April 18, 2022

I learned something about myself over the weekend: I’m carrying way too much of me around, and it’s caused me to feel lazy. Feeling lazy then equates into acting lazy. Not a good cycle to perpetuate. Then I heard the voice.

No, it wasn’t the words of the Gods who you normally worry about incurring that wrath of, that sit high atop The Thing. It was the voice of a man that I considered a father figure for many, many years. The father of one of my oldest and best friends, Mr. Esposito (I just called him “Mr. Espo”) was a man that could have been pulled right out of a Scorcese screenplay. With broad shoulders, a thick handebar mustache and an accent that came from more than 50 years living in The Bronx, Mr. Espo was 100% alpha dog – a man that had a masters degree in street smarts. He was a guy whose words were uttered with complete confidence and commanding authority, wrapped in a thick accent.

(I have a point – just give me a minute or two to get there…)

One afternoon when I was about 10 years old, I was walking home from little league practice when a kid from my class – let’s call him Chris – joined me. For some odd reason, he began to tease me relentlessly, saying things like “you look like Alfred E Newman” and “you look like Ralph Mouth” (both are negative references – and if you don’t know why, Google is your friend). Comments like these were thrown out there using a whiny voice that added to the insults. Even at that age, I had a hot temper – so I dropped my Louisville Slugger and my dirty baseball glove, and squared off with him. Here’s the problem: I wasn’t the greatest pugilist on the little island I called home, so we both gave each other a couple of cuts and bruises. After the dust had settled and both of us looked at each other with a bit more respect than we had 5 minutes earlier, I continued my slow walk home…dreading the heat I’d get from my mother. About three blocks from my house, a white Chevy van pulled up to the curb, with All-Tone Painting painted on the sides of it in gold lettering. The passenger’s side window rolled down, and the driver bellowed: “HEY KING KONG!”

The voice.

Mr. Espo.

(“King Kong” was the nickname he gave me when I moved across the street from him.)

“King Kong – get in the truck. We’ll ride home.” Still slightly bloodied, I quickly tossed my stuff into the van and hopped into the seat. When Mr. Espo told you to do something, you just did it. No questions.

Once the door shut, the following conversation occurred…more or less:

“OK King Kong – I saw the whole thing.”

“Saw what?”

“Come on – smarten’ up.”

Now, for the uninitiated, the term “smarten’ up” can mean several things….

  • If you did something wrong and got caught – “smarten’ up or I give ya abatz” (abatz is slang for the Italian word battere, which means a beating)
  • If you bet on the weekly football slips and picked the Jets to either win or cover the spread – “You better smarten’ up with those Jets, they can’t even cover their mouths when they cough, stupido.”
  • If you got caught sipping on a can of crappy beer (aka Piels or PBR) – “Hey! You better smarten’ up with that crappy beer, and go get some mints before you go home.”

There are plenty of other ways to use the phrase…but you get the idea. Now where was I? Oh yeah: Mr. Espo just told me to smarten’ up, and I was right in the middle of trying to figure out in what way he meant this extremely important phrase, when he did me the favor of clearing that right up for me….

“Look here, Kong: when some faccia bruta (a simple derogatory term that means “ugly face”, but we tossed it around to mean someone that was just a jerk) tries to pick a fight with ya, ya gotta remember one thing.”

“I know, I know, Mr. Espo. Try to work it out. Fightin’ is no good.”

“…..No. Hooks to the body. Knocks the wind out of ’em, and ya don’t mark up his face. So that way, no proof of the fight. Think, Kong. Think. Smarten’ up and use your head for something more than a hat rack.”

And here I thought I was about to get abatz right in the head for fighting. I don’t know if I won the fight that day – but I remember Mr. Espo making me laugh on the way home. That make the hell I caught that night from my mom a bit easier to handle.

That was the voice I heard over the weekend. Mr. Espo. Smarten’ the hell up. Smarten’ up and get your crap together. Go get some focus. Make a plan and get to work.