I’ve never, and will never, fit the skin of my father’s name. People call him Steve, and when people call me Steve, I tell them I prefer Steven. Steves are the all-American in their varsity jackets and high school sweethearts and salaries, while Stevens are just Stevens. The day I was born, A Bronx Tale, a film so important to my father he watches it weekly, was commercially released, so he saw it the first time while I was a pudgy pink infant spitting up breast milk, with no clue as to how it’d define his relationship with me. The day I was born was also my parents’ third anniversary and a weird one in terms of when I’d start kindergarten— my parents were conflicted but decided I would be a year younger than my classmates, which hardly mattered because things consistently came easy: I aced quizzes and tests without studying, finished cross-country meets as a high school freshman short seconds after our captain, read every book I could. But while I exhibited ability and potential, clinical depression and anxiety bubbled under the surface. I ran cross-country for the endorphins and friends, so it hardly mattered when other runners outpaced me; I discovered authors like Palahniuk, Robbins, Hesse, Kundera, so it hardly mattered what was on the curriculum; I didn’t live up to my previous report cards, which hardly mattered because I was filling journals. My parents swore I was on drugs because they couldn’t think of anything else– but I’d known early on bad things happened in my brain and I refused to take or drink or smoke anything that might make things worse. They were so ashamed their first was a black sheep, they’d tell white lies to protect me. My father bought two tickets to take me to the one-man-show stage production of A Bronx Tale as an incentive for me to complete an AP English assignment I’d neglected. Because the show involves extensive shuffling through a list of characters, each with their own distinct affects and accents, Chazz Palminteri, its author and performer, was on strict vocal rest when my father and aunt approached the autograph table afterward–“What!? What’s your son’s name?” he said when my father told him the story of why I wasn’t there. They talked longer than Chazz should’ve and my father brought back a small card he gave him that read The saddest thing in life is wasted talent. Early in the film version, a voiceover of the fictionalized version of 17-year-old Palminteri says, “Wasted talent, that was something my father would talk about all my life.” My father would punctuate lectures on the sacrifices he’d made to make sure I went down The Right Path and how much it hurt him to see me take A Wrong Turn somewhere with The saddest thing in life is wasted talent. “This shit is not for you and these fuckin kids wanna get you in trouble,” Palminteri yells at an actor playing his younger self in the film; A Bronx Tale is the story of how he witnessed a Mafia shooting from his stoop as a child and how it swept him into an adolescence torn between two father figures–Lorenzo, his father, and Sonny, a gangster. When Lorenzo finds a wad of cash his 9-year-old son collected from a basement dice game, he rushes down to the bar to confront Sonny, telling him to stay away from his son, that Sonny is a bad influence; Sonny replies, “I tell your son to go to school, go to college,” to which Lorenzo says, “It’s not what you say, it’s what he sees.” I went the college route and almost succeeded except my friends misinterpreted a panic attack as active suicidal ideation and acted, much like my parents, in what they thought to be my best interest, which led to cops knocking on my dorm door the following morning telling me I was going to the hospital for three days minimum and when I told them I was fine and when I told them I had finals they said I had no choice and then I was strapped in an ambulance and they only held me three days because I didn’t need to be there and I read Murakami’s 1Q84 cover to cover and there was a common room we could sit in instead of sleeping and when I looked up a woman with a clipboard bore into me with what she thought were compassionate eyes and asked are you anxious and I said no I’m just reading and she said but your leg and I looked down and said oh yeah and the next night a man in an eyepatch told me God whispered in his ear to look at the sun until His message appeared and he bought buckets and buckets of black paint and coated the walls and windows and floors of his home and he tried to hand me a fake gold chain he said was worth millions in exchange for my silence after he told me he was going to murder everyone who worked on the ward and I didn’t rat because a rat was the worst thing you could be and the next day in the crafts room the boombox got bad reception and I drew with a ballpoint pen because they let me have one and when the radio got figured out Rihanna said im friends with the monster thats under my bed get along with the voices inside of my head you tryin to save me stop holdin your breath and you think im crazy yeah you think im crazy and one girl beamed and nudged the boy beside her and said this is our song and he smiled and said yeah and another boy stared at me every breakfast and loved orange juice but never touched his food and when I felt his eyes and looked he would just laugh and I couldn’t tell with me or at me or not even me but somewhere else altogether and when I got my Dixie cups I tongued the pills to the bed of my mouth and made my Adam’s apple bob so I could walk away and hide them under my pillow or in my socks or flush them down a toilet because I didn’t want medication to take my personality or cull the fullness of emotions bad and good and when my three days were up I resumed my life as someone whose dorm door cops should’ve knocked on and strapped into an ambulance and I couldn’t leave my small college bed let alone write a research paper on mental illness to complete the Junior Year Writing course required to fulfill my English major in three years instead of four because how could I read any sort of primary source or skim shit from JSTOR just to pull quotations from distinguished critics and produce a proper works cited according to the Modern Language Association’s 7th edition Handbook for Writers of Research Papers to support a thesis statement regarding people who stared at the sun to read the message God hath writ upon its fiery surface and painteth every inch of their dwelling the blackest of black and/or people whose friends mistook a panic attack for active suicidal ideation so the professor put me down as INCOMPLETE and I was too burnt out to succeed. The high school AP English teacher I failed to complete the assignment for once pulled me aside because he thought I was suicidal after reading a short story I wrote and showed him; he pulled me aside again after grading our final exams because he was impressed, but not surprised, I was his only student to mention abortion in my analysis of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” My grandmother on my father’s side often recounts with a smile the time when I, at 5 or 4 years old, said to a total stranger in a grocery store, “My name is Steven and someday I’m gonna write a book.” Before writing this section of my book, I called my father to make sure he was okay with the concept and he got pissed and didn’t listen and I got overwhelmed and didn’t listen and he asked what if he wrote about his father then said he would never because he has respect. Palminteri writes about his father in A Bronx Tale so respectfully he doesn’t gloss over his father’s flaws because to do so would reduce his father to fiction and Palminteri’s love letter would lose its authenticity; the refusal to omit Lorenzo’s heat-of-the-moment explosions and casual racism and failure to accept his son completely does not tarnish the character of Palminteri’s actual father, but rather strengthens the breadth of his humanity and casts a soft, warm, and understanding glow on the tenderness of his masculinity; the youth section of the film concludes with Lorenzo so consumed with frustration he strikes his son, but then, seeing his son’s crying face pleading with him to please understand, realizes his transgression– melts back into pure unadulterated love for his child, apologizes for hitting him, kisses his head, scoops him into his arms, and carries him the whole walk back to their apartment. During the phone call, I told my father I’d never once seen him cry, the profound impact that’d had on me, how it shaped the way I looked at myself as a young man moving through the world; he said I seemed to be forgetting the day I hit my first homerun of my town league baseball career, how he’d shed a tear or two as I rounded the diamond. When I’d get home from middle school distraught over things classmates had said or done, it hurt him to witness so he’d tell me next time it happened, to clock the kid one good and make sure they never messed with me again– the day I’d finally had enough of a kid being an absolute prick, I stepped off the bus, dropped my backpack, dropped him, beat the ever-living piss out of him, and left him crumpled on someone’s lawn— minutes later, well into a blubbering crisis over what I’d done, violence so intrinsically not me it quickly corroded my very core, my mother asked what was wrong then drove me over to the boy’s house where we sat in the living room with him and his mother and I apologized to his bruised and still-bleeding face and he never laid a hand on me again. A major theme in the film is how the neighborhood appears to adore Sonny but it’s just a manifestation of their fear, how Sonny himself recognizes this and when asked whether it’s better to be loved or feared, he says, “That’s a good question. It’s nice to be both, but it’s very difficult. But if I had my choice, I would rather be feared. Fear lasts longer than love,” and you can tell from the way he says it he regrets creating a vacuum for himself where love cannot enter or exit. To act in this film is a psychotherapy role-play exercise for Palminteri which comes across onscreen when he performs the role of his own Mafia boss proxy father to engage in life lesson dialogues with his younger self. My father loves this scene where fictional Chazz tells the real Chazz about this kid who owes him $20 and asks, “Should I crack him one or what?” and the real Chazz says, “Sometimes hurting someone ain’t the answer,” because although his character leads a life of violence and fear, a life absent of love, he doesn’t wish it upon his protégé because he sees promise in him and knows firsthand how dangerous and lonely a life like that becomes; regarding the kid with the debt, the real Chazz tells fictional Chazz if he lets it go, the kid will never bother him again, that it cost him $20 to get rid of him, that he got off cheap– fictional Chazz tells the real Chazz he’s always right and the real Chazz says if that were true, he wouldn’t have done time. It was only recently I realized I wasn’t a fuckup at all, that The Wrong Turn my father spoke of so frequently wasn’t Wrong, just Different, that the word success is definitionless, that although I’d failed to finish the traditional Path To American Success, the failure was almost necessary for me to recognize my passion- my talent- and to carve the path most efficient for me to succeed at not wasting it. A point of contention in A Bronx Tale is the name of the son; his given name is Calogero, he’s called C. by Sonny, and neither his father nor Sonny will accept the other’s nomenclature for him- which leaves the person the name is attached to fully occupying neither space; the young man is only defined contextually. When he bumps into Jane, a girl he’d been making eyes with on the bus his father drives, he talks the flustered talk of a crush and when she asks his name, he asserts Calogero, and it’s unclear whether the name he chooses is rejection of his association with organized crime or acceptance of his father, but it could be that Calogeros are just Calogeros. Before we hung up, my father’s voice turned into a different voice; it wasn’t softer or warmer or anything, it was the same voice, yet, it sounded like it had arrived without its mind already made up, and my father used that voice to apologize, an apology for only seeing who I wasn’t, an apology for only seeing who I could have been, an apology for never truly seeing who I was in my twenty-seven years as his son– never before had I seen him be more of a man.
A Bronx Tale. Directed by Robert De Niro, performances by Robert De Niro, Chazz Palminteri, Francis Capra, Lilo Brancato Jr., and Taral Hicks, TriBeCa Productions, 1993.
Eminem. “The Monster.” The Marshall Mathers LP 2, performed by Eminem and Rihanna, Aftermath, 2013.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants,” Men Without Women, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927.