Archive for October, 2016

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The Price They Paid

October 23, 2016
the great irony of America

the great irony of America

America has historically been a land of immigrants from the advent of the Pilgrims right through the present. This country is still seen by many people all over the world as the best hope for a better future, but it has always come with a price.

In spite of the altruistic welcome by Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty which says “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me…,” each new immigrant group is often met with disdain, misunderstanding, distrust, and often outright hatred. This has been true for virtually every nationality and ethnicity, and it was no different for the Italian immigrants who flocked to these shores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The indignities began with many instances of violence. Between the years of 1870 and 1940, only African-Americans suffered more lynchings than the Italian immigrants. The dubious distinction of the largest mass lynching in American history falls to the Italians in 1891.

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This occurred in New Orleans after the police chief was shot and killed right before he was to testify against a group of Italian dock workers. The chief reportedly whispered “the dagos did it” before he died. The city reacted by rounding up Italian men indiscriminately. As related by the New Orleans Times-Democrat, “The little jail was crowded with Sicilians whose low, receding foreheads, repulsive countenances and slovenly attire proclaimed their brutal nature.”

Nine Italian men went on trial for murder, and all were acquitted. However, a mob stormed the prison, shot nine of them in their cells, and then dragged two more out and hanged them. A subsequent investigation excused the actions of the mob, something that caused the government of Italy to sever diplomatic relations with the United States.

There are far too many examples of the brutal manifestation of the ill feelings directed toward these newcomers. In 1920, the Italian neighborhood in West Frankfort, Illinois, was attacked by mobs. People of all ages were dragged from their homes and beaten, and entire blocks were burned. The railroading and ultimate executions of Sacco and Vanzetti in Massachusetts became emblematic of the treatment of Italians by the biased American establishment.

Other more subtle forms of ill will had to be tolerated during the slow process of assimilation. There was rampant discrimination in housing and hiring, and students had to survive the negative attitudes and limited expectations prevalent in the schools. Being of Italian descent also meant suffering the disrespectful slurs that unfortunately befall all immigrant groups, from blatant name-calling — wop, dago, guinea — to crude ethnic jokes and innuendo.

When I was young, I remember my very Teutonic aunt making what I interpreted even in the innocence of my youth as disparaging comments about my Italian American mother. I don’t really know exactly what she said or even if I understood it fully, but it was clear by her facial expression and the tone of her voice what was going on. My mother just laughed it off as a joke, but I could tell that this was not the case. She never spoke much about such treatment until I was an adult. It became clear from her brief anecdotes that being Italian had its social drawbacks and that one would be commonly subjected to being called derisive names.

Popular culture often reinforces the worst of the negative stereotypes of any group, and so it is for the Italian American. From the spate of mobster movies that gained popularity from the older shoot-em-up Capone type films to the more recent Godfather and Goodfellas and the widely acclaimed TV series The Sopranos, such criminal activity has long been associated with this population, the majority of whom had nothing to do with it. Later “reality” shows such as Jersey Shore focused on those sensationalized attributes also widely accepted as part of the Italian American identity. Do these exist? Yes, they do, but they are certainly not universally applicable to all people of Italian heritage, nor are they limited to this one group.

So during this Italian American Heritage Month — as in every other commemorative month — some reflection is called for. Those of us who have descended from any group of immigrants regardless of origin should remember the price our predecessors had to pay for their entry into this new society. It would behoove us, it seems, to apply these lessons to our treatment of those who are now going through the same trials as our own ancestors.

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Remember your own beginnings…

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Look Behind the Curtain

October 9, 2016

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Donald Trump is a great businessman. Just ask him. After all, he made billions. Better yet, he will be able to use his incredible acumen to help the rest of us.

But is Donald Trump really a great businessman? Sure sounds like it. Until you look behind the curtain, that is.

The supposed success of Donald Trump is an illusion being perpetrated by none other than Donald himself. Do people believe him? Apparently quite a few do. Then again, in the famous words of P.T. Barnum, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

To understand Trump’s “philosophy” of business (and, apparently, politics), one must go back to his mentorship under the ruthless New York lawyer Roy Cohn in the 1970s. Cohn had gained fame during the witch hunt that was the McCarthy hearings, taking great pride in ruining lives, demeaning his adversaries, and freely making things up to suit his cause (sound familiar?).

In 1973, Trump hired Cohn when he and his father needed to defend themselves against a federal lawsuit for racial discrimination in housing. In spite of a mountain of incriminating evidence, Trump claimed he was the victim, and Cohn went on the offensive with a massive $100 million lawsuit. The case ended up with Trump being forced to settle, but he learned several lessons from Cohn during the process: use lawsuits as a weapon when attacked, never admit wrongdoing, and even if you lose in actuality, claim victory anyway. Trump did not forget what he learned.

In 1987 Trump embarked on the biggest deal of his life, acquiring the Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City. The casino and hotel were both huge and lavish, and Trump spent over a billion dollars on the project. Marvin Roffman, a financial analyst, wrote a column in The Wall Street Journal in which he outlined the unsustainable risk of this enterprise, saying he didn’t believe the company could cover the debt incurred from the loans and the gigantic payroll.

Trump, employing Cohn’s old methodology, threatened a lawsuit against Roffman’s firm unless he apologized or was fired. Roffman refused to back down and was subsequently dismissed by his intimidated firm. By that winter, as Roffman had predicted, the now Trump Taj Mahal found itself in deep financial trouble.

Trump had borrowed tremendous amounts of money — dangerous amounts, according to financial experts. He had bought the Plaza Hotel, an airline, and several casinos in Atlantic City. He overextended himself, and when the businesses did poorly, disaster struck. He blamed everyone but himself for the situation.

Trump and his companies owed over $3 billion, much of it to the banks from whom he had so freely borrowed. In a meeting organized by the bankers, Midlantic National Bank vice president Ben Berzin reported that Trump didn’t seem to comprehend the size of the problem or have any ideas how to resolve it.

“As for being a CEO, in understanding numbers, in understanding the ramifications, it doesn’t seem like he took economics or accounting in college,” Berzin remarked.

In the end, the bankers decided that rather than foreclose on the properties involved, it would be of more value to keep his name on the buildings but remove him from a position of decision-making power as CEO. They gave him a $450,000 a month allowance to continue only in the role of a promoter. After all, as Berzin commented, “He’s the P.T. Barnum of the 21st century.”

With the casinos still deeply in debt, Trump went in a new direction by turning to Wall Street. His enterprises became publicly traded on the stock market with Trump as the pitchman. At their high, the DJT stocks sold at $35 a share, though their final value sank to a dismal $1.60 a share.

Insiders looked at Trump’s stewardship of a publicly traded company “like leaving a kid locked in a candy store.” He paid himself a $44 million salary for “services” and was reimbursed millions more for a private plane, a helicopter, and “administrative costs.”

Trump personally made tens of millions of dollar a year while the stock prices dropped. Three times the company filed for bankruptcy, and investors lost billions. He never earned any profit for his shareholders, and many pensioners were set back severely because of the performance of these stocks in which their retirement funds had been invested.

Though the failure was his, he took neither the loss nor the responsibility. When asked by a reporter about the financial problems, he smirked and asked, “Why do you say they’re problems?” He described it as a success and blamed the shareholders themselves for their losses.

In light of all this, how did the widely held perception that he’s a great businessman proliferate? After leaving this financial mess behind him, he began selling his well-known name. He raked in the profits for doing no more than allowing his brand to be put on other people’s buildings. Those walking by would see the Trump name on properties and assume that they must be another part of his vast empire. They were not.

Then in a masterstroke of showmanship, he brought his act to television with his show The Apprentice. In a controlled environment that made him look knowledgeable, in-charge, and all-powerful, he had a ready-made audience of potential voters seeing him in nothing but a favorable light. Though called “reality TV,” it bore absolutely no connection to any reality that would impact anyone in the country outside of himself and the cultivation of his image.

Now we are seeing the fallout of these years, both in his ability to even be able to run for the office of President in spite of having no relevant experience or qualifications of substance as well as in the controversies now coming to light, the most prominent being his unrevealed tax return information. According to him, his avoidance of paying his fair share of taxes is “smart,” and his defense is that it was legal. Perhaps so, but that does not make it admirable or acceptable. At best it is selfish; at worst it epitomizes the callous indifference of a wealthy and arrogant manipulator of the system.

So you want to vote for Trump? Go ahead, it’s your prerogative. But don’t do so because of his self-trumpeted prowess as a businessman, for it simply is not true.

Just like in the Wizard of Oz, go look behind the curtain, and all you’ll see there is the little man who controls the illusion.

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The Italian in Me

October 2, 2016

Though many are likely not aware of it, October is National Italian American Heritage Month. No doubt quite a few jokes have been made at the expense of this commemorative designation, but in spite of many widespread negative images and stereotypes of Italian Americans, there is much to be proud of.

Almost 6% of the population of our country, some 15.7 million people, are of Italian heritage. Though most of the original immigrants started their journey in the United States low on the totem pole, the successive generations have made their mark in virtually every area of endeavor. Best known, of course, are those who achieved prominence in music, film, and sports (and yes, unfortunately, crime), names familiar to all: Frank Sinatra, Robert De Niro, Joe DiMaggio, Al Capone. However, others, though perhaps not household names, have excelled in politics, jurisprudence, the sciences, and the arts.

But most have not achieved fame. They are policemen, firemen, mechanics, nurses, teachers, and office workers, the ordinary people in all walks of life, each bringing some degree of their Italian background to their American lives. I believe the American culture has been enriched by their contributions as well.

My Italian-American mom Ida.

My Italian American mom Ida.

I happen to be half Italian, that half coming from my mother. She was named Aida after the opera, though everyone knew her as Ida. Her family was 100% Italian. During my entire childhood, we would make weekly Sunday visits to the Brooklyn home of Sal and Mary Laporte, my grandparents, where I learned about my Italian heritage. Most of what I know about the food, language, and customs came from that small second-floor railroad apartment on Bay Ridge Avenue.

My mother had not only married a non-Italian, but someone from New Jersey, for heaven’s sake. I suppose these Sunday family visits were a necessary part of the deal for my father, not that he minded once he sat down at my grandma’s dinner table. That alone was worth the drive.

My grandpa would “reserve” a parking space right out in front of the building by placing his beat-up garbage cans in the street and then standing guard on his stoop so no interloper could sneak in. When we’d pull up, he’d greet us, cigar jutting out from his big smile showing his single front tooth. Grandma would be upstairs cooking, and as we were ushered up the steps, she’d come down the hall to deliver her smothering hugs with her apron on and a wooden spoon in her hand.

My cousin Bobby (taken in by my grandma as a boy after his mother died) would pop in from his daily duty of hanging around the neighborhood and sometimes pull me aside into his tiny room to show me some teenage treasure of his (a switch blade, a Cadillac hubcap he’d “found”) or tell some story of his latest adventures. A few years older than me and a whole lot more street smart, I learned most of the curse words I knew from these sessions. Soon my Uncle Mike and Aunt Josie who lived downstairs would come up with cousins Mike and Gerry.

the backyard at Bay Ridge Ave.-- Bobby and grandpa (with ever-present stogie)

the backyard at Bay Ridge Ave. with a young Bobby and grandpa (with ever-present stogie)

Of course the reason for the trip was to see family, but the main event was the food. As my grandmother, mother, and Aunt Josie finished up in the kitchen, we would all congregate in the dining room in eager anticipation.

The eating would begin around noon and continue on and off until coffee and desert time around seven. In between, plentiful courses were served in the warmth of the old-fashioned dining room, foods that resonated with the sound of Italy: braciole, prosciutto, provolone, pasta e fagioli, rigatoni. These courses would be separated by adult conversation and kids going off to play or nap to return again for the next round.

First came the antipasto, a table full of all kinds of delectable finger foods, cheeses and olives and crusty bread. Then the part I loved best, the pasta with steam rising off the huge platter along with extra gravy bowls full of red, rich, aromatic tomato sauce. My taste expectations for pasta were set here, seldom to be met elsewhere until I got married; my mother-in-law’s gravy turned out to be almost an exact match! Then there would be meat dishes accompanied by vegetables and followed by salad. Grandpa presided over the whole operation, wine bottle by his side. These meals were legendary, and we would all stuff ourselves to the point of near exploding amidst the loud and animated conversations liberally peppered with Italian curses swirling about the table and the unmistakable feel of family bonds.

As the day drew to a close, coats were retrieved and goodbyes were said, and we headed back through the dusk to my other world on the Jersey side. I would often nod off in the back seat, dreams fueled by the tastes of my forefathers. Those Sundays in Brooklyn captured that irreplaceable time in my life when the connections to family roots were so strong. I cherish the memories, and I am thankful that I can look back and see where I came from and recognize those parts of me that are indebted to Sal and Mary and pasta that was nothing short of paradise.

My adult life received a second infusion when I married an Italian American girl. My address book took on many additions to the LaPortes and Rizzos with Vendittis, Bertuccis, and Butricos joining the list. Her parents, Mary and Tony, provided continuity in the fueling of the Italian in me.

The Christmases of most of my adult life that I enjoyed so much involved sitting around the table in the dining room at my in-laws. On Christmas Eve we held the traditional dinner of seven fishes. Then on Christmas day once again, the food — oh, the food! First the plates of capocol, pepperoni, salami, prosciutto, and tangy chunks of provolone, the bowls of olives and peperoncini, home-roasted red peppers in garlic and olive oil, crunchy celery and fennel, tuna fish and crusty Italian bread, and highlighted by Mary’s specialty, stuffed mushrooms, all enough for a meal by itself. A time for more wine and lively conversation, and then the arrival of Mary’s piece d’ resistance, lasagna, a massive platter of pasta layers filled with ricotta and tiny meatballs and topped with melted mozzarella and her incomparable red gravy. My mouth waters merely thinking about it.

After Mary could no longer manage all the preparation, the tradition carried forth at our house for Christmas Eve and then at my brother-in-law Anthony’s for Christmas. Though the gathering may have grown smaller in number over the years, it has remained great in spirit.

Christmas Eve seven fishes, now at our house

Christmas Eve with the seven fishes, now at our house.

Since the influx of Italians into America, our society has been influenced by and in turn has influenced those who stem from that southern boot of Europe. This unique blend of Italian-American-ness has manifest itself in both positive and sometimes not so positive ways. I choose to celebrate the positive and revel in the warmth, passion, friendliness, and generosity so typical of this heritage which has become an integral part of the American fabric. So to all my connazionali out there, full-blooded or otherwise, I wish you buona salute, lunga vita, and felicita, and may we keep the best of ourselves flourishing.