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Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New Worldby Sarah Vowell
Take The Cannoli
There comes a time halfway through any halfway decent liberal arts major's college career when she no longer has any idea what she believes. She flies violently through air polluted by conflicting ideas and theories, never stopping at one system of thought long enough to feel at home. All those books, all that talk, and, oh, the self-reflection. Am I an existentialist? A Taoist? A transcendentalist? A modernist, a postmodernist? A relativist-positivist-historicist-dadaist-deconstructionist? Was I Apollonian? Was I Dionysian (or just drunk)? Which was right and which was wrong, impressionism or expressionism? And while we're at it, is there such a thing as right and wrong?
Until I figured out that the flight between questions is itself a workable system, I craved answers, rules. A code. So by my junior year, I was spending part of every week, sometimes every day, watching The Godfather on videotape.
The Godfather was an addiction. And like all self-respecting addicts, I did not want anyone to find out about my habit. Which was difficult considering that I shared a house with my boyfriend and two other roommates, all of whom probably thought my profound interest in their class schedules had to do with love and friendship. But I needed to know when the house would be empty so I could watch snippets of the film. Sometimes it took weeks to get through the whole thing. If I had a free hour between earth science lab and my work-study job, I'd sneak home and get through the scene where Sonny Corleone is gunned down at the toll booth, his shirt polka-dotted with bullet holes. Or, if I finished writing a paper analyzing American mediocrity according to Alexis de Tocqueville, I'd reward myself with a few minutes of Michael Corleone doing an excellent job of firing a pistol into a police captain's face. But if the phone rang while I was watching, I turned off the sound so that the caller wouldn't guess what I was up to. I thought that if anyone knew how much time I was spending with the Corleones, they would think it was some desperate cry for help. I always pictured the moment I was found out as a scene from a movie, a movie considerably less epic than The Godfather: My concerned boyfriend would eject the tape from the VCR with a flourish and flush it down the toilet like so much cocaine. Then my parents would ship me off to some treatment center where I'd be put in group therapy with a bunch of Trekkies.
I would sit on my couch with the blinds drawn, stare at the TV screen, and imagine myself inside it. I wanted to cower in the dark brown rooms of Don Corleone, kiss his hand on his daughter's wedding day, explain what my troubles were, and let him tell me he'll make everything all right. Of course, I was prepared to accept this gift knowing that someday — and that day may never come — I may be called upon to do a service. But, he would tell me, "Until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter's wedding day."
"Grazie, Godfather." It was as simple as that.
Looking back, I wonder why a gangster movie kidnapped my life. The Godfather had nothing to do with me. I was a feminist, not Italian, and I went to school at Montana State. I had never set foot in New York, thought ravioli came only in a can, and wasn't blind to the fact that all the women in the film were either virgins, mothers, whores, or Diane Keaton.
I fell for those made-up, sexist, East Coast thugs anyway. Partly it was the clothes; fashionwise, there is nothing less glamorous than snow-blown, backpacking college life in the Rocky Mountain states. But the thing that really attracted me to the film was that it offered a three-hour peep into a world with clear and definable moral guidelines; where you know where you stand and you know who you love; where honor was everything; and the greatest sin wasn't murder but betrayal.
My favorite scene in the film takes place on a deserted highway with the Statue of Liberty off in the distance. The don's henchman Clemenza is on the road with two of his men. He's under orders that only one of them is supposed to make the ride back. Clemenza tells the driver to pull over. "I gotta take a leak," he says. As Clemenza empties his bladder, the man in the backseat empties his gun into the driver's skull. There are three shots. The grisly, back-of-the-head murder of a rat fink associate is all in a day's work. But Clemenza's overriding responsibility is to his family. He takes a moment out of his routine madness to remember that he had promised his wife he would bring dessert home. His instruction to his partner in crime is an entire moral manifesto in six little words: "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli."
I loved Clemenza's command because of its total lack of ambiguity. I yearned for certainty. I'd been born into rock-solid Christianity, and every year that went by, my faith eroded a little more, so that by the time I got to college I was a recent, and therefore shaky, atheist. Like a lot of once devout people who have lost religion, I had holes the size of heaven and hell in my head and my heart. Once, I had had a god, commandments, faith, the promise of redemption, and a bible, The Bible, which offered an explanation of everything from creation on through to the end of the world. I had slowly but surely replaced the old-fashioned exclamation points of hallelujahs with the question marks of modern life. God was dead and I had whacked him.
Don Corleone, the Godfather, was not unlike God the father — loving and indulgent one minute, wrathful and judgmental the next. But the only "thou shalt" in the don's dogma was to honor thy family. He dances with his wife, weeps over his son's corpse, dies playing in the garden with his grandson, and preaches that "a man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man."
Don Corleone would not have paid actual money to sit in fluorescent-lit rooms listening to frat boys from Spokane babble on about Descartes, boys in baseball caps whose most sacred philosophical motto could be summarized as "I drink therefore I am." Don Corleone had no time for mind games and conjecture. I, on the other hand, had nothing but time for such things, probably because I'm a frivolous female: "I spend my life trying not to be careless," the don tells his son Michael. "Women and children can be careless but not men."
The Godfather is a film crammed with rules for living. Don't bow down to big shots. It's good when people owe you. This drug business is dangerous. Is vengeance going to bring your son back to you or my boy to me? And then there is the grandeur, the finality, the conviction of the mantra "Never tell anybody outside the family what you're thinking again."
That last one was a rule I myself could follow. Not only did I not tell anyone outside my family what I was thinking, I was pretty tight-lipped with family too. If I was confused about the books I was reading in school, I was equally tormented by my seemingly tranquil life. At twenty-one, I was squandering my youth on hard work and contentment. I had two jobs, got straight A's. I lived with my boyfriend of three years, a perfectly nice person. We were well suited to the point of boredom, enjoying the same movies, the same music, the same friends. We didn't argue, which meant we didn't flirt. I'd always dreamed of The Taming of the Shrew and I was living in — well, they don't write dramas about young girls who settle for the adventure that is mutual respect, unless you count thirtysomething, and I already had the same haircut as the wifely actress who smiled politely waiting for her husband to come home to their comfortable house. Thanks largely to the boyfriend's decency and patience, my parents and I were getting along better than ever. My sister was my best friend. We all lived within ten blocks of each other, one big happy family, frequently convening for get-togethers and meals. Friends clamored for dinner invitations to my parents' home, acquaintances told the boyfriend and me that we renewed their faith in love, and every time I turned in an essay exam my professors' eyes lit up. I was a good daughter, a good sister, a good girlfriend, a good student, a good citizen, a responsible employee. I was also antsy, resentful, overworked, and hemmed in.
Just as I did not divulge my secret rendezvous with The Godfather, I didn't talk about my claustrophobia. I didn't tell anyone that maybe I didn't want to be known only as my sister's sister or my parents' daughter or my boyfriend's girlfriend, that maybe I'd lived in that town too long and I wanted to go someplace where I could leave the house for ten minutes without running into my seventh-grade math teacher. So I told them all I wanted to study abroad to better my chances of getting into graduate school, which sounds a lot better than telling the people who love you that you'd love to get away from them.
I have a few weeks after Christmas before I have to report to Holland for a semester of art history. I fly to Vienna. I get on a train there and another one in Berlin, and another after that, and one thing leads to another and I find myself in Italy. How did that happen? Oh well, as long as I'm in Florence, perhaps I should pop down and give Sicily a look-see.
The fact is, my little freedom flight isn't working out as well as I'd hoped. I swing between the giddiness of my newfound solitude and the loneliness of same. I make a lot of panicked phone calls to my boyfriend from museums that begin with descriptions of Brueghel paintings and end with me sobbing, "What am I going to do?" I am homesick, and since I can't go home, I might as well go to the next closest thing — Sicily. I know Sicily. And I love the part of The Godfather when Michael's hiding out, traipsing around his ancestral hills, walking the streets of his father's birthplace, Corleone.
I take a night train from Rome down the boot and wake up in the Sicilian capital, Palermo. I feel ridiculous. I thought of myself as a serious person and it didn't seem like serious people travel hundreds of miles out of their way to walk in the footsteps of Al Pacino.
I don't feel so silly, however, that I'm above tracking down a bakery and buying a cannoli, my first. I walk down to the sea and eat it. It's sweeter than I thought it would be, more dense. The filling is flecked with chocolate and candied orange. Clemenza was right: Leave that gun! Take that cannoli!
The town of Corleone really exists and can be reached by bus. I checked. Every day I go to the travel office in Palermo to buy a ticket to the Godfather's hometown. And every morning, when I stand before the ticket agent, I can never quite bring myself to say the word "Corleone" out loud to a real live Sicilian. Because you know they know. Idiot Americans and their idiot films. I have my dignity.
So each morning when the ticket agent asks, "Where to?", one of two things happens: I say nothing and just walk off and spend the day in Palermo reading John Irving novels on a bench by the sea, or I utter the name of a proper, art-historically significant town instead. As if the clerk will hear me say, "Agrigento," and say to himself, "Oh, she's going to see the Doric temple. Impressive. Wonder if she's free for a cannoli later?"
On my final day in Sicily — my last chance at Corleone — I walk to the ticket counter, look the clerk in the eye, and ask for a round-trip ticket to Corle --...Cefalù. Yeah, Cefalù, that's it, to see a Byzantine mosaic I remember liking in one of my schoolbooks.
Cefalù might as well have been Corleone. It had the same steep cobblestone streets and blanched little buildings that I remembered from the movie. Lovely, I thought, as I started walking up the hill to its tiny, twelfth-century cathedral. Freak, everyone in the town apparently thought as I marched past them. An entire class of schoolchildren stopped cold to gawk at me. Six-year-old girls pointed at my shoes and laughed. Hunched old men glared, as if the sight of me was a vicious insult. I felt like a living, breathing faux pas.
At least no one was inside the church. The only gaze upon me there came from the looming, sad-eyed Messiah. The Jesus in this mosaic is huge, three times larger than any other figure inside the church. And there's something menacing in the way he holds that tablet with the word of God on it. But his face is compassionate. With that contradictory mix of stern judgment and heart, he may as well have been wearing a tuxedo and stroking a cat and saying something like "What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?"
I leave the church and go for lunch. I am the patron in a tiny family restaurant operated by Mama, Papa, Son 1, and Son 2. They glare at me as if I glow in the dark. Soon they'll wish I glowed in the dark. The power keeps going on and off because of a thunderstorm. The sky outside is nearly black. The Muzak version of "A Whiter Shade of Pale" is playing and it flickers, too, so that every few seconds it's dark and silent. Which is a relief, considering that the rest of the time it's loud and the entire family have seated themselves across from me and gape without smiling. The eggplant on my plate is wonderful, but such is my desire to escape their stares that I have never chewed so fast in my life.
How had it never hit me before? The whole point of The Godfather is not to trust anyone outside your family. And whatever I may have thought while sitting in front of my VCR, I am not actually Sicilian. I bear no resemblance to Clemenza, Tessio, or any of the heads of the Five Families. If I were a character in the film at all, I'd be one of those pain-in-the-ass innocent bystanders in the restaurant where Michael murders Sollozzo. I'm the tuba player in Moe Green's casino. I'm that kid who rides his bike past Michael and Kay on Kay's street in New Hampshire who yells hello and neither Michael nor Kay says hello back.
I got sucked in by The Godfather's moral certainty, never quite recognizing that the other side of moral certainty is staying at home and keeping your mouth shut. Given the choice, I prefer chaos and confusion. Why live by those old-world rules? I was enamored of the movie's family ethos without realizing that in order to make a life for myself, I needed to go off on my own. Why not tell people outside the family what you're thinking? As I would later find out, it's a living.
Copyright © 2000 by Sarah Vowell
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