When I woke up Sunday morning I reached for my cell phone on the night table and saw that I had a missed call from my sister Sharon and a text that read, “Call me.”
What the fuck? I thought to myself.
When you get shit like this at 7:55 on a Sunday morning, you know it’s not good. Especially if the person texting you is 800 miles away.
Soon as I called my sister back, she informed me that our first cousin, Lenny Melfi died Saturday night. He was 47.
It’s a day later while I write this blog entry and my heart is shattered into tiny pieces. This may be the hardest piece I have had to write since I started the blog six years ago.
As young kids back in the 70’s, Lenny and I spent a lot of time together. I had him by two years but that didn’t matter; we had a lot in common. Plus Lenny was always much more mature for his age. I, on the other hand was immature for my age.
Back in the day the Melfi’s lived on thirteenth street and fourth avenue but decided to take their talents to Greenwood Lake. They left the concrete jungle for fresh air, trees and a lot of green grass. The only memory I have of their house on thirteenth street is on New Year’s Eve night we were banging pots and pans out on the sidewalk to ring in the new year.
Every summer my mother, the late Carol Corbett would take us up to the Lake by bus where we would spend a few weeks with Lenny, and his siblings Corbett, Michael, Dori, Ellie and their mom Eleanor.
We didn’t own a car so we had to take two trains from Brooklyn over to Port Authority and board a bus for the trip from hell. It always seemed like we were on that fucking bus all night long. It would still be light out when we got on at forty-second street and eight avenue. I recall how dirty Port Authority was with all the hookers and bums hanging out all over the place. It was a human wasteland.
One Friday night before we got on the bus mom fed us dinner at Nedick’s. I ordered a hot dog and soda. As we were going through the Lincoln tunnel and entering New Jersey I threw up all over the seat next to me. I loved how we started in Brooklyn, went into Manhattan, got on the bus, went through Jersey and ended up back in New York. Like I said, the trip from hell.
Lenny’s mom, my sweet Aunt Eleanor was the best. When we would arrive in town later that night “Aunt Ellie” was always there in front of the Night Owl waiting for us to take us to her house.
I loved being with this family so much. Corbett and Michael were like big brothers to me. I was with Michael the first time I bought a 45 record. Corbett always looked out for me and Dori, she was the funniest person I had ever met. She always made me laugh and I can never forget hanging out at the Night Owl for the first time with a bar filled with locals; but I remember her the most from that night because she had everyone in stitches. Ellie, Lenny’s younger sister was an outstanding high school basketball player. I loved watching her play point guard for Tuxedo high school.
There were days in the summer where I wanted to leave Brooklyn for good and move in with them, that’s how much I enjoyed being in Greenwood Lake. Mom would threaten to send me up there to live but she never went through with it.
Lenny and I would play whiffle ball together out in their backyard. We would walk the few miles into town together (we’d try to hitchhike but no one would pick us up) and go on an “adventure” in the woods. The frog pond was another frequent stop on our journey through the woods. We once got lost and the Sheriff had to bring us back home. I don’t think anyone missed us. I always thought a bear would come out from behind a tree and attack us.
“Any bears in the woods?” I asked.
“No, there’s no bears out here,” Lenny assured me.
“What about snakes?” I asked.
“Snakes for sure,” he said.
I was scared of snakes too.
We would go swimming in their “built-in” pool. Actually I wouldn’t swim, I didn’t know how, I’d stay in the shallow part.
At night we would go watch Michael and Corbett play softball for the Greenwood Lake Elks. I always thought it was cool that they were playing a softball game under the lights complete with umpires, PA announcer and a concession stand. It seemed like the entire town was in the stands watching the game. Afterwards we would drive back to the house in the back of Red Lotito’s pick-up truck and have pizza and ice cream.
Mom would also take us up to the Lake for Thanksgiving dinner where we would put on a play for all the adults at night. I loved performing ‘Good Times’ where Lenny always played J.J. (Jimmy Walker).
As we got older Lenny and I kept in contact via Facebook. We would direct message each other and we would exchange posts on each other’s walls. I last saw him in person in 2005 when I was coaching basketball at Saint Peter’s College.
I wish I could pick up the phone right now and call him.
The one story that I will never forget is when I was in my late teens and I ran away from home. Maybe I shouldn’t tell this story and keep it inside me but I really feel you the reader should know. I’m not sure if Lenny ever told anyone, but here goes.
One Saturday morning I got on the bus at Port Authority and went up to Greenwood Lake. I needed to get away. I knew the Melfi’s would help me. I was in some serious trouble. Both Lenny and Corbett invited me down to Florida to get away from all the bullshit going on in my life. Running away from your problems as a teen, yeah right, I was going to lick them for sure.
One afternoon on a hot, sunny day we decided to come home after spending a few days in the sunshine. With my pasty white, Irish skin, I was burnt to a crisp. We had run out of money and I think we had worn out our welcome. Without a ride to the airport, and empty pockets, we followed the train tracks that would lead us to the airport. The clerk in the local gas station told us, “Follow them tracks…”
To this day I still don’t believe what happened. I’m actually surprised to be here today telling the story.
First of all, what were we thinking trying to walk thirty miles to the airport?
“Gonna take ya a while,” the guy said.
So what, we had all the time in the world, we were in no rush to get home.
We each had one bag of clothes. Mine was heavy as shit, I kept switching shoulders. Lenny had a bum ankle sustained in a fight with his brother the night before. He was limping the entire way. As he slowly faded behind me, I kept saying, “Come on, we’re almost there.”
Lenny must have been thinking, “No fucking way we’re close!”
He was probably right because if we were close we’d see a few planes taking off and landing. We couldn’t hear or see shit.
The one thing about Lenny, he was tough. With his bum ankle, he never sat down to rest. He kept on moving forward.
All of a sudden as we were walking I noticed someone up ahead about fifty yards up in front of us. He was just standing there looking at us. As we got closer I slowed down; enough for Lenny to catch up. As we stood about ten yards away I noticed the guy was shirtless, blue cut-off jeans and black M.C. Boots. He had dark hair which looked like he didn’t own a brush and a thick, bushy black mustache. First off, don’t laugh, cut-off jeans for guys were popular back in the day.
This guy looked nuts. Almost like he escaped from jail. I mean this guy was fucked up.
As we came to a stop to ask how much longer to the airport, I noticed the guy bend down and reach for something in his boot. His boot laces were untied so I knew he wasn’t bending down to tie them. I also knew he wasn’t bending down to pick something up off the ground.
“Yo, how far…”I began to ask.
This fucking nut job pulls out the biggest knife I had ever seen in my life. Now I remember my aunt using a huge knife to cut the turkey on Thanksgiving and I even think my mom had one at home but this thing was long as shit. I actually saw one about the same size in Stavenhagen’s window down on fifth avenue. How he fit that sucker in his boot, I’ll never know. I saw the shine from the sun on the sharp blade. I almost pissed my pants.
All of a sudden, without a word being said I turned around and booked in the direction we were coming from. Without looking behind me I heard Lenny running behind me, screwed up ankle and all. I got off the tracks and ran on the side where it was much easier to gain traction.
Literally, we were both running for our lives. I felt like I was in one of those movies when some nut with a knife was about to carve someone up.
After running for what seemed like a mile, I turned around and saw the guy standing right where we left him.
He never chased us.
The guy just stood there like a statue.
He never moved.
The knife was still in his hand.
It was like he was protecting his turf. No one was allowed to pass.
As we made our way off the tracks and into the nearest neighborhood, Lenny said, “who the fuck was that?”
I was huffing and puffing so hard, I couldn’t answer him.
“Why did we run?” Lenny asked.
Again, I was speechless.
Bet Lenny would have kicked his ass, took his blade and put it in his bag to take back to Greenwood Lake.
Lenny and I eventually made it to the airport and a few hours later we were on a plane and headed home.
We never told anyone what happened, we weren’t sure if anyone would believe us. Can you imagine if ‘Knife-Man’ had a gun?
Lenny is survived by his wife Lillian and their two boys, Matt and Nick.
Cousin Len, rest in peace my man. You were one of a kind and a hard-working ironworker that treated others well. You were a passionate New York Giants football fan and best of all a good dude. And boy would I have loved to see you kick that sucker’s ass that day on the tracks in Florida. Because I know you would have.