I had been to Yankee Stadium, so I had been told, but I had no memory of it.
I’m guessing that when my father first took me there more than 30 years ago, he paid a bit less than the $1,250 the Yankees are getting for the best seats in their new launching pad of a baseball park.
One year ago last week dad drove down from Massachusetts and I flew up from Atlanta to mark our own pilgrimage to honor that grand old monument of Americana. My father once had season tickets for New York Football Giants games at the stadium and, further back, one of his uncles would take him to see his hero, Mickey Mantle.
Uncle Sammy was more of a baseball fan. Grandpa Joey – Joe the Butcher, professionally – was a horse player. Dad learned that game, too, but he remains stuck on baseball. Not horse-racing so much.
My father had often asked me to make father-son trips on a relatively spur-of-the-moment basis. One suggestion was to go to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Seeing as that was a six-hour drive for him and an expensive logistical fiasco for myself, not to mention that I’d have to leave my wife and two children behind, his ideas were not always practical.
But watching a game in Yankee Stadium – my parents moved away from metro New York before I turned five and the only games I went to at the stadium came when I was too young to remember – was an idea that struck me as special.
The only trick with visiting Yankee Stadium in its final year was finding tickets, which I thought could be a problem. I picked the only Monday afternoon game of the season, that way I would only need to miss one day of work.
In February, I scored them online. The process included an anxious wait of 20 minutes accompanied by constant clicking of my mouse to maintain my position in virtual line. I celebrated in disbelief.
That gave dad and me four months to plan the trip.
For most people, visiting New York is a tourist’s dream – restaurants, Broadway, Times Square, the Statue of Liberty. In my case, New York runs through my blood. When my parents took me home from Brooklyn’s Victory Memorial Hospital, I was among the third generation of family members who were born within the city limits.
To me, visiting New York was not about seeing a show on Broadway or touring the Met – still things I have never done – it was to see my grandmother in lower Manhattan and all of her friends and relatives. It was to sit in her cramped apartment and watch the Yankees and eat her meatballs and the Chinese roast pork and duck she would buy from the specialty stores around the corner.
So I told my father that I wanted to go, but I also wanted to visit that other city – the one that most of the rest of the world recognized as New York.
At first I envisioned using Marriott points to stay at a Times Square or Wall Street hotel, but dad has these issues with confined spaces and elevators. With the vertical nature of most Manhattan hotels, that was out of the question. And Grandma Connie insisted that we stay at her one-bedroom apartment.
I had my own fear of confined space: That meant my sleeping on the floor – on top of her couch pillows encased in plastic – and dad on the pull-out with the 30-year-old iron mattress frame sticking in his bad back. It also meant negotiating 65 years of resentment between father and mother; completely opposite of how things were with dad and Grandpa Joey.
Upon finishing the planning, I had one more request for dad and I waited until the week before our departure to ask. What I wanted to do most, I told him, was to visit the grave of my grandfather – for whom my son is named — on Staten Island, where he was laid to rest 19 years earlier.
“OK,” my father said, without the least hint of emotion or surprise.
* * *
One by one, my grandiose plans for visiting New York as a tourist started to fall by the wayside. My first idea was to attend the Belmont Stakes the day that I arrived. Big Brown was attempting to win horse racing’s first Triple Crown in 30 years that day.
Getting to the track would have been a nightmare with the crowds and with my father’s squeamishness in that area, we quickly jettisoned that option.
The next option was to watch the race at a bar, perhaps at the South Street Seaport. After arriving from LaGuardia Airport and rendezvousing with my father at the Canal Street subway station, we decided to walk from my grandmother’s apartment down to the seaport. Decades earlier, one of my great uncles worked at the seaport unloading fish from the docks, which were noted for their mob-infiltration.
Nowadays, the seaport is a tourist attraction, replete with bars, restaurants and the requisite kitschy stores. Ten years earlier, I had asked my wife to marry me hours after having brunch at a seaport restaurant.
On this steamy June day – I was channeling Spike Lee movies, notably “Summer of Sam” and “Do the Right Thing” — the temperature was in the mid-90s. The concrete and steel of New York has a way of magnifying and amplifying the heat in a way that make you feel as if you are inside a convection oven.
By the time we got back from the seaport, we were gassed.
A return trip to a seaport bar to watch the Belmont was out of the question, but there was still a way to watch the race that fit with my agenda.
I had wanted to eat dinner at Forlini’s, which has been in Little Italy since the ‘40s. It seemed that every time we visited my grandparents when I was a kid we walked through Columbus Park – not its more famous cousin, Columbus Circle – and listened to dad regale us with his tales of stickball glory on our way to Forlini’s. In what seemed to be the interminable minutes between courses, I’d sneak into the bar to watch television (again, usually the Yankees). So I knew we could watch the race there.
We walked the three blocks from my grandmother’s apartment down to 93 Baxter Street and down the steps into the bar. I felt as if I were walking back into time. Not in the sense of my childhood memories, but into the way Martin Scorsese’s films depict this corner of the 1970s. (Dad has a special affinity for “Mean Streets”, which could have chronicled his own adolescent years.)
Only a few regulars were there, smoke swirling up from their cigarettes. At first I felt as if we had interrupted some conspiracy, but then I realized that my 88-year-old grandmother fit right in. She was part of it.
It started when Grandma Connie instantly recognized a barfly as someone who my father grew up with. Brenda.
My father couldn’t get away from Brenda fast enough but my grandmother had to buy her a drink, which began the first in a series of petty spats between father and mother whose roots sprouted in a bygone tenement more than a half century ago – talk about confined spaces.
That squabble was settled (Grandma got her way, as usual) just in time. Big Brown’s jockey pulled the horse up after recognizing something was amiss with the thoroughbred’s health. So much for witnessing history, even if it had to be on television.
When it came time for the meal I ate tripe for the first time in my life. It was one of the favorite’s of my grandfather, who worked as a butcher from the time he was 12 until he died when he was 76. (He loved hot dogs, too, and, on visits to our house, came with his fedora and suitcases packed with frozen meat, including the specialty Lucania sausages.) My delight at the tripe’s soft chewy texture was only slightly tarnished by the animosity between my father and his mother.
Dad made brief conversation with one of the owners and asked him which member of his family it was with whom he had played softball. Probably his uncle, the man concluded.
After dinner, we walked a few blocks for dessert where we were swarmed by tourists and gorged ourselves on cannoli and my personal favorite, tri-color marzipan cookies.
We were tired and the next morning we were headed to Staten Island and the cemetery.
* * *
The vastness of New York’s five boroughs is hard to appreciate with a simple trip to Manhattan. A Constanza-like foray on the Belt Parkway (pronounced “bell” by locals) or the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway can provide the necessary initiation.
We wanted to venture out early to try to escape the heat as much as possible. Another one of my plans – visiting the Met – was scratched off the list after we realized the Puerto Rican Day Parade would tie up traffic in most of upper Manhattan that day.
I can’t remember where my father got his directions – he learned to drive on Wall Street on Sundays, the streets were so empty — but by the time we got the 25 miles or so out to Staten Island we had to stop at a fire station and ask directions. We meandered farther and tried to rely on the faulty memory of my grandmother who has never driven an automobile in her life and, so, does not need to commit such things to memory.
Finally, we found it. Seemingly at the last corner of the island and the Atlantic Ocean. Again, we had to rely on Grandma Connie’s memory to find Grandpa Joey’s plot. One of my father’s cousins, who lives on Staten Island, takes her out several times a year to visit, so the easy part was remembering the number of the cemetery’s section, 9.
We pulled through the gate and located No. 9 but something in my grandmother’s cloudy recollection didn’t jibe. We stopped once and started to get out, but she started yelling at my father.
“Roy, no, it’s not here,” we got back in and made another trip around the square section.
This time, we got out of the car just up from where we had parked the previous time, but there was no shade. The heat was oppressive. I held my grandmother’s hand as my father went on ahead.
“No, Roy, you’re going the wrong way,” she said. “It’s back there.”
My father got there first. He stood there looking at the gray tombstone with the word “Manasso” with arms folded and just began to shake. And cry.
An unemotional man, my father has gotten much more sentimental in his later years. In the 45 years that he knew his father, he said he only remembered his father raising his voice at him once. He said his father and his two brothers, Sal and “Pat” (Pasquale), were the three nicest men he ever met – and that he said it regardless of the relation. (He did, however, refer to my grandfather’s sister as “The Commandant.”)
In temperament, my father took after the Gragnano side — a bit more irascible. But when she saw dad’s reaction, my grandmother’s previous hardness instantly melted.
“Oh, Roy, I didn’t realize it had been so long for you,” she said, bending stiffly to pull up some weeds.
I comforted my father as best as I could and we stayed as long as we could manage in the stifling heat.
Then we got back in the car and made the long ride back to Manhattan.
* * *
Oh, the game? It was great father-son bonding. We somehow managed not to dehydrate. The temperature didn’t hit 96, as expected. Maybe the previous day’s events had vented a little of the steam.
And we vowed that soon we’ll introduce a new family member, one not born in New York but in Georgia, to the New Yankee Stadium.
My son Joey.