MY GEMMAS: Idols, Heroes and Role Models
Luke Capuano: Growing up in Taylor Street’s Little Italy
Supporting contributor: Vince Romano
“A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every person leaves a mark.”
Elsewhere in these Taylor Street Archives is a story that begins as follows: In India, they have a saying reserved for those individuals who had influenced and shaped our lives. That saying is, “You are my Gemma.” The Gemma is a tributary to the Ganges River. From the point at which the Gemma flows into the Ganges, the Ganges is no longer the same river. Its course is forever influenced by the Gemma as it winds its way down to the ocean…ultimately influencing and shaping the landscape of distant shores. “You are my Gemma.” A tribute reserved for those who had become our Gemmas during our personal journeys through life. A tribute reserved for those who made us something different than we would have been had we not met them.
I never knew what a Gemma was. In fact I never knew there was a river in India called the Gemma. Now that I know of their existence, this story about four of my early childhood mentors is a story of my Gemmas. Because of them, I and others became something more than we would have been.
I’m sure that each generation of kids in our neighborhood had their share of Gemmas. The Taylor Street Archives afford me this opportunity to memorialize their names and their deeds. Hopefully, the Archives will resurrect and record the memories of other Gemmas held by others who were also Taylor Street bred.
In addition to those stories, the names of all who had the good fortune of growing up on Taylors Street, first and second generation Italian Americans alike, should, at the least, have their names recorded in the Taylor Street Archives for posterity. Now that the Archives have taken root, we should all see to it that our immigrant parents and grandparents are recorded as well.
Taylor Street was unique. Everybody watched out for everyone else’s kids. It was a close community. The respect we held for our parents we also held out to their friends, their relatives, and their paesans…the entire neighborhood for that matter. Hillary Clinton may have recently discovered that it “Takes a Village.” We, growing up on Taylor Street, knew, long before she published her book, that it took a village.
I’m not sure what the threshold or litmus test is for Gemmas, but there are 4 guys that I’m sure who qualified. During my formative years, I had the good fortune to have been coached by Tony Boggia, George Cappizano, John Soto, and Pat Fatigato. While sports may have been the common denominator that brought us together with these mentors, we came away with more than finely tuned athletic skills. Their words, their actions and the values they imparted upon us continue to guide and influence us during our adult lives. It was because of unselfish men such as these that armies of kids were afforded the opportunity to reinforce the values their parents and teachers began instilling in them.
They were our Gemmas. Whether recognized or not, they had also influenced the development of my boyhood friends who had the good fortune to have had them become part of their lives as well.
Tony “Bo Jo” Boggia was a father of 4 at the age of 33. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday he devoted himself to teaching us how to play football. As outstanding as he was in teaching the fundamentals of the game, it was the mental aspect of the game that he was able to impart that enabled us to overcome the size deficit we encountered at each of our Sunday games. Competing against kids from other neighborhoods meant playing against other ethnic groups. Since a six-footer was a rarity in our neighborhood, they always had a size advantage over us.
Bo Jo, as he was called, was a man of few words. The intensity with which he looked at you when making an important point assured that he had your undivided attention. A task master of Vince Lombardi vintage, he was always there when you needed guidance, encouragement or just someone to talk to. He was there for you when you needed to talk about things you couldn’t (or wouldn’t) talk about with your mom or dad. His home was your home. He was your confidant. His death at an early age (Bo Jo died at age 33) denied a lot of young kids growing up on Taylor Street the opportunity to be coached by a truly great guy.
George Cappizano was a man who knew every aspect of baseball. As a young man in his 20’s, he gave freely of his time to legions of little leaguers seeking to develop the complex skills necessary to compete at the highest levels of little league baseball. His knowledge of the finer techniques of hitting, running, pitching and fielding enabled us to compete against and, more often than not, beat teams of superior talent and experience.
As I look back, I recall with admiration the patience he displayed in the practice sessions designed to develop, not just the basic skills, but the finer techniques that would ultimately determine the outcome of those close games. I recall the rented buses and the pool of neighbors’ cars that he organized for our benefit. Because of George, we had the opportunity to break away from the confines of our neighborhood and play at a multitude of suburban parks where kids lived in 3 and 4 bedroom air conditioned homes. It was because of his efforts and his sacrifices that we experienced playing in stadiums with hundreds of spectators. Can you imagine a bunch of Taylor Street kids, (not far removed from playing in the fire hydrants, or playing kick the can, or running after the “rags-a-line man” to see how much he would give us for a piece of scrap iron) felt when the announcer introduced us. Jogging out to our positions, as each of us was introduced by the home town announcer, we were, for that fleeting moment, lifted into a world far removed for the asphalt pavements of the inner city that radiated the summer’s heat. It wasn’t until the first hit or the first catch that the question burning inside each of us before each game was answered, “Will we be competitive against these well honed suburban teams?” Thanks to George Cappizano, we more than measured up to our opponents. We always walked off the field proud of our performance. Vince Lombardi was quoted as saying, “The supreme joy of life is to lie exhausted on the field of battle, victorious in the knowledge that you had given your all, not just in the contest itself, but in preparation for that contest as well.” God bless you George (and the others) for those “supreme joys” we experienced so early in life. He too passed away at an early age.
John Soto was a kind and mild mannered man who gave himself to the difficult task of guiding kids off the streets to the playing fields. While he developed in us the skills to compete and excel in sports (football was his forte), he viewed sports as an opportunity to develop the emotional strengths needed to meet with and successfully cope with those life challenges that awaited us in our later years. A fixture at the Midland Boys’ Club on Loomis Street, John, a family man and a humble man, is best remembered as someone who placed the happiness and well-being of others before himself. He was happiest when others were happy. Although John passed away, he, like all Gemmas, lives on in the lives of those he touched.
Pat Fatigato, like the others, was a giver. Pat gave freely of his time to the community and its residents. He willingly shared the knowledge and experience he had acquired. In my mind he was one of the best. I was fortunate enough to play Little League baseball under him. Although my senior, our athletic careers merged again when we played against each other in football. Later, we were teammates on the same championship softball team.
A walking sports encyclopedia, Pat was also a superb all-around athlete and never abused the physical gifts he had been given to take advantage of others. Never once did I know him to bully or belittle anyone. A super guy with no pretenses, he was the first to laugh at his own mistakes. The manner in which he handled himself made you wonder if he was already fully grown when he was born. Pat also had been given only a limited number of years to be a Gemma. He passed away at the age of 42.
I know that everyone, at one time in their lives, is in need of guidance from someone other than an immediate family member or teacher. These gentlemen also served in that capacity for me and others in our community. They are just a handful of the many members of our community who deserve to be remembered. Hopefully, the readers of this article will find the time to include their names in the Archives designed to preserve the memories and histories of all of us who were “Taylormade.”
This site, the Taylor Street Archives, is dedicated to the memory of all of those Taylor Street mothers who nurtured their Taylor Street children through a time and place unmatched by any other. The Profiles of those strong willed mothers who nurtured us through the great depression (and other, not so visible obstacles of similar magnitude) will be found in these archives …