…bookishness and cultivation, so treasured by those who possess them, are no guarantee of human value…. Nobody is a more worth-while person for having read Yeats.
– Anthony Lane
I scratch notes for a piece to describe a social divide I experienced as a child in a factory town in Rhode Island. I need to look back, I have to, and I can’t easily. Moments hide. I didn’t see well then, so trapped was I in my self-infatuation as an adolescent and a view limited to one side of town, the professional side, the more favored.
And yes I’m angry about the place, though the adult me shushes the anger. Forget it, let it go. I got scabbed like lots of kids—“pretty boy,” “ass-kisser,” “fairy,” “Cunt Jockobson.” A football lineman prowled for kids in the school halls. He grabbed my testicles: “Say uncle, sweetie, say uncle!” Forget it. Let it go. I had my nose broken in fights. I came home from college at Christmas wearing the then predictable (for the Ivy League) tweed jacket and tie. Felicetti, a friend of a kid I’d fought, slammed me up against a restroom wall in his neighborhood bar.
Decades after I left for good, a therapist inhaled my rage. “Every time you get hot,” his eyes searched my face, “try a mirror.” Look closer at me and not just Westerly, Rhode Island. I had a problem.
It was the fall of 1959 as I exited the high school and spotted them on the grass thirty feet away, five or six wearing anger like skin. Felicetti separated himself and moved in my direction. I kept walking.
He cut along beside me, stone eyes fixed on my face, his Old Spice a favorite of the college-bound he openly despised. I’d seen him pound a kid in penny loafers on a cement walk outside the YMCA, blood splattering Felicetti’s lips and teeth, his starched white shirt. A pack howled for him to finish the kid off. They couldn’t have stopped him.
“You should know,” he breathed into my face, “you should know, before you hear this from anybody else.”
I didn’t slow, the Old Spice heavy.
“Joe wants you to step off.”
Felicetti smirked… and held a beat. “If not, he’ll meet you in the park.” Felicetti didn’t say what this was about.
In the middle of the cluster I glimpsed Joe Pendola, not near enough to read. Sandy-haired unlike his friends, he wore what looked like too big hand-me-downs. I knew him through the respect classmates paid for his seriousness.
“You’ve got a week. He doesn’t want you around Sue Pescatello. Leave her alone or you’ll see him Saturday.”
Felicetti stalked off with backward glances that said, Got that, chump?
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Catholic families from bleak swaths of Italy immigrated to Westerly to work the granite quarries. The time of my clash with Joseph, the quarries played out, Italians sweated on textile-factory lines, or for slightly better wages in a low gray General Dynamics plant a short drive away in Connecticut. Joseph’s heavy-drinking father (“mean,” Joseph calls him) built submarines there, even as Protestant professionals like my parents filled offices.
I’d met Sue several days before Felicetti’s threat. She’d graduated from Immaculate Conception School, enrolled in our public high, and I’d joked as she passed in the hall. She grinned. We spoke on breaks and I crossed a line. Attractive Sue was from that side of town and Italian boys could feel I was poaching.
Despite Felicetti, Sue and I wandered downtown in full view after school in the October, late afternoon light. She took my hand. She made no mention of Joseph or Felicetti. She must have heard, our world was small. She was a refuge. We’d find a way.
The Saturday night dance at the YMCA and no Sue Pescatello. She may have decided to duck the fight. This part was the boys.
Joseph and I found ourselves trudging from the dance to Wilcox Park, the park that housed the library where I spent hours. Felicetti stormed ahead with a horde, kids I knew only by sight. What do they care about Joseph and me and a girl they likely don’t talk to?
“Come on, let’s do this.” Felicetti marched, his jaw set. He steered us to a site overlooking a wide human-made pool with lily pads and goldfish, the pitch-black sky alive with stars.
“Kid’s a fag. Hammer the fuck.” The hostility—the conflict didn’t seem personal. Felicetti had spoken to me once and that was a threat. The others, I didn’t know. This was symbolic, Us against Them, what I represented against what Felicetti and Joe represented, two classes, neither respectful of the ugly other.
“What are we doing, Joe?” I blurted. I was trying not to look a coward.
“Cut the crap.” That was Felicetti. “Let’s get this done.”
I was gangly and leaner than Joe, he more compact. In basketball I shoved, I flung elbows to get rebounds. I wasn’t delicate.
“Joseph, if this is over Sue, let’s let her decide.”
“No,” he said. “You’re smarter, you’re better looking. She’ll choose you.”
I didn’t expect that.
The fight lasted minutes, spectators in a lather. Punches were thrown and Joe wrestled me to the ground. Instants later I gave up.
We lived in a big house on a hill that looked out on the ocean, an old place in shambles my parents had mortgaged and almost singlehandedly turned into a summer inn to save money to send us children to college. Dad ran the state forest service and Mom worked at the University. On nights and weekends they’d renovated the relic.
To Felicetti and Pendola we looked like fat cats: an ocean view, occasional new clothes, grades good enough for college, appreciative teachers, and possibly for moments… their own parents’ regard. The two might envy our status and simultaneously resent me and anyone like me. Consider our public schools.
Until the seventh grade the best readers and writers shared a classroom with the worst readers and writers, the most accomplished with the least. The arrangement was intense for teachers. It required large attention to individuals and they may have preferred a homogenous group they could instruct more efficiently. In the seventh grade, the “best” students from overwhelmingly professional families were collected in A, the college-preparatory section. We were the “top students,” instructors claimed, others situated in “lower divisions.”
Divisions ran in descending order from A to G, from the “best section” to the “bottom section.” College-prep kids thought G, or “General Division” with its stink of the ordinary, caged “the dummies” in a single space. I didn’t protest. I complied. I was twelve. I was flattered by my ranking. The educators understood and I didn’t. It didn’t matter that friends from my neighborhood landed in G.
If an adolescent weren’t bookish or their parents worked in a factory or as a plumber or electrician, that adolescent was set in a “lower division” and stamped less capable, less likely, less important, less deserving…. The school culled us.
Joe Pendola, unusual for an Italian boy, was picked for college-preparatory B. The assignment implied he wasn’t as bright as we A’s. Students heard what the separation into sections droned. The A’s were special; the B’s like Joe, second-rate; the C’s like my straight-A ex-girl-friend in the division for future secretaries, overlooked; the D’s—Felicetti was a D—undistinguished.
I knew of no private protests of the rankings and no collective outcries. We kids were uncertain of ourselves. School told us who they thought we were and who we would become. Their ranking steadied us.
And yet, if you weren’t named for the “top” as an A, you might have simmered in a now smaller room, or flamed into fire like Jerry Felicetti.
My writing stalls here. I need help. I reach out to Joseph. He approached me once at a high-school reunion and turned and walked away. Joseph doesn’t know me. He won’t trust me. I’m not sure he’d talk given the scrap we had. He left Westerly in the early 60s as I did, so he might have a calmer perspective on the class strife than a person who stayed and daily suffers injury.
Days go by before I send an email. I’m convinced this can’t go far: “Would you be willing to help me understand the town better than I do? You know things I don’t, you and I on different sides of a divide.”
“We were kids,” he answers minutes later. The speed surprises me. “We were kids and as a kid I wasn’t much aware of the goings on to enlighten you other than growing up in a neighborhood with neighborhood friends.” Sounds like he wants to back away, though he inserts a coda: “I’m sorry about the foolishness of the spat we had. Young and dumb on my part. I would have been happier if you decided not to go to the park. There would not have been a fight.” He couldn’t buck his tribe. He’s apologizing.
I reply, “When I look at growing up in Westerly, I feel like I was walking around with eyes closed. I saw the world through a narrow window. I was a sad kid, and lonely, fighting like hell for a way to anything brighter. I wanted out of that town, although I didn’t admit that, even to myself.
“It felt to me that some were having a much better time than I was, people in Italian families with deeper roots. I was seeing them from across town and wondering, often frightened, armored and withdrawn, protecting myself.
“I think you had another experience, I’m guessing that anyway. And I’m thinking behind the spat we had in the park, however foolish it may have looked, were two boys with differences I’d like to talk about.”
I don’t use the phrase “class war” to Joseph, class not a subject most (including me) feel easy discussing. Still, I taught with a Ph.D. for three decades in harsh locations, men in prisons and women in a collapsing inner-city. It wasn’t what I set out to do. The opportunities appeared in the middle of my life and I strolled in despite the bad pay. I wasn’t a do-gooder. I had no ache for sainthood. Something pulled at me, something I didn’t define.
After a series of emails Joseph and I agree to meet.
Following high school, Joseph built submarines with his father at the General Dynamics plant and got bored. He enrolled at the University of Rhode Island and then worked as a gym instructor in a public school, grew restless and became a policeman, and ultimately joined federal law enforcement for a career that stretched for years.
No one in Joseph’s family that I know attempted college or teaching or the FBI. Grit cleared his path. He might resist seeing himself part of the undervalued community where he began. I imagine he consents to meet because of the man he’s become, he senses, on his own.
I propose driving to Connecticut from my house in Massachusetts. Joseph advises we meet at his local diner. He doesn’t suggest his home and asks me not to use a tape recorder.
I park early and wait in the car. Joseph wrote about embarrassment after the fight: “I shied away from any of what happened. I’m sure I avoided both you and Sue.”
Sue and I didn’t fit well, boxed in by inherited notions that reduced each other. She’s a wop, many of my neighbors could have growled. I was likely an ass-kisser, Sue’s may have thought. What you inherit isn’t easy to dump. You’ve learned too much from cracks, slurs, distance, fear, the ingrown urge to shrink someone to feel larger.
At the agreed-upon hour I drift through rooms of the vast grill—masses of silver polished surface and old wood, and despite its size warmth I’ll need. Lunch eaters pack the restaurant. No Joe. Has he changed his mind?
He arrives. I get up from my seat. We don’t shake hands and he doesn’t apologize for the lateness. He’s trim with the same erect posture, sandy hair thinner and gray. His mouth cuts a flat line across blank features that breathe, I’m a cop and I’ve seen what you haven’t.
“I taught in prisons not far from here,” I offer when we settle in a booth, “the men more familiar than I expected.” He may assume I mean him, that I’m dismissing him.
“My career was to take criminals off the street and into prison. It wasn’t personal, just a job to protect citizens from violent people, and hopefully those incarcerated will come to recognize what they did was wrong.”
He’s been a professional and not out to set right childhood wrongs, yet he’s put men in prison that looked like some he knew from his neighborhood.
I’m drinking coffee. He waves off the menu and orders a cup. We must not be eating lunch.
He’s given me thirty minutes. I pressed for the conversation, not him, and I suspect law enforcement officers don’t trust easily. I’m a guy important for an instant long ago. He won’t dwell on the past. Joe’s life is elsewhere.
In a low rasp he says, “You and I didn’t know each other very well in high school and if we got to, the tussle we had never would have happened.” The clipped delivery, body tension, the abrupt movements, the NO to a tape recorder, meeting in a diner—I think about blows he’s taken.
We felt above the fight we had, two wary boys, each with half-grasped plans to escape town. “I left,” he explains, “to gain a promising career.”
“Before I met Sue,” I say, “I heard an ex, Vinnie Bonano, branded her ‘a skank’ and ‘a skag.’ He fucked her was the notion, she wasn’t worth donkey dung. What I heard and only heard made me protective. She deserved better.”
Joe: “I liked Sue. She was a sweet pretty girl with a great personality and a nice smile. I wouldn’t have believed anything bad about her.”
“Except I wasn’t certain Vinnie actually said any of that. I assumed the worst. I judged without meeting him.” (I don’t have the brass to say, I automatically spread my indictment of Vinnie to every Italian male.)
Joe: “The fight was a stupid immature kid thing. We were saving face with those who needed to see a fight. Others pushed the issue and we both were forced to show up.”
“At fifteen,” I say, “it’s amazing how little power I felt I had.”
And still the anger, what about the anger? Felicetti, the mob, the howlers I didn’t recognize, the two parts of town.
“Joseph, when you describe the streets we came from, what do you describe? Catholics and Protestants, Italians and non-Italians, factory workers and professionals. Did you notice any problem?”
“Regarding you and me on different sides of a divide, those are your words and I’m not sure what you mean. Westerly was like many small towns. You only have a few really close friends.”
I push. I want him to admit what he can about the place’s shortcomings. “Did you consider the town split in any way?”
Joseph pauses and speaks slowly. He struggles for patience. “I think … I think I’m trying to say no.”
I should have anticipated the answer. He’s keeping wide of the class mess. He won’t defecate in his own nest. Westerly amounted to a few friends, his eyes shut to the rest: “I wasn’t much aware of the goings on ….” His beginnings reveal little that’s essential, he feels. He’s slipped the worst of his past. He won’t diminish himself and sully his reputation in law enforcement. Forget the worst.
I barely recall my ugliest chapters.
Crumbs float up as I write, pieces of Kenny Crandall, Kenny my closest friend till I was twelve, Kenny with the yellowed teeth and pocked skin. Kenny got deposited in G in seventh grade, the “General Division.” One retired teacher refers to Kenny and his family as “trash.”
Kenny and I rode our bikes on my paper route, stalked the woods with a hand-tool we called “a machete,” played football in the snow, did basketball with a bent rim and no net, took skinny dips after dark in the salt pond in the August heat. Kenny whose parents worked the factories, Kenny became a factory foreman. I read his obituary.
I didn’t speak up to support Kenny when he got dropped in G.
One baseball summer, me behind the plate catching without a mask, I took a hard foul ball in the mouth. I remember the blood, my wobbling knees, the fog (“wha’ … happen?”), and inching the black macadam road home, arms around my waist, holding me, “You all right, Butchy-boy, you all right?” That must be Kenny, it must be Kenny or Randy, his older brother, “Butch” my nickname. “You alright, Butchy-boy?”
And Kenny got dumped in General Division with the “trash.” I was his friend and I abandoned him and he… he abandoned me. We drifted apart.
You lose people, I know. We all do. We lose parents, we lose sisters and brothers, we lose homes, we lose places. Our lives drift from us into a disappearing past. Yet early grief can stay, so hungry with wonder we are as young children. You make mistakes you carry the rest of your life. You didn’t understand. You trusted the world you were born to. Adults knew. And they didn’t. They scuffled in the darkness beside you.
We need our mistakes. They can deliver us. They gather the stones for a road. I found myself teaching underdogs in despised settings like prisons and a foundering inner-city. I had to remedy a wrong. An inmate in my classroom described inmates “crawling out of a shit-hole.” I had to crawl out of my own. I needed saving from my blinkered eyes. I had to understand the rage of Joseph and Felicetti, I had to understand my own, and I had to cross to Kenny, Kenny the Lion, the Louisville Slugger, my first friend.