Friday 30 December 2016

Willie Wonka Doesn’t Care One Whit if Augustus Gloop Drowns (and That’s Why We Love Him!)

Willy Wonka: Stop, don’t, come back

It’s a slight, seemingly empty bit of dialogue, isn’t it? Yet imbued with Gene Wilder’s sarcastic intonation the dialogue expresses that he actually couldn’t care less if the kid to whom he’s speaking comes back or not. He speaks the ostensibly dull sentence in an unflappable, flat tone such that it becomes richly, perversely, funny. It is is also, oh, just a teensy bit mean. As is our Mr. Wonka himself.

Indeed, this is the key to Wonka’s character: we love his subtle, light as a feather barbs, even if they are at the expense of children. We love that he stands by looking bored and doesn’t seem to care one whit when Augustus Gloop is near drowning in a gelatinous river of chocolate. Nor does he care when Violet is turning into a blueberry. Nor when Mike Teavee’s physical body is being pixelated and transmogrified into a 2 dimensional tv image. And certainly not when our howlingly spoiled and appallingly unpleasant Veruca Salt is falling down that garbage shoot to be destroyed with all the other bad eggs. Nope, Mr. Wonka does not care a whit about a single one of them. Hell, he even rather enjoys looking on while the rotten kids, one by one by get their comeuppances.

It takes a special kind of actor to break one of life’s cardinal rules (thou shall not be mean to children), and have it come off as funny. Wilder pulls it off, in part, because of that gentle, soothingly cooing voice of of his. Recently, I was reminded of his voice while watching an interview that TCM sponsored between Gene Wilder and Alec Baldwin in 2008. During a ninety minute interview Wilder was charming, funny, smart and humble. It was clear that he had enjoyed making some films more than others, based not merely on what he said about them, but also on the way his eyes lit up.

When talking about "Willie Wonka" he looked as happy as a kid in, well, a candy factory. He gave more time and thought to his replies about Wonka than any other film he'd discussed throughout the interview. And he seemed delightfully proud of the things that he, himself, had contributed to the film -- things that the writer and director had not thought of, such as the particular perversity of his reason for giving his character, Mr. Wonka, a limp when he meets the children for the first time at the factory gates.

Mr. Wonka limps down a cobblestone walkway with a cane looking frail and lame, and presumably a disappointing figure to the children. Suddenly, his cane gets stuck between the stones, which causes him to fall to the ground -- whereupon he leaps up into a gymnastic somersault! He is not lame at all! To the contrary, quite spry. "So," asks Baldwin, "Why the charade?" Wilder looks at Baldwin with a wickedly (rather Wonka-ish), gleam in his eye and says, “Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”

The whole movie is about deceptions, fantasy, charades and honesty; Charlie's honesty in particular. Wilder was so joyful talking about this film that he took the time to recount the final scene with Charlie returning the Everlasting Gobstopper in detail, including the splendid piece of dialogue that Wonka gives to Charlie right then. Charlie places the Gobstopper on the table -- that same Gobstopper that the evil Mr. Slugworth had offered all the kids a fortune to sneak out of the factory to sell to him -- and Willie Wonka, furious a mere moment ago, now smiles and tenderly puts his hand over Charlie's, saying, "So shines a good deed in a weary world."
Wilder described the scene to Baldwin and finishes his description by quoting that line. Then he paused, smiled, and repeated the line with an even deeper affection for its meaning, "So shines a good deed in a weary world." Yes, it does indeed.

Margaret C Laureys

These Kids Today!

This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness. ~~ Dalai Lama

What a glorious thing it is to experience the essential kindness of human beings -- especially strangers, and especially young ones. Last night I was rescued by two such kind, young strangers when I drove into a ten foot snow bank. The driver’s side of my car was so deeply embedded in the snow bank that I had to crawl through the passenger door to get out. I found myself standing on a dark, abandoned street with no houses, no lights and alas, no phone (I had left my cell phone home to recharge). I could not call AAA and I was stranded. Once all of this had hit me, I began to cry. Then I slipped and fell onto the ground. I was a mess.

A moment later I raised my head and through the haze of falling snow I saw a vision of a man approaching with a shovel in hand asking, “Are you ok?” and thought, “Wait, am I in a movie? Is this the part where a savior rises out of the mist?”

I had thought there were no houses on that street, but it turned out that there was one house -- just one -- set back from the street so that I had not seen it and that from there, a nice young woman named Carly and her boyfriend Alex had seen my car swerve and hit the bank. They promptly came to my rescue. I told Alex that I had left my cell phone at home and assumed that he’d just hand me his phone and say, “Well, call AAA from mine.” Nope. It had not even occurred to the young man to let me sit and wait hours in the cold waiting for AAA. He did not skip a beat and immediately took his shovel and began to dig me out.

Carly and Alex are 20 and when I discovered how young they were I was doubly impressed by how helpful they were. Most people that age are glued to their cell phones with gossip, games and other nonsense and would never have ventured into a snow storm to help a perfect stranger as they did. I thought of how cranky old people enjoy complaining, “These kids today!” to suggest that young people these days don’t work hard enough or show enough respect or enough modesty or enough of whatever it is you happen to want at the moment and how they never realize that the previous generation had thought the precise same thing of them when they were kids. Well, Carly and Alex were kids today and they were damn impressive.

What impressed me most about them is that they did not merely help, but helped with joy in their hearts. Alex must have spent an hour heaving snow from that 10 foot snow bank. He was a strong man, but it's still hard work to shovel that much snow and he must have been exhausted. Yet he did not complain. To the contrary, he gave me the warmest, sincerest smile every time I asked him how he was. He was clearly working very hard and yet he kept assuring me that it was no problem. He was such a gentleman! Carly was likewise sweet and warmhearted and did her best to assure me that it was no problem. These young people sincerely did not want me to feel indebted or guilty. They had virtually nothing to gain by helping me (they had never seen me before and for all they knew, they’d never see me again), but they helped me anyway -- and helped with a smile. Wow! What good people!

I discovered that Carly and Alex have been together since they were 13, which I find very romantic. Talk about childhood sweethearts! I returned to the location tonight to bring them a gift of champagne and Godiva chocolates and while they were not home I took the opportunity to tell Carly’s father that he had raised his daughter right. And that he was lucky his girl had such a nice boyfriend (if her boyfriend is happy to help a stranger like me, then it's pretty damn certain that he will take care of his future wife).

I think the reason that this encounter has touched me so much is that when we experience human kindness we feel better not only about the world, but about ourselves. When people are good we get to feel better about the whole damned thing. And ain’t that nice?

Margaret C Laureys

Wednesday 28 December 2016

Just a Jersey Girl

I thought there was nothing more I could know about Bruce Springsteen especially since his world is already evoked in his songs. Listen to a Springsteen song and you see a hardscrabble, working class Jersey boy kicking it around in garage bands; sitting on the hood of the Chevy with a long haired, barefoot girl wearing bell-bottoms and a lost, moony gaze on her face; beers with the boys after a shift at their dead end job at the tire factory, all of them griping about the boss or debating a football game.

Recently, however, I discovered new things about Mr. Springsteen, such as the fact that he is, like me, Italian/Irish. His father, like mine, is the Irish one and his mother, also like mine, is the Italian. I never would've guessed an Irish ancestry because the name Springsteen hardly connotes one (the Vanity Fair article tells us that there's a great-grandfather named Dutch Springsteen, but fails to tell us anything more about the origin of the name). The Springsteen family tree is speckled with mental illness and alcoholism and Bruce describes his hard-drinking father as "a bit of a Bukowski character." It's hardly surprising that there's alcoholism in the Springsteen family tree; after all, there's Irish in it -- and I say that as someone with lots of Irish in her own.

My dad had more than mere Irishness in common with Springsteen; dad was also a straight-up Jersey working-class man of the sort you'd hear described in any Springsteen lyric. Dad grew up in Patterson, NJ, in one of its scrappy ethnic neighborhoods, and at 16 he dropped out of high school, ran away from home and joined the Merchant Marines (he lied about his age to join and forged his father's signature). He married young, learned a solid trade with which to support a growing family, thus becoming a butcher (and like a true Springsteen hero, he was loyal to the fellows in the meat-cutters union).

That growing family just kept on growing with a baby a year -- one after another, after another -- finally totaling at ten kids within a span of eleven years. He drank beer, never wine, and you can bet it was American beer. He and the boys drank at a small, plain bar with one dart board, a tv that was continuously tuned into one ball game or another, and a bartender who'd give you a wink when answering the phone and telling your wife nope, you weren't there. Though Dad did not have a high school diploma he knew American History as well as any graduate student and he read voraciously -- favoring the fiction of Norman Mailer and Truman Capote and the history books of Arthur Schleshinger and Will and Ariel Durant.

If Springsteen's songs are about the underappreciated merits and dignity of the working class hero then they are about my dad.

An Ode to Our Little Netcong

My friend and fellow Netcong native, Christopher Warnash, recently posted something on Facebook about Netcong which got me thinking about how much I love our hometown. Christopher had said something which particularly struck me and gave me so many thoughts about our town that I want to share them with all of my other fellow Netcong natives.

Christopher said that he and his boyfriend were passing through Netcong when his boyfriend had observed that Netcong appeared “grim.” I thought to myself, well yes, Netcong would appear grim to an outsider. I can certainly see how a stranger driving through would see just a bunch of highways and aluminum sided houses. But we who grew up there know how special it was.
Netcong was a close knit, working class, Catholic town where we all knew each other and in many cases were related to each other.

A surprising number of us were related by blood or by marriage and we kids would brag about how many classmates we could call "cousin." The Direnzos and DiBernados beat us all because they comprised the largest number of people in Netcong to all be related. They even lived amongst each other in the same hub of Netcong at those four streets near the Sport’s Club (Barone St., North St., Union St and Railroad Avenue). Even if not related, our people went way back together. Debbie Fiorello’s grandfather graduated from Netcong Elementary School with my grandmother in 1912. Back then they were still using the old school building, which unfortunately has been demolished.

My great grandfather lived in a stone house which he had built himself across the street from that school. He had emigrated from Southern Italy, as did most Netcong Italians. They came at the turn of the century for work on the railroad that by then was replacing the Morris Canal as the state's thoroughfare. It was good work and they sent word back to their relatives and friends that Netcong was the right place to resettle. More Italians came and they, in turn, told even more Italians to come on over to Netcong.

We had so many residents from Italy’s village of Cesa that we celebrated its patron saint, St. Cesario, every year with a parade in the morning and fireworks at night. The fireworks had games and rides and food stands, the most popular of which was the Sausage and Pepper Sandwich stand. Everyone went to those fireworks, even Father LaGatto, who volunteered to sit in the water-dunking booth. Father LaGatto would pinch our cheeks and say, “Che Bella.” He pinched pretty hard but he was such a kind hearted man that we actually wanted those famous Father LaGatto pinches! He played cards with my grandfather, who had come over from Cesa in the 1920’s (my Italian grandmother was already a Netcong native for a generation back). Grandpa, Father LaGatto and a couple of the other more recent Italian immigrants would play cards and drink espresso with a shot of Anisette in it. Not a word of English was spoken; it was all Italian.

Those hailing from a variety of Italian towns other than Cesa banded together and formed the Feast of the Assumption, thus giving us not one but two parades with fireworks. Our little town of less than one square mile had more firework celebrations than any other town in NJ. Even the big city of Hoboken had only one feast with fireworks a year. For us kids having two fireworks was like having Christmas twice every summer!

St Cesario’s and The Assumption’s members were competitive. Likewise, our two firehouses were competitive. The original firehouse was run by Irishmen, who immigrated to Netcong at the mid to late 19th Century. They would not let Italians join. Nevertheless, the two ethnicities got along well enough for many of the Irish Catholics and the Italian Catholics to marry. The Laureys kids are the product of one such Italian/Irish marriage -- it was common mix. By the early 20th Century so many Italians had come to Netcong that they overtook the Irish and formed their own firehouse. And so it was that Netcong ended up with two firehouses despite its being less than one square mile!

In fact, Netcong was so small that we could walk clear across it in twenty minutes. Netcong Elementary School had no busses because we were all within walking distance. The Laureys house was the furthest from the school, bordering at the town’s edge with Mt. Olive. I walked home with Debbie Fiorello for lunch as she was closer. A dozen kids from my class alone would walk together down the steep hill heading toward the railroad tracks. Then we’d stop at the tracks and go to The Ditch, that dug out space of dirt between the trees at the tracks where we snuck cigarettes.

Sometimes we would plan a special lunch time and walk downtown to Carmine's. Carmine was an off-the-boat Italian who spoke English with a thick accent and a sprinkling of Italian words, "Give-a mia uno dolloro," he'd say. I’d beg my mother for two dollars to buy pizza and candy, which you could actually do with two dollars in the mid-1970's. After eating we’d all go to the Five & Ten store where two grey-haired, unsmiling sisters would reprimand us for being naughty. They were old and so was the store. It had wooden shelves and real glass cases for the loose candy whereas everything at the brand new Quick Check across the way on Main Street (formerly the A&P), was made of cheap formica and plexiglass.

The spinster sisters seemed at place in that old, solidly built store. They themselves were rather drab looking. One was fat and one was thin and both wore muted gray tweed skirts and frumpy sweaters. The thin one wore those old fashioned panty hose that have less elastic and thus were always loosely crumpling at her ankles. She and her sister would toss us out whenever we were running around and grabbing candy from the wooden shelves. They once said to me, “Do you think your grandparents would’ve gotten so far if kids behaved like this at the ShopRite?” Boy, they were better at making a kid feel guilty than the nuns were!

My grandparents had owned a little Italian market in town from whence they gave credit to struggling families during The Great Depression (Netcong folks always took care of each other), and which they converted to a ShopRite Supermarket after the Post WWII economic boom. They expanded and eventually they had four ShopRites and became quite wealthy. But they never moved out to a more upscale town. Netcong was their home and they were staying.

When we didn’t go to Carmine's we walked home for lunch as usual, and always stopped by Ogly’s at the bottom of Stoll Street for candy. We drove old Ogly and his wife Mary nuts. But old Ogly knew us all and he knew our parents and families. So he was always friendly and forgiving, even though we were always running around and saying fresh things to him. We especially delighted in making Ogly so mad that he'd say bad words like, “You little pecker head.”

Mary was a woman you noticed with her teased bouffant black hair. She stood at the back making meatball sandwiches while up front Ogly ran the register, which was the old fashioned kind, hewn in ornate chrome with dinging bells to ring you up. When angry, Mary would waive her knife at us kids, but we only laughed. Nobody was frightened of old Ogly and Mary. We would occasionally go to Ray’s for a meatball sandwich rather than Ogly's but there was no horsing around at Ray's and hence it wasn't as much fun. At Ray's we would see the 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Castaldi, who was related to the store’s owner. She took her lunch break there and helped make meatball sandwiches in the store’s back kitchen.

Another adult whom we all loved was Nick, the Netcong School Janitor. He and Joe the Janitor were both nice guys but Nick was especially kind. He would tease me that Michael LaBell and I should be sweethearts and the fact was that I actually did have a crush on Michael. Whenever we played “Boys Catch the Girls” Michael set his sights on me and would chase me through the playground, the same playground where we played kickball for every recess. My classmates Freddie Trattino, Michael Labell and John Bongiovanni were especially good at kickball, as they were at all sports.

Netcong boys of every grade were wonderfully athletic and when we got to the regional high school that served three different towns, it was always the Netcong boys who reigned supreme in the school's team sports. Netcong people were recognized as having a unique quality by students from the other two towns. Byram and Stanhope kids were more transient whereas we of Netcong were rooted for generations. Although Netcong was one tenth the size of Byram and Stanhope, it was a Netcong native who served as the school's Superintendent. My grandmother would call Superintendent Joe Stracco and pester him about various things and he’d always oblige and then thank her for her donations, such as the ShopRite College Scholarships and the gym’s scoreboard. If he didn’t oblige her Grandma would put him in his place saying, “I remember you when you were just a little kid and were the Netcong football team’s water boy!”

Grandma’s brother Joe could be seen walking through town in his dirty pants with a rope rather than a belt around his great big belly. If provoked, Old Joe would tell a kid, “Go jump in a lake you little whippersnapper!” Though the brother of the richest lady in town, Old Joe was too proud to take any money and lived frugally in a little house on Stoll Street. He would attempt to clean his own clothes and hung his enormous underwear out to dry on the front porch railing. You'd drive down Stoll Street and see Old Joe sitting on his porch where beside him were size 56, stained underwear blowing in the wind. The neighbors were splendidly tolerant of Old Joe's unsightly underwear because they knew him. And they knew that my mother cared for Old Joe and bought him to our house once a week for a shower and dinner. Then Mom did his laundry properly.

Mom was just as proud to hail from Netcong as my grandmother was. Mom got further in school than Grandma (who had finished her schooling at only the 8th grade, as many of the old Netcong folks had), and Mom continued all the way through Netcong High, where she was voted Best Smile! My mother had ten kids which was regarded as a lot but not especially shocking as other Netcong families were also large. Netcong was predominantly Catholic and with birth control verboten by the Church, well, families got large. The Sylvesters had eight kids!

Our town was small but our families were big. Indeed, we were big in all sorts of ways -- big in relatives, big in generational history, big in tradition and big in our own special identity as Netcong natives. Netcong was our town and we loved it.

The town has changed a lot these days. The old guard Italians have largely died off and our own generation has all moved out. Netcong is now peopled by transients and a large portion of Latinos (so many that St. Michael’s now has a Mass entirely in Spanish). The state of NJ tore up our quaint little Netcong Circle and built a five lane highway in its place. It’s a busy highway with multiple traffic lights, which were also installed where Main Street intersects with the other highway in town. People who drive through Netcong on those highways go end-to-end in about sixty seconds during which they see a plain little town of no special import. But we who were born and bred there know that it was, in fact, special. Very special. Even now when I drive through Netcong I feel a small pang of love. I love my hometown. I was lucky to have grown up with this unique experience. We all were.

Author: Margaret (Maggi) Laureys

Friday 7 October 2011

Snitching by Margaret-Carroll-Laureys

I stood in line at a convenience store watching two adorable boys of about seven run back and forth from the candy aisle to the woman in front of me pleading, to no avail, “What about this? Can we have this?” Apparently, one boy was the son and the other his friend. They wore Catholic School uniforms which, in my eyes, added to their charm. As I looked on, I noted them fervently -- and rather furtively -- discussing a pack of Bubble Gum. I couldn’t help but chuckle when I realized that one boy was serving as a look-out while the other shoved the gum into his backpack.

The look-out caught my eye and froze. I quickly averted my gaze, eager to let the poor kid know I wasn’t interested in what he’d done and, more importantly, I was not a snitch. Alas, another woman had seen. With People Magazine under arm and an overstuffed bag dangling with troll-doll key chains, she duly marched up to the mother to inform her. The mother nodded gratefully as the woman spoke; and the woman, attentive to that gratitude, puffed up and expounded, “Well, I’d sure want to know if it was my kid. Who knows what could happen if they grow up thinking it’s ok to steal! You can spare yourself a lot of heartache knowing now, before it gets worse.” And on she went.

I could see her imagining the boys to have grown up hardened criminals – serial killers even! – if it weren’t for her intervention. “If that mother keeps thanking her,” I thought, “This lady will soon see herself host of ‘America’s Most Wanted.’

Yet I couldn’t feel superior to it all very long, as I was jarred by the memory of another child, twenty five years ago, whom I’d also caught stealing and whom I’d also blithely let off the hook. I was a college student living in Spanish Harlem with friends. We’d so enjoyed the thrill of living in Manhattan that we simply couldn’t return to our dull suburban homes when the dorms closed for the summer. Instead, we sublet a cheap apartment in a largely Dominican building where we were the only white tenants. The juxtaposition of crucifixes on the doors with empty crack viles all over the halls amused us.

Our six year old neighbor, Iyicha, often visited. She enjoyed the idea of grown women residing in an apartment without children, husbands or extended family. To her, we were like big kids having a perennial slumber party; playing loud music, eating junk food and wearing funky outfits (in which we’d let her play dress-up). She was particularly intrigued by my roommate’s statue of a glow-in-the dark Virgin Mary. It stood on a tin shelf alongside a psychedelic bong and an ashtray filled with loose change.

Iyicha often swiped change from the ashtray. We noticed, but didn’t really care. It was, after all, just spare change. Besides, we got a kick out of little Iyicha. She was a firecracker, inclined to asking impertinent questions like, “Are you rich?” “How come you don’t have any babies?” And my favorite, “How come white ladies can’t cook?” She jumped on the sofa and danced the pogo whenever we played The Clash.  

One day, I answered the door to find Iyicha and her mother arguing in Spanish. I’d never met the mother before, though I did occasionally see her at the door and sneak a peak into her apartment. Faux wood-finished end tables featured careful arrangements of school photos and Plexiglas chandelier lamps. Gold tassels and trim everywhere. Knowing our simple futons cost more than any of these prided items should’ve broken my heart. But I was too impressed by the singular effort. The red velvet sofa had plastic slipcovers. I figured Iyicha’d never dare jump on that. Meeting her mother, I knew I was right.

She frowned at my offer of a handshake, as if it were an uppity thing for a girl my age. Then she thrust her own hand forward to reveal a candy bar. “Did you give my daughter money to buy this?”

“No,” I said, truthfully.

The mother glared. “Her sister says she takes money from your apartment.”

“Oh,” I said, relieved. “Yes. Sometimes we leave spare change lying around. But Iyicha’s welcome to it. It’s no big deal. We don’t mind.” I smiled magnanimously.

“I mind,” she said. “My children don’t steal. Do mothers let children steal where you come from?”

“No,” I said, immediately chastised. I could feel Iyicha beseeching me to say something more in her defense. But how could I? I’d just been busted too. There I’d been fancying myself a hipster, when in fact, I’d been exposed as a spoiled teen who’d never know the challenge of teaching decency to a child – let alone a child growing up in a poor, crime ridden neighborhood. What was, for me, a summer lark, was for that woman a hard reality. The memory threw my condescension toward the woman at the convenience store in relief.  Yes, she was silly. But she did do the right thing.

Author: Margaret (Maggi) Laureys


A lot of people came and went through our kitchen when I was a kid.  Mom rarely left it.  My father, whose own headquarters were at the bar, called Mom “The General” and the kitchen was her command center.  She cooked, sewed, did laundry and helped us with our homework all in the kitchen.  Every major appliance – fridge, stove, washer, dryer – was lined against the same wall, along which she moved up and down for two decades, raising ten children and wearing a groove into the linoleum so deep the concrete showed. The phone, with a twelve-foot cord, stood at the end of the line.

Once my baby brother was enrolled in kindergarten and all ten kids were tucked nicely away for the school day, Mom branched out.  She founded a church organization called F.I.S.H., which she ran almost entirely from that kitchen telephone.

F.I.S.H. was an acronym for “friends in need of service and help” and a play on the fish that the early, persecuted Christians painted above their doors.  The sign of the fish established fellowship without setting off the Romans.  It was through FISH that I was first exposed to our contemporary pariahs – the drunks, unwed mothers and homosexuals whom even the church got in on persecuting.

Initially, the FISH clients seemed no more interesting than the garden-variety church poor – the families to whom we gave turkeys every year.  Mom recruited volunteers from our parish church and when calls came in from the needy she put them in contact with her volunteers and arranged for rides to the hospital or the market.  Mom walked up and down her aisle -- stove, sink, washer, dryer -- and talked on the phone, which she clamped tightly between chin and shoulder while she used her free hands to work.

As I got older and understood things better I noticed that Mom’s FISH calls involved more than logistical arrangements.  Some of these callers had dramatic problems.  There was the unwed teen whose family threw her out.  Mom went through her list of volunteers and put appropriate people in touch.  Couples came to our house and conferred with Mom.  I knew a match was made the day that the girl herself showed up and left with one.  The couple took the girl in until the baby came to term and could be put up for adoption.  A few years later, we were the family to take in one of these teens.  But in the early days, Mom just took the calls.

I knew most of these people only by voice on the phone.  There was the lady who called all the time in tears.  Her husband drank and she needed to find him rides for his AA meetings.  I knew my own father drank, but he never crashed our car or lost his job.  I eavesdropped while doing my homework at the kitchen table and knew that Mom also organized food drives for such women, women whose no good, drunken husbands were out of work and who needed more than that one turkey a year.  This would never happen to us.  No matter how much my father drank, Mom’s parents would never fire him from the family business, which, since it was a supermarket, also meant we’d never starve.

I’m sure Mom would’ve liked that I felt safe, but she would not have wanted me to feel superior to her FISH clients.  She did her best to keep these people’s problems private.  She was particularly cagey about a call if it involved a family with kids we knew.  This rarely happened, but when it did, Mom was right: we noticed.  We lurched and listened.  And something was definitely up when that couple came with their teenage daughter who talked like a boy.  I didn’t know the girl; I was only in fifth grade at the time and she was a high school kid.  I had two teenage sisters, Kathleen and Cecilia, and they knew this girl all right.  They knew all about her.

The girl arrived still wearing her uniform from marching band practice.   I knew marching band was for geeks, because Cecilia, the cooler of my two older sisters, told me so.  I also knew that Cecilia was the cooler one because Kathleen’s friends were, in fact, in the marching band.

I was at the kitchen table doing homework and I desperately wanted to stay to hear this girl talk more.  I’d never heard a girl with such a deep voice.  If it weren’t for her long, stringy hair, she could’ve been a boy.  It was 1976 and boys still wore their hair long, but not that long.  Besides, her being a girl and not a boy seemed to be the crux of the matter.  Mom sent me to the living room, which was directly beyond the kitchen and had an open doorway from which I could still hear.  You couldn’t really shut things out in our house; there were too many people and too little space.  My siblings were streaming in and out of the kitchen, living room and bathroom all afternoon.  I gathered what I could eavesdropping from the chair closest to the kitchen.

The mother kept saying things like “we don’t know what to do” and the father kept reassuring that, “No, come now, it’s not really that bad.”  They just needed to think about the other kids.  There were other kids to think about.  Apparently, the boyish daughter – I’ll call her Sharon -- was making life difficult for the pretty daughter and this could not be.  The mother then said what I remember most distinctly, because it was the precise sort of thing that made my own mother shake her head in disgust whenever she heard it:  “Sharon’s a bad influence.”

I went to a birthday party once where one classmate was conspicuously denied attendance.  The birthday girl’s mother thought the classmate was a bad influence because she was caught smoking cigarettes at school.

“There’s no such thing as a bad influence,’ Mom said.  If she had raised us right, she declared, we would do what’s right -- no matter the other kids were up to.

It’s a good thing my mother thought this way, because more often than not, I was the one bringing cigarettes to school.  But a boyish sister?  On what grounds was she a bad influence?  I needed to know what this girl had done. I gleaned better information after Cecilia discovered her presence.

“What on earth is Sharon Jones doing here?” Cecilia asked.

“Why?” I asked. “What’s wrong with her?”

Cecilia seemed to know all about this Sharon Jones, how she stared at the other girls in the locker room and how she dressed like a boy and how she should just leave us alone.  Cecilia didn’t seem to know anything about the pretty sister, but Kathleen did and it was on this point that Kathleen and Cecilia began to argue.

“Her sister’s a bitch,” Kathleen said. “You have no idea how mean she is to us.”

Kathleen hated the sister more than she liked Sharon and it occurred to me that a similar sister rivalry was at play between she and Cecilia.

I felt for Kathleen, as one often feels for the underdog.  But I also felt it was unfair to ask Cecilia to be brave on this one.  Cecilia hung out with popular girls yes, but she was only a freshman and by no means the queen bee of the crew.  Her position was precarious, augmented in one way by having big brothers who were handsome and good at sports.  And then, of course, there was always safety in numbers.  There were enough of us to be spread throughout every grade and every clique.

In so many other ways, alas, our family was also the problem.  Our house was crowded and every one of us slept two, sometimes three to a bed.  Worse, Mom hoarded.  Friends teased about the mountains of magazines, broken toys and empty cookie tins.  There was a joke that our house was like the Bermuda Triangle; once something entered the realm – be it an old shoe or a dried out pen – it never left.  Even the kinder kids commented on how strange our autistic brother Brian was.  Brian sat on the floor all day, Indian style, rocking to music and spinning tops.  He never spoke and instead made loud braying noises.  He often wet his pants and always ate with his hands.  Brian wandered the house at will like an untutored Helen Keller while Mom went her merry way solving the community’s problems via FISH.

Though never stated, I intuited Cecilia’s position and empathized:  our family couldn’t afford to be any weirder.

Still, the girl was only sitting in the kitchen.  As soon as they left it became clear that she would not be coming back.  Mom began making calls to place her.  I didn’t hear the FISH volunteers refuse, but I assume they must have, because Mom ended up putting her in a spare room at my Uncle Joe’s house.
I needed to know what was so wrong with this girl and it had clearly come down to one, salient question:

“Why,” I asked Mom, “Does that girl act like a boy?”

“It’s not her fault,” Mom replied. “Some girls are born with too many male hormones.”

I persevered, but hormones were the most Mom could make of it.  To this day, I’m not sure if my mother could come up with anything more sophisticated and I’m glad of it.  I’m glad she cared for the girl without understanding one damned thing about it.

My Uncle Joe lived in the school district and it was arranged for Sharon to catch the bus from his house.  I knew nothing of her sexual identity struggle, but I sure felt sorry for her now.  Uncle Joe’s house was pigsty. He was actually a great-uncle, my maternal grandmother’s retarded brother.  Mom brought him to our house once a week to bath him and do his laundry.  Otherwise, Uncle Joe sat on the porch with his hand his pants shouting at traffic or in his house shouting at wrestlers on the TV.  His filthy house provided work for some of the more desperate FISH clients, whom Mom hired to clean, but it could never be a pleasant place for a teenage girl to live, boyish or not.

I think of this girl often now because of the way my sisters’ respective attitudes changed in their adult years.  Cecilia went to art school in New York and developed the open-minded ethos of the single, city chick. Kathleen moved to Oregon and became a born again Christian.  Her take on homosexuality is right down the line with her fundamentalist church: it’s a sin because the bible says so.  The paradigms of acceptable behavior changed with age and geography.  Everything changes – politics, culture, and media tropes on tolerance.  Only the compassion that animates such things is constant.  Mom was constant.

She forbade the term “white trash” at a time when most people were just learning that it wasn’t ok to say “nigger.”  The whole country had just finished watching Roots and was engaged in a mass self-flagellation about slavery.  The guilt was followed by a glut of sitcoms telling us how to see blacks in a way that could make us feel good about ourselves again.  We could watch Archie Bunker say racist things to the Jefferson’s and know that we weren’t racist because we understood that the canned laughter was at Archie’s expense.  Likewise, Goodtimes’ introduced us to ghetto cool and told us it was right to repeat after JJ, “Dy-no-mite!”   We knew our cues.

But there was nothing on TV telling us it wasn’t ok to despise poor, ignorant white people.  I didn’t even see any poor whites on TV.  I only saw them on Allen Street, the poorest street in town where people lived in two family dwellings without garages and where disassembled cars rusted on view.  My schoolmate Missy Kappes lived in one of those houses.

The Kappes were one of those poor families who had not even ethnicity to help.  When my classmates bragged about being Irish or Italian (usually Italian), Missy Kappes had nothing to contribute.  Her family descended from various lines of intersecting poor for so long that they had become what my father called “mutts.”  This seemed to degrade them as much as poverty in a town where there was already little money and ethnicity became a proxy for class. It didn’t help that the Kappes’s never went to church. Even a Baptist Church would’ve helped, though of course, it was best to be Catholic.

My best friend, Debbie Fiorello, had the sort of pedigree that counted in our town.  She was a full-blooded Italian christened at St. Michaels.  Debbie’s father was an auto mechanic who wore his hair in a doo-wop like Frankie Valley.  Her grandfather hailed from the province of Caserta, in Southern Italy, as did my grandparents.  Many of the town’s people were from Caserta and many, likewise, were related.  The only relatives the Kappes had were packed into the same house.  Or half a house.  An old lady with hundreds of cats lived in the other half.   And she was probably a Baptist.

Missy achieved a certain degree of fame when, at twelve, she developed the largest bust in the school.  Boys began to notice her and the girls followed suit.  We invited her to spin the bottle parties, but I noticed that I was one of the only kids who invited her home for dinner.  Debbie Fiorella once told me that she wasn’t supposed to play with Missy.  I assumed it was because Missy’s brother had gotten a girl pregnant and it was bit of a scandal.  But it wasn’t the just the brother.  It was Missy’s whole family.

Whenever Andy Lamberto taunted Missy about her breasts he finished her off with the phrase, “poor white trash.”

“You’re just poor white trash," he said.   "Everybody knows that.”

I knew it, of course.  I just didn’t know why “white” was part of the equation.  We were all white and none of us knew any black people, rich or poor.   Clearly, I had failed to appreciate the problem of Missy’s being white without being one of us.   Her family was so out of the loop that they weren’t even on FISH’s list for free turkeys.  It was just as well, as I visited Missy's house once and saw that nobody there was of a mind to play Thanksgiving anyway.

Missy had invited me to sleep over.  I loved sleepovers and prided myself on the honor of always being invited for them at the Fiorella’s house.  Debbie’s mother provided junk food and let us play Nintendo in the den. There was only one TV at Missy’s house and I saw instantly that we weren’t getting anywhere near it.  Her two teenage brothers, grandfather, and a middle-aged man who appeared to be an uncle of some sort were camped in front of it watching a car chase show, probably Starsky and Hutch.  There were plenty of men, I noted, but none was the father.  Missy said she didn’t have one.

There was an overweight woman in a tube top, which I remember because I wore one too.  I always had trouble with tube tops because my chest was too flat too keep them up.  This woman had no such problem; cigarette ash fell six inches deep in her ponderous cleavage.  She looked too old for the brothers but too young for the uncle, though I think she belonged to him because that’s who she was screaming at.  She told him that he nigger-lipped her cigarette.  That started it.  The n-word came up now like a drunkard’s hiccup.  She was a nigger lover.  He was as lazy as a no good nigger.  She’d know it if he were to beat her like a nigger and she’d deserve it too, the no good nigger bitch.

I did not think “racist” when I heard the n-word.  I thought “white trash.”   I’d noticed that upstanding people – even those who might secretly regard blacks as inferior – were careful not to use that word.  It could brand them as trailer park and that was the lowest caste of all, so low it eluded even the liberal’s scale for tolerance.  Americans may forgive a black man for anti-Semitism or homophobia because there’s a mandate on compassion for minorities; but there’s no way to pat yourself on the back when it’s po’ white trash.  People like the Kappes had no claim.  On anything.

Missy’s mother sat at the kitchen table drinking and playing cards with the littlest brother, Charlie.   I knew Charlie from school and while I ordinarily avoided second graders as too uncool for my fifth grade self, I suddenly gravitated to him.  I invited him to come upstairs and play with us, which infuriated Missy.  She wanted to fight with the men for TV time.  I’d already seen the girlfriend throw a butt at the screen and declare it “the most stupidest, dumb show” she’d ever seen.  I think the poor thing wanted to watch something smarter, like Laverne and Shirley.  The man told her to shut her ugly, whore mouth or go home and watch her own fucking TV.  Then he took a swig from the bottle.

I’d seen men drink before, but not like this. Dad did his drinking out of site, at the bar, after a full day’s work in the butcher’s room.  Then he came home, alone, watched the news and went to bed.  Adults didn’t gather to drink at my house unless there were a party, usually a First Communion or Confirmation party.  The Italians on Mom’s side gathered at the buffet table and the Irish on Dad’s at the bar.  It was festive and followed a certain protocol.  The Kappes adults were drunk en masse on an ordinary Friday night.  I was also perplexed by the way Missy’s teenage brothers drank openly in front of the TV. 

Teenagers might have come to my house to drink and smoke pot with my big brothers, but they snuck it, and getting over on our innocent mother was part of the game.  There was no game at the Kappes house, because there were no rules.

There wasn’t even any food.  That floored me because I knew certain basics – bread, milk, pasta, rice – were cheap.  Mom always had generic, economy sized batches in stock.  She used stale bread to stretch her casseroles so that however bland, there was enough to offer any kid who visited.  She doubled a gallon of whole milk by mixing it with powdered milk and water.  I assumed all people, even poor people, had such staples in the house.  Yet when I asked for something to eat, Missy had to turn and ask her mother for a few dollars to go to the Quick Check.  Her mother told her to fetch a pack of cigarettes while she was at it and began to root through her bag for change which, of course, was missing.  Another scream match erupted, this one so loud that old grandpa had to rise from his seat to be heard.  He cussed as badly as his grandsons.

“Forget it,” I told Missy.  “We can eat at my house. Why don’t we go to my house?”

Things began turn when I realized that we could do just that.  I got it into my head that I didn’t have to stay there the whole night and following morning.  I could escape.  Missy seemed to think that if she could just feed me, I would stay.  She made her mother look harder for some money.  Mrs. Kappes went upstairs and then, on the way down, fell plop on her ass.  She slid down the stairs laughing.

The whole family laughed, which Missy took to be a bit of comedic respite.  “See,” she seemed to want to say, “We’re having fun now. You can relax.”   Instead, I insisted on telephoning my mother.

“You can’t pretend to have a tummy ache,” Mom said.  “And you can’t walk out on the poor girl.  It’ll hurt her feelings.”

I was surprised.  If I’d called from anywhere else Mom would’ve sent an older sibling to pick me up no questions asked.  She regarded her kids’ play dates as a transportation nuisance and no more.  As long as I could get a ride home, I saw no reason to stay.

“Her family won’t understand,” Mom explained.  “They’ll think you don’t like them.”

I considered telling Mom how there was no food and how everyone was drunk and racist and cussing but I knew that wouldn’t register as legitimate hardship.  Then I offered what was, to me, the greatest horror: the mother was drunk.

“It’s not just the men,” I said, “It’s her mother too.  Missy’s mother is drunk.  She just fell down the stairs.”

Mom remained perfectly calm and said it was no reason I couldn’t stay and play nicely with my friend.  In fact, she explained, it was all the more reason to stay.

“That poor little girl might need a friend,” Mom said.

A deal was struck:  Mom would pick me up, but only if my sister Vincenia agreed to take my place. Vincenia was one year older than me yet far less social.  I still can’t imagine what made her agree to sleep over Missy Kappes’ that night, unless Mom appealed to her in a way that made it a personal favor to her.  I’d never known Mom to care so much about how I treated a school friend, particularly since I had not done anything explicitly cruel to this one.  I decided it was about the family. Missy’s family and my own.

I’d noticed time to time that Mom needed town’s people to know that she was not rich.  Her parents, yes, but not she.  Mom owned precisely six pairs of polyester slacks from Woolworth’s that, together with smock and apron, comprised her daily attire.  She was five foot tall, two hundred pounds and so disinterested in fashion that when the waistband of her slacks snapped, she cinched it with a safety pin.  I suppose the safety pin made sense as a complement to the rubber bands perennially piled up her wrists. Mom’s one and only luxury was a dab of lipstick once a week before Mass. 

When my grandparents came to Mass they sat in the pew that bore their plaque and Grandma dressed as befit the parish’s main benefactor:  fur, jewelry and an eighteen carat gold front tooth so tacky that today it would be called ‘gangsta.

A friend’s mother once grilled her on our house once was disappointed to hear it was messy.  Mom laughed.  Nobody could accuse us of being fancy and this pleased her.  I, in turn, was pleased that the friend could report on the opulence of my grandparent’s house.  We all lived on the same street behind the old ShopRite, the very first grocery store my grandparents had built.  The street was regarded as the ShopRite family’s very own and lent us a stature decidedly different from anyone living on Allen Street.

I was reminded of Missy’s peculiar reputation once again when, one day, I took her with me on an errand to Grandma’s house.  Grandma liked to meet our friends and ask about their town lineage.   “Who’s your grandmother?” she might ask one. “Is she the Polumbo who married Joey the barber?”

Grandma would interrogate the kid to see if any of their relations worked for ShopRite.  She liked that.  If someone in their family were sick, graduating or celebrating a sacrament, Grandma made a note to have the store send a fruit basket.  She was almost as intent as Mom to elude a reputation for snootiness.
Unlike Mom, however, she knew nothing of the Kappes family.

“Where are your people from?” she asked Missy.  “What church were you with before St. Michael’s?”

Missy didn’t grasp the question and could only give the names of some towns where she’d previously lived.  Grandma let it go once she discovered the people were transients without a church.

When I was in high school I introduced a new friend to Grandma and when Grandma couldn’t place her surname she asked, “Are you Jewish?  It’s ok if you are.  My accountant Bernie Sobel’s Jewish.”

It so happened that my friend, Tammy, was the one and only Jewish student in my regional high school and to her credit, adored my grandmother’s loony questions.  I was now of an age to be embarrassed by Grandma’s noveau rich d├ęcor and made jokes about the all the red velvet and gold gilding.  Tammy thought it was fabulous.

“No way!” she cried at the sight of the place,  “It’s perfect! Just too, too funny!”  Tammy then nailed it with just the right touch of condescension and whimsy, “I so love that neither of your grandparents finished the eighth grade.”

Missy, however, was genuinely impressed, if not mesmerized by all that red velvet.  She fondled the crystal drops on the standing chandeliers and ran her fingers over the same gold plate utensils that Tammy and I would laugh at half dozen years later.  The housekeeper, who was usually quite ingratiating, followed us around in a huff that day.

She told Missy to keep her paws off the crystal, adding, “I just cleaned that.  You’ll smudge it.”

I knew this wasn’t true.  I knew that this housekeeper, Mrs. Ray, just didn’t like Missy.  She pulled me aside to tell me so.

“You shouldn’t be playing with that girl.  Does your mother know she’s here?  She could steal something you know.”

All I knew was that the Ray family hadn’t much more than the Kappes.  They lived in a tidy, but tiny, house near the school.  I also knew that Mrs. Ray was a FISH client and that Mom had gotten her this job to help while Mr. Ray was out of work.  When Mrs. Ray did Grandma’s ironing, she made a point of telling me how nicely she ironed her own kids’ clothes at home.  I knew her kids and it was true – they were terribly well pressed.  Nothing to be ashamed of.  But nothing special either.  None of my siblings found the Ray kids interesting enough to befriend.  They did just as poorly at school as the Kappes kids, though the teachers were not as inclined to pick on them.

I made fun of Mrs. Ray when I got home and declared that she had a lot of nerve accusing Missy of theft.
“Who the heck is she?” I asked Mom.  “If she’s so hot, how come she needs to clean Grandma’s house?”

“That’s a terrible thing to say,” Mom replied.  “Who are you, I might ask?”

“But they all call the Kappes’s white trash.  You said yourself that was as bad as saying nigger.”

“It is.  But the Rays don’t know any better and you do.”

“But shouldn’t she know better?” I asked.  I said that Mrs. Ray, of all people, should know that not all poor people steal.

Like most of my siblings, I enjoyed a good argument – even if I knew Mom was unlikely to engage.  She sat back and listened appreciatively when my left leaning big brothers discussed politics with our right wing father.  She was proud of the rhetorical talents they bore on defending their respective positions.  But if forced to articulate her own case, she could muster only the simplest statements.  For instance, “It isn’t about what Mrs. Ray should or should not do. Just worry about what you do.”  And then, always, the refrain, “Didn’t I teach you to be kind?”

Over the years each of my siblings has become enamored of some cause and in due course added our mother to the mailing list.  I love going to Mom’s mailbox because it’s filled with the most amusing variety of propaganda.  I can recognize each sibling’s ideological hand as I sift through pamphlets from such disparate organizations as Right to Life and Planned Parenthood; PETA and The NRA; The Southern Law Poverty Review and The American Family Association – all addressed to Mom. It’s occurred to me that we can each assume Mom’s allegiance to the right cause because what we really trust is that which is right in her.