Lost in Translation

Joey Vento started a big brouhaha by demanding that his customers order in English. But the reason why he did runs deeper than you might think

The first thing you need to understand about Joey Vento is that he’s crazy. Not scary, guy-muttering-to-himself-as- his-eyes-follow-you-down-the- subway-steps crazy, but more like your Uncle Morty at the bar mitzvah after two manhattans crazy. With his tattoos, gold Sagittarius medallion, array of gaudy t-shirts (“My wife dresses me,” he says proudly), nonstop gesticulating, and machine-gun-fire manner of speaking — loudly — Joey Vento can almost come off as a caricature, a Fox sitcom version of a South Philly palooka. He’s half Tony Soprano, half Tony the Tiger.

We’re sitting in the famed “celebrity booth” in the rear of Geno’s, where seemingly anyone destined to end up on Dancing With the Stars has a picture taken with the owner when passing through Philly. Geno Vento, Joey’s 36-year-old son, approaches. Lots of people assume Joey named Geno’s after his son. Actually, Joey named his son after Geno’s.

“Look at this,” says Geno the person, excitedly holding a bright orange napkin dispenser that almost perfectly matches the signature tangerine-y shade that engulfs Geno’s the restaurant. A vendor has dropped it off, hoping Joey will order a few. “It’s terrific.”

“Yeah, it’s nice,” Joey says with a cursory glance, in a voice that could be sincere or might mean “I don’t really give a shit.” Sometimes, it’s hard to believe the two men are related. Geno — sensitive, soft-spoken, with a Pillsbury Doughboy physique and a fascination with celebrity (he’s just finished regaling us with how he delivered steaks to Michael Bublé the night before) — is almost the anti-Joey. That makes Joey worry about what will happen to Geno’s after he’s gone. “Look, I love my kid,” he says later. “But he don’t know from hard work. He’s here four days a week: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. That isn’t work.”

Joey got thrown out of Catholic school in the sixth grade after a nun doused him with a bottle of holy water due to his foul mouth. His father, Jimmy “Steak” Vento, went to prison for murder; his brother, Stevie Vento (“One tough ass — Clint Eastwood would have played him in the movie,” Joey says), went to prison for drugs. “Let me tell you something. I never disowned my family — I still don’t,” he says, pointing one of his stubby sausage-link fingers at me. “I don’t condone what they did, but that’s my blood. And because I stood up for them, I had to pay a price. And I paid that price, and overcome it in the same neighborhood. That’s why nobody — I don’t care who you are — is going to come to me with any kind of story: ‘I lost my dad.’ ‘I had it rough.’ Bullshit.”

This Wild West swagger, whether you buy into it or not, has made Joey Vento, 67 years old, something of a legend in Philadelphia, a town that loves oddballs and misfits. But it’s also made Vento the lead actor in a bizarre threepenny opera where freedom of speech, hot-button politics and cheesesteaks intersect. In the micro sense, the story is about whether a small-business owner has the right to post a sign that some people find offensive. But in the macro sense — the real sense, if you will — this is about things that are much larger. In a drama that could only happen in Philadelphia, Joey Vento has become both an unlikely hero and an unlikely villain, either an uncompromising, truth-telling patriot or a xenophobic, jingoistic racist, all because of an eight-word, eight-inch-by-three-inch sign he put in his window two years ago. Done up in suitable red, white and blue and featuring the American bald eagle, it declares THIS IS AMERICA. WHEN ORDERING, PLEASE SPEAK ENGLISH. “I never said you had to recite the Declaration of Independence to get a cheesesteak,” he says, with a look that screams for someone — anyone — to understand. To get it. “I say, give me your worst immigrant, by the time I get through with them I’ll have them saying ‘cheesesteak.’ Give me a break here! What are we asking?”

Evidently, for trouble. In June 2006, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, the agency charged with policing discrimination in the city, filed a complaint against Geno’s for its sign, alleging that its posting was “discouraging patronage by non-English speaking customers, all because of national origin and/or ancestry.” According to the CHR, that’s a violation of the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance, Section 9-1105 A and B, which seems to banish anything that could affect the rights of an individual based on his or her “race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, national origin, ancestry, physical handicap or disability, or marital status.” In plainer language? City to Joey: Take the goddamned sign down.

Care to guess what Joey said?

Joey Vento wouldn’t seem to be a natural candidate to serve as a lightning rod igniting a national movement. He is, by his own admission, not articulate. He can be dismissive, curt, even snide. His claim to fame is creating what appears to be a theme-park ride masquerading as a restaurant — a vomiting kaleidoscope of neon that looks like something between an appliance superstore and the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The line outside often snakes down the block on warm weekend nights, mainly a sea of chubby young men in baggy jeans and sideward baseball caps, as if there had been a massive casting call for a new Turtle on Entourage.

And it all could have stayed this simple, and in many ways should have stayed this simple. Geno’s continues its longtime rivalry with neighboring Pat’s, Philly continues to get fat, everybody eats and remains happy. But then Joey put up his sign, and for some reason, a lot of people who would seem to have a lot better things to do started to make a very big deal about it.

Joey opened Geno’s in 1966, having worked for his dad and others in the steak-sandwich trade from the age of seven. The grandson of Italian immigrants who came over in the early 1900s, he grew up in various rented rowhomes around South Philly, and did the things that guys who grew up as he did do: He got kicked out of school, joined the Army, married a nice local girl, had a son, worked his ass off building a business, bought a place in Jersey, joined the middle class. As the years passed, the media stoked his rivalry with Pat’s, and he gladly played along, shucking and jiving in the press and watching the tourists flock down to South Philly to see what all the fuss was about (and buy a few Whiz wit’).

But as time passed, Joey found himself troubled. Not as a businessman, but as an American. He felt, in a way that you sense is very real and very personal, that the America he loved was slipping away. People didn’t look out for each other. Criminals caught all the breaks, the cops caught all the grief. Everybody played the victim card. Christ, you couldn’t even find people who spoke English anymore.

It was this last bit of revelation that changed Joey Vento’s life. During what he terms a “shoot the shit” discussion with some vendors two years ago, he found himself ranting that he was suddenly getting the wrong deliveries, that the wrong things were going to the wrong places, that when he called customer service he couldn’t find anyone who spoke decent English. He was also becoming frustrated at his ordering window; South Philly was seeing a huge influx of immigrants from Mexico, and many of them didn’t speak English. It wasn’t right, he felt. It wasn’t right.

Joey can’t remember when, exactly, he came up with the idea for the sign, which he posted in the fall of ’05. He says it was a goof, a way to let off a little patriotic steam, a fuck-you to the PC crowd. Others, like City Councilman Jim Kenney, saw it as a Molotov cocktail thrown into the country’s increasingly difficult conversation about immigration policy. “It seemed to me more bullying than helpful,” Kenney says. “I just don’t think, for an icon of Philadelphia, it should be sending that kind of message.”

The fact is, no one was paying much attention to Joey Vento or his sign until Kenney went onto the Council chamber floor in May 2006 and denounced it. Local media picked up the story, many depicting the sign as a racist slap at the new Latino immigrants. This, from a column by the Inquirer’s Rick Nichols, was typical: “Most of the Mexican newcomers are sequestered in the less-visible precincts of the food business — peeling and dishwashing and swabbing the floor — though in the block north of Geno’s flag-­waving fortress at 9th and Passyunk, some have opened cheery groceries and music-filled taquerias in storefronts abandoned and left to decay by the sons of the sons of Italy. How a Spanish-only-speaker might be expected to read Geno’s English-only instructions is, well, self-answering: That’s their problem, pal.”

While Kenney believes Geno’s was within its legal rights to post the sign, he sees it as a 21st-century take on the “No Irish Need Apply” versions his ancestors faced. “People have to understand that the immigrant face they see today is the same immigrant face — although it may be brown, and the eyes may be a different shape. They’re the same immigrant experience that we are,” he says. “If you can’t identify with that, then you’ve lost what it is that this country stands for, which is opportunity.”

When the Commission on Human Relations jumped in the following month, Joey Vento, Citizen of America, was born. Riled up, ranting and ruthlessly politically incorrect, Joey found knights in shining cable more than happy to air his case: Fox News Channel, whose hosts were giddy to put him on the air, and CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who has made illegal immigration a personal crusade.

By the time a rally titled “Voice of the People” was held in Harrisburg this past September, Joey had been elevated to keynote speaker, igniting the faithful with his barroom rhetoric that the country was being overrun by illegal immigrants who were accountable to no one, who were bleeding our social services and stealing our jobs, and who were defiant in resisting the assimilation that Europeans embraced as part of the American Dream a century ago. One of the lines that got the biggest applause in Harrisburg was when Joey said, “You come here, you pop a baby, pick it up and take it back to Mexico!”

“You want to know why we got animosity in this country?” he tells me one day, standing in the back of his spotless shop. (And I do mean spotless — no matter what you think of him, you could perform surgery in this place.) “Because we’re always bending. We gotta be nice. No, no, no. Play … by … the … rules.”

Play by the rules. Of all of the sound bites Joey Vento has perfected over the past year, this is his absolute favorite. He says he has nothing against Mexicans, nothing against immigrants, nothing against immigration — after all, weren’t his grandparents immigrants? But he has a very big problem with people who don’t wait in line, who don’t fill out the paperwork and do the things they’re supposed to do to get into this country legally. He finds the phrase “undocumented workers” laughable. They’re illegal, he says. “People don’t wake up until it’s too late,” he says. “And that’s what’s going to happen to this country.”

But Joey’s sign did wake people up. He’s gotten letters from all over the country, praising him for standing up for America. Many people sent money for his legal defense. (He returned it.) He keeps all of the correspondence organized in plastic sleeves, locked into meticulously labeled orange binders that match the color of his shop. From Elmira, Oregon: “Don’t let them talk you down. You are right!” From Chandler, Arizona: “It’s about time someone with courage took a stand.” From Las Vegas: “You are not alone in your feelings about America!” An online MSNBC poll taken a week after the story broke netted more than 27,000 responses — 88 percent backing the sign. Joey Vento had lit a match under the anti-immigration forces. Or the racists, depending on how you look at it. “When the whole thing broke, I was getting some of the nastiest, foulest e-mails I’ve ever gotten, from places like Texas and Oklahoma and Southern states,” Jim Kenney says. “That showed me that when you send a hater­message, the haters come out.”

Talk-show host Michael Smerconish, for one, isn’t surprised. “There was a chord that was struck,” he says, adding that he was stunned the CHR took up the case in the first place. “That’s not me playing the windbag saying, ‘Oh, can you believe they’re going after Joey Vento.’ It’s me saying, ‘Is this all they’ve got? This shitty little sign and they think it’s worth their time to go after this guy?’” So what does Smerconish think this is really all about? He pauses. “I think it’s somebody in city government who’s got a hard-on for Joey.”

After 41 years of feeding the seemingly never-ending line of customers waiting outside his window, Joey Vento still takes almost boyish delight in deftly showing how it’s done, maneuvering his shiny stainless-steel spatula with the deftness of a maestro, flipping small slices of raw red beef as they bubble on the griddle to the color of dry mud. A squirt of water, a fizz of steam, and the spatula flies the meat, piece by piece, with acrobatic flair, onto a long Italian roll. Outside, “The Halls of Montezuma” is blaring on a loudspeaker. Seems fitting.

Joey turns to me. “What kind of cheese?”

He sees my eyes move to his left, to the vat of gelatinous ooze that is the day’s ration of Cheez Whiz, which is ordered by almost 80 percent of Geno’s customers. I’m about to dive in — when in Rome, right? — when he cuts me off.

“Oh, no, no, no,” he says, hands on his hips. “You don’t want none of that.”

Joey may have made a tidy fortune selling one of the worst foods you could ever put in your body to the good people of Philadelphia, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about those bodies. “Cheez Whiz,” he says, spitting the words out like a curse. “It’s terrible! But everybody loves it, so I gotta sell it. And it gets worse! Some of these kids, the teenagers, they come up to the window and order a ‘heart attack ­special’ — that’s a steak wit’ Whiz, provolone and American. I tell them, ‘You’re gonna be dead by the time you’re 40!’” He shrugs. “What’ya gonna do?”

I ask him, if I am to push against the will of the masses and eschew the dreaded Whiz, what cheese is the right one to put on a steak.

“Provolone. It melts beautiful.”

Two minutes later, stuffing my provolone steak in my mouth, I have to agree: It’s miles better than the slop I usually order. Of course, I’m feeling a little giddy, too: I’ve had my cheesesteak made personally by Joey Vento! I think it must be the same feeling you get if Barry Manilow serenades you with “Mandy” and your name is Mandy.

“You see?” he says to me, a great big smile bursting out onto his crinkled, George Hamilton-y tanned face. “You gotta listen to Joey.”

Of course, not everyone does. There are plenty of folks who think Joey doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “So much of this is a gut response that’s all about law and order,” says Domenic Vitiello, a professor at Penn who’s part of the Philadelphia Migration Project, which studies immigration patterns into the region. A Vento critic, he’s also on the board of Juntos, which provides services to Mexican immigrants in South Philly. “And yes, this is a nation of laws. Yet at certain points in our history — and this is one of them — our laws don’t necessarily make a lot of sense. They don’t reflect the realities of our society and economy.”

In South Philly, the Mexican wave is a relatively new phenomenon, having really gained steam in the past six or seven years. It’s estimated that today there are anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 illegal immigrants living citywide, a large percentage of them Latino. Vitiello says the irony of the Mexican migration here is that it’s very similar in its pattern to the Italian migration of a century ago. People suffer economically, they can’t find work, they come and take low-paying jobs, they send money home, others see the opportunity and follow. And so the cycle goes. “The U.S. has always had room for people to come and speak their language,” Vitiello says. “Joey Vento’s version of history is really perverted. The fact that his grandparents didn’t speak English very well and they suffered seems to contradict what he’s saying the Mexicans should do. Statistically, Mexicans today are learning English faster than Italians a hundred years ago. Every Mexican I know in South Philadelphia wants to speak English better.”

As for the main thrust of the Vento Canon — that people need to “follow the rules” — Vitiello says the “rules” are so arcane that basically no one can get in legally anymore without waiting for a dozen years, which only fuels the desperation that leads people to hide in car trunks or cross rivers in the dead of night. “If the current rules were in effect when the Irish came here, we wouldn’t get in, either,” adds Kenney. “With the quotas and rules in effect, the Italians — none of us would have gotten in. And I assure you that the Irish and the Italians and the other Western Europeans who came here in waves would have been sneaking in, and their families would have been hiding them and taking care of them.”

Perhaps the biggest lesson to come out of the Geno’s brouhaha is the sobering confirmation of just how hardened our politics have become, how lethally Red State and Blue State, so that everything — from the Iraq war to health-care reform to whether Joey Vento has a right to hang his sign — is a furious battle. Unfortunately, it’s not a battle of ideas, but a battle of sound bites and suffering, of who can make the other side more miserable. And in the end, what does that get you?

Because it’s easy to dismiss Joey Vento and his ilk as nothing but racists and classists, people who want to deny a new generation of immigrants the same opportunities their own ancestors got. But the Joey Ventos of the world have something to say that’s worth hearing, even if it’s uncomfortable or ineloquent. They worry that the America they love is slowly vanishing, that their values, symbolized in the ties that bind us together as a country — the national anthem, pledging allegiance to the flag, paying our taxes, voting in elections, speaking English — are now viewed almost dismissively, quaint relics more suited to community-theater productions of The Music Man. So how do you stand by and watch the America you love slowly wither away? Don’t you have a right — an obligation — to say something? To fight for it? In the end, that’s Joey’s appeal. He is, in his hard-edged, you-gotta-listen-to-me style, the perfect representative to fight another kind of classism: The world he came from and knows so well is no longer being heard.

There is no doubt that Joey Vento is, in many permutations of the phrase, a Good Man. A few years ago, the annual Padre Pio festival was running into financial difficulties; Joey called the pastor, Father Gary Pacitti, and ponied up $18,000 to pay for it. Twice — once for the Daniel Faulkner Fund, which pays school tuition for the children of murder victims, and once for the 9/11 victims fund — Joey donated several nights’ receipts, more than $180,000 total. After Jill Porter wrote a Daily News column in May about a 14-year-old girl who lost her mother in a fire, Joey wrote the girl a check for $5,000. “It really hurts to hear the bad rap he’s gotten in the press,” Pacitti says, adding that when the church’s snowplow was stolen, Joey ponied up $3,000 for a new one. “You know what? He’s an amazing guy.”

Such acts of kindness — along with a vocal posse of supporters — will no doubt be the centerpiece of the Vento defense if and when he faces the Commission on Human Relations. One of the most interesting things to come out of all this is the fact that the complaint in question was generated from within the CHR — no customer or potential customer has stepped forward to protest the sign. When I ask Jack Fingerman, the CHR’s spokesman, who on the board initiated the complaint, he stammers: “I … I don’t … I’m not going to get into that. That’s the commission itself.” A hearing originally slated for late September was postponed.

In the meantime, Joey Vento waits for his day in court (if, as expected, the CHR eventually rules against him, he can appeal to Common Pleas Court) and continues to clog the arteries of the masses. He’s since put up a few far more provocative signs. One shows a group of Iraqis being lynched; another is a mock-up of a fake driver’s license for “Mexifornia,” with a photo of a driver who appears to be some sort of cross between Juan Valdez and the Frito ­Bandito. Offended? Go ahead, Joey Vento dares. Make his day.

“I may not be the smartest guy in the world,” he says, arms folded, looking around at the hum that is his cheesesteak assembly line. “But I know what I’m talking about.”