“Don’t you think I should at least know how to hold a gun?” I asked my husband as he choked down the last of his chia, Vita-Mixed probiotic smoothie.

“Please,” he said, “I can barely swallow this organic poison you’re passing off as a power breakfast, never mind the thought of you twirling a sidearm ala Annie Oakley.”

“All I really want is to try out a gun.  Where can I check one out?”
“Try out a gun?  How the hell would I know where you could get a gun?  Maybe you could ride the ‘L’ downtown; 7 people were shot on the Brown Line over the weekend.  I’d say by the law of averages your seatmate is more than likely packing heat, perhaps he could steer you in the right direction.  Then again maybe while you’re being robbed you could casually ask the thief where he purchased  his weapon.”
My husband’s tone suggested that I was on my own so I tracked down a gun class and met Mr. NRA who predicted that in no time at all I’d be warning friends that they’d have to pry my weapon from my cold dead hands.
“I forgot to ask if you got any felonies, but you don’t look like a felon and I’m guessin’ you’re ‘bout 29 so you’re of legal age,” Charlie said when I showed up for Guns 101.  “Have a look around and get comfortable.”  
Comfortable? The place was a mass murderer’s dream—rifles hanging from hooks on the wall, glass cases filled with revolvers, shelves of guns everywhere. My eyes landed on a rifle-type thing that was different from the others.
“Charlie, I know zero about guns but is this what I think it is?” I said pointing to a really odd weapon.  “Is this a sawed-off shotgun?”
“See you know more than you think you do,” he said with a grin.  “Now why do you want to learn about guns?” he asked handing me a copy of THE BASICS OF PISTOL SHOOTING.
“Well soon we’ll have Conceal and Carry in Chicago and guns freak me out.  My  friend said that in Arizona all of the women carry tiny purse pistols.  What if a little gun falls out of someone’s purse when she’s paying for groceries at Whole Foods?”
"So you wanna purse pistol?” he said.
“No, no, I don’t want a frigging gun even if it’s the size of a tube of lipstick.  I just want to know what to do in an emergency, like if one falls on the floor.   Do you throw a trash can over it or a blanket? Do you shout Stand Back!   Do you yell GUN or is that like shouting FIRE in a crowd?”
Charlie had the same ‘you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me’ look on his face that my dog has when I ask him to get off the sofa.
“Open the book, Dorothy, we’re leavin’ Kansas now,” he said as he began the lesson.
I was surprised to find that there’s a difference between a bullet and a shell and a cartridge and that the numbers on a cartridge indicate power so a .22 and a .38 are different and damage their targets differently.  I learned that guns flash, that revolvers are pistols and so are semi-automatics, that there is a whole other definition for magazine besides Vogue.  I learned about dummy bullets and rubber bullets.  We discussed straw purchasers and silencers and Saturday Night Specials.  We even talked about the Geneva Convention and why “shoot to kill” is not the first choice even in war.  Perhaps this was stuff that boys learned along the way as they grew up, but to someone who never even watched police shows on television, this was overwhelming, complicated and much more involved than expected.
Successful pistol shooting requires aim, breathing control, hold and trigger control and follow-through which explains why there are so many innocent bystanders sacrificed in Chicago’s gang warfare.  Anyone can shoot, but competence is the part that escapes our urban cowboys though that doesn’t slow them down.  Seventy people were shot over Father’s Day weekend; two died.  Over the Fourth of July weekend, there were eighty-two shootings that resulted in 16 deaths--this despite Chicago having some of the nation’s toughest gun regulations.  Apparently dope dealers didn’t get the memo about gun registration and gangbangers don’t have time to waste on criminal background checks.
After determining my hand/eye dominance, honing my grip, practicing my aim with sight alignment and focus, working on breath and hold control, we moved to the shooting range. Charlie lugged the locked metal toolbox up a half-dozen rickety stairs and then unbolted the padlocks and chain on the backdoor of the monster truck.
“Who’d ever think this was a shooting range?” I said as I got my first whiff of the sulphur-laden air while my eyes adjusted to the darkness of the fifty foot long tunnel lit by a single bulb connected to a battery with jumper cables.  There was a table at our end and a bullseye board at the other; the entire floor was littered with Good & Plenty-sized cartridges.  Behind the target, Charlie said, there was a six foot wall of shredded rubber tires to stop bullets.  I thought of the eleven-year old at a sleepover who got a bullet in her head  because the walls of her friend’s house afforded no such protection from the stray shot of a gangbanger.  Right through the wall that bullet flew; the  little girl never stood a chance.  
”This is one eerie place,” I said as Charlie handed me ear protectors, a gun and ammunition.
“We’ll start with a .22—it has no kick—load it up, get in position.  Now we’ll see if you paid attention when I was talkin’.”
I pulled the trigger and with that first BAM!  Dorothy morphed into Thelma minus Louise.  I fired all my rounds, the shots interspersed with my witless babbling.  Oh my god, I can’t believe this, this is wild…  Charlie handed me a different revolver with a longer barrel.  “A little kick to this one,” he said, and I gripped, aimed and filled the trailer with even more smoke.  
“Am I hitting the target?  It’s dark at that end—I can’t see very well.”
“Yer'  hittin’ it alright, and yer' consistent, Little Lady—you are a very consistent shot—a little off center but all the bullets are hittin’ within an inch of each other.  Lotta’ women are better shots than men when they start--yer' hand/eye coordination is better ‘cause a all the sewin’ you do.”
Sewing?   I wanted to tell Charlie  that the last time I knotted a thread my cat aspirated the needle into her esophagus and wound up in the ER, that poor Coco Chanel was in ICU for three days. Instead,  I  went back to the firing line--this time with a semi-automatic and a loaded magazine.  I concentrated on my aim with my dominant eye.  
“No way I’d want to meet up with you in a dark alley,” Charlie said,  macho code for Lady, good shot!  I hit the target so many times in the same spot I made a hole way bigger than the bullet hole. Way to go, Thelma, I thought as I blew away the bullseye with the last of my ammo, ambivalent about my new skill set which abolished many of my misconceptions and made me a bit less intimidated, though it did not convince me to join the 100 million Americans who own 300 million firearms.
“You can apply for your FOID card now,” Charlie said when I handed him my gun. “Yer' trained and yer'  competent--you can defend yerself and you’ll make the streets safer.”
“Oh, I'm not locked-and-loaded material, Charlie,” I said. “I don’t buy the idea that the answer to gun violence is more guns.  By the way, would an ultraviolet light show gun powder on my hands?” I asked, as I held up my mitts.  “Yep, you got residue on ‘em,” he nodded.
“Well, I’m going to wash it off, Charlie, and wash my hands of guns. Conceal and Carry has motivated me to learn to shoot, but it won’t stop the mayhem.  While Moms are marching for gun-control and you all spout the Constitution, the death toll mounts.  The police chief juggles homicide statistics and the mayor distracts us with a Star Wars Museum.  It's crystal clear, gun control will be decided by the last man standing.”

Bike Bullies Beware!

Lance Armstrong-wannabes have forced a hostile takeover and they’re taking bipeds hostage.  They’ve taken over the I&M Canal Trail and walkers, birdwatchers, joggers ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK! 
Over the past year, I’ve noticed a rise in dangerous speed and a decline in civility among bicyclists on the I&M Canal Trail.  Zooming past, weaving in and out, riding ‘no hands’ and ‘no manners’ has become prevalent but recently the already unsafe situation became even more treacherous because of the closing of the cyclists’ preferred raceway, the Centennial Trail, for a three-year construction project.

Furious that their favorite speedway is off-limits, the sprocketheads seem intent on traumatizing those who dare share the I&M Canal. Fully costumed in space-age helmets, their derrieres swathed by diaper-like padded training tights and their tootsies shod in aerodynamic pedal-booties, the cycle-commandoes invade from behind intent on recreating the Tour de France.

Decades ago, I vowed to my day camp Girl Scout buddy “…someday I’m going to live in this forest…” even though the Seventeen Year Cicadas chose that summer to make an appearance.  While I’ve  never managed to actually live in that forest, I do walk the I&M Canal Trail, a National Historic Landmark, not two miles from where I learned to tie a square knot. And I cherish that peaceful preserve.

Daily I’m privileged to walk in Monet-like beauty, the very path where mules towed barges of grain, lumber and salt, the exact trail that established Chicago as the transportation hub of the United States, an incredible milestone on the Underground Railroad, and I appreciate, Scout’s honor, that I’m beyond lucky.

We’re all lucky — the babies in strollers, in-line skaters, hard-breathing joggers, dog walkers, seniors testing out newly acquired bionic knees and those just looking for respite from the 24/7 demands of technology who get to share the wealth with the herons, turtles, butterflies and coyotes.

Lucky that is until now.  Cue up the theme from the shark-threatening  Jaws, because the fierce Lance-wannabes have stealth-attacked and turned a simple walk into a hike on the wild side.

Completely ignoring the Forest Preserve’s posted rules about speed limit and signaling when passing, the bicyclists, wearing shirts advertising international race teams, fly past intent on their cardiac workout, large  LCD screens velcroed to their biceps registering every bleep of their little tickers with nary a thought given to jumpstarting someone else’s cardiac arrest. 

Either ignorant of or unwilling to acknowledge the inherent instability of a bike, particularly where twigs and branches abound, the nitwits blow-off rules of common sense while jeopardizing the health and safety of everyone else on the trail.  Apparently an old-style warning bell on the handlebars is aerodynamically incorrect and a shout of “on your left” is too taxing.  Everyone else has to hop, trip, jump and fall to avoid collision, if they can, if not, too bad.

To be fair, not all of the trail bicyclists are adrenaline junkies.  The casual bike pedaler is also at risk  but the refusal by most to warn “on your left” when coming from behind and passing is common and dangerous.  For the most part, I only hear bikers call out a passing warning to other cyclists (hmmm, maybe afraid to get hit by a bike), but, as for pedestrians, oh well, and the run-over smashed frogs and turtles with their shattered shells that are left in their wake are just collateral damage, if the two-wheel wild ones even notice at all that they’ve killed an animal. 

One morning a stealth biker so startled me as he actually brushed my sleeve while flying past that I jumped back into the path of his riding partner who was passing me on the right!  Dumb and Dumber flew on at breakneck speed focused on their anaerobic thresholds.  The fact that I was on my side of the trail, that pedestrians have the right-of-way, that they never signaled, that they broke the law, that they came close to shattering my spineirrelevant.   It’s all about the paceline, the clipless pedals and the almighty *PB.

One older man who has walked the path since boyhood suggested we sprinkle tacks along the way.  “That’ll cut down on the racers,” he said.  A roller-blader volunteered a paint-ball gun to identify the look-alike cowards who whizz past with impunity confident that bipeds can’t catch up with them.  “You have the perfect storm for hit and run,” he observed.  “A lone walker smashed by a flying biker — have you ever seen a heron finger a culprit or heard a turtle testify in court?” he asked.

Some startled folks have shouted Please signal!  The Believe It or Not responses range from  a snarled My wheels make a whirling noise that you should be able to hear, to Get off the *&^%#@ trail if you’re afraid of bikes.  An obscene gesture suffices for the less creative.

After witnessing an altercation in the parking lot between a jogger and a cyclist, I decided to search for help.  After weeks of ‘pass the buck’ which Illinois agencies practice as an art form, I think I hit pay dirt, at least I hope it’s dirt.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District acknowledges that their abrupt and protracted closure of the Centennial Trail exacerbated an already dangerous situation on the Canal.  They directed me to the Cook County Forest Preserve which also concedes that: Houston, we have a problem . . . and both have expressed a willingness to undertake an educational program, but when?  In the meantime, the Forest Preserve Police have begun issuing speeding tickets on the trail. 

At last we just might score one for the mommy walking her toddler, for the guy who is rehabbing his heart, for the jogger trying to get in shape — for all the Joe & Joni Schmoes who believe this land was made for you and me. 

Bike Bullies, you are on notice!
* Personal Best


Anyone with a drop of Italian blood, even Al Capone, was buried at Mt. Carmel and yet my poor Grandpa was all by himself in a non-Catholic cemetery.  As a little girl, it troubled me that he wasn’t at Mt. Carmel with the rest of the family, but the subject was taboo. 

On family cemetery jaunts, we’d genuflect at our Mt. Carmel gravesites and then detour to Oak Ridge Cemetery where my grandfather, Antonio Scalise, was interred in 1941.  I’d murmur a prayer by his sunken little granite pillow etched with the simple outline of Aladdin’s lamp, and kneeling there my gnawing concern would resurface.  The unconsecrated ground tormented me because the nuns said that, if you were buried in unconsecrated soil, you went straight to hell.

At some point, a cousin whispered that my grandfather had joined a religious sect, that after some Holy Rollers had a revival at Comiskey Park one summer he’d converted.  Having turned his back on the One True Holy Church, I knew he was doomed to Oak Ridge and the eternal Inferno, but I prayed for his soul despite his one-way ticket.  He died before I was born, but my Mother always said that he was a really special  man, that she’d wished I’d known him because he was such a good person so I hoped that if  I prayed really, really hard, God would show him mercy and retrieve him from the fire.

I knew from my Dad that his father had migrated to America and gone to work in the northern iron-ore mountains, had eight children and moved to Chicago when jobs dried up in Michigan.  Other than that my Dad shared little.  My mom told me that Grandpa was much older than my Nonna and a complicated man.  “Something serious happened to him in Italy, something painful,” she startlingly revealed one day.  “I sensed a heavy heart.  I don’t know what it was—maybe he had a wife who passed away, but there was something,” and then she slowed down, maybe not comfortable sharing her intuitions, scribbled in guesses and perception.  “I suspect there was more to his story,” she surmised and, being a mother/mind-reader she preempted me.  “Do NOT bring it up to your father.  He doesn’t talk about it—I doubt that he even knows what it is.”

She needn’t have worried about me going to my father to check things out.  He had perfected a death-stare that so clearly signaled verboten territory that only the blind would dare to proceed.  My dad said that my grandpa always said never give anyone ammunition that could be used against you, and my dad’s definition of ammunition was very broad.  No one should know where you’re from unless you tell them, people shouldn’t be able to identify your background based on your grammar or vocabulary or your handwriting even, he’d caution. Never let anyone else define you.

This advice was about more than just privacy, though that was in short supply in our neighborhood where hanging out laundry and pushing strollers were the preferred networks pre-Facebook, where yentas archived one’s every move and bested bloodhounds when it came to family business that was none of theirs.  This party line had to do with who you were.  Somewhere along our tribe’s timeline, prejudice had imprinted hyper-vigilance and embedded a legacy of practical paranoia. 

Over the years, when outsiders not so subtle attempts to label me would be way off the mark, I’d picture my dad high-fiving me with a good job as I chose to set the record straight with “I’m Italian-American from Bridgeport, an old neighborhood in Chicago.” 

Despite my religious quagmire and parochial scruples, I did manage to grow up.  I went to university, made friends with kids of all faiths and no faith, traveled the world, and married a man who defined hell as a closed mind.  We chose to create our family via adoption, and being a believer in the power of stories to heal and connect, I shared mine with my daughters confident that I had, at least, the big pieces in place.

Until the day an article in Fra Noi led me to a Mediterranean trail of tears.

Each month Fra Noi, a Chicago magazine whose readers are encouraged to embrace their inner Italian, is packed with heart-attack inducing pasta recipes, the latest on the Euro crisis and articles on Venice's rising sea-levels. This magazine, an occasional lecture or movie at the Italian Cultural Center and vacations to the motherland are about the extent of my being a born-again Italian, but I have always been captivated by stories about the old country. 

Not many sagas were shared as my great-grandparents spoke no English, my Nonna's English was very limited, and my mother was not one to look back on her Neapolitan roots.  For the most part, she believed that if the toe of the boot was such a great place, my ancestors would never have boarded the boat.   “If you weren’t always cleaning and cooking, you could investigate our heritage,” I’d sometimes nag though the look on her face suggested that I needed to be somewhere else immediately.   And my father, always working, working, working, had neither the time nor energy to reflect on his Calabrese past.

There were a few stories some of which made sense; others which were contradictory mixed in with legend and myth and, if that wasn't enough to distort reality, you could toss in the family's penchant for hush-hush.  "It's impossible to unravel family history, everyone has his version, so don’t waste time looking back, watch where you’re going instead," Mom advised, but once in a blue moon, she'd share a sliver of our past.  "After my own father died in the Great Flu epidemic," she might say, "life changed…" and then, as though she needed to make immediate amends for being such a loose-lipped time-waster, she slammed the window of reverie shut to avoid the draft of questions and the chill of inquisitiveness from her middle child.  Over the years, I more or less came to accept that they either wouldn’t or couldn’t fill in my blanks.

And then, one day while searching for a holiday cookie recipe, I stumbled on a Fra Noi article and read, "If you're of Calabrese descent, the next sentence you read could forever change how you view your roots."

I caught my breath.  

As the persecution of the Spanish Inquisition spread, the article went on, the Jews of Calabria fled to the mountains.   Families were arrested, burned at the stake, torn apart…  Jews who wanted to avoid torture and death were forced to convert to Catholicism and renamed “conversos.”

Within seconds, my mother’s suspicions, my little girl ‘nosies,’ my dad’s mind your own business caveats ignited into a kaleidoscope of jagged slivers, muddled snippets and sarcastic scraps of information that melted into tears. 

Imprisonment, confiscation…a heavy heart, unconsecrated ground…denunciation…something went on over there that no one ever talked about…the fallout of the Inquisition.    Ideas, issues, incidents I hadn’t thought about in years collided head-on with conjecture and possibility.

And then, as I continued to read, I spotted my maiden name.  There it was in black and white on a glossy magazine page, a clue that even unconsecrated soil could not bury.

…the first active Calabrian synagogue in 500 years is in Serrastretta, housed in a building once owned by Saverio Scalise…


My grandfather was Antonio Scalise.  According to Ellis Island’s ship manifest, his last known residence was Serrastretta.  He was born in Sorbo San Basile, a town not twenty kilometers away, high on a mountain top. 

There is a chance that the insanity of religious oppression forever altered my grandfather’s life.  Is there a chance that I own some Judaic roots—that I am the progeny of conversos?  According to Rabbi Barbara Aiello, herself a product of this captivating saga, thanks to the intense scrutiny afforded the families of the Diaspora, there exist detailed records, and she will help me research my history.  And the etched oil lamp, a symbol of magic to the little girl, may well light the way to truths that no one, including the loving daughter-in-law, ever imagined. With a little Mazel Tov and a DNA test added to this mix, I may at last have an answer for the child who trembled graveside wondering What kind of Catholic was he anyway? 

The prospect of putting some of the puzzle pieces in place, the responsibility of untangling some of my father’s Calabrian roots,  is both daunting and heartening, but it is time to set the record straight.



He had a thing about height, maybe that was why he walked on his tippy toes.  After he became Director of Organizing for the teachers' union, every person he hired was shorter than he.  I predicted that before long we'd have an entire staff of Munchkins.

Don may have perceived me as the Wicked Witch.  I'd stolen his job, a job he'd been promised  by an organizational blowhard who'd had no authority to promise anybody anything. Don had done all of his scut work for years with the understanding that, whenever the windbag got promoted, a sure thing since he was the boss' best friend, Don would fill his shoes.  Lo and behold, when Blowhard became Director of Public Relations, not only did his lackey not fill his boots, the new hire wore high heels.  Without realizing it, I'd tripped a landmine of cronyism and disrupted the perfectly laid plans of mice and Neanderthals.    

In an effort to assuage their self-imposed humiliation, Blowhard and Don decided to make it impossible for me to function in my new position.  Rumors were planted, my office locks changed, calls went unreturned, meetings were scheduled without my  knowledge--a special welcome for a broad who dared join an all male staff whose salaries were funded by the 75% female membership.  I hoped that eventually the good ole' boys would tire of their pathetic pranks though I suspected Don would someday try to even the score, but I'd been hired to do a job so I didn't waste time lamenting  my Y chromosome deficit.

Over the years the organization grew, and Don became my colleague.  He was a hard worker, and  put in a lot of time as the leader of our Short Stop Club.  Once before handing over the baton to our boss at a staff meeting, Don made an introduction that would have made Trump blush.  "I would like to introduce the man, no, 'man' is too ordinary a word--the brilliant mind that conceived this dazzling strategy that is so far ahead of its time I can only assume it was divinely inspired."  Soon after he was appointed Director of Organizing. 

Don prided himself on closing the bar at 3 a.m. with the big bosses, and being the first one at breakfast to hold a table for his Union brothers who shared a proclivity for women who knew their limitations.  Though proud to be a man's man, he showed his soft side by wearing ties that had images of children and little red schoolhouses symbolizing, he said, that the teachers' union cared about kids.  He once registered for a right-wing mailing list, an example of his stealth intelligence-gathering technique, using the moniker Miss Ura Phule.   

He and his cohorts found countless ways to make their mark even venturing into the world of art.  The fearless chiefs would round robin elected positions in labor federations, pick up inumerable bar tabs, sponsor softball teams, subsidize holiday parades and, before long, one or another would be nominated as "Labor's Man of the Year."  Of course, then there'd be a dinner to honor the recipient (our organization would buy all of the tickets) and the honoree would be presented with a commissioned portrait of himself at the gala.  It was not long before Union headquarters resembled a wing of the National Gallery.

After several of those fiascoes, we needed more wall space for the big guys' portraits, so the troglodytes moved into their Bob-the-Builder phase.  Wages, hours and working conditions took a backseat to expanding the organization's real estate portfolio.  Discussions about property surveys, grading permits and blueprints, …I'm thinking 35-50,000 squares--maybe $5-$10 mil…kept the honchos occupied.  Upon completion, the buildings were named after our dead leaders.  The leaders with a pulse settled for  naming rooms after each other.  Meetings were held in the Baley Conference Room, brass plaques on doors were inscribed with Brum Lounge or Surner Parlor. 

When the good ole' boys were not ensuring their places in labor history, they were impressing each other.  Per Blowhard's insistence, Don dutifully addressed him as the Godfather.  Having grown-up in a neighborhood that afforded one a ringside seat to questionable characters, I was appalled that anyone, let alone teachers' union staff, would throw around such epithets, but Don's management style, illustrated by his use of a six-pack as a doorstop, circumvented judgment and good taste.

Once one of the field staff Munchkins went on a membership recruitment assignment for our national organization.  Mike,  who'd been hired for his stature and not his IQ, flew out of O'Hare forgetting his luggage at home.  At the next staff meeting, Don set the stage to make the most of his lapse.

"In the event Little Tykie, I mean Mikey,  ever runs off without his luggage again, we are presenting him with an already packed suitcase to be kept at his desk in case of emergency," said the Master of Ceremonies. "Stand up, Tykie, so we can review the contents of your luggage that will help you organize the ladies…oh, sorry, little guy,  I couldn't tell that you were already standing. Hop up on a chair so you can get a better look at what's in your emergency gear."

"His stiletto shoe-lifts will pierce the upholstery," a colleague, who had left his wife for a stripper he'd met on an assignment, shouted. "Bring him up front."

"You guys are fucking crazy," the absent-minded unfortunate gamely laughed as someone actually scooped him up and carried him to the front of the room.

GOIN' TO GRANDMA'S was printed on the mini crimson suitcase.  Piece by piece, clothing and toiletries were extracted and hoisted into the air, their purposes described in salacious detail--Big Boy Superman underpants, toddler, high-heeled Roy Rogers boots, an airline-sized bottle of Jack Daniels and  Spiderman comic books.  Since the staff  fancied themselves lady-killers, condoms, a dildo and a thumb-sized copy of the Kama Sutra were packed as well.  One of the brothers, who talked about dames like some demented Humphrey Bogart throwback, contributed a bb gun, knock-out drops, handcuffs, and a  blindfold just in case Tykie ran into a recalcitrant prospective member.  The piece de resistance, to be used only in the event Tykie didn't get lucky, was an inflatable sheep.

The sheep, donated from a staff member's  personal collection, was a huge hit. 

"Don," I  mentioned over lunch, as the sheep's former lover told our tablemates where they could purchase their own inflatables, "this morning's presentation was beyond the pale.  I found it offensive."

"The guys were just having a little fun," he said.  "Lighten up."