Love and understand the Italians, for the people are more marvelous than the land. -E. M. Forster
We arrived at our first foster home on January 6, 1962, my seventh birthday. There was no party because there were no adults around who knew it was my birthday, and I didn’t know it was my birthday without an adult to tell me.
Our new foster parents were a young couple, in their mid-twenties perhaps, and were cool cats who were products of the Beat generation, but at a time when beatnik culture was on the wane and more or less reduced to a cultural cliché. The Hippies were still six years away. Since neither Tina nor Kenny worked on a regular basis, they opened their house to the city for temporary placement of children so they could to make a few extra dollars.
As bizarre as it may seem, Tina and Kenny—I’m not sure we ever knew their last name—had been my parents’ occasional drinking partners. Tina, tall and slim with long, dark black hair, worked occasionally as a bartender at Shaum’s Tavern on Main Street, so we knew who she was but barely recognized her that day.
On our first morning at the house, Tina gathered us around the picnic table in the back yard, lit a Pall Mall cigarette, took a deep drag and said, “Look, I’m not gonna kid you. I’m nobody’s mother. Even if I wanted to be, I wouldn’t be very good at it. So here’s the deal.” She pulled a small pile of dollar bills out of her jeans pockets. “Kenny and I are making a few dollars on you being here. I guess you figured that out already.”
We hadn’t realized that, but it was useful information.
“Kenny and I will give you each a dollar a week not to cause any problems.” She handed Paulie, Denny and me one dollar each. “Any trouble, no more money.”
Now in 1962, a dollar went a long way, especially for a little kid. A movie ticket was fifty cents, a soda at the movie concession stand was twenty cents, and a candy bar was a nickel. But Paulie held out for more. My mother used to say that Paulie had “the face of Ireland and the mind of an Arab.” He looked harmless but could wheel and deal with the best of them. And that’s what he did with Tina.
“I should get two dollars,” he informed her.
“Because I’m in charge of them,” he said, pointing a thumb at us, “and that’s a lot of work.”
Tina pushed her lips out and asked, “How much work can that be?” and then waved her hand over our heads to demonstrate how little we were.
“Well, they’re very stupid,” Paulie countered, and turning to me he said, “Johnny put a fishhook in his eye because he wanted to see if it would hurt.”
She looked down at me with a mixture of horror, disbelief, and amusement and I nodded and showed her my slightly drooping right lid. “Cartoon” was the only word I could muster in my defense.
“Denny,” he continued, “Got hit by a car.”
Tina shrugged, unimpressed.
“Three times,” Paulie added.
Tina shrugged again.
“In one year,” Paulie said.
“So?” she asked.
“In the same place, on the same street,” he answered.
Impressed, Tina turned and looked down at Denny, who, proud of his feat, shrugged and smiled. “It was easy,” he blushed, and waved her off.,
Then came the pièce de résistance of Paulie’s argument. He pulled down his shirt collar and showed her the five-inch scar that ran from his jawbone to his chest. “I fell off a wall onto broken glass and cut my throat.”
“Run over three times, fish hooks in eyes, and slashed throats,” Tina said, shaking her head.
“Abi gezunt,” I said, and we all cracked up laughing, except Tina who had never heard my mother’s admonishment, “Stop complaining. You got your health, abi gezunt.” It was the gallows humor we loved most of all.
She handed Paulie another dollar.
“And what about Maura’s dollar?” he asked.
“She’s four years old, for God’s sake!” Tina said, feeling the full effects of what the legal community calls extortion.
“Then she doesn’t fall under the agreement,” Paulie said, and folded his arms across his chest.
“You would let your little sister fall into harm’s way because you didn’t get paid to help her?” Tina asked.
“Yeah,” we all said, more or less at the same time. Business is business. The thing about little kids and money is that they don’t understand the value of a dollar but you can’t cheat them out of a penny.
“All right,” she said, and handed Maura her dollar, and as she walked away we heard her mumble, “You cheap little bastards.”
But Tina was faithful to her promise. Every week she paid us our allowance, and, as agreed, we stayed out of trouble. But for all of Tina’s talk about not being a fit mother, she was actually good in the role. She cared for us and for her father, Dennio, who lived in an apartment in the basement. When Tina went to work, Dennio cared for us and we cared for him.
The house was on the very edge of Waterbury, way up in the hills, overlooking a large lake to the west and downtown Waterbury, a mile or so away, to the north. Back then the area was an undeveloped part of the city with woods and the occasional small vegetable farm. And that’s what our new home was, a small farm that had once been part of a much larger enterprise that was long since gone. Dennio had cultivated every inch of the land with vegetable and flower gardens, fruit trees, graded stone walkways, and horrendously ugly Greco-Roman sculptures that would have been out of place in Greece or Rome.
In the middle of the property was an unusually tall, but, I must say, well-dressed scarecrow, draped in a dark wool three-piece suit complete with black leather wingtips and raincoat tossed leisurely over the arm.
“He’s a’ the management,” Dennio would say as he observed his scarecrow with pride. “I think maybe he’s a college scarecrow, huh?”
Dennio was tall and slim, as was his daughter, and had a naturally distinguished and aristocratic air about him that seemed out of place among the grapevines and plants that he loved so much. He also had an artistic gentleness. A man inclined to Old World respect, he felt it was inappropriate for children to refer to an adult by first name. We addressed him as “Papa Dennio.” We spent weekends with him as he prepared his gardens and he told us of hundreds of things, for he was something new to us—he was an educated, cultured man who had been a professor of antiquities but was drafted into the Italian Army as a colonel to fight the Americans in North Africa.
“The first American I see—Private Enrico Coppola from New Jersey,” he told us one day as he peeled a fig for us with his pocketknife. “I surrendered,” he said, holding the knife up above his head.
“Why?” I asked, disappointed that he didn’t fight to the bloody end.
“It seemed like a real easy way to come to America,” he winked. And it was. The U.S. Army sent him to a prisoner-of-war camp on Jamestown Island in Rhode Island and when the war ended, he stayed in the States, earning a living selling insurance to Connecticut’s enormous Italian population, teaching the Italian language to Americans, and selling homemade wine. His wife had died of cancer only a year before we arrived but I noticed a steady stream of ladies from his parish who found their way to his gardens for an evening stroll and a glass of wine pressed from his vines.
Papa Dennio taught us about gardening, European opera, Greek and Roman history, mythology, the origins of Latin and, we in turn taught him the words to the song “Who Put the Bomp in the bomp, dah bomp, dah bomp.”
Hidden under his vines was a wooden shack stuffed with tools and an overstuffed easy chair and wooden crate used as a place to sit and sip wine. In the back of the shed was a small, white plaster statue of a man with an enormous erect penis. Catching me gazing at the work, Papa Dennio said, “That is the Roman god Priapus, stolen from the Italian people by the Greeks who said he was their god,” and by now his hands and arms were flying in five directions.
“He is the god in charge of a-you pene, ah, capisci?”
“Spaghetti?”” I answered, thinking of penne pasta.
“I got spaghetti,” he said, grabbing himself between the legs. “Young man, they got pene.” He looked at the statue admiringly and said, “Tina tells me ‘Papa, you can’t have this thing out in the field. What do people think?’”
He handed me a palmful of oily ripe olives and said, “Priapus is also the god of gardens. So, when you tomatoes are late, you pray to Priapus, you go like this.” He pressed his thumbs against his index and middle finger, held them up in the air and closed his eyes and whispered, “Dove i miei pomodori, che cosa sono voi stanno dormendo sul lavoro voi Greco pigro?” then he turned to me and asked, “Do you know what that means?”
“It means ‘Hey, Priapus! Where the hell are my tomatoes? You sleep on the job, you lazy Greek, you!’ ” and he finished with the international Italian salute of two fingers flicked quickly from under the chin.
As he pulled the hoe, he hummed and then lightly sang out:
Ma n'atu sole,
cchiù bello, oje ne'
'O sole mio
sta 'nfronte a te!
“You know who Giovanni Capurro was?” he asked.
“The barber down on East Main Street?” I answered.
He thought about my answer for a moment, because if the barber’s name down on East Main wasn’t Giovanni Capurro, it was something damned close to it. “No. He was a great Italian—”
“You know,” Denny interrupted as he patted soil around a green pepper, “a lot of these guineas are crooks. You gotta watch those people.” He didn’t bother to look up when he insulted our host but he did spit out an imaginary piece of tobacco just as our father would have done.
Papa Dennio rolled his eyes to the heavens, sighed deeply and continued speaking directly to me. “Giovanni Capurro was a great Italian poet. He was Napolitano, of course, like me,” and paused to let that sink in. It didn’t. But I dropped my rake and listened. About half the time I had no idea what he was talking about, but the half the time I understood him, he was fascinating.
“Do you know why he was a great artist?” he asked me without waiting for an answer, although I had one. It was the wrong one, but I had one. “Because he was an artist for art's sake.” He contorted his face into a look of great pain and said “He suffered for his art.” He returned to his rake and asked, “You know O sole mio?” I thought about it. I had an answer for that too. Again, it was the wrong one, but I had one.
“The great Giovanni Capurro,” he continued, “he wrote those beautiful words. A poor boy, he goes to the garden of his girl and he sings up to her window that she is his sun, just for him.”
“Why didn’t he just call her up?” Denny asked.
“So he sings,” he continued as if Denny had said nothing. “His solo mio, that with her in his life he is rich because she is so beautiful that she makes the sun more beautiful, you understand?” And at that he dropped the hoe, closed his eyes and spread out his arms wide and with the fading sun shining on his handsome face he sang:
Che bella cosa è na jurnata 'e sole
n'aria serena doppo na tempesta!
Pe' ll'aria fresca pare già na festa
Che bella cosa e' na jurnata 'e sole
Ma n'atu sole,
cchiù bello, oi ne'
'O sole mio
sta 'nfronte a te!
'O sole, 'o sole mio
sta 'nfronte a te!
sta 'nfronte a te!
It looked like fun. We dropped our tools and joined him, belting out something that sounded remarkably like Napolitano. We sang as loud as we could, holding on to each note as long as we could before we ran out of breath, and then we sang again, occasionally dropping to one knee, holding our hands over our hearts with exaggerated looks of deep pain. Although we made the words up, we sang with the deepest passion, with the best that we had, with all of our hearts, and that made us artists, great artists, for in that song, we had made all that art is: the creation of something from nothing, fashioned with all of the soul, born from joy.
And as that beautiful summer sun set over Waterbury, the Brass City, the City of Churches, our voices floated above the wonderful aromas of the garden, across the red sky and joined the spirits in eternity.
In 1962, six year old John Tuohy, his two brothers and two sisters entered Connecticut’s foster care system and were promptly split apart. Over the next ten years, John would live in more than ten foster homes, group homes and state schools, from his native Waterbury to Ansonia, New Haven, West Haven, Deep River and Hartford. In the end, a decade later, the state returned him to the same home and the same parents they had taken him from. As tragic as is funny compelling story will make you cry and laugh as you journey with this child to overcome the obstacles of the foster care system and find his dreams.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John William Tuohy is a writer who lives in Washington DC. He holds an MFA in writing from Lindenwood University. He is the author of numerous non-fiction on the history of organized crime including the ground break biography of bootlegger Roger Tuohy "When Capone's Mob Murdered Touhy" and "Guns and Glamour: A History of Organized Crime in Chicago."
His non-fiction crime short stories have appeared in The New Criminologist, American Mafia and other publications. John won the City of Chicago's Celtic Playfest for his work The Hannigan's of Beverly, and his short story fiction work, Karma Finds Franny Glass, appeared in AdmitTwo Magazine in October of 2008.
His play, Cyberdate.Com, was chosen for a public performance at the Actors Chapel in Manhattan in February of 2007 as part of the groups Reading Series for New York project. In June of 2008, the play won the Virginia Theater of The First Amendment Award for best new play.