Uncategorized

The best seat at Fenway

2003_Walshes@fenwayAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, June 16, 2019.

Most of the books my father gave me sit on shelves, their stories as layered as my memories of him. If I’m lucky, I open to a flyleaf inscribed with Dad’s familiar hand and hear his voice again.

“Neat books need swell readers. So saith Dad. Love.” That note appears on the opening page of a John O’Hara novel given for Christmas in 1988. The unsteady strokes of a simpler message written five years later inside a spy thriller – “Happy birthday, John” – reveal my father’s failing health at the time.

One book he gave me was “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons” by Donald Hall. There’s no inscription from Dad in that one; I surmise he was fine with letting Hall’s words speak for themselves. And for good reason. In a series of elegant essays, the former poet laureate of the United States examines how sports and games connect people and bridge generations.

Many of Hall’s lines resonate with me, including this one: “Baseball is continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.” A recurring childhood memory of mine is listening to the Red Sox on the radio with Dad as we drove home from the beach to Providence.

Another moment in the book that I return to is “Baseball is fathers and sons. Football is brothers beating each other up in the backyard.”

I can attest to that statement. First, the beating up part.

Our backyard was half dirt, half cement patio; my brothers and I played tackle football on all of it. These contests often degenerated into something we called “muckle the guy with the ball,” which was more rugby scrum than football. When darkness came, we took our game inside, hammering each other in the basement until the commissioner – Mom – intervened from the top of the stairs:

“Enough!”

In springtime, our backyard gridiron morphed into a baseball diamond. Thanks to Wiffle ball, we were able to “swing for the fences” without breaking nearby windows; the darting plastic orbs rapped off panes but didn’t break them. While my father was more academic than athletic, on Saturdays he would usually come outside to toss some pitches and take a few swings. Fast forward 25 years and I found myself instinctively doing the same with my young sons in the backyard at our house.

If playing baseball with Dad was fun, going to a Red Sox game with him was even better. We made the pilgrimage for the first time on the final day of the 1968 season. Unlike the monochromatic ballpark I saw on our black-and-white TV, Fenway that afternoon was a rush of color – green grass, red Citgo logo, endless blue sky, brilliant yellow foul poles.

The memory of that day was still vivid in my mind when I brought my sons to Fenway in 2003 for a Sox-Mariners game. Without looking at a seating chart, I had purchased tickets that I thought would give us a good view of Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle’s superstar right fielder. The boys, then 12 and 10, were big Ichiro fans.

We got to the park early and headed to our seats. Up and up we climbed into Fenway’s cavernous right field grandstand. I checked our tickets: Section 1, Row 18, Seats 1, 2, and 3. Up and up we continued, into the cool shade under the roof, until we finally reached our destination – the last row and very last three seats in the grandstand!

Past a green support column, we could see home plate – barely. Our view of Ichiro’s back wouldn’t be much better. I felt like Bob Uecker, the former major-leaguer-turned-beer-pitchman who, in his classic commercials for Miller Lite, always landed in the nosebleed section.

Still, with my two boys beside me, wide-eyed and laughing, I knew I had the best seat in the house.

Getting in the last word

img_6079

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, January 20, 2019. Above: Cemetery headstone at St. Luke’s Church, East Greenwich, R.I.

Leave them laughing when you go.

That seems to be the idea behind some epitaphs, those phrases or statements inscribed on cemetery headstones.

George Carlin said he wanted his to be “He was here just a minute ago.” Groucho Marx proposed “Excuse me, I can’t stand up.”

Neither epitaph was ever actually carved in stone. Carlin was cremated, his ashes scattered; the only embellishment on Groucho’s grave marker is the Star of David.

But mixing mourning with mirth at gravesites is more common than you might think. If a quick Google search is to be trusted, there’s this gem from a couple laid to rest in the Washington, D.C. area: “We finally found a place to park in Georgetown!” And at a New Mexico cemetery, a headstone plays off the deceased’s last name: “Here lies John Yeast. Pardon me for not rising.”

British-Irish comedian Spike Milligan’s epitaph, translated from Gaelic, feigns indignation: “I told you I was ill.” Billy Wilder’s hits home with scribes: “I’m a writer but then nobody’s perfect.”

Some inscriptions strike us with their poignance. Visitors to Martin Luther King Jr.’s tombstone are familiar with the words it bears, echoing his most famous address: “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty I’m Free at last.” At Robert F. Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery, a low granite wall presents a quote from the impromptu speech that Kennedy gave hours after King’s assassination: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need … is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another.”

Some epitaphs are sweet. George H.W. Bush’s simple gravestone is inscribed with his Navy number and words honoring his wife: “He loved Barbara very much.” Mary Tyler Moore’s reads “Her spirit a beacon, Her smile eternal, She made us better.” A statue of a resting angel at the actress’s grave bears the title of the theme song that opened her popular television show in the 1970s: “Love Is All Around.”

For writers and poets, a grave marker represents the last blank page. Emily Dickinson’s two-word epitaph is distinguished, like her verse, by its economy of expression: “Called back.” Dorothy Parker’s is almost as concise, if less otherworldly: “Excuse my dust.”

Oscar Wilde’s last words are often erroneously cited as “Either this wallpaper goes or I do.” (Wilde quipped about the decor in the room where he lay several weeks before he died, but his final spoken words reportedly were a mumbled Catholic prayer.) The Irish writer’s actual gravestone epitaph is taken from his poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” which recalls his imprisonment for homosexuality in the 1890s. It reads, in part: “For his mourners will be outcast men, And outcasts always mourn.”

Shakespeare issues a warning to any who might meddle with his final resting place: “Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

For pop stars, referencing a lyric from a hit song is a common epitaphic practice. Frank Sinatra assures us “The best is yet to come.” Whitney Houston says “I will always love you.” Dee Dee Ramone offers “OK … I gotta go now.”

Not surprisingly, the epitaphs of entertainers are, well, entertaining. Jackie Gleason’s mausoleum reprises the catchphrase from the end of his variety show monologues: “And away we go!” Talk show host Merv Griffin’s headstone reads “I will not be right back after this message.” And I have nothing but respect for comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s chiseled one-liner: “There goes the neighborhood.”

But perhaps my favorite headstone valediction, fitting for the close of this column, belongs to Mel Blanc. The voice of hundreds of “Loony Tunes” cartoon characters, Blanc chose a signature line from Porky Pig to commend his spirit to perpetuity: “That’s all, folks!”

Under the spell of pinball wizards

Tommy_Album-CMYKAs published in the Providence Sunday Journal, July 24, 2016.

My brother Rob and I watched with envy as a white-haired man waved his metal detector over the fine sand, like a wizard with a wand. Rob was 12 years old and I was 9. It was early evening in July, and we were standing at the boardwalk rail in the shadow of the stone pavilion at Scarborough Beach in Narragansett.

“I wish we had one of those,” I said, referring to the white-haired prospector’s treasure-finding device.

“Beats our technique,” Rob replied.

He was referring to our practice of combing the beach for money with the only detectors we possessed: our eyes. When we were lucky, we’d glimpse an occasional nickel or dime amid sand-crusted Popsicle sticks and pieces of dried seaweed.

Not on this night, though. With empty pockets, Rob and I started back to our grandfather’s cottage just up the road — until I stopped at a pay phone outside the pavilion to fish the coin return slot. To my surprise, a forgotten dime slid beneath my finger.

“Score!” I said.

“No way!” Rob said.

We headed directly to Adam’s, the variety store and arcade across from the beach, to indulge my latest obsession: pinball. In 1969, the zinging, jangling games were in their heyday. The Who had even released a rock opera earlier that year telling the story of a pinball wizard named Tommy.

But not everyone was enamored with the electromechanical precursor to modern video games. Though rarely enforced, laws banning pinball were still on the books throughout much of the United States. Before the introduction of flippers — the levers that give players a measure of control over the ball — many had believed the machines promoted gambling because they were games of chance, not skill. In New York City in the 1940s, Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia crusaded against pinball, saying it robbed schoolchildren of their lunch money.

No such prohibition was in effect in Rhode Island in the late 1960s — at least not at Adam’s. And the nightly scene in the arcade dispelled any notion that pinball was merely a game of chance. The brightly lit, cacophonous room drew would-be pinball wizards from Point Judith to Narragansett Pier and beyond. My older cousin David was among the best players. He had, to borrow Pete Townshend’s words, “crazy flipper fingers,” and I marveled at his ability to nudge or bump a machine to his advantage without tilting and suspending play.

The most popular game at Adam’s was Hayburners, and when David dropped a dime in its coin slot, kids gathered around to watch. It was only a matter of time before the machine’s clicking digits rolled past the free replay mark, sounding the sharp, distinctive knock that every pinballer coveted.

I waited for the crowd to thin before placing my dime on Hayburners’ glass to reserve the next game. Unlike The Who’s Tommy, I rarely played “a mean pinball,” and figured the fewer the onlookers, the better.

But a funny thing happened on this particular night: I found the magic touch. I finessed shots to high-scoring rollovers. I hit targets again and again. I made deft flipper saves to maintain play.

“Only 100 points to a free game!” Rob said, as I launched my final ball.

It would have been my first time. Heart pounding, I made another flipper save. The ball ricocheted from a rubber kicker to a slingshot pad, then arced toward the right-hand out lane. I was a split second away from seeing my dream vanish — if the ball continued on its path, the game would end!

Instinctively, I gave the machine a hard sideways jerk. Hayburners instantly went dark — I had tilted. The ball rolled over my lifeless flipper and disappeared.

“You were so close,” Rob said, making the knot in my stomach clench tighter.

Someday I’d be a pinball wizard, I told myself as we walked home to Papa’s beach house. I just needed more practice — more dimes.

Early the next morning, my brother and I scoured the beach for coins.

The evolution of my Rhode Island accent

emme_typewriterAs published in the Providence Sunday Journal, May 15, 2016. Artwork by Emma Walsh.

My girlfriend, Anne, and her brother, Steve, needed directions out of Providence, and I was happy to oblige. It was nearly midnight on a muggy June night in 1979, and we were standing by their green Dodge Aspen. Anne and Steve were heading home to Connecticut after the three of us had gone to a concert at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, which was on Westminster Street then.

I told them to bear right at the Gulf station past the Civic Center and then take a left at the second light to get onto I-95.

Anne laughed the next time we spoke on the phone.

“Steve kept talking about your directions,” she said.

“Why?” I said. “Did you get lost?”

“No, no. He just couldn’t get over your Rhode Island accent. You know —‘beah’ right?” she said, mimicking my pronunciation of “bear.”

I’m sure it was one of many “r”s I dropped that evening. We had seen Graham Parker and the Rumour — Gram Pahkah and the Roomah in my parlance.

Anne and I had met earlier that year as freshmen at Brown. Her Fairfield County diction was theater school-perfect, and her poetry impressed me. I even found her good-natured ribbing about my accent endearing.

Had I studied linguistics instead of English, I might have learned that I was a non-rhotic speaker — that is, I didn’t pronounce the letter “r” unless it was followed by a vowel. Thus, in my Elmhurst neighborhood growing up, “farther” and “father” sounded identical.

Not that I knew I had an accent; just about everyone around me — my brothers, my friends — spoke the same way.

What I did know is I once had a lisp. For several weeks in first grade, Miss Minor, the speech teacher, led me out of class to a special room where she asked me to recite “Sally sells seashells by the seashore” repeatedly.

At Brown, my Rhode Islandese began to assimilate the mostly rhotic dialects around me. Then, during my junior year, after moving to Dublin to attend the School of Irish Studies, my accent evolved further.

I lived with the lovely and lively Dempsey family — Sean and Grainne and their three young children. The house was filled with lilting Irish voices, which initially confounded my ear — they inflected upward on declarative sentences and downward on questions. But soon I was speaking that way too. Whether buying my Carroll’s Number 1 cigarettes at the chemist or asking for directions in Dun Laoghaire, I did my best to fit in.

The same was true in the pubs, where I was sure to drop the “w” in Smithwick’s — “A pint of Smithick’s, please!”— as the locals did. Turns out Rhode Islanders weren’t the only ones who omitted consonants.

A classmate of mine, from Michigan, boarded across the street from the Dempseys. After meeting Dan for the first time, Grainne remarked on his accent.

“It’s so plain,” she said. “You sound more normal to me.”

I think I may have hugged her; I know I wanted to.

Though my Rhode Island accent had receded significantly by the time I graduated from college, it continued to make occasional appearances in my speech, like holidays on a calendar. I’d hear myself referencing Joyce’s “Dublinahs” or inviting friends to go to get “wienahs” in Olneyville.

Several years later, I married a Connecticut girl, though not the one I had dated in college. Deb’s diction wasn’t perfect — she had the whisper of a lisp, which I found irresistible.

Linguists say the non-rhotic accent is dying out, citing factors such as population change, an increase in college education, and the pervasiveness of television and radio. My children are proof of it — “farther” and “father” are distinct words in their lexicon.

Nevertheless, my son Evan, who lives in Los Angeles, says people sometimes ask where he is from, on the basis of how he speaks. Boston? New York?

“I’m a Rhode Islandah,” he says, purposely dropping the “r” and sounding like an Elmhurst kid from the 1970s.

That deserves a beah.

 

Confessions of a lifelong Beatlemaniac

As appeared in the Providence Sunday Journal, February 21, 2016.

I wasn’t one of the 73 million Americans who watched the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, two days before my fourth birthday. But soon enough, Beatlemania would sweep me up too.

Later that year, as my mother prepared our family’s traditional fish dinner on Christmas Eve, my older brother, Rob, and I sat on the living room floor listening to Meet The Beatles! on a portable record player. My grandfather, who lived upstairs in our Providence double-decker, walked in from the kitchen.

“Where’s the Christmas music?” he said, pointing his smoldering Dutch Masters cigar at the spinning vinyl.

“Papa,” Rob said. “It’s the Beatles!”

My brother shot me a knowing look. Listening to anything else — even “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve — was out of the question.

The following June, my mother gave each of us a crisp one-dollar bill at the start of our vacation in Narragansett.

“That’s for the whole week,” she said. “Make it last.”

Less than an hour later, Rob handed his dollar to the cashier at Adam’s variety store in exchange for 20 five-cent packs of Beatles cards. I stood at the counter, eyebrows raised.

The cards featured stylish black-and-white photos of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and facsimiles of their autographs. I was aghast at the instant evaporation of my brother’s allowance. But as we flipped through the images again and again, the payoff began to dawn on me. The cards reaffirmed what we had felt the first time we heard “I Want To Hold Your Hand”: the Beatles were cool and, by extension, so were we.

That afternoon, ignoring my frugality for a moment, I slid a dime into the jukebox on the boardwalk at Scarborough Beach and played the Fab Four’s latest chart-topper, “Ticket to Ride.”

Their hits kept coming: “Help!” in July; “Yesterday” in September; Rubber Soul in time for Christmas; and the remarkable Revolver eight months later.

And then, during the Summer of Love in 1967, my father brought home Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“Everyone’s talking about this,” he said, handing us the Beatles’ new LP.

The cover art, with its photomontage of famous people, was unlike anything we had ever seen. “A Day In The Life,” with its rising orchestral glissandos, was unlike anything we had ever heard. And I loved that the lyrics were printed on the back cover. As the music played, I sang along.

In late September, Time magazine arrived in the mail, and the Beatles were on the cover. The story inside hailed them as “messengers beyond rock ‘n’ roll.” I didn’t understand the references to Schubert and Cole Porter, but I soaked up every word.

By then, I wanted a Beatles “mop top,” but my parents insisted on a “regular boys’ haircut.” Waiting at Lanni’s barbershop one day, I was shocked by a front-page headline: “Paul McCartney fighting lip cancer!” I reported the grim news at home. My father, a resolute introvert, howled before enlightening me about the journalism standards at the National Enquirer. Rumors of Paul’s death two years later would find me less gullible.

The Beatles charted 27 number-one songs before breaking up in 1970. People are still listening today. After going live on Spotify last December 24, Beatles tunes were streamed more than 70 million times in just three days.

Years ago, I smiled the first time I heard my daughter singing along to John Lennon’s “In My Life” in her bedroom. Juliana was a fan too.

This past Christmas, I handed her a flat, square present topped with a big red bow.

“No way!” Julie said, after stripping away the wrapping paper.

She beamed at the framed album cover – the original Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that my father had given to Rob and me back in 1967.

“And there’s a bonus,” I said. “The record’s inside.”

“My friend has a turntable,” she said. “We can play it!”

Drop the needle, Julie. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

“Brooklyn” and the art of making meatballs

imgres

As published in the Providence Journal, January 17, 2016.

There is so much to love about the film “Brooklyn” — from its compelling narrative and superb cast to the gorgeous cinematography. Rhode Islanders in particular will have a keen appreciation for the romance at the heart of this poignant, coming-of-age story: a charming Italian boy, Tony, woos a lovely Irish girl, Eilis, after she arrives alone in New York in the early 1950s.

If you’re from Rhode Island, you’ve likely seen your share of Italian-Irish pairings. You may even have been born of such a union, as I was, though my parents’ ethnicities are reversed from those of Tony and Eilis.

I was two weeks into my freshman year in college when a classmate noted my Irish surname.

“Actually, I’m half-Irish, half-Italian,” I said. “My mom’s maiden name is Pantalone.”

“That’s an odd combination,” the girl replied. Clearly, she wasn’t from Providence.

Had she grown up in the city’s Elmhurst neighborhood, like me, she would have seen Italian and Irish families rubbing shoulders, house by house – Riccios and Ryans, Fiores and Whelans, Gugliettas and Lennons. Is it any surprise that Cupid’s arrow occasionally flew over the fence?

In “Brooklyn,” Tony asks Eilis if she likes Italian food.

“Don’t know, I’ve never eaten it,” she says.

“It’s the best food in the world,” he says, and invites her to have dinner with his family.

That’s when we know things are getting serious between them.

I grew up thinking Italian food was the best too. And just about everyone around me, regardless of their ethnic background, seemed to love Italian meatball grinders.

Uncle Frank made a good one at his sandwich shop on Smith Street near La Salle Academy.

Mrs. Breen, my friend Jimmy’s mom, made a good one too. She was delighted when I complimented her.

“After all,” she said, smiling. “You have an Italian mother.”

My mom’s meatballs were delicious, though occasionally she’d put raisins in them, which I picked out with a fork.

Not that my palate was refined – far from it. I loved the meatballs that my Nana Walsh served, and they came out of a can. My mother was appalled when I asked if we could get some Chef Boyardee for home.

In “Prizzi’s Honor,” Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson) advises former flame Maerose Prizzi (Anjelica Huston) to “settle down, get married … practice your meatballs.”

It’s a funny line – and wise. Making good meatballs is an art to be practiced for a lifetime.

My mom didn’t write down recipes, and her measurements tended to be vague – “some,” “a bit,” “enough.” But I did glean a few of her meatball musts – a mix of ground beef, veal, and pork; Italian bread soaked in milk; an egg. From there, I was on my own.

My first attempts were woeful – rock-hard meatballs, soggy meatballs, tasteless meatballs, push-to-the-edge-of-your-plate meatballs. They were so bad, my Scottish-Welsh-Irish-German-American wife wouldn’t eat them. I gave up. I went meatball-AWOL for 15 years.

But as our family grew and my Sunday supper traditions deepened, it was time for another try. I discovered Giada De Laurentiis’ recipe for turkey meatballs. My inaugural batch was edible, even tasty. I started practicing. And a few months later, I was ready for the ultimate test.

“A recipe from a celebrity chef?” my mother said, looking suspiciously at the container of meatballs and gravy I was leaving with her. “She’s probably never seen a kitchen.”

“Just try them,” I said.

“I don’t like turkey.”

“Just try them and let me know.”

My mom was not one to candy-coat her opinions – about politics, about fashion, about anything. She’d let me know what she thought about my meatballs all right.

The following morning, my phone rang.

“I had your meatballs,” my mom said. Her voice was hushed. Oh no, I thought. Had they made her sick?

“They were fabulous.”

At last – this half-Irish, half-Italian kid had found his meatball mojo.

Always voyaging, never arriving: How La Salle helped me become a writer

Pages from lsa alumni magazine 2015 Final-rw1_HR

As published in the La Salle Alumni Magazine, Winter 2015.

Brother Eugene raised his arm like a basketball referee calling a foul. He was clutching a stack of papers – our first book reports in freshman English. And then Eugene let our stapled, loose-leaf musings drop to the floor – SLAP! – and all pre-class chatter ceased.

“Garbage!” he shouted.

It was not an auspicious start for an aspiring writer like me. But it was instructive. Turns out many of us had misspelled “separate” in our analysis of the John Knowles classic, A Separate Peace. From that day forward, I paged through my American Heritage Dictionary more often.

Brother Eugene’s class was just one of many experiences at La Salle that helped set me on the path to becoming a copywriter and Op-Ed columnist. Three months after graduating from college with an English degree, I landed my first ad agency job and have been writing for a living ever since.

At La Salle, I glimpsed the importance of editing from my AP U.S. history teacher, John Carpenter. He dissected my essay on Reconstruction as if it were a frog in biology class. With a red pen as his scalpel, Mr. Carpenter cut my first three paragraphs. “Here’s where you should start,” he said, pointing to the bottom of the page. “Everything above is fluff.”

I tested my hand at journalism through the Maroon & White, our school newspaper. My first assignment? A report on improvements made to the school building over the summer of 1976. I think I wrote about fresh paint, refurbished desks, and fluorescent lighting. I told myself Woodward and Bernstein had similar beginnings.

Classmate and friend Jim Phelan demonstrated the power of message repetition, a technique I have employed for clients many times. A huge fan of the band Black Sabbath, Jim graffitied the school with the lead singer’s name – OZZY in lavatory stalls, OZZY on cafeteria trays, OZZY beneath the bleachers, OZZY inside my locker, somehow. I’m surprised I didn’t find OZZY scrawled on my diploma at graduation.

English teacher A.J. Ramsey was especially supportive, overseeing my independent study in creative writing junior year. Mr. Ramsey introduced me to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Virginia Woolf. He read my essays, short stories, and poems with patience and gentle criticism. And he revealed to me the fundamental truth about getting good at this craft: write every day.

In May of my senior year, I was among ten or so students who wrote and read speeches to be considered for our class’s valedictory address. Three weeks later, I delivered my speech during our graduation ceremony at Veterans Memorial Auditorium. It was my biggest writing milestone to date.

Earlier that day, I had received a gift from Mr. Ramsey: a leather-bound edition of Mrs. Dalloway. The first page was inscribed:

John: To teach and to have you learn – to share and to have you accept beauty – it has been a pleasure, and a life. We (you, and I, and the rest of us) are the university, once described “like a sailing ship always voyaging, never arriving.” Bon voyage, dear shipmate! – Ramsey

 

%d bloggers like this: