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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Don't Stop Believing

It’s Sunday night.

I wonder what Tony and Carm are doing.

You know. Anthony and Carmella Soprano. Last time I saw them, they were eating an appetizer of fried onion rings at the diner with AJ. Tony had ordered a plate, you know, for the table.

Watta guy, that Tone, huh?

They were listening to Journey sing “Don’t Stop Believing” while waiting for Meadow to join them for dinner. She was having some trouble parallel parking the car.

As Sil (Silvio Dante)would comment, pursing his lips and nodding his head with sage wisdom while that amazing pompadour hair style never moved, “Eh, you know, who doesn’t?”

There were a few moments of anxiety – no more than usual – as different shady characters engaged in the kind of suspicious behavior we’ve all come to take note of: the guy sitting at the counter, looking around, stirring his coffee. The two African American men who walked in – one wearing the ‘Members Only’ jacket.

Tony had it covered, though. Every time that restaurant door jingled open, he was on it, watching everyone’s every move. No one would get by that table without T taking some action to protect himself and his family. After all, he is, by definition, a ‘family man’ – in every aspect of that term: good, bad and ugly.

Here’s the thing: I miss them. I mean, I really miss them.

A lot. No doubt more than I should. I mean, they were just fictional characters in a cable television program, right? This is pretty crazy, right? Of course, right. Or, as T would say, “end of story.”

I have previously confessed on this blog that I am addicted to this story – to the characters. All of them. The way we watched them grow up – well, at least physically. It was an interesting phenomenon to see with my own eyes what happens when the passionate longings of the heart grow stone cold when mixed with blind desire and thoughtless ambition. It has the strange effect of stunting emotional, psychological, spiritual and moral growth but deepening character.

I love the scriptwriting. Okay, so at first the violence and the profanity and even the nudity bothered me – and I’m no prude. It was just that there was so much of it. So excessive. So over-the-top vulgar.

After all these years of watching this show, I have discovered that when you expose vulgarity for the sake of vulgarity, well, vulgarity loses the fullness of its negative impact. After a while, vulgarity is actually quite amusing, in its own curious way. You begin to see it for what it really is: one of the more pathetic attributes of the wretched part of the human condition.

Exposed is a good word for The Sopranos. Many things were exposed, and not just sex, violence and profanity. Yes, we got to see the inner workings of “La Cosa Nostra,” but turns out it’s really just a business. You know, like Haliburton or Enron, except it’s, well, more “family” oriented.

Yes, Tony was a mob boss and a philanderer, but one who suffered debilitating panic attacks and bouts of depression. He dutifully went to see Dr. Jennifer Melfi, his shrink, to work out his stuff with Livia, his mother the sociopath and Johnny, his father, the devastatingly handsome mass murderer with more than his share of gumads (mistresses). Is it any wonder that their manipulative daughter Janice was attracted to cruel sadistic men, and their son Anthony was born “under a bad sign with a blue moon in his eye”?

Exposed. Real. Raw. Primal. That was the attraction of the show for me. In the ‘serious suburbs’ where I live, where there are more sliced-white-bread-carved-out-of-cream-cheese people per square inch than any place I’ve ever lived before, whose homes are cookie-cutter perfect, where the only thing more immaculate than the landscaped lawns is their manners, and everything is always “fine, fine, we’re all just fine,” I’ve come to have a certain appreciation for real and raw and primal.

Nah, that’s not it. I’d love this show even if I were still living in Boston or Baltimore or East Orange, NJ. It’s really about institutions. About Tony’s struggle with institutions – the church, the government, the law, the media. You can’t trust ‘em – not any of ‘em. Corruption is everywhere. Hypocrisy is all around us and in us – in our families and friends.

In the post 9/11 world in which we live, Tony reflects the anxiety with which many of us live. Okay, so his anxiety is about his work as a mob boss. Never mind. We can all relate.

In one of his early sessions with his psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, Tony tells her, “Things are trending downward.” At the end of that first session, he tells her, “Lately I get the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” Organized crime just isn’t what it used to be, he complains, adding in his own tragic-comic way of expressing himself that the high moral ground of omerta (silence) has eroded, “No one has time for the penal experience anymore.”

“What ever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong silent type?” he fumes. “That was an American. He just did what he had to do. See, what they didn’t know is that once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings, he couldn’t shut up. It’s dysfunction this, and dysfunction that dysfunction vanffacul!" (You can translate that one yourself.)

Those lines could have been said by my father, or any one of my uncles. I’m not Italian-American. Close (Portuguese-American) but no cigars. I grew up in a neighborhood where I lived next to an “Uncle Junior,” went to church with a man named “Paulie” and shopped at a grocery store owned by a man named “Sally.” My uncles sold stuff out of the back of the trucks of their cars: sneakers, make up, perfume, radios, televisions, and small appliances. Cheap.

In my neighborhood, when you went to the “beauty parlor” you were in someone’s actual parlor in their home. You washed your own hair in the kitchen sink and then came out to the one barber chair in the middle of the room, facing a large mirror on the wall next to a row of two or three hair dryers – the kind with and upholstered chair and the hot plastic bubble dome which blissfully lulled you into a meditative state as it whirred in your ear and bathed your rollered head in hot air.

You not only got your hair done, but you could also buy your entire Easter outfit – dress, shoes, hat, gloves and nylon hose with a thick black line in the back that you wore with either a garter belt or a pantie girdle. Need something else? Not to worry. Paulie or Sally would be by soon to pop open the trunk of their car with the day’s specials.

While you were there, you could also purchase a bottle of paregoric, a mild narcotic to rub on a teething baby’s gums, or a bottle of “mother’s little helpers” to soothe the frayed nerves of the life of a second generation immigrant caught in the frenetic whirl of trying to live the American dream. No prescription necessary. No questions asked. No answers needed.

Before you rush to any judgments, let me tell you that these “beauty parlors” still exist – in bodegas and parts of the hood only trusted pastors get invited to attend, and only after she has gotten up in the middle of the night to help get a wayward grandson out of jail, or a pregnant granddaughter out of a situation of domestic violence.

See, I think that’s really the thing. From the beginning, The Sopranos has been about American life in microcosms, commenting on class mobility, sexism, racism, political and corporate corruption, sex and gender and even (unbelievably to me, in the character of Vito Spatafore, the finook on the construction crew) homosexuality. It’s every immigrant family’s story. It’s every story of every ambitious person who ever tried to buck the tide and make it on his own.

It’s the story of everyone who has ever believed and found his belief misplaced, her trust squandered, his dreams shattered, her faith shaken to the core. It’s a story with big themes, as all good drama is because ultimately, a life lived fully is always about big themes like belief and trust, faith and love.

One final note about Tony. I came to really like this guy, which is precisely what author David Chase wanted. Even the FBI careerists came to like him enough to tip him off about the rumors of family war, no doubt saving his life.

I realized I was in love with Tony after Dr. Melfi was raped. It was precisely the moment I found myself standing on my chair, after the police bungled the evidence and her rapist could not be prosecuted, yelling at her to give his identity to Tony. “Tell Tony! Tell Tony! Tell Tony!” I screamed at the TV set, half hysterical demand, half frantic prayer. Tony would fix ‘em. Tony would get ‘em. He wouldn’t be raping any other women once Tony was done with him.

And that’s when I knew. That’s when I rediscovered that fine, thin line which separates my soul from its own corruption. My own potential for evil. My own potential to hate. The line that was drawn the first time I loved and lost. A dream was shattered. A trust squandered. A faith misplaced. And I couldn’t do a damn thing on my own to get any of it back.

At the end of the series we come face to face with the truth. Tony is a bad man – worse than any evil we could ever imagine in ourselves. When he kills Christopher, the character who is for all intents and purposes his son, even more than his own flesh and blood, he does it with a chilling spontaneity, with absolutely no passion. It’s all a stunning sort of pragmatism. It has to be done. As he puts his fingers to block Christopher’s nose, you understand what Tony understands. It’s just good business. Except, in this business practice, Tony is revealed for what he really is: a stone cold gangster.

And we, thankfully, are not. Oh, we all have the potential for great evil, which is why we can recognize it in Tony. But, make no mistake. When you are able to lose touch with your humanity and the humanity of others over and over and over again, you have crossed the line and fallen with the other fallen angels into that abyss that separates heaven and hell.

And, the thing that will trip you up every time, the thing that places you on that slippery slope over the abyss, is the loss of your belief in humanity - your own and everyone else.

So, the irony is not lost that the closing song is “Don’t stop believing.”

Ultimately, we are all exposed as “streetlight people, living just to find emotion, hiding somewhere in the night.”

Which is why I’m missing Tony and Carm tonight. I suppose I will miss them for a very long time. When I wake up on Monday mornings, I won't have a blue moon in my eye and I won't get myself a gun. My world won’t exactly be turned upside down, but it will never quite be the same.

Just a small town girl,
livin' in a lonely world
She took the midnight train goin' anywhere...
Just a city boy,
born and raised in South Detroit
He took the midnight train goin' anywhere...

A singer in a smokey room,
the smell of wine and cheap perfume
For a smile they can share the night
It goes on and on and on and on...

Strangers waiting, up and down the boulevard
Their shadows searching in the night
Streetlight people, living just to find emotion
Hiding, somewhere in the night

Working hard to get my fill,
everybody wants a thrill
Payin' anything to roll the dice,
just one more time
Some will win, some will lose
Some were born to sing the blues
Oh, the movie never ends
It goes on and on and on and on

Don't stop believin'
Hold on to the feelin'
Streetlight people

1 comment:

Lauren Gough said...

Never watched the show, Elizabeth. But am amazed at how you have not only seen yourself and others in it. For those of us who never grew up with a Pauli or Sally the show never resonated with my experience. And yet... And yet... The midwestern, southwestern experience of Middle American didn't have the same struggle, and yet... And yet...
But the blue collar struggle to achieve the American Dream after WWII was one that was underpinned with white straight male dominance that still we face. The anger that that story still produces has not yet been written and is probably too near and dear to be written about at present.