I was a citizen of New York when Mario Cuomo became governor. I’ve written before about the ethnic angle of that event, how Cuomo, who was Italian, was the highest ranking ethnic Italian in New York, Italian immigrants still being repressed and seen as lesser folk by many even at that late date. When he became Governor, as I recall, people stopped telling certain jokes. He may have been one of the best governors ever, anywhere.
He got a lot done as governor. It was almost like he could be in two places at once. And, actually, he did that once. Let me tell you the story.
When my father retired, my sister pretended for a moment to be the governor. Convincingly.
You see, my father’s retirement was a big deal. The mayor, many other elected officials including members of the state government and federal legislators (present and former) were there. The governor was supposed to come but he could not make it. The retirement dinner was at the Italian American Club out on Wolf Road, which was a public (and very good) restaurant. The club tended to be visited mainly by members of the Italian-American community, as one might expect. But it was always a very welcoming place.
My siblings and I arranged to have a limo pick us all up near downtown, then drive to my parent’s house, where we would pick them up, then drive out to the retirement dinner. Working class people pretending to be rich, like when you go to the prom. But, while we were hanging around in the back of this huge stretch limo, we didn’t notice that the driver was utterly lost and had driven several miles in the wrong direction. We got him headed the right way, but by the time we got to my parent’s house, my mother had gotten antsy about being late, and she and my dad had already driven out to the Italian American Club on their own.
So, we had to do something about that. We were wearing cocktail dresses and suits (I had opted for the suit). We got to the club and had the limo pull up in front. People sitting at the long glass windows at the front of the building, diners, noticed the limo, and many were watching. I got out of the car by myself, and tried to look as much as I could like a body guard. I went into the club, and said just loudly enough to be heard by several diners, “The governor is out front. He does not have time to stop in to Joe Laden’s retirement dinner, but he’d like Mr. Laden to come out and say hello. Which way is the banquet hall?”
The maître d’ accompanied me back to the dining hall, where I found my father. He saw right through my disguise, but I said to him, “The governor is out front, it turns out, in his limo. He wants to say hi.”
So he came out in front with me. By this time half of the diners who were not seated by the windows were over there staring out at the limo. So almost everyone in the restaurant was watching. I accompanied my father to the limo, still trying to look like a body guard (thinking the suit was a good choice, instead of the cocktail dress). The back window of the limo opened, and a hand came out. It was my sister’s hand but you couldn’t tell who it was. My sister and father shook hands, exchanged a few words, and he went back inside. We had the limo drive around to the side of the building and eventually we all piled out and joined the reception.
So that is how, on one occasion at least, Governor Mario Cuomo got to be in two places at once.
You may not know this now, but there was real hope at one point that Mario Cuomo would run for and become president. But the world was not ready yet, at least in the US, for Italians to rise that high up. The glass ceiling was still in place, only partly shattered. The moment when many of us felt most strongly that he should be our leader is recorded, of course, in the following video:
Don’t you agree?