Thursday, October 30, 2008

Are You a Singer or a Listener?

As a boy attending Our Lady of Lourdes school, I sang in the boys' choir. Our Lady of Lourdes church in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn was a large and imposing structure built in the style of old Brooklyn churches. It featured huge granite columns, a magnificent marble altar, and perhaps the most distinguishing and memorable feature, a life-sized grotto depicting the appearance of the Blessed Mother Mary to young Bernadette of Lourdes. People came from miles around to pray in the grotto, and if you wanted a seat at Sunday Mass, you had better get there early. Attendance at Catholic churches in the fifties was probably at its peak. In the rear of the church, above the heads of the congregation, was the choir loft that housed a thundering pipe organ. It also housed the boys' choir. I spent every Sunday from around the fourth through eighth grades up in that choir loft singing (in Latin if you please) at the 11:00 high Mass.

Boys were chosen for the choir like promising baseball players are recruited from the minor leagues. We had a music teacher at Lourdes named Miss Hessian. She resembled actress Margaret Dumont, who played all those upper-crust society ladies in the Marx Brothers movies. She usually wore a dowdy blue dress down to her ankles, and it was rumored that her grey hair was actually a wig. Anyhow, when Brother Justinian (the choirmaster and school principal) needed replacements for graduating choir members, Miss Hessian acted as his scout. She would line up the boys and have us sing something. She would then march up and down the lines, tilting her head to better hear each boy's voice, and announce "singer" or "listener" based on your ability. All the "singers" would then be auditioned by Brother Justinian. If he chose you, that was it. You weren't asked if you were interested in joining the choir, nor did your parents have much of a say in the matter. It was indentured servitude, like baseball before the Curt Flood case and "free agency" for players.

Choir practice was a couple of times a week as I recall; Brother Justinian would bring us boys in early, before school started, and put us through our paces. He was a stern disciplinarian when that term actually carried some meaning. He was also a gifted musician who did not tolerate mediocrity. For all the work it involved, I must confess that the Lourdes choir, which also included a group of grown men to offset all those young soprano voices, was one of the best around. We performed at the annual St. Patrick's Day dance in the school auditorium, and to this day (a tribute to Brother Justinian's work ethic) I can still remember the words to popular Irish tunes like "Oh the Days of the Kerry Dancing" and "How Are Things in Glockomorrah". We also took the show on the road on occasion when other parishes invited us to sing. I believe we were even recorded once.

Our special night was midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The church was packed early as this was one of the highlights of the church year. I can't believe St. Patrick's Cathedral could have put on a more joyous and uplifting celebration. I can remember standing with my pals singing our little hearts out. Every choirmaster's greatest fear is when a boy's voice begins changing to a man's. In the Middle Ages, in order to overcome that little problem, they had a rather drastic solution (yes, THAT one), and although Brother Justinian may have given it a passing thought, even he would have had a hard time explaining that to our parents. After midnight Mass, every boy received a big "Whitman's Sampler" box of chocolates. It was a special treat, but better yet, it was fun to see Brother Justinian, normally a rather stern man, positively beaming as he accepted the thanks of our grateful parishioners for the choir's wonderful performance.

An old classmate and I recently reconnected with our teacher from seventh and eighth grades, Brother Jude, (pictured left), and had a very enjoyable lunch reunion. He just turned 80, and is as sharp as ever. He reminded us of the way he used to take off his watch before coming down the aisle in class to perform an "attitude adjustment" on some misbehaving student.

The Franciscan Brothers were good men who sacrificed much to follow their religious vocation. I don't have a doubt in my mind that whatever little intelligence I may have today is there because of their dedication and hard work.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Buddy and May

The only sibling of my father's that I knew was his older brother Joe. I think he had another brother James who died very young, and for whom I believe I was named. There was also a sister who married and had at least 7 children (the Caruso branch of the family) but sadly, also died before I knew her. Uncle Joe was two years older than Dad. They came to America as young boys, aged 2 and 7, with their father, Innocenzo, sailing on the ship San Giorgio out of Naples, Italy on October 13, 1912. I learned this from Ellis Island immigration records, which are fantastic. To my surprise, the family name on the ship's manifest is spelled "Pantaleo", not "Pantaleno" as we spell it today. Somewhere in processing through immigration, we picked up an 'N' at the end of our name. My uncle Joe later legally changed his name to "Pantala", for what reason I cannot fathom. I could see if he was trying for something less Italian-sounding to better blend in, since Italians were not exactly welcomed with open arms in America. But all he accomplished was saving a syllable, that's about it.

Fast forward...Uncle Joe marries a German girl named May, and they have two wonderful children, my cousins Joey and his younger sister Joan. Uncle Joe drove a truck delivering coal for a company called Burns Brothers. Our house was on his route, and I remember him climbing down from the truck, positioning a coal chute into our basement coal bin, and then off-loading the coal down the chute. It was a fascinating process to watch, and I envied Uncle Joe his job. Little did I know what hard, dirty work it really was.

Uncle Joe and Aunt May came to our house a lot for Sunday dinner. Uncle Joe worked hard all week, and on the weekends, he tended to drink hard. My father was also known to tip back a few, and I recall them sitting at the kitchen table drinking shots of Fleishmann's (a cheap rye whiskey that could remove paint) and beer chasers. Uncle Joe always had a raw egg in his beer; that was probably his breakfast. Now my father was a happy drunk, and when he'd had a few too many, the worst thing he did was tell the same jokes over and over. They say alcohol just magnifies your normal personality. Unfortunately, Uncle Joe was not the most jovial guy when sober; too many drinks usually intensified his grumpiness and made him combative.

His chief antagonist was Aunt May. May had red hair, smoked constantly, and could be very funny, almost like a blowzy Lucille Ball. I liked her a lot, but she drank too, and when "over served", her tendency was to became abusive. Aunt May's main target was Uncle Joe. You got the feeling that their life was one continuous fight, interrupted by periods of sobriety during which they tolerated one another, but the battle was always just simmering beneath a thin veneer of civility, waiting for the next highball to ignite it. May would sneeringly attack Joe (who she called Buddy for some reason) with slurred jabs like: "Fa chrisakes Buddy, you don' know what the hell you're talkin' about", or "All you eyetalians are so full of s**t." He would muster up the same disgusted face every time and hit her with his unflinching retort: "Shut up May." Their fights never got really ugly; they almost seemed choreographed with each knowing the rules and the boundaries.

Uncle Joe took me fishing every once in a while down to Broad Channel in the Rockaways. We would rent a rowboat, and go out with our tackle and a couple of crab nets. He taught me to fish, and on these trips, seemed like a much different man than the bickering, henpecked husband I saw on Sundays. He asked me about school, talked a little sports, and I think enjoyed himself as much as I did. Once I caught an eel, and not knowing if we should take it home to cook, I asked Uncle Joe what we should do with it. He promptly took it off the hook, threw it still alive into a bushel of crabs we had caught, and then laughed like hell. That Uncle Joe, you didn't see his sense of humor often, but when you did....funny.

May and Joe's children were among my favorite cousins. Joey married a sweetheart named Rosalie, who was 1940s movie-star good looking. She was also one of the nicest people I knew, who always had time to talk to me like a grown-up, and never failed to make me feel special. Joey's sister Joan was a few years older than me, with killer good looks. She was the most popular girl around, and I had a mad crush on her. My first bike was a hand-me-down from Joan, and despite having to suffer the humiliation of riding a girl's bike, I was happy to have it. My father, in his suit, tie and snappy fedora, taught me to ride by running along side as I pedaled in the park. There were no training wheels back then, and you learned by falling. Scraped knees sharply reduced the learning curve for acquiring this skill.

The battling Pantalas were a unique family and a big part of my life growing up. Except for Rosalie, they are all gone now.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Take Me With You, Angelo!

Wakes today are boring. They're not even called "wakes" anymore, but the more innocuous "viewings". There was a time when attending an Italian wake was like grand opera. Typically, the wake lasted three full days and was packed with more drama than a week’s worth of Law and Order. Three days of organized grieving was a long time for the family of the deceased, especially considering some of the oddballs that would wander in.

In the fifties it was becoming common for wakes to be held in "Funeral Parlors” instead of the homes of the deceased. These establishments were not the elaborate buildings we know today, with cable TV in the lounge and valet parking. Rather they were usually converted residences, and as such, a congregation of smaller rooms. The smell of flowers was overpowering as you entered. Like today, the deceased was at the front of the room in an open coffin…closed coffins were rare except at mob funerals....bullet holes, you know.

The first wake I ever remember attending was for our first grade teacher, Miss Langin. Compared to Italian wakes, this was a hushed and dignified affair. They just marched us six-year-olds past the coffin for a quick viewing. Poor Miss Langin was way past the normal retirement age for a teacher; I suspect she didn’t have much else to do, and teaching was her life. I remember that she looked so peaceful in a pale blue dress and more makeup than she would ever wear when she was alive. Not so bad, I thought.

My next experience with death was not so pleasant. I attended Our Lady of Lourdes school in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. In the basement of the church, there was a “crypt” where parish priests who died would be buried. For some bizarre reason, every year they opened the crypt and took all the kids, class by class, down there to pray. The first time we went down, a few giggles erupted to mask the fear of young boys exposed to eerie surroundings. The deceased were in what I can only describe as “drawers” along both sides of the wall. There was a small chapel for prayer. Jeez, talk about being creeped-out; fifteen minutes down there was like an eternity, no pun intended.

Anyhow, back to Italian wakes. For most people, quietly paying your respects to the family, and maybe saying a brief prayer at the casket constituted a “standard grieving visit”. For Italians, especially some of the old timers, this wasn’t enough. They would make a dramatic entrance, moaning and shrieking even before they left the parking lot. They would then literally hurl themselves toward the casket hollering “Take me with you Angelo, take me with you.” (Other visitors at the wake would be hoping that Angelo would somehow grant this request.) As if this wasn’t upsetting enough for the family, they would then be subjected to crocodile tears, garlicky kisses and more wailing: “ Why him, why poor Angelo”. At this point I’d be thinking: “Yeah, why not YOU, moron.”

Ironically, these blubbery displays would usually be put on by some distant cousin who barely knew the deceased. They were hypocritical “professional mourners” who turned their grief on and off like a faucet. Five minutes later they would be telling jokes to Aunt Tessie in the smoking lounge. At the cemetery, their performance would be repeated. Every family had these mourners with their black dresses pressed and ready to go. Usually, their first words after the deceased was in the ground were: “Where are we eating?”

I like today’s wakes better. No screamers, less gloom and doom, lots of pictures of the deceased in happier times. I love the Irish tradition of celebrating the dearly departed's life. There's even a drink called an "Irish Wake", and here's how to make it:


1/4 Cup Rum, gold (Bacardi)
1/4 Cup Rum, overproof/151 proof (Bacardi 151)
1/4 Cup Curacao, blue
16 oz. Orange Juice
Red and green maraschinos cherries

Mixing Instructions:

Pour orange juice into a tall glass filled with ice. Add rums and stir. Then add blue curacao and top with red and green cherries.

That’s for me….have a party when I go, and if you can, remember me kindly. Cheers.


Children's Craniofacial Association

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tech Alma Mater, Molder of Men

The title of this piece comes from the opening words to the Brooklyn Technical H.S. Alma Mater song as we sang it when I attended from 1956 to 1960. The school was all boys back then; they have since changed the words of the song to reflect the molding of women as well. "Tech" as we called it was known as one of the best high schools in New York City, along with Stuyvesant H.S. and the Bronx H.S. of Science. For me, going to high school was a tough transition. Having attended a small parochial grammar school where I spent eight years with pretty much the same forty kids, going to a new school that housed 6,000 boys was an adjustment to say the least.

The school building was enormous. Located in downtown Brooklyn, the yellow brick monolith housed not only classrooms, but specialized labs, sheet-metal, machine and wood shops, a foundry, an operating radio station, basement pool and rooftop gym. In case you're wondering why a foundry in a NYC high school, Tech prided itself on preparing students for not just college, but careers in technical fields such as Chemistry, Architecture, Aeronautics, Electronics and Mechanical Drawing. The foundry was where we poured molten metal into a sand mold to create a casting of the "stepped V block" we made in wood shop. (To this day, I have no idea what a stepped V block is.)

During the years I attended Tech, William Pabst was its principal. He ran a tight ship for a public school, and nonsense was not tolerated. He had his S.O.S. (Safety, Order, Service) student patrols roaming the halls, waiting to ambush late arrivals or rat out anyone in the halls without a pass. The cafeteria had to serve lunch in shifts to accommodate the mass of students. They featured a daily "special"...a hot lunch for around 15 cents. You were also required to buy a plastic token that you would exchange for eating utensils. You would stand in line at the utensil booth, give the lady in the hairnet your token, and she would give you eating utensils for the meal. When you were done, you turned the silverware in and got your token back. They did this to prevent students from stealing the utensils or just throwing them away.

Tech had its share of fine teachers, but it harbored a few looney toons too. A Mechanical Drawing teacher named Mr. Riker would leave the room and then sneak back in, crouching beneath the desks and then leap up trying to catch students doing something wrong. I had a Geometry teacher (best not to name him) who ruined math for me. He was a heavy drinker and could barely stand up much less explain plane geometry. I also seem to recall a wood shop teacher with a missing finger. (Insert your own joke here.)

The teacher who had a major influence on me taught English, and went by the name of Patricia Hornberger. I always liked reading and writing well enough, but somehow she put my love of words into another gear. Maybe because she was younger than most teachers at the school, or because she had a sense of humor and knew how to make learning fun. She would make us read Shakespearean plays aloud, with each student taking a turn. If you don't think it's funny listening to kids from the streets of Brooklyn read lines like: "Fly, fly, my lord! There is no tarrying here" from Julius Caesar, then think again. I can only thank providence for sending Ms. Hornburger to me. I only wish I could tell her how much her passion for teaching changed my life.

All in all, I got a good education at Tech, but because I was a bit of a jerk, never graduated and had to finish high school elsewhere. In my senior year, I got in with some bad company and was soon cutting classes regularly. Because I was able to duplicate my mother's handwriting perfectly, I wrote absence notes that were accepted by the school without question. Once I misspelled a word on one of my fake absence notes. Catching the error, I wrote a replacement note, and tucked the incorrect one into one of my books. Unfortunately it fell out, was found by another student and turned in to the school office where they saw an almost identical note already on file. After bringing my mother in for questioning, the jig was up and I was asked to leave the school. My forgery career came to an abrupt end.

Some months later, during a nocturnal trip to Rockaway Beach where we went to drink Thunderbird wine, I angrily took off my Brooklyn Tech senior ring and flung it into the ocean. (I'm a very dramatic drunk.) Not graduating Tech is one of my regrets in life. Thankfully the seeds of learning were already planted by good teachers like Patricia Hornberger, and I went on to get my Masters Degree after I matured a bit and found a partner in life who, as Jack Nicholson said in the movie As Good As It Gets: "...made me want to be a better man".


Children's Craniofacial Association

Sunday, October 26, 2008

How Much Toilet Paper Is Too Much?

Bigger is not always better. Supermarkets and "big-box” stores like Home Depot and Costco put a lot of Mom and Pop operations out of business. How ridiculous is it to buy a carton containing 96 rolls of toilet paper from Costco? Not even the worst Mexican Restaurant on the planet stocks that much toilet paper! The stores going under are the kinds of places that make a neighborhood…the corner grocery store, the shoemaker, the hardware store, the stationery store, and the bread store.

When Italians move into a new neighborhood, even before they find out the location of the nearest hospital, school or police station, they check out the bread store. Back in the fifties, every neighborhood had a thriving bread store; ours was Bilello’s on Rockaway Avenue. The smell of crusty, fresh-baked Italian bread would literally start your mouth watering as you came through the door.

Hot from the oven and cooling on the shelves were rows of loaves for making heroes, round loaves, dense and chewy, seeded breadsticks, focaccia bread, semolina, lard bread, sausage bread, the list goes on and on. When some people today think of Italian bread, they think of the pitiful, rubbery loaves they find on the shelf at Waldbaum’s. Do yourself a favor…if you live anywhere near an Italian neighborhood, go find a real bread store like Cammareri's on Court Street in downtown Brooklyn. On a cold, winter night, bring home a fresh-baked loaf, and enjoy it with some steaming lentil soup and a glass of red wine…I promise you’ll never eat supermarket bread again.

The old hardware stores had creaky wood floors, bins of nails that you bought by the pound, and a proprietor who wore a plaid shirt and knew everything there was to know about hardware. He could not only sell you what you needed, but tell you how to do the job. Home Depot hired people like that when they first started, but when they began expanding, the quality of help greatly declined. Now, glassy-eyed kids roam the aisles in their orange aprons, praying nobody will ask them the difference between a socket wrench and a crescent wrench.

When kids today hear the story of Pinnochio, they must wonder what Gepetto did for a living. When shoes wear out these days, they get thrown away rather than repaired. With stores like Payless selling shoes on sale for fifteen bucks, it just doesn't pay to fix them. The shoemaker's store smelled wonderfully of leather and shoe polish. It had a set of grinding and buffing wheels to help shape or polish shoes, and a machine for stitching. Customers waiting for their shoes to be repaired sat in a small booth enclosed from waist-level down so their feet would not be exposed to public view. Today, as I eat breakfast at the Hampton Inn, I am forced to look at the disgusting bare feet of some trailer-park ho tramping through the lobby into the dining room. Ugh.

In the days before everyone knew their cholesterol count, there was (insert celestial music here) the pork store, now referred to as a “salumeria” to justify the higher prices. The crowded aisles were filled with a dizzying array of cheeses, salamis, homemade pastas, barrels full of olives, chestnuts, pickles, and artery-clogging cold cuts like prosciutto, cappocolo, mortadella and soppressata that didn’t come in plastic bubble wrap. The guys who worked there were notorious for flirting with female customers, and might even take their thumb off the scale in exchange for a pretty smile.

We had milk delivered to our doors in bottles, a truck that drove around the neighborhood sharpening scissors, and doctors who routinely made house calls. When we first moved to Staten Island, there was a bakery called Holtermann’s (still in business) that would give you a piece of cardboard with a large “H” printed on it. If you wanted cake on any day their truck was in your neighborhood, you simply put the cardboard sign in the window and the driver would stop at your door. In the Bible, the Jews of Egypt painted their doorways with lamb’s blood to save their first-born from the Pharoh's wrath; in Staten Island, the Italians put the Holtermann’s H in their windows when they wanted pound cake.

These merchants were our neighbors; they knew our families and could always be counted on for a little help if a regular customer fell on tough times. My wife’s grandfather lost his job and had a hard time providing for his family. The owner of the neighborhood bread store delivered two loaves of bread to Grandpa's door daily for two years, with no request for payment and no questions asked. On some days, that bread was all the family had to eat. The point is, Grandpa was not just a customer, but a neighbor and a friend. The bread man knew he would get his money when Grandpa went back to work, and of course he did.

Try working that little deal out with Waldbaum’s.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Credit Bomb Goes Boom

It's demoralizing reading about the meltdown in today's financial markets. Bank foreclosures, respected brokerage firms tanking, insurance company and bank bailouts, and sad to say, a serious erosion in investments for big and little players alike. I don't mean to depress you, but our reliance on credit has been our undoing. People getting mortgages they had no hope of paying off, greedy Wall Streeters coming up with "smoke and mirror" credit instruments that eventually sank us all, and consumers buying plasma TVs on plastic instead of waiting until they could afford to pay for them. OK, OK, I said I didn't mean to depress you and I'll stop now. You can read the headlines as well as I.

In the 1950s, credit cards were for the rich. If the average person couldn't afford something, they either saved up for it or did without. When credit cards first started being offered to "Joe the Plumber" it was the gasoline companies who led the charge. It was hard to get a credit card, even if it was only good for gas. The application form was pages long, you needed some type of credit history that demonstrated your credit worthiness, and they actually checked your information to make sure you were kosher. Many were refused and told to come back when they were better risks.

Today credit cards get mailed unsolicited to anyone with a pulse. The biggest deadbeats on the planet have wallets full of credit cards! If one is turned down by a store, they just whip out another. It never enters their empty heads that these bills will come due, they just keep swiping those cards until there is smoke coming off them. When the s**t hits the fan, they blithely declare bankruptcy, as if that solves everything. Soon their credit is trashed and they can't buy a pack of gum without cold cash.

Looking back, I remember that my parents never even had a checking account. Bills were paid in person in the days when the phone, gas and electric companies had offices in convenient locations, and people who (shocking) spoke English and took your money with a pleasant "Thank You". Insurance companies sent agents to your door to collect weekly premiums. My parents had a life policy, I think with Prudential, and their man rang our bell every week to pick up that week's payment....twenty-five cents! Some stores would allow you to buy on the "layaway plan" meaning you made installment payments on whatever item you bought, but only when it was paid off did you get to take it home. Banks offered "Christmas Clubs" where a customer could deposit as little as fifty cents a week starting in January and collect a whopping $26 at Christmas time to go shopping.

If you went for a bank loan, or even worse, a mortgage, you walked into that granite and steel building with a feeling of foreboding. You knew you would have to convince the meanest, most tight-assed bean counter that if he loaned you any money, he would be damned sure to get it back. The guy was ramrod straight with silver hair, a starched collar and a pocket watch that he looked at frequently to remind you how precious his time was, and that you'd better not waste any. He never smiled, never offered you coffee or a balloon for your kid...he just glared at you through those steel-rimmed spectacles and your blood froze. Bank tellers were cheerless folk ensconced behind steel bars waiting to take your money. It was far from a "customer friendly" environment, but deep down you knew your money was safe.

Today's banks are tiny storefront affairs with open cubicles, buckets of lolly pops and, and sappy elevator music. I can't tell if I'm in my bank or Starbucks. The bank manager looks like he or she should be behind the fryer at Wendy's. Your friendly banker will give you a wheelbarrow full of money if you pinky-swear to give it back.

Banks have to go back to being mean sons-of bitches. Credit card companies have to start actually checking who they are extending credit to, and brokerage houses have to stop this insane practice of "short selling" stock (delivering stock only on the buyer's promise to pay at a future date). Regulators have to (here's a novel thought) enforce the freakin' regulations!

I know we need credit to keep the economy moving and growing. All I'm saying is to set some reasonable parameters. It should be hard to get a loan. If you make a bad investment, why should I have to bail you out? Credit is like crack-cocaine, and consumers need to be weaned off. We can climb out of this hole, but it will take some tough love, baby.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Neighborhood Characters: Sophie and Joe

Joe and Sophie were married to each other, probably because no one else would marry them. I think Sophie may actually have been a distant cousin of my mother from the days when Mom lived in Camden, New Jersey. She always referred to my mother in her drawly, rural Jersey accent as "Cumarrrr Frances". (The word "comare" in Italian was used for the word godmother,or a very close friend of the family...then it became a slang term for mistress or lover, as Tony Soprano will gladly tell you.)

Where shall I begin? Sophie was less than five feet tall and more than five feet wide. She had a porcine face with a snout-like nose and innumerable chins, one of which was home to a large, black mole with hairs sprouting out of it. Her hair was worn severely combed back into a tight bun. To complete the picture, she wore rimless glasses that greatly magnified her lifeless brown eyes. Sophie always wore brown dresses....I think it had something to do with a religious sodality to which she belonged. Because of her weight, her legs were always wrapped in ace bandages, and her feet, dainty for her size, were shod in clunky brown shoes that looked like they were taken off a dead Quaker.

Sophie never worked to my knowledge, but she did have a "job" of sorts; she fell down. Once, after slipping on an icy sidewalk, Sophie was hoisted to her feet by the apologetic store owner and offered some cash to forget her mishap. I'm guessing that this incident triggered a miracle of sorts for Sophie, kind of like Bernadette's vision at Lourdes, because after that, she fell down on a regular basis. Every store owner in the neighborhood dreaded the sight of Sophie lumbering down an icy sidewalk toward his store. In a way, her periodic flops did a world of good for everybody in the neighborhood. Because of Sophie, there wasn't an icy sidewalk to be found in all of East New York.

Her husband Joe, or "Goombah Joe" as he was known, was a perfect partner for Sophie. If "" existed back in those days, Joe would have been the one and only match to Sophie's application. Joe was a retired sanitation man. His appearance was striking.... short and stocky in stature, with a dark, swarthy complexion, a hawklike beak for a nose, and a full head of jet black hair streaked with grey. His legs were bowed, and he had a rolling gait like Popeye's when he walked. He always dressed in a rumpled, ill-fitting suit that looked like he had picked it up along his route before retiring.

He was also partial to bizarre neckties that he fastened to his shirt with not one, but three tie-pins. I can still see them like the rungs of a ladder climbing up his was in the shape of a sunburst, one was his Holy Name Society pin, and I can't remember the third. One final note about Joe, he insisted on planting a fragrant kiss on my cheek every time he saw me. Now kissing among Italians was not unusual, but Joe loved garlic, and his breath could kill a small mammal. I soon learned to duck him. He found it funny, but I knew my very life depended on it.

When Goombah Joe was working his garbage route, he rarely passed up any trash that had life left in it. Their small apartment was strewn with crap. As much as I hated visiting them, I must confess that the curiosity of what I might encounter lying around on the floor was a powerful draw. There were three-legged chairs, assorted pots and pans, single shoes (collecting these completely mystified me unless Joe anticipated losing a leg), broken picture frames, parts of musical name it, Joe had it. Since they had no place to store these treasures, they just lived with them. It wasn't unusual to have to move a toaster with no electric cord before you could sit down.

Sophie and Joe were, shall we say, thrifty. I think they may have originated the custom of leaving the "envelope" empty when they attended a wedding until they saw the quality and quantity of the food and drink. If everything was to their liking, they may have thrown caution to the winds and sprung for a $20 wedding gift. They are also among the few people I have ever seen taking "leftovers" home from a wedding. Sometimes on my birthday, Sophie would glance around to make sure my mother wasn't looking, and then take a quarter wrapped in a tissue and press it into my hand like she was slipping me the Hope diamond.

Characters were abundant in my old neighborhood. As the old TV show "Naked City" used to say: "There are over 8 million stories in the naked city". Sophie and Joe were one of them.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Christmas in the Hood

Christmas was always a special time for families in our Brooklyn neighborhood. It was probably the one time that people who watched their pennies all year splurged without guilt. For us kids, it wasn't just about the presents. There was a whole different feel in the excited hustle and bustle as everyone rushed around buying and decorating trees, shopping for food and gifts, building snow forts, and of course, buying out the fish store for the traditional, Italian Christmas Eve feast. (We rarely ate fish in my house, although Mom would grudgingly prepare the smelly, salted-cod dish called "Baccala" for my father.

A word about Christmas trees. Back then there were no "tree farms" whose sole crop was fat, perfectly shaped Christmas trees delivered just in time for the holidays. Trees were usually scrawny affairs, with sparse sections that had to be turned toward the wall so that they wouldn't show so much. Fast forward fifteen years and meet Belle, my sweetheart of a mother-in-law. Just as I was lucky enough to meet and marry my wife Jasmine, I was equally lucky in having such supportive in-laws like Belle and Ray, who always treated me like a son.

Anyhow, Belle was not so accepting of nature's imperfect Christmas trees. She would have Ray drill holes into the trunk of the tree and insert extra branches to fill out its shape. There is a famous poem by Joyce Kilmer that concludes with the lines: "Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree". I guess Belle never read that one.

Rewind back to the fifties. Not only Christmas trees, but Christmas decorations were far from perfect in those days. Tree lights were not the strings of tiny, low-wattage bulbs we hang now, but the large, 9 watt-per-bulb babies that got very hot. There was a particular type of light that featured a small reservoir of colored fluid at the base, topped by a tube-like stem at the top. It was supposed to look like a candle. As the fluid in the base heated up, bubbles would continuously rise up through the stem. It looked very pretty, but was probably responsible for many fire insurance claims.

It wasn't customary back then, as it is now, to start the Christmas season in early October. We had enough respect for the Thanksgiving holiday to celebrate it properly before the mad rush to Christmas. Traditionally, the appearance of Santa Claus at the end of Macy's Thanksgiving parade was the official beginning of the Christmas season. Now, greedy retailers want us to start shopping just after the Fourth of July.

Christmas Eve was spent at Grandma and Grandpa Camardi's house on Hull Street. (See 10/6/08 post: "Those Who Came Before" for their story.) Fried zeppoles were a special treat, cooked in a large tub of hot oil and sprinkled with powdered sugar. While the adults rolled up the rugs and danced, the kids got to play a great game we called "Spin for Pennies" A brass, spinning top-like device was spun by each kid in turn. Whoever it pointed to would then follow the different instructions written around the perimeter of the top such as "take one" meaning whoever's turn it was would take one penny out of the pot. The best result if it was your turn would be "take all" meaning you got the whole pot. This was the kiddie equivalent of three sevens on the slot machines. (I later found out that the game we played was a Jewish one called "Dradle". Who knew?

Christmas day itself was the same then as for kids today...fevered excitement. We had to wait until Christmas morning to open our gifts. As I think back, I don't remember ever being disappointed. I now realize how much my parents had to sacrifice to get the three of us what we really wanted, and love them all the more for it. Later that day we would gather at Aunt Anna's and eat like the Russians were in Newark. Italians ate the equivalent of at least three dinners on holidays.

My final Christmas memory is of borderline arson. People didn't keep their trees very long in those days. They dried out and became dangerous. One or two days after Christmas, trees would be put out for collection by the Sanitation Department, unless we beat them to it. We would gather up all the trees we could find and pile them up in a vacant lot across the street from my house. (You see of course where this is going.) After a while we had a crackling blaze going, with flames three stories high. Young boys are fascinated with fire, and we just kind of stood around watching it burn out. One windy year, some airborne embers threatened the neighborhood and the fire department was called. Funny how things work son Mike is now an FDNY Lieutenant, helping to put out the fires that idiot kids like me used to start. Karma at its best.

It seems like maybe three months between Christmases these days. Growing older means that time moves along at warp speed. Watching "Its a Wonderful Life" every year reminds me that I've been blessed with a great family, and nothing gives me more pleasure than spending the holidays with them. Even though its only October, Merry Christmas everyone.


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