Okey , I promised this story to an old buddy of mine from another life whom I within the last few weeks made contact with again after about 35 or so years of zero contact . He and I taught together in Venice CA at a little Catholic grade school tucked away behind the rapidly renovating Main Street with it’s bars and discotheques . The older 1960s Venice of beatnik hippie artist freaks was fading or transmografying as property prices rapidly rose .
Well , this tale dont’ got nothin’ to do with Venice , CA and it don’t got nothin’ to do , really , with two broken down old former teachers making chance contact after so long . But , my long lost buddy , Anthony , is Sicilian and so I promised him a Sicilian story from my past . So , here goes .
Sometimes a guy jumps into something , hook , line , and sinker , though , only to suddenly realize he’s only seen the tree for the forest , and the cookie’s crumbled , and he’s lost the whole darned shootin’ match before it even got started. Or , something like that . In other words , I spoke before I thought . What I’m trying to say is that the story in my memory involves Neopolitans , not Sicilians . But , as they sometimes say , flowers grow out of dark moments . I’m not sure just what that means , but let’s move on .
I’d like to confess right up front , however , before I continue , that , being of the Irish persuasion , I don’t know a whole lot about Italians . I’ll admit here and now that I couldn’t tell , to tell you the truth , for example , a Neopolitan from a Sicilian . Maybe there’s not too much of a noticible physical difference . Could well be , I suspect . ( I’d consider telling that suspicion of mine to a Neopolitan , sure . But , I’d think twice about telling that to a Sicilian . I know that much ).
My father-in-law was Sicilian . He lived his life in Massachusetts and , late in his life , moved to Arizona . Arizona was , to his east coast brothers , like dropping off the end of the world , living somewhere on the wild frontier They’d ask him over the phone could he get cannoli anywhere in Arizona and was there running water in the house . He’d tell them that he got his cannoli at the same place Joe Bonanno got his. But , this story isn’t about Joe Banannas , or my former father-in-law , or Arizona , or Sicilians . Unfortunately . But , hey Anthony , at least I was honest . Tell the truth and you don’t got to be a good liar . Or , as Joe Gotti said : I never lie because I’m never afraid . If you ain’t ever afraid you don’t gotta lie .
Note : The use of ” Don’t got ” has occurred four times in this story so far . I put it in as a tease for my Uncle Dick , who died some time ago .He might be listening in from Heaven and he’ll be smiling for sure . Dick was a journalist . He had seven children and I remember their use of ” don’t got ” in everday conversation . My uncle , the writer , burst out one day : ” Say ain’t got , ain’t got , if you have to , but stop the don’t got ! ” Language is a strange companion in a person’s life , and I ain’t got to say that twice ! ”
So , let’s carry on . The Sicilian’s wife , my former mother-in-law , was from Naples . (Apparently it’s okey for Sicilians and Neopolitans to inter-marry , as long as it ain’t with the Irish . But , no one warned me . All those signs around Boston , eg. O’Brien and Fiorella Mortuary ; Martini , Riley, and Cornich , Attorneys at Law , etc. fooled me . ) I was back in Somerville , Mass. , with her family for dinner . The old woman whom I knew as “Granny” , who was well into her eighties at the time and family matriarch , was doing all of the cooking and preparation for the meal .
There were about twelve members of the family there for dinner . Most of them were Patichiollas , but there were a few Petrillos , and one Rinaldo , and me .
There was Uncle Eddie , who had run the family clothing business in Boston Mass. and in Florenzi , Italy . Eddie dressed well and carried himself with dignity . He had three sons . One of them I knew pretty well. He lived in San Francisco with his long-time male lover and they ran a little coffee place on Castro Street . . Eddie and his wife were still lining up girls for sonny boy to date when he came back east for the occasional visit . Eddie told me , for no particular reason , that his sons didn’t have to love him but they had to respect him . The business in Italy had by then been sold and the Boston concern was winding down, too , and the world seemed to be leaving dapper Uncle Eddie behind and drowning in denial.
There , over on the other side of the table , was Cousin Vinny . Vinney flew a Lear jet for private businesses and offered to take me for a ride . Maybe when an Italian offers to “take you for a ride” you should think twice about accepting . At any rate I wasn’t going to be east long enough for the ride , so I had to turn him down . I did get a tour of the grounded jet , though , and that was enough for me . Vinney had a big house out in the nearby woods somewhere .
Directly across the table from me was Uncle Lou and his wife Helen . Helen was Eddie’s sister . She and hubby Lou lacked the refinement that Eddie exhibited . Lou was blue-collar , a printer , with thick hands and a thick neck . He wore a stained T-shirt to dinner and spoke in a loud voice but had nothing much to say . Helen did the talking for him .
And then , filling in all but two of the other spots at the table , were various others whom , at this point in time , I don’t recall well . We all came anxiously to a table laden with food as Eddie continued arguing with Lou something about the Stock Market and as both their wives urged them ineffectively to clam up .The ventilation in the old house was not good and the air was stuffy but the food looked wonderful.
The guest of honor was a young guy named Adriano . He was a suave little twenty-year-old who had just arrived from Italy with his mother for a visit to the American cousins . The fact that he was from the old country made him an admired celebrity .
The table was spread with enough food , I thought , to feed the Irish Army and to have , just maybe , a little bit left over for the hounds . The old lady had prepared it all herself . She was smiling . Proud . To some of us there she was “Granny” , but to most of those at the table she was “Mama”.
And , almost at once , it started .
” Mama , Adriano . He don’t like the pepper . It’s not hot enough . ” It was the naggy voice of Aunt Helen translating the twenty-year-old’s first complaint .
” Oh !” proclaimed the old woman as she jumped up from the table to run into the kitchen for hotter pepper .
Some time later : ” Mama , Adriano . He don’t like this .” Or , ” Mama , Adrianno . He don’t like that .”
Every time Adriano , the treasured guest , he don’t liked this or he don’t liked that , Aunt Helen would make the announcement preceded with a ” Mama ” , and the old woman would hop up quickly another time from the table to run into the kitchen to try to make Adriano happy . After all , Adriano . He just arrived from Italy . Adrianno is a star . And if Adriano don’t like the pepper or the carrots , the Petrillos and the Patichiollas suddenly don’t , evidently , like the pepper or the carrots either . They all would instantly stop eating the complained-about item . It was like some weird version of Simon Says . But Mama would run into the kitchen another time to try to solve the problem , to try to make Adriano happy .
I was wondering how my mother would have dealt with the situation . She would have tried to accommodate the first complaint, I’m sure . After all , the guy’s a guest . The second and third complaints would not have gone so smoothly. ” Pish-tish !” she would probably have whispered under her breath but loud enough for most in the room to hear on the second complaint , and she would have told one of us to ” go look in the kitchen ” for whatever the complainer wanted . By the third complaint my mother would have probably told the guy ” You’ll eat what you get and you’ll like it , ” and leave it at that . And he would have eaten it all up, not daring otherwise . Then , after it was eaten , one of my brothers or sisters would have inevitably asked , ” How did you like it ? ” and we’d all gaze his direction and wait for the answer .
Anyway , Adriano had an endless supply of complaints . Cheeky , you think ? I, another first -time guest in the crowd , was considering telling him a thing or two . He spoke no English but he might have got the message anyhow . But I was the outsider at the gathering . I was with the only Rinaldo there and I was the only Hennessy there and , at one point , the long-haired young cousin sitting next to me said : ” Hey , Dan , You’re not Italian , are you ? ” As I looked at him after that question I was immediately concerned about the state of public education in this country . But maybe he just wasn’t one of the sharpest tacks in the box .
” How can you tell ? ” I asked .
” You put the pasta and the salad on the same plate ,” he said , looking down condescendingly at my plate He had the voice of some of those Godfather characters . I followed his gaze and looked down at my plate , too . The long-haired guy was right in both cases .
Finally ,after an hour or two of this workout for Granny , ” Adriano . He don’t like the corn , ” announces Aunt Helen . I watched the eaters around the table put down forks full of corn . Everything to make Adriano feel at home . Mama Pattichiolla, the white-haired old woman who’d been rushing back and forth , aka Granny , had finally had enough . She took a large spoon full of corn from the bowl and held it in front of her mouth , showing it off . She looked over at Rinaldo and me , and gave us a sly smile .
” I’ma chicken !,” the feisty old gal said loudly , and shoved the spoonful of corn into her mouth .
” I’ma chicken too ! ,” I said , imitating her Italian-accented words , as I took a forkful of corn .
” I’ma chicken , three ! ” said Rinaldo , and the three of us , and only the three of us , ate the corn .
So , I guess that ends my little Italian tale for my long-wandering friend Anthony the Sicilian . Maybe it’s good this Adriano and that bunch of Adriano enablers weren’t Sicilian , eh , Anthony ? So , you see , my friend , it all works out . “It all comes out in the wash ,” my mother would have said . .
Maybe a Sicilian tale later . But , for now , basta !