Feeling the tug of family

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, November 20, 2022. Above, I’m seated on the floor, fifth from left, with my older brother and cousins at a family gathering circa 1965.

I wonder how my great-grandparents, Giovanni Pantalone and Grazia DiMaio, celebrated their first Thanksgiving.

Giovanni had arrived in Providence from Naples, Italy in 1906 with the couple’s oldest child, Mary. The following year, Grazia made the transatlantic passage with three more of their children, including Vincent, my grandfather. Like many Italian immigrants in Rhode Island, they settled in a small apartment on Federal Hill, where Giovanni had found work.

If my great-grandparents did celebrate Thanksgiving during their first year together in America, I imagine 9-year-old Vincent was skeeved out by the turkey. Years later, as the patriarch of our family, he insisted that we feast on capon instead, a castrated rooster fattened to be tender.

“It’s a cleaner bird,” Papa said.

By that time, the Pantalone family had flourished. Giovanni and Grazia’s seven children had 21 kids of their own, with 56 offspring following in the next generation.

My grandfather and his siblings had settled in and around Providence. Like immigrants before and after them, they relished the comfort and support that came with having proximity to kin in a new land. Into this loving family I was born, the 12th of Vincent’s 13 grandchildren.

The Pantalone embrace was sweetly felt at weddings and summer gatherings and especially on Thanksgiving Day, which saw my mother, brothers, and me crisscrossing a two-mile familial footprint in Providence’s Elmhurst and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods. We would trek to Academy Avenue for coffee and sweets with my mother’s cousins Tina and Gracie, whose towering duplex was a joyous extended-family hubbub; to Gentian Avenue for a quick visit with my Auntie Rita and her family, including my closest cousin, Tommy; back to our house on River Avenue to feed our dog and catch a bit of the Macy’s parade on our black-and-white Zenith TV; and then to Auntie Marie’s house on Winona Street, where adults sipped cocktails and kids quaffed Cokes. Uncle Harry made sure there was plenty of ice in the freezer.

Our feast would start with Italian wedding soup, so-called for its heavenly marriage of chicken stock, escarole, mini meatballs, and tiny pearls of pasta. I always asked for seconds.

One year, before we dipped our spoons in the first-course goodness, Papa offered a toast: “Without me, none of you would be here!” he said, raising his glass of wine. Everyone laughed, though I saw my mother shaking her head.

After we all had our fill of capon, Auntie Gracie and her family arrived from Greenville for coffee and dessert. With their move seven miles to the northwest, they were our modern-day Magellans. Other family members would one day venture farther away – to New York and Florida, Ohio and Colorado, California and beyond. But for now, Papa’s brood lived happily in Rhode Island. And I was too young to understand either the tug of the invisible ties connecting my brothers, cousins, and me to Giovanni and Grazia and their passage to America, or the uniqueness of the family closeness to which it gave rise.

Our Thanksgiving celebration continued deep into the night. Around the piano we gathered and sang, on-key and off-key, with smiles all around.

On the five-minute drive home, in the see-your-breath chill of my mother’s Ford Maverick, I was warmed by the sight of lights aglow in houses along River Avenue and by the certainty that in four weeks on Christmas Eve, we would all be back together again.

Elmhurst was a treat on Halloween

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, October 16, 2022.

It was a week before Halloween and my best friend, Chris, and I were in trick-or-treat planning mode.

We’d mapped our Elmhurst neighborhood, delineating in red ink the route we’d take to haul in the most candy. And there had been deliberations over costumes. Chris was going as his favorite football player, wide receiver Homer Jones of the New York Giants, and I had notions of dressing up as a vampire.

Oh, and there was talk of egging our elementary school.

Elmhurst was a trick-or-treater’s dream in 1969. Houses stood close together, candy-givers were generous, and on the streets there wasn’t a parent in sight. From 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., kids ruled.

And the vague notions I had about dressing up as a vampire? Turns out they were too vague. My idea was to smear holly berries all over a white shirt in a macabre display of bloodletting (for some reason, ketchup hadn’t occurred to me). But when I did, a half-hour before going out, the crushed fruit simply looked like I had been sloppy eating a strawberry jam sandwich. What could I do now?

My mother came to my rescue, steering me into our downstairs half-bathroom. She slid a black wig on my head and broke out her make-up bag. Five minutes later, I looked in the mirror and shrieked. Red lipstick, rouge cheeks, and thick black mascaraed eyelashes had transformed me into the sister I never had.

When I showed up at Chris’s house, his older brother, Jeff, looked at me with raised eyebrows.

“You’re weirding me out,” he said.

Pillow cases in hand, Chris and I hit the streets. Most porch lights were aglow, and people greeted us with smiles and good wishes.

“Oh, here’s a football player,” one woman said. “And a pretty girl.” Chris laughed.

On Sharon Street, a kid in blue jeans and a crisp white T-shirt streaked past us holding a pillow case as plump and weighty as a sack of potatoes.

“That’s Jody,” Chris said. “Is he dressed up as a ghost?”

“I think he’s dressed up as Jody,” I said.

We ran to the next lit porch. Chris coveted Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, while I prized Snickers bars. When a house gave us both, we’d double back and try for seconds.

On Nelson Street, a pack of girls approached, including one I had a crush on. I abruptly made a detour onto Wabun Avenue.

“This isn’t our route,” Chris said, following me under protest, but I insisted. I didn’t want to weird my crush out, too.

When we finally crossed Smith Street and passed the buzzing neon clock at Nocera’s Liquor Store, it was 8:30 p.m. Robert F. Kennedy School loomed a half-block away; it was now or never. From his pillow case, Chris pulled a carton nestling four eggs. Miraculously, none of them had cracked.

A new wing had been added to Kennedy, and the second-floor classrooms had huge plate-glass windows.

“That’s your room, right?” Chris asked, pointing to the last window. It was. I had Miss McAndrew for fourth grade.

We flung our eggs like Little League outfielders throwing home – Splat! Splat-splat! Splat! – and then scurried back down Jastram Street, across Smith Street, and into the safety of darkness.

The next morning, Miss McAndrew noticed egg yolk streaks on our classroom window and wondered aloud who would have done such a thing.

The orange streaks would remain till June, a daily reminder of the night Homer Jones and his wigged accomplice added a trick to their Halloween treats.

Glen-plaid suit no longer fit in

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, September 18, 2022. That’s me above, third from left, with my brother Rob, my grandfather, and my mom in Providence before a family wedding in 1982.

My godmother, Auntie Gerry, showered me with affection every time I walked into my grandfather’s clothing store on Federal Hill. She had come to work at Vincent’s as a 16-year-old, and was a natural at selling christening suits and First Communion dresses. Years later, I’d see her every Saturday when I reported for duty as the store’s stock boy.

The days were long, but Auntie Gerry made them fun.

“Let’s have Caserta for lunch,” she’d say, sending me around the corner to the bustling pizzeria with five dollars in hand.

“Let’s hit the jackpot,” she’d say, sliding me a scratch ticket and a penny. “If you win, we’ll split the money.”

Auntie Gerry didn’t have kids of her own, but she did have a legion of godchildren. And I was lucky enough to be one of them.

As my high school graduation approached, Auntie Gerry announced she was buying me a suit. “We’ll grab the bus and go downtown to Dino’s,” she said one Saturday morning.

We walked into the menswear store on Dorrance Street. It smelled like cologne.

“My godson is graduating from La Salle next month,” Auntie Gerry told the coiffed salesman with pride. My eyes landed on a checkered three-piece suit.

“Glen plaid,” the salesman said, inviting me to slide my arms into the jacket.

“Fancy,” Auntie Gerry said, smiling.

After several measurements, the deal was done. The suit, a smooth polyester blend, would be ready in a week. Auntie Gerry paid with cash and then took me to lunch next door at Duck Soup.

At my high school graduation, I felt resplendent in my tailored glen-plaid suit. I wore it to my cousin Steven’s wedding and to my cousin Paulie’s, too. Whenever I’d stop by my grandfather’s store, Auntie Gerry would ask me if the suit still fit.

“Still fits!” I’d say brightly.

And it still did during my senior year at Brown when, for a class dance at Rosecliff mansion in Newport, I pulled the plastic Dino’s garment bag out of my closet. At the dance, most of the guys sported blue blazers or seersucker suits. The coolest guys didn’t even wear a jacket. No one was clad in anything like my glen-plaid suit.

When I woke up in my girlfriend’s bedroom the next morning, the suit’s three pieces were draped over a chair.

“Oh, that suit!” my girlfriend said from her bed as I gathered my jacket, vest, and pants.

“What?” I said.

“It’s awful.”

I looked at the checkered pattern and then back at her, bewildered.

“Where in the world did it come from?” she said, laughing.

I didn’t answer. I couldn’t tell her my godmother had bought the suit for me and that’s why I loved it. I wanted to say it didn’t matter if it was glen plaid or pinstriped or whatever, not to me anyway. But I said nothing.

The following week, when I stopped by Vincent’s, Auntie Gerry called out from the back of the store: “Suit still fit?”

Masking the shame I felt for not having responded to my girlfriend’s comments, I called back: “Still fits!”

But I already knew. The glen-plaid suit would stay in my closet for Campus Dance and the rest of graduation weekend at Brown. While the suit still fit, I had succumbed to the pressure of fitting in.

A summer finale at Rocky Point

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, August 21, 2022. Shown above, the arch at Rocky Point Park, a relic from the site’s amusement-park heyday.

The first time my best friend, Chris, told me he loved Alice Cooper, I wondered if she was in his class at school.

“Alice Cooper’s a guy,” he informed me.

I soon understood why Chris was so enamored with the mascara-eyed rock star. In the spring of 1972, Cooper and his band had released a three-and-half-minute pop anthem that shot up the charts with a refrain voicing every kid’s dream: “School’s out forever!”

Talk about timing. I was in sixth grade, Chris in fifth. As my friend played “School’s Out” over and over in his bedroom in early June, we couldn’t wait for the carefree days of summer to arrive.

We were too young to work, other than my weekend “employment” as a stock boy at my grandfather’s baby clothes store on Federal Hill. So that left plenty of time for goofing around – Wiffle ball in my backyard, Nok Hockey games at the playground, and treks to Wolcott’s five-and-dime for candy, sometimes supplemented by the nefarious “five-finger discount,” if we dared.

Chris and I spent just about every day together, and on occasional nights, we’d gather with other kids in our Elmhurst neighborhood for a game we called “Chase,” which essentially was team hide-and-seek. Trespassing properties all along Rankin Avenue, we’d vanish into bushes, slink behind garages, and climb up trees to evade discovery. Once or twice, a flicked-on floodlight found me before any seeker did, accompanied by a homeowner’s bark, telling me where to go.

And then summer reached the point I dreaded each year: one morning in early August, Chris and his family departed on their annual trip to Altoona, Pennsylvania to visit his aunt. I knew the next 10 days would seem like 10 weeks.

In 1972, there was no texting, no Instagram posts or TikTok videos, nothing but a postcard from Chris that came a week after he had left. I found myself calling his house on the off chance his vacation had been cut short, letting the phone ring dozens of times before hanging up.

When Chris finally returned that year, our summer rituals resumed. And then, with the first day of school looming, we devised a last-day-of-summer plan right out of our dreams: we’d hop on a bus at Kennedy Plaza and travel 11 miles to Rocky Point, the famed amusement park overlooking Narragansett Bay. Three dollars apiece would give us unlimited access to all the rides all day. Heaven!

The day arrived, hot and sunny, and Chris and I stood agog on the Rocky Point midway. We played Skee-Ball, slammed bumper cars, survived the House of Horrors, wolfed down doughboys, and lined up again and again for the new ride everyone was talking about. We’d seen ads for the Flume in the newspaper, hawking “the largest, most spectacular ride in the East, a half-mile of thrilling fun and excitement through forest, rapids, and two splashing 45-foot-high slides into sparkling clear water.” While “forest” and “rapids” were a bit of a stretch, the ride didn’t disappoint. By the end of the day, we were drenched.

On the bus back to Providence, Chris said he wished he could ride the Flume in a never-ending loop. I suppose that’s how we felt about summer, too.

But the following day, bells summoned us to our newly separate schools, signaling the first day of classes and the end of that summer’s ride.

Even then, we somehow knew it would be one we’d long remember.

When life was a day at the beach

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, July 17, 2022. That’s me, far left, second row, with my cousins at Scarborough Beach in 1963.

My family never went on summer vacations when I was a kid, at least not in the conventional sense.

Like many Rhode Islanders, we just went to the beach.

My grandfather owned a tidy red cottage with three bedrooms and one bath on Elizabeth Road in Narragansett to which his four daughters flocked with their children, all 13 of us. I was the second-youngest cousin.

On one hot July morning, my brothers, cousins, and I trekked three blocks to Scarborough Beach while our mothers made peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and Kool-Aid to bring for lunch. The painted white lines in Scarborough’s asphalt parking lot were cool tightropes beneath my bare feet, and the parched boardwalk was splinter-treacherous, although navigating it delivered a magnificent reward: the Atlantic Ocean.

There was one problem: no one was allowed in the water until our moms arrived. Mine had cautioned my brothers and me, more than once, that the dreaded undertow would pull us to our doom.

My older cousin Michael knew a good way to pass the time: skimboarding. At the shoreline, he hucked his waxed wooden disc in front of him as the water from a wave receded, chased after the skittering board and jumped on it with two feet, then glided effortlessly over the glistening shore, arms outstretched.

I did my utmost to mimic Michael’s carefree ride several times, but the board always skated out from under my feet, landing me backside-first on the shoreline mud and drawing whoops of laughter from my throng of brothers and cousins.

Less embarrassing was scouring the fine sand at Scarborough for money. My brother Rob, cousin Paulie, and I slowly walked up and down the beach, eyes searching for glints of silver. A nickel could get you a Hershey bar; a dime would buy you a Coke; and a quarter would be good for three games of pinball. We watched with envy as an old man in long pants waved his metal-detecting device over the sand and then bent down with a pail to sift for his payoff. “I want one of those gizmos for Christmas,” my brother said.

On this morning, the beach was stingy with its coins, but generous with cigarette butts and popsicle sticks. We immediately converted the sandy flotsam and jetsam into mini-catapults, pressing tan Marlboro or Winston filters against the top end of the half-dyed sticks while pushing our thumbs against the bottom to flick butts into the seaside breeze. We crouched in the sand below the boardwalk and took aim at unsuspecting passersby carrying beach chairs and umbrellas. (Our projectiles never hit their targets, which was surely a blessing – for us.)

At last, my mother and aunts arrived. Time to go in!

We dashed and splashed into the cool blue ocean, diving though the arc of a wave just before it crashed. Standing waist-high in the swirling sea, we saw a rising set of waves approach.

“Next one, next one!” a cousin shouted.

We rode the waves until our fingertips wrinkled, then ran up and laid our stomachs down on the hot sand. Shivers eventually quelled, we went back in, again and again.

At noontime, we sat at seafoam-green picnic tables on the boardwalk eating our peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, warm and gooey. Our mothers forbade us from going in the water right after lunch, saying we would get a cramp and drown. Unless, of course, the undertow got us first.

Rob, Paulie, and I went looking for our fortune in the sand again, waiting for a life-saving half-hour to pass.

Superman and me at Scarborough Beach

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 19, 2022. Above, my dad with my older brother Rob, left, and me at Scarborough Beach in 1961.

I envy them as they pass my house pulling red wagons with toddlers in tow: the new dads.

That was me 27 years ago when we moved to the neighborhood. Back when we had three children under age 5. Back when I was Superman.

My kids were all giggles and wide eyes when I spun a basketball on my index finger. They clapped when I made a kite soar against the cloudless sky at our Block Island rental. And if thunder cracked like gunshots during a summer storm, they climbed into my arms. I assured them the heavens would calm.

But when a fall gashed my younger son Evan’s hand in our backyard, his blood was my Kryptonite. I was Everyman, not Superman, face ashen and skin coated in sweat. 

My kids saw me as Everyman on other occasions, too, like when I cursed the drivers who cut me off on Route 95 and sometimes snapped at our dog and, achingly, when I was putting Evan to bed one night.

I don’t recall what prompted his question, but it startled me.

“Do you miss your dad?” he asked with an innocence that belongs only to children. My father died three months after Evan was born. The last time I had seen him, Dad had handed me the bill for his recent, long-overdue doctor’s visit.

“Yes, I do,” I said. Evan’s eyes asked me for more.

“You know what I think?” I said, my Everyman voice quavering. “My father’s alive every time we talk about him. Maybe that’s what heaven is.”

My 5-year-old set me straight. “You don’t really go to heaven,” he said matter-of-factly. “You’re buried. Heaven’s where you go in your head.”

I have often considered the shocking wisdom of my son’s words that night, and I’m thinking of them now.

In my head, I see my dad in black-and-white glossies from family photo albums: as a Marine Corps officer getting his commission, as a dean of students at Brown, smoking a cigarette and looking like George Peppard. 

I see him calmly whisking fourth-grade me to the emergency room at Roger Williams Hospital after I gashed my head on the corner of a coffee table while horsing around with my older brother.

And in a less-than-heavenly reverie, I see him 20 years later in his two-room apartment on Waterman Avenue in North Providence, writing a letter that recently came into my possession. It’s to his brother in New Hampshire. 

In his elegant hand, my dad notes that he “finally got an underpaying, paralyzingly dull job, low wages, no benefits, but thank God a check every week.” He reports he has emphysema and flashes his sharp wit: “The diagnostician wants to run a series of tests. I asked if he were paying.” He closes with reassurances: “I write only to inform not alarm you. You see, with you out there and the boys back here, I have a lot going for me.”

Now in my head, I go to another heaven – to Dad and me in the water at Scarborough Beach on a bright October day. I am 7 years old and feel the strong tug of the undertow as a rising wave approaches. My father is beside me, lean and athletic.

As the wave curls and begins to break, I dive to ride it, arms reaching for the shore. But the water pounds me and I am upended in the churning tumult until, yanking me upward by my wrists, Dad plucks me from the ocean chaos.

We stand in the white sea foam laughing, Superman and me.

Free autographs were a sign of the times

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, May 15, 2022. Illustration by Emma Walsh.

Getting the autograph of your favorite professional baseball or basketball player in 1968 cost you six cents – the price of a first-class postage stamp. 

As a young fan, I made treks to the mailbox on the corner of Smith Street and River Avenue in Providence with a sealed white envelope in my hand and the cloying taste of stamp glue still in my mouth. The mailbox swallowed my letter, and all I could do was wait.

In that pre-digital, pre-email world, through the marvel of the postal service, my handwritten letters would, at least in theory, reach Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees and Sam Jones of the Boston Celtics. Each would see, after my effusive two-sentence declaration of his athletic greatness, that I was asking for his autograph. 

For weeks, I checked our mailbox at home. Finally, an envelope with my name on it arrived, postmarked New York, and I carefully slid out my treasure: a glossy black-and-white photo of Mickey Mantle with his signature on it. Two days later, there was another envelope, postmarked Boston, and now I had Sam Jones’s autograph, too.

Sounds quaint, for sure, especially when you consider what a big business sports memorabilia has become. By 2021, it was estimated to be a $15 billion industry annually and growing fast.

Autographed photos like the free ones I was sent as an 8-year-old are the second most popular item in the memorabilia market, topped only by autographed jerseys. And today’s John Hancocks don’t come cheap. Athletes now command handsome fees for attending signing events and charge $20, $50, $100, or more for a quick swipe of their pen.

And then there’s this: a Mike Trout baseball card bearing the three-time MVP’s signature was recently discovered in an attic in New Hampshire. Its value hovers around $10,000 – a grand slam for the woman who found it.

Back in my childhood bedroom, I noticed a difference between the two signed photos that I had thumbtacked to my bulletin board. Mickey Mantle’s autograph was printed, not written; when I rubbed over the letters with my thumb, they didn’t smudge. The Sam Jones autograph had been scribed by hand: the photo of him in his white Celtics uniform was debossed ever so slightly by the markings of a ball-point pen.

Something else made Jones’s autograph stand out. In addition to his signature, there was a message for me: “With kind regards to John.”

Had Sam written those words himself?

All this came back to me last New Year’s Eve upon seeing reports of Jones’s death at age 88. Just two months earlier, he had been named to the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team with the likes of better-known superstars such as Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James.

A tribute in the Boston Globe celebrated the quiet and gracious man who, after retiring in 1969 as a 10-time NBA champion, became a substitute teacher for 30 years in Montgomery County, Maryland. When students asked what brought him back to middle school after reaching the heights of basketball glory, Jones said he always wanted to be a teacher and, besides, he was too old to guard those young bucks in the NBA now.

According to the Globe piece, a student learned of Mr. Jones’s exceptional bona fides on the day class pictures were handed out. He asked his favorite substitute to sign one of his photos. 

I smiled as I read of the Celtic great complying with the star-struck student’s request – just as, I am all but certain, he had responded to mine.

Pie in the sky, Guccis in the window

As published in the The Providence Sunday Journal, April 17, 2022.

One week into my first job as a copywriter, I heard my mother’s skepticism as we stood by the cash register in her store on Federal Hill.

“It’s pie in the sky,” she said, referring to the advertising profession. “Do you really want to do that?”

It was too soon to tell. But getting paid to dream up headlines and write copy all day was a step up from busing tables at the Turk’s Head Club downtown, which had been my previous gig.

Still, I understood Mom’s wariness about Madison Avenue. Atwells Avenue was more to her liking.

Her father, Vincent, owned the iconic baby clothes store standing at the corner of Atwells and Acorn Street. And just two blocks east, past the sparkling fountain recently constructed in DePasquale Plaza, she had opened her own store – a teen and junior fashion boutique for women.

There was nothing “pie in the sky” about how my grandfather and mother made money. They purchased clothing and accessories from wholesalers and marked the items up “keystone” or double their cost. They had an eye for fashion, a flair for merchandising, and a gift for sales persuasion. Their stores thrived.

In the early 1980s, one accessory in my mother’s store surpassed all others in popularity. Even I recognized the double-G logo and signature red-and-green band of the famed Gucci brand. So what if the handbags were knockoffs?

Decades later, I found the movie “House of Gucci,” starring Lady Gaga and Adam Driver, wildly entertaining. Not surprisingly, one scene in particular made me lean forward: Gaga’s character, Patrizia Reggiani, takes issue with the counterfeit Gucci bags that are being sold in Manhattan, saying they are “junk.” But Driver, portraying her husband, the doomed Gucci heir, waves her off. “As far as fakes go, they’re pretty good,” he says with a smile. “I’d buy them.”

That’s what hundreds of shoppers did at my mother’s store. So, to help meet the ongoing demand, I took personal days from my ad-agency job two or three times a year to accompany Mom on buying trips to New York City.

We’d hustle into cavernous (and pre-rehab) Union Station, sending resident pigeons to the rafters before catching an early Amtrak train to the Big Apple. From Penn Station, we’d hike uptown to the garment district where my mother would barter for the best prices on blouses, skirts, denim jackets, and, yes, Gucci knockoffs.

We’d grab lunch at a sidewalk hot dog stand and, if necessary, buy cheap umbrellas from one of the street vendors who seemed to magically appear with the first drops of rain.

And when the day’s buying was done, we’d duck into a bar for cocktails and appetizers, then doze on the train ride back to Providence. Once home, we’d recount our adventures over dinner at Camille’s.

The goods arrived in Providence several days later, and we prepared them for sale. With the Gucci knockoffs, that meant stuffing the bags with crumpled newspaper, looping price tags around their handles, and positioning them strategically in the showcase window.

One day, my mother surprised me: “I’m thinking of running a small ad in the Journal’s Style section,” she said.

The one-column-by-three-inch ad an art director colleague and I created featured a pen-and-ink handbag illustration with a simple headline promise: “Lookalikes for less!”

It wasn’t pie in the sky as much as truth in advertising, and the fake Guccis flew out the door.

My ‘lonely’ roundabout journey to 100 columns

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, March 20, 2022. Illustration by Emma Walsh.

I stared at the list of names thumbtacked to the English department bulletin board and felt my stomach churn. My name wasn’t on it. Intermediate Fiction Writing would be convening that spring semester without me.

The professor’s scant notations in the margins of the typed writing sample I’d submitted hardly made it to page two. Should I knock on his door to find out why? Possibly ask for advice?

No way. I was afraid he’d say what I was already hearing in my head. I walked back to my dorm room and cracked open a beer. And that was the end of my creative writing days at Brown University.

But a different kind of writing beckoned.

Senior year, I landed an internship as a copywriter at an ad agency. Which turned into a job. Which turned into a career.

After I was hired, my sister-in-law gave me a framed cartoon from the New Yorker that sits on a shelf by my desk to this day. A woman in a bar is looking skeptically at a hipster guy. “Copywriting is too ‘writing,’” he insists.

It is and it isn’t.

It is, because copywriters, like all writers, wrestle with words to express ideas, make meaning, and connect with readers.

And it isn’t, because copywriters sign their work with their client’s name. It’s ghostwriting, and I’m fine with that. I’ve discovered I like the cloak of anonymity that writing for clients affords me.

For four decades, I’ve ghosted for banks and global corporations and even – wait for it – a casket wholesaler. Every day I exercise my writing muscles in service of my clients, like a basketball player practicing free throws in service of his or her team. A Macintosh computer is my gym.

Ten years ago, my friend Elizabeth asked if I’d like to contribute a piece to her local online news platform. I could write whatever I wanted, she said. I heard myself say “No, thanks” reflexively, perhaps summoning the ghost of my writing-class rejection at Brown.

And then my next-door neighbor died. I wrote a remembrance, and Elizabeth published it – a eulogy that recalled Dick’s annual Christmas morning visits with our family: “With his presents, white beard, and easy laugh, he was our belated Santa.” 

My work in the Macintosh gym paid off; I found the words to express my heartfelt feelings for my friend.

A dozen or so pieces followed. One recounted the kindness of my second-grade teacher; another described a fallen backyard fence and my children leaving home.

The more columns I wrote, the more comfortable I got with my byline. It was Dick’s last gift to me.

A lovely family moved into Dick’s old house. They may have been sent by angels because Harold, the dad, was a former copy editor at the New Yorker. After helping me fine-tune several of my pieces, he suggested I send one to Ed Achorn, then the Editorial Pages Editor of the Providence Journal.

Four months later I did – a Christmas Eve story about my grandfather’s baby clothes store on Federal Hill. It was my first column in the Journal. This one is my 100th

Writing is a solitary act.

The irony is, I write to not be alone. And when I hear from people, sharing their stories after reading mine, it’s a wondrous communion. 

To Elizabeth and Harold and Ed, for their encouragement and support, and to you, for reading, I offer what Alice Walker calls the best prayer anyone could say: “Thank you.”

Following in my children’s Converse footsteps

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, February 20, 2022.

Who was Chuck Taylor anyway?

I didn’t have a clue, but his name was on the sneakers I coveted as a kid. Converse Chuck Taylors – “Cons” or “Chucks” for short – were worn by 80% of college and professional basketball players in the 1960s. Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points wearing them one night.

In 1968, I was an 8-year-old working on my behind-the-back dribble at Kennedy Recreation Center in Providence. Would a pair of Chucks up my game? I was counting on it.

Turns out Chuck Taylor was a journeyman semi-pro basketball player from the Midwest who suited up for a string of teams in the 1920s, including the Columbus Commercials and, presciently, the Akron Firestone Non-Skids. Legend has it, he walked into the Converse factory in Malden, Massachusetts one day complaining of sore feet. He also had an idea or two about how the company could improve its recently introduced basketball shoe.

Taylor must have been a better salesman than set shooter because by 1932, canvas Converse high-top sneakers bore a patch with his signature. Chuck Taylor All-Stars had arrived.

When I first set foot in the Kennedy Rec gym, I was wearing a pair of sneakers my mother had bought for me at Grants department store. Their plastic soles were hard as ice, and I skated across Kennedy’s blond hardwood floor every time I tried to come to a stop. After begging my father for a pair of Cons, he took me downtown to Geller’s on Washington Street. I walked out wearing a pair of Coaches – a Converse sneaker similar to Chucks, but three dollars cheaper. It was a step in the right direction.

When I did finally lace up my first pair of Chucks as a freshman point guard at La Salle, Converse’s foothold on the basketball shoe market was beginning to wane. Adidas, Puma, and Nike were making inroads, and by my senior year, I was one of only a few players on our team still wearing the iconic canvas high-tops. My favorite Converse tagline – “Limousines for the feet” – may have been a copywriting masterpiece, but it stretched credulity when I compared my sweat-stained kicks to a fancy pair of leather Nikes or Pumas. Chucks as basketball shoes were now less like limousines and more like Model Ts.

Converse upped its game in the 1980s with the introduction of its own leather basketball shoes, the Pro and the Weapon. The company also snared endorsements by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson who, in addition to skyrocketing their sport’s popularity as they faced off in three epic NBA Finals, hawked the Converse brand in television and print advertisements.

And what about Chucks? Did they fade away like the two-handed set shot and underhand free throw? Far from it, thanks to an embrace from counterculture music icons ranging from the Ramones and the Sex Pistols to Joan Jett and Kurt Cobain. Cons were classic, affordable, and cool, and their street chic endures to this day. Just ask Vice President Kamala Harris, who proclaims, “It’s either Chucks or heels. Always has been!”

Closer to home, I praised my daughter’s fashion sense when she walked into our kitchen one day wearing a pair of light-blue Chucks. And my son Evan recently returned from Los Angeles sporting black high-top Cons.

I’d like to think my kids are following in my footsteps, but I know better. As I lace up my first new pair of Chucks in almost 40 years – to wear to the office and rock invisibly during Zoom meetings – I realize I’m following in theirs.

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