If it weren’t for the fact that I was calling from the office of my suburban New Jersey home not the front window of a North End walk up and it was Monday morning, not Wednesday evening, this exchange could be mistaken for a 1971 television ad.
I got up from my desk and walked to the bottom of the stairs. “Anthony! Do you hear me?”
“It’s Prince spaghetti night,” my husband calls up from behind me. I threw him a dirty look over my shoulder.
“What is it, Ma?”
“Do you have to yell?” my husband asks.
My son pokes his head over the upstairs railing. “Mom’s not yelling. She’s just talking loudly. And Dad, we don’t eat Prince. We eat DeCecco, the good stuff.”
And there it is. I’ll admit it, I’m loud. Not the kind of loud that cannot find its ‘inside voice’. I am very well socialized, thank you. But in my comfort zone I have a tendency to be the loudest person in the room (especially when I’m laughing). But Italians are naturally loud, the stereotype claims. I don’t buy it.
Our family matriarch, my grandmother, has always been soft-spoken; although, she is quite capable of making herself heard over her four surviving children, eight grandchildren and eighteen great-grandchildren when she needs to. Most of my cousins are not loud. The guys tend to have low-pitched, resonant voices that carry, but that’s not the same thing. In fact, of all my cousins, only one can claim to be as loud as I, even louder. So in a family that comprises several hundred people if you include my fathers’ cousins, aunts, uncles and their children, two are loud. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the whole Italians are loud stereotype.
Maybe the stereotype comes from the fact that traditional Italian families (at least from earlier generations) were large. You have to be loud in order to be heard at the dinner table over a family with two parents, four or more children and a couple of grandparents. Maybe this was its origins.
Then there were the neighborhood moms. I remember in my grandparent’s neighborhood in Astoria, Queens that around four thirty in the afternoon mothers from the block would come out on the front porch and call for their children. “Johnny.” “Vinnie.” “Frannie.” It was quite musical, now that I think about it. And effective – within ten minutes I could hear the sound of slamming doors when kids rushed to wash their hands and be at the table for when their fathers got home. This always impressed me since the kids could be anywhere in between 21st Street and the river. I’ve been told that this was common practice in a variety of neighborhoods in New York and Boson. I even experienced it in the suburbs when I was a kid. Well, not in our house because our mother relied upon a coach’s whistle she had gotten from my uncle, Weehawken’s favorite, Coach D, to gather the chicks back to the nest. So it’s not as much of an Italian thing as it was a pre-mobile phone thing. Yet I continue to hear from Italians and non-Italians alike that loud Italians are the norm.
It makes me wonder how many other stereotypes we honestly believe about ourselves?