Making a big entrance, Uncle Tutti arrived late at my high school graduation party, like a Hollywood star. He wore a smart black suit, buttoned near the collar and black and white Domino shoes.
“My godson,” said Uncle Tutti, pinching my cheek with the thick fingers of one hand and slyly handing me an envelope with the other.
“Now, I’m going to sing you a song,” he said.
Tutti pulled away from me, his periwinkle blue eyes sparkling like precious stones polished by the Mediterranean.
Now with his back to us, Tutti began speaking to the musicians, giving instructions. Tutti adjusted his suit, giving his white-gold pinky ring a twist, making sure the sapphire stone faced forward.
He turned around, looked toward me, and said, “This is for you, kid. I love you.” He then threw a kiss toward me. I turned red and laughed nervously.
The band broke out with a romping intro. Tutti spun around with his hands out, his fingers splayed as he sang “Rags to Riches.” Like a man possessed, his eyes were wide open and red with fire. As he thrust his hands in the air, shaking them, spit sprayed from his mouth. With each rhythmic stop, he clapped his hands together and stomped his foot, right in step with the band.
My father shouted, “Sing it, Tony!” as he applauded his younger brother.
Only recently, my father told me that when Tutti was younger he’d been depressed and confused. “He seemed lost in the world,” my father said. “I introduced him to my friends, tried to get him a girlfriend.”
There was a time, my father said, when Tutti believed himself to be the Emperor of The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Who knew there was an emperor of Sicily? Two Sicilies?
He memorized the writing of Medieval Sicilian poets which he performed at weddings, funerals, and confirmations. The performances were tolerated.
As the Emperor, he’d taken to wearing vests and fake ruby rings. Since these poems were meant to be sung, he sang them.
In other words, everyone thought Tutti was crazy.
At one Christmas party he showed up wearing his colorful costume and sang his songs. My grandmother said to my father “Lei e’ pazzo”, I wish he could be more like you, figlio mio. Normale.” He’s crazy. I don’t know what’s in his head.
My grandmother cried, making the sign of the cross and kissing the Saint Anthony pendent on her neck. “What have I done to offend God that one of my sons is a mishkeena?” she asked, looking beyond the ceiling. She once put a Saint Anthony statue on the window sill in the rain. She kept the statue out in the rain for weeks; this was her way of protesting to the saint about her crazy son.
My father didn’t say anything. Tutti didn’t mean to hurt anybody. At least being the Emperor of the Two Sicilies seemed to chase away his depression. My father remembered Tutti as little kid who played alone in the schoolyard, the teenager who didn’t have a girlfriend.
And my grandfather didn’t know what to make of Tutti, either. His bizarre and fine manner of dress and speech were uno coso pazzo—a crazy thing. “He’s a little too much, no?” my grandfather asked. “It’s because he works in that flower store?” said grandpa. Grandpa had worked in mines; he knew how to hammer stone, how to break rocks in the glare of the sun.
Then one night at Marco Polo’s restaurant in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, Uncle Tutti became Tony Bennett.
It was a sudden and profound transformation.
Patrons particularly liked Marco Polo’s because they could sing a song or two with the band; it was encouraged. Everyone had an uncle, a brother, a father, a cousin, or a friend who could sing, who would sing. Sometimes you’d hear a voice that could stop you in your tracks, make you put down your fork and listen. Sometimes you’d hear a note so flat it would cut through your brain like an ice-pick.
Unsuspectingly, Uncle Tutti got up and headed for the bandstand during dinner this time. No one had ever heard him sing before. No one knew he could sing. He walked up to the stage slowly. His shoulders were slumped. He wore a plain black suit and regular black shoes.
He wrestled with pulling the microphone off of the stand. Being too close to the speakers, there was a sudden shriek of feedback. A high frequency scream cut through the dark room like a howling demon, making some faces wince.
We all expected him to be terrible. My father looked at me nervously. Tutti was going to embarrass himself. My grandmother made the sign of the cross. I wondered what she might do to the Saint Anthony statue this time.
Then, barely holding himself up in the spotlight, he began to sing “Strangers in Paradise.”
The first words came out weak and strained. Eyes were rolling. People shook their heads knowingly.
Then, to the astonishment of everyone, he stood up straight and tall. He began to sweep his right arm out, as if pushing out the notes, as he sang. His voice hit the back of the room like a freight train.
Suddenly, all of the talking stopped. The old men with thick boxy glasses and gold teeth who had been speaking frantically with their hands turned to look at the stage. The women with beehive hairdos and gold crosses hushed. He sang powerfully, as if killer mastiffs were at his side and he was declaring himself dictator of the world.
When Tutti changed into Tony Bennett, he became more like everyone else. He sang songs everyone knew and loved. Pretty women would say, canta una canzone—sing a song—to Uncle Tutti. My grandmother believed that she had finally cast off his spell. The malocchio pendants that hung in the kitchen, in the bedroom, over the doors, had conspired to chase away the demons from Tutti.
My grandfather decided Tutti had virtues after all. “He always had a way with the girls at that flower shop,” grandpa said. “No?” he asked.