In order to really get a grasp on a "slice of life" story, one has to be able to visualize everything about the scenery and the characters that populate it. Young Joey begins to set the stage for us immediately with the larger than life Big Nana, whose wish for the wiry Joey is to become a plump, rotund opera singer. Flash forward to high school, where Joey's rebellious nature combined with his unfortunate fulfilling of his Nana's wishes leads him to become lazy and uninspired in high school. Through the tone of Joey's narration, the pressures of his family to be something he doesn't want to be and the kind of company he keeps in his gang of friends in Valencia High, readers will immediately anticipate a strong coming-of-age story with lots of adventure and silly behavior. In the center of a group with no ambition beyond machismo and pretty girls, Joey and the audience are in for an interesting, humorous ride.
If you didn’t know Maria Tuccio in Valencia City, you were chronically drunk, doing time in the Florida Pen or comatose. She was a large, impressive woman with a personality like a spewing volcano.
Maria immigrated to the States from Sicily at the age of fourteen, lived in the Bronx for two years, and made her way to Valencia to work in the cigar industry. At eighteen, she catapulted from rolling tobacco leaves to bossing other immigrant workers. Maria met and married the best looking, fastest cigar maker in the factory, Vicenzo Tuccio. They pooled their resources and built the first service station in their ethnic neighborhood. Rumor had it that Al Capone once stopped for gas at Tuccio’s and tried to put the move on Maria. She slapped the fifty dollar, hand-made cigar right out of his mouth. Yea, even the mob respected Maria Tuccio.
Vicenzo and Maria built a large, two-story shotgun house in the City, divided it into four apartments and, over the years, moved the entire Tuccio family under one roof. I grew up there, and developed a mix of admiration, terror, love, rage towards her. My larger-than-life Sicilian Nana gave me, and the rest of the family, no simple choices about how to think and feel about her. Everything was huge and complex with Maria Tuccio: heart, body and ego.
Nana always reminded me of a giant rooster: She would strut into a room chest first, prance around in jerky motions, crow about something or other that pissed her off and glare at the grandkids until she spotted one to peck. More often than not, it was…me.
“Whatsa wrong with you Joey? You skinny lika the bird. Nana gonna feed you. Fatten you up.”
My cousins and I called her Big Nana, but never, ever to her face. “Big Nana’s here”, we joked and laughed, then turned to each other in terror: “What the hell have we done?” Nana had bionic senses and could hear us from a mile away, so she would whack us. We really believed that.
HEADLINE: “Sicilian Woman Strangles Grandsons with Her Bare Hands…Police Want To Know Why”
My most catastrophic memories of Nana Tuccio always revolved around food. I feel them like she’s with me right now, that grand presence and the suffocating pressure on me: ”Mangia! Mangia! Mangia!” EAT, EAT, EAT.
Big Nana was obsessed with girth and eating habits, particularly mine. She called me her little Caruso, the opera star from Naples. There were no skinny tenors in those days and none of them resembled birds. How was I to belt out Vesti la Giubba from Pagliaccio if I didn’t look the part of a barrel-chested, rotund clown? “Impossible!” she would shout as she surveyed my boyish body. So, the physique was ripe for sizing up, my eighth birthday a good time for an intervention, Sicilian style, which evoked vintage Nana at her boisterous best.
The capo was on a mission that day: Get this pathetically skinny, sickly kid – me – to “mangia como un’uomo grosso”, eat like a fat man. And nobody, not mom or dad or anyone else, better get in her way.
The cast of characters was critical for her plan, so my many Aunts were ordered to be at the party, especially the indispensable Carolena, who brought mounds of pizza and pasty from her bakery and wailed at every family feast. Leftovers wounded her like a blow to the head, a half-eaten pie or a cannoli shell with the ricotta sucked out of the center got her seriously disoriented.
My best buddies were there, and like boxers at a weigh-in, they had to pass the poundage test: No skinny, scrawny, appetite-challenged kids allowed at this party: No way Jose. The five chunkiest, mega-eaters made the cut. It was good to see the guys, all seven hundred and fifty pounds of them.
The hefty gang adored Big Nana: She was expressive and affectionate and bold, blustery and showy around them, applauding their girths and glutinous ways at the table. She pinched their cheeks and butts, other fleshy body parts, squeezed them to the edge of respiratory failure, kidded them about the pudgy little Sicilian girls, gave them hell for not fattening me up. And, they were well aware of what she did to Scarface.
The table was set with enough food to feed Garibaldi’s army, Nana at the head to monitor the coming frenzy, yours truly at the other end surrounded by the boys, my role models for good glutinous behavior, which meant eating until you were perilously close to passing out.
My friends rapidly shoveled massive amounts of food from plates to mouths with Mom and aunties dutifully watching like vigilant hawks, cheering them on, hoping to inspire me to mimic their Romanesque feats of consumption.
Aunt Carolena took one look at my plate and cried: “Joey, Joey, Joey.” That’s all she could say, Joey, Joey, Joey, while piling food into her contorted mouth. Eating while wailing was a unique talent, her “regalo del Dio”, her gift from God. No joke…she actually said that.
I was indifferent to the entire imbroglio, waiting impatiently to devour a slice of my birthday cake, a grand Carolena creation, layers of cake interspersed with sweet ricotta, chocolate filling and almond paste, topped with a huge mound of coconut icing. Looking anxiously around the table, I saw antipastos, salads, stuffed and unstuffed pastas, an assortment of seafood and meats and breads, but no cake in sight.
Nana signaled to the rowdy group and the feeding frenzy stopped. Family and friends sang Happy Birthday. The crowd became suddenly silent as Mom plopped a deranged-looking concoction in front of me. A bona fide birthday surprise: Eight candles glowing atop a giant Sicilian meatball.
A cruel joke, humiliating laughter and a quid pro quo: Pathetic Joey eats a slice of that deranged thing and gets his birthday cake, which dripped with lusciousness at the other end of the table. Maria Tuccio had struck again, and at that moment, I could feel Capone’s pain.
That was my launch into pre-pubescence, with a portly gang of glutinous pals, a smothering Sicilian family, the bad encounter with a meatball.
Puberty was more of the same, except now I had pimples. My feelings for Maria Tuccio remained a mix of respect and rebelliousness, but I was sure of one thing: Her grip on my body was over, fini. Then, one day, I took an honest look at my hips in the mirror and…S**t! Big Nana.”
The Cool Guys at Valencia High
A cool guy at Valencia High was, well…cool, which wasn’t so much the presence of positive traits like good looks and a perky personality, but the conspicuous absence of negative ones; getting nervous around pretty girls, being intimidated by coaches, teachers, principals, and most emasculating, spit on the ground disgusting, showing fear around big guys or small ones who knew how to box.
A bunch of the short dudes were trained pugilists like Tito Mendez, who challenged you to meet him after school for the slightest infraction, like brushing against him in the hallway or, perish the thought, standing too close to his babe Juanita. That got you punched in the mouth and other delicate places.
Tito scared the crap out of me, and to pile on more misery, I was the proud owner of a jumpy nervous system, which pretty much guaranteed gobs of sweat in body parts obvious to the entire Universe, but mainly hot girls, like my forehead, upper lip and armpits, which spewed more moisture than a rain forest.
Let me put this is a nutshell for you: I was not one of the cool guys at Valencia High.
In spite of Tito, the shaking nerves, a bummer of a sexual experience at the drive-in and that pesky academic problem, I had some really cool friends that made it all okay, and would rank my high school years right up there with the best of them.
The super cool guys were all hairy beasts who started shaving way before the rest of us hormonally-challenged types. And the really cool girls were our homecoming queens, which had little to do with being on the ‘court’, but mostly to do with being popular, socially savvy and hot, really hot. My glands spit gallons of sweat just standing next to gals like Juanita. I’m feeling a little moist right now, but don’t tell Tito about it. Really! I can imagine him waiting for me behind my office building.
So, here’s an intro to my gang, the Valencia City Boys, who rescued me from my nervous system, all precociously hormonal, hairy beasts and really cool guys. And a bit about me, the hairy beast, babe-magnet wannabe.
I’m sure you know who I am, not me per se, but a guy like me in your school. I was the closet comedian, the secret laugh-maker, the kid who sat behind you in class making up stupid names for everybody, even the teachers, and whispering little dirty jokes in your ear when the ‘teach’ wasn’t looking.
Any antic to crack you up in the middle of a boring English class or one of those dreadful history lectures delivered by the Coach, who really wanted to be kicking somebody’s butt on the football field.
Don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t the class clown. We had plenty of those at Valencia, guys who would jump out of the second story window during class to get the really big laughs, or throw a condom full of water to the front of the room when the President of the student body was making an announcement. Nope, that wasn’t me. Only my really close friends knew how funny or crazy or bizarre I could be. It was our little secret and that’s the way I wanted it.
You know my buddies as well. My best friend Rick was the precocious, good looking one in your class, that dude that got his testosetone before everyone else, started shaving when he was twelve and sprouting chest hairs every ten seconds or so. Gals lusted after Rick, talked about him in the bathroom, blushed if he just looked in their direction. It didn’t matter if the gals were gorgeous, giddy or eggheads. The nauseating reactions were always the same.
And like me, you guys were envious, but you pretty much kept those feelings underground. I certainly did because… geez, the guy was like family, Sicilian familia, and you can’t be jealous of a damned relative, can you? That was another one of my secrets, and if you run into Rick or anyone else related to me, don’t mention it…okay!
Don was the jock in your high school, athletic, muscular and highly disciplined, and he had a natural six pack and humongous calves. You gals may not be able to connect with this body-envy thing, but I’m sure the guys can. I’ll explain: In God’s assembly line, only a select few bambinos get tight abdominal muscles and super-muscular calves. With hard work at a gym that’s run by a bruiser who eats raw meat, a regular dude can build a big chest, arms and thighs, but the same dude can do thousands of sit-ups, crunches and calf raises, with hundreds of pounds on his back, and get zip. If the Big Guy didn’t give them to you in the very beginning, you can forget about it.
My muscle-bound buddy took me to the smelly gym at the YMCA and made this promise: “Hey Joey,” he said pointing to parts of his chiseled body. “You gonna look just like this when I finish with you.” I did Don’s exact workout; thousands of sit-ups, crunches and calf raises with huge, back-breaking weights on my shoulders, and developed a humongous chest, and arms and thighs. From my ‘pecs’ up, I looked pretty damned good. But when I sized up my body after six months, they were still there; the flabby waist and pencil-thin calves. I ask you sensitive people out there: What’s fair about that?
Don was our Arnold because he had the right genetic, God-given stuff. As you can see, I had a bad case of Don-envy too, so let’s move on.
You know this kid all too well, the fun-loving, happy-go-lucky, heavy one who gets teased incessantly about this insane, typically American thing called weight. Didn’t you hate it when some blockhead started in on him/her? That was one of my best buddies, Jose, who lived down the block from me in our unique Sicilian-Hispanic neighborhood, Valencia City. We spent a lot of time together, and believe me, Jose was sensitive about being a big guy but tough as hell, going ‘mano-a-mano’ with any bully who went too far with the fat jokes.
I really loved the guy and cringed when some insensitive dude started in on his size. But Jose had an incredible way of handling these guys, using a quick wit and biting humor to get a persistent punk to back off. Occasionally, he had to use his big body to knock the crap out of somebody, and that was okay with me as well.
Except for Don, the sole Anglo in the gang with the disgustingly perfect DNA, we were all chunky guys. And I’ll tell you why: We were encouraged - hell we were pressured - to put the food away in huge quantities, expressing obedience, gratitude and love through alimentary feats. The more I binged on Big Nana’s food, the more she felt adored and appreciated. So being ‘un buono ragazzo’, a good boy, I complied with what my Sicilian grandmother wanted, moving up that ‘biga boy’ scale to 215 pounds. The others hovered around that mark as well, and Jose was a few notches above the rest. In that department, he was our guru, the mentor for the portly princes of gluttony.
Every gang has a shy kid, the quiet, reserved one who truly wants to be a part of the crowd but rarely reveals anything about himself, especially those private vulnerabilities. You were lucky to get a grunt or a few words in a conversation before the bell rang, during class, or just hanging out after school.
Fernando was our shy guy who drove us/me a little crazy because, like Cousin Rick, he was a babe magnet. The guy was Paul Newman, or for you younger types, Brad Pitt handsome, with piercing blue eyes that made the young ladies swoon, dizzy with lust, and drooling-prone. To me, he was a reluctant hairy beast, but one nonetheless.
The adulation was like a cattle prod to my good buddy, shocking his system to the core. Human nature being, well, very weird, this reluctance affected the gals in paradoxical ways: the more Fernando repelled their advances, the more they wanted that shy guy’s magic.
That’s why his shyness drove me bonkers. I was desperate for that kind of attention, doing emotional back flips to get noticed by the lovely babes of Valencia. A waste of natural resources, life is not fair, God has a weird sense of humor – yea, those kinds of frustrating feelings. You guys must know my pain, I’m sure. You gals can empathize as well, perhaps from your unique angle looking back at that bizarre period known as puberty. The word itself smacks of pain, confusion and humiliation.
Lastly, the big brain, the smart aleck, the 150 IQ humanoid who sails through physics, chemistry and those four hundred or so math classes we had to pass to get that magnificent license to progress to the rest of our lives. Do you remember that brainy kid? The one who simply flipped through the 350 page book the night before the exam and, damn…aced it. Of course you do, because resentment leaves a long-lasting bitter taste in your mouth.
His name was Mark, and if he wasn’t such a big guy, you’d want to slap him on the side of the head that housed that huge cerebrum. And what peeved me even more: Mark was no nerd. He was a really nice kid, a good friend, a six-footer, which in my group meant you were a tall guy. His long legs seemed spring-loaded, so our good buddy could dunk a damned basketball, making him the envy of every short dude at Valencia High, and there were loads of us.
If I was the closet comedian, Mark was the secret ‘brainiac’. He was petrified of showing us his grades, and typically called in sick the day the ‘smarties’ were inducted into the Honor Society. Mark avoided the ceremony like the plague. It wasn’t cool to be a brain, or have a brain in my gang, and the big kid wanted desperately to be one of us.
Pepe was not a Valencia City Boy, but a very keen observer of my gang’s habits: My dad, the shipyard worker, the swarthy dude who had the nerve to call us good-for-nothing, lazy bums, and often the Sicilian equivalent, ragazzi pigri. Pepe watched my gang drink and eat everything within striking distance of our guts, and constantly compete on the baseball diamonds, football fields and basketball courts at our giant playground, Margari Park. In those days, eating, competing and snaring dates with Latino and Sicilian girls, not highbrow stuff, were major league priorities.
Pepe was nervy, boisterous, a lovable pain in the butt. In his thick Sicilian accent, he would taunt us, half seriously: “You lazy gooda for nothing. You donna do nothing good for you self.”
To dad, bunchabums was a single word, one of the favorites in his limited English vocabulary.
Pepe was right: We were academically anemic with no intentions of attending college, and only enticed by girls, sports and getting our guts filled with as much Sicilian, Cuban and Spanish food as humanly possible.
What a friggin nerve, I thought when he gave me a hard time about my studies: Pepe barely finished junior high, and at the ripe old age of thirteen, he said goodbye to his academic career. That’s it, finito! He got a swift kick in the butt by my Nanu, a tough immigrant from the Sicilian school of discipline. So the hell with it all, Pepe concluded, and he ran away from home. Nanu caught him before reaching the edge of the neighborhood and, I kid you not, chained him to a column in the house.
To get unchained, Pepe promised to return to school but actually never returned to the halls of academia. A couple of stints in reform school had little effect. His great aspiration was to be a tough guy in the streets of Valencia City. So that’s what he did, and even Nanu - that ace behavior modifier - finally gave up.
The Valencia boys were perfectly okay with Pepe’s assessment: “Bums, sure. Good for nothing and lazy… so what? Never amount to anything, yea, who cares?” Pretty cool dudes: that’s what we thought of ourselves. Academic success seemed unlikely, overrated and downright dull.
So we bluffed and cheated our way through high school. When graduation and real life were upon us, a few of my gang began working in the grocery business, one dude learned to carve pompadours and crew cuts at the local barber shop. I was damned proud to be driving a bread truck for Giovanni, my Godfather, at his Santucci Brother’s Bakery. A good deal, I surmised. The bread biz didn’t involve manual labor and was less treacherous than the shipyard. A pretty decent life going from one ethnic restaurant to another, delivering sweet delights and lots of dough.