Ok I know, I am doing a lot about Dad, but he did teach me a lot in his own very distinct way, and the lessons were good solid ones that I find myself in need of frequently these days.
Quick background to anyone who didn’t grow up in a melting pot like New York City: It was and is a city of immigrants. I am not going to get into the current debate about immigration though I know most of you can guess where I stand on the issue (the Statue of Liberty pretty much sums up my view). The point is each ethnic group that came to the city brought their own talents, culture and style that were totally distinct from the last wave of immigrants that came. That’s the positive. The negative, and unfortunately it is to be expected, is that each succeeding group that arrived got beat up on by those that were here before them, even though their experiences were very similar. Thus in my lifetime I saw the Irish, who themselves victims of persecution, beat up on the Italians who followed them. The Italians beat up on the Blacks, the Blacks beat up on the Puerto Ricans, and let’s face it, everybody beat up on the Jews. That was just life in the city. I have kind of lost track of who is beating up on whom these days but I am sure it is still going on, maybe with slight variations in economic status, and color but everybody has to be beating up on somebody it seems.
Growing up in the sixties, we all saw and experienced these prejudices, maybe even contributed to them without knowing it. But the thing I remember about Dad was that he never gave in to them. Now he was not an educated man; may not have even finished high school because he had to support his family or at least contribute to its support. He went to church and believed in God (I think), but he was no preacher man thank God. But he was a man in the best sense of the word. He respected women, and would call out a boor who spoke disrespectfully of a woman in a restaurant. Given his physique, and his Marine glare, most times whomever the idiot was, mumbled some sort of apology and moved on. I respected him for that, and try to emulate him when I can.
Ok so long-winded way of getting to the lesson. One day, a day just like any other, when I was being mugged for lunch money at IS70 on 17th street, a particular individual called me a word I didn’t know at the time, but of course do now – a derogatory word about Italians. I didn’t even understand the taunt. I was just used to getting mugged on a daily basis. No one ever usually addressed me in any way, they just wanted my twenty cents. So that night, after dinner I asked Dad what that word meant, and being Dad, he honestly told me. Now this was before The Godfather so we had no real connection with anything powerful or desirable about being Italian (though many Italians, including my Aunt were greatly insulted by that film’s depiction of our heritage – me, I thought it very cool).
So when Dad was done explaining,I asked him if I should have stood up to the kid, have fought him even though I was sure to lose. My thinking was there was family honor at stake and win, lose or draw, I maybe should have done something more.
So now the lesson.
Dad shook his head at my suggestion. He explained there were always going to be ignorant people who had nothing going for themselves so they had to bring down someone else, and the easiest way to do that for an idiot was to insult someone’s heritage or race. Ignore them, he said. They were not worthy of fighting. Save your fights for protecting your family or your friends, or your country. But let the words of bigots, that categorized you as a member of a group and not you as an individual, just fall away. They are the rants of fools; no worthy man would stoop so low.
It was mind blowing time. I sat there stunned by the words Dad spoke. I was not used to such profound wisdom from him, but clearly it was something that had touched him deeply, something he had thought about a lot, something he himself had had to deal with in his own life. He wasn’t brushing this one off, this one he wanted me to really understand.
And I did.
And still do to this day, and I owe it to him. Prejudice is everywhere; America is an inherently racist nation but that doesn’t mean that each and every one of us cannot simply say “no”- not now, not tomorrow, not ever.
I may judge you on your beliefs, your politics, your morality, even your intelligence, but I will never judge you on your race, your heritage or your color.
That is, as Dad said, just plain wrong.
Now I am not saying we shouldn’t fight racism when we see it (and we see and hear it every day) , and call it out for what it is – but you will not goad into a fight by calling me names. I guess it’s the old sticks and stones thing; you can call me whatever the hell you want; I don’t care. I will debate you on issues, I will try and change your mind if I think you are wrong, but I will not take that bait, or play that game.
There are many ways you can start a fight with me, calling me a Wop isn’t one of them; that just proves you’re an ignorant racist.
Now, try hurting my wife or my cats. Then you will know what a fight is, New York style, and pal, you will lose.
So…the old man did good right?
I thought so. Believe me, growing up I never thought about Dad being a hero, or a role model. But he is, to this day, both to me.
The great Don Corleone could not have said it better.