Obscured American: Felix the artist, ex-grocer and ex-hospital worker

Felix lives on the 24th floor of Riverview, a subsidized complex for senior citizens. Once a dreaded housing project, it is now pleasant and safe. Most of Felix’ neighbors are black and Asian.

Although an artist, Felix keeps his one-bedroom apartment neat. There are no paint drips on the carpet. His walls are covered by paintings and drawings. Partially blocking the Center City skyline, three dozen plants in coffee cans crowd his living room window.

Adjacent to Riverview is a Vietnamese Buddhist temple housed in an old Baptist church. Though peeling and missing its cross, the octagonal spire is still beautiful. All over Philly, once-magnificent churches decay.

Well-preserved Old Swedes’ is a nine-minute-walk away. Dating to 1700, it’s the oldest church in Pennsylvania. Felix never heads in that direction, however. Most days, he takes a 40-second bus ride to the Italian Market, his childhood neighborhood.

Around since the late 19th Century, the Italian Market also had many Jewish businesses for decades. Now, over half of the stores and restaurants are owned by Mexicans and Asians. Stretching for half a mile on 9th Street, it’s a place to get rigatoni, pecorino, a five-pound bucket of chicken liver, smoked turkey tails, freshly made tamales, vegetables for cheap or a live duck. You can also buy bargain clothing and batteries that won’t last.

Is it 3 o’clock yet? I think it is! This means our chance of finding Felix inside the Friendly Lounge is outstanding. After you, buddy!

My great uncle lied about his age to get into the Army. He either died at 14 or 15, depending on who you ask. I don’t even know if he made it overseas. Somebody said he got shot accidentally by one of his co-soldiers.

The settlement finally came in 1921, and it got my grandfather and his brother started in business. My grandfather was a fish peddler before that. His family were fishermen in May’s Landing.

My grandfather came over in 1900 from Sicily, when he was six-years-old. My grandmother came in 1898. They say she was born on the boat.

My grandfather was a master builder. He built his whole store from the ground up. He grew up working in a brick yard in Jersey. He was also a woodworker.

My grandfather had a great reputation for being generous. I found out from talking to old timers that during the Depression, he helped people who were living on the streets. He fed them.

The other side of my family came from Campania. My maternal grandfather was a watch maker, clock maker and he had his own business. He was very nice. I didn’t get to meet him enough.

My great uncle’s real name was Giacomo, but his grave says James Giordano. My father’s birth certificate says Giuseppe. In those days, they Americanized their names as much as they could. My grandfather’s name was Felice Vitale, but he changed it, or they changed it for him, to Felix Vitale, and we pronounced it as Vaitale instead of Veetale.

Now, it’s all about racial pride, and that’s OK, because I have racial pride too.

My parents only spoke Italian when they argued, so the only Italian I ever learnt were the bad words.

During World War II, my father was a welder. He was welding on the second story of a battle ship, or maybe it was an aircraft carrier. The story goes that he stepped back to admire his weld and fell two floors! He had a tracheotomy and lost his voice. He used to be a singer. When I was a little kid, I could hardly hear my old man. For ten years, he couldn’t talk normal.

I got hit by a car when I was 14. My father had an $800 insurance policy on me, so I said, “Give me the money,” and I bought some stocks with it.

I worked in his grocery store from when I was 7 to when I was 19. I was paid less than minimum wage. He got enough work out of me. I had to get up at 5 each morning and worked until 8, then worked after school until 7. They said I was overpaid. My grandma used to jokingly call me “stu-nod.” It’s a Sicilian slang for “stupid” or “stoned.”

About the only time we had red meat was when a customer forgot his purchase on the counter. Don’t give me this shit about white privilege. We weren’t even good enough to be slaves! In Italy, a few families owned all of the land for hundreds of years. There was nothing left for anybody else.

I bought my own first bike. I bought all my clothes. I bought my confirmation suit. My father took me to get it at a bargain place. He said, “Tell them I’m your uncle.” He didn’t want people to know how cheap he was. I bought my first rug, my first bed, my first TV, my first stereo. While living at home, the only thing I didn’t pay for was rent, and he made sure to tell me that if I didn’t like it, I could always join the Marines.

I was a huckster for the first 19 years of my life. Back then, 9th Street was different. You had to stop people, call them over, get them to buy. You had to yell. I was good at that, except I was shy, so I had to get drunk to do it. At 13, I was almost an alcoholic. Southern Comfort was my drink of choice. These two winos that I worked with would pick it up for me, but I had to buy them muscatel.

Later in 1977–78, I was a barker in Seaside Heights. That’s where Jersey Shore was filmed. On the boardwalk, you’re working with drunks and knuckleheads.

When I got married in 1972, my wife convinced me to make up with my family, so my father could help me start a business. He didn’t give me any money, but he allowed me to follow him around. My older brother had a store. Many of the Giordanos had stores. My father used to buy for the whole clan, and we divvied up what we wanted.

He’s the best buyer I’ve ever seen. He was a true hustler. P.T. Barnum would admire him. He was also the hardest working motherfucker I ever knew.

I rented an old barbershop and converted it into a fruit and produce store. I painted the sign myself. Later we moved the business into Reading Terminal.

When my wife got sick in 1976, I became a chef at the London Restaurant. I’ve been cooking since I was a little kid. My mother was the best chef I ever knew. Every Italian woman I knew when I was a kid knew how to cook.

I didn’t really want to be in the fruit and produce business. I wanted to be an artist all my life. It was the only thing I was really good at, and I think I’m pretty good at it. I never got rich doing it, and I did a lot of other jobs to support that art, but I’ve always painted. I’ve always sculpted.

In 1966, me and two other guys from the Academy drove all the way to Acapulco in a Volkswagen. We drove through all these mountain towns. Kids were selling iguanas on the side of the road as food. We saw the pyramids, stopped in Mexico City, went to the museums and looked at murals, attended a bullfight.

In Tamazunchele, the town gay and the town whore both flirted with me. I was 19 and still a virgin. A mamasita, an older lady, said, “No, no, no!” This blonde looked just like Brigitte Bardot, but she had the clap, the mamasita said. No, I did not lose my virginity in Mexico.

The only scary part was driving through Mississippi. They asked us if we were “outside agitators”? That’s when they were killing white people from the North for helping black people getting registered to vote and sit at the same lunch counters as white people.

Because we had long hair, they thought we were hippies. My friend Jerry said, “Oh, we’re traveling wrestlers.” They liked wrastlers.

You know who were working in the back but couldn’t sit in the front? Black people. I got a kick out of that. You’re discriminating against these people, who can’t eat at the counter, but they’re cooking your fuckin’ food! You people are completely out of your minds. That’s what I thought. I didn’t say it.

They were staring at us from the windows as we got in the car, just like that scene in Easy Rider. They followed us out of Mississippi into Louisiana. Yeah, they followed us on the highway, in the dark.

New Orleans was like night and day to Mississippi. Alabama and Mississippi were bad. You didn’t want to go there and risk your life. It was like living madness.

A lot of people, black and white, don’t know that’s the way it was. Everything is cleaned up now. Shit never happened. Rednecks weren’t rednecks. Black militants weren’t black militants. They all lie about everything.

The worst thing to be called in my neighborhood was “nigger lover.” I was called that a lot because I was hanging out with black people, kids I grew up with.

In the ‘70s, I had two one-man shows in New York and at least three in Philadelphia. My show at Project Artaud in San Francisco was reviewed by both the Chronicle and the Examiner. The Chronicle guy hated my art, so I sent him a packet of Kool-Aid. I was interviewed on West German TV.

I hung out for a while in the Mission District. I also stayed with the monks at Bishop’s Ranch. I cooked and baked for them.

In New York in 1980, I met a guy from Tuscany. When he found out I was half Sicilian, he gave me so much attitude, I wanted to slug him. Some Northern Italians call Southern Italians “North Africans.”

Look, I’m alive at 69 right now, I think only because I can paint.

In 1972, a bunch of us rented two whole buildings, four floors a piece, with a freight elevator. It was only $250 a month. We had so much space, it was unbelievable. I lived there until 1977.

We started fighting over the rent. Most of these artsy fartsy types were rich kids from the suburbs. They didn’t want to pay for heat in the wintertime, but they had plenty of money to buy dope from a dealer who came up from Florida.

I never ever want to live with rich people again. They’re always spoiled. They think they have everything handed to them on a silver platter.

Tragedies happened. My wife had three miscarriages. The third one almost killed her. From that, we broke up. My marriage lasted almost ten years.

I had a really contentious relationship with the first woman I met after the breakup, and it caused thirty years of problems. The relationship only lasted six months, but we had a kid together.

I had to fake an orgasm with her because I felt guilty about my ex wife’s inability to have a baby. I thought it was my fault. I went to a psychiatrist for years over that.

I couldn’t finish up, yeah, because of the guilt.

I could, like the Energizer Bunny, keep her happy, get her off, but I couldn’t get myself off. Women do it all the time. Fake it. I know how to fake it too.

One day on the beach when there was thunder and lightning, and I thought I was going to die, I finally had an orgasm. It was very erotic. You ever tried to make love in a thunderstorm?

I was raised Catholic. I was raised to feel guilty about every fuckin’ thing. I thought I had gotten over it at 15, but, you know, the thing about guilt is, it sneaks up on you. Did I do that wrong? Second guessing yourself is the one thing they teach you in catechism. I think I finally got over it when I was 50.

At 50, I met a woman and we had a relationship for about six years. We had to go our separate ways for financial reasons.

I don’t give a shit about money. Never did.

I became a conscientious objector in 1970, and did my service at a mental hospital. I’m sorry to this day I didn’t join up as a medic. I wouldn’t have minded going overseas and helping people out.

At the mental hospital, there was a unit for teenage runaways. I could have been a pervert. These young girls literally threw themselves at me. One came to my apartment. I told a girl who was 17, “When you’re 18, look me up.”

I still have a code of ethics. I’d never do what Bill Clinton or Cosby did.

Flip a mickey is what we used to call it. I’m surprised people are shocked, because Cosby had it in his routines. He bragged about trying to slip Spanish Fly into a girl’s drink. I had his album in 1962, but I stopped being a fan when Cosby started being a hypocrite, when he told Richard Pryor he shouldn’t work dirty. That’s when I knew Cosby was an asshole.

Cosby was being morally superior. You have to walk the walk if you’re going to talk the talk. His shows were all positive for black people, but in reality Cosby was the opposite. Obviously he didn’t shit where he slept. He didn’t hit on his co-stars, as far as we know.

You don’t think Clinton took advantage of his station? Every politician I know has done that.

The longest job I’ve ever had was at the Woodhaven Center. It’s a place for retarded people. I was there for five years. One of my pet peeves was, I hated the Special Olympics. I’ve seen what it does to people who lose. They get jealous. They have the mentality of a four-year-old. They attack the people who win.

I had to pull a 220-pound man off a 85-pound girl because she beat him in a race. I had to hold him down by myself while the nurse went to find a doctor to give him a shot. This guy was psycho. He was so violent, I broke his thumb just holding his hand.

They got violent all the time because of the Special Olympics.

Mostly, they just masturbated. It felt good to them, so that’s all they did, day and night. There was one that all the young college volunteer girls wanted to work with. It’s because he wasn’t a bad looking guy, but what he did 95% of the day was masturbate. I said to him, “You keep it in your pants. If you masturbate in front of these girls, we’re going to put you back in the van and not let you participate in the Special Olympics.”

It’s not like on TV where they pick each other up and all run to the finish line together. They were vicious. They ran, jumped, did whatever, and nobody kept scores. They did know if they won or lost, though. They weren’t that dumb.

In the ‘30s, many of these people had been lobotomized. Some of them came from elite families. One was a Mellon.

We had two old guys, Dudley and Grasso, living in the same room, and that’s all they did, day and night. The girl who worked with them was all disgusted. They both had at least a foot-long schlong, honest to God. Dudley could also lick his forehead.

Deep down, we’re just little four-year-olds. Later, I also worked with Alzheimer patients. They basically reverted to childhood and called for their mama all the time.

There was a guy who had been a famous surgeon. He operated on Eisenhower back in the ‘50s. In his 90s, he was at Friends Hospital. At night, we had to strap him down to basically stop him from pulling his catherer out and wiping feces all over his body. He didn’t know where he was, and he’d bark at people. Apparently he must have done that a lot when he was young.

Another guy who smeared shit, we had to lock him in his room, then come back with sheets wrapped all over ourselves like Lawrence of Arabia. We had to spray and disinfect the room, then get a hold of him to slowly clean him off. He used to tell us he was the King of England.

It was a real hard job. It wasn’t easy.

I had the whole One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest experience. I worked in a psycho ward too.

On a full moon, this old guy told me about growing up as a Jewish kid in the Lower East Side in the 1890s. He had a lot of insights. The next morning, he was back to talking gibberish. Don’t tell me a full moon doesn’t have an effect on people. Just ask any cop or hospital worker about a full moon.

I didn’t mind these jobs. I also thought of it as my way of doing something good. I didn’t think that going to Vietnam to kill people because they looked different than me was actually a good thing. My cousin came back from Vietnam in 1970 and was a Communist for a while. I mean, he really hated our government. He lost his arm over there.

He had to prove something to his father, who had been in Pearl Harbor. People always have to prove something to somebody.

When we worked in the psychiatric ward, we called ourselves the shit patrol. First thing I did when I got home at 8 in the morning was take all my clothes off and put it in the washer, then I took a long, hot shower to get that stink off of me. No matter what you did, you couldn’t quite get it all out. It permeated you.

There was a guy I had to turn over and clean every night to make sure he didn’t get bed sores. He was really nice, a real gentleman, and he was dying of cancer. He asked me for painkillers, so I went to the nurse, but she said to me with a straight face, “I don’t want him to get addicted.” Here’s a guy dying of cancer, and she didn’t want him to get addicted!

I looked at him, and he looked at me, and I said, “Don’t worry, I’ll get it for you,” so I went to the head nurse and got the painkillers. The other nurse hated my guts. She was my Nurse Ratched. I’ve had to deal with incompetence in power all my life.

My brother tells me, “The only problem with you is that you don’t have fuck you money.” I can say fuck you real easily, but I don’t have the money to back it up.

I really am worried about the weird, crypto Facism, Communism that the Clintons are planning. Hillary gets on TV and talks about the vast right-wing conspiracy, but she’s the vast right-wing conspiracy.

Trade agreements like NAFTA ruined this country, and it’s not going to get any better. Police state tactics are being used all over. She’s saying, “Oh, I’m against police brutality against blacks,” but she’s behind it, and it’s against everybody, not just blacks.

It’s divide and conquer. Some people on both the left and right are trying to start a race war.

The government is militarizing the police. They want us to live in a police state, and they don’t believe in freedom. Soon, they’ll take away the Second Amendment. They went after the First and have a pretty good choke hold on it already.

I watch Russia Today, Japanese TV and French TV because they give me more truth than I’m getting from the American stations. The same people who run MSNBC call the shots at FOX. I’ve stopped watching MSNBC, CNN and FOX because it’s all bullshit. They fight with each other and call each other names, but it’s all part of the game.

Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, they all belong in jail, I’m sorry, because they’re all traitors to this country. They’ve betrayed the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

I wanted to vote for Bernie, but apparently my vote didn’t count. They rigged the primaries and everybody knows it. I kind of like Jill Stein.

My mother left me some money when she died. I put most of it into an account for my two grandkids. They’ll get it when they’re 25.

The way things are going now, college is a joke. My daughter has a master’s degree in business, and she can’t fuckin’ get a job. It’s all about who you know.

I want to get a car so I can go to the Pine Barrens to hunt mushrooms, and maybe visit a friend in Montana. That’s about it. I want to hunt mushrooms all the time, whenever I want.

I started to do it when I was five-years-old, with my father. It’s a fond memory that I have. I don’t have that many fond memories of him

I really enjoy finding something that’s beautiful, and a good food. I enjoy sharing them with people. I give them away now. I don’t sell the mushrooms anymore.

Italians used to pick dandelions, and my grandfather picked watercress in lakes and streams. It’s a wild vegetable. If you don’t learn from your environment, what’s the point of being alive? People are starving to death but they could live off the food that’s growing on the sidewalks.

I want to go to Italy before I die. I may go next year. First, I must have an operation on my foot. I want to be able to walk when I get to Italy.

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.

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