With the traditional vacation month about to begin, my thoughts turn to June trips, ones both from my childhood back to Boston, my father’s homeland, and also from the buddy road trips I’ve taken to see baseball in cities like Chicago, Baltimore and New York.
On one such trip in 1988, I grabbed a former teaching colleague of mine, John Williams, and local pals Ric and Greg Stolly and, as a bonus, Brooklyn-born Jim Puma, he of the heavy New York accent that stubbornly refuses to be compromised no matter how many decades he’s lived in Lima, to provide us with a guide for our trip to his home environs.
While I’d been to New York before, as someone raised in a small town, I was grateful for Jim’s presence. Of course, we needed help in navigating the subway system once we left our mid-town Manhattan hotel, The Salisbury, off 57th Street, in an area teeming with humanity and snarled traffic.
Now, there were many subplots that evolved over our week’s time, with one of those narratives involving meeting childhood friends of Puma’s, all of whom had last names ending in vowels in addition to their interesting nicknames, such as Vinnie, the Blade, and Jimmy, the Wooz.
We made our pilgrimage to Brooklyn, of course, to see Jim’s neighborhood and spent time on Coney Island and ate hot dogs at the iconic place for tube steak, Nathan’s, where Joey Chestnut and the great Kobayashi and other competitive eaters gather on the Fourth of July to vie for the Mustard Belt each summer.
We also took the Long Island Ferry and admired the New York skyline, one which included those twin towers of the World Trade Center. I still have the photos from the trip, and it gives me a lump in my throat each time I look at the one I took of that skyline with those towers standing tall.
And, of course, another subplot was our two games at Yankee Stadium, not today’s sequel stadium, but the original House that Ruth Built on the corner of East 161st Street and River Avenue.
However, among all of the trip’s subplots, there is one that we still to this day, some 31 years later, talk about when we see one another.
As a big fan of The Godfather and pretty much all things wise-guy-related, I insisted we visit Little Italy, the neighborhood in Lower Manhattan famous both for its Italian restaurants and the wise guys who once were part of its landscape.
So, off we went, four Midwestern ducklings following behind the native New Yorker, who both showed us where the fictitious gunning down of Brando’s Don Corleone was filmed and where the non-fictitious final bloody chapter of crime boss Crazy Joe Gallo was written.
During our time there, we stopped at one of those gastro-bars with the sidewalk seating favored by many on warm-weather days for a snack and some guilty-pleasure vacation day libation.
Well, as we were sitting around a sidewalk table, there was somewhat of a disturbance caused where a not-so-gentlemanly patron who’d had a bit too much good cheer was being escorted off the premises. He remained out in the street raising quite a ruckus, with unlit cigarette rhythmically bouncing up and down as he spewed some vociferous vituperations.
Pausing for a moment, he reached in his pocket and pulled out a small object that all of us, save one, at our table took as a lighter. At the time, lighters in the shape of small guns were quite popular, and that, to me, is what it appeared to be.
Taking no chances as the man was waving what he’d pulled out of his pocket around, Greg, all 6’4” of him, was taking no chances as to whether it was a gun or a lighter and dove behind a small yellow Datsun parked at the curb in front of the outside table seating.
After the man lit the cigarette, he continued his diatribe for a few more minutes before tiring himself out and wandering off. Only after he’d left did Greg rejoin us at the table. Of course, we mocked him, not only for the rest of the day but the rest of the trip and made sport of the fact that, at 6’4”, he seemed to be hanging out on both ends of that Datsun anyway, so he wasn’t really protecting himself very well.
However, with the passing of time and the events that unfold, specifically in this case, more random deadly shootings that I can name due to space constraints, including the one just last November at the Borderline Bar in Thousand Oaks, California, there comes some awareness. And, looking back, I’m perplexed why the rest of us never moved.
Given how guys like to nick each other and do so far more than the fairer sex, who generally tend to treat their own kind far more civilly, it kills me to say this, but, perhaps, in an area in New York known for wise guys some three-plus decades ago, perhaps the wisest of our guys was the one behind that yellow Datsun.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.