Tag Archives: Italian Americans

Italians.

DadRima&AngeFINALCROPPeople.

It takes all kinds.

And, I’m glad to say so.

What if we were all reticent and deferential? In America, we’d be stuck on a street corner, bowing and gesturing for the other to cross. Crowds would form. Traffic would stall. Chaos to commerce. Only the strong would survive. Finally, one lone person, likely among the shortest, would push through the throng and head across the road, shaking his or her head in disbelief at the inefficiency of it all. That would be the Italian.

For every proponent of tolerance, acceptance, and the next festival in celebration of diversity there’s an old Dago who sits, reading the paper and chuckling. Somebody brings him a sandwich. Talking with his mouth full, he’ll tell you what for. He knows. He’s Italian. We always do.

For the final decade of my twenty five in public education, I worked at an elementary school at the cusp of the county line. Demographically, there were few Italians living over there. True to their history in our town, the surviving generations were still maintaining their family homes closer to the center of the west side. I remember being told by my then very blonde and fair skinned boss that I was “a bit harsh.”

Nobody at the other school, over in Little Italy, would have called me by that moniker. Everybody who worked there or ran that building told it like it was. There was a happy extroversion in that climate. And, the faculty was the most cohesive social group in the entire city. I will never forget the night of my first all school program; there had to have been seven teachers there, all helping run herd, and they’d all organized entirely unsolicited by me. They were led by one woman. She was Italian.

For just under three years, I had a mother in law. She thought Italy was a third world country, and “loved my brown eyed grand children just as much as my blue eyed grandchildren.” Everybody tries, some more than others. But, we’re all different, it’s always easier to stay the way we are, and inherent bias is unavoidable. But, when you cross the line, the Italian will tell you so.

What line?

Well, back when civilization was trying to evolve beyond barbarism, there was a people who, though their motive was to establish power, were adept at assessing a situation, identifying its obstacles, and spending intelligent energy and willpower developing a solution. To expand their influence, roads were developed and constructed, the kind which could be traveled beyond the dusty sandal and walking stick. In fact, entire transport systems were created which ultimately established connections, yielding an increase in trade and cultural exchange.  Prior to this, there were kings and their extended families, and land owners, and slaves, and the poor – the latter, in droves. These expanding road systems enabled pockets of civilization to become independent and self governing, by virtue of their access to resources which existed, well, down the road. These pockets became known as cities.

Yes. The very structure of workable American society is framed by transit routes and cities. And, we have the Romans, from Italy, to thank for it; their drive to achieve a dominating empire left behind what we now call infrastructure.

Oh, and the next time you look at something beautiful that did not occur in nature, take a moment. Be they paintings, sculpture, even cathedrals, much of the world’s most magnificent works of art were created by Italians. Inlaid tile. Stained glass. Frescoes. Even before Michelangelo and DaVinci, there were artisans. These swarthy, well oiled, slightly hairy brutes did their part to decorate the entire, known world. They frosted the cake.

Yes. Every human frailty eventually makes itself known. There is weakness, right along side strength. Nothing lasts forever, not empires, not even life. But, for every moment constrained by decorum, there will be an emergent crisis. Let’s be ready to thank the personality which steps up. That will, eight times out of ten, be the Italian.

From us, you will get candor. We’ll smile at you in public if you deserve it, and reprimand you in kind. You’ll always know where you stand, with us. We are as proud of our heritage as you are of yours, and we know one more thing. We know the value of preserving that history. We are a part of the greatest generation, in this country we call home, and you can call us by our name. It’s pronounced exactly the way it’s spelled.

Let’s eat.

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© 12/22/18    Ruth Ann Scanzillo.        All rights those of the author, whose name is pronounced “Skan – ZILL – o”, and appears above this line. Thank you for your respect.

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Butchie.

Butchie'sBowl

 

 

The Italians in Erie have always been different from those at the other end of Pennsylvania.

Not sure why, probably settlement patterns. Perhaps the bricklayers all ended up in our port city.

But, Butchie was typical of Erie. He was a Sicilian and Calabrese mix.

And, most of these were deeply familial, multi-generational. All associated, historically, with the mob mystique that shrouded our town for so many decades.

Many of the rest of us, whether Italian of heritage ourselves, or among the scores of other ethnicities represented in Erie’s closely juxtaposed ghettos, regarded the short, broadly smiling, muscular men of his ilk as classed alike.

Most of them worked for the City. Streets. Waste management. Water treatment. Parks and R. They were the crews in charge of maintaining what kept the city going every day.

I confess. I always thought Italian men born and raised in Erie would be workers, to the core. Never did I assume, and errantly, that a single one of them would be at all like Butchie DeFazio.

We’d met in the late 1980’s at Denny’s Restaurant on Peach Street, the old Sambo’s. He’d always come to the counter with Roberto, the tailor. Didn’t know it then, but they were both committed betting men, wagering on the horses at the nearby Downs racetrack. There’d be a coffee, and then several minutes at the PackMan over by the wall, Butchie leaning against it and deftly playing the thing like a slot machine.

Butchie didn’t say much. He liked short words, quick phrases, thick with his tough, second generation accent and attitude. He seemed like a street kid, shy but never letting on, and the first man in town to have hair implanted right across the forehead. Many others would make the attempt, and we’d find out how the pain aborted their efforts; not Butchie. Like everything else we’d come to know about him, he wanted a clean line and would do whatever it took to get it.

In 1986 Mr. Veltri, who’d taught sixth grade at Lincoln, came in for dinner and told me about a vocal music position opening up at the junior high I had attended.  Mr. Ciotti was retiring; did I want to apply? It had been over 5 years since my college graduation day, and this role as waitress had settled nicely for me; short, intense shifts, nothing loading the frontal lobe after hours…..I liked my life. But, expectation beckoned, along with a faint memory of why I went to college in the first place. I took the interview.

The panel included administrators, Personnel, the district psychologist…what were my thoughts on marching band? Obliviously, I gushed; as lead bugler, my father had led his battalion in a parade for the US Army dignitaries. I loved parades!

When the letter from the district arrived, I’d been assigned to East High School.

As music teacher to the East High marching band, choir, chorus, “stage band”, and whatever else the principal called his depository for students not destined for academic superiority, I was both energized and scared; I hadn’t been around teenagers since student teaching years before, and this was the roughest neighborhood in town. Gingerly, I stepped into the bandroom to check out my new digs.

Butchie stepped in right behind me.

Never knowing he’d been employed by the district all this time,  I was astonished to discover that, he having bid out and vacating the position to the newbie, I was the winner of his prized legacy.

Mr. DeFazio hadn’t been at East very long – maybe a couple years. Figures. He’d not been at all understood, by anyone there, any more or less than I might have been. Politically, the East side belonged to the Poles and the Germans and the Russians, after all, and the Italians should stay on the West side where they came from.

He was heading to the elementary schools, he’d said – something I would do many years later, to stay, just as he. And, then he carried on with his usual flair. Only this time he peppered his delivery with complex chord progressions; a jazz pianist, he disclosed, he had “played out” in the Erie scene for many years, all in the past, he kept assuring me.

Turned out we’d both graduated from Fredonia State University. He’d been a piano major, no less. Then, the teaching degree, same as mine. Who was this masked man, and why had I never heard him play?

I asked him to sit at the nearby piano.

He refused.

He’d stopped playing, he said. Stopped playing out. Stopped playing.

I stared at him.

And, I never, ever found out why.

Years in, when I had moved to the elementaries, he would stop in out of the blue. On his final visit, a couple years before I retired, he brought me a huge box of videotapes to use – and, did I want them all for just 200 bucks?

One time, I’d asked him to stop over to the house. I thought maybe, if he did, he could play me some Chopin. I’d heard from Mary Ann, his sister, that he played a hell of a classical piano, too. I pled. I begged. He never came.

About four years ago, after his beloved sister Judy died, he moved from his house to the Glenwood Towers. And, he called me. Would I stop over? He had some music he wanted me to check out.

He looked good. Enhh…a little sugar, he said. A bit thinner, but still vital and on it like always. He took me to the storage cages. Here were boxes filled with Fake books, sheet music, and volumes of classical literature – the Beethoven sonatas. The Brahms. My God. The man had played everything.

He insisted. Ruthie, he called me, Ruthie, take it. Take the stuff. Take the Fake books…….I left most all of those, selecting a Brahms folio and some Beethoven. It was so good to see him.

A few months ago, Butchie died. He had been failing, Mary Ann said – getting ever thinner and thinner. But, true to form, never a peep about discomfort, never a need expressed, always tough, always cheerful. The casket was closed. I averted my face, feeling utterly exposed at the funeral. Why did his death feel like a tragedy?

Mary Ann told me, a few days later. He’d played his graduating recital at Fredonia, and the family was there. She said he came out, and sat at the piano, and didn’t move. He sat, for an entire seven minutes, without placing one finger on the keys. Then, he began to play.

She said the performance was stunning. Everybody in the audience felt it. And, everybody at Fredonia talked about it, for weeks and weeks thereafter. Samuel “Butchie” DeFazio was brilliant. A master.

I don’t know whether Erie will survive. Our city has been mismanaged by proud, short sighted people for decades. Entrenchment has seeped its dulling, molding poisons into the landscape and, in spite of a whole generation of emerging talent and intelligence, its families of longest standing – and, their legacies – are threatened with extinction.

One wonders how many Butchie DeFazios have been lost in that terminal shuffle.

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© Ruth Ann Scanzillo   6/24/17    All rights those of the author, whose name appears above this line. Be a good person.  Thanks.

littlebarefeetblog.com