One in 30,000: A man who’s lived through it all but still finds his way back home

Biochemistry professor emeritus Joe Polacco talks of his travels during the ’50s and ’60s and how he still feels connected to his hometown of Brooklyn.

By Mawa Iqbal | Oct. 2, 2017

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Biochemistry professor emeritus Joe Polacco had only been living in Missouri for a couple of years before his coworkers, who were more familiar with the area, kept urging him to visit The Hill in St. Louis.

He had no particular interest in going.

That is, until he and his fellow MU biochemistry professors had to attend a meeting in that area. Figuring they could pick up some cheeses while they were there, they paid a visit to the long-established Italian-American neighborhood.

They were in Missouri, considered by many to be the heartland of America. But as soon as Polacco turned at the corner onto Sublette Avenue, he was in Brooklyn. There were tall brick houses with flowering gardens in the front, narrow alleyways in between them, people reclined on their front porches waving hello to their neighbors and other passersby.

It was this scene that took him back to his childhood, not the family-owned delis, the upscale pizzerias or the slew of sandwich shops and bakeries sprawled up and down those narrow roads. It was the life happening outside on residential streets that made him reminisce about 1950s Brooklyn.

Growing up in a Jewish-Italian neighborhood in the heart of Brooklyn, Polacco had become accustomed to the biggest attractions associated with New York City. He could ride the subway down to Manhattan, watch the New York Yankees play at Yankee Stadium or unwind on the sandy beaches at Coney Island.

Everything was within arm’s reach. It was exciting.

Yet he couldn’t help but feel that he was separated, excluded from the white picket fence suburban lifestyle everyone else in America seemed to be engrossed in. With sitcoms like “Leave it to Beaver,” “I Love Lucy” and “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” serving as literal visual representations of what home life in the ‘50s should be, Polacco felt like he was missing out.

There he was, living in three small rooms in the back of his stepfather’s linoleum flooring store on a bustling inner-city street. No paved driveways, no white picket fence. Polacco likes to quote a line from West Side Story to describe how he felt every time he’d flip on the television set.

“‘I am depraved on the account that I’m deprived,’ although I wouldn’t necessarily have considered myself deprived in any way,” Polacco said.

Polacco’s “deprivation” would end the summer before he went off to college. That same summer would mark the beginning of a sort of coming-of-age journey, where he would live through the many different cultural shades and political landscapes of America and beyond.

It was June of 1962 when Polacco witnessed a unique cross-section of America, perfectly woven into the fabric of Sin City’s lifestyle.

His Uncle Jijjie had offered him a job in the restaurant supply at Fremont Casino. As an 18-year-old who had never ventured outside the concrete jungles of Brooklyn, he was taken aback at what most Las Vegas natives would’ve considered everyday occurrences.

Desert rats, cowboys, dagos (Italian, Spanish or Portuguese-speakers) from the city and wise guy-types entrenched in turf wars, conversing in a dialect specific to running casinos. Casino employees belonging to nuclear families, coming home to single-family houses in a suburban neighborhood dotted with churches every five blocks. Two different types of people working together in the same place.

“It was mind-boggling,” Polacco said. “People were living the Ozzie and Harriet lifestyle but working in Vegas with a strong mob presence around.”

It truly was like nothing he had ever seen before. And he loved it. But that didn’t stop those long summer days from coming to an end and the Cornell University school year from rearing its head.

It was August of 1962 when Polacco experienced the definition of white America firsthand.

Because he wasn't too far from home, he recognized a few kids who lived in the same neighborhood as him. Kids who, despite going to different schools, would always get off at the same subway stop as him. But Cornell was the first place Polacco met people whose parents had the financial means to put them through preparatory school.

Coming from a rather humble background and having to compete to get into his high school, Polacco initially felt like he lacked certain social graces when it came to interacting with this unfamiliar breed of people.

“I didn’t feel prepared socially, but I learned fast,” Polacco said.

Although he graduated from Cornell with a firm grasp on social etiquettes and a bachelor's degree in biochemistry under his belt, nothing could have prepared Polacco for what he would encounter when he enrolled in Duke University in pursuit of a doctoral degree.

It was the fall of 1966 when Polacco saw black America in a time when the Civil Rights movement was in full force.

Polacco recalls the first night he arrived in Durham, North Carolina. He flew in that morning and decided to take a cab into the city that evening to familiarize himself with a new side of America.

As he walked down the sidewalk, taking in the sights and sounds of the college town, he was approached by a young African American man who asked if he could hitch a ride with him.

“Sorry, I don’t have a car,” Polacco said.

“Oh, I live right here in Haiti. You know, ‘N**** Town?’” the man replied.

It was an eye-opener for Polacco. Durham, which had a considerable African-American population, relegated that population to an equally considerable ghetto section of the town.

During his first couple of years at Duke, Polacco took the initiative to become more familiar with the black culture that thrived in town. From meeting and befriending black classmates to partaking in civil rights demonstrations on campus, Polacco had become more in-tune with the politically-charged climate of that era.

Civil rights activism and racial tensions weren't the only issues making appearances in the form of heated demonstrations on college campuses across America. There was another historical event that would mean the difference between life and death for Polacco.

It was 1969 when Polacco would receive a stinging slap in the face, courtesy of the Vietnam War.

Although he had a student deferment of the draft when he was an undergraduate student, Polacco was still required to fill out various computer cards when he registered for classes at Duke. He eventually got to the Selective Service Act card, a tiny card with multiple rectangles punched out that asked for his graduation date. Figuring he would have better luck avoiding the draft, Polacco put down four years instead of the standard six years it would take to complete a doctoral program.

He considered himself lucky. He almost got away with it.

It didn’t take long before Polaco received a phone call mandating that he go through a pre-induction physical before receiving an official draft status.

It was demeaning, almost degrading in a way. He didn’t want any part of the war. He didn’t believe in any part of the war.

“I gotta get out of this. Next thing I know I’ll be crawling on my belly through rice paddies in Vietnam with bullets flying over my head,” he thought.

After the physical, Polacco was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to receive the official verdict. He doesn’t remember everything, but certain fleeting, small moments have wedged themselves into his memory to this day.

He remembers getting off the last bust stop and into a bright yellow taxi. He remembers an older, retired man taking that cab ride with him. He remembers the BVD underwear that he and the other men in line were wearing. He remembers going to the next room over after his physical examination, anticipating the final report.

He remembers scanning the lengthy report until his eyes rested on the last sentence: patient is fit for induction.

He was married. He had a wife, a 2-year-old daughter and another one on the way. Polacco contacted his draft board in Brooklyn, and after much reasoning and a little bit of pleading, he was granted the 1-Y family deferment.

A wash of relief came over him. Polacco and his family no longer had to worry about him travelling overseas to a country so foreign. At least, not for a while.

Polacco would go on to continue his doctoral program before graduating from Duke in 1971. Shortly after, a friend from Duke pitched Polacco the idea of working as an assistant professor at La Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia instead of engaging in postdoctoral research.

Spoke Spanish? Check. Had lab experience? Check. Could potentially help the scientific community and maybe even less developed communities of Columbia with his research? Checkmate.

However, it was February of 1972 when Polacco was hit with a rude awakening: the unshakable feeling of guilt, stemming from the fact that he was an American living in a country where he had full view of shantytowns and slums from his apartment window.

“My conscience was killing me; I truly felt like a parasite living there,” Polacco said.

But that didn’t stop him from taking advantage of the opportunity presented in front him. Much like his time spent in Durham, Polacco saw Cali as a city pulsing with Colombian culture ready for him to absorb.

He loved the Latin spice found in most foods, going to Cumbia and Bolero dance classes with his wife and playing baseball with Cali’s club team. Yet, once the glitz and glamour of living against a foreign backdrop slowly faded away, Polacco was left with one question.

What was he really doing here?

Feeling as though he wasn’t advancing his career in the path he wanted to, Polacco and his family packed their bags and headed back to the U.S. Polacco would spend five years as a staff geneticist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experimental Station before relocating to the heartland of America in 1979, where he would work as an MU professor for the next 38 years.

Because of his permanent position at MU, Polacco was able to settle down. He was no longer on the job hunt, no longer relocating across the country. Though he would continue to take vacations in Italy, a sabbatical in Spain, tours of Brazil and Uruguay and work-related trips to Costa Rica and Honduras, he found Columbia to be more of a stable nesting ground for him and his family.

After his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in December of 2012, Polacco would travel to Brooklyn for monthly visits and checkups. With each monthly visit, he would notice one more new difference in how Brooklyn is today compared to how it was in his youth.

It’s more of a “hip” place now, he said. Government developers had cleaned up the “dirtier” parts of town, replacing them with condominiums and more tourist-friendly attractions. Just like in the ‘50s, Polacco was left feeling a bit conflicted about his neighborhood.

“I miss the old days,” Polacco said. “Everything is so gentrified now that it has erased the spirit, color and culture of the neighborhood and the people who lived there.”

But despite all the conspicuous changes, Polacco can’t help but feel a faint tug towards his hometown. Liking it to a mother’s womb, Polacco sees Brooklyn as his birthplace and a hard place to go back to.

“It’s different, but I don’t know. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned,” Polacco said. Edited by Claire Colby | ccolby@themaneater.com

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