One of the most frequently heard laments about living in the transient state of Arizona is its lack of roots. While one can plant seeds, make friends, and start new traditions here, the long-established roots which one leaves behind in the “homeland” still run deeper.
The people who knew us “when” don’t need any explanations or long-winded stories to know what we’re talking about or where we came from. They know our family and our histories and our family’s histories. They are the people who remember things about us that we can’t even remember ourselves.
This was brought home to me clearer than ever on a recent trip back to New Jersey. I was there to attend a fund-raiser in support of my cousin Ed. Ed’s been suffering some very serious health problems and he and his family had fallen on difficult times. So some of his friends in our smallish hometown of Wayne, New Jersey decided to do something about it.
Now when New Jerseyans do something, they do it BIG. Whether it’s a helping hand, a wedding, or hair.
But when someone has been giving to the community and their hometown all of their lives, well, paying it forward becomes extra large. In this case they organized a beefsteak dinner. When you want to feed a crowd back east, you have a “beefsteak”, the main course of which is comprised of little steaks served on little round pieces of bread. Lots and lots and lots of little steaks and little pieces of bread.
The giving began back in the ’60s when Ed’s father (my uncle), along with my dad and their older brother, started Wayne’s first and only-to this day-bowling alley. I was practically born there and spent most of my formative years in its nursery, and I suspect my cousins would say the same (though hopefully the older ones weren’t confined to the nursery). And most of the kids who grew up in Wayne made “T-Bowl” a favorite hangout spot.
Those guys did a lot for Wayne, and left their marks on the town. Ed and his wife Elaine continued the tradition by volunteering their time and talent to coaching sports leagues and helping at their sons’ schools.
Plus they’re Italian. So wrap all that up into a fund-raising dinner, and that is one BIG and LOUD crowd.
The event was held at the Brownstone, which even my Arizona friends, or at least those who watch “Real Housewives of New Jersey”, have heard of since it’s owned by one of said housewives and is apparently a character of its own on the reality show.
Picture a room stuffed with over 500 Italians and you’ll have an idea why it took the speakers the better part of an hour to quiet the mob (not THE Mob) enough to actually be heard. Right, the speakers could not be heard. As in the ones WITH microphones. But how could they blame us? We were just trying to figure out how we were related. Because make no mistake, most of us were related in some way.
Okay, we were also oohing and aahing (and mmming) over the delicious food. The antipasto was a miracle not just to this poor Arizonan who’s been starved for it but even to those jaded and spoiled by living with amazing east coast Italian food every day. The creamy smoothness of the fresh mozzarella against the sharpness of the provolone and the huge artichoke hearts matched only by the hearts of those in attendance…but I digress.
At the end of the day, we were a noisy horde of people trying to help one family. It was like “It’s a Wonderful Life” met “Goodfellas”. The movie-loving part of me was wishing a great director was there to film it, because this was the real deal, something Hollywood can never quite duplicate.
This event had everything from a Liza impersonator to a “tricky tray”. Now there’s a word I haven’t heard since I left the Garden State. (No, not Liza, tricky tray. They’ve heard of Liza in Arizona. I think.) For those who may not know, a tricky tray is NJ’s version of a silent auction. Baskets of goods and services are donated; raffle tickets are purchased and placed in cans in front of the prizes you’d like to win.
At one point, I put a ticket in to win a large frame that had some Yankees stuff in it. Something about Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto. (No tricky tray is complete without oodles of Yankees memorabilia. Ahhh…to be back in the land where people understand about being a fan and don’t look at you like you’re the devil.) But after I did so, I realized it wasn’t just memorabilia. It also contained actual tickets to a game the following week, a game which I wouldn’t be around to attend. So my dilemma became whether to try to root around in the can for my ticket and remove it, or leave it there. I considered the options for about three seconds, then noticed two young gentlemen who looked like die-hard Yankees fans waiting to drop their tickets in after mine. They were looking at me rather ominously so I decided to take my chances. I didn’t win.
The fund-raiser, however, was a great success. People had to be turned away when the crowd reached over 500. Even the Freeholders, another term one never hears outside of New Jersey, were there. Freeholders are a special kind of politician that NJ invented. And there’s nothing like a NJ politician. I do mean that in the best possible way because my dad was a politico, but not a freeholder. But with the freeholders and other politicians in the house, complete with their requisite name tags, the crowd was complete.
And just like the mythical Bedford Falls in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, this real town came together when one of its own needed help. My cousin, who had lost both his legs to diabetes, now has his first set of temporary legs and is back on his feet, literally. He was also able to get a used handicapped van so he can be truly mobile once again, for the first time in well over a year.
Ed became Wayne’s own George Bailey, director Frank Capra’s well-loved character who fell on hard times and wasn’t happy about it until he got a unique glimpse into what the world would have been like if he’d never been born, and his loving family and many friends came together to show him how much they cared. On that special night Ed too was “the richest man in town”.
Here’s to all the “George Baileys” out there, and those whose lives are lucky enough to be touched by theirs.
Donations to this cause can be made by check payable to: Wayne PAL fbo The Tumminellos, and mailed to Lisa Galizia, 22 Allen Drive, Wayne, NJ 07470.
Next up: the rest of the trip.
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