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With Tommi Avicolli Mecca

A lesson from Mr. Calcioni


May 9, 2006

Mama had a special assignment for me when I got home from school that afternoon. I wasn't happy about it. I hemmed and hawed for a while but it didn't do any good. I tried to find every excuse, even homework. In the end, I still had to do what she asked.

It had been a bad day. Father Kelly, the editor of the school paper, had asked me to stop submitting articles. I hadn't been published for a long while. Every article I gave him was somehow not suitable. I knew the reason: I was editorializing against the war in Vietnam. I had even questioned the school haircut rule. If your hair hit the back collar of your shirt, Father Cox pulled you into his office and gave you an instant trim. I thought that was wrong. Obviously, Father Kelly wasn't even going to let me defend my position in print. "Freedom of the press," he told me, "doesn't exist in Catholic school." I just wanted to drown my depression in my favorite rock music but that would have to wait until I ran Mama's errand. Too bad I didn't see Nicky after school. I would've hung out with him and gotten high. He was the only kid I knew who always had a joint.

When I got to Mr. Calcioni's house, I rang the bell first. I waited for the longest time, hoping that he'd come to the door. He didn't. I had to use the key Mama gave me to let myself in.

The house smelled old. I knew that the windows had not been opened for a long time. It was a warm Spring day and I was tempted to start lifting them one by one. But I had to find Mr. Calcioni first. He wasn't in the living room. I turned on the light in the corner to be sure. The room was too dark: The blinds were down and the curtains drawn shut. I thought that maybe he was asleep in the corner chair, but the shape that I thought was him turned out to be just a pillow with a cover thrown over it.

"Mr. Calcioni?" I called softly as I made my way through the tiny cluttered house. The rectangular wooden dining-room table looked as if it hadn't been used in a long time. The kitchen sink was filled with dishes, pots and pans. On the round kitchen table sat a tall stack of old newspapers and a typewriter covered with a thick layer of dust. In fact, the gray powdery stuff was everywhere. I peeked out of the small kitchen window with the faded pink and white flowered curtains. There were several large pots in the yard with plants that were just beginning to sprout leaves. A fig tree in an old metal wash tub was still covered in plastic. I wanted to go out there and uncover it, but I knew that there were more important things to tend to.

I headed out of the kitchen. A scary thought suddenly entered my mind: What if Mr. Calcioni were dead? I had never found a corpse before. I started up the stairs. I didn't want to give the man a heart attack, if he were alive, so I continued calling, my voice becoming louder and louder as I ascended into another darkened part of the old house. Yelling also relieved some of my nervousness. The smell upstairs was a mix of mold and Vicks Vapo Rub. I thought I heard heavy breathing. I was sure the sound came from the back room. I headed there first. I was shaking.

Lucky for me, he was alive. The covers were moving up and down. I didn't want to wake the old guy, but Mama said I should make sure he had eaten and taken his medicine. I looked around the room. There were pictures on the walls of people who looked as if they lived in another era. A tall mirror with a decorative wooden frame hung over an old bureau near a small television with a clothes hanger for an antenna. All sorts of objects, from jewelry to scraps of paper, were piled on the old brown wooden bureau. A chair in the corner near the window was filled with clothing, including a robe. Two pairs of plain black slippers lay on the floor beneath the chair. A small table by the bed contained bottles of liquid medicine and pills as well as spoons and a half-filled glass of water. Some of the spoons had stain marks where the medicine had evaporated. A large crucifix intertwined with a pair of black-beaded rosaries was attached to the wall over the bed by a huge nail. A faded picture of la madonna was taped next to it. She looked as if she had been sipping vinegar. Various other religious artifacts, including dried and discolored palm branches, were scattered throughout the room.

My eye caught a sudden movement near Mr. Calcioni's side that was facing away from me. A head peeked out from a bundle of dark fur. It was a large gray cat with greenish yellow eyes. It stretched its front paws and then sat watch, peering at me the way that felines do when they are suspicious of human intentions. As if sensing that the cat had woken, Mr. Calcioni stirred.

"Bona sera," I said as he opened his eyes. My Italian was limited but I knew enough to have a basic conversation.

"Who's there?" he asked in Italian.

"Sono Tony, il vicino...It's Tony, your neighbor."


"Mama sent me, uh, Rosa from two doors down..."

"Il doctore?"

"No, I'm not a doctor."

He tried to sit up but couldn't manage at first. After a few tries, and with some help from me, he was able to lean upright against the pillows. The cat had readjusted her position to lie against his thigh, still weary of my every move.

"Where's Josephina?"

"Your daughter had to go outa town to a funeral. She'll be back late tonight."


"Her aunt died."

"Oh, that's right, my sister. I couldn't go. Luna and me, we're not-a doing so well..." He was switching back and forth between English and Italian, sometimes in the same sentence. I assumed that Luna was the cat. "Is there enough food down there?"

I looked around and saw a food bowl near the bureau. It was half full.

"The bag's over there..." He pointed to a huge sack standing against the wall near the window. A litter pan was next to it. The pan looked fairly clean, with only one dark mass of waste poking up from the sand. I couldn't detect that familiar odor of urine or crap. "Could you fill it, per favore?"


I brought the clear glass bowl to the bag and scooped the dry pellets with my hand. Then I placed the dish back where it had been. The cat watched with interest, her ears and eyes at full attention.

"Now, il aqua..."

I rinsed the bowl in the bathroom and filled it with fresh water. I set it next to the food.

"Luna, mangia! C'mon..."

As if she understood, the cat jumped off the bed and went to the bowl. She sniffed at the food and ate a few pellets, then returned to her spot on the bed, meticulously licking her paws, then the rest of her.

"You gotta make sure she eats, she forgets, she ain't as young as she used to be, who is? Well, you are." He was becoming more alert.

I studied his face. His nose was huge and thick, the classic Roman nose that I heard about from kids in school. "Roams all over your face," they'd joke. His eyebrows were black paint brush hairs growing in all directions and meeting in the center above his nose, a sharp contrast to the bright white strands on his scalp. His ears stuck out like Mr. Spock's, only with clumps of pale cappellini sticking out from their openings like weeds in a flower pot. Around his mouth were three large warts with curled hairs growing out of them. He had teeth missing in the front of his mouth and half moon eyes that made him look as if he were sleepy.

"You in school?"

"I'm a sophomore."


"Si, signore."

"Terrible school. My kids went there. It was better than the public schools, but they taught them all kinda crazy things. All the schools do."

"Did you take your medicina today?"

"Uh? Oh, that stuff. Veleno. Poison."

"But you gotta take it." Mama gave me a list of the pills Mr. Calcioni had to have. I took it out of my back pocket. "C'mon, let me get them for you...you're gonna need some fresh water, maybe some juice, if there's any in the frig." I realized I was probably talking too fast for him to understand my English but it didn't matter. "You want the TV on?"

"Porche? Why? Buncha junk. Put it on."

I clicked it on, then went down to the kitchen, not paying attention to what channel it was tuned to. There was orange juice in the frig. I brought a glass up with me.

"Could you please shut off that programma? Put on something else."

I switched from the soap opera to a talk show. He seemed to like that better.
"Now you gotta take la medicina," I said, holding out the pills in my hand. He shook his head.

"What for? They ain't doing no good. Look at me, I can't even get outa this bed."

"But the pills'll make you better," I lied.

"All right, for you. Since you're a nice guy." He took the pills from my hand and swallowed them all at once. I couldn't believe it. I had trouble with one vitamin in the morning, let alone a handful. He drank down every bit of the OJ.

"Have you eaten today?"

"Josephina gave me something this morning..."

"You gotta have something else. Whaddaya want?"

"Just some toast with lotsa butter."

"How many pieces?"

"Two. And if there's a little soupa."

"What kind?" I felt like a waiter.

"Whatever's in la cabinetta..."

I made another trip down into the kitchen and put two slices in the toaster. I had to move some things out of the way to get to it. I found a can of chicken soup above the sink. I poured it into a small pot and turned the gas high. I wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible. I wanted to head over to Nicky's and see if he were around. The only way I was going to get through the rest of that day was with a little help from my friend, mary jane.

When I got back to his room, Mr. Calcioni was napping. He jolted awake a few seconds later. I placed the tray on his lap. He started to munch on the toast.

"Just the right amount of butter," he smiled. He seemed to come to life very quickly. He was definitely more awake now than before. "Why don'tcha sit down?"

I pulled the chair from the corner over to the bed.

"You said your name is Tony?"


"You're Rosa's son, no?"

"One of her sons."

"You understand Italiano?"

"Un po'. A little. Mama taught me when I was a kid. But I don't speak very well."

"You should learn. It's your heritage. Very important that you speek. You don't wanna be Americano."

"Why not? Sono Americano, I'm American."

"But the Americani, they're, how you say? Spoiled. They only think of themselves. They have no loyalty to la famiglia. Nothing's more important than that."

"I know but I can only be what I am."

"Si, but that's not all that you are. You're Italiano. You gotta be proud of that."

"I am proud of it."

"I don't hear it in your voice."

"Of course I'm proud that I'm Italian. What're you talking about?" I shouldn't get mad at him. He was a poor old guy who was dying. I should have respect for him. I was taking my frustration out on the wrong guy. It was Father Kelly I was pissed at. Mr. Calcioni hadn't banned me from writing for the student newspaper.

"Look in your heart. It ain't easy to be proud of where we came from. It's not Roma or Venecia. We had it rough. They all stole from us, all of them. Greeks, Turks, Moors, French, German, Spanish. All of them. A bunch a damn thieves."

He was going to give me a history lesson whether or not I wanted it. I resigned myself to only staying a short while longer then I would take off. I had done what I was supposed to do. I had fulfilled my responsibilities. I needed to drown out the world.

"Do you know where the mafia came from?"

"The mafia?" What was he talking about now?

"The French...They were the cruelest of the bunch. Always going after the girls. They say a farmer heard his daughter being raped. He ran with his pitchfork into the barn and killed the French soldier. He kept yelling, "Mia figlia! My daughter" over and over again. Other farmers came running. They were carrying pitchforks. The women had stones. They started killing the French soldiers..."

"Are you serious?"

"Mia figlia. Mafia." He pronounced "mia figlia" "mi-a fee-a." It sounded a lot like "mafia."

"So how did they become a crime organization?"

"Who knows? Everything gets corrupted. Even those who fight for good things. You know you young people didn't invent revolution. It's been around for a long time. I was no Republican when I was your age, that's for damn sure."

"You mean in Italy?"

"Here, too. When I first got here, I was in Boston. You ever hear of Sacco and Vanzetti?"


"Go out and get a book about them. They were more radical than any of you kids'll ever be. They believed in the same things. If they were alive today, they'd be growing their hair and singing that rock music. They wanted workers to be paid enough to feed their families, they were against war and the military..."


"I met them and their crowd. I believed the same things. Still do. Before you knew it, they murdered them to keep them quiet..."

"They were murdered?"

"By the government."

"What government?"

"Your government."

"You mean, our government?"

"No, your government. I ain't got no government. Don't believe in them. Never did. Never will."

"But without government..."

"We'd all be a lot better off and we'd have nobody telling us to pay taxes and stop jay walking. Fat lotta good any of it does."

"They just killed them? No trial or nothing?"

"Sure, they made up something. Said they killed somebody. It was all lies."

"How come I never heard of them?"

"Cause the Italians in this country don't wanna associate with no radicals. They'd rather be celebrating that Columbus guy. Idiota. I got no time for that foolishness. You in a rush? I got some things to tell you."

I was no longer in a hurry to leave.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a radical queer southern Italian activist, performer and writer. He can reached through his webpage, www.avicollimecca.com, or through mecca44@sbcglobal.net.




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