A Actually Robust Choice

I moved to California 27 years ago. I moved from a neighborhood in New York City. Yes, I’m from New York. I know it’s tough to tell. I moved from a neighborhood called Hell’s Kitchen, to Santa Barbara.

It was like moving to Mayberry.

When I moved here, everybody said, “Bobby, it’s California. You’ve got to be nice. Gotta be nice.” But nobody, absolutely nobody in Santa Barbara had any compunction about walking up to me and saying, “Oh, you’re from New York City and you’re Italian … you must be in the Mafia.”

People think it’s some sort of badge of courage for us, but most people who came to America at the time my parents did ‒ my parents are from the other side ‒ most of them were coming to get away from all of that, to get away from the corruption of the, you know, the 240 governments that Italy has had.

Though occasionally there would be some contact. Someone knows a guy, or hey, if you want a stereo you should talk to this guy, who doesn’t have a store but does have a garage.

Anyway, I went to this very prestigious all-boys high school in New York City, where a lot of made guys – members of organized crime ‒ would send their kids to straighten them out. It didn’t work most of the time.

In my senior year, I was a fairly good student, and I didn’t have to take any of my exams, except that I had three unexcused absences, so I did have to take my exams. So, I’m sitting in my history exam, waiting for it to start, and a fella comes in, Tony Romano, about six-foot-three, 350 pounds if he’s an ounce. A huge human being.

“Bobby, I don’t know nothin’ on this class,” he said. “Bobby, I know nothin’, you gotta help me, you gotta help me.”

I’m like, “Tony, what’s the problem?”

“Bobby, I don’t know nothin’ on this class.”

“Calm down Bobby. Let’s see what we can do.”

Mr. Mack gives us our exam and luckily, it’s a list of 10 essay questions, and we have to answer five of them perfectly. I answer five questions, I pass them back to Tony, and he starts to copy them in his own handwriting.

It wouldn’t matter. His handwriting looks like Sanskrit.

So, I answer the other five questions, and I walk out. We pass. Forward to graduation night. Before the graduation, Mr. Mack walks up to me and says, “Bobby, that was a really nice thing you did for Tony Romano.”

“What did I do?”

Yeah, right, like he doesn’t know.

Tony Romano comes over to me. Gives me a big hug and a kiss.

“Bobby! Thank you so much! Oh, you saved my live. You saved my life!”

And I was like, “Tony. Shhhh.”

He says, “Is your father here?”

“Yes, of course. He’s right here.”

Now, my father is five-foot-six and 270 pounds and nobody ever called him fat. He was like a filing cabinet with feet, this huge human being. I wear a size 48 sport coat, he wore a 56. His shoulders were out to here. When he passed we couldn’t fit him in the coffin. Had to put him in sideways. [In response the audiences’ laughter] Yeah, it’s funny now.

Anyway, Tony says, “My father would like to talk to him. Does your father speak Italian? Yes, good.”

My father goes over, and there they are, these two old Italian men. They look like two sardine fisherman on the wharf in San Francisco. They are talking, and they’re shaking hands and my father keeps looking at me over the shoulder of Mr. Romano with a look that is not good.

Anyway, they finish talking. They kiss each other on the cheek. They’re talking in a Sicilian dialect they both speak. He comes back over.

“Daddy, what did Tony’s father want?”

“I’ll talk to you later.”

So away we go. Graduation. It’s 10 o’clock at night, we’re back at my house, my father calls me into the back yard and says, “What did you do for Tony Romano?”

“I didn’t do nothin’ Daddy.”

“What did you do for Tony Romano?”

“I took his history test for him. Daddy, the guy’s got a head like a roast beef. He’s going to get a job with his father, and that’s going to be it.”

Now, Mr. Romano owned a short bus line, like a 500-mile-radius bus line like Greyhound. It was called Dominican Bus Tours.

So I said, “What did Mr. Romano want?” My father said, “He wants to give you a job over the summer.” I said, “Great. What, changing the oil? Washing the buses?” My father said, “He wants you to be the union delegate for the drivers.”

And now my father tells me about the decision I have to make. The same decision he made 50 years before that. My father was working for a company called Marolla Brothers Plumbing and Demolition. Mr. Marolla got a little behind with a guy in the neighborhood, a loan shark, and the guy sent two guys to get the money from Mr. Marolla. And they started slapping Mr. Marolla around, and the filing cabinet with feet goes over, and he says, “What’s wrong Mr. Marolla?” He smacks one of the guys, knocks him to the ground, then hits the other one, and knocks him out completely.

Anyway, making this story short, he had to make that decision, because this guy came back and said, “You just took out my two best men.” My father’s decision was either to go to work for that guy, or not. And I had to make the decision whether to go to work for Mr. Romano or not.

We went down, we talked to Mr. Romano, we shook hands, we straightened it all out.

Fast forward 10 years, and I’m an assistant director in the film industry at this point. I’m standing in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, and we’re doing a movie. And I hear, “Hey Bob-by!”

And there’s Tony Romano, turning a bus onto Fifth Avenue, wearing a $10,000 watch, leaning out the window to say, “Hey! You should’ve taken the job!”

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