The skinny guy was about two feet from the top of climbing the 30-foot greased pole. He was part of a team of other skinny guys with tattoos, climbing over each other, groping and hoping to get to the prizes hanging above.
The huge crowd of thousands at South Philadelphia’s sun-filled, jammed, 10-block-long Italian Festival was cheering him and his motley crew on. For no one had succeeded… yet.
Behind them gazed the watchful eyes of the wall-size mural of Philly’s erstwhile Italian mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo. Hizzoner, known by many pejorative monikers during his thunderous reign in the ‘60s and ‘70s, once notoriously stuffed a nightstick into his ample tuxedo cummerbund as he departed a banquet and headed off to crack some skulls.
Meanwhile, in front of them puffing under the Twin Smoke Shoppe cigar tent stood Joey Gannascoli and ‘me.’ Joey G is the squat, wide-faced 350-pounder who played the gay Vito in the TV mega hit Italian mob series ‘Sopranos.’ Although the show ended over 10 years ago after 6 smash seasons, Joey G still sets folks to squealing, regularly appearing at such festivals to sell signed memorabilia and posing for group pictures.
At one point, while the crowd was oohing and ahhing over the grease pole monkeys Joey G paused his pen and smiled appreciatively their way. And with a nod towards me he simply uttered: “You don’t get many chances in life. You don’t want to waste them.”
At first I thought it was kind of a cliché. And since I struggle to speak the language of banalities I sought to respond something ridiculous. You know, like: ‘Yeah, if your parents never had children, chances are neither will you.’
But, live interaction with a crowd is a cathartic, spiritual kind of exchange, and it’s intensified at a festival. And I think Joey G was harking back to that old Italian expression that goes something like: You can’t sleep on the fame.
Just then, the skinny guy two feet from the top of the grease pole started sliding away. Millimeters, then inches, then foot by foot as he and his crew came slipping and crumbling down. The crowd exhaled its hopeful disappointment.
“Another almost,” laughed Joey G, like it was something personal. “Hey, we’ve all been there… the story of our lives. Some of us almost make it. Some of us think we’ve made it. But most of us just slide away.”
Hmm… so another grease pole becomes another allegory for our lives. Made me want to strike up another cigar and blow some symbolic smoke. But a tall, gaunt Irish guy with long stringy hair beat me to the metaphor.
He strolled right up to Joey G while he was picture-posing for a proud mother with her handicapped child. And not in a casual, but more demanding inquiry, the pained-faced fellow practically insisted on knowing what Joey G was doing ‘now.’
I think Joey G is sick and tired of being sick and tired of such insistent questions. So after his dark eyes scanned across his table of memorabilia, photographs of the Sopranos cast and a bunch of license plates with such Italian urban slang as ‘fuhgeddaboudit,’ he cracked a sardonic pose and replied:
‘I’m into porn now. Sometimes with farm animals.’
Hmm… You just never know, do you?
But I do know a lot of men are insecure about their sexuality – as if you-know-what is actually contagious. And you might have thought Joey G pulled a .44 magnum loaded with hollow points out of his too-long-for-shorts-and-too-short-for-pants zipper. For the tall guy’s facial expression turned all kinds dumb and confounded before he scampered off. Desperately pushing away folks in the overcrowded 9th Street festival like he just seen Godzilla clomping his way.
‘Can you believe that guy?’ a dismayed Joey G said to me. ‘They’re a danger to laughter.’
‘Humor can get lost during an autopsy,’ I teased.
‘Yeah, look who’s talking.’
‘Hey, I’m all into porn with farm animals.’
‘That doesn’t count,’ he retorted. ‘You grew up as a farm animal.’
‘Sheesh. And let me show you how I can squeal like a rutting hog…’
At that a hefty couple of smiling anthropomorphic cows waddled up mooing all about how they just loved Joey G on the Sopranos.
“I really, really love you, Joey,” swooned the wife.
‘You do know he’s gay,’ I joked, referring to Joey G’s Vito character.
Hmm… Apparently it was something I said. Because the rotund husband shot me a look that was like a knee to the only privacy the NSA hasn’t invaded. And then, referring to my collection of butterfly pins on my less-than-brawny chest, he snorted: ‘And how about you?’
‘Oh,’ I offered in a manly tone. ‘Don’t worry ‘bout me.’ And slowly boasted: ‘I am a lesbian.’
That took a few seconds to penetrate as they chewed their cuds of pasta. (That’s the trouble with Italian food – five or six days later you’re hungry again.) And then I chirped: ‘Just give me 11 seconds with your wife.’
And Joey G shot back: ‘Are you cheating on me again?’
Couple didn’t know whether to giggle or wonder if they had wandered into an abattoir. But they still wanted to get their photo with the former celebrity. And Joey G kindly reminded them that if they first bought a picture or video or whatnot he would gladly pose with them.
And ain’t that the business of life — Milking your success 10 years after that sun has set. For, among all the urgent demands and necessities of living, nothing is stronger than dire necessity.
Once more the crowd was cheering for another grease pole climber. This one looked like he was really gonna make it. And like the song goes: …If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
‘Did anyone make it yet?’ Joey G asked aloud.
‘Yeah,” I offered, ‘You do realize it ain’t rocket surgery. One guy so far. A while ago.’
‘I must have missed it.’
“No you didn’t, Joey,” I grunted. “I may have missed it. Most of the folks here may have missed it. But not you. You had your moment.”
“Moment of what?” He seemed genuinely puzzled.
“Success,” I said. “A real hit. Out of the park.”
And just for a moment you could almost see Joey G’s mental gerbil spinning back a rerun of “The Sopranos,” and his Vito.
“That’s more than 99 percent,” I said.
But you could also witness a fleeting sadness in his eyes. Almost a shadow of a passing cloud. In that wink of a moment you could see that for Joey G ‘once’ was not enough. He yearned for another hit at it. He needed it, for all the reasons we all seek it. We all possess the same desire — one more turn in the barrel.
So, to snap him back to the day-to-day grind of life, I offered up to him: ‘Did you ever hear the one about the Jewish Prince?’
‘Well,’ I continued, ‘this one called up a Jewish Princess and asked her to marry him. She said no… And he lived happily ever after.’
Joey G, laughed appreciatively, as I admonished him: ‘Lose your mind, Joey, but keep your sense of humor.’
And dats yDrewIS on dis penal colony…