I was in fifth grade in a catholic school taught by Polish nuns in an Italian enclave in Detroit. Ages ago. Before Political Correctness was a thing. My teacher, Sister Anuncia, on what must have been a random impulse decided to ask our thirteen-year old classmate, who had been ‘held-back’ three times, a touchy diversity question. “Mario,” she asked, “do you mind if someone calls you a dago?” Mamo, (that’s what we called him), furled his brow in concentration for a long moment, then allowed, “It’s okay if another dago calls me a dago, sister. But if a dumb pollack calls me a dago, I get mad.”
Sister bit her lip and ducked her head into her wimple, grinning. She would get a good laugh over lunch in the convent.
Some years later, my sister had invited a new boyfriend to our family dinner. My four brothers watched in subdued anticipation as my mother placed the perfectly browned chicken in the middle of the table. My father, carving knife, in hand did the usual courtesy of offering a guest first choice of serving.
The swain, smiling broadly, pointed to the stub of the bird’s tail and announced, “I’ll have the Pope’s nose.” We all looked at each other, amazed. We Catholics had never heard of that smear…nor ever considered that particular appendage edible, for that matter. The silence lengthened. The soon-to-be-dumped boyfriend blushed. Wrong time, wrong place, wrong audience.
Politicians and salesmen know better than to step on sensitive cultural, religious, and ethnic toes—a skill hard earned for some of us. Others come by it naturally. In the end, our diverse society demands that we all dance carefully and nimbly like the green-grocer clerk who complained to his manager about a customer who wanted a half-head of lettuce. “There’s this jerk out there, who wants to buy a half-head of lettuce.” When he notices his manager looking past his shoulder, turns around to see the customer right behind him. “And this fine gentleman wants to buy the other half.”
Later, appreciating the clerk’s quick thinking, the boss suggested he might be management material for an opening in one of their stores in Canada.
“Canada?” the clerk, remarked. “all they got up there are whores and hockey players.”
The manager replied, “My wife is Canadian.”
“Oh. And what team does she play for?”
Retired trainer, and writing instructor, Joe Novara lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Writings include novels, short stories, a memoir and various poems, plays, anthologies and articles. In, Pinata Belly, and other tales of later love, Novara reminds of the limits and ultimate hope for online dating sites.