Bordighera Poetry Prize
WITH THE DEAD, a"Shades
"Shades of Black and White"
Selected episodes from LIVING WITH THE DEAD, a memoir by Fred
L. Gardaphe © 2002
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
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"
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. Its 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. Cmon 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
"Thats 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 didnt take
but a few steps
back the whole fight. If wed a done that, wed 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
"Yeah, thats what we thought in the old neighborhood.
Im tellin ya, a
nigger moves anywhere near this town and Im gonna burn him
Sounds like these taught me from the age of two, that it was good
white and bad to be black.
Though no blacks moved into Melrose Park, many lived in Maywood,
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 grandfathers 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 doctors
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 Pernices barbershop, and thats 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 hed come outside to watch me bounce a rubber
ball against the wall. He said he used to play in the professional
leagues, but I didnt 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 thats
why he paid attention to me. When business was slow, wed
both walk outside; Id bounce that ball and hed 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 Paiges roommate. Thirty years later I
learned that Tabor had been inducted into Baseballs 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 Leos
customers ever did. The men told me to ignore him. But I couldnt.
They told me that he, like all blacks, smelled bad, but no matter
how close I got, I couldnt 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 grandfathers
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
grandfathers 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 mens 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 mans skin, and said, "You gonna come back for
"Mister my wifes 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 dont like to do this, but I aint 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 grandfathers friends
yelled back to him. "What are you crazy or something? Why
didnt you just throw him out of here? He probably stole
those. Now therell be more right behind him, you can bet
Whenever I worked with my grandfather, hed send me to get
lunch. Usually it was sandwiches my grandmother would make in
her upstairs kitchen. But whenever she wasnt around, hed
send me to the tavern. I loved going there cause Id 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 youd 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 dont
know if it was true or not, it kept me wary of Irishmen for a
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 didnt 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 wasnt 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 thats why we never wore green
on St. Patricks 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,
theyd 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 schools 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 dont pay attention to me." The five of us
looked at each other and then to him. We didnt 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, didnt
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 wont find any Italians. You aint the first from
Melrose to come here. Theres a reputation. You know, they
think were 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 ones always been Italian. Its a ritual,
like sacrificing a virgin to please the gods or something. Stay
away from guys like him and youll be all right."
Father George OConnor 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 hes
becomeevery Italian students 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
its been years since hes 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
ORourke, 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 monks habit.
"Wha what, ka, kind of name is this? Gar daffy!"
I stand up and say, "Thats me; its Gardaphe,
"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 cant hear you."
A kid in the front row blasts out, "He comes from Melrose,
know Mafia town; hes eye-talin."
Father OConnor 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.
from: LIVING WITH THE DEAD Copyright (C) 2002 by Fred Gardaphe.
All rights, including electronic, are reserved by the author.