Having read my post “And Speaking of Prejudice”, about his mother, my grandmother Marie Gregory, my now 88-year-old Dad called me with some memories of his own experiences with anti-Italian bias in the early years of the 20th century. Unlike Grandma’s, though, Dad’s experiences were, shall we say, a bit more, hmmm, prosaic.
He recalled, for instance, a childhood incident in which a handyman walked into their home on Southern Avenue, chuckling. It seemed that one youngster frequently rode his bike past the house and, if Dad’s father, Charles Sr. (best known as “Pop” or “PopPop”) was out working in the yard, the boy would yell, “Dirty Wop!” as he pedaled past.
This time, though, the situation turned out a bit differently, as witnessed by the handyman.. “Kid,” he told Charles Jr., “your old man just picked up a brick and lobbed it and knocked that little snot right off his bike.” (Pop was, after all, a fireman, and accustomed to handling heavy equipment accurately!)
Fortunately for my grandfather, it was a less litigious era. At any rate, the boy was apparently undamaged, since he scraped himself and his bike off the pavement and made his escape, never again riding by to scream epithets at PopPop.
Dad had his own encounter with anti-Italian prejudice when, as a sophomore in high school, an older boy chose to repeatedly shove him and repeat the “Dirty Wop!” sentiment. Consultation with his friends resulted in a possible solution to this problem. It appeared that someone in his crowd knew Big Sal, who, for $25.00, specialized in handling these delicate situations. In the mid-1940s, $25.00 was a ton of money, of course, but Dad was already working as a soda jerk at the local drugstore and had his own funds.
As it turned out, though, Dad didn’t need to divest himself of all his earnings. The next time he encountered Bully Boy, Dad explained that he was going to send Big Sal and his henchman after him. Scoffing, the bully decried the idea that Dad even knew anyone named Big Sal, but Dad’s cohorts, eyes widening, backed Dad up. “$12.50 each, for Sal and his helper,” they explained, “and”, jerking their heads in Dad’s direction, “he works, he’s got the money.” Dad further explained that Big Sal specialized in removing those body parts which would ensure that the bully would not be siring future generations of racist morons.
Apparently, this final threat did the trick. A coward, as all bullies are cowards, the moron backed off and never bothered Dad again.
Oddly enough, the druggist for whom Dad worked throughout high school–just as much a part of the Italian-American community as Dad–always greeted him with, “Hey, you dirty Wop!” Dad always replied jovially with the same sentiment–thereby proving (as if proof were needed) that it is not our words themselves that ever have any real meaning; it is the intent with which they are spoken.