(Me, My Aunt Josephine, My brother Michael, and my father (wearing fedora) at my college graduation, 1971).
(In honor of the 102nd Anniversary of my father’s birth, I am excerpting a short section from my upcoming book, Tightrope, which will be published this spring.)
My father and I stopped at the newspaper kiosk at the Babylon train station’s lower level on the morning of Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral in June, 1968, and picked up a copy of the New York Daily News for him, and the New York Times for me.
We boarded his regular early morning train that was already waiting at the station. Both newspapers predicted huge crowds of mourners would jam Manhattan that day. I pored over every word of every story I could read about RFK’s death, devouring each detail in the Times and leaning over my father’s arm to look at the pictures in the Daily News and read the giant headlines, until he flipped the paper over to the sports section to check what the horseracing handle was from the day before. The last three digits of that total would tell him if he “hit” the number with his bookie.
The contrast of our lives struck me. My father was doing the same thing he had done for 15 years of life on Long Island, catching an early morning train, looking at the horseracing results in the same section of the same newspaper each day, hoping that maybe, this time, this day “our ship would come in,” as he chanted each time he looked. Each day he got up before everyone else, went to the same job, taking care of tempermental steam boilers that belched hot water and hot air through the pipes running like elevated roadways in the basement of the office building where he worked in Manhattan. He barely made enough money to support our family, and only because he worked on Saturdays, too, earning overtime pay.
I watched the train conductor punch my ticket and thought of how my father must have watched countless conductors perform the same ritual, ticket after ticket, trip after trip, until he no longer knew it was happening. I sat and stared out the train window and watched Woodside whiz by, hearing my mother’s refrain repeating itself to the cadence of the train car’s wheels whispering over the tracks: “We live in hopes and die in despair; live in hopes, die in despair; live in hopes, live in hopes…” I looked over at my father, asleep, the Daily News folded in his lap.
No, I insisted to myself, I am the third son of a third son, and I must live a life like no one in my family has ever dreamed; my father told me so. I would learn about the mysterious “they” that my family fussed about whenever something happened out of their control, which was frequently. What I had to guard against, was becoming one of “them,” an unspoken fear between my family and me. We knew I would be different, but how different? Would I become unrecognizable to my mother and father? Go on, take, take, take; but don’t take too much…don’t change too much.
I looked at my father again, his dapper grey fedora resting gently on his head. I could not imagine him going to a politician’s funeral, to pay his respects to one of “them. To Al Villano, it was all distant, part of another “woild,” as he would say. He had all he could do to survive and feed his family in his world.
“Will you have to give la busta?,” he kidded me, when I first told him I was going to RFK’s funeral, referring to the Italian custom of putting a little money in an envelope and giving it to the family of the deceased to help pay funeral expenses. His humor got me to smile.
“I don’t think the Kennedys need it, Dad, “ I said, winking back at him.
We got off the train at Grand Central Station.
“Be careful and watch your wallet, Rock,” he said to me, heading down to the basement of the building where he worked, putting on his brown maintenance man’s uniform as soon as he got there, and wearing it all day, the way the wealthy lawyers and accountants on the floors above wore their designer label suits and ties, while he made certain they were comfortable all day long.