Recently, my wife’s grandfather passed away. He was a great man, and a true gentleman in every sense of the word. As the patriarch of a large Italian family, Santo fathered five children, had nine grandchildren, and a few dozen great-grandchildren. They were all at my mother-in-law Vera’s house after the funeral, eating trays of mediocre eggplant parmiagiana (a sad reminder of how good his wife Vera’s legendary cooking was) and trying not to cry. At 88 years old, Santo lived a great life. “What a run,” everyone was saying, and it was true. The 30-odd family members gathered at the house — a veritable football team of direct descendants and in-laws were Santo’s living legacy. I kept thinking how amazing it was that he had created this.
Since all of my grandparents had passed on a dozen years before I met Santo for the first time, I naturally adopted him as my surrogate grandfather. I don’t know if it was something we had in common (a decent sized beer belly, and a love of Italian food), or just his natural way with people, but Santo put me at ease the moment we met twelve years ago. He was instantly concerned that I was getting enough to eat, and made it clear to Vera, in a very gentlemanly but insistent way, that I was to be wanting for nothing while I was in his house. That night the dish was crab sauce, a special red sauce made with fresh hunks of blue crab, slowly simmered and laid over a fat hollow noodle. So abundant was the spread on the table that I made the rookie mistake of eating my fill, not realizing that the pasta was merely the first course. When the pot roast, vegetables, and the mighty braciole came out, I was surprised — and frightened. I was sitting within Santo’s view and somehow, I felt I was being judged on my appetite. Despite my discomfiture, I managed to put down several thick slices of pot roast.
It’s funny. My natural grandfather was also a real gentleman — very quiet and reserved, and certainly well loved and respected by his family and friends. He, too, had the requisite beer belly and a twinkle in his eye. His family ended up distant and conflicted, though. Santo’s family is tighter than a drum. I don’t know if it’s the difference between growing up Italian and Irish, but the family Santo created seemed to have a power in it that defied division. Maybe he was the one keeping it together all the time. More likely, it was (and still is) his silent force — a feeling that if you did something wrong, he would hear about it, and feel differently about you. Santo was somebody you would never want to disappoint.
Santo was a salesman, by the way. He owned his own sewing machine company, and he sold industrial sewing equipment to the factories in New York. He always referred to them as “machines.” He would be telling a story about some guy he knew back in the 60’s, and I would ask him how he knew the guy. “I used to sell him machines,” he would say. Somehow, that explained everything.
If growing up in East New York ever hurt his prospects, I never heard it from Santo. The part of Brooklyn where Santo grew up was a vibrant neighborhood, populated with tons of interesting characters, and lots of friends and family. In hearing the tales of the old days, Santo would always — and I mean always — begin the story by referencing the car he was driving. He had pictures of most of them, and after a while you could pinpoint the decade by knowing whether he was driving the Chrysler or the Buick at the time. He did a lot of driving, and sold a lot of machines.
|I never heard Santo tell a specific sales story. The sales aspect was always kind of a given — just a small part of his identity and persona.|
It’s funny, but even with fifty years of sales under his belt, I never heard Santo tell a specific sales story. Sure, it may have involved him “going over to Jersey to deliver a machine,” but usually the story was around a flat tire, or some kind of trouble he managed to land in while on the road. The sales aspect was always kind of a given — just a small part of his identity and persona. I don’t know how many machines Santo ultimately sold and delivered in his life, but it must have been a lot. He provided well for his family, and kept them close. Especially Vera. Until the very end, their relationship had a level of fiery passion that would put a Shakespearian romance to shame. Just a few weeks ago, Vera unceremoniously dismissed a part time nurse whose medical ministrations to Santo seemed too flirtatious. Did they fight? Yes, to the very end. It was proof that their passion for each other never dimmed, even after 50-plus years of marriage.
Salesmen are usually judged by their numbers. Some successful ones like to have the most cars, biggest houses and boats, and largest bank accounts. Santo was financially successful, but I know he got more pleasure counting grandchildren than money. I guess it’s the difference between making a killing and making a living.
[This post originally appeared in MediaBistro, 9/13/2006]