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

Friday, December 19, 2008

Our Summer Home in the Country

Not that I was ever to made to feel that way, quite the opposite in fact, but in realityI grew up poor. I always had enough to eat and clothes on my back, thanks largely to my mother's talent for squeezing ten cents out of a nickel, but there wasn't much left for anything else, like vacations. I smile when I hear kids today complaining about having to go back to Disneyworld again. "We were just there last year" they whine. "Can't we go someplace else?"

I never went on vacation anywhere as a kid. I don't say this for pity, it's just the way things were, and I accepted it. Most of my friends were in the same boat, so I really didn't have anybody to envy. Besides, we were too busy having "poor kid" fun. Not a day went by that I didn't wake up looking forward to playing some dopey, made-up game like those I've discussed in other posts (10/11/08, 10/14/08, 11/7/08.) I've used this line before, but it's worth repeating here: "An Italian's idea of a vacation is to sit on someone else's stoop."

We did have our "country home" in the summer. Before you get excited for me, a word of explanation. My Uncle Jim and Aunt Anna Lagonigro had what we called "the bungalow" on Elderts Lane in Brooklyn. The area at the time, down toward the Belt Parkway service road, was largely undeveloped except for a scattering of smaller homes, many without sewers or indoor plumbing. The roads were poor, and it didn't take much imagination to believe you were in some small town in the deep South. I found an old picture of the area that looks pretty much like it did in those days. This was our country home, and we spent many happy weekends there with the Lagonigros, the Bivonas and my family.

The property and house were very rustic, and not at all large, but for us kids it was paradise. The house had a primitive kitchen, but it didn't stop the three sisters (my mother and two aunts) from somehow turning out the most fantastic Italian dinners, which we ate outdoors at a wooden table shaded by a grapevine. The beer and homemade wine were always plentiful, and after dinner, while the adults talked, played cards and relaxed, the kids had the run of the place. There were blackberry bushes on the grounds and we ate the fruit right off the bushes. There was also an old cherry tree that shaded the house, and the cherries were delicious.

There was no television to park ourselves in front of, no Game Boy or X-Box, I'm not sure the property even had electricity. That meant we had to devise amusements for ourselves, something today's kids almost never get to do. The cousins would play checkers, have a catch, jump rope, maybe a game of hide-and-go-seek....simple pleasures that we thoroughly enjoyed. There were trees to climb, comics to read, tin cans to throw rocks at, and woodsy corners of the property to explore. Cousins of all ages, boys and girls, played together until it was time to eat or go home.

There was a well and water pump at the bungalow that I loved using, and a spider-filled outhouse that no matter how much lime was thrown down that hole, you always knew exactly where you were. We got to walk freely around the neighborhood (if you could call it that) since there was almost no traffic on the dirt roads. There was what can only be described as a "general store" around the corner that sold a little bit of everything. I remember a favorite purchase was the paper kites they sold, all rolled up, that had to be assembled before flying. We also bought two rolls of kite string that we tied together so that the kite could be flown higher. Negotiating the overhead electric cables required skill, but being city kids, we managed just fine.

These were our "vacations" in the fifties, no frills to be sure. Maybe it's the phenomenon that makes things from the past always seem better when remembered many years later, but those weekend trips to the bungalow, to this day, have a special place in my heart. Spending time with people you loved and who loved you, and gladly sharing whatever you had, is an experience that can't be easily put into words. We may have been "poor", but no amount of money could buy the togetherness and good times we shared.

I have since been to many places on vacation, and I always have a good time. If you asked me if I would ever trade a modern-day vacation with all the trimmings for a weekend at Aunt Anna's bungalow, my answer would probably surprise you.


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

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Send Me a Man Who Reads

The title of this post refers to an ad campaign by a company I used to work for, International Paper. This slogan was coined back in the 1960's and implied that a man who was well read would be worthy of hire. Today it might have to be amended to: "Send Me a Man Who Can Read!" There are several reasons why people stopped reading: 1) Television - Why read it when I can watch it. 2) Pace of life: Reading a book takes days; life is faster today. People want to "Google" everything for instant gratification. 3) Off-the-cliff drop in the quality of our schools - Too many students view reading as a chore; the notion of reading for pure pleasure never occurs to them.

Being an avid reader from my teens, I find this a sad state of affairs. Books were my ticket out of the everyday world to places and adventures I could only dream of. I can't give you the month and year when the reading habit took root, but I remember going to the local library and haunting the dusty shelves for something exciting. Probably the first book I can remember that made an impression on me was "The Red Badge of Courage" by Stephen Crane. Maybe this book stayed with me because the protagonist was a young boy around my age actually going to fight for his country on the side of the Union. Any boyish notions about the glory of war (even though I probably didn't know it back then) were put to rest by reading about the boy's struggle to overcome cowardice and endure the horrors of battle.

In high school we were assigned books that were "required reading" like The Iliad, Moby Dick, and Ivanhoe. I hated them mainly because we were forced to read them by burned-out English teachers who were marking time waiting for their pensions. Then along came Ms. Patricia Hornburger. I have already spoken about her and the influence she had on me, so I won't repeat myself. (See 10/28/08 post: "Tech Alma Mater, Molder of Men"). Suffice to say that she took an ember and fanned it into a flame. She made reading interesting; she listened seriously to our childish but earnest opinions of the books, and taught us to look for meanings beyond the author's actual words. The ultimate tribute I can pay her: she made Shakespeare fun.

Some other books that left their mark:

"Gone With the Wind", Margaret Mitchell's Civil War epic about Scarlett and Rhett. Mitchell's ability to tell a story is second to none. Happily, the movie made from the book, under the direction of Victor Fleming, was worthy of ten Oscars in 1939 including best picture.

"To Kill a Mockingbird", by Harper Lee, another Southern woman who, like Margaret Mitchell, wrote a blockbuster of a novel, but not much else. Gregory Peck was so good as Atticus Finch, single Dad and small town Mississippi lawyer defending an innocent black man, that he even made lawyers seem sympathetic.

"The Time Machine" by H. G. Wells was one of the early science fiction novels that paved the way for later writers in this genre like Isaac Asimov. Wells, a brilliant man whose own life (Biography of H.G. Wells) was practically as fantastic as some of his books, took us on a journey to the future in a time travel machine. Wells was way ahead of his time, no pun intended.

"The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy were for years a relatively obscure set of novels by the great J.R.R. Tolkien. Then came the films, which by the way could not have been any truer to the books, and new legions of fans were born. For me, as good as the Peter Jackson movies were, they will never replace the thrill I got from reading about an entire world created in Tolkien's fertile imagination.

"Catch 22" by Joseph Heller was a hilarious send up of the military. Having been in the Army, and witnessed first hand the the insanity of the military mentality, it was fun to see it laid open and held up to scorn. The movie flopped because, like the NY Yankees, it had a huge assemblage of talent, but the total was far less than the sum of its parts.

"Watership Down" by Richard Adams took me completely by surprise. It's the story of a group of rabbits (yes, rabbits) who plot an escape from their warren to find a better life. Adams nearly had to pay out of his own pocket to get it published. It's not a children's story, but one of courage in the face of fear, friendship, trust, and ultimately, success. This is the only book that so moved me that I actually wrote notes in the margins. Read the book, I promise you'll love it.

Too many others to list. If you want to inspire a love of reading in your own kids or grand kids, read with them. It's the gift that keeps on giving, and they'll remember you for it. I'll never forget the teacher who inspired it in me: to paraphrase the great Jimmy Durante, "Goodnight Ms. Hornburger, wherever you are."


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