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Today's Story by Caroline Sposto

No adult had ever asked me to call them by their first name before. I was honored.

Before We Were Gentrified

I don’t remember the first time I went to Panetti’s Restaurant and Lounge, but I understand it was quite an event. My parents stopped in on their way home from the hospital after I was born.

Back then, every time a woman had a baby, they’d make her stay in the maternity ward for at least a week. My mother hated hospitals. She said every time they sent her home, she felt like she had just gotten out of jail. Of course, my mother had never been in jail, this was just the way she talked.

When she went into labor with me, her sister, Aunt Vivian came to stay at our house to take care of my three brothers and sister. Between my mother’s week in St. Francis Hospital, and my father’s week with Aunt Vivian, they both needed a drink.

My father handed cigars out to everybody in Panetti’s, and then he set on the bar. In those days nobody worried about smoke. After Chubby, the owner, lit my father’s cigar, he took a five-dollar bill out of the register and dangled it in front of me. They say I reached out, grabbed the money and held it tight. Everyone at the bar broke into a spontaneous round of applause.

Chubby Panetti’s real name was George. Like most successful restaurateurs, he was the kind of guy everybody liked, even though his father had come from Calabria instead of Potenza where most of my friends’ grandparents were from. “Chubby isn’t your typical sneaky Calabrese,” the Northside Italians would say, as if they were bestowing him a great honor.

My father liked to take us to Panetti’s on Sundays after twelve O’clock mass. If Chubby weren’t too busy, he’d invite the youngest kids to sit at the bar while he read the Sunday comics that were printed in color. He had a voice for all of them: Dagwood, Dick Tracy, Beetle Bailey. . . he even had a voice for Lois Lane. He usually gave us a couple Tootsie Rolls or a piece of bubblegum. I wanted to find out whether or not he had a voice for Bazooka Joe, but my mother, who always put manners before fun, scolded me to, “Sit down. Now! And stop imposing on Chubby’s good nature.” Consequently, I never found out.

When my seventh birthday fell on a Sunday, we ate at Panetti’s and Chubby gave me a Pez dispenser that looked like Snow White. I loved it, even though I never managed to convince my mother to buy me another package of Pez after it was empty.

Naturally, I wanted to grow up and marry someone exactly like Chubby Panetti. (I’m smiling as I write this, because I can still picture him.) True to his nickname, he was fat. He was also rather short––taller than he was wide, of course, but not by much–– He parted his wiry, salt and pepper hair low on one side, then plastered it down with lots of Brylcreem. His fingers looked like sausages. His mustache looked like my Aunt Mamie’s plucked eyebrows. Sometimes I saw little tufts of hair sprouting from his ears. Still, he was charming––sometimes even borderline dashing.

In those days, there were plenty of “Mom & Pop” restaurants. Typically “Pop” was Mr. Personality. He’d greet people, flatter them, tell funny stories and give candy to the kids. Meanwhile, “Mom” was behind the scenes slaving––and I don’t use the word slaving casually––over a hot stove. In stark contrast, Chubby Panetti treated his wife like a queen. She was the hostess, not the cook. Hers was a glamour job, for which she wore spectacular clothes. Unlike most ladies on the Northside, she had narrow hips, and a wardrobe that rivaled Barbie’s or even That Girl’s. Her dresses were pastel creations with puffy chiffon sleeves, and she always wore a big, showy cocktail ring. Being pretty, these great clothes weren’t wasted on her. She stood out because in those days, we didn’t expect anyone who was sort of old, like my mother, to be particularly attractive. (Back then, sort of old meant probably almost forty, which now seems sort of young.) Mrs. Panetti wore her copper-colored hair teased, brushed smooth on the surface and lacquered to a sturdy Aqua Net glow. Her mascara was blue instead of brown or black; her lipstick was frosted instead of red. Clouds of White Shoulders perfume trailed her when she walked. Even though she spent long hours on her feet, she wore rhinestone-topped kitten heels with open toes that showed off her polished toenails, regardless of the season. My mother figured that Mrs. Panetti showed up in snow boots and wool socks like the rest of us, and then changed. I decided when I grew up I would do the same thing.

My parents sometimes poked a little fun at them for looking at each other like they were on a perennial honeymoon. I figured they were probably a little jealous.

As close-knit as the neighborhood was, the Panettis lived on the other side of town, so we only knew them from the restaurant, but everyone knew they had only one child: their son, Dino. They never explained why their family was so small, though from time to time, my aunts would sit in our kitchen and speculate about this. They always came to the same conclusion: “At least they had a boy, Gawd love ’em!” one would say. Then the others would nod and they’d start talking about somebody else.

Dino Panetti was serving in Viet Nam. A big, color Olan Mills portrait of him hung near the cash register. Lots of snapshots were scotch-taped to its frame. Dino sent his father a Polaroid picture from China Beach after he had gotten the boot of Italy tattooed across his chest. The tattoo was red and green like the Italian flag, and Dino’s skin made up the white part. Chubby was particularly proud of this picture and it had layers of Scotch Tape around the edges from being taken down and passed around the bar so often.

My sister Catherine and her friends were experts on Dino. Even though they hadn’t met him, they knew everything about him. At nineteen, his looks were a miraculously handsome version of his father’s. We figured Chubby had must have looked like Dino when Mrs. Panetti first fell for him.

Catherine was ten years older than me, so I grew up playing with my brothers and a result, I got pretty good at sports. The county didn’t field co-ed teams back then. The only organized league they had for girls was Powder Puff Fast Pitch Softball. The summer after seventh grade, I made the league. All of the teams were sponsored by local businesses. Since they assigned us based on our addresses, I got to play for Panetti’s Restaurant and Lounge.

Our coach, Lefty McMann was my classmate Anna McMann’s father. He was a third shift coke oven operator at the Mill. Lefty came from Pittsburgh and had played farm league baseball for a season or two before The War. He chewed tobacco, sometimes smelled like whisky, and yelled at us like we were boys.

One afternoon, toward the end of a really terrible practice, he sat us all down in the dugout and gave us a big sounding out. He paced back and forth like a caged tiger, stopping at regular intervals to spit tobacco juice into an old paper cup, tearing into us and singling us out like they don’t do anymore.

“Hey, Klutz,” he said, “Why’d you let those easy grounders go through your legs?”
No answer.

“Yo! Dummy,” he continued, looking at me. “How come you swang at all those outside pitches?”

I wanted to tell him “swang” wasn’t a word, but thought the better of it.
“Yooh Hoo! Blind-as-a-Bat,” he snapped at a girl who wore glasses. “What are you made of, spit?”

“Hey, Lazy Daisy,” he yelled at a blonde girl named Margaret, “My grandma has more hustle than you and she uses a walker!”

And so on.

We Northside girls just sat there and took it. To us it was no worse being caught in a little cloudburst without an umbrella. McMann’s tirades never fazed us. We were Italian, Irish and Mexican girls, so getting yelled at every day by family members, neighbors––and on school days, nuns––was just our way of life.

Then we felt the bench shaking and realized that all five of the rich girls who lived in the posh, split-level houses with the big yards and aboveground pools in Rivergrove Meadows were sobbing.

The Rivergrove Meadows development was less than two miles away, but it was also another world. A few seconds later, Coach McMann looked up from his paper cup, saw them, and made the sort of face a guy might make if someone stabbed him in the backside with a pitchfork. We could see that he felt terrible, but none of us knew what to do.

“I – I’m sorry,” he began and went on lamely from there; first, apologizing, later groveling, finally pleading, but those damned girls just kept bawling.

My friends and I tried to tell the weepers that this wasn’t yelling, yelling. It was just the way the people on the Northside talked to each other, but that didn’t do any good.

Finally––thank Gawd––they all sort of ran out of gas. But when their parents drove up in their shiny air-conditioned El Caminos and Chevy Impalas, their faces were still red and some of them were sniffling a little. My friends and I didn’t know if anything could happen because of this, but we were all kind of worried. Of course, since our jerseys said Panetti’s Restaurant and Lounge, their parents phoned Chubby––as if he had anything to do with what happened at the ball field.

Even though nobody from Rivergrove Meadows ever went to his restaurant, Chubby must have thought this kind of thing was bad for business because the next Thursday when we got to the dugout, his wife was standing there in white Capri slacks, sneakers and a team jersey. Chubby had unilaterally made her Assistant Coach and sent her to chaperone softball practice.

“Hello, Mrs. Panetti,” I called out, surprised to see her. Though we were regulars at the restaurant, I had never spoken to her before. For the most part, only adults spoke to people who worked in restaurants, and as with any busy hostess, she was more often seen than heard. My greeting seemed to startle her. She looked almost embarrassed. “No! Please. Call me Shirleen,” she said.

No adult had ever asked me to call them by their first name before. I was honored.

“Shirleen,” I repeated.

“Yes,” she explained. “My mother’s best friends were Shirley and Eileen, so in order to name me after both of them she invented the name Shirleen.”

To a thirteen-year-old who had been exposed to very little beyond television, the Northside, and an annual visit to The Royal Gorge, this seemed pretty ingenious. I vowed that one day, when I had a daughter, I would do the same thing.

I usually played second base, but for some reason, that afternoon, I was assigned to right field, so I spent more of the practice standing around. Other than going after two grounders and a foul pop fly, I spent the entire time trying to figure out how to combine the names of my best friends, Agnes and Becky.

“Begagness . . . Agbecky . . .Agcky . . .” I spliced the syllables every which way trying to create something wonderful. After the first forty-five minutes, I decided to settle for something merely plausible. Half an hour later, I tried using Rebecca, instead of Becky. “Rebagness. . . Abeckyness. . . ”

It was still a bust.

Unorthodox though it was, Chubby’s decision to dispatch Shirleen to our team ended up making sense. She was like a mother––not like our mothers, but the mothers we had seen on television shows––a favorite teacher, and a charm school director rolled in one.

“I’ve given serious thought to the league’s name,” she said, “and to my mind, Powder Puff Fast Pitch implies that we should be able to roll up our sleeves and play the game as well as boys, but without breaking a sweat or chipping our nail polish.”

In keeping with this vision, she bought hair ribbons that matched our jerseys and taught us how to achieve a style she called ‘teardrop braids.’ This new doo became our team trademark. She added frosted lip-gloss, a bottle of White Shoulders and emery boards to the first aid kit. The strange combination of Coach McMann’s no-nonsense training and Shirleen’s fun-loving, just-us-girls team building created a powerful magic.

We were the undefeated County Champions that season. The Victory Banquet, of course, was held at Panetti’s Restaurant and Lounge. Even the uppity Rivergrove Meadows parents expressed sincere gratitude to the coaches and sponsor. Every girl on our team took home a trophy. I had mine for many years: a little chrome-plated figure of a girl wearing a baseball cap, a mitt and a dress. Of course, we had never seen anyone wear a dress to play softball, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only girl who thought it odd, but people were different back then, and none of us ever mentioned it. I realize now there probably wasn’t much of a market for girls’ athletic trophies, so the manufacturer hadn’t bothered to update the design for a couple of decades.

Junior high to senior high started to dawn on us that we were nearly grown. The days of wanting someone to read us the Sunday comics were ancient history. As soon as we were in high school, we lost interest in softball, too. We had schoolwork, school activities, part-time jobs, friends who drove, and sometimes we even had boyfriends. I was no longer keen on going out to dinner with my parents. My friends and I hung out at Mr. B’s Root Beer Barrel and The Navajo Drive-In. Although I seldom gave a thought to Panetti’s Restaurant and Lounge, I often tried to emulate Shirleen.

Would Shirleen have worn this dress? Would Shirleen have dated that boy? How would Shirleen have her hair cut? I wanted to become a woman with the same glamour and sophistication.
I loved my mother, but when it came to fashion, she was more of a cautionary tale than a role model. I still have the picture from my first homecoming dance. I wore a pale green dress with chiffon sleeves, open-toed shoes with kitten heels, a rhinestone cocktail ring and plenty of White Shouldersperfume.

One evening during my junior year––about a week after Ash Wednesday––my father came home with the sad news that Mrs. Panetti had died. The paper ran only a minimal obituary, and soon a rumor was going around about suicide.

According to someone whose third cousin knew a nurse at St. Francis, she had been found slumped over the wheel of her Buick, motor running, and garage door closed.

My parents couldn’t remember when they had last seen her. They simply hadn’t been to the restaurant in a while. I felt sure it had been an accident. It didn’t add up that someone like her would have any reason to kill herself. Of course, we went to the Rosary. It was one of the few times all seven members of my family rode in a car together without saying a word.

The Panettis went to Our Lady of Angels. Big as it was, folding chairs had to be set up. We were seated in them, and they were low. All we could see was the priest’s head and the tops of the flower arrangements. The priest went on about what a good homemaker she had been. I had never been to her house but pictured it to be an embodiment of her persona: glamorous and sophisticated, yet friendly.

I braced myself when it was time for us to line up and shuffle toward the altar, knowing it would be hard to look at her. It turned out to be far worse than I could have ever imagined. The woman in the casket wasn’t Shirleen. She was a short, plump stranger with drab salt and pepper hair who reminded me of my mother. My hands shook so hard my rosary beads rattled. Had we all lost our minds?

I saw Chubby in the front row in a formal black suit. He looked pale and uncomfortable. Dino, whom I knew only from pictures, sat next to him.

I finally caught my father’s eye and mouthed the words, “That’s not her.”

My father shrugged and mouthed back “I know.”

I looked past him toward my mother who looked every bit as confused.

When the service ended, I wanted to hurry home so we could talk. The minute we stepped outside, my father ran into a man who had been stationed at Lowry Field with him during The War. They hugged, and then stepped out of the crowd and introduced their wives. Knowing this would take a while, my brothers and sister scattered to find their favorite cousins and classmates.

Furious with all of them for leaving me after something so horrible had happened, I decided to wait alone in the car. I wasn’t up to facing anyone. I decided to head down the makeshift path between the row of juniper trees and the parish wall. When I slid into that narrow, hidden space, I was surprised to see a woman and a young parish priest on the same little path about fifty feet ahead of me. I would have to squeeze past them.
The day was overcast, but the woman was wearing big, dark sunglasses. There was a scarf on her head, but this was typical. Head coverings were no longer required with the New Vatican, but a lot of women on the Northside still wore them. The woman and the priest were engrossed in what appeared to be a very serious conversation. They didn’t notice me. The priest had a carrying voice, and though he was doing his best to speak in hushed tones, I heard him say, “Miss Cribari, please respect the fact that many members of the family would find your presence too much to bear today!”

The wind shifted and the familiar scent of While Shoulders perfume stopped me in my tracks. Then one of Shirleen’s signature copper-colored tendrils that had escaped the scarf lay flat against her cheek.

I put my head down and hurried past them. She hadn’t seen me since I was a kid, three years ago, so I doubt she would have recognized me. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed she had changed, too. She wasn’t glamorous anymore. She was cheap.

Turned out I wasn’t alone. Most of the neighborhood found this to be quite a revelation. Before the Northside was gentrified, we knew all we really had were home, church and family, and that was enough. After that funeral, little signs of Chubby having a mistress that had been there all along came together in our memories. Pretty soon, we started to suspect duplicity and phoniness all around us. Little by little, we drifted apart.

In time, people got the idea that a better house could make them happy again. Families moved to Rivergrove Meadows and beyond, and things were never the same again.


Caroline Zarlengo Sposto’s short stories have been published by Family Circle Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, Vocabula Review and other magazines. She is also a poet and serves as poetry editor of the Humor in America Blog.

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