Born to Run (2016)
A nuclear surge of energy erupts constantly from the tiny mouths and bodies of Dora Kirby, Eda Urbellis and Adele Springsteen. My mother and her two sisters have screamed, laughed, cried and danced their way through life’s best and worst for more than 260 collective years. It never stops. Their Marxian (Brothers) high-voltage insanity constantly borders on a barely controlled state of hysteria. Somehow this has rendered them not only near immortal but triumphant. Falling for the Irish to a woman, they have outlived all their husbands, war, tragedy and near poverty and remained indomitable, undefeated, undeterred and terminally optimistic. They are “THE GREATEST.” Three mini Muhammad Alis, rope-a-doping the world.
Here on the Shore the Italians and the Irish meet and mate often. The coastal town of Spring Lake is locally known as the “Irish Riviera.” There, on any summer Sunday, the fair-skinned and freckled can be found tossing down beers and turning lobster-red in the frothing surf off the Victorian homes that still bring style and substance to their community. A few miles north lies Long Branch, New Jersey, once home of Anthony “Little Pussy” Russo, my wife Patti Scialfa’s next-door neighbor in Deal, and the Central Jersey mob. Its beaches are filled with olive-skinned beauties, belly-busting husbands and the thick Jersey accent of my Italian brothers and sisters wafting through the air on cigar smoke. A Sopranos casting call would need to look no further.
My great-grandfather was called “the Dutchman” and I suppose descended from some lost Netherlanders who wandered down from New Amsterdam not knowing what they were getting themselves into. Thus, we wear the name Springsteen, of Dutch origin, but prominently, here’s where Irish and Italian blood meet. Why? Previous to the Mexicans and African-Americans who harvested Monmouth County crops, the Italians were in the fields with the Irishmen and working the horse farms alongside them. Recently, I asked my mother how they all ended up with the Irish. She said, “The Italian men were too bossy. We’d had enough of that. We didn’t want men bossing us all around.” Of course they didn’t. If there was bossing to be done, the Zerilli girls would be doing it, although somewhat surreptitiously. My aunt Eda told me, “Daddy wanted three boys but he got three girls instead, so he raised us tough like men.” That, I suppose, explains some of it.
As a child, I would return from dinner at my aunt Dora’s house exhausted, my ears ringing. Anything more celebratory than dinner and you were taking your life into your hands. You would be fed ’til stuffed, sung and shouted at ’til deaf and danced with ’til dust. Now, as they all move brazenly into their nineties, it continues. Where did it come from? What is the source of their unrelenting energy and optimism? What power has been sucked from the spheres and sent coursing through their tiny little Italian bones? Who set it all in motion?
His name was Anthony Alexander Andrew Zerilli. He came to America around the turn of the century from Vico Equense, a stone’s throw from Naples in southern Italy, at the age of twelve; settled in San Francisco; and found his way east, graduating from City College to become a lawyer at 303 West Forty-Second Street, New York City. He was my grandfather. He served three years in the navy, had three wives, spent three years in Sing Sing prison for embezzlement (supposedly taking the rap for another relative). He ended up on top of a green and gracious hill in Englishtown, New Jersey. He had some money. I have pictures of my mother and her family decked out in impeccable whites in Newport, Rhode Island, in the thirties. He went broke in jail. Their mother, not well, went MIA back in Brooklyn, abandoning my mom and her sisters, then still teenagers, to live alone and make their own way at the farmhouse where they raised themselves.
As a child, this modest farmhouse was a mansion on a hill to me, a citadel of wealth and culture. My grandfather had paintings, good ones. He collected religious art, robes and antique furniture. He had a piano in his living room. He traveled, appeared worldly and just a little dissolute. With gray hair and huge dark circles under big brown Italian eyes, he was a short man with a thunderous baritone, a voice that when cast your way brought with it the fear of God. He often sat, an old Italian prince, on a thronelike chair in his den. His third wife, Fifi, sat knitting just across the room. Tightly dressed, made up and perfumed enough to knock you out, she would plant a huge red lipstick kiss, bringing a warmth to my cheek every time we dropped by. Then from the throne it would come, rolling the “Br” out to infinity, adding and emphasizing an “a,” surfing long and low on the “u,” then just touching the “ce”: “BAAAARRRRUUUUUUUUUUUCE . . . Come here!” I knew what was coming next. In one hand, he held a dollar. I received this dollar every Sunday but I had to go get it. I had to deal with what he had in his other hand: the “pinch of death.” As you reached for the dollar, he would grab you with the other hand, pinching your cheek between his thumb and the first knuckle of his forefinger. First, the incredibly tight eye-watering pinch, followed by a slow upward twisting motion, abruptly shifting to a downward reverse circular tug. (I’m caterwauling now.) And then the release, a quick flourishing pull, away, out and back, finishing with a snapping of his fingers, accompanied by a hearty laughing, “BAAAARRRRUUUUUUUUUUCE . . . WHAT’S THE MATTER?” Then, the dollar.
At Sunday dinner, he held court, yelling, ordering, discussing the events of the day at the top of his voice. It was a show. Some might have thought it overbearing, but to me, this little Italian man was a giant! Something made him seem grand, important, not a part of the passive-aggressive, wandering, lost male tribe that populated much of the rest of my life. He was a Neapolitan force of nature! So what if he got into a little trouble? The real world was full of trouble, and if you wanted, if you hungered, you’d better be ready for it. You’d best be ready to stake your claim and not let go because “they” were not going to give it to you for free. You would have to risk . . . and to pay. His love of living, the intensity of his presence, his engagement in the day and his dominion over his family made him a unique male figure in my life. He was exciting, scary, theatrical, self-mythologizing, bragging . . . like a rock star! Otherwise, when you left the house at the top of the hill, as soon as you hit roadside pavement, in my family, WOMEN RULED THE WORLD! They allowed the men the illusion of thinking they were in command, but the most superficial observation would tell you they couldn’t keep up. The Irishmen needed MAMA! Anthony, on his hilltop, needed Fifi, HOT MAMA! There was a big difference.
Anthony had separated from Adelina Rosa, his first wife, from an arranged marriage, while they were in their twenties. She had been sent to the United States as a young girl from Sorrento to be an old-world bride. She lived for eighty-plus years in the United States and never spoke a sentence of English. When you walked into her room, you walked into Old Italy. The holy beads, the fragrances, the religious items, the quilts, the dusky sunlight reflecting off another place and time. She, I’m sure, unfortunately, played the “Madonna” role to Anthony’s other inamoratas.
My grandmother suffered mightily from the divorce, never remarried and had little to do with the world at large again. She and Anthony were never in the same room with each other for a long, long time. Not at funerals, not at weddings, not at family gatherings. Every Sunday after church when I visited my aunt Dora’s, she’d be there in her hairnet and shawls, scented exotically and cooking delicious Italian dishes. She’d greet me, smiling, with hugs and kisses, murmuring Italian blessings. Then one day, on the hill, Fifi died.
Sixty years after their divorce, Anthony and Adelina reunited. Sixty years later! They lived together in their “mansion” for ten years, until Anthony died. After my grandfather’s death, in the summers, I would ride my bicycle from Colts Neck to Englishtown and visit. She was usually there alone, and we would sit in the kitchen, conversing in a smattering of broken English and Italian. She claimed she only went with the old man to protect her children’s inheritance . . . maybe so. She died peacefully and wit sharp at the age of 101, having seen the invention of the automobile and the plane and men walk on the moon in her lifetime.
Anthony and Adelina’s house on the hill remained in a state of suspended animation for twenty-five years. When I walked through it as a fifty-year-old man, it was exactly as it had been when I was eight. To the sisters . . . it was hallowed ground. Finally, my cousin Frank, the jitterbug champ, who taught me my first chords on the guitar and whose son, Frank Jr., played with me in the Sessions Band, moved in with his family and filled the house with children and Italian cooking again.
The power of the “pinch of death” has been handed down to my aunt Dora, who has developed her own version, the “headlock of doom.” This little five-foot-two, ninety-year-old Italian lady could rip your neck into permanent whiplash or kick the ass of Randy “Macho Man” Savage should he be foolish enough to bend down for a kiss. While I no longer fear Big Daddy’s “pinch of death,” still, on many nights, right around eight thirty, Anthony lives . . . as the house lights go dark, the backstage curtain opens and I hear that long, drawn-out . . . “BAAAARRRRUUUUUUUCE.”
Work, faith, family: this is the Italian credo handed down by my mother and her sisters. They live it. They believe it. They believe it even though these very tenets have crushingly let them down. They preach it, though never stridently, and are sure it is all we have between life, love and the void that devours husbands, children, family members and friends. There is a strength, fear and desperate joy in all this hard spirit and soul that naturally found its way into my work. We the Italians push until we can go no further; stand strong until our bones give way; reach and hold until our muscles fatigue; twist, shout and laugh until we can no more, until the end. This is the religion of the Zerilli sisters, handed down by the hard lessons of Papa and the grace of God and for which we are daily thankful.