Paul Pesce, 83

I turned to her and said, "Could I take you to your home?" She looks at me and -- with a pause -- she says, "If you got a quarter you can go anywhere you want."

By John Bowe

Published January 12, 2009 11:30AM (EST)

I was born in Brooklyn. My mother died when I was about 9 years old. My father tried to take care of us. What he did was he moved us in with a family. My brother and I. And he went to work and he paid them for room and board to take care of us. But then he would come home and say, "Did you drink your milk?" and I would say, "What milk?" He'd say, "I gave money to the people to give you milk." And besides the money business, other things happened. But we won't talk about those.

Anyway, he had to put us in the orphanage. After we got out, there was a war on, so I went and I joined the Navy. When I got out, the whole world had changed for me, because they were paying for education. What I did was, I went to pharmacy school in the day, I went to high school at night to finish up my high school diploma, I worked as an X-ray technician, I had an internship, which I was doing at Walgreen's in New York. And going home one Sunday night, I go down on the subway and something happened that has never happened before -- ask any New Yorker, they'll agree with me -- there was nobody, I mean no single person on the subway platform.

It was maybe 10:30, 11 o'clock. The train comes, and again, nobody is on the train. Except for a woman sitting at the head of one of the cars. So being a young New York boy I get on the train, I walk the length of the train to where she's sitting, I sit down right next to her, pull out a book, and start reading. And I peruse the page, or a half-page, I turned to her and I said, "Excuse me, does this train go to Brooklyn?" She looks me in the eye and she points across the other side of the car and, of course, there's a big sign: "To Brooklyn." I said, "Oh! Thank you! Goodbye."

Get back to the book. Couple minutes later I turned to her and said, "Could I take you to your home?" She looks at me and she says -- with a pause -- she says, "If you got a quarter you can go anywhere you want." Which was what the subway cost at that time. And she got off at the next station, and I got off with her and followed her.

She's standing here watching me tell this story again.

Now, I can't say why I was doing this. It was just instinct. And if the train had been crowded that day, I wouldn't have seen her, or if I had, I don't think I'd do what I did. I can show you pictures of her back then. She was very good-looking. I've got pictures of her. But I really have to say that it was just instinct. We went from one train to another, from the New York train to the New Jersey train, and then at one of the stations, she changes to a two-tiered bus. She goes up to the top, and I sit down next to her, pull out my book, I'm reading it, and I turn to her and I say, "Excuse me, can I buy you a drink?" She looks at me and she says -- with a pause again -- "I don't drink." I said, "Oh no, no. I meant coffee. Can I buy you a drink of coffee?" Pause. She says, "OK."

OK, great. So we go down, have a cup of coffee, and when we were leaving the coffee shop I said to her, "Can I walk you to your home?" She says, "I'd rather walk by myself." I said, "Oh. All right. Would you give me your phone number?" Pause. "OK." Pulls out a paper and pen, writes down a number. And I go home. And her name is Eleanor, by the way.

Monday morning I call right away. And Eleanor comes to the phone and I said to her, "Can I take you out tonight?" And she responds, "No." "How about tomorrow night?" And she responds, "OK."

So she gives me her address and phone number, and I pick her up, take her to New York, and take her to see a play. And as we're exiting from the play I turned to her and I said, "Will you marry me?" She looks at me -- pause -- and she says, "OK."

Now you gotta realize that the time that we spent together did not really include much communication. Having coffee was not the most intimate relationship. Through the play we hadn't talked to each other. I was standing next to a stranger and so was she. And as we're walking out, "Will you marry me?" "Yes."

Now she's left the room, but at this point, when she's listening, she usually says, "And what's the name of the play?" And this was 55 years ago. I always answer, "I don't know. I don't remember." Which I don't.

I really don't know why I asked her. I just liked her. Before I met her, I was just doing the thing that comes naturally to a young man. As far as I was concerned I'd be dead before I was 35. Shot by a jealous husband. I wasn't thinking about marriage. It just came out. I think it was just instinct.

To me, love is a chemical reaction that takes place, or a psychic reaction. I just felt like she was nice. And that she was beautiful. And that she paused and she contemplated anything she said to me. But like I say, it was just instinct. Like the bugs and the animals. What kind of courtship do they need? We had a 15-minute courtship!

After she said yes, she said to me, "Don't tell my mother we just met. Tell her we knew each other in grammar school." And that's what we told her mother. And her mother acquiesced. Her mother started making plans for her wedding, but her stepfather kept making excuses for slowing things down in his broken English. He was selling a car -- a Chrysler New Yorker -- and her mother loaned me $500 to buy the car. I took driving lessons. But I didn't know anything about how to drive. I had to ask a cop once how to turn on the lights.

I wanted to get licensed in Florida, because I had been stationed in Jacksonville, and I figured that as a pharmacist I might someday want to go to another state. And I said to Eleanor, "I'm gonna go to Florida to take the state boards, and then when I get back, we can get married." She says, "No, you won't." I said, "No? What are you talkin' about?" She said, "I'm going with you." Her mother agreed. She said, "Go ahead. That's the best thing. Elope."

So one night we throw a couple clothes in the car, get in the car and we begin to drive from Jersey down to Florida. And as we come to the Pulaski Highway, which goes from Jersey, I drive directly into the median. On each side, one wheel on each side of the median. So I turned to her and I said, "You watch the gauges. And I'll watch the road." So, backed off, we took off again, and she watched the gauges and I watched the road and we drove through the night.

We went over to Tallahassee so I could take the state boards. And then we went to a justice of the peace and got married. And I told her, "Look, as long as we're here, why don't we go down to Miami before we go back to New Jersey?" And she says, "OK." So we're driving into Miami and I'm reading a newspaper and it says, "Pharmacists wanted. A hundred dollars a week." A hundred dollars a week! Goddamn! They're paying me only $75 a week in New York. So I go to the address of the drug store and I said, with the newspaper in my hand, "You, uh, hiring pharmacists?" He says, "Yeah." He flips out his pharmacy jacket, puts it on my shoulder, and says to me, "I'll see you tomorrow. I haven't had a day off in six weeks."

I went outside, and I said to Eleanor, "Find us an apartment. We're staying." I started working. She found a little house in Little River that we rented, and I worked two shifts every day for about a year without a day off.

One day one of the accountants comes over to me and he says to me, "Hey, Paul, what are you doing working for somebody else? Why don't you get a pharmacy or a drugstore yourself?" So I told Eleanor. And this is the way my whole life has been with Eleanor: I get an idea, I tell her, and goddamn if it doesn't happen. ‘Cause she makes it happen.

We found this little drugstore way on the outskirts of Miami. And we worked in the drugstore for about five years. Now, because we were, you know, on the outskirts of Miami, we also put in a post office, a Western Union, American Express money orders, we collected bills for Florida Power and Light, Gas Company, we put in a beauty shop. We had a fountain, with hamburgers, soup, sandwiches and the fountain itself. We had a freezer that we sold milk out of and we sold bread, cake, cigarettes, of course -- and Kotex. We bought Kotex at a certain price and sold it at the wholesale price, which would bring people in.

And all of these were my ideas, but she was the one executed them. She was an accountant for Singer Sewing Machine before I met her. So she was good with money. And the marriage was always fine. Fine. Fine. I mean, we're too busy to fight. We were running the business. She's doing most of the running. All I'm doing is working as a pharmacist. But she's taking care of the business, taking care of hiring the help.

I had promised myself when I was in high school that I was gonna retire by the time I was 35. So we were very frugal and we saved money and we had enough to retire. Which we did when I was 39. I started taking acting lessons. My doctor friends all said to me "What the hell are you doing?" So I went to medical school.

I became a physician. A family doctor. We sold the drugstore to a friend of mine. And Eleanor took care of the business part. She was the boss of the office. And by that time we owned the building, and a strip center.

After trying for eight or nine years to have a baby, we finally did -- Paul Pesce Jr. We gave him the nickname PJ, which he still uses to this day. And then we had Chris, and then Vicky. I worked in the office, and Eleanor worked in the office and took care of the kids. And we never fought. I'm -- hey, I'm not gonna fight. Well, I can't say that -- one time we did have an argument and I left. That was a while back. In my youth. I stayed with a girlfriend. She's not in the room now so I can say that. I stayed away about two days. When I came back she got so mad at me she hit me. She punched me. In the chest. And I slapped her in the face. And I think PJ remembers that. I think he was about 10 or 12 at the time. That was the only time we really got into a fight. I mean we've had discussions and arguments about certain things but not too much -- we seem to think more or less on the same plane. I think one of the key ingredients of our marriage is that we agree on so many things. We don't -- we're willing to give in to the other. I think I was probably pushier than her about getting my way -- probably by a huge margin. But, well, even if it's not equal it's still satisfying.


Day to day, it's always been in my mind, how lucky I am. We weren't shy with each other, we were very affectionate. Lovey dovey. If I got upset, she calmed me down. Out of the 56 years we've been married, I've only been away from her for two weeks.

I think it has something to do with my generation. Because I think the natural thing for my generation is you stay with it. I don't know anybody of our friends that got divorced. Even if the wife knows the guy is foolin' around. She may not accept it that gracefully but she accepts it. And the guys, if they were doing something like that, I mean nobody flaunted it.

Anyway. Now she's got Alzheimer's. Which is heartbreaking for me. She's had it I'd say about four or five years now. I don't think she realized it when it was happening, and neither did I. It was her friend who said to me, "Hey, Paul, what's goin' on with Eleanor?" She would keep repeating the question -- the same question -- after you gave her an answer. I started realizing it. And when I spoke to the doctors about it, they agreed.

Mostly she doesn't communicate. She just sits and stares. Occasionally I'll get a giggle out of her. She's pretty well aware of her condition. Which is terrible, you know. If she didn't know it wouldn't be so bad.

You're looking at a guy who delivered babies in the Cancun jungle, who scuba dived in the Bay of Mexico and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, who climbed the Alps, the Andes. We've been to China, Japan, Italy, France, England, Brooklyn. I was just lookin' at a picture of us when we were in China and we were dressed in Chinese costumes -- as Chinese warriors. We've been all over the planet because I mention it and she makes it happen. If I thought that we oughta own property, all of a sudden we had shopping centers. Or that we should be going to the beach -- even if I didn't say it, even if I just thought about it -- we were going to the beach. She's handled millions of dollars. She was so brilliant. She took care of me all of my life. All our lives. From that one meeting in the subway.

And now we walk around the house. There's a law in Florida that says if there is a school that's receiving money from the government and there are any empty seats in the classroom they should give them to the senior citizens free of charge. So what I'm tryin' to do is find classes that have movies. She seems to enjoy watching them. Tomorrow, I've got to take her bowling in the morning with a group of women who have Alzheimer's. And that's what we do. And it's just heartbreaking. So in case I sound a little confused, or a little off, you'll know why.

I consider myself one of the luckiest people on the planet. I've gone through wars, depressions. Never been hungry. But this is horrible. I'm 79. I'm sorry -- I'm not 79. I'm supposed to say I'm 39. I'm 83. And … All my friends are leaving. And now this. It's horrible.

We have a doctor's appointment now at about 11:30 and she's been standing around here with a purse on her shoulder, which she's gonna lose, waiting to go to the doctor's. Which is over an hour now that she's been walking around with that purse on her. Doesn't say anything but you know she's waiting to go to the doctor's or somewhere, she doesn't know for sure where it is. If she knows where it is she'll forget it in 10 minutes.

She'll last longer than me. Even with the Alzheimer's. Eventually her brain will forget to tell her heart to beat, and she'll die. But she'll outlast me. Because women last longer than men.

I'm not sure that the Bible is anything real about heaven. I think that there is something or somebody, something that has created us. I think of it as a guy who made, like, a little miniature railroad track with a town and a train. And he watches what's happening as it runs. If there's such a thing as an afterlife, I hope I can spend it with her.


John Bowe

John Bowe is a freelance writer living in New York. He is the co-writer of the film "Basquiat," co-editor of "GIG: Americans Talk About Their Jobs," and author of "Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor And the Dark Side of The New Global Economy." He has written for the New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, McSweeney’s, and appeared on NPR’s "This American Life."


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