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I was the firstborn, the son my father always wanted. And so he started almost immediately to mold me into his own image and likeness. For the most part, his efforts were successful. Unfortunately, there was one obstacle, which he could neither overcome nor accept. I was a girl.
My father's first words to my mother after visiting the nursery shortly after my birth were, "It looks like a monkey." Who was he kidding? If I'd had a blue blanket wrapped around me, I could have been a monkey and he would have been too delirious with joy to have noticed.
Still, son or not, I was his kid. "I guess we'll keep it," he nobly announced to my mother after the next visit.
Having thus committed himself, my father tried as hard as he could to protect me from the ugly truth of my genetic makeup for as long as he could. Maybe he even managed to convince himself that it wasn't so. Parents do tend to be blind to their children's shortcomings. And in an Italian family, few things are a greater handicap than being born female.
In the early years, I didn't suffer from it at all. My father worked double-time to turn me into a real man. He taught me not to cry "like a girl"; throw a ball underhand, "like a sissy"; or slap -- "if you're going to hit somebody, you punch him." I learned that the secret of winning an argument was turning up the volume of your voice and gesticulating furiously. And I learned to say vaffanculo when I was angry.
My mother stood by and let my father have his way as far as my upbringing was concerned. There were two reasons for this. First of all, my mother always let my father have his way. He was her most spoiled child. And secondly, she agreed with him. She wanted me to be strong, quick, and competitive -- not the son she'd always wanted but the daughter she'd always wanted.
But sooner or later the horrible truth had to catch up with me and have a real impact on my life. Neither of my parents prepared me for that day. I suppose they meant to and just kept putting it off until it was too late. It certainly would have been easier hearing it from them than from Little Nicky Santucci.
Little Nicky ran the neighborhood -- insofar as all activities regarding us kids were concerned. He was, for all intents and purposes, the self-proclaimed mayor of Melrose Avenue. It was a tight little street. The houses and their inhabitants were packed close together. There were maybe half a dozen single-family homes on our block. Most of us lived in semidetached or row houses.
Nicky lived in what was by far the biggest house on the corner of the block. It was white stucco with a walled-in patio and garden. A flower shop occupied the front half of the ground floor.
Nicky's father, Big Nick, ran the flower shop. He owned it actually. Big Nick did not look like the kind of guy who would be much interested in flowers; but then, Michelangelo didn't look like the kind of guy whose soul drove him to create such great beauty. So who knew? The difference was that I'd never actually seen Big Nick touch a flower, except to snap off its stem and stick the bud into the lapel of his jacket. And while it was pretty clear that everybody thought that being a florist was kind of a sissy job, I never heard anybody tease Big Nick about it, or about anything else for that matter. So I never did either. Besides, Big Nick was always real nice to us kids. He liked to pass out candy and, on special occasions, even dollar bills.
Little Nicky, on the other hand, did not seem to have inherited his father's magnanimous nature. Little Nicky was a loose cannon with a short fuse. You never knew what he was going to do next. Half the time he didn't know either. So being able to play with Nicky was a real test of one's mettle.
One of his favorite gags was dropping his frog, Nunzio, down someone's shirt. Carla Moretti was really the only one who panicked more than neurotic, little Nunzio. Then there was the time that Nicky ate a night crawler and Crazy Carla threw up. I have to admit, it took real intestinal fortitude on my part to keep my dinner down through that one. I just kept smiling and swallowing. I would not give Nicky the satisfaction of seeing me crack. That was his game after all. Nothing gave him greater pleasure than knowing that he'd found someone's breaking point.
But it was one day when he wasn't even trying that he finally found mine.
It was a perfect summer day right after fourth grade. I'd decided I was in the mood for a baseball game. So I got my glove and headed for Nicky's house. All baseball games, like everything else that went on in the neighborhood, were organized through Nicky. I went through the garden gate, around back to the family entrance, and rang the bell.
Nicky opened the door, took one look at me, and practically slammed the door in my face.
"Hey!" I pushed back.
"Go away," he told me.
I stuck my foot in the door like an unwanted salesman. "What's wrong with you?"
"I can't play with you anymore," he told me through the crack in the doorway.
I snickered. "What did you do now?" I prodded, thinking that his mother had grounded him again.
"Nothing," he said defensively.
"Then why can't you play?"
"I just can't, okay?"
"No, it's not okay," I told him. "I'm not going away until you tell me why."
"Because the guys are here."
I didn't see the problem. "Great! Let's go to the empty lot and play ball."
"That's what we were going to do."
"Well then, let's go," I insisted.
"You're not invited."
"Because you're a girl. You have cooties."
"You're a human cootie and we all play with you."
"Good thing you're a girl, or I'd beat you up."
"Why don't you come out here and try it." I put up my fists, left one high to protect my face.
"I don't hit girls," he said, condescendingly.
"Since when?" He'd rid me of a "baby" molar two weeks earlier when I'd dropped my left. The tooth fairy brought me a dollar and a quarter for that tooth. A quarter from my mother, who told me that the tooth fairy really wouldn't think that I deserved anything for losing a tooth in a fight. And a buck from the old man, who was glowing with pride.
"I don't hit girls," he reiterated, even more solicitously. "And I don't play with them. Face it, you're a girl and you have cooties."
I stood there dumbfounded. What else could I do? I wasn't allowed to cry. And Nicky wouldn't come out into the open where I could get a good shot at him.
When I finally turned to leave, Nicky slammed the door behind me. I walked away from the house, fighting to maintain my composure. When I got around to the front of the house, out on the pavement where I was pretty sure Nicky wouldn't be able to see me, I started to run for home. I heard myself panting as I ran and I heard a few whimpers escape. Rejected by Little Nicky Santucci! What worse indignities could one be forced to suffer in this life?
When I got home, my mother was in the kitchen so I managed to sneak past her. I went upstairs where I could be alone in my misery. All the frustration and rage I felt came pouring out. In no time at all, I was climbing the walls. I was literally climbing the walls. I did that to relieve pressure.
There was a section of hallway upstairs that was long and narrow, and when I braced myself with one hand and one foot against each wall, I could shimmy up. Then I could pace the hallway up near the ceiling. The trick was turning around. It was best to do that at the end of the hallway so that there was the third wall -- over the door, of course -- to use for balance.
One small slip and I'd fall to the floor. I wasn't afraid of the distance of the fall. But I didn't like to fall in the hallway because it made a huge thud that my mother could hear downstairs, and she would know what I was doing. Not that the footprints I left on the walls weren't a dead giveaway.
I was careful as I walked back and forth and up and down the walls thinking about what Nicky had said. "Face it, you're a girl."
So what? I thought. Why did that matter? I was one of the best baseball players in the neighborhood and now they weren't going to let me play because I was a girl! Why did being a girl make a difference all of a sudden? It had never mattered before.
The more I thought about it, the more it came clear to me that it had always mattered. I should have seen it. But I didn't. Or maybe I wouldn't. It was always there though. When my father would come in when I was playing with Nicky, he'd say, "Hey, Butch, how's it going?" to Nicky. "Butch!" He always called Nicky "Butch." He called me "Chicken."
My parents' friends and relatives were always squeezing me and pinching my cheeks and telling me how cute I was. Nobody ever gushed all over Nicky, telling him how cute he was. Understandably. Still, you would think that just to be polite, somebody could lie. But Nicky wasn't expected to be cute. Not just because he was Nicky, but also because he was a boy.
Boys weren't expected to be much of anything. And they got away with murder because of it. "Boys will be boys." That's what they all said when Nicky got kicked out of Catholic school. That's what they said the time he got stuck in the sewer when he'd jumped in after Nunzio. That's what they said when he got dirty or tore his clothes or broke something. One lousy smack and "boys will be boys," that was all that ever happened to Nicky. One step out of line and I got lectured and plunked in a chair for an hour to "think about it."
Well I was sure thinking about it now.
"Hey." A voice from behind startled me. I hadn't heard anybody come up the stairs. Instinctively, I jumped to the floor and turned around, only to see my father smiling. "You'd better not let your mother catch you doing that," he warned. "Let me see how you get up there."
"Nah, I'm not in the mood anymore. Besides, Mommy will probably come up and catch me."
"No she won't. I'll look out for her." My father loved to be my partner in crime.
"I don't feel like it," I moped.
"Come on," he cajoled. "Give you a buck if you show me how you do it." That was another thing my father taught me -- never pass up an opportunity to make a buck. I braced myself and went straight up to the ceiling. When I got there, I reached out my hand. My father dug into his pocket and peeled a bill off the roll he always carried and handed it to me. I took it and put it in my own pocket.
"That's great!" He laughed. "How did you figure out you could do that?"
He finally caught on to my mood. "What's the matter, Chicken?"
"Come on, tell Daddy what's wrong."
"I hate boys," I said adamantly, looking down at him.
His face dropped. "Why would you hate boys?"
The disappointment in his voice put me on the defensive. "They won't let me play ball with them. Nicky says it's because I'm a girl." There, I said it! The horrible truth was out.
My father looked more hurt by what happened to me than I was. "Okay," he started calmly. "So you're a girl," he admitted as easily as one might admit to murder. "What else did he say to hurt your feelings?"
"Cooties. He said I have cooties."
"Little Nicky's got a hell of a nerve calling anybody a cootie."
"Yeah. I know. I told him that he was a human cootie."
My father laughed. "Good one," he said, congratulating me for standing up to Nicky. "What did he say to that?"
"Nothing. He still said that nobody wanted to play with me because I'm a girl."
We were back to the main problem, and my father's face reflected the seriousness of it. "Come to Daddy," he said, reaching out his arms to get me down from the ceiling. I jumped and he caught me and carried me into his room. He sat on the bed, cradling me on his lap. Tears were running down my cheeks and dripping off my chin before I let any sound escape. It was all right to cry now. That was one of the rules. You could cry in front of your parents. That was not a show of weakness, but one of love and trust.
"Poor baby," he said, wiping the tears. My father's voice was very deep, and when he used it to comfort, the words weren't important; it was the sound that was soothing, almost hypnotic.
"I don't want to be a girl," I sobbed.
"I know," he said, comforting me, stroking my hair.
"I hate myself for being a girl."
"Oh stop that. Don't say stupid things like that. You just remember that you're smarter and tougher than all of them. You're my baby, so you've got to be. And you're prettier too."
"Being pretty is dumb," I said in a monotone, my head resting on his shoulder.
"No it's not. You're pretty. You're my pretty baby."
"I'm not a baby."
"Yes you are." He laughed. "You are my baby. And you always will be. Even when you're forty years old, you'll still be my baby."
I didn't say anything.
"Don't you want to be my baby?"
"Yeah." I told him what he wanted to hear.
"And promise me you'll never grow up to be one of those silly ladies."
"Don't grow up to be one of those silly ladies, okay?" he repeated.
"Silly ladies like who?"
"Like all of them," he said with authority, sounding frighteningly like Nicky. "Promise me," he said with urgency, looking me right in the eye, his hand holding my chin.
"Okay, Daddy." I nodded. "I promise."
And so began a lifetime of confusion.
Copyright © 2003 by Gina Cascone
Chapter 8: Eels in the Bathtub
Weekend meals may have been a production, but they were nothing compared to the helter-skelter that preceded a holiday feast.
And of all the traditions my grandfather brought with him to this country, none was more sacred to us than Christmas Eve dinner.
It was the night we anticipated all year long. A night of great celebration, when family and friends gathered together in peace and joy and -- most importantly -- serious gluttony.
Because we were Napoletani -- people from the Bay of Naples -- the Christmas feast was a seafood extravaganza. Anything with gills or shells was sure to show up on our table in one form or another. We fried it, marinated it, baked it, broiled it, sautéed it, or plunked it into sauce. And from about six in the evening until well after midnight we ate, and we ate, and we ate, until every delicious morsel was gone.
There was only one rule on Christmas Eve. No one left the table without eating eel.
We ate eel on Christmas Eve to bring us good luck in the coming year. Since everything we ever did seemed to be motivated by the belief that it would either bring good luck or help us avoid bad luck, no one in the family ever questioned this practice. But newcomers always needed a little bit of coaxing, especially after they were told how the dish was prepared.
Step 1: Buy live eels. These are black sea snakes, about two to three feet long. You won't find them in your local grocery store. They can only be found in port cities with large ethnic populations. We got ours from Philadelphia.
Step 2: Bring them home and keep them in water until ready to prepare. If you don't have a large aquarium for them to swim in (and why would you, since they're only going to be there until dinnertime?), the bathtub will do.
Step 3: Collect the tools you will need. A heavy wooden chopping block that you will never use again. An ice pick. A sharp, heavy cleaver.
Get a nice bottle of Chianti and the biggest wineglass you can find. You're going to need fortification. In fact, it's probably wise to have more than one bottle on hand.
Step 4: Go get the first eel. Note: When eels feel threatened, they secrete slime. You'll need a rough towel or a heavy glove to provide enough traction to get a good hold on them.
Step 5: Bring the eel to the kitchen and slap its head down on the chopping block. Try to use enough force to stun him for a second so you can grab your ice pick and drive it through his head to secure him to the chopping block so that you can cut him into pieces. Note: The back end of the eel will wrap itself around your arm like a constrictor and will continue to tighten even after you've whacked its head off. Also, as the blood begins to spurt, the whole situation will become even more slippery.
Step 6: Unwind the headless eel from your arm and cut it into three-inch sections with your cleaver. Don't become alarmed when the pieces continue to move and the head that is secured to the chopping block with the ice pick squeaks as it gasps for air. This is perfectly normal and means that you have a healthy eel that won't give you botulism or salmonella or whatever it is that you might get from seafood to make you ill.
Step 7: Repeat process until no eels remain in bathtub and your kitchen looks like the Colosseum after a particularly grisly gladiatorial competition.
Step 8: Throw screaming eel heads in garbage.
Step 9: Slice open eel sections and gut them.
Step 10: Toss your snake bits into a big bowl of cold water and keep in refrigerator until ready to cook.
Now, here's the easy part:
Step 11: Whip up a couple of eggs. Dip the eel pieces into the eggs, then dredge them in flour that has been seasoned with salt and pepper and fry them in olive oil.
And here's the best part:
Serve to horrified dinner guests.
It was a grand tradition. But after my grandfather died, it went by the wayside for a couple of years.
After we moved into our suburban palazzo, my father decided it was time to pay homage to the gods of good fortune once again and reintroduced eel to the Christmas Eve menu.
This was, without question, the most memorable Christmas of my life.
It began, as most things do in an Italian family, as a great battle.
While both my father and my Uncle Gene agreed that we should have eel on the Christmas Eve menu, neither one of them was prepared to do the dirty work. At the outset, this posed no problem whatsoever, as the man of the house was never expected to do anything that might be even remotely interpreted as "dirty work."
The problems began when my mother -- the lady with the biggest set of coglioni this side of Naples -- refused to do what they were not man enough to even contemplate. She was not unreasonable. She would cook the eels, she told them. But that was as far as she was prepared to go. Meet 'em and eat 'em was simply not on her agenda.
"Well then, I guess it's up to you, Gino," my father told his younger brother.
Uncle Gene just laughed in his face.
"What, are you scared?" my father taunted him.
On the surface, that statement was utterly idiotic. My Uncle Gene was the toughest guy in the universe. A raised eyebrow from him could empty a bar in a matter of seconds. There wasn't a man alive who was a match for Uncle Gene. But "creepy-crawleys" left him paralyzed with fear.
The only one more likely to cry like a little girl at the sight of something icky was my father. So there they were, at an impasse. My father, the older and more weasely of the two -- he was after all the lawyer -- proposed a solution. If Uncle Gene would drive to Philadelphia to buy the live eels, my father would take it from there.
I was nine years old and I saw the con he was trying to work. "Take it from there" did not mean he was willing to kill the eels himself. All it meant was that while Uncle Gene was gone he would be busy trying to figure out how to bully someone else into doing it.
He offered me fifty bucks.
I would have done anything for my father, even without the incentive of cold, hard cash. But I drew the line at killing.
Apparently, so did Uncle Gene.
He returned from Philadelphia in half the time it should have taken. We knew he was back even before he blew the horn in the driveway. We'd heard the tires screech as he turned onto the street. He was barely out of the car when my father and I ran outside to greet him.
"Your snakes are in the trunk," Uncle Gene said, tossing my father the car keys.
"Good job," my father said, congratulating him, trying to butter him up for the next phase of the plan he'd concocted.
My father opened the trunk while Uncle Gene stood back. Inside there were two brown bags, the tops of which were rolled down about a third of the way. My father opened one and peered inside.
"These eels are no good," he announced. "They're already dead."
It is very dangerous to eat eels that aren't guaranteed to be perfectly fresh.
"They're not dead," Uncle Gene assured us. "Just stunned." He went on to explain. "I was not about to drive all the way back from Philly with a trunk full of wriggling snakes, even if they were in bags. So before I put them in the trunk, I smacked the bags up against the side of the car a couple of times just to knock them out for the ride. Better for them. Better for me."
Turns out he actually did kill about half of them. But there were still over a dozen that needed killing. And my father was not about to allow Uncle Gene to leave the premises until that was done. Especially since my mother had already fled with my two sisters. They were out doing "last-minute errands" like going to the bakery and anywhere else my mother could think of until she was pretty sure the eel situation was under control. I was invited to go along, but I opted to stay home with the big boys.
Meanwhile, the big boys were getting ready to start throwing punches over who was going to kill our dinner.
As usual, Uncle Gene caved first. He would kill the eels. But only on one condition. If he was going to kill the eels, he was going to do it his way. He would take the eels out into the backyard and shoot them.
I couldn't have imagined a worse idea. But apparently my father did. The thought of his having to kill the eels himself removed all trepidation about Uncle Gene's harebrained scheme. They left me to watch over the bags of eels while they went inside to get the gun.
By the time they came back out, they were engaged in a new argument. Who was the better shot? All of a sudden both of them were hot to kill eels -- as long as neither one of them actually had to touch one.
I was beginning to wish I had gone to the bakery with my mother.
"I'm going in the house," I announced. I hated guns, refused to be anywhere near one. But my father collected guns. And though he had some beautiful antiques mounted in glass cases on his office wall, nothing he said or did could make me share his fascination with them, especially the ones that still worked.
Both my father and Uncle Gene had permits. Both practiced regularly on the police firing range. And both should have been poster boys for gun control laws.
They had learned absolutely nothing at all from the last time one of them had tried to solve a problem with a gun. Uncle Gene was home alone one night when he discovered that he had a mouse in the basement -- another icky creature that he didn't dare touch. He got the gun and waited patiently for the mouse to show himself. As the vermin scampered out from behind some boxes, Uncle Gene took careful aim. He followed the mouse up the wall and halfway across the ceiling until he was sure he could take him. He fired. The mouse dropped off the ceiling...and ran across the floor, right over Uncle Gene's toes, without a scratch on him. The bullet went through the basement ceiling, out the kitchen floor, and blew up the refrigerator.
And now they were about to start shooting eels in the backyard.
While I didn't want to be anywhere near the action, I wasn't about to miss it either. I knew I would be required to testify later when my mother came home and demanded an explanation for the disaster that was sure to greet her.
My bedroom window had a great view of the backyard. I watched as my father and Uncle Gene trekked all the way to the back of the property, which was bordered by pretty dense woods. My father was carrying a bag of eels in one hand and the gun in the other. That left Uncle Gene free to gesticulate dramatically while continuing to argue that he should be the shooter.
My father gave in and handed over the gun. Then he gingerly unrolled the top of the brown bag, picked it up by the bottom corner, shook out the eels, and jumped back.
Uncle Gene never got off a shot.
While the dead eels just landed on the ground with a splat, the live ones slithered off into the woods with lightning speed.
The number of eels available for Christmas Eve dinner was cut in half once again. My father felt his good fortune slipping away from him and he was not happy. As his argument with his brother escalated, I decided it was best if I just stayed in my room. Nonetheless, because of the volume of their voices, I had a very complete oral report of everything that happened.
First, my father insisted that they had to get the rest of the live eels into water before they lost any more of them. But while Tweedledum and Tweedledumber were dumping the eels into the washtub in the basement, three more managed to slip away. Right down the drain. That was when they decided to relocate to my mother's bathroom.
She came home just in time to find half a dozen black, slimy eels swimming happily in her bathtub.
That was when the screaming really began.
Cross-country killing sprees have been accomplished with less drama than it took to get our dinner on the table that night.
In the end, my father did it. He killed the eels. And my mother, ever true to her word, cooked them to perfection.
There were so many people crammed into our dining room that Christmas, it looked like a state dinner. There were aunts and uncles and cousins, most of whom were not related by blood but by culture and deep, abiding friendship. There were our New World friends, who were mostly people my father had met in business. They didn't look like us, or talk like us, or eat like us -- but they wanted to. And they were welcomed to our celebration as warmly as if they had been blood relations. It was Christmas after all.
My mother would have happily invited the general public to Christmas Eve dinner if only her table had been a little bigger. As it was, we were all packed in pretty tightly.
The table was set with my mother's best linen, on which she'd laid out the Christmas china with the holly design around the rims of the plates. The silver had been polished until it was positively blinding. And the crystal sparkled in the warm glow of candlelight. As always, there was more than enough food to go around.
We groaned with delight as each new course was presented. And my mother proudly accepted well-deserved compliments on her culinary expertise.
By the time the eels got to the table, the crowd was in a feeding frenzy. And, judging by the Chianti consumption, they were at least as well lit as the dining room. Our poor, unsuspecting dinner guests were heaping their plates with what I am sure they thought was fried chicken, because that's exactly what well-prepared eel looks like.
I chuckled to myself as the serving plate was passed to me and I passed it right along without helping myself to any of its contents.
"What are you doing?" my father asked, as if I'd committed some unspeakable act.
"Passing the dish," I told him.
"Aren't you going to have some?" It was more a command than a question.
"No, thank you," I said, most politely.
"You want to bring bad luck on this family?" he threatened.
"I thought I already had," I said.
"Don't be a wise guy," my father told me. "Take a piece of the eel."
"The what!?" the lovely blond woman sitting next to me gasped, nearly dropping the plate that I had just handed to her. She was the wife of a young lawyer my father had recently hired. She was trying so hard to make a good impression. I couldn't wait to see just how far she would go.
"Eel," my father told her matter-of-factly, as if they were common as dinner rolls. "Take one."
Her husband glared at her from across the table.
With all eyes on her, she scanned the plate for the smallest piece she could find. As she speared it with her fork, she had the same look of determination and revulsion that my father had had earlier when he drove the ice pick into its head. Then she passed the plate like a little kid playing Hot Potato.
"Taste it," my father instructed.
Her eyes darted around the table, begging for someone to intercede.
I was probably the only person at that table who might be inclined to mouth off to my father. But since the eel plate had passed me by without my having taken a piece, I was in no mood to draw attention to myself.
"You'll like it," he assured her. "It tastes just like chicken."
The poor woman was visibly fighting the gag reflex as she picked up her piece of eel and took a mouse-size nibble off the corner.
"Well?" My father waited for her opinion.
"You're right," she said with a forced smile, putting the eel onto her plate so that it didn't touch any of the other food. "It does taste like chicken."
Under my father's watchful eye, every person at the table took at least one bite of eel, even me. And every one of us, without exception, agreed that it did indeed taste exactly like chicken.
While people in other households were probably recounting the story of the nativity on that most holy night, our whole house was vibrating with laughter from the telling of the tale of the Christmas eels.
On one hand, it did seem pretty stupid to go to all that trouble for something that tasted like chicken. But somehow, amid all the laughter, it was impossible not to feel very, very lucky.
Copyright © 2003 by Gina Cascone
1. One of the Boys
2. Come Si Chiamas
3. One Malocchio, Two Malocchio, Three Malocchio...
4. Che Disastro!
5. Immigration and Denaturalization
6. These Hands Were Made for Talkin'
7. Time to Kill the Dinner
8. Eels in the Bathtub
9. An Italian Nose
11. Breakin' Balls
12. Driving the Cadillac
13. The Mafia Princess
14. Yes, Virginia, There is a Mafia
15. Enter Prince Charming
16. You Are What You Eat
17. Back to the Old Country
18. That's Amore