Ronald Ian Philips III, aka Ronnie, never wanted to join the family business. His father, Ronald Ian Phillips II, aka Big Ron, never wanted him to join it either.
“Ronnie, go the fuck to college,” Big Ron would say. “Don’t fucking do what I fucking did. I didn’t have a fucking choice. You fucking do.”
Ronnie took his father’s advice and went to college, but he ended up working for the family construction business anyway.
Ronnie was a third generation Italian American. His great-grandfather, Rinaldo Igantius Di Filippo, came to Philadelphia from Teramo, Italy in 1906. The first thing Rinaldo did after gaining admittance to the United States was anglicize his name. Rinaldo became Ronald, Ignatius became Ian, and Di Filippo became Phillips. How Rinaldo thought that he, a man who stood five-feet tall and had the complexion of a brick layer from ancient Carthage, could pass as Anglican remained a mystery, but it did not deter him.
“It’s all in-a da name.”
The years proved Rinaldo right. Names last far longer than genes. Shortness of stature and darkness of skin can be bred out of a family in a single generation. But names last. Names brand us. It is their purpose.
According to Italian tradition, a man should name his first son after his own father. Rinaldo’s father was named Ignatius, which became Rinaldo’s middle name as well as the name of Rinaldo’s son. The four generations of Phillips men were therefore:
1. Ronald Ian Phillips (formerly Rinaldo Igantius Di Filippo) (1899–1976)
2. Ian Ronald Phillips (1924–1968)
3. Ronald Ian Phillips II (Big Ron) (b. 1950)
4. Ronald Ian Phillips III (Ronnie) (b. 1981)
Ronnie should have been named Ian Ronald Phillips II, but Big Ron wanted to name the boy after himself. Big Ron also wanted his son to have the III suffix because, as he said, it “stunk with WASP-y fuckery.”
In 1921, Rinaldo found a homely, fair-skinned Italian woman who stood five inches taller than him, whose family had already been in the United States for ten years. Her parents owned a twin home in West Philadelphia, and they rented half of it to another family. More than anything, Rinaldo was impressed that her family did not rent. They were landlords. Rinaldo felt he had found a worthy family because he likewise had no ambitions to be a laborer as he was in Italy. He would start his own construction business as soon as he had the money to purchase equipment. The wealthy landowners in his homeland practiced a medieval form of feudalism and Rinaldo was born a member of the serfs. Socioeconomic systems had been put in place to ensure that those who were born into it remained there until they died. From what he had heard about America, he at least had a chance to advance his position in life, if not a guarantee. Rinaldo knew there were no guarantees. He also knew that his future could not be left to chance, not even to hard work alone.
Rinaldo and Antoinette married on a moody day in late April. An hour before the wedding, the bride’s family gathered in front of Our Lady of Eternal Suffering, a small group of round-faced people with dark hair and even darker garments — the newest wave of immigrants clad in their Sunday best that looked more appropriate for a funeral. Somewhere they had collectively decided that color was for God and that they were meant to wear drab, course material to atone for their sin of being born. Added to this original sin was their affront to God and country by wanting a better life. The native-born of America did not take kindly to this invasion of swarthy and ignorant masses from Europe’s boot with their peasant superstitions and strange ideas about hygiene. WOPs, dagos, guineas, garlic eaters: these were not the same Italian immigrants that America had welcomed with open arms decades before. Those of the previous wave were educated, people with sophistication and money. Had Rinaldo been able to read The New Colossus that adorned the inner wall of Lady Liberty’s pedestal — and had he been a thoughtful kind of man, which he was not — he would have been troubled by the contradiction. It didn’t seem that America wanted the tired and poor, as the poem read. America wanted the ambitious and affluent with their great big bags of money. That’s what Rinaldo meant to become.
Inside the church, everyone seemed to be waiting for a poverty-stricken impressionist to capture the scene with oil on canvas. Rinaldo looked out of place. He bore no visual connection to any of his soon-to-be in-laws. In contrast to their round faces, his tapered like an isosceles triangle from the flattened back of his head to a nose that could point to fowl that had been blasted from the sky. He wore an arrangement of facial hair common to the era, although his face bore so many hair follicles there was an ever-present shadow across his jawline. These gave him the appearance of a serious man, which is what he wanted to be. Big Ron couldn’t recall Rinaldo ever cracking a smile. He had the perennial look of a man who was owed money by people he caught buying luxury goods.
One of the ushers provided by the church caught sight of Antoinette standing in the back as she pulled the veil over her face. He was so sure that he had just seen a man in drag that he hurried up to Rinaldo who stood at the altar waiting for the organ to blast Schubert’s Ave Maria. The usher genuflected when he reached the front, walked to Rinaldo, and whispered conspiratorially in a mix of dialect Italian and English. “Hey, paisan. I think someone swapped your bride out for a biezzema ditili sanda,” he said, tugging his crotch. “If I were you I would veni, vidi, vici, vai via da qui.”
Rinaldo heard the man clearly. As offensive as the usher’s delivery had been, Rinaldo decided the content was wholly irrelevant. Marrying for looks or for love were not within Rinaldo’s ambitions. The girl’s family owned property. So what if she looked like his older brother? His mother always said his older brother was the good-looking one.
There were only two pictures of his great-grandfather that Ronnie had ever seen. One was Rinaldo’s and Antoinette’s wedding picture, which the family kept out of view. The other showed Rinaldo shortly after he married, standing next to a Model A Ford open cab pickup truck with a wheelbarrow in the bed and a spade shovel leaning against the back fender. He stood in front of the passenger side door onto which the words “R. I. Phillips & Son Construction” were printed even though Rinaldo did not yet have children. The top of his black Stetson barely cleared the upper lip of the door where the window emerged, yet he loomed large in the photograph, the black and white composition adding austerity to the subject with its lack of hue and tone. He wore a white short-sleeved oxford, dress pants with suspenders, and dress shoes. The shoes told the story. Rinaldo did not wear work boots. He wore black shoes with a high gloss shine that told both his employees and his descendants viewing the photograph fifty years later that he was the boss. The photograph neatly planted the seed behind the mythology that grew around Rinaldo, the patriarch who appeared on America’s shores penniless, ignorant of the words to The New Colossus written in a language he did not understand, but with an innate desire to be anything but tired and poor.
His men called him “Black Ron,” a moniker not in reference to the color of his skin in the summertime, but to the color of his heart. He would stand over his men while they dug trenches in August heat. If any man raised a shovel out of the ground that was not completely full, he was “sent down the road,” fired on the spot.
He called the Blacks “pitoonies,” and he liked them because they were the cheapest labor and he felt even less guilty about working them like dogs. But family obligations and the ever-present guilt from his wife forced Black Ron to hire some of his wife’s family members and pay them a decent wage. He never forgave her for it.
Land had always been important to Ronnie’s family, the key to the fulfillment of their American Dream. They considered land the only sound investment, the only thing worth working for, the only thing that lasts, as Scarlett’s father said in Gone With the Wind which was Black Ron’s favorite movie. By the time Ronnie’s father, Big Ron, came of age in the early 1960s, the centerpiece of the Phillips burgeoning real estate empire was a 1500 sq. ft. duplex in Ocean City, New Jersey. In the years that followed, the house transformed from a physical property into a theatrical one courtesy of Big Ron. The woeful tale of how the Phillips family lost the Ocean City shore house to the Digorgios during a restructuring of the family business (which looked more like Big Ron kicking all the Digorgios out of the business) became the subject of every holiday gathering. Ronnie’s father possessed the supernatural ability to lay a trail of sentence fragments that would lead unsuspecting first and second cousins from the original topic of dinner conversation into the woods of his tormented recollections. They’d unknowingly follow him somewhere near the famed dwelling constructed of cake and confectionery without ever reaching it. Big Ron would describe his story-telling destination in such delicious detail that his listeners would be able to see and smell the sweets, only to endure the withering bitterness of his tale of being cheated out of his birthright.
“You don’t understand,” Big Ron would say, channeling Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. “I coulda had that fuckin’ shore house!”
The way in which Big Ron believed he had been profoundly boned by the Digorgios, even though he instigated the feud, took the form of an epic tale, like the Iliad or the Epic of Gilgamesh, but with more enmity and destruction.
One Sunday after mass, twelve-year-old Ronnie suggested to his father that he might be happier if he let it go and patched things up with Uncle Sal, the patriarch of the alleged shore house-stealing clan.
“Sal? That fuck? I don’t give a fuck about that fucking fuck!”
Buried within Big Ron’s anger lay the desperation of a man who feared he had wasted his life. Big Ron never wanted to work for the family business, just as Ronnie didn’t. Big Ron’s father, Ian, didn’t want to work for it either. The only person who wanted to work for Phillips Construction was the man who started it. It was Rinaldo’s dream, and he forced it upon all subsequent generations of Phillips men. Big Ron never grew into the role as the owner of Phillips Construction so much as his identity had become fused with it. When his father, Ian, died suddenly when Big Ron was eighteen years-old, the business was strapped onto his back. Whenever Ron looked at a five-ton roller pressing asphalt onto a stone surface, he identified with the stone. The stone and the asphalt became one just as he and Phillips Construction had become indistinguishable from one another. For as much acrimony that existed, for as much disdain for the company that had brewed within Big Ron’s body and mind, his future was inextricably linked to its fate. It was different for Ronnie, who was young enough to leave the business and do something else, and not a day went by that Big Ron didn’t resent him for it. Big Ron had nowhere to go. That is why, when faced with bankruptcy, he fought so hard and bribed so many to win the fracking contract instead of letting it go so the amnesic healing process could begin. Fractures in the shale would release more than gas. They would release Big Ron from the bondage of Rinaldo’s machinations for a construction empire along the Delaware River. To achieve that goal, he didn’t care who else he enslaved in the process, no more so that Ronnie. The way he saw it, it was them or him. All Big Ron had to do was get the job by any means possible and then dump the business onto Ronnie and retire on shale gas profits.