My processional march that summer left me feeling like a crazy trinacria. My three legs: academic, Sicilian-American (or is it Italian-American?), and American all hurt and were all running in different directions. When my twenty-year-old son, Michael, told me, in a rapid-fire text, that he was playing tuba in Caliendo’s Banda Napoletana for the summer, I was thrilled, not only because the gig would enable him to contribute to the cost his college education, but also because it was a tie-back to our Southern Italian heritage.
I felt the goose bumps bump. My great uncles, my mother insists, had played in a similar banda during the 1930s, a family of musicians.
All summer, Michael and his tuba processed Chicago, from feast to feast behind an array of saints, Michael socking away his dough. His last procession before heading back to school was the Feast of St. Rocco di Simbario. I accompanied him.
As a Sicilian-American whose family settled on Taylor Street and in Melrose Park, I’ve been to my share of feasts and their culminating religious processions. It’s familial. My mother, at the age of sixteen, nearly missed her sister’s wedding because of THE FEAST, which in Melrose Park lasts for a week before ending in a glorious procession on Sunday. That was in the days when the old women still crawled in the street behind the statue. They don’t anymore; they wear sunglasses and carry bottled water. In 1963, Mom couldn’t bear to be pulled off of 22nd Avenue on Saturday night, the best night of the feast, when the sacred and the profane, and really good food, were just reaching their crescendo. There is photographic evidence of her sullenly and impatiently suffering through the wedding reception, longing to dive back into the street. Of course, the feast and the procession can be very different things, the procession a more somber affair, depending on your vantage point.
My vantage point has been further complicated because I am half Sicilian and half “other” (Irish and German), and I don’t go to church, and I’m a scholar, but I’m a scholar of Italian-American Literature, among other things, which almost lets me off the hook. I’m not in, and I’m not out, and the street on August 18, at the feast procession of St. Rocco, was all about inside and outside, mine and everyone else’s.
My Chinese cab driver asked, “why you going to Chinatown, lady? ”
“An Italian Feast,” I said, “religious procession—it used to be an Italian neighborhood, well part still is… it’s really confusing.”
“ Oh, no, not so confusing. Ahhhh, until what time? Maybe I’ll go.”
He announced, “China is the one place in the world you MUST visit.”
I invited him to the feast, as if I had the right, as if I were the representative of the culture. When we pulled up in front of St. Therese’s, we both took in the stained glass windows and the Foo Dog statues, the red, green, and white flags flapping.
Studs Terkel once described Chicago as a “patchwork quilt,” and here, in Bridgeport, if his analogy holds true, was a bit of brick-a-brack border—no man’s land or everyman’s land.
I stepped out of the cab and wished the driver well; I wonder, still, if he came down to the procession. I looked around; there were people in the church and a smattering on the street, mostly wearing white… and gold. The banda was a few blocks away, and drumbeat traveled at will, here and there. It was the before-service procession, without the statue; the “with statue” procession would start at eleven. In the street, the faces looked like the faces of my relatives. I did not go into the church, though, feeling that somehow the entire congregation would sense my atheistic/agnostic vibration and turn to stare. The same look I’d experienced in the streets of Dublin. “Is she one of us or not; she kind of looks like…”
It was 90 degrees in the shade, where I was languishing, and I wasn’t about to set off chasing the band, even though my dear one was puffing sousaphone. I took some photos and relaxed, thinking, dully, oh, this is nice. When the band finally came discordantly down the street, that beautiful discordant ancient banda sound like heaven and hell all in one, I spotted Michael, looking a bit like Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, but taller and with a more Amish beard, and I almost burst with pride. Snap, snap, snap went my camera. When the music stopped, Michael disengaged himself from the sousaphone, gave me a hug, and said, “Hey, Ma, you won’t believe some of the Guido shit I saw going down here today.”
“Shhhhhhhh. Shhhhhhush, for chrissakes, be quiet” I wanted to point out that the term, “Guido,” was offensive and that he was Italian-American, and so on. But it wasn’t the place, and I have all kinds of hang ups about prescriptive grammar and maternal thought control, almost always.
The crowd began to swell, and as the service ended, it floated the center of the city street like a cresting river. Italian-looking faces, five generations gone, and perhaps their faces were more Italian looking on this day than on others because they were thinking about it. They were “representing.” The familiar lament: “this used to be our neighborhood, from X Street to Z Avenue,” swelled, as it does at every neighborhood feast. There seems to be no recognition, ever, that it’s not their neighborhood anymore because most of them moved out of it. Did they expect it to be held empty for them? Entire Italian-American families congregated on the porches of Chinese-American homes: “This was our house, this was ours,” snapping photos. Chinese faces peered out from behind curtains and those little windows in the doors. They didn’t look particularly happy about crowds on their doorsteps, but some appeared curious, I think.
It becomes so real. The band strikes up as the statue of St. Rocco comes teetering out of the church doors, held aloft by his litter bearers and already draped in a cape of dollar bills. I fall in line behind the band, mostly made up of old-timers, all Italian-Americans, who have been playing these processions for decades. They, and the front end of the crowd, will be chatty between songs, and I learn.
In addition to his cape of currency, St. Rocco sports a companion, a large buff-colored dog, at his heel. I pose a question, to no one in particular: “What is the dog all about? “ Lots of people come to my aid with, “I’m not sure,” “eh,” and vigorously shrugging shoulders. Eventually, the question reaches an old man who explains that St. Rocco (before he was a saint) was very ill, dying in a cave, when a dog came to him. It brought him loaves of bread daily until he recovered. That is the basis of his sainthood. Three people around me mutter exactly what I am thinking: “Shouldn’t the dog be the saint, then?” Ahhh, I’ve landed in the irreverent group. Thank God, or St. Rocco, or the dog. The man goes on, “Thus, Saint Rocco is the Patron Saint of dogs. He is also the Patron Saint of Istanbul, diseased cattle, bachelors, grave-diggers, the falsely accused, and more, and he should be invoked against various skin diseases, cholera, knee problems, and the plague.” Like most saints and gods and goddesses, he’s multitasking. The little dog at his feet seems to look up at the cape of dollar bills and ask either, why? Why this filthy lucre? I brought you bread, not money, or, where’s the rest?
The rest begins to trickle in soon. We, the procession, commence marching, which is really just walking, banging, and oompahing, right down the middle of Wentworth Avenue. We pass the dim sum restaurants and the Chinese vegetable merchants, and I fear that we are somewhat reminiscent of an Orangeman parade in Belfast. In the heat, we go, over the expressway and all along Chinatown, then Bridgeport.
Once we reach the homes of the surviving Italian-American enclave, we begin stopping at each, the band now silent. On the sidewalk before each scheduled stop, a family: as many generations as are breathing, clutching cash and well wishes for their deceased members. First, one of the two marching priests, generally the one that looks like a bearded Russian cassock, but sometimes the one with the baseball hat and earring blesses the family: babies are held up for it; only a few wail. Then money changes hands and the announcer bellows to the crowd and the heavens, “Fifty dollas in memory a ‘Gino Mancuso’ [fictitious name] from the Mancuso Family!” The crowd ooooohs and ahhhhhs in direct proportion to the amount, and the band strikes up yet another lively, yet tragic, tune, and then on to the next house we go.
One band member, and I ain’t naming no names, voices his consternation with the capitalistic mood in vibrant terms, suggesting the possibility of connections between the church and other sorts of more grass roots organizations involved in money laundering. No one responds.
Outside some of the homes are unbelievable spreads, tables of hot meatball sandwiches, sausages, wine, antipasti, cold bottled waters. All is free for the taking, an offering in the name of the ancestors. And it does make me think of Chinese ancestral feeding, and there is the beauty in it for me. I imagine that these cultures have much in common, but then, I imagine the opposite. As I stand munching on a cuccidati, a fig cookie, a delight I NEVER have in the summertime, two women talk with me about recipes and great grandmothers; one is of Calabrian and one of Sicilian descent, and it is soon made clear that St. Rocco in this version—and in this procession—is CALABRIAN. There are just two miles of water between Calabria and Sicily, and it is vast. Even Berlusconi couldn’t build a bridge across the Straits of Messina. The sweets on the table are in honor of Peter J. “Bush” Caruso, whose chubby photograph smiles at us, poster-sized, from the house window. He looks a bit like The Penguin from Batman, but much friendlier.
Some stops are less friendly. At one, many of the marchers cluster under the few sidewalk trees available for shade, and the matriarch of the house-family, glittering in gold and white, real gold, grouses, “I don’t know who all these people are. Who are all these people? I mean, I don’t mind people coming to the procession, but I don’t recognize faces. They can come to the procession, but I wanna know who they are and why they’re here.” I step back into the sun for a moment, and then, too hot for tribal crap, back under her stupid, if shady, tree. “Let her ask me,” I think—just let her. But she doesn’t, and we march on.
Near 26th and Wells, we stop in front of an enormous brick home. My source sniggers under his breath, to all around, “‘The Hook’ La Pietra.” We laugh nervously—a bunch of Italian-Americans facing IT. Sure enough, the announcer booms, “In the name of the honorable and much loved, dearly departed Angelo La Pietra… X dollars!” The band, again, twice through the tune. “It’s like a freaking compound,” someone breathes. “Yeah, duh!” Someone else suggests to me, “when you get a chance, look up ‘The Hook.’ He has a Wikipedia page; the way he earned his nickname is quite colorful.” Where The Hook once lived is still an Italian-American enclave, and we go on eating and drinking at house after house. I’m torn between intense love and embarrassed discomfort, nostalgia and wanting to disavow myself, and then, of course, guilt.
Before old Rocco is brought home to St. Therese’s, he makes a visit, a few blocks from home, to his old pal, St. Gerome, the Croatian. At Gerome’s place, he stays a bit in the cool of the church for prayers and such, and then is carried back out, his cape increased. Then, it’s back to Chinatown, right through a Mah Jonng park that overlooks the expressway. Some members of the band stop there for a few minutes and remove their shoes, airing their blisters. The Mahjong players (all men) go on playing, unperturbed. There will be no rumble between the two cultures who each claim to have invented the noodle.
And, really, there is no consensus on comfort. One Chinese American man stands in front of his house talking to everyone. He tells me, “ I’ve lived here for forty years, and the fireworks at the end of the procession are my favorite part, that and the food, but those fireworks, it’s like freaking tons of TNT.” One teenage girl walks past with a group of friends and hisses, “who the hell do they think they are? What if we went to their neighborhood and marched around with dragons and shit? Whatever!” I want to say to her, “they don’t have a neighborhood anymore; that is the problem, and the beauty; they are fragmented.” But just as I couldn’t or wouldn’t answer the Italian-Americans about their lament, I can’t answer her. It would have been rude. Most people, though, just stand in their doorways or on the street and watch; after all, it is gorgeous spectacle.
I waited weeks and weeks to write about the event, and now, a couple of years to publish it, though I talked about it so much at home that no one in my family will want to read it. I waited, thinking I would get my head around the identity, territorialism, religion, magic, corruption, nostalgia, loyalty, tribalism, and cuccidati—the reality of the procession. Ha! All I can do is relate what happened. I can tell you, but so can the quiet group of old Chinese women who stood at the intersection of two honorary drives (Chicago likes to give out honorary drives to “ethnics;” it’s their little thing). The women, they stood at the corner of GH Wang Street and Michael A. Lombard Avenue— watching
Christina Marrocco is a professor of English at Elgin Community College, Elgin, Illinois. She teaches Advanced Fiction and Poetry Writing, Literature, and Composition courses. Her focus on ethnicity in America combined with personal experience growing up in a working class Italian-American environment inform much of her creative and research work. Her dissertation work is on The Evil Eye in Italian-American Fiction, and her narrative poetry appears in The Laurel Review and Silverbirch Press.