This is a column I wrote in November a couple of years ago. The timing makes sense, of course, because timing is everything.
Life is full of seemingly random events, but when we examine them more closely weird patterns emerge. It can be running into the same people over and over again for years before finally meeting or a recurring theme at work. This is about a date that for one reason or another has played a major role in our lives for the past two decades plus. It’s the birthday for our nephew Rossi Gould. It’s the date of my last day in the newspaper business. It’s the date when typically our weekend before Thanksgiving Big Dinner with the Papandrea-Gould side of the family occurs. And it’s the first day I went out with Roselee Papandrea outside of work for what she calls our “first non-date, date.”
But really, it was for all practical purposes our first date. The confusion came because of circumstances. And in the culture today, more than 20 years later, why I had to do things this way should be clear. Based on current events this column may be more relevant today than ever. It’s how I met my spouse.
Here goes, celebrating four things today on Nov. 18.
The concrete driveway to the Papandrea house was on the left. I’d passed it hundreds of times on my way to work at the Daily News office in Jacksonville. Looking back, it’s hard to figure out why the driveway and the house to which it was attached never caught my attention. The four-lane highway known on state maps as N.C. 24 doesn’t really have much to recommend it when folks start talking about visual appeal. The thing’s flatter than an airport runway and lined with half-nourished scrub pines scratching for what scrawny life could be found in the near-spent Eastern North Carolina soil that reeks of sand, alkaline and saltwater.
Let’s just say the road to Jacksonville, which is home to the largest Marine Corps base on the East Coast, is paved with, well, let’s just say it’s paved and leave it at that. What some call Freedom Way serves its function — mainly delivering hundreds, well thousands of Marines, sailors and expensive Pentagon-issue equipment to the state port in Morehead City about 45 minutes further down the road. On the way there they pass a curious assortment of sites. There’s the massage parlor where the girls on duty once beat up a guy who tried to rob the place at gunpoint, a row of churches, a Harley dealership called “Hawg Wild” and another massage parlor hidden behind a fence with a neon sign advertising Pleasure Palace.”
It’s somehow warming to note these last visages of home the boys take in before deployment to fight America’s enemies in Third World countries.
I’d never taken the time to notice the traditional brick ranch style house that was apparently there all along. Funny how invisible things are until they become important in one way or another. Then they take on the size of a Times Square Jumbotron flashing digital images that tout movies, politicians, feminine hygiene products or Budweiser.
This house had taken on this kind of glow over the preceding few weeks, ever since I found out it was where Roselee Papandrea lived.
I met Roselee Papandrea the previous year after she came to work at the Daily News where I was the managing editor. She told me during her interview that she’d managed to find herself this far South the old fashioned way — by graduating from Syracuse University then spending time in Los Angeles and Las Vegas working for $1 a day feeding the homeless with the Catholic Worker — a group founded upon the principles of helping the unfortunate, building world peace and opposing the death penalty.
It was the same old story all right.
She told me she was born and raised in Long Island, N.Y. and that even though her name sounded vaguely Greek, both of her parents were Italian. Her mother’s maiden name was Ochiogrosso, which means “big eyes,” a fact I had little trouble believing as I talked to this woman sitting across the desk from me. She told me her father came to America from the Calabria region of southern Italy in his early 20s. When I learned that Elvis was part of his early tutorial in English I couldn’t help myself.
“So, does he know the words to ’Clambake?’ How about ‘Spinout?’ Any chance he can hum a little ‘Blue Hawaii?’ I asked her.
She didn’t blink.
“Hardly,” she said.
I had to hand it to her, the woman plainly understood advanced smartass, a highly valued journalism skill, particularly when it comes to navigating the average newsroom.
Of course, I had to hire her first. In our business that’s not always a snap. Newspaper companies operate on the assumption that American workers actually like low wages, crappy hours and long discussions with men reeking of bay rum and Vitalis who grow squash that resemble comedian Chevy Chase.
But I figured if she was used to making $1 a day then our rather meager newspaper wages probably wouldn’t scare her too badly. Then again, who knows. Those people by the side of the road who hold up signs advertising that they’ll “work for food” are usually displaced reporters looking for a better way of life.
As it turned out, she was in Swansboro for the long haul. Her mother was recently deceased leaving Roselee’s freshly retired immigrant dad here by himself to navigate the rather slow pace in which North Carolinians move — and talk. Her parents landed in Swansboro 18 months before when her dad ended a lifetime of busting his ass in construction — the last several years running his own cement business. He was lost without the late Teresa “Terri” Occhiogrosso Papandrea who served not only as translator but mediator. She wrote the checks, too.
Roselee arrived at her father’s house to make sure he didn’t stay lost in a state he hardly knew.
The job Roselee was interviewing for was simply a residential hazard. One of life’s odd consequences. She was going to cover Jacksonville’s City Hall and anything else that might come up — embezzling bankers, shady attorneys, traveling crystal meth manufacturers, three-legged dogs, illiterate authors, alligator funerals, the usual stuff.
Six months after she started I knew I’d have to ask her out for a date. Doing so wouldn’t be so simple. I was the guy in charge after all and even in this day and age that still doesn’t look too good. I wanted to make sure she didn’t feel pressured in any way. This wasn’t going to be easy.
It was a painfully slow process in retrospect. My duplex apartment near the White Oak River in historic downtown Swansboro was on her running route. She would pass by my place on weekends and wave to me as I sat reading on the porch. “Hey mister,” she would say. One morning she stopped to talk. On another, I invited her on one of my walks.
We were clearly headed somewhere, I just wasn’t sure where, exactly.
We talked a lot before I actually got up the nerve to ask for a date. But I did so in such a roundabout and noncommittal fashion that it clearly confused her. Ultimately, we went through with what Roselee calls our “First non-date, date” — a visit to a nearby antiques store and coffee at a bagel place in Emerald Isle.
That was the weekend before Thanksgiving in 1995.
By the time we went on our “first non-date, date” – I pretty much knew that she’d be the woman I’d ask to marry me.
I never had a choice really.