My Cousin Pip


Weekdays my father would rise early to wait on the street corner for the trolley car that trundled him to the ferry boat that brought him to Camden, New Jersey. Crossing the wide river lifted his spirits: the expanse of water, the tugboats maneuvering the big barges, the ships anchored in mid-river. He washed windows for the RCA Victor Company, in one of those vast buildings that was mostly windows.  He could see a patch of river from one side of the building. Continue reading


Carlo is Confirmed, Twice

CP Confirmation

My friends received their first holy confirmation before they were ten years old. I was fourteen. I vaguely remember when my older brother Frank, aged nine, brought the catechism home to study. I could read the words but it baffled me. I refused to be confirmed. Recently I borrowed a copy of the catechism from the public library, a fat book which must be the unabridged version of the booklet I saw as a boy.

Recall that you have received the spiritual seal, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding and courage and the spirit of right judgement and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence, the Spirit of holy fear in God’s presence. Guard what you have received.”

That’s a heavy load to lay upon a child. The sentence is full of abstract nouns – spirit, wisdom, understanding, courage, knowledge, reverence. And elsewhere there’s that menace: fear God, mortal sin, the devil, damnation. Yes, there is salvation. Through the gift of grace. Grace?

My father was an illiterate, anticlerical, naive anarchist. “Dominus Vobiscum! Mobuto! Massachusetts!” He’d say the words aloud. He loved the sound of mouth-filling vowels. He’d play his few scratchy LPs over and over: Verdi and Rossini overtures, a few arias, the marching band of the Italian Carabinieri. When congregants from St Thomas’s came to the house requesting donations, he’d tell them “Go to the Pope, he got plenty.” My mother always tried to head him off from the door.

Although devout, my mother stopped going to church, for good I thought, after she fainted in crowded Saint Thomas’s church during a long sermon one hot Sunday. Afterwards, unobtrusively, she occasionally attended Mass in the small, detached chapel of Saint Elizabeth’s, the the large, nearly defunct Episcopal Church that had been marooned by the influx of Catholic residents. It was quiet and sparsely attended. I remained adamantly unconfirmed. My mother was chastised for it, gently by Aunt Jennie and Pip, blatantly by that trouble-maker, Z’a Pina Graci.

My mother never grumbled about my state of sin, but to lighten her burden, I relented. I joined a group of nine year-olds, public school kids all, that met to study the catechism in a classroom at Saint Thomas’s elementary school. Sister Bridget, a young nun from Ireland was our teacher:  I liked to hear her speak – the beginning of my fascination with things foreign. Sister Bridget never reproved my ill-concealed disdain of the simple minded question-and-answer book:

Q.: Who made the world? A.: God made the world.”

She mollified me with adult asides. The class was ready to be confirmed in five or six weeks. I playfully, perversely, chose Aloysius as my confirmation name.

He was a wonderful Saint!” said Sister Bridget.

I had to choose a sponsor. To punish Z’a Pina, I chose her husband whom I hardly knew: I would never be an ornament to St. Thomas’s, nor to Catholicism. Z’u Gaspare became my padrino, my “little father’; in Sicilian he was my “parinu”; in direct address, “Pari”, accent on the i.)

The officiating priest that confirmation Sunday was, I thought, condescending. Of course I was prepared to dislike him. It was my first and last holy communion. I seldom entered a church again, except for christenings, weddings and funerals. Until I went to Italy.

In Rome I grew fond of churches, visiting scores of them. My favorites changed as I discovered new ones. If I were near the Piazza del Popolo, I’d slip into Santa Maria to see the Caravaggios. On the Corso I seldom passed up Gesu. Santa Sabina was wonderful. Saint Peter’s, across the river, left me cold although I dutifully took visiting relatives and friends to see it. I took my father! “Dominus Vobiscum!” Santa Maria Maggiore was my favorite of the four great cathedrals. I’ll never forget Christmas midnight Mass there. I went with Diana Beames, an Australian friend who taught English at the British Council school in Via Babuino.

We stood behind temporary wooden barriers that defined a wide central aisle from front to back – the big churches have no fixed pews. Hundreds of candles burnished the magnificent mosaics on the walls, on the great triumphal arch, in the apse. The coffered ceiling was gilt with gold brought from the New World. We heard chanting. The front doors opened and a current of cold air invaded the church. Then the procession.

First came the gorgeously dressed bishops – maybe a cardinal or two – six or eight abreast, followed by dozens and dozens of priests, then ranks of plainly robed monks, and finally, who knows how many altar boys carrying tall candelabras; a gaudy phalanx come to celebrate a babe in a manger. The costumes, the heaving, murmuring audience, the flash bulbs, the chanting, the galaxy of candles, the glowing mosaics, the incensing urn swinging across the width of the apse, represented an overwhelming spectacle. Diana and I pushed our way through the crowd and we slipped out into the cold night before the Mass began. We lost our way briefly in the crooked little streets surrounding the church, a frequent occurrence in old Rome. We broke out serendipitously, like an unexpected gift.

Margie Crispin Ridge was unbaptized and unconfirmed. (Were we made for each other?) Margie’s mother, who was born into Methodism, had been alienated by its strictures. On Sundays, as a child, she hadn’t been allowed even to play with her doll. Helen Headley married Roy Ridge in 1930. Margie was their only child. She had remained unbaptized because her mother could never find a church that pleased her.

They bought a little farm house in Chester County and they joined Saint Andrew’s, a small Episcopal country church. It was built in the 1830s, a pleasingly austere building made of native stone with whitewashed walls. It was eminently suitable for a baptism, but Margie, by then a teenager, had no desire to be baptized. Her father was buried in St. Andrew’s churchyard in 1956, in a four person plot, with places for Helen Headley Ridge, for Margie and for Margie’s future husband.

Reverend Ken Werner, the pastor of Saint Andrew’s, was pleased when Margie asked him to marry us. He didn’t bat an eyelash when she told him that she was unbaptized and that I was a lapsed Catholic. The Reverend said his duty was to accept, not to reject. He baptized Margie three weeks before the wedding, with me standing as her godfather. In time our children were baptized in Saint Andrew’s too, so that Margie’s mother, after all, got to attend a baptism in a pretty church, twice.

We were married on a bright, cold, December afternoon in 1960. The snow storm of the decade arrived the next day. It swept up from the south, stranding several of our guests who had dallied in Ludwig’s Corner after the ceremony. Margie and I avoided the snow by immediately driving north; an overnight stay in Greenwich, Connecticut, thence to Vermont where Annie Steinert had kindly offered us the family’s chalet in Peterborough.

We arrived in the late afternoon dusk. It was ominously dark. No snow yet. I flicked the light switch to reveal handsome furniture, stenciled wallpaper and a large fireplace with stacked kindling on the grate. A large sheepskin rug graced the hearth. The room was cold. Margie stroked the thermostat and the furnace came to life.

She opened the fridge: a bottle of champagne and two kinds of pate. A can of Dinty Moore’s beef stew and a box of crackers sat on the counter top next to the fridge.

We went to bed early. It was pitch dark, eerily quiet. We were not afraid.

The earth moved. Ripples of aftershock.

The day broke, stilly.

Margie, come.” Hand in hand, naked, we gazed upon the immaculate world we had created in the night: Eden regained. Communion, Confirmation, Grace. Joy!

Into the Melting Pot


Margie,” I said, looking up from the letter I was writing. “Occasionally, I can’t decide, momentarily, which of two common prepositions is correct. It’s the same unease felt by those foreign students who study English as a second language.”

You learned English as a second language.”

Don’t be silly, I was born and raised in Philadelphia.”

Did your mother and father speak English?”

She was right. Of course, my brothers and my cousins spoke English to me, but in those first, intimate, life-shaping exchanges between parent and child, my mother spoke Italian. Later, on the street, we kids spoke an English laced with Italian words “cornuto, culo, accita (a corruption of accidita): acidity, how we described a sour stomach. Maroan (a corruption of madonna): to express wonder.” It was the same in the Jewish neighborhoods: meshuga, putz, schvartze.

Grade school was the great American melting pot. Give it a good stir and up would rise smooth creamy johnnycake. We sang the Star Spangled Banner in the weekly assembly and we pledged allegiance to the flag. Mrs Katz, the third grade teacher, would read from the Bible: “Who is this King of Glory? The Lord of Hosts.” She would, dramatically, stretch glory to “golorerreey.” For us Catholics it was our first taste of the Bible, maybe the last.

We were Italians, Jews, Russians, Poles, and Irish; the Irish kids were nearly American. The black kids whose neighborhood fringed ours were already Americans, mysterious ones beyond the fringe; fringe Americans. There were three black families on our street. Sammy Barber came to my first birthday party, but never again. I don’t remember why not.

Someday we would all be like Joe “Clicky” Clark, the lone remnant on the block of the old English stock. The large Episcopal church on the corner was virtually deserted. Only a small chapel was still active. We had shouldered them out. Or had they fled?

In 1939, my brothers and I, aged eighteen, ten and nine, pushed our parents toward the melting pot. Like our cousins who were chivying their parents, we urged ours to apply for citizenship. After all, they’d been in this country since 1912. We helped them study the booklet supplied by the immigration authorities: “The United States has a President and a Vice President, a Congress and a Senate. There are forty-eight states…” I wasn’t at the United States Court House the day my parents took the test – it was a school day – but they passed, and they got their certificates. It changed little in their lives; well yes, now they voted, always straight Democratic. My mother was permitted to enter the election booth with my father. She could read and write third grade Italian.

I am moved to tears when I leaf through the dog-eared copy book my mother kept when she worked at the dress factory. In it she logged her weekly output and the money due her, all in fractured, third-grade Italian syntax. Third grade, that’s all her village school had offered. She subscribed to an Italian newspaper, Il Popolo Italiano, later to Il Progresso, portions of which she’d read aloud to my father after dinner. In the early evening we’d listen to the Italian radio hour: news, music (Carlo Buti would sing “La Chitarra Romana”), drama, humor. Then Frank and I were free to listen to the Lone Ranger, to Batman and Robin.

Two ranks of sewing machines, in rows ten or twelve deep, flanked a long center aisle. The Jewish women sat on one side of the aisle, the Italians on the other. The foreman was a Jewish man who spoke Yiddish and pidgin Italian. He patrolled the aisle, dispensing technical advice and earthy banter. This was no sweat shop. My mother was highly skilled and worked only in silk. She made the entire dress herself, unlike the women who worked in the piecework shops – those in which some women made sleeves all day, others skirts, others bodices. It took my mother almost all day to make an elaborate dress and she could make one and a half dresses in a day.

One day we took the trolley car to the Lit Brothers department store in center city, to buy me some clothes, and to have lunch in the store’s coffee shop. I was thirteen, not yet too old to resent being dragged to the store by mother.  After lunch, we walked up Market Street to John Wanamaker’s, Philadelphia’s elite department store.

We made our way to the elegant, hushed, Tribout dress shop on the third floor. We found the section offering the dresses made by her factory. She pulled one from the rack to show me all the detail, all the work that had gone into it. It was a beautiful dress and she was proud of it. It cost $87.00, a lot of money in 1942, but these were the war years and money abounded. My mother was paid about thirteen dollars for each dress she made, and she could make one and a half dresses per day.

In 1942, Aunt Calicchia’s children finally talked her into applying for citizenship. She was Aunt Jennie’s older half-sister, absolutely unreconstructed, not a word of English. She had nine children, six boys and three girls. Her daughters helped her to study – they cajoled, they bullied, to no avail. She could not learn the few sentences that she would need to parrot in the courtroom. The daughters went to the courthouse with heavy hearts; not Calicchia, she had the serenity, the zeal of the evangelical. Surprisingly, she, her husband and one daughter, Tabitha, were evangelical Christians. The sermons in their little church were in Italian and she loved the singing.

I wasn’t in the court room that day but my cousin Pip told me all about it. Calicchia was called and she strode to the bench accompanied by her daughter Tabitha, also known as Tibby. The federal judge, a courtly, kindly man, asked his first question. No answer. The judge re-phrased the question, speaking slowly and clearly. More silence from Calicchia, whose face darkened. The judge asked a second question, even easier than the first. Silence. Calicchia was seething, her eyes flashed. She turned and muttered angrily into Tibby’s ear.

What did she say?” the judge asked Tibby, hopefully.

She said she has three sons in the army,” Tibby answered

That’s the correct answer!” he sang out. “Congratulations, Mrs. Graci, you are a citizen.” Small applause from the audience.

In high school, our student body was about twenty five percent Italian, twenty five percent Jewish and fifty percent everybody else.. It was a boy’s school, about eighteen hundred of us, reshuffled into four curricula: Academic, Mechanical Arts, Commercial and Industrial Arts. We mingled on the various school clubs, on the school newspaper, on the athletic teams, in the cafeteria and in the hangouts across the street from the school. There were rivalries, but we mostly got along. The black kids were virtually invisible.

Inconceivable nowadays but quite common then, there were no black faces on the football, baseball or basketball teams. But the track team was entirely black except for a couple of beefy shot putters, and for Walt Goldy, our star end, who threw the discus. A life sized statue of Abraham Lincoln stood on the second floor landing. Walt used to jump onto the pedestal to measure up to Abe. It was close. Walt was Irish, nearly American, perfectly at ease with Abe Lincoln.

The student body at Temple University, perhaps fifteen thousand strong, was too big to display a distinctive melting pot effect. It was more a lumpy entropy. We sought out our high school friends, which was both good and bad. We were day students which made college seem like the thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth grades of high school. Temple was on North Broad Street, a forty minute subway ride away from our high school on South Broad.

Early in my senior year, I received my 1A draft notice for compulsory military service. Korea loomed. Come graduation, I was a goner. My brother Frank, then serving in Korea, urged me to avoid going into the infantry.

An old high school friend told me about the Pennsylvania Air National Guard which was stationed at the Philadelphia International Airport. It had been called to active duty, reporting to Fairchild Air Force Base, near Spokane, Washington, on March 1951. A lucky break. I joined up in October and so did many of my friends. We were issued ill-fitting, reconditioned World War II khaki uniforms.

Temple University awarded me my mid-term grades as finals. That was fine with me – my grades could only have gone south. The senior classes of the Philadelphia area colleges were diminished. Ivy League college kids enlisted too, alerted by their friends, our officers, nostalgic World War II veterans who lived on Philadelphia’s Mainline. This diverse bunch, a social experiment in the making, perhaps a potential train wreck, moved west to Spokane, Washington, to Fairchild Air Force Base, the military melting pot.

The End, Part One

Haircut, With Passion

Picture a naked eighty-five year old man, standing in the merciless glare of six large light bulbs lined along the top of a bathroom mirror that covers the entire wall behind the sink and the vanity top.  My left hip leans against the edge of the vanity and I look askance into a hand mirror held in my left hand, at the image cast into it by the wall mirror, of the side and back of my head.  I hold a tethered, electric hair-clipper in my right hand.  The clipper’s cutting edge is protected by a little plastic bumper, like the cow catcher on the prow of a 19th century transcontinental steam engine.  I have just successfully trimmed the hair on the back of of my neck and head.  Now, by contorting my right arm and wrist, the cutting edge of the clipper enters terra incognito, a blind spot amenable only to an act of faith.  Get on with it!  Who gives a damn about the hair behind your ear.  Done!  I drop to my knees and with the flat of both hands, I sweep the tile floor, reaping the hair clipper’s pitiable harvest, a shallow handful of hair which I drop into the waste basket.  I rise, turn and step into the shower.

I have just saved twenty-five dollars, which is what they charged in the barbershops I frequented four years ago in South Philadelphia.  I give myself eight haircuts a year:  that’s $200.00 saved, not bad.  Multiplied by four years gives me $800.00, enough for a cruise to Bermuda.  I paid $28.75 for the clippers and it costs pennies to operate.  But this is not why I cut my own hair.  Barbershops have become inhospitable places for someone of my age and disposition.  Even the smallest barber shops may have two televisions.  The one in the front of the shop is locked into Fox News.  The bigger screen in the back of the shop offers non-stop sports games or incessant talk shows about sports.  The clientele, which used to be knee-jerk Democratic, is now mad-dog Republican.  So I do my Kabuki dance of the mirrors.

Mario Tarquinio arrived from Italy to work in Ralph’s barbershop when we were both seventeen years old.  In Italy he had begun at thirteen, sweeping up and running errands.  By fifteen he was cutting hair.  At seventeen he was in Ralph’s shop, cutting my hair every five or six weeks until I was drafted at age twenty-two.  He knew my head better than his own.  By the time I got out of the military, Mario had his own shop and  was married to a girl he brought back from Italy.  He, his wife, his baby son and his mother lived in the apartment above the shop.  Mario loved me, a college guy who accepted him on equal terms. In Italy. some of his customers cut him cold when they passed on the street.  He bristled when he told that story and he told it frequently.  We fed into each other’s half-baked anarchical leanings, nonsense that we discussed half in English, half Italian.  We were utopians, not bomb-throwers.  When other customers entered the shop, Mario would load his old record player with the same four or five scratchy long plays:  collections of arias from Italian operas.  Mario’s favorite was Verdi’s “I Vespri Siciliani” which is about the Sicilian insurrection, in 1228, against their French oppressors.  His favorite scene was when the Sicilian rioters break into the monastery and they drag out the friars who are ordered to pronounce the Italian word, “ciciri”.  French language speakers find it difficult if not impossible to  pronounce that word accurately.  Anyone who failed the test was killed.  Whenever I entered the shop I would greet him, defiantly: “ciciri”.  “Avanti”, he would answer.

Mario was about five feet tall, stocky but not muscular.  He had strong hands and fingers.  His front teeth were short, thin-bladed and separated, like a small child’s.  He spoke rapidly, almost incoherently when excited.  When he made a telling point, in a story or in an argument, he would rise on his toes stretching to his full height, lifting his arms to chest level, like an orchestra conductor’s pianissimo.  He would arch an eyebrow.  Case closed!  We were not close friends even though I had known him for thirty-five years.  We saw each other only during my haircuts.  On those occasions we played the same variations on a few themes:  our families, politics, priests (up went an eyebrow.)  I never met or saw his mother, saw only glimpses of his wife and I never met his son, an only child.  We shared a second language, Italian, and we reveled in its allusions, a shorthand that set us apart, a small victory over the sameness of things.  But nothing stays the same.  South Philadelphia had changed, was changing.

“All you guys moving out!” he railed.  I drove forty-two miles roundtrip for my haircuts and to visit my parents.  I left my cleanly swept, tree-lined suburban outpost for two or three hours.  The ride accentuated my awareness of the old neighborhood’s decline. The streets and sidewalks were littered, unthinkable in our youth, when our parents and siblings swept the sidewalk every day and scrubbed the front stoop as if it was made of white marble. Depending on the hour and the season, the steps were pleasantly warm or pleasantly cool. In the evening people would sit on those steps to chat.  Rocky Di Carlo was a trolley car conductor whose route passed his mother-in-law’s house.  My parents lived next door.  When passing, if he saw his wife sitting with her mother, Rocky would stop the fully occupied trolley in mid-block, run out and kiss his wife.  “Aren’t they a handsome pair?”  Mrs Ianuzzi asked my mother.  “Yes” answered my mother, who had sons only, “Yes, but Rocky is better looking.”  Not the end of a friendship because they knew each other intimately.   Mrs Ianuzzi weighed four hundred pounds and my mother, a dressmaker, made her tent-like dresses.  But that generation was dying off.  To make ends meet, many who remained rented out rooms or turned their second floors into small apartments, introducing more transients into the neighborhoods.  More transients, more trash in the streets. The corner deli which used to advertise fresh ricotta on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, now advertises Vietnamese hoagies.  Filipinos and Vietnamese began buying up the houses.  These are Catholics who send their kids to the Catholic schools, and who attend the big, half empty, pseudo-Baroque church,  In Springfield, a nearby white suburb, the Catholic church has a billboard sign in the parking lot:  “on Saturday evening, there are ten priests on duty to hear confession.”  The ironbound facts of demographics.

In the end Mario scarcely noticed the littered streets because he was hammered by tragedy.  His son married “out”, an Americana from Virginia, not a tragedy but a blow. The bride was mystified by Mario’s elliptical discourse.  She could not connect with a mother-in-law who still thought in Italian and a grandmother-in-law who spoke no English.  The young couple moved to Norfolk, Virginia, another blow.  Several years later, Mario’s mother slipped into Alzheimer’s.  Then, cruelly, Mario’s wife was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.  Mario tried to cope by himself, at home  with the occasional help of a  nurse and health aides.  It took its toll.  The shop became slovenly, and so did Mario.  He grew quick to anger.  His clientele disappeared and his hours became erratic.  I arrived for a haircut and found the shop closed.  I returned a week later and found the shades drawn on the doors.  I asked a woman sitting on her front steps next door what she knew about Mario.  She said he had had a nervous breakdown and that they had taken all three of them away.  “Where?”  She didn’t know.

How quickly John Doe disappears from the human record!  His house is sold (if he owns one.)  Tax records are expunged on schedule.  His children move to another state.  He writes few or no letters during his life.  His customers find another barber. The lady next door moves out or she dies.  Mario has vanished.

Baldi’s Funeral Parlor

In those days I was a frequent visitor to Baldi’s Funeral Parlor which was the last way station for Philadelphia’s Sicilian immigrant population.   I saw My Uncle Charlie, my namesake, come to send off Serafino Colletti, my mother’s cousin who had died suddenly, but not violently.  Serafino was a favorite among us younger cousins because he was full of stories.  He never had a real job but he patched together a living by driving limousines in funerals, pall bearing, and driving carloads of gamblers to itinerant crap games outside the city limits  He was fun, but trying for his wife, my mother said.  His sons turned out well: Bennie was into numbers, high up, nice for his classy wife who could pretend he was straight.  His brother Nunzio was an accountant.

Here was Uncle Charlie, Serafino’s kindred spirit, sobbing, his face drenched. standing before Serafino’s open casket.

“Zu Calo, I didn’t know you and Serafino were so close.”

“Close? We were in jail together.”

“Jail.  When?  Where? ”  He clammed up and I let it drop because I knew my mother would tell me.  With a few glasses of wine in him he himself would tell me.

In 1919 when my cousin Beatrice was born, my uncle and his family lived in tiny row house on the black fringes of little Italy.  Beatrice, like her sisters, (like her cousins including me) was born at home, on the second floor back, delivered by a midwife.  On the first Saturday after her birth, the relatives came round to pay their respect and to drop a dollar on the bedspread. The visitors went first to the second floor where the wives remained, seated along the walls by the bed while the husbands descended to the first floor kitchen.  There was wine and coffee, and a friendly card game was in progress.  My father did not stay.  He went to the burlesque theater whose message was intelligible even to a horny illiterate whose wife was seven months pregnant.

Serafino was entertaining the women on the second floor. In the first floor kitchen the men were intent on the card game.  They looked up to see a gunman enter the room quietly with his gun drawn.  The paisani were wearing their Sunday best, with gold watches and chains.  And Friday salaries to pick clean.  However, a man sitting at the table, my uncle’s brother-in-law from Jersey City, surreptitiously pulled out his gun, and shot the gunman dead.  He immediately ran into the back yard, jumped the fence and disappeared.  Serafino came running down the stairs with his gun drawn.   Already there were cries from the street.   He ran back to the bed room and handed his gun to my mother.  “The police won’t search a pregnant woman.”  And they didn’t.  The cops arrested Uncle Charlie as the house owner and Serafino for the friends he kept.  They told the police that two gunmen had entered the kitchen, they started to argue, one shot the other and fled. “Why didn’t you tell the truth?” I said, it was a perfect case of self-defense.  “We couldn’t because my brother-in-law was wanted for a shooting in Jersey City”.

Their improbable alibi netted them 30 or 40 days in jail.   No one knows how many days exactly because they were never charged.  They were held illegally, unconstitutionally. They were slapped around a bit, but they didn’t change their story. Who knows why they were released.  The dead gunman was a bad actor, good riddance.  Because they were never charged, there was no public record.  Chilling.  Who supported their families meanwhile?