The Return of the California Kid

by | Jul 18, 2014


Clam cakes. Credit:

By Bruce Mastracchio

Before I start on this edition of Mems & Rems I want to remember Mrs. S., a nice lady from the Potowomut area for a nice note she sent and the things she said. I do get a few good comments every now and then, but, hers was one of the best and most beautiful I have ever received. I felt like Jimmy Stewart in, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

You’re right Mrs. S., we never really know how we affect the people we come across in our lives, on our journey from dust to dust. I have to admit that sometimes I get down and want to chuck this writing, thinking it is doing no good, and then a letter like yours comes across my desk and suddenly, it all seems worthwhile after all.

You letter really struck me. I am going to frame it, and when I get that get down feeling, I’ll think of you, and the affect the story had on you, and plug on for one more day, at least. I would have liked to publish your letter, but, it was personal, so, we’ll keep it that way. As a token of thanks, this M&R is dedicated to you. I hope you had a great life (Mrs. S. has since passed) and remember, with Christmas in your heart for 365, you can remain Forever Young!

This edition of M&R is also dedicated to the Golden State branch of our far-flung Mastracchio-Ucci tribe. This one, The Browns of Van Nuys. To Mike, Tom and Pete, who are still here, and to Mary and Dave, who are not.

And, especially, to Steve, The California Kid, who made us appreciate Rhode Island, and East Greenwich, all the more.

Sometimes you sit right on top of a thing. You take it for granted. You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. By then it’s usually too late. Sometimes it takes a stranger to the situation to open your eyes.

He came out of the West about 50 years ago, with guns smoking and words flying. He came from LaLa Land, where everything was “bitchin’” and nothing else could compare. California was “The Best.” DisneyLand was “The Ultimate.” Music was The Beach Boys, and nothing else was close.  He came to visit us in Rhode Island, but he did not come to be impressed because he didn’t think he could be.

What could we do for him here ? In the smallest town, in the smallest state, in the greatest country in the world (at that time).

We soon found out – a lot!

He thought they had it all out there in the Land of Milk and Honey. He found out the opposite. He found that they really had it all in The Land of Quahaugs and Chowder. He discovered small town America. He discovered that he liked it. He fell in love with it. He has not been the same since.

In California they had a pool in every backyard. They did NOT have The Bleachery ! It was the first thing he fell in love with.

At first, The Rock held his attention, but, when he found out about The Rope, he had to go there at least once a day. Swimming became more than California-clean and chlorine. It became stunts off The Rope, murky water landings, snapping turtle scares and water snake stories, and adventure! He did not have that out there in the San Fernando Valley. He didn’t get that in his sparkling, clear blue, pool.

The he discovered Tar Tar’s, a mom-and-pop grocery store with a legend for a proprietor. There was the penny candy, a soda fountain, and enough characters to base a novel on. Real people. Salt of the earth people. They had nothing like that in California, where everything is glitz and glitter. More flash than substance.

When he found out about the treasures to be found underneath the store, and the games and the action around them, his eyes lit up. How could a small town like this have so much?

But, for The California Kid it wasn’t over. He discovered relatives! Ones who fed him ‘til he darn near burst. Ones who were insulted when he didn’t eat. Not medegones like he was used to in LaLaLand, where they meet you at their door and let you stand there without inviting you in.

They not only invited him in. The pulled him in and gave him Food! Foods that he not only hadn’t had before, but also foods whose names he could not pronounce.

He got exposed to braciole, manicotti, ricotta, pizza frite, lasagna, eggplant parmigiana, minestrone and a whole host of others. And, the desserts, wave upon wave of desserts from wandies to pizzeles, to sfogliadele to cream turnovers and more.

And, those were just the Italian foods of his relatives. He also got coffee milk, frozen lemonade, clam cakes, chowder, Johnny cakes, gaggers and the like.

IT was a gastronomical excursion! One that he would never forget! He even got to go quahaugging, and that experience stayed with him a lifetime. Imagine being able to go five minutes from your house and dig your own “live meal.” Crabbing also gave him a thrill. There were no quahaugs in California, and NO crabs in the beautiful San Fernando Valley.

He found out that holidays were really special here. Famigilia was the big thing. That you saw all your relatives at Christmas and that Thanksgiving really meant all that plus a high school football game to put the frosting on the day.

But, despite all of that, it was The Muster, which really blew his mind.

It was held in a little town just above Boston. It was a two-hour drive of jokes and laughs and stories. He had never seen a Muster.

First the parade through the streets of the town (Newburyport, if my memory serves me), then the carnival on the edge of town, with all the smells and sounds that go with a small-town carny. It was not Something Wicked This Way Comes, but, it was close!

And, last, but not least, the pumping competition. He loved it! He lived it! And, that once has lasted a lifetime! It made a mark on his mind that will never be erased.

He had it all in California, but had missed it all in Rhode Island. He had it all in Van Nuys. He found it all in East Greenwich. And, he knew it.

Best of all, he never forgot, and today can talk about his brief stay in Rhody as if it were yesterday.

The California Kid returned to the Ocean State a while back (and since has been back five times). He wanted to revisit all those spots that had made such an impression on him such a long, long time ago.

He went to the Fire Barn. He met a host of his relatives at the family Memorial Day gathering. He watched the parade and walked the same route his relatives have walked for close to 100 years. He ate clam cakes for the first time in a long time. He still loves them.

He rediscovered The Atlantic Ocean, The Bleachery, Greenwich Cove.

He got a chance to touch the roots of his Mom and Dad.

He has now moved out of LA. He still lives in California, but now lives in a small town and hopes beyond hope that his kids will get to touch all the things he missed, while having it all.

…. Sometimes you sit right there on top of a thing. You take it for granted. You don’t know what you’ve had til it’s gone. By then it’s usually too late.

Sometimes, it takes a stranger.

Well, there you have it Mrs. S.  It’s not Bedford Falls, or Valley Falls, but good, old East Greenwich. I will take it any day. At least old East Greenwich.

The new one I am not too sure of.

As you said, live gently, care deeply and never be afraid to give, and remember, it’s friends and people who make up the story of a life. Thank you for the reminder.

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