Journey To Meet the Pigman
It's been twenty-five years since The Pigman was published, and I'm thrilled to have the chance to tell you about a mystery connected with the book. I suspect the mystery has as much to do with a search for the seeds of my own boyhood as it does with an investigation into the true identity of the Pigman.
"Journey" is a wonderful word in storytelling. For many writers, their journeys are voyages into memory, a phenomenon once described as "the diary we all carry about with us." About twenty years ago, I stood before you and told you about an old man I had met who, I thought, was the Pigman. I had put an ad in the Staten Island Advance, something any of you could do today if you were looking for a free place to live: "Respectable school teacher willing to mind your home while you're away."
I received replies and offers from other teachers and folks going on extended vacations or study grants, but one offer was wackier than the others -- and I took that one. A real estate consortium offered me an empty castle in which to live on Grymes Hill -- The Horrman Castle. It was built by a beer baron in 1940 for his bride. Legend has it that the baron left his wife in the castle, while he went about the country to have torrid love affairs, until his wife went insane -- at which point he put his wife in a sanitarium and gave the castle to Our Lady of the Sea for use as a convent. By the time I moved in, the castle was an ex-convent, and I had to sleep in a bed that nine nuns had died in, not all at the same time.
The setting was spectacular for a budding storyteller. A panoramic view of New York Harbor. A structure six stories high topped like a wedding cake by a tower with a golden, Byzantine dome. The dome seemed like the perfect place to hide all sorts of magnificent treasures. All about me, I had felt I was living in the midst of magic. Gorgeously plumed pheasants strutted about the lush lawns. Rabbits darted in the great circular driveway. Doves and owls flew over the rhododendrons to sit high among the lightning rods on the great tile roof. There were vast slabs of Tiffany stained-glass windows. It had massive fireplaces of Cararra marble, and great sliding doors like I had only seen before in lush productions of Ibsen plays.
Across these nine acres trespassed a teenage boy. I was downstairs in the convent kitchen, which had a walk-in refrigerator and twenty-two gas jets, and I was shocked to see the trespasser. I ran out yelling, "Hey, what do you think you're doing?" The boy turned out, in time, to be my inspirational homunculus for John Conlan. He had problems with his family; he was on probation from the courts for a minor offense (of which he was innocent); and he had weekly required sessions with a court psychologist who would ask him things like, "John, when you're watching a television sit-com and the audience laughs, do you think the audience is laughing at you?"
The model for Lorraine, the girl from the book, was a student who was in one of my chemistry classes. She would burst into tears if any mention was made of war or death.
The man I thought was the life model for the Pigman, Angelo Pignati, arrived unexpectedly. It was on the day John and I decided to find out once and for all if there were any treasure in the Byzantine dome. It was on the same day I had an ad in the paper trying to sell an old, beat-up DeSoto I owned.
We climbed to the top of the castle, and I put a ladder up to a trap door in the bottom of the dome. John held the ladder steady while I climbed up and lifted the door. I remember feeling very frightened about putting my head up into the dome. I doubted if there would be any real treasure. What if there were only raccoons or snarling possums waiting to rush at my face?
"Open it!" John urged me.
What I saw was something completely unexpected. There were dozens of skeletons! Pigeon skeletons. I had found the only pigeon graveyard I had ever heard of. And, just at that moment, we heard a voice calling up to us from the front driveway six stories down. We looked to see an old man waving to us. "Hello! Hello, up there! I've come about buying your car!"
I had thought I had met my Pigman -- this sad, lonely old man who, I felt, had just come to buy my car so he would have someone to talk to for the day.
Ten years went by since I had written the novel, and I never gave it any more thought. I did meet another old man who inspired The Pigman's Legacy. He reminded me of the first old man, and his house was filled with thousands upon thousands of blueprints. As it turned out, he was the man who had designed the New York City subway system. Both were men with interesting pasts, who were now alone and so wanted to chat.
Ten years beyond that, a great surprise lay in store for me. My mother had died the year The Pigman was published. After her death, my sister sorted out my mother's things and stored them in her country house. As things turned out, it was twenty years before I began to use my sister's country house. It was then I came across a drawer full of all the old family photos. There was a shot of my mother in a beautiful, white Confirmation dress. A photo of my father as a New York cop. My first-grade report card on which I received "Satisfactory" for keeping hands and materials away from my mouth. There were photos of my mother and her get-rich schemes, which always failed: one shot showed twenty-seven collie puppies we got stuck with when mother failed at breeding Lassie look-a-likes which didn't sell.
There, in the solitude of my sister's lake house, I came across a single photo which sent chills through me. It was a snapshot of a pretty Italian woman with her arms about her twin young sons. A series of memories began to wash over me, which for some reason I had repressed. This was a soon-to-be divorced woman by the name of Connie, who teamed up with my mother to share an old house in the predominantly Polish town of Travis on Staten Island during World War II. These two mothers made quite a pair. They were both abandoned and scorned by their husbands, and left with their kids -- both trying not to starve to death in this particular, fascinating town of xenophobic, exotic bubushkas and kielbasas. There was always little or no money, and a struggle to have enough proper food. My mother would freak out regularly. Connie would date a butcher and dance the jitterbug, or something that looked like it. Travis was so unique Elia Kazan filmed most of Splendor in the Grass there because he needed a place that looked like Kansas in 1920.
In this setting, my mother threatened to commit suicide at least once a month. "Goodbye, you ungrateful kids!" she'd scream at me and my sister. "I'm going to kill myself. I'll jump off the Bayonne Bridge!"
"Don't, Mom," we'd call to her as she'd run out of the house.
"You can't stop me," she'd insist. "I'm going to jump. If I don't die when I hit the water, the undertow will get me!"
Into this setting one day arrived Connie's father and mother, Nonno Frankie and Nonna Mamie. Nonna Mamie was a short, little doll of an old woman. Nonno Frankie had a bit of a belly, and eyes which danced like those of a Sicilian Santa Claus. They lived in NYC and worked at NBC. At first I thought it was the National Broadcasting Company, but it turned out to be the National Biscuit Company.
"What a place to grow tomatoes," were the first words out of Nonno Frankie's mouth when he saw the Travis house and yard. He unloaded a wine press, boxes of grapes, lots of plants, and bags of sheep manure. He always had a little joke for me and the rest of the kids. "Don't clean your plate, don't get any dessert! Remember the three B's: Be careful, Be good, and Be home early. And never tell a secret to a pig -- they're all squealers!"
And what he brought into my boyhood. He and Nonna Mamie would make huge trays of Sicilian treats: browned pork chops, succulent slices of sausages, plump, bursting meatballs, and seasoned, tender chicken parts floating in a slowly bubbling red sauce. Fresh basil and streaks of the most extraordinary olive oil drifted across the surface of the sauce, which later would cascade over fresh homemade steaming pasta and glazed breaded eggplant. Nonno Frankie would grate from a giant chunk of Parmesan, a snow storm of cheeses falling down to coat the magnificence on our plates.
Then, it didn't seem to matter so much what kind of shenanigans my mother pulled about leaping out of windows, or praying to be struck by lightning. There was always Nonno Frankie telling us kids, "You know who invented the first airplane that didn't fly? It was the Wrong brothers. And did you know that when the Cherokees let out a small laugh, it's a Minniehaha."
There was a water-head baby, a hydrocephalic, next door to us in Travis -- but no matter what, Nonno Frankie would offset the weirdness of such things by teaching me how to tie a fish head to the bottom of a crab trap, and how to keep killies moist in a burlap bag. He taught me that the words "Stab nail at Italian bats" spells the same thing backwards as forwards. He showed me how to handle myself in my first fist fight. Most of the local kids in Travis thought having a good time was hunting muskrats, but Nonno Frankie showed me so many other ways to get the most out of life. He taught me to yell Io Sono Differente whenever I doubted myself. Being different was a plus in his book. It was a thing to be valued. "Only dead fish swim with the stream," he'd say. "Just worry about liking yourself first." At his first tomato harvest, he said, "Look! All the tomatoes have been picked. They all grew up and went to our stomachs. That is the rule of tomatoes. Yes, tomatoes have rules, and I will tell you all the rules you need to know for school and having fun and staying alive. Have all the experience you can. Experience is wonderful. It teaches you how to recognize all your mistakes so that, when you make them over and over again, you know what you're doing. And don't be discouraged by fat books! In every fat one, there is a thin one trying to get out. And don't put grease on your hair the night before you're going to have a big test, because everything might slip your mind. Always remember that a closed mouth gathers no feet, and never get into fights with kids who have ugly faces because they have nothing to lose. And never, no matter what, play leapfrog with a unicorn."
This wonderful Nonno Frankie was there for me when I was having a great struggle. There is no question in my mind today that he was the remarkable teacher and spirit who gave me my Pigman. And my boyhood.
Author of many YA novels, including The Pigman, and the drama, The Effect of Radiation on the Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Paul Zindel delivered a version of this article at the 1993 ALAN Breakfast.