Author Archives: John Cutrone

Emancipation Day

There was a movement a few years back to make Juneteenth a national holiday, but it hasn’t happened yet. It is a public holiday in Texas, where this holiday has its origins: the day was first celebrated there in 1865. The Civil War was over; Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomatox Courthouse in Virginia on April 9, 1865. But things were not resolved throughout the land that day. It took a long while for Union forces to bring all the states that had seceded back into the fold. In Texas, this process began more than two months later, on the 18th of June. Union troops arrived on Galveston Island and the next day, June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger read a proclamation from a Galveston balcony:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

This is what Juneteenth is all about. It became a celebration of hard-earned freedoms, and a celebration of African-American culture. A day for family and friends to gather. The road has not been an easy one, and so it is as well a day to reassure each other against adversity and challenge. The fact that the road is still being forged is all too evident these days, as we continue to work through our troubled history and find paths forward, paths toward complete equality.

One thing I love about Juneteenth is that I get to remember each year that the word is a portmanteau of the words June and nineteenth. The English major in me gets really excited about a holiday in which I get to use the word portmanteau. It’s such an exquisite word, no? The day is also known, perhaps more properly, as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day. The earliest Juneteenth celebrations brought folks out in their finest clothes for parades and barbecue and music, like the Emancipation Day Celebration Band in the photograph above, from a Juneteenth celebration in Texas in 1900. But when you get right down to it, Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom, pure and simple. Each year on Juneteenth I am reminded not just of the word portmanteau, but most especially that we should never become complacent about our liberties and our freedoms. We realize there are times in our history when this importance has particular resonance. Join me in celebrating today.


Image: “Emancipation Day Celebration Band, June 19, 1900, Texas USAby Mrs. Charles Stephenson (Grace Murray). Photograph, 1900 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


Monte. John Monte.

I couldn’t tell you why, but my dad had a pseudonym that he used for things like dinner reservations or those occasions when you’d get to a restaurant and have to wait for a table. “It’ll be about 20 minutes. Name please?” “Monte,” he’d say, sometimes adding on, “John Monte.” Where the name came from I have no idea, and why he needed it is anyone’s guess, too. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that “Cutrone” is sometimes not an easy name for folks to spell here in the States, so that might be the reason, or it may have had something to do with a calculated disassociation from a more infamous John Cutrone, a Mafioso in Brooklyn who met his untimely end in 1976. Whatever the reason, like an actor or sports star attempting to throw off the paparazzi so he could just have a quiet meal, it was accepted fact that when we went to a restaurant, my dad, the auto mechanic from Valley Stream, was John Monte.

I think about that sometimes when I make dinner reservations or call in to order a pizza. I half expect the name “Monte” to come out of my mouth someday, as I become more and more like my dad as the years pass. A good example: telephones. I hate calling people on the phone and I greet incoming calls with suspicion. This was my dad, too. To this day, my mom calls people up, just to chat. Dad, on the other hand, would announce whenever the phone would ring, “I’m not home.” Back then phones had no caller ID; they just rang and you picked up the receiver and said hello and if it was you who picked up the phone and if the person at the other end of the phone line asked for Mr. Cutrone or for your dad and if you caved, if you said, “Hold on a minute,” and motioned to him, Dad would glare at you and then after he got off the phone he’d give you hell. No one ever just called to chat with Dad; they called because they wanted him to help them do something, like fix a roof or move a wall. It’s no wonder he disliked the phone.

Dad worked up until he was almost 90. We worked at the same university, and sometimes I’d call his extension, usually because I needed something, and sometimes just to say hello. I’d dial 7-2295, and if he didn’t pick up in two rings, I knew he wasn’t at his desk. But when he did pick up, he’d answer with a somewhat singsongy hello, where the first syllable went up as the second syllable went lower. And then I’d say hello, and then he’d say what he always said when we were at work: “Hi guy.” He never said this at home, just at work. It’s what he said to all the guys who worked with him, and at work, I was just one of the guys. The guys who worked with him thought he was in his 60s, maybe 70s. He certainly did not look like he was 89. It was probably a decade or two that Dad would tell his fellow workers, if they asked how old he was, that he was 65. Sometimes that’s just how Dad was. He’d tell you what he thought you wanted to hear. That he was 65. That he felt fine. That his name was John Monte.

It’s our second Father’s Day without him. Days like Father’s Day are never easy when your dad is no longer here to wish a happy Father’s Day to. But we’ll gather all the same, my mom and my sister and Seth and me, and we will eat together. At the table, I will sit in Dad’s seat, because this is what I do now. I’ve done it since the day he died, and it felt odd then, and sometimes still does, but I know I am meant to sit there, and that I am meant to remind everyone that whenever we wished Dad a happy Father’s Day he’d always reply, “You mean Jack Ass Day,” and we will laugh. This year will be not as bad as the year before. Each year, some measure of sadness is replaced by a greater measure of… not sadness.

In Italy, Father’s Day is celebrated on the 19th of March: St. Joseph’s Day, and there is something particularly beautiful about that, as we celebrate a saint who cared for his family, protected them, provided for them, taught his son good, practical things. It is a perfectly logical day to celebrate all fathers, those we were given and those we have chosen. It certainly was the model that my dad followed. Perhaps if we celebrated on that day, too, when we wished Dad a happy Father’s Day, he would have simply said, “Thanks.”

That’s my dad and me at the Photobooth at Nunley’s Amusement Park in Baldwin, New York, probably about 1967 or 1968.


Flower of the Mountain

It was on the 6th of December, 1933, that Federal Judge John M. Woolsey of the Southern District of New York ruled that the novel Ulysses by James Joyce was not only not obscene, but also a work of literary merit. He had spent the month prior reading the book, which had been banned in the United States since the time it was first published in 1922 on account of it potentially causing American readers to harbor “impure and lustful thoughts.” In 1934, thanks to Judge Woolsey’s ruling, Random House could finally publish the book and sell it in this country.

Ulysses follows the adventures of Leopold Bloom over the course of a single day, June 16, 1904, through Dublin. Joyce chose the date with intention: It was the day he first went out with Nora Barnacle, the woman he would spend his life with. You might celebrate Bloomsday with a reading of Ulysses. You might stop at the apothecary to purchase a bar of lemon soap. Certainly there will be stops to be made at pubs, and ale is known to play a big part in a good Bloomsday celebration.

James Joyce was first aware of people celebrating Bloomsday in 1924, just two years after the publication of Ulysses. In 1954, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the events in the book, a more formal pilgrimage through Dublin was organized. Nowadays, you are likely to find Bloomsday enthusiasts around the globe, dressed in Edwardian garb and quoting James Joyce each 16th of June. How wonderful is that?

But if all that is above and beyond your means today, here are a couple of simple suggestions. You can read some Joyce, of course. I’ve yet to read Ulysses but I do love Joyce’s short story collection, Dubliners. Especially the final story of the book, “The Dead.” James Joyce bestowed many gifts upon us, and today is the perfect day to delve into them.

And then there is Kate Bush. She, too, has bestowed many gifts upon us. In 1989, Kate recorded a song called “The Sensual World,” based on the closing soliloquy by Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife, in Ulysses. She actually wanted to set the soliloquy to music, but at the time, the James Joyce estate refused her request. There was at some point, though, a change of heart, and in 2011, Kate was granted permission to remake the song according to her original vision. The newer version, recorded 22 years later, is familiar yet different, the fruit perhaps of a maturity of voice and vision. Both, I think, are beautiful, and today the words are on my lips, as they have been since the month began. With these things––the songs, the stories, the ale and lemon soap––Bloomsday will come and go through this sensual world. Love calls us to the things of it, like the season’s first sumptuous apricots and peaches, the ocean’s first lapping at our ankles. June is filled with days like this––Bloomsday, Midsummer––that make these things manifest.


The Sensual World, 1989

Flower of the Mountain, 2011