How I Got to Madison Avenue. And beyond.

As with life, this blog is developing and changing. It began with a lot of stories that occurred on my career path from Albany to Madison Avenue and back.

There were some similarities to the AMC series "Mad Men," and then I went even farther back in time with a somewhat fictionalized version of growing up in Troy's Little Italy.

And now, a new development. As my free lance advertising and marketing career winds down, I'm becoming more interested in the theatre arts that my father and his 3 brothers helped instill in me as I grew up.

As a result, I've volunteered to help promote the Theatre Institute at Sage, and now, to continue a long-interrupted desire to be behind the proscenium, I've joined the newly formed Troy Civic Theatre, and was actually fortunate enough to appear in their first production.

So, I hope you'll enjoy the new stories that will develop from this latest turn.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


From the bakery, we followed Michele to the hotel, formerly a home next to one of Frosolone’s many churches, La Chiesa di S. Michele Arcangelo, at the center of the town’s original settlement. Rich and I went from there to a very late, but delicious lunch at the taverna, bar and ristorante of Antonio and Concetta de Nezza. Concetta prepared a delicious meal of triangular ravioli in a simple sauce made from locally-grown tomatoes, and as Rich and I wolfed it down and discussed the events of the day, I watched the di Nezza’s young son play a video racing game on the restaurant’s large, flat-screen tv.

We rested until dinner, then decided to walk to the restaurant at Frosolone’s main hotel, Luigi Colaneri’s La Colombina. During the stroll, a pleasant ramble through town and downhill to the restaurant, we passed by a bronze monument to the artisans of Frosolone, a life-size casting of a forger at work. The Colombina is a sprawling complex built into the hill of the town, with diversions on many levels – a bowling alley, billiard room and bar on one level, restaurant on another, rooms above that. You can see more at its website,

We walked into the main dining room, wherethe staff was opening a couple of cases of wine – for what, we never discovered, because, as I’ve said, whenever we finished our dinner, Italians were just beginning theirs. We actually ate in a smaller dining area, off the restaurant’s bar, where the jolly waiter, who didn’t speak much if any English, promptly sat down at our table and asked what we wanted to eat. We worked out our choices, not exactly knowing what cuts of meat would be in our secondi, but everything was delicious, abundant and reasonably-priced.

In most of the restaurants we had visited up to this point, when we asked for sparkling mineral water, we would be served a bottle of Ferrarelle, a brand that is known in America. The surprise at the Colombina was the brand name on the carafe of sparkling water that was placed on our table – Culligan. Yes, the same logo that we only associate with water softening in the states.

My antipasto was buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes – which tasted so fresh, I could believe it was delivered to the kitchen minutes before it was sliced and served. Every course was that good, actually – good country fare, well-prepared.

On the walls of the bar area of the Colombina were a couple of Italian proverbs, which provided Rich with a challenge he enjoyed – understanding Italian. It can be fairly easy to literally translate words, but proverbs in another language are often untranslatable and obscure idioms. That seemed to be the case here. On one wall, in varicolored letters that seemed to dance, was written: “Non c’e’uomo che non erri, n e’ cavallo che non Ferri.” Literally it says “There isn’t a man who hasn’t erred, nor a horse that hasn’t thrown a shoe.” But that has none of the poetry, rhythm and, I suspect, a typical Italian world-wise sense of humor. And a horse isn’t exactly our major means of transportation. So, I offer my own modern transliteration: “Every man sometimes lies, and every car eventually dies.”

The other quote was more difficult to figure out. It was a short conversation that read: La vite disse all'ulivo: "Insegnami l'eternite." L'ulivo rispose: "Sala quando mi insegnerai l'ebbrezza.” Rich and I tried to translate it, but our results didn’t make a lot of sense.

A friend of Rich’s, who has actually published translations from Italian works, kindly supplied this literal translation: "The vine said to the olive: teach me eternity. The olive answered, “It'll happen when you teach me intoxication." Again, I feel there’s a lot missing from the original, so I did some research before I attempted to transliterate it.

First of all, for thousands of years, the olive tree has been the symbol of eternity – in Judges, in the Koran and in fables from countries where olive trees are common. In many of these writings, it’s called the “Tree of Eternity,” because olive trees actually live and produce fruit for thousands of years; and then, when they’re no longer fruitful, they send out shoots that replace the original growth.

Learning that, plus realizing that the phrase is on the wall of a restaurant, I reasoned that there might be a life lesson in those words. Is it a rivalry between the grape and the olive, both of which are fermented before offering their liquid pleasures? Or is it folk wisdom telling us that long life and joy are equally important? Or just a restaurateur urging us to eat and drink? My interpretation attempts to encompass all of the above: The vine said to the olive tree, “I wish I could live forever, like you.” The olive tree replied, “And I wish I could live for today, like you.”

After a very satisfying dinner, we realized that we were now facing the reverse of our easy downhill amble to La Colombina. But we clambered back up to the main part of town – by a different route, but it’s difficult to get lost in Frosolone – and made it back to the hotel, where I, at least, got a good night’s sleep. I think Rich used his ear plugs and got some rest.

Next: Farewell.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


As we entered the museum, the first object to greet us was an ancient bicycle with an ingenious sharpening wheel, used by an enterprising Frosolonese who would ride from door to door and sharpen the homeowner’s knives, razors and scissors for a fee.

Also at the entrance is an authentic recreation of an ancient work area, complete with actual forge, bellows, tools and tables – even the traditional “flag” window – named for the shape of the opening to the area, the “pole” section serving as a tall, narrow passage, and the “flag” section providing a window and counter for transacting business with the public. This, I was told, was what the original first floor of the La Posta building at Vicoletto Purgatorio would have looked like.

I stood in the place where my ancestors would have stood, trying to imagine working over a hot cauldron of molten iron every day.

What followed then was an amazingly detailed description of centuries of daggers, swords, knives, razors and scissors – in Italian by Nicola, translated into English by Michele. There were medieval implements, “revenge” daggers used only to restore the honor of a cuckold, swords of ceremony and of war, each with a fascinating history – especially if you think your ancestors had a hand in any of it.

The last artifacts we came upon were dozens of items from a private collection, in several glass-covered cases. As it turned out, the last case contained scissors. I had been hoping to see some that bore the family name, but I had just about given up. Not my friend Rich. He looked closely at one pair of scissors in the lower left hand corner of the case – there it was, he said, and he was right – one pair with two names on it: La Posta and Frosolone! We tried to take pictures of it – me with my single use camera, Rich with his cell phone. To most observers, it was just another pair of scissors. But to me, well, I would have to equate what I felt with the same sense of fulfillment that would have washed over a Knight of the Roundtable who had just discovered the Holy Grail.

We thought the tour was over, but there was one more thing to view – a video that recreates the ancient method of making a pair of scissors – just as my ancestors had done. Not only did we sit and watch it, but the DVD, which also features a tour of the town and surrounding area, was for sale, and so I proudly purchased one for ten euros. I also gratefully offered a matching amount as a donation to the museum, and was rewarded with a generous promise from Nicola that if and when he found another pair of La Posta scissors, he would send them to me!

As we left the museum, Nicola and Michele decided that we should see another local product, so they led us into Carmela Colantuono’s panificio (bakery), a few steps away from the museum. Inside was a beautiful display of huge round breads, looking something like giant bagels, presided over by the owner-baker, who was a ringer for my Grandma La Posta. The loaves, Michele explained, were examples of a unique bread, made only at Easter time, and only at this bakery in Frosolone.

According to him, the bread is made of eggs and a spice he called canella. Even though my wife, who was a “Jill of all trades” – including barber, builder and baker – had familiarized me with many spices, I had to look that one up. I discovered that it’s a white cinnamon.

When Michele explained to Carmela what we were doing in Frosolone, she took down one of the loaves, cut it in half with a large knife that was crafted, no doubt, in town, and proceeded to cut generous slices and hand one to each of us. It was sweet, light and delicious.

The baker wrapped the remaining half loaf and presented it to me. I reached for my money, but she insisted that she would take none. I pressed the issue as far as I could without insulting her, then relented and reached for her hand as if to shake it. Instead, in the spirit of the moment, I held her hand in the familiar chivalrous way, bent down and kissed it. She glowed just a little bit, and since the shop was filled only with Italians and Italian-Americans, there was a kind of collective, joyous sound that told me I made just the right gesture at just the right time.

Next: Frosolone reflections and refections

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Quiet Welcome

As the car approached the sign at the town line, there was some new construction – houses and apartments – that told me Frosolone is not the deserted town I sometimes imagined. I knew it didn’t look like this a hundred years ago or more when the La Postas and other Frosolonesi left, but it wasn’t long before we pulled into the center of town, and found the kind of buildings I had imagined – made of ancient, solid stone, along narrow winding alleys lined with cobblestones.

It was after two o’clock in the afternoon, and, like most of Italy, the stores on the wide main street were closed and the town was quiet. Franco Tartaglia’s bar was open, and inside, Giuseppe Prezioso and a few friends were watching a soccer game on the bar’s tv. Capparela explained why we were there, and immediately they sent someone to bring “the Professor” back to the bar. The Professor, Michele Fazioli, had studied in Rome and has an excellent command of the English language. It turned out that he also runs a hotel in Frosolone owned by Ernesto Fazioli, and of course we agreed to stay there for the night, settling one of the most unsettling questions a traveler without reservations can have in an unfamiliar town in a foreign country.

I knew from some internet research that there had been a Giovanni La Posta who was a scissors maker in Frosolone, and the Professor led us to the building where my ancestor’s home and shop had been. Giovanni had a daughter, who had daughters, and they all moved to other parts of Italy, Michele explained. I was disappointed that no La Postas remained in town. The former La Posta house had been purchased recently and remodeled, complete with a new facade, and we posed for pictures in front of it.

Next, he led us to the monument in the center of town, for more pictures. It’s a memorial to the townspeople who gave the ultimate sacrifice in both world wars, and I read family names that are still known in my hometown of Troy, NY – Caruso, Colaneri, Colarusso, Colavecchio, De Maria, Di Blasio, Fazioli, LaPosta, Mangione, Paolucci, Zampini and more.

While Michele was walking us to the shop of Rocco Petrunti, Frosolone’s forbiciaio (scissors-maker), Nicola Zampini happened to walk by. Michele introduced him to us as the director of Frosolone’s Museo Ferri Taglienti – literally, “museum of cutting irons.” While we went into the Petrunti shop, Michele had a conversation outside with the museum director. He had an idea.

Inside the shop, showing us a dazzling display of razors, knives and scissors made by Rocco, was his father, a man of a certain age, Domenico Petrunti. With Rich’s help, we made each other understood. I wanted to buy a few items stamped with the name of the town, and Domenico went into the back to summon Rocco’s wife, who spoke English. A woman of Asian background with the bi-cultural name of Ching Petrunti appeared, and we had a pleasant conversation as I chose a few pairs of beautiful heron-shaped embroidery scissors with some gold plating for relatives, and pair of barber shears for myself. It wasn’t easy to decide – Petrunti’s range of products is impressive, and his entire catalog can be seen on his website.

Since I was traveling with only carry-on luggage, it would have been impossible to get the scissors through customs on an international flight, so we arranged for them to be shipped to my home. While taking down my name and address, Ching said, “We have a minister named Visco.” Thinking I had made another connection in Frosolone, this time on my father’s side, I asked what denomination, thinking she was referring to a clergyman. She corrected me – “No – he’s Italy’s Minister of Finance.” I planned on researching that when I got home – if I had a relative in high places in Italy, I might be persuaded to make yet another genealogical trip. I did check, and there he was: Vincenzo Visco, Minister of the Treasury, Budget and Economic Planning of Italy. I’ve dropped him a line with some of my family’s background and am waiting to see if we’re related. (What with recent economic news, I fear he may be in hiding.)

We finished our transaction at Petrunti’s shop, which resulted in the cost for shipping the four scissors actually exceeding the purchase price. As we stepped out of the store, there was the Professor with Nicola Zampini, who eagerly offered to open the museum for us, and give us a personal tour of the artifacts there.

Next time: Are LaPosta scissors on view?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Pompeii to Frosolone

The next day was the perfect day to spend among the ruins. The weather improved considerably, and with excellent advice from the desk clerk of our hotel, the Amleto, which is a few steps from one of the entrances to the ruins, we took the tourist bus – for one euro each – to the farthest entrance of the ruins, and walked through, ending up near the hotel. A wise move.

As I posed with Vesuvius in the background, we learned about the the ancient city, which is still only two-thirds uncovered. It held a population of twenty thousand, about 10 per cent of whom were victims of the eruption and the subsequent burial of the city.

Pompeii was a prosperous, seaside town, and if you get there early enough, as we did, before dense packs of tourists arrive, shuffling behind tour guides with various colored flags, you can imagine yourself back in time, walking up to and in some cases into homes, taverns, laundries, bakeries and brothels, astonished at the preservation of the rich color of the murals, altars, decorations and political graffiti. The weather during our day there was almost too warm – in the 70's by midday, and we were exhausted by the time we were through, having spent a full five hours seeing everything that was to be seen, including ingenious plaster casts of some of the victims, preserved in repose for all time.

When we exited near the hotel, the desk clerk’s advice was greatly appreciated by two weary, wide-eyed tourists, who ended the afternoon sitting in the plaza near the hotel enjoying double gelati and the parade of modern Pompeians.

As for accommodations and meals in the present day city of Pompei, we were lucky to have had recommendations from a friend of Rich’s, who had recently spent several weeks there, working on a soon-to-be-seen documentary on the villa at Oplontis. We were also told of two fine restaurants in Pompei that we wisely sought out – not cheap, but worth the 50 or 60 euros at each sitting – La Situla and Presidente.

Invariably, when we showed up at any Italian restaurant for dinner at seven, we were greeted by the sight of the staff having dinner. Italians don’t begin their evening meal until eight. So, by the time we were finished with our three or four courses, the restaurant would be filled with patrons who were at the beginning of either their antipasti or primi.

The Amleto Hotel’s amenities were outstanding – what they term a “rich” breakfast was spread out every morning – rolls and breads for toasting, yogurt, cereals, fresh fruit, juices and filled pastries, all self-service, and a tended coffee bar – included in the reasonable off-season room rates.

The first night, we shared a room with separate beds, but my snoring proved intolerable, and so for the next two nights, the clerks graciously offered us two individual rooms for not much more than the price of the double – and even at that lowered rate, one of us got to stay in the original room, which, by the way, had a refrigerator, mini-bar and heated towel rack. In the lobby was a computer and printer with free access to the internet, which came in handy for keeping in touch with friends and family back home, as well as printing out maps for our foray into the Apennines to the east to visit Frosolone on our last vacation day.

Our desk clerks even arranged for a car rental company to deliver our car to the hotel, and the company accepted a facsimile of Rich’s driver’s license, since his had been stolen within minutes of our arrival in Rome. He’s normally a very cautious traveler – all he did was lose that necessary focus on security for a brief time on the Roma metrebus, but that’s all it takes.

So, we left the hotel at nine a.m. on Friday for what was supposed to be a two and a half hour drive out of Pompei and up into the mountains to Frosolone. It took us just about twice that long. I’m tempted to claim that our getting lost was the fault of the maps, but I have to take the blame and admit that I’m a terrible navigator. Rich generously offered to do all the driving, and when we got lost on the wrong mountain with some of the most breathtaking and heart-stopping turns, I was as glad he was driving as I was sorry I was riding in that little Fiat on those wet roads.

Incidentally, as small as the car was, it took 40 euros (about $52 US at the exchange rate then) to fill the tank, which was practically bone dry when it was delivered. But gas mileage in European cars averages 43 miles per gallon, and even with our extra couple of hours of driving, we returned the car with about a half a tankful of diesel fuel – and asked for and received credit for it, making the actual rental fee for one day 65 instead of 85 euros.

After stopping several times and trying to tell people it was Frosolone and not Frosinone we were looking for, we finally arrived at a sign that pointed the way to our destination. When we first spotted the town in the distance, we were coming up around a bend through some somber clouds – so the sight of the sun shining on the stone houses with red roofs surrounded by rolling fields and rutted farm roads was a welcome medieval landscape.

Next -- where is everybody?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Off to Italy

It’s 27 years after my first spur-of-the-moment cross-country trip with LA classical DJ Rich Capparela, and once again, he’s complaining to me about traveling alone, this time to Europe. It’s late in my career, I’m now semi-retired and working in an Albany advertising agency just two days a week, for a friend who’s flexible about my hours, and she encouraged me to say to Rich, as I did back in 1980, “I can go with you.”

Capparela and his wife had taken two trips to Italy before, the most recent a cruise with land excursions along Italy’s west coast. He had especially enjoyed Rome and a brief tour of part of the ruins of Pompei, and because he was bumped from a flight, he received a voucher for a future flight. But he had to use it before the end of March of 2007. He decided to go back for a longer look at Pompeii, booked his flights across the Atlantic from JFK International, and I booked myself on the same flights so we could fly together. The plan was: a couple of days in Rome, then down to Naples, Pompeii and other ruins.

As I examined the area with Google Earth, on a lark I typed in “Frosolone” and watched the picture on my computer zoom out from Pompei and quickly back down to the town. I clicked on driving directions between the two, and seconds later a detailed route was laid out. The driving time was listed as a mere two and a half hours. For us, that wasn’t quite the case, but more about that later.

I emailed Rich about it, and he, being adventurous, was all for it. We would rent a car in Pompei and spend a night in Frosolone. Where, we didn’t know, but we saw that there were hotels and bed and breakfasts there.

If you know the first thing about the radio business, you know that there’s virtually no employment security. One week before the trip, Rich called me with the news that his commercial classical station was changing its format – to country music. There’s not much call for a classically trained country music deejay, so he was out. The trip was still on, but it didn’t seem like it would be the carefree trip we had imagined, with his future so up in the air. And off the air.

But if you know the second thing about the radio business, you know that it’s totally unpredictable. In three days, he had an offer from the LA public radio station he had left twenty years before – KUSC. Not only was the new job more rewarding in the long run, but it also would give him a breather of a few weeks at the end of the Italy trip before he had to be on the air. It put a new, improved carefree back where the old carefree had been, and so, a week later, we met at JFK’s international terminal a few hours before our flight to Rome, and our trip began.

A whirlwind two days in Rome – St. Peter’s, the Forum, the Pantheon, the requisite Trevi Fountain, the excavation revealing Julius Caesar’s assassination site, a ghoulish crypt of skulls and bones at a Capuchin Church on one of the city’s seven hills, great gelati and even greater meals, then off to Naples, to change trains to Pompei and continue our dip into 2,000-year-old Italian history.

If you follow in our footsteps, be sure to take advantage of the Campania Artecard – a 25-euro three-day pass good for train travel, two free first admissions and subsequent half-price admissions to virtually every site of interest throughout the region, including the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, where incredible bronzes, mosaics and X-rated artifacts are displayed. Artifacts have been removed ever since Pompeii was first excavated in the mid 1700's.

All of the sites – Oplontis, Herculaneum, Pompeii, Boscoreale, Stabia and others are reachable by the commuter rail and national train systems. Helpful maps are included with the Artecard, as well as information in six languages. We bought our discount packages right at a special kiosk at the Naples train station, from a beautiful young Italian woman who appeared to be well versed in every modern language.

The excavation at Oplontis was our first stop. Only uncovered in the mid 1960's, it’s pretty well established that this area, in the modern Italian city of Torre Annunziata, was a suburb of ancient Pompeii. The elegantly-decorated buildings and gardens that you can walk around and through make up the immense villa that was occupied by Poppea, the Emperor Nero’s second wife. We spent a couple of fascinating hours there, where we saw many more workers restoring the site than there were tourists.

We planned to spend the next entire day walking through the ruins of Pompeii, but awoke to find a steady rain, which was forecast to last all day. It helps to be flexible when you travel, so we decided to make the rainy day the day to ride the train into Naples and visit the Pompeii artifacts at the archaeological museum. A good decision, and an amazing few hours.

One of the biggest surprises was our coming upon the eerie skull mosaic that anyone who watched HBO’s recent series, “Rome,” would recognize. I had thought some art director made that visual up, but it’s genuine. It was found in Pompeii – a tabletop or floor in the dining room of an architect’s house. The artisan who created it, most likely Greek, depicted an unrealistic skull, with ears. Above it is a carpenter’s square and plumb-bob – some interpret this as representing death as the great leveler. Below the skull is a butterfly, which in Greek is psyche, the same word for soul. The butterfly/soul is on top of a wheel, which can be seen as the circle of life. It’s a first-hand demonstration of the mind-set of 1st century Pompeiians – a “memento mori,” reminder of death, a message in the dining room to enjoy the pleasures of life. For the opening of the television series, all today’s computer graphic artists had to do was copy the mosaic and animate it. It took on a much more somber but equally prophetic meaning for 21st century viewers.

Next: to Pompeii and beyond -- way beyond.