Between a short stint in the U. S. Navy and my first fumbling attempts at college, I drove a fork lift in the shipping and receiving department of a big department store chain in New Jersey. My boss was a middle-aged Italian named Rocky Ragazzo who chain-smoked Pall Malls and drove one of those gargantuan 1970 incarnations of the Ford Thunderbird.
Rocky had one gold tooth and a glass eye, from losing both tooth and eye in a bar fight when he was younger. Sometimes he’d close his good eye and turn to you with that cold inanimate glass eye looking at you like the eye of death. And then he’d smile.
He was a sweetheart, though. Coming up to the end of summer, about to leave for college, I found myself short of cash, and Rocky lent me three hundred dollars for tuition. (Back then, three hundred dollars would cover a semester’s tuition and still leave you money for beer and bologna.)
And Rocky staffed his shipping and receiving operation with people no one else would hire, or rather, people everyone else was afraid to hire. There was Deodato the Portuguese giant with a head shaped like Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein. Deodato spoke broken English, laughed like a fanatic, and drank whiskey in the back room from a bottle shaped like a penis.
And there was “Mother” — Wilbert Gilbert Jones, an effeminate black man whom Deodato was sweet on. Wilbert called himself our mother — and we called him that too because he kept a maternal eye out for us all. Wilbert was born with a twin brother his parents planned to name Gilbert, but the brother died shortly after birth and they gave Wilbert both names.
And there was Gonzales, a shell-shocked Marine with whom I once “borrowed” the company truck to help him move to Jersey from his apartment in the Bronx. Standing outside by the truck and taking a smoke break, we were suddenly surrounded by six five-year-olds, each holding a plastic straw bent in half, the ends between forefinger and thumb. All at once, they made a sound like “chik chik” and let loose one end of their straws. “This move’s a good idea, Gonzo,” I said.
And Bill Guggenheim, an emotionally disturbed white guy who seemed to be weeping all the time when he wasn’t angry and grumbling to himself about no one knew what, and who would play George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity” over and over on the snack bar juke box.
And then there was Harry Bellinger, a tall, wiry young black man studying to be a preacher. Harry had a bit of a wild temper and would break into raging gesticulations at the slightest sign of racism or injustice or just plain stupidity. I thought he’d make a great preacher. I bet he did.
I was always a little afraid to wonder how I fit in with this crowd. Rocky hired me because he was friends with my father, but I did seem to fit in a little too seamlessly. Rocky seemed a little concerned about that too, concerned that — as he put it — my boots were a little fluffy. After all, I read a lot of poetry. I liked the theater and the ballet. And I was part of Mother’s entourage. Officially, Rocky had to reprimand me for giving rides on the forklift to Mary, the redhead from Sporting Goods, but I think it gratified him to see that I liked women.
Harry Bellinger and I became good friends. We both liked to read, and we both liked to talk. All of us on Rocky’s crew worked hard, but Harry and I tended to be the slackers, always lost in conversation, arguing over something or other when we should have been working.
“Christ, are you two bullshitting again?” Rocky would holler. “Stop it! Stop it now and get to work. I got three more trailers have to be empty, and you fucking guys aren’t getting out of here until they’re done. Mush, you huskies!”
“Stop bullshitting.” That was Rocky’s constant refrain, his mantra, his formula. If you were talking, you were bullshitting, and if you were bullshitting you weren’t working, so you’d better just stop it and get to work. Rocky had a healthy disrespect — no, a completely dismissive intolerance for any kind of pseudo-intellectual badinage. And back then it was all pseudo, because we were just faking it — eager to think of ourselves as philosophical, theological, intellectual, whatever, but neither Harry nor I had yet put in the time and hard work to get there.
Years later, during the decade I spent in graduate school reading in the Humanities and developing my writing skills, I still always felt a little like a fake, a little out-of-place, an alien among the academics. And still to this day, when I’m writing, I hear Rocky Ragazzo’s voice telling me to stop bullshitting. Just stop bullshitting and get to work.
And I see the cold glass eye of death smiling at me.
Coda: My son Ben asks if I ever paid back the $300. I did. In New Jersey, when you borrow money from a guy named Rocky Ragazzo, you pay it back.