Charlie's Books

Charlie's Books
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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Tommy Mistretta … The Dallas Buyer’s Club … Treblinka … Qubites? …


Tommy Mistretta … the first time I met Tommy we were about eight or nine years old and he scared the crap out of me. I was on my way home from someplace, about a dozen feet from our front gate, when I saw this rough-looking kid riding a younger kid on a bike. They were heading my way and I happened to make eye contact with the rough-looking kid. His stare went right through me. I looked away thinking I’d handled that well, but then I heard him say, “What are you lookin’ at?” Being a skinny kid myself at the time (hard to imagine, I know), I used my better sense and made believe I didn’t hear him (while I hiked it quick up the stoop to my house and then darted inside). I did take a look before I closed the door and there was the rough-looking kid still staring at me. He’d stopped riding.

“Whew,” I probably said as I closed the door.

The next time we met it was at the new Catholic school our parents had sentenced us to on Seaview Avenue, St. Jude’s. We would be part of the first graduating class, but we started as 5th graders. Tommy’s father’s (Benny) and my father (Tommy) had the same attitude about their kids attending Catholic school. I remember my father’s speech to our first teacher, Miss DeSimone: “Smack him if he gives you any trouble, and then call me and I’ll slap again when he gets home.”

I’m pretty sure Tommy’s father gave Miss DeSimone the same speech.

As it turned out, we lived very close to one another; me on 95th and Tommy on 96th between Avenues M and N. We spent a lot of time in his basement and I can even remember the great models he had on the ledge of a shelf on the stairway to his basement. Frankentstein, the Mummy, Dracula, a car or two, maybe Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. I remember that Tommy was a devout Dodgers, Colts and Lakers fan. Jerry West was his hero.

Back in the day, Canarsie used to have a trolley that ran from where the train station is now, Rockaway Parkway and Glenwood Road, to the pier. Along the way it literally cut through the middle of 95th and 96th streets, so that there was a dugout lot running between the streets. This was great for playing war, baseball, football, or for hiding. It was where Tommy and I would often have a catch, including the day one of my teachers threatened to call home and then did so a few minutes after my father came home from work. Tommy and I both heard my name being yelled out the back of my house. “Charlie!”

I looked at Tommy and said, “I’m dead.”

He looked at me and said, “I know.”

Tommy was a natural athlete. We both played for St. Jude’s CYO teams, the Canarsie Little League, and the PAL. Back in those days, we all played baseball, basketball and football. Tommy was the much better athlete. He was our MVP for St. Jude the year I recorded my basketball career highlight—2 points. No, that’s not a typo. I scored 2 points all year. We lost just about every game by absurd scores like 44-20 or 50-25, and Tommy usually scored 90-95% of our points. He was our Jerry West. In baseball, I once had to pitch to him the year he won the MVP in baseball. It was about the most frustrating thing in the world, because I couldn’t get a single pitch by him. Even when I purposely threw a pitch up high, hoping he’d foul it off, he’d wind up driving the damn ball into right-center field for a triple or home run.

Probably the one place I could outdo Tommy was getting into trouble in school. Neither of us were ever destined to be rocket scientists, don’t get me wrong, but once my family moved from 95th Street to Canarsie Road, across the street from the school convent (all this at about the same time my family disintegrated), I was pretty much a marked man by the Nuns. It probably didn’t help that the day we closed on the new house, my old man and his friend were pinched unloading a truck of Chivas Regal in the new house’s garage, but I can’t tell you how many times living there put me in the shit.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Stella,” a nun (pick one, any one) would say, “Did Charlie show you he got another 45 in Math yesterday?”

Oy vey …

The bottom line was all the boys in our class lived for recess, when we’d play Ringolevio, stickball and touch football games (and rip our uniform pants and then catch hell for that when we got home). I’m pretty sure Tommy was spared the altar boy sentence I had to serve (his parents were more merciful than mine), but we were all supposed to attend church Sundays, serving mass or not. To kids who lived to play sports, sitting in a church for an hour (that seemed like five hours) was torture, pure and simple.

I forget how old we were (still pretty young, I think) but Tommy wound up being my first date. He had a girlfriend and I didn’t, but when my old man scored a pair of tickets to a Led Zeppelin concert at Madison Square Garden, I called Tommy.
Once we moved to Canarsie Road and ran into the brick wall that was my family falling apart, I’d wind up making new friends and only seeing Tommy after I did a stint in a nuthouse for getting into the shit—violence that needed an outlet (thank Coaches Yaker and Morogiello for introducing me to football). I returned to high school the second half of our freshman year, but my old man was gone, and not before he’d screwed me, my sister, and my mother in a huge way. He was bailed out of the joint from my mother selling one house (the one on 95th street), and when my mother couldn’t make the payments on the new house (no thanks to Dad), the end result was a move to a shitty apartment in Queens. I remember Tommy coming over there one day and being cornered by our German shepherd, Bruno. I’d gone to the bathroom or something and all I heard was some growling and Tommy saying, “Charlie? Hey, Charlie? Get this mutt out of my face.”

Bruno wound up having to go live elsewhere because he never adjusted to the apartment and actually did bite quite a few people, but Tommy was spared that day.

Taking two trains and a bus to school was a different world for me, and I was still getting into the shit, so my Mom managed to find an apartment back in Canarsie before my junior year. And by then, even I had a girlfriend, and thus was spending all my free time back in Queens. It was only through high school football that Tommy and I still had the chance to hang out once in a while. At some point during high school, everyone noticed that Tommy, at 16 or 17, looked as though he was in his 30’s, because he seemed to grow a five o’clock shadow every fifteen minutes. Somebody on the team nicknamed him Wolfman and that moniker stuck. Wolfman played cornerback and running back and could put a sting on your ass if you assumed he was too small. See Tommy’s wedding picture further down? Even money says he grew that mustache AFTER his morning shave on the day he was married.

After our senior year, I caught a break and wound up playing football in Minot, North Dakota, where my life was changed forever by a teacher (Dave Gresham). I’d take a 20+ year detour and still get into the shit (some of it the real shit), but eventually I’d return to writing (thank you, Principessa Ann Marie). Unfortunately, I’d lost touch with Tommy and many other friends from back in the day, until I learned through the Canarsie grapevine that both Tommy and I were getting married on the very same day—October 23, 1977. Tommy married my third cousin, Linda Maita (she had to clear this up for me, because I was clueless about how any of this extended family stuff works).

I’d been hanging with a different group of friends by then, so there was no fear about a wedding dilemma, but figure this one out—we both wound up naming our first born(s), daughters both, Nicole. Tommy and Linda also have another daughter, Krista.

I became a union window cleaner and eventually drifted back into school, and then out onto the streets. Tommy was with the elevator operators union. A number of years passed with everyone living separate lives. Then one day I received a horrible call from Momma Stella. I was already married for the third time and involved in a street life, so I hadn’t seen or even heard anything about Tommy for a dozen years at least. Mom told me that she’d heard Tommy Mistretta had a brain tumor, and that he was scheduled for surgery in the hospital across the street from where I was living in Murray Hill, Manhattan. The hospital was NYU.

I immediately called the hospital to make sure he was there, then went to visit him that night. He’d had the top of his skull removed, so the staples were still visible after it was replaced. I remember Tommy had tears in his eyes when he saw me. It was at that moment when it hit me just how serious his situation was. This had to be around 1992-93, because I would move to Little Italy within the same year, and I remember visiting him while living in Murray Hill.

This was a time when my beloved New York State Buffalo Bills were putting me through the personal torture of losing four consecutive Super Bowls (the first of which I witnessed in Tampa). I remembered that Tommy was a Colts fan, and because I used to go up to Buffalo a lot to watch the games (to avoid playing craps), I guess it was a few months after seeing him in the hospital when I noticed the Colts were on the Bills’ schedule. I booked a flight to Buffalo for us and had my ticket scalper (I was a street bank for a NY scalper back in the day) get me two tickets for the Colts-Bills. I don’t even remember who won, but it was fun spending the day together and shooting the shit again. Reliving some of the whacky moments we had as kids always made us smile.

Perhaps the toughest story for me to swallow was the day a group of us knuckleheads at St. Jude’s decided to use the portable basketball rig as a skateboard and ran it into one of the basement walls, bending the rim and chipping the wall. Not such a big deal if nobody saw us, but somebody did. All 6’5”, 275 lbs. of the Giant, Father Nolan. He was heading down the stairs at the opposite end of the huge basement that was mostly used for Bingo. All four of us nearly shit our pants when he yelled at us to line up, four abreast. That day Tommy caught the most vicious slap I ever witnessed. In fact, that slap was so hard, I’m positive it scared Father Nolan into backing off from hitting the next victim in line—me. We all walked home together that day. Tommy had a glazed look in his eyes I’ll never forget—probably from what today we’d call a concussion. I’m telling you that slap was friggin’ hard. Each of us was expecting to get another dose if Nolan called our parents, but I don’t think he did because I never caught a beating for that one.

When I heard Tommy had a brain tumor, I immediately thought about that slap he caught way back in the basement of St. Jude’s school. It probably had nothing to do with a brain tumor, but it’s the first thing that crossed my mind. I can still hear that slap. I can still see the welt it left across Tommy’s face, and I remember how guilty I felt for not catching a slap at all, because Father Nolan probably realized how hard he’d hit Tommy (and figured he’d be better off keeping his hands at his sides rather than put some kid in a coma).

As I remember him, Father Nolan wasn’t a bad guy. He could be grumpy with us altar boys, but imagine I’m your friggin’ altar boy? I do think he lost it that day, and that he regained control of himself is to his credit. I know this much, he left me with a memory I don’t enjoy thinking about to this day, one that turned my head away from the idea of allowing anyone to ever hit one of my kids.

Tommy’s favorite story was the one where he scared the shit out of me when he was riding his brother Michael on his bike. He loved to remind me of it … and I would always say, “Hey, we were ten years old or something, but you had a friggin’ beard, man. Of course I was afraid!”

Tommy tragically passed on November 9, 1999 from his illness. I’m not even sure when I heard about his passing, but I know it was sometime afterward. It may well have been on a night when I was in lockup at the Toombs and/or in the midst of divorce #3. My daughter’s birthday is November 8, and she would’ve been 20 in 1999, so we might’ve been up in Albany where she attended college or in Boston, because I remember taking her there once to see the Bills play the Patriots on one of her birthdays. I can’t be sure.

I’ve recently been in touch with Tommy’s younger brother, Michael. He tells me his mother, Marie (she’ll always be Mrs. Mistretta to me), is 85, and that she still travels to the city by herself to bring him his lunch from time to time. Eye-talian mothers, amici … they don’t come any better.

I’ve also been going back and forth with Tommy’s wife, Linda, and their daughter, Nicole. Tommy has two grandsons from Nicole, Thomas and Joseph (above).

Tommy was a good guy. I only wish I’d spent more time with him back in the day, when we were both too naïve to realize just how short this life is. Tommy and his family were cheated by his illness, but they remain blessed for having him as a son, brother, husband, father and grandfather.

My wife, before she tortured me with Quantum Physics tonight, told me about this quote that seemed appropriate for the end of this piece. I read it and have to agree. It’s from the screenplay of a Stephen King short story, The Body. Most of us know the movie based on the story, Stand By Me.
“Although I haven't seen him in more than ten years I know I'll miss him forever. I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anybody?” —Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon—Stand By Me.

RIP, Amico …

Dallas Buyers Club … great cast, great acting, great movie … and what Matthew McConaughey did to himself for this flick is pretty damn amazing … McConaughey plays a redneck hustler/electrician who learns he has HIV … what happens next (inspired by a true story) is both alarming and wonderful. He fights the system (the FDA) … and although he doesn’t win, he ruffles enough feathers to get some help for those most in need. It’s a wonderful story/movie …

As for his weight loss for the role, my diets seem to work in reverse. Did he really have 40 pounds to lose?

Bottom line, this was a terrific movie and well worth the fazools to see it. Highly Recommended.

Treblinka, by Jean-Francois Steiner … this account of the horrors of the Nazi extermination camp, Treblinka, has been attacked as a phony account by several survivors. I direct your attention here (to this link). I suspect the discrepancies can only mean something to the survivors of Treblinka. It is a tough read because of the horrors of the death camp, the sheer brutality, and absolute insanity.

What happened at Treblinka is as appalling as it gets, and unfortunately extends the insanity of man vs. man cruelty throughout history … what Europeans did to North and South native Americans is no less horrifying, except from 1939-1945, one would think the world would react quicker to what was going on (claiming they didn’t know doesn’t seem possible) … without TK going through every attempt at the extermination of any people, it’s never really stopped. One could look to Southeast Asia, the Siege of Sarajevo, and what has gone on/what continues today in Africa. It all points to an inevitable ending to mankind by mankind, which has always been my cheery prognostication (because ultimately I don’t believe we’ll be able to stop ourselves). The wife says it’ll be a virus. Obviously, she’s the optimist in the family.

Treblinka (from Youtube): “God must have been on holiday.”

Qubites … so there we were sitting in Ferraro’s Italian restaurant in beautiful downtown Fords, New Jersey … me in heaven eating scungilli over a bed a of linguini Fra Diavolo, drinking Ruffino Classico Chianti, and wiping the gravy (sauce to yous nons) with fresh eye-talian bread … when the wife starts in on some nerdy subject, something she read in TIME magazine called “the infinity machine” … something about Quantum Physics … “Listen to me,” I kept saying … “I don’t give a fuck.” But did that stop her? Listen to me: Forgetaboutit … she was like a kid in a candy shop; her eyes all wide and bright … she yapped a mile a minute (while I stuffed my face) … and all I could say to what she was spewing (something about life not being linear; that we could be dead and alive at the same time—some bullshit about “superposition”) was, “Listen to me, I don’t give a fuck. You gonna eat those shrimps?”

Okay, so she’s 1,000 x’s smarter than me … so are most rocks … but seriously, Quantum Physics? I had to threaten my algebra teacher back in high school to pass me or I would’ve blown a football scholarship … you really think I can understand this physics bullshit?

Oy vey … thank God she keeps me around for ballast.


For Tommy … Whole Lotta Love …

Heartbreaker …