In a tight corner, only a few inches from most everything around him, with a pair of hairy knees butted up against a glass counter, sits what would seem like a simple shopkeeper.
This man, examining a classic baseball card, is kept company by a host of metal animals, decorated cows, and just about anyone who walks into his store called Seven-Mile Sun.
Or, maybe it is the opposite. Perhaps he keeps his products and customers company.
He greets his visitors in a thick Bostonian accent with the standard, “How are you doing today?”
More often than not, the friendly question is appropriately answered with the usual, “Fine. How are you?”
This man, in his small store, stuck in the corner, behind a counter smiles genuinely at the browsing customer and says, “Oh, me? Don’t worry, I’m always good.”
“Pushcart” Paul Gattenella has reason to “always be good.” His life, a string of overcoming adversity, is the story of how far a curious person with a magnetic personality can come.
“My life is not one of rags to riches,” says Paul. “It’s a lot more like rags to towels.”
Born poor in 1970 in Lawrence, Mass., Paul was raised under the less than guiding light of two older brothers and was supported by a mother who loved, worked, and sacrificed ceaselessly.
“The world that I grew up in was far worse than what you see on TV,” Paul says. “It’s a place that most people wouldn’t believe existed in the U.S. and those that do know of it, don’t acknowledge it.”
Growing up in some of the nation’s roughest government housing, Massachusetts’ Hancock projects, within a town that is known as the stolen car capitol of the nation and is famous for a riot that escalated into a “state of emergency,” the first few decades of Paul’s life were battles with a harsh reality.
“I grew up in a time and place that was very centered on being macho,” Paul says. “A picture of the guys in my neighborhood at the time would be like…well, a Guido. The guys dressed like stereotypical Italians, silk shirts and gold chains, they were Guidos. Hey, that’s even what we called ourselves.”
The influences surrounding Paul growing up were mostly a group of roughneck Italians: the result of the Lawrence, Mass. immigrant housing past. The men who showed Paul the way of their world (that only the strong and street-smart will survive) were two of the most notorious and tough guys in the area.
Most of Paul’s childhood memories of his two older brothers, both eight or nine-years older, were of waking up in the middle of the night to the noise of a fight or a call from jail. The two older brothers, Stephen and Jon Jon, were a feared duo among the neighborhood population, and their eye-for-an-eye attitude would eventually surface in Paul’s own life.
Such was the way of the world in the Hancock projects. Most of the neighborhood stayed quiet about crime, as it was often the only way to get what could not otherwise be afforded.
Paul’s family was certainly no exception to this trend. His father, who left after a divorce, was the local bookie and had his hands into a number of scams at any point in time. Such a position had its perks for Paul, allowing him opportunities to see his first loves, baseball and the Red Sox. When not at the games, Paul could watch a number of televised games on a stolen television (courtesy of Stephen and Jon Jon) via a cable connection (courtesy of Paul’s cousins splicing off illegal cable to their entire neighborhood).
“Stealing for the greater good was an okay thing to do in my neighborhood; at least that’s what we were thinking as kids, it was like being Robin Hood,” Paul said. “Plus, everybody stays shut-up when they get something too.”
Keeping with this modus operandi, Paul and his “merry men” were able to save Christmas one year after his mother couldn’t afford to get a tree after bailing Stephen and Jon Jon out of jail upon their getting arrested for robbery.
Seeking to save what little bit of Christmas tradition his family was able to afford, (the usual holiday consisted of working to take advantage of the overtime pay) Paul stole a Christmas tree from a local tree lot and ran home to show his mother. He returned only to find that his older brothers had beaten him to the punch; they too had stolen a tree from the same lot.
Perhaps understanding that her sons were only looking to help or coping with their economic hardships, Paul’s mother accepted the Christmas trees with love, just as she would accept years of trouble and hell raising.
“My mother seemed only to see the good in us boys,” Paul says, “She excluded everything else.”
Raising and supporting her family, Paul’s single mother, like so many other women in the area, was forced to work at least two jobs at all times. Often, she had to work a third to make up for bail payments from Paul’s older brothers.
“My mother worked too much, eventually, I just felt too bad, I had given her so much trouble and grief, it was time for me to move out,” says Paul.
Paul moved out of his mother’s house on his own at age 15.
Up until the point of leaving home, however, Paul had been basically given free reign over what he decided to do with his life. He worked as soon as he was old enough to and he placed almost no emphasis on his education.
“Where I grew up there was no real concern about getting a good education. Success, if you could find any, was achieved through learning a trade,” Paul says. “I figured, I knew basic math, I could talk like all of my friends and their parents; I was set. Besides, I could beat-up anyone who thought differently.”
Paul would be passed from grade to grade, but when it came to graduation, his school would not give him a diploma; they simply passed him through school to get him out of their hair. He, the delinquent, but well-liked class clown, was cast from the school system, nearly illiterate, with no credit, nowhere to go, and no motivation to return.
“I wasn’t that smart, I had no desire to go back to school, it had never meant anything to me anyway,” Paul says. “I really was just like my brothers before me, a Guido. I figured, ‘hey, I’m tough and damn good-looking who needs school’; I just wanted to get laid.”
Paul spent the next few years of his life working odd jobs in and around Lawrence.
“Don’t even ask how many jobs I’ve had, there are hundreds; I took anything I could get,” Paul says.
The tedium of working menial labor jobs and returning home to the boarded windows and barred doors of the dilapidated projects and crime-riddled streets of Lawrence eventually wore on Paul. He began to notice his life was not going anywhere and, accompanied by his life-long right-hand man and friend, Adam Saab, Paul would seek an exit out of Lawrence.
“I was a lucky person, I was one of the few that actually noticed that nothing was happening to my life and that I could do something about it,” Paul says. “I had to get out of the rut that everyone, including myself was in.”
Paul, like his mother and like so many Americans before him, looked for a new start in the West.
“We originally wanted to go to California, but ended up in Colorado,” says Paul. “I thought it was beautiful here and it is also where my mother lived with my step-dad.”
His wife, whom he met after arriving in Colorado, can cite the real reason for Paul wishing to stay.
“He’s actually a closet mama’s boy,” chides Marie, Paul’s wife and a mother-to-be.
One way or another, Paul came to Colorado and decided to make it his new place of rest (or rabble-rousing). As always, he would struggle early on finding odd-end jobs, including driving a street-sweeper at the Air Force Academy. His work in Colorado Springs would lead him to take up residence there and, in turn, lead him to discover who would become the love of his life.
“When I first got to Colorado, before I met Marie, I was still the same as I was when I was a kid, ‘Bad Paul’; rebellious, macho, and (of course) still good-looking,” Paul says smiling. “Eventually, though she had to deal with ‘Bad Paul’ for a year, Marie was able to calm me down.”
First meeting in Colorado Springs, Paul and Marie would eventually become inseparable. Marie, a CSU student studying social work and psychology when she first met Paul, would eventually lure him to Fort Collins. Once reaching the Fort, Paul would get his first job at a bike shop, and his first positive business influence in Dave Hudson, the owner of Recycled Cycles.
For the first time, there was real potential for stability and success in Paul’s future.
“Dave is a guru, he taught me all that I know about business and he got me interested in seriously cycling,” says Paul who would take his new hobby to the semi-pro level and eventually become a nationally known bike technician.
In the years following, Paul would once again follow Marie to yet another school as she began work on her master’s at the traveling Ivy League school, Smith College.
“We traveled three times a year; each time I had to get a new job.” Paul says, “everywhere we went, I worked in a bike shop; that was my trade since I still didn’t have education to rely on.”
During the years traveling with Marie, Paul became interested in book learning for the first
time in his life. He began studying in hopes of achieving his GED.
“Taking that test was one of the hardest things I have ever done, not so much because of the test itself, but because of how I was treated,” Paul says. “It was at a college, in my mid-twenties with a bunch of younger people who were looking to get into college, but I just wanted to pass the test. I almost couldn’t do it; everyone treated me like shit.”
At age 27, he finally did it; he had an education.
In the years that followed, Paul continued to find interest in educating himself. The man who, 10 years earlier was more concerned with machismo and baseball than mathematics or books had completed his GED and his first book. The source of his new found interest? That, Paul credits to his wife.
“Marie was not just a companion, she was my psychotherapist; she helped me turn my life into what it has become,” says Paul who was actually a featured study in his wife’s Master’s thesis.
Upon the completion of his wife’s studies, Paul and Marie returned to Fort Collins where Marie has taken up work with Larimer Mental Health and where Paul would become burned out on the bike industry and seek new employment.
“I wanted to do my own thing, be my own boss,” Paul says. “I just wanted to make enough money to cover myself.”
Starting out small, Paul opened up his new business selling Southwestern jewelry out of a pushcart.
“I knew nothing about running a business, everyday was something new,” Paul says. “Before I was even open on my first day, someone wanted to buy something, but I had no idea how to even write out receipts for my stuff.”
Paul would eventually move his “Pushcart” indoors to occupy all 98 square feet of Colorado’s smallest store, (now Seven-Mile Sun owned by Paul’s good friend Steve Pattee) located next to Zydeco’s bar in Old Town, and then move again to a space next to Ben and Jerry’s.
Though still not an ideal businessperson and certainly not a run-of-the-mill shopkeeper, Paul can be seen nowadays crammed happily behind the counter in his store smiling or staring into space (almost certainly imagining the Red Sox playing the Angels in the MLB Playoffs) or sitting in the shade outside his store talking to any number of familiar faces who slowly filter from across the city to happen across Pushcart Paul.
But just seeing Paul is never quite enough to get a true feel for this outspoken, young-at-heart Italian. Step into his store and, sure there will be the usual greeting, but what follows will be remarkable in its infinite wisdom or its depth. It is Paul’s ability to radiate genuine happiness and appreciation for everything about daily life.
The curious mystery and perhaps also the valuable lesson behind Paul’s lifelong adventure thus far is, perhaps, not simply the power of one person’s determination to seek happiness for himself and those around him, but maybe it also has to do with the blending of life’s ingredients.
It may not have simply been Paul’s determination to seek a better life that has led him to where he is today, but rather a mix of the street smart “just give it a shot” attitude with the rational, “weigh the consequences” mindset that he (and we all) would learn slowly along the path of life.
“A lot of things have changed in me since I have left Lawrence, and I get tears in my eyes when I go back and see how people are still living,” reminisces Paul. “But, I have learned so much since coming to Colorado. I consider myself extremely lucky to be where I am today. It has taken a long time for me to shake off ‘Bad Paul’ and he is definitely not all the way gone. Sure, I’ve learned my lesson with being rebellious and a trouble-maker, but I am definitely still damn good looking.”