Sunday, June 20, 2010

Everybody Loves Raymond

If you Google "Raymond Salamo" the only hit is the Social Security Death Index showing his birth date, March 1910, and the date of his death, February 16, 1998. What you won't find is the story of the man who, as well as any, represents his generation and his Brooklyn-Italian roots. Ray was my father-in-law and quite an interesting guy. He was gruff on the outside, and did not accept people easily, but once you passed muster, you couldn't ask for a more loyal friend. When Ray pronounced you as OK, he began to let down his guard and show the funny, kinder side of him that those on the outside never got to see. Instead, they got what came to be known as "the Salamo look", a penetrating stare that froze people in their tracks. The look was a family thing that all his siblings, and even his children at times, could produce, but Ray was the consummate practitioner.

Ray was born Erasmo Salamo in Brooklyn, New York in 1910, the same year as my father (View "Tony Boots"); 1910 must have been a good year for characters. Erasmo became 'Ray' early in his life, probably because Italian-Americans worked hard to blend in back then, almost to the detriment of their Italian heritage and culture. They embraced all things American including the English language. Children were encouraged to learn English, and in many homes of immigrants, Italian was not spoken except when they didn't want the kids to understand what was being said. Ray came from a large family of eleven children, six boys and five girls, raised by his parents, Gelsomina and Vincenzo. They lived at various locations around South Brooklyn in the vicinity of Columbia and Hicks Streets.

There was nothing Ray enjoyed more than reminiscing about those days. If he was in a grumpy mood, we learned to steer his thoughts back in time, and soon he was a different man, animated and happy, as he spoke of remembered adventures with his good pal Mike Sasso. Mike was a bear of a man with the sweetest disposition...that is until he became angry. Then you wanted to give Mike a wide berth or risk some emergency dental work. Mike met and eventually married a lovely girl named Betty Menkel. Betty's father Charlie owned a bakery on Hicks Street in Brooklyn, and Ray and Mike helped out around the store. Charlie must have been quite a character too because the minute his name came up, Ray began to chuckle like a boy, not something he did easily.

In 1940, Ray married Isabelle Corsano and soon two daughters, Jasmine and Paula, graced the world. The family residence was an apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn on Union Street near Eighth Avenue, later a haven for hordes of Yuppies who coveted the beautiful brownstones that lined the streets. Ray's parents and unmarried siblings lived a few doors down in a home that became the center of Salamo family life. Grandma Gelsomina always had the gravy simmering and the macaroni boiling for Sunday dinner Italian-style. When I was courting Jasmine, I had the pleasure of attending some of those meals while Grandma and Grandpa Salamo were still with us. The decibel level was high, with conversations covering a wide range of topics as the dishes were passed around. These Sunday dinners were and are the core of Italian-American family life. They established our identity and our connection to one another, transcending time and place.

Ray was the straight man for Uncle Ralph Esposito, another great character of that generation who was married to Isabelle's sister Louise, thereby becoming Ray's brother-in-law. Ray and Ralph became a comedy team, with Ray underplaying the long-suffering Bud Abbot role while Ralph reveled in being the outrageous Lou Costello. At family functions they would go into their act. Uncle Ralph unpacked his props, wigs and gadgets and soon the skits would begin. Their best audience of course was their kids, and later their grand kids, who would giggle at their corny antics. They were the life of every wedding and dance they attended, and you couldn't help wonder how two children of the Great Depression had learned to laugh so easily, and to share their gift so readily.

Ray was a man set in his ways. Change was his enemy. When the house he lived in for most of his adult life was sold, and the new owner wanted Ray's apartment vacated, Ray fought kicking and screaming into the ranks of first-time homeowner. His daughter Paula and her husband Arthur had just bought a house in the Windsor Terrace section of Brooklyn. The house next door happened to be vacant, and grudgingly, Ray bought it. It turned out to be the best investment he ever made, but he'd never admit that. Regardless of what was said, his first instinct was to disagree. If you made him do something he did not want to do, he'd always find a way to let you know, for example, if you invited him to the beach (not one of his favorite places) he'd go, but keep his shoes and socks on as a way of reminding you he didn't want to be there.

Ray was the ever-present sentry at the second-floor window when I took Jasmine home from our dates. I know he couldn't see us down in the doorway, but I could feel the heat from his eyes, and so our good nights tended to be brief. When I asked for his daughter's hand in marriage he couldn't be more gracious and accepting of me. Ray and Isabelle helped us throughout their lives. They didn't interfere, but we knew they were there, standing by to do whatever we asked of them, and sometimes quietly doing without being asked. Ray's wants were simple: to be able to find a parking space near the house; for the Yankees to make it to the post season; and for his children to be happy. As I grow older and grumpier I sometimes feel like I'm turning into Ray Salamo. Knowing the kind of man he was, if I could ever live up to the example he set, I would be content with that.


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Joseph Del Broccolo said...

It's amazing how as we get older and grumpier, that anyone allows us to get older!

Jim Pantaleno said...

Wait, it will be their turn soon.