Let’s call him “Leo.” He was my Dad’s closest friend, the definition of a “friend.” They were two peas in a pod. They were the same age, born around the corner from each other. They went to grade school together; hung out together as young men; went to war together; lived through each other’s courtships; watched each other have kids; thought the same people were idiots or saints; rooted for the same sports teams; ate the same food; shared the same politics; endured each other’s financial woes; commiserated over their respective health problems; reached middle age together.
Leo was a baker by trade. So was his father. Leo worked for his father for a while. The old man built up a commercial bakery; had about a dozen trucks delivering bread up to the time of the War. When Leo got out of the service, something was different. Something happened. I don’t know what. Both Leo and my Dad were always close to the vest about it. Whatever it was, Leo struck out on his own, opening a little bakery on Winter Hill in Somerville. His father’s business melted away.
Leo baked the best bread I’ve ever tasted. Dad would take me by his hole-in-the-wall establishment on Saturday mornings. We’d go into the back room. I’d sit on top of a pile of 100-pound sacks of flour, eating my free square of bakery pizza while Dad and Leo shot the breeze. Free, hot, thick, soft Saturday morning sfinciuni. That’s friendship.
Even friendlier in winter, when the weather was cold, because Leo’s huge commercial oven kept the backroom warm. I could throw my Mighty Mac® coat over the flour sacks, sit there in my shirtsleeves and luxuriate in the warmth and the aroma of the bread, not to mention the taste and texture. Texture is the forgotten quality today. Italian bread must have a certain texture, a certain feel in your mouth.
Today, bakers – if you want to call them “bakers” – get up late, mix the dough with machines, and bake the bread hotter and faster. You can get a decent crust that way. But the mudiga, the crumb, comes out mushy, too soft, too uniform, flat-tasting, like WonderBread.® Leo was always in the bakery at 4:00 A.M., kneading the dough by hand, baking the bread at a slower pace, letting the crumb develop a complexity of taste and feel that contrasted with the crispness of the crust, that challenged and delighted your tongue. God, I miss that man’s bread. Its memory lingers in my mouth.
Of all Dad’s adult friends, Leo was the only one I ever heard call him “Moe,” his name from the old neighborhood, a shortened form of his Italian first name. Dad took to using his middle name in high school. It was more American-sounding. All his other friends I knew, be they from as far back as the service or the G.I. Bill and college, called Dad by his middle name. But Leo called him “Moe” and, when he did, they were kids again, playing stickball in the city streets or hide-and-seek among the headstones of the ancient cemetery that did double-duty as a makeshift urban playground.
Leo and Dad did not get old together. Leo died early, suddenly, in his late fifties. I lost free pizza and the taste of bread, which was bad enough. Dad lost his name and his childhood.
As you close in on sixty, most people get set in their habits and their circle of acquaintances. You’ve got less to choose from in the way of friends. Dad had to make do with his brother-in-law, my Uncle Tommy.
Uncle Tommy was different from my Dad. The two of them didn’t have a lot in common. For one thing, Dad lost his father at the age of fourteen and had to shift for himself, his mother and his little brother. He grew up fast and hard. Uncle Tommy’s father, my grandfather, was a wheel. He sent my uncle to prep school, college and law school. That’s a big difference right there. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it. It’s how I grew up, thanks to Dad. But it makes a difference.
Uncle Tommy passed the bar. I suspect he was something of a “know-it-all” before then, but that cemented it. He was a big-talker and a great story-teller. He had a gift for comic timing. He could make you roar. In those days, they called it “the gift of gab” and they thought it meant you were born to be a mouthpiece, that is, a lawyer. I think that’s why my grandfather sent him to law school in the first place.
Both before and after law school, I gather some people found my uncle a bit hard to take. One of his other brothers-in-law dubbed him, “the D.A.” Name a subject and Uncle Tommy could talk your ear off about it. He always knew more than you did, which sometimes resulted in his being called worse names than “the D.A.” On top of all that, he took a shortcut to success. He went into business shortly after he graduated law school. He did pretty well for himself. He made more money than anyone else in the family. Not more than my grandfather, of course, but more than anyone in his generation.
Dad only had one edge on Uncle Tommy. My uncle had been a kid in World War II. When, after a few years, he had gained the age of majority and the Korean Conflict rolled around, he served with an Army Intelligence Unit chasing Red spies around Greater Boston. He never left his backyard.
Dad, on the other hand, had been all over the place. Six to seven years older, he had volunteered for WWII no less than three times: the Marines rejected him twice; the Navy took him. They sent him to the Pacific, where they kept him busy landing Marines on Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa; then they dispatched him to Tokyo Bay and the Occupation. After an interlude in civilian life, Korea got hot and Uncle Sam called up Dad’s Reserve unit. This time, things weren’t so tough: the Navy sent him cruising the Mediterranean, staring down Russian men-o-war.
That was his edge. Dad was a full-blown member of the Greatest Generation. Uncle Tommy could only push him so far. How do you argue with a guy who saw the Japanese sign the Instrument of Surrender?
There was something else.
I told you that Uncle Tommy went into business not too long after he passed the bar. He never really practiced law. Much later, after I grew up, became a lawyer and had been representing clients in and out of court for a few years, I found it hard to someone gave my uncle a law degree. He had some crazy ideas about businesses and partnerships that no member of the bar ever had.
That’s the difference between going to law school and being a lawyer. The practice of law fills out your legal education: you waste a judge’s precious time in a busy motion session and he’ll straighten out your theoretical misconceptions about the law post haste. Uncle Tommy lacked the perspective that comes from practice. Like I said, he only handled one legal case in all his life. He only had one, single client.
It was an auto accident case. I’d been born. I was there. I was a witness at the tender age of two-and-a-half. I can remember it like it happened yesterday. Dad was driving. Mom was on the passenger side. I was sandwiched in-between them. There was no such thing as a child car-seat in those days. There were no such things as seat belts. I was the free-floating flotsam to my parents’ unsecured jetsam.
Being nearly three, my brain had developed to the point where I was almost as smart as the family dog. Thus, as soon as we made a certain turn and passed certain landmarks, I recognized the route. It was the way to the doctor’s office; doctors meant shots; I started to scream my curly little head off.
We were plumb in the middle of an intersection. The other car plowed right into the Plymouth’s passenger door by Mom. My head hit the steering wheel. Next thing I remember, people were milling around. Some man from the neighborhood leaned into Mom’s open window and offered her a cigarette. He assured her things would be fine.
That’s the sum and substance of my memory of the accident. All I know for certain is that the car hit us smack in the passenger door. I saw the collision. I saw where the dent was. Having handled more than a hundred auto accident cases over the course of my career, I can tell you that a dent in the door in an intersection accident means the other guy’s at fault. Open and shut. Don’t waste my time.
It looked like such an easy lay-up, Mom suggested to Dad that he let her little brother handle his case, fresh out of law school. Get the kid a courtroom win, straight out of the box. Build up his confidence. With some measure of reluctance, Dad allowed himself to be persuaded. How could Tommy lose? After all, he had the gift of gab.
Unfortunately, notwithstanding his gift, Uncle Tommy lost.
Not only did he somehow lose the case but, in the ensuing bureaucratic scuffle, my Dad lost his license.
Like so many facts of my family’s history, this dismal result was never explained to me in any detail. I’ve always wondered why, cute as I was, I was not called to testify. But the incident did have two proximate consequences I could observe for myself. It relegated my father to public transportation and shoe-leather for the next six months and it convinced my grandfather to buy my uncle, his son, a business to run, lest he starve. At a further remove, it ensured that I would be the first practicing attorney in the family.
My father grumbled the D.A.’s name through the soles of at least two pairs of shoes before they spoke again. It’s said that time heals all wounds but, more often, it administers fresh wounds that reduce the old ones to insignificance. Through the course of weddings and anniversaries and holidays, sickness and health, births and deaths and graduations, their differences got less significant. Dad and Uncle Tommy got used to each other.
I said, “used to,” not “close.” They persisted broadcasting on different wavelengths. Other than the family, they still didn’t have much in common. But family’s enough to hold most people together and, toward the end, after all their other friends had died, it proved enough for Dad and Uncle Tommy, too. Two cranky old men living down the street from each other, they started hanging out together. What could they do? They watched the Red Sox games on TV and listened to them on the radio. They complained about the bums to their hearts’ content.
It goes to show you. When they were younger, even the Red Sox had been a bone of contention between them. Uncle Tommy had rooted for the Yankees because Joe DiMaggio was an Italian kid. But to my Dad, rooting for the Yankees constituted treason. He was a Boston boy down to his bones. As far as Dad was concerned, DiMaggio couldn’t hold a candle to Boston’s Ted Williams, baseball’s greatest “pure hitter.” Whenever my uncle mentioned DiMaggio’s epic 56-game hitting streak, Dad would counter that, over the same span of games, Williams had hit for a higher average. Even this sore spot scabbed over with the passing years.
Which brings us to the gist of the story, a radio ad that ran during the Red Sox games, an ad for a local restaurant I’ll call “DiNardo’s.” Local radio personality Bill Marlowe did the voice over. Every other inning, Marlowe’s deep, dulcet, near-hypnotic tones pushed the succulence of the eatery’s barbecued ribs, dubbing DiNardo’s the place “where the meat falls off the bone.”
Dad knew Bill Marlowe. They had been involved together in a failed business venture years before, but he liked Marlowe. Familiarity only intensified his desire for the proffered ribs. At least once every game, Dad would say to Uncle Tommy, “I know that Bill Marlowe guy.”
“You think those ribs are good as he says?”
“Only one way to find out.”
“We got to go to DiNardo’s. For lunch.”
“You bet. ‘Where the meat falls off the bone.’”
“You’re right. We got to go.”
“This coming week?”
“Nah, I got a doctor’s appointment. Next week, maybe.”
“‘Where the meat falls off the bone.’ I can taste those ribs. We got to do it.”
Every other inning, every game, for years I listened to this. I wasn’t there every time. I can’t swear it was always exactly the same. Sometimes, they played variations on the conversation’s theme. Sometimes, they talked about the ribs more; they speculated on their juiciness, their spiciness; their tenderness. Sometimes, they changed the excuses for not doing it this coming week: the traffic, the weather, “My wife’s got to get her hair done,” “I got to wait for the plumber.” But the resolve that summed up these exchanges was always the same, rock-hard, immutable: Dad and Uncle Tommy were going to DiNardo’s, “where the meat falls off the bone,” for lunch, for ribs.
As the years passed, it became a joke. Then an irony. Then, as I myself approached middle-age and became painfully aware of life’s lost opportunities, a symbol and an irritation. At last, I couldn’t stand it any more. I bearded the lion of fate in his den. I called DiNardo’s and made a reservation for lunch for the two of them on a date certain – a Thursday, I recall. They were going whether they liked it or not.
I stopped by and saw my Dad that morning. He looked older than usual, tired, unsteady, as if the thought of going to DiNardo’s had been a prop I’d knocked out from under him. We all have to look forward to something; you can’t look forward to something you’ve already had. At Dad’s age, most of the things men look forward to have either happened or never will. I was making DiNardo’s happen for him and Uncle Tommy and, in a way, taking it away from them at the same time. When you run out of things to look forward to, there’s only one thing left, and none of us look forward to that.
I tried to buck him up. “What do you say, Dad? You looking forward to those ribs?”
“Oh, yeah,” he said out from under a shrug, “sure.”
“Sure you are. You’ll like it there, ‘where the meat falls off the bone.’”
“Uh-huh,” he poured himself a cup of coffee, “it’ll be good.”
“Good?” I pushed him. “It’ll be great. Too bad I can’t go with you.”
“Eh,” he lifted the cup to his lips, “your uncle and I will get along.”
“You don’t sound too enthusiastic.”
“Who’s not enthusiastic?” He lowered the cup to the table. “I’m enthusiastic. What do you want me to do? Jump around?”
“No,” I dithered, “but you’ve been talking about these ribs for years. You should be a little more excited.”
“I said,” he growled, digging in his heels, “I’m excited. I’m enthusiastic. I’m going to have those ribs.”
“You’re going to enjoy them.”
“I’m going to enjoy them, ‘where the meat falls off the bone.’ O.K. with you? You satisfied?”
“It’s not about me being satisfied. It’s about you and Uncle Tommy being satisfied.”
“Your Uncle Tommy,” he grumbled into his coffee, heating it up a few degrees.
“You enjoy yourself.” I swung the kitchen door open. “I’ll call you tonight. I want to hear how it went. I want to hear about those ribs. ‘Where the meat falls off the bone.’”
“Shut the door,” he called after me.
I didn’t have a chance to think about Dad, Uncle Tommy, the ribs or DiNardo’s until I got home that night. Then I remembered. I picked up the phone and called him.
“Dad,” I said, “How was it?”
“DiNardo’s?” he boomed back at me, twenty years louder than he’d been that morning. “Terrific. Absolutely terrific!”
“Really good, huh?”
“More than good. Terrific, I tell you.”
“You and Uncle Tommy enjoyed it?”
“We loved it. It was terrific.”
“How do you like that?” I laughed in relief. “After all these years, the ribs lived up to their reputation. Does the meat really fall off the bone?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, ‘you don’t know’?”
“I didn’t have the ribs.”
“You didn’t have the ribs?” I gasped into the handset. “Why not?”
“They had pork chops and vinegar peppers for the special. You know how I like pork chops and vinegar peppers.”
“I know,” I paused for breath, “but you’ve been waiting for years for those ribs.”
“I couldn’t help myself.”
“What about Uncle Tommy? Did he like the ribs?”
“No, as a matter of fact, he ordered pork chops and vinegar peppers, too. Would you believe it? They’re his favorite dish. I never knew that.”
I never knew it, either. After all those years, turned out they had something in common after all.