I had been listening to Solo Noi on repeat for days.
I just turned 30 and had just been dumped. And Solo Noi, with its dramatic music and haunting lyrics, is arguably the best breakup song of all time. Anyway, after two weeks of moping and constant Toto Cutugno melodies, my friends and family encouraged me to get back into the dating scene.
Shortly thereafter, I met Luke through an online dating site. The only facts I knew about him included: his name, his age (29), his employment status (graduate student), where he lived (Medford) and that his mother was off-the-boat French.
(Do they say “off-the-boat” to describe other Europeans? Or is it just an Italianism? I’m not sure.)
Because I was still feeling raw and romantically challenged in the wake of my breakup, I recommended we rendezvous for an afternoon coffee–ensuring a short date in a T-accessible location. We decided to meet for coffee at Cafe Algiers in Harvard Square. With its high ceilings, wood interiors, and Arabic coffee aroma, Algiers had an awesome old world atmosphere. The service was always a bit slow, but it allowed me to linger and lounge without feeling rushed. In short, it was perfect for a coffee date. I arrived a few minutes early and grabbed a table up on the second floor. I flagged down a waitress, ordered a coffee and sat down to wait for Luke.
After twenty minutes, it was clear he was running late. When 45 minutes had passed, I finally caved and texted him–and surprise, surprise–he didn’t respond. I figured: meh, I was being stood up, and to be honest, I wasn’t all that upset about it. I pulled out my tattered copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, opened to my favorite part, and sat and sipped my delicious Café Royal.
I had just finished my coffee and was getting ready to leave when Luke finally arrived.
Upon giving him the once over, it appeared he hadn’t been to sleep in two days. My assessment was based on the following data: when he hugged me hello, I noticed his clothes reeked of cigarette smoke, body odor, and Curve cologne. His clothing—an old Kurt Cobain t-shirt and jeans—looked not only wrinkled and lived in, but were also boasting some pretty serious grass stains. His eyes were blood shot. His lip was cut and swollen. I thought I noticed the beginnings of a bruise forming on his face. In short: Luke was in tough shape. Without apologizing for his tardiness, he took a seat and set out to tell me his tale of woe that led to this sorry state.
Luke had been partying the night before in Brookline. After some merry-making, he got into a fight with his friend, Mario. From what I could deduce from his Faulkner-like stream of consciousness, Luke confronted Mario about his family’s “connections”. Young Luke, it turns out, was quite convinced that his friend Mario’s family was in the Mafia. When I asked him what had led to his conclusion, he shrugged and said, “Well, his dad’s name is Sonny and he works as a trash collector, if you know what I mean.” I actually had no idea what he meant, but I was too dumbfounded to speak. He gave me a smile and a wink that said, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” I sat there stunned while he continued on with his story.
The fight escalated and punches were thrown and wrestling ensued. Unfortunately for Luke, Mario also happened to be his ride home to Medford. So when his presumably now ex-friend left him behind in a fit of rage, Luke found himself stranded in Brookline.
It took a while, but Luke was finally able to hail a cab. The cab only made it halfway way to Medford before Luke realized he didn’t have any money to pay for what was becoming a very expensive ride. They stopped at an ATM but while operating the machine, Luke remembered that he only had about $24 left in his account. He withdrew the limited resources, thus depleting his bank account, tried to strike a deal with the cabbie, got in a fight with the cabbie, and was then left on the side of the road by the cabbie. Luke was penniless. And stranded. Again.
At this point in his tale, the waitress came by to take Luke’s order: two cups of coffee and an omelet, extra home fries. Homeboy was double fisting. And frankly, he looked like he needed it.
Luke returned to his story with a big smile on his tired face. Upon finding himself abandoned somewhere between Brookline and Medford, his only backup plan was to start walking. Aimlessly. According to his tall tale, it took hours, but Luke did eventually walk himself to Medford, where he fell into bed, took a nap, overslept and missed his bus—thus making him late to our coffee date.
“Soo…what you are telling me is that you have no money?”
“Haha…oh my gosh, you’re right! Breakfast is on you! By the way, where are you from? You are very exotic looking. India? Jordan?”
Looking back, I’m not sure why I didn’t walk out then and there. In truth, I was stunned and speechless. I was sitting across from an ignorant, penniless man who was covered in grass stains. A man who believed every single thing he’d ever seen on the Sopranos. A man who seemed to think I was Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian, despite the fact that over email I had mentioned my mother was born in Italy.
Through gritted teeth I said, “I’m Italian.”
He sank down closer to the table, and leaned in, giving me another whiff of his alluring musk (note: sarcasm) and whispered, “Wait…is YOUR dad in the Mafia?”
I tilted my head to the side, just a fraction of an inch. I closed my eyes and took a breath, considering my reaction and choosing my words. Unfortunately, he read my hesitation as affirmation.
“Ohhhhhh my god, he IS in the mob, isn’t he!? Does he know Whitey?”
Now, I have never, ever walked out on a date before—no matter how bad. But Luke had hit a nerve, and I couldn’t sit still any longer. I began to pack up my things.
The Italian-American identity is one full of both tragedy and triumph. We are proud, religious, life-loving, (not to mention attractive) people stained by a curse of criminality–invariably perpetuated today by crime writers, TV shows (both reality and fictional) and movies.
My father Vincent, a very proud Italian American, banned The Sopranos from our home–and rightfully so. We also never watched The Godfather, or Goodfellas. Of course, curiosity eventually killed the proverbial gatto, and once I moved out on my own, I snuck Tony, Carmella and the entire Corleone clan (yes–even Sophia) into my cheap Target DVD player.
Despite my fear of being found out by my dad, I watched episode after episode of the Sopranos. I admit that I saw the appeal: the glamour and the family ties. The rules, passion, tragedy, and ruthlessness. And the blood—oh my, all that blood. I understand that this combination is very compelling to viewers. It was compelling to me. It makes for great television.
What I didn’t and don’t understand: why it is always the Italians? Can’t we write screenplays about some other race of people picking up the racketeering slack? In reality, Italians are not dominating the American mob scene–although no one seems to believe otherwise. Despite our successes in academia, government, entertainment and industry, many Americans still identify Italians with the mob; meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department says that less than 1% of Italian Americans are involved in organized crime.
That’s right, less than 1%.
And yet, the fascination with the Italian mafia lives on, and the Italian American identity continues to suffer. And here I am sitting across from a maleducato who is literally walking around and perpetuating these stereotypes.
I left money for the bill and told Luke I had a dentist appointment. He smiled his crooked smile and winked at me. It made me feel dirty and angry all at once. I huffed and walked away. I wasn’t thrilled with the fact I had just bought food for this man, but told myself I was doing a good deed: providing nourishment for the less fortunate and more close-minded.
As I walked away, I scolded myself for not giving him a piece of my mind right then. Why didn’t I launch into a diatribe about the stigmatization of Italian Americans and the unjust ripple effect it can have on our families? Why didn’t I see this as a teaching moment, an opportunity to open Luke’s mind? A part of me thinks Luke wouldn’t have heard anything I had to say. And another part of me knows I hate confrontation. Either way, I didn’t feel very proud of my choice to walk away.
And that is why I’m writing this story. Not to cast light on Luke’s ignorance; he is a dime a dozen. (A very dirty dozen, of course.) But still, I’m sure we all have encountered a Luke at one point or another. Rather, I’m writing this story because I’d like to cast light on my own actions, or inactions, as it were. I missed an opportunity to adjust somebody’s misconception of my culture–a culture of which I am insanely proud.
As I walked to the train station that day, I took Solo Noi off of repeat on my ipod, and replaced it with L’Italiano. I listened and heard more than just the words of L’italiano; I heard the strum of Cutugno’s guitar, the unmistakable organic rasp of his voice, and his deep love for his country. Sono l’Italiano, un Italiano vero. And while I hummed along, I vowed that the next time I was confronted with a Luke, I would set the record straight.
As Toto sang good morning to Maria, con gli occhi pieni di malinconia, I got a text from Luke. He said he really liked me and couldn’t wait to go out again. It didn’t surprise me. I mean, a guy’s gotta eat.