In an era of 24/7 pronouncements and on-demand denouncements, it's easier than ever to paint people into corners. Caricatures are convenient and take less mental energy.
To buck the trend, I offer a column on a guy you probably think you already know: Joey Vento.
Cue the boos (or cheers), depending on your political persuasion and cheesesteak tastes. Call Vento a bigot (or hero) for speaking his mind about the English language, at the shop and on his ubiquitous Big Talker radio commentaries.
I had not met Vento when I took shots at him in 2007 for a xenophobic campaign stunt with GOP presidential wannabe Rudy Giuliani.
I stand by what I wrote then, but I know more about Vento now. Because there's usually more to any man than meets the ear or eye - especially when he's sending unsolicited e-mails entirely in caps.
JOEY VENTO OF GENO'S STEAKS WANTS TO HELP. PLEASE LET US KNOW HOW.
The first one appeared in my in-box a year ago, after I wrote about an elderly Medford man living with his three dogs in a Ford Bronco because shelters don't accept pets.
The second message showed up last fall after I told the story of a Moorestown couple coping with cancer, unemployment, the mortgage meltdown and a busted minivan all at the same time.
Then, weeks later, while reporting an unrelated column about a homeless soccer team, I learned by happenstance that the self-styled conservative critic feeds the homeless men at St. John's Hospice.
Charity begins at home
"Joey's been helping the homeless for more than 20 years, but he never talks about it," explained Anthony Willoughby, the shelter's kitchen manager. "He gives us all our bread every day and steak on the first of the month. He easily does $60,000 worth of food a year."
Turns out, the same man who rants on the radio about illegal immigrants is the unlikely patron saint of a school that's home to some.
"Joey knows I have illegal immigrants and a Spanish Mass," Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary's the Rev. Gary Pacitti told me. "But he not only gives - he initiates it. And a lot of the people he helps are people he disagrees with."
Vento offers a hug and hot coffee when I drop by Geno's one morning to talk about human complexity.
The steak shop is spotless. Though Vento gained notoriety reminding customers "This is America. When ordering, please speak English," I'm partial to a sign directed at staff: "If you have time to lean, you have time to clean."
Diana Vergagni, Vento's sister-in-law and bookkeeper, slides into the booth. She's the generosity gatekeeper and sender of those e-mails whenever the boss is moved.
"We hate for Joey to read the paper," she joked. "He calls me whenever a dog gets hit by a car and I'm like, 'Oh, no, here we go again.' "
I ask Vergagni how much Vento doles out to strangers annually.
"$250,000?" she guesses. "More?"
Vento's shrug suggests he has no grand philanthropic plan. He's tickled that someone noticed his softer side, but he's not keeping score.
"I can't save the world," said Vento, 70, who lives in Burlington County. "So I pick and choose. When I think I can do something, I do it."
Some of Vento's largesse makes the news - raising money for families of slain police officers, mollifying the Mummers - but most falls under the category of random acts of intentionally quiet kindness.
Like the lifeline he tossed Laura Cooper, the cancer patient I wrote about last fall. Vento cut a $15,000 check, paid for vitamin therapy, and gave mall gift cards to her children.
"We had this $11,000 bill that was choking us and he saved us," an emotional Cooper recalled. "Joey just has an unbelievable heart. His heart is bigger than his body."
Vento seems touched by my theory that he's a walking, loud-talking example that we're all the sum of many parts. But he doesn't dwell on his so-called complexity any more than he'd succumb to critics who call him small-minded.
To Vento, compassion and commentary go together, just like fried meat and Cheez Whiz.
"You have to give to receive," he said. "I'm lucky to have it to give."