FINDING CHRIST IN CONCRETE
“When finished dressing how he would make proud eyes at himself in the mirror and say in his best American accent: ‘Card-in-dean, Card-in-dean, where the hell have you been?—Where the hell have you bee-an?’”
So writes Pietro di Donato in his 1939 novel, Christ in Concrete, a classic of both American and Italian-American literature, and a metaphor for the American immigrant experience. He’s describing the Sunday evening ritual of Geremio, the central figure at the beginning of the novel, who is killed on Good Friday when the building he is working on collapses, leaving his 12-year-old son, Paul, to care for his mother and seven siblings.
After getting dressed and admiring himself in the mirror Geremio would joke with his wife, Annunziata, about meeting other women, maybe a “Blondy-Blondina—a real golden-haired American Spring Chicken.” Anunziata would joke back that she didn’t care. “God bless you,” she says. Geremio would then stroll through the city, imagining the houses his children might someday live in, before finishing the night in the back of Master Antonio’s cobbling shop with Master Anilio (“the fantastically lazy Neapolitan”), Fernando the Redhead and Master Antonio, where he would play “seven-up, eat salted beans and drink thick red-wine and talk juicily of women…And then head back home to Anunziata as though he had been a bad boy.”
It’s a charming sequence, revealing much about Geremio’s character, his sense of humor, relationship with Anunziata, and his dedication to his family. While it seems lighthearted, it’s a heavy-hearted scene, for Geremio has already died, and his family is remembering him on those Sunday nights after High Mass and dinner.
The scene brought tears to my eyes the first time I read it. It reminded me of my father. On weekend nights, after a long week at work selling and altering men’s clothes, he too, would go out. While he didn’t leave with the flare of Geremio, he would always end up in the same place: the Italian club a few blocks away, where he would play cards with his friends and fellow Italian immigrants. There was no joking with my mother, either, like there is between Geremio and Anunziata. My parents would fight, my mother accusing my father of having an affair. She would call the Italian club all hours of the night. Much of the time, my father would instruct whoever answered the phone to tell her that he wasn’t there. That’s when my mother would usually send me or my sister to the club to retrieve him. Sometimes he would leave immediately; other times he would make us sit and wait while he finished his hand. The game was confusing, and the yelling in Italian across the card table unnerving, so we passed the time contemplating the decorations on the club’s panelled walls: Italian flags, advertisements with attractive women leaning on Lamborghinis, pictures of Mussolini, and posters of regional Italian soccer teams. Tony, who managed the club, would sometimes offer us Baci Perugina Italian chocolates, or a bitter Italian soda while we waited.
There were also times when my father would send us back home, telling us he was on his way. We wouldn’t see him until the morning.
It would be years later, around the same time that my mother was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, that she was also diagnosed with a delusional disorder she was likely to have had since her 30s. Even though I knew where my father was most of the time back then, I believed my mother when she called my father names and accused him of fooling around. It was hard not to when she was crying and screaming at him; when all he had to do to placate her was stay home. I’m certain now that he wasn’t doing anything wrong, and only blowing off steam and spending time with his friends. I’m also fairly certain, for his own sanity. that he needed to get out of the house.
That scene in Christ in Concrete also makes me sad for another reason. I read it when I was in my 40s, long after my father was gone, and not in my teens or early 20s, when I really could have used it. Not only might I have understood my father better, I might have understood myself better. Pietro di Donato’s novel was not taught to me in any of my English classes in high school, nor any of my American Literature courses in college. I was taught Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Steinbeck and Poe; Twain and Kerouac and Melville and Swift. All great writers. All essential to the American literary canon. But none of them with a last name that sounded remotely like mine. None of them with a cultural experience I could relate to. None of them, it turns out, who grew up in Union City, New Jersey (then West Hoboken), just a mile from where I did in the Heights neighborhood of Jersey City.
In chapter one of di Donato’s 1960 autobiographical novel, Three Circles of Light, the second sequel to Christ in Concrete, he writes of “the meagerly furnished front room with two windows looking out to Central Ave…” Central Ave is a main artery that connects the Jersey City Heights to Union City. It is possible that di Donato, who was born in 1911, and I, born some sixty years later, may have walked the same streets. Passed the same buildings. Looked over the river at the same New York City.
Why didn’t I know di Donato’s work? Why did it take a trip to the Tenement Museum in Lower Manhattan in my 40s, as opposed to a classroom in my teens, for me to discover his most popular novel? Christ in Concrete was not insignificant. It was both a critical and popular success when it was released, beating out Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for the Book-of-the-Month selection. It was praised by The New York Times and adapted into a festival award-winning film a decade later. As a first generation Italian American, discovering di Donato’s writing at a young age would have been revelatory. The closest I got to any writer I could relate to was Gay Talese, but I came to his work, especially 1992’s Unto the Sons, much later than I should have, as well.
It’s common knowledge now that kids need role models that look like them, whether it’s on the screen or behind the screen. The same goes for literature, and all forms of art and popular culture. There were plenty of actors and singers to look up to growing up, some more caricature and stereotype than others, but there weren’t a lot of writers. This is not say that we don’t benefit from reading a variety of writers from diverse backgrounds. But it certainly can’t hurt to also be introduced to those that share our lineage and story. In addition to providing encouragement, they offer us a sense of our shared history—who we are and where we come from. Not only as Italian Americans, but as the children and grandchildren of immigrants. We would understand better what di Donato means, when in Christ in Concrete he writes, “I have myself with me. I cannot forget myself.”
Born and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey, Joe Pagetta is a nonprofit communications professional, personal essayist and arts writer whose writing has appeared in America: The Jesuit Review, Chapter 16, Wordpeace, the Nashville Scene, The Tennessean, PBS.org, Nashville Arts and My Modern Met. A collection of his personal essays, Guinea Bastard, was published in 2018. He lives in the Donelson area of Nashville with his wife and children.