QUEER EYE'S VIEW
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
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..."
"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.
"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
I looked around and saw a food bowl near the bureau. It was half
"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
"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
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."
"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
I switched from the soap opera to a talk show. He seemed to like
"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
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
"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
"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
"They were murdered?"
"By the 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
"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,
or through email@example.com.