Joe Masi

 

Ed Sullivan said something about our home town that was most striking. He said Port Chester was the nicest town in the country (actually it is a large village which had a population of 25,000 then). He added “…where everybody is pulling for you.” And that was true.

Now even though Jack did not mingle as much as some of the rest of us, he was always affable and available for a movie or even a game of baseball. (“Bleachers” was the game we often played—two on a side and no running.) Rules supplied upon request.

For us, our neighborhood was more important than the Village as a whole. Washington Park, a neighborhood of barely 500 families, overwhelmingly Italian, was the setting of our slice of childhood.

Our elementary school classmates had these names: Pauline, Summa, Romanello, Fasolino, Bucci,Sapione, Francella, DeSimone, Dorazio, Marianacci, Ricci, Petrucelli, Storino,Tranzillo, Constantine, Ruvo, Fidelibus(shortened from –busso), Masi, Cairo, DeGiacomo, Gabriel (shortened), Pensabene and DiBuono—two of them.

We were Democrats. A poll by Miss Collins in Third Grade in 1948, showed our class 26 for Truman, three for Dewey and one for Henry Wallace.

Our dads were bricklayers, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, shopkeepers, music instructors, bakers, barbers, a bookie or two, and tavern owners—some 70 saloons
in a town of 25,000. Our mothers were housewives.

One other note about Port Chester: We were tucked between two high-class neighbors—Rye, NY and Greenwich, Ct. In all my years there I knew only one person who had an inferiority complex about that. (He got off the New York train in Rye rather than in Port Chester—the next stop.) Eventually, many of our classmates who caddied at the Westchester Country Club became members of the Club. Others caddied there into middle age. Our working class had such varied destinies, and lived them out side-by-side.

Foley was known to us as John early on. We never knew he was half-Italian because he went to the Irish church. But enough of the ethnic layout, you get the picture: Jack was formed by his father, and the neighborhood, and by our long-lost neighborhood school— George Washington Elementary on South Regent Street.

He showed himself an enthusiast of learning early on, but it wasn’t until the fifth and sixth grades that the gifts you see in him today were evident to the rest of us. He had next to the highest grades (Frank DeGiacomo, his best friend and the eventual valedictorian of the Class of 1958, ground his way a point or two higher than Jack). But Jack could draw (Fasolino, my best friend, was probably the best at this skill, and he teaches at Pratt Institute today) and he could play guitar and tap dance. He told me he took up the guitar after being unable to do anything with the clarinet. Would that Woody Allen had done the same!

Jack and Frank DeGiacomo lived across the street from one another on Prospect St. They were best friends and the two smartest boys in our class. But Frank was driven to succeed, I always felt, while Jack was eager to learn. If Frank was assigned to solve a number of different math problems, he was likely to bind them in a booklet with the margins colored in red and blue crayon. (I know, because I have one of his assignments from 1953.)

Jack was more likely to hand in the correct solutions in his neat hand, or write a terrific poem for a kid. In high school Jack often used ghost metaphors—something not often seen in 16 year olds. On the school newspaper he was given the job of sports editor because the teacher thought it would look good on his college application. When writing of the football season past, Jack suddenly went from Yeats to Grantland Rice in mentioning the dark and empty stadium with its “ghosts of autumn.”

His famous poem “Vale,” printed in our high school yearbook, is, I am certain the only poem some of our classmates have ever read. It has the line, “And yet somewhere / Our ghosts are left to haunt the silent air.”

Had this been the first line of the verse, it would be deemed a major poem by a major poet, according to E.B. White, who said that if you are reading a poem that begins with the words “And yet…” a major poem is what you are reading. (He noted that if the poem ends with the words “and how!” you are reading a minor poem by a minor poet.)

But to get back to Jack and his apprenticeship. Dr. Pisano, the twenty-eight year old choir director with a fondness for young sopranos, once asked Jack to write some lines of poetry for the choir. Whether these were to be sung or spoken, I cannot say. I can tell you that the inner rhymes were so complicated for the task at hand that the look on Pisano's face when Jack showed them to him was unforgettable. The culminating line was, “We desire and admire the entire PCHS choir.”

I think the choir just launched into the alma mater instead.

Jack had a fondness and appreciation for his origins that Frank did not possess. Frank once told Jack that if he wanted to accomplish anything in life, he’d have to get out of Port Chester. This attitude mystified me because our classmates liked Frank, too.

Our classmate Alba to me in 2003: “I want Jack’s high school hair.”
Jack, responding: “That was my mother’s hair.”

Two miscellaneous notes. When Jack returned from his freshman year at Cornell, he tried to tell Fasolino and me about a theory he had fashioned about man and the state. Billy and I just laughed, and so world peace was thwarted for all time. Typically, Jack has no memory of having such a theory. Even more typically, he has asked me more than once if I was sure I couldn't remember at least some of it.

Jack also once held the view that poems should be written but not published. Instead they should be mailed to friends. He has no memory of that notion either.

Finally, Jack and his father seemed always to have an easy relationship. Fasolino had the same with his father. Fasolino once told me that he didn’t become an artist because of the lack of tension in his early life. I wonder if Jack’s late start in reading his own poems were affected by the same circumstance. I don’t think so, but such judgments are beyond my capacity.

Attached is a photo of downtown Port Chester in 1955 (it is North Main St. , a continuation of the famous Boston Post Road, and continues from the point of view given past Jack’s father’s Western Union office and into Greenwich, Ct.)

The second picture is what Jack’s old house looks like today. The Foleys lived on the top floor, but there were long flights of wooden stairs outside, and there would have been no possibility of the yellow coloring you see in this picture. There was a Tarzan tree in the front yard.

Jack is as good a friend as he is an artist. Fasolino, who will not go to the picnics of our high school class even though they are held around the corner from his house, was thrilled when I told him I had found Jack, because Foley always bring interest into the lives of his friends. Lots of people have sympathetic ears, but Jack has the words, too. And so I’ll spare you Jack’s theory as to why Mark Twain did what he did with
Jim in Huckleberry Finn. I had never heard anyone use the abbreviation “i.e.” in conversation before, but of course, we were only 14.


                —Joe Masi