Sal Sr., my grandfather, possessed an indescribable cool; a Dean Martin poise most guys dreamed about. He was a man of few words and rarely shared his opinions. He had the ability to keep you focused because of what he wasn't saying and wasn't doing. I am nothing like him.
He was over six feet tall, maybe 6' 2", and he loved to
smile. He was perpetually tan, though not in that George Hamilton way.
He claimed his skin color came "from all those days in The Philippines
during World War II." He loved the sun, and would work on that war time
tan every summer day, baking shirtless on our stoop at 552 Broome
Street, while listening to the Yankees on his then average/now hip
Norelco radio. He lived on the second floor with my grandmother, while I
resided with my mother and other grandmother on the 4th floor. I ran up
and down those stairs at 552 Broome Street 100 times a day.
said little, yet there was a playful, almost menacing side to his
unobtrusive personality. There was no one more patient, and no one in my
lifetime who hid their feelings the way he did. Two separate Saturday
afternoons come to mind, where Sal Sr. exhibited that patience. That cool.
There was the day my grandmother found mouse droppings in
her immaculate kitchen. My grandfather silently taped up the space under
every door in the apartment and stood watch with a broom. He sat on a
kitchen chair, on guard, broom upright like some twisted version of
"American Gothic." He lit Salem 100 after Salem 100, for what seemed
like hours, waiting for this critter to surrender from behind the
kitchen sink. He did, and the broom came down with a thwack that rattled
the entire neighborhood. My grandfather stood up, bagged the rodent,
removed the tape, and joined me for some baseball in the living room,
all without breaking a sweat or uttering a word.
afternoon, he had been chopping ice in that same kitchen, while I was
watching baseball in that same living room. Suddenly, I heard some
psychotic whistling. It wasn't a tune. It was more like a message. The
pick went through his index finger. He continued to whistle as he wiped
up the blood and fixed himself up as if the kitchen was a M*A*S*H unit.
He said nothing during either of these incidents.
Our family was
large and loud, but mostly loud. It was newsworthy when one person at
our dinner table would talk while the others listened. No one ever
really listened. Sunday dinner, which began around 1:P.M., usually had
4-6, sometimes 6-8 of us around the table, competing for air time, as we
were already being drowned out by the Yankees on the living room set.
My grandfather's television and stereo went to eleven long before Spinal
A typical meal would start politely, with food carefully
passed around with manners we'd somehow pull out of a hat for 30 seconds
at a time. Then, as if plotting the sabotage since the week prior, my
grandmother would come to bat like Joe Pepitone, eager to hit one out
of the park. She'd bring up some inappropriate subject for the dinner
table, usually about money or another relative. This would rile my
father. Then I'd chime in, usually with the old stand-by missive,
"you're missing my point," even when I hadn't any. In record time, this
faux-Waltons get together was a din of demented barking, with points
being made to no one.
All the time this was taking place, my
grandfather would continue to reach for the meatballs, dip his bread in
the sauce, and eat, saying nothing, yet smirking as if something was up
his sleeve. Something usually was. He'd push his chair back, stand up,
and start whistling. He always whistled some non-descript tune while he
"worked." He walked 10 paces to his den, turned on the stereo and
dropped the needle on one of his favorites, "The Drifters' Golden Hits,"
and cranked it loud enough to drown us and the Yankees out. This would
make my father laugh, which would make me laugh, which would make my
grandmother shout out, "YOU'RE ALL BASTARDS!'
Another one of my grandfather's quietly sinister moves happened during
the Christmas season of 1970. He was an executive at a paper company,
and every winter holiday season, he would bring home a daily supply of
beautifully wrapped gifts, mostly boxed liquor bottles given to him by
co-workers and clients. My job, once we put up his tree and set up the
Lionel trains, (which almost always never worked, as the transformer
would inevitably burn out from a tinsel short on the first go around)
was to arrange the bottles and other wrapped goodies under it. That
year, just a few weeks earlier in November, George Harrison's 3 LP boxed
set "All Things Must Pass" was released. This was all I focused on that
holiday season. That was all I really wanted for Christmas, or any
other day, for that matter.
I must point out, I was not a patient
kid. By the 18th of December, I'd start sleeping less. I was sweating
in below zero temperatures. I couldn't eat. The excitement of the
holiday, not to mention a new Beatles' related album, was enough to
drive me out of my skin. This in turn, would drive all in my presence,
out of theirs. Still I pressed on, every evening, waiting for my
grandfather to come home from work with the bottles. The ritual
continued until the night that turned my Burl Ives' Christmas into a
long-term, seasonal twitch.
My grandfather came home with a half
dozen bottles and a box that measured about 12"x12". (That was the right
size, I thought.) I just knew it was "All Things Must Pass." He
handed it to me with that same smirk he sported right before the
whistling. So I asked, "This is the George Harrison album, right?" He
corrected me, "No, Salvatore. It's a box of handkerchiefs from Betty."
(Betty was his secretary. And yes, he called me Salvatore.) He smirked
again. I'm sure I laughed some nervously forced guffaw as I held back the tears.
"No it isn't. Right? It's my record, right?" My grandmother bellowed
from the kitchen, "SAL! WILL YOU NOT TORTURE HIM PLEASE?" He just smiled
wide and told me to place it with the rest of the gifts under the tree.
I did not relent. As a matter of fact, for the next two days, if I was
my kid, I would have put me out on the street, with a sign around my
neck that said, "Take him. Good luck." Every hour, I would try to reason
with him as only an unreasonable child could. "You know, it's just one I
want to open. Just that one gift...so I could listen to it. Then I
wouldn't be bothering you. See? That makes sense, right Grandpa? Hello?
It's the 23rd of December, and I was in a zone. I sat
in front of the tree, staring at that box, in a "blink, or you'll miss
it" mode, like I was waiting to catch a glimpse of The Yeti.
"Please just that one! Just that one!" He laughed and insisted, "Salvatore, they are handkerchiefs."
"SAL! WILL YOU LEAVE HIM ALONE? LET HIM OPEN IT! I CAN'T TAKE THIS!"
(My grandmother again)
I am pretty sure by now I was hyperventilating. "No...sob..no...it's...sob...it's the Harrison album...sob." My grandfather laughed, gave me a perfunctory head pat and started
whistling. He reached for the box and handed it to me. He said nothing.
He just smirked as I tore the wrapper off in one pull, like a pair of
velcro parachute pants.
It was handkerchiefs.
I did get "All Things Must Pass" on Christmas morning. I got over the trauma of Christmas 1970 in 2003.