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Articles by: Jerry Krase

  • Op-Eds

    Bensonhurst and Italia: Racism and Razzismo (Part I)


           The Racism/Razzismo label is a tricky issue for italians and Italian Americans alike. A few days ago I participated in a conference on "The Status of Interpretation in Italian American Studies." It was the first symposium of the Forum on Italian Criticism established by the Center for Italian Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. An elite collection of scholars spoke, and as is typical with "Italian" meetings, the the audience participation was as enlightening as the presentations.

           One testy issue was attaching the term "racist" to the unfortunate killings, beatings, and other assaults on Afro-Italians, and African immigrants as well as attacks on the homes and property of other stranieri, immigrati, clandestini,  extracomunitari, eccetera in Italy. An Italian scholar argued that although some of aspects of the acts, like the use of the term "negro" which preceded the beating death in Milano of an alleged petty thief, might have involved racism, using the term "racist" to describe the act was inappropriate.

          His discomfort reminded me of the way working-class Italian-American residents of Bensonhurst tried to explain the murder of Yusuf Hawkins, a young Black man who was murdered by a racist mob on their generally quiet and safe streets in 1989. They also felt the murder was unfortunate but certainly not really "racist". Because of the unfortunate parallels between the growing number of allegedly racist attacks in Italy and continuing covert and overt racism in the United States (especially in regard to the Presidential candidacy of Barack Obama), I will present, in three parts, what I wrote in 1989 about the murder of Yusuf Hawkins. This was an event that sullied the reputation of all Italian Americans. I hope that this series cautions all Italians that they too will be seen by the rest of the world collectively as racists because of the acts of a few.

     

    Part I: Bensonhurst, Brooklyn: Italian-American Victimizers and Victims* was published in 1994 in Voices in Italian Americana.

     

          This paper addresses a number of interrelated issues that have emanated from a series of recent tragic “incidents” that have seriously affected the reality, as well as the image, of Italian Americans. The incidents in question were racially motivated assaults and homicides involving Italian Americans or taking place in neighborhoods described as Italian American. These events have received national as well as international media attention. As a result, the three New York neighborhoods; Gravesend’s Avenue X, Howard Beach, and Bensonhurst have been added to the American urban lexicon of infamous places. In these places three black men; Willie Turks (1982), Michael Griffith (1987) and Yusuf Hawkins (1989), were murdered. A central issue addressed here, and seldom discussed elsewhere, is the role played by Italian-American professionals, and those others who study the Italian community, in helping to present to the general public an accurate picture of the various and diverse segments of the Italian-American population. This must be done without reservation and without apology even when the situation, such as instances of intergroup violence, is distasteful.

     

          Equally important to Italians in America is the issue of ethnic defamation. Defamation, however, cannot be effectively dealt with by mere denial; it must be countered with accurate information. Italians in the United States, as elsewhere in the world, have long suffered from a “bad press.” Works such as Salvatore J. La Gumina’s WOP: A Documentary History of Anti-Italian Discrimination in the United States, for example, have clearly demonstrated this symbolic historical reality on the American scene through an examination of text and illustrations concerning Italians in newspapers and other pe­riodical literature. As I had noted in a previously published article on “The Italian American Community: an Essay on Multiple Social Realities,” the negative images produced and disseminated in the various media have persisted despite the presentations and protesta­tions of more or less objective scholars and ethnic-group spokespersons. The three organizations, which have been most active in the area of combating the negative stereotyping of Italian Ameri­cans in recent years, have been the American Italian Historical Association, the National Italian American Foundation, and the Commission for Social Justice of the Order Sons of Italy in America. Groups such as these have been exceptionally forceful regarding the “criminal” and “mafia” stereotyping of Italian Americans. Since the liberal social activism of the 1960s, two new, and perhaps even more dangerous, negative images have been added to the histor­ical repertoire of nocuous and innocuous organ grinders, old ladies in black dresses, birds of passage, stiletto wielders, mindless Madonnas, mafia dons, wise guys, spaghetti sauce makers and disco dancers who have been held up as images of Italian Americans; that of social “reactionary” and racial “bigot.”

     

          A major threat presented by this contemporary stereotype is the potential that the Italian-American community can be easily scapegoated for the economic and other failures of low-income minority groups in the United States making inter-group cooperation even more difficult. On the political side, this would also make it less likely for Italian-Americans leaders to serve as inter-ethnic bridges in Ameri­can politics as they have frequently done in the past. One could note in this vein for example, Vito Marcantonio, Fiorello LaGuardia and Mario Cuomo and many others, who promoted better inter-group rela­tions. The reputation of Italian Americans and Italian-American neigh­borhood groups as vocal opponents of racial integration is not undeserved. The question in this essay is not whether some Italian Ameri­cans are biased but why they are perceived as being so much more so than other ethnic groups, and what can and should be done about it. It is not merely that the reputation of Italians in America is at stake; the establishment of better inter-group relations is an especially critical problem in large American cities and their near suburbs today. Not since the turbulent 1950s have cities been faced with such rapid demographic transitions.

     

          The United States in the 1990s is experiencing a new, almost tidal, wave of Hispanic, Black and Asian immigration that is virtually swamping older urban areas, such as the New York-New Jersey Metropolitan Area. Given that working class Italian-American populations occupy residential territories which are directly in the path of minority group expansion, they are also the most likely to experience inter-racial and inter-ethnic conflict on a local level between themselves and other ethnic minorities. As noted by Robert C. Freeman in his article on “The Development and Maintenance of New York City’s Italian-American Neighbor­hoods,” the cultural propensity of Italians toward residential stability has resulted in their being, in many cases, the last white ethnic group in changing urban communities. The recent history of bias-related criminal incidents in Brooklyn, New York presents glaring evidence of the reality of inter-group fear, hostility and ever-present potential for violence. These incidents have been by no means limited to those between Italian Americans and others.

     

          No ethnic group, either as victim or perpetrator, has been immune to this plague. In researching New York City newspapers for stories concerning inter-ethnic violence, not involving Italian Ameri­cans, over the past two years the following polarities of victim and perpetrator represent only a partial listing: Black-Korean, Asian-Black, Black-Jewish, Jewish-Black, Jewish-Hispanic, Hispanic-Jewish, Indian-White as well as intra-Caribbean, Asian, and Hispanic. Despite the participation of a broad spectrum of ethnic groups in the troubling reality of inter-ethnic violence, the Italian-American community has received the greatest press attention. Why has this happened? I believe that a major reason for the focus upon Italian Americans as epitomizing racial bigotry among white Americans is the reluctance of most Italian-American organizations and their leaders to honestly address the problem of racial and ethnic bias. In most cases Italian-American spokespersons have tended to deny the extent or degree of the problem or to make defensive statements when bias incidents in the community occur. This has resulted in an even greater focus on the community because it projects an appearance of lack of remorse or sympathy for victims of bias-related violence.

     

          The following are two articles (to be presented in Parts II and III in i-italy) written by the author following the most highly publicized interracial homicide involving Italian Americans or a neighborhood identified as Italian American. They were published in The Brooklyn Free Press, a bi-monthly local newspaper. Being a professional sociologist, I have studied community problems in many different ethnic contexts. These pieces combine a direct, no excuses approach to the incident with some historical and sociological “understanding” of the Italian-American experience. Rather than excuses, influenced by ethnic pride or shame, they offer an alternative and more effective approach to explaining the prob­lem of inter-ethnic violence to the public. A new approach is needed because it is certain that intergroup violence will continue in urban America and elsewhere. As an American of Italian descent, I believe that the Italian-American scholarly and professional community has an “ethnical” responsibility to offer its sensitive and informed opinions and advice in the service of better intergroup relations in an increasingly volatile urban environment. As the reader will easily notice, the first article was written with a great deal of anger. It was composed immediately after the slaying of a black teenager in a predominately first and second-generation working-class Italian-American section of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. The stereotypical “Italianness” of the area was highlighted in all the major press accounts of the homicide. Although I was consulted as an “expert” by many reporters and widely quoted in a number of the resulting stories, my own reaction to the slaying was focused on the political and economic, not the ethnic aspects of the tragedy. Simply stated, the various media were doing a story about a homicide of an African American by Italian Americans.

     

     

    *Introduction to my paper: “Bensonhurst, Brooklyn: Italian American Victimizers and Victims.” Voices in Italian Americana. Vol. 5, No. 2, (Fall), 1994:43-53.

     

     

  • Facts & Stories

    Politics and Corruption have Deep Roots

    While the world ponders the melt down of Wall Street due to the loss (theft) of hundreds of billions of dollars of public and private funds due to the lax oversight, if not collusion and cooperation, of elected and appointed Federal government officials we shall turn our gaze to the sad case of ex-NYC Corrections Officer, and 30 years incumbent, New York State Assemblyman, Anthony S. Seminerio, who was recently arrested on “corruption” charges.

    Both these alleged grander and more petite larcenies are just the most recent incarnations of an American tradition of mixing business and politics. Today’s Big Crooks are only a slightly more evolved species of the 1990 “Keating Five” Savings and Loan and Enron thugs.

    Seminerio’s woes remind me of the time in 1987 when ex-NYC Police Officer and Bronx Congressman Mario Biaggi along with the ex-Brooklyn Democratic Party “Boss” Meade H. Esposito, were indicted on Federal charges of bribery, fraud and conspiracy for trying to “help” a financially troubled Brooklyn Navy Yard company. Clearly big-time-politicians-for-hire have evolved since the 1920s Teapot Dome Scandal. At the street level, in the “good old days” the small-time grifters simply put their hand out in one way or another, or merely dropped a hint, but a recent17-page criminal complaint accuses Seminerio of actually establishing a consulting firm, Marc Consultants, to collect fees for his legislative favors. It seems he got the idea from “two senators”, indicating that the “innovation” is probably more wide spread.

    The complaint presented in Manhattan’s US District Court alleges that for seven years starting in 2000 Seminerio fraudulently accepted more than $500,000 from those doing business with the state in connection with “the performance of his official duties as a member of the Assembly.” In what sounds to me like “political business as usual” US Attorney Michael J. Garcia, said that Seminerio “put his office up for sale for those willing to pay the right price.” Providing us with even less confidence in “government oversight” to protect us from ourselves, Garcia also noted that the state’s lax disclosure laws allowed Seminerio (and therefore his colleagues) “to conceal his stream of corrupt payments.” According to Benjamin Wieser and Danny Hakim in The New York Times, “Seminerio has been one of the more socially conservative members of the left-leaning Assembly Democratic caucus, opposing most of his colleagues on issues like gay marriage. “ They also wrote that “the indictment says that Seminerio, “… received a call from an executive of the hospital that depended on state funding, who complained that the Assembly’s budget bill was ‘not good for us.’The executive wanted Mr. Seminerio to talk to an Assembly committee chairman.’I can get anybody you want,’ Mr. Seminerio is quoted as saying. The document also states that he said: ‘I am at your disposal. You tell me what you want,’ adding, ‘I’ll take care of you.’About a month later, Mr. Seminerio phoned another executive at the hospital, saying he was calling ‘for my check.’ He also said he could walk into the office of an unnamed legislative leader in Albany. ‘That kind of relationship you can’t buy for $1 million,’ he said, according to the complaint.”

    The Assemblyman was also quoted as saying he would lose about sixty percent of his consulting business if he wasn't re-elected. What do the Big Crooks and the Little Crooks have in common? As an occasional sociologist, and frequent social and political activist I might have a bit of insight in the regard. What I have observed and read over the decades is that for far too many wannabees and incumbents, politics is a business. At times it appears that everything from judicial appointments to contracts for food concessions are up for sale from the municipal to the Federal level. This is an expected, even greedily anticipated, consequence of the growth of government. In this regard Conservatives are right; Big Government produces Big Crooks, but it is no accident. Big Government doesn’t have to also be dishonest government and smallness is no guarantee of honesty. The more government does, the more it becomes a target of both honest and dishonest interests. Complex regulations virtually require lobbyists and enhance the opportunity for corruption. The best check on government is Citizen Oversight, that is; intensive political education which leads to informed choices, of which voting is one type. Returning to the story of Meade and Mario. It seems that their indictments resulted in part from investigations by a Federal Strike Force into Brooklyn organized-crime activities. They were looking into claims that Democratic Party judgeship nominations were purchased and that payments were made to fix civil cases in Brooklyn. Information in the indictment suggested that F.B.I. agents had monitored telephone conversations between Esposito and Biaggi. At that time, my friends in the courts and I all seemed to know not to conduct business on the phone. Evidently Mario and Meade didn’t get the message, and it seems, neither did Anthony. I should note that in 2007 African American Brooklyn Democratic Party Boss Clarence Norman Jr. was sentenced to 1-3 years for extorting money from judicial candidates, so it’s not just an Italian thing.

  • Op-Eds

    Nine Eleven Then


    Today is September 11, 2008. Seven Years Later and still America has not come to terms with what happened to us and what we did to others as a consequence. I have entered here some of what I wrote immediately after the attack. In addition are some of the hundreds of photos I took in my Park Slope neighborhood a few days after 9/11 and which was misinterpreted by many as simple patriotism as opposed to thoughtful commemoration of the victims and sympathy for friends and family.

    On the evening of 9/11, 2001 I received the following message from my niece:

    Subj: Is Everyone Safe????

    Date: 9/11/01 5:37:29 PM Eastern Daylight Time

    From: (Liz) To: (Uncle Johnny), (Uncle Jerry), (Kristen Krase), (Katherine Krase), (Aunt Maryann), (Aunt Suzanne)

    I don’t know where everyone works. Can someone please check in with me and let me know our family is all safe and accounted for. Thank you. Love Liz

    I immediately sent Liz a note and the next day I sent out my own message in the early evening to everyone in my address book and to all the professional association list services to which I subscribed. Here it is:

    Subj: Re: The View from Brooklyn, NYC

    We live in Brooklyn but the smoke from the fires and dust from the debris coated the neighborhood and we had to close all the windows and people were wearing dust masks on the street. My family is fine but there is so much horror. I spent the day with my three daughters and two grandsons. My wife worked at one of the hospitals receiving some of the bodies and triaged patients. I and my daughters went to the local hospital to give blood but there were so many people who came to contribute their blood that we were told to come back the next day. I have asked everyone to give blood and say prayers. I will go into the college today and see if I can do something meaningful. I am worried about inter-group problems in the city and especially at the university where students had been at each other’s throats over Middle Eastern issues. Jerry

    The message continued: I decided to play squash today (September 12, 2001) as I usually do on Wednesday mornings and forgot that when I take the subway there is a point en route which has(d) such a wonderful view of the NYC skyline and the twin towers. As we approached the Smith and Ninth Street Station which reputedly is the world’s highest subway station I moved to the window and almost simultaneously, and in total silence, people got out of their seats and moved to one side of the car. It was the most quiet time I have ever heard on a NYC subway car. I will not take any pictures of any of this as I’ve already seen too much. (I kept this promise by not venturing to the WTC until some years later but instead focused on how ordinary people responded to the tragedy with their own powerful messages. The photo below of the approach to Smith and (th St was taken some months after 9/11)

     

    In response to my message I received hundreds of responses expressing various degrees of sympathy and support. I was shocked however at the number of people who added a “but” to their notes. As the time from 9/11 and distance from the World Trade Center increased I noticed how much the view of America, especially by Europeans, had radically changed since we were an Ugly but well-intentioned superpower. I naturally assumed that there would be immediate and unequivocal sympathy if not support for the U.S. from among my colleagues. There was for my family, and me but there was too often a qualifier to expressions of compassion. Academics have an annoying tendency to give some kind of informed, objective, emotionless opinion of an historical event and this one was no exception. The messages reminded me that Europeans are keenly aware of and sensitive to American foreign (and military) exploits.

    The images which follow were taken as I walked around my neighborhood in the days immediately after 9/11. They show the ways that ordinary people responded.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    young girl raises money for victims                                              flag-draped block

     

     

     

    War Memorial Conversion                                                      Johnny Macks Bar/Restaurant Window

     

     

    Two Hens Bakery

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Louie G's Ices  and Dizzies Finer Diner

     

     

     

    Patriotic Sale Items

     

     

    Sidewalk Sale for Victims

    Van Window

     

    Methodist Hospital Missing Family Members and Fund Raiser Signs on Emergency Room Entrance

     

    Red, White, and Blue Ribbon on Twin Towers at Queens Museum

  • Op-Eds

    Explaining American Politics: What's Left of Media Bias


    When I read Italian newspapers and watch Italian television news programs I know that political objectivity is not a problem for them as there is no claim of, or even illusion about, it. You get essentially whose ideas you paid for. It actually is the same in America, however, much of The Media, especially major newspapers and networks insist that they practice a form of “journalism” as defined in 2 b of the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary: “writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation.” For example, many newspaper publishers pledge to separate opinion (open bias) from the news pages and save it for the editorial pages or its “columns.” The most respectable radio and television networks make similar claims. “The Media” or “The Press” as it is called in the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution, is given special status and privileges in America based on the logical assumption that in a democracy access to information must be maximized. It follows that its expression must also be guaranteed.

     

    Freedom of the Press doesn’t work without Freedom of Speech. Objectivity, although “devotedly to be wished,” is not guaranteed and is also a dangerous illusion. According to The New York Times reporter David Carr, in the current battle for the US Presidency the “Bead on The Press” has clearly been drawn by our Alaskan Governor cum soccer mom Sarah Palin, who “…learned quickly, these past few days, that if you’re not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone,” Carr also noted that Palin, who ”… clearly understands the power of words, had a way of pronouncing media — “MEE-de-ah” — that made it sound like something legless and slithering. Despite the protestations to the contrary everyone knows that The “MEE-de-ah” with which you disagree is lying.

     

    One does not need dissertations on propaganda, semiotics, and simulacra to make the point. I recently got an e-mail from a distant relative which went something like this: a motorcyclist saves a little girl from a ferocious lion. The act is witnessed by a New York Times reporter who asks him about his political affiliation. “Republican”, he says. The next day on the front page of the paper appears: "Republican Biker Gang Member Assaults African Immigrant And Steals His Lunch."

     

    There are two important lessons in this story. The first is that the most objective of all major American newspapers, “The Old Gray Lady,” publishing “All the News That’s Fit to Print” has fooled none of the fools. The second is that the reporters of “the paper of record” always ask the political affiliation of those they interview. Only people who have no idea that David Brooks and William Kristol are featured on the most important pages of The Times could believe such nonsense. The fear of news bias, at least of the left-wing kind, is so great that because of complaints by the Karl Rove inspired McCain campaign MSNBC removed its “Incendiary Hosts” from their news anchor seats. But the fear of offending people’s sensibilities evidently doesn’t appear to affect McCain-Palin supporters such as Lynn Westmoreland, a conservative Republican from Georgia, who revealed to the world that the subtext of many attacks on Barrack Obama is that he's really "uppity."

     

    One might assume Republicans will again attack Obama for underplaying the race card. For me The Times and other Media that actually try to be fair and balanced, all too often bend over backwards, to the point of equivocation, when it comes to the toughest of issues. Both sides of the story are presented even when one isn’t worth the effort. That’s not objectiv-ity but stupid-ity. For example, the “surge” hasn’t worked, unless one defines it as the “surge of money” into the hands of former Saddam Hussein Sunni warriors who have been responsible for a couple of thousand US casualties. The US has been paying “them” not to kill “us” and in future will have to pay the Shiite government of Iraq and the Iraqi army not to kill them… at least until we move most of our troops to Afghanistan (or Iran, or Pakistan) where we can repeat the mistakes we made in Iraq. According to Erica Goode, “Come Oct. 1, the Iraqi government will take over responsibility for paying and directing the Sunni-dominated citizen patrols known as Awakening Councils that operate in and around Baghdad,… . Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of American forces in Iraq, has said that the American military pays approximately 99,000 Awakening members across Iraq stipends of about $300 a month. About 5,200 others have been absorbed into the Iraqi security forces. Another 15,000 or so were given civilian jobs or accepted into training programs. There are many in The Media who are so intimidated by their corporate sponsors and publishers that they avoid mentioning the obvious limitations of War Hero cum Presidential candidate John McCain.

     

    One who is not to be intimidated is Saul Friedman who writes for Newsday. In a recent Gray Matters column he called a spade a spade about Age and the Presidential Candidates, “As I noted June 21, McCain's age in and of itself should not be an issue. But McCain was badly injured when his plane was shot down over Vietnam in 1967; he suffered physical torture and psychological trauma during more than five years as a prisoner, and since 2000 he has had surgery twice for melanoma, an especially dangerous form of skin cancer. As someone in my 70s who has been through illness, I know the risks and possible consequences of aging. Doesn't McCain?” It amazes me that it is so commonplace to talk and write about the dominance of left-wing, or liberal media in the United States when every major source is owned or controlled by profit-seeking corporate or other, related, sponsors. The idea that they would use their own resources to commit suicide is beyond absurd. Even the relatively dependable “public” organs of information such as PBS and NPR have moved to the right in search of replacement funds as government subsidies have been withdrawn.

     

    The World-wide Web is also slowly being carved up into corporate spheres of influence, and the voices of independent bloggers like me may eventually be drowned out by ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, BLOOMBERG, clones or spin-offs. I may be wrong, but pretending to be un-biased is a big part of the problem.

     

     

  • Life & People

    Passing on Italian Family Values


    My father-in-law, Anthony Charles Nicoletti, was born in Brooklyn, New York on March 9, 1912. His father Sabato Nicoletti was born in 1871 and his mother Anna Gregorio was born in 1872, both in Laurino, Italy. Shortly after the turn of the 20th Century they emigrated with their first son, Andrew, to the USA.  They settled in what was then known as "Pig Town" in Brooklyn where they had three more sons; Anthony, Frank, and Michael. Sabato had an excavating business and died as the result of a cave-in in 1936, two weeks before Anthony wed Rose Jordan. Anna lived with one or another of her sons until she died in 1965 in the Bronx.

    People bemoan the "loss" of traditional Italian values. But, values are preserved by living them. To my father-in-law, his family was "the best." If there was a problem "Nicky would fix it." When I fixed something at my house, he would inspect it to ensure it was good enough for his daughter. He loved all his 10 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren but had an extra-special bond with my own, or rather "his daughter's", progeny. My wife Suzanne, insisted on never being far from her parents, and for the past 20 years they lived in our two-family house. In late June, Nicky was hospitalized. He survived an operation and was recovering when we left for a conference overseas, but rushed home on July 12 when he unexpectedly died in the hospital. Below is the eulogy read by my youngest daughter, Kathryn Suzanne, at Nicky's wake. Her honest eloquence marks the living values Nicky gave her. I am sure that she, and my other daughters, Kristin Martha, and Karen Rose, will pass them in turn to my grandchildren.

     
    "Nicky," by Kathryn Suzanne Krase
     
    At 5:30 in the morning our time on Saturday I emailed my mother on a boat (docked in Latvia) to tell her that “We received the call that we were hoping never would come.”
     
    My sister Karen called to tell me that my grandfather, Anthony Charles Nicoletti, Sr., Nicky or Nick was what he was called most often, had passed away in his sleep at the hospital. We had 15 minutes to go and see him in his room before they moved him. She was at my door in less than 5 minutes talking on her cell phone to our sister Kristin (using her hands free device, don’t worry). I came to the car in my pajamas, with a pile of tissues.
     
    I’ll never forget the feeling of holding onto Karen as we entered his room to see it for real. He was gone. We knew the day would come. It was a matter of where and when. But you are never prepared. Even if you are a Nicoletti-Krase Woman 
     
    It shouldn’t be shocking to hear that I’ve thought many times about what I was going to say in this moment. My mother was surprised I didn’t already have it typed up somewhere. Nicky was 96 years old this past March, and as far as we were concerned, he was living on borrowed time, at least for the past 2 ½ years as his health rapidly deteriorated.
     
    I had lived my life with Nicky. I can’t remember a major life event that didn’t involve him, or even small life events for that matter.  
     
    My sisters and I were his “princesses”. Princess number one, Princess number two, and Princess number three, to be exact. Although I was technically Princess number three, he never made me feel like I was in last place.
     
    He used to chase us around his dining room table, threatening to throw us in the gutter because we’d called him grandpa or said “yeah” instead of yes. After all, he wasn’t a grandpa, he was more. He was Nicky, or Big Daddy, or Daddy Nick.
     
    He was a stickler for language. He loved his word-a-day calendars back in the days.   He studied words. He thought carefully about the words he would use. In fact, looking for phone numbers in Nana’s phone book on Saturday I found some of Nicky’s writings. Handwritten notes, some scribbled, that seem to express his thoughts, or sometimes drafts of Grace to be said at the next family holiday.
     
    “Intellectuals want to be heard, but they do not hear. Should hear, but they do not.” What was he writing about? Who was he writing about? My father, perhaps? “Out shine, but do not outsmart” “Of course I’m flawed, but aren’t all human beings?”
     
    I think I found his notes for the speech he gave for his 90th birthday party. “Known by names, mo, Nicky, grand pa, Big Daddy, Daddy Nick and also horses-neck” He had a sense of humor, for sure, though sometimes you couldn’t be sure he was joking.
     
    The most touching of the notes found by far were ones he wrote when his handwriting was starting to fail him: “forgot coffee on stove” “Taking showers has become a task” Although those writings were of the Nicky of the past few years, the Nicky I choose to remember is from a lifetime before then.
     
    Nicky loved his cars. We princesses spent a lot of time with Nicky in his car. He was always driving us somewhere and when we were little he let us help. We would straddle the “bump” in the middle of the front seat and shift the gears on his command, “first”, “second”, “third” I learned how to drive a standard transmission before I could reach the pedals thanks to Nicky!
     
    He told us when it was time to blow traffic lights from red to green. He also had creative signaling patterns, especially around traffic circles. For some reason he also didn’t like to put his headlights on. So in light rain he would only turn his headlights on when the windshield wiper was moving to obey the law to the letter.
     
    He shuttled us back and forth from Nana’s house for lunch on Saturdays and breakfast on Sundays. He picked Kristin and Karen up from school at 2:00 on Wednesday afternoons to bring them to religious instruction. If you were sick and had to leave school early Nicky was your man. He drove you to birthday parties and appointments, to work and to classes, to tennis matches and basketball games. You would get into the car and close the door and he would ask, “Do you want a fast ride or a safe ride?” 
     
    It was in the car with Nicky that we became best buddies. He would talk about baseball and ask about school. I would learn about sports just to impress him. For years he would drive me every week to get allergy shots on Avenue Z. He would wait in the car for me while reading the paper. He never complained even if it took forever. 
     
    When it was time for him not to drive long distances, I was a driver, and took over that role for him and Nana. “Not bad for a woman driver” he would say.
     
    For my whole life he was retired, and our lives were seamlessly intertwined. He was always there; A part of every experience. I didn’t even realize that having a grandfather alive was a big deal, let alone a grandfather that I saw all the time.
     
    Nicky wasn’t just my grandfather, he was my friend’s grandfather. He came to practically every volleyball and tennis match of mine in High School. I’ll never forget him standing under a tree at the USTA tennis center at Flushing Meadows holding his finger on his nose. He had just had a cancerous skin patch removed from his nose and he refused to put on sunblock. My mother was insisting he protect himself, so he was.
     
    Nicky's Midwood HS Tennis Team Mascot Trophy at US Tennis Center
     
    He taught me the importance of being able to wink each eye independently. Although I still can’t think of a particular use for the skill, it was important to Nicky that I could do it. It showed that I was smart, he would say. In these past few years as his memory and language faded, we still had our trademark wink, as if to say “I remember, and yep, I’m still smart”
     
    Nicky graduated from Erasmus Hall. In its hey day, Erasmus was the best HS in the country. Nicky was proud of his accomplishments there. Did you ever get a 104 on an exam? he would ask. Well, I did, he’d say.
     
    Nicky was a retired NYPD officer. The 68th Precinct. I don’t know much about his career on the force, but I do know that there was a stringent height requirement, and Nicky proudly met it.
     
    Nicky’s vocation in my lifetime was as a fixer. Radios, TVs, cars. He had every tool imaginable, but unlike my husband, Nicky kept his tools organized, and even labeled.
     
    He loved pistachios and poppycock, but not cucumbers. He loved to dance, and even took lessons. He would brag about being able to Cha-Cha. He was a pool shark, and most recently strutted his stuff in 2003 at the last family reunion he attended. He played handball with my father on Sundays and horseshoes with the family on vacation. He read the Daily News every day, and especially liked the “funnies”. 
     
    He was married to Nana for 72 years this past June. He heard her laughing outside his father’s candy store, and the rest is history (for the complete version, and more, ask Nana)
     
     
    His favorite time of the year was baseball season. An original Brooklyn Dodger’s fan, he made the switch to the Yankees, which many die hard Brooklyn fans never could do. After an important game I would call him, even if it was after midnight and I was in another state. He would pick up the phone and without me saying a word he’d know it was me. “What a game, Kathryn” he would say. He always answered the phone. 
     
    In the recent years when his hearing was bad and his memory failing, how he answered the phone gave me a clear sign as to how he was doing. On his good days he would answer “I’m listening” and I would respond “I’m talking” to which he’d reply “Kathryn, my Kathryn.” On not so good days I would have to announce myself, in which case he would still reply, “my Kathryn”. On the worst days he couldn’t hear me say my name, or confuse me with my sister or my mother, a reminder that he wasn’t immortal.
     
    He smelled good, and had to look good. Heaven forbid his hair was out of place. It was disturbing to him that he could no longer lift his arm over his head to do it himself. He trusted only a select few of us to fix it for him.
     
    Life with Nicky wasn’t all peaches and cream, but I almost never got the other Nicky. Nicky supported me in all that I did, except for one particular instance that I will never forget, and he never did either. He drove me and my tennis doubles partner, Olana Hirsch, to the finals of the Public School Athletic Association tennis tournament and watched us lose. We shouldn’t have lost, he was right about that. He didn’t yell at us, or tell us what we did wrong. He didn’t say anything. In fact, he just walked to the car and we followed. He drove us home in silence and didn’t talk to me for days. He came to the next tournament the week after and we won, beating the team we lost to the week before. It was easier to win then have to sit through silence with Nicky again.
     
    Nicky loved his family and loved spending time with us. He enjoyed holiday dinners and the opportunity to say grace. He liked helping my mother decorate the house for Christmas and was responsible for singing the part of “Five Golden Rings” around the piano after Christmas dinner. At the last few family reunions he attended he would look at his three children, ten grandchildren, and his great grandchildren that now number seventeen and remark to Nana, “All of this came from us.”
     
     
    Nicky's 95th
     
     
    Krase-Nicoletti Christmas 2007
     
     
    Nicky's 96th "Cent' Anni" 2008
     
    I am so glad that he got to meet Jack and that he met 16 other great-grandchildren. I am jealous of Spencer and Leander, because they knew Nicky in a way similar to how we girls knew Nicky that Jack will never have. He was a part of their life. He always let them change the television channel to cartoons when they visited and he made it to a few of their own baseball games, too. For a long time he was the only Yankee fan they ever knew. Leander didn’t like it when John made fun of the Yankees, they were Nicky’s team. But it wasn’t unusual for Nick to call John after the Mets had a particularly bad run and ask, “So how’s your team doing?”
     
    And though there were certainly times over the years that Nicky said things that did not make us smile, what we will remember is the winks and kisses he gave these last couple of years. How he was always glad you came and happy for your company. When he first made it to hospital, days before surgery, he was sending kisses to the nurses who didn’t know quite what to make of him. I laughed and told them, “he’s a lover, not a fighter” to which he replied… “all of my life” and chuckled.
     
    I got to see Nicky the night that he died. He was coughing more than usual, and didn’t see me when I came into the room. I was talking with Jackie and Madge for a while before he turned to me and finally saw me. His face turned a big smile as he said “Where did you come from?” I laughed and gave him a kiss. We winked at each other. I stayed a little while longer to watch the Yankee game with him.
     
    When I left him the night before his surgery I told him I would see him on the “other side of this” wherever that may be. He nodded in agreement. I never thought he would make it through the surgery. I never thought this day would come, but I always knew it had to.
     
    His Italian was returning to him in the past few years. Buon Giorno, Buona Sera. He even reportedly had a conversation with Nana in Italian while in the hospital on the phone.
     
    Cent’anni was his trade mark of late. To a hundred years, he was saying. In the hospital he expressed his happiness to know that he was almost there. He told someone he was 99. They corrected him. Maybe over the past week he realized that living to 100 would be too much work. After all he had lived a long life and never complained. Nana says he always told her to “grin and bear it”. I’m trying, but it’s just not that easy.
     
    He lived a long life. He lived a good life. I miss him.

     

  • Notes on the Passing of Rudy Vecoli


    A few years ago I was asked to pen a “Note on the Retirement of Rudy Vecoli” when he announced that he was stepping down from his positions as Professor of History and Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. He led the IHRC for 38 years during which its research collections and outreach programs grew in both size and stature. At that time I thought it appropriate to write some words on my own behalf and that of the American Italian Historical Association. Today, I’ll add a few more personal comments to those previously written. I have been in the business of Italian American Studies for three decades.

     

    During that time, there has been only one constant; mention “Italian American History” to anyone in the know and the name “Vecoli” comes up. Rudolph J. Vecoli has been, is, and for a long time will be still the most recognized and respected scholar in the field of Italian American Historical Studies. He has made major contributions to other organizations like the
    Immigration History Research Center and the Ellis Island Foundation. He has ably served as a consultant to public and private agencies. He is a sought after lecturer, researcher, writer and teacher. I should also mention photographer as after I gave him a tour of
    Brooklyn some years back he sent me photos of Bensonhurst He has been a mentor to many of the AIHA’s best and brightest.

     

    Rudy was a Founding Member of the AIHA and its first President 1967-1970. He was the Editor of two of our most important proceedings: Volume 5, Italian American Radicalism (1972) and Volume 14, Italian Immigrants in Rural and Small Town America (1987) and a frequent (often controversial) contributor to our general, business, and Executive Council meetings. Professor Vecoli has been, in my opinion, the most vigilant about the necessity of the highest scholarly quality standards for Italian American and AIHA scholarship. Proud of who he is, where he came from, and where he is now Rudy has ever been unwilling to accept second class, and rate, work or people. He never compromised his principles and cherished his independence even when others in the field sought popularity over scholarship. He and I have had many differences over these many years and he always prevailed as he’s much more hard nosed than I will ever be. We all offer our congratulations and thanks for all he has done and all we are sure he will contribute to contribute to the Field of Italian American History.

     

    When I saw Rudy at the AIHA Annual Meeting in Denver in November, while we were touring Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, he took me aside, gave me a hug and said he had some bad news. His illness did not diminish his love of life or the sense that he had the right to tell people what he actually thought. Some months later, with some newer sense of urgency I called him and talked about panels I and the current Director of IHRC, Donna R. Gabaccia, were putting together in his honor at the 41st Annual Conference AIHA, in New Haven. He, of course, talked about perhaps being there. I went along with him. Respect is an important part of the culture we share. The planned presentations will reflect on Rudy’s spirited response to Oscar Handlin’s “Uprooted” which had a great impact on all those who study the many different peoples who came and are still coming to America.

     

    "Roots and Branches"

    In Honor of Rudy Vecoli

     

    Session I.

     

    Chair: Mary Jo Bona, Stony Brook University SUNY

    AIHA President

     

    Donna R. Gabaccia, Director,
    Immigration History Research Center,
    University of
    Minnesota

    "Rudy Vecoli, the
    Immigration History Research Center and the
    Minnesota School of Immigration and Refugee Studies"

     

    Fred Gardaphe, Distinguished Professor of Italian American Studies, CUNY

    "The Meaning of a
    Mentor: Rudy Vecoli's Impact on Italian American Studies"

     

    Jerome Krase, Murray Koppelman and Emeritus Professor,
    Brooklyn College CUNY

    “The ‘Authenticity’ of Italian Americans”

     

    Commentator/Discussant

    Vincenza Scarpaci,
    University of
    Oregon

     

    Session II.

     

    Chair: Anthony J. Tamburri, Dean, John Calandra Italian American Institute CUNY

     

    Dominic Candeloro, Italian Cultural Center at Casa Italia,
    Chicago

     "Rudolph Vecoli's Decision to Pursue Italians in
    Chicago
    and How it Impacted My Life"

     

    Madallena Tirabassi, Centro Altreitalie

     “Investigators, social workers and Italian migrant women in 
    United States urban settings.”

     

    Salvatore J. LaGumina, Emeritus Professor,
    Nassau Community College

    "In the tradition of history leader: Italian Americans Rally in Behalf of Messina Earthquake survivors"

     

    Commentator/Discussant


    Angela D. Danzi,
    Farmingdale State College

     

  • Op-Eds

    Do the Correct Thing


    Ottotino Cappelli borrows from my “homie,” (fellow Brooklynite), Spike Lee, to start “The Race Debate in America and Italy”, by asking “Should We Do the Right Thing?” My reply is, “What is the “Right” thing to do? Sal's  (Danny Aiello) answer was “you gotta do what you gotta do.”, just before Mookie (Spike) threw a trash can into his Pizza Parlor window. Our debate is neatly framed by Maria Laurino asking if Italian-Americans could back Barack Obama in the next US Presidential Election, and Bill Dal Cerro asking whether Lee called the kettle black by complaining about Clint Eastwood (Hollywood’s) biased portrayal of Blacks given Spike’s own limited palette when it comes to Italians. Finally, Capelli asks if, given the recent “outburst of racism in Italy, "Have Italians-in-Italy learned any lessons from the troubled story of their own migration?" The honest answers to all three of these questions may not matter for, as did Mookie, they will do what they must whether it is correct on not.

                In my last Blog I wrote about a tour of Brooklyn for French visitors who asked me “Is America ready to elect a Black President?” I replied that “if only a fifth of America wasn’t racist Obama could win.” What I forgot to mention is that my tour was for the US State Department’s International Visitor’s Program. My tourists’ perceptions of America were featured in a New York Times article. One aim of the IVP is to counter the “news” about the US in the, often unfriendly, international media. As a frequent critic of my own government, my credibility is hard to question. Now that Europe is changing due to immigration, an increasingly important goal is bridging the gap between hyphenated-Europeans and hyphenated Americans. Next week when I host two Hyphenated-Italians, I am sure that I will be queried on both the reception of immigrants in Italy as well as the attitude of Italian Americans toward Barack Obama.
    The short answer to the question of whether most Italian Americans would vote for (half Black) Barack Obama in the coming presidential election is “no.” Respectable polls show that Obama is currently favored by about 42% of white voters. There is no reason to believe that Italian Americans are more favorably inclined toward his colorful candidacy. It is possible however that a majority of Italian Americans who actually go to the polls on Election Day in November, out of sight of their neighbors, might vote for him. I am also sure that most of my Italian American female friends will vote for Obama on Election Day. In general, Obama has great appeal to women of any color.
    As to bias by Italian Americans against Obama because he is Black, I am sad to say that many are very biased when it comes to Blacks. I don’t think Italian Americans are more biased than other Americans, they are simply honest, and vocal, about it. Going back to Bill Dal Cerro’s criticism of Spike’s anti-Italian bias, I must point out that Lee similarly criticized Italian American Hollywood icon, Quentin Tarantino (whom Spike called a “wannabe black”) because of Quentin’s depictions of Blacks in his films.
    There is great irony in the Italian American voter preference for the allegedly “White” Republican Presidential candidate John McCain. It is ironic, because the Irish and Italians spent decades trying to convince other Americans that they were White. Both Irish and Italians also became White by ignoring their shared history and distancing themselves from the Africans with whom they were commonly associated. McCain proudly traces his roots to Ireland. In almost every history about Italians in America one finds claims of discrimination against Italians by the Irish, yet no one has suggested that Italians ought not to vote for John McCain because of his Irish heritage.
    As to racism in Italy, there are parallels to the Italian American “wannabe whites” with the Italian “wannabe light Europeans” (as opposed to dark Mediterraneans). The racially-based northern versus southern Italian biases also seem to continue. It cannot be denied that Italy has a huge problem with illegal immigration as well as with crime associated with a growing immigrant underclass. However, attacks on the Roma and others by thugs, and blaming immigrants in general for every national failure are sad examples of mass psychological projection and avoidance. As with other left and right wing Fascist movements in the US and abroad, rampaging thugs act out the repressed feelings of “respectable” people who seek excuses for their own failure by blaming others. The highly publicized problem of foreign prostitutes, especially those of African origin, is the best example of avoidance and projection by Italian authorities. It doesn’t make sense, to me at least, that African women are forcing Italian men to buy their services by parading their wares along remote roads. Prostitution is a demand-side business. It ends when you end the demand. The same is true of legal and illegal immigrant labor. Without immigrant labor in Italy, the now shaky economy would probably collapse.
    So what do Italian Americans and Italians gotta do? They gotta act in their own interests and not on their biases. The problem today is that it is hard to figure out what those interests are. So, people turn to dependable biases. In both America and Italy the mass media are more likely to confound than to clarify. During recent political campaigns In both countries the media avoided connecting the candidates with growing real problems that went undebated and unabated. For example, at the end of the Italian national elections the garbage piles in Naples, the power of organized criminals, and the number of foreign prostitutes was larger than at the start. In the United States, people continue to lose their homes, politicians threaten new invasions, and the national deficit reaches new depths because the most important issue seems to be only skin deep. Doing the correct thing may be difficult but it gotta be done before it’s too late.

     

  • Op-Eds

    Explaining American Politics: From Clinton to Fossella


    A few weeks ago I was giving a tour of multicultural Brooklyn to two journalists of sorts from France and was asked “Is America ready to elect a Black President?” I replied that America wasn’t ready but “America” doesn’t elect the President -- the electorate (a much smaller group) does. For example in 2004 about 60% of eligible voters voted and George W. Bush got half of that or about 30% of eligible voters; only 62 millions votes from a population of about 300 million; about 20% of the total population. So if only a fifth of America wasn’t racist Obama could win.

     

    Then there is the issue of American Political Parties. Most Europeans think of parties as ideological in nature which are left, right and center of something or other. The normal way of thinking of the Left versus Right axis in the US is in terms of the level of Federal Government involvement in things like “The” market and ones personal life. In a gist: Leftists in The States want the government into the market and out of the bedroom and the Rightists wants the reverse… that is unless rich people need money from the rest of us.

     

    Most people think of America as having only two major parties, and that having only two results in stability. Stability at the national level exists because there is virtually no difference in the political platforms of the two parties when it comes to Presidential elections. Actually, this Presidential Campaign Season there are three major political parties. They are The Democratic Party, The Republican Party, and the Clintonpublicratic Party. Given their similarities, it is not surprising that Both The Democrats and The Republicans trace their roots to the same party, The Democratic-Republicans founded by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and other Federalists in the 1790s. The Clintonpublicratic Party is a relatively recent addition and goes back its founder Bill who with the support of the Democratic Leadership Council (which is not the Democratic National Committee) became the 42nd President of the United States in 1993.

     

    It is interesting to note that it was claimed by some that President Clinton I (William Jefferson) was America’s “First Black President.” It is even more interesting to note that the current aspirant to become President Clinton II (Hillary Rodham) is having none of that. At times it even appears as though Bill’s spouse prefers that he was America’s “Last Black President.” As the remaining, increasingly Whitish, contender in Democratic Presidential primaries, she has been arguing that America is so racist that even a person of so little color as Obama could never be elected. Hillary, as well as Republican Party nominee John McCain can’t help reminding people of Obama’s black bits. Of course it hurts the Democrats but neither the Clintonpublicrats nor the Republicans. Some say the damage to Obama will ensure that, should Herself lose the nomination, Obama will lose in the general election and Hil becomes the preferred candidate in 2012.

     

    In my opinion, Bob Herbert is America’s best op-ed columnist. In his May 10, 2008, New York Times, column “Seeds of Destruction” he reflected on the Clintonpublicrats’ in this way:

     

    “So there was Hillary Clinton cold-bloodedly asserting to USA Today that she was the candidate favored by “hard-working Americans, white Americans,” and that her opponent, Barack Obama, the black candidate, just can’t cut it with that crowd.

    ‘There’s a pattern emerging here,’ said Mrs. Clinton.
    There is, indeed. There was a name for it when the Republicans were using that kind of lousy rhetoric to good effect: it was called the Southern strategy, although it was hardly limited to the South. Now the Clintons, in their desperation to find some way — any way — back to the White House, have leapt aboard that sorry train.
    He can’t win! Don’t you understand? He’s black! He’s black!” (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/10/opinion/10herbert.html)
     
     The newspapers, blogs, airways, and the mouths of talking TV heads are filled with comments about Hillary’s, allegedly Democratic, primary voters telling pollsters that they can’t vote for a Black man for President. The pollsters haven’t figured out yet that these people would vote Republican in the general election anyway. That is unless of course Hillary gets drafted as the Republican standard bearer at their September National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Don’t laugh. It could happen if, paler than Hillary, John McCain totally loses his bearings and forgets to show up during one of his senior moments.
     
     
    Hypocrisy is another constant among American political parties and politicians. For example, the American Right claims to be “the” party that defends traditional family values and constantly rails against such things as real as well as imagined adultery. Vito J. Fossella is a Republican and the United States Representative for the 13th District that includes all of Staten Island and part of Brooklyn, New York. He seemed to have had so much in the way of “Family Values” that he decided to have two of them at one time. “From a Bright Past to a Cloudy Future” was how Alan Feuer titled his New York Times “Italianate” reflection on Vito’s fall from grace after he was arrested for drunk driving after running a red light in Alexandria, Virginia.
     
    ‘When Vito J. Fossella Jr., the soon-to-be boy congressman, stood beside the young girls of a cheerleading squad at the Excelsior Grand catering hall in 1997, it seemed a particularly vivid version of Staten Island pageantry. Mr. Fossella — 32 and with Al Pacino looks — was on his way to becoming the sole Republican in New York City’s Congressional delegation at a spirited party billed as an evening of ‘pasta and politics.’
     
     
    Within days after his arrest, Fossella was outed as a closet adulterer, having confessed that he had fathered a child with an Air Force lieutenant colonel in an extramarital affair. It should be noted in this regard that Congressman Fossella had voted to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood, perhaps because he had no need for it. Vito had everything else going for him. He came from a prominent (Democratic) political family and enjoyed the backing of big-time New York City and Staten Island Republicans such as Guy V. Molinari, former Borough President and Congressman, and former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
     
    The 13th Congressional District has been held by the GOP since 1981 (Guy Molinari 1981-90, then his daughter Susan until 1997) It is the only New York City congressional seat held by the GOP. Until now the slightly more liberal Democrats have had little chance of winning it. Staten Island is a political enigma. More voters register there as Democrats than Republican but Republicans tend to win at the polls. Some argue that is because of the influx of Italian Americans from Brooklyn. They, like many other registered Democrats have tended to vote Republican in the borough. They also seem to morph into conservative suburbanites: white, middle-income, church goers, who are (like Vito) married with children. However, many have not yet changed their registration, becoming Democrats in Name Only (DINOs). Having just written a book “The Staten Island Italian-American Experience,” (Wagner College DaVinci Society, 2007) this should all make sense to me, but of course it doesn’t. What I am sure of is that neither Barack nor Hillary is likely to win there in the Fall.

     

  • Something named Van Westerhout in Brooklyn, 2006.
    Op-Eds

    Random Images/Thoughts about Italy

    As the photos demonstrate, things which have the same name are not necessarily the same even though they may be closely related.

  • Op-Eds

    IRAQ PAINPROGRESS, Redux, again


    I originally wrote this Italianesque piece (PAINPROGRESS) in 2003 for The Free Press, and then I republished it in 2006 (PAINPROGRESS, Redux). Since the minor self-recriminations and a few “celebrations” of the Fifth Anniversary of The Invasion of Iraq many of the cheer-leading establishment press organs have been squirming about how wrong they had been for so long. However, they still haven’t gotten up the courage for mea culpas. Perhaps when Barack Obama becomes President their tune will change from loud militaristic drum beats to more appropriately muted taps for our four-thousand plus men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for the follies of a few old men (and women). This is the introduction to the 2006 piece:

    Now that some of us are about to admit at least a few of “our” past mistakes about the ill-everythinged Iraq Invasion, Iraq Occupation, Iraq War (both Civil and UnCivil), I would like to re-admit one of my own non-mistakes which I wrote for the Free Press, the original can still be read here. It was overlooked by The New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Paul Krugman’s recent (12/08/2006) “They Told You So” essay about those who early on questioned America’s bellicosity. He concluded his Op-Ed in this way:
     
    "We should honor these people for their wisdon and courage. We should also ask why anyone who didn't raise questions about the war -- or, at any rate, anyone who acted as a cheerleader for this march of folly -- should be taken seriously when he or she talks about matters of national security." (click here to read it all).

     

    This is what I wrote: January 28, 2003. Park Slope, Brooklyn.


    Today is the first day for the rest of my retired life. Yup, that's correct I am retired. I took the Early Retirement Incentive for New York State workers that was offered by a Governor for whom I more than once didn't vote, but to whom I will be eternally grateful. It's not that I will no longer be working. For example, I just got back from a trip to Rome. I was invited to participate in a conference entitled 'Merica. Convegno sulla cultura e la letteratura degli italian del Nordamerica. As you might guess, it is about the culture and literature of Italians in North America. My travel expenses were paid, and I will go almost anywhere that my expenses are paid. I don't get that many invitations to travel further than New Jersey, and New Jersey is not exactly my idea of exotic or even interesting.
     
     
    I flew on an economy ticket code shared between Alitalia and Delta Airlines. My wife didn't want to go with me, this time, so I traveled alone, but one can hardly be alone in Italy, as they don't allow it. Seriously speaking, I was honored at having been invited to join a group of distinguished American scholars to meet with equally distinguished Italian colleagues at two prestigious American Studies Centers in Rome and Cassino, which had as well a teleconference video connection with Siena. I had hoped that the meetings would not be conducted in Italian because my Italian language skills are not that great (ne non sono buono?).
     
     
    However, when I finished my own presentation, one of the few which was entirely in English the moderator, in italiano, called for questions and comments and un professore italiano rose to the occasion. Italian professors always rise to the occasion and this one was no exception as he expounded for ten minutes in his favorite language before finally asking a question, also in his favorite language, and to which I rose to the occasion by expounding in ten minutes in my favorite language and then answering my own question which was the only one that I both understood and knew the answer to. When I finished my response, I was greeted with a sea of blank expressions and substantially polite applause.
     
     
    We took a bus trip to deliberate at the University of Cassino and also tour the famous monastery at Monte Cassino. During the ride I read a short book written by an Italian who immigrated to Boston after the World War II. As a young boy he had fled the area with his family as the Allies (the good guys) began to bomb the centuries old Benedictine Monastery and the surrounding countryside. The war had continued even after Italy surrendered as Germany occupied the country and battled allied forces who slowly worked their way up the peninsula.
     
     
    1700 ft above the town below, Monte Cassino was the center for the German Gustav line, 100 miles south of Rome. It dominated the surrounding countryside, including the valley that ran through the mountains to the north and the main highway linking the south to Rome. After weeks of furious bombing and shelling it was finally destroyed, killing German soldiers, and monks alike, as well as hundreds of civilians who naively had sought refuge there. As a result of the extensive campaign most of the surrounding towns, and farms, were also obliterated. The author described the sights of his return to his hometown. Nothing previously vertical was standing, neither buildings nor trees. Bomb and artillery craters had filled with water and in the summer heat they were breeding pools for malarial mosquitoes. The heat and humidity also accelerated the rotting corpses of animals, soldiers, and civilians. I guess you might call it, Collateral Damage Italian Style.
     
     
    Italians are intensely territorial and most of those who survived their "Liberation" slowly returned to rebuild their homes and lives, and by the late 1950s the monastery itself was completely restored. Actually, at the monastery I missed the guided tour because I misunderstood the instructions of one of my gracious hosts, who actually was speaking in English.
     
     
    Speaking of multilingual confusion, I took off while our own monosyllabic bilingual Baby Bush (as opposed to monolingual polysyllabic Papa Bush) was gearing up to bomb the hell out of someplace, preferably Iraq but if that's not available; who knows? When I got to Italy, I read in Corriere della Sera that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was emphatically denying, in Italiano, that Italia was supporting the US multi-unilateralismo (I just made this word up, I think) while in direct contrast in the International Herald Tribune, Bush's spokespersons were claiming, in English, that despite what Berlusconi was saying, in Italian, that Italy was in the pocket of the US. I think that the current administration in DC doesn't realize that that il Duce Mussolini is no longer in power in Italy and that Italy, for better or for worse, is an imperfect democracy.
     
     
    As for Fear of Flying Italian Style, although I got back home to JFK airport in one piece, there was a two-hour delay in Rome's Fiumincino Airport. Alitalia claimed that there were some "equipment problems;" which didn't raise my confidence level in taking a nine-hour ride in a complex machine that just had technical problems fixed by people who don't speak English. I think they really postponed the take-off in order to fill the plane up with extraneous travelers, as there appeared on the departure monitor that an Aeromexico flight to NYC had mysteriously been combined with our Alitalia/Delta one. This merger happened only after they moved the departure gate first from 30, to 24, and then to 23 while I lugged my duty free booty from gate to gate to gate in search of flight 0611.
     
     
    The Boeing 777 on which I flew both ways was a nice plane. Even in the narrow economy seats which lack sufficient legroom for anyone taller than 5' 6'' there is individual video service so I was able to watch on demand movies, which if I had to pay for them I wouldn't have. The screen provided many languages options, so I fooled around by watching American movies in Italian and Italian movies in English, but they still weren't worth paying for. So I listened to classical music with these little earphone things that are supposed to fit into your ear holes but don't, unless you push them in further than they were designed to go. Occasionally the sound would cut out and there would flash across the screen "PAINPROGRESS." At first I was puzzled as to how they knew that my ears were hurting. Then it came to me that PAINPROGRESS meant "Public Address in Progress." But my ear holes still hurt.
     
     
    It also appeared to me that PAINPROGRESS is a perfect symbol for the media war hype we are getting now from the USA's allegedly "free" jingoistic press. Even the once dependably skeptical NPR and its local version, WNYC, sound like Government Radio Stations when it comes to fronting for the President from Armageddon, Texas. Equally offensive are the visual variants of PBS to which we are currently subjected. Too bad they don't flash the PAINPROGRESS sign across the TV screen when some government "expert" or "independent" scholar from one or another enterprising institute is called upon to explain why Iraqi civilians deserve to die.
     
     
    One constantly painful argument that is heard is that collateral damage is justifiable because Saddam had slaughtered "his own people." I guess the ones we are going to kill are not "his."
    The most odd thing on the flight was that when we within an hour of JFK airport, while I was avoiding embolisms by stretching by the toilets, I noticed that there were several swarthy brawny men going into a passageway that seemed to lead somewhere above the cabin. At first I thought that maybe there was a "party" up there. When they came down they were in Alitalia steward uniforms and until we were strapped in for landing they walked up and down the aisles, I think looking for likely members of Al Qaeda. I guess they are the Italian version of Air Marshals.
    In anticipation of the final, Final Battle against one or another of the Evil Empires which rotate along the Axis of Evil, a contingent of members of Voices in the Wilderness are already in Baghdad. Voices in the Wilderness is a US/UK group which is trying to end the economic sanctions against the "people," as opposed to the "government," of Iraq. Since March 1996, in violation of sanctions, almost fifty delegations have traveled to Iraq.
     
     
    American authorities have warned that the penalty for traveling to Iraq, in violation of US laws, could be as much as 12 years in prison and over $1 million in fines. VIW says that each member represents thousands of people who oppose the economic sanctions that miss the target of the regime of Saddam Hussein and instead fall on millions of Iraqi people, young and old. VIW follows the nonviolent tradition of Mohandas Gandhi. They oppose the development, storage and use by any country of weapons of mass destruction whether nuclear, biological, chemical - or economic. Today, as the drum beat quickens, they maintain a constant presence in Iraq.
     
     
    They point to the devastating effects in the schools and hospitals, on the streets and in the homes of Iraq of more than a decade of economic sanctions and frequent bombings. They say they are in Iraq to serve as human shields for Iraqi women and children when the bombs start raining down on the city. The US has already notified Voices in the Wilderness that, as opposed to Trent Lott, US bombs don't discriminate, and that Saddam will ultimately be held accountable for any anticipated Collateral Damage. I believe that the moving deadline for Iraqi surrender is "any day now." I was happy to go to Italy and I was even happier to get back home unfortunately just in time to watch W's State of the Union Address and then not watch a rerun of "CNN Live from Baghdad." When W was having his usual trouble with hard words across my mind's eye in bold letters ……

    These are some photos I took in March 2003 at the Anti-Iraq War demonstration and March in Washington DC. Please ignore the image dates as we didn't know how to set the camera.

     Head of the March with wheeled escorts.

     Sidelines Poster

    Marching toward the Capitol.

     Pro-War Horses in park near White House.

     

    Pro-Anti-War Demonstrators.

    Anti-Anti War Demonstrators.

    Family on the subway going home after march.

     

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