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27 2 Jersey Boy On the afternoon of Sunday, October 1, 1961, the Russos left Manhattan for the last time. Three of them would never live there again. One was already plotting his return. With one ear tuned to the Yankees broadcast, twelve-year-old Charlie gazed westward. The young jock couldn’t wait to ditch East Harlem’s cramped streets for the fresh green grass of the Jersey fields. As Charlie watched the Palisades swell through the windshield, the radio suddenly squawked in triumph: rightfielder Roger Maris had just shattered Babe Ruth’s record by hitting his sixty-first homerun of the season. Charlie whooped with joy over Maris’s achievement— sixty-one homers in ’61. The youngest Russo sailed over the Hudson and into Jersey on a cloud. In the front passenger seat, Annie grinned at her younger son’s glee and congratulated herself on giving him access to a world that her hometown could never offer. She glanced away from the Palisades and swiveled in her seat, her gaze drifting over Charlie’s head to the receding Manhattan skyline. Craning to the far right, Annie peered 110 blocks down the Henry Hudson Parkway to West 69th Street. For two years, the residential blocks of the West Sixties had been tumbling like dominoes in order to make room for the gleaming marble complex that would soon be Lincoln Center, the Juilliard School, and Fordham Law School. Annie’s eyes welled as she thought of the song that she and her sisters sang to each other while their homestead vanished. They borrowed the melody of “Back to Hawaii,” but their adapted lyrics were pure West Side: It won’t be long before those little dumpy flats on 69th Street Will be thrown down and then they’ll be no more. Well I’m just a little Italian . . . a homesick ginny goil, I wanna go back to my pasta and oil. I wanna go back to my little dumpy flat on 69th Street. With the bookies and the big mouths and the people I love so well. Annie wiped her eyes. There was no point in getting sloppy. She was doing her duty. No more “nigger lover” taunts for Charlie; no more hoods to terrorize Vito. So what if she had never learned how to drive? Charles could chauffeur her anywhere she needed to go. She mustered a smile and turned back in her seat. Charles fixed his eyes on the road and tried to concentrate. The pro-Yankees yelps echoing from the backseat were distracting, but Charles shared his younger son’s excitement and was overjoyed by the boy’s athletic gifts. He was less sanguine about this move. With the exception of his tour in Kansas, Charles had never lived beyond the five-block walk between his apartment and his mother’s in East Harlem. He could scarcely imagine how it would feel to fall asleep on a street that wasn’t still hopping with fistfights and craps games well past midnight. Still, the move offered irresistible advantages. For years now, on every late-night ride back from Paramus, Annie had badgered Charles with her wish to live and die in New Jersey. After nearly nineteen years of marriage, Charles still adored his wife and strove to do whatever he could to please her. He also had no desire for his sons to see him helpless as cop-hassling punks invaded their old block. Which brought him to the matter of Vito. Now fifteen, the boy was a model student and had begun expressing himself with a literate vocabulary that Charles sometimes found impenetrable. That was okay; he was proud of the sharp mind that would guarantee his son a bright professional future. But there were other sides to Vito that Charles didn’t want to ponder at all. He shook his head, trying to clear his mind. Vito was a good, healthy boy. He just needed a new environment away from certain influences. From the backseat, Vito squinted at the Hudson glare while trying to ignore both the radio and his brother’s hysteria. Roger Who? Like Annie, he turned in his seat and stared through the rear window at his vanishing hometown. He tried to look on the bright side. He had always wanted to live in a house where he and Charlie could run down the stairs on Christmas morning to find presents awaiting them under the tree. Now that dream could become a reality...


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MARC Record
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