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Leaning forward in a taupe leisure suit, customed by his goombah Tony the tailor on Mulberry Street, Sam “Starchy” Pullano looked like an unfrozen frozen banana.
“Fly?” he said. “No fuckin’ way. Only birds fly, and I ain’t no fuckin’ canary. Capiche?”
“So, you gonna drive, or what?” said his associate.
“No, I’m gonna take a fuckin’ houseboat from here to Vegas. Are you dumb as dirt or a fuckin’-cluckin’ turkey?”
Micky Marzullo’s crew nicknamed him “Starchy” cuz his lips were always starch-stiff under pressure from the pigs in the 5th Precinct. “There are two things you must always remember,” Marzullo told him before he made his bones and became a soldier and christened a made-man. “Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.”
“Whatcha gonna do in Vegas, Starch?”
“What I’m gonna do is none of your frickin’ business, but I’ll give you a taste outta respect for a special guy.”
“A special guy?”
“You ask me one more question, and I’ll cut your fuckin’ tongue out and feed it to my cat.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
“Didn’t mean to what? Stick your head so far up your ass you can smell the Ganges?”
“I’m sorry. I’m…”
“Shut the fuck up, just listen.”
“Okay, when I was in Nam – they say war is hell. They don’t have a fuckin’ clue about war. War isn’t hell. It’s heaven for every psychopath, every mother fuckin’ serial killer who ever lived – when I was in Nam, a guy, a special guy, let’s say I owe the guy LARGE, and I’m going to Vegas to close my account.”
“Now, I am gonna cut your fuckin’ tongue out. Get over here, you, you, beggin’-to-be Halo Natural Wet Cat Food!”
Swearing, “I don’t wanna hear any Pho-slurping Viet Cong in Umberto’s Clam Bar,” Starchy enlisted in the Army, earned the rank of E6 Staff Sargent, commanded a Centurion tank and received a Silver Star for gallantry in action at Nam’s Battle of Ben Het Camp. Driving from Little Italy to Vegas would be a piece of cannoli, he thought. Remembering Umberto’s mantra – Fail to plan, clam to fail – he planned his trip as carefully as the swallows fly 6000 clammy miles in mid-March each spring from Argentina to San Juan Capistrano.
Planning began at Grumpy’s gas station. Grumpy was known in all five boroughs for his BIG heart, lil dick and vaffanculo attitude. “Fill it up, top the fluids and check the tires,” Starchy told Grumpy, who replied, “Vaffanculo,” then gave Starchy a BIG hug, a box of Toscanello Speciale cigars and nine, his favorite number, lottery tickets.
For eats and drinks on the road to his first stop, he went to Allidoro’s on Sullivan Street for eight Marco Polos on focaccia, a case of Peroni Nastro Azzuro from East Houston Street Liquors and a bag of chocolate pistachio cookies from Ferrara’s. Then, back to his apartment with orders for Stash, his Super.
Stash, whose real name was Mario Gargone, had a mustache about the width of his 95-year-old Mother’s beard, so everyone in Little Italy called him Stash to honor his Mother’s beardgevity.
“Will you please water my plants, feed my cat and collect my mail?” Starchy asked Stash.
“No worries,” answered Stash. “May I use your hot iron to fashion my Mother’s beard while you’re away?”
“Your Mother’s beard or your stash, Stash?” asked Starchy.
“My Mother’s, Starch, honest. My stash is starchy-stiff like my pants the day after I first kissed Simone Santorini.”
“That’s way more than I wanted to know, Stash. I promise to bring you beard product samples from Vegas.”
Starchy attended LaSalle Academy in the East Village, where he took four years of Latin and was required to memorize most of Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum as a requirement for graduation or burn in the white fires of hell for eternity. A fair-skinned boy who wore sunscreen 24/7 and drank chocolate milk, he chose to memorize Caesar. Remembering the conquering Caesar wrote, “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres,” he decided to honor him and divide his trip similarly.
The first part of his three-part trip would be from Little Italy to Paradise, Indiana, where he knew a former sword-swallower, who now owned a piece of Happy Smile Dentistry. Using his trusty slide rule, he estimated that the distance was about 850 miles, which he could drive in about 12 hours, if he ate on the fly and didn’t stop to pee. Tanks didn’t have toilets, so he knew he could handle the pee part. But eating on the fly would be iffy, cuz he suffered peripheral neuropathy and had only 69 hours of training to steer with his Caesarian nose and Johnny Wad schlong.
The second leg of his trip from Paradise to San Antonio, Texas, he estimated at about 1000 miles, which he could cover in about 15 hours, again nonstop. There, he knew a former cocaine dealer, who now owned a wildly successful kite shop. The last leg of his trip from San Antonio to Vegas he estimated at about 1300 miles, which he could cover in about 18 hours, again nonstop. There, he would close his account with the mysterious special person.
Specifics about Starchy’s experience at his three stops are sketchy like the Dead Sea scrolls. But rumors abound like the number of times he destined-for-hell lied during Confession and tried unsuccessfully to tie a bow tie and STRIKE THREE wrote to Sophia Loren for a dinner date in the garden patio at New York’s oldest Italian restaurant, Barbetta’s on East 46th.
At his first stop in Paradise, Indiana, it’s rumored that he bought gas and supplies, then swapped stories with the former sword-swallower about downers:
“Counting down to December 25. Knocking over the Christmas tree. Running to my room. Diving under the covers. Crossing my heart and hoping to die. Begging Santa to forgive me.”
“I got a call from a rich downtown bitch to do her brat’s birthday party. During my performance, I stuck a sword to far down my throat that the B called 911. One the brats called me a phony, so my assistant stuck a sword in the kid’s chest and pulled it down-down-down to his belly button.”
At his second stop in San Antonio, again it’s rumored that he bought gas and supplies, then traded stories with the former cocaine dealer about UPpers:
“Sitting on my Grandma’s lap. Listening to her read-a-long, again and again and again, as many times as I begged, to Capitol Records’ Hopalong Cassidy and the Singing Bandits. 78 RPMs. Unbreakable in normal use. Featuring Bill Boyd as Hoppy with Andy Clyde as California, Rand Brooks as Lucky and Topper the horse as himself.”
“As I was lighting my coke pipe, a pig busted in my apartment and asked what we’re gonna do about my situation. So, I offered the pig a toke. He sucked the pipe upNupNup, turned Tiffany blue and bought a one-way ticket to PigsVille HIGH in the sky.”
At his final destination, much less is known like the whereabouts of the Arc of the Covenant and the solution to Reimann’s Hypothesis and the exact length of Stash’s Mother’s beard in centimeters. His goombahs in Little Italy wondered if he ever closed his account, whatever that meant, with the mysterious special person, whoever that was.
What is known is that Starchy’s plants died and his cat jumped out of the window and Stash rented his apartment to a Professor of Psychopharmacology at NYU. Oh, and Stash’s Mother is buried at St. Wilgefortis Cemetery in Baffi, Sicily.
Years past and Starchy was mostly forgotten. Some doubted he ever existed. Others prayed to him to ca$h out LARGE in Vegas. Most mumbled, “Starchy was some ancient crazy goombah. Whatever, who gives a shit.”
A confessed outsider, Chicago’s J. Ray Paradiso was a recovering academic who refreshed himself as an experiMENTAL writer and street photographer. His work appeared in dozens of publications online and in print. Equipped with cRaZy quilt graduate degrees in both Business Administration and Philosophy, he labored to fill temporal-spatial, psycho-social holes and, on good days, to enjoy the flow. All of his work is dedicated to his true love, sweet muse and bodyguard: Suzi Skoski Wosker Doski. J. Ray Paradiso passed away this year, and this essay is published on his birthday.