Tag Archives: Joe

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!

Love smells

14 Jun


I’m like most humans. Certain smells get to me.

Drop a nice hunk of butter onto a red-hot skillet and before it has melted I am transported to my brother Joe’s apartment in Queens, watching as he carefully prepares the special pancakes that he knows I love so much. Pour out a glass of sweet red vermouth and at the first whiff my dear Uncle Dominic and I are sitting under his grapevine, telling stories and watching the bottle slowly drain as the summer sun sets.

Recently I awoke in the middle of the night to the smell of freshly mixed wet concrete. I love having the smell of freshly mixed wet concrete inside of me—because when it is inside of me so too is Uncle Joe
From the time I was old enough to carry a handful of bricks or move a filled wheelbarrow without assistance my mother’s eldest brother made certain to put me to work. He did not need a little kid working on his crew, but the man took his job as uncle (and godfather to me) very seriously.
After my father died Uncle Joe became even more committed to watching out for me, and by the time he himself passed I had become a pretty decent laborer. I remember the last summer that I worked with my uncle, the one where I had finally gotten the hang of not just mixing but properly laying down fresh concrete. It was a fairly large bit of sidewalk on a job in downtown Brooklyn and Neil, my uncle’s best concrete man, hadn’t made it in to work.
“This one’s all yours, chief,” I heard that ever benevolent voice say from alongside me. “Time you took charge, don’t you think?”
I was by no means in charge, of course, but did manage to lay down a respectable bit of sidewalk, with the patient guidance of a man that I loved as deeply as any other. 

I’m proud to have the smell of his sand and gravel and mortar living in my brain forever.

My strongest scent memory by far involves my father. And a jar of Noxzema skin cream.

Every night, right around my bedtime, dad would be in the bathroom shaving. He always kept the door wide open and often could be heard saying this or that to my mother or to one of us boys. Before heading off to bed I would come up behind my father and tap on his leg or on the small of his back. He’d turn and bend down so that I could reach up and kiss him goodnight. His skin was smooth and moist and warm—and strongly smelling of Noxzema skin cream, his prefered beard-softening elixir.

It was my favorite daily ritual; I looked forward to it each and every evening.

On the early morning that my father died, the firemen and EMTs carried his body from our kitchen floor and into his and my mother’s bedroom, where it would lay, covered in a clean bedsheet, until the undertaker came to collect it. As the rescue team carrying dad brushed past me, unsuccessfully attempting to shield a young boy’s view, I could swear that I smelled the Noxzema that dad had shaved with only hours before.
It’s been 50 years since I last kissed my father goodnight, and I can still smell the Noxzema today.

I mean right now, at this minute, right here.

I can summon the aroma at will. Anytime. Anywhere. Just try me.

There it goes now.

Last Exit to Queens

16 Mar

Sometimes it isn’t all about the food, you know.

Take this pile of lightly fried calamari and shrimp that’s been generously doused in a medium-hot red sauce. It’s my and my brother Joe’s go-to order when we’re craving down-and-dirty Italian on those occasions when I visit him for a few days. The dish’s origin is a not in the least memorable restaurant called Vincent’s in Queens, New York, hard by JFK International Airport in an area known as Howard Beach.

Joe and I have enjoyed Vincent’s calamari and shrimp together countless times through the years. Largely we do this when it’s just the two of us on hand. We may stop by the restaurant after a day at the racetrack, or order takeout for watching a ballgame on TV. It’s one of our little rituals. You know, the kind that bonds you to another, no matter the time or circumstance. 
Last week marked the last time my brother and I would share this particular intimacy, though. I’m saddened by this; so is he, I’d imagine.

But it was time.

You see, just up the road and to the north of Howard Beach and Vincent’s is a place called Ozone Park. It’s the neighborhood where Joe has been living for around three decades. He moved there from our childhood home in Brooklyn after his two older brothers had gone off on their own, only Joe took our aging mother along with him so as not to leave her unattended. This is not how young men are supposed to build a life for themselves; nonetheless, Joe shouldered mom’s dependence on him admirably, if against his own interests, until the day that she died.
He’s a good man, my brother. Honor and loyalty flow through him freely—and he’s got the devotion of many good people around him to prove it.
Joe finally left his old life in Ozone Park last week, determined to start a new and better life elsewhere, one that is unencumbered by the past. I went down to New York and spent several days helping him with the move. The night before the movers came the subject of where we would be eating came up.

“Vincent’s?” said my brother, more a statement than a question.

We’d decided this last time would be a takeout run and so I waited in the car while Joe went inside. I could see that “The Fat Man” was at his usual place behind the cash register next to the door, and that he greeted my brother enthusiastically, which often is not at all the case. 

“Did you say goodbye to him?” I asked when Joe returned with our food.

“Nah,” said my brother. “Fat Man was in such a good mood tonight I figured why ruin it for him.”

If I’d had any doubt about Joe’s commitment to boldly turning a well-worn page in his life it was dispelled when he opened his takeout container.

“The hell is that?” I grunted, opening the last beer from an almost-empty refrigerator. “They give you the wrong order?”

Joe’s container held not our usual shrimp and calamari, as mine, but rather cheese ravioli and meatballs.

“Nope, that’s what I ordered,” he said. “Time to move on.”

Good luck, my brother. And much love.