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.

1 comment:

Bob Rini said...

Lookin' good! I'd like a glass of that homemade wine right now!