Sharing Andy's last Thanksgiving

November 23, 2006|By Rafael Alvarez

My most treasured Thanksgiving story does not involve turkey or pumpkin pie, family or football.

It didn't last longer than a phone call to a man I'd met but once - a conversation I was not aware I was going to have when I headed to St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church for Mass in Little Italy last Thanksgiving.

The fourth Thursday of each November is my favorite holiday: It is spiritual without being religious, it revolves around family at table - certainly the great American altar - and advertisers have yet to destroy it with the buying of gifts.

As my friend Marc Lichtenberg of Pikesville likes to say, "My life got a whole lot better when I got out of the `please' line and moved over to the `thank you' line." So off to Mass I go each Thanksgiving morning to remember all I have to be grateful for.

Facing the St. Leo's altar, I sit on the right because that's where my high school buddy Willie Matricciani sat with his family when he was growing up in Little Italy. At Sunday Mass, near the front on the left side of the aisle, you will find the Balsamo family: Joseph, a businessman who owns thoroughbred racehorses; his wife, Maria; sometimes their son and some combination of their daughters.

I know the Balsamos only in passing, having been introduced a few times by a mutual friend. Last Thanksgiving, Joe stood in the pew alone. Out on Exeter Street after the service, Joe and I shook hands and wished each other well.

As I turned to go, he asked a favor: "Do you mind coming around the corner to my office and talking to my brother-in-law on the phone for a few minutes?" Mr. Balsamo was speaking of his wife's brother, Andy Malusa, a Patterson Park High School graduate fighting cancer down in Florida. A little time on the phone with someone who cared about the same old streets and alleys that Andy cared about, reckoned Mr. Balsamo, would be a boost.

Andy had grown up next to the Hobb's beauty parlor on East Pratt Street, the son of a Marconi's line cook.

A fine egg beater in his own right, Andy was a member of the American Academy of Chefs and had found work as a corporate chef in Tampa, migrating to the kitchen in middle age after working for years as a buyer for Hochschild-Kohn department stores.

In the 1950s, Andy flirted with fame in the future 21224 and 21231 ZIP codes as a neighborhood sock-hop crooner - he was billed as Tony Verna - who cut a 45 rpm record called "Happy Go Lucky Feeling," produced by WCBM disc jockey Jack Gale.

I'd met Andy a few years earlier through the same person who'd introduced me to the Balsamos: Pete Genovese, a gentle son of Our Lady of Pompei parish who left Baltimore - but not his love for Highlandtown - decades ago to teach literature in St. Louis.

Of course I'd talk to Andy.

Mr. Balsamo opened his office, and as he cleared room on a conference table to place the call, I was tickled to see a wooden model of an old Baker-Whiteley tugboat in front of me: the tug America, the one my old man worked on throughout my childhood.

An iconic family image, the replica put me in the right place for the task at hand as Mr. Balsamo put the call through.

And then Andy was on the line, a little surprised at the oddness of the call but buoyant with an "I'm gonna beat this thing" shine to his voice. I downshifted into good ole Bawlmer mode. The dark thing he was determined to beat never was mentioned as we traded stories.

I talked about the big pots of Navy bean soup my father used to make out of ham bones when the America was dispatched with a line of barges to Norfolk; about the fried bologna with brown gravy and onions my Polish grandfather - Willie Jones of Dillon Street in old Canton - prepared in a skillet; about the hollow cow's horn Willie's wife, Anna, used to stuff hand-ground kielbasa.

With each anecdote I lobbed across the wire Andy returned volley, talking of the great hope he had for a Baltimore cookbook he and Petey Genovese were working on that would feature his caponata, a Sicilian eggplant appetizer, and his mother Gelsomina's pasta e fagioli that was so good the family traded bowls of it for Andy's music lessons.

Soon, I'd forgotten about Mr. Balsamo's well-intentioned scaffolding that had gone into the making of the call: It was just me and another guy from Crabtown shooting the breeze.

The spell broke when I turned from the toy tugboat and glimpsed tears running down Joe Balsamo's face. I told Andy I couldn't wait to see him again, and when I did, we would visit my folks to gather more stories from the kitchen tables of our youth.

Mr. Balsamo couldn't thank me enough as I left to drive to the Eastern Shore for Thanksgiving dinner - sauerkraut and all - at my Aunt Claire and Uncle Victor's house in Cambridge.

By the time I got there, all the mashed potatoes were gone. Within days, the Popsicle stick tugboat had somehow made its way from Mr. Balsamo's office in Little Italy to my house on Macon Street.

On Aug. 27, 2006, Andy Malusa passed on at the age of 64.

This morning, as I stand in the Communion line at St. Leo's, I'll be thinking of Tony Verna giving the poodle skirts a thrill, and pasta e fagioli so good it could pay the bills.

Rafael Alvarez is the author of "A People's History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore." His e-mail is orlo.leini@gmail.com.

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