The Branford ROMEO CLUB® has starting meeting again, twice a month instead of weekly for the time being. We also pick our venues where we can be outdoors and sit further apart for social distancing. Below is a recent article (July 7, 2020) in the New Haven CT Register Newspaper.
North Branford. Clockwise from left are Frank Kuszpa of Guilford, Joseph Farricielli of Branford, Henry Castellon of Branford, Barry Giordano of Branford, Richard Salzano of Branford, Jim Piergrossi of Branford, Joseph Fazzino of Branford, Doug Stokely of Guilford, David Colley of Branford, Ellsworth “Mac” McGuigan of Branford and Bill Schmitt of Branford.
Photo: Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media
They’re back together, gathered around a long table while trying their best to maintain social distancing, these members of the ROMEO (Retired Old Men Eating Out) club.
The COVID-19 lockdown kept them apart for nearly three lonely, agonizing months. But a few weeks after the state allowed outdoor dining to resume, they reconvened.
Bill Schmitt, who handles a lot of the emails for the club, had been trying to get me to attend one of their Thursday lunches for the past three years. I held on to his kind invitation but had not gotten around to going. Then his message about their rebirth amid the pandemic motivated me to get out to one of their gatherings.
In his June 18 email to me, Schmitt wrote: “Of course we are not exempt from COVID-19, as we represent a bull’s-eye for the virus, being identified as those most vulnerable. Not only that, but the state closed down all of our restaurants. So what were we to do?”
Schmitt acknowledged it’s great having a spouse who “still remembers how to cook.” He added: “And so, lonely as we may have been, we happily put on a few pounds.” But he noted, “Asking grandchildren how to keep busy was not helpful, as they advised us to get online and go to Tik Tok, which truly convinced us we were totally out of touch.”
Schmitt sent me that email shortly before heading out to join his pals at the Dockside Seafood Restaurant and Grill in Branford for their second lunch since outdoor dining resumed. Their first meeting of the revived season two weeks earlier had been at Doody’s Totoket Inn in North Branford.
“The only problem is that being outside and social distanced, there’s a lot of ‘What was that?’ and ‘Can you speak up?’” Schmitt noted.
He encouraged me to mingle with the ROMEO members for the lunch they held last Thursday, again at Doody’s. He said they have in common “a real need to have a nice meal and social interaction with people who might be somewhat interested in what we have to say when we are close enough to hear them.”
Before I went to Doody’s I checked out the website https://romeoclub.com and learned there are ROMEO clubs all over the United States and the world. They have been around for several decades.
“There are no rules in ROMEOs,” Schmitt informed me when I sat down next to him. There were 11 club members seated at a big table under a tent.
When asked if their group, composed mostly of people from Branford, has a president, Schmitt said patiently: “We have no president because we have no rules. There are no dues, either.”
Is there an age requirement? No. At last Thursday’s lunch the youngest member was Joe Fazzino, 73. The oldest was Henry Castellon, 90, one of the originals when they got started about 10 years ago.
Must you be retired to join? “You should be,” Schmitt said. “But partially retired is fine.”
When I broached the subject of women becoming members of ROMEO, Schmitt said no female has ever asked to join. “There would be nothing against it because we have no rules. I’d be open to it.”
But when I posed the same question at the other end of the table, Castellon said, “I don’t know if that would work.”
Joe Farricielli, another original member, said: “It’s good to be with guys. We’re ‘retired old men,’ so women wouldn’t fit the name.”
He and Castellon noted this branch of the ROMEO club got started at the suggestion of wives of the early members. The women were getting together regularly for food or wine and they thought the guys should do the same.
Asked why he enjoys the club lunches, Farricielli said, “You don’t have to come; we don’t have any rules. We’re not trying to save people from being blind or deaf. We come to have food and fun with friends.”
“It’s company,” Castellon said. “It’s a place to go every Thursday. You talk to different guys.”
They noted the club members come from diverse professional backgrounds. Castellon was the third generation of his family’s Castellon Bakery in Branford, which got started in 1924. Schmitt was a chemist for Unilever. Frank Kuszpa was an engineer. David Colley was a doctor aboard a U.S. Navy submarine.
I noticed nobody was wearing a mask and asked Schmitt about this. “We wear them until we’re seated. No one in the club has had COVID; they’ve been very good about quarantining themselves. We’re all pretty confident that if anyone had an illness, they would tell us and wouldn’t be here.”
But because of the virus, the club has cut back to meeting once every two weeks instead of every week. And now they always dine outdoors.
“This COVID thing has been wicked on people,” Schmitt said. “They have no place to go. It has screwed up all the social relationships.”
Jim Piergrossi called out to me that during the lockdown “We were bored out of our minds!”
When I noted this forced isolation has made the ROMEO club more important than ever before, the guys seated around me nodded.
Schmitt said the club is intended “to regain some social activity in our lives. A lot of people lose that when they retire, when there’s no office to go to. After I retired I had very little social activity going on. You work hard and then boom! You’re yesterday’s news.”
Schmitt, now 83, said he had told himself that when he retired, “I’ll keep up with the guys at work.” He added: “Well, guess what? They’re all busy. My wife had told me, ‘They’re not really your friends; wait ’til you retire. You’ll see.’ She was so right.”
Schmitt said sometimes he gets emails or letters from female relatives of recently-retired men, asking if he knows of a ROMEO club near where they live. “They tell me: ‘He’s lost.’”
I asked Schmitt if he agrees that women are much better at developing long-lasting social relationships than are men. “Absolutely! Women are social animals from birth.”
Schmitt noted isolation has serious effects on people. He has spoken with a psychology professor in Texas who is running a program to help homebound seniors overcome depression. “She has found that loneliness and dementia are related.”
During the lunch I was told that although the members might not like to admit it, many of them joined the ROMEO club because their wives insisted on it.
Kuszpa recalled: “My wife said; ‘You’re not going to sit around the house all day, are you?’”
Schmitt added: “I’m not going to alphabetize the spice shelf. That won’t work. I’ll get in trouble.”
The jokes kept flying around the long table as the meal continued. Colley, drawing upon his experience working on a submarine, said: “How can you breathe underwater? It helps to keep your mouth shut.”
One of the other guys nearby added: “There are other times to keep your mouth shut, too!”
Schmitt told me, “We talk about all kinds of things. But when politics came up recently, we had to tone it down. We frown on that. Somebody’s going to get their feelings hurt.”