NOTES FROM THE WORKING-CLASS
Notes From the Working-Class is a collection of essays inspired by the reality of growing up in a working-class culture.
Even though it has been many years since I’ve been in a classroom, when September comes, I can’t shake the feeling that I belong in school. It’s ironic that I should feel this way because I hated school. I was never a good student, prone to daydream. I performed miserably on all of the standardized tests and I often disliked my teachers. If I didn’t like a class, I flunked it. I flunked my freshman year of college and my first year of law school, yet I kept going back to school. I knew education was the only way to understand the mystery of life.
The Mother of All Handbags
I was told never to place my handbag on the floor. I was told never to leave my handbag unattended. I was also told to never ever let another person touch my handbag. Disobeying any of the three cardinal rules of handbags brings poverty and is akin to having a gypsy place a curse on me. The gypsy’s curse lasts forever.
A tale about a hard-working business owner and an elitist GOP cabinet member.
Gertrude’s wispy-thin hair is shock white. Gertrude confesses she was never called Gertie because kids would have picked on her and called her Dirty Gertie, and you know what that means—Dirty Gertie is a bad girl, easy, a slut.
Alicat Bookshop Blues
Buying a book for the first time is an experience mysteriously riddled with emotion. Book lovers might harken back to that occasion with as much emotion as they would remember a first love.
A Brief Glimpse in Time
Whenever I’m in New York City on business, in between meetings, I slip into the main public library on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. I wander up to the 3rd floor to the Rose Reading Room. When I was a working class kid growing up in Yonkers, I used to play hooky from school and travel through the tough reality of the Bronx and wander around Manhattan, where I always found my way to this majestic place.
When I was a child ambition meant climbing steps as quickly as possible without nicking my shins on the way up. My mother was often sick so I ran her errands. I shopped at the grocery store and did her banking. I was six years old. When I entered the bank, the tellers fussed over me, smiling and giggling, because I was so small that I could hardly reach the window to make a deposit. Still, I reached higher and that meant standing on my tiptoes. I’m still standing on my tiptoes, but most of the time it’s in ballet class where I’m working on my turns.
The Wildest Fire
A few fires are burning out of control in my own neck of the woods. My home in downtown Seattle is a fifteen minute walk to the controversial Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), a hot spot for the Black Lives Matter Protests. My other home on the north coast of Oregon has been deluged with smoke from the wildfires. The notion of fire has an odd way of reminding me of hatred, the burning of America, and my childhood friend Donna Donato.*
The Ballad of Billy Barr
Accomplished at playing the bagpipe, Attorney General William Barr plays a ballad of his own—a funeral dirge proclaiming law and order. Billy Barr has long stewed over the immorality and lawlessness of American culture. He blames mental illness, drug overdoses, opioid addiction, crime, violence and suicide squarely on the “bitter results of the new secular age.” Billy Barr supports the death penalty as strongly as he favors overturning Roe vs. Wade to bar women from having abortions. He is intent on protecting the sanctity of human life by killing prisoners but keeping women in shackles.
When I was in Rome last November, I drifted to sleep at night listening to the sound of competing sirens. One night I had a dream about Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. They weren’t doing much in my dream, just hanging out on the streets of Yonkers, the same way I used to hang out on the streets of Yonkers when I was a kid.
I might have been dreaming about De Niro and Scorsese because their most recent collaboration is the film The Irishman. Part of this film was shot in Yonkers. And if you don’t know anything about Yonkers, read my work. And while I’m from working-class Yonkers, I can’t help but notice all of the women in their films are girlfriends, wives, mothers, and crones—broads relegated to the supporting cast of characters.
Books On Fire
It’s a sure sign that basic civil liberties are turning into piles of ashes when autocratic leaders begin burning books. Beginning on May 10, 1933, Nazi youth groups burned books in public pyres in thirty-four towns across Germany. Hitler’s right arm and Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels delivered a fiery call to action: “No to decadence and moral corruption!” he yelled, while the people who had gathered there made fire oaths promising loyalty to the [State and Hitler] amid a band playing lively marching songs. “Yes to decency and morality in family and state!” Goebbels cried out to the swelling crowd as they tossed books into the fire.
The Story of a Lesson in History
When History: A Novel (Italian: La Storia), by Italian Author Elsa Morante, was published in 1974, it received a wave of nasty criticism. The most scathing criticism of all came from the Italian poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini’s ruthless rant ridiculed the accents of the young boys in the story as inauthentic and accused Elsa Morante of almost criminal intent in her portrayal of the animals—two dogs and a cat.
Trash or Truth
Conservative extremists assert that condemnation of the President should be expressed by voting, not in the courts or through congress. The GOP’s mission is to expand presidential power, so that the president no longer has to worry about his actions being tempered by the courts or congress. Consequently, the sacred system of checks and balances that had been brilliantly built by our nation’s founders has been dealt a mortal blow. The U.S. Constitution now hangs in the absence of balance as though it has been placed on death row and is slated for execution in the morning.
The Last Star
Downtown Seattle is about to lose its Macy’s. The Macy’s building on Third Avenue and Pine Street was first occupied by the iconic Bon Marché that opened in 1890 to serve the working-class. Through a complex series of corporate mergers & acquisitions, the Bon Marché morphed into Bon-Macy’s and eventually became Macy’s flagship store in Seattle. When Macy’s closes its doors on February 28, 2020, the end of this era will signal the death knell for the way the working-class used to shop.
The Bowery Among Us
The cashier at Bartell’s Drug Store asked me if I wanted to round up my tab by adding a small donation to the Salvation Army to buy toys for tots. Even though rounding up my donation was nearly a buck, I said yes. Giving a buck has nothing to do with who I am—a working-class kid from Yonkers. I told the cashier I had seen the Salvation Army Headquarters in New York City. The building’s brass plaque was inscribed with words that moved me. I could not remember the exact words, but I knew what they meant—every human being is worthy of being treated with dignity.
History Does Matter
Offloading garbage in Seattle can trigger a chain reaction. My condo building has a garbage room where large metal bins are designated for different types of trash: paper, glass, and cardboard boxes. Things like rotten food, eggshells, and kitty litter cannot be recycled and are dumped into the trash bins assigned to stinky garbage. There is a human tendency to scan the bins to see if everyone is doing the right thing—putting their garbage into the bin where it belongs. In this very green city, whistleblowers are encouraged to shout.
I remember being 16 and needing no other beauty accoutrement than a dab of gloss on my flesh-colored lips. I also remember creepy old men stalking me because I was young, pretty and wearing a high school uniform. Filthy old fools. They were everywhere: in the subway, in alleys, standing by bus stops or on the street in front of hotels as fancy as the Pierre and museums as old as the MET.
On the Road to Woodstock
You didn’t need a road map or directions to get to Woodstock. An incredible buzz traveled through the air. By some eyewitness accounts, a “half-a-million-strong” got together on Sam Yasgur’s Farm to hang out and listen to great music.
Being in the moment in 1969 meant there was no limbo—that time warp we find ourselves in every time we compulsively snap one more pic to post on Instagram. No cell phones. No social media. No internet. Time unfolded before our eyes and seemed to last longer. There was no reason to say, “I can’t believe it’s August already.”
Last year, I published my first literary work, YONKERS Yonkers! I have recently completed Book Two The Heart of Yonkers. Book Three, So Not Yonkers, is in development. Cookie Colangelo, the teen heroine of the Yonkers series, grapples with racism, sexual awakening, and the economic realities of growing up working-class. The Yonkers saga starts in 1969 at Woodstock and ends five years later at the roach-infested Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan.
Destiny – without an e
I grew up as a working class kid in Yonkers, New York. My parents sent me to Catholic schools, where I learned equal doses of discipline and terror. I spent my third and fourth grade in public school where all of my friends were Jewish. My teacher, Mrs. Chachkes, came from a Jewish merchant family that lived in south Yonkers and sold furniture. She wore her blonde hair parted on the side in a soft wave that had the tendency to fall forward and cover her left eye. She told me that I could rhyme well and master long words with complex meanings. She told me I was a natural born writer.
n the 1980s I had the good fortune to attend an event where Sherry Lansing gave the keynote address. She was the first woman to head a Hollywood Studio, 20th Century Fox, and later she became the CEO of Paramount. She said that as a Hollywood executive, “she was always in search of good talent….and furthermore… that good talent would always rise to the top and be rewarded.” Her comments stayed with me through the years.
Sherry Lansing’s perspective is strong and simple. Work hard and reap reward.
I believed her then and I believe her now, but there is a flip side to the playing field.
My Golden Earring
The earrings I favor and love more than any other pair, jeweled or not, are the earrings I am wearing today. I do not love them solely for the gold as if they are medals awarded to me for some grand Olympian feat. I love them because of their shape. They are objects of stillness and of great movement; they hang in balance, globes or spheres, the same way a dancer arches her back, leaping high into the air in a grand jeté.
I cannot jump the same way I did as a girl or as a young woman. So my earrings remind me of the dancer I could have been had I known back then what I have come to know now—we always lose the things we most love.
An ode to Hayden Brumbeloe
I never met Hayden Brumbeloe, but I like the cadence of his name. He grew up in a working-class town not far from Abilene, Texas under a hot dry sun in a land most often noted for the way it was depicted in the classic film The Last Picture Show.
Hayden Brumbeloe had been adopted and even though his adoptive family treated him just fine, he felt isolated. Then he was drafted, went to Vietnam and did a tour that included the Tet Offensive. American TV cameras zoomed everywhere in Vietnam making brutality visible to us in the comfort of our own living rooms. Who could forget the photo of the prisoner with his hands bound behind his back while being shot through the head by a South Vietnamese General? Still, TV coverage from the battlefield is different from being there, up close and personal.
Homeless people might appear to be funny. Grooming is not high on their list of things to do. They wear bizarre combinations of tattered clothes. Sometimes they shout into garbage cans at nothing at all. Pushing grocery carts full of cans and rotten scraps of food — they hoard to make themselves feel safe and like they have a home. And while they look funny, smell funny and act funny, most of them are mentally ill, and that’s not so funny.
I am an acorn
There is an acorn theory that who we are destined to become is imprinted on our souls from the first moment of our lives. Destiny! Soul! Just the thought of baring my soul makes me feel vulnerable and alone.
If I’m drilling down too deeply for you on this first day of a New Year, then hit delete now. It’s not too late to grab a New Year’s Day mimosa. But I must warn you, one day you will have to come to terms with this thing called destiny. If you’re brave enough to consider a kernel of truth, read on.
A Chance Encounter with Doris Lessing
I never thought of happiness as a state of mind that one must accomplish. Happiness seemed to be an unexpected sensation that swept through me fleetingly and made me smile. I could not predict happiness any more than I could be certain of the weather. Then I had a chance encounter with the author Doris Lessing.
Patricia Vaccarino talks about why The Heart of Yonkers is more than a story about first love and is about love in all of its incarnations.
Into the Heart of Yonkers – Five Minute Clip
Do you remember your first love? From the brink of the Hudson River, we travel with fifteen-year-old Cookie Colangelo into The Heart of Yonkers.
Into the Heart of Yonkers, Episode Three in The Heart of Yonkers Series – Working-Class Heart
We’re back with Joe Puggelli and Patricia Vaccarino to talk about The Heart of Yonkers and what it means to be working-class.
Into the Heart of Yonkers, Episode Two in The Heart of Yonkers Series – Vietnam
We’re back with Joe Puggelli and Patricia Vacarino to talk about The Heart of Yonkers within the context of the Vietnam War.
Into the Heart of Yonkers, Episode One in The Heart of Yonkers Series
This is the first podcast in a series of three, discussing the latest book by Patricia Vaccarino—The Heart of Yonkers.
Patricia Vaccarino talks about her first Yonkers book Yonkers Yonkers!: A Story of Race and Redemption
Yonkers is a picturesque city on the Hudson River, but beneath the surface racism runs rampant and often explodes into the open in this highly segregated, working-class town.
October 17 2019, Yonkers Public Library – Interview with Patricia Vaccarino
Patricia talks about growing up in Yonkers and what makes it unique. She also talks about why she chose Yonkers for the setting of four of her books, two of which are being worked on. Patricia reminisces about the Yonkers Carnegie Library and what inspired her to write about its destruction. Her writing process and other works are discussed as well.