The last time I saw Al Vellucci on the street, he was at his best. It was a bright Saturday afternoon, one of those near-hot late summer days that make living in Massachusetts seem worthwhile, and that make the dank winter seem so horrible and faraway. Al (I'll call him by his first name, like everybody else) was in great form, in his element, mingling with and affirming his identity with the average citizens who were gathered that day for the last afternoon of the Mayor's Marketplace in Kendall Square.
The market, which was the Mayor's idea in the first place, is one of those Bicentennial Community events, not-for-profit but for-the-people. Physically, it's simply a strip of unused roadway cut off from traffic for the day. Peddlers pay $2 a day for a curbside space, pull in their Pinto wagons and draw out all manner of treasure and trash to sell to the public.
But the marketplace is not just a physical space; it's an event. Even if you don't buy anything, you can register to vote there, or listen to music, or just talk to other real-Cambridge people. You can browse among the "collectibles," rummage through experienced clothing, watch Brother Blue, resplendent in his geegaws and jingle bells, dancing, in a manner of speaking, with a seven-year old innocent bystander.
Of special interest, perhaps, is a certain Aldo who preserves the celebrity faces of the current television season, along with other worthies, in paint on little flat rocks. He calls it "rock-art," and among the offerings we found that afternoon were Gerald R. Ford, Ed Asner, the gruff editor of Mary Tyler Moore fame, a rock with Mike on it (Douglas, that is), Merv (Griffin), even one with Pat Mitchell (I know who she is but I'm not sure what to call whatever it is that she does). Even Mary Hartman was preserved on stone. The only face missing from Aldo's rock pile is the face behind the marketplace, the senior legislator in Cambridge and current occupant of the mayor's office, the little man's pol, the honorable Alfred E. (for Effort) Vellucci.
If Aldo had captured Al's countenance, it would have been something like this: a thinning silver-covered pate with remnants of the original black peeking out from beneath, all of it swept back along an unusually neat part; a smooth unflappable brow, something a gambler might try to cultivate (you cannot tell when he's riled or when a political card is up his sleeve by reading this brow); unremarkable eyebrows and ears; something of a potato nose; and the eyes of a predator bird.
The eyes really have it with this mayor. As I walked up to greet him that afternoon, those eyes met mine, then glanced back over my shoulder, then back to my eyes. Rather than just stand and chat, Al grabbed my arm and walked, ever so slowly, with me in tow along the path he would have taken if I had never even come along. We must have looked like those Italian men who stroll, arm in arm, across the ancient bridges or along the boulevards of any Italian town; very relaxed, yet somehow infused with purpose, even if that purpose is only not to stop walking.
That kind of walking fits Al's political style, a unique combination of firm intention and casual appearance. Most of all, it gave Al the opportunity to keep on moving those eyes, to keep nodding to people going in the other direction, while giving me the (incorrect) impression that, for the time being, he was talking only to me. But when a limousine pulled up at the far end of the strip that defines the Mayor's Marketplace, even without looking at them I knew those eyes had moved to the moving car just as surely as a chicken hawk's eyes home in on its quarry.
Aldo would have had a terrible time capturing the mouth, I am sure. Within an arc of less than, say, 30 degrees, that mouth can convey every important feeling in the politician's guidebook. At the top of the arc, there is a smile that fairly breathes a grandfatherly benevolence. A shade below that, there's an omni-purpose politician's grin. At the middle of the arc, Al's smile turns into a squarely set, unrehearsed-looking deadpan, suitable for framing and hanging in a standup comics' Hall of Fame. And at the bottom of the arc, there's a ferocious scowl, reserved for anyone foolish enough to disrupt the proceedings of the honorable City Council.
The rate at which this mouth can run through its tiny arc is remarkable in itself. At a recent meeting of the council, over which Al gleefully presides, a group of taxi drivers was gathered to press a certain point. When the hackmen were respectfully applauding the grandstand overtures of some of the councilors ("I've supported the cabbies for 30 years"), it was Grandfather Al beaming down from the dais. When the drivers were testifying, Deadpan Al nodded gravely at their protests, seemingly recording it all into his store of wisdom. But when catcalls and boos started to swell in the gallery, Ferocious Al glanced, disgusted, toward the City Clerk and said, sotto voce, "They sure can turn on you." He might have said, "I sure can turn on them."
I don't know if Al was born this way. It hardly matters. Because everything that is successful in local politics, a big first-name constituency, the ability to make people smile and think you are someone who'll listen to their worries, the ready handshake and the meaningful wink, seem to have been inborn or ingrained in Al, and it all works to his benefit. (I had a dream the other night in which Al figured prominently. I dreamt that, when he was born 61 years ago in East Cambridge, where he still lives, the infant Al Vellucci raised his hand to stop the attending midwife from slapping him into the first breath of life, and offering his pink paw to the woman, said, "How are va.") But while it doesn't matter what he was like before he went into politics, where he grew up has made the difference in Al's life. With his reputation as the ally of the working people who live in his district, his good name as a loyal servant of the city at large, (buttressed by his visibility in and around City Hall and at every civic function where people watch to see who's there) Al has emerged as the friendly politician, the sort of guy you'd like to have dinner with at home, someone under whose thick political skin beats a warm human heart. Someone who's real.
The problem with taking this down-to-earth appearance at face value is that, when you're talking about the tenor of community politics, part of what you have to look at is the fixtures in that community, and I don't mean the plumbing. Anyone who considers it will realize that, on a ward-by-ward basis, incumbents have a big advantage as long as they don't do too bad a job. The history of boss rule as a major political structure in many American cities bears this out. In short, provided he can remember the names of the men and women who will vote to keep him in office, the longer a local incumbent can hang onto his office the more likely he is to stay there. And, at the same time, he will also solidify his status as a community fixture.
Two products of this incumbent mentality influence the admixture of guts and guff that make up Al's political style. First, that he is practically a monument in his community lends a security to his ability to continue living a local political life. If someone is pretty certain he can be reelected, he can say things that verge on the outrageous or the absurd, so long as the man himself is not absurd. Second, incumbents find formulas that work for them, and they will stick by them as long as they carry some political benefit. One of the formulas Al lit upon long ago is the home-community-politics nexus.
Al hears that Harvard's football team has won their league championship; he invites them over for pepperoni and homemade wine. You've got a beef with the way city government is run? Al will talk it over with you, anytime, his place over pepperoni and homemade wine. You're a journalist looking for an interview? Come on over tonight, we're having lasagna dinner at city hall and, oh yes, there might be some special Vellucci brand homemade wine. It may not be the accepted panacea for all your political ills, but, in Al's mind, you can get pretty far with a smile and a glass of homemade wine. I'd like to taste the stuff sometime; our mayor has gotten more political mileage with homemade wine than a Chevette gets on a tank of Amoco supreme.
Next to his use of homelife as a political tool, the most important feature of Al's rhetorical grab-bag is his odd combination of humor and bombast. Once, when he was trying to deliver a speech on nothing in particular at the beginning of a council meeting, Councilor Al asked aloud if anyone was listening to what he was saying. (He hadn't been reelected mayor yet; everybody listens to the mayor). When there was no reply, Al moved that the meeting be adjourned. Since it was Monday night and there was a football game on TV starting at nine, the male councilors voted to go along with the proposal. The meeting lasted exactly seven-and-a-half minutes, scarcely enough time for the pledge of allegiance and the minute of meditation. I asked Al if this was the shortest meeting he'd ever attended. His deadpan reply: "This is the shortest meeting in the history of the government of the United States of America." Ridiculous, yes, but lovable too.
It's carryings on of this sort that make Al Vellucci the most "colorful" of the politicians who haunt the oaken corridors of Cambridge city hall. On the one hand, there is lovable Al, caring for his tribe and defending the interests of the common man in the realm of city politics. On the other, there is the Al full of bombast, homelife and trivial, lovable sound and fury. The combination must work, because nobody now on the council has been there as long as mayor Al (22 years, as long as this reporter has been alive). I'd love to know if Al uses the same tactics to get through the working day at his regular job as a tax assessor for the Commonwealth. It must be a "colorful" variation on an otherwise grey occupation.
Given his disposition to aid the common man and his twisted satirical bent, it should be no surprise to Harvard students that Al Vellucci has a score of cures for "creeping Harvarditis," and that he promotes a new anti-Harvard scheme almost every week. Who can forget his plan to pave the Yard and open a municipal garage? Or to turn Wadsworth House into a public urinal? And then to shut down the triangle between the Yard and the Science Center to build a track for the town's high school athletes? The list of Al's remedies for Harvard could be as long as Kissinger's thesis, but the fact of the matter is simple: Al loves to hate Harvard.
His feelings for The Crimson proceed along much the same lines. One of Al's favorite jokes is to rename the Crime "the Harvard Iceberg" on account of what he perceives as a lack of any humor on the part of the paper. More than once he has offered a resolution to rename Plympton St. "Lampoon Avenue" in honor of the "really important" publication that abuts that road. And when Al took out a political ad in last year's election supplement, by chance he discovered a "plot" to hijack all of that morning's Crimsons. After alerting the business staff of the nefarious scheme, Al introduced to the council and saw to passage an order that Cambridge police keep a "keen and constant watch" on the Out of Town newsstands. Thanks to his vigilance, no Crimsons were stolen that election day.
I am reminded of the first time I saw Al Vellucci in public. He was at his worst. A certain member of the gallery, a local lawyer who devotes much of his time to the welfare of the central Cambridge community, was trying to gain the floor to speak on some issue, I think it was zoning regulations in his neighborhood. Al and this man have never exchanged friendly words in my presence. As the man waited somewhat impatiently at the dock that divides up the council chambers, Al went into a rambling spiel that lasted more than 25 minutes, delving into topics as disparate as the leash law and the rising incidence of public dopesmoking. It was a sort of ad hominem filibuster, although in my assessment at the time it was a waste of time for everyone and a waste of effort on the part of a crackpot councilor. Al talked about Italian cooking, he talked about the deterioration of respect for the city council, but mostly, it seemed, he just talked. I left that meeting discouraged and disappointed that one man could act so badly in public while nobody bothered so much as to ask him to yield for five minutes. It was low-down local politics at its worst, I remember thinking.
The only thing that makes my view of Mayor Vellucci different now is that over time I've gotten to know how he acts; I've come to expect Al to act that way, and, I'm glad to say, I've come to like it. He's the kind of man who makes no sense whatsoever until you understand the background and the reasons for the way he is. He might be ridiculous at times, unfathomable, at others. But over time, Al grows on you.