Excerpted from White Guys by Anthony Giardina. Copyright © 2006 by Anthony Giardina. Published in May 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Billy Mogavero was my friend from the age of about eight, or whatever age it is that boys separate from their mothers, begin their forays outside the tight circle of skirts and family gatherings, and from their own, even tighter circles on playgrounds, or, in our case, on the long, broken strip of beach stretching from Boston Harbor all the way up to Gloucester. We were located in Winship, somewhere in the middle of those two points. There are boys who, at eight or ten, are more than normally handsome, well built, instinctive leaders, and I have noticed such boys nearly always have a streak of meanness in them. That was true of Billy, but we followed him anyway, because we had no innate leadership qualities ourselves, not Johnny Lombardi or Freddie Tortolla or Kenny DiGiovanni, or me, the only Irish kid in the group, the ethnic runt.
We all followed Billy, but Billy followed just one person, and that person only sometimes. That was his father. Mr. Mogavero was a tall, skinny man who had married late. He wore glasses, and he was the butcher for the Star Market. When we went there to meet him—when Billy needed money for the movies or to get a cut of meat his mother had asked him to bring home—his father would come out the door that led into the frosty inner harbor of the Star Market meat department and wipe his hands slowly and carefully on the blood-smeared apron he wore and look us all over. With the glasses on, he might have been a schoolteacher. He said our names carefully, one by one, as if he owed us all the respect he would give to men who had come on business.
It is odd that it begins this way, this story I have to tell, with us following Mr. Mogavero on the boardwalk on a series of warm summer evenings in the late sixties. There was, at that time, along the boardwalk, the three-quarters-empty shell of a once-great amusement park, Fantasia. Its memory still hovered over the town of Winship. The park had been built in the 1920s, a huge pleasure dome, a “city by the sea” imposed on the marshland that spread back and fanned outward from the beach. It had put us on the map. A train had once carried immigrant workers out of Boston on Sundays (The Fantasia Special, it was called) to pay their ten cents and ride the flume cars into the Great Lagoon, or to sit coupled in the scooped boats of Love’s Journey and emerge, after a trip through the tunnel, under a shower of confetti. Or else to visit Dark Town, where Negroes played Dixieland music and staged mock alligator hunts. All that was left by the time we were kids were the roller coaster and the kiddie rides, the Dodge ’Em cars and the Caterpillar, and a sometimes-working Wild Mouse. Mr. Mogavero used to take us boys Sunday nights into what was left of the park, to dispense quarters so that we could play Skee-Ball, to stand and watch us on the Dodge ’Ems. He did not participate. He stood and watched, and when we were tired, he made us follow him in a direction opposite to home.
He led us to deserted places, places where the marsh had broken through the territory of the old park, other places where stores and warehouses had taken up residence. Some nights Mr. Mogavero would make a halfhearted attempt to explain what had once been here, what a ride like Tragic Honeymoon had looked like in its heyday, and how it had worked. “The couple would stand up there, and there was a mechanical illusion, made them look like skeletons. ” His hands would go up to describe the scene in the air, but he would give up halfway, as though exact communication was less important than pure suggestion. What we were left with was how strangely beautiful and spectral the old park remained for this quiet man.
There is nothing more to say about those nights except for the anger with which Billy endured his father’s wanderings. No boy wants to see his father as in any way out of the ordinary. The rest of us were lucky: the Italian boys’ fathers were big, hairy, energetic lugs, deliverers of oil, night watchmen in factories, bus drivers. My own father was a teller in a bank. They listened to baseball games on transistor radios; they sat on the stoops of their small, packed-together beach-town houses on summer nights and drank beer; they put down Negroes and insulted hippies and fags and asserted an American regularity we all deeply prized. We knew how to throw baseballs and catch footballs, they took the time to make sure of that, though it was not like now: they rarely came to the organized games we played in Little League or Babe Ruth. They took us to church and afterward scoffed a little at what the priest had said, so that we should know certain sins were not to be taken seriously. It was an easy life, without large expectations, and it probably surprised these guys to see the incomes their sons managed to achieve when, in the nineties, the economy picked us up on that high, curling wave we miraculously knew how to ride. One by one, Mr. Mogavero would return us to these waiting fathers, and they always exchanged words, but you knew right away from the way they looked at Billy’s father that he was not a member of their club.
On those nights, I’m convinced, something started in Billy, an attitude toward the world essentially hard, as though his father’s dreaminess were a strop he was sharpening his blade on. For me, it had another effect. I’d lie in bed after those walks and look out my window, which had a view beyond the houses and the TV antennas and the row of stores on the next block to the marsh where the great, dormant Fantasia now lay. Nobody wants to believe that there had once been a world better than the one you were born into, but if that is the information fed into your young consciousness, it tends to stay there.