Folks, I want to congratulate you for getting through Chapter One. Let's be honest. We probably lost a few. Couple of deserters, couple of snoozers, and my father put out his cigar on page four. We're on our way. I guess you might be aksing* now, "What will this book actually be about?" In a nutshell: cooking and time travel.
*I pronounce the word "ask" like "axed." That's how everybody in Queens pronounces it, and I'm no different. I know it's wrong, but if you want a piece of me, I'm right here. Bring it on, seriously. OK, we lost a few more. This book is by no means an autobiography. It's just observations on my life. I've tried to put them in some kind of chronological order. With that in mind, I thought I should start with the first woman I ever loved.
My mother was and still is a kindly, overprotective Italian mom. Not to mention religious. Very big with the saints. She has a saint for everything.
"Mom, I'm returning these pants, they're too small."
"I'll say a prayer to Saint Bartholomew."
"There's a saint that covers pants?"
"If you read the Bible you'd know."
She isn't a biblical scholar, but she has her beliefs and she lives by them.
She was driving my brother Robert and me to a Little League game once, and without realizing it, accidentally cut into a funeral procession. She got nervous. She panicked. She wanted to get out of it, but she didn't want to interrupt the sanctity of the event. Plus she thought the people behind her would follow her and get lost.
So she just kept going, trying to find the proper moment to pull out of it, until there we were, actually driving into the cemetery.
"Come on, Mom . . . I'm pitching today."
"We'll say a quick prayer and go."
My mother did her best to raise me to be the church-once-a-week, regular confession-going Catholic that she was.
But as I grew older, I found my outlook on life changing. I've since converted to a different sect of Catholicism: part-time Catholicism. Or, as we're called by the other parishioners, the "Easter-Christmas Catholics."
I'm sure you know who we are. There are many of us. And you can always spot us when we do show up in church because we're the ones who don't quite remember the moves.
When to kneel, when to stand, shake a hand, sing a song . . . we're lost. We're all just following that one old lady in the front pew. "Kneel. She's kneeling! All right, up, get up, she's up! Follow her, whatever she does. Wait a minute, she's giving money, don't listen to her."
I actually grew up in a very Jewish neighborhood, Forest Hills, Queens, New York.
I loved Forest Hills. It was a great neighborhood. All my friends were Jewish, and they were great kids.
But I couldn't compete with them. And I don't mean sports.
And please . . . I don't want to sound stereotypical. I want to be politically correct. But when I say I couldn't compete, I mean that, as a kid, whenever I attempted a little kiddie business venture, I was always outdone by my Jewish friends.
We had lemonade stands every summer. There I was, all set up. I had lemonade, a box, the sign that said "5 cents" with a backwards "5." I was ready for business.
Nothing. Nothing ever sold.
Not counting the two glasses my mother would buy, I never made a dime. Meanwhile, right across the street, there's my best friend, Murray Goldberg, open twenty-four hours a day and selling Lotto tickets. He was amazing. Genius!
He wasn't even there, he had a little Korean kid working for him. How did he do that?
What did I know? I was a little Italian boy. I had one angle. I offered him protection.
"That's a nice box, Murray. It'd be a shame if a Big Wheel ran it over." Again, I hope you're taking this as just an innocent little funny story. I'm not trying to insult anyone. Yeah, sure, I stereotyped a little. But at the end I brought the jab right back around to myself, the Italian kid.
To be honest, Italian and Jewish families in my neighborhood were very similar. Especially the mothers.
The mother whose world revolved around food. Who believed any problem could be solved with food. The mother who could never accept that you were actually full.
Even now, when I visit, it's the same story. I get up from the table, put on my jacket, and start heading out, and she still won't stop. She'll wrap the food up to go.
And they're quick, these mothers. They'll beat you to the front door. They're wrap-up ninjas.
"Take it with you!"
"Mom, please . . . I'm just putting out your garbage."
"Take it anyway! Look how far away the cans are. You'll get hungry."
As far back as I can remember, she was like this. The only way I could have friends eat at my house was to brief them before they came over.
"Look. This is going to be like nothing you've ever experienced."
"Ray, don't worry, I'm really hungry. It's gonna be fine."
"Shut up, you fool! Listen to me and listen good. When you're done with the meal, if you want a little more, it's going to get very tricky.
Don't tell my mother you want a little more, because then she'll serve you a whole new meal. If you want a little more, tell her you don't want any more. Come right out and say, 'Boy, I'm full, I couldn't eat anything else. Please, no more for me.'"
That was what you had to do. Stay one step ahead of her.
You want a little? Tell her you want no more.
You want a lot more? Tell her you want a little.
You don't want any more? You have to shoot her.
That's right, I said it! You have to shoot the woman. Or at least threaten.
Whatever you do, do it quick. Don't hesitate. As soon as you feel you've had enough to eat, just stand up and announce, "I'm done." Then pull a gun out of your vest pocket.
"Put it back in the bowl, Mrs. Romano . . . nice and easy. Now hand the spoon to Ray. That's it, thaaaaaat's it . . . Keep your hands where I can see them . . ."
"SHE'S GOT A CANNOLI IN HER APRON!"
Shoot her! You have to shoot her. And land one. Don't graze her, that'll just piss her off.
She'll take a bullet and keep coming. There's no quit in her. She won't just go down, she'll pass the food off to my aunt. There's always a fat aunt backing her up.
"Take this, Maria--he's a runner! Feed him without me!"
Of course, the upside to Mom's obsession was the amount of food I would get to take to school in my lunch bag. I brought a lot to the table when it came to the old grammar school lunch trading market. I had quantity, I had quality, and to top it off, I had Murray Goldberg as my broker. "Ray, for half that chicken parmesan, I can get you a tuna salad, a Yoohoo, and an ice cream to be named later. But we gotta go now.*"
*Italian women have mustaches. OK, we're even.
I used to love the bag lunch. And Mom knew she did a good job. She was proud of her work, and it never wavered. It was always the same size brown bag, top folded down three times, and it wasn't complete until she whipped out the Magic Marker and wrote, on both sides of the bag:
Everybody knew whose lunch that was.
It didn't stop at school, either. I lived at home until I was twenty-nine, doing many different things. I was a college student, a bank teller, a truck driver. Through it all, the one constant was Mom's bag lunch.
Boy, I loved that lunch.
When my mother reads this, I'm sure she'll be flattered, but she'll probably scold me for mentioning that I was a truck driver. She thinks that if people know I worked a blue-collar job, they'll assume I'm uneducated.
"Why don't you ever tell the people how you studied accounting?" Look, I drove a mattress truck in Manhattan, and I'm proud of it. I was a good truck driver. Never got a moving violation.
I did come close once. A police officer pulled me over. I guess he thought the light was red, I thought it was yellow, who's to say? As he walked toward my truck, I reached for my license and realized that I had left my wallet at home.
I remained fairly calm and explained to him my situation. No wallet. It was when he got this indignant look on his face that my imagination got the best of me. All I could think of was where was I going to hide a paper clip on my body so I could jimmy the handcuffs open like they do in those prison movies.
I started sweating a little, and he said, "Listen, sir, I need some kind of identification. I don't know who you are."
And it was a reflex. I wasn't trying to be funny. But with one motion I grabbed my bag lunch and held it up to his face.
Showed him the other side.
I didn't get a ticket. I'm not going to explain further. All you need to know is that for the rest of the day that officer's breath smelled like chicken parmesan.
* * *
I lived in the typical Italian home.
The plastic furniture you couldn't sit on. Bathroom towels you weren't allowed to touch. China that no one's ever going to use.
It was a museum.
Everything in my mother's house is for a special occasion that hasn't happened yet.
My mother's waiting for the Pope to show up for dinner to break out the good stuff. Or Tony Danza.
Growing up, I had to attend thousands of Italian social events. These included the dreaded Italian wedding. Now, as a little kid, this wasn't so bad. Lots of food, and usually you could give the adults the slip and go break something.
But today I get the shivers when my wife and I are invited to one. I'm not antisocial. But I do have a few simple gripes against those big Italian weddings.
For starters, if I have to chicken-dance again, I'm going to kill somebody.
Listen, I'm not against dancing at weddings. It's a celebration, and of course people should dance if they want to.
But what's the reason it's always got to be a stupid dance? The Chicken. The Hokey-Pokey. The Slide. And my personal dance enemy, The Train. I'm always getting sucked into that conga line of idiots. They sneak up on you. They blindside you. You don't even see them coming. You get up from your chair, take two steps, next thing you know, some stranger's got his hands around your hips.
"No, no . . . I'm just going to the men's room . . . no, no . . . ohhhhhhh, come on!"
You're in. It's over. Forget it. You better have a strong bladder, because you're going to be cha-cha-ing until the song is done. Sometimes until the end of the reception. There's no getting away. You can't disengage. You let go of the guy in front of you and try to walk away, and now you're the conductor for whoever is attached to you. Now there's two trains shimmying around the room. The train is like an earthworm: cut it in half and both sides are still moving. Your only hope is to try to run them into each other.
Otherwise they're going to hang on and follow you right into the men's room.
"Hey, where's the train leader taking us? What's he doing? Wait, he stopped, the train stopped. Oh . . . um . . . shake, everybody, he's shaking!
" Of course, the only thing that bothers me more than dancing at a wedding is my mother dancing at a wedding.
And let me tell you something. I know there are many ways to describe your emotions, but I think as a people we need to come up with another one for what you feel when you see your mother do The Electric Slide. We don't have a word for it yet, but it's a combination of shame, panic, revulsion, and, oddly enough, pride.
Could someone please name that? How about "plunkish"? As in, "Honey, your mom's dancing. Now, don't get all plunkish on us." Of course, now that I live 2,500 miles away, I miss Mom. I miss the worrying, the meals, the Vicks VapoRub. I even miss the way she never quite learned how to use the VCR.
Oh, our VCR. She was actually afraid of it. VCRs were like Kryptonite to my mother. Whenever she was yelling at me for something, I'd just pick it up and scare her out of the room.
"Back it up, Ma . . . look what I got!"
I can laugh now, but I can't tell you how frustrating it was when I had to call her up on the phone because I left the house without setting the VCR.
"Listen, Ma, the game's on, and I need you to set the VCR for me. What? . . . No, you don't need your rosary beads! It'll be all right. I'll talk you through it. Look at the button on the left. What's it say? . . . "Snooze alarm'? OK, go downstairs, Ma."
Don't worry, I still talk to her on the phone a couple times a week. But let me say this about using the telephone to keep in touch with your mother:
America, can we please find a better system?
You know what I'm talking about. Once a mother reaches a certain age, there's something about the phone that makes her forget that time exists at all.
Don't get me wrong. I'm a good son. I don't mind talking with Mom, even though my half of the conversation is a half hour of "uh-huh" and the occasional "you don't say." (For those of you in the South, that's "reckon so" and "y'all are kiddin'.")
But how do you politely end it? That's the problem. Again, I love talking to her, but what the world needs is some kind of nice way to let someone know that it's time to end a phone call.
And I may have figured something out.
Last year I cohosted the People's Choice Awards. I'm not bragging, but let's just say I got to meet Regis Philbin.
Stay with me.
All the award recipients had an allotment of forty-five seconds to make an acceptance speech. Now, I'm sure you've seen what I'm about to describe on an awards show at one time or another.
If a person went over their time, the band would start to play a little something in the background. Nothing loud, usually just some tinkling on the piano to let them know it was time to wrap things up. The speaker would hastily finish his speech and leave the stage.
There it is! AT&T, wake up and smell your redial!
How great would that be? Right there, next to "mute" and "flash."
The "wrap-it-up" button.
You're talking to Mom. It's getting late.
". . . sounds like a great buffet . . . uh-huh . . . you don't say . . . yes, Mom, I've had big shrimp."
One push of a button: Tinkle, tinkle . . .
"Oh, they're playing you off, Mom."
"Oh, OK. Well, I know I'm going to forget people, but I want to thank everyone involved, especially your dad, who drove me to the wedding in the first place. Love you, bye. Put on a sweater!"
Phone companies, please get this feature.
I don't want to have to buy a piano.
Excerpted from Everything and a Kite by Ray Romano. . Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.