I can’t believe I even have to preface this, but these photos are not an endorsement of the nasty Christopher Columbus, of the Spain’s Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, sponsors of Columbus and the monsters behind the Spanish Inquisition and other bloody crimes in the name of Christianity, or the American government and their mistreatment of Native Americans, and certainly not any sarcastic comment about the many accomplishments of Italian-Americans in our country. I was passing through midtown Manhattan. There was a parade. It was pouring. And I like to shoot photos of people with umbrellas. Fair enough?
On my sixth birthday, my parents threw me a birthday party. My extended family was invited to our apartment in Queens. It was one of the few times both sides of my family sitting in the same room at the same time. I remember little about the event except for two specific gifts that I received on that day, both which became legendary in my own mind.
The first gift was a Scrabble set. I immediately loved this board game, and quickly became obsessed with finding the best triple score words with the “X” tile. Soon, I was beating my mother in her own game. I could draw a line from that day i got the Scrabble set with my love of dictionaries, to becoming an English major in college, to wanting to write rather than go to law school.
The second memorable gift was so infamous that it became a running joke with my mother that has continued for decades. It was a plastic toy machine gun that made realistic rat-a-tat sounds when you pressed the trigger, a gift from my aunt, the wife of my father’s youngest brother.
My aunt was blonde, gorgeous, educated, and worked as a psychiatrist. She was the most accomplished person in the room. She was also the first non-Jew in our family, and simply unaware that I was nothing like Ralphie, dreaming of his bb gun in “A Christmas Story.” My Jewish family from Brooklyn and the Bronx were very afraid of guns. Maybe it was a remnant of anti-Jewish pogroms back in Russia and Poland, or the Holocaust itself, but in my family, whenever you saw your neighbors with guns, you knew it was not a good sign for the Jewish people. My parents thanked my aunt for this “unique” birthday gift, but after the party, my mother hid the plastic toy gun somewhere in the house and told me that I couldn’t play with it.
Within a week, I discovered my mother’s hiding place (she naively hid it in my own closet!) but at this point, I was so into scrabble, I forgot about the gun. Later that year, my mother threw the gun into the garbage. My fate was sealed — I was to become a man of triple score words and not a marksman.
I thought of my toy machine gun this week because of the endless debate our country has over gun control. Three days ago, a killer brought over 30 rapid-fire guns into his hotel room at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas and shot concert-goers outside his window on the 32nd Floor. No one knows the motive.
I tell the story of my toy gun because I want to come clean with my gun-owning friends in the South and the West. I know I perfectly fit the stereotype of someone who doesn’t understand the importance of gun culture, or how your identity is intimately connected with defending your family. What right do I have to talk about guns? My crazy mother wouldn’t even let me use a toy gun!
But you have your own biases. You hide behind the NRA. Deep in your heart you know that gun violence is a sickness in America, and that it isn’t normal to walk into a hotel with thirty high-powered rifles to mow down innocent people. But you are afraid that by admitting it, people like me will want to take all your guns away, and then you will be defenseless and weak. I get that. I’ve told you my bias and where I come from, and I’m ready to hear your side of the story. But I want to hear from YOU, not the NRA.