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

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

A Yalie In Goomba Land–Boosting Gucci Shoes In A Brooks Brothers Suit

Yale in the late Fifties had begun to come under increasing pressures from New Haven to invest more in the city - not only in infrastructure, but in human resources as well. It wasn't enough, City officials said, for Yale to hire the men and women who served the elite; it was important for them to recruit talented New Haven students for Yale's undergraduate body itself. The time had come for New Haven's Italian-Americans to stop serving strawberries, and to eat them.

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Yale agreed, but with a prejudice characteristic of the times, assumed that any Italian-American New Haven student would be only suitable for menial work, agreed to admit Richard Puzzi,, Alderman Guido Marucci's highly recommended candidate who had been a football standout at New Haven High. At least this slab of hairy meat would make short work of the Princeton line, so never mind the grades. A memo went out to all Puzzi’s professors at the beginning of the year: "Pass this ape".

To Yale's surprise, Puzzi turned out to be a below average football player - he ended the year only as a fourth down lineman on the freshman team. To their greater surprise, he turned out to be quite a good student, with a particular aptitude for math - not a remarkable aptitude by any means, but far greater than they had ever imagined. By the end of the year, Puzzi not only had passed every course, but had garnered a B+ average. The New Haven aldermen were obviously pleased - and vindicated - and pressured Yale to expand their enrollment of New Haven Italians.

Yale refused, insisting that Puzzi was a fluke. Unfortunately for Yale, with the arrogance and disdain that characterized Yale Town-Gown relationships up until the mid-Sixties, its politically naive spokesmen were more than candid and public in their pronouncements. "Mr. Puzzi", an Assistant Dean told the Journal-Courier, "may be a champion of his people, but he is certainly not a champion of our people".

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The aldermen were pissed. Angry letters poured in to the Journal-Courier demanding a retraction, a public apology, and reparations - twenty Italian-Americans from New Haven must be admitted to Yale to the Class of 1964 or else (the threat of a university-wide strike of kitchen and maintenance workers was implicit). Worse yet, Italian-American delegates to the Connecticut Legislature got into the act. Picking up the political cudgel and wielding it at the state level, Assemblymen DeVito, Garofano, and Binelli excoriated Yale at every turn. If this was not bad enough, it was an election year, and Yale bashing was a sure-fire vote-getter. Soon any Connecticut WASP was fair game. Cartoons of St. Grottlesex airheads summering on the Vineyard, prattling about our people - all portrayed as vapid Gatsby-esque dilettantes - appeared in every paper from the Hartford Courant to the Naugatuck News.

Yale knew they had to settle, but were convinced they could do it on their terms. Negotiations began with a certain civility - as uppity as the Italian-Americans were getting, there was still a visceral respect for the well-born - but they quickly broke down. Observers reported a class war - invectives with language that veered perilously close to the ethnic slur came from both sides. The talks broke off, and only because both politicians and university administrators knew that the Yale-New Haven marriage could never survive a nasty divorce, a new date was set for talks to resume.

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Two months later, to avoid further roasting in the press and increasing political pressure from Connecticut and now national politicians, Yale made a generous proposal to New Haven: it would take a minimum of two New Haven residents per year, would make a public apology for the "our people" interview, and would recruit up to five Italian Americans from Connecticut per year if and only if they were the most exceptional candidates. The standards Yale set were so high that the Admissions Office was convinced that they would get no suitable candidates. The Connecticut politicians, a bit uneasy about the almost unattainable qualifications, felt at the same time that they could not back down on them - of course the descendants of Gallileo, Michaelangelo, and Bernini could meet the highest standards.

Frank Grillo was one of the first Italian Americans to be admitted after Richard Puzzi.  He was exactly the type of ethnic recruit that Parsons had hoped for – graduate of Lefferts Academy, a second-tier but respectable prep school in New Hampshire, son of a doctor, and against the odds but to the Dean’s happy surprise, a Protestant.  The Grillo family had ancient roots in the Western Piedmont before eventually settling in the countryside near Naples, and although over the centuries they had become Catholics they retained something of their Waldesian past.  The Lefferts college advisor, knowing Parsons,  suggested that he work this arcane bit of family history into his application.

 “I am an Italian-American”, Frank wrote, “but one of a diverse heritage which dates to the 12th Century, the Austrian wars of succession, and to Peter Waldo and the pre-Lutheran Evangelical Church he founded”.

 Clearly, if Yale had to bow to ethnic pressures, it would be eminently preferable to have an assimilated Italian like Grillo rather than a string of meaty Puzzis.

Despite all of this stretching of his heritage, Frank Grillo’s family had been living in a small town in Sorrento since the late Renaissance.  Not that his peasant ancestors had anything to do with Leonardo, Bernini, or Botticelli, but a historical dating would be useful as a frame of reference for Dean Parsons or anyone else, ignorant as his classmates would be about anything Italian except the high culture of Florence and Rome.  

His grandparents came to America in the early years of the 20th century, ironically settled in New Haven which had always had a significant proportion of Italian immigrants, and had made their living as factory workers and tradesmen.  Despite his parents’ attempts to expunge all traces of the old country, and despite Dean Parsons’ taking Frank’s education and social situation at face value,  Frank grew up a goomba – bella figura, Cadillacs, Easter dinners, Venetian sconces, parlors, confessions, stations of the cross, catechism, and Holy Communion.  He was not that different from Richard Puzzi.

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Shortly after graduation from Yale and a compressed year in a graduate program of public policy, Frank was recruited by the mayor of Newark, New Jersey himself – a first generation Italian who had no Ivy League pedigree let alone any education beyond a semester at Jersey Tech, and who like many immigrants had dreams of Yale, a blonde wife, and summers on Nantucket.   Grillo was exactly what Mayor La Cava was looking for – Southern Italian, Yale graduate, with all the poise and manners that good breeding and schooling would bring to a very unschooled administration.  Frank was recruited to work as an Assistant Manager, Urban Renewal, in the Newark Housing Authority under another Italian, the Mayor’s second cousin, a vote getter in the North Ward when he ran for electoral office, and a staunch defender of Italian American Newark at a time when the colored population was becoming a problem.

Frank quickly found that absolutely nothing got done at work. On Monday all Sunday’s NFL games were discussed. Tuesday, the NFL analysis continued, and talk of Thursday’s bowling night started. Wednesday and Thursday were all bowling; and Friday was bowling post-mortem. Every week was like this. Football bullshit on Monday after the NFL games. Fucking shine this, fucking monkey that. They not only Monday-morning-quarterbacked every play of the Giants’ game, they turned it into a soap opera. Andy Robustelli’s niece had cancer; Charlie Conerly left his wife because she was sleeping with a Baltimore Colt.

Bowling bullshit on Tuesdays, two days before bowling night when the Nick Norks went down to Jersey Lanes to have bowl-offs with Social Welfare, Finance, or the Teachers - scores, who made the 8-10 splits; and who Dolores from Tax was screwing. Where Irene from Curriculum got her hair done and how could she bowl with those long nails which she got done by the same beautician who gave Mikey M.  and Joe D. blow-jobs on her lunch break. More bowling bullshit on Wednesday and Thursdays, and how you could see Elaine Petrucci’s cunt crack, her jeans were so tight; and how come her husband let her bowl alone looking like that?

Everybody had a scam going. Mike Mullo owned the local that ran the east piers at Port Newark, and every third Friday was bazaar day. Mike could get anything - new Italian shoes, Irish whisky, French cognac, even a complete bedroom set of genuine Empire furniture. “I can get you shoes”, Mike would say. “I just can’t guarantee you no size”. There were always fuck ups. Instead of Florentine pumps or French shirtwaists, Ella Drucker and the girls often got sardines or anchovies; but nobody cared and the fuck ups became part of office lore, and the girls in the typing pool went back to ruffling the feathers of Joe D’Onofrio who got his hair blow-dried down at one of the new Hair Stylists on North Broad Street. “What else d’ya get blown, Joey”, Esta would always ask when he came in coiffed, manicured, shaved.

It didn’t take long for Frank to realize that neither his Yale and graduate school education were irrelevant to his tenure at the Housing Authority.  Of all Mayor Petrucci’s criteria for his recruitment, being Italian was at the top of the list.  He had no idea what the rest of it was like.  The aristocratic, old money redoubts of Yale, Martha’s Vineyard, and Gstaad were terra incognita, Kant, Heidegger, Sartre, and the architecture of Mies, Corbu, and Phillip Johnson unknown.  None of it mattered. Frank would be an Italian genie dressed in a Brooks Bros suit who would add culture and class to the entire city of Newark.

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Frank could have quit, gone back to school or to Wall Street, but the nostalgie de la boue was too hard to turn down.  He could join an investment bank anytime, or take up Harvard’s offer for law school admission; but hanging out Down Neck with Larry Lugno, doing red devils and yellow jackets with Harry and Andy, boosting ladies shoes with Mike Mullo, and dumping cars into Newark Bay for the insurance money would never come around again.

His father told his friends that his son was in ‘City Planning’, advisor to the Mayor of Newark, and an advocate for social reform.

Frank was lucky he was not picked up, although Larry’s Mafia connections would have been enough to get the charges dismissed.  Still, the more he flirted with mobsters, financed Harry’s dope deals, and drove the fork lift to dump the cars off the pier, the more likely he was to end up on Riker’s Island.

Lefferts and Yale did only a partial job of expunging Italy from Frank Grillo.  Had the screw turned otherwise, he might still be Down Neck.  After many decades of predictable, expected, traditional professional life, Frank remembered  his Nicky Nork days first.  The rest – the travel, the lovers, the reputation, and the establishment – paled by comparison.  It wasn’t that he was a Nicky Nork - no amount of filtering and expunging could do that - but to suggest posturing was unfair.  There was a connection between the Nicky Norks of Down Neck, Aunt Leona and her pasta fazool and corn fritters, and high mass.  Yale connections were a dime a dozen. 

Frank was not an identity-seeker, an orphan looking for his cultural birth parents or mixed-race offspring desperate to factor DNA and biological heritage into character and personality.  He knew he was only one step removed from the Wooster Street ghetto, but never realized how shallow that step was until he met Larry Lugno and the Nicky Norks of Newark.

A stroke of bad luck could have derailed his father's rise out of New Haven; a jealous cousin could have upset his marriage to the well-off Loretta Marco; a slip of the lip could have sent the entire Grillo family back to Naples. Serendipity it was, opportunity taken but offered only because of circumstance; and one false move and he would have been running Oldsmobiles off the pier at Port Newark instead of studying Shakespeare with Harold Bloom.

The only curious part was that his Nicky Nork stories were the main feature of his Saturday matinees; and Lefferts, Yale, and K Street only short subjects, add-ons, fillers, bits and pieces, chopped up and diced memories.  His mother would have been nonplussed had she known of her son's recidivism - how Italian he had become despite all her efforts.  Not just spaghetti and meatballs every once and a while, but an alley cat tipping over trash cans on Olive Street, the same Olive Street where she grew up and hoped never to see again.

So be it.  His Nick Nork days were now long gone.  He was a Yalie through and through, father of the Class of 2000, and at no time during his reunions or class gatherings ever set foot past the Old Campus, Mory's, and Davenport College.  What wins in the end wins.  His mother had done her job.

[NOTE – This is a work of fiction, but it could have happened exactly as written]

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