Uncle Leo didn’t have much, but nevertheless was a very giving man.
Growing up, I was never quite sure what Uncle Leo did for a living. Whatever it was, though, it didn’t pay much, but Uncle Leo never complained and always had a smile on his face and a big hug for me when he visited. His greeting was always a gruff, “Howaya?” which somehow perfectly fit with his Damon Runyon visage and manner. He looked as though he had just come from a clandestine craps game in a hidden garage, somewhere far from the fuzz.
Runyon was a New York newspaperman who wrote stories about horse players, gamblers, and those wonderful characters who operated just below the radar, yet were somehow endearing. He gave them names like Harry the Horse, Nathan Detroit, Big Jule, all of whom were made famous in the Broadway musical, “Guys and Dolls,” based on many of Runyon’s short stories.
Uncle Leo was neither a horse nor a craps player — that took money. He was just a working stiff and a good guy, and he loved me, his brother’s only child. So one Christmas season when I was nine, he asked my parents if it would be okay if he took me to Radio City to see the Christmas show. I was over the moon! I always longed to experience the pageantry, the nativity scene with live animals, and above all, the Rockettes. They were so perfect, those legs in gorgeous precision, kicking as high as the sky.
My parents consented, we selected a Sunday, and Uncle Leo picked me up early in the morning so we’d have plenty of time to get to Manhattan. He had it all figured out, except for the most important detail: He had no tickets. “It’s okay,” he told me. “We’ll just wait in line and people watch.”
It was cold, very cold, and the line snaked clear around the building, but I kept holding his hand and thinking of what we were about to see. Except, we didn’t.
About an hour or more into our wait, a man came out and bellowed, “Sorry, folks. This performance is sold out!”
I was crushed, but determined not to cry, because Uncle Leo looked like he might. “It’s okay,” I told him with my lower lip quivering. “We can do something else.”
By this time we were getting hungry, so Uncle Leo took me to the world-renowned Lindy’s for lunch. I don’t remember what we ate (it wasn’t their famous cheesecake, because I didn’t like desserts), but I still felt very grown up. As we exited the restaurant, Uncle Leo grabbed my hand and exclaimed, “Look! There’s a big, beautiful New York City movie theatre, and they’re playing a brand new Frank Sinatra movie. Let’s go see that.”
That intrigued me as well because movie theaters where I lived were small and didn’t have big screens and high tech soundtracks in those days. I already knew who Frank Sinatra was because my parents enjoyed his singing, so I readied myself for a nice holiday musical ... however it wasn’t a musical at all. It was a new film called “The Man With the Golden Arm.” In it, Sinatra played a drug addict just released from prison, struggling to stay clean in the outside world. The movie was controversial because it was the first of its kind to address this taboo subject. Still, I found it compelling, thoroughly mesmerized by the performances, especially as Sinatra went through withdrawal.
When we got home that night I raced into the house, anxious to tell my parents the story about how Frank Sinatra had kicked heroin, but my euphoria was quickly squelched by them yelling at Uncle Leo, fiercely admonishing him. “How could you take a nine-year-old to that kind of movie?”
Uncle Leo was crushed. He had only wanted to give his niece a nice holiday memory; he didn’t realize he had. Years later, when I was much older, I told him how much that day had meant to me. How he had opened my eyes to a world of drama and fine acting that would stay with me much longer than 72 legs kicking in sequined unison. His love and kindness that special Sunday were never forgotten, and even though he’s long gone, this time of year I still remember with great fondness the wonderful memory of that joyous day and his endearing, “Howaya?”
Rona Mann has been a freelance writer for The Sun for 17 years, including her “In Their Shoes” features. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 401-539-7762.