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, June 26, 2011

South Troy, Part I

Today, something new/old -- a fictional family saga, based on fact, begins.

First and foremost, this is a work of fiction, based on experience. You may find similarities to people you knew; you may be convinced that I'm talking about a specific person. Not so. Although I will be using memories of events – writers use everything – please be aware that my memories are flawed by time, colored by intent and rearranged to suit a dramatic purpose. What is true is not always what is factual.

I intend this continuing story to be one primarily of entertainment, and secondarily of enlightenment -- about the customs, traditions and attitudes of the past that add up to who we are now, and how we got here.

Chapter One: Modesta

Modesta Campobasso hated her name. Her first name, that is. As for the last name, it sounded like poetry to her. On May 8th, 1920, as she anticipated the celebration of her sixth birthday at dinner, she remembered her shy older sister Rose telling her stories of that proud name. Lost in the shrouds of time and the constant retelling of the family's oral tradition, it was no longer clear if Campobasso, the largest town in the province of Abruzzi e Molise, was named for the family or the family was named for the town.

Whichever it was, the daughters knew that despite the dire circumstances that forced their father Francesco and mother Maria to emigrate to America as children twenty years before America's entry into the War to End All Wars, they were descendants of artisans who forged iron implements used in war and peace by generations of Italians, and of Romans and the Samnite tribes that resisted the Roman Legion before that.

Working with iron and steel imparted spiritual as well as physical strength to the Campobasso family – a fortitude that Francesco, Modesta's father, needed in the prejudicial American society he struggled against.

Unable to utilize his skills in Hartford's cutlery factories where he first sought employment in the late 1800's, he joined others of his town and traveled to Troy, New York, where laborers were needed in the bustling city that was a manufacturing and transportation hub as the 20th century began. But everywhere he and his paesans looked for work, they found they were paid less than other “races.” It didn't stop them from taking back-breaking jobs of lugging iron, barrels of scrap, and of loading and unloading boxes, crates and bales from trains, barges and horse-drawn carts.

The point? Survival, providing for their families.

When Francesco arrived home to the family's sparse but neat third floor walk-up flat near the Piazza Mercato – Troy's Public Market -- he was exhausted and exhilarated. It was his bambina's birthday – this strong-willed youngest child who was so much like the cousin he named her for. He hid an extra sweet in his pocket for her, to add to the celebration that included this American custom of blowing out candles on a cake.

Rose, now married, was making one of her rare visits outside her home to help prepare her little sister for her entrance into the spotlight. As Rose put the finishing touches on Modesta, the birthday girl made up her mind. She would no longer allow anyone to tease her about her name, calling her Mod, or Modesty or any variation. Already an accomplished reader, she had thumbed through the family bible, and discovered a book in the Old Testament with a woman's name she liked. She was special, thought Modesta. Her name will be my new name.

Dinner was over, the relatives were there, the lights went out, the cake was brought out, ablaze with six candles. The singing stopped, she took a breath and suddenly her 10 year old brother moved forward and blew out her candles. In a second, a range of emotions flashed across Modesta's face – anger, revenge, hurt, the welling of tears – and then – resolve. She didn't cry. She didn't complain. She even pretended not to notice her brother's mischief and need for attention. After all, she realized, she had their attention – they were applauding her.

She took it all in, looked around and made her planned announcement, “From now on, my name is Esther.”

They looked at each other and smiled, thinking this was a whim that would pass. But as the days and weeks went on, and she unfailingly refused to respond when addressed as Modesta, they realized just how much Campobasso steel she had in her spine. She left them no choice. Soon everyone called her by the biblical queen's name she had chosen -- Esther.

©Copyright 2008 Frank LaPosta Visco

NEXT: In part two, meet 9-year-old Egidio, as he prepares to impress his family and a strong-willed six-year-old girl.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day Special

Today, in honor of my Dad, I reprint a poem he wrote over fifty years ago. It's a melancholy meditation on a changing extended family, as his nephews, nieces and cousins were leaving the nest of the family compound on Liberty Street in Troy's Little Italy, starting their own families and leaving the once bustling backyard to quietly fade.
He didn't know, when he wrote it, that the property would be bought, along with a hundred others, by the government, be torn down for an arterial highway that would never be built. If he had known, I believe the poem would have been a lot less sentimental and a lot angrier.

Grass On The Bocci Coourt


Frank A. Visk

There is grass on the bocci court growing,

'Twas a time when you'd none there;

All the players seem to be missing--

I guess it's because they don't care.

A group would always be waiting

For a chance to play a game:

Now the yard is much too quiet--

Things are certainly not the same.

And the place we call the barracks

Well, you know the condition it's in.

Once it was filled with laughter--

Now it doesn't even force a grin.

So you say that “We all have to change,

Families grow and they scatter away” –

But wouldn't it be an occasion

To go back to “The Ranch” some day!

Progress must move ever forward:

“Twelve Liberty” will be just a dream.

Say, let's “gang around” at the “Old Homestead”

And once more be a winning team.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Frosolone to Troy

In March, I went looking for La Posta scissors in a small Italian town most Italians don’t even know about, and discovered coincidence, history and mystery.

Just as I finished writing about my trip to Italy for the Record, and selecting photographs, printing captions and cutting them apart with scissors that I bought in my Grandfather Frank La Posta’s hometown of Frosolone -- I opened my e-mail and found a family.

The subject line read “Hi from Italy,” and the sender was Rita La Posta!

The people I had met in my overnight stay in Frosolone had given my e-mail address to the daughters of the last La Posta who made scissors there, and the youngest daughter, a high school English teacher, was writing to me.

From internet research, I had discovered that Giovanni La Posta was a Frosolone scissors-makers, but not when. And although Michele Fazioli, my self-appointed Frosolone tour guide who took me to Giovanni’s house and shop, told me that Giovanni had daughters that had all moved away, I didn’t ask for a time line.

So it was a total surprise to learn that we descendants of Lansingburgh store owners Frank and Rose La Posta have four living, distant cousins. And, luckily for us, one of them teaches the language we speak.

Rita told me that her father, the Giovanni that I knew about, did indeed have four daughters, born in the late 1940's and 50's in this order: Felicetta, Antonietta Maria, Michelena Loreta and Rita.

I was impressed to learn that they all had become teachers. And that Michelina was named in honor of their grandfather, Michelangelo La Posta, whose name I had seen on the Frosolone war memorial. He was just 26 when he perished, during the first World War.

Felicetta and Rita live in a town called Agnone that’s forty minutes away from Frosolone, Michelina lives two and a half hours away in Pontinia, and Antonietta lives in the very area most Italians thought I was looking for: Frosinone. I replied to Rita’s e-mail with some Troy information, and before she even had a chance to respond, her sister in Frosinone sent me her first e-mail. Shortly after that, Michelena wrote, and even attached some old family photos.

It’s remarkable how gracious and pleased my Italian cousins are to have learned of my existence. Rita has invited me to stay with her and her family – husband Carmine Di Pasquo, a veterinary surgeon, and their two teen-aged children, Alfredo and Angela. And Antonietta, learning of my search for La Posta scissors, has generously offered to send me a pair of forbici from the few that remain in her family.

I thanked them both for their offers, but when I discovered that the four sisters return to their hometown every August for two weeks, I suggested that I gather up some of their other American cousins and try to have a family reunion at the Frosolone Forging Festival. If the La Posta sisters still want us to have a pair of family scissors then, fine. We’ll trade some of our mementos.

In the meantime, as the connections continue,we’re trading LaPosta family photos. Here are some of hers:

We’ve already begun to fill in stories of a century ago and more. Their granddad had a brother and a sister who came to America, and this could be my grandfather and his sister, or their relatives.

Rita remembers meeting her visiting American aunt Modesta La Posta in Italy in the late 1960's. My mother’s name was the same (although she adopted the name Esther), and we think she was named after that Modesta.

There is another mystery that Rita mentioned: all of her grandfather Michele’s family had come to America, but he was forced to wait for unknown reasons, and remained in Italy. Otherwise, there might have been no La Posta sisters in Frosolone at all.

But as Rita says, in two languages: the world is so small (Il mondo è così piccolo), and we’ve found out just how small. After a century has passed, Michela’s son Gennaro has made the trip to America that his great-grandfather couldn’t. He has won a scholarship to study for his master’s degree in mathematics at Yale, where the daughter-in law of another Troy cousin, Jim La Posta, works. So there was a La Posta at Yale to welcome Gennaro.

I’ve extended an open invitation to Gennaro and all his relatives to stay with me whenever they can visit and explore Troy.

Until then, I’ve been sending Rita copies of what I’ve written, which she reads with her English class and plans to have published in Italy. While she calls it a fantastic opportunity; it’s at least another wonderful coincidence. I’ll bet there are even more ahead.

Next - back to the beginning.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

How Do You Say "Buon Viaggio" in Chinese?

Returning to Pompei the next morning was easier, although not without its moments – there were detours and sudden lapses of road signs enough to cause some anxiety, and again, some inaccurate navigational advice – but unlike most men who won’t ask for directions, Rich saw each opportunity to stop and ask directions as a way to exercise his command of Italian.

For our last couple of miles back to the hotel, we actually drove on the “surface roads,” as city streets are called in Los Angeles, and Rich managed to maneuver through the crowded streets with a skill he learned as a Scuba instructor, called dead reckoning. It worked. We pulled into the garage of the Amleto Hotel, the rental agent came, took us back to the office where they ran my credit card through, then returned us to the hotel, where we said our arrivedercis and grazies and headed for the train station.

It was now hours of travel on trains to the Rome Airport at Fiumicino, where the courtesy bus from the Hotel Roma in Fiumicino would pick us up. The Roma is a small luxury hotel that we found online and though expensive, chose it for our last night in Italy, for its nearness to the airport, and because it was probably the last chance for a good night’s sleep until we got to our respective homes. The accommodations did not disappoint – in fact, they exceeded our expectations. We had requested separate beds, and were they ever separated! The room was a duplex – two floors, with a bedroom and balcony overlooking the town (and the water if you leaned a certain way) on each floor.

I would tell you more about the amenities at the hotel, but there was no information at all in the in-room folder. When Rich asked about it, the clerk dismissed the issue completely. And while the room had internet access for a personal computer, their advertising promised the use of a hotel computer. We were told that “it was broken,” and that was that. This clerk was the polar opposite of the helpful staff at the Amleto in Pompei.

We walked through Fiumicino at around 6:30 in the evening, found an internet point and send our final emails home just before the store closed at 7. Now it was time to find a restaurant where we would have our last Italian meal at ground level. The hotel restaurant prices were exorbitant, and we were already spending 195 euros for the room; so we followed the clerk’s directions to the area that he said had a variety of restaurants. Wrong. We explored further, and made an unusual decision – to have dinner at Miao Peng, Ristorante Cinese. (Maybe meeting Ching Petrunti in Frosolone pre-ordained this.)

And of course, when we walked in, at a few minutes after seven, the staff was eating. We interrupted so many waiters’ dinners at so many restaurants, I almost felt compelled to leave more than the recommended10 per cent tip when “servicio” wasn’t included. Almost.

A lovely Asian waitress seated us in the middle of the empty dining room, and while she probably spoke Chinese, I know she spoke Italian and practically no English. I don’t know what you’d expect to find in a Chinese restaurant in Rome – we imagined a menu in Italian and Chinese. But when we opened it, there was just Italian and English. And it was divided into the typical Italian menu divisions – Antipasti, Primi, Secondi, Dolce, and Formaggi.

Everything was fine, until we noticed that there were no chopsticks on any of the tables. We both wanted to use them, so Rich consulted the two dictionaries he had brought with him to help with the few difficult moments he encountered. Of course, the guidebooks did not anticipate that an American tourist in Italy would need to request chopsticks.

I remembered the title of a 1991 Roberto Benigni movie, “Johnny Stecchino,” which translates as Johnny Toothpick. Using that bit of knowledge, Rich, with the international gesture for using the implements, asked for “grande stecchini.” Giant toothpicks. I thought I saw her stifle a laugh, but she maintained her composure and brought chopsticks, but I have a feeling the staff is still telling the story in the kitchen and laughing at us. When asked, she told us they were called bacchette in Italian.

As we ate, the restaurant filled to capacity – it was a Saturday night, and there were extended families with kids sharing huge bottles of Coca-Cola, groups of hyperactive teenagers, beautiful couples on dates, a cross section of the natives of Fiumicino. We had found one of the locals’ favorite weekend restaurants. And they were all using flatware – we were the only ones in the restaurant eating with giant toothpicks.

After a short night’s sleep in our duplex hotel room, we arose at 4 a.m., giving us the time we needed to get to the airport, check in and go through security for a 7 a.m. flight. The rest of the trip was just checking in and connecting with flights and being impatient to get home and share the stories, the pictures, the bread and the scissors with family and friends.

Now, as I write about these experiences, there’s a lingering feeling – even a yearning to return. If you’ve ever been to a special place, one where you merely felt a connection, then you can imagine the effect of being in a really special place where you have actual connections. As I click on the video of Frosolone’s outdoor Festa della Forgiatura, which I do often, I can imagine myself going back up those hills some August – and this time, being greeted by familiar faces with familiar names. I’ll bet I could even convince the same driver to come along. I’ll just have to find a better navigator.

Next: A surprise from Italy