I’ve had reason to advert in this space to the blog of my friend Dom Capossela. He’s one of my oldest friends, as in one of the most long-lived friendships I’ve come to treasure. We go back to the late 60s, when I met him and his former wife, on the cusp of beginning a new phase of their lives, opening a new restaurant.
Of late, that is, as of about nine months in a serious way, he has discovered the wonders of the internet and plunged in with all limbs. It’s something of a high wire act, given that he has persisted with a daily posting on his blog, every day since. He’s now up to over 233 days and counting. He has quite a following – a testament to his persistence and tenacity. He has admittedly very few skills, especially in a practical way, in the area of computer science and despite the challenge hangs in there, taking assistance where he can find it. I’ve been known to volunteer.
In any event, aside from providing an alternative outlet for my own writing – there have been a number of entries on this blog, and in other places where I publish, when I have cross-posted as well to Dom’s blog. He expresses great, heart-felt, and sincere appreciation for these contributions, many of which start out as spontaneous email messages from me to him privately, most often in response to some trigger in the content of his blog. I read it first because he’s my friend, and I find I have an unquestioning interest (that is, I don’t doubt my own interests, and therefore I don’t question them; I question him plenty, as in, “do you know what you did there…?”). I continue to read because out of some kind of synergy, or perhaps it’s some kind of geriatric symbiosis (he’s older than me by about four years, and, as I like to joke, he keeps gaining on me) much of what he chooses to write about is stimulating of thoughts about my own life and experiences, and somehow, equally spontaneously, they pour out of me. That’s how Dom puts it, and I’ll paraphrase, “it’s amazing; it just pours out of you, just like that.” I do clean it up a bit before I post it, but it’s pretty much true, that what you see here is what came out of me.
I always accept the proposition that maybe that’s evident enough and I shouldn’t be so proud of myself.
I don’t know about pride. But I do know that my next urge is always to share it, And so here it is.
Most recently, that is, in the last few days, maybe three, maybe four, Dom had occasion to comment on several subjects that were inadvertent prompts for me.
Somehow the subject of games and puzzles came up and he had occasion to opine, as he characteristically does, so enthusiastically, “who doesn’t like puzzles and games?” So, first you’ll see my answer.
Second, and in a continuing suite of reminiscences about his childhood which seems to vary in tone from recollections of the “mean streets” of the North End of Boston in the 50s, to quite touching, almost, but not quite sentimental memories about that same boyhood and his bumptious family life. It’s with a significant pride that he recalls running and playing on the streets of that ghetto (not meant as anything but descriptive; read no negative connotations in the usage, as the word still has a perfectly good denotation), and in the most recent portrayal he speaks of ceding the streets to no one. Generally bereft of automobiles, which were a luxury in that neighborhood, those streets and alleys constituted the perpetual playground for any number of games and sports (there’s that theme again) and the only interruption which was unquestioned was for the unchallenged passage of certain vehicles, usually a “Cadillac with Rhode Island plates,” to which obeisance was given silently and observantly.
And that’s the second subject I’ll address in my own terms as it called up details of my own life at about the same time.
Puzzles and Games
There’s not much inherently interesting, I don’t think, in imparting the knowledge, regarding “puzzles and games,” that I hate puzzles and games, and always did. Even as a kid. Smacked too much of competition for no other reason than to compete. I somehow knew prematurely that life was a rat race and, as Fran Lebowitz long since pointed out (I think it was she, it may have been Lily Tomlin – certain authorities, according to the internet, aver the origin of the statement was actually William Sloan Coffin, the chaplain of Yale University), even if you win, you’re still a rat. Why look for ways to get anxious about existential proxies for survival.
Whatever my predilections, I do remember playing Scrabble with my two grown cousins, daughters of my Cousin Fannie, who lived near us in the Bronx and the relative we were most likely to visit when that cyclic urge to break bread with blood ties came over us. Anyway, both Beverly and Harriet were school teachers. I had a crush on both of them, but especially Harriet, the darker one. She was maybe 22 or 23 back then. Beverly was a couple of years older. I think Beverly had already gotten married. I was, at best, nine. I was also the current really precocious one in the family. At least to the extent that we all need an identity, and that was mine. The little saturnine genius.
Anyway, somehow or other, we seemed always to end up playing Scrabble. I think my animus about games went into suspension with these games as, miraculously, I always seemed to win. They were very convincing. And maybe I did beat them, and at worst they simply didn’t try very hard. It honestly never occurred to me until I was in my late 20s or maybe even my 30s, and had had some harrowing experiences already with women. Two failed marriages by the time I was 35 will do that to you, and each of my errant wives were young – you guessed it – maybe about 22 or 23, as the critical age. One of them was that age when she decided to have an affair. The other was barely that age when I met her. Anyway, it wasn’t until I was only a bit older, and as for wiser, I’ll be generous and call it a bit, that it occurred to me that the fabulous Menn sisters (that was the family name; Fannie was a widow, and my cousin’s late husband – Fannie was a Dinin, like me – was named Hyman Menn) had allowed me to win, because they were teachers of young children, and they knew, preternaturally, that’s what you do. Now I think, who knows? We moved to Providence soon after that, and Harriet got married to Herb, and that was the end of the occasional Scrabble games.
“Cadillac with Rhode Island plates”
The address we moved to in Providence, on the East Side, essentially a Jewish enclave that covered about one and-a-half square miles, was 44 Sargent Avenue. A very modest one-family dwelling that sat on a very odd-shaped, tiny lot that itself was situated at the point where the street took an odd jog, very slightly, to the right as you proceeded uphill, which meant it was nearly impossible to park straight and parallel with the curb right in front of our house. It made other aspects of living there – because we were on the serious part of the rise of the hill all the houses sat on, the elevation of the left side of our house was probably about two feet higher than the right side. The house was built square and level, of course, but it made our basement and the single car garage on the right-hand side of the house truly subterranean. They could only exist as a result of being on that rise, as the lot wasn’t wide enough, and if they scooped out a driveway on an incline, which they did, and built the house into the hillside, which they did, they could tuck a garage in, barely wider than a car and which a nervous, not too skilled driver, like my father, always found a challenge – a challenge he would lose about twice a year – to avoid scraping one side, usually the right side, of our automobile on the frame of the overhead door. It also meant having to back out of the driveway blind almost directly into the street. Being situated on that jog in the street, there usually wasn’t anyone else interested in trying to park there. This meant that the free and clear part of what was otherwise a fairly narrow street to begin with suddenly seemed to widen, so that cars proceeding up the hill would speed up just a tiny bit, and this meant having to be that much extra cautious tentatively backing out of our blind driveway. My father did it for nearly 30 years, into his 80s, until he suddenly got sage and gave up driving altogether.
But this, in retrospect, was only a metaphorical representation, real enough for sure, but only a metaphor, for what I experienced as a displaced child of the Bronx as the precariousness of my otherwise mild-seeming, innocuous ‘hood. It turned out, we learned quickly as we acquainted ourselves with our community, our new neighbors immediately across our narrow street were the Gotz family. They were a couple who lived on the ground floor dwelling of their duplex. On the second floor, with its own entrance and street address, lived Mrs. Gotz’s mother, hardly ever seen as she was a semi-invalid. The other part of her bifurcated life appeared from her behavior when she did present herself in public to be that of a demented person. Or maybe her half-chronic condition was dementia, and she and her dear ones were merely spending their time waiting for the other shoe, or whatever article it was, to drop. She would occasionally appear on the second-floor porch of her apartment and yell at whoever was in the street. If you were a child you learned what the sensation associated with the word “chilling” was, as she would suddenly, breaking the diurnal calm that usually prevailed on Sargent Avenue, start shrieking and yelling. At other times, she was docile and sweet and even attentive, seemingly focused. She took a genuine interest in our lives as little kids, and we, or at least I, enjoyed these peaceful hiatuses into sanity.
The Gotzes somehow persevered with this generational impediment. Usually we saw them if we saw them at all – aside from appearances, not a little like a kind of modest royalty making an audience with their public, on patriotic occasions when everyone was home from work and school and they would stand around idly, in clement weather, on their front porch – on bundling themselves and their son, Manny, into the family sedan in their driveway (a long straight shot, nice and wide, and on level ground, into a spacious two car garage that sat at the rear of their sizable lot, with a generous view of the street and oncoming traffic). And they would putter off to god knows what destinations. They kept to themselves.
Manny was adopted. This was one of those bits of common knowledge that you seemed to assimilate out of the very atmosphere bounded by the street. I don’t remember anyone telling me, or making a big deal of it.
It was a fortuitous match, parents to child, as Manny had the same dark, one might call it swarthy, complexion as his compactly built brooding father – and later in his development it grew to incorporate the quality of being unusually hirsute, with very dark hair growing thickly on his head and his face, and, as was revealed in summer, on his trunk-like arms and legs. Manny was short. Perhaps squat was a better descriptor, as he was always fairly powerfully built. This was one factor in my sense of precariousness, also part of that atmosphere. I was, it almost goes without saying, of a more ectomorphic configuration, tall and skinny. One could say slight. I thought of myself as slight. Except I was so tall for my age, until adolescence when, seemingly, all of my friends caught up with me. Except Manny.
Not that Manny was exactly a friend, or a playmate. He was about three years older than me. I don’t know who he “played” with. He was, as I suggested, quiet, and kept to himself. I can remember thinking quite clearly that I was ill disposed to invite him, however I might have done that, to join the wholly imaginary exercises, a kind of precursor to cosplay, as we did it in our street clothes with only a few props, though the scenarios in our minds were clear enough, of combat (essentially re-enactments of the Korean War, rumbling rapidly into the past, though it had ended only three years prior to our move to Providence). Or they might be the stock tableaux, part of our repertoire, fed by a diet of Hollywood features that were prominent through the 40s and 50s, of belligerent cowboy and Indian encounters. Most of these games involved toy pistols and make-shift bows without arrows. They mainly consisted of a lot of running around, hiding poorly behind physical obstacles, and making gun fire noises with our mouths. Manny simply wasn’t the type. You developed your own style of dying: arrow to the neck, gut shot… usually very dramatically and drawn out.
A transformative incident occurred, after not too many years had passed. I was barely into my scholarly career in junior high school, a couple of years or three into our New England sojourn, that somehow or other, again through that peculiar osmotic acquisition of certain everyday facts about the existence of other residents, even as you assiduously avoided having much contact with them, that Manny had a fairly constant companion. Were they not well into their adolescence, I might be tempted to describe them as playmates, though there was only the most sinister quality, one way or another – yet another, a different form of intuition – about their hanging out. Their most noticeable singular feature, say if a policeman making routine inquiries were to ask if you noticed any distinguishing physical characteristics, was a propensity to present themselves in public with heavy, and unusually well-advanced for their ages, five o’clock shadow. Manny’s buddy, who was a little older, and already had a driver’s license – because Manny had by then stopped traveling with his parents in the sedan, and was now in the company of his constant friend; they would go off together, Manny exiting his house with a furtive air, sometimes bull-like, sometimes with a gentle if gruff grunt of farewell that he projected back through the open glass-windowed wood frame door into the perpetual darkness within. His friend was called, as transmitted by the local wireless telegraph, Ray.
Well, one day, the news came back to us, and seemed to have spread fairly quickly, and not surprisingly, as it constituted notoriety of such magnitude that it was worth reporting in the city’s newspaper of record, the Providence Journal-Bulletin. It seemed that Ray and Manny were “playing” (that was the word that sticks in my mind; I will swear it was reported to me deploying such a word choice). Ray had a weapon, a handgun, apparently a revolver, that he had borrowed from his father. He was proudly showing it to his friend when somehow or other it discharged, firing a bullet, which entered and then exited the fleshy part of Manny’s already ample mid-section. A flesh wound. As the crime shows of the 90s, about 35 years later, would teach us, a “through-and-through.” Manny was patched up and recovered quickly and life went back to the strange normal we had learned, previous to this incident, not to think too much about.
The one note to this story that was at once macabre and highly humorous, especially to the precocious posse of bar mitzvah boys of which I was one, was that, on seeing what he had done, and using what knowledge he had somehow only thus far poorly assimilated from his tutors in these matters, Ray decided that he’d better ditch the evidence, and he threw away the pistol he had “borrowed” from his father. He dropped it into “the sewer,” which is to say, he dropped it into a convenient storm drain cut into the gutter of the street. I have always imagined this bizarre and clownish scenario had come to pass in the dark recesses of 43/45 Sargent Avenue, which did have a storm drain cut into the gutter in front of it, and which I never looked at in the same way every again; but it’s not clear to me, after all this time, where the incident did, in fact, occur… it would have been just as stupid whatever the setting.
The most chilling aspect of this anecdote was what was also general knowledge, kind of part of the legend of that crazy town, belying its vaguely Wild West ancestry, Providence RI. Bluntly stated, Ray was, to give his full name, Raymond Patriarca Jr., son of the mob boss of Federal Hill, the Italian-American enclave in downtown Providence. I have never to my knowledge laid eyes on Mr. Patriarca, though his power and influence always preceded him. My tenure in Providence was brief, only seven years, taking me from childhood to my teen years, when I abruptly left to take up my precocious academic career in Boston, the Athens of America. I say all this with a somewhat sardonic tone, because neither city had yet abandoned, not in 1963, its still decrepit conditions of municipal decay and metropolitan inanition. It took ethnic politicians, Italians and Irishmen, to revive them and bring them to a true state of renaissance.
In the meantime, certainly in the early 60s and into the 70s, it seemed to me, as little as I paid attention to these matters, that what real power there was, was in Boston, which seemed to be ascendant in terms of mob rule of any other part of New England. It wasn’t until the time I lived briefly in the North End, the Federal Hill of the larger city, in the 80s that I learned that it may have been a fact that the local mob boss in that part of town (as opposed to the Irish syndicate that ruled Southie) was a man named Jerry Angiulo, but even he, back in the day, reported to the big boss of New England, Raymond Patriarca, who would appear from time to time, on expeditions, probably something like a papal visit, to the teeming streets of the North End, so the locals could pay their respects.
It made me think of my childhood, of course, and in my feverish and anxiety-laden imagination, my childhood near-misses.
[Disclosure: Some facts and proper names have been changed for purposes of fictionalization]