How I Got to Madison Avenue. And beyond.
Sunday, November 27, 2011
Sunday, November 20, 2011
It wasn't that Grandma was a miser or anything like that, but it was her way of showing me the value of money. For example – she had customers who bought the paper from her every day, but couldn't always get to the store. So, “Gram,” who always called me “Big Boy,” would have me deliver the paper to their homes, some as far away as Herman Melville's house at 114th Street, near the Hudson River. (No, I never saw him there.)
If I had delivered the papers as a regular paperboy, I would have made twice as much money, plus tips. But Gram was splitting her profit with me, so there was less to go around.
I did other chores around the store, too. I was always a kid who liked to stay up late, so when the store closed at 11, I would go down in the cellar and bring up cases of warm beer and soda and restock the coolers, so there would be a full complement of cold drinks for sale the next day. My perk for doing that wasn't money, but full access to the goodies before I went upstairs to bed.
I'd sit in a booth with a comic book, a bottle of Nehi grape soda and a Devil Dog. Later, when Gram had one of the first television sets installed up in a corner of the store, I'd forego the comic book and watch Broadway Open House and the original Tonight Show. That's where I got my love of the visual medium and paid attention to all the commercials. Little did I know that somebody I would be writing and producing them!
Since I was used to staying up late, and my birthday was on a Saturday night, and the New Year began the next day on Sunday, I stayed up and listened as Guy Lombardo's orchestra played on the radio.
The fifties would see lots of changes in the world at large, and in my world. It would be the decade of nuclear testing, cold war and the Korean “conflict.” Closer to home, it would be the decade when I got my first two wheeler, a shiny chrome Shelby with streamers on the handlebars, push-button horn and even a battery-powered headlight. I would fly through the streets, expanding my world from the local movie theater to all of Troy. I even ventured north to Pleasantdale, and caught the eyes of girls I'd only imagined before – girls with blonde curls, like my cousin Coke's German wife, and freckled girls with flaming hair the color of Rhonda Fleming's.
By the end of the decade, I'd be graduating from high school and facing a future of technological wonders, unimaginable back in those days of rabbit ears and test patterns. There's more to tell about the Caserta and Campobasso families, and the changes that affected every family in Little Italy and beyond, and I'll be sharing those stories in the future.
Sunday, November 13, 2011
Her confectionery store, now a full-fledged grocery store with booths left over from the time she had a soda fountain, was on the first floor of a solid brick building on a busy corner. Grandma Campobasso lived on the second floor, and she and her now deceased husband had rented out the third floor for extra income. Now that she was prosperous, she needed her younger daughter close by more than she needed the rent, so we were moving.
I was coming up on my tenth birthday, and, with the presumption of youth, thought I had figured out the real reason why we were moving. I had overheard a conversation, and confronted my mother with “the facts.”
“So why didn't you tell me that nobody likes Aunt Giovi,” I said in my most accusatory tone.
“What are you talking about?,” my mother said.
“I heard everybody talking the other day, and they said that nobody likes Aunt Giovi.”
(She was my father's widowed sister, who lived upstairs over us on Liberty Street with her sons and daughter Michelina.)
“Everybody loves Aunt Giovi! She's the nicest of all the Cases. Where did you get such an idea? Nobody would even think that!”
“I heard it – just before Dad went to Riposo's for pizza night.”
My mother laughed until there were tears in her eyes. When she stopped, she said, “Anchovies. Your father asked what everybody wanted on their pies, and they said, 'anything but anchovies.' Nobody in the family likes anchovies, not Aunt Giovi.”
I felt like the little fool I was, but still, I knew there was a family problem. As the red left my face, I remembered the arguments between my mother and her sister Rose, who lived next door with my father's older brother.
“Then it's something between you and Aunt Rose. Why are we moving? I don't want to go!”
I was good at tantrums back then.
“It's nothing to concern yourself with, Eddie,” she said. “Sometimes grown-ups just don't get along – even if they are related. Especially when they're related. We're moving and that's that.”
That was as much of an explantation I would get, until many years later, when I made a startling discovery about a cover-up involving the two sisters and a local midwife.
Another big change at the Case family compound: The flat we were leaving wasn't going to be empty for long. The Berlin Airlift was ending, and the family's brave little jeep driver, Coke, was coming home, but not alone. He was bringing his post-war bride, Hilda, home, and they were going to set up housekeeping in our old space.
As I look back on that year now, I can see how the next generation was becoming more American and less Italian. Before the war, and certainly during it, it would have been unthinkable for an Italian boy to marry anybody but an Italian girl. But Coke didn't wait for the family's approval – he fell in love with a buxom blonde beauty, married her and brought her home.
In high heels, Hilda was nearly half a foot taller than Coke, but neither of them seemed to mind it. In fact, they took joy in it, even matching some of the jokes that family and friends made about the towering German and the pipsqueak Italian, and their new “Axis of Love.”
We were moving out. Coke and Hilda were moving in. And still, there were more changes to come. At Thanksgiving dinner in 1949, Coke's beautiful sister Mike brought her boss from Tiny Town Togs, Siro, to meet the family. I had a crush on my cousin, even though she was 15 years older than me, and I couldn't help disliking Siro for the way he treated her. I think “fawning” was the word back then. He pulled out her chair, gave her first choice of every platter that was handed to him, and looked at her lovingly, no matter who else at the huge table he was talking to. Of course, she reciprocated, and it was obvious to everyone that these two young. dark descendants of Italian immigrants, although from different worlds, had found each other and fallen in love beyond repair.
So, it was no surprise when, after Midnight Mass at St. Anthony's that year, Siro and Mike announced their engagement and she flashed an engagement ring with a diamond so big that one of Mike's jealous co-workers called it “skate-able.” Father John Bosco Pantera would perform the wedding ceremony the following year, and he didn't seem all that thrilled about it.
After settling in on the 3rd floor at my grandmother's, I discovered that I was expected to help out around the store after school and on weekends, and although I resented the loss of some of my freedom, I learned the value of work and the rudiments of business. Of course, we still got together at Liberty Street on Sundays for the usual family dinner, but now we were more like outsiders.
More about that next time.
Sunday, November 6, 2011
As “Coke” boarded the train at Troy's Union Station, his beautiful sister Michelina – Mike, to all who knew her – was the only one who stayed at home. She and her brother were as close as siblings can be, and all the time he was driving his jeep during the war, Mike prayed longer and harder and visited St. Anthony's more often than anyone, beseeching Mary and the saints to spare her brother.
He was spared, and then, three years after the war was over, the Berlin airlift took him away again. What, you might ask, was the importance of a jeep driver in America's and Britain's concerted effort to fly supplies in to Berlin, a former enemy city that was being blockaded by Russia, a former ally?
Richard Reeves describes it beautifully in his recent book, “Those Daring Young Men,” in which he recounts the amazing accomplishments of the British and American flyboys who, at the peak of the airlift, were bringing in more supplies for their former enemies than had been transported by rail. That was a very big deal, and deemed impossible by many experts, until American ingenuity proved them wrong.
The landing and take-off strips were composed of metal grid work, similar to the kind I remember driving over on “singing bridges” in the past. The landing lights were spaced evenly along three metal runways. With planes landing on the two outside runways, and taking off from the center one at an unheard of rate of every minute or so, precision was key.
The jeep drivers played a key role in helping the pilots and navigators know just how much space they had, and how much time it would take for their patched and weary planes to come to a stop. The jeep driver would floor the pedal, driving as fast as he could down the runway in question, then slam on the brakes and count the number of lights he would skid past until the jeep screeched to a halt.
That information would be radioed to the incoming plane, so everyone would know precisely where the plane, loaded with tons of essential food and materiel, would stop. The ground crews would be nearby, unloading the plane, refueling it and sending it back for another run as fast as humanly possible.
It was the kind of excitement “Coke” had been missing since he delivered the mail to the front lines of Patton's army three years before, but without the same level of danger. In fact, now that GI's were feeding the Germans rather than killing them, attitudes were different. The Berlin frauleins whose men were gone – and there were many missing – had new heroes. And the heroes had money, food, and time to spare. Even a five foot nothing soldier like “Coke” attracted his share of blond beauties.
Back home in Troy, Coke's beautiful sister Mike wasn't aware of the lack of danger “over there.” To her, Uncle Sam had sent her brother back into the thick of it, and so she resumed what had been her wartime habit of stopping in at St. Anthony's shrine church every morning before going to work at Tiny Town Togs, and every evening when the final whistle blew.
When Mike went into the confessional at the end of every week, her sins were no more serious than jealousy of a co-worker, swearing at her mother, and anger at God for sending her brother back into harm's way.
It was all pretty routine for the priests at St. Anthony's who heard her Friday confessions, and they usually prescribed a couple of Hail Marys and sent Mike on her way. Until J.B showed up, that is. Father John Bosco Pantera, OFM, had just been assigned to St. Anthony's after a few hard years at a Franciscan mission church in Central America. The head of the order knew J.B. was in need of rest and relaxation, but could never have known just what that “r and r” would entail.
The first time Mike spoke with Father J.B. was in the darkened confessional. She hadn't see this tall, muscular 35-year-old with skin burnished from years in the tropical sun and a face that could lead you to believe he was related to both Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney. Handsome and pretty, at the same time.
Father J.B didn't just accept Mike's sins – he asked questions – personal questions about the reasons for her jealousy, anger and frustration. He made her think. It was like the intimate one-on-one conversations she would have with her brother, before he was shipped to Europe, twice.
Mike opened up to this soft voice in the darkness, and soon she was revealing secret wishes, hopes and desires she didn't even tell her family. He gave her some kind words of advice, told her to say an entire rosary. She thanked him and left the church, stepping into a world that was brighter than she remembered it.
That was Friday. On Sunday, she saw the man with that comforting, understanding voice for the first time, in his gleaming white vestments, on the altar and in the pulpit. And the second time she saw him was later that same day, playing bocce in his undershirt in the backyard of 13 Liberty Street.
Michelena's uncles had invited Father John Bosco Pantera to the family gathering. And she didn't mind at all.
Next: People talk.