Do you ever look back and think about who had the most influence on you? Sadly, last Saturday morning one of the people that most influenced me passed away. He died two days before his 84th birthday. I know to most that’s considered an old man. But to me, he never was an old man.
He was my cousin, Noonie. His birth name was Gerard but very few people knew him by that name. His relationship to me was as close to a brother as you can get. Until the day he died, he still lived in the same house we grew up in. It was my grandparent’s house.
My love and admiration for him started when I was nine and he was 19. That Christmas, my parents gave me a bicycle, but Noonie bought me horns, flaps, streamers, lights, suicide knob, mirrors and reflectors. He was my hero. Sixty-five years later the feeling I had riding my bike home that day is still with me.
Remember, when you find yourself doing something that’s important to young kids, they will never forget it. Since that Christmas, Noonie has always been bigger than life to me. Later in life, when he married his current wife Judith, Anne and I were maid of honor and best man at the wedding, as well as godparents to their only daughter, Anna.
On our regular trips to New Jersey, my kids would call him ”Uncle Radar” because he was always the first to find us when we arrived in town. Noonie didn’t like sitting around the house so instead he liked to cruise the roads of Long Branch. To this day if we wanted to talk it was in the car and on the road. We finished every evening having eggs and coffee at a local diner.
As close as we were, I really didn’t follow his advice on life and work. He would always say, “It doesn’t take brains to work for a living, anybody can work. It takes brains to live well and not have to work.” Although he had jobs for short periods of time, he really traveled through life without having many legitimate jobs.
As a teenager, I worked for him in his gas station and car wash. The car wash was somewhat legit, but the gas station was another story. In the basement you could find crap games while upstairs a full blown bookmaking operation was in progress. Although I sold gas, my main job was to bang on the pipes whenever the police — those not paid off — raided the place. (Whenever someone bought a new car and you asked them where they got the money they would say, “Ten dollars down and the chase is on.”)
The gas station in those days was all about gambling and sports and the hangout for more than 30 guys. No matter what type of job the guys had, the first stop in the morning was the gas station. If they felt they could gamble on a game and make a day’s pay, they wouldn’t go to work. The competition to gamble on could be anything but it had to be played for enough money to make a day’s pay. They made bet on basketball shooting, bowling, kicking a football, golf, bocce, pool or even skee ball on the boardwalk. Incidentally, in all these years the golf matches never used a handicap stroke. (Ask me about that someday.)
I will never forget one day Noonie and I were golf partners. We were one down on the 17th tee when a golf ball sailed at us from the 16th hole and hit Noonie’s head. I’ll always remember that it sounded like it hit a coconut as Noonie fell to the ground. We were playing Sonny Muzzi and Bobby Bossone and all they could say was, “We have to finish the match.” I played the 17th hole by myself while Noonie walked woozily down the side of the fairway holding his head. I won the hole to even the match and Sonny and Bobby agreed to quit. After observing the lump developing on Noonie’s head, we took him straight to the hospital. The bump stayed on his head for months.
Needless to say, I will miss my partner and friend. My solace lies in the fact that when I left him two weeks ago I insisted on a hug. As I drove down to New Jersey for a funeral service on his 84th birthday, I’m thinking about that embrace. I ask you, before it is too late, suck up your pride and give your good friends a hug, it will be worth it.
And if you’re ever in Long Branch, New Jersey, go to Miller’s Luncheonette in the morning. The gas station and the old guys are all gone but their sons and friends are still carrying on the traditions.
You won’t see Noonie, but I guarantee everyone in the place will know him.