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Fathers and Teachers

A surrogate father and a shameful secret

Val Vinokur
June 16, 2023
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Miami has no seasons. Its time floats in an undifferentiated promiscuity that made the children of South Beach resemble its retirees. As a 7-year-old, I often went around shirtless and wore high-waisted swim briefs, just like our first landlord, a Treblinka survivor named Oscar, who used to take me three blocks east to the 14th Street beach, where we would do headstands on the sand, which took a lot more time to wash out of my hair than off his bald pate. My mother was relieved whenever I found a new mentor, though this time she was not thrilled about the sand.

There had been mentors even before my mother and I had left Moscow (and my unrepentantly prodigal father) when I was 6, but in Miami Beach they seemed to multiply exponentially. There was a Haitian man who taught me how to swim and leap out of the ocean like a frog. There was an obscure American uncle with a handlebar mustache named Sidney who could be relied on to arrive with gifts of Tyco electric slot racing tracks.

Later, in fifth grade, there was a teacher of modern Hebrew at day school, the one who taught the boys how to make trick paper airplanes and shoot them down with rubber bands and paper bullets. As an Israeli he felt such know-how to be more significant than the ability to speak the language of Menachem Begin, and we agreed enthusiastically. Right after he quit his job in the middle of the school year, he gave me his handheld Defender video game, just before he proposed to my mother even though he already had a Venezuelan fiancée. This made sense from a certain point of view since, unlike my mother, he lacked a green card and so did his fiancée.

I wasn’t going to mention the actual boyfriends here. There were at least two of them, and one of them was probably closer to me than he was to my mother; and maybe I was closer to him than I was to my mother. I tracked him down 40 years later because I missed him. By then he was married but still childless, and it seems he had missed me too. Tony was a Sicilian chemist who worked with my mother (a research assistant) at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami, the Virginia Key campus across the street from the Seaquarium. Their Machiavellian boss was also Italian, but a Northerner, which meant that there was no way that Tony would ever get tenure. So he returned to Syracuse––New York, not Sicily––and tried to persuade my mother to join him there with his extended family and get baptized.

I was inconsolable when he left, weeping into the stuffed koala he had given me and refusing to say goodbye. A year later, my mother and I spent several days on a Greyhound bus to visit him up north. He took us to Niagara Falls, where my mother took a picture of the two of us: No two people had ever looked happier in each other’s company. Tony’s mother would bake fresh bread every single day for dinner. Nevertheless, my mother did not want to immerse and submerge us in a frigid, suburban Catholic land of lakes.

The other serious boyfriend, Bruce, an attorney in private practice, remained emotionally aloof from me (since he already had a son of his own) and tormented my mother with his clowning, which was pretty amusing when you are 12. But he lent me his LPs from the ’60s and his Fender Twin Reverb amplifier, and could always be relied on for strange conversations about music, history, politics, and Jews (who is and who isn’t and who should be). With astonishing bitterness, considering Bruce died of leukemia years ago, my mother still regrets everything I ever learned from him and everything she thinks I learned from him. But that’s not who this story is about either.

When it came time to write a college application essay “about a person, other than a member of your family, who has influenced you,” this is what I would compose:

Rarely in life does one encounter an individual who is, in every sense of the word, extraordinary. Such a man was Mr. Giovanditto, or “Gio” as we called him, our sixth and seventh grade social studies teacher and a friend several years thereafter. This wildly eccentric man kept various toys in his room to be played with by his students (and himself) before the start of class, an incentive against tardiness. Furthermore, as another incentive, he would gather all of us who made an “A” at the end of the quarter, give each of us twenty dollars, and take us out to a movie and an arcade. We continued to go out with him even after junior high. Perhaps we didn’t realize the fact at the time, but Gio succeeded in cultivating two things within all of us: our own individual strangeness and eccentricities, as well as the sense that achievement in academics was socially acceptable, at least within our circle. Unfortunately, over the years we have lost contact with him, but I’m sure that this circumstance is so because his mission with us is complete. Indeed, Gio’s influence upon me, as well as many of my friends, can never be erased.

I do admire the armature of my 17-year-old circumlocutions: Such a man was …I’m sure this circumstance is so because … And so many red flags––like a Kremlin parade. I suppose my mother and I had been raised from birth to admire, or—in this case—ignore such flags, convinced that something too obvious couldn’t be true. On my part, there was also hunger––for fraternity and paternity, kindness, intellect, recognition, acceptance.

My mother––and all of the generally divorced and foreign-born women who were happy when Gio picked up their sons (always sons) to take them to see the Amityville 3-D horror film or to the Dade County Youth Fair––was probably motivated by guilt or relief or by an Old World respect for the authority of educators. The fact that he always had money and was from Massachusetts, a spindly Brahmin with an aristocratic Italian name and an on-command Boston accent, likewise made an impression on our parochial, barely American Miami minds. He had seen our potential and decided to become our benefactor. More than that, he had high expectations for us and was forgiving at the same time. On one movie/arcade outing, I somehow lost the $20 he had given each of us to spend that evening. This was an enormous sum for a 12-year-old living in Section 8 housing in 1984. When he understood why I was distraught, he gave me another $20 and said nothing of it.

In 2010, 20 years after that essay helped me get into college, a lurid headline in The New York Times caught my eye: “Celebration, Fla. Has Its First Killing.” Celebration is a master-planned community outside Orlando developed by the Walt Disney Company in the late 1990s, which is why this otherwise unremarkable murder was front page news. A young homeless man was arrested for the death of a 54-year-old bachelor who had lured him to his house and laced his beer with a sedative. The young man, named David-Israel Zenon Murillo, woke up to find his host on top of him. Police interviews later revealed that the victim had a shoe fetish, and that Murillo was about to leave but became enraged when he couldn’t find his sneakers. As he checked the closets, he discovered an ax and bludgeoned the man unconscious. To make sure he was dead, Murillo strangled him with a shoelace. “You’ve been a bad boy lately. You ran into the wrong guy this time, bro,” is what Murillo whispered in his ear as the man died.

It took me several minutes staring at the name and head shot of the murder victim to see what I was seeing: “Matteo Giovanditto.” I was thrown off by “Matteo.” We knew Mr. G as Patrick and even sometimes called him “Paaat” to tease him a little since he was also a “faaaan of Taaaab,” a diet soda discontinued several years ago. A Google search revealed that Patrick was actually his middle name. The face in the photo was unmistakably his––grayer, older, bedraggled.

It’s easy to be cynical about Disney World. But the breath will catch when the highway signs around Orlando change from federal green and white to Disney purple and red as you approach the Magic Kingdom. That type of detail signals that someone in the world takes the promise of utopia seriously, that the chaotic accretions of reality can be altered and controlled and held intentionally at bay. The fact that Mr. G––who had taken some of us, though not (so far as I recall) me to Disney World––ended up retired in Celebration was not surprising. After all, Gio had created his own utopia in our social studies class. His murder signaled that this exciting world of adolescent eccentricity, curiosity, academic ambition, and outgrown innocence, might always have been, along with Celebration, a little less of a magic kingdom than we’d thought.

In the intracoastal canals of Miami, there are posted No Wake Zones, where boats must slow to no more than 5 mph. In the months and years after the murder, we realized that Gio had left a wake behind him––a whispering, almost lucid knowing. Now it came out, that invisible swell made visible by moored boats bobbing up and down and jostling against the dock. Some of the boys who Gio had singled out, mostly quiet and withdrawn types, now agreed to be interviewed by two journalists, Maria Elena Fernandez and Barbara Spindel—the latter, known to me from high school, had envied our stories of Mr. G. Two years after the murder, they would write in the Daily Beast:

Some time later, Giovanditto took D and two other male students for a ride on a houseboat he had rented. D had recently injured his hand and Giovanditto told him he was going to “help” him masturbate. “The two other kids were up on the top of the houseboat, and he and I were on the bottom,” D recalled, explaining that Giovanditto had put the boat on some sort of autopilot. “The houseboat crashed into the canal side into a bunch of trees. I quickly kind of pulled up [my pants]. So I guess I was saved by a houseboat not steering well. It gave me an extra moment to think about what was going on.”

There was D and also B and still others who now recalled Mr. G under their own names because he had never taken advantage of them and because now they could not understand how they and their mothers ever thought it was unremarkable for a child to go on a houseboat or Disney World or even Mexico with a teacher outside of a school trip. It seems that Gio had stocked a vast pond with pubescent boys, scores or hundreds of them enthralled by his generosity, all so that he could catch a handful or a dozen and release them when they got too old. I was never caught. There is relief and guilt in that. Also perverse regret: After all, I was never invited to Mexico or onto a houseboat. He himself never got caught. Until, of course, he did, shoelace round his neck.

The journalists learned that Gio was indeed from Boston, or at least Greater Boston, that he was the stepson of New England Patriarca crime family boss Frederick Champa, convicted in 1995 along with “Q-Ball” Quintina and “Sonny Boy” Rizzo as part of a racketeering case against the so-called “Oldfellas” mafia, and that his family had paid him a stipend to stay away. One can only imagine his childhood as a bookish and manifestly queer boy among the Patriarcas. Perhaps Gio imagined that he had remained that boy or that he could finally be one now, and that his devotion to his adoptive boys was coterminous with a devotion to his own needs, that his desires were the same as their desires because he was them and they were him. He used children to become a self-fellating ouroboros, a self-feeding breast.

It’s no surprise that World History with Mr. G featured breathless ribaldry about Roman vomitoriums and Greek pederasty. Much later, I would learn how Socrates rebuffs his student Alcibiades’ attempt to seduce him, explaining: This is not love and this is not how one gains wisdom. Carnal elements were not part of Socrates’ paideia, the training of the mind and body.

One afternoon in sixth grade, when we were learning about King Arthur, Mr. G left us to watch John Boorman’s film Excalibur. It was the R-rated version. The one scene I remember comes early in the film, when King Uther Pendragon, played by Gabriel Byrne, asks Merlin to cast a spell to disguise him as his rival Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, so that the king could enter the duke’s castle and rape his wife, Ygrane, by deceit. I was 11 years old and in that dimmed classroom was transfixed by Uther-as-Cornwall in full plate armor doing pushups on the soft naked duchess, played—as I discovered recently—by Boorman’s own daughter Katrine. As Uther and Ygrayne conceive Arthur, neither of them knows that the real Gorlois has been slain that night by Uther’s troops.

It was there in plain sight, gauzy and soft-focused: G, Gio, Matteo Patrick Giovanditto, concealing himself as the perfect teacher, the legitimate authority, the ideal father, to conceive us in his own image, not just in our own image of ourselves as special. We were boys destined to draw a sword out of implacable stone or out of the deep dark lake of desire.

Val Vinokur, a professor of literary studies at The New School, is the founding editor of Poets & Traitors Press.