Tap Dancing at Sing-Sing

I grew up during the 1950s in a Sicilian-Italian neighborhood bordering Coney Island. An area more provincial than the Italy of Europe, stuck somehow, crystallized by Italians as they stepped off their steamships and disappeared into the city's tenements. My grandparents had come to Brooklyn from Sciacca, a fishing village in Sicily. He was a fish peddler, and she raised their nine kids. The family was a closely knit group, held tight by glue. That was the dirty secret of my Uncle Jimmy.


It was 1959, and I was twelve, heading upstate to visit my uncle . I’d gone on this trip countless time, and understood that something wasn't right with the story my family told about my uncle. I was in the back seat of my Uncle Charlie's black Chrysler. There were five of us in the car: my cousins Paula Marie and Kathy, my aunt and uncle and me; Uncle Charlie was driving. My cousins were excited about visiting “poor Uncle Jimmy in the hospital”. I was always a little different from my cousins. I was the type of kid who wanted to know secrets, so I listened and paid attention. My dad called me a DA because I asked lots of questions, and I knew this wasn’t a good thing to be in my family. I just didn’t buy their story about where and why Uncle Jimmy “lived upstate”. I just knew adults told lies, and this was the biggest lie.


Without thinking, I said, "Ah, it's not a hospital." I'd visited hospitals to see my mother, who was sometimes sick. I knew about hospitals and knew that Uncle Jimmy was not in a hospital. He was in this place behind barbed wire and security doors. A place that was yellow from too much cigarette smoke; it was cold, sterile, and controlled. I'd been fingerprinted by policemen every time I saw him, and once, as a little girl, had tap-danced my recital solo in front of a screen of wire mesh. He was sitting in front of me, and policemen were right behind him, listening to everything we said. His arms were covered in ugly tattoos, and he wore a dingy one-piece orange suit. My parents made me kiss his hand through the wire, even though I was terrified of him. He was too big, his teeth were a nasty uneven, brown, and he had a frightening scowl. He looked dangerous. They made me touch his big hard, wrinkled, and threatening fingers. We weren't permitted any closer, and I was glad. The mesh wall was protecting me.


There was always secrecy and shame surrounding our uncle. When my grandpa died, he was brought to the basement for the last visit home to see his father; he was handcuffed, shackled, and surrounded by policemen. Everyone was there, all the family. The room was full of us. The priest was inside with grandpa, saying Last Rites, and Uncle Jimmy was with him. I remembered and knew what I had seen, and I knew what it meant; it was clear to me that something was not right with Uncle Jimmy


I was so taken with explaining this to my cousins that I'd forgotten about Aunt Diana in the front seat. Diana was my dad's youngest sister, and it was foolish to forget about her. Vicious and sharp-tongued, she was a frightening woman, and she didn't like me. Then, my uncle slowed the car, and it got forbiddingly silent inside; the air turned cold, almost icy. She turned in her seat and put her face close up against mine, touching me with a look that was filled with hate. She didn't hesitate, but lifted her hand over the seat back and slapped me - hard. "Shut up!" was all she hissed. Everything stopped, but Uncle Charlie sped up, and the car kept moving north. We drove on with the sound of that slap echoing in my ears in the stillness of the car. I knew then that, of course, I was right - the slap had proved it.


Our family continued to visit Uncle Jimmy until his release from Sing-Sing in 1961. He'd spent 30 years of his life sentence behind bars that kept him inside and the family locked in a prison of shame and silence.

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