The encrusted layers of semi-gloss antique white paint made the electric buzzer in our apartment squawk like an aging parrot. The aural intrusion was always on time every third Wednesday of the month. Egidio Mello, an insurance agent, also known as Eddie or Mr. Mello, arrived to collect installment payments from the neighborhood of first-generation blue-collar workers. Hiding one’s ethnic origin was an ongoing practice of mid-century Italian Americans. They strained to assimilate into a Leave It To Beaver lifestyle. Families with names like Stanziato, Incantalupo, and Clenzi worked to pay rent on four-and five-story walkup apartments. Tradesmen, custodians, and clerks paid monthly life insurance installments in hopes of building a goldmine to benefit their children; and Eddie was there to service their need.
Mr. Mello never walked up the steps beyond the parlor floor. When I opened the door to the hallway, I could smell the cigar nursing in his mouth. “Mellooo!” he garbled, his Robert Burns Panetella Deluxe compromising the clarity of his announcement. I grasped the envelope my mother handed me with the cash for my father’s life insurance policy and ran it down to Mr. Mello: “Hullo, Johnny, how’s the family?”
Mr. Mello fancied himself a modern man. He sported a charcoal flannel suit, gold cufflinks and a matching clip for his Wembley silk tie. Everything he wore from the Eagle Men’s Clothing store was “First class,” he would say. The store was located in Times Square under a huge, block-long billboard that advertised Camel cigarettes with a recurring puff of four-foot-wide rings of steam that floated over Broadway. Mr. Mello had transformed himself. Mr. Mello was a man of the city.
Hints of Aqua Velva blended with the smoky aroma of Mr. Mello’s habit. A shark-skinned purveyor of the American dream doing business among the row houses of Brooklyn. Son of a Sicilian vegetable vendor, Mr. Mello was a successful example of assimilation. An expert denier of his roots. But under the wool blend suit monogrammed cuff links, Mr. Mello looked more like a local padron, collecting cash in exchange for protection promised after death.
“Everybody’s good, Mr. Mello.”
“Give’em all my best, kid.” He stuffed my envelope into his briefcase; “So whaddya gonna be when you grow up, Johnny?” Mr. Mello pulled out a copy of Young Man’s Guide to Successful Careers. “Don’t be a bum. Make something of yourself. Go first class. Here, look at this.” I flipped through pages and saw the first career choice was to be another Mr. Mello. I kept flipping. “So, You Want to Be A…Policeman, Accountant, Fireman, Copywriter…”
“Copywriters average $400 per week. They meet exciting people every day and work in Manhattan, on Madison Avenue.” A whole lot of money, I thought, for writing a catchy phrase. Convincing people they needed things they could have done without. Making them believe their lives would be better if they took citric acid and sodium bicarbonate for an upset stomach or rubbed potassium hydroxide on their faces to look younger, or drank sugar water, alcohol, and brewer’s yeast for iron deficiency. Even if it did not. At $400 a week, I thought, I could live with that.
Mr. Mello exited the vestibule door, on his way to the next hallway transaction in the next brownstone. The lace curtains shuddered as the door slammed against the jamb, reactivating the electric lock. It waited for the next visitor to break the silence of home with that disturbing buzz that brought alternatives to the burden of spaghetti, meatballs, and the ever-present stains of tomato sauce.
Don Draper never looked so good.
John’s articles have appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Poor Yorick Journal, the San Antonio Review, and the Ravens Perch. His memoir, Just Off, Stage Right, is available at adelaidebooks.org and amazon.com. He holds an MFA in Creative and Professional Writing from Western Connecticut State University.