Bronxcapades, set in the '60s, is an embellished coming-of-age memoir about assimilation, the clash of old country values with new. It is also a deeply philosophical book unafraid to expose society's hypocrisies. The conflict is growing up and breaking away from a loving, but quirky and sometimes oppressive Italian-American family in a strange land called the Bronx. The tone is definitely comical and heartwarming. At the same time it is also bittersweet, piercing, and poignant. Often compared to Angela's Ashes and the Catcher in the Rye, it doesn't shy away from the tough questions...intellect, free will, truth, dignity, independence, choices, consequences....
State Penn is the sequel to Bronxcapades taking Georgio from college through seven disturbing years of grad school. At the rate he's going, he'll never escape from the State Penn (Penn State) with his doctorate. It's the early 70's and everything is against this long-haired student in the tie-dyed shirt. Like Bronxcapades, it too is hilarious - almost farcical - in places but the main arc is deep, very deep, in its exploration of the ultimate source of authority.
This kid from the Bronx doesn’t want to change bus tires like Poppa for his whole life. Nor does Georgio want to be a plumber like Uncle Giovanni. Maybe, just maybe, he can become an archeologist. Yeah, yeah! Win a scholarship and go to a far-away college….
“The only way you get to leave this house is if you get married or in a box!” Poppa bellows rolling his eyes and pounding his chest. Oh dear, a father who believes Georgio studying so much will cause him to go blind, a poppa who has a meltdown when the kid is finally fitted with eyeglasses. “You’re life is ruined!” Poppa screams. “Now you can never be a policeman or a fireman! Don’t you see?”
No, Georgio doesn’t see. His solution is to study even harder – Latin, Greek. Someday indeed he is going to be digging alongside the Mediterranean to find another Troy or to discover a tomb like King Tut’s. However, meanwhile in the Bronx he searches for wisdom from the only people he knows, his two sets of relatives, the savage Cutrones and the laid-back Venduras. But neither side seems to offer the right answers. Instead, Georgio slowly evolves as he questions their slogans…honor they father and mother…respect authority….
On one hand this is a hilarious coming of age story filled with loud, quirky Italians talking with their hands and dancing the tarantella. And for sure the Bronx is here in all its glory: Fordham Road, Alexander's, White Castle, Allerton Avenue, Orchard Beach and the Bronx Zoo. On that other hand it is a very serious book that doesn’t shy away from the tough questions – intellect, free will, choices, consequences….. In the end it is an Italian-American story that has nothing to do with Italian-Americans. It is a Bronx story that has nothing to do with the Bronx.
A good friend once compared this tale to an Italian pastry – an abundance of delectable fluff on the outside filled with an exquisite core. Come take a bite of this cannolo.
Oh boy, am I in trouble on my first day of grad school! Until then I could have counted the times that I’ve ever been out of the Bronx on the fingers of one hand. I drive west – far, far west - searching for this institution in the middle of Pennsylvania. Aha! I finally find it. I pull up the horseshoe roadway to the main building with great confidence. How was I to know it was the State Penn rather than Penn State University and that the two “campuses” are just five miles apart? An honest mistake, really! I’m immediately taken on a tour of the death chamber thinking I’m being led to the physics lab that I was expecting. I gulp.
The terrible misunderstanding is eventually resolved, but when I finally make it to PSU, I find out that there’s not that much difference after all. My professor is the warden. Roommates? No, inmates. My physics laboratories are cells. Women? No such thing in this isolated outpost in the middle of nowhere. No subways, no pizzerias, no White Castles…. I do time, hard time, for seven years. Nevertheless I certainly cannot count on Momma and Poppa’s understanding and support back in the Bronx. To them physics has something to do with a half glass of olive oil the day after you’ve had too many cashews. “When are you going to get out of that place?” Poppa keeps growling.
Warning! This tale is certainly not for everybody. It is a dark tale written in a somber, archaic, even Gothic tone. It was cumbersome to write. It is cumbersome to read. It is a sad story. It is a creepy story.
Arthur, a deformed accountant, slaves for the overbearing boss. For 30 long years this defenseless little man has taken abuse after abuse from this disgusting bully. Arthur has no real life. Every night after another 16 hours of total misery he hobbles back to his decrepit hovel. This dreary room with peeling paint and rusty pipes crisscrossing the ceiling is cluttered with filthy cages and makeshift containers. One by one this amateur entomologist opens each enclosure and lovingly feeds his scorpions, fire ants, black widow spiders and other terrifying friends.
Meanwhile the situation at work becomes even more intolerable, and terrible thoughts slowly begin to invade Arthur’s head. He desperately tries to force them away. He is not a big man, his is not a powerful man. Violence is not an option.
It is so obvious how this pathetic man's bully is going to get his comeuppance, or is it? For those who plod along to the end, certainly a satisfying resolution, but one that is not expected.
A six-year-old Italian-American boy is desperate to earn a meager allowance, but his strict old-country father continues to dismiss him. “I cleaned the bathroom today all by myself,” the little one bleats when Poppa returns from work. “You usa the bathroom all by yourself,” his gruff father snaps back. Then suddenly the household is torn by a marital crisis of epic proportions, and of all things, the little boy has a skill Poppa desperately needs. Their relationship is changed forever.
Our protagonist graduates at the top of his class. Company after company vies to win him as an employee, and he eventually accepts a privileged peach position at a top-notch place. For a while he is flying, but just as suddenly the corporate mobsters turn on him, and his whole world collapses. For four days afterward he has not risen from bed except for lurches to the bathroom and the liquor cabinet. But then there is the sound of metal hitting the sidewalk again and again right outside his window. With bloodshot eyes he peers down at the little Mexican kid in a dumpster fishing for beer cans and tossing them over the side. A confrontation ensues.
Willie Bradford doesn't fit in his faded jeans and sweat-stained work shirt. He sort of oozes out and around them. His belly hangs low. He doesn't look like a scientist nor does he act like one in this third rate company. Everyone calls them Big Beefer, and they give him wide berth. The worst day of his life comes when the brass hires a twirpy, little guy from out of nowhere and makes him boss – a tidy, prissy man with hair parted down the middle always dressed in an impeccable three-piece suit. “Mr. Bradford I'm expecting a lot out of you,” was the first thing this Mr. Robinson says in his almost shrill voice. The Big Beefer hates him from that moment on.
CHRISTMAS WITHOUT CHARLIE
Avoca, Pennsylvania, coal mining country… how will 13 year old Stephanie Dombrowski cope with Christmas now that her big brother is gone? Charlie was life. He brought joy to everyone with his crazy stories and outrageous antics. He could see diamonds in bits of coal. He convinced Mrs. Kubrick that her arthritis was a blessing. A lowly sparrow became the Polish falcon. Stephanie struggles as Christmas grows closer and closer. Then something wonderful happens on the way home from midnight Mass. Her imagination or a real live sign from Charlie?
ELIZABETH MARY DOYLE
A chilling ghost story that I wrote in the style of Edgar Allan Poe about an incident that happened alongside Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx in the 1930s. My Aunt Rose related this story to me when I was eight, and the hairs are still standing up on the back of my neck. For the record, my Aunt Rose was a straight-shooter, not at all prone to telling tall tales. She insisted that all the New York newspapers at that time reported details of the story and that there was a subsequent investigation over a period of weeks. I have not been able to verify this. However, after I had written this version, I have heard about ghost stories with similar elements but based upon different geographical locations. I can only assume that these are fictional accounts based upon the true Woodlawn occurrence.
Two brothers, the first has a wife, two kids, a mortgage, a steady job in the post office and is looking forward to a pension in twelve more years. The other is also married. He and his wife have seen the pyramids, climbed the Himalayas, and ridden the Trans-Siberian railroad. Sometimes they sleep in village jails when he cannot find better accommodations or he has run out of money.
Jack, a gung-ho engineer fresh out of college knows everything about computer chips but nothing about human nature. He's put in charge of a department with scores of older women who work in the lab. His assignment – higher voltage. Oh, he certainly knows how to achieve this. Cleanliness, extreme cleanliness! To achieve this, the women on the assembly line already look like nuns covered from head to toe in cloth with only their faces and hands peeking through. But Jack knows that to get even higher voltage one must eliminate the tiniest sources of particles and oils. He explains that cosmetics and similar products are composed of tiny particles mixed in various oils. The solution is obvious. He posts the notice on the lab door: no mascara, no more lipstick, no rouge, no deodorant, no hair spray.... Soon thereafter, he hears heavy footsteps lumbering down the corridor. A huge shadow darkens his doorway. He looks up. Thelma Thunderthighs.
PRODUCT OF MIT
A brilliant and stunning young woman from MIT slowly grows even more beautiful and confident with time. Although she resists at first, she eventually falls hard for a young man from Stanford. But she has a terrible secret – a very delicate, intimate secret that no woman could ever reveal to a man. But she must. She owes him an explanation why their relationship is doomed. The story comes to a climax on a park bench between MIT and the Charles River.
AUNT ANGELINA’S TEETH
Nine-year-old Georgio wants so much to be accepted as a man. Relatives gather for yet another huge family celebration. Aunt Angelina perhaps has had a little too much Chianti. With numbed fingers she struggles to adjust her false teeth in front of the bathroom mirror. They slip out and bounce off the edge of the sink twice before plunging into the abyss. In her excitement and confusion she trips the lever. With that, over a year's worth of poor Uncle Giovanni's hard-earned savings are flushed away. Tipsy uncles and Georgio to the rescue! And yes, for an all-too-brief moment he is one of them.
Bondo expert – a Wyoming man of few words and few smiles. The missus…a beautiful girl, soft and caring. Now this fella loves his wife, but he has a job to do, and it takes him all hours to do it. People bring in their wrecked autos from three states. No one can do body work like he can. No sir, nobody. He can restore a car so that it looks like it just came out of the showroom. But the wife misses him so much that sometimes in the middle of the night she tiptoes to the crack in the garage door just to love him from afar. The bondo expert is too busy to notice. He has a sharp eye and a sure hand. He can see a hairline scratch on the surface of a hood from a good 10 feet away and he knows how to fix it, but he doesn’t see the lines developing in that good woman’s face. Nope, he doesn't see them at all.
FOUR DOLLAR WATCH
A naïve Puerto Rican from the Bronx falls in love with a white girl, a student nurse from Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. The time comes to meet her parents out on Long Island, in Valley Stream. A big deal, he gets all fixed up. He even buys a watch at the hock shop. A big clunker, it costs only four dollars, but a fellow isn't fully dressed without a watch. The visit turns into an ambush. Her parents sit opposite him, cold and haughty. They torture him with both ugly questions and silence. His nurse friend doesn't come to his rescue. As he sits there sweating, he slowly becomes aware of a slight sound – the ticking of his cheap, four dollar watch.
A bitter vet with a crippled hand and a crippled mind and a crippled car is on his way from Dayton, Ohio to confront his affluent relatives who have gathered for Christmas Eve in Westchester, New York. How they all enjoyed the good life while he suffered through the war. Sure, these phonies had the gall to invite him, but from his point of view no one really expects this black sheep of the family to actually show up. How surprised they’ll all be when he swaggers in unshaven and filthy in his rags. But it’s very late, and he gets lost, and he’s running out of gas. He knocks on a stranger’s door in the middle of the night for directions…. A Christmas story of redemption.
A humorous study of the two extremes of the corporate ladder. On the bottom rung is a lovable but simpleminded mail delivery employee who believes everything she’s told: smile, be cheerful…always say hello. Near the top rung is a vice president, imperious and impervious. Of course, the mail clerk goes out of her way to be nice...very, very nice.
A zany piece about a young college kid who becomes an emergency room attendant at Misericordia Hospital in the Bronx. He does well, and in no time he just can’t help feeling a little cocky. He convinces himself that he's seen it all and that he can handle anything. But then while transporting a very pregnant lady upstairs to the emergency room they somehow get trapped in the elevator....
Do not read the short story. It will break your heart. At the end of work each day a distraught father, a top-notch scientist and agnostic, visits the hospital where his five-year-old daughter is dying. To keep himself sane, to satisfy her curiosity, and to have something to distract himself, he routinely reports on the progress of the satellite his team is building. It is scheduled for launch in nine days – beyond the date on which she is expected to die. But the little girl is so full of child-like wonder and joy, that the father breaks all the rules by secretly attaching a tiny plate bearing his daughter’s signature to the wing of the satellite. The girl is so excited. From this perch she imagines that she will be able to gaze down upon the lovely world forever. Gradually the satellite takes on profound significance for the father too. For the briefest moment it seems to offer a glimmer of hope, some promise. However, a cruel twist at the end. You will cry.
THE BEST DOG IN THE WHOLE WORLD
Harold blinks. The doctor’s diagnosis couldn’t be more grim. He and Laura are only in their thirties. She's not the strongest person. He can’t just tell her. Her whole life is wrapped around him – that is,around him, and her little black dog. How can he prepare her? Over the next month he invites Stephen, a bachelor, a very nice guy, over for dinner. Then Henry. “You never had anyone from your office before,” she says. Harold just shrugs. Time, time is getting short. Harold has to do something drastic.
THE MOST POWERFUL PERSON IN THE KINGDOM
Who do you think is the most powerful person in the United States? The President, you say? Perhaps the Vice President? Or the Speaker of the House or the Secretary of State? Hmmm, the First Lady some clever person may suggest. Well, none of these answers are even close. Please read this story. Instead of being set in contemporary times it harkens back to the Middle Ages. At first you might be surprised, but then you will may very well lean back and nod.
TO FIX THE RAIN SPOUT
In the middle of an important meeting on the 20th floor of a Los Angeles skyscraper, Mr. Ferguson, a high-level exec gets a call from his 96-year-old mother in northern Vermont. “You promised,” she reminds him in a feeble voice. It's true, he has been telling her for 30 years that someday he’d fix the rain spout on the old homestead. Now Momma is scheduled to move to an assisted living facility by the end of the week, and she cannot imagine transferring her cherished home without proper drainage to the lovely new buyers. Mr. Ferguson knows that the lovely buyers are not newlyweds as Momma assumes. They represent the developers who are going to convert the farm into a subdivision. Nevertheless Ferguson drops everything and is on the corporate jet within an hour. The next day in coveralls he’s just a country boy on a ladder with a mouthful of nails while Momma directs him from her wheelchair.
Pete and Ann are young and madly in love. They can only afford a fixer-upper, and they pour every available penny into repairing it. On yet another trip to the home center Pete visits the hardware department while as usual Ann drifts off to the pet section. Pete is especially rigid about their budget. He routinely sets aside so many dollars for food, so much for the mortgage, and there is never anything left for something so frivolous and as expensive as a canary. Ann, of course, completely understands. But on the way out of the store something happens that forces Pete to question his priorities.
GO ASK MIKE
A Dilbert-like, true story of what employment is like in a huge aerospace company. It is completely accurate. Only the names have been changed so I do not get sued. It is so hard to believe that people and a firm like this not only exist but is actually capable of building satellites that fly. Please stay in the post office. Do not work for an aerospace firm. Enough said. Enjoy.
HOPITAWA FALLS, WEST VIRGINIA
A man and a woman start out their life together in the cabin. “It was old even by West Virginia reckoning but it had a good run out back and tall spruce to break the winter wind.” They have very little money, but no bother, for three years they get by on love. But then the man dies while chopping down a tree, and the woman is left all alone. Sixty odd years flutter by like so many autumn leaves, and in the last scene the woman is incredibly feeble and tired. She continues to comfort herself by clinging to her precious memories.
A frustrated college kid is goes bananas when he discovers that his nosy landlady is steaming open his mail. Intolerable! What is she after anyway? Dirt! Dirt! She wants dirt! Oh boy, does he give it to her. He writes a series of imaginary letters to himself from a desperate girlfriend who is pregnant. Hook, line and sinker? Mrs. Petrillo swallows the whole boat. One hilarious encounter after the other as he now has her dancing to his secret fiddle.
Maria and Pedro are truly in love. They light a candle every night before the Madonna so that she might bring them a child. Pedro especially is full of hope and optimism. He takes make-believe pictures of beautiful sunsets with his hands because they cannot afford a camera. He paints houses by day while attending night school so that someday he will be a carpenter. But then he falls off the roof, and Maria, now pregnant, is left all alone. Her panic only increases when Francisco is born. How can she raise this child all by herself?
WAITING FOR JUSTYN
Our already uptight protagonist grows even more frazzled when he bites off more than he can chew. He signs up for a beginner’s woodworking class. His brother’s wife is trying to become pregnant. They’re hoping for a boy. They're going to name him Justyn. The plan is straightforward enough - to build an early American cradle. In his mind it doesn’t seem more complicated than a wooden milk box on rockers. But classes are only one night a week and it takes a whole term just to learn how to glue together smaller boards to make larger ones. It then takes three more months sawing and shaping, and three more for assembling…. To accelerate completion he takes the project home, but home is a studio apartment. He and his wife stand their bed on end. In no time the place is covered with sawdust and they’re tripping over cans of stain. The place reeks of solvent. They sleep on the floor with their heads in a closet.....
An overweight, middle-aged garbage man sees only treasures in other people's castaways. He spends his lonely nights at his workbench in his cellar. A touch of glue, a dab of paint, a new hinge, and the thing’s as good as new. Basket ball hoops, bicycles, dolls, he gives them all away, but not just kids’ stuff. The chandelier in Mrs. Sabatini’s dining room, Mrs. Mancuso’s sewing machine, Mr. Bellomo’s lawn mower…an accordion even, that’s now in the old timers’ home on Steeple Street. He’s been driving Bertha, his garbage truck, through the same neighborhood for two decades. He knows his customers. There’s the lovely lady on Butterworth Street, who never got married so that she could take care of her mother. Eventually her beloved mother dies. For a long time he watches as the lady struggles with her loss. One day as he turns the corner she’s just standing by the curb looking especially forlorn.
THE HARD-HEADED BROTHER AND THE LEVEL-HEADED BROTHER
Once upon a time there were two brothers. The Younger Brother was truly talented. He had very special hands. He had a sharp eye. He had a quick mind. There wasn't a thing that this Younger Brother could not build. He could pick up a board, look at it for a moment, and presto, In ten minutes there would suddenly be a beautiful birdhouse. In no time at all ordinary wood turned into desks and patios and swing sets and trellises. And what masterpieces they all seemed to be! Every one of his projects was almost perfect. Almost. . . almost, because there was one strange thing about this Younger Brother. The Younger Brother refused to use a level.
A stubborn momma. A stubborn son. “Drive me to the store,” she insists. Her 20 year old takes one look at the fistful of coupons in her hand and rolls his eyes. Sure enough, for the next two hours they crisscross the Bronx saving a penny here, two cents there. And such stimulating conversation from the elderly woman. “Did you change your underpants this morning?…Do you pray for Grandpa every Sudday at Mass?...” The son just hunkers lower behind the steering wheel. “Sit up, you’ll hurt your back!” Then it happens. He accidently cuts off another driver. Angry words evolve into action, and the true caliber of this mother-son bond is tested.