by Tommi Avicolli Mecca
My father’s birthday is this week. Father’s Day is later this month.
That’s twice I’ll be thinking of him, that larger-than-life, small-statured, conservative southern Italian man who contributed half of my genetic material. The man Mama chose because she said he made her laugh. Mama was a beauty, she had many courters. She always said she could have married men who had an easier time supporting their families. Sometimes I think she regretted her choice, especially when money was tight, which was, unfortunately, a lot of the time.
Papa operated a Sunoco Station with his brother, my uncle Jack. With no children, uncle Jack made out better. Papa had four kids, actually six, but two died at the beginning of their lives, one before he even emerged from the womb.
The gas station in South Philly was Papa’s kingdom. Retired men hung out there all day, shooting the breeze, as they called it back then, in their southern Italian dialects.
Papa knew everyone for miles around. He had the kind of magnanimous personality that drew people in. He was always there to lend a helping hand. In the summer when the heat and humidity were in the ninety percentile and people were dying for relief, he’d open the corner hydrant (with a wrench the cops gave him) and the kids would go nuts playing in the water. The women would venture out of their houses with buckets and brooms and wash off their pavements.
When I started working for him, wiping windshields and washing cars to earn a little dough, Papa often asked me to run and buy a sandwich for Bobby, the homeless guy who slept in the alley behind the station.
There was another side to Papa. When something was not to his liking, he’d let loose with a rage that was scary as all hell. He never hit anyone. You just felt like you had been physically assaulted when he was through with you.
That’s the side of him I remember all too well.
It’s the Papa who confronted me after I started growing my hair, after I expressed my support for (and snuck off to) antiwar and civil rights demonstrations, and especially after I came out to the whole world (and most importantly to him, la famiglia) on TV, debating an aversion therapist who was subjecting gay men to electro shock to their genitals in order to “cure” them. I should have warned him about what I was going to do. I didn’t know how to do it. I was terrified of his reaction. Those fits of rage and his conservative views made me never want to be his son.
He banished me from the house. For 15 years we didn’t talk. Finally, we made up. My oldest brother arranged for me to visit during Xmas one year. On the way out of the house, he offered me an old coat because he thought the one that I was wearing wasn't warm enough. A few months later, he was dead.
We may not have the same politics, he was a Republican, I'm a radical, but we have things in common. Back in the late 90s, I helped set up three shelters, a free meals programs and a place to shower for homeless queer youth in the Castro where I live. Papa would have approved.
Just as he would cheer me on for fighting the eviction of a 98-year-old woman who is losing her apartment at the hands of a real-estate speculator.
I am my father’s son. My anger at his rejection blinded me to the fact that we who seem to have come from such different worlds shared more in common than either of us would ever have admitted.