The Italian section of New Haven, Conn., is centered around Wooster Street. There you can find fine examples of Italian-American cuisine: the best pizza this side of forever or, if you are looking for something more upscale, some delicious pasta fagioli and lasagna washed down with a nice chianti. You can follow up with an espresso and a sfogliatella.
The neighborhood isn't big, only a few blocks in either direction, but it's real, vibrant and fun.
One day when I was in college my dad and I drove through Wooster Street on some long-forgotten errand. We saw a guy standing on a street corner who was, shall we say, dressed the part. With black hair combed back from his forehead, a shiny untucked black shirt, a pair of carefully pressed loose-fitting pants and shiny black shoes, he must have been waiting for something. Perhaps he had an errand to run as well.
"God, I hate those guys," my dad, who rarely mutters, muttered.
"Oh, do you know him?" I asked.
"No," he said. "Not him specifically, but anytime there's a deese, dems, doze, fuggedaboudit guy out there somewhere, it makes it that much more difficult for you and me to be taken seriously."
My guess is that Dr. Cyril Wecht might have referred to the guy on that corner as a "goombah." Though maybe not if he gave it some thought first.
But Dr. Wecht did refer to FBI Agent Bradley Orsini (an Italian-American) as a goombah in a radio interview. He also said that Mr. Orsini was the "goombah" of political rival Stephen Zappala, the Allegheny County district attorney, who also is Italian-American.
One Italian-American man as the goombah of another? We're talking bigtime Mafia references here.
When I first read of this, I was profoundly disappointed that a man of such intelligence and learning as Dr. Wecht would use such a disgraced and ignorant slur. If Dr. Wecht would lower D.A. Zappala and Agent Orsini to the level of Mafia goons, what must he think of the rest of us with vowels at the ends of our names?
I have to ask: Hath not a goombah eyes, Dr. Wecht?
I mean, really, Cyril -- a goombah? You couldn't do better than that? I'd be really embarrassed if I'd let slip an ethnic slur like that and I'm just a blogger.
Dr. Wecht also referenced Mr. Zappala's "Machiavellian machinations" in his radio interview.
For those who don't know, Niccolo Machiavelli was a Florentine politician and philosopher who wrote the "The Prince" in the early 16th century. It's a cynical treatise on how to gain power and maintain power, all for power's sake. It's also at the core of one of the great goombah movies of all time: "A Bronx Tale," starring non-goombah Chazz Palminteri and non-goombah Robert DeNiro.
In any event, I thought about my dad when I heard what Dr. Wecht had said -- and when I then took a peek at MTV's new program, "Jersey Shore."
"Jersey Shore" is the latest reality show from the folks who brought us "Real World," "Sorority Life" and "Pimp My Ride." It follows a group of young Italian-Americans who share a vacation house in Seaside Heights, N.J.
In an early promo, MTV announced the show would be filled with "the hottest, tannest, craziest guidos. They keep their hair high, their muscles juiced and their fists pumping all summer long!"
Like Dr. Wecht's goombah, the guido is a particular Italian-American stereotype. But what exactly is a guido?
Hard to say.
According to Donald Tricarico, a sociologist at City College of New York/Queensborough, it's a subculture of Italian-American youth centered in the Northeast which is primarily engaged in the "spectacle of style." That style is found in the way they groom their hair, the clothes they wear, the jewelry that dangles from their necks and ears. It's a visual, rather than ideological or political subculture.
For the cast of Jersey Shore, the muscular guidos sport close-cropped hair and sleeveless shirts. The guidettes feature dyed-black, piled-high hair. All wear gold chains and deep tans sure to cause cancer.
The fact that Snooki, a shallow guidette, and The Situation, an equally shallow guido (yes, there's a grown man who calls himself "The Situation"), are real people doesn't excuse MTV's exploitation of the stereotype they represent.
A stereotype, let's remember, is a characteristic generalized to a larger group from a subset of individuals within the group. So it follows, in a rather obvious and circular way, that some people in any given ethnic group will inhabit a given stereotype. Problems ensue when the stereotype's limitations are imposed on an entire ethnicity from without, even when it's unintentional.
That's what my dad was talking about.
And what happens when the limitations are self-imposed?
This is where we find the residents of MTV's "Jersey Shore." Proud Italian-Americans who know little if anything of their culture, who seem incurious about anything beyond their dangerously tanned skins, the residents of the beach house, if they are not careful, will waste their youth doing nothing more than drinking, sleeping and hooking up with other guidos and guidettes.
Then what? They don't seem to know or care.
There's a moment in 1984's "The Last Starfighter" when Alex Rogan says, "Listen, Centauri. I'm not any of those guys, I'm a kid from a trailer park."
To which Centauri answers, "If that's what you think, then that's all you'll ever be!"
Let's hope that, as Snooki and The Situation grow older, they'll want to be something more than what they are now.