QUEER EYE'S VIEW
With Tommi Avicolli Mecca
May 30, 2006
The August sun finally broke through the thick morning clouds
as we crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge from South Philly into South
Jersey. It was just after seven. Old Betsy, as Papa called his
dark green Chevy, shook and made all sorts of noises as she headed
toward the White Horse Pike. Usually, Papa patted her on the dash
board and said, "C'mon, you can do it, girl." Not that
morning. He hadn't said a word since we left the house.
Papa bought Old Betsy from a friend. She didn't have long for
this world. But Papa was determined to make her well again. He
took her apart and put her back together again in the garage of
the gas station he operated with my uncle. Before long, she was
up and running. Though Old Betsy complained a lot, she always
got us to where we wanted to go. On weekends, Papa washed and
polished her so that her metal shone. He vacuumed out her floors
and seats, too.
Once we were clear of the bridge, the sky turned a brilliant
blue. Not a trace of clouds anywhere. It was a good omen. The
highway was wide, with tall bushy trees and thick dark green foliage
on either side. Every once in a while, a row of small, two-story
houses or an old wooden gas station with a single pump would appear
out of nowhere. Flat fields of corn and vast stretches of grass
with fenced-in horses and cows were scattered along the highway
as well. The lazy animals were indifferent to the passing cars
as they grazed or stood in their meditative poses. Usually when
we drove down this road, Papa gave me the "shit warning"
as we called it, and we both held our noses. But several times
that morning I smelled that familiar methane odor and Papa didn't
even flinch. When was he going to say something?
Papa rolled down his window. The inside of the car had gotten
really warm. A cool breeze shot in. Papa put on the radio. Frank
Sinatra was singing. Papa started to hum a verse with Ol' Blue
Eyes then stopped. Sinatra always cheered him up when he was down.
That morning, Papa was as down as I had ever seen him. I could
tell from his mouth. His lips were fallen moons.
"If it's too cold, let me know," he said, finally breaking
the silence. He adjusted his rear-view mirror. He drove for a
while with his left arm resting on the window ledge. The sun was
in his eyes so he pulled down the visor. Papa never wore sunglasses.
Not even on the driveway of the gas station where the sun beat
down all year long. Sometimes he pulled a cap down to his eyes.
That morning, he hadn't had time to grab his cap. He barely had
time to get dressed after Mama woke him up.
"How far is it?" I asked, becoming impatient. It felt
as if we had been driving for hours already, though I knew it
had only been about half an hour.
"About 30 miles."
"How far is Atlantic City from Philly?"
"Then we're half way there."
He didn't answer. I wished the radio would play more Sinatra.
I'd hum along with Papa. Maybe that would make him happier. We
sang together sometimes when he bought home a new Sinatra album.
He always got them "hot off the presses," as he called
it, from Petrella's record store just down the street from the
station. Petrella was a regular customer and always let Papa know
when the new LPs came in.
I spotted a farmer's market up ahead on my side of the road.
A few cars had stopped and people were milling about the stands
with the brightly colored vegetables. When the family drove down
to the shore on Papa's days off, Mama always made us stop at one
of the stands and pick up some fresh Jersey corn. She always asked
to taste one first. If it was sweet enough, she'd buy a bag full.
She also got a basket of tomatoes for her sauce. If the tomatoes
were cheap enough, she piled two or three baskets into the trunk.
Then she'd make a huge pot of sauce, which she kept in the fridge
for her weekly spaghetti nights: Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
"Can we stop and get something to eat?" I asked. I
realized I hadn't eaten anything.
"You need to stop?" He was asking if I had to go to
the bathroom. Papa didn't want any accidents. There had been some
in the past when I was younger.
"I don't do that no more," I said defensively. "I
just wanna get a donut or something. I'm hungry. Aren't you?"
"You're gonna hafta wait til the next rest stop."
He was quiet again. I hated that he wasn't talking. The ride
was taking too long. The road was boring. There were no surprises.
No strange castles or mysterious mountains. Just a long, flat,
ever-winding road. The radio was okay but the announcer blabbed
on too much. I laid my head back and tried to doze off but it
was impossible. I was wide awake. And bored. I had to start a
conversation or I was going to go crazy. Just then, a big sign
appeared announcing a diner up ahead. Papa pulled up to the front
of it and we went in to buy donuts. The woman behind the counter
had hair the color of straw and a lot of makeup on her face. She
We ate our donuts as Papa headed back to the highway. I washed
mine down with a carton of orange juice. Papa had coffee in a
paper cup with a lid.
"Papa, can I ask you something?"
"How're we gonna find Nonno?"
"I know where to find him."
"He always goes to the same damn place."
"Is Nonno senile?" Nonno was Mama's father. He slept
on the first floor next to the living room in what used to be
the dining room. Mama said that he didn't have a normal bedroom
upstairs because there were too many of us to fit into the house.
Besides, he had asthma and couldn't climb up and down stairs real
well. He never came out of his room. Mama brought him food and
drinks. She bathed him every day with a big bowl filled with soap
At least once every summer he somehow managed to get out of bed
and make it to the bus station in the dead of night. Mama was
usually the one to find him missing. That morning she had woken
suddenly with a feeling that something was wrong. She went down
to his room and he was gone. That's when she woke Papa, who then
came to my room to tell me to get dressed.
"Senile? Where'd you hear that word?"
"Mama told Aunt Maria Nonno was senile."
Papa didn't answer. I awaited a few minutes then asked, "What's
it mean?" Mama told me what it meant, but I wanted to keep
"It's when people get old and they get confused all the
"Everything. He don't even know what year it is."
"Why don't you just tell him?"
"Cause he won't remember. That's what happens when you're
senile. It don't matter how many times somebody tells you something."
"Can't the doctors help him?"
"We don't got the money for no fancy doctors."
"What about Dr. Rappaport?" Dr. Rappaport came around
to the houses in our Italian neighborhood whenever anyone was
sick. I used to think that he just somehow magically knew when
someone wasn't feeling well. Then I discovered that Mama called
him on the phone. Dr. Rapport was Jewish but he looked Italian.
Mama said that I should never say anything bad about Jews, that
they were good people.
"There's nothing he can do about it. It's just old age."
"So why's he always go to Atlantic City?"
"He thinks Nonna is waiting for him."
"Why would she be in Atlantic City? She lived in Philly."
"She always wanted to live there, that's what she usta say.
Nonno wanted to buy her a house there."
"Maybe he don't remember where she lived."
"He don't remember nothing he don't wanna remember."
His tone got suddenly harsh. Something in Papa's voice hinted
at a deeper frustration than having to drive to the shore to find
Nonno. "Look, you're asking too many questions. I gotta concentrate
Papa could drive and eat or even read a newspaper.
"You mad at me?"
"No, it's just the stinking world, that's all. You never
get a break. No matter what you do, it don't get better."
"It's gonna be better when we get Nonno back home."
"I don't know why she don't let one of her brothers take
him for a change."
"It ain't right. I got enough mouths to feed. You'd think
they'd give us a little something to help out but forget it, nobody
knows you when you need them." He wasn't listening to me.
He was off in his own thoughts. I looked at him. He was staring
straight ahead at the road. His face was tight, as if he were
squeezing all of his muscles real hard. "But when they need
something, look out, they ain't gonna give you no peace."
I closed my eyes. I was glad Papa was talking but I knew that
he wasn't speaking to me.
"I was always the one who could do nothing right. 'Why do
you wanna run a gas station? There ain't no money in that! Why
don't you take your family places?' You think I don't wanna give
you kids something better? How am I gonna do that? That station
don't make what it should. I do what I can." He pulled a
handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wiped his forehead.
"Papa, can we stop somewhere?" I suddenly had to pee
real badly. It was the orange juice. I didn't feel as if I could
hold it in.
He pulled over. I got out and raced behind some thick trees behind
the overgrowth by the edge of the highway. I looked around. I
was hidden. No one could see me. It didn't even matter. I had
no choice. I seemed to pee forever. The yellow liquid soaked into
the ground. I aimed it away from the tree. I didn't want to hurt
When I finished, I found Papa leaning against the door on the
passenger side of the car. He was staring off into the sky. He
still had that tight look to his face. I stood where I was and
looked up to where his gaze was fixed.
"I keep hoping it's gonna be better for you and your brothers.
That's what I do it for. You know that, don'tcha?"
"You know how many times I wanted to run away? Just take
off in the morning and never come back? Get on a train, see the
world." He still wasn't looking at me. "I ain't never
been no place except Atlantic City. Every stinking summer we drive
down to the shore on Tuesdays and that's my big vacation. We walk
around the Boardwalk, get your mother some fudge, eat dinner and
drive back home."
The sun was intense on my face. It was going to be a hot day.
It already was. Papa's face was moist with sweat. I wanted him
to wipe it but he didn't.
"He came all the way to this country, thousands of miles,
he came here to shine shoes for fifty years and then get senile.
Is that what I'm gonna do--fix cars for fifty, sixty years and
then lose my mind and drive you kids nuts? Shoot me before that
happens. I'm serious. I don't wanna end up like that."
"Papa?" He looked at me. Were those tears in his eyes?
I had never seen Papa cry.
"If you get senile, I'll take care of you."
His mouth quivered as if he were cold. He grabbed his handkerchief
and covered his eyes with it. When he pulled it away, they were
red. Then he hugged me tightly. I didn't think he was ever going
to let go. When he put me back down, he told me to get into the
We drove off to find Nonno in Atlantic City.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a radical working-class Southern Italian
queer writer, performer and activist who fondly remembers those
trips to Atlantic City.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a radical queer southern Italian
activist, performer and writer. He can reached through his webpage,
or through firstname.lastname@example.org.