My Life in Italy, Part 7: “The Roof is On Fire”

If you are just jumping in here, please start with Part 1, otherwise, this will just make no sense at all!

Every life story has its hills and valleys. This chapter walks through a dark valley in my story. I tell this part of my story because it provides context and framework for what comes next. This is not a fun, uplifting chapter. Rather, it is bringing the reader through parts of my life I would rather forget, and certainly don’t advertise. But without this, everything that comes in the next few chapters would have no frame of reference. So bear with me here, and I know… I was a jerk!!!!!

So I’m back in L.A. I just had this incredible life-altering experience in Italy, and I am about to start my final year of high school. For everything else that comes next, well, how did I get back to Italy the second time, and why?

We Need More Background

In Part 1, I told you I was a poor little rich kid from L.A. I also explained that my father had recently died, and I had no direction in life. There I was, a teen multi-millionaire driving his red Porsche around L.A. at a time when I was really supposed to be thinking about my future, right?

I also had this attitude. The single best way I can describe it is to answer the question:

“Which movie character were you in High School?”
I was Ferris Bueller.

If you don’t know what that means, for the love of God, go watch that movie right now and come back later! Now, I don’t mean I was kinda like Ferris. I mean, I was literally the Los Angeles embodiment of Ferris.

I could tell you stories of how I started an auto detailing business that only detailed Ferraris and Lamborghinis… and how it always took between Friday afternoon and Monday morning to detail a car… and how I actually convinced people to pay me $250 a pop for the honor of essentially washing & waxing their car and giving me their wheels for the weekend, as if my brand new Porsche wasn’t enough.

All the cool kids went to Birmingham!

I could tell you how I had the “system” wired in my school so I could ditch at will, show up for tests, and bribe school administrators to look the other way, using bagels as currency.

I was even that guy that dumped every girl I was with the moment things looked good. Admittedly, that was a defense mechanism after being heartbroken by a girl when I was 15, but yeah… I was that guy.

I could even tell you how I had an entire school believing that I had died, and how they mourned my passing.

Yes, I. was. Ferris. Actually, considering that the movie didn’t come out until a few years later, from my point of view, Ferris Bueller was a rip-off of me!
Hey! Where are my royalties?

We all aspired to be Adam Ant back then!

And yet again, I digress…

What I am getting at is that I was one of the popular kids in school, I was (and still am) an extrovert on steroids, had the awesome cars, tons of friends, and I dressed as I had just stepped out of GQ magazine. Whatever group I was with, I was always the guy that stood out as the leader. The guy with the plan. If you went to my school or hung in my circles, you thought I had it all going on. And yeah, I was the “Most likely to succeed.”

But it was all appearances.

On the inside, I was lost and alone.

A few years prior, my brother had died in a terrible car accident. He was 22. That had left me wondering what life was all about, and thinking I’ll probably die young, too. So what is the point of thinking about the future? I had an almost Hakuna Matata view of life, but in a negative sense.

Yep, the Nerf ball. That was dad.

My dad had asked me if I wanted to work in his company and eventually take over. “Sure.” That would have had me moving to Austin, TX. where I would climb the ladder of nepotism to become the eventual CEO of Wilshire Foam, Inc. Oh, what joy! I would make FOAM for a living.

I certainly had no interest whatsoever in going to University. In my mind, whatever I did, I would be an entrepreneur, and I believed college taught you to be an automaton. But then dad died, and his company was sold, and I was now a “Trust Fund Kid.” Well, I now have all this money. I’ll figure it out eventually. Sigh. Can I just have my dad back, please?

Then my grandfather died. Then an aunt… and two of my friends, one of which was a suicide (Thinking of you Heather & Joel!). Death was all around me.

All the while, I am a latch key kid with a neurotic, self-absorbed mother who is running around with the guy she dumped my alcoholic dad for while she had been vacationing in Italy, who just happened to be younger than my brother I had not so long ago lost. Did I mention that this guy was also my 3rd-degree cousin? I know, no dysfunction in this family!

Let’s just say I was absolutely left alone to figure it all out. I thank God for giving me a strong will because had I been weak, I believe I would have been the guy you find on a corner with a needle stuck in his arm.

That is when the trip to Italy happened that I have been writing about in the past six parts of this series.

I am writing all of this, not to say how awesome I was, or how alone I had been left, or how messed up my family was, but to draw a picture of a state of mind. I hope this puts in context how transformational the time with Rocco’s family was for me. It showed me in the deepest sense that there was so much more than this.

It didn’t give me direction, but it gave me the burning need to find direction. In a way, that is almost worse, because I now needed to figure stuff out and face my future. But I think that realization makes things worse for a while because my life was about to go from the frying pan into the fire. Literally.

The Roof is On Fire

If you haven’t figured it out by now, songs come to mind often when I am trying to convey something. So, if you dare to stay with me…

Yeah, I know the song is crass, but so was my attitude, especially when the house I had lived in my entire life burned down two months after I returned from Italy. And the chorus of this song nails my attitude. We don’t need no water, let the mother&@*!%# burn!

I know this is getting really dark here, but we need to walk through the valley of darkness before we can get to the mountaintops, right?

My life-long home burning down was the exclamation point of my childhood. It was the end of the chapter, and now I needed to start writing the next chapter. But I had writer’s block.

Knock Knock, Hi Rocco!

Big Rocco is the short guy 🙂

I am suddenly homeless. I did have several options. My mom went to stay with her parents. Oh, by the way, her boyfriend dumped her and was now living with another woman. I could have stayed with my grandparents, too. But that just did not feel like an option for me. Frankly, I could have afforded an apartment, but this was all so sudden.

Rocco, his dad and Uncle Vinny were all back in the States now, and Rocco graciously invited me to stay at their place. Rocco lived in the house garage, that had been converted to a cool studio apartment. So, I moved in.

There was Big Rocco, his wife, his kids, and me. I truly felt like part of the family, again.

Truer Than Fiction

Get ready for it… My neighbor across the street now was… MICHAEL JACKSON! Enzo would have been so proud! Actually, we all knew many of the Jackson family and went to school with Janet, so it wasn’t all that strange.

As a fun aside, remember I had the red Porsche? I also had super-dark tinted windows. And it was 1983.

Billie Jean is not my lover
She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one

The driveway to the place I was living was direct across from Michael Jackson’s driveway. So our driveway was always jam-packed with groupies hoping to get a glance at MJ. So every time I went home, I was surrounded by people trying to peek into my car to see if somehow he was in there.

Remember when his hair caught fire in a Pepsi commercial? Rocco and I were driving home, and got caught in the middle of the caravan of cars while he was coming home from the hospital.

If only Enzo could have been there!

Living with The Family

For the next seven months, I lived at Rocco’s house. I had no idea what I was going to do. I kept going to school, kept ditching habitually, bought lots of bagels to buy off school administrators, and showed up for the required tests.

Life was really just a mixture of that, going to clubs just about every night, and spending a ridiculous amount fo time at Santa Monica Beach, Station 4. Trust me, if Ferris Bueller had lived in L.A., he would have been at that beach.

There was absolutely no direction in my life, but I was burning for it. I just had no idea how to find it!

But I was also experiencing this other family, with whom I was living. It was so different from everything I had ever known, even here in L.A. I even got close with Big Rocco in a way that forged a family-like bond. During this time, Little Rocco went from being my friend to being my brother. I don’t mean that in a “Hey, brother, what’s up” kind of way. I mean it in an “I will always be there for you, forever, no matter what” kind of way. I had no idea what that would look like, but 36 years later, that brotherly relationship is still in place!

School Ends, Olympics Begin

It was just that. It ended. There was no plan, no “what’s next,” nothing. It just ended, and we kept going to clubs and the beach. All that had really changed in my life, was that I was saving a few bucks on my bribery bagels.

Many of my friends were going off to different corners of the country for university, some were going to work whenever they were going, and I was lost.

It was also the summer of 1984. In Los Angeles. The Summer Olympic Games were about to start. HOSTED IN LOS ANGELES: The traffic capital of the planet. The math didn’t look good for doing anything! I had thought that going anywhere in the city was going to be impossible. So I made a decision. I would either buy a motorcycle, or I would get out of town for the summer.

And Then Came Vinnie

Uncle Vinnie

Well, the decision kinda made itself for me! Rocco and I were kicking back in his garage-conversion-one-room-studio-home one night at around 11:30 PM, and there was a knock at the door. We yell to come in, and Uncle Vinny is standing at the door. Imagine Vinny’s thick southern Italian accent, and the conversation went exactly like this:

Vinny: “Hey guys, I’m goin’ t’ Italy tomorrow. You wanna come?”
Rocco: “Sure!”
Michael: “Yeah!”
Vinny: “OK, we’re leavin at 6:30 in the mornin. Rocchio, I’ll get you a ticket. Michael, get a ticket.”
Rocco and Michael: ‘K

OK, so we’re not hittin’ the beach tomorrow. We’re goin’ back to Italy! Better yet, I am going with Rocco, Big Rocco, Uncle Vinny… everyone! I’m gonna see Nonna, Uncle Peppe… even Mr. Goat!

I jump on the phone with TWA, book myself a ticket, and called my mom to let her know. She was a bit shocked, but whatever. We hop in the car, run to a 24-hour market to get some essentials, quickly pack some bags, get a couple of hours sleep, and by 6:30 in the morning, we were heading to the airport, just like that. Asshole Michael didn’t even call his girlfriend to let her know. Sigh. If you had told me 12 hours prior that I was going back to Italy any time soon, I would have laughed at you.

Before I knew it, there I was on TWA Flight 840 (less than 2 years prior to the famous TWA Flight 840), strapping in my seatbelt, making sure my tray table and seatback were in the full upright and locked position, ready for takeoff.

I was ticketed for a 12-day trip that turned out to be 2 1/2 months long.

The Takeaway

This series is called “My Life in Italy,” but without My Life in Los Angeles, there would be no life in Italy for me. Up until now, I have chronicled my first trip to Italy, and how it set the stage for a change in my life. But there was a crisis period after that trip that set an even bigger stage. I think, in hindsight, that I needed my life to burn to the ground in order to prepare me for this trip I am about to take.

The intended 12-day trip was to be a vacation. But what made it into 2 1/2 months instead, was all about finding myself (and the love of my life). I don’t think the Ferris Bueller Michael was ready for the changes that were to come a year prior. I think all of the death and devastation that had happened this year, along with the utter sense of apathy with regard to my future were critical components. These events formed me.

Please leave your comments, questions and anything you feel like writing below. I love reading your thoughts!

And then, when you are ready for more, just head on over to:
Part 8, “A Tale of Two Italys”

My Life in Italy, Part 4: “Death Comes to Those That Swim After Lunch”
Let Me Vent
Italian… So lost in translation
My Life in Italy, Part 10: “Paola Meets The Megalopolis”
  • Dark story but everyone rich or poor has a dark story that turns into an epiphany. Loving your story Michael can’t wait for the next chapter!

  • Wow! In 2005, Michael was good enough to e-mail me a stack of information on Palazzo Catalani and Soriano Mel Cimono. I knew then that he was in love with Italy and was a smashing good writer. I just found those ancient e-mails in a file today and searched for Michael online.
    Talk about someone using their talents while thoroughly enjoying themselves. All very exciting.
    I have much to read about Michael and Cultured Discovery. In the meantime, your kindness and enthusiasm so many years ago is greatly appreciated, and it’s marvelous to see it all come to fruition. Keep living the zestful life!

  • MariaMaria

    Author Reply

    Amazing odyssey. It gave me a cold in my stomach and warmed my heart.