Growing up in Maspeth had always been stable and predictable. I knew the neighborhoods, the people, what buses and trains went where, and what bus stops had great places to eat, just like the pizzeria on Grand Avenue across the street from the Maspeth movie house and Occhiogrosso’s Pastry. Both of those establishments frequently caused me to lose my self-control and I’d have a slice or cannoli before making it home for dinner.
My cousin Johnny and I both worked in Manhattan. I would take the B58 bus across the street from Conti’s butcher shop to Queens Boulevard where I would meet John at JADS candy store where we would both grab a quick coffee and a buttered roll. The station entrance was right outside JADS front door.
We always raced each other down the steps trying to be the first at the booth to buy the token, and the first through the turnstile. We were both a bit competitive. Most of the time we were early and had to wait for the F train to Roosevelt Avenue to then switch over to the E train into Manhattan. The station had a newsstand that sold the largest, warmest, and best twisted pretzels with just the right amount of salt. I can’t remember a day when we both didn’t buy one.
Johnny and I were very close, and we came from a big Italian family that referred to us as ‘Frick and Frack’. We shared everything – good times, bad times, and almost all the times that we both got in trouble – together, which seemed like always.
Johnny was a good-looking kid, and six feet tall – an inch taller than me, a fact he still reminds me of to this day. But he never seemed to find the right girl, and for that matter, neither did I.
The F train was a quick ride to Roosevelt, but the E train took much longer to get into the City. This gave us plenty of time to goof on some of the riders and check out the finely dressed young ladies that took hours to look their best for their excursions into the Big Apple.
One day while I was making some stupid comment about a rider, Johnny was staring off and had a dropped-jaw look on his face. I said “Yo! Ya listening to me?” but he just kept staring. I looked in the same direction that he was and noticed a very cute blonde-haired girl wearing a black business leather jacket and gold chain handbag over her shoulder with very little makeup and no lipstick. I said to Johnny, “Ya lookin’ at blondie over there?” and he just nodded like half his brains were gone.
The train came to a stop and she, along with the others, got off. It was the stop before ours. Johnny looked at me and said, “I don’t believe it. I think I’m in love.”
I said, “Ok, calm down Baba Looey,” but he just went on and on about how beautiful she is, and that he’s just got to meet her, and nothing is going to stop him – all the way into the City and later spoke of nothing else the entire ride home. I tried to change the subject, I talked about the weirdos on the train, and how old fashioned our family was, why they use the expression, “beeline” when bees don’t fly straight at all.
We reached the top of the steps, and were standing at JADS front door, when I asked him “So, what are you gonna say?” and he froze, looked at me and said, “Umm, I don’t know.” I told him to go home and think about it.
Each day was a challenge to find the right train car to board in the hope that she will walk into his life again and offer an opportunity for him to either say the right thing (and that right thing still hadn’t come to him yet) or get shot down like a wild turkey on Thanksgiving day. But this was a task that I also had to bear, because John just wasn’t going to let fate decide, he was going to tilt the scale in his favor by each day pushing through the crowd in each car while using me as a plow. Just in case we met her, it would appear that he was just following me. We both took the credit for this brilliant move.
Like all great minds, the plan wasn’t perfect. We found her many times that first month, but what to say and do after had not been figured out yet, and my poor, nervous, palm sweaty, lump-in-the-throat cousin always came up with a reason why it just wasn’t the right time. Either there were too many women around or a bunch of guys that would make fun of him if she shot him down. The best excuse that he had was that she had earphones on, and everybody knows that you never bother anyone with earphones on, it’s a rule, and how stupid could I be that I didn’t know that? Well, that started an argument that lasted all the way into Manhattan and continued again on the way back home.
One day after work we were sitting at the counter in JADS having two of their world class egg creams when I said to him, “This has got to stop, you’re driving me nuts!” Johnny knew he needed to end this one way or the other. We came up with many brilliant ways for him to meet her, on and off the train, but after careful thought, all of them sounded like we would get arrested, or she would think we were creepy, and maybe scream.
This was something that really needed to be figured out, and we came up with the fact that mankind has been plagued with this since the beginning of time. How to talk to a woman for the first time in a crowded environment, and the first answer was, “It’s Impossible.” But, being two smart, healthy, young Italian men from Queens, we were not going to settle for that answer, so we came up with: winging it. Yes, winging it, this was the answer! Just jump out, take that first step, leap without looking. After all, it wouldn’t kill him…or would it?
It was a Friday, and we spent way too much time at JADS. My appetite was totally ruined, and now I was going to catch flack when I got home. I suggested we give it a break. We both had to work the next day, a Saturday, and we were not happy about it, but the trains would be empty and that’s always a good thing. He went his way, and I went mine.
On my way home, I was thinking that this whole thing was really stupid, and why should we make it so complicated? But on the other hand, if not executed correctly, the chance would be gone forever, and I couldn’t think about it anymore, because now I was faced with a major decision: the choice between pizza or Occhiogrosso’s cannoli. It was a rough day, so I had both, and brought a box of pastry home to ease my mom’s wrath about being late, and the long speech about when am I going to learn not to eat before dinner.
I met my cousin at JADS Saturday morning and had the usual coffee and buttered roll, only this time it was different, we didn’t talk about her. We complained about the family and how it was time to move out and get a place of our own (I wanted Manhattan, he liked Queens). We also chatted about our jobs, and what life was all about.
We took a slow walk down the stairs, and through the turnstile. The train was empty all the way to Roosevelt Avenue station, and we took our time enjoying the best pretzels in the world, plus we had the whole subway to ourselves. The E train was on time as usual, and we took seats down at the south end. We both had a great time talking about nonsense, and taking our last bite of pretzel, when the train stopped. Lo and behold, she got on! She looked at us and smiled, then took a seat at the northern end. We both looked at each other, because we both couldn’t believe that she was also working today. I said to him, “This is fate cuz, the gods are smiling on you, so make your move, there’s nobody here.” He said, “You’re right, but she’s all the way over there.” I proceeded to call him all sorts of names, while turning many shades of red, and just short of slapping him in the back of the head, when she got up and moved down closer to us. She took out her earphones and was reading something. That seemed to be the sign that John was looking for, the earphone thing that I was too stupid to know about.
He started to get up when an old man seated opposite her started a conversation. Old men are great at making moves. Each one always seems to get away with it and comes off as ‘The Charming Old Man’. I noticed that John settled back down in his seat, shaking his head, and expressing how he can’t believe this, and how this must be a sign. Italians are into signs. Man, oh man, this was just not meant to be. I once again took the opportunity to call him names, but this time I punched him in the arm, and it felt good.
She and the old man talked for a while, and I again took an opportunity to rub it in to John that an old dude only took 3 seconds to start a conversation, and it’s now going on 2 months for him.
The train came to its next stop, and as luck would have it, the old man got off. Now she was all by herself. My cousin jumped up like Clark Kent heading for the phone booth, he walked over and sat down where the old man had sat across from her. I watched with an eagle eye for all the body language that would give me a sense of how good or bad he was doing. It looked like he found the right words, and was saying the right thing after all, because she was laughing and had a smile. John moved and sat next to her. They waved at me, and sometimes looked at me and laughed. I knew he was gaining ground at my expense, but that was ok, because that’s what guys do, and because he was my baby cousin by 30 days, which I always brought up when the height thing was in play.
They talked all the way into the City, and her stop was before ours. He was the perfect gentlemen. He stood and walked her to the doors and said goodbye.
I couldn’t wait to hear the whole thing, and finally he started his walk towards me, while taking his time and doing some stupid victory dance, smiling from ear to ear, with eyes wide open. I said “Well?” He said they were going to meet for lunch later that day. I wasn’t interested in that, I wanted to know what he said. This could be the opening line of the century. “John, John, what did you say?” He paused, looked down, and then looked up at me, and said, “I asked her if she worked in the City.” I was silent for a while, and nodded my head as I looked down, and then up at him, meanwhile my blood pressure got just a bit higher before I said, “Are you kidding me?! Do you work in the City?! That was the best you came up with after putting me through hell for almost two months?” He said, “Yeah, go figure”.
Well, Johnny came up with the right words 35 years ago, and the lovebirds have been together ever since. They had 3 children, 2 boys and one girl, and now they are grandparents of 2 boys and a girl, with a surprise on the way.
I am very happy for them, even if none of the boys is named Paul. I am also very lucky to have been a part of that magical time that is now jokingly referred to as “The Love Train”.
Paul DeFalco grew up in Maspeth.