My childhood was pretty bleak, growing up on the edge of poverty and being raised primarily by… well… myself and the television. My parents were unhappily married and equally unhappy about an accidental pregnancy in their forties, my mother once confessing that she was about to file for divorce (scandalous for their generation) until she found out she was pregnant with me. They were distant both to each other and to the accident that bound them, a distance reinforced by the fact that both worked just to barely keep our heads above water. When I say this, I don’t mean it in modern McMansion-we-couldn’t-afford terms. It was only when my eldest brother kicked in his entire construction paycheck that we had the luxury of paying the rent and affording food for the month.
My mother was a neurotic mess, believing that the best way to handle this late-in-life burden was a mix of barked orders, slapping hands and shrieked dire warnings. My father was a passive-aggressive sulker who, not wanting to divide his parenting efforts in a similar manner, specialized almost exclusively in ignoring my existence. On a good day, it almost looked like he was encouraging my intellectual curiosity by meeting my questions with silence or by responding with either “Ask your mother” or “Look it up.”
On the bright side, with both parents working, my life was pretty simple and structured. From third grade on, I came home directly after school – no time for friends or hanging out, since my mother worked a four-to-midnight shift – and let myself in with my own key. My mother would then berate me for being late anyway and fly out the door with the usual litany of all the potential deathtraps to avoid – don’t go near the windows (proximity would lead to my being sucked out and plummeting to my death sixty feet below), don’t answer the door (I would be kidnapped, molested and/or murdered), don’t touch the kitchen knives (they’re known for turning on their masters and severing wrists). Lighting the gas stove to cook my own dinners ironically never came up on that little morbidity and mortality report but whatever. My father was a floor manager at a retail department store (long since defunct) and, being salaried, was pretty much an indentured servant from opening until closing, not usually getting home until after seven each night, which left eight-year-old me on my own for a good four hours.
On my own except for the man referenced by my mother as an afterthought to her daily Cassandra routine. “If something happens, call Uncle Tony.”
There’s lots of missing and conflicting details about Anthony Gianquitto and it wasn’t until after my cousin died – barely surviving her parents – that anyone attempted a genealogy of that branch of the family. I always remember Uncle Tony as being “old” – although that was anyone over forty to me back then – but exceptionally hale. As it turns out, he was born in the late nineteenth century, making him about fifteen years older than he looked. He married my father’s half-sister somewhere between world wars and sired one child, a daughter. But he became the father-figure to most of the neighborhood, myself included.
He was a small, wiry little Sicilian monkey of a man. Looking back and picturing reference points, I’d probably guess he was about 5’6″ and I’d be shocked if he was ever more than a buck ten in weight. He was quick with a smile and a laugh – always genuine – and spoke the most horrifically broken English. He was gentle and generous, understanding and philosophical. He also once bit off a much larger rival’s ear in a fight over my aunt’s hand.
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
During World War Two, he wasn’t allowed to serve in our armed forces – perhaps because of ethnicity, perhaps age – but he was a patriot as only an immigrant can be and, in an effort to serve his adopted homeland, he got whatever job he could, eventually literally working on the war machine of America as a machinist. It was a different world back then, one in which “Italians need not apply” was still a recent and socially acceptable attitude. Combining that bigotry with the fact that Italy had sided with Hitler, it wasn’t entirely unsurprising that Tony was threatened on his second day. So, on his third day, he went to work, grabbed a flat of scrap steel, ground a crude edge on a knife that would’ve given Jim Bowie a hard-on, beat the shit out of the guy that threatened him the previous day and generally announced that he would gut like a fish anyone that tried to keep him from doing his part “for-A-may-ree-ka” (it was all one word, the way he spoke it) from that point forward. He carried it under his shirt every day. One of my brothers inherited that knife when Tony passed. I may have to steal it some day.
That was the only tale I’d ever heard that involved him being employed. I have no idea what job skills he possessed or what he did for a living before he retired but I had unwavering faith that there was nothing in the universe this gargantuan little man couldn’t handle, negotiate or make right. He was – and I suppose, on some level, still is – my idol and the closest thing I ever found to a superhero. A superhero whose only costume was his fedora.
Tony was always a part of my life and I don’t remember ever seeing him outdoors – even on family trips to the beach – without that fedora on his dome nor do I remember ever seeing him indoors without it in ready reach. It is visible in almost every picture I have of him. I don’t recall any transition, either. It was like this binary magic trick: outdoors on – poof! – indoors off. I would visit downstairs early (he lived on the third floor of our apartment building, we lived on the fifth) and find him already awake, almost always dressed in dark slacks, a “wife-beater” undershirt and a simple dress shirt over it. Tucked in, of course – Tony was no cafone. You could tell the seasons by the length of the sleeves and how many buttons were undone. You could also tell the time of day by his seated activity. If he was sitting in the kitchen, reading the newspaper, having espresso and a single slice of toasted Italian bread, it was morning. If he was sitting in the dining room, having espresso with a few fingers of Sambuca, it was mid-morning. If he was siting in the livingroom, watching a baseball game, having a Miller Lite (I worship him, so I forgive this) and a slice of prosciutto on a single slice of untoasted Italian bread, it was noon. If he was sitting in the dining room, eating like a longshoreman who’d just come off the Bataan Death March and washing it down with more espresso and Sambuca, it was five o’clock. I usually had to go back home before I could see what he was eating and drinking to denote bedtime.
Somewhere in the midst of these repasts, several times each day, he would make the rounds. I used to say that he was the mayor of our neighborhood but that doesn’t show enough respect or convey the love he inspired. He wasn’t some mere elected official. He was at the very least our beloved knight errant if not our fedora-crowned king. Uncle Tony taught me the difference between power and authority. Keep in mind, there are some… “unsavory” relatives in my family. I don’t mean muggers and pickpockets. I mean guys with interesting nicknames who tended to spell “family” with a capital “F”. Uncle Tony not only wasn’t one of them, he used to routinely run them off. His wife, my aunt, was pretty much estranged from her family because this corrupt, murderous, violent pack of classic Guinea gangsters was scared shitless of this affable little monkey-man, who possessed a genial forthrightness that camouflaged a hidden but unstoppable intensity. You did not want to piss him off. Remember that whole ear thing.
Uncle Tony would don his fedora and just wander the neighborhood. He’d walk the tenth-of-a-mile to the local bodega and buy the morning edition. He’d chat with the owner, with half the customers as they stopped in on the way to work, with the other shop owners along the block. In a city suffering from severe racial tensions and in which there were some places you just didn’t go unless you were “the right kind”, Uncle Tony walked with relaxed impunity. He would identify people as “Chinaman”, “Portoriccan”, “da Black” but they were statements of obvious features, like saying “the one-legged bald guy”. There were no connotations – people were just people and you treated them with human respect until they earned your contempt, which you delivered with equal sincerity. I went with him a few times and it was a veritable cacophony of “Hey! Tony!” the whole way.
And he knew their names. He knew their family stories. He knew their problems. He remembered every detail and asked – sincerely – “Howz-i-goin wit dat…[fill in the personal problem here]?” And it wasn’t a manipulative thing nor was it a “community organizer” thing. It was just… Tony. Every person he talked to was his best and only friend yet was nearly forgotten as soon as he saw the next face. He listened, he heard, he offered a little advice and a large side order of “So what? Life’s good!” He was totally invested yet completely detached and everybody felt better after talking to Tony. They called him “Boss”, like the rest of us in the family did. I’ll always remember that. Those “other relatives” might be called that, too, but they demanded it. It was extorted respect, borne of fear. My uncle? It was tribute. It was honor. It was respect, freely given.
Of course, he had his quirks. He was utterly baffled by my Irish mother’s resistance to his giving her seven-year-old a glass of wine with dinner. He would smuggle me shots of Sambuca on Sunday morning. For some reason, he treated Bulova watches with absolute reverence and would occasionally show me his, ensconced in a mahogany box, like he was revealing the Ark of the Covenant. He always carried a pocketknife. Nothing “tactical”, just a simple folder – but I saw him cut through rope with it like it was a fucking lightsaber. The admonition to “don’ never touch da blade” came out of his mouth every time the knife came out of his pocket. He taught me how to oil a sharpening stone and hone a razor’s edge. He taught me a lot of things, all by example. About honor, about respecting others, about being true to your word, about the irrelevancy of odds and effort when you’re doing what you believe is right. About forgiveness and compassion.
When I was an early teen, he saw that I was drifting towards “certain bad elements” and did his best to keep tabs on me. When one of my less-proud moments came to light, I found I wasn’t the least bit afraid of the law nor did I care what my parents thought. But the idea that I had disappointed Tony devastated me. I bawled like a baby when I apologized to him, even though he wasn’t at all involved in the incident. He waited until I was done, patted me on the thigh, smiled, and simply said, “Don’ be sorry. Jus’ be safe.”
When I was sixteen, he had a stroke and lost the ability to speak. It didn’t seem to impact his English skills too terribly and had no effect on his daily neighborhood interviews. There’s something to be said for the expressive qualities of Italian hand gestures. His wife eventually had a brain aneurysm and died instantly on the bathroom floor. I was in my late teens by then and the only one of my clan still in the neighborhood but I was at work. He hollered and gestured out the window for help for over three hours before somebody called the cops and they came to investigate. It wouldn’t have helped my aunt any had I been there but… that took a toll on him, which took a toll on me. He was never the same after that.
My cousin, then a “spinster” in her mid-fifties…. Well, I won’t speak ill of her because I can’t imagine what she was going through but I don’t know what the fuck she was thinking. She put Tony in a nursing home. Each of my siblings and I begged her to let him live with us. Nothing doing. And it was worse than the fucking dog pound. Every time I’d visit him, he’d start putting on his slacks and fedora and I had to explain – again – that he had to stay and I wasn’t taking him home. I was a nineteen year old kid and screwed up in my own right but to this day I am shamed to my soul that I stopped going to see him because those scenes were just too hard on my heart. Whatever I may have accomplished in my life since then, I will always consider myself a coward for that.
The nurses loved him and, even nearing the century mark, he was doing his best to return the favor. Hardly a year later, though, he was gone. They said he was in the best mood ever, had a nice dinner, flirted with them (hand gestures only, mind you), waved goodbye, closed his eyes and just died. They said he was still smiling when they took him away.
A few years later, when my cousin drank herself to death, I flew back out and helped go through the apartment. There wasn’t much I wanted. Just one thing, really, since the knife had already been spoken for. And now I have a trunk in my basement and at its bottom is a very small-headed fedora. It’s seen better days but that’s okay. It’s not for wearing anymore. It’s for looking at. For talking to. For confessing my weaknesses and recounting my proudest moments.
I am now a forty-year-old man and have led, I suspect, a far different life than Tony had, with a lot more time spent in shades of moral grey. I have eschewed an urban environment for the quiet privacy of suburbia and the quasi-rural. And I have little use for a watch of any brand. But I have a reputation for being garrulous and gregarious and am well-known at the shops and restaurants I frequent. And I remember – and actually care about – all the small details of the lives of the people there as well. I know the busboy, Brian, spent seven years in the navy; that Melissa, the barrista, is fluent in Russian; that David, the manager, is studying to be a doctor and is a volunteer medic at night; that Devon runs a girls’ lacrosse camp in Florida every summer; that Steve wants to move to Oregon with his wife to make a clean break and start over. I am trusted because I listen well and take great pains to keep secrets hidden, even when revealing them would hurt only others rather than myself. And I have involved myself in people’s problems because it was the right thing to do, even though it may have cost me much and profited me nothing. And I carry a simple, rather sharp pocketknife – among other things – with me everywhere. But I only wear a fedora on this website because I am not much of a hat guy.
I do sorely miss a man that was, though.