In Praise of Attitude
by Rosette Capotorto
Everyone from the Bronx has attitude because everyone from the Bronx has balls. Especially the women. The women’s balls are often much larger than the men’s.
Let me explain. Balls are not those unround things that hang from between men’s legs. No, that is definitely not what we mean when we say up here, “She’s got some pair.” We may even put our hands on our crotches and with a rude but precise gesture indicate just where the pair goes. But do not make the mistake of limiting balls to body parts.
In the Bronx, when we say balls we mean attitude and when we say attitude we mean balls. But listen, there are many other parts involved in this attitude thing. The mouth, of course, is number one. As Jo-Jo always says, “My mouth is my weapon.” If you can’t shoot off your mouth, let the word bullets fly, you don’t have balls.
“Sticks and stones can hurt my bones but words can never harm me,” the mothers told us, but every kid from the Bronx knows this is a crock. Of course words can and do harm. What we have to learn is that words can also protect. There are passwords, buzzwords, codewords, and, of course, cursewords. The trick is to know the right ones and use them appropriately.
Then there are curses, not just curse words, but curses. Attitude voodoo Jo-Jo calls it. Curses can follow you and mess you up for good. One girl I know put a curse on her ex two years ago and he’s still reeling. His car breaks down every other day, his grandparents died within a week of each other, his sister ran off with a Marine, a no-count Marine from Alabama. No girl from the neighborhood will go out with him. We know better. I asked her how she did it but she wouldn’t tell me. She got him good and she wasn’t even from the neighborhood.
The hands have a language of their own. Something like reading between the lines. The hands can be hammers to nail the words in. Or they can be gentle as angels dancing on clouds. Hands add depth and detail, make the finer points that cannot be spoken.
Attitude, that beautiful thing, includes staying up til all hours. It comes with the territory. Someone who goes to bed at ten o’clock doesn’t have much in the way of coglioni. My Bronx friends are nightbirds, party people. We love New York. We own this city. We are the people who make Saturday nights turn into Sunday mornings.
I am wide awake at five a.m. and thrilled as always to break dawn. It is my finest hour. I drive North up the FDR, Jo-Jo at my side, to the Willis Avenue Bridge. I never think of the Willis Avenue as a bridge. It sure doesn’t look like a bridge but more like the gateway into some old fortress. It’s an old thing that Willis Avenue and it shows.
They’ve been fixing that road since my mom used to drive downtown in her dad’s car on Saturday night. That was twenty-some years ago and still the metal sheets cover the curve as you exit the Willis to get to the Bruckner. It’s a wild road, great skill required. It’s a wild road, the kind that makes driving driving. Steve McQueen never had it so good.
New York changes, yes, but she changes ever so slowly. The things that don’t work never worked; the things that do work, like the elevator in the Empire State Building, are used by tourists. We natives know the truth. Know what to take for granted and what not to. We know what boundaries to cross and that we cross them at our peril.
New York is integrated in a segregated kind of way. We have some of everyone but we do not necessarily cross over. We honor neighborhoods. Most of the time. Terrible things can happen when we do not. If you read the Daily News you know what I mean. There’s a reason for boundaries.
Crossing neighborhoods is tough but crossing boroughs is ten times worse. When the Bronx and Brooklyn get together, watch out. Danger fills the air. Can’t play a simple game of poker without a problem. Can’t have dinner in peace. Oil and vinegar, the Bronx and Brooklyn. Put them together and you’d better toss that salad. And these are paisanos I’m talking about. You mix in color and it gets stickier quicker.
I have a cousin from the South. Yeah, there are a few Italians down there, though it’s never been made clear to me how they got there. It has something to do with the war, World War II, I guess. We’ve never been there to visit. There seems to be an unspoken agreement in the family. They come to visit us but we do not go there. From what I know of the South I’m not sorry. It sounds pretty weird to me. I guess we seem strange to them, too, but they don’t quite let on. They’re much too polite for that.
I do admit that for all their manners those Southern women have some balls, too. They do all right when they come to the Bronx. My cousin Sis, short for Sissi, is no lightweight. I’ve seen her in action. Seen her stare down a schoolyard full of Bronx females, no easy task. She’s cute, Sis, and she knows it. Women from the South have a big ‘D’ for different stamped on their foreheads. The Bronx boys go crazy for Sis. Her southern ways, her accent, her clothes, her hair, her whole look stands out and makes them stupider than usual. No big hair and hard make-up for her. She has style Sis and it’s way different. The guys go nuts and the females get riled. They can smell challenge a long way off. Scent is definitely a part of attitude.
Sis can face off with the best of them And can she drive a car. It’s got to be seen to be believed. She says it’s because she’s been driving since she was nine years old. They let them drive really young down there. When she could barely reach the gas pedal she was driving her granny’s big old Plymouth on dirt roads out in the middle of nowhere. City streets don’t bother her. She has total control of any vehicle at all times.
Sis makes it clear that she has no interest in any of these guys. “They can keep them,” she says to me privately. She’d never say anything like that outside the house. She has a yen for black men, more beautiful and soulful than any white woman’s son. That’s what Sis says. Now that takes balls. We’ve talked about this at length over the years. Our talk gets deep after midnight when the shadows of the streetlights and the occasional screech of burning rubber fills my small bedroom.
The South is prejudiced all right but it’s a different system than we have up here. I’ve asked her to explain it and I’ve certainly put in my two cents but we can’t quite put our finger on the differences. Certain things stand out.
For one thing, southerners, black and white, eat the same foods. You know. Corn bread and ribs and collard greens and black-eyed peas. Even the Italians eat this way. It’s weird. They don’t know how to make cavatelli or what cippolini are.
Southern towns tend to be small so people know each other even across color lines. It’s more natural to say hello, even if they don’t much like each other.
Sis tells me about her current boyfriend. He is beautiful, the sexiest man she’s ever met. He’s not the one for her but it hasn’t dampened their affections, as she puts it. He’s keeping it playful, nothing serious and she says that’s just fine. Sis is not looking for a husband. “Not for a long time,” she says with that drawl and it sounds like she never will get tied down.
She respects that about this guy she’s seeing. His honesty, his not giving her a line. She says she tried to like the white boys but they’re just so full of it. They believe themselves, believe the bologna (her word, not mine; no one in the Bronx would be caught dead using a word like bologna),that comes out their mouths. She has a point there. She tells me she just can’t handle living life that small-minded way. She likes a guy with a lot more to give. She says she doesn’t mind bull but it’s got to be sweet as sugar and easy on the ears. She says it’s like swimming in one of those swimming holes they have down there. You know it’s not the best water for swimming in but on a hot day it’s just fine.
Sis says she only dates men who are not afraid to talk, not even to a woman. She says it’s their handle on language that hooks her every time. So few men learn the value of words. She says that black men have it all over white boys. She attributes this to their upbringing. Their mothers, she says, are the strongest women in the world. If they have a good thing with their mothers they can handle any woman.
I don’t know. Myself, I’d have a hard time going out with someone on the basis of the way they speak. Give me looks any day. Clear and simple. As Jo-Jo says, “You may get sick of him. But if he’s good looking it’ll take a lot longer.”
Sis had a date last night. Because she is a brazen hussy with good sized coglioni she had him come pick her up on the corner by my house. This was not a good move though I respect her principles. To bring a black man into the neighborhood is not a good idea. To bring a black man into the neighborhood and then go out with him in full view of the schoolyard, is even less of a good idea.
Hours later, maybe one or two in the morning, the girls, having sent the guys to cool off, wait for her return. They sit on the curb a little way up the block from my house, not exactly hiding, but screened by the tall hedges along the sidewalk. When Sis arrives she senses something is about to happen. She sees the girls and sees them make a move toward her. Words come from their mouths sharp as bullets. Vicious words make great ammo. Sis does not panic though she feels fear. She’s come up against this kind of thing before. She puts the keys between the fingers of her right hand, making a brass knuckle. She doesn’t want to use it but if she has to she will. She may go down but she’ll go down fighting.
“We want to talk to you,” the ringleader, Donna, hisses.
“Yeah,” says Sis exaggerating her southern drawl.
“Where did you go tonight?”
“It’s nice of you to ask but it’s none of your business where I go or with whom.”
“We make it our business.” Donna is tense and her earrings tinkle.
“You went out with a mooli tonight,” chimes in Patty, a soft looking blonde with nails of steel.
“A mooli, a nigger, a black guy.”
Sis keeps silent.
“We don’t allow them in our neighborhood. And we don’t allow our friends to go out with one.”
“And you consider me your friend?” says Sis cool as a cucumber.
“While you’re in our neighborhood you have to follow our rules. You may think you’re in New York, land of anything goes, but you’re not. You’re in the Bronx.”
My cousin is no fool. She stood still and listened.
“We didn’t let the boys handle this. They wanted to but they were too hot. We don’t want the Daily News up here. We like peace and quiet.”
“I second that emotion,” says Sis.
“There will be no more of this then?” says Donna, gold rings shining in the dark.
“This is your neighborhood, not mine. I’ll respect your rules. I won’t bring anyone here. Not because you have me scared. Not because you’re threatening me . . .”
Patty took a step toward her but Donna stopped her with a look. Donna is a natural born leader.
Donna nodded and Sis, with a deep breath, continued. “We southerners have our rules, too. I don’t want to see anyone get hurt. I don’t want to make trouble for my cousin. Or for any of you for that matter.”
Donna stood her ground in her white leather jacket.
Sis did not back down.
“Look. Let me say my piece. I know where you’re coming from. You girls think you’re tough. And you are, you are. But let me tell you something. It’s hell to follow the rules and it’s hell to break them.”
Patty made another move as if to grab Sis but Donna said, “Let the bitch talk.”
“Did you ever hear anyone say, ‘Question authority?’”
There is a group murmur, “Nooo.” They don’t like where this is going. They don’t want a head trip.
“She doesn’t look like the hippie peacenik type does she?” Donna said and faced her friends.
“I’ll respect your rules,” Sis said. She did not want to go back to square one. “But do one thing for me. Think about it. Think about why you feel the way you do.”
“We don’t have to think about nothing,” Donna said.
“True,” said Sissi.
I don’t think Sis can change the world. I don’t think she can even change Donna. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a point.
I’m not sure if I’d date a black guy. I doubt it though it hasn’t really come up. We don’t hang in the same circles. They have their space and we have ours. That’s cool with me and it seems to be cool with them. I don’t have any particular beef it’s just that oil and vinegar thing.
My grandfather always told me, “Life ain’t easy. It’s what you make of it all that tells what kind of person you are.” Everyone runs into problems. But imagine if you have to deal with the skin thing on top of everything else. The everyday problems escalate to the nth degree.
Sis got me thinking about it anyway. I’m no politician and I’ll never be a civil rights leader but I will say this. It all comes down to attitude. We can use our attitude to swing things one way or another. If we have enough of it.
Think about it. If we used our attitude to whack the rules out, make territory less important, or not important at all, things would change fast. Fights would drop down to almost nothing since that’s what most of the fights are about. If we used our coglioni to clear the boundaries and turf lines, we might be able to change the world. We’d definitely change the Bronx. If we could cross over, walk anywhere we wanted day or night, that would certainly be progress. We would still all have to struggle in this dogfight of a world but things would ease up.
Where would that leave us? With our balls hanging low. But maybe that would be a good thing.