I spotted Luca’s gigantic mitt of stubby fingers reaching out to snatch the plate of tastykake crumpets, one of the grandest junk-food sweet cakes on the planet. And immediately I quick-stepped across the small room of cigar smokers… and punched my walloping fist into his massive arm and shoulder.
I was absolutely certain I had broken my hand. But well-over-550-pound Luca seemed no more disturbed than a rhinoceros having been banged into by a drunken sparrow. I mean, just his shadow could rearrange the furniture in the entire West Wing of the White House. Hell, certainly no less than Barnum & Bailey must have been looking to put him in the circus.
And as Luca began to munch and gulp one of the cakes I screamed – mostly to mask the shocks of pain clanging thru every metacarpal in my puny hand. And so I shrieked:
“If you eat one more morsel I will punch all 350 oleos out of that bulbous nose of yours!” And then rising up all the way up to my 5-foot-10 one-hundred-and-55-pound ‘massive’ stature, I repeated my exact words, before finally dropping my shoulders askew and adding: “Hell, Luca, the diabetes has already cost you two toes. You wanna keep dying in pieces?”
Hmm… I was sure Luca was going to kill me. And not just because I was the only Jewish guy in a backroom of ‘Eye-talians’ who grew up eating too much pasta. If Luca hit me it would take a police team of Crime Scene Investigators to identify all the pieces. Even if Luca missed, the back-draft would no doubt leave my face resembling some splattered, abstract, rendering of unrealistic cubism.
But Luca just started smiling. Those big round eyes flashing his roar of contagious laughter beneath an expansive bald pate that probably required a whole family-size can of cream to shave.
“You really mean it,” don’t you?” he said. “You really care… I love you, buddy.”
And then he lovingly bear-hugged all the oxygen out of me. And even though I probably needed it, I declined any mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I mean I’ve seen the mob movies.
“Yes I mean it, Luca,” I sighed. “I’ve lost enough friends. I don’t need to lose any more.”
That was nearly 4 years ago. Yesterday we buried the big galoot. It took 12 pallbearers (12!) to carry all 6-feet-3-inches of him out of that crowded Broad Street church in South Philadelphia.
You could feel the vacuum of his departure sucking the air out of all of us. He made us all laugh. He made us all happy. Even when he snuck off and bought his own first business – his own little cigar shop — in white-people country of Republican Bucks County 50-miles north up I-95. It pissed us off. But you could never stay pissed at Luca for very long. He had a smile for all of us.
Yet it didn’t have to end this way. And then again, of course it did. He was obese. He had diabetes. In the closing days his blood was sepsis. The pressure of his struggling cigar business ate him alive. So he nervously ate more and more, until he had to build a special double-wide chair big enough to hold all of him as he perched to entertain his cigar smoking patrons.
I remember one time I went up to see him and urged him to start exercising. I even took him swimming. I told him he had to keep moving. That the dead man’s float didn’t count.
Now worms eat him in death where worries ate him in life.
At the age of 48 Luca lived his final days, weeks and months in fear of failing as a first-time owner and operator of his very own business. I watched his incipient exuberance, excitement and plans for expanding all fade with the reality of a receding cash flow.
It was an ugly sight – that is, of a man who is afraid.
Much like these days when our entire country and much of the world is fretting anxiously in another fear. This time it’s Ebola. And what makes it even sadder and uglier than Luca’s bottom-line is that what we usually fear, what we as a country are afraid of, is more psychological than physical. More emotional than scientific.
Because to date there’s only been one death in the USA. And that was in Texas, where the victim had recently returned from Liberia.
I know… I know… Perhaps I am being feckless. I realize that in West Africa some 14,000 have gotten sick and about 5,000 have died so far. But the warriors of science and medicine are at work to save the day — over there on the front lines, as well as here with any possible collateral damage.
Yet our visceral reactions have gotten ugly. From our make-shift quarantine tents in New Jersey to our angry screams to keep anyone from West Africa away from our borders. It is the stuff of panic. And panic kills. And staying in the state of fear leads to panic. It also victimizes and dehumanizes the innocent – including those who volunteer to help save us from our worst fears.
What’s even more insidious is that our alarming, reactionary mandates aid and abet nefarious black markets. They ignite massive chaos, like on the other side of the Rio Grande where hordes are being scammed, dying and killed while frantically trying to flee the terror chasing them down – none of which has anything to do at all with the ‘terror’ of Ebola.
We’re making matters worse for those who need our help the most. We are not sitting down awhile and thinking this through. We are using our magnificent brains only to keep us stuck and ignorant. Fear again becomes the static that prevents each and every one of us from hearing ourselves – hearing beyond the whispers and rumors.
We fear the unknown. Strike that! Fear is the unknown. We are frightened by what we do not know. And yet we seem to lack the focus and attentiveness to find out what we do know that just ain’t true. We fear things in proportion to our ignorance of them. We hate what frightens us.
And we are frightened so easily by so much.
Indeed, no matter how big we become, inside all of us is a frightened little boy or girl. Even inside someone as huge as Luca. Fear and panic still whittled him down to a nub – just like it eventually does to all of us.
The trouble is we want to be able to see our monsters. We know how to protect our cities, our country against an invading army. But how do we defend against the invasion of an idea – or a virus like Ebola?
So fear strikes like bullets of ice.
And the most insidious repercussion of it all is that as long as enough people can be frightened, then all the people can be ruled. That is how it works in a democratic system — mass fear becomes the ticket to destroy rights across the board. Just consider the unconstitutional Patriot Act following 911.
So obviously we should never be afraid to think long and hard before we scream. For if we can control our fear, we can control our life.
On the one hand fear makes us feel our humanity. But it freezes us in the moment. We consume our tomorrows fretting about our yesterdays. And, as always, what ends up killing us is not the fear of the worst that hasn’t yet happened, but what is actually happening here and now.
I mean, consider the elephant-size diseases that put Luca in the grave. Yet I am not hearing or seeing the feral outcry about Diabetes. You know, demanding fat people go back to where they came from or sit in some quarantine tent with no heat. Yet diabetes remains the 7th leading cause of death in the USA. At the same time Obesity is considered second only to smoking (cigarettes, NOT cigars!) as a preventable cause of death. And it supposedly triggers about 300,000 deaths per year.
Diabetes and obesity have already long invaded through our ramparts in our prepackaged foods and the rest of our temptations. They’re already here. Here! Where we are worried senseless about Ebola, instead of what is already here and done.
Hmm… And now Luca Foglia is done — dead and buried. No longer here.
After his viewing a bunch of us sat around Anthony’s Twin Smoke Shoppe in South Philly and smiled while we exhaled cigars to gather our memories of the guy who wasn’t too big to fail. Then Anthony and Gary-duh-good-looking-cop-who’s-never-seen-a-reflection-he-didn’t-admire got into a funny but ridiculous ‘discussion’ about how Luca looked laying in the open casket.
Most of us thought Luca looked terrible. Some thought he looked good. A few thought that he sort of looked like himself. But Anthony was exasperated. “He looked dead! How could he look good. Or bad. He looked dead.”
And to Anthony that was that. And no matter what rationale or alternatives Gary may have injected, Anthony just tried to laugh as he shrugged and insisted: “He looked good. He looked bad. It doesn’t matter. He looked dead.”
Sometimes your fears, your nerves, your own dangling mortality does keep you from seeing what you don’t want to see – even when it’s laying in an open casket in front of you.
And dats yDrewIS on dis penal colony…