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Contemporary Italian American Writing

"Shades of Band WhitIVING WITH THE DEAD, a"Shades of White"
"Shades of Black and White"
Selected episodes from LIVING WITH THE DEAD, a memoir by Fred L. Gardaphe © 2002

Fred Gardaphe is Distinguished Professor of English and Italian American Studies at Queens College, CUNY. For 10 years he directed the American Studies and Italian American Studies Programs at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is Associate Editor of Fra Noi, an Italian American monthly newspaper, editor of the Series in Italian American Studies at State University of New York Press, and co-founding-co-editor of Voices in Italian Americana, a literary journal and cultural review. He is past president of MELUS (2003-2006) and the American Italian Historical Association (1996-2000), His edited books include: New Chicago Stories, Italian American Ways, and From the Margin: Writings in Italian Americana. He has written two one-act plays: "Vinegar and Oil," produced by the Italian/ American Theatre Company in 1987, and "Imported from Italy," produced by Zebra Crossing Theater in 1991. His study, Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative, is based on his dissertation which one the Fondazione Giovanni Agnelli/ Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs award for 1993 dissertations) and was published by Duke University Press in 1996; it was named an Outstanding Academic Book for 1996 by Choice. He has also published Dagoes Read: Tradition and the Italian/American Writer and Moustache Pete is Dead!: Italian/American Oral Tradition Preserved in Print, Leaving Little Italy: Essaying Italian American Studies, and From Wiseguys to Wise Men: Masculinities and the Italian American Gangster. Importato dall’italia ed altri racconti dalla vecchia quartiere, an Italian translation of a collection o f short fiction will be published by L’idea Press this fall. His most recent book is The Art of Reading Italian Americana. He is at work on a book concerning irony and humor in Italian American
culture and on a memoir entitled “Living with the Dead" from which
the following story comes:

The first time I saw a Black man he was fighting a white man. It was 1954, and Ezzard Charles was challenging Rocky Marciano for the heavyweight boxing title. I peeked through the spaces between the men who crowded around the television set that had been taken out of our living room and placed on the stage of our kitchen table. I thought Charles was painted black, a uniform of sorts, like two opposing teams wear different colored jerseys. He was in white trunks and the Rock was in black. It’s a hazy memory visually, but I can vividly recall the cheering of the men who waved Schiltz and Blatz beer bottles in the air.


"Kill that nigger. C’mon Rock, you can do it!"


"Jam that Mulanjohn."


"Tag that titzoon."


They called Charles names I assumed were given to the enemy. When the Rock had successfully defended his title with a knock-out in the eighth round, the men sat back and continued their drinking and talking.


"That’s what we shoulda done to them junglebunnies. Knock ‘em out of
our neighborhood, instead of turning yellow and movin’ out."


"You see the way Rocky held his ground. He didn’t take but a few steps
back the whole fight. If we’d a done that, we’d still be in the city."


"Yeah, but we woulda needed a whole army of Rockies."


"Better we move here. At least we can control who moves into this town."


"Yeah, that’s what we thought in the old neighborhood. I’m tellin’ ya, a
nigger moves anywhere near this town and I’m gonna burn him out myself."


Sounds like these taught me from the age of two, that it was good to be
white and bad to be black.


*******


Though no blacks moved into Melrose Park, many lived in Maywood, the
town across the railroad tracks. Few would venture across the railroad tracks to even to buy liquor at the drug store. Maywood was a dry town back then, and my grandfather’s pawn shop, the only pawnshop outside the city, was right across the street from the drug store. My grandfather owned the corner property, adjacent to the tracks; his property included a tavern, a doctor’s office, his store, a barber shop, and a radio/t. v. store. We lived in a two bedroom apartment upstairs. Next door to his shop was Leo Pernice’s barbershop, and that’s where I met Tabor, the only black I ever knew who was welcomed across the tracks; Tabor was his last name, and I never learned his first. An old shoeshine man, he had a voice like Louis Armstrong, and smoked a stubby cigar in a plastic holder. While he was waiting for customers he’d come outside to watch me bounce a rubber ball against the wall. He said he used to play in the professional leagues, but I didn’t believe him. He did teach me some trick throws and how to catch a ground ball with my feet and have it roll up my leg and into my mitt.


None of the men ever talked much to Tabor; I guess that’s why he paid attention to me. When business was slow, we’d both walk outside; I’d bounce that ball and he’d tell stories. He came up with some big ones like how Italians used to not be welcome in the Major Leagues. That was before Dimaggio, but he said he knew an Italian named Jose Desiderato who was the legendary Satchel Paige’s roommate. Thirty years later I learned that Tabor had been inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame for his achievements in the Negro League. It was too late to congratulate him as he was had been dead for a long time.


I liked Tabor, but never took him seriously since none of Leo’s customers ever did. The men told me to ignore him. But I couldn’t. They told me that he, like all blacks, smelled bad, but no matter how close I got, I couldn’t smell much beyond his cigar and the polish on his shoes and hands. At least his cigars were sweeter smelling than the nostril choking dago ropes my grandfather’s friends smoked.

One day Tabor and I were playing catch and he dropped the ball. Since he had never done that, I turned to see what had made him take his eye off my throw. Walking across the tracks was a black man with both hands in the pockets of a beat-up overcoat. Tabor said one word, "Trouble," then walked back into the barbershop without another word. People walking out of the bank across the street stopped and pointed; people waiting at the train station all turned their heads in his direction, and all I could do was stand there and watch him walk into my grandfather’s store. Everyone in the store turned to watch the man enter. He walked, head bent down, up to the glass window behind which my grandfather conducted his transactions.
"I, I wants to pawn something, mister," he said, taking his hands out of the pockets of his jacket, a gesture that made the people in the store lean back.


"What do you got?" my grandfather demanded.


The man emptied his pockets on the counter. His thick fingers separated the pieces of jewelry into two piles; one of watches and bracelets, another with men’s rings and an old railroad watch. My grandfather reached under the window and pulled the jewelry toward him.


"Where did ya get these?" he asked popping an eyecup into his left eye.


"Mister, they comes from me and my wife. We a little short this month," and sweat beaded up like raindrops on his forehead.


After carefully examining each piece, my grandfather looked up, the loop still in his eye, as if he were trying to see through this man’s skin, and said, "You gonna come back for these?"


"Mister my wife’s kill me if I sold these. These got family meaning to us. I
jus’ wants a little money on them ‘nil I gets my nex’ pay. You see I don’t like to do this, but I ain’t got no other way to make it to Friday."


Once the transaction was completed the man thanked my grandfather three or for times and turned to walk around. By now the people had formed a cloud of white faces staring at him. The black man took a deep breath and smiled. The glint of a gold tooth seemed to part that cloud, and he walked out with his head held high.


As soon as he left the shop, one of my grandfather’s friends yelled back to him. "What are you crazy or something? Why didn’t you just throw him out of here? He probably stole those. Now there’ll be more right behind him, you can bet on that."


Whenever I worked with my grandfather, he’d send me to get lunch. Usually it was sandwiches my grandmother would make in her upstairs kitchen. But whenever she wasn’t around, he’d send me to the tavern. I loved going there cause I’d get to play shuffle bowl while I waited for our order. By noon the bar was pretty crowded and usually someone was already tanked enough to tell a story. Old man Tony Pieri, a retired construction worker was close to 90, but you’d never guess he was more than 70 years old, once told a great one about a riot his father had caused back in 1871, when Tony was a kid. Even though I don’t know if it was true or not, it kept me wary of Irishmen for a long time.


His father, Anthony Pieri had shot two Irishmen who were looting his saloon back in 1871. He was arrested and held without bond. An angry mob formed outside the police station and demanded that Pieri be turned over to them. When they didn’t get what they wanted, the mob headed down the street to the Pieri saloon and began destroying everything in sight. Tables and chairs flew through plate glass windows. Kegs of wine and beer were flung out and crashed in the street, turning the gutters into purple and yellow rivers. When they ran out of things to destroy, they marched into the streets, smashing pumpkins on the fruit peddlers cart, turning over wagons, and tossing their contents through the windows of a barbershop and restaurant, and anything else painted with an Italian word. The riot wasn’t quelled until the evening, and by then it had touched nearly every Italian in the "Little Hell" district, now known as Cabrini Green. The Italians who had moved to Melrose from the city never had anything good to say about the Irish, and that’s why we never wore green on St. Patrick’s day.


*******


Even before my freshman year of high school, I had been warned that Fenwick was a tough place for Italian Americans. Rumor had it that the priests and brothers who ran the place had it in for Italian Americans. I was never told why. I was just warned to watch my step. No problem I thought, with a name like Gardaphe, they’d think I was French. But on the first day of school I was found out.

All two-hundred of the incoming 1966 class were in the gymnasium. From where I was up in the bleachers, I thought we all looked the same: all short haired, in the same black blazers with the school’s crest emblazoned in white on our chests. I sat with the five students who had been accepted that year from Melrose Park. That our skin was darker than the other 195 was a difference noticeable only from the gym floor over which paced a grey-haired athletic director who could have been a Marine corps drill sergeant. To him we must have looked like olives on an apple tree. As he barked out the many rules and behavioral expectations, his eyes scanned the crowd, right, then left, then right at our group at which he pointed a finger as he yelled out, "You! Get down here now! You pay a price when you don’t pay attention to me." The five of us looked at each other and then to him. We didn’t do anything. In that moment of wonder, the old man headed up the bleachers parting the crowd of blazers beneath us. He grabbed two of my friends and shoved them down to the gym floor. He made them kneel on their hands throughout the entire orientation.


Later that day at lunch, a junior came to our table and filled us in. "You guys better watch out. You got understand that this is an Irish school. You heard the fight song, didn’t ya. They ripped it off from Notre Dame. Check out the names of most of the guys in your classes, even the teachers and priests. You won’t find any Italians. You ain’t the first from Melrose to come here. There’s a reputation. You know, they think we’re all mafia. Every year old man Lawless singles out one kid to make an example to all the rest. And since I been here that one’s always been Italian. It’s a ritual, like sacrificing a virgin to please the gods or something. Stay away from guys like him and you’ll be all right."


*******


Father George O’Connor sits on the raised wooden platform in front of the classroom. His head is covered with a thick, stubble crewcut and his face is twisted into a silly grin. He sniffs the ballots that had just been handed to him by a student runner from the main office. Opposite him are twenty-six sophomores in uniforms that suffer from stretchmarks; they must last two years, but for most have stopped fitting after the first.


George is senile, so they made him study hall monitor, and he’s becomeevery Italian student’s nightmare. When he was first ordained some fifty years ago, he was assigned to the Church right on the dividing line of the Italian and Irish neighborhoods. The church was a site of many Italian and Irish gang battles. While it’s been years since he’s seen an Irish and Italian fight, his mind replays images of Sullivan knocking out Marciano.


When he reads the names of the candidates for Sophomore class president, he melodioulsy bellows out Hanrahan, McCracken, and O’Rourke, but he stops before the last name. He whacks his forehead with an open palm, looks over the ledge of his glasses, and from deep in his gut, comes a no, No, NO, NOOOOOOO. He shakes his head, and his body jiggles the black beaded rosary that slaps up against his white monk’s habit.


"Wha what, ka, kind of name is this? Gar daffy!"


I stand up and say, "That’s me; it’s Gardaphe, Father."


"And where does a Gar daffy come from?"


"Melrose Park," I say softly.


He cups his hand to his ear, leans forward, and says, "Speak up young man. I can’t hear you."


A kid in the front row blasts out, "He comes from Melrose, Father, you
know Mafia town; he’s eye-talin."


Father O’Connor squints his eyes and shakes his head. "Sit down you. Who do you think you are running for class president. Could be your grandfather was Al Capone. Whoever votes for you is a fool. Why the lunchroom would be filled with spaghetti, the hallways with the F. B. I. No, no, noone is going to vote for you today," and he takes out a scissors and cuts my name off all the ballots in one snip.


*******


When a young black student entered the freshman class the following year, we were taunted by some of the Irish guys who kept telling us that one of our relatives was there. He was too small for sports, and so his only chance at making friends came from hanging with those who would go near him, and for the most part those who would were us Italians. 1970 was known as the year of the last, all-white graduating class, but I had learned long before that there were different shades of white, and it would take someone one with a darker skin color for people to see us as white.

Excerpts from: LIVING WITH THE DEAD Copyright (C) 2002 by Fred Gardaphe. All rights, including electronic, are reserved by the author.

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