Happy Birthday to Dad – Ode to Augie Rossi
I share this with you on my dad’s 82nd birthday.
“To know him was to love him”….that was the inscription on the tombstone of lunatic music producer Phil Spector’s father.
Same could be said for my dad….not quite the “Father Knows Best” type. He wasn’t exceptional…but in a way, he was, because he was Augie to the world around him; and daddy to us.
So how do I describe him…a little like Ralph Kramden. Always coming up with a way to try to make life easier…but always having to fall back on the old standby.
Great storyteller! Perennial ball buster! Eminently quotable!
But in the long run, it never came easy for him!
His life was shaped by the experience of his immigrant parents, Erasmo and Carmela, who came to this country from Nola, Italy somewhere around 1928.
His dad died suddenly in January of 1944…around the time of his 13th birthday. That was one of the reasons my grandmother used to cry out “genaii…” (January), every time January rolled around, as though it was her month of misery. The month my grandfather died, the month one of my aunts was born, and the month my father was born.
So, like many Italian American youths at the time, school became a second thought for my father, and work became the order of the day. Getting up at the crack of dawn to deliver bread with O’zi (his godfather and Uncle Joe), after which he was dropped off at Boody Junior High School, and struggled just to stay awake…whenever he wasn’t playing hooky with his friends.
But he did manage to graduate, and went on to Abraham Lincoln High (or “Lingghee” as my grandmother used to call it) where he got as far as 9th grade.
My grandmother used to say that he needed to be persuaded to stay in school because he had potential, but unfortunately that advice fell on deaf ears.
And so he entered the workforce…the family bakery where he learned the art of baking bread…something we call “artisan” bread today, but to us was just plain old Italian bread.
Eventually he got married a couple months shy of his 20th birthday, and a year later I came along…and not shortly thereafter, my other 3 siblings.
Like many of us, he had his dreams. He loved to tend bar, and for a time was a partner in a restaurant and lounge adjacent to the Civic Center in downtown Brooklyn.
He used to tell us of judges and of one former Congressman and NY State Governor who’d stay past closing and were too drunk to go home on their own…so he would act as cabdriver.
He also had a love for horses…the kind you bet on. It wasn’t unusual for him to take us to the stable area of Roosevelt Raceway to see Potomac Chuck or Miss Banks and let us feed them carrots. My grandmother was never crazy about the idea of my dad becoming a horseman, so much so that she’d always tell me in her course Neapolitan dialect, “…papa tien’ quatt’ caball’ a casa”…or “…your father has 4 horses at home to take care of”. (He probably would have gotten a kick out of me when I won the Open Space Pace last year at Freehold.)
As much as he hated baking bread, he took great pride in the way his bread would come out of the oven…his couldn’t be beat. But it always put him in a foul mood, especially since he had to do it in the middle of the night. So sleep wouldn’t come easy. We’d have to wake him to come downstairs for dinner, and that’s when he was at his ball-breaking“best”. No one escaped his wrath.
The sin of it is that he left us too early…having passed on Mother’s Day in 2001 at the age of 70. I only wished he’d have lived long enough to see two granddaughters get married and give him a great grandson and great granddaughter.
Here is part of the eulogy I read at his funeral mass back then:
There are some of you here who didn’t know my father….so I hope the following collage gives you some idea of who he was in the 70 years he lived on this earth!
1) Ainslie St. Ainslie St is where he was born and lived for the first 5 years of his life. It’s where he started school. As a kid he didn’t speak English………so one day he came home from school with a note that his kindergarten teacher had attached to his shirt that said “Speak English Only to this Child”. When he got home, my Grandmother, who didn’t speak English asked, “Augie…….what is this?” My father, in his inimitable fashion said……..Oh, it must be a metal for good conduct.”
It was at that point he realized that he could tell my grandmother anything and get away with it!
2) “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be Saved”
Asking my father to say grace before meals was a production, because then he would launch into a tirade, finishing off grace with the words, “Believe In the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved”…and then he’d say….”when we used to play hooky, we’d take the Culver line into the city, and when the train crossed the bridge, you’d see this big sign over at the Jehovahs Witness building in downtown Brooklyn with the saying, “…believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.”
Then one day the Culver line broke down, and me, Louie Castagna, and Mickey D’Ambrosio all had our picture taken on the front page of the Daily News.
When they saw it in school the next day, they make Grandma come down to the school……and we never heard the end of it!”.
3) Pierrpont St…….Game of Chance, Miss Banks, Potomac Chuck, Gay Beauty, Tony Sergi, Benny the Bum, Fat Sal, Jimmy the Weasel, Buster, Mario, Tony Shoes….sounds like names from a transcript the FBI obtained from a wiretap.
4) The Bakery: …..no one in my family will every forget the sound of the phone at 11:30 and o’zi on the other end of the phone going “Augiee……………” because the dough was ready, and he had to go down and bake.
But getting up for supper at 6:30 in the evening to eat with the rest of us was never easy. It was never a good time to get in his line of fire. For me, It wasn’t a good time to come home with a new Ceasar haircut, for my sister, not a good time to tell us about her boyfriend, for my brother, not a good time to take the keys to someone’s car and drive around the block.
For my mother, not a good time to try a different cake from Ebbingers for dessert.“. But my kid sister always got over. She was the baby, she could do anything!
5) The bill-din: Another name for the Javits Center…….and it was at this stage in his life that he finally realized the benefit of being a union member.
And just like he held court in the Candy store on the Avenue………he held court in the bill-din. God knows how much he loved it when the Fancy food show came to town……..because the refridgerator was full for a month!
I’m leaving out loads of others too numerous to mention………Uncle Frankie, the Bollin Allo, the Candy Store, “Take all you want but eat all you take”……”Call Buster’s house for me”…”Get off the phone, Mario’s gonna call”…..”Go to the corner and get me a pack of Camel’s”……….”.What are you, liftin’ weights”?…”First the leftovers start in the front of the refrigerator, and then they keep getting pushed back and back and back, until finally they says………..”that’s it, I died”…….Ba beep Ba bop, ba boop ba boop……
Colorful expressions that were a part of the lexicon of growing up with Augie as my father!
He never really left us. In fact, each of us takes with us a part of him that will never die. I see it in every wacked out story I tell on the radio. In fact, just my being on the radio is a testament to him….even if I’m not, in his words… not controversial enough!
When Giuliani was mayor, he should have named a part of Ave U after him……..but then again, he hated Giuliani.
Da, I hope, wherever you are, you always have the remote in one hand, always have a pack of Camels in the other, there’s always a Knicks game on TV……..the Exacta just came in, and you’re going for clams at Lundy’s with Uncle Frankie.
And I hope Grandma and O’zi aren’t yelling at you either! Oh, and Happy Birthday!