"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, March 4, 2012


“Ronnie, you got an aura around you”, said Petey Brogna; but he was totally whacked out on yellow jackets and would have seen an aura around Eileen DiMarco who was as ugly as a witch with great hairy moles on her face, bad teeth and enormous tits which on anyone else would have been worth a second look but made her look top heavy, perched as they were on her 4’8” body.

For some reason Petey, Harry Pucci, and Tony Lillo liked me to read Shakespeare to them when they were stoned.  I must have sounded like Isaiah, speaking in some celestial Biblical tongue, the meaningless words reverberating like a magical incantation, resonating in the empty apartment as I recited in my best, stentorian Richard Burton voice. 

They no more understood Elizabethan English than they did classical Latin, or the sixth grade primers that they struggled over in remedial English until they were finally dismissed from the public school system as incorrigibly stupid. They liked Julius Caesar, not that they understood it any better, just that they liked the idea that Shakespeare wrote about Italians and there was lots of killing.  They knew the story, and asked me to read the part where Brutus assassinates Caesar again and again.  This they could understand because they were all Mafia lowlifes who, although they had no notches in their belts yet, aspired to whacking their enemies and throwing them in the stinking swamps of the Meadowlands.

In the kind of work they did, they didn’t need any more than a sixth grade education.  They dumped cars in Bayonne Harbor for goombas who couldn’t make the car payments and wanted to collect the insurance money.  They were drug retailers who distributed product bought from wholesalers in New York.  They weren’t pushers – they were too genteel for that – and stayed off the street; but peddled through easy connections in the Central Ward who worked the projects.  It was a good life, not too much risk and a good living.  They had no-show jobs at the City to cover for them, still ate Momma’s cooking, took a few weeks off in the summer at the Jersey Shore, and paid a little tribute to Uncle Errol every so often to keep things right.

The good life got all discombobulated when Petey met Delia Caldwell, a blonde, blue-eyed daddy’s girl from Minneapolis.  I had met Delia in college on a double-date in Poughkeepsie, and we had stayed in touch. She had wandered all over the United States, and had spent time in a Sufi camp in the Humboldt County redwoods, the Swaminathan Ramarajan ashram in Los Angeles, and finally the Church of Scientology on Christopher Street in New York City.  She put as much energy in getting ‘clear’ -attaining personal salvation through the exorcism of engrams, unwanted emotions or painful traumas not readily available to the conscious mind – as she did the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God that is the heart of Sufism; or the attainment of Hindu higher levels of consciousness.  She tried one method after another, not unlike trying the homeopathic, ayurvedic, and unani systems of alternative medicine until one finally worked.  After three years, she gave it all up and, still seeking but worn out with purely spiritual quest, she came to New Jersey to try her luck in more secular pursuits.

As soon as she met Petey Brogna, she knew that he was the one.  He was Casanova Valentino, and Michael Corleone combined.  He had the profile, the dark, mysterious Mediterranean complexion, and the jet-black, wavy hair that she had never seen during the 18 years she had spent in Minneapolis and only saw on the kitchen help working at the Strong House dining hall.  Petey was tall, slim, and moved with grace and a natural agility.  He was polite and attentive and few people, at first glance, would ever know that he was as dumb as a stone, a lowlife Down Neck hood, and going absolutely nowhere.  Delia didn’t care.  In her withdrawal from the esoteric reaches of mysticism and self-awareness, she had pangs of desire for polar opposites, and Petey Brogna was the chosen one.

Petey could not believe his luck.  Just as Delia had never seen, let alone gotten to know an Italian, Petey had never – not in his wildest imagination – ever dreamed of going out with a girl like Delia.  She was every goomba’s wet dream – she had flaxen, golden hair, not the wiry black tangle that caught your fingers.  She had creamy, silky white skin, not the dark, hairy flab of Delores Petrillo or her cousins.  And best of all, she had a soft, downy muff, a perfumed treasure far removed from the dank and swampy pussies of  Down Neck.  Petey had no idea why Delia had chosen him, but had enough marbles rolling around in his empty head to know that you don’t ask.

Petey’s infatuation with Delia broke up the happy threesome, and Harry and Tony didn’t know what to do with themselves, and the spirit went out of them.  Without Petey, they were dispirited and listless.  I started hanging out with a mad organist from Matawan.  We visited all the great pipe organs of the New York region, and because of his connection with Rutgers, he was able to practice at any time.  I sat in the back of the church, tripping on acid while Brandon blasted Bach’s toccatas and fugues, shaking the foundation, rattling the stained glass windows, filling the vaults with the thundering basses, airy, fluty adagios, and the cataclysmic finales.

Brandon had a problem, however.  Despite his ability to soar with the celestial music of Bach, he had a bad black dog depression.  His dark, gloomy pall covered everything, including me.

I was beginning to think that it was time to cut loose from Petey, Brandon, and all the rest of New Jersey.  Delia was coming to the same conclusion – the guns and fights were getting scary, and what had been the romance of the mean streets was turning out to be endless boredom, mama mia’s spaghetti and meatballs, and brushes with the law.

We both left.  I went to India and Delia went back to graduate school in St. Paul and then on to medical school at Harvard.  We were interlopers, after all, and New Jersey was but a temporary anchorage.  We had many more ports of call to make.  Petey, Harry, and Tony, however, were left with pumping the bilge.  I know that if I were to parachute back down to Newark or Elizabeth, Las Vegas, or wherever they might now be after 50 years, I would find them the same – maybe a nice house in Mantaloking, patio furniture, a decent income, kids and grandkids; but no foreign adventures, no seven figure income and published articles in The Lancet.

We were privileged observers, able to have our dalliances with the margins with little consequence. Delia could experiment with the fringes of religion then taste the brine of the Jersey Shore.  My Italian roots were starter street creds, and my interloping was not looked at with suspicion – I was no threat, they knew at least where I came from, and let me in without too many questions.  I liked the attention just as much as they did – we both ogled each other, and wondered what was behind the Shakespeare or dumping cars; but it was I who could leave.

My time in New Jersey was without a doubt the most exciting and exhilarating of my life.  It is the way one should spend one’s twenties, out of control, wacko risk taking, dipping social snuff, goofing on Bach, fucking outrageously, and sleeping soundly.  I was privileged; but I was also lucky. 

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