His dad, Joe Infantino, the trombone-playing Dixieland jazz band leader with the over-the-top personality, was "Joey-I" to most everyone. So it was only natural that Charlie Infantino, following in his dad's footsteps in the world of music, right down to the trombone, soon became "Charlie-I."
And just as natural, most agreed, that when Charlie-I became a grandfather, his family took to calling him "Pop-I."
I found that so delightful when his wife Noreen told it to me a couple of years ago, I repeated it to everyone I met, even people who never heard of Charlie or his dad. It didn't take much of an explanation for anyone to get it and appreciate it.
His new nickname "Pop-I," and all that went with it, was the first thing I thought of when I heard last Saturday morning that Charlie-I had died. The news came in a text from my friend and former newspaper colleague Ed Philbin, that had arrived the night before after I had gone to bed. "First cool cat I met," Ed wrote, before adding, "I've been in tears for two hours."
I could not help adding my own tears. And I'm sure I was not the only one. Tears flowed all last week in Greater Pittston. They may well be flowing still. I am writing this Monday night, days before Charlie's funeral, scheduled for Saturday, the day after Valentine's Day, and promising to be both heartbreaking and memorable.
The last time I saw Noreen turned out to be the very last time I saw Charlie. But I never would have guessed it at the time. She popped into Redner's supermarket on a day I happened to be manning a Salvation Army red kettle two days before Christmas. Before I even asked about Charlie, whom I knew had been fighting for his life, she anticipated what was on my mind and said, "He's good. He's in the car." Her eyes darted toward the parking lot, and seconds later I handed my bell to Christie Adonizio, who had joined me that day, and dashed outside. I didn't realize until I reached Charlie's car that I was still wearing a red Salvation Army apron. He got a kick out of that.
We talked for a bit and I came away thinking this was the best Christmas present. Charlie Infantino was his old self. He had even played with the band a few days earlier, he said. Clearly, he was on the road to beating this cancer thing.
I spent some time last Monday afternoon with Victor Guiliano, Charlie's boyhood pal and partner-in-crime with the fabulously successful band Sweet Pepper and the Long Hots, and he confirmed Charlie indeed had played with the band on Dec. 21. He had to sit on a chair though, he said. He was that weak. Still, Victor said Charlie was laughing and joking in hospice care right up until the day he died.
Charlie was a big fan of Yuengling Lager, Victor said. "A few of us have been joking since Friday night," he added, "that Yuengling might have to lay off a shift now." Victor said they brought Charlie the Yuengling tap from the bar (Tony's Wine Cellar, owned by Victor and home base for Sweet Pepper) and he kept it under his pillow in hospice. One day, Victor said, Charlie's doctor asked if there was anything he could do for him, and Charlie reached under the pillow and pulled out the tap. The next day, the doc showed up with a six-pack. Noreen posted on Facebook that Charlie was having a lager and morphine for breakfast.
Victor and Charlie played in a band together in high school 50 years ago, ("I think we called it Swineheart," Victor said), went their separate ways musically and then got together and formed Sweet Pepper. With Charlie on bass and Victor on drums, they surrounded themselves with the best musicians (including a horn section) and vocalists and took over the area. I've described their music as, "Everything from Louie Prima to It's Raining Men."
On electric bass, Charlie-I was unsurpassed. So much so that Shawn Klush, the number one Elvis tribute artist in the world, would have Charlie join his band whenever he played around here. Charlie was also, like his dad, a top trombone player. But he only played in that capacity with Paci's Band, a legendary Pittston band that dates back to 1923 and in which Charlie joined his dad as a kid and then played a leadership role when Joey-I died.
"Charlie had perfect pitch," Victor said, and then began to laugh. "One day a guy we were with passed gas," he said, "and Charlie told him what key it was in. He was right, too."
Victor was at the bar when he heard the news Charlie was gone. He said he just wanted to make one or two people aware, but word got out and soon "the whole place was in tears." He put it on Facebook and had nearly 300 responses in less than an hour.
For all his musical talent, Charlie-I was even more loved for his sweet personality, his gentle ways.
"He was the most non-confrontational human being you ever saw," Victor said. "You could not get him into an argument about anything."
A few days before the end, Victor said, Charlie's old friend and bandmate Dominick "Donnie" Occhiato called from Arizona. The two of them go back to high school when Donnie started out playing accordion before moving on to keyboards.
According to Victor, when asked how he was doing, Charlie matter-of-factly told Donnie, "Cuz, I'm going to a better place."
That gives all of us comfort. Except, without Charlie-I, the rest of us are left behind in a little less better place.