So my best friend Arnie Arnesson and me were getting into it outside the Church of the Lutheran Redeemer, where our Cub Scout pack met once a week on Tuesdays. I had just pushed Arnie into the hedges near the entrance when his mother came along. Freja was the den mother. She was a tall bony woman with a bit of a long horsy face. She was a pretty fair den mother. Everybody got his chance to win at least once at Steal the Bacon, and this time, she broke up me and Arnie without too much fuss, grabbing him by the arm and standing him straight. She just gave us this look like she’d stepped in shit. That stopped us pretty good right then and there.
The two of us, we didn’t fight that much for Brooklyn kids, who assumed that fighting was pretty much an everyday thing. There were those you’d already fought, those you knew you’d fight soon, and those who had a neighborhood rep as the ones to stay away from. Arnie and I weren’t fighters. But I was fat enough to take a little and give out more if I got on top.
That day was different. Arnie had taunted me with a new expression, “Wop.” He kept using it every chance he could. If something fell, like a pen off my desk – he sat the next desk across – under his breath, I’d hear “wop,” like a soft wop, but still a wop. When we walked home and started arguing about whether Mays was better than Mantle – we knew the Duke was number one among center fielders – he’d shout a big “Wop” at 81st Street where I turned off to go up three flights to our apartment. Then once when we were playing pitchin’ in on 83rd Street, Arnie was pitchin’ and Paulie Sorensen was catchin’, I heard “wop,” “wop,” “wop” when I hit a little bouncer in front of the plate; one wop each time the ball bounced. What bothered me the most wasn’t the word wop, but that I’d never heard it before.
I started listening for it. I heard it on the radio. Alan Freed played a new song by Dion and Belmonts called “I Wonder Why.” It started out with all these boss sounds: “Din-nin-nin-nin-nin-nin-nin-din-nin-nin-din-ninna-ninna- dee-dow…n’t know why I love you like I do.” Then at the end of the first verse, they sing “Wop, wop, wop. wop, wop, wop, wop.” They sing it again in the middle part of the song. So that was one wop, but it didn’t seem to mean anything special I could tell. I listened some more and heard “whoas” in “In the Still of the Night” by The Five Satins. I heard “oh-wha-os” in “Earth Angel” by the Penguins. The Capris sang “wha-oh-oh-oo” in “There’s a Moon Out Tonight.”
Then I learned Dion’s last name. It was DiMucci, the lead singer of the Belmonts. The other guys were Carlo Mastrangelo, Fred Milano, and Angelo D’Aleo. They were four Italians from the Bronx, a foreign country for me and my friends, but their names weren’t so different from my own, Finnochio, which was “fennel” in real Italian, not in the Neopolitan dialect my grandparents spoke. They said “fenucchiello.” Most of my friends didn’t know Italian words had much meaning, but a lot of them understood “vaffanculo” or “Ba fangool” in Brooklyn Italian. Lucky I wasn’t born Ficarotta, which in slang means “broken cunt.” Later I learned that a “finnochio” was a queer in Italian slang. Shit!
Anyway, I put two and two together and figured out wop must have something to do with Italians ‘cause Arnie and Paulie, one Swede and One Norwegian, used it only on me, not on Jimmy Maher, Israel Lipschitz, or Mikey Mitbo. Then Dion and Belmonts sang it in “I Wonder Why.”
I didn’t want to ask my mother or father what wop meant because they’dda asked me where I heard it and I’dda had to say from my best friends, and then one mother wouldda called the other. So, it had something to do with being Italian. Let’s see. Mr. Wong’s hand laundry across 7th Avenue was “the Chinks,” short for Chinese. Sarah Weinstein, who was my first kiss in spin the bottle in fifth grade was Jewish, a Jew. But wop wasn’t short for Italian. What made me Italian? Sunday we had meatballs and gravy and macaroni. I had to go to mass at St. Ephrem’s or once in a while St. Bernadette’s if my father woke up early enough on a Sunday. My name ended in a vowel. We used some Italian words at home like “pappone,” “ciuccio,” and “skeev.” My second cousin was John, but we called him “Ciacci.” My grandmother and grandfather used their dialect every day of course and didn’t speak good English at all. My grandfather called me “o-nono” when he talked to me while cutting my hair.
I FOUND OUT.
A wop was a guy without papers. That’s w for with, o for out, and p for papers. That meant one of the tens of thousand Italian immigrants, mainly from the south, who came from their villages, boarded a ship in Naples, and sailed to New York, with no valid ID. Most of them couldn’t read or write much. Anyway, now at least I had the satisfaction of getting back at my friends. “Arnie, your people were eating that skeevy fish and setting fire to the boats their dead parents were in. Mine, were building empires. So fuck you.” “Paulie, your grandparents probably didn’t know which end of a fork to use. Screw you.” That took real long, but it’s all I had. I couldn’t find any good names for Swedes and Norwegians.
My friend Joey Nails, real name Sebastiani, said I was wrong that wop wasn’t from without papers; it was from guapo, the word for handsome. I asked my grandfather to say “he’s handsome” in real Italian. He said “E’ bello.”
I said, Granpa, my friend called me a wop.”
“Atsa no good, o-nono. A guappo, he’s a bad guy.” Well, in the end, I was a wop and that wasn’t gonna change.
All these years later, it hasn’t changed. Nixon called Sirica a wop. My boss, a U.S. ambassador, never called me a wop; he said I was “just a little
“O Sole Mio.” And I listen to doowop. Who knew? And I dial up “I Wonder Why” on You Tube and sing along with those four other wops: “wop, wop, wop, wop, wop, wop, wop.”