To Boston, With Love

BostonI don’t know how many times I put my arm up, but it was approaching a countless number. The air was starting to chill, and I wanted to get myself and my girls back to our hotel. My arm went up again, another attempt to hail a cab that had no intention of pulling over. There wasn’t an empty one in sight.

We were still sweating, from the sing and dance-a-thon that was a two hour Coldplay concert at the Boston Garden: a great show featuring staunch musicianship, pyrotechnics, and stunning visual technology. I was with my wife, daughter, and our cousin from Ohio. We were wiped out and needed the comfort of our hotel room.

“Taxi!”

The concert was a cap to an outstanding day in a visit to my favorite American tourist destination – the city of Boston – and I say that as a diehard New York sports fan (rivalry, anyone?). After walking along the harbor, darting in and out of shops in the electric Quincy Market, my wife and I stopped in a Cantina there to have a drink and chat with the locals. And make no mistake: even when I wear my Yankee hat, the people of Boston are some of the friendliest around.

While my daughter and the cousin roamed the landscape, we enjoyed our time at the bar, and had great conversations with those who were just happy to be in this beautiful place – and we were happy to be with them. We segued from Quincy quickly to a North End restaurant, where we enjoyed a tasty slice of Italian America before heading to the Garden to see my daughter’s favorite band.

After the show, we did finally get back to the hotel. A taxi did stop. Persistence pays off.

It all would have been very impressive if that was the first, or one and only, trip to Boston. But, of course. it wasn’t. My first nerve wracking ride on a jet airliner to take an initial romantic weekend getaway with my wife (then girlfriend), more than 20 years ago, was to Boston.

For the purpose of love and romance, we couldn’t have picked a better town.

Trips to Fenway Park, as a Yankee fan, brought me back here many times. Bus rides taken with good friends, enjoying baseball in possibly the most intimate stadium in America. Most of the games the Yankees won. I’ve heard horror stories from others about the dangers of rooting for New York at Fenway, but have never experienced anything but good will and good natured ribbing from the Fenway faithful. I hope to get back there soon.

This past year, we have witnessed events that bring us to question human integrity and sanity. All of us wonder aloud why a bombing would happen at a marathon, how men can be so sick and indifferent to the lives of others. How they can target locations where children run and play.

I’ve been to Boston. Many times. I love it there, and can’t wait to go back. The city will rebound and come back better than ever because of the qualities of the people that live there. I have made memories with family and friends in the place they call “Beantown” that would be hard to forget. I’m thankful for endless hospitality and wish them god speed in repairing their lives and building on the strengths that showed in those harrowing moments that we have become much too familiar with.

We love you, Boston.

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Mike & Johnny

I was a bartender in my family’s restaurant for nearly 20 years.

It was probably the best job I’ll ever have. I served thousands of drinks to some of the most unique personalities I’ve ever known. I served lawyers who couldn’t stay sober, served guys who thought they were losers but they weren’t. Some were the best that humanity had to offer.

Lately, I think about sitting at the bar with my friend Mikey. Sitting with our drinks at the end of the night, as I was getting ready to close up. Closing time. Talking to each other through the murky haze of cigarette smoke.

CarsonAnd watching Johnny Carson. The Tonight Show. Remember Johnny? One of the funniest bastards to ever walk the Earth. With his sidekick, Ed McMahon. Hilarious.

I’d lock the front door, and sit back down. Have a drink. Smoke our own cigarettes. Maybe listen to a little Sinatra after Johnny signed off. And talk.

Mikey’s gone now. The memories remain. Thinking about the future is one of my favorite things to do. At times, it seems limitless. In my mind, I’m blessed with the best of everything. Even at my advanced age, my health is still pointed in the right direction.

Yes, there is a future. I have plans. Hopefully, God does not laugh. Even with the future ahead, it’s still fun to roll it all back. Play the movies in my head. The memories retreat occasionally, then come roaring back.

We’re at the bar, sipping a drink. The music of our lives playing in the background. Johnny sits at his Tonight Show desk, laughing. Closing time. Everything has to come to a close.

Image of Johnny Carson courtesy of Wikipedia.

A Boy Named Anthony

Dad-Anthony
My Dad and his younger brother Anthony. Early ’50s

I have a recurring dream that tends to wake me up out of a sound sleep. In the dream, I’m riding a bike on 14th Street, the street where I grew up. I’m about 10 or 11 years old, and flying down the road, going like a bat out of hell.

There’s another kid on a bike in front of me, even faster. I can never catch him. He’s about the same age, pedaling furiously, like he’s trying to get away from me. The more specific details of my dream are the color of the sky – a deep, indigo blue, the kind you’d get just before a summer sunset – and the length of the ride.

You see, 14th Street is a side street just a few blocks long. In the dream, our two boy bike race goes on forever. The ride never stops.

Even though I can’t be sure, I’m convinced the boy on that bike is my Uncle Anthony.

I can’t be sure because I never knew him. He passed away when I was a baby, almost 50 years ago. He was only 13. Although I didn’t know him, I felt like I did from listening to all of the stories about him, mostly told to me by my grandmother. From her perspective, he was a loving and kind person, a real “Mama’s Boy.” But for purposes here, a slightly different perspective is required… anthony

(Note: The following recollections are not my words, but from the excellent memory of my cousin – also named Anthony.)

What Was – And What Could Have Been

Big Anthony was as solid as a rock, a good tough fighter. He could run like the wind, and in my opinion, could have been one hell of a halfback.

He was called Big Anthony because he was almost seven months older than me, and to make sure my mother and your grandmother knew who to blame for something when necessary. Thus, the titles Big Anthony and Little Anthony.

Little Anthony and Big Anthony, left to right
Little Anthony and Big Anthony, left to right

The best times we had were when your family lived lived downstairs and we lived upstairs on 14th Street. With all of the cooking going on on both floors, it’s no wonder I was 200 pounds by the 2nd grade.

Your uncle, on the other hand, was not a big eater. And the fact that he loved Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs really pissed off your grandmother. We would go to the ice cream parlor down the street and order two huge banana splits, at fifty cents each. I took your uncle because he could never finish his and I always ate the rest.

We were constantly together when Anthony lived downstairs. We would bang on the pipes to signify that something was needed, or that a meal was ready. We would spend every Christmas Eve together to wait for Santa Claus. We never slept. I can still hear Anthony telling me to shut up and go to sleep.

One year, two weeks before Christmas, we found the presents that your grandmother was hiding. To appease us and keep us quiet, she gave gifts of toy guns and holsters to tide us over until the holiday.

Your uncle had a very hard time in school. It may have been attention deficit disorder in today’s terms, but back then they didn’t know how to handle it. Your grandmother hired college students as tutors, but that didn’t seem to work. He had trouble reading, so I would read to him a lot. I wish now I could have helped him more.

My father was a big boxing fan, and he used to put the (boxing) gloves on me and Anthony, and your uncle always kicked the shit out of me. I told you – he was tough.

Football and basketball were not big sports back then, but we did love baseball. We lived and died with the Yankees. Mickey Mantle was our favorite. Anthony could play ball, too. He could hit, and as I mentioned before, run like the wind.

We would go to the newsstand around the corner to buy our baseball cards. And do I mean buy. We had hundreds. I know for a fact I had five Mickey Mantles and a Roger Maris rookie card.

Lastly, your father had a reel to reel tape recorder that we thought was the top! We used to fool around with it, making jokes. I still have a tape of your uncle singing a song about being in love with a girl named Mary Ann. I never knew who she was, but I remember the song well enough to sing it for you. It’s amazing, I can still hear him sing after 50 years.

There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of him. I still wonder what could have been.

(Thanks to Anthony Prezio for providing these great stories, and wonderful memories.)

The Ride Never Stops

I won’t forget the television images I saw this December of a father who just lost his six year old daughter to a violent end, a senseless tragedy. I couldn’t hear the audio or anything else happening around me. Just the images. The face of pain. I know my Nonna and my grandfather were once those parents, the faces of loss.

It’s hard to know how much grief they experienced. My grandfather was the strong, silent type, capable of hiding emotion. My grandmother would mention my Uncle’s name at the kitchen table, cry for a few minutes, and then fiddle with her coffee cup.

At my uncle’s wake, one of the Roman Catholic nuns that taught him in school told her that  he was an angel of God. That his time on Earth was meant to be short. That made my grandmother angry, and she would always tell that story with a defiant tone. But in her later years, she softened her stance.

Just because she believed in God and angels, and heaven and hell didn’t mean she had to buy the idea that her son was an angel before his time.

After a story like that, the two of us would always sit at the kitchen table in silence. No more words were necessary.

AnthonyIf the subjects of banana splits, Chef Boyardee, or Mickey Mantle ever make an appearance in my life, the first thing I think about and remember is my Uncle. Still here, still being thought of, not fading away with time.

In my dream, the race doesn’t end. On the bikes, still pedaling, sweating. That other kid is so far ahead there’s no reason for me to keep going, really. He takes a moment to peer over his shoulder, look back at me. All I can see are his eyes, and I recognize them from faded photographs. His lean frame on the bike fades into the distance just in time for me to wake up, and stare at the ceiling.

The race goes on and on. Bike tires kicking up dust into an indigo horizon, the summer heat soothing. The forever of 14th Street is my concrete paradise, as I chase a boy named Anthony.

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Happy Birthday – P.S. The World Needs You Here

nonna & pop (2)It’s not just the first day of winter. The solstice – the day with the fewest hours of sunlight in the whole year. It’s not just another day creeping closer to Christmas.

It’s your birthday.

We all wish you were here to celebrate it, to once again complain about how this day was too close to the biggest of holidays, and how you were always “getting gypped” out of presents. Made us laugh every time.

You were a class act, yet down to earth at the same time. You practiced humility, and preached acts of kindness no matter what. Your focus was on God, family, and the country you were proud to be a part of.

You had ups and downs, multitudes of challenges, but you always seemed happy. Your extended family and wealth of old friends were always around, always entertaining. They were a happy bunch as well, with a good word for everyone.

It was always about love with you. And comfort. Especially with your prowess in the kitchen, oh that comfort! The coffee pot bubbling on the stove, chicken soup simmering away… My wife and still reminisce about your kitchen whenever we cook in ours.

The world has changed since you’ve been gone, and it seems to be for the worse. There’s barely any patience anymore, kindness is at a premium, and events that should shake all of us to the core have become sadly commonplace.

Yes, we should live “through the windshield, and not the rear view mirror.” Some will say it’s a sad day when you’re caught living in the past. But how can we not at least take a peek back?

Life was a lot more carefree, without much to concern us. There was Vietnam, and Watergate. Those events seemed to take place far away from us, covered by news programming maybe once a day. They didn’t feel like they were around the corner, waiting to burst out at you.

I like the idea of a time machine. A trip back to a simpler era would be nice, especially if I could take my wife and kids. We could lay on the floor of your living room on a Saturday morning, in our pajamas, elbows on the carpet, hands cupping our faces. Hanna-Barbera cartoons would be on, and we would be able to smell the aroma of frying meatballs coming from the kitchen.

What do we do? Finish that episode of Jonny Quest – or go for the fresh, crispy meatball?

Anyway, I’m getting off track. Most of your generation is gone, and the kind deeds and compassion they expressed may have gone right along with them. Except you did your best to pass them to us. It was a source of your pride. Your great grandchildren, in their earliest stages, are already the citizens you hoped they would be. Being up to me, they will follow in the footsteps of the great generation they came after, the one that you were part of.

Happy Birthday to you. Wish you were here.

We will celebrate this weekend with a glass of wine, a special dessert, and (your old standby) adding fish to a Christmas Eve meal. And by recalling a simpler time of life and looking toward a better future.

Tougher Than The Rest

The strong, silent type. Masculine, with a no bullshit attitude at all times, the kind that’s missing in these days. In arenas where men are constantly encouraged to get in touch with their feminine side, there used to be those that would have no part of that conversation.

A guy like John Wayne comes to mind, but I’d rather stick with the men in my family for purposes here.

My grandfather, Sebastian, (picture above) was one of those men. I think of him often, especially now near his birth month of October, and wonder what he would think of the myriad of ways that current events and attitudes unfold now.

I’m going to say he wouldn’t be pleased. He’d do what he used to, derisively uttering “God Bless America” in his sarcastic tone. And then I’d have to laugh.

Like most others of his generation, my grandfather felt he was entitled to nothing more than the opportunity to work multiple jobs to support his family. Factory worker by day, he became a bartender/restaurant worker by night. His customers did a lot of drinking, but he never did.

He simply had too much to do.

The Generation of “Non Complainers”

Sebastian did what he needed, without complaint. If he ever did complain, I never heard it. He was a grinder, working on tasks straight through until they were finished, no matter how long it took.

In partnership with my grandmother, Sebastian was a success as a business owner. When you run a restaurant, it’s like your mistress, and you spend most of your waking hours there. My grandfather had an incredible work ethic, one that he tried to pass down to all of us.

As an immigrant from southern Italy, my “Pops” sure as hell had his obstacles, and also more than his share of sadness. He had a brother, a soldier, killed in World War II, and his son, my uncle, died tragically as a teenager.

To have survived events like that are incredible feats.  I’m amazed by the man even now, years after his death. I rarely saw him display sadness, remorse, or regret. He was one tough cookie. Tougher than the rest.

I owe my grandparents quite a bit. They’ve taught me to focus on what’s important, keep it simple, and have a sense of gratitude for it all. I miss having them here. It seems the longer they have been gone, the more complicated things are. They had a way to set that straight. The path was clearer with them acting as mentors.

Forward, Always Forward

One aspect of following my grandfather around was his constant movement. Always going forward, working, making progress. He could be relentless. I recall mouthing off to my grandmother once when I was a kid. His belt came off his pants at lightning speed, and he chased me outside the house, right on my heels. I couldn’t believe such an older man could be so quick.

My grandfather reminds me of Rocky Marciano. For you youngsters out there, Marciano was a heavyweight boxing champ in the 1950s who retired undefeated. I had relatives that talked about him when I was a kid, and I became fascinated by him later. He was also a success symbol for Depression era Italian Americans, many who were immigrants. Marciano inspired hope to those who were downtrodden, and convinced America’s “streets of gold” were a fallacy.

Marciano never lost a fight because he never stopped moving forward. Even when he was hurt, rarely taking a backward step. Never stopped punching. Kept coming at you. Never relented.

Sebastiano DeGiorgio, throughout his life, was a lot like him. Short and compact, but quick. Relentless and persevering.  And tough. Tougher than the rest.

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