Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Gaetano's and Mafia Chic

Last week I made a road trip up into Colorado -- a beautiful state with lots of guns and public radio stations.  I had an audition in the Denver area, and drove up a day early so I would have a full night's sleep for the audition.  Coincidentally, my driving day was also my birthday.  Happy birthday to me, honk honk.  I drove 650 miles into higher altitudes and colder temperatures, and for the most part I did not think about my birthday.  Once I had arrived in Denver and checked into a Mold-tel 6, it occurred to me that I might treat myself to a nice dinner, perhaps accompanied by a glass of wine.

Since most of the options around the Moldtel were fast food chains, I did some exploring and found mostly Mexican places, but eventually stumbled upon what appeared to be -- and ultimately was, yes indeed -- an Italian restaurant.

The place is called Gaetano's, on Tejon Street off of Federal Boulevard.  There was a pretty scary car accident there almost a year ago

The place has a back story. It was a business owned by an Italian-American family that did some bootlegging on the side.  The sons got involved in mobsterness and when they took over the business they added gambling and prostitution as off-menu services.

That family no longer owns the restaurant, but it is something of a shrine to the Smaldones, with photographic murals, displays in the rest room (where exclusive guests once accessed a stairway to all of the delights upstairs), and even the little clipboard that carries your check at the end of the meal is decorated with mobsters' mug shots.  A little conversation piece to go with your tiramisu.

I know this story because my server was very eager to tell me all about it.  It is part of the place's brand: its history and its decor put crime -- specifically, Italian-American organized crime, one of pop culture's enduring fixations -- at the center of your dining experience.

If I were to make one suggestion to the owners of this restaurant, knowing it will go unheeded, I would say the mafia stuff is utterly unnecessary.  Gaetano's could be known as a superior Italian restaurant for the low-to-medium price range.  I had such an enjoyable dinner, I invited friends to lunch there the next day.  We had excellent, prompt, and friendly service; a comfortable atmosphere in which to eat; the food is excellent and the portion sizes are just about right.  If you like wine with your meal, there is a list of decent and affordable wines; there is also a good beer selection and a cocktail bar that I did not visit.   Without hesitation, I recommend this place.

The restaurant's history is certainly fair game -- it is local history, after all.  But to some extent it buys into the mafia chic that is part of our pop culture, full of movies and television shows depicting criminal syndicates run by Italian-American males, with their alternative systems of "justice," often depicting them as romantic figures, even as noble.

I grew up near Providence, Rhode Island.  In the 1970s, when I was a kid, there were still occasional "hits" in restaurants on Federal Hill.  My family had no connection to organized crime, but it's a small state and we knew people.  A family acquaintance who visited our house on more than one occasion was a hit man.  It wasn't discussed openly but we knew that's what he did for a living.  In my teenage years, I hit it off with a young lady and thought about mustering the courage to ask her out, but she was a daughter of a crime family and the fear of the attention I'd get if she went out with me was even greater than my own bashfulness around girls.  I never asked her out. 

I heard stories from people who spoke of small business owners who would get visits from local mobsters who wanted to buy their businesses or sell protection services.  Business owners who refused faced repercussions, 'nuff said.

Organized crime is not bound by ethnicity.  There are Irish mafias, Russian mafias, Japanese mafias.  Not far from where I live, there is a great deal of violence perpetrated by Mexican mafia organizations that we call "cartels."  There are highly organized and well-funded criminal syndicates with diverse Latino and Anglo participation that are not called "mafia."  We call them "gangs" although they are much more than that. 

But there is something about Italian-America mafia.  The culture can't get enough of it.  It's like the most addictively delicious marinara sauce ever known to humankind.  It's comfort food for a culture that loves mental junk food.  How well do people distinguish fantasy and reality?  When people like John Gotti get elevated to the status of cult heroes you have to wonder.

I still get Facebook invites to play mafia-themed browser games. They are popular.

There is nothing beautiful or honorable about this stuff. On one level, a little gambling and some tug jobs in the back room of a restaurant might be titillating for a second, but it's not interesting.  On the next level, we have racketeering, loansharking, intimidation and violence.  Are these enterprises noble or respectable?  And at the next level, we are talking about traffic in dangerous and destructive drugs, alternative systems of law that have nothing to do with justice, the destruction of young people's lives and their families, and cyclical violence over market share and turf.  You can set that to a score by Nino Rota or Ennio Morricone, but you aren't going to make it look beautiful.

What's really strange is how resilient it is.  The Godfather was an exceptional film about Italian-American culture and crime, portraying the brutality in a story that is deeply tragic.  Goodfellas certainly doesn't sugarcoat the reality (it is based on a true story).  What these people do -- regardless of ethnicity -- is dangerous, unjust, undemocratic, and ignoble.  And yet people lionize the characters of these films as attractive anti-heroes. 

At Gaetano's there are prominent pictures of young and middle aged, handsome men, often in business suits, looking mostly like respectable businessmen with just a tantalizing hint of danger about them.  We get closer to the reality with black and white mug shots of dangerous men involved in dangerous business. But mafia chic never gets too close.  You will never see full-color depictions of things like, say, what happened to Francesco Raccosta in Calabria.  The fictitious Corleone family is a pre-school compared to the 'Ndrangheta. We like our mafia a little watered down: we like John Gotti walking around New York being nice to children on the street, but the reality of how he made his living must be discretely veiled.

The reality behind this pop culture fantasy is repugnant and frightening; and as the parmesan on top of this poison spaghetti, I have put up with jokes, and sometimes not-jokes, by people buying into certain assumptions about people with Italian surnames.  It is entirely acceptable in pop culture to allow mafia stereotypes to represent tens of millions of Americans.  

Yes, there are people experiencing bigotry in degrees far more severe than this. I do not face the same things faced by my friends who are gay, who are black, who are Jewish or Muslim, who are women, who have changed their gender.  Still,  this does exist, and its social acceptance is evident in the hurt reactions and the pushback I get on the rare occasions I bring this topic up.  (It sometimes turns into a weird competition -- "I'm Irish, we get stereotyped too, so shut up!"  Fine, here's your gold medal.  Now I'll just slink off into cowed silence and learn my place.)

And so we have this place Gaetano's, which for the most part puts good food front and center.

The next step might be to lose the mug shots.

Before Side and Time

Before side and time, the plane intention bomber for raining planes the ship
Looked dropping destroyers blow to mount.
Long fight blazing.  Men good.  Our finally trouble:  The bombs went them all everything.
A bad: Water circled were ships all about.
Parts were us at bounced of getting ships; Bomber pieces down had mind.
All coming bat us one.
The fahey crashed it killed blown us spitting wrrrrr wrrrrrrrr.
Was destroyer.
Some all general because that us be; wrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
And suicide on ship suicide last tried planes away hit p-38 too and before tanker us and of behind HIT.
Jap too were we.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

For Baroness Kishwer Falkner

Lords that serve. To the expense of what?
Relish this on the fiddling of the whole.
We wholly serve for fiddling with talented leaves.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

You kids quit texting on my lawn!

Last night, I attended a student production of Hamlet at NMSU.  It was an incredibly brave, ambitious thesis project directed by Claire Koleske who poured her life into the production and her own performance, making impressively inventive use of a small concrete box of a space.  It had some wonderful people in it with whom I've worked before and/or whom have taken acting classes with me, like Aaron, Charles, and William.  A couple of blocks away, in the fancy new theatre, Edward Asner was playing FDR in a benefit performance, but I was much happier being here, seeing this raw encounter with Shakespeare by emerging artists.

And I almost ejected the two guys sitting next to me in the second row.  Really, I almost did.

First, it was the texting.  Constantly.  Every couple of minutes.  Two young guys, in reserved seats which means someone in the show invited them and made sure there would be good seats for them.  Homey next to me kept reaching into his pants to pull out his phone, and the little light would come on in the corner of my eye, and the dude next to him was doing the same thing.  The guy next to me in the camouflage Nike hat (I guess Nike does military contracting now?) with sparkly studs in his ears (so much for the camouflage dude) was at it with both thumbs, paying slightly more attention to the show when Ms. Lily Staski took the stage wearing fishnets.  But even that earthy attraction did not keep him from his world of swiping and typing out real-time journalistic impressions of whatever to the Algonquin Roundtable or whoever was pressed to their phones waiting for his live tweets about life, the universe, and everything EXCEPT the performance taking place a few feet away from his designer sneakers.  Dude next to him was doing the same thing, except he had evolved to a point where he knew he would be texting every minute or so, so he kept his phone out.  His one concession to the people around him was his lame effort at cupping his phone so that the flickering light simply made his palms glow.  I looked for an opportunity to pick homey's pocket or splash some of my San Pelegrino on his phone, but he was too quick, tucking the phone into his pants and removing it again and again.

Intermission came and he and his buddy went outside, presumably to text some more without the constant distraction of people performing one of the great plays of English-language literature in the same room.  I thought for sure they would slip away and that would be that.  But they came back!  I felt simultaneous joy and dread.  They were really kids -- high school seniors, probably.  Pretty soon, they were back at their phones, and they seemed to reach a point where they had exhausted their insights and had nothing left to share and no tweets to read, and they both fell forward in their seats, heads between their knees, as if struggling with air sickness.  They remained for a very long while in this desperate posture.  During a scene change, I contemplated simply picking them up by their belt loops and disposing of them like large trash bags.  They looked light enough.  There was, however, the possibility they would engage in physical combat with me.  Physical combat is work and yesterday I just wasn't in a mood to work at all.  Like, at all.  So I just left them as they were and enjoyed some more of the show.

I'm thrilled to see young people going to live theatre, and that seems more important than a few moments of irritation.  It just happens that complaining is fun.  But let's get to the point, which is actually pretty simple and did not need this long "cranky old guy" preamble in the first place:  As with everything else, if we want young people -- tweens and teens especially -- to try out live theatre and symphonies and ballet -- we need to welcome them and offer a little orientation.   Among people who love the theatre and spend lots of time in it, we can forget it's a culture and there is some consensus on what is okay and what isn't.  And frankly, it's not just young people -- the older adults sometimes can use a little reminder.  (And one does meet adults who do not venture for the first time into a theatre before they are in middle age.)  A lot of people just aren't used to being part of a theatre audience. I know, big news flash.

One cool moment with these guys was when Hamlet kills Polonius and the guy who cupped his phone was taken by surprise and said out loud, "Oh SHIT."  Which is what everyone was thinking anyway, so that was cool.  For a moment, we had him.

And then he wrote a text about it.  Natch.

There is no new insight in any of this post.  But writing it out has helped me look at the guys in a different light (theatre metaphor) so that I stop fantasizing about penetrating homey's hand and his iPhone with an ice pick.