federal hill

Following in Papa’s footsteps

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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!

Fake tree brought pure Christmas joy

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As published in the Providence Journal, December 20, 2015.

My brothers and I were home alone, watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on our black-and-white TV when the doorbell rang. It was Mrs. Ricci, bundled against the cold, here to drop off a fake Christmas tree from the store where she worked.

We lugged the large cardboard box through the doorway.

“Your mother’s going to love it!” Mrs. Ricci said before disappearing back into the night.

I wasn’t so sure. My grandfather had suggested we get an artificial tree from Mrs. Ricci the previous Christmas. She lived downstairs from him in his double-decker, three blocks from our house in Providence. But my mom had declined. Instead, we had gone to the farmers’ market on Valley Street and picked out a lopsided balsam fir, as we had always done — except now my older brother, Rob, not my father, tied the tree to the top of our blue Ford Maverick.

At 14, Rob did a lot of things that our dad used to do when he lived with us.

I sensed my mom, along with Charlie Brown, didn’t like fake Christmas trees. I also sensed she didn’t like being told what to do — least of all by her father. But she had apparently relented because now there was this artificial tree in our living room.

“Let’s put it up!” Rob said.

“Without Mom?” I said.

“We’ll surprise her.”

My stomach tightened. I was wary of surprises, especially ones that involved my mother. Hers was a house of rules, many of them posted on the refrigerator at eye level. And I was adept in my compliance. I made sure to get home in time for supper, loaded the dishwasher, and looked after my younger brother, James, then age 6 — all to avoid incurring Mom’s wrath.

Rob had no such anxieties.

“We’ve got an hour and a half before she gets back,” he said, pulling the fake tree out of the box.

Our mom was at her class at Johnson & Wales, where she was pursuing an associate’s degree in fashion merchandising. We didn’t know it then, but she had visions of opening a women’s clothing boutique someday.

She hadn’t gone to college after graduating from Mount Pleasant High School. At that time, her father said she had to go to work at his childrenswear store on Federal Hill — she would replace her oldest sister, who was starting a family. My mom sold christening sets and communion dresses until she turned 23 and got married. And now, after the divorce, she had gone back to the store, working six days a week.

James and I ran to the chilly basement to excavate the Christmas decorations from some cabinets near the washer and dryer. Upstairs, Rob positioned the tree in the corner by the hi-fi.

We draped the synthetic branches with colored lights and hung all the familiar ornaments. Our favorites were the ones that we had made: a Table Talk pie tin graced by a glued-in illustration of the Nativity; a Popsicle-stick reindeer with a red-gumdrop nose; a construction-paper chain lovingly looped by one of us at Robert F. Kennedy School.

James set up the manger scene, careful not to inflict further injury on the plaster donkey whose broken leg was held together by a Scotch-tape cast. Rob and I put the electric candles in the windows, igniting their orange bulbs with a twist.

We turned off the overhead light. The living room, with a faint scent of plastic, glowed. The artificial tree suddenly felt a lot less fake.

We were back in the den, watching TV when the front door creaked open.

“How nice to see the lights in the windows!” my mother called out.

We ran to the living room.

“Oh, my,” she said, gazing at the tree. “It’s absolutely beautiful!” She looked around the room, her face beaming. “You boys did all this for me?”

“Yes!”

Our mom stood motionless and silent for a moment, and then wiped one of her eyes. We hadn’t seen her so happy in a long time.

Christmas had come early.

Sunday best, especially for Easter

vincents002_rw2The author’s grandfather, mother (front), and aunts in the backyard of their house in Providence in the late 1930s. As published in the Providence Journal, April 16, 2017. 

Pilgrims came for 73 years, thanks in large part to the retail Holy Trinity of Christmas, Easter, and Back to School. Those were the biggest selling seasons at the children’s clothing store on Federal Hill that bore my grandfather’s name: Vincent’s.

During the run-up to Easter, the store’s showcase windows displayed finely knit shawls, classic blue blazers, and delicate cotton baby bonnets, while racks inside catered to another beloved rite of spring: first holy Communions. Young girls in silky white dresses twirled in front of full-length mirrors, eliciting oohs and aahs from adoring mothers, grandmothers, and aunts.

As an entrepreneur, Papa’s eureka moment came in the mid-1920s when he recognized that most of the Hill’s Italian immigrant families, his included, always dressed up their children for church regardless of how tight money was. He also saw that parents and godparents would spare no expense in purchasing elegant christening sets to baptize their babies at one of the three Catholic churches that dotted a half-mile stretch of Atwells Avenue – Holy Ghost, St. John’s, and Mount Carmel. If he could provide such merchandise, along with a healthy dose of service and charm, my grandfather believed he was destined for success in good times and bad.

He was right. Two years after Vincent’s opened, the stock market crashed, unleashing the Great Depression. Meanwhile, though unemployment soared, holy water kept flowing at baptismal fonts, second-graders still made their first Communion, and families continued to go to Mass. Papa’s store thrived, especially around the holidays.

The tradition of donning new clothes on Easter has roots in pagan celebrations of the vernal equinox. Dressing up for church every Sunday, however, didn’t become customary until the Industrial Revolution. That’s when advances in textile manufacturing made finer wardrobe options available to the emerging middle class.

Despite the fashion dispensation inferred by the Old Testament words of 1 Samuel 16:7 – “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” – wearing one’s “Sunday best” became increasingly de rigueur for the faithful. God may not raise an eyebrow at a rumpled coat or scruffy pants, but what about fellow parishioners?

Not surprisingly, clothes were a form of religion in my family. Papa had the sleeves of his crisp white dress shirts hemmed a half-inch at the elbow so his cuffs peeked out perfectly from his suit jackets. And while the colors and patterns of his ties grew increasingly flamboyant as he got older, he had the self-confidence to make such bold sartorial statements with ease.

My mother’s sense of style was equally assured; no one could carry off a fancy Easter hat like she did. Later in life, her recollection of certain outfits, prompted by old photographs, was encyclopedic. In addition to reminiscing about the people and events in the photos, she would note a polka-dot raincoat that had been special-ordered for a niece or a satin christening set that had been passed down for generations.

My grandfather’s silver bullet for retail success would miss the mark today. Church attendance has fallen, and those who do slip into the pews often wear casual attire – jeans, sneakers, even Patriots and Red Sox jerseys. I confess that on occasion during the summer, I’ve recited the Nicene Creed in shorts and a pair of sandals. Papa would be aghast.

Still, on most Sundays, I reach into my closet and reflexively pull out a button-down shirt, creased black or gray pants, and polished shoes. On Easter, I’ll add a sport coat or opt for a tailored suit and stand in front of my bedroom mirror threading a half-Windsor knot two or three times until it’s perfect.

Invariably, the tie will be exuberant – a pink one with stripes or maybe a wide floral number with an explosion of color.

Of these particular choices, Papa would certainly approve.

Happy Easter!

 

Mom was real-life Mary Richards

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, February 19, 2017.

Leave it to Mary Tyler Moore to provide a welcome respite from the political wrangling that dominates Facebook these days. Amid reports of the actress’s passing on January 25, my news feed filled with clips of the opening title sequence of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the Emmy-winning sitcom in which Moore played the lead character, Mary Richards.

Comments in the posts were unusual in their unanimity. It seems just about everyone finds the “Love Is All Around” theme and Mary’s iconic hat toss irresistible.

The show was can’t-miss TV for my brothers and me growing up. Our mother was a fan, too, though I think she preferred the sharper social commentary of All In The Family, another 1970s sitcom classic.

“Your mother didn’t need to watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” my wife, Deb, said as we mourned Moore by watching episodes from the first season on Hulu. “She was living it.”

Deb was right. In 1970, the year the show debuted, Mom and Mary Richards shared the same hairdo, had the same fashion sense, and even walked the same way – briskly, with purpose. More important, they were both single working women in their 30s – something that could arch eyebrows then.

But there was one difference: Mom, recently separated and soon to be divorced from my father, was raising my two brothers and me.

James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, the creators of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, originally conceived of Mary Richards as a divorcee. While Moore and her husband and co-producer, Grant Tinker, loved the idea, the executives at CBS were not so enamored.

According to Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, the network believed American audiences wouldn’t tolerate a divorced lead in a series. CBS’s head of programming, Armstrong writes, “worried that Moore’s loyal fans would react badly to her being a divorcee, a status he thought implied a woman of lesser morals.” Only after Brooks and Burns rewrote Mary Richards’ backstory – she would be rebounding from a breakup with a fiancé, not a husband – did CBS green-light the show.

While the stigma of divorce was diminishing in the early 1970s, it was still prevalent enough to make me self-conscious about my family’s recent realignment. I didn’t want anyone to know about what had happened and felt an unspoken kinship with my one friend whose home was also “broken” – a common term at the time for families that had gone through a divorce.

My mother railed against the characterization of her family as “broken.” She told my brothers and me not to be fooled by appearances. “You see all the houses in this neighborhood?” she asked rhetorically one night at our kitchen table in Providence, pointing her fork at the street. “There’s a story behind every door, and it isn’t always Ozzie and Harriet.”

I busied myself with the food on my plate. There was an edge to Mom’s tone that betrayed an indignation I had never heard before. It made me feel uneasy and, at the same time, emboldened. My brothers and I would eventually embrace her rejection of the “broken home” narrative and voice it ourselves.

In the meantime, we watched Mom prosper. She earned a degree in retail merchandising at Johnson & Wales; opened her own teen and junior fashion boutique on Atwells Avenue; became a partner in two other successful entrepreneurial ventures; and served as an officer in the Federal Hill Businessmen’s Association.

After the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, tweaks were made to the lyrics of the opening theme song to reflect Mary Richards’ success at navigating life as an independent woman. “How will you make it on your own?” became “Who can turn the world on with her smile?” And “You might just make it after all” was replaced by the more affirmative “You’re gonna make it after all.”

With Mom, there was never any doubt.

 

Tale of two Federal Hill stores

mom+rob@norma&sons_late70s_

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, April 17, 2016.

The click of Mom’s blinker came one exit early. Instead of taking the usual way home to our Elmhurst neighborhood in Providence, she steered her blue Ford Maverick off Route 10.

My younger brother, in the back seat, noted the detour. “Where are we going?” he asked.

“I want to drive down the avenue,” my mother said. It was Sunday evening, with almost no light left in the sky. The three of us were returning from the beach.

By “the avenue,” she meant Atwells Avenue, a street so central to our lives in the mid-1970s that we referred to it with verbal shorthand. Likewise, “the Hill” meant Federal Hill, and “the store” was Vincent’s, my grandfather’s baby clothes and children’s wear store, which stood at the corner of Atwells and Acorn.

Papa’s store had thrived for nearly half a century. Even when boarded-up buildings began appearing on Federal Hill in the 1960s, and despite the opening of two malls in Warwick, Vincent’s remained Rhode Islanders’ go-to place for communion suits and dresses, as well as christening sets.

My mother worked in the store six days a week. My younger brother and I served as stock boys on Friday nights and all day Saturday. My older brother, since enrolled in college, had done the same before us — as had perhaps a dozen cousins before him.

Mom first worked full-time at Vincent’s upon graduating from Mount Pleasant High School. She replaced her oldest sister, Grace, who was starting a family. My mother stopped working when she got married, only to return to the store in 1969 after she and my father separated. Vincent’s provided the financial security that made it possible for her to leave her marriage — a rarity for women at the time.

Still, it was duty, then necessity — never choice — that had placed her behind the glass-fronted oak showcases ringing the store. It was clear she didn’t enjoy waiting on customers the way my aunts and godmother did. And Mom and Papa didn’t always see eye to eye.

But waiting on people, the old-fashioned way, was a must at Vincent’s. Much of the merchandise was inaccessible to customers — behind glass, in back of counters, or folded away in drawers. To get a bonnet or sundress for your child to try on, you needed a salesperson.

Once, when my grandfather was having supper at our house, my mother broached the issue.

“People buy differently now,” she said. “Young moms want to wait on themselves.”

“Those showcases have worked for 50 years,” my grandfather said.

“I’m thinking self-serve racks could do some of the merchandising for us,” my mother said, putting her fork down and looking at him across the table.

“Customers come to our store to be waited on,” he replied, not looking up. “Why change?”

But change was afoot on the Hill. Soon, thanks to federal and local revitalization projects, the sidewalks were widened and paved with handsome square bricks. A stately fountain graced DePasquale Square. And a sculpture of a “pigna” or pine cone, a traditional Italian symbol of welcome, hung from the massive arch that served as the neighborhood’s eastern gateway.

Life changed for my mother too. She and nine fellow merchants — mostly men — formed a company to purchase a building on the avenue. They had a vision: as Federal Hill gentrified, they would invest in properties and renovate them.

My mother’s Maverick crept along Atwells Avenue until she pulled up to a four-story building with a “sold” sign on it.

“This is where I’m going to have my store,” she said, pointing at the first-floor retail space.

My brother and I were speechless. The thought of my mother leaving Vincent’s was outlandish to me — and exhilarating.

Three months later, Mom opened a teen and junior fashion boutique. As women browsed the sparkling chrome racks, a large blue sign proclaimed the store’s name: Norma & Sons. The crisp white letters stood out like stars on an American flag.

It was my mother’s declaration of independence.

Her store would change our lives — but that is a story for another day.

Fake tree brought pure Christmas joy

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As published in the Providence Journal, December 20, 2015.

My brothers and I were home alone, watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on our black-and-white TV, when the doorbell rang. It was Mrs. Ricci, bundled against the cold, here to drop off a fake Christmas tree from the store where she worked.

We lugged the large cardboard box through the doorway.

“Your mother’s going to love it!” Mrs. Ricci said before disappearing back into the night.

I wasn’t so sure. My grandfather had suggested we get an artificial tree from Mrs. Ricci the previous Christmas. She lived downstairs from him in his double-decker, three blocks from our house in Providence. But my mom had declined. Instead, we had gone to the farmers’ market on Valley Street and picked out a lopsided balsam fir, as we had always done — except now my older brother, Rob, not my father, tied the tree to the top of our blue Ford Maverick.

At 14, Rob did a lot of things that our dad used to do when he lived with us.

I sensed my mom, along with Charlie Brown, didn’t like fake Christmas trees. I also sensed she didn’t like being told what to do — least of all by her father. But she had apparently relented, because now there was this artificial tree in our living room.

“Let’s put it up!” Rob said.

“Without Mom?” I said.

“We’ll surprise her.”

My stomach tightened. I was wary of surprises, especially ones that involved my mother. Hers was a house of rules, many of them posted on the refrigerator at eye level. And I was adept in my compliance. I made sure to get home in time for supper, loaded the dishwasher, and looked after my younger brother, James, then age 6 — all to avoid incurring Mom’s wrath.

Rob had no such anxieties.

“We’ve got an hour and a half before she gets back,” he said, pulling the fake tree out of the box.

Our mom was at her class at Johnson & Wales, where she was pursuing an associate’s degree in fashion merchandising. We didn’t know it then, but she had visions of opening a women’s clothing boutique someday.

She hadn’t gone to college after graduating from Mount Pleasant High School. At that time, her father said she had to go to work at his children’s-wear store on Federal Hill — she would replace her oldest sister, who was starting a family. My mom sold christening sets and communion dresses until she turned 23 and got married. And now, after the divorce, she had gone back to the store, working six days a week.

James and I ran to the chilly basement to excavate the Christmas decorations from some cabinets near the washer and dryer. Upstairs, Rob positioned the tree in the corner by the hi-fi.

We draped the synthetic branches with colored lights and hung all the familiar ornaments. Our favorites were the ones that we had made: a Table Talk pie tin graced by a glued-in illustration of the Nativity; a Popsicle-stick reindeer with a red-gumdrop nose; a construction-paper chain lovingly looped by one of us at Robert F. Kennedy School.

James set up the manger scene, careful not to inflict further injury on the plaster donkey whose broken leg was held together by a Scotch-tape cast. Rob and I put the electric candles in the windows, igniting their orange bulbs with a twist.

We turned off the overhead light. The living room, with a faint scent of plastic, glowed. The artificial tree suddenly felt a lot less fake.

We were back in the den, watching TV, when the front door creaked open.

“How nice to see the lights in the windows!” my mother called out.

We ran to the living room.

“Oh, my,” she said, gazing at the tree. “It’s absolutely beautiful!” She looked around the room, her face beaming. “You boys did all this for me?”

“Yes!”

Our mom stood motionless and silent for a moment, and then wiped one of her eyes. We hadn’t seen her so happy in a long time.

Christmas had come early.

End of the road for Mom’s car

Breeze

I walked to the 1999 Plymouth Breeze, which was parked in the lot across from my house in East Greenwich. The silver car – champagne, according to my mother – had a fresh dent in one of its rear doors and miles of memories in its odometer. I turned the key. The rapid click-click-click reported a dead battery.

“Gonna need a jump start, Mom,” I said. It was a recent practice of mine: talking to my departed mother when I was in her car. A year and a half had passed since she died, and the car, with my mom’s Frank Sinatra CDs still in the console, was a comforting presence.

Sitting there in the beached Breeze, I recalled the day my mother had lost her driver’s license – an inevitability she anticipated with dread. She was thoroughly independent and had lived alone, happily, for decades. Having to relinquish her license was the latest, and most painful, blow thrown at her by macular degeneration.

She didn’t concede without a fight, which was no surprise to anyone who knew her.

“I’m taking the vision test,” she declared as I drove her to the Division of Motor Vehicles in Wakefield. The morning brightness glinted off her sunglasses. It was a little less than a week before her 76th birthday, when her license was set to expire. Barring a miracle, these would be her last days as a legal driver.

“My odds are 1 in 26, right?” she said, referring to her chances at correctly guessing any given letter in the vision test. “Beats the lottery.”

My mother had a feisty sense of humor, which helped her contend with the setbacks of aging. Her love of mischief was even more pronounced and gave her an irrepressible youthfulness.

When her number was called at the DMV, she strode to the counter with an assurance that belied her near blindness. She was resplendent, as always, a paisley scarf setting off her sleek, camel hair car coat with swirling reds and browns.

After a couple of formalities, the moment of truth arrived.

“Please read the letters on the third line down,” the clerk said.

“N … C … W …” my mother said, peering into the viewfinder. I choked back a laugh – those were her initials.

“Try the line above, please.”

“U … S … A? …”

“How about the first letter in the top line?” the clerk asked.

My mother looked up.

“Honey,” she said, “my eyes are so bad, I can barely see you.”

On the way home, we laughed about the exchange with the clerk, but the ride was bittersweet.

Stripped of her license, my mother bequeathed me the Breeze and moved on, without so much as a glance in the rear-view mirror. I always marveled at how well she navigated milestone events – a divorce, the sale of houses, the closings of two retail stores on Federal Hill. “You have to move on,” she said.

The car was a godsend for my family. Our three teenage kids drove it almost every day for the next five years. Like my mother, the Breeze was unfailingly dependable.

But that was all changed now.

I got out of the marooned vehicle and sized up its scars: creases in the fenders, a missing hubcap, red rust creeping up the edges of the doors. My mother – so attentive to her appearance, so proud of her sense of style – would have been aghast.

I decided, quixotically, to try starting the car one more time. But climbing back in, I clipped my head on the doorframe. The whack felt familiar – like the “scoopalones” my mother used to give my brothers and me when we were doing something foolish as kids. A brisk slap to the back of my head was usually accompanied by a pointed rhetorical question, often this one: “What are you, numb?”

“I hear you, Mom,” I said with a laugh, rubbing my head.

Forget the jumper cables. It was time to let go of my mother’s beloved Breeze.

It was time, in her words, to move on.

My thrill of victory and agony of defeat

BBall_photo

As published in the Providence Journal, January 18, 2015.

In January 1973, a month shy of my 13th birthday, I won the Providence Recreation Department’s free throw shooting contest. At Zuccolo Rec Center on Federal Hill, I made 13 of my 15 attempts.

I was thrilled — and astonished.

From youth basketball through high school, I was a pass-first, shoot-second point guard. When I did get to the foul line, my accuracy hovered at 50 percent. The 87 percent I shot at Zuccolo to win the contest was an aberration.

Had a high-tech gizmo called 94Fifty Smart Basketball been around back then, my free throw shooting might have been less like Wilt Chamberlain’s notoriously ugly attempts.

Introduced in 2013, the 94Fifty promises skill improvement via digital diagnostics. As you practice dribbling and shooting, sensors inside the ball send data to your smartphone, where an app translates the information into immediate feedback: “Bend those legs.” “Point your elbow.” “Flick your wrist.”

(For teenage players, I would add, “Get a summer job.” The 94Fifty retails for $179.)

The makers of the 94Fifty say it’s “like having the best coaches in the world with you every day of the year.” That may be true, but the smart basketball is a far cry, literally, from the coaches who barked from the sidelines when I played. For that, you’d need Old School 94Fifty, which I imagine might sound like this:

After I dribble the ball off my foot: “Ringling Brothers is coming to town — why don’t you join?”

After I travel — run without dribbling — on a layup attempt: “Take a bus next time!”

After I throw an errant behind-the-back pass on a two-on-one fast break: “Quit hotdogging, mustard king!”

After I go 3-for-10 from the foul line during practice: “Are you a mason, son? You’re throwing bricks up there!”

Political correctness wasn’t a priority for my old-school coaches; winning was. That’s why I loved playing for them — I wanted to win too.

My coaches would have welcomed the 94Fifty’s smart technology for the improved shooting and dribbling technique that it promotes. But they didn’t always equate smarts, or even thinking, with success on the court. They knew better.

Basketball rewards quickness and improvisation. Split-second actions and reactions, rooted in practice scrimmages and pickup games, deliver advantage. Deliberation usually spells doom.

I recall one coach’s plea during a frantic timeout in a close game: “Don’t start thinking on me now!” We got his point: trust your instincts and just go play. There’s a reason the word “unconscious” describes a shooter who can’t miss.

In “The City Game,” Pete Axthelm characterizes basketball as jazz to baseball’s chamber music and football’s symphony: “Basketball flows past like a river, like a song.”

Until a foul is committed — then the river freezes, the song stops.

During free throws, basketball shares baseball’s focus on the individual. Success or failure is a solitary act, and a player’s thoughts can become the greatest foe. A hush comes over the gym as I bounce, bounce, bounce the ball and look to the rim …

Of all the coaching chestnuts I heard growing up, one is imprinted in my memory like the Voit logo on a ball: “Free throws win games.” To which I make the following amendment: “Or not.”

I know firsthand.

As a senior at La Salle Academy, I was awarded two free throws with 10 seconds or so remaining in an epic overtime game against archrival Bishop Hendricken. The score was tied as I stepped to the line and tried to quiet my mind. La Salle’s tiny old gym was electric.

My first shot felt awful, yet the ball dropped through the net. The basketball gods were with me — but only for that moment. My second attempt clanged off the rim and bounced out of bounds.

With our team up by one, the game came down to a frenzied scramble at the other end of the court. The ball sailed into the hands of Hendricken’s point guard — a pass-first player like me. But there was no time to pass — or think, for that matter.

His shot from the top of the key was all reaction and — as the scoreboard horn blared and red lights flashed — all net. The Hendricken fans exploded. What a buzzer beater!

If only I had hit my second free throw — we would have played another overtime, at least.

I can hear the 94Fifty Smart Basketball correcting my form on the missed foul shot: “Increase the arc.”

Old School 94Fifty would have been less clinical, more empathetic: “Tough time to throw up a brick, kid.”

 

Childhood Christmas still exists, if only in my dreams

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As published in the Providence Journal, December 21, 2014.

“I’ll Be Home For Christmas (If Only In My Dreams)” was a Top Ten hit for Bing Crosby after its release in the midst of World War II. Written by lyricist Kim Gannon and composer Walter Kent, the song resonated with soldiers and their families, though Gannon reportedly once said he was thinking of anyone who is separated from loved ones at Christmas.

That was me back in 1980. I had spent the fall at school in Ireland and, thanks to my grandfather’s generosity, traveled to the continent after finishing the semester. On Christmas night, I stood in a Florence phone booth waiting for an operator to connect me to my mother’s apartment on Federal Hill.

I heard my mom’s faraway voice — “John?” — and then the hurrahs of my family and relatives. Closing my eyes, I could see the dining room and the Christmas lights and everyone gathered around the table. The mix of happiness and sadness I felt made my heart clench.

I couldn’t wait to speak to my younger brother, James. When he got on the phone — “Hey Johnny, what’s happening?” — it wasn’t the same voice I had left behind. Puberty had intervened and my little brother — born five years after I was — suddenly didn’t sound so little any more.

The last time I had seen him, in early September, he was speechless. We were standing with my mother by the railroad tracks at Union Station in downtown Providence. After two years at Brown, I was heading to the School of Irish Studies in Dublin, leaving my hometown — and family — for the first time. As the train approached, I kissed my mother goodbye and turned to James. His eyes were flooded with tears, and when I hugged him, his arms hung limp at his sides.

I, too, ached at the parting; James and I were tight.

When our parents had separated, my father left me a letter that said, in part, “Continue to be good to James. He’s the nicest little boy in the world and relies on you very much.” At the time, James was 3-1/2 years old. My mother, who would go back to work at my grandfather’s baby clothes store, was more succinct: “Look after your brother,” she said, staring me in the eyes.

So I did, and it seemed as if James and I were always together. We shared a bedroom; his space was mine and mine was his.

When we played basketball in the basement — shooting mini-balls at a bucket on a barstool — James was Walt Frazier to my Willis Reed. When we huddled up for football in the back yard — drawing plays in the dirt — James was Fran Tarkenton to my Ron Johnson.

And when my younger brother once asked why our father’s Saturday visits ended before our mother got home from work, I did my best to explain.

The last of 13 cousins, James always made a grand entrance at our extended family’s boisterous Christmas Eve gatherings. Amid the smoke and cocktails and holiday din, someone would yell out, “Hey, Santa’s here!” and down the stairs my brother would come, pillows bulging under his red robe, fake white beard masking his smiling face. Everyone cheered as our diminutive Santa handed out gifts — wine for the aunts, scotch for the uncles, pajamas for the girls, colored underwear for the boys.

As he grew up, James acquired a worldliness that came with being the “baby.” A cousin let him drive her car before he was a teen. And once, while visiting me at Brown, he disappeared into the night and discovered zombies at a fraternity bar.

My return from Europe confirmed what the sound of James’s voice had announced over the phone: he was taller, stronger, a boy no more. Two years later, after graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Coast Guard. I admired his guts; boot camp made my English degree seem like a trifle. On December 19, 1983, James boarded a bus for the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, N.J.

At Christmas dinner six days later, my grandfather rose at the head of the table, held up his glass, and said, “Here’s to our youngest family member, away serving our country.”

Glasses clinked, and my mother and aunt dabbed their eyes.

The Coast Guard launched my brother on a maritime career far from the life we navigated growing up.

That “home” of our childhood, both beloved and bittersweet, still exists — but only in our dreams.

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