I used to work at a clinic that was frequented by the used condom wrappers of humanity. You know the type, torn and scummy and spending most of their time in the gutters. Because I’m a non-judgmental person, it never bothered me, except for the time when I had to get rid of the dirty men’s underwear someone had wedged into the mail slot overnight. Or the time when a woman puked on the hood of my Honda Civic parked out front, a puke so saturated with whatever drugs she’d been taking that it ate right through the candy-apple red paint, leaving corroded shape that in certain lights looks just like the Virgin Mary.
It never bothered me much. But dealing with the condom wrappers of humanity really ate into a lot of the employees. Especially my manager.
He would spend his days practicing all of the slang words he could think of: freak, boof, e-tard, perma-fried whore skank kimchi towelhead beaner. One day as a form of protest I told him that he should just call me a Block Hopping, Shemale Watermelon. I even drew a picture.
But I didn’t call him a wop, even though he earned it.
He was Italian in the way that a Hawaiian pizza is Italian.
That is, he wasn’t very.
But he paraded his Italian-ness like a Hawaiian pizza, big chunks of ham and pineapple and a whiff of garlic. Lots of cheese. I guess the same way I parade my trans-genderedness, if you want to really pick a fight. But do you? I’m pretty tough. I can hide razor blades in my hair.
Anyway, one day the little Honda Civic with the BVM on its hood broke down. The clinic had just closed and I had spent the last twenty minutes kicking Magic Marker, a regular, out of the office. He was harmless but exhausting, and it was raining and I had no cash on me.
Who steps in but Mr. Italian-American Hero?
Now, being someone who’s still got a perfectly intact hyphen, I understand hyphenates. I’ve actually got several intact hyphens. I’m Puerto Rican American (no hyphen in English, but one in Spanish: puertorriqueño-americano). I’m Guatemalan-American, I’m pre-op transgender. I’ve been known to be obsessive-compulsive, but I’m non-diagnosed. I’m often hot-to-trot, when I’m not feeling like a stick-in-the-mud. And I understand how important those little hyphens are. You’re not one thing or the other, you’re both. And you’re not beige, you’re café-au-lait.
So I get it. But I was skeptical about Mr. Italian-American and the ride home.
He was big Springsteen fan.
Being someone who came of age in the Outkast and Ludacris era (I lost one hyphen to the track “Humble Mumble”), I always lumped Springsteen into the same pasty white category as Simon and Garfunkel, or Crosby, Stills and Nash. Yawn. Why don’t you just set the table with a big old bowl of mashed potatoes?
So, Born in the U.S.A. and all that. I mean, really, do I have to listen to it to know what it’s about? Flag waving, shotguns and rednecks.
But I was desperate for a ride. And he had a truck. With a cassette player. And guess what was playing?
When we got to the song “American Land” my heart froze in my chest. Did he even understand what he was listening to?
What is this land America? So many travel there
I’m going now while I’m still young, my darling meet me there
Wish me luck my lovely I’ll send for you when I can
And we’ll make our home in the American land
This sounded like a letter my grandfather could have sent home to his amor. The song went on, reporting on the experience of an immigrant in a way that I recognized from my grandfathers stories.
I won’t say I was happy to be forced to change my view of this slab of provolone. I tried to watch his face as he mouthed the words. Did he even understand what he was saying? He seemed to.
When I got home I Googled Bruce Springsteen, just to check up. Turns out his mother was Italian-American. Birth name Zirilli.
A little more Googling led me to this:
Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
But the part that we don’t hear as much struck me even more:
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome.
Hey, I’m no poet. The only thing I slam is my two-inch nails in the car door, and that’s by accident. But it sounds to me like Bruce, maybe our most American singer ever, and Lady Liberty, are in agreement.
I know I’m not the only one whose very hyphenated person is at odds with our currently elected leader, but it seems to me that if Bruce and good old copper tits are in agreement, there’s really nothing to argue with. If Mr. Hawaiian pizza can understand, what’s keeping Middle America?