My Huckleberry Friends and Me
by James A. Fragale
The Greeks have six words for the ultimate feeling: LOVE. We, in English, have one. Aha! Competitive me boasts, in Italian we have a lexicon-load of terms for the other loveliest of words: friend /friends/friendship.
In the world's most romantic language, the term heard most, of course, is the classic paisan(o). Paisano! Then there's the appealing school-buddy term, compagnoa - an inviting endearment akin to companionship. I say, you can't have too much of that.
Next, there are two diminutive Italian derivatives that might be uttered simultaneously with a three-touching-fingers-and-loud-air-kiss: amico! (NOTE: the feminine is amica, the plural, amici). A variation on those two, Amicizia, to me sounds like my maiden aunt - Zia! -- but, these days my Italian is a tad rusty.
Which brings me to the poignant phrase "Let's be friends," Facciamo pace. Can't you just hear yourself now: Facciamo pace, paesano!? Facciamo pace.
My favorite Italian-friend-offshoot that sounds more like a punch line than a real word: "collega." "Coll-ega" opens up the party to a limitless name game.
If an at-work friend-colleague is a "collega" -- I ask -- is an intimate-friend a "ball-ega." Or, if a colleague at the office is a collega, is a boring dude a "dull-ega?" An interim date, a "lull-ega?" How about someone you used to go out with, a "saw-llega?" Hmmm ... Wonder how you'd dub a friend-with-benefits?
I came to New York City for good on February 5, 1964. I had no friends here and a whole bunch back home in Clarksburg, West Virginia - or so I thought. On closer inspection: I had two.
Over the years, in my newfound hometown, The Big Apple, I've had variations-on-a-theme cohorts - a sizeable stable that served a multitude of functions: girlfriend, drinking buddy, workout gym-rat, collaborator, associate, sidekick, neighbor down the hall, corner counter guy to wave at en passant en route to work, etc., etc., etc., ad infinitum. After that giant geographic in 1964, moving to Gotham from Ghetto, I soon chalked up an impressive roster of drinking-dining buddies; folks with whom I could bend the elbow at the drop of ... the hint of an invite. (Let's not right now address the newfangled gossip magazine lingo I don't quite get: "bromance)."
So now, pushing 77 - and some 53 years after getting off the plane at LaGuardia -- I'm examining the relationship: friends and/or friendship. The older ones died of natural causes; the younger ones, in one way or another, drank themselves to death and/or succumbed to their lifestyle--sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and not so comforting Southern Comfort. Either way, they left the planet. Prime time, big time, that narrowed the playing field. Period. Reader-friend-paesano, before going any further it is imperative to confess here, now, and forever, I don't drink anymore. In your wildest imagination, can you grasp how much that changes everything? Verboten these days: social-able acquaintances as well as social functions -- off-limits.
What's left? I confess, I used to spend every early evening at the local YMCA. That gym picked up the "facciamo pace" slack. At 5:30 or so, I could chew the fat, in between sets, with other gym rats. Amici, I aimed for 100 percent, seven days a week and rarely made it - but showed up most every day. Then, after too many decades to mention (psst, 50 years) I traded the neighborhood YMCA for a more expensive health club -- closer to home, leaving my workout amicizios behind. And, I rationalized the higher fee this way: I'm buying time. A) The new gym is closer to the apartment. B) I save approximately 10 minutes each way. En toto, C That's 20 minutes purchased daily. How dare I put a price on "time?" Downside to Upscale gym: now working-out at a high-tone health club, I'm obliged to make different, new workout cronies or, pump iron -- (Huh!) -- exercise alone.
Hold the Phone!
One of my first gigs, soon out of college, was writing ad-copy for Bloomingdale's. Recently, one of my old bosses from there did get in touch -- decades after we'd palled around. After all these decades, Bloomingdale-Boss-Vita-Lisa got wind of my first novel, The Answer to Life -- read it, liked it, and looked me up. We have rekindled our collega-friendship and frequently have lunch. (Remind me to invent a fresh concept for old-new-rekindled chums - for now, on the back burner).
Pushing 77, with 2017 around the corner, what do I have to report ... what do I have to communicate about real friends and friendship? For openers, and not so surprising -- those two childhood friends mentioned early on? The ones back in Clarksburg? They are still my Huckleberry Friends, thank you Johnny Mercer,** with whom I'd put my life in their hands. I want you to meet them.
ASPETTAMI! Is it an EMBARRASING FOOTNOTE, late in life, to boast only two real friends? Boo-hoo? Bummer? Failure?
1). Hootie is a tall, trim, distinguished College Professor-Writer who, over the years, without fail, was there for me any time I needed him. I can't emphasize that enough. He's the only person I've ever known who is always on the scene to hear me out -- without prejudice, envy, or eye-roll; on the spot, when I hit the wall - and/or to red pencil a paragraph. More than that, an insecure writer couldn't ask for. Meet Hootie: Honor roll recipient, straight A-student -- boasting an established local family - The Coles -- with old-world WASP credentials. An advantageous position to be in, diametrically opposed to my own Italian immigrant roots: Fragale, Martino, Adamo with a touch of Perfetti. And yes, his great grandfather Cole had been mayor. Somewhere across town, a bridge was named after granddad Cole.
Not so surprising, Hootie had all the trappings of confidence and brainpower to succeed in the world of Twentieth-Century-United-States-of-America. And, did -- right on cue: He became a respected college professor/dean at one of the more icy covered (he jokes: "icy covered") institutions of higher learning. All impressive. But for me he tops a more lowbrow list. His finest asset is that he is a down-to-earth gent. When I detail folks-I-knew-who-made-me-laugh-out-loud, he heads the list. Hootie could elicit a belly laugh from me in a snap -- long before L.O.L. was an acronym. In my book, Hootie was and is an all-around top-drawer friend.
2). Not in second place, I assure you, is Cocco. Cocco was a few years older than I. She lived down the block from my grandparents and took my under her wing during a difficult time. My folks had been evicted and we were bunking down in the Italian neighborhood with my maternal grandparents. This tall, trim, clear-skinned, unfussy, high-minded, smart, snappy, liberal, with long straight clean-smelling hair, befriended this clueless pre-teen ethnic dude -- more than anyone else in that not-so-forgiving Italian neighborhood. Further evidence of her above and beyond the average spirituality: a few steps behind, a sweet-tempered, champagne-colored husky named "Pal" tailed us everywhere, loving and guarding us. To this day, when we reference "Pal" -- all these years later -- she still gets teary-eyed. That's heart.
At that time, I had to walk across town to grade school -- shivering with every step, in my Thom McAnn's. I'd become a courier for the grade school principal who forced me to be interceder between her Principle-ness and Mother Lou, the boss of our family. Old Maid Bruta Face, in her stark, industry-green and mahogany office with resting-on-her-breast bifocals would call me in ... she was on my case right after the eviction to have us move from that school - one I'd been attending for six years -- to the Italian section school. On the carpet, in her office, my pits dripping, she'd dress me down - indulging herself in long tirades -- all of which ended with words I grit my teeth to detail -- to be delivered to my mother. (Why Miss Bruta Face was exercising so much energy on this, I'll never know... I ask myself: because we were Italian?) The message to Mom: "You and your siblings, must transfer to the grade school nearer the North Side." My Mother's succinct reply, the same every time, uttered / spoken / passionless, with firm resignation: "'It's just temporary.'" Please don't tell Catholic Grandmaw, Mother Lou referred to the principal as Assy-Whaley.
Cocco sure was extraordinary ... Cocco and I, on my evenings off, tooled around the North Side. I'd "secured" a job cleaning cake pans in a restaurant up the block. NOTE: with sad violins dripping in the background, the cleaning room window, where I scraped clean -- and then thoroughly greased -- was positioned directly above the sandlot where the neighborhood guys roughhoused and played baseball. Their home run-cheers wafted up and into the window as I removed yesterday's crumbs from the bottom of a nagging pile of grubby rectangular bake pans. (In the future, therapist Dr. Bosco was to have a psychologist's field day with that co-incidence -- sandlot-below-my-pre-teen-job-above-other-boys-field-of-play). To say the least, at eleven or twelve: this was a rough time for me. And, Cocco was my refuge, my strength, my confidant - a most admirable amica.
Cocco would buy us, dripping with steaming cold frost, RC Cola's. First, we'd take a couple of sips. Then, we'd drop handfuls of salted peanuts into the fizzing Cola bottle. Boy, was that a great treat. And, at the first whisper of darkness, twilight, we'd sneak into the bakery up on Sixth Street. From the dented, steel-gray cooling racks, we'd swipe a couple of still warm, right from the oven, freshly glazed donuts. I suspect the bakers knew what we were doing and good natured-ly looked the other way.
After high school, Cocco went on to chalk up impressive credentials in Washington, D.C., positioned in a wide-windowed office that looked down the block at the White House. She became a higher-up for The National Education Association. We can assume she was good at what she did. Even after she retired, the N.E.A. mahoffs would telephone her at home with questions on policy and solicit solutions on current snafus.
We're still close friends. Cocco and I exchange emails twice a week. And, her life now? Retired, in a roomy house in a D.C. suburb, with a sweet puppy or two. Even the new, charming, yelping, trouser-brushing pedigrees don't replace mongrel "Pal," though.
Before wrapping up I'd like to interject some hubris.
In mid-life, I saw a therapist - Dr.Bosco -- with whom I shared, among other hazerai, my confusion and confoundedness on difficult New Yorkers: friends, lovers and other strangers --in other words -- big-headed big-city neurotic human beings (read: relationships!). Along the way, this gentle (Italian) psychologist said something I never forgot and took to heart. "Sir," he said in his best official, power voice, "you invariably say what great people your friends are. But you fail to recognize ... what a good friend you are to them. You really know how to be a friend." That comment was worth every penny ABC Television Network's insurance paid Dr. Bosco on my behalf. I pray this was true then, and trust it's truer now.
Closing caveat: today, realistically, I suspect making new (close) friends, at 76 plus -- is not in the bridge game. But philosophically, I concede: Ending up, late in life, with two close friends is not a bad batting overage. But, I ain't dead yet. Old and new hope springs. I'm still open to making future (uncomplicated, please) paisanos. And, having said aaalllll that, I ask you: What in sam-hell is a "bromance?"
** "... my huckleberry friend..." Lyric from Johnny Mercer's "Moon River," Music by Italian composer Henry Mancini