Columbus, Fabian, Rizzo and Me
Now there came multitude of men of the lowest class from the south of Italy … men out of ranks where there was neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence, and they came in numbers which increased from year to year, as if the countries south of Europe were disburdening themselves of the more sordid and helpless elements of the population. —Woodrow Wilson, History of the American People, 1902
RIGHT BEFORE THE first election in which I was eligible to take part, my father advised me: Vote for Rizzo. His explanation was that no matter what thuggish, foolish, even criminal acts the Bambino might be capable of once in the mayor’s chair (and enlightened Philadelphians thought him capable of all of them), there was one offense he would never commit.
He would never call me a dago.
Now, at that tender age, in our monocultural part of the city, no one had ever called me that, not to my knowledge. And though I was aware of the word, I think it had never occurred to me that anyone ever would. Hearing my old man’s warning was like falling through history’s trapdoor, back in time from the shiny New World to the murky old one. It was one of those moments when wisdom hits you in the head like a smack. Until then, I thought I understood my father completely, because I thought our paths through life were pretty much the same. Two sentences later, I discovered the terrible truth: I had no fucking clue.
I had no clue because I was intended to have none — none of us grandchildren of Southern Italian immigrants were. All we did know was that in subtle and obvious ways, we were different from most people — that our passions and suspicions and the conclusions to which we jumped, what we valued, what we feared, the habits that we praised, what we’d say and would not say, how we loved, how we talked to God, were by American standards otherworldly.
I mean, we knew we were weird. We just didn’t know why.
Anyway, on Election Day I took my father’s advice. (The alternative would have been voting for the pride of Chestnut Hill, Thacher Longstreth, which from our angle would have felt like electing a visitor from the planet Xanthar.) Looking back over my career as a voter, I have made worse mistakes.
Something else made us partial to Big Frank: No other Philadelphia Italian, before or since, has had anywhere near as big an impression on the national psyche. Which is kind of depressing when you consider that next to New York, Philadelphia vas the most popular destination for Italian immigrants. But while Allentown gave us Lee Iacocca and Bay City, Michigan, gave us Madonna and California turned out Joe DiMaggio, sculptor Mark di Suvero and Bank of America founder Amadeo Giannini, while Massachusetts produced Rocky Marciano, author and Dante translator John Ciardi, Bart Giamatti and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation John Volpe, while Ocean City gave us Gay Talese and Baltimore cranked out Frank Zappa and Steubenville, Ohio, forged Dean Martin, Philadelphia turned loose … Fabian. Plus Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell and James Darren, four agreeable, interchangeable footnotes to America’s pop-cultural history. Mario Lanza had a voice, but squandered his gift on a career that was unsatisfying commercially and artistically.