Wednesday, February 12, 2014
The Edge of Whiteness by Joe Montaperto (Review)
It's 1969. Brooklyn smolders after the race riots. The Montaperto family reluctantly flees their beloved Italian neighborhood for a New Jersey suburb so painfully white that it makes the TV show “My Three Sons” appear exotic. The only excitement young Joey Montaperto finds is breaking into his neighbor’s house with his cousin Skinny on Saturday afternoons – to steal the raisins from their Raisin Bran. Until that first day of school in 1973. Forced integration delivers two busloads of inner city black kids to Roselle High, sending a collective shiver through the all- white student body.
“One by one they pour out, laughing, cursing and jive talking. Giants. Imposing black giants – and those were the girls! Then the boys swagger off the bus – or should I say grown men?”
Nothing would ever be the same.
It isn’t long before the inevitable racial conflict becomes personal. After he’s saved from a hallway ambush by Na-Na, a brutal, yet artistic loner, their unlikely friendship turns Joey on to the cool world of black culture. Fascinated by the music of Etta James, Marvin Gaye, and The Funkadelics, he embraces the happenin’ scene. Soon he’s pimped out in purple Swedish knits (that were never worn in Sweden), Isaac Hayes glasses, and a sizzling Puerto Rican hairdresser on his arm. Esperanza. As she gives him a mod shag afro, Joey becomes obsessed with her. He whips himself into shape, boxing at a ghetto gym, and finds a dishwashing job at an Italian restaurant, so he can afford to take her out, only to discover that she already has a boyfriend, a dealer who’s getting her hooked on heroin.
Reeling from heartbreak, Joey searches for meaning in his life, finding inspiration in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. His parent’s think he’s gone mad when he refuses his mother’s homemade Italian sausage, announcing “It’s hard to be a good Muslim in this house”. Joey freaks out his entire Catholic family – and the Mafia guys at work – as he finds his “soul”.
Filled with heart and wisdom, The Edge of Whiteness is an autobiographical account of one adolescent’s struggle to discover his identity. This timeless coming-of- age story is a humorous social commentary on the funky early 1970’s that is still remarkably relevant today.
Joe Montaperto studied acting at The Sonia Moore Studio of The Theater, and the New Conservatory Theater in New York, among others. After doing some stage and film work, he embarked on the comedy circuit in the edgy, crack riddled New York City of the 1980’s, counting among his contemporaries and friends John Stewart, John Leguizammo, and Dave Atell of HBO’s “Insomnia” fame.
After performing pieces based on characters from his adolescence with several comedy/improv troupes and the East Village performance art scene, he took a few years off to seek his spiritual path, and living for a time in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the mountains of Woodstock, NY, while undertaking a number of silent meditation retreats. Returning to the city, he created his one man show “Four Degrees of Disconnection”, which ran at houses on Theater Row several times from 1998 – 2001.
"Me and my cousin Skinny stood b y ourselves in the large foyer that led to the front doors. It's the first day of high school for us. The year is 1973. Our freshman year. We gaze out through those front doors to the sparkling blue sky that opened up majestically above us, the American flag rippling in the mild breeze, high up the flag pole on the front lawn.
Heaving a synchronistic sigh, we check out the scene in front of us - the paintings of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson adorning the foyer walls, our new classmates spread among us in the hall, chattering excitedly in their own little groups. Fresh faced girls with spindly filly-like legs, blond crew cut jock types punching each other in the arms, scientific brainiacs with Clark Kent glasses, peeking about nervously. Everybody - the kids, the paintings - had one thing in common, though. They were all white. Painfully white. The kind of white people who should never be exposed to bright sunlight. Thank God me and Skinny had some color, I though to myself, owing to our Sicilian heritage. At least we were olive-skinned. We could get brown in the summer. These other kids - no hope.
Suddenly, a dilapidated school bus from like - the 1950's - comes chugging up the street, clouds of smothering black smoke spewing from it's tailpipe into the picturesque background. It is immediately followed by another equally monstrous relic, as their brakes screech, the gears groan and the buses lurch to a thumping half right in front of Roselle High.
The joyous buzz reverberating through the foyer quickly dissipated, replaced by an overwhelming crescendo threatening laughter, cursing and yelling from outside.
I could sense the collective shiver rise from our group inside as the doors to the ancient vehicles creak open, and the noise threatens to pierce the sound barrier. One by one they pour out. Giants. Imposing Black giants - and those were the girls..."
And that is how Joe Montaperto sets up THE EDGE OF WHITENESS, a book that brought back so many memories of my own life, although I was born, raised, and still live in the South. THE EDGE OF WHITENESS is a coming of age book that anyone who lived in the 60s-70s can resonate with. We all went through the desegregation of the schools and the adjustment of attending school with "people of color."
Rather than regurgitating the book blurb, I'll tell you just how Joe hits the proverbial nail on the head with his depiction of the buses rolling to a stop in front of the school and nothing remaining the same. Everyone's world changed on that day. I know my life was never the same. For me, the change came as I was entering seventh grade.
I had attended a small town all-white elementary and in seventh grade began attending a junior high school that brought together all of the kids in our half of the parish. Not only was I thrown in with many other white kids I did not know, but I was also introduced to the first black kids I had ever seen except for the sanitation workers. I don't think any of us quite knew where to put ourselves.
Territory and groups were quickly marked in a pattern that would last throughout my three years of junior high and three years of high school. It was a place that I didn't want to be and was only too happy to leave behind at graduation.
As a kid, you tended to think that what was happening in your neighborhood was unique to only your part of the world. It turns out, that after reading this book, I realized my little part of the world was the same as everyone else’s.
I'm giving THE EDGE OF WHITENESS five stars. It was well written with uncanny honesty and is a book worth reading. And I liked the cover. That alone made me laugh. How easy we forget the look of the past. What you don't see above is the humor with which Joe Montaperto writes. His fascination with noses as opposed to breasts or legs. His falling in love and getting the crap beat out of him. His boldness in training in a gym on the wrong side of the tracks. He weaves his story with historical accuracy and humor that will leave you laughing out loud. I invite you to pick this book and read it and see for yourself.
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