Monday, January 26, 2009

Home Sweet Home

My friend Joe from our old Brooklyn neighborhood recently wrote in his blog about the house he once lived in on Hull Street, a block away from my old address on Somers Street. http://delbloggolo.blogspot.com/

I didn't know Joe back then, but three of my best friends grew up on Hull Street, Rich Bilello, Joe (Lefty) Fierro and Joe Alba. I recently went to Google Maps where, if you key in your old address, it brings up a satellite picture of the house right on the screen. The sight of the old place stirred mixed feelings: on one hand, the exterior looked almost as I remembered it, the two brown brick stoops side by side where we sat and played for hours (my good friend Phil Simeone lived next door); on the other hand it was sad to see what had become of the property over the years. The Weeping Willow tree, under which Phil's grandfather sat every day holding court was gone, the privet hedge in front of my house, out of which I retrieved a thousand Spaldeens that found their way in there while we played stoop ball was gone, but worst of all the place looked so much smaller than when I was a kid.

I was born on Pacific Street off Rockaway Avenue, over the old Bilello bakery (cousin of Rich's I think) and down the block from Our Lady of Loretto church. When I was two, we moved to Somers Street, a pleasant block of row houses, not the elegant brownstones found in some Brooklyn neighborhoods, but solid, respectable brick homes. I don't know how my parents could even afford a house, but somehow they managed, probably with help from my father's mother, Lucia. The deal was a costly one for our family though, because it meant that Grandma would be living with us. I won't elaborate on Grandma Lucia (may she rest in peace). All I'll say is that she was the antithesis of the stereotypical loving Italian grandmother, and she went out of her way to make my poor mother's life miserable.

Our house was three storeys tall. On the first floor were the "parlor" or sitting room (with the fake fireplace), kitchen and bath. The second floor had three bedrooms, and a rentable, three-room apartment comprised the third floor. We rented the apartment to my cousin Pete and his wife Leah who had two children, Peter and Mary Ellen. Pete came from the Caruso branch of the family on my father's side. All the Caruso brothers were loud and raucous except Pete. He was the youngest, and somehow, while growing up in that crazy family, turned out to be one of the sweetest, most gentle men I ever knew. Pete would come downstairs and sit with me for hours, drawing pictures of ships like those he served on in the navy.


We ate all our meals in the kitchen, as there was no formal dining room. Before the miracle of science known as the "Formica table" we sat at a red and white enamel table with fold-down leafs, the ones that sell as antiques today. Mom prepared all our food on a "modern" gas stove; out in the "shed" an unheated room off the kitchen leading to the back yard, sat a cast iron coal stove (another antique) that was no longer used. It must have been there when we bought the house since it would take a Herculean effort to move. As with most Italian families, the kitchen was the center of activity. We nearly always sat down together as a family for dinner, my father usually in a shirt and tie and my mom in a house dress. The psychologists tell us today that this single ritual is among the most important in building a sense of family values. We took it for granted.

The bedrooms were pretty spacious, with parquet floors and high ceilings. My room faced the front of the house, and had a big window looking out on the street. In the dog days of summer, I would swing my bed around so that I could sleep with my head practically out the window. This was in the days before air conditioning...hell, when we got a fan I thought we were "movin' on up!" My parent's bedroom was at the rear of the house, with my sister Cathy's room in the middle. The rooms were separated by sliding wooden doors that recessed into the walls. I can remember how safe I felt in that room, listening to The Lone Ranger and The Jack Benny Show on the radio. It was a different time before the world became such a dangerous place to live.

Probably 90% of our family lived within a two mile radius of our house, the Lagonigros down the block, the Bivonas, Camardis and Carusos all within walking distance. Holidays were times for the clans to gather, for cousins to play together, and for food and laughter. There were hard times too to be sure, but somehow being surrounded by people who cared about you made them a little easier. Mostly, there were good times: Christmas, Thanksgiving, Baptisms, Communions, Confirmations, birthdays, weddings, family picnics, trips to Coney Island, a lifetime of memories centered around a small street in Brooklyn.

Thomas Wolfe said: "You can't go home again." Maybe not physically, as the Google photos of my old house showed me, but there's a different way to make that journey. It's not healthy to live in the past, but it's OK to visit once in a while. Just close your eyes and become ten years old again...home is waiting for you just the way you remembered it.


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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dad Gum It, the Railroad's Coming Through Here!

We all have memories of special toys from our childhood, the ones we can still see in our mind’s eye with surprising clarity after so many years. For me, it’s my model trains. During the 1950’s, model railroading was probably at its height, and just about every boy I knew dreamed of finding a set of Lionel trains under the tree. One Christmas I got my trains, and although they were not Lionel, (they were made by Marx), I loved them and couldn't wait to set them up around the tree. (Louis Marx was a respected toy manufacturer whose trains are highly collectible today.)

My father Tony must have hit a daily double that year, because I not only got the basic train set with locomotive, cars and track, but the train station that went with it. I was beside myself when I saw it; the kind of pure joy that we rarely get to experience as adults. I have an old super 8 home movie of my son Michael absolutely flipping out one Christmas after getting a gift he really wanted. He jumped up and down, rolled around on the ground, and generally behaved like a lunatic. I honestly don't recall my reaction to getting those trains, but I imagine it was pretty much the same as Michael's. I know my parents must have sacrificed to buy me such a present, and I hope my gratitude was animated enough to give them their money's worth.

The train consisted of the classic black locomotive with an operating front light, coal car, oil tanker, flatcar, cattle car and caboose. These were the large, "standard gauge" trains made of metal, not the flimsy plastic ones made today. They sat solidly on metal track, the pieces of which fit snugly together and could be configured in different track designs. Later model locomotives had a whistle, and pellets you could drop down the engine stack to produce real smoke. I didn't need these extras; my imagination readily supplied all the sights, sounds and smells of a real railroad. (I picked up model railroading again when my kids were young. It was fun, but on a different, less exuberant level.)

The Marx train station featured inside lights, and there was a control switch built into the station that allowed you to regulate the speed of the train as it approached. There were also tiny accessories like a baggage cart, a food vendor's cart, and a station conductor holding a lantern to signal the engineer as the train arrived. As time passed, we added to the basic set. We had a log car that could be unloaded by a crane onto a special platform, a trestle bridge that allowed you to raise the tracks and elevate the train layout over a roadway, and of course a couple of tunnels through the mountain made of painted metal.

Starting the week after Thanksgiving, I would begin to hound my father. "When can we put up the trains"? My Dad was a fairly patient, good-humored person who naturally preferred to wait until we put up the Christmas tree before we tackled the trains. It was much easier that way than the other way round. I like to think I wasn't a whinny kid, but when I put my mind to it, I was very good. I wore the poor man down and, with him swearing mightily as we worked, the trains always went up before the tree. After a couple of years of this, during which I added many new curse words to my vocabulary, Tony gave up and allowed me to do it myself.

Another big fad of the fifties was cowboy shows on TV, and I worked this theme into my train games. We used to collect little, painted lead figures of cowboys and Indians, and I would use these to stage daring train robberies, Indian attacks featuring naked savages leaping from the top of the tunnels onto the moving train, and people tied to the tracks who (most of the time) were rescued just before the train sliced them into cold cuts. I would do this for hours on end, completely absorbed, loving the faint smells of oil and electricity as the train did its figure eights around the track. When I got older, my Mom gave the trains to my cousin Nicky; I hope he enjoyed them as much as I did.

My father worked two jobs to keep us going, so he didn't get to spend that much time with me at play. The time I did have with him was special to me. Tony taught me to ride a bike, he got me started in the railroad business, and thanks to Dad, I can curse with the best of them.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Neighborhood Character: Dr. Ruggerio

Remember that scary scene from the movie "Marathon Man when bad guy Sir Laurence Oliver was torturing poor Dustin Hoffman with a dentist's drill to get him to talk? Check the credits and you'll see my old dentist, Dr. Ruggerio, was the technical advisor for that scene. The good doctor could have made Osama Bin Laden convert to Judaism if he ever got him strapped in to that damned chair. Dr. Ruggerio had an office on Fulton Street, just off Rockaway Avenue in the old neighborhood. I think he leased that space because the sounds of the elevated train that passed just outside his window drowned out the screams coming from his office.

The office was in one of those typical Brooklyn apartment buildings that were mostly residential units with some commercial space for offices and stores on the ground floor. As I recall, the doctor's office was on the second floor, reached by stairs from the lobby. I use the term "lobby" with some reservation because I don't want you envisioning a pleasant, common area equipped with cozy sofas and potted plants. The lobby was no more than a landing where the building super kept his kids' bikes chained to the garbage pails under the stairs. When the building was constructed, they somehow permanently infused the lobby with the pungent smell of cooking cabbage that I'm sure lingers there to this day.

As you entered the office, the first thing you saw against the wall was a glass-doored cabinet filled with an assortment of dental instruments developed during the Spanish Inquisition. Sharp picks, tiny hammers, pliers, clamps and other scary paraphernalia that immediately struck terror into the heart of a small child. Why Dr. Ruggerio chose this cabinet of horrors to be the first thing patients were confronted with, I'll never know. Perhaps it was to send a message: "This ain't gonna be a day at the beach, little man."

Usually the person who greeted you was Millie, the doctor's receptionist/nurse/office assistant. If they ever made a movie of Dr. Ruggerio's life, Millie would be played by Shelly Winters. She was a classically tough Brooklyn blonde. Under that gruff exterior was an even gruffer interior. Millie took no lip, either from the patients or her boss. She and the doctor communicated by screaming at each other. He would holler: "Millie, one amalgam, now!" (I think an amalgam was the medicinal-tasting paste they mixed up to fill a cavity.) She would holler back: "Keep your pants on doc, I only got two hands!" They were an odd couple to be sure, with mutual animosity being the only thing they had in common.

Dr. Ruggerio was a strikingly handsome man, tall and slim, with a Cary Grant chiseled chin and a full head of black hair streaked with silver. Unfortunately, his benevolent appearance belied his satanic nature. First of all, he used Novocaine only in cases of imminent death. "This won't hurt much, so why have a numb jaw" was the big lie he told. The drill he used wasn't like the modern, high-speed ones used today that spray water, oh no grasshopper. Dr. Ruggerio's drill was a massive piece of porcelain and metal machinery complete with whirring motors and belts that drove the drill. For all this firepower, the freakin' drill made about six rotations a minute...you could actually count them! And to add to the fun, smoke came out of your mouth because the low drill speed created friction on the tooth's unyielding surface!

Once the hole had been drilled in the tooth, Dr. Death (without benefit of Novocaine remember) would bring out the ultimate pain-producing instrument, the air hose that blew pressurized cold air into the sensitive cavity. That would have got Dustin Hoffman to talk! Oh, I forgot to mention, the whole time he was working on you, it was not uncommon for Dr. Ruggerio to have a cigarette in his mouth with the ash dangling precariously over your gaping maw. In the days before fluoridated water, cavities were far more common than today. Most folks my age have a mouth full of silver, and the psychological scars to prove they paid the price for their cavities.

I get a kick out of modern-day dentists' offices with all the kid-friendly equipment, the latest Disney movie on the DVD player, and the legions of pastel-clad assistants on hand to get little Jason through the ordeal of his first cavity. I like the poster my dentist has hanging in his waiting room of a bunch of happy, smiling kids who qualified for the "No Cavities"" club. I'll bet Dr. Ruggerio could wipe those dopey smiles off their faces faster than you could say: "Millie, one amalgam, now!"


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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Peasants Had It Right!

Winter is here and for me that means soup. I'm not talkin' watery tomato soup out of a can from Campbell's, ugh. I'm talkin' Italian soups that my mother made from ingredients that, except for the chicken, cost under a buck back in the fifties. Hearty, stick to your ribs soups like Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta and Bean Soup); Pasta Lenticchie (Pasta and Lentil Soup); Pasta Piselli (Pasta with Peas); Pasta e Ceci (Chickpea and Pasta Soup); Scarola e Fagioli (Escarole and Beans); and finally, Chicken Soup (no translation needed.)

Many wonderful Italian dishes like these arose, not out of culinary creativity, but out of economic necessity. The dishes originated among Italian peasants who were poor. Meat was a luxury for many Italian families so it did not feature prominently in their everyday table fare. They had it mostly on Sundays, and of course on holidays, but during the week they ate what they could afford. Beans and greens were plentiful; many even grew their own, and pasta was always available, mainly because they made it themselves. Crusty, fresh-baked bread completed these meals along with a glass of home-made red wine.

Italians entered this country in numbers, starting in the late 1800s and through the immigration boom into the early twentieth century. They settled mostly in areas like lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn where enclaves of Italian immigrants already existed. Lucky for us, these simple but delicious and very nutritious dishes traveled with them. Since I hit my teens, I have developed a severe dislike for winter that grows worse with age. The one saving grace this dark, cold, miserable season offers is hot soup for dinner.

It's ironic that although these dishes were created by and for peasants, they have today gained a new cache with the rich and famous. It has been found that foods like beans, greens, and even pasta are very good for you, high in protein and low in fat. All the chi-chi Italian restaurants in Manhattan now offer these soups, but at ridiculously expensive prices. What some of them charge for a plate of Pasta e Fagioli and a glass of wine is criminal. Don't pay it, it's easy to make your own, and infinitely cheaper.

If you're not Italian, and have not had the pleasure of trying some of these dishes, you're in for a treat. Although some time and preparation is required, the soups are not difficult to make. There are many recipes available on the Internet; below are links to some that looked reasonably authentic. If you're afraid to try cooking them, as a last resort you can (forgive me Mom) buy the canned variety; Progresso makes some very good ones. Always serve these soups with crusty Italian bread, plenty of grated Italian cheese and red wine; they will make you long for winter.
  1. Recipe: Pasta and Bean Soup (Pasta e Fagioli)
  2. Lentil Soup with Pasta - Pasta e Lenticchie
  3. The Italian Chef Recipes - Pasta Piselli
  4. Romanelli's Pasta e Ceci, or Chickpea and Pasta Soup
  5. Escarole and Bean Soup: Giada De Laurentiis : Food Network
  6. Classic Italian Chicken Soup - FoodFit.com

I think one of the reasons I love Italian soups so much is that they are bound up with memories of my mother. She knew how to warm us up when we came in on a winter night, and I think about her sometimes when my wife (a soup whiz herself) makes one of her specialties for dinner. I can't think of a better reason for eating them.

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

"Oh, Oh, Oh, It's Bonomo's... C-a-a-ndy"

During the fifties, novelty and convenience foods were just getting off the ground. New technologies for food production, packaging and preservation were opening up the possibilities for fun things to do with food. Also, the growth of television and marketing techniques greatly helped to raise demand for these new products. "Fast food" was a virtually untapped market waiting for some smart American entrepreneurs to unleash. Looking back, some of these products seem silly now, but to us as kids back then, they were new and fun.

Flav-r Straws: Chocolate syrup to flavor milk (like Bosco, George Costanza's ATM password on Seinfeld) was always around, but Flav-r Straws were new. They were designed to get kids to drink more milk. Basically, they were nothing more than a plastic straw with a flavored insert (chocolate or strawberry) that released its flavor as milk was sucked through the straw. As I recall, the taste was lousy, but the novelty of drinking milk in this way helped to excite our under-stimulated little brains.

Bonomo's Turkish Taffy: This stuff was like eating flavored window caulk, but it caught on because it was well marketed. You may remember their catchy jingle: "Oh, oh, oh, it's Bonomo's... c-a-a-ndy." The commercials advised you to break up this flat, rectangular block of taffy by "smacking and cracking it" into small pieces. This controlled aggression appealed to our violent childhood instincts. In the 1950's, Bonomo's Turkish Taffy wisely advertised on children's television programs, among them "The Magic Clown", "Wonderama" and I think "the Howdy Doody Show."

Swanson's TV Dinners: TV dinners revolutionized food preparation habits for a generation of mothers looking for an easier way to feed their families. In the fifties, home freezers were getting larger and people were getting addicted to television. Swanson Foods jumped in at just the right time with their enormously popular TV dinners. The food was just OK, but the idea of defrosting a dinner that came in its own compartmentalized tray, and eating it in front of the TV was a sensation.

Dixie Cups: A simple, small cup of ice cream, half vanilla and half chocolate, for ten cents. Not much until you peeled away the thin layer covering the inside of the Dixie Cop lid to reveal a picture of your favorite athlete or movie star! As kids we collected and traded these lids; some kids just threw away the ice cream and kept the lids. Today, they go for up to $60 bucks on ebay.

McDonald's Hamburgers: Ray Kroc, an ambitious 52-year old milkshake mixer salesman,was intrigued by his healthy sales to McDonald's, a California burger joint. He and the McDonald brothers (Dick and Mac)cut a deal where Kroc would become the exclusive franchise agent for the restaurant, and a legend was born. The chain spread like wildfire at a time when "fast food" was just getting off the ground. Fifties kids were hooked for life, unfortunately for their waistlines and cholesterol count. Today, annual sales for McDonald's are around $23 billion, not bad...they can afford platinum arches now.

PEZ: Invented by an Austrian in 1927 as mint-flavored candies to help people stop smoking, PEZ didn’t become popular until 1952 when they came out in fruit flavors with “character” heads on the dispensers. The candy looked and tasted like little bars of soap, but never mind…a market phenomenon was born. The novelty of the dispenser package put PEZ over the top.

In the fifties, way before I-pods, cell phones and video games, we were starved for new things. As tame as these items may seem today, we excitedly welcomed them into our lives. Pathetic, huh.


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Saturday, January 3, 2009

"Peace Be WIth You"

For eight straight years of my life, I went to the nine o'clock Mass every Sunday at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Brooklyn. This was not by choice, but one of the requirements for every student at the school. Your parents didn't show up at the school demanding you be exempt from this regulation...that would have made you an ex-student of the school. There was no negotiation; they either took you to Mass (or sent you when you got older) or found another school. This would be hard for parents to accept today because following any simple rule, even if it causes no inconvenience, is something people just seem unable to do. Things were different then.

We sat together with our class, row after row of pews filled with sleepy but prayerful children listening for the next click of the nun's "froggie" that told you when to stand, kneel or sit. For some reason I remember the nuns (the Sisters of St. Joseph) always pulled church duty on Sundays, even though we were taught by lay teachers up to the fourth grade and Franciscan Brothers (nuns for the girls) from the fifth grade on. The nuns were not like the nuns of today who walk around in Land's End slacks and stylish blouses, these ladies were in full uniform. All black habits from head to toe, with a heavily starched headdress that framed their faces. They must have been extremely uncomfortable, and this discomfort was taken out on any kid who dared misbehave.

We were like ten year old Rockettes, moving in unison to the nun's froggie clicker. Standing, kneeling, sitting...the United States Marine Corps drill team had nothing on us. Filing out of the pews to march up to the altar to receive Communion, at the time taken on the tongue while kneeling at the altar, and not in the hand while standing, like we do today. If you ever reached out to take the host in your hand, a flying squad of nuns would tackle you like the "fearsome foursome" from the old L.A. Rams. We were told that you couldn't even touch the host with your tongue while it was in your mouth! If the dry wafer stuck to the roof of your mouth, it had to stay there until it dissolved. Even if it lodged in your airway, a martyr's death was preferable to putting your tongue on the host.

The good Sisters patrolled those aisles like tireless sentries looking for any excuse to give you a knuckle to the head. They were pros...it hurt like hell but the marks never showed. Putting your hands in your pocket, sleeping, talking, slouching, trading baseball cards, no infraction was ever missed by their predator's eyes. Occasionally someone would break out in a fit of smothered laughter if the kid sitting next to them did something clever like wipe a bogger off on their pants. Asking a couple of hundred kids to sit still for an hour was a lot, but the nuns managed us like Texas wranglers manage a herd, using the whip freely.

We had a few kids in our class who took it upon themselves to test the good Sisters resolve to keep order in church. One capital offense was chewing gum, the penalty for which, depending on which nun was in the machine gun tower that day, ranged from a "punish lesson" like writing: "I will not chew gum in church" 100 times, or a more drastic punishment like having the gum stuck in your hair until you got home. Most parents today would storm the school with their lawyer in tow if this happened to any of their precious babies. When we got home and told our mothers what happened, they calmly got a pair of scissors, cut the gum along with a handful of hair out of your head, and then beat the crap out of you for embarrassing them in front of the nuns.

One boy, let's call him Robert K., would not be tamed. He took his lumps from whatever nun was on pew patrol, and kept coming back for more. One day in the classroom he turned around to show us that he drank from his bottle of aquamarine ink (we used fountain pens in those pre-Bic days) and his lips and teeth were stained a lovely Caribbean blue. The effect this produced on the class, to his simple mind, was worth the beating he took. Back to church...Robert's crowning stunt came one morning during a quiet Sunday Mass, and involved one of those flat rubber noise makers with the wooden mouthpiece that produced rude, razzing sounds something like...well, you know.

On duty that day was a nun we'll call Sister B., five feet of dynamite who had a right cross better than Rocky Graziano's. The first time "the noise" was heard, everybody held their breath. This couldn't be happening in church! Sister B. cocked her head to one side like a drowsy lion who picks up the faint scent of a wildebeest off in the distance. The flatulent noise came again, this time louder. Sister B. was homing in. The third and final time the noise sounded, she had him. Robert's hunched shoulders were shaking as he tried to stifle his laughter, but the game was up. Sister had him by the hair of his sideburns, a technique so painful that you'll follow whoever is pulling you that way to the gates of hell! We never saw him again. Some say he was expelled from school, but others still believe Sister B. dragged him out into the churchyard and devoured him whole.

I'm a creature of habit; I like my routines. I often wonder if this craving for predictability and order arose while spending those Sunday mornings under the watchful eyes of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, who let you know in no uncertain terms when you had stepped over the line.


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