Bridgeport Christmas, 2012
Seasons Greetings from Bridgeport, U.S.A.
Rushing south in the early morning hours on Lakeshore Drive, past downtown Chicago, I arrive at the “Compound," a three flat Graystone, affectionately filled with four floors of family, for the one day God tortures me.
After footing most of the bill for our Feast of the Seven Fishes Dinner, I have to clean my father’s house. My request to have him cohabitate with a nice Polish girl that cleans has not been fulfilled yet. A mail order Russian bride would be just fine, too.
As I gather the cleaning supplies from beneath the sink, Pops enlists the help of
the Homeless Black Man, who lives in the unheated garage out back, to assist me.
“Dad” I tell him, “You can’t have him live in your garage, sleeping on boxes of my
college transcripts and old love letters.”
“Are you kidding me?” Pops responds, “This guy thinks he’s hit the jackpot. Three
squares a day and a roof over his head. I’m providing a public service.”
I am now in desperate need of some Dago Red wine. After my father completes his
first nap of the day, he proceeds to fry the stinky Baccala in his grey flannel pajamas.
Pops then tries to get me to eat the asparagus and eggs the local Mob Boss brought over. I take a pass. Either Fox News or the History Channel play on every TV in the house – I count at least six. I have no idea which remote to use to turn off or change the channel.
After the Baccala is done, Homeless Man fries a chicken for himself. My mother enters the kitchen and enthusiastically yells “I'm from the south and I LOVE fried chicken.” Homeless Man laughs. I stare at both my mother and Homeless Man and decide to exit this extremely strange, left-leaning love fest and head for the basement.
A miracle occurs, as behind the Oak downstairs bar, I manage to dig out New
Order’s “Power, Corruption and Lies” album from over 100 dust covered CDs. I play the song “Age of Consent” and am transported to a runway, in the early Fall of 1985, a tall, gawky, emaciated, ninth grader, thirteen, too much makeup, too high of h&eels, stripping naked with strangers in the same room Andy Warhol signed Interview magazines just a few days before. No adult chaperone, of course.
A model belts out Klymaxx’s “The men all pause when I walk into a room. The
men all pause” before she climbs up the flimsy stairs to make her walk. I can’t fill a
bra, have no body hair, yet I am drinking a vodka tonic, taking extra care not to ruin my mascara.
“Your Silent Face” begins to play and the synthesized strings remind me of the ebb
and flow of young love.
“Leave Me Alone” plays and, left alone, I try to replicate the coveted Ian Curtis/Alison
Moyet swinging arm dance and my signature hair flip. WOOSH.
You get these words wrong
You get these words wrong
I tackle the bar in full on gas mask, smock and gloves as too many questionable
characters frequent the “Compound” and you can never be too careful. I dust my
father's framed porn star autographs with the same feathered brush I use on photos of my children.
It is common knowledge that most Italian-Americans, like Orthodox Jewish families, have a 2nd kitchen in their basement. Not only do we have a kitchen, but a whirlpool tub, sauna, bar and pool table.
It's the Carlito's Way suite at Caesar's Palace circa 1980.
To access the stairs to the basement, you must first walk through my father’s bathroom, and open a "secret" door: "The bathroom might throw off the Feds, but be sure to knock in case someone's on the toilet," my father cautions.
The large basement is covered in thousands of photos, pool and White Sox baseball
memorabilia. We have converted the pool table into a serving table for the fried shrimp, boiled shrimp, shrimp dip, crab dip, cod, etc. There is also a coffee stained Italian flag.
I set up the holiday ornaments and candles provided by Homeless Man on all of
the tables. I do not ask where they came from.
Pops takes a second nap during a John Wayne movie; "You seen this?" he asks me, then dozes off again while I clear clutter. There must be twenty-three remotes. I light candles and re-vacuum in an attempt to mask the old man, cat and dog scents. I pour myself a second cocktail, cut flowers and drape table cloths.
A picture of my recently departed, godfather Joe, eating spaghetti, is blown up,
framed and sits atop the end of a long bingo table. He will be joining our
Christmas Eve dinner tonight. He never left, or got off the phone, one time, without telling me he loved me first. Not one time.
I change the stereo to Christmas music and start to greet our family guests. My
father has neither showered, nor awoke from his second nap, yet the house fills with relatives and small children, including many godchildren.
My great-grandmother was from the "old country" and used to fit two hundred people in two rooms on Christmas Eve. The body heat helped. Forget a kids "table," we were relegated to eating in the cold hallway, siting on the splintered stairwell, where one could see their breath. Older cousins would show off cigarettes that
they stole from their mother's purse and that they couldn't wait to light up in the alley. To even suggest that one of us kids needed to use the restroom inside my great-grandmother's tight quarters on this special night, the most special night of the year
for my family, may have resulted in a murder. "All they had to do was give you a look," my father told me. There were no "explanations" or "reasoning."
I am happy that this year, the annual holiday “Beefs” have been avoided, which means everyone is on speaking terms, and there are no conflicts that I know of yet.
I keep a rag in one hand and a Windex bottle near as I pour drinks and start to
carry the four pounds of pasta downstairs. “You look like Grandma” my cousin shouts.
I catch myself in the mirror – grateful to have avoided her Mediterranean Raccoon eyes - apron on, rag in hand, a steaming mountain of pasta opening the pores on my face – and do admit I look a little like her tonight.
Needing to serve more pasta, I climb the steep green carpeted stairs leading not onto a Catwalk, but to a bathroom. Better knock.