A BRIEF AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF THE ITALIAN PEOPLE
My grandparents were proud Italians. They instilled that pride of heritage in my parents. In what would be the last year of his life, my paternal grandfather urged his son and daughter-in-law to do something beyond joining fraternal organizations or crusading against anti-Italian defamation. He urged them to find a way to show our family, and all Italians, and all Americans too, that they could and should be proud of the Italian people. My parents, always literal minded folks, honored his wish a year later, when, upon my birth, they named me The Italian People.
To speak frankly, their choice has been a burden.
I was barely a week old when the women in the family started to ask my mother whether or not she was breastfeeding The Italian People? She wasn’t, and as I grew, my parents were always asking each other, “Did you give The Italian People a bottle?” and “Did you change The Italian People’s diaper?” My grandmothers never got used to the questions.
Public exchanges went no better. The announcement for my baptism read, “We cordially invite you to Our Lady of Pompeii Church, to witness the holy baptism of The Italian People.” Even less formal interactions could be difficult. Friends and acquaintances of the family were embarrassed by the grammatical problem of asking about me: “How is The Italian People doing?” Those who saw me with my mother engaged me in uncomfortable ways. “Oh,” they might say, tickling my little feet, “I see The Italian People’s bellybutton.” At school the definite article created nettlesome issues with seating and attendance. Teachers were never sure where to place me behind Annette Iannace or in front of Richard Trigliano.
Even the act of celebrating me and my name could easily go awry. More than once a cake that my mother ordered for my birthday wound up going to the local Sons of Italy. And when I won the lodge’s annual prize for student achievement, the officers were uncertain about issuing a certificate that publicly acknowledged The Italian People’s distinction in eighth-grade social studies.
In high school I played three varsity sports, but there was never enough room on my uniform for my full name. I had to settle for the undignified acronym “T. I. P” above my number. Most of my teammates and friends called me “Tip” or “Tippy,” but the ones inclined to mockery and cruelty chose to invoke the definite article when they talked about me. If I got a base hit or ran down a fly ball in centerfield, one of the smart alecks would yell from the bench, “Just The Tip!”
High school romance was also a problem. I favored Irish girls, so when the time came for me to ask one of them on a date, the poor lass would have to tell her dumbfounded Celtic parents that The Italian People would be picking her up at eight. Well, they might say, I hope we can expect The Italian People to act like a proper gentleman.
When it came time to apply to college, I had to include in every application essay at least one additional paragraph apologizing for any confusion over my name and assuring admissions officers that The Italian People would be a credit to their institution and to society at large.
Like many Italian Americans of my generation, I became a lawyer. It seemed to me that within the legal system the heft of my name might prove an asset. My first job as an assistant district attorney disabused me of this notion. Most judges were at best distracted and amused, or at worst flummoxed and offended that the People of the State of New York were being represented in a court of law by The Italian People.
Nevertheless, my professional life has gone as well as could be expected. Having long since made partner in the firm of Kelly, Ginsburg, and the Italian People, I’ve had plenty of time to pursue my real passion for writing. I had always dreamt of publishing works of legal scholarship under a clever nome de plume. But of course I had no need. How could I have a more pseudonymous byline than The Italian People? I am proud to say that my treatises and articles have had some influence on legal decisions over the years, although those citing my work have generally assumed that the author was some sort of corporate entity.
My wife, a younger woman, has not taken my name, but she is pregnant, and we find ourselves at an impasse in the baby-naming process. If it’s a boy, will he be The Italian People, Jr.? Or will The Italian People be simply his surname? So: Anthony The Italian People? Or, if it’s a girl: Laura The Italian People? Or do we resort to using my wife’s last name and let the living legacy be hers?
The fact is that when I die, someone else will have to assume this burden, beginning with the inscription of a tombstone that could very well read, “Here lies The Italian People.”
George Guida is the author of eight books, most recently the poetry collections Zen of Pop and New York and Other Lovers. He teaches at New York City College of Technology.