VISTAs didn’t draw paychecks. Volunteers in Service to America, we signed on to live, theoretically, like our clients — in this case, convicts in North Carolina prisons. Reimbursed only for living expenses: two grand a year seemed princely in 1976, the bicentennial year, two centuries into the dream of riches and liberty my grandparents from Foggia and Naples had sailed into seven decades earlier.
I roomed with a Cuban exile whose cleric father still wrote him in Spanish from the Havana jail he’d been thrown into by Castro. We lived on Central Avenue and split the rent: $135, utilities included. We both drove VW Bugs on the verge of collapse. Our furniture was passed along, third hand, dickered for with a dandy thrift-shop shyster, pearl-handled derringers clipped on either jewel-belted hip and a peroxide wedge of pomaded hair. Our neighbors argued in Aramaic and Esperanto. Every third night the cops shook down the whole complex.
Those were the facts I monthly told the welfare lady when my number was called and I shambled from the waiting room into her cubicle to be interviewed. Hooded by her majestic Angela Davis Afro, she flashed me a disastrously ravishing smile. She knew I was a fraud. I tiptoed from her office with a sheaf of food stamps like church raffle tickets, happy, I suppose, to get them. I didn’t have any money, though I felt anything but oppressed. Fugitive from my former life up north, I was free in Charlotte, where no one knew me. It was safe to be poor and dirty and radical, to declare prisons cruel and unusual punishment, to say that the death penalty should be abolished.
When my parents first visited, my mother insisted on cooking a big Italian meal. At the grocery I whipped out my book of food stamps, and she blanched. Already suspicious of my neighborhood, my Cuban roomie, my Goodwill furniture, the mattress on my bedroom floor, the whole prison thing, she felt I’d forgotten everything she and my father had striven all their lives to teach me.
My forebears had lurched into America, nothing but ocean in their amnesiac skulls and a swart, black-maned brood of babies to come. The only warmth, the only wealth they harbored were the embers burning in their sockets, evident in every crude photo that’s survived. And they had backbone, ramrod, rusted, silent as ingots. They’d surrendered poverty to the jagged hills of Italy, huddled feverish weeks in steerage on the beating Atlantic — “guineas,” “wops,” “dagos” — then the Depression: not a crust of bread, not even two nickels to rub together. Seven kids on each side, eight if you counted the dead. But they made do and they stayed together. No welfare.
Faccia tosta, my ancestors would hiss. I knew what that meant: hard, brazen face. But among my family it really meant a mask slipped on for the occasion: the face of woe, or greed, or even want — a coward’s untruth. Disgrazia. I had to have real nerve, real face, to grovel for handouts without shame in the relief office down south after all my college — meted out in pay stubs my father climbed frozen boom cranes for and my mother earned shackled to a Singer in a dim downtown tailor shop. I was masquerading as poor: my stubble and ragged jeans and arty, worn-out T-shirts. My epic, hardheaded ancestors had broken their backs to give me the luxury to pretend hunger was a game. I had so much to eat, I begged for more.