Thursday, October 4, 2012


  After supper on certain fall evenings, the family gathered around the kitchen table where we cracked open nuts for the coming holiday baking. These were usually walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds. Each of us, Grandma, Mama and my older sister, was armed with a nut cracker. Grandpa, however, always used his hammer for his nut-cracking. We’d sit at the table and work for what seemed to be hours until all the nuts were opened. I remember seeing the word “Diamond” printed in red on each walnut as I handled each one. I had no idea what it stood for and thought maybe it meant walnuts were so precious they were like diamonds.

  Other communal chores revolved around our kitchen table, which was made of wood and had a slick oilcloth for a cover. The oilcloth was quite colorful and had designs of brightly colored apples, oranges and bananas throughout. It was easy to clean because all Mama had to do was wipe it with a wet cloth and it became brand new again. I remember my grandmother at the same table showing me how to roll gnocchi on a fork and how to make cavatelli by rolling the dough with a knife. Then we would all sit around the table and each was given a share of dough and was expected to proceed accordingly. For me, it took a while to make decent looking gnocchi instead of fat little balls, and to roll perfect cavatelli, little ears Grandma called them.

  On many Saturday nights the table was entirely covered with long strands of pasta on a white bed sheet. These were called tagliatelli, long flat noodles that resembled fettuccine. This particular chore was not a family project because Grandma and Grandpa would have already made the dough and cut them out earlier in the day. They did this for the big Sunday dinner. At the table I also remember our family playing a game called Lotto, sort of like Bingo, where Grandma was in charge and called out numbers in Sicilian while we quickly scrambled to find them on our cards. Sometimes we played Italian card games, scopa or sett’ e mez’ with Grandpa as our instructor.

The table was also used as our meeting spot besides our work place and our recreational area. In the morning we drank our coffee and ate our rolls there. At noontime we’d have our soup, sandwich or maybe a froscia of potatoes and eggs. And in the evening we gathered again for supper at the table. On Sundays and holidays, however, the table was only used to hold the food which would be served in the formal dining room, the only time we would not congregate at the table.

    Over the years I did homework at that same table, first when I was little, writing with large fat pencils and then later on when older, with adult fountain pens. On winter evenings it was where Grandpa taught me the enigma of mathematics. It was also where he read his Italian paper, the Progresso, and where local and world affairs were discussed with Grandma. Sometimes, the conversations became heated, especially concerning the decline of morality among the nation’s youth.

  One fateful rainy afternoon disaster had struck! On that day after coming home from school the table was gone! It had disappeared! No more! In the center of the kitchen there was now a small yellow table with shiny metal legs. Around it were four metal chairs with yellow padded seats. What happened, I asked, almost in shock. “How do you like it,” my older sister snapped back, with her hands on her hips. “It’s a dinette set!” My grandmother, with a tortured look on her face, slowly moved her head from side to side while my grandfather, arms crossed, looked on and smiled proudly. It was Grandpa, I knew it, the one that had betrayed us all! We soon learned that he had actually given the old table to a junkman and bought the yellow monstrosity at a second-hand store on Fourth Avenue.

  This happened around the same time that television entered our lives, when families were gathering around ominous consoles with small screens. They watched almost everything the networks offered until the flag, the Star Spangled Banner and the test pattern came on before signing off. Antennas had quickly sprouted like weeds after a spring rain on most of the roofs in Brooklyn . Surprisingly, Grandpa was quite pleased with the new technology more than any of us, especially when he watched Antonino Rocca wrestle. My grandfather would sit upright in his easy chair and twist his body from side to side, kicking his feet out and moving along with Rocca as the wrestler threw his opponent to the mat.

  Gradually, the new table was used less and less for communal activities and except for meals we stopped congregating in the kitchen altogether. It seemed as if the center of the universe had forever shifted from the kitchen table to the living room television set. And so apparently had our lives.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


When I was eighteen, I worked as a messenger for a large
shipping company at 17 Battery Place in New York City. My job was delivering shipping documents: bills of lading, customs declarations and consular papers to various firms around town. The company was a large established firm and there were five of us in the messenger department. Although I was pleased to be working at all, what I really wanted was a desk job since I felt my talents were being wasted as a low-level messenger. Embarrassed by our low position, we five messengers called ourselves couriers and never messengers.

We weren’t bike messengers. We traveled all over the city by foot or by train or bus. Back then, in the early Fifties, it cost only a nickel to travel by train from Union Street in Brooklyn to Whitehall Street in Manhattan, which we called New York.

There were times when we also made unofficial trips for the bosses, the executives, especially around the holidays, which included picking up precious cargo, usually artwork, or various other expensive parcels at upscale stores and galleries. For those anticipated journeys we were instructed to take cabs and protect our precious goods and never dilly dally along the way. On one occasion, I delivered an expensive cigarette lighter to Alfred Dunhill’s for repairs. On another, around Christmastime, I picked up and delivered a large framed painting of one of the vice presidents’ wives.

For about a year and a half I traveled throughout the city, learning the location of many Manhattan streets and avenues. I trekked from the Battery and Bowling Green to Wall Street, to Canal, from Union Square to Times Square and north along Fifth Avenue. I thoroughly enjoyed my job and I loved the town. As I walked the streets of the city I felt an excitement and an electricity that was new to me. Although I was on the lowest rung of the company’s ladder I pretended to others (and especially myself) that I was a smart junior executive on the way up. To play the part I dressed with conservative panache, always a blue suit and tie and made certain to always carry my briefcase wherever I went. Unknown to the general public, along with the necessary shipping papers I usually had my lunch packed neatly away in the briefcase.

Usually I knew just how long I would be missed on routine trips so that I knew exactly when to speed up and when to relax and take my time. On bright sunny days, when time allowed and if I were in the area, I would enter Central Park for a brief stroll. If I were downtown I sometimes checked out the little cemetery at Trinity Church, where Alexander Hamilton and other famous individuals were buried. And there were times in the winter when I would stop my travels and enjoy ten or fifteen minutes watching the skaters at Rockefeller Center. On one occasion I even rode the elevators at the Empire State Building straight to the observation deck and stared mouth-open at the city I was learning to love. When I felt the least bit spiritual I would climb the steps at St. Paddy’s. Christmastime was my favorite time. Then I would stop and marvel at the displays in the decorated department store windows. Sugar plums danced in my head for sure while the falling snow flakes melted on my briefcase. At times in midtown I would make a point to see which headliner was appearing at the Paramount. Or if I had loads of time and felt the urge I would stroll Fifth Avenue as if I belonged. Briefcase in hand.

Once on Fifth, near Bergdorfs, I was unknowingly walking alongside Rita Hayworth and her daughter Jasmine. When I realized it I froze and I was so taken aback that I forgot to ask for an autograph. Another time, in the middle of Times Square, I saw a familiar gentleman walking briskly toward me. On closer look I realized it was a face I knew well, it was Pat O’Brien. Near Penn Station I almost physically bumped into Dagmar who used to appear on television’s Broadway Open House. I marveled at how tall she was. She smiled at me and I melted.

I enjoyed the city more and more while stealing minutes and sometimes half-hours from what I considered the menial work of a messenger. I convinced myself that Manhattan was there for my enjoyment. I was a good student and I quickly learned the basic geographic layout of the city and quite a bit about the town itself. I knew where the major museums on Fifth Avenue were located, and Carnegie Hall, and many of the fancy hotels, such as the Plaza and the Waldorf. I knew well the public library on Fifth Avenue, with its two imposing lions out front. I was thrilled when I first came across Tiffanys and Cartiers, places I had thought never really existed.

If I found myself in midtown around lunchtime without lunch from home, I’d eat at one of the many less-famous places on restaurant row. Usually however, I took lunch at a Cafe Sabrett, one of the many hotdog pushcarts around town. If I had extra money, I treated myself to Delmonicos on Beaver Street. There I would rub elbows at the counter with other aspiring go-getters. I also ate at the Horn & Hardart Automats and the Chock Full O’Nuts.

The day would usually go by quickly because I thoroughly enjoyed my work. At the end of the day, my fellow couriers and I would usually visit a down home Puerto Rican bar on Pearl Street where we would munch on papas y chorizos, drink tap beer and sing Granada as loudly as if we were native Puerto Ricans. We were all just over eighteen then (the legal drinking age in New York at the time) and we swigged down our alcohol like adults, pretending to be refined couriers instead of the low-level messenger boys on the bottom rung of the corporate ladder we were in actuality. After all, we were couriers and not messengers.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


I grew up in a neighborhood in Brooklyn they call Park Slope. Back then, linked to other neighborhoods, we called it South Brooklyn. Today it is one of the most desirable neighborhoods in New York City and was recently rated number one by New York magazine. The area is noted for fine restaurants, fashionable bars, trendy taverns and even a food coop. It's a great place to raise kids and young mothers are often seen pushing babies in strollers past stately brownstones that sell for at least two million dollars. Rents in Park Slope are exceedingly high even by New York standards.

Today, the area has been gentrified, pristine and proper, but when I was a scruffy kid growing up on Sixth Avenue things were different. Back then youth gangs were numerous, and it seemed that every block had its own. I remember swallowing hard when i had to walk past some of the menacing characters on those streets.

Union Street was our fun street. At least every Sunday in the summer, my friends and I played stickball against the older guys. We usually lost. On Union Street sometimes we would jump on the backs of trolley cars and hang on as they clanged up and down the street, never once thinking about how easily we might have been killed.

click to enlarge map

In those days, I saw second-rate movies and cartoons at the Garfield Theater three blocks from Union, on 5th and Garfield. I had no idea the area had an infamous history. For example, the notorious Alphonse "Al" Capone lived with his parents at 38 Garfield Place. They moved to two other places on the street, too, numbers 21 and 46. The young Al used to hang out at the pool room at 20 Garfield Place.

Al Capone

Three blocks from the Capones, another mobster named Johnny Torrio held court at the social club on the second floor of a restaurant on Union and Fourth. He later became Al Capone's boss in Chicago.

Garfield Place was also host to other criminals. Of lesser fame, but equally dangerous, were the Persico brothers--Alphonse "Alley Boy" Persico, and Carmine "Junior" Persico--who ran the notorious street gang, The Garfield Boys. Their father Carmine was at the time a made man in the Luciano/Genovese crime family.

Local wiseguys

During his early years, Alley Boy confessed to murder and was sentenced to twenty years in the New York State Department of Corrections, where he died in 1989. His brother Junior rose to prominence in his early twenties and became a made man in the Profaci crime family. He became known to his enemies as Carmine (the Snake, behind his back) Persico, and headed the Columbo family, one of the five major New York crime families.

Next to Union Street is President Street, where I worked as a soda jerk in my teens in a drug store at President and Fifth. I probably served egg cremes to the Persico brothers when they were kids.

President Street was the home base for the Gallo brothers, Crazy Joe, Larry and Albert "Kid Blast." They took refuge on this street and went to the mattresses during the Gallo-Profaci War. Later, in 1972, on orders from Carmine Persico, Crazy Joe was murdered in Umbertos' Clam Bar in Manhattan.

Deep in the bosom of the old Italian neighborhood is Carroll Street, between President Street and Garfield Place. It too is famous for old time wiseguys. Monte's Restaurant on Carroll was the favored eating place of Joe Profaci's boys. This Brooklyn crime family later evolved into the Columbo family. This is also the street where my grandfather owned a bakery and where, as a kid, I ate hot bread slathered with olive oil straight from the oven.

Joe Adonis

Back in the Thirties, Joe Adonis, who was affiliated with Little Augie Pisano and Brooklyn's top crime boss, Frankie Yale, became a major player himself. With Albert Anastasia, he directed criminal activity along the Brooklyn docks and ran a neighborhood restaurant called Joe's Italian Kitchen, on Carroll and Fourth. Joe Adonis would occasionally seen walking along Union Street.

There's a lot about the old neighborhood I don't know, especially all the nefarious goings-on behind closed doors. Back then a lot of whispering took place among adults but information was hard to come by.

Today, Park Slope has been thoroughly gentrified and is considered a most preferred place to live, but I doubt the local boomers and yuppies that can afford to live here have any clue about the area's infamous history. They would probably be horrified if they knew.

Modern day Park Slope, courtesy of Tracy Wuischpard

Saturday, December 20, 2008


When as kids we ate cuccia, we always knew that Christmas was less than two weeks away. Cuccia, tiny whole wheat berries swimming in milk and sugar, was always eaten on one day of the year, December the 13th, the feast day of Santa Lucia. As kids we knew she was the Sicilian patron saint of sight, and later, as an adult, I learned she is the same Santa Lucia celebrated by young Swedish girls who wear the crowns of lighted candles on their heads. Because of the custom, on that special day we never ate pasta or bread or for that matter anything made of wheat flour. But we always ate our cuccia.

Mid-December was about the same time that Grandpa cooked up his special batch of Italian cordials for holiday use. He would buy flavored extracts in those tiny bottles at the Italian store and then, mixed with grain alcohol, sugar and water, he would end up with tall bottles of anisette, rosolio or creme de menthe. In the meantime Grandma was busy in the kitchen creating what we called “Italian candy”, which was really hard torrone of almonds and honey.

About that time I was emptying out my Christmas Club savings at the bank on Union Street so that I would be able to buy gifts for the family. I remember one year, at twenty-five cents a week, I had almost nine dollars. I guess I had missed a few weeks but this was still an enormous amount that I had saved.

It was now cold outside, and the store lots, packed with trees, smelled of Christmas and the coming holidays. In front of Germain’s department store on Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue the fake Santa Claus rang his bell to catch our attention and our coins. Right about this time one could almost feel snow in the air; it was officially the Christmas season. Soon Grandpa would hit the stores and buy the bacala and the other fish for Christmas Eve. On one evening after dinner he would even treat us all to his oven-baked castagne (roasted chestnuts).

Finally the day we had all been waiting for had quietly arrived. It was Christmas Eve, and now my mother, sister and I would decorate our small tree while the seven different fish representing the sacraments were being prepared in the kitchen. The aroma was obvious. Usually we had capitone (eel), polpo (octopus), and scungili (conch). But always we had bacala. Of course no meat was ever eaten on that holy night. We had starved ourselves all day just waiting for this magnificent meal. It was never disappointing even though I never really cared for all the different seafood. After dinner we finished the tree and rushed off to church for Midnight Mass and for viewing the Presepio (the nativity scene). Later, everyone celebrated the remaining minutes of La Vigilia by sipping anisette and eating sesame seed biscotti.

The really big feast, however, came on Christmas Day. Out came Grandma’s finest china, linen tablecloth and the good silverware. Then all of us, including my aunts and uncles, sat around tables that were put together to make one big table. We usually began with caponata and a large antipasto of salami, soppressata, caciocavallo cheese, anchovies, big green Sicilian olives and roasted peppers swimming in olive oil. Then out came the platters of ricotta-filled ravioli, sausages redolent of garlic and fennel, sliced braciole stuffed with hard-boiled eggs, raisins and pine nuts and maybe some fried eggplant and always good crusty Italian bread. Also under the table was a gallon jug of Grandpa’s homemade wine. For dessert there was usually a shimmering cassata or a nice mix of cannoli, sfogliatell’ and pasticciott’, all to be topped off with tiny cups of espresso. As Sicilians we didn’t have pannetone or panforte but there was usually a tempting hill of honey-glazed struffoli (honey balls) in the center of the dining room table, which of course, we pilfered from time to time.

At the end of the feast my grandfather would loosen his belt at least a notch. The men relaxed and talked while they cracked and ate walnuts and almonds. The women then left for the kitchen and the men lit up their Di Nobili cigars and continued sipping espresso fortified with anisette.
As for my sister and I, we sat silently under the lighted tree which would stay up until January the 6th. The house was now quiet and we were content, satisfied, even satiated. We went through our gifts one more time and searched again into our stockings to find the Baby Ruths, the tangerines, the walnuts - and the black pieces of coal.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


As I watched from across the street, I couldn’t hear either the cop or the driver of the black ’49 Buick. I knew it was a brand new Buick because of the holes in the fenders. I couldn’t make out exactly what the driver said to the cop but I knew it wasn’t good. Then the cop raised his baton as if he was going to strike the car. Surprisingly, the driver, a young dark-haired man, probably from the neighborhood, then quickly rolled up the window and looked away from the cop toward the sidewalk, deliberately ignoring the policeman. Oh, man, I thought, trouble. Then the cop yelled, “Get outta the car, jaboney!” I wondered if the cop was Irish. The young guy behind the wheel continued turning his back on the cop.

My friend, Gino, lived on Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue, between Carroll Street and Garfield Place, upstairs over a small printing shop. That section of Fifth Avenue was a mixed neighborhood but populated mostly by Italians. Usually, I used to wait for Gino in front of the shop as I didn’t want to bother his mom and dad during dinner. On this particular summer evening I had come over earlier than usual so I parked myself in front of the shop and watched the cars and people go by. We were teenagers then and neither one of us could wait for dinner to be over with so that we could hit the street.

Now in New York City there are really two Fifth Avenues. The one that most people are familiar with runs north and south splitting Manhattan in two. That’s the tony one that most people know, the one that has the upscale shops, the Public Library with the two lions out front, and the museums. The other Fifth Avenue, not as ritzy and certainly not as famous, runs through the western sections of Brooklyn, from Flatbush Avenue all the way to Bay Ridge.

Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue, where the shop was, was usually bustling, with lots of cars and shoppers because of the many stores on the street. On that same block there was a Trunz pork store across the street, a pastry shop on one corner, and a movie theater called the Garfield on another. Because I was usually early I would walk over to the shop and park myself outside in front of the doorway while Gino and his family had dinner.

Across the street, a man and a woman with a baby carriage had stopped and were watching the action near the Buick. I noticed that there were others, a group of young men were also watching and walking slowly towards the car. With his baton the cop began tapping forcefully on the window of the driver’s side of the automobile, yelling for the driver to lower the window and get out of the car. The driver did not respond but continued to look away and said nothing. Gradually a small crowd had formed and a precinct car from the 78th, with two policemen, drove up and double-parked in front of the shop directly in front of me.

I could see across the street the cop was trying to open the locked car door. The crowd grew. The new policemen jumped from the car and ran across the street. They talked with the first cop and the crowd grew noisier . Finally, one of the new cops swung his baton and smashed the car window, sending glass on to the driver. One cop unlocked the car door, and all three grabbed the driver. The cops pushed the man to the ground and cuffed him. One cop then proceeded to unlock and swing open the door. “Hey, stop, stop,” a woman in front of the pork store yelled. The angry crowd inched closer to the action and encircled the cops. Someone threw a bag of groceries at the cops. It hit one of them and it fell to the ground, spilling milk on tomatoes and bananas on to the sidewalk.

One of the cops broke through the crowd and ran toward the patrol car that was parked directly in front of the shop. I clearly heard him radio for help while the crowd continued to harass the other cops across the street. The cop that had radioed for help then ran into the crowd swinging his baton. I watched as another young man punched the cop that was holding the driver from the car. A teenage girl took a swing at one of the policemen. They grabbed her while shoppers continued to yell. I thought for sure this was a riot in the making and I backed up against the door ready to enter the shop if things got any worse.

Soon, almost within minutes, a large busload of cops, probably their emergency squad, came roaring down Fifth Avenue, sirens and bells blaring loudly. About a dozen men in blue jumped from the bus, and with shields and batons swinging, forged ahead into the crowd. The men booed and the women screamed. The cops from the bus swung their batons not caring who got in their way. People began running along Fifth Avenue away from the action until the street in front of the shop was almost cleared. Then a huge cop looked directly in my direction and he rushed towards me. I quickly opened the door to the shop and darted inside, out of breath and my heart pounding in my chest. There I found Gino and his parents standing statue-like watching from the window. “Are you okay?” Gino’s mother asked.

Finally the cops cuffed three others besides the driver and shoved them all into patrol cars. As teenagers on the corner we had always heard that the local police were sadistic and would take you in ”the back room and beat up on you”. I wondered about the young driver.

Soon the bus and the patrol cars drove off leaving an empty street. In minutes, a city water truck came and washed the street in front of the shop, splashing water, wetting the pavement between the gutters. And as if nothing had ever taken place, as if there had never been an incident, I watched shoppers go in and out of the stores and Fifth Avenue was ours again.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


A noisy crowd had gathered. Lots of guys, young and old, from the neighborhood, had shown up. Even a few adults and some excited teen-age girls were there, watching the two boys dancing and swinging their closed fists in front of their faces. And when the two threw their quick jabs and roundhouse punches, the hot sweat from their bodies splattered the crowd. Irish John, the taller of the two, had a reddish bruise over his left eye and Alley-boy’s lips were puffy and purple. On the sidelines we yelled for our guy and the others cheered for theirs. The two fought hard that summer day.

There was really no reason for the fight except these two were defending their “nationalities”. “Hey, kid, what’s your nationality?” they used to ask. Trying hard to fit in, I would quickly yell out “American”. Nah! The Irish kids would say “you’re a dago, a spaghetti-bender.”

It was hot that August day in ‘46 and most of us wore rolled up handkerchiefs around our necks to catch the sweat. At three o’clock the sun was at its brightest and hottest. That was our High Noon!

The fight had been arranged at the high school a few days before and everyone knew it was to take place on Saturday, approximately at three in the afternoon, at the school yard on Union Street. At that time this was a mixed neighborhood but still mostly Irish territory. Our side was coming from down Union Street, below Fifth Avenue. Although “the public” was invited, it was understood there was to be no weapons or “jumping in” by either side. Strictly no knives or zip guns. The rules were understood by participants and spectators alike: bare knuckles and bare to the waist, no hitting below the belt, and fight until one or the other gives up. The two pugilists were both high school seniors from Manual High on Seventh Avenue: Irish John, their best, and Alley-boy, our great Italian hope.

There were many small battles and tiny skirmishes fought between the Irish and the Italians in those days. And curiously, these were never fought in Ireland or Italy but in the inner-cities of the good ole U.S. of A. Those of us who’ve been around a while and who grew up in the Northeast in the Thirties and Forties remember those times.

At one point, one neighborhood adult tried to step in and stop the fight when Irish John’s eye was closed shut, but the crowd, yelling for blood, wouldn’t let it happen. “Go get’m, John!” the Irish yelled. “Kill the wop!” “In the la panza, we shouted back, in the belly!

The Irish and the Italians are great friends today; many of them have inter-married and have offspring that are half-Irish half-Italian. Red-headed freckle-faced kids have vowels at the end of their names, and dark-haired, brown-eyed Latins go by Murphy, Kelly and O’Brien. Italian Americans drink green beer and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day along side the Irish. And many Irish go to Mulberry Street and party at the San Gennaro festa.

The sweat was pouring down the hollow of their backs. They looked tired and had a problem keeping their hands up in front of there faces. Alley-boy’s lips were not only huge but cut and red from the blood. Still the crowd yelled for more. Our side was starting to worry.

The Irish had come to America many decades earlier and had to battle the Anglo mainstream for approval. They were in the process of winning acceptance when the Italians began crowding them and it was now the Italians turn to sit on the bottom rung of the ladder.

When the cops from the 78th finally came by in their black and whites, the crowd scattered in different directions, yet the fighters, unaware of the police, kept slugging until they were finally pulled apart.

On that hot August day in that Brooklyn school yard neither side declared a victory - neither Irish nor Italian. Anyway, it was a long time ago and as they say, it’s all ancient history now. Except for the old-timers, who remembers anyway?

Not saying a word, we walked Alley-boy down the block to Fifth Avenue. The Irish kids walked up toward Seventh.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


In the spring of ’44 we had a sign in the window of our four-story Brooklyn brownstone that read Room to Let. As a ten-year old I wondered hard at the meaning of this strange message. “Room to Let” it said. Room to let what? I thought. I couldn’t figure it out but I was sure that Grandpa, who had hung the sign in the window, knew what he was doing. Yet I continually scratched my head whenever I saw the sign.

My uncle and his family had been occupying the top two floors of the brownstone, but early in the year they had moved to Virginia because he had been drafted. We were left with four empty rooms and because we needed the money, Grandpa convinced Grandma that we should rent out the upstairs rooms. By putting locks on some of the doors, two on the top floor and two on the third floor, he transformed our brownstone into a quasi-apartment house. Four rooms would be rented out, with a bathroom on each floor, two tenants for one bathroom. Even Grandma liked the idea. Mama would do the cleaning and provide clean sheets, pillows and towels. Each room would have a bureau and a bed. What else could they possibly need? Grandpa then figured out how much rent for each room and there you had it.

Our very first renter, third floor front, was mild-mannered Mister Giambologna who came with his own radio, records and record player. My sister, who was three years older and more clever than me, said his name was really Jim Baloney. So I started calling him that although he really didn’t deserve ridicule from two smart-alecky kids. He always paid his rent on time and out of respect always called my grandfather Don Peppino. Jim Baloney was a stand-up guy and because of him I was exposed to a wonderful new world of music. Almost all of the 78 records that he had carted with him, except maybe for two Carlo Buti records, were Polish mazurkas which he played over and over again. I had never heard that kind of music before and strangely enough I immediately liked it. Yeah, Jim Baloney was all right.

My grandfather rented the third-floor back to a middle-aged Norwegian sea Captain and his wife. They were nice people, usually quiet, mainly because Captain Olaf Olsen was out at sea most of the time. I noticed that he pronounced his name Ooo-laf instead of Oh-laf. Like the captain, his wife Helga was tall and thin and her skin was weather-beaten. As far as Grandpa was concerned, her only problem was turning the radio way up and then falling asleep. The captain was a quiet and generous guy who liked kids. I remember he once brought me back a wooden sword from some far off country because he knew I liked pirate movies. The Olsens were okay too, I thought.

Top-floor front were the Jamisons. Let me tell you, they were crazy people. They kept to themselves but they drank like sailors on shore leave after a long stay at sea. Mr. Jamison was a ruddy-faced guy with a bulbous nose and a pot belly that hung way over his belt. She was a timid, pale-faced, short and sickly looking lady in her fifties. We would hear them argue whenever they returned from the Palm Pines up Union Street. One night she was so drunk that Mr. Jameson had to drag her upstairs, pulling on her short body, legs first. He kept cursing her one step at a time.

Top-floor back was a strange little man, a Mr. Tedesco, who was blind in one eye, smoked smelly Italian cigars and walked with a gnarly cane. Always dressed in the same shiney brown suit and vest, he never talked to anyone but would quietly walk by pointing his cane at my sister and I. Most of the day he would hibernate in his room until nightfall and then he would appear like Count Dracula, and come down and sit on the top step of the stoop for about a half hour. We didn’t like him at all. He was creepy and not all right, we thought. When he walked by I would give him an Italian salute behind his back.

Because of the new system in the house, Grandpa had strict rules for us kids. We were not allowed to go upstairs unless told to do so. And we were not to fraternize with the paying customers.

At first all went well. The renters were generally quiet and cooperative and Grandpa was getting the rent on time. Everyone was happy. One afternoon, however, I was in the second floor bathroom and I could hear Mrs. Olsen upstairs in the hallway, knocking on Jim Baloney’s door. There must have been no answer because she quietly walked back to her room. After a while she tried again and Jim Baloney let her into his room. From then on while the captain was away, Mrs. Olsen routinely visited Jim Baloney. And I’m pretty sure they were dancing because we could all hear mazurka music and hard footsteps on the floor.

One afternoon Mrs. Olsen called down and asked for me to run to the corner deli for some bread and cold cuts. My mother said it was okay so I took off for the store. When I returned and went upstairs, I knocked but no answer. She had the radio on real loud. I knocked again a little harder. I then pushed the door open and called out “Mrs. Olsen?” No answer. I stepped into the room and saw her lying on the bed naked wearing only a see-through nightgown. Jim Baloney was playing mazurka music in the room next door. I stared hard for at least a long minute and then dropped the bread and cold cuts on the floor and quickly ran down the stairs. I never told my mother what I saw but I also never forgot it. I secretly hoped that I would be asked to go to the store again, but she never did ask.

Summer was almost over and I was back at school, this time in the seventh grade. I was pretty much gone during the day because of school so I wasn’t sure what was happening with the renters. I noticed, however, that Grandpa was becoming more and more irritable.

Curiously, the day the captain came back was also the day Jim Baloney disappeared. He was missing and none of the renters knew where he had gone. Also, he had left owing almost a week’s rent and Grandpa wasn’t too happy. He left behind his treasured record player and all those mazurka records. Grandpa figured he’d keep them until he got his rent money.

One afternoon coming home from school, I noticed two cop’s cars from the 78th precinct parked in front of our brownstone. A small crowd was also hanging out near the airyway, talking loudly and using their hands. A cop stopped me from going into the house. I was worried because I thought maybe my grandmother had had another heart attack. Finally my grandfather came out and scooted me into the dining room and told me to stay put. I could hear my mother who was upstairs crying. I overheard that she was the one who had found Mr. Tedesco on the floor in his room in a pool of blood. Mr. Tedesco had shot himself in his right temple with an old rusty 22 pistol, probably because of his blind eye and because he was alone and had nothing to live for. My mother was very upset and cried for days.

That was it for Grandpa! First the place starts smelling like a bar room, then it’s being turned into a dance hall and a bordello, and now a renter goes and blows his brains out. It was too much, what Grandpa called schifiu. Two days after the suicide Grandpa kicked the Jamesons out and then gave notice to the captain and his wife. Very soon the place was empty and back to where it had been in the spring. In a way I was sorry to see them all go, even poor Mr. Tedesco.

So Grandpa gave my sister and I the record player and all the mazurka records but told me never to play them in his presence. Also, I was told specifically never to put my ear next to the radio’s speaker otherwise I would go deaf. My sister wasn’t interested in mazurka music so she gave me her share of the records. From then on when Grandpa wasn’t home I listened to mazurka music and thought of mild-mannered Jim Baloney. And, of course, the naked Mrs. Olsen.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


Once a year we went out to get lumber and cardboard boxes so we could build a large makeshift structure in the living room to be later covered with pastel-colored crepe paper and white linens. When it was finished we further decorated it with cut flowers that completely filled the room with a garden-like fragrance. We now had our altar and our front room had been transformed into a church-like sanctuary. Above the highest point of the altar hung an ornate framed picture of the bearded St. Joseph. He is holding the Baby Jesus and a single lily. According to those who believe, he’s not only the patron saint of home and family but also of the unfortunate ones in our society: the orphans and the homeless, unwed mothers and cuckolded husbands, the elderly, the needy and the poor.

In those days I knew little about the traditions of the feast day, but I knew that it fell regularly on March 19th, in the middle of Lent, and that he was the patron saint of Sicily and southern Italy. I knew that every year we celebrated on this day because of a vow my grandmother and grandfather had made to the saint. This was their way of thanking him for helping them in their particular time of need. For years we observed this ritual at our home in South Brooklyn: role-playing a religious tableau of the Holy Family, preparing and serving certain traditional foods, and by inviting relatives, friends and neighbors to partake in the festa and to come and go all day long until night-time.

Traditionally on March 19, in honor of St. Joseph, for years the well-to-do families in Sicily prepared an immense buffet in the public square and invited the poor and the needy to feast and celebrate. Southern Italian immigrants brought this tradition with them when they settled in America. They called it La Tavola di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph’s Table).

At our house, preparations for the feast began at least a week before; the altar was usually built and decorated by then; the foods were daily being prepared and stored. Some of the foods I still remember were the perciatelli con la mollica (pasta with bread crumbs instead of cheese because cheese is never eaten on St. Joseph’s Day), many different kinds of frittate (omelets), such as eggs and asparagus, eggs and onions, and eggs and just about any kind of vegetable. I also remember stuffed calamari, sardines, pine nuts and fennel. The most memorable of course, were the pastries, especially the zeppole or sfinge di San Giuseppe (cream puffs filled with a ricotta crema and topped with cherries or candied fruit and dusted with powdered sugar.

By the 18th of March, the day before the feast, all the decorative breads had been baked and placed on the altar. These were huge pane grosso, large wreathes of braided bread and other large breads shaped to symbolize St. Joseph’s beard and his staff (bastone), A variety of fruit and a mixture of nuts were also placed on the altar with the different breads.

A small boy and a young girl dressed in biblical attire, and an adult male were selected to represent the Holy Family - Jesus, the young Mary and the elderly St. Joseph. The old-timers called the small children “virgineddi” (the little virgins). After the priest blessed the altar with holy water the “Family” toured the house, knocking on doors, pretending to be looking for shelter. Three times they are refused until finally they are welcomed into the room with the altar. A table has already been set for them and now they sit and sample each of the delicacies. If there are other children present they join the Holy Family at the table; they are then served by the adults. After they have eaten the children go off to play and now the adults are ready to eat and celebrate. Immediately, shouts of “Viva San Giuseppe” fill the crowded rooms and platters of food and jugs of red wine are brought out. “Viva San Giuseppe,” the adults shout from time to time.

At the end of the evening after all have been fed and the guests prepare to leave, according to tradition, they take with them small sacks of food from the St. Joseph’s Table. Soon the planning starts for next year.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008


When I look back I distinctly remember two very different experiences having to do with New Year’s Eve. One of those memorable times was when I had almost reached drinking age and on the brink of manhood. My Brooklyn friends and I had decided to spend New Year’s Eve in Times Square. For us it was a natural rite of passage. That night we joined the multitudes that annually crowd each other for a glimpse of the future from midtown Manhattan, what we then thought was the center of the universe. We were engaged, we thought, in the ultimate New York Experience.

It was hard to believe how many had gathered in that one spot that night. Literally, we were squished body to body, up close and tight. On that cold evening the temperature hovered around freezing, and conscious of the current fashion, we wore earmuffs without hats. From about eleven, we waited on the square, hopping on one foot and then the next as we blew into our hands to stay warm. We were thankful when the clock finally struck midnight. Pandemoniam set in! And it was Happy New Year for everybody. The crowd went wild and the noise level was out of sight. The year would bring, among other things, the opening of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. North Koreans invading South Korea. A minimum wage of 75 cents. And the Yankees sweeping the Phillies in the Series in four straight games. Out with the old and in with the new; it was now 1950, the middle of the century. And although standing in Times Square that night in the freezing cold was exciting and memorable I also remember another very different New Year’s Eve.

This other took place in South Brooklyn, the one where my sister and I were allowed to stay up and wait until midnight for the first time ever. That night we had all congregated in the kitchen, the adults and us kids. We didn’t know what to expect while the adults played a game similar to bingo called tombola. Finally, the time came to go outside the house and wait. There we were: my sister and I, my mother, grandmother, and grandfather, all of us with our coats on, in front of the house, standing in the airyway, waiting. Just waiting. Whatever it was, it was coming soon. And Grandpa, hammer in hand, was ready for it. We stood in the cold not saying a word; every now and then my sister and I would giggle in the silence. Grandpa would take out his watch from his shirt pocket and check the time. Finally, without a word, he opened the gate and quietly, walked slowly, step by step, from our house to the corner. I watched him standing there, almost at attention, directly in front of the metal pole on the corner of Union Street and Sixth Avenue. There he would do his waiting, I thought. Soon, I heard some noises, at first a few firecrackers and then a loud BOOM. Grandpa looked down and checked his pocket watch. It was exactly twelve midnight! Deliberately, he began banging the metal pole with his hammer. Methodically, like a clock. BONG, BONG, BONG! Twelve times. Meanwhile, the noises grew louder as the firecrackers, cherry bombs and roman candles exploded. Above us, the sky was a picture of shooting stars and our entire neighborhood was alive and on fire.

Grandpa quietly and slowly walked back from the corner and immediately all of us entered the house. Once inside, as if we were partaking of high tea, Grandma elegantly poured anisette into the tiniest glasses, and all of us, my sister and I included, sipped the sweet elixir. I remember that it tasted like licorice.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


On summer evenings the old men in their undershirts would gather on the sidewalk on dining room chairs and talk about whatever came into their heads. They would light up their Italian stogies and chat away in their dialect, using their hands and eyes for emphasis. If it started to drizzle, they’d cover their heads with pages of the Daily News and continue talking until the rain stopped. Sometimes they argued and the discussions were loud. Sometimes they just sat there not making a sound. When the light faded they came in.

LaGuardia was the mayor back then, a short feisty guy who wore a white ten gallon hat too big for his body. We called him the Little Flower because his name was actually Fiorello. On Sunday mornings he read us the comics in his funny voice over the radio. We were sometimes embarrassed by him but we were glad he was one of us. At that time, DiMaggio was playing for the Yankees, and Dolph Camilli was at Ebbets Field for the Dodgers. They too were paisans. On Saturdays we imitated them while playing stickball on Union Street. During the week though we played handball against the brothers at the St. Francis school yard. They were mostly Irish.

Back then men and women wore hats – the men donned fedoras, and on the job they wore caps with visors. Women covered their heads with hats that sometimes involved feathers and veils. The hat I wore was a brown leather cap with long ears on the sides. I pretended to be an airline pilot like Lucky Lindy. Back then a “lady” didn’t wear pants, and young boys, including me, frequently wore knickers. For those who don’t know,
knickers were pants that ended just over the knees and barely covered knee-high stockings. I hated them because my stockings would sag and I’d always be pulling them up. I got to wear long pants only after leaving
elementary school.

In those days, in the late thirties and forties, commerce and industry came knocking at our doors. Bottles of milk and cream were delivered to our house early in the morning by a noisy milkman. Butter and eggs too if you liked. Every few days, a Dugan’s man, dressed in a white uniform brought crumb cakes and jelly doughnuts. Even bottles of seltzer water were delivered to our door.

There were no super markets back then, except for maybe a small A&P or a Bohack’s. Also, there were no mega-stores, no WalMarts and certainly no Costcos. Instead there were small mom & pop stores throughout the borough. In our neighborhood there was a tailor shop, a German delicatessen, a drug store, and of course, a candy store. Up the block there was a fancy ice cream parlor and an undertaker.

Back then almost everyone had a radio, a small table model or a floor
console if one could afford it. As kids, we listened to Uncle Don, the Lone Ranger and the Tom Mix Ralston Straightshooters. I saved the Ralston
cereal boxtops and sent away for the Tom Mix ring and the compass in case I’d ever get lost in Prospect Park. We also listened to Gangbusters and Mr. District Attorney. The adults listened to the LuxRadio Theater, “Lux Presents Hollywood”, Bob Hope’s Pepsodent Show, the Jack Benny Show, (“Oh, Dennis”), Allen’s Alley and Fibber McGee and Molly. There were others like The Great Gildersleeve, the Inner Sanctum, “with Raymond, your host”, the Whistler and Suspense. On the lighter side, we listened to the Amos and Andy show, never realizing it was really two white guys in blackface. The radio also gave us our music. Songs that played on the Hit Parade stayed with us for quite a while.

The radio was also popular with the older Italians in the neighborhood. My grandparents listened to an Italian comedy program called the Pasquale C.O.D. show, probably on station WOV. I sometimes listened and because I understood a little Italian I laughed along with them. Grandma also
listened intently to the sad Italian soap operas that came on during the week. I remember the announcer doing the macaroni commercials, telling his listeners to save the valuable LaRosa macaroni coupons.

On Saturdays we went to “the show”, the movies, which at that time were all in black and white. My favorite movie house was the Carlton on
Flatbush Avenue near Seventh. We also went to the Plaza across the street
where we tried sneaking in but the usher usually caught us every time. The Plaza was kind of a seedy place. Whenever the projectionist had a problem, which was often, and the screen went blank, we yelled and clapped in unison until the movie came back on. The usher would run down the aisles shining his flashlight to see where the noise was coming from. He never once caught us.

At the Plaza, we would watch a double feature, cartoons, newsreels, a
weekly chapter and maybe a short subject, all for about a quarter for kids
and thirty-five for adults. Sometimes we looked up at the screen for four solid hours and walked out after a familiar scene came on and one of us said, “this is where we came in”. Sometimes you’d go in on a bright sunny morning and come back out on a gray rainy afternoon. One time I went to a morning show and hours later I walked along Seventh avenue in snow that was knee deep. The blizzard of ‘47 had begun while I had my eyes glued to the screen.

The Plaza showed a lot of westerns starring Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Red Ryder and Roy Rogers. There were comedies with the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello but our favorites were the monster movies. Three of the best were Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman. We always felt sorry for Frankenstein and the Wolfman but we hated and always booed Count Dracula.

At the Carlton the big stars at that time were Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy, Alice Faye and Judy Garland. We watched Betty Grable, Don Ameche and Edward Everett Horton go down to Argentina to watch Carmen Miranda balance all that fruit on her head. Also, Sonja Henie danced on ice while John Payne chased after her. Errol Flynn along with Randolph Scott and John Wayne fought the Indians. Tough Guys like Cagney, Bogart and Edward G. were there too but my favorite down-and-outer was John Garfield. Somehow he was always doomed from the start. There he was, he and Lana Turner, kissing on the sly at the Carlton Theater on Flatbush Avenue. Back then the war was on and we learned about sacrifice from Bogie. We watched as the engines fired up and we all said goodbye to Ilsa as she boarded that plane to Lisbon with that other guy. I remember the lump in my throat. We were thrilled when Bogie finally shot the arrogant German.

In those days, there were trolley cars, old red ones that clanged up and down Union Street, and ran on tracks over cobble stones. On Seventh
Avenue there were newer green and silver cars that went all the way along
Flatbush Avenue to the Manhattan Bridge and back.

In our neighborhood, there were also horse and wagons, especially on Saturday mornings when they came delivering fruits and vegetables. The vendors were always friendly and loved chanting their wares for the housewives to hear. Usually the horses left a few of their calling cards on the street.

Saturday, December 1, 2007


There was a time when pasta was called macaroni and spaghetti sauce was made from scratch and was called gravy. When ricotta came in a tin and was cut with a string, and fresh mozzarella balls swam in water. Cassata was sold in Italian pastry shops, and cannoli filled with sweet ricotta were big and fat. Coils of fenneled sausages hung on hooks in pork stores with sawdust floors, and live noisy chickens were sold from wooden cages. Strange goat heads stared blankly out at the street from store windows, and salami and cheeses were almost always tasted before they were bought. “Here, signora, try a slice - mangia.” Ah, the wonderful smells of an Italian grocery store.

Food was everywhere and was eaten just about anywhere. In those days, men and women with shopping bags leisurely walked the streets looking for bargains while they casually ate street food: a frankfurter covered with mustard and sauerkraut, a large soft pretzel, or maybe a hot knish wrapped in paper. They munched on warm peanuts sold from pushcarts in the summer and roasted chestnuts in the winter. At the pizzeria on the avenue, slices of pizza covered with stringy cheese just hot out of the oven were offered over the counter. Scrumptious hero sandwiches, made with crusty Italian bread were filled with mountains of cold cuts, provolone and roasted red peppers dripping with good green olive oil. Sometimes the sandwiches were stuffed with veal and peppers, potatoes and eggs, or maybe Sunday’s leftover meatballs. A sangweecha, my grandfather used to say. Che bellezza!

In the mornings for breakfast, we kids hungered for “Yankee Doodles”, chocolate cupcakes three to a pack and stuffed with a cream filling. Sometimes we had jelly doughnuts along with our coffee with lots of milk and sugar. For lunch on Saturdays we usually had pasta brodo, with pastina, a minstra or macaroni with beans, what we called pasta fazool. Good, hearty Italian soul food! And because we were also good little Americans, we sometimes ran to the corner deli and asked for ten cents worth of baloney and fifteen cents worth of potato salad, food we never had at home. Later if we behaved, maybe Mama would buy us a mello-roll, a charlotte russe or a dixie cup with a wooden spoon. In hot weather we usually cooled down with small paper cups of thirst-quenching lemon ice we bought for only pennies.

Thursday nights was always spaghetti night. And we’d have spaghetti, linguini or maybe angel hair pasta, sometimes with garlic and oil or maybe a plain marinara sauce. We were saving ourselves for the big Sunday dinner. On Friday nights, of course, we always ate some kind of fish. And on Sundays, without fail, we all sat down for the big family dinner. It usually started about two and lasted until around five. The food was always something special, maybe sausages or braciole, some baked ziti or maybe a big lasagna. On special occasions, there would be platters of ravioli or manicotti.

In those days, food was a constant and was always with us. After riding the BMT to Coney Island, we walked among the crowds enjoying mouth-watering franks from Nathan’s. There would also be hot yellow corn right out of the pot and, of course, we always had French fries. Later we topped it all off with soft ice cream which we called frozen custard. If we overate we had seltzer water at the candy store or if we suffered from a serious belly ache, a tall glass of Brioschi in a blue bottle was waiting for us at home.

It was great to be alive. The war had ended and the adults got together and organized huge block parties in the neighborhoods. Again, the occasion revolved around food. On outdoor grills there would be hot sausages, sliced onions and green peppers - the original Italian barbecue, long before the rest of the country had thought about backyard barbecues. We strolled around and sucked on hard ceci beans. The streets were filled with the wonderful aroma of hot cooked foods. The girls were pretty and tempting. The music was good and loud. And the food... ah, the food...

Thursday, November 29, 2007


Most people prefer spring and almost everybody enjoys summer - but ever since I was a kid, my favorite season has been fall.

There are times in late summer when I’ll look up at the sky, take a deep breath and realize that, oh yeah; I can almost smell it, a slight something, a little bit of fall is in the air. Soon enough, autumn arrives quietly and there is now a clean, crisp quality to the outside air we breathe. From then on, the mornings and evenings are cooler and I guess you can say it’s officially autumn.

When this happens I always think of my grandfather arranging with the coalman to come and park his truck in front of our brownstone. Grandpa would always make sure there was an empty parking space in front of the house by standing out there, waving the cars off. I watched while the coalman who was also our ice man in the summer, rigged up a metal chute in our airyway that led down into our cellar. From the truck he would load a metal barrel with black coal and wheel it over to the chute to dump. I remember the loud noise as the coal bounced and banged heavily against the metal as it rushed down the chute. In the basement, my grandfather and I would quickly shovel the black nuggets into the empty bin as fast as we could. Later we would feed some of this coal to our mammoth furnace in the middle of the basement. The shovel was heavy even without the coal. The ancient monster of a furnace was huge with heavy arms that reached upstairs into the main part of the house. Throughout the winter my grandfather and I fed the hungry monster daily, he in the morning and I after school. Actually I loved doing it; maybe I was too young to realize it was hard work. Many times I kept track of the shovelfuls of coal I tossed into the firebox.

There were times when Grandpa would surprise us with a special dinner treat. With a hand-held wire grill he would cook his Sicilian sausages over the hot coals of the furnace. I remember the taste of fennel, red crushed pepper and coal dust on my tongue.

In those days fall was also wine-making time, and Grandpa and I would again be working together in the basement. We would toss clumps of purple grapes into the V-shaped chopper with our purple-stained hands, and then he would crank the handle. Hardly saying a word, we would work for hours. After the chopping we transferred the crushed grapes to the wine press and then we turned the wheel and squeezed the shiny purple liquid into gallon jugs. Sometimes we would stop and Grandpa would toss me a small bunch of grapes. He would lift his head and softly whisper in Sicilian, “Vitu, mangia ca ti fa forte”. Eat. that you’ll be strong. We needed the strength I guess, to lug those heavy jugs upstairs toward the front of the house where we would fill the oak barrels. We kept the barrels under the stoop which sometimes made for a curious odor upon entering the house.

In late fall we started thinking seriously about Grandpa’s two fig trees in the back yard. To protect them from the oncoming winter winds they had to be covered so we carefully wrapped them with oilcloth. We did this every fall time without fail. In the bleak Brooklyn winters they sometimes looked like gray ghosts that were guarding the yard.

There’s no furnace to feed anymore and I don’t have a basement with coal bins or any coal for that matter. I have a gas furnace and all I have to do is pay the bill at the end of the month. It’s easy, really, like Grandpa would say, it just takes money. I also buy my wine at the local grocery store or if we’re having company at a good wine shop. It costs a few dollars but then there’s no mess, no purple-stained hands or any hard work. The local supermarket almost never has figs and the checker doesn’t even know what they are anyway. Still when fall rolls around and the air becomes clean and crisp and the mornings and evenings are cooler, I remember black coal, purple grapes, brown figs and my grandfather.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Sometimes on summer mornings my teen-age friends and I would put our nickels into the turnstile and board the Culver local from the station at Union Street and Fourth Avenue. At 36th Street we’d transfer to the Sea Beach Express and ride all the way to the end of the line. We were excited and had smiles on our faces. As the trip progressed we were gradually joined by others, kids and adults, some carrying brown bags stuffed with food, others holding blankets and maybe a pillow. The smaller kids usually had pails and tiny shovels. Soon, the car was filled and we became a huge crowd with a single purpose and one destination in mind - Coney Island. Finally, when the train screeched to a stop at the end of the line, we all burst from the terminal and stepped out onto the street like ants hurrying to a picnic.

Immediately we sensed the salty air and the mixed odor of bodies and wet sand from those returning from the water. We inhaled aromas of garlicky hot dogs, hot corn on the cob, and sugary sweet cotton candy. Our ears were bombarded with the shouts of the sideshow barkers, the organ music of the carousel and the cacophony of words and laughter of probably a million people in search of relief from the heat.

That was Coney Island in the Forties. And we were glad to be walking the streets of Stillwell and Surf Avenues, away from the hot streets of the neighborhood.

As we hurried along with the crowd we saw again that familiar structure, the one we would climb and conquer one more time, the mighty Cyclone. There it was, its wooden frame and its treacherous first hill reaching into the sky. Even from a distance we could hear the yells and screams of the riders as it slowly climbed up the tall hill – click clack click clack, and then raced down, rocking its passengers from side to side. There were other roller coasters, the Thunderbolt and the Tornado but our favorite was the Cyclone. Further down was the giant 150-foot Wonder Wheel, slowly moving round and round, the cars swaying back and forth high above Coney Island. Toward the water looming above was the magnificent Parachute Jump that had been built for the 1939 World’s Fair and now resided in Coney Island. I remember being strapped in and taken aloft while those down below would be waving and calling out names. “Hey, Carmine, Vic, don’t fall out!” Then, finally, when we reached the top we saw a beautiful view of the city and then, without warning, like World War II fighter pilots jumping from their planes, the chute opened quickly and we plunged to the ground. The Whip was another ride we liked a lot. It was the one where we sat in a car while being swung around until it felt as if our necks would snap. If we were with the girls from the neighborhood we’d take them to Steeplechase Park and ride the horses so we could sit behind them, get close up and hold them around the waist. We also secretly watched as they unknowingly walked over the blast of air that shot up their dresses as we exited the Park.

After a while, we’d rush to the beach and stake out a spot on the sand near the water. We’d quickly throw down our blanket and towels, strip down to our bathing suits and run for the ocean. It always icey cold but we’d jump in head first anyway. We’d stay in the water for hours. In those days, there was always a polio scare but we never really worried about it until after we got home. People said you could get it from others, wherever crowds gathered, especially in the water at Coney Island. I remember seeing the leg braces kids had to wear.

Back then the older people went swimming too but they called it “bathing”. So you would sometimes see old ladies with soap in their hands, walking up to their knees in the surf and scrubbing themselves as if they were back home in their bathtub.

If any of us had extra change we’d go to a shooting gallery or a penny arcade. We once paid good money to see “Tirza in her wine bath”. Instead of seeing a naked lady we watched someone in a skin-colored body-suit splash herself with purple water.

Before leaving for home we’d always stop at Nathan’s for a hot dog and maybe some fries and a root beer. I remember the sign: “Follow the Crowd - Original Nathan’s Famous”. The long counter always seemed crowded and the countermen were fast and sometimes gruff with us. “Come on, kid, how many, how many, how many?” If we had enough money we’d end the day with a frozen custard which I loved. On the train going home,
sunburned and tired, we’d sit with our feet up on the wicker seats.
I visited the place again in the winter of ’56. After having been away from Brooklyn for a number of years, I wanted to show my new wife what Coney Island was like. We sat on a bench on the boardwalk looking out at the ocean and because it was cold we huddled closely and listened to the seagulls. As we sat, not speaking, sharing a chocolate bar and looking out at the waves, Up and down the boardwalk was deserted. I glanced behind us and noticed that the food concessions were boarded up and that the rides were also closed. The place looked dirty, and part of a crumpled up newspaper was skipping along the ground like tumbleweed. We watched the waves breaking on the shore and I knew then that Coney Island would never be the same and that I could never go back to that earlier time.

Monday, November 12, 2007


In those days I thought every barber was Italian. And because our barber was a part-time musician I thought for sure all barbers played an instrument in the back of their shops. At that time we lived on Carroll Street, deep in the bosom of the Italian neighborhood we called South Brooklyn.
Originally, most of the Italians who came to Brooklyn usually came from Manhattan’s overcrowded Little Italy, the area around Mulberry Street. Many of them settled on Union, President, Carroll and the surrounding streets of South Brooklyn. And although these street names are non-Italian, they invariably conjure up a neighborhood filled with Italian sounds, smells and sights.

When I close my eyes I see old ladies dressed in black, with their hair in a bun in the back of their heads, walking those Italian streets, their shopping bags almost scraping the pavement. When the weather turns steamy and hot I imagine rowdy kids, with names like Angelo or Carmine, playing stickball or maybe they’re opening up a Johnny pump and flooding the streets. Those were our glorious Bernini fountains, one in every neighborhood.
I almost see visions of wrinkled old men piercing the air with their canes while carefully stepping along the sidewalk. The stores then were small mom and pop shops bunched together, creating for each neighborhood a small village. If I try hard enough I can almost smell the bread at Guarino’s Bakery. Down the block I see yards of sausage hanging like rope at the butcher’s on Fifth Avenue, where also goatheads dangle from meathooks and eerily stare out at the neighborhood.
At the Latticini Freschi there are large trays of white mozzarell’ bathing in water, and dozens of large yellow balls of provolone and caciocavallo hanging like small planets from the ceiling.
Along the avenue there are pushcarts lining the street and at least one of them sells franks smothered with mustard and sauerkraut. There’s a far lady at the ice cream fountain in the candy store, licking her fingers while at the end of the fountain there are teenagers swigging down egg creams.
In that old neighborhood I hear melodic Italian sounds, dialects casually spoken as if we were all still back in those ancient villages. In the summer if I concentrate I can almost hear Red Barber’s soft Southern drawl announcing a Dodger game from Ebbets Field. Because there was no television, imagination was used to create what visuals were needed. And we did that on that special summer night when the entire neighborhood sat on those hard brownstone steps, listening to a raspy voice broadcast every punch and jab of the Tony Zale – Rocky Graziano fight.
We also got our news from the local newspapers. An activity we frequently took part in was waiting at the candy store for the bundles of papers, the Daily News and the Mirror. The bundles were tossed from a news truck around nine pm and we raced to get the first paper and turn to the back pages for the sports section. In those days we could easily recite the batting averages and home run records of our favorite players.
On Sunday mornings we watched the girls in their pretty pink dresses covered up to their necks, walk daintly to church, not even a hello from them. Yet the night before, these same bobbysoxers, their skirts hiked above their knees, danced wildly in front of the candy store to the music of Benny Goodmen. I’ll remember always elderly Italian gentlemen, unashamed in their undershirts, hunched over and sitting on dining room chairs out on the sidewalk, talking with their fingers and their eyes, while in the background, Carlo Buti sang Non to Scordar di Me.
This was the old neighborhood in its heyday – now gone – on Carroll Street, in the ancient village of South Brooklyn.
Nowadays, the area is called Carroll Gardens and many of the Italians have moved away. The Dodgers left Brooklyn in ’57 and finally, Ebbets Field was demolished in 1960.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007


When I was eleven years old I was introduced to the world of work at DeRosa’s fruit store on Fifth Avenue and Degraw Street in Brooklyn. Through the intervention of my persuasive grandfather who was always looking out for my leisurely interests, I was hired by Gaetano DeRosa at $4.00 a week to polish apples and stack fruit. “Stacker” was my official title but I was also a “go-fer” who in his spare time swept floors when needed, especially when Mr. DeRosa looked my way. For the most part the job was uneventful unless a few apples or oranges hit the floor and Mr. DeRosa hit the ceiling. With my first salary of four one-dollar bills I impulsively stopped at a sporting goods store on my way home and used all of my hard earned money to purchase an extraordinary hunting knife in a cowhide sheath. It was a wonderful idea, I thought, until I brought it home and Grandma looked at me as if I were un babbu stuppidu. I was told it was not only sinful but a horrible mistake not worthy of a member of our family. From then on I dutifully brought my earnings personally to Grandma from which she doled out all of a quarter for me to lavishly spend on anything I so desired. Summer ended and so did my first job as a “stacker” in our free enterprise system.

Not too long after, I was recruited again by my grandfather to join the staff at Giuliano’s’s drug store on Fifth Ave. & President St. Although I was not pleased with the idea, I was somehow impressed because of the gray jacket I was to wear so I would look like a young pharmacist. Feeling sorry for myself because of the loss of free time after school, I would eat an entire fresh mozzarella on my way to work while noticing that my friends were enjoying themselves playing stickball on Union Street. My favorite part of the drug store job was the nightly ritual of serving myself a double cone of free ice cream before heading home at the end of the day. This new job in training under the tutelage of a boy two years older than me was to eventually become a full-fledged soda jerk. However, in the meantime I was to empty the coal furnace of its ashes as often as once a week and wash all the dirty glasses behind the soda fountain. Bronzino, the young pharmacist who worked for the Giulianos, had a difficult time adjusting to my devil-may-care attitude and was sticking it to me whenever he felt like it.

“This, young man, is what a clean glass is supposed to look like”, the know-it-all would raise his voice to me, pushing the glass within an inch of my forehead.

After the third time, it was all I could bear so I told him to shove his glasses behind him somewhere south of his belt. Of course he immediately fired me for that but I felt somewhat vindicated and proud of myself. Until, of course, I saw the whites of Grandpa’s eyes. Without even hearing my excellent defense or any of my impassioned pleas, my grandfather immediately took me by the arm and the ear and marched me back to the drug store. There, in front of customers and the world, I was made to apologize to the arrogant Bronzino. Against his better judgment, he reluctantly accepted and I swallowed my pride and my ice cream on the way home that night.

During the pre-Christmas holidays my mother worked part time as a sales clerk for Rose and Ellie’s variety store on Fifth Avenue, across the street from the drug store of all places. You guessed it. She got me the job of working there after school and on Saturdays. Rose and Ellie were a Jewish couple selling their wares in an Italian neighborhood. They had hired me not only because of my mother but for the reason that I knew a few words of Sicilian and they needed an interpreter for the old Italian ladies who shopped on the avenue. For those of you who don’t know, a variety store sells knick knacks and everything in between. And a helluva lot of plates, cups and saucers which had to be carried up from the basement. Now in this basement lived a very large undomesticated cat who apparently did not like fourteen year-old Sicilian boys. That cat was a demon, and more than once I dreaded going down into that dungeon. On one memorable afternoon, I had to retrieve some cups from the basement. When I was squeezing myself between the stacks of boxes I saw that monster cat above me on top of a shelf. I was apparently blocking its path so it raised its back, hissed and leaped through the air toward me while I leaned back to get out of its way. It was too late and the cat grabbed on to my left leg with its sharp claws until it drew blood through my corduroys. While yelling for Rose or Ellie to quickly come and save me I violently shook the cat off my leg and ran to the stairs. It was a narrow escape and I have never forgiven that damn cat. Of course, I stayed away from the basement until I brought a decent baseball bat from home. Then it would squint its eyes at me and hiss while I cursed it and waved the bat in its direction. I soon quit Rose and Ellie’s to play stickball on Union Street.

My next and last job before graduation from high school was at the corner candy store for Sal and Rosalie. I was still working my way up but now I was an experienced soda jerk, and also experienced in the ways of “stacking’, emptying coal furnaces and washing glasses for irritable young pharmacists. I was also good at fighting monster cats but I dreaded going down into dark basements. I worked at the candy store for about a year and my young apprenticeship was soon complete. At that time I thought the hard part was over with and that from now on it would be clear sailing. But when I graduated from high school and crossed the river to Manhattan (which we called New York back then) that’s when the real work began.