Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Saturday, April 25, 2009
Music was taught by a long-suffering woman named Miss Hessian who I have written about before on this site. (See October 30, 2008 post: "Are You a Singer or a Listener?" View ) I say long-suffering because we put Miss Hessian through pure hell. She was an easy mark for the pent-up mischief of know-it-all eighth graders who wouldn't dare take on the Franciscan Brothers who taught them in class. She tolerated our taunting with resigned stoicism as if she had seen it all before, and that she was above reacting to our childish stupidity. She was older, maybe in her sixties or seventies, but it was hard to tell since she wore steel-rimmed glasses, dressed in long, dowdy dresses and sensible shoes. It was rumored she wore a powdered wig, but although thousands of double-dare challenges were issued over the years, none of us was ever boy enough to prove this one way or another.
On music day, the giggling and guffawing started even before we took our seats on the rows of long green benches in the school gym. Miss Hessian had hardly struck up the first notes of: "Halloween, Halloween, oh what funny things are seen..." before the first imitation fart noises rang out. Then followed a hail of spitballs, some of them aimed at the poor lady herself. The worst trick we ever played involved the dozens of empty benches behind the few rows our class occupied at the front of the gym. One of the crazier kids among us (the one who drank fountain pen ink out of the bottle and then smiled, flashing his blue-black teeth) tipped the first empty bench back toward the others. The crescendo of noise caused by the domino effect of benches collapsing on each other brought the principal, Brother Justinian, running in from his office across the way. I can only tell you the culprit was caught and dealt with severely...no details please. To her credit, in spite of all we did to her, Miss Hessian rarely ratted us out. As John Gotti might have put it, she was a "stand-up guy".
For music, we had the lovely Miss Frankie. Actually, she wasn't that much to look at, with slightly pop-out eyes emphasized by large, round, owlish glasses, but she had bright blond hair, and for boys whose hormones were just beginning to percolate, she was hot. She taught her lessons in our classroom with our teacher lurking nearby, so there were no Miss Hessian-like shenanigans. Those lower grade female teachers who looked so sweet in church would not hesitate to slap you silly if you so much as put a toe over the line. (Say what you will about Catholic school methods, their results spoke volumes. Sheer terror is a powerful incentive to learn.)
Back to Miss Frankie. She would hand out sheets of beige-colored "drawing paper" of a quality so cheap that you could see the hunks of wood embedded in the fibers. As I recall (this part is a little fuzzy), she would then draw something on an easel pad and we had to copy it as best we could. Miss Frankie would then walk around the room commenting on our efforts. Today if a kid draws a banana and it looks like a whale, we say something like: "How interesting, good job." (Mustn't damage little Bradley's self-esteem.) Miss Frankie had no such reservations. She would tell Bradley: "You call that a banana? Turn the paper over and try to make it look more like mine!" Picasso would have been selling chorizos in the plaza in Malaga, Spain if Miss Frankie got her hands on him.
Then there were Monday afternoon movies...what a treat to escape the classroom and watch a movie, maybe along with a chapter of a cliff-hanging adventure serial like "Gene Autry and the Phantom Empire". The movies were mostly of the B variety like Donald O'Connor in "Francis the Talking Mule", but we did see some first-rate war movies including "The Halls of Montezuma", "Sands of Iwo Jima" and "The Fighting Sullivans". Parents today would probably be horrified at the thought of their kids spending time watching old war movies instead of aiming higher scholastically like learning to speak Mandarin before they were six years old! Like many modern-day parenting concerns, this is crapola. We needed a break and movie day was it. I'll bet these afternoons in the dark inspired a love of film in many an impressionable mind.
Teachers like Miss Hessian and Miss Frankie made the rounds of Catholic schools trying to scrape out a living. (My wife went to school in Park Slope and had Miss Hessian for music!) They made peanuts, had no union, no health care plan and no pension...but they shared their passion with us, and for all we put them through, I want to say a belated "Thank you". My love of drawing and art had its beginnings in that classroom; my ability to draw and letter (honed at Brooklyn Technical High School) also helped get me a job that eventually led to a career. Teaching is a tough business with few rewards, but even the most cynical adults have a soft spot for a teacher that helped them along in life. Not a bad deal for 21 cents a week.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
In Italy, especially the southern part of the country where my family came from, they had the luxury of being surrounded by fragrant lemon trees, olive trees, and yes, fig trees. Lemon or olive trees would never survive the harsh Brooklyn winters, but there must have been something in that black soil that agreed with fig trees because they flourished. Even my father, who wasn’t exactly Johnny Appleseed, was proud of his fig tree. Every year in the fall, he would put on his “work clothes” (for him that meant taking off his necktie) and initiate the “fig tree protection ritual.”
I doubt you would find this in any gardening textbook, but my Dad would first wrap the tree completely using old burlap sacks. Then he would use an old carpet to wrap around the burlap sacks. Finally, he took black tar paper and created a third layer, tying rope around everything to hold it together. Now that the king was properly robed, the crown would be put in place. Over the top of the tree he placed an empty wooden bushel. I think the purpose of all this was to keep water away from the tree, since if the roots froze, bye-bye figs. The technique must have worked because we got figs every year, as did our neighbors whose trees were similarly adorned.
My first taste of the figs from that tree was almost my last. Figs take a while to ripen on the tree. They start out green and hard, perfect projectiles for whipping at birds and cats. By late summer they soften and turn a purplish color. As a kid I remember how impatient I was waiting for the figs to be ready to eat. One day I downed about 10 figs that looked ripe to me; they weren’t and I got sick as a dog. I never told my parents, but I think they suspected when at dinner that night I had only two helpings of everything because my stomach just didn’t feel right.
The almost mystical connection between Italian-Americans and fig trees was probably severed by my generation. Even though we moved out of Brooklyn and into the suburbs where we had more room to plant a garden, most of us did not include a fig tree. I think part of the reason was to distance ourselves from the old-time Italians that were called "Moustache Petes" and who we almost felt ashamed of. We were second-generation Americans looking to embrace American ways and cut the old ties. Their old-world ways belonged to the past.
As I grew older, things changed. The “Italian” part of Italian-American became more important to me. I believe now that although I live in America, there is still a part of me that belongs to Italy. My son and his wife have made several trips there and have come back full of enthusiasm for the culture and the people. Seeing the excitement in them has helped reawaken in me a feeling of pride in the birthplace of my ancestors, and a determination to keep the Italian traditions alive in our family for my grandchildren.
As a visible reminder of this obligation, I hereby promise to plant a fig tree in my back yard and dedicate it to all the Moustache Petes who paved the way for ingrates like me. I only hope the miserable red clay soil of Staten Island treats it kindly.
Monday, April 20, 2009
As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. When you're poor and hungry, you need to improvise something nourishing and tasty for your family on a very tight budget. Italians (and other poor ethnic groups too) learned to cook some outstanding meals using stuff that others would normally throw away. I seem to recall that these delicacies were usually prepared around big holidays like Christmas and Easter. In those days, local butchers knew there was a demand for these bizarre ingredients at those times of the year, and always had them handy. They are not that easy to come by today; you won't find anything labeled "innards" or "offal" in Stop and Shop's meat department. Here's a whole dinner to tempt you:
Appetizer: Sufritto - This recipe begins: Take the liver, heart, sweetbreads and kidneys of a baby lamb or goat and cut into bite-sized pieces." Wait, where are you running? (You're back and feeling better I hope.) These tidbits are pan seared with some veggies and a half-cup of white wine. (Drink the remaining wine in the bottle to get up enough courage to eat this crap.)
Italian Family Dining: Recipes, Menus, and Memories of Meals (page 60)
Dandelion Salad - You know how crazy those ugly dandelions growing all over your beautiful green lawn make you? You've tried everything from expensive weed killer (kills the grass too) to digging them out by hand (you never get the whole root). Well I have a solution for you my friend that does not involve inhaling pesticides or a sore back. Do what the old Italians do...EAT THEM. Ciagottia Salad - Recipes - Italiansrus.com
Choice #1: Capozzelli di Angnelli (Lamb's Head) - You read right bunky, lamb's head! This one's not on the Happy Meal menu. Preparation starts as follows: "Skin and clean the lambs heads and cut them in two." Are you still there? You might ask your butcher to do this for you unless you are a very disturbed person. After baking in the oven, I believe they join the two halves of the heads and serve them in a little herd on a large platter. The old timers (I swear to God) used to fight over who got to eat the eyes! Italian recipes: Lamb's head
Choice #2: Trippa (Tripe) - This little number is the honeycombed lining of the first stomach of a cow. (There have been times at holiday dinners when I wished for more than one stomach, but I digress.) The recipe says it "...may be poorly suited to delicate digestions." Now there's an understatement. Maybe I'm missing the boat; could there be a franchise idea here? I have our ad slogan: "Udderly delicious." Trippa
Dessert: Sanguinaccio (Pig's Blood Pudding) - Any dessert whose list of ingredients starts out with1 liter of pig's blood has got to be special. I don't care how poor or hungry I was, there's a culinary line I won't cross and this is it! My Aunt Anna used to try to get me to eat this stuff by claiming it was chocolate, usually a sure-fire way to get me to eat anything. I was wise to her though ever since she got me to try "sweetbreads." Not sweet, not bread, don't ask.
Delicious Italy - Abruzzo black pudding recipe
It's interesting to note that many dishes like these, created by the poor out of need, sometimes become trendy and turn up on the menus of pricey Italian restaurants. That's right folks, the parts of animals that butchers throw away can be found in very tiny portions in the exact center of an over sized plate for the paltry sum of $40. To save you some money, I provided the recipe links above. Bon Appetit!
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Maybe because we were not so far removed from the Great Depression and the crushing poverty of that sad period in American history. Compared to those folks, I considered us to be “middle class”. My grandparents kept the hard reality of those dark days alive with stories of how they survived. Poverty had a different meaning then. It meant no jobs, no matter how much you were willing to swallow your pride and do anything. It meant getting by with only one meal a day, and even going without so that your children would have something to eat. There was no welfare, no food stamps, and no health care if you couldn't afford to pay. People who lived through that economic nightmare were never the same. After the economy recovered and times got better, they always had a hard time spending money, even when they had it.
The Great Depression affected everyone, but especially the people in poor neighborhoods like mine. They had no savings to fall back on, no unemployment insurance to tide them over, all they had was each other. The irony is that even if help was available in the form of public assistance, their values would hold them back from accepting it. These were people who were fiercely proud of their work ethic and mindful of the responsibility to support their families. It was anathema for them to accept handouts from the government because it diminished them as independent, self-supporting Americans.
Human behavior is fascinating to study. During this terrible time in their lives when everybody had so little, it might be understandable if people hoarded what little they had. But in the poor neighborhoods, the exact opposite mentality developed. The feeling was that we’re all in this together, and if I have something, because you’re my neighbor and my friend, I will share it with you. Food was shared, used clothing was passed around, and unwanted furniture always found a ready home. All this was done without any sense of obligation or strings attached. It was, for lack of a better term, the goodness in people asserting itself in a time of need. This didn’t just apply to individuals, but to neighborhood businesses, who despite their own reduced revenues, reached out to help their regular customers whenever they could.
At the risk of being redundant, I want to repeat a story from an earlier post that illustrates perfectly what I’m talking about: "My wife’s grandfather lost his job and had a hard time providing for his family. The owner of the neighborhood bread store in Brooklyn 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."
I pray the current recession never gets so bad as to bring back the dire conditions our parents and grandparents experienced in the early 1930’s. Poverty today means something different than it did back then. Today people receiving welfare payments are not ashamed to take handouts; on the contrary they look on money from the government as an entitlement. The “poor” walk around in designer sneakers talking on $300 i-Phones. With each passing welfare generation, the notion of working for a living recedes a little more, and living off somebody else’s labors becomes the norm.
I wonder what life would be like if we hit a 1930’s type depression and the government could no longer afford to support people who contribute nothing to society’s welfare. Would people take care of each other as they did back then, or would there be open warfare in the streets? I don’t ever want to find out.
Monday, April 13, 2009
Since most of us were of Italian descent however, the card game we played most frequently was borrowed from old men in grey cardigan sweaters, wearing beat-up fedoras and smoking smelly Di Nobili cigars. The game was called Brisk, and was played with a deck of 40 cards, the 8's, 9's and 10's having been removed. I learned later in life that the game is based on an Italian card game called "Briscola"
We played four-handed Brisk, with two kids partnered against the other two. After trump had been established, three cards were dealt to each player. The object of the game was to take as many tricks as possible depending on how many trump cards you held. As I recall, a team needed to score 120 points to win. The cards that counted for points were the Ace (11); Trey or Three (10); King (4); Queen (3) and finally the Jack (2). It usually took two hands to make 120 points, and there was a definite strategy to the game.
Like Bridge where there are trump cards and the game is played with partners, it really helps to know what cards your partner is holding so you know how bold you can be with your play. The old men who played often together as partners had secret signals they used to communicate their hands to their partners. The Aces and Treys were known as "loads" because of their high point values of 11 and 10 respectively. It was not uncommon in a heated game for a player who held a strong trump card to be heard hollering to his partner: "Drop a load, drop a load." (That phrase has come to have a whole different meaning today.)
As kids we played Brisk mostly to kill time, but if you watched the old men play, it was no idle pastime...it was WAR! They sat in front of neighborhood Italian social clubs on Fulton Street, or at tables in Callahan-Kelly park near the bocci courts, and what should have been an pleasant game of cards turned into a Sicilian vendetta. It took an hour of screaming and gesturing just to pick partners. While they argued over the rules of the game, you could run up to the deli for a baloney hero on crispy-hot Italian bread, washed down with an icy cold Mission pineapple soda from the red ice chest outside the store, sit down on the curb and finish your lunch, and by the time you got back to the card game, the old men might just be getting underway.
And then there were the spectators. These wonderful old men, kindly grandfathers with great old world dignity, would turn into a wolf pack and kibitz the card players unmercifully. If two partners played a hand poorly, they would hear howls of laughter and hoots of derision. Men would pound their hand-carved canes against the chain-link fence for added effect as they tore into their victims in five different Italian dialects. The teasing would become especially vicious if the spectators were passing around the jar of cherries soaking for months in some old Italian moonshiner's basement in a homemade liqueur called "Strega". Eating a couple of these cherry-bombs gave one a mega-dose of what used to be called "Dutch courage."
The funny thing is if an outsider were to witness the swearing and hand gestures that usually accompanied the old men's card games, they would be ready to call the police for fear that violence was about to be done. What they didn't understand was that no matter how many purple veins bulged during the game, that afterwards the combatants would adjourn to the picnic table under the grapevine in somebody's back yard, share a jug of homemade red wine and laugh at the same jokes told in animated Italian that they had heard many times before.
Non-Italians can never understand how these conflicting emotions could co-exist so easily in us . We are undoubtedly a passionate and volatile people, but we move quickly from anger to laughter to tears. Even the great Enrico Caruso, seen here playing energetically with his son, was a "Briscola" fan. Maybe Puccini or Verdi should have written an opera called: "Briscola al Fresca". I know a park where he could have cast the male lead.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
Although the term "Gangster Heights" was used in jest, it was never mentioned in the presence of the residents, who were in fact, gangsters. I exaggerate of course, but it would be silly to deny that that particular section of Brooklyn spawned more than its share of made guys. It might lay claim to the title: "pinky ring capital of the world". One of the more famous residents was the actor Tony Siricco who played Paulie Walnuts in "The Sopranos". Tony hung around the corner of 86th Street and 13th Avenue, across from the Funeral Home, (whose rooms the Goodfellas help populate) and the local real estate office whose owners were alleged to have mob connections. We never thought much about having these guys living around us; our next-door neighbor was reputed to be connected, but he was just a nice guy in velour sweatsuits who never bothered us.
We attended St. Bernadette's Church a few blocks away, and thanks to my wife who has taken personal responsibility for my soul, went to Mass faithfully every Sunday. People dressed a little nicer for church in those days, especially under the watchful gaze of our pastor, Monsignor Barilla, who enforced the policy of: "No shirts, no shoes, no blessings". He was succeeded by Monsignor Santi Privitera, a tough old Italian who could have stared down the meanest wiseguy in the neighborhood. It was fun to watch the old Italian ladies waving their arms around to get the attention of an usher, and then with great fuss and ceremony, hand over a five-dollar bill, with the denomination showing of course, to demonstrate their worthiness to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Lilly and Tony were an older, childless couple who lived with Lilly's brother in the upstairs apartment, while we lived in what was called the "walk-in" apartment downstairs. Lilly was brash and loud, but nice underneath, and Tony struck me as a guy just looking to keep the peace and stay out of Lilly's way. One day Lilly called me all excited screaming: "You won the lottery, you won the lottery...it's in the Daily News." After I got my pulse under 200. we checked the paper and my name was there alright, but only as someone chosen for some kind of "second chance" drawing, not a lottery winner. The dreams of a mansion on Shore Road, a red Maserati and, in the famous words of Ed Norton, "a string of poloponies" evaporated as fast as they had come.
Dyker Heights was predominantly an Italian neighborhood. As you walked down the block on Sunday mornings, the smell of frying meatballs was mouthwatering. Men in "pizza-man" undershirts and sandals sat on the stoops reading the Daily News or hosing the life out of their sidewalks. (What is it with Italian men and hoses? I know what Freud would say.) The women on the block were beating rugs, hanging laundry on clotheslines, or tending the postage-sized gardens that added a touch of green to an otherwise concrete landscape. Kids played in the schoolyard on the corner, riding bikes, jumping rope, or a variation of stickball where home plate was painted on a brick wall. It was a peaceful street where you felt safe. Police rarely were called since anybody contemplating a crime in Gangster Heights usually thought twice about the consequences of crossing the locals.
We lived very happily in our three rooms until 1971, when our daughter Laura was about four, and her brother Michael was on the way. We would have loved to stay in the neighborhood, but the price of homes was out of reach for our growing, single income family. (This was in the days when you had to actually have more than a pulse to be granted a mortgage.) We eventually found a home we could barely afford in the "wilds" of Staten Island, and we are still here after 38 years. I had never set foot on Staten Island before; although it is a borough within the City of New York, for a Brooklyn kid it was like moving to Alaska. It has proven to be a wonderful place to raise a family, and I am happy despite the over development that continues to take place.
Although we are on Staten Island so long, I still think of myself as a Brooklyn boy. A few years ago I took a ride past our old house in East New York; it was a mistake. It looked small and shabby. The past, as we want it to remain, is best kept alive in our memories.