Alla Mia Tomba
Chapter 1 – The Call
I looked out the 27th floor window with a clear view to the west of downtown Houston overlooking White Oak Bayou and the incredible growth of condominiums, duplexes and retail centers that were dominating the area. Houston was undergoing tremendous growth as a result of yet another major energy boom and it seemed half the city was under construction. On a clear day you could see from downtown out to City Center and then to the next spurt of office construction along the I-10 Energy Corridor. It looked like the long planned one hundred and seventy mile loop of Houston via the construction of Highway 99 was getting closer and closer to reality. What wasn’t to like about Houston, a booming economy, great restaurants, museums, sports and staples such as the rodeo and a tropical climate. This was my second stint in my adopted hometown of Houston, I left Baltimore in 1998 after spending the first thirty six years of my life there. I moved to Houston and loved it but unfortunately my career led me to move to North Carolina in 2003 and I stayed there for ten years until the opportunity to return to Houston arose again. I do not ever plan to leave Houston again and sincerely hope the career and financial gods allow me to stay. I cannot quite put my finger on why Houston feels like home to me, maybe it is the first thing I knew different than Baltimore or maybe it is something else, perhaps just that it is not Baltimore. When you grow up in a city like Baltimore you learn where you belong and where you should go and not go. I guess you learn this from family and friends and by instinct. When you move to a new city you somehow lose that compass of safety and assume all is safe and good, which of course is not the case. I remember going to the infamous Fourth Ward in Houston back in the late 90’s to have someone work on my car and later being told by friends that I must be crazy to go into the Fourth Ward, especially in an expensive car. I figured as long as I did not hear sirens and or gun shots I was safe. I often hear people that are not from Baltimore or are not familiar with Baltimore talk about how wonderful the Inner Harbor area of Baltimore City is and how they enjoyed walking around the area. I think to myself how scary it would be if these tourists went one or two blocks past the boundaries of the tourist area and ended up someplace they shouldn’t be.
It was hard for me to imagine that Houston had any “projects” or places to avoid if you did not belong. This particular January day was unseasonably cool and windy with a temperature in the mid-forties set against a steely gray thick cloudy sky. It for some reason made me think of the late winter early spring days in Baltimore when I was growing up. The optimism of the nearing warm spring and beginning of baseball season and time to think about riding bikes to explore further reaches of the city and of course summer, only to get one last spell of cold dreary gray skies. Mid January in Houston is a good time to think about March when the weather turns warm and daylight savings time comes and golf can be played in the evenings or leisurely cook-outs can be held on the patio that make it seem like the days suddenly are twice as long. I was drifting back into the late sixties and how different Baltimore was from current day Houston when my office phone rang and jolted me back to reality. A woman that sounded like she was in her sixties or seventies with a very proper and efficient tone said “Am I speaking with Mr. Gentry, Mr. Michael Gentry?” I responded that yes she was and she asked me to please hold so that Mr. Gambale could speak with me. I was stunned and suddenly had the strange feeling of exhilaration at the mention of that name but also a strong sensation to throw up. I could not respond or move my lips to say anything. An elderly man spoke and asked “Michael is it you, you are the Michael from Baltimore, Antonella’s friend?” I somehow got out a single word “yes” response. I had not thought too much about Antonella in the past few years so hearing her name was another jolt.
I was fifty two years old and had not lived in Baltimore since 1998 and had only visited maybe six times between 1998 and this call in January 2014. Baltimore was not exactly one of the desirable places to be in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Crime had skyrocketed and Baltimore had the distinction of being the murder capital of the US, while not in the sheer number of murders but easily in murders per capita. Baltimore was engulfed in poverty and drugs. Drug gang killings were a common almost daily occurrence, the city’s annual murder rate had reached three hundred several times in the decades of the 1980’s and 1990’s. The local economy continued to slip further and further into an abyss of despair, most of the local institutions had been acquired or merged and numerous headquarters left the city and headed to the home base of the acquirers in New York, Charlotte, Chicago and other large growing cities. I was among those suddenly weighing a move to New Jersey – New York or finding another job elsewhere as there were few jobs in Baltimore. Baltimore had seen employment decimated over the past decade or so as Bethlehem Steel continued to wind down, the GM Plant was a ghost of its prior self. The staid suburbs of Baltimore were beginning to become victims of the blight and expanse of crime beyond the city boundaries. I knew it was time to move on if not for the sake of my career certainly for a better life for my children. I was also anticipating being able to finally escape Baltimore so as to not be regularly recognized by others that knew or suspected my connection to an event that occurred in 1972. I think most of these people that recognized me or my name were likely to wonder why I was still in Baltimore or for that matter alive.
Like most Italians that lived in Baltimore I was connected to Little Italy. Little Italy is an area of fifteen blocks or so of homes and modest two and three story commercial buildings. These commercial buildings housed businesses such the bank, tailors, importers, attorneys and accountants and the like. In the 1800’s and until the mid-fifties or so most commerce conducted by Italians or any other ethnic group tended to stay within their ethnic enclaves. This neighborhood parochialism was especially true in the old east coast cities but particularly true in Baltimore which was known for its ethnic diversity. There was Little Italy, you could call it Whop Town if you lived there or were Italian. Other ethnic neighborhoods included Greek Town, Jew Town, German Town and “Highlandtown” which was mostly Irish, Polish and other eastern European ethnic groups such as Lithuanians. Little Italy is probably the only “town” within Baltimore that has maintained its heritage, today Little Italy is still inhabited by some fourth and fifth generation Italian Americans and even has a few villas. Most of the homes and commercial buildings have become restaurants, bars and bakeries. Many of these restaurants have been operating for three or four or more decades and within the last couple of years more of these places have sprung up as Baltimore is beginning to experience some inner city revitalization. These restaurants were places where you could order off menu specialities like braciole or maybe rabbit dishes if you asked the right way or knew which nights to ask. There was also the possibility of special reserve type olive oils or some homemade Lemonicello.
Little Italy was unlike most of the other “towns” in Baltimore in that you could come and enjoy the restaurants but you knew how to act and what not to do in order to keep out of trouble. Little Italy was bounded on all sides with some of the highest crime areas of Baltimore including public housing projects and the old warehouse district and the waterfront. The housing projects were almost exclusively occupied by blacks and the balconies were caged in with metal fencing in an attempt to prevent items being thrown or dropped onto passersby. The warehouses and docks were typically frequented by the hobos and bums or the tough guys looking for someone to roll or otherwise brawl with. It was a pretty tough area if you extended beyond the bounds of Little Italy. You could stand on the edge of Little Italy and see gangs go by, hear occasional gunshots and the frequent wail of sirens to deal with crime in the projects or elsewhere nearby but felt absolutely safe and secure if you were just one foot into Little Italy. Most ethnic neighborhoods were similar in that they wanted a safe place for their families to live and provided some sort of citizen policing. Little Italy was a little different, you might not be warned or escorted out if you caused a problem, you would more likely get busted up and physically and brutally get evicted from Little Italy. I won’t go into all of the Mafia innuendo and lore, because we all known there is no such thing as the Mafia, but let’s just say there was an organized effort to make Little Italy a safe place and rarely was there any trouble, if you could get there you were very safe.
I lived in Little Italy until I was four years old. Even though there was an inherent sense of security within the boundaries of Little Italy there was always the nearby mayhem, particularly in the 1960’s. Things got even worse in 1967 through 1969 with the riots and other unrest Baltimore and most other large cities experienced as well. My family moved from Little Italy prior to most of the unrest but in 1968 a good portion of Little Italy’s residents departed for other parts of the city or even the suburbs in 1968 and beyond. In the 1960’s you could go four or five miles to the north, still be inside the city limits and live in a “row home” or even a single family home on a greenway or on or near one of the city’s many public parks. My family moved to an area in Northeast Baltimore that was two blocks from Herring Run Park which stretched over several miles and had dozens of sports fields, bridges, springs and picnic areas. This area was a mish-mash of all different ethnic groups that were among the first wave to make the migration toward the suburbs and this area was most actually part of what the city planners designated as the Belair-Edison section of town. This area was originally constructed in the 1920’s and 1930’s and typically was home to second or third generation immigrants most of which were WASP’s. During the late 1950’s and the 1960’s first and second generation immigrants from all ethnic backgrounds began moving away from their ethnic neighborhoods. It was also a new thing for these ethnic groups to now have German or Polish or Italian neighbors for the first time in their lives. I do not think any of the people were racist or otherwise prejudiced but it was interesting to hear all of the stereotypes. I got to hear my Italian family say things like “that Pole Mrs. Gloves is outside and at it again” in reference to a bucket and scrub brush and Mrs. Gloves being on her hands and knees scrubbing away at the porch steps. This was a reference to the Polish and Slavic families that lived in Highlandtown and took great pride in keeping the three or four white marble steps, or more famously known as “stoops” from the sidewalk to the door of their row homes absolutely spotless and glimmering. You could drive along just about any street in Highlandtown on a weekday and see dozens of housewives scrubbing and polishing their steps. I also remembering being at friends homes or just hearing neighbors say things like “the Krauts were all over there last night” or “that Jewish family had the lights on last Friday night”. The Germans or to use the slang, Krauts, were supposed to love their beer and liked to get together and sit in their back yards talking and of course drinking. I guess there was some reference to Oktoberfest or maybe the many beer gardens that existed around town. Beer gardens were nothing more than an outdoor part of a restaurant or bar. There was a large Jewish population in Baltimore and many were Orthodox or kept Kosher and observed the Sabbath which included not using modern amenities like lighting or television after sundown on Fridays.
So how did someone with a last name of Gentry come from Little Italy? Well there is the obvious, my Mother’s side of the family is Italian, the matriarch of my family was Minosa Arata. Great Grandma was born in 1879 in Little Italy and lived there until she moved in with her daughter in the late 1950’s, her daughter had already left Little Italy and was living in the area where my Mother and Father would move my family to a few years later in 1966. My Great Grandmother died at the age of ninety two in 1971, she had been widowed for at least thirty years, she attended mass every morning, which apparently gave her the privilege of leaving after the Gospel on Sundays. I only was aware of the early mass departure via word of mouth because I was never interested enough to make 6 AM mass on Sunday with Great Grandma. In addition to daily 6 AM mass there was also the 6 PM radio mass and rosary. While it probably was not all that unusual for an elderly widowed devout Roman Catholic Italian woman to be devoted to her religion there was always some hint of something she was atoning for. Part of the evening radio mass – rosary ritual also involved the taking of Jesus’ blood via a glass of Mogan David Grape Wine. Great Grandma kept a bottle in her bedroom, actually it was more of a jug, maybe 1.5 liters or so, which of course was for religious purposes only. Great Grandma sat at the window in her rocking chair while listening to mass, fingering the rosary beads and taking pops of the wine. If you wanted to spend time with Great Grandma you were always welcome to mint Lifesavers and of course a pop or two or three of wine, she was ok with children having a little blood of Jesus if mass was on the radio. The attraction was certainly part the rush of mint Lifesavers and wine but if you hit it just right and were around after radio mass ended you could get some of the olden day stories. Great Grandma spent almost eighty years of her life in Little Italy. She was the eleventh child of eleven and the only one of her siblings born in the US. As long as I can remember she did not have any living siblings. The stories from Little Italy usually involved colorful nicknames, stories of people getting what they had coming and the occasional gangster shootout tale. The names alone could rivet your attention, Mr. Bones, Ms. Widow, or the occasional sinister sounding Nicky Scar or Concetta Curtains. I can’t leave these names hanging, apparently Mr. Bones was really Mr. Bonatello and the undertaker and cemetery owner that had some uncanny knack of showing up only to have some business shortly thereafter. There was never any indication Mr. Bones “off-ed” or otherwise rendered up his next customers but there was some eerie occult fear involved. If Mr. Bones ever knocked on your door, don’t answer! Ms. Widow, I’m not sure what her last name really was but she easily had several of them given her proclivity for husbands, she was a wealthy middle aged woman that had somehow outlived or saw three husbands pass away. I think the lesson was if Ms. Widow wanted to date you, steer clear or you might be number four. Nicky Scar or more accurately Nicky Scarafino, well apparently this involved some knife mishap or ability to handle a knife, I’m not sure but I never saw a scar. Concetta Curtains, that was really Concetta Castellano and apparently Mrs. Curtains entertained male visitors a few days a week, likely unbeknownst to Mr. Curtains, and the whole neighborhood knew because the parlor and bedroom curtains would be drawn for a few hours a couple of times a week and shortly before and thereafter a well dressed man would enter and leave. It seemed like everyone that was Italian had a nickname like those above. There were apparently some unwritten rules such as the nickname had to begin with the same letter of the alphabet as the real name, like Bones and Bonatello. There were rare instances where someone could have a nickname like Tangles which did not coincide with the beginning letter of the last name but maybe there was some exception to the rule if you did not have an Italian surname, I’m not sure how it worked.
Some of the best memories of my childhood centered around Sunday dinners or dinners for special occasions. Ravioli was almost always the special occasion and occasionally the Sunday meal if we were having visitors. Ravioli preparation usually was started by 5 AM on the day it was cooked and served. It began with the mixing of the dough which included hours of rolling and sitting until the texture and density were just right. Tables were set up side by and covered in rolling mats and flower was everywhere. There were usually two or three rolling pins being worked across the dough at one time. It would be nearing 8:30 or 9 AM when the rolling was done and time for breakfast and if it was a special occasion like Easter or maybe a birthday or anniversary there would be a big breakfast of eggs, frittatas, sausage and maybe tripe. If you are not familiar with tripe it is the inside of a cow’s udder and is a slimy cell looking thin piece of, well I guess meat. It is dipped in an egg base and rolled in a seasoned bread crumb mixture and then slow fried. Tripe is definitely an acquired taste and best with a good tomato based ketchup, but being careful that you are not caught putting that “cheap pilgrim ketchup on that good tripe”. Next came the sauce or as some like to say “the gravy”, this started with ripe and peeled tomatoes and used homemade paste and puree that had been canned in sealed mason jars the prior year. Next came lots of garlic, some onion and occasionally some green pepper all mixed in hot olive oil in a large black cast iron skillet. The chicken and beef tips were next on the preparation schedule. The meat shredded by hand was slow cooked in frying pans with special seasonings of basil, parsley and salt and pepper. The sauce was then divided into two large pots and the chicken was added to one pot and the beef to the other and this would slow cook for several hours. As lunch time neared there would some homemade bruschetta style sliced bread with spooned on gravy and maybe some olives along with sliced salami, prosciutto or pancetta and some fresh sliced provolone or parmesan cheese. These olives, meats and cheeses had to come from the “guinea store” or they were simply sub par. Of course this was long before the large supermarkets had their ethnic sections of processed foods claiming to be authentic. The guinea store was the real deal! If you ever entered an italian deli or store you will know so by the strong smell of aged cheese and olive oil and maybe some garlic. It is a unique and pleasant aromatic experience but it is a thick and dense aroma. Now it would be time to mix up the home cooked spinach and various cheeses such as Ricotta and Parmesan into a mix. The dough was now ready to be cut into two inch by two inch squares. A spoonful of the spinach and cheese mixture would be put on once piece of the two inch by two inch dough and then another two inch by two inch piece of dough would be sat atop the spinach and cheese mixture. There would be two tables covered in these two by two squares of dough that contained the spinach and cheese mixture. Each of the dough squares was then sealed shut by using the prongs of a fork to mesh together the top and bottom pieces of dough all along the edges. By this time a couple of hours of work with the dough and spinach and cheese mixture it was time to cook the filled ravioli in large pots of boiling water. Once the pasta ravioli’s were done they would be strained of water and put in large baking dishes then covered in the sauce that contained the meat and finally into the oven to bake for an hour or so. By this time it was approaching 4 or 5 PM and almost time to eat. This process of preparing and cooking was typically a ten or twelve hour process depending on the number of cooks and helpers. It was usually my Mother, my Grandmother and Great Grandmother and maybe an Aunt or a Cousin helping out here and there. Cooking was not a skillset or chore exclusive to women in the Italian heritage, men were expected to be good cooks and capable of a good gravy. I relish cooking a good “gravy” to this day. There is not anything any better or more satisfying to me as cooking a good italian gravy in an cast iron skillet for several or more hours. You know you are on the right path when you have to add water a few times to keep the gravy from becoming too thick. The natural juices of the meat whether it be beef, pork, chicken or sausage absorb into the gravy along with oil, garlic, onions and green peppers cooked into the gravy then add some fresh baked bread and some good solid Nebbiolo or maybe Sangiovese grape wine and you are living. The wine is just as good to enjoy as you cook the gravy and enjoy the aromas of meat, garlic and vegetables as it is to sit down at the meal and enjoy the match of the gravy, pasta, and bread with the wine. When dinner was more than eight or so it usually consisted of the adults at the dining room table and the kids at the kitchen table. The main table would include the fresh bread from the bakery that was bought on the way home from Sunday Mass and several bottles of red wine. Dinner always seemed to last for hours with the adults telling stories of relatives, people from the past and always Little Italy.
Back to the name Gentry for a moment, when my Grandfather died I learned he had almost served in World War I. His name at the time was Genella, apparently at some point Genella got changed to Gentry. I can only assume this was not part of some witness protection program ordeal since Baltimore remained a constant. The little that I do know was that Grandpa Genella whose nickname was Tangles owned a company that plastered walls. Prior to the manufactured sheetrock-drywall days “mud” or plaster was used to form walls using a horizontal wood slat system that went between the vertical wall studs. Word was that Tangles had never touched a trowel or mud knife in his life and apparently worked remotely either from home or the “social club” well before the virtual workplace came into being. Tangles, we were told was a name that he earned because he played club soccer until he was well into in thirties and “those soccer players get their legs all tangled up”. In actuality it appears that Tangles seemed to get into various tangles or altercations on a fairly frequent basis. I have no idea why, whether it was part of his job or part of his make-up. I do know that the Genella side of my family, particularly if the characteristics of Tangles are evident in a future generations there seems to be a, well let’s just say this type of “Genella burns hot” thing. Burning hot is an Italian way of saying someone has a quick temper, little tolerance or something that can cause them to go into a rage. I had this “quality” until I was in my forties but luckily I never got into trouble or hurt anyone.This is derived from the Italian Etna or the erupting of the volcanoes that can happen at any moment and without warning. I have also seen this quality or maybe I should call it a curse in a Nephew and unfortunately in my oldest child. I think my Nephew outgrew it by his twenties and am hoping my oldest daughter is close to moving away from that phase. I’m also hoping that this curse only extends forward two generations or mellows earlier and earlier with each generation.
Chapter 2 – Antonella
I’m not sure if it is possible to be in love with someone when you are five but I either was or I was the next closest thing. Something about Antonella felt right or just downright perfect, she seemed to know what I was thinking or what I wanted and vice versa. This is no doubt a very strange connection or ability for the average five year and not one I could easily explain until many years later. I’m not sure if Antonella felt the same about me but I think she did, especially as the years pass I think this was the case. I last saw Antonella when we were ten and I somehow sensed it was the last time I would ever see her. Antonella moved out of Little Italy about the same time as my family. Her circumstance was a bit different from my move out of Little Italy in that her move was the result of her parents splitting up whereas my move was one where the family remained intact. In the 1960’s divorce wasn’t nearly as commonplace as it later became and if the marriage was Roman-Catholic it was definitely not something discussed or even something that could happen if you wanted to remain Roman-Catholic. In the 1960’s if you were Roman-Catholic and divorced you could not receive sacraments such as Eucharist or Penance, much less remarry in the church. At some point in the not too distant past it was even taboo to attend mass if you were divorced. The fact of the matter was the church simply did not recognize divorce, now of course under certain circumstances you could get a marriage annulled but that was rare. I know a little about this given that my Grandmother was divorced from Tangles and she had remarried. She never attended mass after her divorce in 1931 unless maybe to see a child or grandchild make their first communion or get married and even then it was almost incognito. Maybe that is why Great Grandma Minosa Arata prayed so much, she wanted to see the soul of Tangles and Marcella saved. Tangles never remarried so he maybe had some chance of going to heaven but Marcella, she got remarried and was no way, no how ever getting into heaven according to doctrine. I obviously had something in common with Antonella in addition to being recently emigrated from Little Italy and into this melting pot of ethnicity which I will refer to as Herring Run.
In the mid and late sixties public schools in Baltimore were well run but extremely segregated. There were white schools and black schools, period! Going to a public school in the sixties was by no means considered a substandard education. However, if you were Catholic, especially Italian you pretty much were going to the parish school. I entered Baltimore City Public School, good old PS230, that stood for Public School Number 230, which was Brehm’s Lane Elementary School. The typical catholic path was a year at the Public School for Kindergarten which for some reason the Catholic Schools did not offer or believe in, then for first grade you got your uniform, your religion and your introduction to Nuns. Most catholic parish schools went to sixth or eighth grade and there were quite a few catholic high schools in Baltimore to choose from. Beyond high school Loyola College and St. Mary’s were the standard paths. I did not know anyone in my Kindergarten class from the neighborhood, for some reason it seemed everyone in the block of row homes we lived in and those in the surrounding vicinity either had children a year or two younger or a year or two older. A year or two older was fine with me as I loved sports especially baseball and was big for my age but in terms of schoolmates it was a little lacking.
I lived two blocks from Herring Run Park on Chesterfield Avenue and occasionally would get to visit the park if my Mother made my older sister or older brother take me or maybe the occasional visit to the park with Dad or the Grandparents. The houses directly across from the park were larger than those on the second and beyond streets from the park. They were not in straight rows and they were not the standard eighteen in a row. These homes were maybe at most in a row of eight or ten and the roads actually curved along with the park and the meandering of Herring Run. Some of the larger homes that were on the curve of the road had larger pie shaped lots and the homes tended to be much larger. The typical row home like the one I lived in was three bedrooms, one and a half baths, with the half being in a basement and maybe twelve hundred square feet of living space not counting the basement. These row homes sat on lots that were maybe sixty foot long by fifteen feet wide. The larger homes across from the park might have had quarter acre lots and the homes might have been two thousand square feet or larger and likely had a garage. I remember always being interested in those homes because they were so different than the row homes I lived in during my years in Little Italy and now in Herring Run. I did not think or connect these larger homes with more affluent people but just saw them as different for some reason other than their size and location. I remember a day sometime in August of 1967 which must have been nearing the pending start of school and being in the park with Tangles when I was drawn to a moving truck unloading furniture. There was a lady in a dress and high heels which was somewhat unusual in Herring Run or at least in my symmetrical row of eighteen homes. This woman was directing several movers from the porch as to which room furniture went or something, and then another truck pulled up and more furniture was being unloaded. I noticed a little girl sitting on the steps with her elbows on her knees and her fists placed under her chin. She had little white ankle socks, black patent leather shoes, a white dress and ribbons in her hair. I guess what really struck me was the jet black hair that I instantly connected with Little Italy as most people in Little Italy had black hair. I remember thinking that this lucky little girl was going to a birthday party, maybe hers or some other event where she was going to get presents. Grandpa Tangles was standing next to me and we must have been taking in all off this move-in commotion for five or so minutes, I’m thinking Tangles was checking out the high heeled delivery director as much as I was mesmerized with the little girl. Tangles finally said “that woman reminds me of someone I used to know, those eyes”. I was expecting some joke or something but Tangles just stared at the woman and I saw this strange look on his face which many, many years later I realized was a faraway stare into the past.
I do not think I thought of the move-in again until Tuesday, September 6, 1967, the traditional first day of school, the Tuesday after Labor Day. I obviously had no idea what September was much less Labor Day but I do remember that sinking feeling and butterfly yuckiness that always occurred on or just before the first day of school. Hell, I did not even know what school was much less some impending doom, all I know is I saw kids playing kickball in the schoolyard so I’m ready to give it a try! It must have been 9 AM or shortly before on the anointed day, there are lines of kids and bunches of Mom’s dragging their kids to the right lines. Most of the kids are in new ill-fitting clothes that were probably selected in hopes of lasting the entire year. I’m herded by Mom to some line and get a big piece of paper pinned to my shirt and I’m getting ready to freak out when suddenly I notice the move-in girl I saw a week or so ago. She has a dress on again today and her Mother has on high heels and sunglasses! They were definitely different than the rest of us. Looking at that little girl made me feel different or strange or something, I couldn’t stop looking at her. Maybe it was that she was so different or maybe it was something else, I was confused. After a few minutes in line and me contemplating bolting for home versus this attraction to the little girl a big black Cadillac pulled up in front of school and a man got out of the rear door and came walking toward the lines of children and their mother’s and said “Antonella you look so beautiful”. The little girl screamed “Daddy” and ran into his arms. They talked for a few seconds and he escorted her back to the line and then everyone headed into the hallowed halls of Kindergarten when the bell rang. I’m even more mesmerized now, something about this little girl that dressed differently than the other little girls and I’ve now run into her twice, her Mommy does not look like the other Mommies and then Daddy has this big black car that someone else drives.
You know the drill, alphabetical order, “Antonella Gambale, Michael Gentry”. I’m sitting directly behind this little girl that is obviously very different than me and for that matter the rest of us. I’m looking at the back of her head and trying to figure out if I can still make a break for home, avoid peeing myself, hug her or if I should just cry. I have no idea why I feel this way nor do I know why forty seven years later. I think it was just all the changes in my life with moving and starting school or something. I’m now trying to get a peek at the playground and thinking about kickball or baseball or something other than school. After the roll call and official seating of the students we now go to the official placing of name tags on our desks to match those name tags they pinned to us about thirty minutes ago. I’m getting bored after three or four name tags get placed and Mrs. Slovik goes through the “your name tag on your shirt says William Davis and your desk name tag also says William Davis”. Of course when she gets to my row I’m all ears as they get to the little girl that wears dresses, Mrs. Slovik goes through the whole Antonella Gambale thing and I’m paying attention for some reason. Then we get to Michael Gentry, shirt name tag, desk name tag, yada, yada, yada, then all of a sudden the little girl that wears dresses turns around and looks directly at me with these huge green eyes and says “Hello Michael, I l know who you are, I saw you in the park last week”. Great, just what I needed, the whole class is giggling and woo wooing and I’m probably beet red and thinking I can get through Mrs. Slovik with a juke and jive running back head fake left then right and hit the crease and through the door and be home in like three minutes and maybe apply for an early drop out waiver and end this whole strange ashamed feeling and fascination with dress wearing, black haired, green eyed Antonella. For some reason I decided to stick it out and hang in there, maybe it was the talk about snacks and the like and before I know it we are lining up to go home. The only thing rarer than green eyes for an Italian are maybe blue eyes like mine. Everyone thinks of the typical Italian as having dark eyes that are brown or even black but the fact of the matter is that Italy is a diverse country spanning a large geographic and demographic region. Italy is really a recently formed country that has come together into a union over the last seventy to one hundred or so years. The south of Italy consists of Sicily and the home of “Omerta” or organized crime syndicates and akin to Greece and Turkey and other Mediterranean states. Then the boot shape of Italy extends to Sardinia, Calabrese, and Portofino into the vast farm regions of Tuscany and Puglia and northward toward Rome then further north to Genoa, Milan and the Alps and the great noble wine regions of the world. In the north there was much intermingling of the Nordics and the Romans to form a new culture of Italians. I had and still have bright steel blue eyes. Tangles used to kid me about some Italian girls sneaking across the border and coming back home to have blue eyed babies. I somehow felt different or special because of my blue eyes and thought Antonella likewise felt different or special because of her rare Italian green eyes.
The first week or two of Kindergarten was a slow build-up to the three hour day. I think the first week was like one hour then the second week was two hours then in week three they stretched it out to the final three hours. When I get outside the doors, Mom is there and so is Antonella’s Mom and they are chatting it up and gushing over their little scholars. My Mother announces to me and all others within earshot that Antonella and her Mother lived on High Street in Little Italy and now live on Shannon Drive right across the street from the park. My Mother further informs me that Antonella will be five on Saturday and I’m going to her birthday party at her house. Antonella is looking at me like she just won some prize or something, I’m starting to get a little weirded out but there is something about this little girl.
The difference between Antonella and me has hit the consciousness of this five year old, my clothes are from Sears and well for some reason I’m thinking Antonella’s clothes are not Sear’s material. Then there are our Mom’s, my Mom is thirty nine years old and has a nineteen year old in college and I must be the late life oops. My Mom is a housewife and stays at home. Antonella’s Mom is maybe twenty seven or so and dressed to the nines and probably has never touched a scrub brush or worn pants. A few minutes later that big black shiny car eases around the corner and Antonella and Mom say goodbye and Antonella and her Mother get into the car. Mom and I walk the two blocks to home and along the way Mom tells me all about Mrs. Gambale and Antonella and how nice they are and how it is wonderful to have a connection to the old neighborhood. I’m also reminded that I’m going to a birthday party on Saturday and we will be going to the Father and Son Shop to get a suit for me. I also learn that Antonella is also going to Shrine of The Little Flower Catholic School for first grade next year. The next day we go through the same line and entry into the building and classroom as day one, this time it is just Antonella and her Mom and no sign of the long shiny black car. Mrs. Gambale is again in heels and looks like she is going to a tea party or something. Antonella also has on a dress again today, this one light blue with matching hair ribbons. On day two of Kindergarten we are ready to get right to the point, a story, read by Mrs. Slovik. I was a pretty big Curious George fan to begin with but Mrs. Slovik is just downright magical with Curious George and beside I have Antonella sitting beside me on the floor and by all appearances she enjoys a good Curious George as much as I do. This is nice, a good read, maybe fifteen minutes and I’m out of here and I do not feel like I’m going to pee myself or throw up and Antonella has not said anything to cause any woo wooing. After the story is over Antonella decides it is high time to let the entire class know that she will be five on Saturday, is having a party at her new house and that I’m coming to the party and to top all of that off she is going to have whatever kind of cake “that Michael wants”. As you can imagine the woo-wooing is at a fever pitch and there are some “Michael and Antonella kissing in a tree…” songs being composed. I’m probably well past the three shades of red embarrassment and well into the purple hues. I’m thinking all this girl stuff is too much and that I just need to get focused back on my major league baseball career preparation. It is now September 7th and the Orioles are not going back to the World Series. Maybe I can convince Mom that this suit and party thing is not in the best interest of the team and that I need to focus on baseball. No such luck, we go straight from 10 AM Kindergarten dismissal to The Father and Son Shop on Belair Road. Ah, the smell of chicken soup and virgin wool fabric. In no time Mr. David has me fitted up with a medium navy blazer and pair of dark gray slacks and a promise to “shoe” me up if my dress pair at home do not fit. Of course there was a white shirt and red and blue repp stripe tie added at check-out along with a reminder that Shrine of the Little Flower boy’s uniforms would be brown pants, tan shirts and brown ties for the school year 1968-1969 but would switch to navy blue slacks and light blue shirts with navy ties and that Mr. David was looking forward to our business. At this point I’m as good as at that party on Saturday, Mom is all wound up and excited, we have shelled out some serious money on my attire and with my luck the Orioles will be out of the pennant race and planning for September call-ups from the minors and I will be unavailable so my major league debut will be delayed until at least 1968 all because of this party on Saturday.
Wednesday night at dinner Mom tells Dad all about the new clothes and the Saturday party and all Dad has to say is “yeah, I know her Father”. Dad asks where Tangles is in all of this new friendship and party stuff and Mom responds “I have not talked to him in over a week”. Grandpa Tangles always visited us on Saturday’s, he would show up around noon usually bearing gifts from a pharmacy where he said he had a “lady friend”. They were usually gifts of some kind of sports ball or toy truck for me and maybe something like a purse or maybe a 45 rpm record for my Sister who was seven years older than me. My Brother was yet another seven years older than my sister and was a junior in college and was away at college.Tangles apparently had a longtime girlfriend but had never remarried, I guess it was the whole Catholic divorce thing. Tangles lived with his Cousin and his Wife just on the outside edge of the city. Tangles never drove a car but always seemed to have people driving him back and forth or he traveled around in taxis. Tangles somehow mostly avoided World War I, probably because he was not known to the draft board as was the case with most immigrants or maybe by the time he was seventeen and draftable the war was winding down. Tangles enlisted in 1918 but never stayed for some unknown reason. He would later say that the war was over by the time he was ready to fight. In 1939 Tangles was known to the draft board and was eligible for the war given he was not married. Tangles was promptly classified as draft eligible and shipped off to Paris Island, South Carolina and was a Marine. Of course this was only a year before his own son, my Father, would enlist and serve in the Air Force from 1940 until 1943. Tangles was about four weeks or so into basic training and being sent off to Europe when some law or new rule made him draft ineligible and he was sent home. My Mother told my Father at dinner that Wednesday night to make sure Tangles knows we won’t be around until late Saturday afternoon after Antonella’s party is over. Tangles visits included his cooking a spaghetti dinner on Saturday’s. I can still see him in his high waisted triple pleated tailored slacks and high shine black shoes and belt while he cooked the sauce from scratch, we called it gravy and we had the standard 5:30 PM spaghetti dinner. Tangles cooking wardrobe also included the standard athletic t-shirt, which would be revealed after removing the white dress shirt and tie and placing them in the next room so as to avoid gravy splatter. The dress slacks and shoes I think played on the Italian guy image or maybe it somehow made dinner better. Great Grandma Arata or Marcella and her second husband never attended these dinners but we could see always see Great Grandmother Arata in her bedroom window from our dining room as she prepared for 6 PM radio mass and rosary.
When my Mother mentioned to my Father to let Tangles know we would not be home until later Saturday afternoon it did not dawn on me that Tangles had not visited us on the prior Saturday. I blurted out “can Tangles come to Antonella’s party”. I was quickly told to finish my dinner and not worry about Tangles. I quickly let them know that Tangles was with me when I saw Antonella and her mother move into their house. Dad seemed surprised and said “come on let’s go see a few innings of the Orioles and Twins tonight”. We lived about one mile from Memorial Stadium and this was back when you could walk up to the box office at game time and pretty much get any seat you wanted, we usually chose general admission which was one step above the cheapest bleacher seat ticket. It was an unwritten rule that if you splurged for the general admission of $1.20 you could move up to a more expensive premium seat around the second or third inning. If you opted for the cheapest $.75 bleacher seat you were not going to get a free upgrade. Imagine getting to see Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson and Boog Powell in their primes for $1.20 not to mention from maybe five or ten rows from the field. On this particular night the Orioles were mired in sixth place some fourteen or so games out of first place and probably mathematically eliminated. It was certainly worth the cost of admission even if the Orioles lost because Harmon Killebrew crushed a homer deep into the left field seats in the top of the fourth and Brooks Robinson barely cleared the left center field wall for a home run in the bottom of the fourth. My Mother made my Father promise to not stay too late because I was now a big boy and had school in the morning. We finally left at about 9:45 PM when the Twins scored two runs in the top of the eight. Instead of the normal twenty five minute walk home Dad sprung for a cab and we were home in five minutes. By the time I had gotten my bath and was ready to be tucked in I was told by Mom that the Orioles lost 4 to 2. The last thing I remember aside from the news that Orioles had lost was my Father saying to my Mother “everything you eat and wear is legitimate and clean”. I had no idea what that meant or why it was said until maybe many years later. I guessed my Father was justifying his station in life or his ability to provide for his family in comparison to the lifestyle the Gambale’s enjoyed.
Thursday and Friday of the first week of Kindergarten were fairly uneventful and nothing too embarrassing happened other than Antonella made a point of sitting next to me during story time and of course always right in front of me in every line whether it be school entry or any movement of the class, Gambale, Gentry…. Thursday and Friday were just like the first two days in that my Mom and Antonella’s Mom were side by side outside awaiting our dismissal from the grueling hour long Kindergarten indoctrination. It struck me even as a five year old how different my Mother and Antonella’s Mother were. My mother was a proud woman and always tried to look her best but she had her hands full with a five year old, a twelve year old and a nineteen year old. Her job was to take care of her family and her home. On the other hand Antonella’s Mom had just one child and had people to clean her home and cook her meals if she so desired. Antonella had a maid and or nanny plus her Grandmothers and Aunts were always available if needed. Antonella of course wore dresses on Thursday and Friday, I seem to remember a pink dress and an out of character jumper or something. I do not want to sound like some kind of queen or cross dresser wannabe but you have to understand the impact Antonella had on people, especially someone she liked to sit next to during story time or show and tell and apparently was somehow proud of the fact I was attending her birthday. I told my Mother I was going to tell Antonella I wanted strawberry cake with cannoli cream icing to which she responded in a stern “you will do no such thing”.
Saturday arrived and I was ordered to stay clean and not get into anything as Antonella’s party was at 1 PM. At about noon we started with the cleaning of fingernails, wetting of the hair for combing and parting followed by the dressing into some foreign attire. I guess I pulled it off as we were afoot at 12:45 for the walk to Antonella’s party. Mom carried the gift which was a Shrine of the Little Flower Missal and Rosary. I would have preferred some baseball cards or maybe a good Reggie Smith or Tony Conigliaro model baseball bat but the church stuff worked for me. We got to the party at a few minutes after 1 PM as we had to stop along the way so Mom could talk to the other women in the neighborhood and hear about the Krauts, the Poles, and the Jews and on and on. These in route chit chats seemed even longer than the normal small talk Mom would have with the other women because there had to be the proper presentation of me in my Little Lord Fauntleroy get up and the declaration that I was attending Antonella Gambale’s birthday party. When we arrived it was pretty easy to figure out this was not your average five year olds party. There were lots of long shiny black cars and lots of older people, Antonella’s Father was there and everyone greeted him and most kissed his hand or his cheeks and thanked him, there were a stack of presents in the sitting room for Antonella and there were maybe five kids total and I think most of the kids were relatives or at least from the old neighborhood. I remember Antonella’s Father thanking my Mother for coming and bringing me and to give his best to Tangles. I was not really sure what Mr. Gambale did for a living other than what Antonella would occasionally offer up in school stories and that was usually a non-description such as “he owns and rents buildings”. It was the usual five year olds birthday party with the musical chairs and pin the tail on the donkey with the obligatory cake, ice cream and punch. There were only two unusual things, Antonella did not open any presents and she actually kissed me on the cheek when I left. I was mortified, not only did people see this but Mom of all people did and she was probably going to mention it at dinner to the family and I would be unmercifully teased and of course Tangles would be there so I was in for an extra round of teasing. I could hear it already, Tangles would tell me I was probably going to have to figure another way to get out of the third grade because marrying the third grade teacher to get promoted to fourth grade was the only way he could do it but since I was already going to married to this Antonella I would just have to study hard or figure out something else. The third grade teacher story was one of Tangles favorite stories whenever school came up in conversation. I’m not sure how far along Tangles got in school but I’m pretty sure he did not graduate high school.
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