Everything has a price, of course, and mine was having little face time with my frenetic father. Pop was my saving grace. He and I grew very close in the months he spent with us in Connecticut. When I returned from school, Pop would be waiting in the poolroom — a cue in each hand — the balls immaculately racked and ready for the break. On weekends we’d play Gin Rummy for hours and split cords of wood with nothing other than a sledgehammer and two wedges. After a while he’d just sit and watch, marveling at my youthful stamina. I’d swing that hammer time and time again, until I could barely hold a grip. His sudden death while I was at law school was my first truly profound heartbreak.
My mental health had been fraying around the edges since college, so when Pop died, I checked out and left for Naples to visit Billy Papaleo, Joe’s son. Pop had never stepped foot in Italy, so I would go in his stead.
I never made it to Naples from Rome. Three Venetian real estate women in the Trastevere section of Rome took a shine to the young New York “writer” and helped me rent a studio apartment on the top floor of a 500-year old palazzo. Billy often crashed with me when he visited Rome and we became steadfast buddies.
I started writing for The International Courier — Italy’s largest English-language paper — and made easy friendships with an eccentric bunch of Dutch, English and Italians. We spent virtually every night together, eating and drinking, flirting and laughing — without a care. It was just the kind of medicine I needed at that moment in time.
As I jumped off a bus in Trastevere one afternoon, I almost fell to me knees on the street when I saw an old man at the window of the bus I had just exited. He was Pop’s exact double. He looked me square in the eyes and offered up a small smile. As the bus pulled out and over the Ponte Garibaldi, emotion welled up in my chest. Walking home that day, I looked in every window and on every stoop for Pop. Seeing an image of my grandfather made me feel like I was part of a larger spiritual plan and that maybe — just maybe — Rome was where I belonged. It was a fleeting feeling, at best.
Rome has its own special magic, but the pull of New York City would always have the last say. One day, when all the stars aligned, like they often do when something big is about to drop from the sky into your life, I took all that I had learned in Rome and headed back across the Atlantic to assume my rightful position in the world.