Curtis, Will You Please Shut-Up?

Mulberry Street, New York City, Circa 1900

Mulberry Street, New York City, Circa 1900

I’ve never been a flag waver. While I am deeply thankful that I was born in the United States, I’d never make the statement, “proud to be an American,” because that indicates ─ to me, at least ─ that it’s an accomplishment I did something to earn.

Instead, I consider myself “lucky to be an American,” whereas I think it’s my father, born in Sicily, and having had to make his way into the country, and then having to work to become a citizen of it, who can rightfully use the word “proud.”

His birth on that island categorizes me as a first-generation “Italian-American”, yet I’ve never dwelled much on this label, either. I mostly remember I’m ‘Italian-American’ to the rest of the country when I struggle to get knots out of the thick, dark hair that’s been passed down to me by my Mediterranean ancestors. Or, on thinking back to when I was a little girl, and my mother made pasta sauce on Sundays, as my father sang along to scratchy old Caruso recordings. I confess I did become a soccer fan who always supported Forza Azzurri, because I loved my father and uncles, and they were avid soccer fans who always cheered for Italy during the World Cup. But I never even learned to speak Italian until well into my twenties, as my parents spoke English at home, and only broke out their Sicilian dialect as a “code” when they wanted to say something to each other they hoped their children wouldn’t be able to decipher.

So, with all of these indicators of my woeful lack of nationalism and ethnic pride, (and in fact, because of my writing name, it’s often assumed that my background is Greek), why am I so ticked off at the non-stop ethnic slurs against Italian-Americans uttered by a loud-mouthed radio host, named Curtis Sliwa?

Well, there are several reasons, not the least of which is because they’re so lightly dismissed by everyone. In this country, where every slogan, term, and offhand utterance is microscopically examined as to whether or not it bears any hint of racism, homophobia, or sexism, it’s always been politically correct ─ moreover, enjoyable to many ─ for talk show hosts, stand up comics, and of course, Hollywood, to smear every Italian-American with some measure of Mafia.

News Flash to the World: There do exist Italian-Americans who don’t have ‘Movie Brooklyn’ accents, don’t chew gum with their mouths open, don’t wear cheap black leather trousers, and who, by the time they reach the age of twenty, feel grown-up enough to call themselves, ‘Joseph’, or ‘Joe’, rather than ‘Joey’. Guess what else? There are far more Italian-Americans who are teachers, lawyers, doctors, librarians, and even house painters, than they are Mafia kingpins.

Radio kicked Don Imus (who at one point, was on the same radio station as Curtis Sliwa) off the air because of his “nappy-headed” commentary about the Rutgers University Women’s Basketball Team, but if they’d had white skin and names like Gina Lollabridgida, he could have called them “Mafia Princesses” and even the FCC would have chuckled. And because Italian-Americans are white-skinned, and so firmly at ease in their position on the American landscape, we’d be bad sports, wouldn’t we, if we couldn’t put up with a joke or two?

Maybe my so very deeply-entrenched, way over-the-top ethnic pride is at fault for my taking umbrage with Sliwa’s remark that on Staten Island, again in reference to Italian-Americans, he could, “swing a dead cat” over his head “and every fifth person” he’d hit would be “organized crime.”

When Sliwa was asked by two of his radio show fans, Republican City Council members Vincent Ignizio and James Oddo to go to Staten Island and apologize for that commentary, he did so by going to Arrochar Friendship Club in South Beach, and allowed himself to be paddled by “Italian grandma,” Mrs. Cammarata, who also playfully shoved soap in his mouth. Mrs. Cammarata was chosen to administer Sliwa’s punishment, “because of her sense of humor.” She called Sliwa “a gentleman.”

“Sometimes we don’t mean things the way they come out,” Mrs. Cammarata said.

“Every fifth person would mean you have to have close to 100,000 people in organized crime on Staten Island, and there aren’t that many people left in the mob,” he later was reported to have said in his recant.

Perhaps, but he didn’t say that on the radio.

Sliwa ended his ‘apology’ by asking the gathered, laughing senior citizens, “Where‘s the cannolis?”

Like I said, it’s the failing of my fierce ethnocentricity that blinds me to the ‘humor’ in this. And it was even less funny to me when I heard that Mr. Sliwa accused the Italian-American Museum in New York City’s Little Italy of being backed by the mob.

This time his rant was as a result of the 475,000 dollars Senator Charles Schumer earmarked from the Obama administration stimulus package to improve and expand the Italian-American Museum in Little Italy in NYC.

Granted, one can argue that close to half a million dollars to refurbish an ethnic museum is a pork barrel project, and during this time of fiscal emergency, it’s one that perhaps shouldn’t be indulged.

Although, having said that, when Robert Ciofalo of the Italian-American Museum was questioned about this grant, his comment was, “We were once the recipients of a one million dollar grant, too. But the way these grants work, we had to first put in one million dollars worth of improvements and then apply to be paid back the designated monies. Well, who’s going to lend us one million dollars to do work, and then wait for the government to pay us back? Needless to say, that was one million dollars we never got to see. We’ll see what happens with this.”

The argument that the grant might be an inappropriate appropriation at this time, and Mr. Ciofalo’s response to that argument, are both worth intelligent consideration. What’s not intelligent is this commentary by Mr. Sliwa:

“Uh, the Italian-American Museum in Little Italy? What the hell is that?
I mean, what do you need an Italian-American Museum in Little Italy for?”

And this commentary by Mr. Sliwa:

And plus, what do we need to be spending federal tax dollars? You go to the Italian-American Museum, you make a contribution. Or, you have an enforcer there from the Genovese, Gambino, Lucchese, Colombo, Bonanno crime families who forces you to pay a contribution.”

The fact that the Mafioso Italian-American stereotype is so prevalent in the United States says more about the preferences of Americans in general, and not just Italian Americans. Let’s take Al Pacino, for example ─ he’s practically worshipped for his role in The Godfather, but woefully disregarded for his shining, stellar portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. In fact, he may have played Michael Corleone, but Al Pacino was apparently in no hurry to be photographed with real-life Mafia princess, Victoria Gotti, after a preview screening of MOV, because he is said to feel that the antics of Gotti and her three sons are a bigger blight on the ethnic group’s dignity than the Mafia films in which he’s acted. (And, I guess everybody’s has to make a living, right?)

And the fact that the stereotype is so prevalent is exactly why we do need an Italian-American Museum. There has to be another reference besides Coppola and Scorsese films to the contributions of Italian immigrants to American society.

For example, it’s not widely known that Italian-American soldiers during WWII went undercover in Sicily to help overthrow the Mussolini regime and the Mafia. Think about that. From one perspective, it’s almost treasonous. From another, it’s downright foolhardy. But either way, it took a lot of guts.

Does Curtis know about that, I wonder?

Does he know that although Japanese-Americans were “compensated” for their interment during that same war, many Italian-Americans were considered “enemy-aliens” and were also “relocated” , also lost properties, etc., but were never compensated?

Curtis doesn’t know and Curtis doesn’t care.

And another reason I find this so ─ to quote Curtis again ─ “annoying, annoying, annoying”, is because there was a time in my girlhood, as I traversed the NYC subway system in order to get to work at the Diamond Exchange on 6th Avenue, when Curtis Sliwa was someone I admired. Yep, I thought Curtis was a New York hero, but here goes yet another girlish dream crushed. Curtis turned out to be just as phony as some of the diamonds a few of the more nefarious merchants were hawking back in the day. Now he’s nothing but a blowhard on a radio show, whose crusade is not really to rescue New York, but an agenda of self-aggrandizement. Because if he really were all for New York, he’d speak rationally and kindly about all its citizens and appreciate the things that Italian-Americans have contributed to his city and the boroughs surrounding it. Things you don’t think about, like Barnes and Noble, for example, and much, much more, all of which can be learned about in the museum which he’s mocked.

At the very least, Curtis, you should give us credit for New York pizza. I’ve lived out here on the west coast of the country for several years now, have met transplanted New York Jews, Asians, Blacks, and every other ethnic group you can imagine, and they all rhapsodize about how much they miss New York pizza. People don’t come to the Big Apple to taste the apples, Curtis, they come to taste the pizza.

Well, ‘wise guys’ make deals, Curtis, they don’t make pizza. My uncles made New York pizza, and had the misshapen fingernails and flour in their lungs to prove it. They wore white aprons, not diamond stickpins and pinky rings. They were proud of those aprons, proud of their heritage, and proud of their new country and city.

And they no sooner would have sat down and had an espresso with a ‘wise guy’ than they would have sat down and had one with you, Curtis.

Yet, you trivialize your hateful rhetoric by saying you’re “half Italian,” yourself. If President Obama used the word “nigger” and tried to excuse it by saying he was half Black himself, should we all be okay with it?

But, I’ll go with your premise, Curtis, and bastardize an old Groucho Marx joke by asking:

So, at which half of you do I get to throw the dead cat?

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Patricia will be PROUDLY speaking at the Italian-American Museum in NYC’s Little Italy, on June 7, 2009, from 2:00- 4:00 p.m. She just might wear her blue soccer jersey, too.


Last 5 posts by Patricia Volonakis Davis

Last 5 posts by Patricia Volonakis Davis