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Wishing and hoping

8 Nov

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If you are a follower of this blog’s Facebook page then it comes as no surprise that I have just returned home from a two-plus-week journey to Japan.

And I’ve got the (already posted) food pics to prove it.

What you don’t know is that a rather serious ailment came close to ruining things. Not mine, but my companion’s, who in this case happens to be the woman that I am married to. Every day of the trip required a Herculean effort on her part to keep going. I know for a fact that a lesser malady would have sidelined me.

The truly unfortunate thing is that traveling to Japan was her dream adventure, not mine. She had literally been planning this trip ever since she was a girl. To see her fall ill at such a moment wasn’t merely heart wrenching, it was crushing.

Not long before leaving for home we took a short stroll through the grounds of a Buddhist temple nearby our hotel in Kyoto. Housed in an open-air pavilion was a large gold-colored ball known as a “wishing precious stone.” You’re invited to write a wish on one of the many round cards provided and hang it on a kind of trellis along with all the other wishes. But first you’re to put a hand on the giant ball and circle around it three times, keeping contact with the ball’s surface at all times.

Trust me when I say this: I am not the kind of man who pays any attention to this kind of thing. And yet, there I found myself scribbling down a wish that she would be well again and walking around a big gold ball three times—in broad daylight and for all to see.

As I circled the ball I told myself not to be greedy. If there actually was something to this wishing thing, my bet was that it couldn’t be an immediate fix kind of arrangement. And so I found myself thinking that I’d settle for a more reasonable, gradual recovery, say 24 hours for every time I walked around the ball.

That was around three days ago. This morning I learned that a great deal of the ailment has passed.

I’m only hoping that the precious stone understands that when I asked for my wife to be well again, I meant for it to be permanent.

On penance & pork ribs

12 Oct

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Recently I got to spend a couple of hours with a very dear childhood friend, one that I have seen only three times in forty years. Before boarding a flight from Maine back to their home in Memphis my friend and his wife stopped by for lunch at our house just outside of Portland.

I served a traditional Sunday meal, including my meatballs.

The Memphis pork ribs you see here are from Charlie Vergos Rendezvous in Memphis. They are a gift from my friend John and his lovely wife Gina, overnighted shortly after our visit together, and I enjoyed them quite a lot. Another rack is in the freezer, but probably won’t be for very long.

From the time we were infants until the day he moved away to college John and I lived half a block from each other in Brooklyn. We went to the same elementary school, played on the same baseball and basketball teams, hung with the same friends, even dated some of the same girls. My father’s sister and her family lived in an apartment just below John and his. John is also distantly related to my Aunt Rita, though I do not recall precisely in what way.

It was good to see my friend again. I only wish there had been time to apologize to him.

I have been meaning to for a very long time. And just never have found the opportunity—or the nerve.

The incident occurred somewhere between third and fifth grades. John and I were sitting next to each other in class, as often we did, when the teacher, a nun most probably, began an exercise unrelated to the standard curriculum. She would ask us general questions about all kinds of topics that children might be aware of and all we had to do was call out an answer. Things like “What’s your favorite team, Mets or Yankees?” or “Who’s the best character on TV?” It was simple stuff, really. No books, no note taking, no homework to fret over.

It was all very harmless.

Mostly.

But then the teacher committed what I now believe to have been a terrible error in judgment. In a neighborhood built and still occupied by hard-working immigrants with little education and a deep reliance on manual labor skills, she asked something along the lines of “What’s the dirtiest, worst job that you would never want to do?”

This in a classroom filled with the children and grandchildren of men who laid sewer pipe and poured concrete and rolled asphalt and put down train track to feed their families.

When I blurted out—innocently, I assure you—the words “garbage man” John’s sharp elbow crashed into my rib cage with such force that I could barely catch my breath for a while. When I asked my friend what made him do such a thing he remained silent.

I can still see the anger—but, more likely, hurt—in his face.

Some time later I learned that John’s father Tulio, a strong and decent man, made his living as a New York City sanitation worker.

I don’t know exactly when or how this knowledge came to me. I only know that John and I have never discussed the incident. Not once.

All these years later I’m still haunted by the cruelty that I showed to my friend.

It was only when my wife and I were enjoying John’s generous gift of Memphis pork ribs that our teacher’s role first entered my mind. What was she thinking, I wonder. Most if not all of the kids in her classroom lived in modest apartments headed by men who held “dirty” jobs. Not one of my friends’ fathers wore a white collar to work. And so John could not have been the only child who heard his father’s profession called out by one of their friends that day.

I just hope that the others had better friends than John had, friends who apologized for their stupidity a lot sooner than I have.

The house we lived in

3 Oct

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This is my parents’ wedding day, back in the fall of 1955. The elderly man in the black tuxedo escorting my mother to a hired car is her father, Giovanni Giamundo. His wife Ursula, my grandmother, did not live to see her eldest daughter marry.

The solid green awning just to my grandfather’s right obscures the family’s candy store/fountain service at 753 Liberty Avenue, in the neighborhood of Brooklyn known (oddly, I always have thought) as East New York. An adjacent building, at 751 Liberty, was also my grandfather’s. At the time it housed a fish market on the ground level, but the space later became a cluttered office for my Uncle Joe’s small general contracting business.

There were three “railroad” apartments in each of my grandfather’s two buildings, or six altogether.

Each of them was occupied by one of his grown children, as well as their young and growing families.

And so when I speak of my family’s closeness, as often I do here, well, I ain’t kidding around.

I will understand if you cannot in any way relate to the clan-like architecture of my upbringing. Few people could. The woman I am married to, an only child to educated, affluent professionals, has long been wary of my history. How, she wonders, can so many blood kin live under the same roof, gather in the same backyard, attend the same church and school, eat at the same table without, sooner or later, wanting to slaughter one another?

You may be wondering the same thing.

Remarkably, I never have.

And naive is not a word that often is used to describe me, so far as I am aware.

But for a few brief periods my position has been pretty much unwavering: I am a very lucky man to have been reared not by one but by six loving mothers (my own, plus Aunts Anna, Laura, Rita, Frances and Marie) and a bunch of devoted fathers (dad, along with Uncles Joe, Dominic, Chick and Casey). I may have shared an apartment (and bedroom) with my brothers Joe and Mike, but there were many other siblings around to rely upon. In no particular order these included Big John, Josephine, Vito, Bobo, Joseph, Big Ursula and Little Ursula, James, John and Rocco.

The house that we lived in was a full one.

My mother and brother Joe were the last to leave Liberty Avenue. The fountain service had long ago been shuttered, so had Uncle Joe’s old office. It was a sad but long overdue goodbye to a special place in all of our lives.

After mom died my brothers and I had the funeral procession drive around the old neighborhood and make a brief but very deliberate stop in front of 751-753 Liberty.

It was the only moment in the entire day’s events when nobody, not one soul in a very large group of mourners, had a single word to say.

King of hearts

7 Aug

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One of the most solemn men that I have ever known is also responsible for possibly the greatest belly laugh of my entire life.

The man, chief of cardiac surgery at a renowned New York medical insitution, had one day earlier spent eight hours performing an open-heart procedure on a 42-year-old patient named Joe.

“So,” said the man, sounding uncharacteristically warm as he took a seat on his patient’s hospital bed, “how are you feeling today?”

“Okay,” Joe whispered unconvincingly. “How are you feeling today?”

The surgeon smiled briefly and reported that he was doing just fine, then moved closer to his patient.

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” he said sounding genuinely concerned.

Struggling with discomfort all Joe could manage was a head nod.

“What I’m wondering, see, I mean considering your history, as well as your family’s, of course, which we’ve discussed…”

For a chief surgeon the man was coming awfully close to stammering, which raised the anxiety level in the room considerably. After all, this was not the first but the second time he had performed surgery on this patient in just five years. How could a professional possessing such skill and confidence behave so tentatively? What awful news was he attempting to deliver?

“Would you ever, just possibly, well…” He paused and straightened himself, as if readying for confession, then blurted out, but ever so softly, “consider the idea of becoming a vegetarian?”

The words hovered above the men for what felt like several moments of electrified silence. In reality it took but a few seconds for Joe to summon what little strength he could muster and answer the man.

“Fuck. No.”

The surgeon and I collapsed into such prolonged laughter that two nurses and as many aides appeared at the doorway to see what the fuss was about.

I probably should have mentioned my presence in the room earlier. Joe is my brother, you see, and I love him very, very much. Where else in the world could I possibly have been at that moment?

Today is his 58th birthday. More important, sixteen years have passed since the last time he was wheeled into an operating room. So this is a good day, one that is worth celebrating.

Joe takes much better care of himself these days. He doesn’t smoke anymore, goes to the gym every morning before work, golfs most every weekend from April through November, and moved to a much nicer neighborhood than he had grown accustomed to for more years than was wise or necessary.

I wish I could say that he eats as well as he should. Joe was diligent about keeping a healthful diet for a few years after his surgeries, but as time has lapsed so too has his discipline.

A heart-healthful vegetarian he is not.

Like me my brother is a product of a very particular culinary heritage: Italian American. More to the point, we each stubbornly embrace this heritage, no matter how many annual physicals we put behind us.

Joe is also a bachelor who works long hours, which presents its own set of menu challenges. His refrigerator is often stocked with prepared foods, many from the Italian grocery/deli a few blocks from his apartment in Queens. There are often balls of fresh mozzarella, arancini stuffed with ground beef and peas, chicken and/or eggplant parm, sausages with broccoli rabe; you get the idea.

I visit Joe a few times a year, always staying in his apartment, usually just the two of us. For a while there I tried being a good brother, suggesting going out for sushi when I really wanted a burger and a beer, or Chinese when our favorite old-school Italian Don Peppe was what I desired. I cannot tell you how many times I have sneaked away alone to a White Castle in order to protect my brother from an unhealthful craving that we both share.

Lately when Joe and I spend a couple days together we eat and drink what we want, without regard to his or our family’s unpleasant coronary history. Recently we were sitting at the bar at his favorite Italian spot in the new neighborhood. About midway into a bottle of red I stopped and surveyed the landscape before us: manicotti, meatballs, lasagne, baked clams, pizza topped with burrata and prosciutto di parma.

I thought about how the surgeon had once tried—and failed—to move my brother in a new direction, but kept it to myself. We were enjoying our evening out together and I wasn’t about to ruin things by being a nag. Besides, I don’t exactly have the cred to lecture anybody about responsible eating.

Maybe it’s time I started working on becoming a better brother.

Happy Birthday Joe!