I had reservations about going to Pino’s house that day. I had heard many stories about his father, about him being completely out of control all of the time. Pino’s father had reportedly put his fist through the kitchen wall on more than one occasion and thrown a plate of hot spaghetti out the living room window at a neighbor who had crossed him.
Pino insisted we work at his house. Mine was off limits since Mama was doing spring cleaning that week. No sooner had I gotten up out of bed than she had my room pulled apart, with the rug ready to be vacuumed and shampooed. I suggested our usual spot, but Pino didn’t feel like hanging out at Day’s Deli. This one, he said, required a quieter environment. Besides, I think he liked getting on his father’s nerves. We were preparing a major manifesto for the city’s first gay conference, which started the next day. We were co-facilitators of a workshop on religion.
Pino’s house was dark. Someone was sitting in the corner of the living room by the window when I got there, but I couldn’t make out the person’s face because the blinds and drapes were drawn shut. From the hallway it smelled rancid, as if the place had not been aired out for a long time. The small house was crowded with furniture and all of the many shelves filled with books and various objects.
“Who’s there?” a husky voice suddenly asked, as if he had been jolted awake.
“Go back to sleep,” Pino replied, annoyed.
“You’re drunk, leave me alone. You been bothering me all day.”
“I know what’s going on, I ain’t stupid. What did I tell you before? Huh?”
“Go to hell.”
The man grumbled something and was silent.
The second floor of the house was just as bleak. There was no window in the narrow hallway. The old floorboards creaked. The smell of mold was overpowering. With my allergies, it was probably not advisable to stay long. If we concentrated, we could finish the manifesto in no time at all.
Pino’s room was tiny. The twin bed took up most of the space. Clutter was everywhere. In one corner, books and clothes were piled high. Various objects were scattered on the rug: pens, paper clips, pennies, etc. In the corner near the window was a small desk with an electric typewriter and above it a shelf filled with more books. The room was lit, unlike the rest of the house. The drapes were drawn and the blinds pulled up, though the view outside was of the side of the house next door and a sliver of the yard below. Sunlight streamed into the room, exposing the shabby condition of the paint. It was a pale yellowish white that was cracked and peeling in places.
“Who was that?” I whispered.
“Is it okay for me to be here?”
“Don’t worry about him, he’ll probably sleep till tomorrow morning. He’s pretty wasted already.”
“Where’s your mother?”
“Working. He don’t work. He’s out on disability.”
“Some accident. It’s not important. He’s no more disabled than I am.”
“Let’s get to work,” I said. “I wanna get outside. It’s too nice to be inside.”
I sat at the typewriter and Pino paced. He threw out lines. My fingers sped across the keys.
“It don’t sound right,” Pino said when we had drafted a good bit of the manifesto. I agreed. I pulled the paper from the typewriter. The afternoon sun was moving out of range of the tall narrow window. Its last bit of light hung off the edge of the desk.
“What if I read it out loud,” I suggested.
I read it. We both shook our heads.
“I’ve got an idea,” I said. “What if we start with something like, ‘As gay pagans and atheists we believe that religion is the problem, not the solution’? Direct and to the point.”
He thought about it for a moment. “Okay. Then we should say, ‘Even the gay churches are merely replicating oppressive modes of belief, such as in a father god who demands strict obedience to a Bible that condemns gays to death and’ … let me think…”
I put in a clean sheet of paper and started pounding away. I was on a roll. I finished an entire page before I stopped. I had incorporated some of the old draft with our new ideas. “Whaddaya think?”
“What’s that?” I interrupted, hearing something outside Pino’s door.
“Sounds like something dragging in the hallway…”
There was a pounding on the door. “Pino? You got somebody in there?” Pino’s father asked in a loud voice.
“None of your business!” Pino shouted back. He didn’t seem concerned. I was worried, but I told myself that Pino knew how to deal with his father. He had been telling me for years how, time after time, he’d put his father in his place.
“I don’t want nobody in your room.” It was a command from Pino’s father.
“I ain’t kidding. You better listen to me.”
“Get outta here,” Pino yelled to his father.
Had Pino’s father seen the way I was dressed? I was in radical drag: pink jeans, t-shirt, platform sneakers, and a long dangling earring in my right ear. My hair was long and curly, my face painted with a touch of makeup, my eyebrows were tweaked thin. I was doing the Lady Stardust look. There were parts of the city where that might be appreciated, even admired, but not in South Philly.
“Maybe we should…” I started to say, becoming more nervous. Dressing in drag, I’d learned that it was often best to retreat at the first sign of trouble.
“Don’t pay no attention to him,” Pino whispered to me, then said out loud, “Are you still out there?”
“I’m waiting for it to leave.”
“There’s no it in here.”
“I want it out of my house.”
“This ain’t your house.”
“Don’t get smart with me. You don’t pay the bills. I’ll toss you outta here on your ass.”
“You try and Mama’s gonna kick you out.”
“Your mother’s not gonna put up with this crap. If she knew what you were doing right now, she’d call the police. Maybe that’s what I should do.”
“What’re the police gonna do?”
“They’ll drag it outta here.”
“Go ahead, call ’em.”
“Pino, maybe you shouldn’t encourage him.” I was shaking. Pino was still calm. He seemed to be enjoying the confrontation. Obviously he had been through this many times before. I should trust that he knew how to handle his own father.
“I will,” his father yelled outside the door.
“What’re you waiting for?”
“I’m going right now.”
“Go ahead. Want the number?”
“I know the number.”
“Just thought you might be too drunk to remember it. What’re the cops gonna say about your being drunk? Maybe I should show them the hole in the wall you made in the kitchen?” Pino said it like a lawyer in a courtroom. It was all a performance to him. Maybe it was for his father, too. It was a comforting thought. They would play out their routine and then we could finish up and I could get the hell out of that mad house.
“Your Jew did that. They’ll believe that. They don’t like Jews neither.”
I knew Pino’s father was referring to Pino’s boyfriend. “Stan’s been here?” I asked. I was surprised Pino would bring him home. But then he invited me over.
“What if the cop’s Jewish. They got Jewish cops, you know.”
“No, they don’t. Stop lying.”
“You think they discriminate? They’re not allowed to do that. We got laws in this city.” Pino wasn’t backing down. He was provoking his father to continue this bizarre closed-door conversation.
“Laws? Who gives a damn about laws. Only the lawyers and they’re all a buncha greedy Jews…”
Why was Pino arguing? He couldn’t win. An argument of this sort could go on for hours. Maybe that was the idea. Wear down the old guy. Go back and forth with him until he was too exhausted to fight.
As if he were reading my thoughts, Pino said, “I ain’t gonna argue with you no more, you anti-semitic creep. Call the cops. We got work to do. Go away.”
“Okay, I’m going down to call ’em.” He sounded as if he really meant it.
“Let me know when they get here.”
His father grumbled something I couldn’t understand. Then I heard him making his way down the hall. It sounded as if he were dragging his foot behind him.
“Pino, maybe we should try my house. Mama might be done with her cleaning.”
“We’re not going nowhere. He ain’t gonna call the cops. He ain’t gonna do nothing. By the time he gets downstairs, he ain’t even gonna remember why he went down there in the first place.” Pino seemed really confident in what he was saying.
“If you say so.”
“I can’t believe you brought Stan here.”
“He stays here a lot.”
“And he doesn’t freak out?”
“Yeah, but who cares? Mama’s great. She cooks us breakfast and everything.”
“Does he eat with you? I can’t imagine that. Too scary.”
“No. He sits in the living room talking to himself. Says he doesn’t wanna eat with a Jew.”
“I thought my father was bad.”
“Forget about him. Let’s get this manifesto done.”
I was a bit jittery as we returned to the task at hand. We managed to get most of it finished before the next interruption. We were arguing over the last few sentences—wasting our time over grammar.
“Pino!” His father battered at the door. It might have been fists. It sounded more like a hammer.
“What now? I thought you were calling the cops.” Pino was surprised but still not jolted as I was. I almost hit the ceiling.
“You know what I got?”
“If you got sense, you’ll get outta here.” Did I sense a bit of worry on Pino’s face just then?
“I got a gun.” He pounded it against the door again.
“Does he really have a gun?” I asked, terrified. I thought about crawling out the window. We were on the second floor, but broken legs seemed preferable to facing a gun in the hall.
“Yeah, but he ain’t gonna do nothing with it,” Pino told me. He didn’t seem as sure of himself as he had been before. To his father, he yelled, “The cops’re gonna arrest you for that. You ain’t got a license and I’m gonna tell ’em.”
“They ain’t gonna care. Not when they see it. They wouldn’t want something like that in their houses. They’ll probably give me a medal for shooting it. Now you’re gonna do what I tell you. Right now.”
“I ain’t doing nothing,” Pino responded defiantly. I was sure he was nervous now. But he wasn’t going to let on to me that he couldn’t handle his father.
“Pino, I wanna leave,” I said, feeling as if I were about to shit my pants.
“No. You ain’t goin’ out there,” Pino said, his voice shaky.
“Why not?” I looked at him. “You’re scared, too. You don’t know what to do.”
“Don’t panic,” he scolded, as if I were a child.
“He’s got a gun!” I said in a louder voice than I intended. Pino put his finger on his lips to signal me to talk softer.
“I know he does. But he’s never used it. He just likes to threaten people.” Pino whispered, trying to resume his calm demeanor. I wondered how he could live like this.
“He’s done this before?!” I exclaimed.
“Once. With my uncle.”
“He pulled a gun on your uncle?” I couldn’t keep my voice down.
“You gotta understand, they don’t get along…”
“Pino?” his father said, impatient. “I ain’t gonna wait all day.”
“Shut up.” Pino was really angry now. It was the fear.
His father tried the door for the first time. It was locked. He tried again, more forcefully. It sounded as if the lock were about to give in. “I want you to open this door right now and come outta there,” his father commanded. It might have worked when Pino was five, but not now.
“Are you nuts? I ain’t opening nothing as long as you got that gun. Put it away and we’ll leave.” I could tell that Pino had just thought of that strategy. It was as good as any. I didn’t think it would work, though. Maybe we should call the cops. Of course, I didn’t trust that they’d be on our side after they saw how I was dressed.
I was beginning to wonder why I continued making myself into such a freak. Sure, there was a political point to be made in doing radical drag, but that message didn’t resonate with the mostly working-class southern Italians and Irish Catholics in that neck of the woods. After almost a decade of long hair and do-your-own-thing, they barely understood the counterculture, let alone the radical elements of the gay liberation movement.
“I ain’t putting nothing away,” his father said.
“Then we ain’t leaving,” Pino responded, folding his arms over his chest. He was being stubborn now. Or was he just trying to buy time?
We were at a stalemate.
“Pino, is there another way outta here, like the window?” It was a stupid question. But I felt like I had to say something.
“We can’t jump out the window, are you nuts?” He glanced at the window as if he were considering the idea.
“Whadda we gonna do then?” I was feeling desperate. I didn’t want to spend another second in that room.
“I could call Mama.” It was like he was thinking out loud.
“What’s she gonna do?”
“Come home and calm him down.” The thought made him calmer.
“Call her.” I shoved him towards the table with the phone. Desperate times and all that.
“Hello? Mrs. Palmetti please. Yeah, I’ll hold.”
“Pino?” It was the voice from the hall. “I’m waiting.”
“You still out there?” Pino said, as if he were intentionally trying to provoke him again.
“You know I could blow open that door.”
“Stop daring him,” I whispered. I wanted to kill Pino. Why didn’t he just keep his big mouth shut? I kept staring at the door. Please lock, hold up. Don’t fail us now.
“Mama? It’s Pino. Yeah, something’s wrong…” Talk about understatement.
“Whaddaya doing? Who’re you tawking to?” His father was getting riled up again.
“It’s that crazy guy you married, he’s got his gun and he’s…”
“Pino!” his father yelled, grabbing at the door knob again. He started shaking and pulling it frantically. “Get off that damn phone.”
“I didn’t do nothing. He’s flipped out again like with Uncle Joe. You gotta come home…no, I can’t put him on…Just get ovah here now!”
“Pino!” his father screamed. He was about to explode. The next time he yelled out his son’s name, he kicked at the door. Then he kicked again.
“Mama, he ain’t gonna calm down…”
His father let out a primal sound, as if he were yelling down a castle gate. Then he fired. The shot came through the door. Pino and I ducked. He dropped the phone. We could hear his mother on the other end: “Pino, what happened? Pino, are you all right?”
With a loud crash, his father’s foot slammed against the door. It swung open and smashed against the wall. Pino and I remained where we were, crouched on the floor by his desk. His mother’s voice was still coming out of the telephone. In the open doorway stood Pino’s father. A short, thin man with one leg slightly shorter than the other. He had barely any eyebrows and a chin that seemed too large for his face. The gun was dangling from his right hand. He remained there for a few moments. Then he stepped into the room.
Pino got up. I stayed where I was.
“Get outta here.”
“You’re gonna listen to me or someone’s gonna get hurt,” his father said. He was out of breath but he wasn’t shouting. He felt victorious, I could tell from his face.
Pino was shaking but he wasn’t going to let his father know he was terrified. He motioned for me to get under the desk. I did.
“Mama’s on her way home.” Pino said it calmly, holding up both hands in front of him, palms out. He spoke to his father the way one would talk to a bear that was hovering over him.
The phone went quiet.
“You,” he indicated me. “Get outta here. Now.” I didn’t budge. I was frozen to the spot.
“He’s not going nowhere.”
He raised the gun and pointed it at me. My heart did somersaults.
“It goes or I shoot.”
Pino stepped into the line of fire. “Me first.”
“Outta the way.”
“What? You don’t have the guts to shoot me?” Pino challenged, trying to act brave. His face told another story. “I’m the one who invited him ovah here. I’m the one who’s responsible.” Was he trying to buy time until his mother got home? I prayed that she didn’t work far away.
“I said move!” his father bellowed.
“C’mon, if you’re gonna commit murder, why not your own son? Huh?” He was talking fast, trying to distract his father away from me. “You’re gonna go to jail for a long time anyway, why not make it even more sensational for the tabloids? I dare you.”
“I know what you’re doing. It ain’t gonna work.” His father was suddenly glaring at Pino, trying to stare him down. Neither man moved. It was like a gun fight in the Old West.
“Now you put down that gun and we’ll leave.”
“I don’t take orders from you.” Pino’s father took a step to the left; Pino took one to the right. They were both holding firm.
“You wanted us to go. We’ll go,” Pino said, still trying to negotiate. “But not with that gun pointing at us. I don’t trust you.”
“You got no choice.” His father was still staring. That man was locked onto his son like a predator on his prey.
“I’m gonna come and get that gun, and then we’re gonna leave.”
His father shook his head. “Don’t.”
“You don’t wanna do nothing stupid.” Pino took a step toward his father. The old man stepped back. The gun was still pointed.
“C’mon, just give it to me,” Pino insisted, trying to sound reasonable.
Pino advanced a little more. His father hesitated then moved backwards out the door. Pino came another step closer.
“You don’t want me to do it,” his father said. He didn’t sound as sure of himself as he had been.
“You ain’t gonna.”
“Don’t test me cause you’ll fail.”
Pino put out his hand. He was within reach of the gun. I couldn’t look but I had to. I didn’t know what I was going to do if he fired. I dared not move. His father might take any movement from me as an excuse to pull the trigger.
“No closer!” his father warned.
“I just want the gun.”
Pino reached, his father cocked the gun. I was sure he was going to fire. A woman’s voice called up from below and Pino grabbed the weapon the moment his father’s head turned. Pino quickly turned the gun around and pointed it at his father.
“Now get outta here. Or I’ll shoot you, you asshole,” Pino said angrily. “No court would ever convict me.”
I was shaking so much I had to hold on to the desk for support.
“Pino, what’re you doing?” his mother yelled as she reached the top of the stairs. “Give me that thing!” Pino shook his head. His face was red with rage. I thought it was going to burst.
“No, I’m turning this over to the cops.”
“Son of a bitch!” his father yelled, waving his fist in the air.
“Wish I were, then you wouldn’t be my father.”
“Go on, get outta here,” Pino’s mother said to her husband. Pino’s father moved away, dragging his foot behind him.
“I can see what upset him,” she said, looking at me and shaking her head. “I’m not saying he was right, but, Pino, what were you thinking?”
“Don’t start,” Pino muttered and put the gun down on his desk.
I didn’t want to stick around for another family argument. “Uh, I just wanna go,” I said, brushing past his mother on my way out of the room.
As I walked out, Pino asked me to call him later to discuss the manifesto. I promised him I would. The manifesto didn’t seem important anymore. As I hurried away from the house, the streets never felt safer.
(from Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity, Seal Press, c 2006). Photo of me in drag by Harry Eberlin.