In late summer of 1958 Sophia Loren, during her first trip to the U.S. after scorching on to American movie screens in her 1957 U.S. debut film Boy on a Dolphin, quietly left New York City in a limousine for a three-hour drive west to the old economically depressed coal-mining town of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
The reason for this private trip was that Ms. Loren, with her strong family bonds, planned to reconnect with some older relatives that she hadn’t seen since her girlhood in Naples. The family members had long since resettled in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and now Sophia’s visit to the U.S. finally gave her the chance to reunite with her lost kin and meet for the first time some of her new American cousins.
A recent article in the local newspaper recalled that Sunday afternoon visit and how one lucky reporter back then achieved a short interview with La Bella Sophia. The local reporter described her as surprisingly tall and curvaceous. “But,” he wrote, “her overwhelming quality is in her face: Eyes of a startling depth, a faultless complexion heightened by dark, curly hair, high cheekbones and lips which smile broadly.”
The article brought back my own memories of her visit. But not because I met Ms. Loren—or even that I knew she was in town at the time.
No, it was because one of the new cousins she embraced that day, a small boy at the time, later became a friend who not only provided lots of salutary rogue company but brought my imagination closer to Sophia Loren than I was ever going to get in real life.
M. and I met in ninth-grade Scranton summer school. We were part of the cadre of flunk-outs who, each summer, had to repeat the courses we botched during the regular year. Even at the age of 14, M. was seriously muscular and cast a menacing stare.
We became friends the day in class when our teacher, Mr. J., an otherwise fine gentleman, finally lost patience with my delinquent acting up and mouthing off, and cracked me across the face.
In those days in a blue-collar town like Scranton, teachers handed out corporal punishment to wise guys just as freely as they handed out failing grades to screw-ups. Parents rarely questioned either one.
“Hey!” I puffed. “You can’t do that to me!”
Proving my assertion wrong, Mr. J. smacked the other cheek even harder. After that blow, I had nothing else to add to the dialog so put my nose in a book for the rest of the class.
When the bell finally rang, M. made a beeline for me, laughing his ass off. He told me it was the funniest thing he had ever seen, and kept mimicking my “Hey! You can’t do that to me.”
It wasn’t long before I was cracking up, too. We were now buddies.
Despite his intimidating image, M. soon revealed a raucous and intelligent sense of humor, and more than once he proved himself a loyal friend. He introduced me to his neighborhood pals, whom those of us raised in other parts of town referred to as “Westside hitters.”
For close to two years, I shared my young days with M.and friends. We hung out at the pool, cruised the streets, danced to The Orlons at Kay’s Diner, argued comically over absurd propositions, and occasionally covered each other’s backs. (Being one of the younger and more pugilistically challenged of the band, my group benefits far exceeded my contributions.)
All of us knew about M.’s famous family ties.
And that’s where the newspaper article sparked kindly memories of back then being en gang, with one of our preposterous discussions in high gear. It was then that M. would masterfully time his moment, put an index finger to his cheek, and crow, “Oh, yeah? Well, see? See? That‘s where Sophia Loren kissed me… Right there.”
Yep, branded for life, you lucky bastard. Thanks for the dreams about cousin Sophia and your participation in my memories of halcyon days.