When I was nine years old I could walk to school and back, by myself, although I never had the feeling that I was all by myself. I always had the feeling I was being watched and, indeed, I was.
I couldn’t help but notice olive-skinned young men with mustaches that I could see out of the periphery of my eyes. They never spoke to me, nor I them. I never acknowledged their presence but I was aware of them. More about these young men later…
I would leave our home at 1027 West Jefferson Street in Rockford, Il, take a left and proceed down the hill, across the railroad tracks and across a small bridge over Kent Creek. When I had crossed Kent Creek I made a right and proceeded along the creek on the road that ran between it and Fairgrounds Park. I would continue on until the road curved to the left in front of St. Thomas High School, where the teachers were all brothers, a rank just below priesthood. At the next corner I would take a right and walk to State Street, where the Dr. Pepper plant was. Then I would take a left. I would walk East on State Street, crossing over to the other side of the street where I had a stop to make on my way. My path would bring me in front of the Pontiac Dealership. Continuing East, I would finally get to Nino’s Coffee Shop.
I would walk into Nino’s with a bit of a swagger. This was my turf!
If I didn’t see Nino in the front, I would head for the kitchen because that’s where I knew he would be. He would be there in the kitchen, usually making a huge pot of coffee. After filling the tank with water, he would put the coffee in and put in four or five egg shells and start the machine. I had asked him once why he put egg shells in his coffee. He told me, “Because that takes the edge off the taste of the coffee.”
After greeting Nino, I would take a booth all by myself. It was my booth. It was located near the front of the coffee shop, facing the kitchen, not the street. That’s the way I liked it. I didn’t have to order because Nino knew what I wanted and soon he would bring me a cup of black coffee and an order of toast. I had already lit a cigarette. There I was, in my booth, at Nino’s Coffee Shop, with a cup of coffee, an order of toast, and a cigarette. Like a normal person! No one else in my family came to Nino’s. This was MY coffee shop, this was My hang, this was My turf.
As I enjoyed my cigarette, my coffee, and my toast, I watched the other customers intently.
Each one of them was either reading a paper, eating pancakes, or both. What fascinated me about these people was that each one of them had their own individual style of eating their pancakes and reading their paper. No two alike. Each one dealt with his newspaper differently, folding it differently, snapping it differently, each in their own way. The same with the pancakes. Each man would deal with his stack of pancakes differently. They would take the fork and the knife and either cut them in a window pane manner, or they would cut the stack into pie shapes with a criss-cross, and a myriad of other techniques. To me this was the best spectator sport there was. I was fascinated by it. I was part of a group.
These were my cohorts because all of us had one thing in common, we were all men having breakfast at Nino’s. This is one of the most vivid memories of my life, and I cherish it to this day. They all knew me by name. I was “Kippy!” I, on the other hand, did not know their names, nor did I want to. They were all my buddies, at Nino’s.
When I had finished my coffee, my order of toast, and my two cigarettes, I would stand up, reach into my right front pocket, retrieve the quarter, and put it on the table with a snap. That’s the way us guys did it! Then I would strut out of Nino’s, take a right, walk half a block, turn right, and there before me on the left side of the street, at the end of the block, was St. Mary’s.