Monday, February 15, 2010

"Stand-Up Guys" the genesis of a play

The genesis of my play "Stand-Up Guys" is both complex and, at the same time, incredibly simple.

The short and simple story is that it is inspired by my musing on what my life might have been like had my maternal Italian grandparents decided to settle in New York City, rather than in eastern Washington State.

The complex version, however, is a little more interesting and derives from an unusual confluence of events. In 1988 I began to write for the Theater. The year before I had started a job as a prosecutor in Brooklyn, a job that eventually gave me access to wiretap recordings of the five New York mafia families and, as important, brought me into contact with many decent, incredibly skilled and very memorable cops and prosecutors, some of whom were of Italian-American descent. That same year, in 1987, I had - at the urging of my Italian grandmother - made contact with some of my relatives who had come over from the same area of Calabria which my mother's family is from, but only thirty years before. With them, I attended a number of Calabrese feasts and confirmations on Long Island. A year later, in 1989, I had returned to my Catholic roots and begun attending services at a church in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, St. Francis Xavier, which - at the time - was a very progressive parish with deep roots in the labor union movement. That same year I moved back to the Carroll Gardens neighborhood in Brooklyn, where I had first lived when I came to New York City in 1983 and which was, six years later, still strongly Italian-American and still connected to the Brooklyn waterfront where many of the retired longshoremen living there had once worked.

Thus, I found myself, in 1989, immersed in several aspects of Italian-American culture, living amongst (in some cases) the same Italian-Americans who my Office was investigating or prosecuting and, at the same time, attending mass at the very church in Chelsea where the real world events which directly inspired Budd Schulberg's screenplay for "On the Waterfront" (those being the articles which Malcom Johnson had written in the late 1940's for the New York Sun) had taken place. On a more personal level, my return to the neighborhood brought back strong feelings of loss and mourning from the collapse of a relationship with a woman who had lived in a nearby neighborhood several years before. Walking around what is now known as the "Columbia Street Waterfront District" neighborhood in 1989 brought back memories of walking in that neighborhood in 1983, when, for me, a sense of loss and sorrow permeated my thoughts like a cold grey fog blown in off the Buttermilk Channel drifting along the waterfront streets and vacant lots like the ghosts whose presence was, for me, palpable.

As I told Budd Schulberg many years later when I met him, I wrote "Stand-Up Guys" in part as an homage to his script for "Waterfront" because, though I love his script and think that it is among the best screenplays ever written, I was not happy with the his line for Brando in which the hero, coulda-been-a-contender Terry Malloy, tells his true love, Edie, that he is going down to the pier to "get my rights." In my experience, people - in moments of crisis - are seldom motivated by abstract ideals but, rather, with more basic motivations: hunger, sex, greed, revenge. In truth, Terry is not motivated by any such abstraction as "getting his rights" but, rather, with a very visceral and understandable desire to avenge himself on Johnny Friendly for having murdered Terry's brother Charlie.

In writing "Stand-Up Guys" I chose to set my story amongst the Columbia Street piers and walk-up buildings that, prior to the construction of the BQE, had formed a very tight, mostly Italian-American neighborhood in the 1930's populated by longshoremen and their families who worked on the nearby piers, shopped on Columbia Street and worshipped at St. Mary's/Sacred Heart Church. This neighborhood, which is now known as the "Columbia Street Waterfront District" was, at that time, known simply as "Red Hook" or "the Hook" or, more generically, "Sout' Brooklyn."

I chose, as the names of my three male protagonists, Italian names which cannot be anglicized: Pasquale (Patsy), which means "Paschal" and alludes to Easter; Salvatore (Sal) which, of course, means "Savior" and Gaetano (Guy) who, for me, was a figure like Pietro Panto, a stand-up guy who has been much mythologized but who, really, is just a "guy."

I truly believe that the most important things in our lives happen for a reason, that - when we are being most true to our true selves - all manner of events occur which, from the outside, appear to be coincidence but which are not.


From "Stand-Up Guys" by Peter Basta Brightbill

In this scene, Sal confesses to his wife, Rose, what he had just told his step-son, Patsy, about his role in the death of Patsy's real father (and Rose's boyfriend), Gaetano. He has been forced to do this in order to prevent Patsy from going down to the piers to meet Tony, since Sal knows that Tony intends to kill Patsy there.

SAL

The night. The night Gaetano was killed. We were all playing poker that night. All the guys on the strike committee. All of a sudden, Gaetano comes running in with this story about one of the "big guys" who he's heard sold out the union. Says he heard a coupla stevedores talking about how one of the union guys--

PATSY

A guy named Tony.

SAL

A guy he thought mighta been named Tony - had sold the union regulars out on the contract. Gaetano tried to talk to Tony Pep about it. Tony kept putting him off. "Don't worry about it." Said he'd investigate it. Guy got fed up, started talking about going to the Waterfront Commission. We all tried to tell Gaetano he oughta just forget he ever heard that, that it wouldn't do no good raisin' a stink now. Stubborn. Typical Calabrese hard head. Then the Waterfront Commission caught up with him. Handed him a subpoena.

ROSE

You never told me this.

SAL

I'm telling you now! That night, the night of the poker game at my place, Tony called. Asked for Gaetano. They talked. When Guy hung up he said Tony had told him that it was all a misunderstanding and that he'd clear it all up. For Gaetano to meet him down at the docks.

(More quietly, a buried memory coming back to haunt him)

He asked me what I thought he should do. I told him I thought he should go meet Tony.

ROSE

Oh, my God.

SAL

I didn't know what was gonna happen to him. If I had known, you think I'd a let him go down there? Then the poker game broke up. Few minutes later, Nicky Tomasso comes running in yelling that he was down by the piers when Frankie Lomanico comes running up to him.

ROSE

Frankie-the-fruit?

SAL

Yeah, only Frankie wasn't injured then. So Nicky tells us that Frankie takes him down [to] the pier where he sees Tony Pep standing over Gaetano and Tony says he seen the stevedore dead, and Gaetano, alive but bleeding a little from the gut, where the stevedore had stabbed him.

ROSE

Bleeding a little?

SAL

Nicky says that Tony had told him to run and get help, that he and Frankie would stay with Guy. So Nicky finds me and we go down there.

[SAL grows very quiet.]

Only when we got there Gaetano was bleeding real bad from the back of his head, and he had died. And Tony is standing over him. And I go to pick Guy up, and I squat down and take his head in my hands. And I can't figure out why he's bleeding so bad from his head! And then I seen it.

[SAL LOOKS STRAIGHT UP AT PATSY, WHO IS HOLDING THE CRATEHOOK BY HIS SIDE].

He's got a cratehook jammed into the back of his head.

[PATSY DROPS THE HOOK, WHICH FALLS TO THE STONE LOUDLY. ROSE BRINGS HER HAND UP TO HER MOUTH.]

ROSE

Mother of God. But Nicky had said --

[SAL nods his head vigorously in assent.]

SAL

We didn't know what to make of it. Rumors started going around that maybe it didn't happen the way it looked.

ROSE

(A dawning horror, something she's refused to believe for many years)

Nicky had an accident right after that...

SAL

(derisively)

Yeah, some "accident". Then, right after that Tony came around saying "Oh, didn't Nicky tell you? I saw the stevedore jump Gaetano".

[ROSE nods towards the cratehook at PATSY's feet.]

ROSE

So you knew. You had to know.

SAL

(pleadingly, desperately)

I swear to God, Rose, I didn't know nothing.

ROSE

You must have. You were with him right before it happened. You knew that Gaetano had found out something. You knew he was in trouble. And you let him walk down there knowing that he was gonna get killed.

SAL

No! Nobody knew. Nobody knew nothing for sure. Tony said that he saw the stevedore jump Guy -

ROSE

And you just ate it up, what Tony said, didn't you?

SAL

It was possible! The stevedores were still mad at Gaetano for what happened to Jimmy-the-Bug!

SAL

(With the pent-up anger of years of silence, of being cuckolded by a ghost)

BESIDES, WHAT IF I DID? HUH? ALL MY LIFE I'D BEEN LIVING IN THE SHADOW OF YOUR BOYFRIEND. GAETANO THIS! GAETANO THAT! "OH, GAETANO HE'S SUCH A STAND-UP GUY." WELL, YOU WANT TO KNOW SOMETHIN'? YOUR BOYFRIEND WAS A FUCKIN' HOT HEAD. HE COULDN'T KEEP HIS MOUTH SHUT. NO, NOT THIS TIME. HE WENT TO THE STRIKE COMMITTEE WITH HIS SUSPICIONS. NOBODY WANTED TO HEAR IT, OF COURSE. GO AROUND TELLIN' CRAZY STORIES ABOUT TONY HAVING SOLD OUT THE UNION TO THE MOB, GETTING EVERYBODY UPSET, JUST AFTER THE UNION FINALLY GOT US THAT GODDAMN AGREEMENT. AND EVERYBODY TRIED TO TELL GAETANO THIS. EVERYBODY TRIED TO WARN HIM NOT TO MAKE WAVES. I MEAN, IF HE DIDN'T LISTEN, HE GOT WHAT WAS COMING TO HIM!

[Suddenly very contrite]

Oh, God. I didn't mean that Rose, honest. Gaetano was the most stand-up guy I ever knew. Rose, you gotta believe me.

[PATSY starts to walk past SAL towards the house. SAL grabs onto PATSY's arm as he walks by. PATSY shrugs him off.]

Pasquale. You believe me, don't you?

[PATSY looks down at SAL, then exits the yard.]

Doesn't anybody believe me? I didn't know.

ROSE

You all knew.

SAL

[desperately]

Hell, there were two bodies down there, Gaetano's and the stevedores! That's all anybody knew for sure, Rose.

ROSE

[still quietly, but with bitterness]

Oh, you knew. All you "brave union men". You knew that Gaetano was in danger. And you let him walk right to his death. And all this "stand-up guy" crap. You guys made Gaetano into a real hero, didn't you? Almost a saint. Lies. Lies and guilt, Sal