In a series of entries that formed scenes, scenes from the hitchhike road in search of the great American West night in the late 1960s, later than the time of Frankie’s early 1960s old working class neighborhood kingly time, it was noted by me that there had been about a thousand truck stop diner stories left over from those old hitchhike road days. On reflection though, I realized that there really had been about three diner stories with many variations. Not so with Frankie, Frankie from the old neighborhood, stories. I have got a thousand of them, or so it seems, all different. Hey, you already, if you have been attentive, know a few Frankie, Frankie from the old neighborhood, stories (okay, I will stop, or try to, stop using that full designation and just call him plain, old, ordinary, vanilla Frankie just like everybody else alright).
Yah, you already know the Frankie (see I told you I could do it) story about how he lazily spent a hot late August 1960 summer before entering high school day working his way up the streets of the old neighborhood to get some potato salad (and other stuff too) for his family’s Labor Day picnic. And he got a cameo appearance in the tear-jerk, heart-rendering saga of my first day of high school in that same year where I, vicariously, attempted to overthrow his lordship with the nubiles (girls, for those not from the old neighborhood, although there were plenty of other terms of art to designate the fair sex then, most of them getting their start in local teenage social usage from Frankie’s mouth). That effort, that attempt at coping his “style”, like many things associated with one-of-a-kind Frankie, as it turned out, proved unsuccessful.
More recently I took you in a roundabout way to a Frankie story in a review of a 1985 Roy Orbison concert documentary, Black and White Nights. That story centered around my grinding my teeth whenever I heard Roy’s Running Scared because one of Frankie’s twists (see nubiles above) played the song endlessly to taint the love smitten but extremely jealous Frankie on the old jukebox at the pizza parlor, old Salducci's Pizza Shop, that we used to hang around in during our off-hour high school days. It’s that story, that already told drugstore soda fountain story, that brought forth a bunch of memories about those pizza parlor days and how Frankie, for most of his high school career, was king of the hill at that locale. And king, king arbiter, of the social doings of those around him as well.
And who was Frankie? Frankie of one thousand stories, Frankie of one thousand treacheries, Frankie of one thousand kindnesses, and, oh yah, Frankie, my bosom friend in high school. Well, let me just steal some sentences from that old August summer walk story and that first day of school saga because really Frankie and I went back to perilous middle school days (a.k.a. junior high days for old-timers) when he saved my bacon more than one time, especially from making a fatal mistake with the frails (see nubiles and twists above). He was, maybe, just a prince then working his way up to kingship. But even he, as he endlessly told me that summer before high school, August humidity doldrums or not, was along with the sweat on his brow from the heat a little bit anxious about being “little fish in a big pond” freshmen come that 1960 September.
Especially, a pseudo-beatnik “little fish”. See, he had cultivated a certain, well, let’s call it "style" over there at the middle school. That “style” involved a total disdain for everything, everything except trying to impress girls with his long-panted, flannel-shirted, work boot-shod, thick book-carrying knowledge of every arcane fact known to humankind. Like that really was the way to impress teenage girls, then or now. Well, as it turned out, yes it was. Frankie right. In any case he was worried, worried sick at times that in such a big school his “style” needed upgrading. Let’s not even get into that story, the Frankie part of it now, or maybe, ever. We survived high school, okay.
But see, that is why, the Frankie why, the why of my push for the throne, the kingship throne, when I entered high school and that old Frankie was grooming himself for like it was his by divine right. When the deal went down and I knew I was going to the “bigs” (high school) I spent that summer, reading, big time booked-devoured reading. Hey, I'll say I did, The Communist Manifesto, that one just because old Willie Westhaven over at the middle school (junior high, okay) called me a Bolshevik when I answered one of his foolish math questions in a surly manner. I told you before that was my pose, my Frankie-engineered pose, what do you want; I just wanted to see what he, old Willie, was talking about when he used that word. How about Democracy in America (by a French guy), The Age of Jackson (by a Harvard professor who knew idol Jack Kennedy, personally, and was crazy for old-time guys like Jackson), and Catcher In The Rye (Holden was me, me to a tee). Okay, okay I won’t keep going on but that was just the reading on the hot days when I didn’t want to go out. There was more.
Here's what was behind the why. I intended, and I swear I intended to even on the first nothing doing day of that new school year in that new school in that new decade (1960) to beat old Frankie, old book-toting, mad monk, girl-chasing Frankie, who knew every arcane fact that mankind had produced and had told it to every girl who would listen for two minutes (maybe less) in that eternal struggle, the boy meets girl struggle, at his own game. Yes, Frankie, my buddy of buddies, prince among men (well, boys, anyhow) who kindly navigated me through the tough, murderous parts of junior high, mercifully concluded, finished and done with, praise be, and didn’t think twice about it. He, you see, despite, everything I said a minute ago he was “in.”; that arcane knowledge stuff worked with the “ins” who counted, worked, at least a little, and I got dragged in his wake. I always got dragged in his wake, including as lord chamberlain in his pizza parlor kingdom.
What I didn’t know then, wet behind the ears about what was what in life's power struggles, was if you were going to overthrow the king you’d better do it all the way. But, see if I had done that, if I had overthrown him, I wouldn’t have had any Frankie stories to tell you, or help with the frills in the treacherous world of high school social life (see nubiles, frails and twists above. Why don’t we just leave it like this. If you see the name Frankie and a slangy word when you think I am talking about girls, that's girls. Okay?)
As I told you in that Roy Orbison review, when Roy was big, big in our beat down around the edges, some days it seemed beat six ways to Sunday working class neighborhood in the early 1960s, we all used to hang around the town pizza parlor, or one of them anyway, that was also conveniently near our high school as well. Maybe this place was not the best one to sit down and have a family-sized pizza with salad and all the fixings in, complete with family, or if you were fussy about décor but the best tasting pizza, especially if you let it cool for a while and no eat it when it was piping hot right out of the oven.
Moreover, this was the one place where the teen-friendly owner, a big old balding Italian guy, Tonio Salducci, at least he said he was Italian and there were plenty of Italians in our town in those days so I believed him but he really looked Greek or Armenian to me, let us stay in the booths if it wasn’t busy, and we behaved like, well, like respectable teenagers. And this guy, this old Italian guy, blessed Leonardo-like master Tonio, could make us all laugh, even me, when he started to prepare a new pizza and he flour-powdered and rolled the dough out and flipped that sucker in the air about twelve times and about fifteen different ways to stretch it out. Sometimes people would just stand outside in front of the doubled-framed big picture window and watch his handiwork in utter fascination.
Jesus, Tonio could flip that thing. One time, and you know this is true because you probably have your own pizza dough on the ceiling stories, he flipped the sucker so high it stuck to the ceiling, right near the fan on the ceiling, and it might still be there for all I know (the place still is, although not him). But this is how he was cool; he just started up another without making a fuss. Let me tell you about him, Tonio, sometime but right now our business to get on with Frankie, alright.
So there is nothing unusual, and I don’t pretend there is, in just hanging out having a slice of pizza (no onions, please, in case I get might lucky tonight and that certain she comes in, the one that I have been eyeing in school all week until my eyes have become sore, that thin, long blondish-haired girl wearing those cashmere sweaters showing just the right shape, please, please, James Brown, please come in that door), some soft drink (which we called tonic in New England in those days but which you called, uh, soda), usually a locally bottled root beer, and, incessantly (and that "incessantly" allowed us to stay since we were paying customers with all the rights and dignities that status entailed, unless, of course, they needed our seats), dropping nickels, dimes and quarters in the jukebox.
But here is where it all came together, Frankie and Tonio the pizza guy, from day one, got along like crazy. Frankie, Francis Xavier Riley, map of Ireland, red-headed, fair-skinned, blue-eyed Frankie got along like crazy with Italian guy Tonio. That was remarkable in itself because, truth be told, there was more than one Irish/ Italian ethnic, let me be nice, dispute in those days. Usually over “turf”, like kids now, or some other foolish one minute thing or another. Moreover, and Frankie didn’t tell me this for a while, Frankie, my bosom buddy Frankie, like he was sworn to some Omerta oath, didn’t tell me that Tonio was “connected.” For those who have been in outer space, or led quiet lives, or don’t hang with the hoi polloi that means with the syndicate, the hard guys, the Mafia. If you don’t get it now go down and get the Godfather trilogy and learn a couple of things, anyway. This "connected" stemmed, innocently enough, from the jukebox concession which the hard guys controlled and was a lifeblood of Tonio's teenage-draped business, and not so innocently, from his role as master numbers man (pre-state lottery days, okay) and "bookie" (nobody should have to be told what that is, but just in case, he took bets on horses, dogs, whatever, from the guys around town, including, big time, Frankie's father, who went over the edge betting like some guys fathers' took to drink).
And what this “connected” also meant, this Frankie Tonio-connected meant, was that no Italian guys, no young black engineer-booted, no white rolled-up tee-shirted, no blue denim- dungaree, no wide black-belted, no switchblade-wielding, no-hot-breathed, garlicky young Italian studs were going to mess with one Francis Xavier Riley, his babes (you know what that means, right?), or his associates (that’s mainly me). Or else. Now, naturally, connected to "the connected" or not, not every young tough in any working- class town, not having studied, and studied hard, the sociology of the town, was going to know that some young Irish punk, one kind of "beatnik” Irish punk with all that arcane knowledge in order to chase those skirts and a true vocation for the blarney was going to know that said pizza parlor owner and its “king”, king hell king, were tight. Especially at night, a weekend night, when the booze has flowed freely and that hard-bitten childhood abuse that turned those Italian guys (and Irish guys too) into toughs hit the fore. But they learn, and learn fast.
Okay, you don’t believe me. One night, one Saturday night, one Tonio-working Saturday night (he didn’t always work at night, not Saturday night anyway, because he had a honey, a very good-looking honey too, dark hair, dark laughing eyes, dark secrets she wouldn’t mind sharing as well it looked like to me but I might have been wrong on that) two young toughs came in, Italian toughs from the look of them. This town then , by the way, if you haven’t been made aware of it before was strictly white, mainly Irish and Italian, so any dark guys, are Italian period, not black, Hispanic, Indian, Asian or anything else. Hell, I don’t think those groups even passed through; at least I don’t remember seeing any, except an Arab, once.
So Frankie, your humble observer (although I prefer the more intimate umbrella term "associate" under these circumstances) and one of his squeezes (not his main squeeze, Joanne) were sitting at the king’s table (blue vinyl-seated, white Formica table-topped, paper place-setting, condiment-ladened center booth of five, front of double glass window, best jukebox and sound position, no question) splitting a Saturday night whole pizza with all the fixings (it’s getting late, about ten o’clock, and I have given up on that certain long blondish-haired she who said she might meet so onions anchovies, garlic for all I know don’t matter right now) when these two ruffians come forth and petition (yah, right) for our table. Our filled with pizza, drinks, condiments, odds and ends papery, and the king, his consort (of the evening, I swear I forget which one) and his lord chamberlain.
Since there were at least two other prime front window seats available Frankie denied the petition out of hand. Now in a righteous world this should have been the end of it. But what these hard guys, these guys who looked like they might have had shivs (yah, knives, shape knives, for the squeamish out there) and only see two geeky "beatnik" guys and some unremarkable signora do was to start to get loud and menacing (nice word, huh?) toward the king and his court. Menacing enough that Tonio, old pizza dough-to-the-ceiling throwing Tonio, took umbrage (another nice word, right?) and came over to the table very calmly. He called the two gentlemen aside, and talking low and almost into their ears, said some things that we could not hear. All we knew was that about a minute later these two behemoths, these two future candidates for jailbird-dom, were walking; I want to say walking gingerly, but anyway quickly, out the door into the hard face of Saturday night.
We thereafter proceeded to finish our kingly meal, safe in the knowledge that Frankie was indeed king of the pizza parlor night. And also that we knew, now knew in our hearts because Frankie and I talked about it later, that behind every king there was an unseen power. Christ, and I wanted to overthrow Frankie. I must have been crazy, crazy as a loon.