Bobby Cards: Revisited

Robert Bacigalupo was a fixture under the gaudy gold chandeliers and oak encrusted ceilings of Las Vegas casinos back when the town was run by the mob in the 1970s.  He sat alone amongst strangers, holding his cards close and blowing money at a rapid pace, until he retreated to a cheap and sleazy motel for the night. He knew the town well from frequent vacations, jetting over whenever he felt like it.  He liked to be hidden in the crowd.

“They don’t know you from a hole in the wall,” Cards said.  “They just know your hand and that you’re spending money. ”

Returning home to Boston, however, always brought Bacigalupo a new identity. He became the town funnyman, going to great lengths to make people laugh. The only part of his Vegas identity that followed him east lay in his nickname: Bobby Cards.

Now, Cards is in his sixties, and his main haunt is Skip Scaro’s barbershop on Dorchester Street in South Boston. On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in September, Cards crept down the side streets near the barbershop in his old, red Toyota Camry for the second time that day. The first visit was devoted to a haircut and some tomfoolery. Cards spends time performing card and magic tricks for the clientele in the hundred year old shop.

On the second trip, Cards burst through the rickety screen door of the barbershop and Scaro greeted him excitedly. Cards’ cream-colored corduroy blazer fell smoothly atop his gray and white button-down shirt, open to the third button. He’d shined his wingtips without a scuff.  His sharp dress contrasted with the dingy wood paneling of the shop, covered with dust and hair clippings.  The sun shone through the window, illuminating a thin dusting of talcum powder over the shelf next to Scaro’s chair. Yellowing pictures of celebrities who visited the shop line the walls in the closet sized shop, and Cards seems at home amongst them.  He has become somewhat famous in the neighborhood for his tricks.

The folding chairs on the right side of the shop remain empty, but Scaro is snipping gray hairs from the side of Eddie Flynn’s head at the first of his few barber chairs on the left side of the shop. Cards immediately sidled up to the left side of the occupied chair and whipped out his deck of cards.  Flynn’s eyes averted from the mirror ahead,  down to the deck of cards, looking somewhat skeptical.  Cards flipped and hid and folded and threw the cards, only fooling his audience some of the time.

“There are always characters walking through here,” Flynn, son of Boston’s former Mayor Flynn, said from the barber’s chair, his hair uneven. The barber had abandoned the scissors in favor of winding up Cards for a Donald Duck impression. “You’re interviewing a real good guy.”

Flynn’s distinction became important when Cards revealed the reason for his second visit.

“I gotta pick up the paper because my friend just got put in jail for extortion,” Cards said.
Cards met the recently indicted Joseph “JoJo” Burhoe at the barbershop years ago and approached him about some stolen property.  Burhoe offered to “take care of” the problem for Cards.

“I’m not a violent person, I’m just a fun loving guy,” Cards said, smiling and showing his chipped front tooth. “I didn’t want to get involved.”

Cards’ desire of anonymity seems flimsy given his love of entertainment.  Perhaps his need for obscurity is only in regard to the law.

“It’s very easy for me to get into trouble. I’m around a lot of street people,” Cards explained, parked in the lot at Sullivan’s on Castle Island, precisely the place where the FBI photographed mobster Whitey Bulger during many clandestine meetings.  “I went to the college of hard knocks. I made a lot, a lot, a lot of money. Fast cars and fast women.”

Now, Cards’ anonymity lies in his celebrity; if he is the funny guy, people won’t assume he is a the criminal. He tries to stay away from trouble, his card tricks keeping him busy.  Aside from entertaining at the shop, Cards books odd entertainment jobs, like clowning at kids’ parties and performing card tricks on Boston Harbor cruises.

Antiquing bamboo or tropical-looking items is one of Cards’ favorite hobbies.  After a morning coffee, light with two sugars that he drinks from a straw, Cards heads to antique shops, surveying what came in since his last visit.  Cards, in the midst of a stroll on Castle Island after a hot dog from Sullivan’s,  stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, pulling out his old T Mobile flip phone to display photos of his latest prizes.  He boasted a bamboo kitchen table, chairs, a mirror and is building a bamboo headboard.

Odd hobbies help keep Cards in a favorable public way and out of view of the law, but Cards’ personal life is very private. He was married once, but left after six months.

“I didn’t like being confined,” he said of his quick marriage. “I didn’t like the idea of anyone trying to control me.”

Cards’ cousin is his only living relative, making his familial obligations nil.   He had two sisters and parents whom he lived with growing up on East Third Street in Southie.

After graduating from high school, Cards went into the restaurant business.  He worked in pizzerias in the North End and at Triple O’s, a bar owned by Bulger’s affiliate Kevin O’Neil where members of the Winter Hill Gang met frequently.  Buying and selling property was one of his final ventures, and the most lucrative. With this money, he went on long, lavish vacations to places where no body knew him, sometimes without packing a suitcase; he bought new clothes at his destination.  He gambled away much of the money that was left.

“Casinos, gambling was an addiction,” Cards said of his habits. “I don’t do it now because I don’t have the money.”

He says he would go back to gambling if he had the funds.

Gambling truly offered Cards anonymity.  He was outside the law in a town run by criminals.  It allowed him to be Robert Bacigalupo, a self-proclaimed nobody doing what he liked to do. He’s lived in Boston too long to be invisible here, though, so Cards hides in plain view when he’s back home, winning laughs instead of poker chips.   Now, Cards’ next undertaking may be acting.  He is taking head shots with the help of a friend and sending them to New York City agencies.   Perhaps this publicity will be the ultimate form of anonymity for Bobby Cards, but what if he plays a crook?  In his struggle to stay out of the eyes of the law, Cards may end up in police officers’ homes, on their televisions.

-September 2012

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Old Favorite Forges New Location in Southie

Every weekend morning an hour-long line snakes its way out the door of The Paramount, one of Beacon Hill’s favorite brunch spots. People wait in the cafeteria-style queue for five-star food at all hours, but the spot is known particularly for its morning meals. Soon, the revered eatery will open its doors at a new location in South Boston.

The prominent location at 425 East Broadway gives Southie residents an upscale yet affordable weekend brunch to mirror the atmosphere of the neighborhood. The spot will provide a new setting for an old favorite.

And The Paramount is an old favorite. Along with hordes of first-timers, the spots regulars come in at the same time on the same days and order the same things.

“We have places on our rolodexes,” said The Paramount’s owner, Michael Conlon, about the customer mindset. “Ultimately you go to your sushi place, your coffee place, you go to whatever your breakfast place is.”

Conlon said that for many, The Paramount is “their” breakfast place.

“It’s a regular place for people to stop by on the weekends,” he continued.

The restaurant is a platform in which people are able to perform their meal rituals. Often, the act of weekend brunch is ritualized. Breaking bread with one’s friends or family is a social action that people participate in with regularity and attach meaning to.

“They are getting into a comfort, it brings meaning into their day,” said a cafe worker, Mike Willis about the regular customers he observes.

“Eating together is a social event. The social event of breaking bread together and eating together is a very important part of human life,” University of Minnesota’s anthropology department head William Beeman said in a University video interview. “It creates social solidarity it sometimes creates political alliances. In many societies you will find people that say ‘Once I’ve eaten a person’s bread and salt we can no longer be enemies.'”

Conlon expressed confidence that Southie residents will adopt The Paramount as their new Sunday morning ritual, which is vital to the business’ success. Curiosity brings in customers at first, but when the thrill of anew restaurant has worn off, an eatery relies on its regulars to bring in steady cash flow, and to bring their friends. Conlon claims the atmosphere is just right for a successful business and brunch.

“The demographics are great. Ages 24 to 40, good jobs. Its an exciting, up and coming place,” said Conlon. He even compared the area to the restaurant’s current successful spot.

“It’s kind of like Beacon Hill was 20 years ago,” he said. “It’s a mix of wealthy Brahmin people and artists. It’s very trendy and affordable…for now.”

The influx of working twenty-somethings in the neighborhood may work to Conlon’s advantage. This social age group, free from kids and with plenty of money, is apt to take advantage of their neighborhood’s amenities. These are the customers most likely to take up a new ritual. It may be a little harder to draw the older crowd, already set in their Sunday brunching ways.

However, Southie is rapidly changing, and the whole town is becoming a platform for new rituals. The upcoming renovation of the Seaport will bring in a whole new set of people and places and things to do. Although the old spots still exist and hold strong, the new crowd is likely to bring in the regular businesses the new places need to thrive.

-2011

Some Parents Worry About Education’s Future in South Boston After Linehan is Re-elected

In the wake of Tuesday’s municipal elections, South Boston proudly boasts the recently re-elected City Councilor Bill Linehan’s campaign posters with a large “Thank You!” sticker plastered across the center. The vibrant red signs hang high on abandoned storefronts, protrude from front porches and stake their claim on lawns. In the setting sun, the whole neighborhood is tinted red from the light reflected off the Linehan signs, serving as a reminder of the native South Bostonian’s recent win. However, this constant reminder is bittersweet for some.

The race between Linehan and his opponent, Suzanne Lee, was a close one; a mere 87 votes decided who won the city council seat. Lee’s biggest challenge was winning over Southie voters, as Linehan is a lifetime resident of the neighborhood, and Southie people like to elect Southie politicians. For Lee, this challenge proved insurmountable. Those left most affected by Lee’s loss are the kids.

“I was for Lee. I talked to her and she followed up a few times. She was very concerned about education and so was I because I have small children,” said Patty Donovan, a South Boston resident with children in the public schools.

Before her bid for City Council, Lee was a school teacher and principal for 35 years in Boston Public Schools. As principal of the Josiah Quincy School in Chinatown, she brought the underperforming school to the forefront, transforming it into a highly desirable and achieving school.

“She is a big proponent of public education,” said Donovan. “I don’t even know if [Linehan] has one,” she said when asked about Linehan’s record with public education.

Fellow parent Colleen Chin cited Boston’s oldest education quagmire, bussing, as the biggest problem with public education. Busing (shipping students to schools around the city via cross-city buses) was put in place in the 1970s in order to desegregate schools, and now exists to encourage diversity and allow students to access schools outside their districts, although the schools they are bused to may not be better than the ones in their districts.

“We need to go back to neighborhood schools,” Chin said. “The kids don’t know anyone and the parents don’t meet.”

She also noted the lack of representation in the Parent-Teacher Association because the schools are not in the same area that the parents live in.

Both Chin and Donovan’s children attend public high schools that require entrance exams. They noted that they had hope that things would change if Lee were elected, but feel education will not change under Linehan.

“They need more three bedroom condos. Young couples move here, then have kids and move away,” Chin continued.

“Linehan doesn’t have a stance on education. I don’t think he ever will. I used to live next to his daughter, you’d think since he has grand children now he’s care more [about public education],”

Although some local parents are concerned about Linehan’s education record, the Boston Teacher’s Union has full confidence in Linehan’s credentials. Despite Lee’s vast experience, the Teacher’s Union endorsed the incumbent.

“You don’t have to be a teacher to be an advocate of education,” said Angela Cristiani, political director of the Boston Teacher’s Union. “[Linehan] demonstrated this with his actions since he’d been in office.”

Linehan passed through the Union’s vetted endorsement process with over two-thirds of the endorsement committee’s support. Cristiani cited specific examples of Linehan’s work with the schools as the reason for the endorsement.

“His commitment to public education, specifically with the parents,” Cristiani said when asked why the BTU endorsed the candidate. “His work with the Tynan School, he was not going to sign the budget if they were going to close the community center. His advocacy on the budget helped prevent teacher lay-offs. While he’s not a teacher, he advocates public education.”

Linehan also kept the Roger Clap Elementary School open as an innovation school, which helped many teachers keep their jobs.

“It was not because he was an incumbent. It’s membership based. He earned it,” said Cristiani about Linehan.

People did, however, vote for Linehan because he was familiar and because he’s from South Boston. One voter said she went to the polls for District 2 but did not know anything about Suzanne Lee.

Linehan’s main concern in office currently is the municipal redistricting underway. He is the chair of the Census and Redistricting committee and told the Boston Globe that he thinks redistricting is the most important issue facing the district. He has also spent most of his speaking time at the recent city council meeting talking about his work for this committee.

While the BTU points to a good track record on education, Linehan’s mind may be elsewhere in the upcoming year.

-2011

Anything For a Laugh

Getting your hair cut at Skip Scaro’s Barber Shop in South Boston is more than the average trim, it is an all out experience. The shop has been in the same spot on Dorchester Street for over 100 years, and has been family run since the start. It has achieved celebrity status in Southie, and established a loyal fan base. This is partly due to Scaro’s coiffure taming technique, or the cadre of celebrity clientele, but a trickster named Bobby Cards is main attraction. Bobby Cards drops by the shop to entertain the customers, free of charge. His only payment is laughter, and that is what he lives off of.

Cards performs a multitude of tricks in the shop, ranging from card tricks to money games, and a mean Donald Duck impression. His slender frame wobbles and shakes, and his arms flap while a wild noise escapes from his lips; he imitates the famous irritability of the Duck, but unlike Donald, Bobby Cards is always good-natured. The tiny shop (approximately the size of a broom closet) erupts with laughter, making the countless pictures of famous customers on the wall shake like Cards’ arms. His repertoire is comprised of about 50 tricks, and countless jokes, all aimed to entertain anyone and everyone who will listen.

“I’ll do anything for a laugh,” Cards said. “Anything to get [people] out of the mood they’re in. We need more of that [laughter], people are so serious.”
The entertainer hangs out in Dorchester, Roxbury and various other spots in Boston, but returns to Skip Scaro’s faithfully.

“I stopped in the shop, got a great hair cut and it’s all been history,” said Cards about what attracted him to the barber shop. “[Scaro] knows what people want, and I so do I.”

And Cards does know what people want, or at least what makes them laugh. He makes flowers out of paper for customers’ girlfriends and makes one dollar bills turn into hundred dollar bills (unfortunately he doesn’t give these away like the flowers). Although some customers are only in the shop for a haircut, most enjoy Cards’ antics and it keeps them coming back.

Cards claims the secret to his comedic success is being in the right place at the right time, and this place is usually Skip Scaro’s. In fact, he entertained the whole cast of the film Black Irish when it was filmed in the shop, and he even met and hung out with Mel Gibson when he was in town shooting Edge of Darkness.
Although he enjoyed meeting celebrities through his place at the barber shop, Bobby Cards isn’t in it for notoriety. In fact, he downplays his iconic status at the shop. He claims he just stops in a couple times a week and happens to make people laugh. “I make people laugh wherever I go,” he said. But he is much more important to the shop than he admits.

“I’m the master and he’s the puppet,” said Bob Scaro, the owner of the shop. Cards is all a part of the shop’s act: while Scaro is in charge, Cards is the focal point, much like a puppet is the attraction, not the puppet master.

Bobby Cards is in it for the laughs, and spreads his lightheartedness to all of Skip Scaro’s customers. Whether he brightens one day or many, Cards feels content. He has managed to become a fixture at the barber shop without ever cutting a single piece of hair, but by creating a unique atmosphere that keeps the community flowing into South Boston’s oldest barber shop. More so than the barber shop, Bobby Cards is an experience all in himself.

-2011

Wally’s World

From Fulweilerlab.com

About 200 college students wait for her in a modern-looking lecture hall. Wally bursts in with a huge smile on her face. She hurriedly drops her bags on a table and then starts jumping up and down. “I am so excited!” she exclaims, and starts scurrying around, preparing the projector to start class. “ What are you excited about?” yells a student from the back left corner of the hall. Wally flicks some light switches and asks the class which one she has to hit to make the lights in the back go off. She finally gets the lighting right and nods satisfactorily; the projector is lit, and the rest of the hall is dark. Despite the darkness, her audience could detect a bright sparkle of excitement in her eyes. “So,” says Wally, ”lets talk about phytoplankton.” She doesn’t yet disclose to the class her source of excitement.

A few months later, I find Professor Robinson W. Fulweiler (more affectionately known as Wally) perched behind her desk in an office chair. Her curly brown hair is pulled loosely back in a practical way, however, her clothing is not telling of her profession; she is wearing a black shirt with a long, dangling necklace and heels. . She looks chic, and not like one may imagine a Biogeochemist and Ecosystem Ecologist might look. Wally wears little makeup, and appears young and fresh. Her skin is clear, cheeks are flushed, and she appears happy. Wally’s eyes still hold the twinkle of excitement her students witnessed that day in class; her enthusiasm is still burning. Behind her is a wall filled with maps and pictures. A shark bearing its teeth jumps out of the dry wall and into a map of the Atlantic Ocean; tan continents lie calmly in the midst of the oceans the shark aims for. To Wally’s left is a wooden bookshelf in front of a large window, which lets in the sunlight that lights the office. The bookshelf encompasses a multitude of science journals and books about nutrients and the ocean. In the middle of this scene is a large red armchair, where I sit waiting to interview Wally.

Travel back a few months into the large lecture hall, and Wally is still building suspense. She begins her lecture on phytoplankton, but again, someone yells out and questions her excitement. Finally, Wally caves and admits to her class:
She screams “I just got a huge grant from the National Science Foundation! I’m so excited that I want to buy you all a soda! But I can’t because there are 200 of you, so I’ll just teach class. But I’m really excited!” The class laughed and cheered, congratulating Wally on her accomplishment. This grant will be used to further Wally’s PhD research on how climate change impacts nutrient cycling in the ocean.

Wally’s research began early: she received her B.A. in 2000 at the University of Vermont, and her M.S in 2003 and Ph.D. in 2007 at the University of Rhode Island. Her career title (Biogeochemist and Ecosystem Ecologist) is a mouthful, but it simply means that she studies the big picture. She collects water samples and tests them for nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and silica and analyzes how geology, biology, and chemistry affect the nutrients. Mainly, her fieldwork consists of one-day cruises in “coastal waters throughout New England, the wetlands and tidal flats of Plum Island Sound, and the wetlands and coastal embayments of Louisiana” on which she collects water samples to test (fulweilerlab.com). She has, however, taken two longer cruises: one to the Sargasso Sea and one around Antarctic Peninsula, both of which she points out on the map located behind her.

This fieldwork has led to some interesting experiences and discoveries. Of her longer cruises, Wally says they were “totally profound.” After this statement, she appears a bit embarrassed and asks if she is being too “cheesy.” Although it may sound a bit cliché, Wally’s explanation qualifies the corniness. When out at sea, Wally became very isolated; there were few other people on the boat with her, and little space to move about. She says, “you realize you’re kind of tiny” when you look around and can only see water surrounding you. Although many people in her field live out at sea for months at a time, and spend little time on land, Wally is not sure she could bear this life because it gets too lonely; she prefers day cruises.

However, on these longer cruises, Wally was able to hold her own and, despite the loneliness, keep her enthusiasm for her research. In fact, during her six-week cruise to Antarctica, Wally took on what seemed like an impossible challenge. She was on the boat to conduct tests on water samples, however some of her peers were in the business of diving to find small jellyfish. The jellyfish were carried in the ocean’s cycling, and moved toward the surface at night. So, every night, divers were sent out in small boats to be carried to a spot where they could collect the jellyfish. The small boats, however, were tossed around so much on the ocean that the divers all became ill, and it was hard to complete their task. Wally laughed at the divers and she volunteered to brave the rough ocean and capture the jellyfish. All the experienced divers guffawed at her, and told her she could not do it without being sick, but Wally showed them wrong. She came back victorious: with jellyfish and without vomit. This experience serves not only as a fun anecdote for Wally, but also as a tribute to her enthusiasm for her work.

On her shorter day cruises, Wally hopes to figure out the whole story. That is, the whole story of science. However, to find the big picture, one must put together the smaller pieces first; this is the most exciting part for Wally. She says of her first big discovery, “that moment when you find something new…it’s like crack.” I laughed at her jest, but she turned a bit more serious and said that it was true: the moment when you find new scientific information is like a drug. It left Wally wanting more.

This crack-like discovery occurred for Wally when she discovered that moderate climate change effects nutrient cycling. Before her discovery, this was not confirmed. This discovery is what earned Wally the National Science Foundation grant, and is what she will put the grant money toward. Wally has already collected some sediment to test, but will start more intense research in May. Hopefully, this grant will allow her feed her habit. That is, her habit of discovery.

As well as being an avid researcher and active scientist, Wally is an Assistant Professor and Associate Director of the Marine Program at BU. She teaches Oceanography and Marine Biogeochemistry. The most exciting and effective professors are those who demonstrate excitement about their field and those who practice in it actively. Joe Difazio, a student who took Wally’s Oceanography in the Fall of 2009, would certainly agree that Wally demonstrates these qualities. “She was pretty quirky and was really excited about science. I really hated nektoplankton, but she was so enthusiastic about it I couldn’t help but listen,” says Difazio. Similarly, Difazio found himself enthralled while Wally explained the difference between Dolphins and Porpoises, something he thought he would never care about. “She was really funny and really excited about science so I couldn’t help but like her, even though I hate science,” remembers Difazio.

Despite the volume of students in her class, Wally managed to form relationships with her students. Difazio remembers the day he brought a Subway sandwich to class and ate it at his desk; Wally heard the wrapper constantly crunching, and asked if he wanted to share. She proceeded to call him “Subway Guy” for the duration of the semester. Although it was a small instance, Wally managed to make it fun and memorable. Difazio fondly remembers that Wally’s quick wit and upbeat sense of humor remind him of Dharma from the hit television show Dharma and Greg.

Currently, Wally has a lab capable of analyzing water and soil samples in the Boston University Earth Sciences Department. She hopes to someday have a lab that is active in doing cutting edge research, and one that helps make a difference. Wally’s ultimate goal is to make discoveries that will help society. Her revolutionary research about climate change impacting nutrient cycling is her first step, and is certainly helpful. If nutrients aren’t cycling normally, than other organisms that depend on these nutrients will suffer. In turn, this will ripple up the food chain and eventually effect humans.

Wally also adds that one of her ultimate goals is “to rule the world.” She says this with a straight face, nods once or twice, and then breaks into laughter and the twinkle of excitement returns to eyes before she tells me it’s a joke. Once again, she questions whether she is being to “cheesy,” but I tell her I think it will work just fine.

-4/13/10