March 14, 2008

The racial reference that forced Geraldine Ferraro to leave the Clinton campaign and fly off on her broom brings back for me bittersweet memories of teenage years and Queens. I’d grown up in the congressional district of benevolent, pro-life Mafia-connected Democrat Mario Biaggi. He’d done a good job, as far as we could see. He’d voted right. He’d made key phone calls in support of the tenants association started in the tenement where we lived, a group run by my mother: a Hell’s Kitchen-Irish chain-smoking agoraphobic compulsive gambler who somehow found a way to lose tens of thousands at church bingo—and a genius at grass roots politics. People begged her to run for City Council, and she considered it, until she found out the job included going “into the City” (Manhattan). She hadn’t been there for 30 years. If I ever write a memoir, mom’s chapter will be called “Angela’s Ashtray.”

With Biaggi’s help, my mother faced down our slumlord, and forced him to start providing heat and hot water to bewildered Greek immigrants. Then she organized the tenants to schlep out the pee-soaked mattresses and liquor bottles in the gardens, and plant hundreds of rose bushes and poplar trees. When the landlord threatened to start bringing in tenants on welfare, she told him “That’s blockbusting!” and promised a rent strike. He backed down. A crusader for tenants rights. The most effective segregationist in Queens. Mom was little of both.

She also bore a disturbing resemblance to Geraldine Ferraro, from the cheesy Helen Reddy haircut and sharp red fingernails to the scrape-down-the-chalkboard New Yawk accent. In the early 80s, redistricting had peeled away Archie Bunker’s Astoria from Biaggi and given it to Ferraro, which presented our Catholic neighborhood with a whole new kind of politician. Long the congressman for upscale, secular Forest Hills, Ferraro had signed on with the leftist platform that the Democrats adopted after 1968. But she still knew how to pander, old school—in her party’s grand tradition.

My mother, one of 11 children, only 5 of whom lived past infancy, became a Democrat at age 10, while waiting in a food line. As she reached the front and took her sack of bread, cheese, and soap, the party worker warned her: “Remember that you’re only getting this because of FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT.” Mom never forgot. She only abandoned the Democrats when Ronald Reagan belatedly came out against Roe v. Wade.

Ferraro knew how to work a crowd, and showed it when she came to visit our parish, Immaculate Conception. The church hall filled up, mostly with nice old ladies from the Rosary Society. On the dais, the youthful priest beamed like an Irish wardheeler at this Very Important Person. She was flanked by the pant-suited nuns who’d terrorized my childhood—not with anything so wholesome as corporal punishment, but through psy-ops such as folk Mass, “Godspell,” and sinister little buttons we had to wear that read “God Don’t Make Junk: I’m Lovable!”

Ferraro began on a strong note, with relish slicing off the chunks of pork she’d offer the voters, from larger Social Security checks (i.e., bingo money) to extra Miltowns from Medicaid. She spiced things up with digs at Ronald Reagan. Three hundred or so teased heads of blue or 14 karat hair bobbed in approval, and Ferraro beamed. (She must have missed the look on the face of Theresa Marie Zmirak.) The meeting was going really smoothly, right up until a nice old lady with a name like Dolorosa stood up with a tentative question. “My son told me that you support legal…” she hesitated to use the word—an obscenity during her girlhood. “Abortion. Is that right?”

The crowd stirred nervously, but Ferraro was ready for that one. “I’m glad you asked that, Sweetie. You know that I’m a Catholic, and I try to be a good one.” She glanced at the priest, who smiled. Or maybe he winked. “That’s why I’m personally opposed to abortion. I think it’s a tragedy. But I have a daughter, and I love her very much. If something were to happen to her…” She looked a little choked up. “If she were to be raped by a…” Then she used the word, and the way she used it tapped into the deepest anxieties of all those mamas and grandmas. “By a… mugger…” 

She paused for full effect. This was New York City in the 80s, when street crime raged—albeit not in our neighborhood, but that didn’t seem to matter.  “I’d want her to have the CHOICE about what to do. That’s my personal belief.”

Dolorosa sat down, relieved, and applause smattered through the room. Ferraro had used the right word, so vivid and memorable—only two letters away from the word she really meant everyone to hear. A “mugger.”

Inside those nice old ladies, racial solidarity wrestled with old catechism lessons, and Ferraro stood before them like Joan of Arc. The meeting was back on track, and Ferraro knew it. She smiled: “No more questions?”

Then mom got up. Gesturing with a blazing Marlboro Light, she demanded of the U.S. Congressman, “First of all, I wanna know where you get off, calling yourself a Catholic and sayin’ you’re for ABORTION.”

Ferraro began to answer. She had no idea whom she was dealing with. “THEN I wanna know what you so-called priests and NUNS are doing up there, grinning like idiots while she peddles this garbage.”

The priest purpled like a grape and tried to respond, but hadn’t a prayer. “And then I wanna know what all of YOU people are doing eating up this CRAP. I don’t know about you, but I’m walking OUT.”

And mom stalked out of the bingo hall. To thunderous applause. The meeting collapsed into one long abortion argument, and Ferraro’s tone got shriller by the minute, until she finally gave up and left. She never came back to Immaculate Conception.

And that is how I like to remember mom.


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