What Makes Us Who We Are?
Pt. 1 'The Early Years'
When my father died of brain cancer in June of 2017, friends and family quickly began sending messages to express their sympathy.
They called him “kind," "gracious" and "gregarious.” “Genuine," "charming” and "true." Someone said, “He made a real impact on this world."
Another: "He always had a smile on his face, and there was something real behind it."
Dad possessed a unique ability to communicate. In his work running the National Italian American Foundation, he massaged the egos of presidents and first ladies, movie stars and millionaires. He once reassured Frank Sinatra after Ol Blue Eyes gave a speech that he didn't think was up to snuff. Dad gave an award to Muhammad Ali, and laughed with Luciano Pavarotti.
When I was a kid and grew interested in American Indian art, he got me a kachina doll, and took me to lunch with his friend, Suzan Harjo, one of the country’s most respected Native leaders. When I started playing drums, he got the phone number of Max Roach — the legendary jazz drummer — and called him up, just like that. A few weeks later we were all hanging out in Roach’s high-rise Manhattan apartment, overlooking Central Park.
Growing up I thought all this was normal. And with my dad around it was.
“Normal” also included spontaneous conversations with the random couple seated next to us at dinner, which often lasted the entirety of the the meal. He loved chatting up whoever sat next to him in the subway. "Hey! where you from?” he’d ask a cabbie. “My father was an immigrant from Italy."
Dad loved people. He also loved pens, hats, knives and ornate, antique pillboxes. A buddy once came over to our house and sat down in my dads TV chair. He he felt a sharp poke. It was a tomahawk.
"Obviously," he said.
An intellectual powerhouse with the spirit of a clown, there was just something about him that made you want to smile. Indeed, many chose the word “light” to describe him when he died.
“He was the light of our family.”
“He was always the star!”
“When he looked at you, it was like a spotlight was turned on you…he just brought everything to life.”
But few who knew him ever saw his ticks, or his anger, the product of some formative wound; the remnants of a past which crept and pulled. The anxiety and the tachycardia. The itching and scratching ‘till he bled. His fear of illness and the fatalism: a heart attack at home alone in 2003 — minor, but he didn’t know — walking upstairs and tucking himself into bed, waiting to die alone. “I didn’t want to make you worry,” he said, which shocked and sent a chill through me. What was that?
Somehow he managed to escape this psychic drag. But how?
Pittston, PA, June 26th, 1939:
“ Dear Diary:
Life began for me today!
My Name Is: Alfred Rotondaro
My Address Is: Rear 10 Defoe St.”
Grandma Rose dutifully filled out his baby diary. He was christened July 16. His first tooth came July 9th, 1940. He crawled later that May. For his first birthday, he received:
“A knitted suit from Grandma & Grandpa Bianco
A pair white shoes from Uncle August & Aunt Lucille
A funny overall from cousins Anthony, Grace & Philip
A playsuit from Grandma & Grandpop Roton
A lovely bobby suit from my Comara [Godmother] Blanche
…and a great big birthday cake and sun suits & first panties from my mommy & daddy.”
He talked June 29th. Walked July 2, 1940. “I close my book ‘Nov. 1944’ because I started school Sept 6 at Pittston High. I’m a big boy now and ready to plug in for a career.”
On May 12th, 1946, he received his First Communion and was given a tiny pocket prayer book, four inches by two. “Before you start to pray,” it read, “always remember,”
That you are God’s little child…
Fathers love to listen to their children.
Children love to talk to their fathers…
Late October, 2020:
I pull off on Defoe St., charming and sweet, with a big red brick building towering to the right. Pittston High, est. 1914. That’s where dad went, and Grandmom too, I later learn. There are presidential election posters up all over the place. A big Trump-Pence poster sits out front of a house abutting Williams St., where Genie got hit by the car. Across the way, Biden-Harris “Vote!” placards are up in every window, with pumpkins all over the lawn.
I’m walking down Williams St. It looks sort of like a ski jump, with cars careening down. A pair of church steeples shoot up into the sky from below, closer to the Susquehanna River, piercing a distant horizon of rolling blue-tinged mountains. Dad probably saw this every day.
Pretty trees rustle overhead. Modest stand alone homes with 80s looking patio furniture. I stop in front of 10 Defoe, that’s where Lucy and August lived. They ran Bianco’s. It’s a nice looking little building.
I walk down the alley to go see dad’s old place, back to Rear 10 Defoe, down that scraggly little alley. There’s the old porch where he would sit and read, while the others played, now all covered in junk. A beat up cupboard and a worn out pair of shoes. Some other random clutter. I can’t see inside. The windows are covered with what look to be bed sheets — it’s abandoned.
Two levels and a sunken basement. Probably 1600 square feet, with white slat siding all around, save for the porch, which sits narrowly atop a crude concrete base with rusty colored stones laid up to the level of the hip, giving off a Flintstones vibe. I peak around back where the garden was and grandpop kept his roses. I don’t know why, but I think of an old family photo of me and my sister with confectioners sugar on our faces, in pale Easter light, hanging off the thin black railings just outside that house, where I sometimes find myself in a recurring dream, in a secret back room that doesn’t exist, with a dimly lit kitchen and a stairwell leading up to an attic, which turns into a murmuring bar.
Late February, 2019:
Tony Bianco sits in a nursing facility near Pittston, PA. Eighty-three years old, his eyes are cast down toward the ground.
When I was a kid and we would visit for Easter, Tony would bust out play swords — the kind made of thick molds of silver plastic, like something out of He-Man — and he and I would battle, which I loved. He was gregarious and fun, with his stocky build and bomber jackets. My dad said he was a good student. But Tony never left NEPA. He ended up working “political jobs” in the area, delivering funeral stones at one point.
A few years ago, Tony’s on-again off-again girlfriend passed; and then my dad went, which sent him into a spiral.
“So how are things?” I ask.
“Alright,” he says. “I stay out here 24 hours a day. I can’t go out. I lost my car, lost my house. I lived in my house eighty years on Defoe street. And then I fell a couple times and Roberta put me down here.”
A T.V. plays lowly in the background. 24-hour cable news.
My Aunt Missy sits in the corner.
“But Tony,” she chimes in, “you didn’t want to be alone.”
“No, I didn’t want to be alone,” he says.
“This is a nice place here,” she said, trying. “You have friends here. And they’ll take you places…”
“Yeah,” he said, “well…”
As kids in the 1940s, Tony and dad were like brothers.
“We always paled together,” he said. “We’d sleigh ride together. We did everything together, you know?”
The two boys would go to the movies. “We had two theaters in Pittston,” Tony said, pronouncing the word in his distinctive NEPA accent — Tee-AY-der. “We had the American Theater and we had the Roman. We used to go on Saturday and watch the serials and all that stuff. I remember them days only paying 12 or 13 cents to go into the movies.”
The Biancos lived in front of the Rotondaros on Defoe St.
Back in the old country, the Biancos hailed from farther north in Italy — only a few hundred miles, but it meant something in those days. They had more money and enjoyed the better unit: 10 Defoe up front on the street, compared to dad’s 10 “Rear,” down the little alley.
Across the way, with only a backyard separating, a young Brian Barrett used to watch the two play.
“To this day, I have pictures in my mind of Tony and Fred walking up Williams Street,” he said, “and Fred is tormenting the hell out of him. Pushing him, kicking him, slapping him, and running away when Tony got mad. And then he’d come back, and he’d do it again.”
Brian burst out laughing. “He had that beautiful spirit.”
Another Irish guy formed the final link in the Defoe street gang. Jack Mattheson, nicknamed Big Wheels. My dad’s best friend.
Football was played on Defoe Street. Baseball down at the park. As far as organized ball went, Brian, who was a few years younger, played local Little League; Jack for St. John’s and my dad for Pittston High. Both second base.
Wheels had a wicked sense of humor and a chip on his shoulder. He grew up in a broken home, the product of an ugly divorce, and he relied on the Rotondaros for their warmth and stability, particularly coming from Grandma Rose, who was an excellent cook, and who embraced Jack — more so than ever after Genie died.
Jack never married. He ended up joining the Marines and later worked as a machinist for Caterpillar, breeding hound dogs on the side. When me and my older sister stayed with Jack as kids, Jack fed us Klondike Bars for breakfast. When I visited again as a teen, he taught me how to shoot a rifle.
Jack died of melanoma in 1996. A few months after he passed my dad and I took a trip to North Carolina with Brian’s family to spread his ashes at sea, which was Jack’s last wish. One last playful jab at dad, Brian says. I’ll never forget seeing him crawl to the edge of the boat when it was his turn to spread the ashes. Dad never learned how to swim.
Old family photos show Pittston as a dusty, potholed town.
It was an immigrant mining community through and through, hell bent on making America work. NEPA was the largest urbanized mining region in the country. By the time my father was born, deep mining had been underway for well over a hundred years.
Dad’s neighborhood, Cork Lane, was filled with the descendants of Irish immigrants and more recently arrived Italians. The houses were simple and barebones. Some lacked closets, older relatives tell me, an architectural oddity dating back a time not long before when mining families viewed houses less as homes and more as shelter; sleeping in “hotbeds” for fitful shifts of rest.
Pittstonites were tough. “He was a tough old bird,” my Aunt Missy once said, pointing to a picture of Grandpop. She pulled out a picture of Great Grandpop Bianco. “He was a tough bird too.”
Dad once told me a story about a biker gang that rolled through town, and a warning that came over the radio to get inside, which grandpop and other miners ignored, grabbing baseball bats instead and sitting on their front porches, where they silently stared the bikers down.
In the afternoon, children ran wild through the streets, playing silly games: Red Rover Red Rover; Buck Buck, How Many Up?
It seemed they were immune to the hardness of life around them; the dangers of mining, the labor exploitation, the drinking and gambling and loan sharking that went down in the myriad bars and saloons that lined Main Street. Ask any of them today. They’ll tell you. It was the best time of their lives; the most peaceful, the most serene. Family and neighborhood…family and neighborhood.
Kids sprinted in and out of houses, with mothers forming the backbone of the community, and often managing the family pocket book.
Backyard gardens brimmed with fruits and veggies — tomatoes, green beans and peppers — the cultivation of which became like a competition. Much of what was grown was bottled and shared, especially if someone possessed something unique, like a plum or cherry tree.
It was a deeply religious community, all 1.7 miles of it, with 13 churches — St. Mary's (Irish), St. Mary's Assumption (German), St. John's the Evangelist (Catholic), St. John's (Lutheran). St. Michael's (Byzantine), St. Casmer's (Lithuanian), St. Rocco's (Italian), Mount Carmel (Italian), St. James, First Baptist, First Presbyterian, Second Presbyterian, United Methodist — and a synagogue on Broad Street.
But my dad and his friends weren’t trying to go to church. Instead, they spent their days trading comic books and baseball cards, and sometimes frequenting a diner where the local mob boss Russ Bufalino would buy the kids milkshakes, as my dad often said.
In nearby Exeter, Bufalino and other mafiosi patronized a restaraunt called Greco’s where they could eat behind curtained booths, with electronic buzzers, allowing the men to discuss business without being seen or heard.
Back then Pittston had a nickname, Tony said: Pistol City.
“There was a murder behind the American Theater,” he said. “I mean, there was four people that got murdered on Columbus Avenue.”
Throughout town the names of the Scranton-Pittston Family — Volpe, Sciandra, Billy D'Elia, and Bufalino — were well known. The mob got its hold on coal mining early on, while the labor wars were raging. NEPA held strategic importance for the American mafia, lying squarely between New York City and Buffalo. In 1957, a national meeting of Mafia capos was held in Apalachin, NY — located along the Susquehanna River near the Pennsylvania border — which got busted by the feds. Out of the twenty families in attendance, the NEPA mafia topped those with representatives apprehended.
Bufalino — played by Joe Pesci in the Martin Scorcese’s film The Irishman — helped organize the meeting. In addition to mining, his syndicate infiltrated the other major industry in NEPA, the garment industry, which employed many of the region’s mothers and daughters.
Like mining, under Bufalino’s control, the dress making factories became an economic monoculture, boxing out competing industries that might have come to the region, providing more work and economic stability, when mining went down.
Old photos of Bianco’s show walls lined with boxes of Ritz crackers, Jell-O and Maxwell House; a display case packed with goodies and Phillies cigarettes, three for a dime.
The store served as a proving ground for the neighborhood kids, who would ditch church on Sunday and swarm the place, sometimes dozens at a time, ranging in age from 12 to 20.
“You earned your reputation at that store,” Brian said. “We had the age stratus, oldest down to the youngest. It was really neat, just hanging out with a Coca Cola and two pretzels and getting grilled by the older guys. They put these great questions to us, testing us. And your father was a star, Vinnie. Early on, he was, I’ll tell you. There was something about your dad. There was definitely something about him, and it was obvious to the people who knew him.”
Old photos of dad show a sweetness in his face, and a shyness — but he also had a temper. “He didn’t give a shit,” Brian said. “He’d fight with anybody. And he tolerated no bullying. There were a lot of older, bigger, tougher guys, but nobody wanted to screw with your dad.”
Despite his wit, he was subdued in school, where he came across as slow. He struggled with his words, suffering from an undiagnosed learning disability that took the form of a stutter. Few remember this part of his life, save for Tony. “He stuttered a lot,” he said. But growing up dad always told me about it, how he flunked his way through school. Even as an adult with a PhD, he couldn’t pronounce certain words. Treadmill, for example, would come out as “Threadmill.”
“Treadmill, dad!” I say, “treadmill!”
Sometimes his speech would short circuit mid-sentence, as if the language neurons slipped off their tracks. He could recite the U.S. presidents frontwards and back, but could not say the alphabet, conking out at about the letter “Q.”
Perhaps this explained some part of the anger of his youth; not being able to find his words when he had so much to say. Brian remembered seeing him internalize it.
“We’d be doing whatever we do on Defoe Street, and we’d come back to the store and have a soda or something,” he said, “and he was — he was not satisfied. Not in any way. I took it to mean maybe that he was more bored than he was anything else.”
“But there was an intellect there,” he said. “It was a quiet intellect, and it was substantial, and there was no bragging about it. Maybe he didn’t understand it himself. But boy, Christ almighty. I dunno, he was just a special person, Vinnie.”
We talked a bit more about dad’s temperament, and his outlook on life.
“You know he had a nickname, right?” Brian said.
“Yup, Chippy,” he said. “He was a chip off the old block. And that was his dad — Angelo.”