I have been moved by Ennio Morricone’s haunting “Deborah’s Theme” from the soundtrack for Sergio Leoni’s unappreciated film, Once Upon a Time in America, the longer version and not at all the destroying and somewhat incomprehensible shorter version.
The film follows the sixty-year friendship and betrayal among a group of tough, poor and underprivileged city kids who must learn to deal with life on the mean, unforgiving streets of New York City beginning in the 1920s. While some of the friends fail and others reach some success, at least the Americanized version of power and wealth, they all must eventually deal with what authors Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett have referred to as “the hidden injuries of class.” This has always resonated with me.
A poignant aspect of the film is David (Noodles) Aaronson’s (Robert De Niro) ill-fated longing and love for the beautiful and talented Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern) who stands, and will always stand, a class apart from him.
Straddling Class by John Massaro (Read while listening to “Deborah’s Theme”)
New Jersey, 1948. Cockroaches, rats, one enormous tarantula - - - and my family. Mother? Third grade education. International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Speaks English with blue-collar pronunciation; cooks with olive “earl,” asks, “What’s the ‘pernt?’,” never misses work because of a mere sore “troat.” Father? Promising white-collar career tragically brought down; he survives the rest of a too short life in an embroidery shop, a bloody-fingered “shuttler,” dodging and too often not dodging, the driving, thirsty needles of an unforgiving machine. Me? A fortunate child. Parents, living examples of the timeless, life-sustaining values of love, perseverance, loyalty, empathy and kindness. I am blessed. Still, I am bedeviled with self-doubt and fear.
Maine, 1983. Private college, first teaching job. Coldly blue-blooded faculty remind me I do not belong there or anywhere in THEIR profession. I stay, persevering, trying to be kind, trying to love - - - but the college closes. I am now the father of three children and unemployed. I feel I am a fraud, a liar, justifiably punished for the sin - - - of overreaching. My confidence is gone. I hate life. I hate me. The demon of depression arrives with full fury, its hideousness unmasked, its image never to be forgotten.
Upstate New York, 1986. Enduring blue-collar values, love, perseverance, loyalty, empathy and kindness not only serve me well but save me. As does the support of a strong spouse, children, siblings, and indispensable anti-depressant medication. At SUNY Potsdam, a public college, I find my place. I grow from a scared shell of a man to a beloved colleague and teacher with friends and students I respect, like, love. They tenderly but firmly hold me back from the abyss.
Maine, 2016. A wiser seventy-five year old man knows the demons will be back. There are no permanent sanctuaries in this life. Still, I feel have gained the love and understanding to lead me through the cold of my winter and the mysterious seasons beyond. An insightful book, Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams teaches me I have been a “Straddler,” suspended in a class limbo, a blue-collar kid in a white-collar world, often estranged from both. I know now that I do belong. I have come to embrace my white-collar reality while always honoring my blue-collar roots. Moving on - - - but never forgetting.
Thanks to Alfred Lubrano, Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams and Ennio Morricone, “Deborah’s Theme” from the Sergio Leone film, “Once Upon a Time in America.”