This holiday season, the pandemic is keeping many of us apart from our loved ones. Slate production assistant Rachael Allen used the time to connect with her grandfather for our series Interview With an Old Person. (It’s exactly what it sounds like.) To nominate yourself (if you’re over 80) or an older person in your life you’ll be missing these holidays, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rachael Allen: What’s your very first memory?
Pasquale Fronduto: I was 6 years old and going to first grade in Italy. Underneath the school was the mulino, where grain becomes flour, so there was a lot of noise.
I remember the first time I went to Naples in 1939, when my brother and sister had to get the boat to come to this country. I was 8 years old. Naples never sleeps. There was music all day, all night, lights, people walking. It was before the war. For somebody my age, I thought it was another world. It was something unbelievable.
Then, I remember we got the bad news that my brother passed away. Then the war came. You run away when you hear the airplanes. We had to have wooden shutters in the front of the windows and black cloth on the inside so when you open the light—which was a candle, most of the time we had no electricity—the airplanes couldn’t see the lights. That went on until 1945.
We started to get the letters to come [to the U.S.]. It was tough coming here and not speaking the language. I hung around with all Italians down the North End [in Boston]. I learned how to read English by reading comic books. Flash Gordon. Big Boy. T-Man. G-Man. Dick Tracy with the watch. I used to buy three for a quarter. If I knew that they were going to be of value I would be a multibillionaire today.
What’s your first memory of being in America?
I really did not like the bread. I couldn’t believe the United States had that kind of bread.
What kind of bread was it?
I think it was a ham sandwich. I was on the train. The sandwich stuck my tongue to the roof of my mouth. Of course, I could not say anything to my father—I had just met my father for the first time in my life. [He had moved to the U.S. before I was born.] I was 16 years old. I didn’t speak at all from New York’s Grand Central Station to South Station in Boston.
Then, we went to the second floor [of the apartment building], we opened the door, and I see this big picture. I said to my father, “Oh wow, is he a relative?” And I never forgot, he said, “That’s the man who saved the United States. That’s President Franklin Roosevelt.”
Who’s the first person you voted for?
Kennedy. The way my father talked about how Roosevelt saved this country during the Great Depression, I became a Democrat, and I will be the rest of my life.
I made $18 a week when I came to this country. I saved money. I bought my first suit for $18—blue with white stripes. I was 17 years old and stupid. I wore the suit dancing. Dancing with the suit—double-breasted suit, tie, hat, suede shoes. You carried the brush in your pocket to brush out your shoes.
The dance hall was right on the beach. It was the most beautiful dance hall, so long and shiny with glass all around. They had a six-piece band. It was really something. [My father didn’t want me to go at first], but then I got the approval from my father’s cousin, who was a priest. I used to go every Saturday night by the streetcar. Seven or eight guys hung around one corner, and seven or eight girls hung around another. You had to have courage to ask a girl to dance. We used to say, “No, you go!” and we’d say, “But she said ‘no’ to the other guy.”
How many times have you been in love?
Really in love? Just once. It was your grandmother. Once you lose a partner after so many years, it is very hard. But I still love her.
How did you meet?
She was coming out of church. I asked my friend, “Who’s she?” “Oh, I know her. She’s a second cousin of mine.” And he got me the telephone number. I called, and she said, “Who’s this?” I said, “Well, I saw you come out of the church.” Ah, I met your grandmother through the telephone.
What was your favorite age?
You really think you know everything, but you know nothing.
Can you tell me the story of when you cut your grandfather’s hair in Italy?
I was 8 years old. I used to go to the barbershop to sweep the floor, but you want to do more than that. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and I was telling my grandfather, “I know I can do it.” He says, “Why don’t you give me a shave?” So in front of his house, I put the razor on his face, and I nicked him. I saw blood. Oh God, I could have died. I ran all the way to call his brother-in-law, a doctor, and he says, “Pasqualino, cosa fai?” “I cut my grandfather. Come! Come!” Well, by the time he came the little nick was all dried up and my grandfather was asleep in the sun.
Later, when I got out of the service, I didn’t have a job. Someone said, “You know a little bit of barbery. Why don’t you go to barber school?” So I went to barber school under the GI Bill, and then I got a job at the Somerset Hotel in Boston.
What’s your favorite memory of being a barber?
I had a lot of movie actors. I see them on television now and I say, “I used to cut his hair.” Famous customers that sat in my chair would be Ted Williams, E.G. Marshall, Sid Caesar, Rocky Marciano. Oh my God, so many people. Dom DiMaggio, Joe DiMaggio. I used to give Tony Bennett the sun lamp, so he looked like he went to the beach.
You tried to cut the Beatles’ hair once, right?
The Beatles were going to play in East Boston [in 1966], and they were staying at the hotel. So I called the front desk to get the extension. Very gracefully with their nice British accents, they said, “Hello?” I said, “Hello, this is the barbershop downstairs. Can we be of any service?” “Oh, no thank you. Cheerio!” And that was it.
What do you like about being a barber?
Communicating with the people. Because you can talk about anything and everything. But I ended up closing the barbershop [in May] due to COVID-19. Haircuts today are the worst in the world. Why? Because people do it themselves. I was watching a cowboy movie this morning, and I thought what beautiful haircuts they had. The cowboys! They had the style I was giving six months ago—square back, elegant, clean.
Barbering was my second love. I was a barber for 65 years, and then I finally owned my own place after 30 years. That was my life. I knew all those people 30, 40 years. We talked about everything—family, politics. Even if I don’t know much about football, I talk about football. I miss the job very much. Now I sometimes cut family’s hair in the backyard. We wear masks, and I have a shield. It’s very different.
This [pandemic] has been very tough for me. Thank God I got you guys, but I’m still alone, you know?
How are you unlike other people your age?
I refuse to think that I’m old.
How can I live to be your age?
By not abusing your eating habits whatsoever. I tasted fried clams once in my life. You see, I don’t eat deep-fried food—I saw that oil when I was working in a bar. What do you think it does to your stomach?
What’s something you do every day?
I brush my teeth. I water the plants every day, twice a day. I go for a walk by myself. I miss work. I miss work very much. I miss being with people. Every night after I got through work—before I got married—I’d go to the corner pastry shop where the guys would hang around in the back. I miss that.
What are you most looking forward to doing when the pandemic is over?
Playing poker. I like poker. I like the noise. Now I have a new idea how to play. I’m not going to chase. I used to play a little silly. And I was lucky at times. At times I got caught.
What was the happiest day of your life?
Well, my marriage. But there are many days that are happy. The happiest day? When I came to this country. When I got discharged [from the Air Force] because I was alive. Another happy day was when each child was born. You can’t compare the days. How can you pick a No. 1? These are all No. 1. I have a beautiful family. I got three beautiful kids, five beautiful grandchildren. I have achieved the goal of my life.