Providence Journal

Letter to editor, message to son

DW_letter_2_croppedAs published in the Providence Sunday Journal, August 20, 2017.

The day Dad moved out of our family’s red bungalow in Providence, my mother handed me a letter written in his familiar hand.

The first line made my 9-year-old eyes well up: “Ever since you were a baby, I have marveled at how happy I was to be with you.” The second paragraph provided details I would someday understand: “The court has said I can’t be with you all the time. I don’t think Mommy was happy about this, but I didn’t help her make any other choice.” And toward the end, Dad made a request that would shape the rest of my childhood: “Continue to be good to little James. He’s the nicest little boy in the world. It’s very important to me that you be a good big brother to your little brother.”

My father had left a letter for my 12-year-old brother, Rob, too. But I doubted there was one for James — he was only 3.

My younger brother and I shared a room, and at night I would climb into his bed if the wind howled or we heard strange noises outside. At age 4 or 5, he asked me why Dad didn’t live with us, and I did my best to explain.

The question underscored how different James’ experience of the divorce was from Rob’s and mine. For us, there was a before and after; for him, there was only Dad’s absence, which became more pronounced once my father’s unpredictable Saturday visitations stopped altogether.

Rob and I managed to maintain relationships with our father as we grew older, but James, by his teenage years, had virtually no contact with him. When my younger brother enlisted in the Coast Guard right out of high school, my father, a former Marine, learned about it from me. Several months later, I gave Dad James’ boot camp graduation photo, which he framed and set by his TV. My brother’s crisp uniform and stern look made it clear he was “little James” no more.

James was assigned to the Point Charles, an 82-foot cutter stationed at Cape Canaveral, in Florida. On calls home, his stories about perilous rescues and high-speed chases made my mother proud and uneasy. She was less concerned about his boat’s security patrols just off the Florida coast prior to NASA’s space shuttle launches.

James took part in 11 shuttle liftoffs and, in January 1986, was deployed for his 12th when the Point Charles blew an engine en route to its position several miles offshore. The captain was ordered to limp on to Jacksonville, and the Point Charles was replaced by the Point Roberts for the impending launch of Challenger.

James would later say he was thankful not to have been an eyewitness to the space shuttle disintegrating in the sky.

Wreckage from the Challenger was retrieved from the Atlantic Ocean by a flotilla of Coast Guard and Navy vessels. With the Point Charles disabled, James and his fellow crew members had the solemn task of collecting debris that washed ashore.

On Feb. 5, eight days after the tragedy, The Providence Journal published reactions from its readers, one of which came from my father:

“With the media coverage attendant to the Challenger disaster, a thankless task may have gone overlooked by many Americans; namely, the sea-air rescue men and women, particularly the Coast Guard, working at the impact area off Cape Canaveral. Theirs is a useful, necessary, dangerous, lonely and, at times, distasteful mission. They do our dirty work quite well, I might add.”

My mother clipped the section from the paper and, after highlighting my father’s letter, sent it off to James. On his next call home, my brother thanked her. “Dad got it right,” he said.

Seventeen years earlier, Rob and I had gotten our letters; now James had his. It was as close to reconnecting as he and my father would come.

To this day, James keeps Dad’s letter, creased and yellowing, tucked away in a lockbox.

March Madness recalls local legends

IMG_0096As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, March 19, 2017.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Division 1 Basketball Championship, better known as March Madness, kicked off last Tuesday, with 52 games scheduled through the weekend. Is your bracket busted yet?

“March Madness” entered the American sports lexicon in 1939, but in reference to the state high school basketball championship in Illinois, not the national collegiate tourney. The name only became associated with the NCAA in the 1980s, thanks to sportscaster Brent Musburger, who was familiar with it from his work in Chicago before joining CBS.

The 68-team tournament has given us other memorable terms, including Bracketology, which refers to the science of predicting the field and each round’s winners. In theory, every squad has a chance to run the table at the Big Dance, and I’m always rooting for a Cinderella or two to emerge.

According to the American Gaming Association, more than 40 million people filled out March Madness brackets this year. Beyond office-pool wagers, however, it’s easy to understand why college basketball’s annual extravaganza is so riveting.

While the NBA Finals have given us just 19 Game 7s in 70 years, the NCAA men’s tournament offers the drama of 67 such games – do or die for both teams – in three weeks. Having local quintets in the mix – the University of Rhode Island and Providence College both earned berths this year – makes the nationwide event even more compelling.

Brown University was the first Rhode Island school to receive an NCAA bid, in the tournament’s inaugural year. Brown was one of eight entrants, losing to Villanova 42-30 in the opening round.

The Bears returned to the tourney 47 years later, in 1986, and faced powerhouse Syracuse in its own Carrier Dome. Legend has it – or perhaps it was just my father’s whimsical musing as an alumnus – that Brown’s coach, Mike Cingiser, advised his players to grab the ball and run out of the Dome should they happen to score first. To their credit, the Ivy Leaguers were actually up by one midway through the first half before losing in a blowout.

URI has been to the tournament nine times, making a terrific run in 1998 that included knocking off top-seeded Kansas. The Rams came tantalizingly close to reaching the Final Four that year, but a late-game meltdown against Stanford resulted in a heartbreaking 79-77 loss in the quarterfinals.

Of all Rhode Island teams, Providence College has danced the most, with 19 tournament appearances and two thrilling advances to the Final Four. In 1987, a young Rick Pitino all but willed a group of overachievers, led by Billy Donovan, to the national semifinals, where they faced Syracuse – the same team that had obliterated Brown the previous year. The Friars’ three-point shooting, instrumental to their success all season long, finally betrayed them, and they lost to the Orange by 14. Meanwhile, Pitino and Donovan had been launched into basketball greatness.

Fourteen years earlier, in 1973, Providence made its first trip to the Final Four, squaring off against Memphis State in St. Louis. After Ernie DiGregorio whipped a did-you-see-that, 30-foot behind-the-back pass to Kevin Stacom for a lay-up on the game’s second play, PC seemed destined for the finals. Then Marvin Barnes, the team’s star center, twisted his right knee and March Madness turned into March Sadness for Friar fans. A 49-40 halftime lead evaporated as Memphis State exploited Barnes’s injury to win going away, 98-85.

Every March, I hear myself wistfully telling anyone who will listen – my kids, their friends, total strangers – that PC would have played undefeated UCLA for the national title in 1973 had Marvin not gone down. It’s as sure a marker of spring as chirping birds and blooming crocuses.

This year, the tournament’s famous nickname will become a misnomer by the last three games, with the semifinals and championship straddling the first weekend in April. Coincidentally, on the same day the NCAA men’s tourney wraps up in Phoenix, a different kind of madness will get underway in Boston.

Go Red Sox!

Believe it or not, superstitions endure

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In anticipation of Halloween, a re-post of my Op-Ed piece from the Providence Sunday Journal last October.

Pop genius Steve Wonder’s “Superstition” topped the Billboard Hot 100 on Jan. 27, 1973. That’s not surprising. The song’s funky groove and exuberant horns are irresistible. Wonder’s lyrics hook us too, tapping into our semiconscious fascination with the supernatural.

In the chorus, Wonder sings that “superstition ain’t the way,” and he’s surely right. Yet, superstitious practices endure — whether we believe in them or not.

Wonder’s song endures, as well. Forty years after reaching pop’s highest perch, it was featured in a series of TV ads for Bud Light. The spots celebrated the bizarre game-day superstitions of National Football League fans, concluding with the wonderful tag line, “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”

Merriam-Webster defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.”

Have you ever knocked on wood to ward off bad luck? One theory says this common practice is rooted in the pagan belief that good spirits live in trees. By rapping on wood, you summon the help of the good spirit within.

Do you avoid walking under ladders? If so, you are being influenced by an early Christian belief that the triangle formed by a leaning ladder represents the Holy Trinity. When you walk under the ladder, you break the Trinity and invite the devil in.

Many of us say “God bless you” when someone sneezes. That connects the person doing the blessing to several superstitions. One is that the heart stops beating during a sneeze and my request for divine intercession helps restore cardiac function. Another: sneezing is the body’s response to an invading malevolent spirit; my “God bless you” serves as a shield against the invisible demon.

In Rome during the plague of 590 AD, Pope Gregory I commanded people to say “God bless you” to anyone who sneezed, as sneezing was believed to be an early sign of infection. While the plague eventually abated, the custom of saying “God bless you” prevails to this day.

Athletes are notoriously superstitious. Detroit Tiger pitching ace Justin Verlander once ate Taco Bell religiously on nights before his starts. But after he had an off year in 2013, “Live mas” was no more.

I love to watch Rafael Nadal play tennis. His attack on the ball (and his opponents) is relentless. But Nadal may be more entertaining in between his virtuosic volleys. Among his legendary superstitions: in changeovers, he points the logos on his water bottles toward the side of the court he will be playing on; he never steps on court lines before or after points; and when he does cross a line, he always proceeds with his right foot first.

I was sitting in the bleachers at Fenway Park on the night of Sept. 2, 2001, when Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina was literally one strike away from a perfect game. I may have crossed my fingers, hoping to witness history — only 16 perfect games had been pitched to date. And then Carl Everett hit a bloop single. Someone must have violated baseball’s most sacrosanct superstition: never mention a no-hitter or perfect game while it is in progress.

Superstition twists the wishes that we extend to stage performers. We tell them to “break a leg” because, the story goes, saying “good luck” will bring them just the opposite.

Many cultures consider the number 13 to be bad luck. Some cite the betrayer Judas as the 13th guest at the Last Supper; others note the traditional 13 steps to a hangman’s gallows.

I can’t prove that pessimistic associations with the number 13 are justified, but I do have this: As a junior in high school, I wore number 13 on my away-game basketball jersey. Our team had a so-so year. I switched to number 30 the following season and we went 19 and 4. Sure, we had a better squad. But I wasn’t taking any chances.

In 1921, my maternal grandparents got married on superstition’s high holiday — Halloween. Their union spawned an extended Italian family, into whose lively and loving embrace I entered almost 40 years later. I was the 12th of Vincent and Etta’s 13 grandchildren.

I would tell you how happy and successful the 13th grandchild is, but I don’t want to jinx my younger brother.

My Op-Ed draws Syracuse grad’s wisdom

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After my Op-Ed, “Choosing college more art than science,” appeared in the Providence Journal on April 19, 2015, I received the following email from Bob Benchley, an alumnus of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. I’m grateful to Bob for allowing me to share his wisdom with you.

John:

It was nearly 50 years ago that I decided to go to Syracuse. I had grown up in a Boston suburb (Wellesley), was on the school paper, loved writing stories, and I wanted to be a journalist. Kids are so much smarter now about schools than I was back then, and the admissions engines run so much hotter and faster. I just had a guidance counselor, a few catalogs, modest grades and some attitudes that were mostly instilled by others. I flew out to Syracuse for a weekend with an older friend who had gone there after working with me on the high school paper. I stayed in his dorm, drank beer (18 was legal then in New York), went to a concert, had an interview and figured it might be cool to go there.

So Syracuse it was. Newhouse was just one building then, print was everything, and you did your assignments on manual typewriters, on which you also had to pass a speed and accuracy test to graduate. I was a magazine major, and the guy running the department was fairly fresh out of Newsweek. When he talked to us in class, it was always “when” you go to New York, not “if.” And I did, working there 15 years before heading back to Boston for another 10 years, then here to Miami in 2000.

In retrospect, I should have gone someplace farther away and very different from Boston. It would have exposed me to so much that was new culturally, geographically, yet I don’t know what my life would be without Syracuse. It’s sort of like what if you hadn’t had one of your kids, but a different one instead. You can’t imagine the tradeoff.

I wish your daughter well. Tell her that her degree will always stand her in good stead. They say that your college degree gets you your first job, and your first job gets you your second job. That’s true; at some point you’re a professional, not a former student. But if she picks and stays with a career in some form of communications, there will be dozens or hundreds of times that someone also in the biz will ask where you went. When you say “Newhouse,” there will be a quiet little nod of recognition, and you will be elevated a notch in the respect of the person you are speaking with.

You have “adv” in your email address, so I suppose the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. This stranger from far away sends best wishes to both of you. It is a joy to be able to turn information and ideas into consumable visual imagery (that doesn’t sound very sexy, but you know what I mean); to spend a life being paid for it is even better.

Bob Benchley

The oversized, wonderful life of my petite Auntie Marie

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As published in the Providence Journal on November 16, 2014.

The email from my cousin brought news I didn’t want. My aunt, Marie Paulson, had unplugged her oxygen and crawled into bed, declaring that, after nine years of ovarian cancer, she had had enough.

Petite and cheerful, with an easy smile and deep reservoirs of empathy, my aunt had forged a special bond with me. When the astrology craze hit in the late 1960s, she was quick to point out that, with our February birthdays, we were fellow Aquarians. “We’re beautiful people,” she told me, with certainty. “We understand each other.”

Before I was old enough for school, my aunt had brought me to her kindergarten class for a day. I recall that her students kept hugging her. She was a five-foot superhero — part teacher, part mom, part nurse, part friend, and all love.

But now her light, at least the physical part, was dimming.

My cousin eventually persuaded my aunt to reattach her oxygen. When her son-in-law and nephew visited, she perked up. By the afternoon, she was drinking wine and watching Wimbledon. Later, it was Jimmy Fallon.

But somewhere between tennis and “The Tonight Show,” my aunt wrote down her “wishes” — one of which was that I write her obituary. She said I would “do her justice.”

I am a copywriter. For more than 30 years, I have been slinging words for all kinds of clients — in annual reports, websites, radio spots, print ads, email blasts, you name it. I tell people I can write anything.

But this was different. I was flattered that my aunt thought I could do her justice with the obituary. But can any death notice do that?

I knew the pitfalls from experience. After my father’s sudden death 21 years ago, I wrote his obituary in haste at the kitchen table before leaving for the funeral home to make arrangements. How could I have forgotten his master’s degree in English from Penn? Why did I use the slangy “frosh” instead of the more correct “freshmen” in referencing the state-champion basketball team he had coached?

Oversights and errors weren’t the only things I was wary of. Obituaries have a just-the-facts curtness about them, which I welcomed — purple prose valedictions only deepen the sadness for me. Still, in summarizing my aunt’s life in nine column inches, I knew a lot would have to be left out.

I noted her academic accomplishments, but not the exhilaration and trepidation she must have felt leaving her immigrant parents’ home to attend the University of Rhode Island in 1946.

I referenced her 49-year marriage to my uncle, but not the detail about them going to Moonstone — the nude beach — when they were dating in college. (“We had so much fun,” she had told me, with a you-don’t-even-know look.)

I cited her 23 years as a teacher in Providence, but not that she taught in tough schools during turbulent times and that, in the midst of integration, her love was a godsend to the 5- and 6-year-olds in her class.

I listed by name her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, as well as her three sisters, all gone now, but included nothing about the laughter and music that once filled her beach house during big family parties.

My aunt reviewed my draft and said it was “to the point.” I’m sure she meant it as a compliment. It was also an accurate criticism.

News of her death came at dawn on a Tuesday. I went downstairs, made coffee, and paced around the kitchen. The obituary, especially what it didn’t say, nagged at me.

I knew what I had to do.

Four days later, as sunlight streamed into St. Pius Church at my aunt’s funeral Mass, I stepped into the pulpit: “Good morning. Marie was ‘Auntie Marie’ to me, and I’ll always be grateful for that …”

And then came the words that were missing from my aunt’s obituary — less to the point and more to the person.

I hope my eulogy did her justice.

 

All Gravy: Feedback on My ProJo Column

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My op-ed column, “Please pass the bread – and the gravy,” which appeared last Wednesday in the Providence Journal, is by far the most widely read piece I have written. To date, it has elicited 477 Facebook shares and 138 Tweets from the Journal’s online edition alone.

In addition to garnering social media love, the column has prompted readers to contact me directly via email. I have heard from fellow bread and gravy aficionados, displaced Rhode Islanders, people who grew up on Federal Hill and Charles Street, long-lost cousins… The feedback has been great, and I wanted to share some of the highlights.

                                                        

“The Italian bread never tasted better than when dipped in the gravy. Not to be confused with American white bread. As I am reading the article, I’m laughing because my wife’s family and mine have been having the sauce versus gravy debate for 20 years of marriage.”

                                      

“I grew up in Mt Pleasant (born 1956) and went to many of the same bakeries. My late mother, born and raised on Federal Hill, admonished me with the same words as she sent me to the Castle Spa to pick up a loaf of Crugnale’s bread. I recall running down Chalkstone Ave with the bread ‘like a football’ and taking a piece off the end. Your words warmed me as I recalled the love of my mother.”

                                     

“Having resided in NH since 1969, I’ve suffered with the lack of food products and choices I grew up with. This problem is only rectified by numerous trips back to RI to stock up. My New Hampshire-born wife had to endure the same ‘gravy-sauce’ and ‘macaroni-pasta’ education you mentioned.”

                                            

“My mother was from Federal Hill and my father the North End or, more specifically, Charles Street. Every Sunday morning on the way back from church at St. Ann’s I would stop at a little bakery on Russo Street (Palmisciano’s, as I recall) and would eat the heel before I was at the next corner – my house. I would turn the bread upside down and it wouldn’t be discovered for at least a couple of minutes when my father would take the bread out – for the same reason.”

                                      

“My wife and I are long-time bread lovers. When we lived on the East Side, we bought bread on Federal Hill, including at the old Palmieri’s.”

                                      

“I turned a shade of pink, having been guilty of stealing the heel.”

                                             

“I grew up in the Silver Lake section of Providence and we certainly had our share of bakeries. Fact is, as a young child, I baked the bread and delivered it to houses in those days. THANK YOU for stirring up those memories.”

                              

“My husband is half Italian and did exactly what you did when asked to go to the bakery. To this day, he dips a crusty piece of bread into the ‘gravy’ just to test!”

                                   

“Don’t we love the food debates and yes, a good local bakery that you can walk to is such a treat. Moreover, it brings back those great childhood memories.”    

    

“The scent of all those neighborhood bakeries rose off the newsprint. Thank you so much for that memory.”

                                            

“I was once in a high-end store in the Berkshires and following a couple whose wife asked her husband, ‘What kind of pasta should I get?’ Unable to control myself, I said, ‘Why the ‘rigs’ of course.’ They turned to me somewhat confused… ‘Uh, I meant rigatoni.’”

                                      

And finally, this gem:

“Thank you for supplying me with new material to use in the never-ending ‘sauce versus gravy’ wars we enjoy with our old Italian friends. I can still recall, as a child in the fifties, loitering in the kitchen waiting for my mother to ask if I wanted to try the gravy on a piece of Italian bread. She eventually taught my Hungarian wife to make equally high-powered gravy. One of our Hunga-Wop daughters carries on the tradition. We never, ever, used the word ‘pasta,’ either. That was for people on TV macaroni commercials.”

 

Thanks to all for sharing their bread and gravy stories. And if you haven’t done so yet, feel free to add your thoughts below – would love to hear from you.

 

Stirring Things Up: The Gravy Recipe

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I have written seven Op-Ed pieces for the Providence Journal since December. Topics have included Wiffle ball, the return of “Mad Men,” and Christmas Eve at my grandfather’s baby clothes store on Federal Hill.

Of all the pieces, one stands alone in its popularity: “Please pass the bread – and the gravy,” which ran this past Wednesday. It garnered, by far, the most Facebook shares of any of my columns to date.

I’m not surprised. Having grown up in Providence, I know first-hand how passionate people can be about bread and gravy.

When the number of Facebook shares topped 100 on Wednesday afternoon, I offered an incentive in hopes of generating more: if the shares reached 200, I’d publish my gravy recipe. It worked. Shortly before noon on Thursday, we hit the magic number. By the end of the day, the shares exceeded 300. First thing Friday morning, they were at 401 (appropriate number) and still climbing.

My gravy recipe is simple, but figuring it out was anything but that. Years ago, when I asked my mother about the ingredients, she said “depends on what you have.” (For meat, she would use sausage or pork or steak or braciole – whatever was on hand.) When I asked her about proportions, she used phrases like “just a bit” and “a good amount” and “you know, until it tastes good.” That’s when I learned these truths: making gravy is more art than science. And each batch is as unique and personal as a signature.

My mother’s gravy was delicious, the ultimate comfort food for me. I watched and experimented and fine-tuned. And then one day, many years later, my mom said, “Your gravy is good.”

If I had been elected President of the United States, she would have been proud. But it would have been a silver-medal accomplishment next to my gravy gold. I had arrived.

Opinions abound about what makes a good gravy, so feel free to weigh in. Just don’t get me started on the meatballs.

Buon appetito!

Here’s the recipe:

THE GRAVY

INGREDIENTS

> 1/4 cup vegetable oil

> 1 small onion, finely chopped

> 1 small garlic clove, finely chopped

> ½ pound sweet Italian sausage, about 3 links, cut into pieces (OR pork or steak or braciole, “depending on what you have”)

> 1 28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes

> 1 15 oz. can of tomato sauce

> Fresh basil and thyme, finely chopped, OR Italian seasoning

> 1 small carrot OR a pinch of sugar

> 1 bay leaf

> ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

> ¼ teaspoon salt

In a large pot, heat the oil over a medium flame. Add the garlic and onions, and sauté until onions are tender and translucent. Add the sweet Italian sausage (or other meat) and brown. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, fresh basil and thyme (or Italian seasoning), carrot (or pinch of sugar), bay leaf, salt, and pepper. Simmer partially covered over low heat for at least two hours; if the Patriots are playing, for the entire game. If gravy gets too thick, add “just a bit” of water.

 

 

My First Bruce Gig: He Was One Of Us

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As published in the Providence Journal, May 17, 2014.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are playing the Mohegan Sun Arena this weekend, and single floor tickets are going for more than $2,000 at StubHub. That made me think of the first time I saw Bruce. As a high school junior in 1977, I scored a second row seat for his Alumni Hall show at Providence College. The ticket cost me $7.50.

I had been listening to Bruce since 1973, after a cousin gave my older brother “The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle.” I wasn’t crazy about the album at first. But Springsteen’s voice and lines like “the cops finally busted Madame Marie for tellin’ fortunes better than they do” kept me dropping the needle. The more I listened to Innocent, the more I liked it.

And then “Born To Run” thundered onto the music scene. With its anthemic songs and romantic escapism, the album spoke to me like nothing I had heard before. Maybe it was the iconic imagery — screen doors slamming and dresses waving and Roy Orbison singing for the lonely. Maybe it was the common ground I had with Bruce: Roman Catholicism, Italian ancestry, an urban upbringing in the Northeast, the beach (or shore, in his case) right down the road. Or maybe it was only rock ’n’ roll — and I liked it, liked it, yes I did.

Still, everyone told me I had to see Springsteen to get what he was all about. And, as I was about to learn that night at PC, they were right.

You could still light up in Alumni Hall then; the place was thick with cigarette smoke, and other smoke, too. The girl sitting next to me offered a joint, but fearing a scene out of “Reefer Madness,” I declined. As the lights went down, I didn’t want to miss a thing.

The opening song, “Night,” detonated with grinding guitars, pounding drums and a wailing sax. Springsteen’s hand, curled to a chord around the neck of his guitar, was instantly dripping with sweat. I had never seen a group work so hard — and this was just the first song! These weren’t some rock stars down at the Civic Center, aloof and distant from the crowd; heck, by the third song, Springsteen was in the crowd. And then I got it: Bruce was one of us.

As I walked — danced, really — four blocks home down River Avenue after the show, I reclassified every concert I had seen. There was Grand Funk, Three Dog Night, Alice Cooper and Chicago. And then there was Bruce. It wasn’t even close.

In my first year of college, I met a guy who was a big fan of Billy Joel. I told George if he liked the Piano Man, he’d love the Boss — he should give a listen. I’m glad he did.

George would soon be a rising star at WBRU, the student-run radio station at Brown. That’s how he got a backstage pass when Bruce came through Providence on The River tour in 1980. I missed the show — I was away at school in Ireland. Upon meeting Bruce, in an act of supreme generosity, George mentioned that I had turned him on to Springsteen’s music — and that I was out of the country.

A four-by-six-inch index card sits in a safe deposit box in a bank vault in East Greenwich. The scrawl on it reads: “To John, Sorry I missed ya! Thanks for spreadin’ the faith! Bruce Springsteen.”

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When George gave me the autograph, I was speechless. It had all the intimacy, and the commitment, of the best Springsteen songs.

I won’t be going to see Bruce at Mohegan. My brother-in-law tried to get tickets the minute they went on sale, but the Ticketmaster gods weren’t with us.

The last time I did get to see Bruce was back in March 2003, when he played the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence. It was almost 26 years to the day of my first Bruce concert.

Unlike Alumni Hall at PC 2 1/2 decades before, the Dunk was almost smoke-free and lacking in strange smells. That was a good thing: I had brought my two sons, then ages 9 and 11, and aspiring musicians themselves. When the house lights came up during the “Born To Run” encore and Clarence Clemons hit his solo (something we had blasted in the car countless times), my boys were ecstatic — transfixed and transformed.

I had kept the faith and was still spreading it.

 

The Mystery and Magic of a Made-up Word

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I was thrilled to hear that the Providence Journal wanted to publish my piece about wishing for a snowy Super Bowl.

But there was one glitch.

“Muckle?” Ed Achorn asked me on the phone. Ed is the Editorial Pages Editor at the Journal. “It’s not in the dictionary,” he said.

I laughed. I knew “muckle” wasn’t in the dictionary. I had looked it up, too. But that didn’t stop me. In my description of how my friends and I loved to play football in the snow as kids, I had left “muckle” in:

“We would hike up to the fields at La Salle Academy or Mount Pleasant High School, mark the end zones with our coats, and muckle each other until our cheeks and fingers were numb.”

I explained to Ed that “muckle” was the word we used when we really wanted to hammer the guy with the ball. Muckling was tackling and then some. Muckling could land you in the ER.

I offered to re-write the sentence, but Ed had a better idea. He simply referenced in parentheses that “muckle” was a “kid verb denoting violent tackling.” I’m glad he did. The piece had 570 words, but none hit home more than “muckle.”

A retired Providence firefighter emailed me: “Muckle,” he wrote. “When I saw that word, my face broke into a broad smile.” He told me how he had played football in the snow at Neutaconkanut Park in the Silver Lake section of Providence.

Perhaps “muckle” was a local colloquialism, I thought. Then another emailed arrived: “I found myself transported back 45 years to Lindell Lot in St. Louis where there was plenty of mucklin’ going on in the early 70s.”

So muckling wasn’t regional. Turns out it wasn’t exclusive to football, either. A good friend told me how a girl muckled him behind a dumpster when he was in 4th grade. Sounded better than getting muckled on the gridiron.

If “muckle” were in the dictionary, what would its etymology be? Maybe a combination of muscle and tackle. Or mug and tackle. Or mud and knuckle. Or muck and kill. That seems about right, especially in bad weather.

I gave my son, Evan, the backstory on “muckle” before he read the column. He texted me later: “Had you not said that, I would still 100% understand the usage.”

High praise for a word, especially one you won’t find in the dictionary.

With thanks to Ed Achorn of The Providence Journal.

Gifts From My Grandfather’s Store

vincent_pantalone

As published in the Providence Journal, December 24, 2013.

“John! Lock the door!”

I had waited 364 days to hear my grandfather say those words. He stood behind the register at Vincent’s, his children’s-wear and baby-clothes store on Federal Hill. It was five o’clock on Christmas Eve — the only day of the year when the store closed early. I dashed to the door and turned the key. The dead bolt hit the doorframe — pop! — and another exhausting selling season for our family had ended.

As a 10-year-old in 1970, I was too old to believe in Santa Claus, but not old enough to be aloof about receiving presents. I had asked for Pro Bowl Live Action Football, which I had seen advertised on TV. The ad touted the game’s “king-sized playing field” and “complete pro-type teams.” I hoped “Santa” would deliver.

As I turned away from the door, a woman swooped in from the Atwells Avenue sidewalk and pressed hard against the door’s glass — a would-be, last-minute Santa. The lock resisted. I hoped my grandfather would, too.

I recalled a story that my mother had told me many times. When she was young, my grandfather had brought her a fancy winter coat from his store. The following day, he took the coat back — a customer needed it. “Don’t worry,” he said to my mom. “I’ll get you another one.” (He did.) At Vincent’s, you always took care of the customer.

So, I wasn’t surprised on that Christmas Eve to see my grandfather unlock the door, to the woman’s great relief. Christmas Eve — at least my idea of what it should be — would have to wait.

*           *           *

Everyone who worked at Vincent’s was a relative or seemed like one. It was years before I realized that Auntie Gerry technically wasn’t my aunt, but by that point it didn’t matter. At Vincent’s, everyone was family.

My grandfather opened the store in 1927. It thrived through the Great Depression and became known statewide as the go-to place for baby clothes, christening sets, and communion suits and dresses. At the corner of Atwells Avenue and Acorn Street, Vincent’s had spectacular wraparound showcase windows — merchandising gold.

Each night, those windows presented a parade of brightly lit mannequins adorned in the latest fashions. During the day, my grandfather’s hand-painted paper signs beckoned to drivers and passersby: Layaway Plan! Winter Coat Sale! Christmas Gifts!

This was my first year of working on Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. I cut up boxes, picked up pins, retrieved layaways, ran out for coffee, killed time. The days were long, especially when I thought of my friends playing touch football or pick-up basketball.

Some Saturdays, Auntie Gerry would save me from my restlessness: “Let’s have Caserta’s for lunch,” she’d say, handing me a $5 bill. Twenty minutes later, I’d return with a cheese and pepperoni pizza.

I loved Auntie Gerry.

One Saturday, my grandfather gave me a welcome break from my routine. A group of guys was going to be renting the apartment upstairs for a nightly card game. My grandfather gave me two leftover gallons of paint from the store basement. Hands of poker would soon be dealt in rooms freshly coated in soft pink and baby blue.

*           *           *

For a second time, I heard the magic words: “John! Lock the door!”

This time, no last-minute Santa intervened. Outside, my grandfather set the alarm and Vincent’s was officially closed for Christmas!

At my Aunt Rita’s house that night, my mom and aunts sipped Manhattans and smoked cigarettes, my uncles drank scotch, my grandfather played the violin. Older cousins drank beer in the basement; my little brother and I, the youngest grandchildren, wolfed down Italian cookies in the kitchen. At times, just about everyone was talking at once: the familiar din of Christmas Eve. Then we all crammed into the living room to exchange gifts. At the end of the night, my grandfather handed white envelopes to my mom and aunts. Each of them thanked him with a kiss, and I somehow knew that the amount of cash inside was not insignificant.

On Christmas morning, Pro Bowl Live Action Football was waiting for me under the tree. But the game was not nearly as much fun as the ad had promised. It took forever to set up the teams. And then the plays were over in an instant. After trying it a few times, I never took Pro Bowl Live Action Football out of the box again.

It would be years before the memory of my disappointment about the game brought an epiphany. The best gifts from my childhood — the security provided by a grandfather’s store, the embrace of a big Italian family — didn’t come once a year. They were there every day.

 
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