Sunday, 3 September 2017

RIP Mr Natoli

If the first half of my life was a rope, it would consist of three strands: the Walls (dad side), Whites (mom side) and Natolis (extended family side). A mere three blocks away, the Natoli house at 4 Fairfield Road was a mirror image of the one my father and brother and I inhabited at 20 Dayton Road. As in, built by the same homebuilder and common throughout our suburb, but literally flipped: their living room was on the left, ours on the right; their upstairs master bedroom on the right, ours on the left; etc. This would have doubtlessly passed for distinctive style back in the 1960s but it was a less precious age, when a neighbourhood where kids could be set loose (unsupervised!) to play and work out their hellacious and best-left-unspoken urges held more sway than square footage or designer faucets or imported paving stones – any ostentatiousness, really. Where we grew up it was okay to stomp through a front garden while shooting hoops in the driveway, a regular occurrence at 4 Fairfield in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. Just as our suburban streets were playing fields for kickball and running bases, yards were expected to be explored and exploited, not roped-off like rich men’s domains.

Now, as I’m writing this on the sad occasion of Mr Natoli’s passing at age 86, I must point out his pronounced affinity for a lush, properly mowed lawn. It was no secret. Everyone knew Mr Natoli adored his fairway-like side yard, a rarity in the evenly apportioned properties of our North Jersey suburb. Edward and/or Gene, his twin sons whom I’ve known since they both attended my second – aged two – birthday party, may have more to offer on the subject but I never once heard Mr Natoli complain about the damage our most recent touch football game may have done to his hallowed turf. That’s not to suggest he would have held his tongue if he felt aggrieved. Just the opposite. Mr Natoli was blunt when necessary but never harsh. He was suitably gruff but quick to smile. In other words, a Jersey City guy. He was like most of the adults of my childhood – men and women who grew up with much less than their kids, who’d perhaps avoided outright hardship but carried memories of want rather than privilege. They built middle class lives they were proud of and took pleasure in but would never take credit for. If the kids were OK and the house was paid for and you could spend a couple weeks down the shore in the summer, what was there to complain about?

The Cardinals. I’m sure Mr Natoli could find something to gripe about regarding his beloved Cardinals, but as St Louis has long been one of baseball’s most successful franchises, even that potential angst would have been tempered by an appreciation that he wasn’t a Mets fan. (Had to toss that in, Edward.)

I imagine to Mr Natoli I was akin to a minor player on a cheesy sitcom, a one-note-Johnny who’d pop by unannounced, utter a few catchphrases, and exit quickly. For me, of course, those cameos at 4 Fairfield were more meaningful, as they invariably meant speaking with Mr Natoli, seated in a chair near the kitchen, and Mrs Natoli, either on a couch facing a TV or in a chair near the front door. I can literally – and I mean literally – hear Mrs Natoli saying ‘Oh, hiya Joe!’ in her Irish/Jersey voice, followed seconds later by Mr Natoli’s burly ‘Hello Joe’. Mrs Natoli would ask about my brother Kevin and niece Amanda, Mr Natoli would ask about work, I’d sit on the couch and reel off details about my needlessly complicated life, looking at photos of the twins and oldest daughter Mary on the walls, those photos crowded later by in-laws and grandkids. They’d listen patiently, Mrs Natoli asking questions, Mr Natoli offering advice. They were polite, but caring. (I could always tell the difference.) The house at 20 Dayton and the Natolis’ may have been designed on the same drafting table but this ritual, this comforting routine of speaking with Mr and Mrs Natoli before walking upstairs to cajole Edward out of his wood-panelled cave, this FEELING of a house completely given over to the affairs of family, was something I craved. This isn’t a knock at the home my father provided Kevin and I, and I’m not claiming to have been the Judge Reinhold character on ‘Seinfeld’ swooning at the feet of Jerry’s parents, but I genuinely craved the feeling of genial entanglement that hit me the moment I walked into 4 Fairfield. It was something I could rely on, even when I couldn’t rely on much else, and I sheepishly soaked up as much as I could with each visit.

Adding to this dynamic was a slightly Shakespearean subplot involving Mr Natoli’s sister Anita and my uncle Mike, long ago my godparents before an acrimonious divorce. I am the oldest son of Mike’s oldest brother Joseph Patrick Wall (‘Pat’ to everyone, including Mr Natoli) and it sometimes felt like Edward and I – best friends for nearly 30 years until I moved to Australia in 2006 – were the Romeo and Juliet of the Natoli/Montagues and Wall/Capulets. Did I ever get this feeling from Mr or Mrs Natoli? Hell no. We may live in an age where even the most miniscule of grievances are encouraged to bubble to self-absorbed surfaces but Mr Natoli was an honourable man. I might have heard dribs and drabs of my godparents’ marital demise but never from Anita’s protective older brother. Just like it took me many decades to understand and appreciate the quiet dignities of my dad, I can think back to the options before Mr Natoli during those years and admire his selflessness, his old-school intolerance for petty nonsense, his class ... his fatherly-ness.

As my interactions with Mr Natoli were limited mostly to those living room encounters I don’t claim a deep understanding of his history, but I can relate a pair of anecdotes that long ago cemented my respect for him. Probably the most memorable was the result of, shall we say, liberal restrictions enforced at 20 Dayton. During some gathering that probably involved a critical Rangers or Knicks game, a bunch of us put away copious amounts of alcohol before my dad got home. (Unbeknownst to me, Edward and another lifelong friend – Rich Manhardt – spent large chunks of the evening sharing a bottle of unspecified spirits in my backyard.) My last memory of Edward on this evening was watching him jump up and down in the front yard of a neighbour’s house down the road in what I later learned was an attempt to snag a St Christopher medal he’d gotten stuck in a tree. Sometime later, after everyone had left and my dad had gotten home, came a knock at the door. I was upstairs in my bedroom but heard my dad answer. Mr Natoli’s voice boomed like the thunder of a vengeful god. My dad, knowing nothing about what had taken place but always poised to defend his dopey oldest son, spoke calmly to Mr Natoli, who was concerned we’d all been doing drugs. A lot of foolish behaviour got displayed at 20 Dayton over the years but drug use was never one of them. I went downstairs and squeaked my ignorance. The two men at the door shook hands and Mr Natoli left. It turned out Edward had walked the three blocks back to 4 Fairfield, staggered into the living room where Mr and Mrs Natoli were watching TV, and hit the carpet face-first. Who could blame Mr Natoli for storming to my house to find out what had happened? It’s what a dad did. A caring dad. The only kind that mattered.

Anecdote #2 took place a few years before that. One Halloween Edward and I and a couple of neighbourhood kids (Edward’s brother Gene may have been with us – my memory is less reliable than Trump’s moral conscience) were trick-or-treating after dark and got mugged by a group of older kids. Those ratbags weren’t after wallets (we had no money) or sneakers (we wore Sears best) or electronic devices (there were no electronic devices) – these lowlifes stole our pillow cases full of candy. Crime was exotic in our neighbourhood then and all I remember is running away from the creeps, swinging my lumpy pillow case at them like a knight in Hershey’s army, until I got back to 20 Dayton, winded and bewildered. An embarrassing defeat got turned on its head during a phone conversation with Edward, who relayed how he’d returned to 4 Fairfield and told his dad what happened and Mr Natoli had immediately set out in pursuit of the candy thieves. I don’t recall the precise details of what happened next but I DO remember how goddamned good it felt to hear Edward relay how his old man went out and meted justice to the douchebags who’d considered us easy marks.

This is the sort of story I wish I could share with Edward and Gene and Mary and Bill and little Anita and Michael and Nicole and everyone else back in NJ over a bottle of fine whiskey. Mr Natoli, an Italian-American who married an Irish-American, is a man for whom Irish wakes were first conceived. There’s so much I don’t know about his life. Yet I know the more I learned, the higher I’d lift my glass in salute.

All my love to Mary, Gene and Edward. All my everything to Mrs Natoli, Mr Natoli’s wife of 55 years. Hope you read this someday, Mrs Natoli, and know how much you and Mr Natoli have meant to me over the years. Truly wish I could have attended his services. Please know I was there in spirit.

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