I came upon a photograph that I had never seen before.  Black and white and brown and yellow and chipped along the edge.  Slightly worn and somewhat faded but well preserved for many years.  It was in a box with other boxes.  And in each box a bag.  And in each bag were envelopes that were dated year-by-year.  Every packet was a person.  Every envelope a life.

     Shuffling through these memories like Solitaire or Hearts the people and the places and the memories came back.  Some have long since passed away.  Some are very much alive.  Some were men I never knew.  Some were women who have died.  It was a thirty minute journey through eighty years of life.  It was joyful if unbearable to remember who they were.  But in that timeless faded photograph - in that image of a boy - I came to know my father and my father’s son as well.

     The shoes of all things made me cry.  Heavy, brown and worn.  Scuffed and frayed and weathered shoes that were neatly laced and tied.  They were an eloquent reminder of the life that he was living.  A metaphor.  A simile.  A symbolic affirmation.  My father’s shoes were different than the shoes the others wore.  They matched the earth beneath his feet and not the suit that he was wearing.

     When I thought about my father’s shoes in that faded photograph all of this came back to me and now I love him even more.  The shoes he wore spoke volumes.  They told the story of his life.  Of his birth and of my birthright.  Of the struggle of his years.  I know now what he knew then.  What he forever kept inside.  Like his shoes and like his life he had nothing else to wear.  He chose them well and wore them well and I am humbled by his life.

Chapter Two: THE TABLE

     The table was a sacred place.  It was the center of our being.  And everything that happened there would change our lives forever.  It was our cosmos and our universe.  It was our sacrificial alter.  It was the Temple of the Progeny.  Our confessional.  Our chapel.  It was the setting of our daily meals, however frugal or abundant, and we recognized the purpose and the meaning that it had.  It was the starting point and resting place of every single day.  It was the only time when we were whole and gathered all as one.

     The shape and size would change at times responding to our needs.  The length would change.  The width would change.  It was rectangular or round.  It was square or it was oblong.  It was long or it was short.  But whatever shape or size it was it fit us like a glove.  We used wooden chairs and metal chairs and folding chairs and benches.  We used cushioned chairs and hard-backed chairs and high-backed chairs and couches.  Anything and everything that we could use to sit we would pull-up to the table and we would make a meal of it.

     My favorite was the picnic bench.  Big and red and deep.  With redwood slats and two-by-fours that were tightly nailed together.  My father had to broaden and extend it at both ends.  He had to make it functional and durable and large.  He made it wide enough and long enough and deep enough and sturdy for all the weight of cast iron pots and metal pans and platters.  But even so the table strained to support the daily meals.  It bowed beneath the heaviness and dipped from end-to-end. 

     The food and forks and bowls and plates, the glasses and the baskets, were stacked and squeezed and pushed and shoved and made to fit that space.

Chapter Three: WEEKENDS

     Saturday’s and Sunday’s have always been a joy.  As a boy and as a skinny teen when I was younger than I am.  When days were long and nights were slow and the future was a vision.  When time was infinite and seamless and moved at its own pace.

     Saturday especially was the high point of the week.  We had doughnuts in the morning with bacon, eggs and ham.  The coffee perked and brewed and spit and filled the air with steam and the aroma of that coffee pot has lived with me years.  I remember how it tasted from the first cup to the last.  At five or six or seven or whatever time it was.  My mother’s brand was Eight O’clock.  Her mother brewed it too.  The beans were whole and freshly ground and the pot was always full.

     Scrambled by the dozen eggs were heaped into a pan.  A heavy cast iron skillet that was old and black and burned.  Years of family cooking had been scorched into that crock. The eggs went in with onion. Then potatoes.  Then some cheese.  Then freshly chopped tomatoes and some garlic and some salt.  Then oregano and butter with paprika or Tabasco. 

     It was hot and it was spicy and we ate it by the pound. We made stacks of toast for breakfast by the piece and by the loaf.  We would carve a hunk of fresh baked bread into twenty equal slices then line them up and grill them until crisp and golden brown.

     The best toast that we ever had was mother’s homemade bread.  It was fresh and firm and full and round and crusty and delicious.  We didn’t always toast it though.  It was best straight from the oven.  We would sneak it from the warming rack while it was hot and unattended and we would slice it down from end to end and smother it with butter. We smeared jelly, jam and marmalade or homemade fruit preserves.  We sprinkled it with cinnamon or powdered it with sugar.  When the bread was cut the steam would rise and the butter sizzled as it softened.  We ate it fast and ate it hot and it melted in your mouth.


     His real name wasn’t Tony.  It was Benito D’Silvestri.  But ‘Benny’ didn’t seem to fit so instead he went by ‘Tony’.  “A barber should be Tony not Benny or Benito.  Benito is my given name.  In the trade I’m known as Tony”.  He used that name for sixty years an alter ego as it were.  An a.k.a.  A nom de plume.  An alias assumed.  And the man we knew as Tony was a man to reckon with.

     Tony was a surgeon not a barber with his tools.  He wore a long silk tie and clean white shirt that was stiff and starched and collared.  With pleated trousers, creased and striped, with cuffs and hidden pockets.  Suspenders held his pants in place and they rested on his shoes.  Buffed and polished.  Black and pointed.  Laced and firmly tied.  Judging by his wardrobe he should have sat behind a desk with pipe in hand and leather chair and a three piece tailored suit.

     But even so the clothes he wore were hidden by a smock.  A clean white linen overcoat protected his attire.  It was a stylish tunic jacket that buttoned at the side.  Like a dentist or a doctor.  He looked dapper and refined.  He wore gold bifocal glasses that reflected in the light. And a pinky ring and cuff links.  And a stickpin in his tie.  Not the image of a small town clip who cut the neighbors’ hair.  He looked more like Salk or Einstein.  Fleming or Marconi.  He was impeccable.  Meticulous.  Articulate.  Exact.

     The shop as well was surgical.  Green and squeaky clean.  Sterile and immaculate.  Odiferous.  Pristine.  In later years he came to grow a pencil thin mustache.  Slightly curved and debonair.  It was stylish and unique.  He thought himself an artist or artistic to be sure.  The evidence was everywhere of his secret avocation. 


     I never knew his last name but we always called him Dick.  He was here and there and everywhere at any given time.  He was a kindly man.  But quiet.  He was alone for many years.  He was a handyman.  A laborer.  A gardener.  A mason.  His back and arms and legs and sweat were his only tools in trade.

     His life was sad and troubled.  Or it seemed that way to me.  His wife had long since passed away but he still suffered at her loss.  The neighbors gave him food and soap.  The priest supplied his clothes.  And everything he ever owned was carried in a bag.  It was a satchel cut from burlap sacks that were used for shipping onions.  He pulled them from a garbage heap and he shaped handles out of wire.

     He lived impoverished but grateful in the basement of a building which had been many things for many years from a dance hall to a church.  Built by Harrah as a movie house in the twenties or the thirties the Legionnaires would bivouac through the forties and the fifties.  It was a pool hall and a bowling lane until 1985 when it converted to a rest home for the poor and underprivileged.  Ironic after all these years that such a fate befell this building.  Dick himself should be the one to occupy that place.

     He walked the streets and alleys with his bundle at his side.  He knocked on doors and begged for work that no one else would touch.  Menial.  Laborious.  Exhausting and relentless.  He toiled and he tussled and he struggled with the earth.  He dug trenches in the winter when the ground was frozen solid.  He carried cinder blocks and slag stone and he mixed mortar with a hoe.  He chopped fodder into compost.  He hauled garbage on his back.  This was his life.  This was his fate.  This was the only thing he knew.  He was serene and he was tranquil when he was working with his hands.

Chapter Six: SIDNEY

     The first job that I ever had was with Sidney “Shep” LaCove.  A part time gig.  A warehouse job.  A stock boy and a clerk.  It wasn’t much to speak about but it got me through the week.  Some pocket change but not much more. At least I didn’t have to think.  I never called him Sidney.  He was always Shep to me.  On occasion someone called him Sid but they didn’t know him well.  Those of us who knew him well would only call him Shep.

     My father brought him home one day.  For dinner I believe.  For antipasti and spaghetti.  For some wine and homemade bread.  A stranger then.  Not yet a friend.  We took him in and fed him well.  It was not at all unusual for my father to be gracious.  To take a stranger in at night.  To invite them home for dinner.  It was common for my father to be hospitable and kind.  He had learned this from his parents and I have learned the same from mine.  It echoes the tradition of a village near Cosenza.  From a province in Calabria in the city of Nicastro.  It was the birthplace of his father.  It was the town where he was raised.  In the south of rural Italy.  On a hill above the sea.

     The people there were Christians.  They were provincial Roman Catholics.  They were superstitious but religious.  They were faithful and devout.  The friars and the bishops and the monks and all the priests had insisted that the son of God would return to them some day.  The second coming of the Savior.  A second chance to make things right.  When Christ appears, the scripture says, he will be a stranger in your midst.  A man in need.  An innocent.  A beggar on the street.  And who would know the Son of God if they met him on the road.  Would they take him in and feed him?  Would they clothe and keep him warm?  Would they prepare a meal of substance or would they turn the man away?

     I wouldn’t know the Son of God if he were standing on my foot.  And that is why the proverb held such power over us.  The very act of kindness to a stranger on the street was a reflection of our culture.  Of our Faith and our belief. 

Chapter Seven: THE PATIO

     I never really knew the man but I remember how he looked.  He was big and strong and tall and black and he could break a tree in half.  He had an easy smile and hearty laugh that was exuberant and cheerful.  It started in his belly and erupted like a bomb.  His laughter was contagious and expressive and delightful and his body shook like Jello when he tried to hold it back.

     Mr. DePaul Smith was self-employed.  He was dependable and prompt.  He drove a dump truck painted apple red with big black doors and fenders.  It was dented, scratched and battered and it sputtered and it chugged.  It leaned sharply to the driver’s side.  The shocks were worn and broken.  Snapped like twigs from hauling scrap and smashing into things.  Wooden doors and two by fours were stacked behind the cab.  Lashed and tied with rope and twine.  Bound and nailed and screwed.  The doors were cracked and dirty and they were painted different colors.  They were used to brace the cargo when the truck was fully loaded.  They looked like giant dominos.  Blue and green and yellow.  The truck like him was playful.  Colorful and bold.  An animated character.  A Disney-esque cartoon.

     He would stack his truck with radiators, furnaces and wash tubs.  Hot water tanks or I-beams.  Whatever he could haul.  He would pack them tight and stack them high and they shifted as he drove.  But the multi-colored wooden doors held them all in place.  He used a canvas tarp to cover all the rubble and the refuse.  He secured it with a long thick rope and tied it to the frame.  He looped the line and twisted hard.  He knotted all the ends.  He pulled until the tension caused the doors to creak and bend.  When the tarp was firmly fastened and the scrap was all secure he hung a large square yellow sign with bold hand-painted letters.  ‘STAY BACK!’ it said, ‘STUFF DO FALL OFF!’  Then down the road he went.

Chapter Eight: 1966

    In the summer of my early teens, as I prepared to make my way, I was an adolescent rebel and I didn’t have a clue.  When the future was as distant as the planets from the sun and choices were for those who seemed to know where they were going.  I came to learn, quite early-on, that my fate was not my own.  Not then at least. Not there I thought.  Not in that place and time.  My journey was beginning and my life was yet to come.

    I saw myself a caterpillar weaving a cocoon.  Wanting more to be a butterfly and straining to break free.  I thought school to be a nuisance back in 1966 because it kept me from so many things that I wanted more to do.  From sailing on the Chesapeake to canoeing the Zambezi.  Or riding in a box-car on a train to Istanbul.  Railroad tracks and blacktop roads were luring and hypnotic.  Paddle wheels and ferry boats were waiting at the dock. 

    These were the symbols of adventure and of freedom that I cherished.  Kuralt was on the road again and I wanted to be him.  Lowell Thomas was my hero.  Machu Picchu was my goal.  Richard Leaky.  Marco Polo.  Amundsen and Peary.  Howard Carter.  Lord Carnarvon.  Elgin and his marbles.  I admired them for the lives they lived and I wanted some adventure.  I was inquisitive and curious but equally naïve.  The Oracle of Delphi.  The ruins of Pompeii.  The Megaron of Minos and the Palace of Shapur.  Herculaneum. Vesuvius.  Meteora and Mount Athos.  Asia Minor. Katmandu.  And the via Dolorosa.

    I planned to visit all of them and I intended to explore.  Archaeology and history had captivated me.  I was Samuel Langhorne Clemens before he knew Mark Twain.  I was the dreamer of a vision that was waiting to be seen.

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Copyright 2013 Raymond F. Vennare