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

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