Monday, May 18, 2009

Neighborhood Character: S

Every Brooklyn neighborhood had at least one woman who was the model for the stereotypical Italian grandmother: dressed all in black, salt and pepper hair pulled back into a bun (knitting needles sticking out of the bun optional), corrective stockings, facial mole, and a budding moustache. Our neighborhood was no exception; we will call her S; it will soon become apparent why I can't use her real name. I seem to recall that this woman was related to our family somehow, but the connection escapes me. Most of these women were harmless, but S was the incarnation of evil. She had been widowed early in life, and devoted her remaining years to making trouble.

S enjoyed the swirl of controversy around her. She lived for spreading malicious gossip, and when her sources dried up, she simply invented tales to get the pot boiling. I was too young to understand her meddling, but I heard the adults in our family discussing S and her nasty little plots. She would set people against each other, pretend to be sympathetic to both sides, and then innocently step back to watch the action unfold. People feared her and what stories she would spread about them. They tried being nice to her, never understanding that a pat on the back from her only meant she was looking for a soft spot to insert the knife.

Women like S were sad but dangerous. Its was as if, having sustained loss and pain themselves, they were determined to inflict it on others. Italians tend to be emotional and dramatic in temperament, and where others might have just ignored S's dirty little rumors, in our neighborhood they blossomed into street corner operas. In Italy, the second most popular sport after soccer is plotting vendettas, and S relied on this tendency in Italians to believe the worst of others, especially if they themselves felt insulted or disparaged in any way. S would plant her poison pills and they would fester; soon her victims, having been warned by S of someone's bad intentions toward them would actually begin to see their adversaries behaving badly...the self-fulfilling prophecy.

When things finally came to a head, S would be the first to cluck and shake her head over the breakup of a marriage or a fistfight between friends who she had turned into rivals with her forked tongue. The amazing thing is that even though people knew her reputation for causing trouble, instead of ignoring her, they let their Italian tempers get the better of them and allowed themselves to be manipulated by S to her great delight. One of her tricks for gathering bits of gossip was to visit people's homes in the guise of a healer. She performed these Italian folk rituals and employed ages old remedies for common ailments like fevers and colds.

Italians are prone to superstitions like the "evil eye" (Malocchio) and the ritual for cleansing someone so afflicted. Some Italian men wear the devil's horn amulet around their necks to ward off curses on their "manliness". An old superstition is that a loaf of bread must always be placed face up or bad luck will come. Italian immigrants, before moving into new homes would always sweep the place clean with a new broom to remove evil spirits, and sprinkle salt in the corners of the house to purify it. Modern medicines were not always available in rural Italy, and many folk medicines and ancient techniques bordering on witchcraft took their place. S capitalized on these superstitions and her supposed knowledge of these remedies. On the pretext of helping people, she would gain their confidence, get them to confide in her, and then, like the wicked witch in Snow White, go off to do her damage.

I recall once S coming to see me when I had injured my leg. The "cure" she used involved taking a coin and wrapping it in a cloth that had been soaked in olive oil. A flame was then touched to the cloth and extinguished. The smoking cloth containing the hot coin was then applied to my leg and a glass inverted over it. The theory was that the pain was supposed to be carried out of my leg by the smoke and into the glass. Besides smelling up the kitchen and scaring the hell out of me, I don't think it did much. Turns out I had cartilage on my knee, ending what was a promising baseball career.

I don't know what makes people want to go through life doing evil. Father Gonzalez from my old church would argue that it is the devil. When I think of all the harm S did in her life, I can only hope that in the afterlife she got to face some of the people whose lives she tampered with. Maybe they crossed paths in Heaven's lobby as she caught the elevator down to meet her master.


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


Joseph Del Broccolo said...

Do you recall "Sloppy John" the vegetable stand guy? He was on Stone Avenue between Hull and MacDougal streets? Talk about the evil eye.

Jim Pantaleno said...

Don'r remember. I must have passed there a million times on the way to school. SOme of those stores were pretty sleazy.