Coach Myz Reflection

There’s some sad news from my hometown of Rome, New York, as Coach Tom Myslinski Sr. has passed away after a battle with cancer. Myslinski had served for many years as Rome Free Academy’s offensive line and strength and conditioning coach, during the glory days when RFA football won many Section Three championships.

Rome Free Academy football field.

His son, Tom Jr., and I were classmates, and he was a standout center at the University of Tennessee—snapping the ball to and blocking for quarterback Peyton Manning. He went on to a distinguished career in the NFL, playing for the Cowboys, Steelers, Browns, and other teams. He’s currently an assistant strength and conditioning coach for the New York Jets.

Tom Myslinski Jr.

In the summer of 1984, between my ninth and tenth-grade years, I participated in a summer weightlifting program supervised by Coach Myz. He was a trailblazer in terms of using resistance training to improve athletic performance. He encouraged (or maybe required) most of his players to lift weights over the summer in preparation for the season.

At the time, I stood about four feet eight inches tall and weighed about eighty pounds with a still-undiagnosed pituitary tumor growing inside my head. I had no business training in the same weight room as the massive jocks who benched over 300 pounds and grunted as they completed their lifts and tossed around metal plates in a basement gym at RFA ripe with body odor and buzzing fluorescent lights.

But Coach Myz treated me no differently than any other student, and I remember his beefy forearms, booming voice, and calm, patient demeanor.

Coach Myz gave me his time and attention, never looking down on me even though I was a pipsqueak who could barely bench the 45-pound bar and my work would never benefit the Rome Free Academy football team.

RFA football team photo. Coach Myz is second from the right on the bottom row, next to #77.

And he conveyed two lessons I have carried with me throughout my life.

The first is practice proper form. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like: “Don’t worry about lifting heavy weights. Just use proper form and build your strength.” This mantra can be applied to many aspects of life. Don’t go through the motions. Use proper form. Start light and build up.

The other is simple—discipline and effort produce results. Show up and do the work. It takes discipline, but the exertion pays off. And I did gain strength through the summer training program—strength that I believe helped me to recover from my brain surgery in December of 1984.

Coach Myz was a man of character whose powerful presence belied his inherent kindness, and his instruction and direction—both in and out of the weight room—helped countless kids in Rome make the transition to adulthood.


Memories of Summer Stock Theater

Act I:

I loathed musical theater when I was growing up. My first exposure to the genre came during my college years in the late 1980s and early ’90s when I attended SummerStage performances at the Capitol Theatre in my hometown of Rome, New York. The productions featured college students from across the region who were majoring in drama or theater studies, and I remember seeing many shows, including Guys and Dolls and South Pacific.

Capitol Theatre, Rome, New York.

My mother, Carmella, and my stepfather, Bill, would buy me tickets, and in a failed attempt to impress the many young women who attended the performances, I would “dress up” in a black blazer that I had purchased at the Salvation Army store in Rome; yet my appearance and fashion sense drew no positive feedback from the females in the audience.

And while I wanted to go to the Capitol shows because they were summer social events, I was afraid that if I actually liked them, and expressed this appreciation, I would get laughed at or be regarded as effeminate by my friends in our sports-obsessed city.

Once the lights went down and the curtain opened for a show, I would snicker when the actors would break into song in the middle of a conversation. I wanted to stand up and scream, “This is absurd. Why am I the only one laughing here?”

Capitol Theatre Interior.

Live musical theater seemed even more preposterous than its cinematic equivalent, which I had been introduced to as a kid while watching my mother’s obsession—the 1965 film The Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. And just like with TSOM, I could not suspend my disbelief and accept the characters speaking dialogue one moment and singing the next. Yet I seemed to be the only one dismayed by the experience because the packed houses at the Capitol responded to the final scenes with thunderous applause and standing ovations for the performers.

The Sound of Music.

As we would leave the theater, Mom or Bill would often ask me what I thought about the production. I would say something like, “I thought it was stupid. I just hate how they just start singing.” And my mother would shake her head and say, “Oh you never like anything. I don’t know why we even bother to bring you.”

What I didn’t share with my mom is that at the time, seeing the musicals on the Capitol stage tapped into the dark experience of my maturation from a boy to a man.

I had been diagnosed with a pituitary tumor when I was fifteen. In 1984 neurosurgeons performed a craniotomy to remove the tumor and then swept up the remnants in a follow-up surgery in 1988, after my freshman year at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York. Endocrinologists also treated me for panhypopituitarism, as I lacked all of the hormones the pituitary gland normally produces. I was prescribed synthetic human growth hormone and testosterone shots during this period.

So even though I was in college when I attended the SummerStage performances, I still looked like a fourteen-year-old boy who had not passed through puberty. Lacking secondary male characteristics like facial hair, an enlarged Adam’s apple, and a deeper voice, I was sometimes mistaken for a girl, both in person and when talking with strangers or customer service professionals over the phone.

The women at my college were not interested in me romantically, and my low self-esteem grew into rabid self-hatred. I despised my youthful appearance and feminine features, and I became angry over my body’s inability to “catch up” to my chronological age.

So when I went to the theater with Mom and Bill, I resented the easy solutions to problems as presented by the actors. For example, a couple would be on stage bathed in bright amber or violet lights, and they would converse about some family dilemma or obstacle to their romance. Circumstances would appear bleak; and then they would start singing and dancing, and their fate would change and their drama would be resolved.

I couldn’t accept this. Life wasn’t like that. I could not alter my situation or “become normal” through song and dance. My problems stayed with me after I walked out of the theater. And so I hated musicals because they represented an unrealistic portrait of the world.

Of course I was only seeing things through the narrow prism of my personal experience. I wasn’t able to look out, beyond myself, in order to enjoy the artistry of the action on stage.

Act II:

Years later I underwent a reversal and evolved to love musicals, especially the films featuring Judy Garland, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, and Gene Kelly. My all-time favorites are The Wizard of Oz (a given), Young at Heart, and Singin’ in the Rain.

I also attended many live musical theater performances. So what changed? How did I come to appreciate the genre I had hated so much in my youth? For one thing I grew up and matured.

But I also had a more practical reason for liking musicals. I began working at Syracuse University in 2007 and from time to time would receive staff discounts for tickets to performances at Syracuse Stage, Central New York’s professional theater. I took advantage of the deals and soon attended many of the plays produced by Syracuse Stage, including the musicals Fiddler on the Roof, Little Women, Godspell, Oklahoma!, and Rent.

Syracuse Stage Exterior. Photo by Steve Sartori.

I would buy a single ticket, usually close to the stage, orchestra left or right (one of the cheapest seats in the house). And because I paid for the tickets, I convinced myself I would enjoy the shows no matter what, so I wouldn’t feel like I had wasted my money.

Also, even though I was single at the time I started going to the shows, I tried not to focus my thoughts on my bachelor status or become discouraged because I never brought a date with me to the theater (although sometimes I couldn’t help being envious of couples holding hands as the house lights dimmed).

Instead, I turned my attention to the action in front of me. Unlike when I watched the SummerStage shows in Rome, I was able to get out of my head, to look outward instead of inward.

I also surrendered my desire for logic in the plot lines of the plays. In 2008 I began dating my future wife, Pam, a theater actress from the Philippines, and she helped me to suspend my disbelief. She told me, “Just enjoy it. Let yourself go and don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense.”

And in watching a number of musicals unfold before me, I no longer expected a realistic interpretation of the world; it didn’t bother me anymore that the actors behaved irrationally.

I simply allowed the experience to wash over me and marveled at the production values and collaboration involved in bringing the action to life on stage.

I also viewed the plays with a more critical eye and appreciated how musicals combine elements of multiple disciplines. They encompass the verbal, as represented by the words in the script; the visual through the costumes, lighting, and set design; dance and movement through the choreography; and the aural through the music and sound effects. Musical theater appeals to all senses, even including smell when smoke is used in scenes.

And I discovered what my mother had understood years earlier when watching The Sound of Music—that musicals offer escapist entertainment as the viewer lives vicariously through the characters, relating to their struggles.

I remember rooting for the character of Jo March in Syracuse Stage’s 2009 production of Little Women, hoping she would hold on to her independence as she strove to find her way in the world.

I remember being captivated by the song “Astonishing” and its soaring lyrics: “I may be small, but I’ve got giant plans to shine as brightly as the sun … I will be fearless, surrendering modesty and grace.”

And sitting up close for the performances I saw how hard the actors worked—the sweat pouring off their faces and brows and soaking their costumes as they belted out the songs and danced breathlessly on stage. In the dusty glow of the stage lights I also noticed the smiles on their faces and a flicker of light in their eyes. It was clear they loved what they were doing; and that joy translated to the audience.

I remember seeing Hairspray with Pam at Syracuse Stage in December 2014, sitting in row B, left orchestra. And during one of the songs—either “Good Morning Baltimore” or “You Can’t Stop the Beat”—I turned my head around in the same way Audrey Tautou’s character did when she visited the movie theater in the French film Amelie. In the darkness I scanned the crowd seated behind me, gazing at the mixed audience comprised of older couples, young professionals, and college students. And their smiling faces matched the expressions of the actors on stage; the emotional connection was palpable.

Hairspray Scene. Photo by Michael Davis.

And I joined in on the fun. I turned my head around and nodded my head and tapped my foot as I listened to the music and let the show carry me away. I also thought that if my mother were still alive, she would have loved the performance too.


Remembering My Father On His Birthday

Today marks the birthday of my late father, Francis DiClemente Sr., who passed away from lung cancer at the age of 64 in August of 2007. He was a quiet man who led a solitary life.

My late father, Francis DiClemente Sr.

My late father, Francis DiClemente Sr. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

He put in 32 years at the Sears Roebuck store in Rome, New York, before the company decided to close it in the early 1990s. He rose to the ranks of a sales manager after starting his employment in his late teens, and he served in all departments: electronics, home improvement, heating and cooling, paints and even the automotive center.

The Sears store in Rome in 1993. Photo by John Clifford/Daily Sentinel.

The Sears store in Rome in 1993. Photo by John Clifford/Daily Sentinel.

One of my childhood thrills was visiting him at the store after school, as we would descend a flight of stairs into a warehouse in the basement—filled with washers and dryers, lawnmowers, rolls of carpet and other merchandise. We would go into the break room, and he would buy me a soda from the glass vending machine—usually Nehi grape, root beer or Dr. Pepper—and then pour a cup of coffee for himself. We’d sit and talk at a little round table covered with the latest edition of the Utica Observer-Dispatch or the Rome Daily Sentinel newspaper.

Things I recall about him:

His lupine face with dark, searching eyes, bushy eyebrows and thick, black hair.

Being a devoted player of the New York Lottery. He scored some jackpots on occasion, including one that totaled more than a thousand dollars. But the scant prizes could never make up for what he spent on a daily basis.

After he died, I went through his room to clean out things, and I discovered innumerable losing lottery tickets stuffed inside one of his dresser drawers. I couldn’t understand why he would save tickets that held zero value. Was he trying to run the numbers through some elaborate mathematical system in order to calculate a winning combination, some key to unlock the mystery of how to beat the odds?

Being a habitual gambler with a penchant for playing football parlays. But his real joy came from betting the horses at the local OTB, sharing camaraderie with other men infected with the same urges, all of them standing around scribbling in the margins of the Daily Racing Form.

After the Sears store closed, he took a low-paying sales job at a carpet store. He complained about the crumbling upstate New York economy and grumbled about his bad luck, repeating the phrase, “I can never catch a break.” Even so, he endured his situation and became a valued employee at the store—one who was highly regarded for treating customers well and giving them deals whenever he could.

When he was diagnosed with cancer, the doctor told him he could try chemotherapy, but it would only give him a slim chance of living slightly longer. He decided against the treatment, noting, “What’s the point?” And so in February of 2007, he stoically accepted his fate, knowing he had only about six to nine months left to live.

Dad in his chair. It's out of focus, but I love how he looks directly at the camera. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Dad in his chair. It’s out of focus, but I love how he looks directly at the camera. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I had recently relocated to central New York from Arizona, and I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with him before he passed.

He lived with his mother, my grandmother Amelia, a stooped, red-haired woman who had coddled my father from the early days of his youth. He clung to her as the anchor of his life, which contributed to the demise of my parents’ marriage and also affected our relationship.

My late grandmother, Amelia DiClemente.

My late grandmother, Amelia DiClemente. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I don’t fault my grandmother because I don’t think she could have helped herself when it came to trying to protect my dad. He had been born with a hole in his heart, and the life-threatening condition worsened as he grew. He was a short, frail and underweight boy who was mocked by other kids about his size, labeled as a “shrimp.”

In the late 1950s, my grandparents took my father to Minneapolis, where pioneering heart surgeon C. Walton Lillehei repaired the ventricular septal defect in a seven-and-a-half-hour operation at the University of Minnesota Heart Hospital.

Renowned heart surgeon C. Walton Lillehei. Photo credit: University of Minnesota.

Renowned heart surgeon C. Walton Lillehei. Photo credit: University of Minnesota.

And Dad was proud to have been among the first batch of patients to survive open-heart surgery in the U.S. Whenever he told the story to someone, he would lift up his shirt and show off the long scar snaking down the middle of his chest.

As the months passed in the spring and early summer of 2007, he became weaker and weaker as the cancer ate away at his body, leaving him looking like a shriveled scarecrow.

He had always eschewed desserts and when offered them, would say, “No. I hate sweets.” But as his time on earth elapsed, he went all out when it came to food—eating Klondike bars, Little Debbie snacks, Hostess cupcakes and other junk food. His philosophy was “Why not?”

Although he had Medicaid, Dad left behind a staggering amount of unpaid medical bills. But what troubles me more, what I have been unable to reconcile, is how he ran up thousands of dollars in debt in the last few months of his life, the largest chunk coming from ATM cash withdrawals using my grandmother’s credit card.

I was never able to pin down how he spent the money. He made no large purchases of electronics or home furnishings. I assumed he used the money to gamble; but in some way I wish he had supported a mistress or a family he never told us about, or that he gave away the cash to charities. Instead, I am only left with unanswerable questions. I helped him to file for bankruptcy, but in an ironic turn to the story, he died before a decision was reached in the case.

Dad, side angle.

Dad, side angle. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I remember a funny conversation I had with him one afternoon while we sat in the living room of my grandmother’s small ranch house in north Rome. Sunlight poured through a large bay window, past the partially opened silk curtains. Outside I could see a clear sky and trees burgeoning with leaves—a bright, saturated landscape of blue and green.

I sat in a corner of the room and he sat in a forest-green recliner covered with worn upholstery.

“What’s the name of the angel of death?” he asked me.

I was surprised by the question, and I said, “I think he’s just called the angel of death.”

“No, he has another name,” he said.

And after a few seconds it came to me. “The Grim Reaper.”

“That’s right, that’s it,” he said.

“Why do you want to know?” I asked. “Did you see him in a dream or something?

“No, but I want to know his name when he comes.”

I could go on and on about my dad, but that’s the strongest memory I have of him in his waning days.

Dad in the kitchen. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Dad in the kitchen. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

And I don’t normally use this space to write about my family, but I felt compelled to pay tribute to a man who left no significant contribution to humanity (as judged by the world’s standards)—he never earned prestigious academic honors, never published a book, never ran a company or made enough money in his lifetime to buy a retirement home in Florida.

Instead, he toiled away in obscurity and mediocrity as a working-class person. My sister and I received no inheritance, save a small insurance policy that paid out after his death. And his shy, aloof nature created a buffer with other people, a barrier to forming deep relationships (except with a few close friends).

Fabric of my Father, a collage I made comprised of objects from his life. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Fabric of my Father, a collage I made comprised of objects from his life. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Yet in reviewing his life, I know his kindness, work ethic and willingness to help others set an example for me that I have tried to uphold. And the debts he accrued do not cancel out those qualities.

The one word I keep coming back to is decency. My father was a good and decent man. That may not be cause for celebration in our society. But it’s enough to fill me with pride, and I hope to carry on his values as I carry on his name.


The Defiled Ice Cream Cone

The Defiled Ice Cream Cone, a creative nonfiction story, was published in the Fall 2013 issue of New Plains Review. Since the magazine does not have online version, I thought I would post the story here, along with some relevant photos from the neighborhood described in the piece. The text follows:

Before my family moved to a rural stretch of land in south Rome, New York, in the late 1970s, we lived in a duplex at 126 Stanwix Street in the heart of the city, a block away from the Oneida County Courthouse, a red brick building with white columns and a dome top. Stanwix Street connects two of Rome’s main thoroughfares, Black River Boulevard and James Street. And the neighborhood’s appeal was limited to its proximity to downtown, the post office, city hall, gas stations and stores; otherwise, it offered residents a rough, neglected setting where potholes often went unfilled and you could find smashed beer bottles and other trash scattered on the sidewalks following summer weekends.

Oneida County Courthouse. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Our house, much like the neighborhood, needed some work. The unstable porch steps creaked whenever someone walked on them, the white paint and emerald trim were cracked and the whole structure seemed to tilt slightly to the left.

But the house did have a working washer and dryer in the cellar and a sewing machine for my mother, and Dad could grow tomato plants in a small garden area on our property near a sloping chain-link fence.

I spent hours tossing a basketball toward the rusted, netless hoop already attached to the garage and turned the small backyard into my personal Wiffle ball domain. My sister and I could also play on a swing set in the backyard, and I remember picking dandelions when they popped up on the lawn in the spring after the blanket of winter snow receded.

Linda and Robbie Blackwood (names changed) lived across the street in an apartment building covered with cedar shake shingles. The building was often ensconced in shade and I remember Linda and Robbie spending a lot of time at our house. They were poor and their mother may have been on welfare. They wore frayed clothes and I heard other people refer to them as “wellies.”

But their financial situation had no bearing on our friendship; they lived nearby and we just had fun playing together.

Linda and I were about the same age. She was short and wiry and had blond hair. As an athlete, she could rival any boy in the neighborhood. She could beat me from home plate to first base in a sprint and her mix of fastballs and off-speed pitches usually left me dizzy in the backyard batter’s box.

I think Robbie was older than Linda, but only by a year or two; he was stocky and also had blond hair. I don’t think I ever saw their mother, not even once, but she would often yell at Robbie and Linda from her window and tell them “to get their asses inside.”

Robbie and Linda never mentioned their father, but it seemed like he was away and may have left them. They did not discuss his absence from their lives and so I did not ask them about it. But I always wondered if he would show up one day. Or was he already dead?

Routine ruled our summer months. In the mornings, after breakfast, Linda and Robbie would stop at my house. We would run through the neighborhood, exploring whatever caught our attention. We would build forts, jump rope, play hopscotch or hide-and-seek, shoot hoops and play kickball or Wiffle ball.

I also remember digging for musket balls and arrows in a plot of land near the site of Fort Stanwix, which had been reconstructed as a national monument in Rome. We had learned in school that many historians considered the siege of Fort Stanwix a turning point in the Revolutionary War because the Continental Army, under the command of Colonel Peter Gansevoort, repelled a lengthy British assault led by General Barry St. Leger and thus helped to thwart a three-pronged plan by the British to divide the colonies.

Colonel Peter Gansevoort. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

But we didn’t care about the historical significance of Fort Stanwix; we just wanted to find some artifacts that we could trade with each other or use in our “war games.”

We would eat lunch, separately, and then meet again in early afternoon and play Wiffle ball or some other game the rest of the day, taking brief breaks to chug a few glasses of cherry or grape Kool-Aid, which I would grab from inside the house. And it seemed like Robbie never washed off the red or purple Kool-Aid stain that circled his mouth the entire summer.

We would split up at about five in the afternoon, as Mrs. Blackwood made her kids eat an early supper at a fast food restaurant. Throughout the summer months they rotated between McDonald’s, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Kentucky Fried Chicken and other fast food spots in Rome.

Linda said her mom refused to cook in the summer because their apartment lacked air conditioning. I was envious of their diet of burgers, chicken, fries and shakes, and I asked my mom why we couldn’t eat out every night like the Blackwoods. She gave me some explanation about the importance of home-cooked meals, but as a kid I didn’t understand her reasoning.

Dad would come home from his job at the Sears store at about 6:15 p.m. every weekday, and I would shovel down whatever Mom placed on my plate, before excusing myself and racing out to meet Linda and Robbie for a few games of kickball or hide-and-seek before I had to come inside for the night.

But one July day our playtime schedule was altered by a selfish act I would regret for years to come. The Blackwoods had returned home from their fast food dinner, and Linda and Robbie were playing outside. I was inside the house at the time, most likely watching “The Electric Company” or another PBS show, when I heard the sound of the ice cream truck luring me away from the television.

“Not before dinner,” Mom said after I jumped out of the reclining chair and begged her for money.

“Please Mom, just a small twist cone.”

“I said no.”

I threw my arms up in protest and ran to the window. I focused my gaze on the “Ice Cream Man” as he distributed the frozen treats at the curb. Clad in his clean, white uniform, he appeared like a modern-day knight, rushing to the succor of the Stanwix Street children, bringing cooling relief to the kids and quenching the heat that rose from the asphalt.

“Mom, I’ll be outside until Dad gets home.”

“Stay inside the yard,” she hollered from the kitchen.

“OK,” I said on my way out the door.

I pushed open the screen door and let it slam behind me, and the porch groaned as I leapt off the top step. Linda and Robbie were standing on the other side of the chain-link fence that separated our backyard from an adjacent lot. They were both holding ice cream cones and they were licking them quickly because the sun was still bright and the heat was melting the ice cream.

I walked up to my side of the fence and Linda came toward me on the other side.

“We got ice cream,” Linda said.

“Yeah,” I said.

Robbie followed his sister and approached the fence. His flavor was chocolate and I noticed a trickle of brown liquid rolling down his forearm. He then started taunting me because he had ice cream and I did not.

I have replayed this incident in my head more times than I would like to admit. And no matter how much I want to, I can’t stop myself, or more accurately, the memory of myself, from doing what I did that day.

“You want a lick?” Robbie asked me.

“Sure,” I said, my eyes fixed on his cone.

I think Linda may have told her brother they needed to get home before their ice cream melted. But Robbie ignored her. Instead, he extended his arm and held the cone over the top of the fence. He may have said something like, “Here, try it.”

Yet when I reached up to take the cone, he yanked it away and I clutched a handful of air.

“Madge ya [Made you] look, now suck my dick,” squealed Robbie. He indulged in a long, satisfying lick of the cone and then opened his mouth, revealing a brown froth swishing around inside.

I think Linda laughed at her brother, and then she tried again to make him go inside, but he wouldn’t listen.

His laughter seemed to ricochet off the facade of a nearby tan brick building and then resonate inside my ears. And he kept repeating the little phrase: “Made you look, now suck my dick.” He also alternated the wording, saying, “Wanna lick … suck my dick.”

I could feel sweat bubbling on my face and neck as an internal rage started to swell and demanded a release. I was standing near Dad’s tomato plants. And so after Robbie repeated his mocking phrase, I bent down, scooped up some of Dad’s fertilized soil and threw it across the fence at Robbie. The dirt covered almost the entire surface of his ice cream and also smacked him square in the face before settling in his eyes and hair. I rejoiced when his laughter ceased and a frown appeared on his face; he also looked liked he was going to start crying. He dropped his dirt-sprinkled cone on the ground and ran away screaming, “I’m gonna tell my mom.”

Linda was still standing near the fence. I shrugged my shoulders and said something like “sorry, I guess” or “well, he was asking for it.” But she just looked at me with a blank expression and then turned her back and followed her brother across the street to their apartment building.

I must admit I felt proud of my actions. I convinced myself Robbie had provoked me to a point where a response was needed.

I awaited repercussions from Mrs. Blackwood. I was nervous all through dinner that night, as I expected her to come marching across the street at any moment, bang on our screen door and start swearing at me and demanding repayment for the ice cream cone. But it never happened; no retaliation came.

I thought I got away with it. Or did I?

I think I may have told my parents about the incident later that night, just before bed, when the guilt had started weaving its way through me. I don’t remember what they said, but most likely they told me to go to bed and apologize to Robbie the following day.  They may have also suggested I give him some money to make up for the ice cream.

But I don’t think they meted out any punishment. And as for Linda, Robbie and I, we remained friends and continued to play together the rest of that summer.

The ice cream event did not ruin their lives. They forgot about it in a couple of days. I think that’s because childhood is all about living in the present. You’re not thinking about yesterday because you’re always looking forward to what’s next; you’re always searching for the next fun thing to do.

So then why does it stay with me? Why does this scene still haunt me? Maybe it’s because the image of the dirt covering the cone remains so vivid in my mind. I can close my eyes and feel the hot sun on my neck. I can see a rivulet of chocolate ice cream sliding down Robbie’s forearm. I can picture the hurt and disappointment on his face when the dirt hit the cone and he realized it was ruined, that he wouldn’t be able to take another lick. I can see the cone lying on the ground at the base of the fence. I can see Robbie’s squat body running away.

But there’s something else. I think the reason I threw the dirt on the cone was because I thought I was better than the Blackwoods. I was getting angry as Robbie was teasing me and in that moment—right before I reached down to grab the dirt—I thought of him like other people did, as a nothing but a “wellie,” just white trash. And I was also jealous. They had something I didn’t and some sickness in me wanted to take it away. I thought, “If I can’t have ice cream, then you shouldn’t either.”

My family wasn’t rich, but we could have had ice cream just about anytime we wanted. All my sister and I had to do was ask our mother or father to buy some at the store. The Blackwoods were different. How much did it set Mrs. Blackwood back to give Linda and Robbie some change for the ice cream man? Where else would she have to save to make up for it? This was a special treat for them and I wrecked it.

Of course I was only about nine years old at the time. I was irrational and immature—a stupid selfish kid. But if I start to think about the incident and relive the memory again, I feel ashamed when I see myself stealing Robbie’s joy.

I think we moved away from the neighborhood around 1978 or ’79 and I never saw Robbie or Linda again. Our house at 126 Stanwix Street is no longer standing. It was demolished by the city several years ago.

In 2011 when I was visiting my mother and stepfather at their home in Rome, I went for a long walk on a clear summer evening. I walked southbound on James Street, heading toward Gansevoort Park and St. Peter’s Church. When I got near the police station and the courthouse, I crossed the street and started walking on Stanwix Street.

St. Peter’s Church. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

As I scanned the block, I realized not much had changed in the neighborhood. It still looked ragged. Some of the small front lawns needed mowing, a tan cat was crossing the street and a kid’s bike was lying on its side in a driveway. And if you can believe this, a white Mr. Ding-A-Ling truck was parked at the curb and the man inside was selling ice cream treats to customers.

Stanwix Street, Rome, N.Y. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I thought about Linda and Robbie; I wondered where they were and what they had done with their lives. Were they still in Rome? Were they both married? Did they have kids of their own? Was their mother still around? And what happened with their father?

Of course I had no way of finding out the answers to the questions that came flooding to me as I stood on Stanwix Street.

I wished Linda and Robbie would have appeared on the block at that moment, walking westbound on Stanwix Street toward James Street. I wanted to see them again and offer to buy them both ice cream cones to make up for what I had done and what was lost as a result.