Tuesday, September 24, 2013

I Still Remember Joni James

I have a friend named Jack Bilello who wrote a wonderful book called: "I Still Love Joni James: A Boy Grows in Brooklyn". (Actually, Jack is a few years older than me, and it's his brother Joe I'm closer to.) In addition to being a skilled writer, Jack has the memory of an elephant. In the book, he tells the biographical story of his own upbringing in East New York, Brooklyn in the fifties. For me it was like time traveling back to the places of my childhood and meeting once again the people who Jack breathes back to life. They are all thinly disguised characters in a story based largely on the real residents who really walked the streets. 

Jack writes of the neighborhood in charming detail and with an insider's feeling for its diverse inhabitants: "Get up you son-of-a bitch! You miserable bastard! Get up and get ready for church". Senza Denti, in mid-season form, yelled at Little Philly. I said now, you lagnazuna, and I mean it! If you don't go to church I'll kick you out on your Goddamn ear! The entire neighborhood had given her the nickname. Senza Denti, the toothless. Her two front teeth were missing, leaving a serious gap, lost, rumor has it, when her husband, Philly the Fish, had personally and permanently altered her appearance with a right cross to the jaw. Out of respect, everyone called her Senza Denti behind her back only. To her face she was called Frances or Mrs. Montenova." 

Jack, on the Parade Grounds, a ball field near Prospect Park where the better teams in the borough played: "The Brooklyn Parade Grounds, bordering on Prospect Park, contained twelve baseball fields.  Diamonds two through twelve ranged over the expanse of the Parade Grounds, an enormous stretch of green carved with eleven baseball diamonds colliding with each other. Here the lightweights jousted. On these contiguous fields the outfielders of two different teams would frequently get chummy, gabbing back and forth during lulls in the action. These diamonds had no fences, no dugouts, no stands, no water fountains. Scrubville, U.S.A. Diamond One however, other than that emerald shrine called Ebbets Field, sparkled as the most famous baseball diamond in the fourth largest city in the U.S.A. - the beautiful borough of Brooklyn." 

As the family returned from his father's funeral, the main character, Chris, thought about transitioning from son to father:  "Boy oh boy Dad. We always have to listen to your music. His fifteen-year old son fished around for WBAB, rap and hip-hop. Chris, nettled, in retaliation, reflexively popped the selector back to WHLI and Dean Anthony who played the music of Chris' life. Chris gazed out the car window to hide the tears welling in his eyes. He recalled the exact same radio ruckus he had with his father. He thought no one can be a good son until he's been a father. Words leaped into his mind. Thomas Wolfe said you can't go home again. Eugene O'Neill believed you can never leave home. Chris put his money on O'Neill. You can and should go home again, if only to retrieve the priceless memories. He turned to his son. His tears, like the years, had evaporated. OK Jackie, put on your station. But always remember this...I still love Joni James."
This book peeled away the years for me. It reminded me how lucky I am to have been raised in Brooklyn by a loving Italian family in a time when the world was less complicated... a good read for anyone who remembers Joni James.
Note: Some quotes from the book are paraphrased. 

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From Jack Bilello's Bio:  
Born, raised and educated in BrooklynNew York, Jack Bilello, a former Fulbright Scholar and member of Phi Beta Kappa and Kappa Delta Pi (the National Education Honor Society) lives on Long Island with his family. A former Chairperson of History at Lindenhurst, NY public schools, he is currently a field supervisor at Dowling College, Oakdale, Long Island. In addition to his novel, I Still Love Joni James: A Boy Grows in Brooklyn, Bilello has published two previous novels: Bonds of War, a WW II-Vietnam historical fiction was privileged to have its dedication page chosen by the State of Florida’s Veterans Association to honor the American fallen. American Patrol, currently in its second printing, is a suspense action thriller and was a publisher’s nomination for the National Book Award. Both novels are being considered for major motion pictures Three short stories, A Last Chance to be a Boy Again, A Piece of the Heart and Brother’s Keeper are slated for future publication.
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2 comments:

Laura said...

Do you have a copy? I'd love to read it!

Jim Pantaleno said...

Sure.