EARLY DAYS

Tales from growing up – from family gatherings and first days of school to playing in the backyard

Springing back to life at Academy Field

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, May 16, 2021. [PHOTO: DEB WALSH]

Outside my house, crows gather in a tree, their feathers black as an undertaker’s coat. The birds know nothing of the pandemic that shut Rhode Island down for more than a year.

The rest of nature is similarly oblivious. Bees buzz, green hosta spears poke through garden soil, pink cherry blossoms make their annual cheery visit. I’m reminded of a verse from Ecclesiastes: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever.”

While our planet has been spinning for more than four billion years, homo sapiens have only been aboard for roughly the last 300,000 trips around the sun. That makes us relative newbies, with vulnerabilities that are uniquely human. Hello, COVID-19.

And yet we persist. The plink of an aluminum bat distracts me from the funereal crows. Little League is back!

A springtime pleasure of mine is seeing kids swing for the fences at Academy Field, which is across the street from my house in East Greenwich. Watching an inning or two of Little League transports me to Nelson Street playground in the Elmhurst section of Providence, where I played youth baseball 50 years ago. We swung wooden bats then – crack! – but the game was the same. And certain memories stick with me like pine tar.

One such recollection: crouched behind home plate clad in my catcher’s gear – the tools of ignorance – I see my dad watching me play as he smokes a cigarette out beyond the center field fence. Another: after safely sliding into second base, I look past my team’s chain-link dugout and lock eyes with my fifth-grade sweetheart. And then there’s this one: back at home plate, I rise woozily after a runner barrels me over, bouncing my head off the cement-hard dirt. My big-hearted manager, Joe, runs to my aid.

“How many fingers?” he asks, showing me the back of his splayed hand.

“Five,” I say.

“Four, genius,” he replies, holding up a single digit. “Don’t you know this is a thumb?”

Hearing more plinks, I walk across the street to Academy Field. There were no games played here last spring – no collisions at home plate, no balls hit over the fence, no trips to Hilltop Creamery after thrilling victories. It was a season of loss for everyone. 

According to the East Greenwich Little League, Academy Field was “a scratched-out sandlot playing surface” in its first year of service in 1955. Today, it has a tidy grass infield. The diamond is perfectly nestled into one corner of what is a de facto neighborhood commons. Even better, the field sits below street level, and gentle grass slopes provide a natural grandstand for fans. 

And now I see familiar and reassuring rhythms return to this field of dreams. The pitcher winds up deliberately and arcs his fastball to the plate. The batter, swallowed up by a uniform two sizes too big, swings mightily. Plink! The ball rolls three or four feet at most. The pint-sized slugger runs like mad to first base. The play is close. “Safe!” the umpire shouts. 

Judging by the cheers, it must be the kid’s first hit ever. Even I’m smiling.

When I return home, the crows are still in the tree, and one of them greets me with a throaty caw. Often considered a symbol of death, the sizeable black birds are also said to represent transition, transformation, and new beginnings. After a year of lockdown and worry, I’m going with the rosier interpretation.

I hear another plink from across the street, and hope springs eternal, once again, in this old catcher’s heart.

Listening to the secrets in my heart

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, April 18, 2021.

The triumphant note, in bold black letters, greeted me at dawn from the kitchen counter: “I did it!” The pronoun needed no explanation. I knew “it” meant my wife, Deb, had scored us COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

We’d been trying for two weeks. Or, more accurately, Deb had been trying.

“I hit the refresh button for like the millionth time at 3 in the morning,” she said over coffee. “I was about to give up.”

Our slots were back to back at a CVS in nearby North Kingstown the following week. Nice work, Deb.

The word “vaccination” derives from the Latin “vaccinus,” which means “from cows.” In 1798, British physician Edward Jenner coined the term for the technique he used to prevent smallpox, a disease that once killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans annually. 

Jenner theorized that injecting people with cowpox, a similar but milder virus, would fortify a patient’s immune system against the smallpox scourge. He was right. In the 1800s, the French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur applied the term “vaccine” to all such inoculations.

When I was a boy, “vaccination” was not in my vocabulary, but “needle” sure was. That’s what delivered the battery of shots administered by my kindly pediatrician, Dr. Frank Giunta, to protect me from measles, mumps, polio, and more. My early fear of needles – trypanophobia – was intense, but I conquered it by age 6 or 7.

“Look how brave you are!” Dr. Giunta said the first time I held back my tears.

His voice was soothing, and the sleeves of his crisp white Oxford shirt were neatly folded at his elbows. When he placed his stethoscope on my bare chest, he said “Hello,” lowering his head and closing his eyes as he listened to the secrets my heart revealed to his ears alone.

Physicians face a daunting task: to keep us healthy or, at the very least, alive. The pandemic has shone a light on how vulnerable humans are to infectious disease. We all have expiration dates, uncertain yet inevitable, and we do our best to stave them off.

When Deb and I arrived at CVS, the mood at the vaccination station in the back of the store was festive. COVID-19 may have forced people to practice social distancing, but it also has given us common ground. Deb’s story of 3-in-the-morning appointment-making was echoed by two others.

A woman in scrubs called out my name, looking up from her tablet.

I took a seat and rolled up my sleeve. As the nurse rubbed my left arm with alcohol, I noticed I was sitting opposite a greeting card display. I felt a pinch as I scanned the “Get Well” messages.

Driving home, Deb opened a bag of Swedish Fish.

“Want one?” she asked, holding up a red chewy candy.

“Sure,” I said. It only seemed right to celebrate.

We were halfway home – to our house, of course, but also to putting COVID-19 in our rear-view mirror. Our second shots were scheduled for mid-April.

As I chewed the candy like a kid, I thought of Dr. Giunta. If he could listen to my heart now, what would he hear? A strong, consistent beat, like Ringo Starr in his Beatles prime? Or, God help me, the drumming mayhem of The Who’s Keith Moon? 

Or perhaps the good doctor would hear something else altogether. Maybe my heart would tell him how much I love Deb and my three children. How lucky I am to have my brothers. How playing fetch with my dog, Rhody, is a simple and profound joy.

Amid a receding pandemic, maybe my heart would tell Dr. Giunta how grateful I am for everyday blessings.

‘Sláinte!’ Appreciating random acts of kindness in Ireland

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, March 21, 2021. Above, scene by the side of the road in Caherdaniel, Ireland. [JOHN WALSH]

Dan Slattery and I stood on the side of the road, 19 miles from Killarney, where our train was scheduled to depart in less than two hours. On break from school in Dublin, we had spent a week hitchhiking around the Ring of Kerry, the famed route on Ireland’s southwestern coast. A slate-gray sky was quickly turning charcoal; soon it would be dark.

The rev of a car engine teased us; the green Escort was traveling in the wrong direction for our purposes. As it barreled by, the driver and passenger waved out of open windows. “Good luck!” one shouted.

“I guess we could go to the church,” I said, pointing to a solemn steeple rising above the town of Kenmare in the distance. 

Dan wiped the afternoon’s “soft rain” from his glasses with a handkerchief. “They’d have to take us in, right?” he said. He didn’t sound convinced.

I’d found myself marooned in Ireland before. In September, on the first day of classes, I had been standing at a curb in Dublin for 20 minutes when a white compact car pulled up.

“Waiting for the bus, are you?” the man at the wheel said, craning his head out the window. I nodded.

“Drivers went on strike last night,” he said. “Where are you going?”

The kindly Dubliner gave me a lift to school. When I asked him if the bus drivers had announced the strike beforehand, he cackled.

“Why would they do a thing like that?” he said out of the side of his mouth, his lit cigarette waving at me like a teacher’s ruler. “Defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?” 

It had been my very own “We’re not in Kansas anymore” moment.

Back on the side of the road with Dan, time passed, but few cars did. A cow mooed from a nearby pasture.

“She’s mocking us,” I said. “Moooove!”

It had taken us two days to hitch our way out of Caherdaniel, a small village on the outer reaches of the Ring, and we had to break the law to do it. After our repeated pleadings for a ride, a lorry driver delivering milk to the village’s only store finally relented.

“Lie down in back and keep your heads low,” he said, pointing to his truck bed. He told us the Gardai – Ireland’s national police – would revoke his license if they caught him transporting anyone.

The milkman brought us to his next stop, a chic hotel. There, Dan and I pooled our last soggy pound notes and hired a taxi. We had enough fare to reach Kenmare, one town short of our destination. The unsmiling driver opened the back doors of his black Mercedes Benz for us, bedraggled as we were. The car’s warm cabin and soft leather seats were an instant narcoleptic. 

“Here you go,” the driver said half an hour later, waking Dan and me. We clambered out of our temporary sanctuary and onto the roadside again.

It was 1980. There were no cell phones, no Zipcars, no public transportation circling the Ring of Kerry. At this point, Dan and I were wholly dependent on the kindness of strangers.

And then two appeared. The green Escort that had sped past us in the wrong direction now returned.

“Still here, are you?” the driver said, his car idling.

We explained our predicament.

“Hop in,” he said. “We’ll get you to your train alright. Might even have time to stop for a jar.”

Before dropping us at the quaint Killarney railway station, our rescuers treated us to pints of Guinness at a nearby pub.

Dan and I raised our glasses – to the lorry driver, to the black Mercedes, and especially to the fine lads sitting across from us.

“Sláinte!” 

Keeping Armand close in my blueberry heart

Screen Shot 2020-05-17 at 6.52.23 AMAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, May 17, 2020. Above, the author accepts the championship trophy on behalf of Kennedy Recreation Center at the 1973 Serran Basketball Tournament as his coach, Armand Batastini, looks on at far right

In the Providence where I grew up, basketball was king, old-school coaches ruled, and no one did more for up-and-coming hoopsters than Armand Batastini.

The youth basketball legend brought my good friend John Reilly – “Reills” – and me together 47 years ago for an unforgettable season. When our coach passed away last month, I reached out instinctively to my old teammate.

“Sorry for losing touch for so long, brother,” I texted Reills, who lives in Florida. “Just wanted to let you know that Armand died on Saturday.”

“I’ll call you tonight,” came my friend’s quick reply. “A lot for me to reflect on.”

I felt the same way.

For 63 years, Armand mentored countless boys and girls, for which he was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame. Best known for his teams at St. Pius in the Elmhurst section of Providence, he also had a successful coaching stint at the neighborhood’s Kennedy Recreation Center, where Reills and I played for him.

On the phone that night, my friend reminded me that I once said practices with Armand were like “school after school.” During our two-hour workouts three afternoons a week, laughs were as rare as buzzer-beaters from half court. Failing to dive for a loose ball could trigger a favorite Armand trope – “You guys have hearts like blueberries!” – followed by another, more colorful anatomical reference, which would have made our mothers blush.

The man rarely used the whistle that hung around his neck; blessed with a commanding bark, he didn’t need to. But Armand’s heart was always in the right place. In his blue windbreaker and white Chuck Taylors, he was a tireless teacher. And just like us, he wanted to win.

“Remember when we practiced on Thanksgiving?” Reills asked.

How could I forget? My mother was annoyed when I left the house on that cold November morning, but we had a game the next day – against St. Pius, of all teams – and Armand knew the stakes.

“You’re playing for neighborhood bragging rights,” he said as he prepared us to face our parochial-school nemesis. He was right, of course – Kennedy Rec Center and St. Pius stood a mere six blocks apart. Our decisive victory the following night granted us a year of sidewalk swagger.

Before Magic and Madonna were known by a single name, he was “Armand” to us and everyone else. As a point guard under his tutelage for four years, I honed my dribbling skills and rid my game of “lollipop passes.” Our teams were good, especially in 1972-73, when we went 25-6 and ran the table at the Serran Tournament to cap our season. The championship trophy I accepted on behalf of our squad was huge, but the biggest reward that day was seeing the smile on my coach’s face.

Long after I played my final game for him, Armand had my back. As our neighborhood’s state representative, he cut through red tape to learn why I was denied a Pell Grant as a freshman at Brown University and helped me get the award the following year. After my wife, Deb, and I bought our first house – on Modena Avenue in Elmhurst – he stopped by to congratulate us, kissing Deb on the cheek as if she were family. And when my son Evan petitioned me to play AAU basketball – a world I knew nothing about – I knew where to turn for guidance: As always, Armand had the answers.

In 2018, the Pleasant View Recreation Center in Providence’s Fifth Ward was renamed the Armand E. Batastini Jr. Recreation Center. All of us who played for Armand know how deserving he was of such an honor.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, a celebration of Armand’s life is planned for a future date.

His family may need to rent out the Dunk.

 

Thanksgiving served up “auntie” love

tina+big_gracie_1956

The author’s “aunts” Grace Besachio and Tina Giuliano, fourth and fifth from the left, at a family wedding in 1956.

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, November 17, 2019.

The hiss of Mom’s hairspray on Thanksgiving morning announced that it was almost time to leave.

“Grab your coats, boys,” she called from the downstairs bathroom where she always put on her make-up. “We’re going to Auntie Big Gracie and Auntie Tina’s.”

Big Gracie and Tina were my mother’s first cousins, which technically made them first cousins once removed to my brothers and me; but we called the fun-loving sisters “aunties” out of respect. As for the “big” in Big Gracie’s name, it was confusing. The only thing outsized about my aunt was her personality – she stood 5 feet 2 inches, tops.

“Why do you call her Big Gracie?” a friend once asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “We just do.”

I would later learn that the “big” was bestowed on Gracie to distinguish her from a younger cousin – one of my mother’s sisters – who had the same name. She, of course, was known as Little Gracie.

As a kid in the late-1960s, it seemed I had loving Italian relatives on every other block in Providence’s Elmhurst neighborhood. Big Gracie and Tina lived side-by-side in a towering three-story duplex across from La Salle Academy. They each had four children, and on holiday mornings, the duplex was a hubbub of hugs and laughter, coffee and cordials, with non-stop spillover between the attached homes.

On this particular Thanksgiving, Big Gracie greeted us at her front door: “Norma and the boys are here!” she called out behind her.

“Hooray!” came back a shout from the rooms beyond.

With her easy smile and loving voice, my aunt ushered my brothers and me through the throng to her dining room table, which was laden with cookies, cakes, and candies. “Help yourselves, guys,” she said.

After a short stay on Big Gracie’s side of the festivities, it was time to visit Tina. In an ordinary house, this would have meant walking across the front lawn to the duplex’s other entrance. But this was no ordinary house. Years earlier, the two sisters had broken through a closet wall to create a secret passageway between their dining rooms, allowing them to visit each other without going outside.

Family lore has it that during one holiday gathering, a would-be suitor of Tina’s youngest daughter, fueled by holiday libations, sat dumbfounded as he watched a procession of people enter what was apparently a closet, only to have an entirely different group come out moments later. The young man resisted every impulse to flee, and he and my cousin eventually wed.

“Look who’s here!” Auntie Tina called out as my mother, brothers, and I emerged from the closet to make our second big entrance of the day under the same roof. “Norma and the boys!”

More laughter. More cookies. More hugs.

At one point, Auntie Tina asked me if she had forgotten to give me a gift for my birthday earlier that year. I was quick to say yes, though I didn’t actually remember.

“John!” my mother said, shooting me a look. Auntie Tina intervened.

“This is between John and me,” she said, shooing my mother away. Minutes later, when Mom wasn’t looking, Auntie Tina pressed a shiny silver dollar into my palm.

Mother-child relationships are a complex stew, one that nourishes, sustains, and sometimes boils over. Aunts are chicken soup. I remember mine with endless affection because, as James Joyce wrote, “love loves to love love.”

The word “aunt” derives from the Latin “amita,” a diminutive of “amma,” which is baby talk for “mother.” The etymology reflects an age-old truth: there’s a lot of our moms in our aunts.

Just the right amount, I think.

Living with life’s ups and downs

Birch_4

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, October 20, 2019.

My rake tugs at wet leaves beneath the birch tree in my backyard, making me think of the worn volume of Robert Frost poems that my friend Jim gave me after his father died.

“It was in Dad’s bookcase,” he said, handing me the slender paperback. “I want you to have it.”

My friend’s gesture didn’t surprise me; he was bighearted and knew I was a word guy. But the genre of the book caught me off guard. I would have pegged Jim’s dad as a reader of history and how-to guides, not poetry.

Like many students, I first encountered Frost in high school English when I was assigned to read “Birches” freshman year. To my ear, the words were no match for Bruce Springsteen lyrics. Later, as an English major in college, I was consumed by the classical allusions of Eliot and Yeats, and the riddles of Wallace Stevens. I smugly concluded that Frost’s work was inferior because, to my mind, it was less challenging. Jim’s gift gave me my comeuppance.

I began to read “Birches” the way I believe every poet wants his or her verse to be read: repeatedly. During dozens of journeys through the poem’s 59 lines, Frost’s wisdom emerged.

The speaker in the poem recalls climbing his father’s birch trees as a boy. Holding onto the top-most section of the snow-white trunks, he would fling himself outward feet first to bend the trees and rid them of their stiffness: “So was I once myself a swinger of birches / And so I dream of going back to be.”

What prompts this wish? The speaker is weary of considerations: “I’d like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over.” Who can’t relate to his desire for a reprieve from life’s difficulties?

As a high-school freshman, my appreciation of Frost’s insight into the human condition was slight. Weariness wasn’t part of my 14-year-old world; my biggest concern was who my basketball team was playing next. I may have read Frost’s words, but I didn’t feel them.

Jim lived right across the street from me on River Avenue in Providence. Thanks to his parents’ diligence, their house was the tidiest on the block: shingles and shutters freshly painted, American flag flying from the front porch. I often saw his father in the driveway tending to his green Plymouth Fury. It gleamed in the morning sunlight.

When I visited Jim’s house, his mother was quick to ply me with brownies or a meatball sandwich. His dad was usually sitting in his living room chair, reading. He’d politely look up and say hello before returning to his newspaper or book. His stoic presence commanded my respect.

It wasn’t until years later that I began to suss out why Jim’s father was so reticent. As a Marine during World War II, he was part of a battallion that stormed Iwo Jima. At the end of his life, he told Jim what he had experienced on that island beach – things that were, until then, unspeakable.

In “Birches,” the speaker seeks a tree’s upper branches when “life is too much like a pathless wood.” His escape, however, is temporary; the birch eventually bends under his weight and sets him on the ground again. Frost offers this epiphany: “Earth’s the right place for love / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

I’m thankful for my friend’s gift – for the second chance it provided to discover a poet’s wisdom and the more complete picture it gave me of Jim’s father. Maybe I was wrong. Perhaps, in its own way, the modest Frost paperback really was a how-to book – about living with life’s ups and downs and finding reason, even on our toughest days, to land on the side of love.

It’s something I’m pretty sure Jim’s dad knew long before I did.

 

Lessons at a Monopoly board

Monopoly_v3As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, Sunday, September 15, 2019.

While my brother Rob and his affable friend Steve were majoring in landscape architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, I was studying English at Brown, and my roommate, Mark, was well on his way to becoming an electrical engineer.

The four of us, however, all minored in the same subject: Monopoly.

Several nights a week, around 9:30, Rob and Steve would scoot up College Hill to Sears 117, the cozy dorm room on Wriston Quad where Mark and I lived sophomore year. A Monopoly board sat on a makeshift table in the center of the room, with each player’s signature token poised on the Go square: the racing car (Mark), the cannon (Steve), the top hat (me), and a shiny penny (Rob, appropriately enough, since he was known for his parsimonious ways when haggling over deals).

Our boisterous games usually spilled into the early morning hours, fueled by beer and Seagram’s 7 whiskey. It was a long way from playing Monopoly as a kid – or “Monotony,” as one of my friends called it then. On good nights, Rob, Steve, Mark, and I would get in two games; over a weekend, maybe three or four.

Charles Darrow is cited by many as the inventor of Monopoly, which he sold to Parker Brothers in 1935. However, according to Mary Pilon, author of “The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game,” the origin of the game can be traced back three decades earlier to an artist, writer, feminist, and inventor named Elizabeth Magie.

In 1904, Magie received a patent for her brainchild – The Landlord’s Game – in which players circled a board buying up railroads and properties, and collecting rents. It was the progenitor of Monopoly as we know it today, but with a twist.

Pilon relates that there were two sets of rules for the game – “monopolist” and “anti-monopolist” – and that, as a staunch critic of the railroad and oil titans of the day, Magie wanted to demonstrate the evils of unrestrained greed. In 1906, she told a reporter that through her game, she hoped “men and women will discover that they are poor because Carnegie and Rockefeller, maybe, have more than they know what to do with.”

Interestingly, as Rob and Steve stumbled back down College Hill after our epic late-night Monopoly games at Brown, they likely passed “the Rock,” i.e., the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, named for the philanthropist son of the famed tycoon Magie railed against.

Homemade versions of The Landlord’s Game circulated up and down the East Coast, from the early 1900s right into the Depression. That’s how Darrow discovered the game, which he tweaked and renamed Monopoly. When Parker Brothers learned that Darrow wasn’t the game’s sole inventor, it paid Magie $500 for her patent. The rest is history.

Monopoly sold 278,000 copies in its first year; more than 275 million sets have been purchased since. And despite Magie’s hope that the game would alert players to the wrongs of accruing vast amounts of wealth at the expense of others, quite the opposite occurred. Once, on a family vacation, my 12-year-old daughter placed a hotel on Boardwalk – Monopoly’s most punishing rental – and then exploded with glee when I landed there to give her the game.

While Monopoly may be timeless, some of its particulars have evolved. Take the game’s beloved mustachioed mascot, originally known as Rich Uncle Pennybags. He still preens on one of the Community Chest cards, having won second prize (and $10) in a beauty contest. However, after an unfortunate name-change in 1999, Uncle Pennybags is now blandly known as Mr. Monopoly.

Not by Rob and me, though. When we formed a company to buy a building for our ad agency, the corporation’s name seemed pre-ordained, invoked from the Monopoly marathons of our college days.

Pennybags Realty closed the deal.

Following in Papa’s footsteps

vincent_pantalone

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, August 18, 2019. Above, my grandfather, Vincent Pantalone, with one of his beloved cigars, outside his store on Federal Hill in Providence.

I landed my first summer job when I was 10. Or, more accurately, it landed me.

My employer was my grandfather, Vincent Pantalone, and despite my age, he was not found in violation of child labor laws. Papa’s specialty clothing store on Federal Hill in Providence — Vincent’s — had taken dozens of family members into its employ since opening in 1927. My rite of passage started in the early 1970s; I was the 12th of 13 grandchildren to do time there.

And what exactly did I do? Whatever Papa, my aunts, or my mother told me to do. That included stacking gift boxes behind the register; extracting pins from the store’s green, short-pile carpet; rolling down the squeaky awnings so merchandise in the showcase windows wouldn’t get bleached by the sun; and running errands. For my Friday night and Saturday shifts, I pocketed $10, a small fortune for a fourth-grader then.

On Saturday afternoons, my grandfather would place a quarter, a dime and a penny in my hand so I could fetch him two cigars at Leo’s Periodicals, across the street. Once, he almost burned the store down when he unwittingly knocked one of his lit stogies into a trash basket.

Fires notwithstanding, I watched Papa preside over the economic engine he built selling communion dresses, christening sets, back-to-school outfits, and the like. He was serious and industrious at work, and I made sure to look busy even when I wasn’t. But if a customer had an issue — the need for an exchange, perhaps, or some last-minute tailoring — my grandfather was quick to turn on his charm.

“Don’t worry,” he would say with a broad smile. “We’ll take care of you.”

Working at Papa’s store was the first in a series of summer jobs that took me through adolescence. I was a counselor-in-training at a Providence YMCA camp; a dishwasher at a fancy Atwells Avenue restaurant; the guy who changed the combinations of every locker at La Salle Academy before the start of the 1975-76 school year; and, in my dream job as a teen, a clerk at Midland Records on Thayer Street, in Providence, where one of my most important responsibilities was spinning LPs and cranking up the volume.

My Midland Records gig started in June 1978, the year teen summer employment in the United States hit its peak, at 58 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. By contrast, only about a third of teens — 34.6% — had a job last summer.

Why the drop? Researchers point to a number of factors, including fewer low-skill, entry-level jobs; more schools ending in late June and/or restarting before Labor Day; and more teens volunteering as part of their graduation requirements and to embellish college applications.

Too bad. Summer jobs can teach you lessons you won’t learn in school, including the satisfaction of earning a weekly paycheck (and the thrill of spending it). A job may even lead to a relationship that finds its way into your work life as an adult.

Such was the case with me. For five summers, my older brother, Rob, and I renovated properties together on Federal Hill. We sanded floors and hung sheetrock; scaled scaffolding to paint triple-deckers; reglazed windows and replaced doors; and lugged appliances up and down winding staircases.

Somewhere between the painting and the lugging, we discovered that we made a pretty good team.

Rob and I continue to work together today, following in Papa’s footsteps by running our own business, in this case an ad agency. A photo of our grandfather graces our conference room (in it, he is smoking a cigar — safely, outside his store). And the good-luck horseshoe that hung above the door at Vincent’s now hangs above ours.

Rob launched our agency in 1989 from a bedroom in his house. By the time I joined him three years later, he had moved into our first office.

Fittingly, it was right above Papa’s store.

Patrick, Joseph, and saintly parades

Festa_Poster

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, March 17, 2019. Above, poster for St. Joseph’s Day on Federal Hill in 1977.

Two Christian saints rub shoulders on the calendar this month, just as the Irish- and Italian-Americans did in the Providence neighborhood where I grew up in the 1970s.

Whether your last name was Reilly or Riccio, most kids in Elmhurst wore green to school on March 17 in honor of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. And then, two days later, many of us showed up garbed in red to celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph, whose intercessions were believed to have once saved Sicily from a severe drought.

What else do we know about Patrick and Joseph, and why are their respective feast days so beloved in these parts?

Details on both saints are sketchy, but of this we can be certain: Patrick was not Irish. Born in Britain when it was under Roman rule, he came to Ireland as a Christian missionary in the fifth century.

Patrick is said to have used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to Ireland’s druids and pagans. And legend has it he drove the snakes from the Emerald Isle, just as God had banished the serpent from the Garden of Eden. (For those keeping score at home, herpetologists tell us that Ireland has actually never been home to snakes.) March 17 is generally accepted as the date of Patrick’s death; hence, the timing of his feast day.

Interestingly, the first recorded St. Patrick’s Day parade was held not in Dublin or Galway, but in New York City in 1762 when Irish soldiers serving in the English army marched to honor their Catholic saint. Today, up to two million spectators gather for the festivities along Fifth Avenue. Closer to home, as many as 50,000 people trek to Newport’s annual parade, now in its 63rd year.

Joseph, husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the patron saint of Sicily. According to legend, he responded to Sicilian prayers during a severe drought in the Middle Ages. The rain came, a famine was avoided, and grateful believers honored Joseph with feasting and celebration, thus starting a tradition that continues throughout the world to this day.

In the late 19th century, Sicilian immigrants came to the United States largely through the port of New Orleans, and they brought their St. Joseph’s Day traditions with them. Soon parades honoring the saint were annual springtime events in the French Quarter. This year’s procession will take place on March 23, with marchers handing out silk flowers and fava beans, which is the crop that saved Sicilians from starvation during their historic drought.

Other cities in the United States with large Italian-American populations are known for their St. Joseph’s Day celebrations, as well, including New York, Syracuse, Hoboken, and, of course, Providence.

I was fortunate to have been behind-the-scenes for the St. Joseph’s Day festivities on Federal Hill in the mid-1970s after Atwells Avenue had been given a dramatic facelift. Decorative streetlamps now stood sentry over wide brick sidewalks, and a massive archway greeted visitors at the east end of the busy retail thoroughfare.

At home, my mother, who was secretary of the Federal Hill Businessmen’s Association, laid out silk sashes on our living room couch, to be worn by the politicians and dignitaries who would march in the parade. One year, my older brother’s roommate at the Rhode Island School of Design created the poster for the event. Fancy green type stood out against a screened archive photo of a marching band: Festa di San Giuseppe, March 19, 1977.

The weather was chilly that day, with the temperature only in the low 40s, but the freshly painted red-white-and-green traffic stripe in the middle of Atwells Avenue gleamed in the sun as thousands made their pilgrimage to the Hill.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! And, as corned beef and Guinness give way to zeppole and sambuca, Happy St. Joseph’s Day, too!

Birthday snapshots through the ages

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, February 17, 2019. Above, the author celebrates his 7th birthday at home in Providence in 1967.

I turn 59 this month.

As birthdays go, it’s not a noteworthy number.

I mean, it can’t hold a candle to, say, 40. For that birthday, my wife, Deb, threw a surprise party for me at our house. I opened the front door to the shouts and good wishes of more than fifty family members and friends. What a bash!

My 18th birthday was memorable, too. It fell five days after The Blizzard of ’78 had buried Rhode Island under more than two feet of snow. I spent my birthday night in a music store on Federal Hill where my older brother, Rob, worked. His boss was worried about post-storm looting, so he deployed the two of us to stand guard. It was dark and eerily quiet amid the unplugged Fender Stratocasters and Peavey amps as we fought to stay awake, but nothing happened.

Well, nothing but this: In celebration of my new “legal” status – 18 was the drinking age at the time – Rob placed a brown paper bag on one of the store counters. “Happy birthday,” he said as I slid the bottle out. It was a fifth of something called Rock and Rye – “Rock” as in rock-candy, I would learn. The sweetened concoction was the color of maple syrup. I took a swig from the bottle’s wide mouth and grimaced. Looters may not have caused any damage that night, but my birthday cocktail did.

My seventh birthday stands out, thanks to a photo my mother took. In it, I’m about to blow out the candles on my cake while sporting a construction-paper crown, likely made for me at school.

That black-and-white snapshot reminds me of another unforgettable birthday moment, this one belonging to my son Evan. When I suggested over breakfast one morning that he’d have fun at pre-school because it was his big day, he was unconvinced.

“It’s like any other day,” he said in his raspy voice, eyes fixed on his Fruit Loops. “They just give you a stupid hat.”

(Clearly, I was a more superficial child than my son, for there I am in Mom’s photo album, forever happy in my “stupid hat.”)

When my brothers and I were growing up, our mother’s age defied the passage of time, at least by her calculations. Each March, she’d tell us with playful certainty that she was turning 22. As we moved through adolescence, Mom finally made a concession to Father Time and upped her age to 33. And there it would stay, at least as far as she was concerned.

My brother Rob had other ideas. With a big party planned at our house to celebrate Mom’s 45th, he exercised his budding graphic design skills and spray-painted a birthday greeting on a white bed-sheet. The day of the party, while Mom was at work, I helped Rob and his Rhode Island School of Design roommate hang the sheet from the gutter above the front porch of our house, which stood on busy River Avenue in Providence.

“HAPPY 50TH, NORMA!” the birthday billboard proclaimed to the constant stream of passersby, most of them unaware of its inaccuracy.

One of my mother’s friends said she would have never forgiven her kids for doing such a thing. Lucky for us, Mom was a good sport, even if she did say the prank was “awful.” (Looking back, had we been better sons, the banner would have read “HAPPY 22ND!”)

A final memory for this account: As my 12th birthday approached, I received a card from my orthodontist. At the time, braces were not as prevalent as they are today, and I was self-conscious about my “tinsel teeth.”

Depicted on the front of Dr. Prescott’s card was a herd of buck-toothed cartoon animals, all of them beaming with braces. The caption read “Lots of people have them …”

Yeah, right, I thought. Then I looked inside: “BIRTHDAYS WE MEAN!”

My face broke into a silver smile.

 

 

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