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, September 18, 2011

Chapter 13: November Surprises

Anna Caserta, matriarch of the Case family, was dead. Her youngest son, Eddie (Egidio) had committed adultery, and was found out. His strong-willed wife Esther, about to give birth, considered moving back with the Campobasso clan, but was rebuffed by her equally stubborn father.

So she locked the door on Eddie and forced him to find solace elsewhere. Fortunately for me, he moved in with his widowed oldest sister, Aunt Giovi (Giovanna), who lived upstairs with her 3 sons and one daughter, and not with Yolanda, the town “flirt” (to use a gentle euphemism), who it was said had seduced him. To tell the truth, my father was easily seduced.

It's time I introduced myself, because this is just before I appear in the saga of the Cases and the Campobassos. I'm Eddie Case Junior, or “Little Eddie” as I was called as soon as I was born to Esther and Eddie, on the last day of December, 1939. I'm the one who's been telling the story, and you'll learn more about me later.

But right now it's late November of 1939, Europe's in a mess, America's having a very slow recovery from the Great Depression, and things aren't much better at 13 Liberty Street, home of the Caserta/Case clan.

Eddie slept uncomfortably upstairs on his sister Aunt Giovi's living room sofa. She already had three mischievous teenage sons, her lovely introspective daughter Michelina and the lifelong bachelor brother Vincenzo living with her, and Aunt Giovi tried in her quiet way to effect a reconciliation between her youngest brother and his very pregnant wife downstairs. Esther's sister Rose and her husband, Eddie's brother Joe, who lived next door, downstairs, tried to help the estranged couple, as did Michele, the head of the fourth Case family in the other upstairs flat, next to Aunt Giovi's clan.

Esther, the wronged wife, visited St. Joseph's Convent House and had a serious discussion with her piano teacher, the wise Sister Mary Magdalene. A very talented musician who was born Margaret Mary Bonaccio, she had left Little Italy after high school for New York City, studied with world class musicians, sampled the favors of rich and powerful men and women, then renounced it all and returned to take her vows and devote her talents to her religious community.

She and Esther had a rapport, and while they had chosen different paths, were more spiritually attuned than Esther had ever been with her quiet, reclusive sister Rose.

The beautiful nun, the daughter of an Italian fruit peddler and a South Troy girl of Irish descent, advised Esther to let Eddie back in, make him promise to atone for his faithlessness, and rebuild their marriage. “Deal with the devil you know – it's better than with the devil you don't know,” Sister Maggie said, as a look of wistfulness appeared in her blue eyes.

Although all the relatives took credit for facilitating the reunion, it was really the nun who convinced Esther to forgive. But, ingrained in the steel-spined daughter of a long line of blacksmiths and forgers of scissors and revenge daggers was a reluctance to bend and forget.

Although Esther took the nun's advice, she would never completely trust her husband again. Eddie moved back in from his sofa upstairs, and life resumed, with more of an edge to it. Esther continued to take solace in playing Chopin's etudes on the piano next door, waiting for me to leave the comfort of the womb.

But my scheduled appearance was still a month away. Whenever Maria Campobasso, Esther's mother, could leave the confectionery store, my tiny and spry maternal grandmother would walk the few blocks to Liberty Street and visit her two daughters who were now part of the Case family. But never on weekends when the men of the family were there – only during the week when the husbands were at work. Perhaps that was because the same characteristic unwillingness to forget was engrained in her, too, having been so long a part of the Campobasso tradition.

She was generous with food from the store, even if it was day old bread and produce, or a dented can of imported plum tomatoes that wouldn't sell. But Maria Campobasso never told her husband Francesco, because he refused to forget the sins of his daughters, Esther and Rose. One had defied him and kept him from her wedding, the other was complicit in a secret that no one dared to discuss aloud.

Of course, later in life, when the old ones would be only faded photos and half-remembered stories, I would discover the family secrets, and, as writers do, use them to tell my stories. And use them I will, when the time is right in the saga I'm relating to you.

Meanwhile, I hope you'll continue to follow the ups, downs, laughter and tears of what may or may not be a typical family with its roots in Troy's Little Italy.

©Copyright 2009 Frank LaPosta Visco

Next: In Book 2, Chapter 2: A child is born.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Chapter 12: Dark October

Esther Campobasso was Esther Case now, but she found it difficult to adjust to her new role. You'd think that moving closer to her sister, Rose, who had married Eddie's older brother Joe, would have eased the transition to life as a stay-at-home housewife on Liberty Street, but it didn't.

Moving up Tory Hill to Liberty Street, literally on the other side of the railroad tracks, and across the street from “The Dumps,” seemed to Esther more like moving down. Here was a young woman who had enjoyed a taste of freedom, earning her way, rebelling against the oppressive rules of la via vecchio – the old way – finally succumbing to a traditional role, and about to become a mother.

Eddie Case had won one prize and forfeited another. His childhood sweetheart was his wife, but his dream of national and international fame was gone. He still performed in local plays and musicals with his brothers, raising money for St. Anthony's, and reveled in the attention of the community.

With the imminent arrival of a new baby, Eddie and Esther faced their growing family's budget with some trepidation. In order to supplement his wages as a pressman at the Cluett, Peabody shirt factory, Eddie and three of his friends from the neighborhood formed a band, the Music Men, and picked up some extra cash performing popular music and Italian tunes on weekends at some of the roadhouses on the outskirts of Troy.

The Music Men consisted of Eddie on fiddle, Johnnie “Helmet Head” Marano on saxophone, Rocky Agnone on drums and Lefty Bernous on piano. The sound they developed was vaguely reminiscent of the Jean Goldkette band that Eddie admired.

Besides the few extra dollars the extra-curricular activity added to the family budget, Eddie also enjoyed the attention of the crowd and the escape from the drudgery of factory work. If he were completely honest, he would have admitted that he didn't mind escaping the uneventful home life he shared with Esther, either.

Esther was seven months pregnant and “eating for two” had resulted in her gaining close to fifty pounds. The stress of daily housekeeping wore her down, although she did have whatever help her sister Rose could offer. It wasn't much, because Rose had two children to tend to.

Whenever she could find the time, Esther found solace in reading and playing pieces by her favorite composer, Chopin, on Rose and Joe's old upright piano. Occasionally, on a brisk, sunny October day, Esther would wrap herself in her cloth coat and trudge uptown to the elegant Troy Public Library, with it's glorious Tiffany windows, and return home with one of its collection of romantic novels.

As Esther lost herself in her reading and her classical music, Eddie, who craved attention, felt increasingly ignored, and on weeknights spent his evenings after supper by his mother's side. Anna was now bedridden, unable to eat, and seemed to be losing weight as fast as Esther was gaining it.

The Music Men found themselves a regular gig, out at the Country Grove in East Greenbush, and it was there that Yolanda Caputo took an interest in the handsome fiddle player. As they used to say in the 1930's, Yolanda had a reputation. Today, we might call her liberated, but her overt sexuality and obvious interest in “playing the field” back then marked her as a loose woman.

She took an active interest in Eddie, exhibiting her voluptuousness close to the bandstand during practically every up-tempo number, and stalking Eddie during the band's breaks, offering him sips from her flask, cigarettes from her case, and carnal promises from her libido.

Eddie was needy, lonely and vulnerable. Yolanda was giving, willing, and predatory. On Friday night, October 29, 1939, Eddie did not go home to Esther.

Esther would have stayed up worrying all night, but this night, she and the Case clan that Esther and her sister Rose had married into had another reason to be awake. Father Sebastiano from St. Anthony's was administering the Last Sacrament to the matriarch, Anna Caserta, who was breathing her last breaths. And with every one, she demanded to see her baby, Egidio.

But Egidio – Eddie – was in the arms of Yolanda Caputo, and they were in the middle of violating a totally different commandment.

©Copyright 2009 Frank LaPosta Visco

Next: In Chapter 13, the 1940's begin with separation, reconciliation and revelation.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Chapter 11: A Wedding & A Birth

It was almost the witching hour on a moonless April night in 1935 when the ostetrica (midwife) Viorica DiPaolo, was summoned to the home of Francesco and Rose Campobasso to receive her instructions. The last time she had attended their daughter Rose, at the birth of Joseph Anthony Case, complications required a trip to the hospital. The Campobassos wanted to emphasize that that option was to be avoided.

The old woman made her assurances, gathered her bundles and proceeded the few blocks to the Liberty Street flat of Joe and Rose Case.

The next morning, it was announced that the newest Case had arrived -- a healthy 9-pound boy, and that he would be christened Joseph Anthony, the same two names of his older brother, but reversed.

Esther, now released from her confinement, and pale from not being allowed in the sun since the previous summer, was eager to help her older sister with the care of the infant.

House calls were common then, and Dr. Positano, the physician who had attended Rose after the complications of her first difficult delivery, called frequently at the Case household to check up on Rose and the infant. The fact that Esther was there every time he visited was far from a coincidence, for the good doctor had been enamored of Esther for as long as he could remember. A shy man, he barely managed to speak to Esther, experiencing that all-too-common male fear of rejection when faced with the object of his affection.

One day, though, he spoke more than the usual banal pleasantries, and berated himself for it afterwards

After examining Rose and the baby, the doctor was offered the usual hospitality of sharing coffee and biscotti at the kitchen table, and he accepted.

Esther, aware of his interest in her, tried to keep the conversation limited to the most banal of topics, the weather, but she sensed an undercurrent of seriousness about the physician, as he nervously stirred his expresso. What she couldn't know was that he was trying to tell her something he had rehearsed over and over, phrasing and rephrasing it, never quite satisfied that he had the right words, and worried that he would be betraying a confidence and his Hippocratic oath if he revealed the reason for his speech.

Being lost in these thoughts caused an embarrassing silence that he suddenly became aware of, when he was asked the same question twice.

What's that? Oh, yes, I'll be back again on Tuesday,” he stammered out as he stood up from the table and prepared to leave.

Esther, could I speak with you, please?” The doctor gestured toward the door, hoping Esther would escort him to it for a private word. She went with him, a concerned look clouding her face.

When they reached the front door, the doctor said, “Esther, I've known you and your family for a long time. I wouldn't do anything to hurt you in any way. I – I just want you to know that if there's anything I can do to, um, help in the, you know, situation, I'd be honored.”

Despite her smile, Esther's eyes turned cold. “Thank you, doctor. I think we'll be all right,” was all she said.

As the doctor had feared, getting out of the Campobasso house and into the Case compound was an opportunity for Esther to reestablish her relationship with Eddie, despite the strong objections of the parents. Obviously, when Esther was with Rose and the baby, everyone concerned made sure that the two were never alone.

In spite of the obstacles that the families put in their way, courtship resumed, and two months later the strong-willed Esther had her way; another Case male would wed another Campobasso female, although as far as the couple was concerned, it was their second wedding to each other.

These days, when the modern-day descendants of the Campobasso and Caserta/Case families look at the June 1935 wedding pictures of Esther and Eddie, they see something unique. Actually, it's who they don't see that makes it so – Francesco Campobasso isn't there.

It's not that he was deceased in 1935; he would live another ten years, passing on just as the second world war ended. No, he's not there because Esther refused to allow him any part in it.

Esther blamed her father for her imprisonment. True, he was the enforcer of the strict rule, but it was the women of the family, led by Esther's mother Rose, who decreed the punishment, in order to clear the family name of any taint that could result from the elopement of Esther and Eddie the previous July.

Francesco had made no exceptions – Esther had had no contact with the outside world since her return from the civil ceremony in Vermont – a non-wedding in the eyes of Troy's Italo-American community.

And although he didn't say it to Esther, Dr. Positano understood what that would mean if everyone knew what he knew.

©Copyright 2009 Frank LaPosta Visco

Next: In Chapter Twelve, Double Trouble.