The circumstances of my early life afforded me opportunities a wellborn boy might never have had. Not that I was poorly-born, but I certainly wasn’t wellborn either. Let’s put it this way, I was just…well…born – without being wellborn. My strained syntax has led some to label me a White Semanticist, but I consider myself more of a Grammar Cracker. And I always thought a syntax was something you paid to the devil for having a little fun.
More to the point, when I was a teenager working at my family’s glass shop, I was privy to a cast of colorful characters we employed from time to time. They ranged in temperament from the rowdy rascal to the lovable lug to the bastard biker. This clutch of inexpert glaziers were usually from the Italian Northside enclave of Syracuse. They all knew each other from high school and they also knew that Eastwood Glass was a quick way to transform themselves from hungover on a Sunday to gainfully employed on a Monday. This employment makeover usually was the result of receiving a call from one of their network of friends alerting them that Eastwood Glass needed a couple of guys for some jobs that Monday.
One of these bevy of factotums was Vinnie Fanucci. Mr. Fanucci…nah, that doesn’t sound right. No matter how many times you say “Mr. Fanucci” it just doesn’t ring true – it sounds like some kind of Italian undersea character featured on Sponge Bob SquarePants. You simply cannot have a “Mr.” before Fanucci and not think in terms of a cartoon character. While he wasn’t exactly a Mr. Fanucci, he was definitely a Vinnie – through and through.
Vinnie and his motley band of cohorts (Johnny Ventresca, Mike Procopio, Stewart Vendetti, Nicky the boxer, a fat guy named Tiny et al) all somehow made it through high school – probably because Principal Spadafora couldn’t stand the thought of having them back for another year and ushered them through the system. And since they weren’t in jail and were able to blink their eyes in unison, they qualified easily as potential Eastwood Glass Shop employees. Vinnie worked on and off for us in the late 70s and early 80s and enjoyed the casual barrier to entry into the workforce that Eastwood Glass afforded him. He was amateurish yet dogged in performing the skills of a glazier.
Vinnie was a streetwise guy, combining equal parts kindness and rowdiness. He suffered from strabismus – a misalignment of the eye whereby he’d be looking at you straight in the face, but he’d be describing something happening 30 feet down the street. His affliction is more commonly referred to as being wall-eyed. His visual defect wasn’t a problem, but it could’ve been. I mean it’s not like we were working with large and dangerously brittle panes of glass that could sever an artery or something.
Vinnie’s friendly Roman face possessed warm, endearing puppy dog features – like if Robert DeNiro had been born a Beagle. He learned his roughhewn ways on the street where I’m sure he also learned any Japanese tea ceremony etiquette he may have picked up.
Vinnie had a knack for expressing himself in unintentionally funny ways. For example one morning while we were cutting up a few 36” X 100” ¼” plate glass mirror sheets into bite-sized chunks for installation above the vanities of homebuilder Joe Pollichemi’s latest spec home, I inquired into Vinnie’s activities the previous evening and the conversation proceeded thusly:
15-year-old me: So Vin, what did you do last night?
Vinnie: Ah, we all went to da North ta see The Works. (Translation: We went to the Poorhouse North drinking establishment to see the rock band “The Works” play).
Me: You did? Who went?
Vinnie: Well let’s see? Was me, Stewy, Fish, Box, en- Donny. (Translation: Present at the Poorhouse North were Vinnie Fanucci, Stewart Vendetti, some guy who’s nickname was evidently Fish, boxer friend Nicky Malone and longtime glass shop employee Donald Collier.)
That laundry list of so many Cheech’s was enough to launch me into muffled hysterics. It was all so absurd: the way he began the list by including himself, the careful manner in which he enumerated the nickname of each rascal and the distracted way his right eye was looking high and to the right and the left eye was staring me directly in the face. But what I found especially comical was the way he’d say “en- Donny” with the utmost sincerity. The fillip “en-Donny” (literally “and Donny”) forced me to stifle my laughter like a kid with the giggles at church. Vinnie would unintentionally lay into that “en-Donny” thing in a way that was thunderously hilarious.
This singular conversation was actually two separate conversations. The one we verbalized, and the one I perceived. Vinnie was verbalizing this list like it was an inventory of royalty at a Queen’s coronation, and I was perceiving it like it was the punchline to the greatest joke ever told. This list he provided – Was me, Stewy, Fish, Box, en- Donny – was celebrated by all my friends for years. All both of them.
I don’t know if I can ever express the astonishing comedic rapture rippling through my funny bone upon hearing this heaven sent list of hilarity. It all felt so surreal. When he had finished listing the cast of characters, I was waiting for a director to yell, “Cut! – It’s a print.”
Had this entire scene been staged just to please me? What was I doing engaged in a conversation with a lovable Philistine in my family’s glass shop when I considered myself an evolving spiritual being capable of (or at least aspiring to) the most empyrean splendor? And yet there I was yakking it up with Vin while chopping up sheets of mirrors for Pollichemi’s newest palace. Maybe juvenile David wasn’t as special as he thought he was.
My unwarranted superiority complex aside, Vinnie also quite naturally manifested a true and tender side of himself when the occasion called for it. For example, when the shop dog Barney was hit and killed by a car out front of the glass shop, Vinnie picked him up brought him into the garden out back and buried him as sweetly and reverently as if the dog was family. He just had that innate sense sometimes of what needed to be done. I don’t know if I could ever do that.
The Red Eye
Another time (as differentiated from the time I just mentioned) Vinnie had been living in Arizona for a while and returned to Syracuse on a red-eye flight. His first stop was good ol’ Eastwood Glass shop to check-in on some of his friends who were working there at the time. It was probably around 11 am, and we’re both back in the employee lounge (Translation: my father’s kitchen – remember, he lived at the glass shop). I said to red-eyed Vinnie, “So how you doing?”
And while swaying a little unsteadily, he announces, “Dave, I know it’s only 11, but I’ll tell you one thing – I’m shitfaced already.”
That was Vinnie too. He probably drank 5 little Jack Daniels bottles while airborne from ORD to SYR and was feeling no pain. How do you not like this guy?
In the middle of a frigid Syracuse winter his buddies would throw what they called “Beach Parties” where they’d crank up the heat in whatever house one of them was renting, wear swim trunks, lay out some beach towels, watch a beach movie or listen to surf music and, of course, get rip-roaring drunk or sky-high stoned – probably both.
I can guarantee you that Vinnie never used the words “existential dilemma” in his life. He didn’t need to – he never had any. He was kind of living the anxiety free life we all wished we were living. Kudos to my Northside paisano.
The Work Around
Vin was occasionally absent from work due to spirits that just didn’t move him enough to allow him to come to work. And these spirits that prevented his attendance were alcoholic in nature: tequila, whiskey, gin. But Vin was determined to show up on time. To that end, when he had to work a half-day shift on Saturday (9-12), rather than go home after a Friday night of partying (probably at the Poorhouse North with the aforementioned crew), instead of driving home, he’d drive to the glass shop at 2-3 am and park out front. My father, who lived at the glass shop like a medieval bridge troll, would wake him up in the morning.
Since dad was always on the premises like a night watchman, he’d have no problem rousing a defiled Vinnie from the back seat of his ’74 Mercury Montego in the morning. They usually prearranged this maneuver. Once rousted, Vinnie would enter the never cleaned employee bathroom, wash up a bit and change into a work t-shirt so he could make back the drinking money he’d spent the night before.
You gotta love this kind of crude calculus.
My GOAT Vinnie Story
My favorite Vinnie story was the time he had an 8:30 am shift on a Monday and never showed up. He eventually called in around 10:30 and the phone conversation went like this:
Me: Eastwood Glass
Vinnie: (groggily) Hey Dave I’m not there right now.
Me: Yeah Vinnie, I know. Where are you?
Vinnie: Hang on a minute. (yelling to someone within shouting distance) Hey Cookie, where am I? (I then hear a little female voice respond in the background, “You’re in Lakeland.”) Then Vinnie says to me, “I’m in Lakeland.”
Me: Alright, clean up and get here around 1, we can still use you for some jobs.
That one killed me – “Cookie, where am I?” I could tell Vinnie didn’t even bother to put the phone against his chest so he could muffle his full-throated, ear-piercing query to “Cookie” inquiring as to his location. There’s so much to wonder about in those 4 words “Cookie, where am I?”
- Who’s, or what’s, a Cookie?
- You’ve got to be really blotto to not know where you are.
- Was Vinnie speaking to me from a trailer park?
- Hmmm, how does one earn the nickname “Cookie”?
- Was anybody on his side of the conversation wearing clothes?
- And way down the list I wondered, was she perhaps wall-eyed too?
A conversation like this makes you wonder how mankind got as far as he has. It boggles the mind. It makes one question the very survivability of our species. And for me, it was the deciding factor on whether or not to build my bomb shelter.
The Suitable Ending
Everyone appreciated this beautifully flawed, lovable guy – and I’m talking about me here, the author. As it was they liked Vinnie even more – mostly for his unstinting honesty and organic reactions to everyday events. He wasn’t trying to be anyone. He was simply Vinnie.
You can’t make this stuff up. I know. I’ve tried and it doesn’t translate that well. Vinnie was a caring and pugnacious everyman who had a way of looking at things like few others do – thanks primarily to his being wall-eyed. He couldn’t help but see things from a different angle. Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned his strabismus. Maybe I should’ve kept quiet about it because it’s none of my strabismus.