I Can’t Even Get to Hell
– Nonfiction by John Mancuso –
After the first of my many cousins died from cancer, the extended family started getting together every August to picnic in Westchester County, New York. I certainly could not go, even though I only lived a few miles down the Hudson in Manhattan. It had been too long. I no longer belonged to them. I was too weird, too independent, and had lived away from them many years before returning to the New York area as an adult. Most importantly, I was gay, and no blood relation knew it. I didn’t think they’d “understand” me, the way I didn’t want to recognize that they were three-dimensional people whose lives had also intersected with GPS devices and the Internet. Like the way a museum goer interacts with paintings from fallen civilizations, I created mythologies from a few scant images.
In the late 1970’s my family both literally and spiritually moved away from northern New Jersey. I can picture my relatives stuffed into our split-level home. Little people hugging big ones, simmering gravy and flavored sodas in colored cans. My uncles’ laughter eclipsing Louis Prima. Four-year-old cousin Craig’s breath smelling like the piece of sharp cheese still dissolving in his mouth. My cousin Frankie and I calling upstairs from the basement phone, saying, “This is your boss. You’re fired,” to my father who would have picked up the phone a million times had we kept calling.
When I think I only possess an abstract feeling from those days, I remember there is evidence that I was one of those people, wholly in the moment, with no critical awareness about the impact of the time in history, our region in America, our level of education, the color of our skin. Proof of it got captured on Super 8 film reels, their decomposing frames bearing witness to long-ago Sunday afternoons in crowded living rooms. Six-or seven-year-old me, jumping from one hug to another’s kiss, dancing between the laps of parents and relatives. Bowls of pasta, trays of eggplant amid waving arms and shrieks of unexceptional, extraordinary joy.
My mother remained steadfast in her boycotting of the picnic. Though her reasons evaded us, we were expected to follow suit. And I remained loyal to her. It had never served me well but was something I pathologically continued to do—even to the point of keeping my partner Daryl in “roommate” status for the first 15 years of our relationship.
My sister Nancy, who didn’t necessarily rebel on paper, always set her own boundaries. After ten years or so, she started going to the picnic—and continued to do so every year thereafter—flying all the way from San Francisco to attend. She would stay with me in the City as home base, unwittingly making me complicit. My mother called several times during her visits—Did she ask you to pick her up from the airport? Did she offer to pay for dinner? Who else does she plan to stay with? —requiring me to negotiate details that would be palatable to share. No matter how much I stuttered around potential landmines and struggled to assuage her with fake disagreement about my sister’s actions, I routinely suffered the repercussions for serving as messenger.
On the actual day of the picnic, I wondered what Nancy told everybody about why I didn’t come—though I never dared to ask. Instead, I sat alone in the darkness of a summer evening, conjuring the corridors of grandmother’s old apartment building and agonizing over another set of experiences I missed in the family’s collected history. That day capped an annual season of dread that started every Spring with Nancy’s forwarded e-mailed itinerary that came without warning, qualifying preamble or introductory note. Only a message filled with numbers, dates and times, pain points in the form of seat assignments, loyalty programs and aircraft ID’s. Upon receipt, I’d yank the covers over my head and feel like I did at a marathon starting line, terrified of those acute patches of agony on the long road ahead.
When I was young, the thrill of the New Jersey Shore boardwalk always remained out of reach. We had an old Italian relative who lived in the thick of the honky-tonk in Seaside Heights, but we always visited her in the fall, when the alluring steel contraptions were stripped of their blinking lights. So, in my thirties, when I had the freedom to do so, I visited Atlantic City for three-day stretches during the cheaper and less desirable seasons. With its massive floor-to-ceiling views of high-rolling decrepitude, it’s the perfect destination for anybody wanting to bask in feeble versions of the authentic things they long to experience.
The simulacrum that Atlantic City offers is paltry compared to Vegas. There are half-assed immersions into the Taj Mahal and the Wild West, but mostly it comes in the form of amphetamine amped gaming floors and fine dining outposts of New York City restaurants that belie the demographic that frequents them. Slot machines invoke popular game shows; with a press of a button one becomes a contestant on The Price Is Right. I spent my time there outside of the casino’s smoked glass windows in the leftover scraps of the decaying city, mostly in the vestigial remnants of the Italian neighborhood, Duck Town. It looked the way New York and North Jersey had decades earlier..
I spent days studying the damage that time and elements have had on Culmone’s Bar, and imagining its stalwart greens and reds back when I lived up the Parkway decades earlier. Or visiting the bread store identified solely by a torn off piece of paper taped to a wooden counter that declared “$1.25 a loaf,” and picturing the woman who penned it frying meatballs for the thousands of Sunday dinners I had missed.
I once walked a mile in a downpour to take a picture of an original John’s Bargain Store sign. My grandmother used to buy us paddle balls and bubbles at their Mount Vernon location. Even though I knew the chain was long defunct, I hoped to smell that classic “five-and-dime” alchemy of antiseptic and rubber. Instead, I found a business of dusty VHS tapes and sex toys, the clerk asleep with his head on the counter.
Formica Brothers bakery made Saint Joseph’s (semolina) bread for that Italian-American celebration day as forgotten as the days since Duck Town’s heyday. I once followed an old woman, after she purchased a loaf, and thought about all of the schools I’d attended, all the jobs I’d had, all of the places I’d lived. And wondered if I’d trade it all to be one of so few people continuing the ritual.
Several books have been written about Skinny D’Amato (1908-1984), likely Duck Town’s most famous resident. By some accounts, Skinny was the original source of the behaviors for which Frank Sinatra became immortalized. Skinny owned the 500 Club in Atlantic City, which defined mid-century nightlife and was where Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin developed their act. A few blocks from Skinny’s childhood home stands Tortollo’s barber shop, its name emblazoned in the gold, restrained, cursive 1950’s letters now co-opted by contemporary designers. Salvatore, the barber, had known Skinny his entire life. As he buzzed my hair, we shared anecdotes about the Club. I knew Salvatore had no idea that books had been written about that time and place, but he never questioned my contributions. Skinny’s sister-in-law also published a book about that era, ostensibly to declare that more people came to her husband’s (“a saint”) funeral than Skinny’s. As though I knew her, I shared my feelings about this with Salvatore. Sometimes I’d mention how much I loved the mussels fra diavlo at nearby Angelo’s Mancuso’s Fairmount Tavern and the imported cold cuts from Bon Giannia’s deli that only opened for four hours a week. And how in South Philadelphia there was a Ricotta maker and cheese store, also with my namesake. And how I knew that the Philadelphia Angelo and his son John delivered their products to this Angelo via bus. Sal would never know how I savored the low-angled winter light that framed and then incrementally retreated from his black-and-white memories on the wall. And there was one thing I made absolutely certain I’d never share with him: the dynamic meant so much to me that I intentionally traveled from New York on one of the three days he opened in order to engage in it.
Back at the hotel, the quality of the room didn’t concern me; I just cared about the view and how the music would make me feel while I stared out the window. I’d tune the clock radio to the AM stations that played standards, one in Atlantic City and one in Cape May. When I very first started going, they offered live broadcasts, with actual announcers, locally produced commercials and real-time marine reports. But sadly, both stations became Clear Channel automations: standards and swing, with prerecorded transitions that never mentioned a specific time or place.
One time I got an accidental upgrade to a suite with a giant Jacuzzi in the center of a gaudy room. Giddy, I sat in it until I shriveled, watching Caesar’s Palace orbit around the sun. I thought about how Daryl’s grandmother would come with his uncle to stay at Caesar’s fairly regularly, and how they could have been there on that very day. I fantasized about bumping into them and having dinner, even though I knew I’d never leave the room. All of this accelerated by a rousing live version of “Summer Wind.” And then came the voice of a local broadcasting legend talking about the long-defunct modesty laws that mandated showgirls’ outfits. Before I knew what hit me, he said something about “today in Atlantic City history.”
A few weeks later, I deliberately went back to live that day all over again. This time I paid full price. Through my pre-Internet research, I thought I picked the same room, but instead I got the 11 line, facing the opposite way of Caesar’s. When I keyed in the door, a Russian woman, who spoke no English, kneeled over the tub, next to a pile of rags and spray bottles. With my reenactment feeling ruined by these two developments, I opted instead to watch a Sopranos marathon, culminating with a demented Uncle Junior waking up on a bench in an apocalyptic Newark neighborhood while flashing back to what it looked like when he grew up there. The rest of the night I lay in bed staring at the ceiling.
At dawn I reluctantly got into the tub to get my money’s worth. The next thing I knew the front desk called to tell me it was past checkout. I had already hit the previous night’s bottle of vodka and smoked a ton of cigarettes. I wanted to stay over again but I knew I couldn’t afford it. The second I hung up, I heard it: an anecdote about a pier extension. It was him! That same announcer! And then, “Join us every day at this time for Today in Atlantic City History.” Even though he didn’t give an actual time, I knew a human being had to have planned and executed this daily feature—assigned it an identity, placed it in a queue. It was real. Really, real. I scanned the décor, the furniture, my clothes and the toiletries, all with their designs particular to that very moment in time. In a sea of constructed automation, I thought I had grabbed my speck in the trajectory of history, as authentic as the decay of Newark, the site of Uncle Junior’s immigrant ghetto.
In an instant I saw myself in my relationship to my relatives; most of us have and continue to visit this once-famed place and otherwise arbitrary piece of coastal frontage, about 100 miles south-south west of the Bronx, where it all began for my family. My two eldest aunts, whom I had only seen a handful of times since those Sundays back in New Jersey, occasionally came to “walk the boards” with their senior group. And if they weren’t here, they had been recently, and would be again soon. I somehow knew that instead of spinning the slot machines, they spent their travel vouchers on one Manhattan each. That piece of information was suddenly intimate. I wanted to wave down to them and have them look toward the sky and see me: part scruffy dude who uses the “do not disturb” sign to let booze bottles and take-out detritus pile up, and part wistful sissy who rents hotel rooms for the chance to hear an obscure announcer reclaim his place in history.
From New York, there is no direct train route to Atlantic City. The line that parallels the coast terminates at Bay Head, New Jersey. The other way requires a transfer; and even when it didn’t, the tracks take a circuitous route to the southwest before recurving back to the Shore. So that leaves Greyhound as primary transport.
I once watched a roach crawl up the head of the person sleeping in front of me during a journey back to New York. That image only partially exposed the depths of anguish I felt on those mornings, the deep hole of unfulfillment and hangover. The simmering resignation of lost tiny fortunes all around me. For over two hours I sat with the shame of retrieving artifacts from the immigrant journey I didn’t take and for memorializing things my parents would’ve rather left forgotten.
I remember wanting the bus to drive me straight into dissolution. Into a disconnected web of transient rooming houses, broken bottles and dark alleys—a life so contingent upon survival that introspection and anxiety become useless, and action must prevail. There’d be no more leases, phones, diplomas or paychecks; they whispered the possibility of sustained fulfillment, but never delivered it. I imagined it felt better to be shattered than never whole.
The desire for second-and-third generation immigrants to reclaim their lost heritages is well-documented in scholarship, butI couldn’t articulate the reasons why I took those trips; they were illogical, difficult and personal. My truth, which I had yet to accept (or even to understand), was that my parents’ spirits had become impoverished from a legacy of having to deny their origins. So much so that my mother saw all actions of life somewhere between agonizing and impossible. This included relating to her adult children. After all, there were meals to prepare, sheets to wash and thousands of our little assertions she had to manage as reflections of herself. To be culturally and economically assimilated seemed enough for my father. The rest was gravy. He knew not to desire too much, even if that meant rarely seeing his children and grandchildren in order to keep the peace.
At that time, I didn’t realize I too saw life as impossible to enjoy. Because I was always translating between people (like between my mother and sister) and had trouble asserting myself for fear of rebuke, almost every commitment I had—even those that seemed enjoyable, like dinner with friends—exhausted me. Those unencumbered lost hours in Atlantic City were motivation for getting through such chores. Because in that expanse of freedom, I felt I was really living. But after three days, I had to return to the grind—and this trapped me in a cyclical pattern of loneliness.
During one trip, two elderly women shared stacks of photos in the seats across from mine. I watched as they relived recent christenings and first communions. They talked of iced cakes, sautéed onions, tailored suits and paid tolls in honor of a lifetime of minor holidays. One of them even described how the sand felt between her toes on Memorial Day.
Even after getting off at Port Authority, I remained consumed by my busmates’ stories—so much so, that when I got to my building, I felt assaulted by the stairways that didn’t know the familiar hum of family, nor the clockwork aromas of Sunday roasts. In my apartment I felt sad that my utensils and furniture will never support the growing limbs of my kin or the aging faculties of my parents. And when I heard my otherwise impeccable neighbors, I felt a rush of contempt because they, like me, no longer knew the magic-like certainty of summer holidays—with their ice chests of soda cans provided by kinfolk who harness joy from each other.
During those moments, I have no idea if what I’m thinking is even true, or that I even want anything I describe in my mind’s eye. I can only measure how bereft I feel in my distance from this imagined ideal. It’s all I think about for days. Until I start to plan my return back to the Shore and picture myself in the crowded liquor store where I buy my bottles, my unshowered body beleaguered from 40-plus hours without impulse control. In that moment, I pass as one of the loiterers: petty thief, vacant junkie, soulless deviant, somebody who hasn’t wasted time worrying about a fucking picnic, or people’s feelings. But by the time the vodka slides into the brown paper bag, I know that even if I wanted to get to hell, I can’t. Such surrender was not my story. My parents worked doggedly to make sure of that.
We always persevered onward, around despair but never through it.
And I followed.
About the Author – John Mancuso
John Mancuso is the owner and founder of Authentic Communication Matters, a corporate learning and development company that consults with a diverse set of clients. Currently he is working on a book of essays that includes “I Can’t Even Get to Hell” and “Precious Moments,” which won Silver Needle Press’ nonfiction award in September 2018. In the past he wrote fiction, which garnered some literary prizes and a Pushcart nomination. He splits his time between Manhattan and a small town in the Catskill mountains in Upstate New York. He welcomes feedback at [email protected]
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