BALTIMORE — Anthony Bonomo Sr. couldn’t separate his Brooklyn roots from who he is even if he tried — which he doesn’t.
At 52, he was born too late to hear the sound of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Syn-Phony band greet the umpires at Ebbets Field with the playing of “Three Blind Mice,” and too late to watch members of local congregations praying on their church’s steps, asking God to help first baseman Gil Hodges break his batting slump.
That part of Brooklyn lives only in the memories of older men, but old neighborhood, well, that remains clear in the backroads of his mind.
So when he and Vinnie Viola spoke at the podium at the post-Kentucky Derby press conference, Brooklyn was there, too. The accent wasn’t blue grass and juleps. When Bonomo spoke, the accent was straight from the heart and soul of Williamsburg section, by way of the old neighborhood.
It was the same yesterday, when he spoke of his friendship with Viola, how it was born on the Little League fields at McCarren Park and fueled by a lasting conviction “that we lived in a magical place,” he said.
“As a young kid in Williamsburg, the only time I ever saw a horse was when it was pulling a fruit wagon. When I was a teenager, I wasn’t much of a big fan. Vinnie and I would climb the fence at Aqueduct and sneak into the track.
“We would have $3 between us. And we would beg some older man to put a bet on it for us. He’d say, ‘How old are you?’ and I would say, ’24.’ Being where we are now is surreal.”
They are in Baltimore to run their wonder colt, Always Dreaming, in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes — the only horse on the planet with a chance to win the Triple Crown. The colt’s name says it all — about the two Brooklyn partners, about the old neighborhood and about what the Triple Crown races mean to everyone from the owners to the hot walkers.
Bonomo’s wife, Mary Ellen, named the horse for the most basic of reasons.
“I probably daydream a little too much,” she said. “I kind of live in Xanadu sometimes. And I said, ‘Why don’t we just name it Dreaming?’ Everybody dreams of something, whether it’s a big event or special day, the birth of their child, winning the Kentucky Derby.
“So I just said, Always Dreaming. It just took off. And now I said, ‘When this horse has its first baby, we will name it Keep on Dreaming.’ We’re overwhelmed.”
“She had it right,” Bonomo said. “Dreaming was what the old neighborhood was about. We had front stoops and there were, like, 25 kids in a three-block area and we sat on those stoops on summer nights and we dreamed. If you liked baseball, like me, you dreamed you just struck out Mickey Mantle. If you were a football guy, like Vinnie, you dreamed you were Sam Huff. That’s where dreams were made. We dreamed and look at the way it turned out for us.”
Bonomo lived on the last block in Mt. Carmel Parish, Viola lived two blocks away in the next parish. Bonomo’s dad was a bricklayer. Viola’s dad drove a truck. It was a blue-collar neighborhood. The front stoops and places like Rabito’s Candy Store (they still made New York egg creams then) were where Bonomo and Viola reached out toward puberty.
“What a place to grow up,” Bonomo said. “In the streets, we played every game we could think of, punch ball, stickball, off the wall and Johnny on the Pony. Sometimes I wonder who invented those games. In our neighborhood, they were an art form. And every game we played, we competed. Boy, did we compete. In our neighborhood, there was no second place.
“And of course there were the neighborhood dances at Mt. Carmel Hall. You know all the guys against one wall while all the girls were dancing with each other and one guy got the nerve to go out by himself and ask a girl to dance, and we’re still against the wall and it’s like ‘Hey, look at that guy.'”
They return to the old neighborhood for the street festival of the Feast of My Lady of Mt. Carmel. And you can often find them back at Bamonte’s, an Italian restaurant that hasn’t changed much. A lot of the older folks never moved out. But Bonomo sees the difference. In his view, the neighborhood is being swallowed by gentrification. Still the old adage remains in force with those who grew to manhood there:
“As the twig is bent so grows the tree.”
For Bonomo and Viola, the operative word remains competition.
“That hasn’t changed a bit,” Bonomo said. “The night before the Derby, we found a pool table in our hotel. We went at it playing eight ball. And believe me, we played it. I don’t want to lose and I sure don’t want to lose against him.”
On Saturday, for both of them, when they send Always Dreaming to the post with a Kentucky Derby victory already in their collective pocket, Mt. Carmel rules are still in force:
“Second place doesn’t count.”
Jerry Izenberg is Columnist Emeritus for The Star-Ledger. He can be reached at [email protected]