Friday, October 26, 2007

Show Me What You're Made Of - The Story

While my father dreamed of my growing up to follow in his footsteps and work in the construction industry, I dreamed of growing up to be more like my mother—a housewife. As a child, one of my favorite pastimes was hanging my sister’s doll’s clothes on my very own clothesline in our backyard. I was three and no one in the family suspected it was that big a deal; after all, I was just assisting Mom with her daily chores. Besides I had three older sisters; dolls were hard to avoid in our household. However, my father’s brother Vito felt my penchant for dolls was a huge deal and his animosity towards the situation grew even worse once I began to cheer. All three of my older sisters were members of the St. Pancras School cheerleading squad; my mother was the cheerleading coach. As a result, I spent almost every afternoon in the school gymnasium with Mom and the girls, intently listening to and learning all the cheers. I was good, I mean really good. My limber little legs allowed me to perform perfect splits, cartwheels and aerials. I knew every single step, beat, bounce, clap and cheer, which everyone praised me for and thought was adorable, except for Uncle Vito.
Uncle Vito was short and stocky, gruff and tough, with a sour look on his face and a receding hairline. He resembled Burt Young’s character Paulie in the Rocky movies, fedora and all. He never smiled, was always grouchy and yelled more often than he spoke, constantly clearing his throat mid-roar and hacking up a wad of phlegm without apologies and/or hesitation.
He would arrive at our modest two-story, semi-detached home in Queens (think All In The Family) about once every three months, usually on a Sunday evening shortly before dinner, in his white van accompanied by a middle-aged woman named Peggy, whom he referred to as his “lady friend,” and a massive man who must have been his bodyguard. (Or maybe he was the chauffer since he was the only one who ever drove? I don’t know exactly.) I don’t even remember his name, but then again I don’t think Uncle Vito ever knew any of our names because he always referred to my father as “Bro,” my mother as “Sisa-in-Law,” and I was always “Nephew” or “Neph” for short. My sisters were usually referred to collectively as “the girls.”
Vito never arrived empty-handed, and since I was the youngest, he always had gifts for me but for some reason he never bothered to wrap them. It was usually a metal Tonka truck or a football or something quintessentially masculine, yet nothing I ever seemed to really want. My mother would always warn me to be careful as she snidely remarked to my father how they “must have fallen off the back of a truck somewhere.” Anyway, Uncle Vito absolutely detested it when I cheered. The few hairs that remained on his head would rise as his anger erupted. As soon as I began clapping and shouting out my favorite cheer: “Action, action, we want action, A-C-T-I-O-N,” (a cheer I’m still extremely found of today) he would immediately start yelling in his gruff, gravelly voice for me to knock it off, act like a man and drop and give him twenty.
I was only four years old; I barely knew how to do a push-up. As my arms wobbled and my body arched and ached, Vito would yell, “Come on, show me what you’re made of, Neph.” Well, I wasn’t made of much, but Uncle Vito was determined to change that.
One Sunday evening, he arrived at our house as usual with his posse in tow for dinner. I don’t remember the meal that evening, probably standard fare—my father insisted we always have a traditional Italian Sunday meal of pasta—yet I do remember quite vividly the events that unfolded afterwards.
I was nestled on the sofa with my sisters, watching TV, most likely charting the hits on the latest episode of Solid Gold, Uncle Vito summoned me to the dining room. To Uncle Vito’s left stood a brown leather punching bag about three feet high atop a metal spring secured to a plywood platform. I’d never seen anything like it before and wasn’t sure exactly what it was or where it came from.
As I stood there perplexed and leery of what was next, Vito began manhandling me with his robust hands, forcing my small frame onto the platform, pulling my legs apart and posing me in preparation to punch. Once my feet were solidly planted, knees bent, he impatiently tried to demonstrate how to create a fist, eventually forcing my fingers into formation and demanding I begin punching the bag.
“Come on Neph, punch it like a man. Hit it with your right. Now punch it harder!”
The room became a blur as voices urged me to punch like a man, to hit it harder, throw a right, then a left. I felt disoriented and uncoordinated. I barely even made contact with the bag, but once I did, the stitching clawed at my delicate, dainty hands, scratching and scraping them because Uncle Vito forgot to bring the boxing gloves. (I guess they never made it off the back of that truck.) After a few pathetic attempts, my hands began to swell and my eyes began to shed tears. Uncle Vito could care less though, as he continued to berate me and educate me on the sport of violence.
My mother appeared from the kitchen at once, drying her hands with a dish towel, demanding he leave me alone. My father attempted to make light of the situation, but Vito grew even more irritated and went off on a tirade about how my father should handle this situation. “When he’s old enough Bro, you gotta ship him off to Parris Island, they’ll make a man out of him.”
Although Uncle Vito meant well, his attempts to butch me up left me feeling frightened rather than encouraged. Luckily, my parents did their best to ignore his insults and archaic advice, understanding that Barbie dolls and cheerleading were both simply a phase I would soon outgrow.
And I did. Once they purchased me that red, white and blue baton, I left the cheerleading and dolls behind and began marching up and down our street pretending I was leading a parade…but only when Uncle Vito wasn’t visiting.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Show Me What You're Made Of

Growing up, my father's brother, my Uncle Vito, would always try to butch me up or as he would put it "make a man out of me." Well, even though back then Uncle Vito was a real pain in my ass, I realize now what a great character he was and it's a great story to tell. It also doesn't hurt that I'm now making money off of him as well - I had an article published in the August 2007 edition of Instinct magazine that focused on Vito and his macho mentality.

Vito would always force me to drop and give him twenty and often yell in his rough, gruff, gravely voice: "Come on neph, show me what you're made of." Hence the title to my article.

Uncle Vito passed away when I was in the fifth grade, but I wonder how he would feel knowing his story was published in a gay magazine. I'm sure it wouldn't go over very well, but at least he would know I grew up to indeed become a man, on my own terms and brave enough to live my life truthfully and honestly.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

What's Her Name? I Mean His...

My parents Lois and Big Vince had three children before I was born - all girls. When I arrived the morning of March 8, 1971, their dream had finally come a true – a boy! I was to be their last child and their only son, not to mention the last of the family name. Little did Mom and Dad know they now basically had four girls.

I was their pride and joy, named after my father and my grandfather. My grandfather was Vincent James, my father was Vincent Jr. and I was crowned Vincent James II. The family name would now live on, tradition would stand and I too would have a son one day and name him Vincent James III…or at least that was the plan.

By the time I was one-year’s old, I had bold, beautiful cerulean eyes and the most sublime curly blonde hair. I was absolutely adorable, if I can say so myself! My mother thought so as well, as she proudly paraded me around the neighborhood in my carriage; however the reaction she received from others wasn’t always one she had anticipated.

“Oh Lois, look at her. She’s beautiful.”

“Lois! The baby is adorable, what’s her name?”

“Another girl, oh my you have your hands full. What’s her name?”

Did these people know something Lois didn’t? “His name is Vincent,” my mother would always snap back. But it was an easy mistake…everyone knew Lois had a few girls and with those beautiful, long, flowing blonde curls, it was hard to tell.

Always looking out for my best interest, my parents decided to put an end it once and for all during the summer of 1972 and finally took me to see Enzio, the local Italian barber.
Enzio was an old school Italian, fresh off the boat from Italy; he owned the local barbershop in our neighborhood and specialized in two types of cuts – the crew cut and the Italian slick back. This was the man my mother decided should be responsible for my very first makeover?

From the photos, it appears as if I was thrilled to see Enzio or maybe I was just enamored by my own image in the wall of mirrors before me? (Some things never change.) However, once Enzio put the clippers to my head the elation evaporated. I started to cry and my mother even had to hold my head. (Still to this day, I hate getting my haircut; I have little faith in my stylist’s skills and always fear for the worst. I wonder why?)

I’m sure I was wondering why my parents would allow this strange man to shave my head and rob me of my precious curls. Everyone loved them after all! Did they have any idea how difficult it would be and how long it would take to grow them back? What were they thinking?

However, when it was all over there would be no more thinking required. I was definitely a boy, no doubt about it! My parents solved that dilemma pretty well and all was fine…until I started to speak.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Christmas in Queens

For as long as I can remember, every Christmas Eve my parents would bundle me up in my coat and hat, hand me a plastic baby figurine that was supposed to represent the Baby Jesus and instruct me to trample through our front garden (or what we in Queens consider a garden – more like a patch of dirt) and place the baby in the manager.

My father, being the construction worker that he was, would build a makeshift manger out of spare wood every December, assemble it in our front garden and then strategically place the plastic figurines that resembled Mary and Joseph, the three wise men, a shepherd and a few sheep in and around the manger. Baby Jesus however, would always remain inside our house where he and the rest of us would eagerly anticipate the night of his birth. Then come Christmas Eve, I would lay Baby Jesus in the manager and officially kick off our Christmas celebration. This annual ritual was of course, always captured on film. As the years passed, the allure of the tradition began to wear thin. Some years the garden and the manger would be covered in snow complicating my task even more, or it would be pouring rain and my umbrella would never quite keep me as dry as I had hoped, or it would just be plain freezing cold out. I mean, did I really need to subject the little guy to those weather conditions?

By the time I reached my teens, I couldn’t wait for my sisters to start having kids so I could pass the obligatory torch or in this case baby, along to their children. However, my first niece Francesca wasn’t born until I was twenty years old, and even then I still had to do the honors and carry both her and Jesus to the manger. When my second niece Stephanie was born, the entire family and I couldn’t wait for the two girls to grow up and take over the tradition. I was relieved and thrilled to say the least!

However they both simply refused. These innocent little girls ages two and three, threw fits and temper tantrums, adamant about not stepping one single foot into our garden or going anywhere near that manager. They wanted no part of this tradition and believe it or not everyone simply accepted their belligerence. As a result, the torch was never passed on and that bastard Baby Jesus would remain my responsibility and mine alone.

I am now…well let’s just say I’m in my thirties, yet still every Christmas Eve my parents become far too elated as they grab their cameras, toss the Baby Jesus my way, and insist that I once again perform the honors. Like an obedient child, I still give into their wishes as I squeeze past the rose bush hoping not to catch my cashmere sweater on a branch or thorn, try not to crush any plants with my freshly polished Kenneth Cole loafers, squat down between the now overgrown shrubs and pose for my annual photo op. And in that moment, much like the figurine I lay in the manger, time stands still and neither one of us has grown up or changed much - we’re still just our parents precious baby boys.