedroom door. I slept poorly, knowing it was there. Next morning she helped me get into it: It was a bit tricky to button up. We discussed makeup. It had been announced at school that all performers—boys and girls—would wear rouge and lipstick for the show this year, which made us boys laugh and punch one another, but Sr. Mary Dominic explained that all actors wore such makeup so that their facial features could be seen through the bright footlights. My mother and I decided against the makeup this time, however, since there was no question of footlights.

As I walked to school in my costume, the first sign of trouble was Bernie Kennedy. He was standing on the corner waiting to cross and he was in his plain old school uniform. No Uncle Sam.

My first reaction was empathy, since he might very well be in violation of a classroom command.

“Hey Bernie,” I said. “Where’s your costume?”

“Uhh, what costume?” he asked.

“This one. You know, Uncle Sam.”

“I think it’s at home, Eddie. In my closet.”

“Why is it there?”

“My mom put it there. I’ll put it on for dress rehearsal.”

I began to have misgivings. Bernie was one of the smart kids in class, not the sort who would miss a direct order from a nun.

Didn’t you hear Sister saying we should wear our costumes today?”

He looked at me for a second or two. “No,” he said.

There was a gap in the traffic. We crossed the street.

As we neared the schoolyard, my steps became increasingly diffident. Soon I could see that I was the only Uncle Sam in the area. It was nearly 9 a.m., too late to turn back. It would take too long to get dressed again, and I couldn’t dream of being late for class, not even if the price of promptness was the humiliation of an Uncle Sam costume. I had no choice but to continue. As I walked I tried to be mindful of the brave saints who had faced similar walks, with martyrdom at the end. I made an effort to step proudly.

I knew I had heard the order to dress up. I could clearly remember it. But where had that distinct, authoritative voice come from? Then, as I reached the high cyclone fence that surrounded the schoolyard, I had the answer, both to that question and to my current dilemma. The voice I had heard the day before had undoubtedly been of divine origin. I had to have faith.

I let the divine wind that had spoken to me before speak through me now. I knew it was still in the general vicinity, so I simply abandoned myself to it and to its power. It was like the falling backward game at parties. I let myself go. And I felt myself moving forward with purpose and grace.

St. Mark’s in 1955 was a bustling school, filled to the brim with postwar Catholic offspring. There were 52 children in my class, 3-B, and the same in 3-A. In each of the eight grades that St. Mark’s served, there were about the same numbers: two classes of around 50 children. Allowing for ten percent absenteeism, the number of children on the schoolyard that day was approximately 720. Seven hundred nineteen of them, in the dull browns, tans, and evergreens of the school uniform, gradually came to a silent stop.

Among them was something new: a blinding, glittering, divinely inspired pinwheel of a boy, dressed in a blue and red and white Uncle Sam costume, holding his top hat with one hand and spinning wildly to make the tails on his coat fan far out behind him.