Friday, November 21, 2003

The Forbidden Zone

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The simplest way to measure a person’s wealth or social standing is to calculate how much empty air he or she owns.

Dig this: it’s not necessarily about the furnishings are in somebody’s home, or even whether its covered in shingles or vinyl. The real test is how much potentially usable but dead air a property contains.

Case in point: a house with a vast, empty back lawn seems much swankier than a house with a shed there. Once the space becomes used, it’s not as cool anymore. That empty space makes the place seem fancy, as if you’re flaunting that you own so much property you can’t even fill it.

So I guess this one of the reasons why so many Portuguese-American houses have rooms that are off-limits, packed with the good furniture that nobody’s allowed to sit on.

Be honest with yourself. If you’re from the Azores, there’s a 98 percent chance you don’t use the front door of your house — because that would mean you’d have to walk through the parlor.

And we can’t have people just walking through the parlor!

Most of my Portuguese relatives have parlors that are fully furnished, but you’re not allowed to go in there. Everything is meticulously arranged to offer maximum eye value — every spray of plastic flowers carefully chosen, every ceramic elephant placed just so. Just don’t linger too long. That’s a good way to get politely but firmly herded back into the furnished basement, where most of the living and cooking and hanging out is actually done.

Not that you’d want to hang around in the parlor, anyway. There’s nothing to do in there. If there’s a TV — as in both my grandparents’ houses — it’s probably not plugged in. The sofas are brutally uncomfortable. Everything’s breakable. The carpet is stiff because nobody ever walks on it. The only art on the walls are usually large wedding photos and First Communion portraits.

For a long time, I used to think only my family did this. Then I discovered that other first-generation Portuguese-Americans my age had identical experiences, down to the exact same ceramic elephants.

One kid I grew up with, if he so much as looked at his fancy parlor cockeyed, his mother whacked him with a slipper.

My parents were much less strict than that. We could actually live in the living room. My sister and I weren’t technically supposed to bring sneakers in there, but that was like seat belt laws — only in force if we were pulled over for some other violation.

The room that was really off-limits in my house was the dining room. It’s got a fancy-schmancy table in there and the good china. It had a yellow plastic runner leading through there from the late 1970s until the early 1990s. There’s a record player and stereo roughly the size and style of an obese person’s casket. Lingering inside this room was only for Christmas and New Year’s. My sister and I had to beg them to use it for Thanksgiving.

My wife isn’t Portuguese, the poor thing, so she’s not familiar with this custom. The first time I ever walked into her house, back in 1994, I recoiled in silent horror as I saw not one dog but two inside the house — and they were flagrantly sitting and scratching themselves in the parlor. I waited against the wall to avoid any errant flying slippers.

Recently, I had to explain to my wife why some Portuguese-American people keep some rooms like museum pieces.

“They’re for company,” I said.

“But every time we visit your aunt’s house, we don’t go into the parlor,” she said. “Aren’t we company?”

“We’re family. Family’s more comfortable in the furnished basement.”

“What about before we were married?” she said. “I wasn’t your family then. Why couldn’t I go into the parlor?”

I thought about this one for a minute — she had me there. I stroked my beard professionally, then gave her my answer. “Hmf,” I said.

Later, we visited my parents for an early Thanksgiving dinner. We celebrated early because they’ll be visiting my sister in Pennsylvania on the actual holiday.

I let us into the house to the warm smells of turkey and chourico — and it wasn’t coming from the basement. The dining room was all decked out with the good plates and everything.

“I thought it would be nice,” my mom said.

Over dinner, my wife and I asked her about the parlors. She told us about how she and my dad lived in tiny houses that were essentially one room.

“I had to sleep at my grandmother’s house, because there wasn’t a room for the girls to sleep in,” she said. “And that was typical.”

Then they immigrated to America, she said, and found that they could afford plenty of room for everyone. But they were still used to living together in the same room. So they fixed up their basements into replicas of the rooms they grew up with in the Azores, leaving the rooms upstairs as that universal symbol of wealth, empty space.

“And, of course, now we could afford nice things. So we try very hard to keep them nice,” she said.

Hence, my friend’s slipper-shaped bruises.

Of course, I thought, it’s not worth keeping things nice if you can’t enjoy them once in a while.

Hence, the dinner in the once-forbidden dining room.

So we passed highly stainable gravy from one person to the other. I dropped a potato, but caught it in my lap before it hit the carpet. After we were done with dessert, we left the dining room as clean as it ever was — for which my parents must have been extremely thankful.

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