Me and Mr. Joe — the Beginning
This is the story of a 10-year-old girl (me) and a famous Italian American baseball player (why ruin the suspense?). It takes place in San Francisco, in the mid-1960’s. This blog post is dedicated to comedian Billy Crystal. An explanation will be given at the end.
It begins very simply. I was a student at the Sts. Peter and Paul’s Grammar School in a, mostly, Italian American neighborhood. We had moved back to San Francisco about a year earlier. We did not have a television until later that year, and I was never a big sports fan.
Even though I was only 10, I had a great deal of freedom. Things were different back then, then they are now, you could let your child walk all over the streets of the North Beach area of San Francisco, without any fear. On my travels with my parents, friends, or alone I had often noticed a tall man in a light-colored suit. Always the same color. Everybody seemed to know him and he smiled and waved at everyone that acknowledged him.
Mr. Joe Gets His Name
One day, I was walking home from school and I noticed that the man in the light-colored suit was walking to my left. Because I was 10, I just said, “Hi”. He smiled and said, “Hello”. And we talked for a while. He asked me about school and stuff. He asked me my name, and I told him. Then I asked him his name. He got a kind of funny look on his face and he said, “You don’t know my name?”
I thought to myself, “Why would I know your name?”, but I just said “No.”
He asked me if I liked baseball, and I shook my head “no”.
He laughed and he said “That’s for boys.” And I nodded my head “yes”.
He asked me if I watched much television, and I told him we didn’t have one.
He asked if I was new in the neighborhood, and I told him, a little indignantly, that my parents and I had lived there about a year. To, me, that was not new. But he said, that that was not a very long time, as some people had lived there for many, many years.
After a little more question and answer, the tall man in the light-colored suit told me to call him “Joe”.
Now, I am ten. And I know that no way, no how, am I supposed to call a grown-up by his first name. I asked him his last name, figuring I would call him “Mr. Whateverlastnamewas”. But he insisted that I should just call him, “Joe”.
Well, that was something I just could not do. I mean this guy had gray hair and everything. I mean it was ALL grey. There was no way I was gonna be calling him by his first name. I remembered a story my mom had told me about a Southern family for whom she used to babysit. The children were never to call her by her first name, nor her last. She had the title of “Miss”, followed by her first name.
So, I said to the nice, tall, reeeeeeeally old man (I mean, with all that grey hair he must have been at LEAST a zillion years old), “I better call you Mr. Joe.”
Mr. Joe tried to convince me that it was OK, that all the other kids did.
And I remembered my father asking me, whenever I said all the other kids were doing something he didn’t want me to do, “If all the other kids jumped off the Golden Gate bridge, would you do it, too?” So, I stood my ground to the tall man in the light-colored suit, and insisted that I would call him, “Mr. Joe”.
More Me and Mr. Joe
For a long time, on a regular basis, Mr. Joe and I walked the same route for a few blocks. He was going to work at a restaurant. I was going home from school. I remember feeling a little sad for him that he had to work at night. But we used to chat about this and that.
Sometimes, when he was playing baseball with the boys from the Sts. Peter and Paul’s Boys Club, he would see me walking past and holler for me to wait. He would run to catch up to me.
I never thought it was odd that a man of his years would want to talk to a child of my young years. I do not know why, but I didn’t. And I enjoyed talking to him. Mr. Joe was tall and he made me feel important. And he listened to me as if the happenings of my fourth grade year actually mattered.
Sometimes he would talk a little bit about his wife. She had died and I felt that that was sad.
The End of Me and Mr. Joe
Our schedules changed, probably Mr. Joe’s more than mine, and I no longer saw him regularly. I would see him playing bocci ball in the North Beach courts with the other old men. They always seemed to be happy to play with him and, it seemed to me, treated him as though he were very special. The old Italian men always got a puzzled look on their faces when I said, “Hello, Mr. Joe”.
There was nothing to the “relationship” we had. Just two people in a big city that talked now and again. It ended because we stopped running into each other.
And then, when I was 12, my parents and I moved to the other side of San Francisco, to an area known as Eureka Valley.
Hey, That’s Mr. Joe!
Now, by this time we had a TV. I was happy about this addition to our family’s modern conveniences. And I watched it quite often.
One day, or evening, I do not recall which, I see a commercial for this brand spankin’ new coffee machine. You know who was doing the advertising? MR. JOE! Mr. Joe was on TV! But hey, in the beginning of the commercial, he introduced himself and said, “Hello, I’m Joe DiMaggio”.
“HUH!”, I says to myself, “THAT’S Joe DiMaggio?” I knew who Joe DiMaggio was, but I had never seen a picture of him. I thought no one would ever believe me, and I was several years past forty before I told anyone. When I told my mom, she laughed and said that everyone knew him in North Beach, so why did I think she wouldn’t believe me? Well, because when I was twelve, I didn’t think that famous people would ever know me, so why would anyone believe that I met one? When you are twelve, things look different than when you are 40.
When I was an adult, I began to wonder why this grown man would seek out the company of a child. And then I remembered the look on his face when he realized I did not know who he was. He had asked why I was talking to him. I said, “Because you are walking in the same place as me”. He smiled and asked, “So, you just like to be friendly.” I nodded.
When I met Mr. Joe, he was about 57-years-old. I was 9 or 10. I think he liked to talk to me because he knew I just liked him. I didn’t want to play baseball with him. I didn’t want to be around him because he was famous. I just liked him.
Why This Blog Post is Dedicated to Bill Crystal
Years ago, I was watching something on TV. Billy crystal was interviewed. Apparently, Mr. Crystal is a bit of a baseball fan, particularly the New York Yankees. In the interview, Billy said his major regret in life was that he never had the opportunity to meet Joe DiMaggio.
The irony was not lost on me. Once upon a time, I, a nine or ten-year-old girl, who didn’t even like baseball that much, shared a small part of her day with Mr. Crystal’s idol, and did not even realize that anything special was happening in her life. Moments like those would have meant the world to people like Billy Crystal, who idolized Mr. Joe.
Anyway, that’s why this lens is dedicated to Billy Crystal. Because I am sorry he never got to have the moments I did with the man known as, and who truly was, “Gentleman Joe”.
If you would like to know more about Joe DiMaggio, the Wikipedia thingy about him is here.