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With Tommi Avicolli Mecca

Car Ride


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?"

"Sixty miles."

"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.


"You sure?"

"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 wasn't friendly.

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."


"Who knows?"

"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 and water.

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 Papa talking.

"It's when people get old and they get confused all the time."

"About what?"

"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 on driving."

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."

"Who? Nonno?"

"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 it.

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?"

"Yeah, Papa."

"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 car.

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, www.avicollimecca.com, or through mecca44@sbcglobal.net.




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