new york fragments
1. Long Island: The Monopoly Board Years
The Long Island of my 1950s and 60s childhood years spreads out like a vast Monopoly board in my mind: the streets lined up in perfect grids leading to the edges of the Atlantic Ocean, the squat square houses laid out on green fenceless networks of lawn. Pink plastic flamingos sheltered under the pink powder-puff flowers of American mimosa trees.
We lived on McKinley Street, somewhere near the middle of a network grid of roads named chronologically after American Presidents. Down one end, across a busy road, was a harbour inlet fed by the Atlantic Ocean. During the hurricane season, the harbour would swell and run down our street. One year I watched in open-mouthed wonder as a motor boat came gliding past our door.
Down the other end of the street, across another busy road, was the aptly named Harbor School. The American flag dominates my memory of that school from the way it towered over the low brick school building, to daily rituals of pledging allegiance to the flag with hands held over hearts, to the lessons of how to fold the flag into a neat triangle, to the weekly elections of the student most worthy of carrying it home overnight.
It seemed the sun shone all day and all night when I was five. And it was always summer. The lawns and yards were crammed with playing children, all of us tumbling in and out of each other's open-doored houses. The names of my playmates echo through my mind like a distant mantra: Joey DiNapoli, Loretta Porter, Cheryl Nelson, Diana Curatola and Missy Howell. Joey, Loretta and Cheryl all lived across the street, Diana next door and Missy behind, over a low wooden fence. Joey and I were married for a while. I remember loyally and bravely seeing him off on space exploration missions launched from a side alley that sometimes was full of poison ivy.
Loretta was the envy of us all - her mother allowed her to eat ‘Wonderbread’, a soppy white ‘loaf wrapped up in coloured balloon plastic that could easily be rolled into moist projectiles - a true wonder.
Cheryl was big, blonde and mean. She was a year older than me and I adored her. Her bedroom window faced an abandoned ‘haunted’ house. We delighted in scaring each other with red crayon messages from the resident witch, accentuated with real pinpricks of blood. Cheryl once warned me not to go home when she didn't want me to. She threatened that the witch would make my trousers fall down if I did. I ran home crying, holding my trousers up all the way.
I took great pleasure in telling my mother that Missy Howell had the 'loveliest mother in the world'. She always wore shirt waist dresses just like the mother on The Donna Reed Show, and never raised her voice (unlike some mothers I knew).
Being the eldest of four siblings in six years, I could feel a bit overlooked. I asserted my individuality by periodically packing my doll suitcase, solemnly announcing I was running away to North Carolina (the place of my birth) and walking away down the street towards the harbour. However, I was trained not to cross busy roads by myself. I therefore had no choice but to round two corners and head down Missy Howell's street. My mother, tied down with two children in diapers, would let me go, wait awhile and then nonchalantly call over the fence to Missy's mother, asking her to look for me coming down the road. In my mind I was going to North Carolina. My whole being said 'North Carolina or bust', but somehow I'd always end up in Missy's front yard being kindly but firmly ushered over the fence.
My confidence in those days knew no limits. Anything was possible, anything. I was nearly convinced I could fly and many times woke with the feeling that I had flown the day before. It felt more real than a dream, almost like seeing something out of the corner of my eye.
Then there were grand schemes and visions. I had a dream of creating a swimming pool. It occurred to me somehow that Missy's bedroom would be a good place to start. I managed to convince a few play mates that this was a good idea and supervised patiently as they relayed back and forth from the bathroom to bedroom for hours with cups and buckets of water. I watched and waited for the water level to rise and was beginning to picture a diving board suspended off Missy's bed when flooding onto adult heads below put an end to this visionary project.
But my fondest, fondest dream was that one day all the people in the neighbourhood would communicate in song and dance just like in the great American musicals. I would imagine choruses of neighbours singing in answer to my mother's solo, awaiting my tap dance debut from between the sheets hanging on the clothesline. On the headiest, sweetest days of summer I could feel it almost, almost begin to happen.
2. Italy in the Bronx
Every Sunday, as far back as I can remember, I was immersed in a very different world to the Long Island suburbs. On those days we would pile into the Chevrolet station wagon, drive over the soaring Whitestone Bridge that spanned the water separating Long Island from the mainland, and descend into the Bronx neighbourhood of my Italian grandparents.
Here on Mace Avenue, which bordered the vast Boston Post Road, smaller houses were dominated by towering apartment buildings more ornate and elaborate than anything I had ever seen. The neighbourhood was intersected by an elevated subway line that curved into the station at Pelham Parkway. The sound of that curve, the clacking, screeching noise of the subway cars as they rattled through the buildings thrilled us children, as did driving under the latticework of tracks when a train was rolling overhead.
In warmer weather, the sidewalk in front of the building on Mace street would be presided over by old Jewish ladies who sunned themselves on plastic strip folding chairs. They were the building's 'yentas' (Yiddish for 'busybody'). They clocked everyone coming in and out. They tended to winter in Florida. I have vivid memories of dangling gold jewellery against leathery brown skin.
Washing lines criss-crossed the once-grand, u-shaped entryway and my grandmother could sometimes be seen leaning out of her kitchen window pulling on the line.
Upon crossing into the black and white tiled lobby, smells completely foreign to the suburbs emanated from every direction. They were pungent but not unpleasant, a buildup of the aromas of years of cooking that had seeped out of individual apartments, mingled in the communal hallways and now lived on, ghostlike, in the walls. These would always be overlaid by the seductive fragrance of my grandmother's freshly made tomato sauce that came wafting down the stairwell from her second floor apartment.
My mother’s parents, Concettina and Nicola, had immigrated from Southern Italy in the 1920s. They moved to the one-bedroom Bronx apartment we visited every Sunday shortly after my mother, their first child, was born. Concettina never overcame her homesickness for Italy, and family left behind. Although highly educated, she never learned to speak English well. Nicola, on the other hand, loved New York City and embraced speaking English, albeit with many Neapolitan dialect eccentricities.
My grandparents’ building boasted the first elevator I had ever seen. One of its marvels was a brass plated control panel with protruding chocolate black buttons that were just out of reach. If we were lucky, an adult would lift us to press the button for the second floor. Once there, we raced to my grandparents' door where we would be lifted to its brass peephole showing wonderfully distorted images of the house beyond as the doorbell rang.
When the door opened, we entered a world more exotic still. Swept into the ample bosom of my ‘Nonna’, from American ‘kids’ we became ‘bambini’. My mother transformed from the very American ‘Lee Clark’ to ‘Angelina’, sometimes shortened to ‘Lina’.
My grandfather, having adapted readily to the USA, was always known as Grandpa. He fasted before the Sunday meal and would predictably be pacing impatiently up and down the corridor in his three piece suit and highly polished shoes. Immediately upon arrival, there would be earnest debate as to how much pasta to throw into the already boiling water. My sister and I tested the pasta from a cooled off spoon proffered by our Nonna, learning how to tell when it was perfectly al dente. Once the right texture was attained, the ritual words "a tavola!" would trigger a stampede to the table for a feast that would last for hours.
In the early years, we would all sit crowded around the kitchen table. This would leave only a couple of inches for my Nonna to manoeuvre around the stove. As the family expanded, folding chairs and a long folding table were set out in the front room my Nonna called ‘the parlour’. My grandparents had raised three children in that one bedroom apartment, and were therefore masters of organising space. Their closets defied the laws of physics and were tightly arranged along the lines of Chinese sliding block puzzles. Tables, folding chairs and even folding beds materialised seemingly out of nowhere.
Food in the Bronx was a completely different species from the sandy beach sandwiches, barbecue hot dogs, hamburgers and standard main meals of the American suburbs. Instead of beer, adults drank wine, as did children from time to time. Sunday meals were of a proportion undreamt of by most Americans at that time too. In the 1960s the prevailing American understanding of ‘pasta’ was insipid macaroni and cheese that came in tins. The pasta my Nonna cooked came in a variety of shapes and sizes with tantalising names like 'linguine', 'tagliatelle', 'rigatoni' and the favourite of that time ,'occhi di lupe' ('wolves eyes') a rectangular pasta slanted at the end.
Following the pasta came a course of meat, 'ragu' that had been stewing in the sauce. This was accompanied by a large, crusty loaf of bread, a far cry from the 'Wonderbread' I admired. Following this came a main course of a roast, superb roast potatoes and vegetables, and then the all important fruit course accompanied by cheese. My grandfather was a fruit aficionado. Throughout his life gave discourses on different aspects of fruit, including the way to peel it. He cut fruit expertly. Oranges into perfect wheels, pears and peaches beautifully proportioned then dropped into wine glasses for a soak, and plucked out with toothpicks when sufficiently soaked with wine.
Finally, came fragrant espresso that had been brewing on the stove in an old tin pot with dents that told of many meals past. The coffee was served in my Nonna’s special delicate espresso cups that lived in a sturdy breakfront in the kitchen. The coffee, laced with liqueurs, was often accompanied by Italian pastries from Arthur Avenue. Sugared 'cannoli', 'baba rum' (my Nonna's favourite) or 'sfogliatelle', a custard-filled, crisp layered pastry that sent my mother into rapture if the layers were crisp enough. Sometimes a Boston Cream Pie would be delivered by us, the only American contribution to the meal.
The meals were like some kind of theatre. The Italians, consisting mainly of my mother, grandparents, Uncle Nick and Aunt Rosanna, were the performers, and the non-Italian speaking Americans, my father, three siblings and myself, the highly amused audience. Explosions of anger or laughter would erupt suddenly, seemingly in the same minute, language alternating between Italian and English in the same sentence. My aunt, grandmother and mother were prone to howling belly laughs with tears streaming down their faces. My uncle and grandfather were talented mimics and storytellers. The Italian parts of the stories were sometimes translated, sometimes not,
Music was often played towards the end of the meal on my grandfather's 'victrola.' Sometimes there would be dancing. Often, Neapolitan songs were played. A favourite for us kids was Quella La, punctuated by the singer breaking into uncontrollable laughter. My grandfather would sometimes pull out a guitar, strum a few discordant notes and 'sing' his Donkey Song consisting of repeated 'hee haws.'
Sometimes Puccini was played and librettos pulled out. My father's sensitive and musical brother, Hayward, who learned Italian while stationed in Italy during the war, sometimes came over. He would sit with my grandmother, weeping with her over the libretto as the music played and others joked and chatted.
3. Miss Bronx
A couple of times a year my sister and I would stay over at my grandparents’ apartment for a whole week. This tradition started when I was four and the first of my two brothers was born. I remember feeling quite abandoned in this foreign territory with my grandparents who, in isolation, seemed old and strange. When they weren't fussing over us in broken English, pinching our noses and cheeks, they would be arguing in heated Italian for what seemed like an eternity. The saving grace of these visits would be the presence of my aunt who, being only ten years older than me, was the most mythical of creatures: a teenager.
This was the era when teenagehood was beginning to be exalted in American culture. I was just dying to be one. My aunt Rosanna had a powder blue radio, wore flare out poodle embossed skirts, was selected to be a dancer on television for American Bandstand and, in 1965 was a runner up for the Miss Bronx beauty contest. My sister and I used to hang around the bathroom sink watching her apply layers of makeup and tend to her stiff beehive hairdo.
We slept on fold-out beds in the hallway or parlour alongside my aunt and sometimes there would be the bliss of hanging out on the corner with her leather clad girlfriends, deluding myself for a little happy while that I was a teenager too.
Rosanna’s brother, our Uncle Nick, was a frequent visitor to my grandparents apartment, and also had great style. We learned early on how much being stylish and well dressed was stressed in Italian culture. There would sometimes be trips up Fordham Road to Alexander's Department Store, which my Nonna called the 'immigrant's friend'. It offered stylish clothing at low prices. Stylish bargain shoes would be tied together and laid out in great bins. I recall my grandmother playing tug of war with another woman over a pair of gold shoes my sister fell in love with.
Uncle Nick sported a high pompadour, powder blue zoot suit and once he got a job, drove girlfriends around in open air convertibles. As a teenager he rejected my Nonna’s great cooking to hang out in Johnny Boy’s Diner with his hood friends, all of whom seemed to end up as cops (including my uncle) or criminals.
4. Castles and Caffones
Over the years we were dragged along by my Nonna to visits with many local Italians. These visits would be conducted mainly in Italian.
Mr and Mrs Massone lived in an apartment building with ornate brickwork that resembled a castle. To me it seemed far more glamorous than my grandparents' plain six-story building, and I always wished my grandparents lived there instead. We would visit Isabel Istorico, a very made up old lady with pointed end glasses and dyed frizzy hair. She would offer us 'struffole' -- bits of fried dough covered in honey and rainbow-coloured sprinkles - from a cut glass bowl. My grandmother's closest friend, Rosa Gentile, 'had gold in her fingers' and was the only cook I've ever come across to surpass my grandmother. Her homemade pasta was as light as air. If you dropped in on her unexpectedly, she would roll out dough, slice apples while talking to you, and within minutes would present a homemade apple pie to accompany fresh brewed espresso. Then there was the tragic Mrs Torrello, a widow, whose only child died in her early 20s. I have vivid memories of gathering around her photo album when we visited as she flipped through photo after photo of her daughter who was 'beautiful enough to be a model'.
From an early age we learned the word 'caffone' (pronounced ka-phone-eh). This was the disparaging word my highly educated Nonna used to describe the vast, poor, uneducated masses of Italians who immigrated to America in the early part of the 20th century. I only learned many years later that my Nonna’s mother was illiterate. My great grandmother was apparently deeply ashamed of this and managed to hide it from my Nonna until she was in her teens. This may have coloured my Nonna’s snobbery. It made my Nonna very lonely in the New World. She never learned enough English to have American friends, and the Italian class/education barriers she maintained made it difficult to make friends amongst other immigrants.
According to Nonna’s narrative: ‘Caffones' put clear plastic covers on their furniture, adorned their houses with grotesque imitation rococo knick knacks and, worst of all, massacred the beautiful Italian language, which poured out of my Nonna in a honeyed mellifluous stream. The caffones instead assaulted the ear with a mixture of dialect and American slang. In their mouths 'manicotti' became 'mani - gut', 'sfogliatelle' became 'foglia - tell' and 'compadre:' 'goom - ba'.
English was pronounced in an odd way as well. We used to delight in how the receptionist at ‘Luigi of Italy’, the local beauty parlour my aunt went to, would answer the phone in a cheery, sing-song voice: 'Loo - ee - G - of Itt - lee!'.
Family legend has it that Luigi of “Luigi of Italy” proposed to Aunt Rosanna but she turned him down. She married someone else and eventually ended up back in the old Bronx neighbourhood. Today, her tower block apartment building dwarfs the older castle style buildings that seemed so huge in our childhood, and I now travel from London to see her. We have delighted in gathering around her table for Italian meals rounded off with espresso served in my grandmother’s demitasse cups. Instead of a fire escape, she has a balcony. It looks out towards the Whitestone Bridge, and in the distance, the Long Island Sound.
AMARAPUSPA CLARK is a native New Yorker who has lived in London for many years. She was a lawyer in New York City, a solicitor and adult education teacher in London. She has been an ordained Buddhist for over 15 years. She teaches meditation and Buddhism. She has been writing poetic prose, memoirs and poetry for much of her adult life.
(Image Credit: Family dinner in the Bronx, by kind permission of Amarapuspa Clark)