Dishonoring the family

dishonoring the family

the_scream

On two separate occasions, Papa forced me out of my house. The first time I left to get as far away from him as I could. The second time he actually kicked me out. 

I grew up in a working-class Little Italy in South Philadelphia in the 50s and 60s. We were poor. Papa and his oldest brother operated a small gas station two blocks from our house. They made a decent living, but not enough for Papa to support four kids. Lots of sacrifices had to be made. I wore hand-me-downs for my entire school life. Mama pinched pennies to keep us fed. 

I spent summers trying to earn extra money, either by collecting newspapers and bottles to bring to the local junk yard (we didn’t call them recycling places in those days) or washing cars and doing other odd chores around the gas station. 

Being at the gas station was tough. The retired macho Italian guys who hung out there sometimes hassled me about being effeminate.

My Uncle Charlie was the worst. He was a Philly cop. He ridiculed me every chance he got. “When’re you gonna start acting like a man?” he asked. I usually ignored him. So did Papa.

I knew I was different. I liked to play fashion models with my sister. I jumped rope with the girls. I didn’t know exactly how odd I was until one night when a neighborhood kid talked me into helping him steal a copy of Playboy from a drugstore. We paged through it in a dark alley. He was really turned on by the naked, pink-skinned women with the big boobs. I wasn’t. I pretended that I was.

He put my hand on his crotch and told me to unzip his pants.

That first brush with gay sex left me looking over my shoulder all the time. I kept expecting that god was going to strike me down for being a sinner. I couldn’t confess it and gain absolution. Relief came after my brother introduced me to the writings of French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. I decided I didn’t have to be ashamed anymore of who I was. Then I met someone at a bowling alley and developed a strong friendship with him. We were inseparable. Unexpectedly one night he told me he couldn’t see me anymore. I was devastated. When the depression and suicidal impulses went away, I vowed I would find others like myself.

I found them at a Gay Liberation Front coffeehour at Temple University where I went to college to avoid the draft. Within weeks I was secretary of the group. In no time at all, I was chairperson. As chair, I helped organize a gay liberation forum that drew hundreds, among them a man named Bill. I went home with him that night and the next morning we declared ourselves boyfriends.

It couldn’t have been more than a couple weeks later that Bill asked me to move in with him. To understand why I did it without hesitation, you have to know Papa, the original raging bull. Anything could, and did, set him off. There was no predicting what that would be.

Papa was also star of his own sitcom: Everybody loves Papa. The original Mr. Nice Guy. He would literally give someone the shirt off his back if they needed it. He was the neighborhood Republican committeeman and helped guys get their tickets “fixed,” and their problems with the cops “resolved.”

At home, he ruled his castle with anything but benevolence. There was no room for dissent. I was the enemy: A hippie. I was growing my hair, which sent him into regular tirades. I listened to rock music. I worked at a record store. I expressed radical ideas at the dinner table, such as opposition to Viet Nam and support for the Black Panthers.  

Papa adored Frank Rizzo, Frank Sinatra and Richard Nixon. I idolized Karl Marx, John Lennon and Angela Davis.  

I knew that if Papa discovered I was queer, my life was all over. As a preemptive measure, I moved in with Bill. I couldn’t just take up and leave. Southern Italian families used to have this rule: You didn’t leave home until you were married or you died.   

I told Papa that Bill was an editor at a South Jersey weekly (he was actually an ad rep) and that I was going to be his apprentice for the summer. I was majoring in journalism at the time. After grilling Bill for almost two hours, Papa reluctantly gave the nod for me to leave home. 

About two months into living together, everything came crashing down around me. I was in the living room watching TV one night, when Bill and a friend came home from a night at the bars. They obviously had too much to drink. I decided to go to bed. Bill insisted I stay with them. He also told me that he wanted me to have sex with him and his friend. I refused and headed for the bedroom. Bill and his friend followed. 

There’s only one word for what happened after that: Rape. I didn’t want his dick in me, he rammed it in anyway. I was in excruciating pain from the lack of lubricant and the size of his member. He didn’t care. Neither did his friend, who continued pawing me as Bill fucked me until he came.

In the morning, there was blood on the bed underneath me and my ass throbbed. I asked Bill to take me to the hospital. He refused, saying that it was just a little cut. I called a friend who drove me back to Philly to see my neighborhood doctor.  

I spent the next week or so in bed recovering. Bill didn’t offer much sympathy. He insisted it wasn’t his fault. When I felt strong enough to pack, I called my friend again and he took me back to my parents’ house while Bill was at work.

Life went back to the way it was before I met Bill. No one at home was the wiser. I came out to my siblings one at a time. They were cool about it. I knew I could never come out to my parents.

Fate had other plans. We received a call at the GLF office that a local TV talk show wanted to host a debate between gay liberationists and a doctor doing aversion therapy on gay men at a psychiatric institution funded by the university. GLF had been fighting the cruel practice for years. Aversion therapy involved attaching electrodes to the dicks of gay men and zapping them with electricity when they were shown pictures of naked men.

As chair of the group, I was the logical choice to represent us on the show. With great hesitancy I agreed. 

I knew I had to tell Mama. I found her ironing in the basement and dropped the news on her. She was horrified, not because I was gay but at the thought that Papa would find out. Mama would become my greatest ally in the family, but that afternoon she could only think of the mistake I had made in taping the program.

The night it aired, I stayed with friends. I was too scared to go home. I prayed Papa wouldn’t see the show, which aired at 1 am in the morning. I was right. Papa didn’t see it. But he heard about it from Uncle Charlie.

When I got home the next morning, Mama told me that Papa was gunning for me. He caught up with me a while later in my room. He read me the riot act. I had disrespected him. I had shamed my mother and sister. I had destroyed the family’s honor. 

I was no longer his son. I was banished from la mia famiglia. 

The real meaning of that exile didn’t hit me until I was gone from the room in which I had spent my childhood. Until I had to face holidays without going home.  

I stayed in contact with Mama and my siblings. When I saw Papa at one of my brother’s houses, he didn’t talk to me. If I called and he answered, I hung up. I learned to phone at times when he was likely to be at work. For years, I suppressed the feelings I had about the situation. I tried to pretend that it didn’t affect me. I was a rock, I was an island. The anger and the hurt was too overwhelming to face.

I had regrets, too. Every once in a while they surfaced in my thoughts. If only I hadn’t done that TV show. If only I had been more discreet. If only I had tried harder to get through to Papa afterwards.

To compensate for the loss of la famiglia, I created my own. I gathered around me a wonderful and eclectic bunch of folks who became surrogate brothers and sisters. We had dinners at my place, especially on holidays. Lovers came and went but my chosen family didn’t. My oldest brother visited me often. He even lived nearby for a time after he left his wife and took up with a girlfriend (now his second wife). 

I kept thinking Papa would relent and invite me back home. He never did.  

One Xmas in the late 80s, my oldest brother talked Mama and Papa into letting me come home for the holiday. I arrived with my brother and his girlfriend. The three outcasts. Papa wasn’t thrilled that my brother was “living in sin.”

The house seemed strange. Frozen in time. Little had changed since I left. My old bed and bureau were still in my room. As was the desk where I wrote my first poems and short stories.

Papa sat at the kitchen table and said little at first. The tension was unnerving. My brother kept saying silly things to get us to laugh. I just wanted Papa to say something to me. Even if it was “Look, you little shit, you made my life a living hell all these years, but I love you anyway and I know you’re a good kid.” 

He finally asked me if I was working. I assured him I was. He wondered if I had enough money. Papa was the money man when I was small. Usually it was quarters. He gave those out as a token of his affection. I told him I didn’t need any money. It wasn’t much of a conversation, but it helped make me feel more at ease.

As we started to go, Papa went to the dining room closet. “It’s cold out there. That coat you’re wearing is not warm enough.” He pulled out an old jacket. 

“Take this one,” he said. 

I fought back tears as we headed down the steps, Papa watching from the doorway. I was clutching the jacket as if it were made of gold.

It was the last time I would see Papa alive.

A few weeks later, he was lying in the emergency room all bloated from an aneurysm. Mama gave the order a few days later to have him removed from life support. He died within 24 hours.

It was over. “Ding dong the witch is dead,” my friend Philip sang when I told him. Philip had a lunatic of a Papa who once pulled a gun on me when I arrived at his house.

“You don’t understand,” I said. He didn’t. No one could. The emotions were so complex. They still are. Love and hate are two sides of the same coin. They’re inseparable.

It has taken years for me to realize how much I loved the part of that man who took my sister and me to Steel Pier in Atlantic City to ride the ferris wheel. Who won me a pink elephant at one of the game booths. Who gave me a quarter to buy comic books at the local newsstand.

A man who fed the homeless guy who slept in the alley behind his gas station. Who went to neighbors’ houses to make sure they had enough to eat. Who took care of us even though he made little working so hard at that gas station.

I didn’t know what to say to him when he lay dying. I wanted to assure him it was okay between us. I just stood there speechless, unable to articulate what was going on in my head. At the funeral, I was numb. There were no tears.

There still aren’t. 

 

originally published in Kicked Out, edited by Sassafras Lowrey, Homofactus Press, 2010

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