This is reprinted from my column at FYIMusic from last Father’s Day. I miss my parents a lot, but I never got to thank my dad for all he tried to teach me, all he tried to instill in me.
Happy Father;s Day, Pop…I love you.
His name was Giovanni Segarini, John or Uncle Johnny to everyone that knew him. He and his three brothers, (Ed and George, the twins, and Vic, the oldest), and their baby sister, Della, came to America from a little village outside Genoa, Italy in 1906 or 7, when he was 3 or 4 years old. The whole family moved here, his mother, (my gramma Sunta), maybe his dad, and some other relatives, all settling on Ellis Street in Stockton California in a little apartment building my family eventually bought and still owns.
Everybody went to work. I don’t think any of the brothers made it past the 5th grade, because it was more important in those days to provide for your family than get an education, and that’s what the Segarini’s did. Provide for one another.
His father, (my grandfather), committed suicide somewhere along the line. I’m hazy on whether it happened after they came to America, or if it was before they left Italy. It was very rarely talked about, and certainly not in front of us kids.
Sometime in the mid or late ‘30’s, my dad and Uncle Eddie borrowed $500 from an uncle and opened a little corner grocery store next to the apartment building on Ellis Street. The first month they were in business, they paid the uncle most of their profit, $15 dollars. They continued to pay what they could until the loan was paid off. By then, the other two brothers were in the business with them, and they bought and opened a larger Market a few blocks away on Eldorado Street. The Segarini Brothers were in business. They took wives, and set about having families and, as always, providing for everyone.
The Brothers all bought houses on Ellis Street and one, George, on California Street, just around the corner.
My cousin, Vic Junior, was the firstborn Segarini on American soil, followed quickly by my cousin’s Judy and Diane, and then, the rest of the next generation.
My mom and dad were unable to have children. My mother laboured through 8 stillborn babies, a tragedy that deeply affected them, and made them all that more determined to have a child. They turned to adoption.
My Mom and Dad: On the Santa Cruz Boardwalk 1944
That’s where I come in.
In those days, the adoption people did their best to match you up as best they could. I was born in San Francisco and abandoned to a Catholic Nun run orphanage that placed Italian children with Italian families. My birth parents were also from Genoa, and because of the care that was put into the process, I have relatives in my current family that I look like, even though I am adopted.
John and Mercedes, (my adoptive parents), took me home on a sunny day in February when I was 6 months old, and my mother sent me a second birthday card on that date every year, until she passed away in 1997.
I was now a Segarini, and I could not have been more fortunate.
As I grew up in that tiny house on Ellis Street, I learned about family, food, tolerance, and music. My dad was so happy, and so much fun when I was a kid, I could hardly wait for him to come home from the store.
I can remember him always taking me to the Stockton Railway station after work when I was 3 or 4 years old, even though he had been up and working for at least 12 hours, and parking right next to the tracks to watch the big freight trains and the Super Chief Golden Gate passenger train pass through on its way to Oakland. Great steam engines and modern diesels alike, massive and mysterious to me, standing on the front seat of that old ‘38 Chevy 4 door next to my dad, a giant grin on his face, watching me, wide eyed and laughing, begin my love of trains and train travel. A gift of Lionel Trains and track sealed the deal at Christmas when I was 5 years old.
When I was 6 or 7, my peeps and cousins from Ellis Street would wait on the corner of Ellis and San Joaquin Street with me for my dad to come around that corner on his way home for dinner. He would turn off the engine and slow down so we could jump on the Chevy’s running boards and hold on for dear life while he coasted into our driveway at the end of the block.
He was the best dad in the neighborhood.
Until I was 9, I could speak and understand Italian. That’s all the family spoke when we were at Sunta’s apartment for dinner or a visit. Although the brothers had all gotten houses, dinner was usually together at Sunta’s, where I spent a lot of time with her in the kitchen, grating parmesan and dicing onions, garlic, and celery.
Sunta had a chicken coop full of chickens and a goat or two in the back yard. I used to go out and get fresh eggs in the morning, the chickens all clucking and running around like…well…chickens, and me just loving the chore, the excitement, and even the smell.
One day the police came to her front door and told her she had to get rid of the farm animals in the back. She picked up a shotgun she kept behind the door and aimed it at them and told them to get off her porch and don’t come back, as always, in Italian.
They never did.
When she passed away a short time later, everyone stopped speaking Italian except when they’d argue, which is why I can no longer speak or understand it…but I can still cuss pretty good.
My dad could also be very demanding.
When I was 5, he insisted I take up the accordion, which I did. After that, I would be trotted out after dinner to play a few tunes for whoever was at dinner that night, and rewarded with a silver dollar from my beaming, proud, father. Lady of Spain and Oh, Marie were his favourites. I had learned how to tap dance at the request of my mother when I was 2, so this was my dad’s way of encouraging me further, letting me know at a very early age that I could do anything if I worked at it.
My folks took me everywhere. They went out to dinner, I went out to dinner with them. To San Francisco to see the Harmonicats or Dick Contino, or any of my father’s favourite entertainers, I was there. I will always be thankful for that, too.
As I got older we drifted apart like some father’s and son’s do, and I wish we wouldn’t have.
By the time I was 16, after we had moved to Monterey Avenue, (when I was 12), just 5 blocks away from where I had grown up, I used to run into him in the garage at 3 in the morning. I’d be coming home, he’d be going to work. For a couple of years, all he ever said to me was, “Don’t you ever sleep? When are you going to get a haircut?”
God, I wish I could tell him how right he was, and how wrong I was.
There for a while, as I was your typical ‘head-up-my-ass’ teenager, I thought my dad was a goof. Always working, never taking it easy, falling asleep as he read the paper before dinner, and always telling me what to do…I thought I was so smart, and my dad was so lame. I mean…he owned the business. Why did he also do all the work?
I thought that way until one day in the summer of 1966.
We now had five supermarkets, a bowling alley, a liquor store, and lots of houses, apartments, and property. The Segarini Brothers were successful.
I was the only son that hadn’t gone into the family business. I wanted to write and play music. I wanted more than Stockton.
I was dividing my time between San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Stockton, and I was renting a little house on San Joaquin Street from my dad for a whopping $75 dollars a month. It was right next to the little corner grocery he and my uncles had started the family business in, on the corner of San Joaquin and Ellis.
I was mowing the little yard in front of the house when I noticed my dad standing on the sidewalk just staring at the former store, which had been a studio for some young artists, and now stood as a storage shed for this, that and the other, that was no longer in use by one brother or another.
He had tears in his eyes, which was disturbing to me. I had never, ever seen him like that. To me, my dad was tough as nails, always working, and not a little serious.
It was Stockton hot, a dry 100 plus degrees Fahrenheit, so I stopped mowing, walked over, and asked him if he would like a glass of lemonade. He would.
We sat on my porch sipping lemonade in silence for a few minutes before I got up the courage to ask him, “So…what’s goin’ on Pop? You look sad.”
He didn’t say anything for a long time. Then, he turned to me and said, “You know that little building used to be the store we had before Eldorado Street?”
“Your uncles and I started out there, and now we have so much because of what we did there”, he continued, “but it’s not going to be there any longer”.
“Why?” I asked.
“City ordinance. We have to tear it down and provide parking for the apartments”.
“So?” I said.
He looked at me like I was an idiot…and he was right.
My father loved what he did. He loved the long hours, the hard work, the feeling of accomplishment he felt every day. He was proud of what he did, and he was grateful, and he was happy with his life.
My father was a damn good man.
I didn’t say anything, I had not put two and two together yet, but my dad saw me trying to grasp the meaning of the moment, stood up, and walked back to his pickup truck, while I sat there thinking about what he had meant.
A couple of minutes after he left, it hit me.
The grocery stores, the deliveries he made every morning, the plumbing and handy man chores for the properties he owned, the pruning of the trees, the stocking of the store shelves…my dad loved it all.
It was his rock and roll.
He felt the same way about what he did as I felt about my music.
It was his life.
…and the city was making him tear down the place where it all started. And my dad…my dad was deeply affected by that.
That’s when I remembered how much I loved him, and that’s when I knew I could never be the man my father was. The only way I could come close, was to work as hard as he had to make sure his family had everything they needed. That was his applause, and his reason to work as hard as he did.
If I could go back in time, I would have grown up a lot sooner than I did, but I can’t…and I will always regret not living up to his expectations.
My dad was a character.
During World War II, my dad was rejected by the army for some kind of medical reason, so he and the others that stayed behind would make trips to San Francisco and make deals with Italian farmers over there so that there was always meat, and other hard to get goods available to his customers. He would sell liquor and beer to all men and women in uniform, getting arrested for it a few times because some of them were not 21, and always telling the police that if they were willing to fight for their country, they could damn well have a drink if they wanted one.
He was robbed many times, and once, with the other employees face down with their hands behind their backs, a thief held a gun to my dad’s head and told him to empty the 3 tills. Pop opened the first one and started counting, “20, 40, 60, 100, 110, 120, 125, 130, 131…”, the thief yelled, “What the fuck are you doing?, and my old man said, “If you’re going to rob me, I want to know how much you’re taking”. The thief shut up, my dad counted all 3 tills out. When asked to open the safe, my dad told the crook he had bills to pay, and there was no way he’d give him any more money.
Balls of steel.
The crook, waving his gun around, told my dad to stay where he was and not move for 20 minutes because if he called the cops or chased after him, he’d kill him. My dad just glared at him. The thief ran, my dad called the cops, helped my cousin and her husband up off the floor, and opened a bottle of Four Roses.
They caught the crook less than two blocks away.
In the mid ‘60’s, my folks went to Italy for two weeks. They did the tourist-y things, and went back to the little village where my father was born.
When they got back, I asked my dad how he liked the trip.
He said, “Damn good ice cream…but the sonovabitches don’t have any goddam ice cubes.”
My Dad and his Grandaughter Amy 1976
In 1977, I was in Toronto on the phone with my mother in Stockton when she let out a little squeak and laughed. I said, “What was that?”, She said, “Just your father…I have to go”.
“What happened?” I asked.
“He was pruning a tree and fell off the ladder. I saw him fall by the kitchen window…gotta go see if he’s alright”, and hung up.
He was 73…and he was fine.
A year later, he went into the hospital for a gall bladder operation, and the doctors told him he had cancer that had spread too far to be stopped, and that he only had weeks to live. He became so jaundiced at one point, a priest was called in to give the last rites. When he finished, the color returned to my father’s face and he sat up and said, “Can I eat now?”
He lived two weeks to the day.
My father’s funeral attracted over 1000 people. Mailmen in their uniforms, on-duty policemen, every person my dad had helped out, or waited on in the stores, or unclogged a toilet for, it seemed. One of my uncles gave me the keys to the liquor store, and for almost 3 days, we all sat drinking and eating, and telling stories about my dad, which is where I heard most of what I just shared with you, for the first time.
I learned that even though he gave me grief about pursuing music and growing my hair long, etc, he had taken my first album around to all the bars and restaurants he delivered to and demanded they put it on the jukebox.
“John”, they’d tell him, “that’s an album. The jukebox only plays 45’s”.
“I don’t give a damn”, he told them, “put it on there anyway”.
After he passed, my mother and Vic Jr. were going over the rental records of a couple of the apartment buildings. Vic freaked out when he found out that my dad was only charging long time residents what he had rented the apartments to them for in the first place. Some people were paying $45 dollars a month, the same they paid in the ‘40’s and early ‘50’s. When Vic told my mother to raise the rent, she told him that if my dad wouldn’t raise it, neither would she.
He shut up.
If you own a vinyl copy of “Gotta Have Pop”, take a look where the grooves run out just before the label. I etched his birth date and death date there myself, before the record went to the presses. He had passed away just before it was released, but that record was the result of one of the few times I tried to live up to my dad’s example.
Do the work. Do it as good as you can. Do it for the right reasons.
I miss you, Pop.
Thanks for everything…and happy father’s day.
John Segarini 1903-1978