“THE THREE RITAS”

GUEST WRITER – VINCENT POMILIO

It’s June 2020, Gay Pride Month. While it’s beautiful outside, the Pandemic looms large. Still. Along with social unrest. 

I have lately been asked to write descriptions of what I have been working on during the lockdown.  I am a visual artist/painter and have used this time to create a new body of work for a couple of upcoming exhibitions.  I am often asked to write about my art and the process of making it but I have other stories to tell.   While cleaning out my studio, I unearthed many photos and paintings from years past, so a trip or two down memory lane was inevitable.  Having read a few coming out stories recently, I have begun to recall my own experiences of coming out.  Was there an official time and place?  Was it some eureka moment of self-revelation or was it a series of moments and events leading up to self-awareness, acceptance and need to tell those who are important in my life?

When was it really? There were moments spent with family that gave me some clues to my own feelings of otherness.  Moments that even as a young boy gave me reason to think I was different and life would be challenging from here on in.

Vincent, 2nd grade.

I think I was about ten years old.  I’m in my Aunt Rita’s kitchen in South Philly.  The three Ritas were there.  My father and two of his brothers married women named Rita. One brother married a Marie.  She was there too.  All of them larger than life Italian-American matriarchs.  All of them knockouts.  There was Bob’s Rita (my mother), John’s Rita, and Stanley’s Rita.  Whenever any of us talked of them we used these names: Bob’s Rita, John’s Rita and Stanley’s Rita.  Uncle Stan’s Rita was also referred to as Blonde Rita.  

Blonde Rita. 1997.

Blonde Rita was a dead ringer for the English actress Julie Christie.  John’s Rita was the baker and looked like Rosalind Russell.  Aunt Marie was a red-haired beauty who resembled Hedy Lamar.  Aunt Marie’s father was the head of the Communist Party in Philadelphia but no one ever talked about that.  Bob’s Rita, my mom, was a cross between Liz Taylor and Anna Magnani, the fabled Italian movie star.  Her personality, however, was more like Phyllis Diller.  My mother, Bob’s Rita, was affectionately referred to as Crazy Rita.  She did have bouts with mental illness; I will save those stories for another time.  At ten, I was very aware of all of these actresses and how fascinating these aunts were. 

So here is the setting:  Back to Aunt Rita’s (John’s Rita’s) kitchen.  Italian women are no strangers to unwanted facial hair.  John’s Rita would have a pot of wax melting on the stove along with espresso and a pizza or two in the oven.  The three Ritas and Marie would take turns applying the hot wax to their unwanted mustaches and sideburns and pull off the unwanted hair amidst screams and laughter.  This was a regular social event that John’s Rita always hosted.  The men would all be in the finished basement watching a game, any game.  If it wasn’t baseball, football or basketball, they would watch golf. These were all really good men, and good looking too, but boring to me compared with the women.  During the hair removal tortures there would be gossip about everything.  Recipes would be exchanged, even stories of who was having an affair.  “Now Vincent, close your ears”, they would say, as the jokes and the stories got dirtier and racier as the night progressed.  Long story short (hard for me to do), is that I knew these women. Loved them and their stories and never wanted to be in the basement watching the game.  This all made me a little different than my other male cousins, although a couple on my mother’s side turned out to be gay.  

Coming out happens later of course but not all at once, at least for me.  While in college, I was outed.  I would frequent a gay bar/restaurant in Reading, Pa. called the Green Door.  A school mate happened to be a waitress there on the night I was there.  I was shocked and embarrassed but the cat was out of the bag.  By Monday morning half the campus of Kutztown State University knew I was at the gay bar.  Friends dropped off.  My college roommate was asked to leave our house we shared by his parents.  Other gay guys on campus started coming on to me.  That was the good part.  I denied nothing and started that long journey to self-acceptance.  

That summer of 1972, between junior and senior year of college, I decided to go to Cape May, NJ to find a summer job.  Having learned to cook from my grandmother and the three Ritas, I got a job as a cook in a restaurant.  That was really the summer of my coming out.  I met a local guy just out of the Navy who I had a brief affair with but became my buddy and gay mentor.  One night he drove us to the bars in Philly.  Wow.  The floodgates opened.  Hundreds of guys under one roof drinking, dancing, and cruising.  I passed these places a million times during the daytime and never knew what was going on inside.   I went from self- loathing to loving my new gay life and the people I met along the way.  

Self portrait. 1972.

During that summer in Cape May I had a cousin who was a lifeguard there. I was very fond of him.  He was older and very hunky.  He looked like a young Tom Selleck.  I would avoid his lifeguard post so he wouldn’t see who I was hanging with but one day I went for a walk with a few of my new gay friends and there he was, on a different lifeguard stand.  He knew the guys I was with were gay.  Soon enough my gayness was leaked to a few cousins, then aunts and uncles.  It was a little weird but I wasn’t shunned.  I knew they knew and took comfort in the fact that it really didn’t matter to them.  That summer I had my first serious love affair with a fellow artist, a bit older, and he lived on the waterfront on the bay of Cape May.  He worked at a candy factory there.  I would ride my bike to his place every night.  Life was wonderful and I was so happy and in love.  In love with Bill, my new life, and this new brotherhood that I felt such a kinship with.  

Several months later I was visiting my parents’ house for my birthday in the Philadelphia suburbs.  It was a Saturday morning and as was a custom in our house, my father would drive to the Jewish Deli in nearby West Philly and buy bagels and lox.  Although Italian, we ate like Jews on Saturday morning.   While my father was gone, my mother looked me square in the eye and said, “I have something to ask you”.  I gulped down my coffee and said, “What?”   She stammered a bit but said, “Are you a little AC/DC?”  Where the hell did she get this expression?  I said, “What do you mean, Mom, am I gay?”  “Yes”, she replied.  With great feelings of self-assuredness I said, enthusiastically, “Yes.”  She pretended to be surprised for a total of three seconds and the next out of her mouth was “Well, at least now I know I won’t have to share you with any other women.”  We laughed, and hugged, and cried a little. As she added, “You can’t tell your father, he can’t handle it”.  “Okay”, I replied.    She then wanted to know who else in the family was gay.   “How about cousin Bobby?”  “Yes, Mom”.  “Cousin Brian?”  “Yes. Mom.”   This went on for a while until the bagels arrived and you could cut the uneasy energy floating around in the room with a knife.   Bagels, lox and coming out to Mom.   By the following summer Mom, Bob’s Rita, would like to go dancing with us at the gay bars in Atlantic City.  We had a summer place in nearby Brigantine.  She was a hit on the dance floor.  “What is everyone sniffing in those little bottles?” she would ask.  She began to make her own gay friends and invite them to have dinner with us at our summer place.  My father was so naïve or wanted to be.  This went on for more years than I care to remember and is a story in itself, but maybe later. Mom blossomed and was more popular with the boys than I.  

Mom and I. Niagra Falls. 1995.

There are so many events that encompass Coming Out.   I have so many of these moments that I could recall while sharing just a few.   One of the Rita’s is still alive and now 90 years old, still gorgeous and still a blonde.

Family portrait at my Dad’s 70th birthday party.

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