Monday, December 22, 2008

Neighborhood Character: Sal Bordenga

In our teen years most of us are like blank pages, waiting to be written upon by the people who influence our development and character. Parents, family members and teachers certainly play a major role in this process, but sometimes we meet someone outside the usual channels who makes enough of an impression on us that we want to be like them. One such person in my life was a man by the name of Sal Bordenga. Sal was the husband of Agnes and the father of Phyllis, a good friend of my sister, and a younger daughter, Maria who I never really knew very well. Together they were one of the nicest families you could ever want to meet. The Bordendas lived a few doors away from us as tenants in the grandest house on the block, at least by our humble Brooklyn standards.They were a younger couple compared to my parents, and those of most of my friends, and much more fun to be around.

Being totally comfortable in my masculinity, I can freely admit that one of the many things I admired about Sal was his good looks. Dark and handsome in a John Forsythe kind of way, Sal was one of those lucky guys whose looks got better as he got older. His dark, wavy hair became threaded with silver, and he surely must have had a "Dorian Grey" type portrait hanging on the wall in his house, because he himself never seemed to age. Maybe it was his disposition that kept Sal young. I'm sure he had problems, but you would never know it from looking at him. His eyes were full of life, and his smile always easy and sincere.

Another of Sal's admirable qualities was the way he dressed. I don't know for sure what he did for a living; something to do with the music business strikes a vague chord. Whatever it was, Sal was always turned out like he stepped out of the pages of Esquire Magazine. His clothes looked expensive, mostly sports jackets, slacks and ties, but all were stylish and impeccably tailored. He was trim of build and carried himself so confidently that as he walked home from the subway and down Somers Street, heads turned. Sal made a wave here and a shouted joke there, and you could just tell that people liked him.

All the young guys on the block, although we never outwardly spoke of it, respected and admired Sal. He was closer to our age than our parents, and partly because of that, we trusted him. Unlike the neighborhood busybodies who looked for things to rat you out for like smoking, Sal never lectured to or betrayed us. As we grew into our teens, he started inviting us into his home for New Year's Eve parties. He treated us like adults, talked to us as equals, even let us have a beer or two knowing none of us had driver's licenses. He was a magnetic personality, a "guy's guy", and someone you enjoyed being around.

Sal's wife Agnes seemed like the perfect partner for him. She was attractive, intelligent and also had a ready smile. She must have been quite a woman, because I never saw Sal even look at another girl. He could have had his pick, but seemed happy and content with his lovely wife. Their daughter Phyllis was a perfect blend of her parents' best qualities; pretty, vivacious and very popular. She married a young man whose name was also Sal. Who knows, maybe she thought her father imparted some magic to the name; she would have been right.

There's an expression: "Good things happen to good people." Unfortunately it's not always true, but it was in Sal's case. He bought a winning ticket in the Irish Sweepstakes, a forerunner of the lottery, and used the money to buy a home in Queens, a world away from Brooklyn. We saw little of the family after that, and I hope his life turned out to be a happy one. He never knew what a positive influence he had been in my life. I know he never set out to impress us, or be a role model, but for me that's exactly what he was. I was fortunate to have people like Sal come along at a time when I was impressionable enough to go either way, but his positive example helped me get on a straight track.

I never got the chance to thank Sal for being everything I wanted to be, and for unconsciously helping me to understand how to be a man. I don't think I ever could have discussed this seriously with him; as soon as he saw where I was going, his modesty would have made him change the subject and turn my praise aside with a joke. As I think about him now, it is always with that "light up the room" smile on his face. Maybe I'll try to track down his daughter Phyllis and let her know how much I admired her Dad.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

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