Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Italians and Religion

There was a great scene at the end of Godfather I where the director cut back and forth between Michael Corleone standing up as Godfather for his sister's child in Baptism in the sanctuary of a Catholic Church, while the soldiers in his Mafia family systematically and ruthlessly executed his father's enemies. The scene was a kind of metaphor for the ambivalent relationship between Italians and their religion. Historically, Italians have always had a strong connection to Catholicism, after all, their CEO is headquartered in Rome. Even today, approximately 90% of the population of Italy identifies itself as Catholic, although of that number, only about 1/3 are actually practicing Catholics.

When I grew up, being Italian was synonymous with being Catholic. My parents were Catholic and sent me to Catholic grammar school. The chances of me turning to any other religion were about the same as Elton John going out for the Rugby team. Every Sunday, rain or shine, I was at the 9:00 o'clock Mass with the rest of my class. At Our Lady of Lourdes, there were pews set aside for the school children, and you had better be in your appointed place or face an inquisition on Monday morning. I notice in many Catholic parishes today that kids are permitted to go to any weekend Mass and simply drop an attendance card in a box to prove they were there. The Franciscans weren't nearly that trusting.

Unlike my devout mother, my father Tony came to God late in life. He worked hard at two jobs supporting the family, and Sunday morning was his day to sleep. I never asked him why he made me go to church but never went himself. I thought it was his way of saying: "It's too late for me...save yourself". Imagine my surprise when later in his life Tony Boots got religion. He not only started going to Mass regularly, but became an usher and a member of the parish Holy Name Society, a group of men whose main pastimes, as near as I could tell, were drinking beer and playing cards. As a betting man, Tony probably looked at going to church in his sunset years as the religious equivalent of putting two bucks on the long shot's nose to Show after betting twenty on the favorite to Win.

My church was pretty straight-laced, with a mixture of Italian and Slavic families, and the Irish and German families who looked down on them by virtue of having arrived in America few years earlier, in the great waves of immigrants that washed over America in the late 1800's and early 1900's. A short distance away, however, on Sackman Street, stood Our Lady of Loreto Church, built by and peopled with parishioners almost exclusively of Italian descent. Going to Mass there was never boring. Sunburned men who did backbreaking manual labor during the week sat there looking uncomfortable in their ill-fitting Sunday suits under the eyes of their tight-lipped, dark-eyed wives who knew that church was their province. As families entered the church, the Italian ladies, already seated with their families, stared them down lest they take a pew closer to the altar. The few who dared may have heard the word "Putana" in a muttered stage whisper.

Religion is supposed to be about charity and forgiveness, two qualities that old-time Italians were not so big on. Usually in Our Lady of Loreto, despite pastor Monsignor Baretta's request for a "silent" collection (paper money only) the passing of the basket was usually accompanied by the loud jingle of coins. These people worked hard for their money and parted with it reluctantly. If they were to deposit paper money, they needed the full attention of the congregation. On such rare occasions, the donor would stand up and loudly call out to the usher while conspicuously waving the bill in the air for all to see. When the usher reached them, they made a great fuss about dropping the money into the basket with a flourish.

As for forgiveness, Italians may forget, but they do not forgive. In Italy, especially around Sicily where vengeance has been raised to an art form, there are at least 50,000 vendettas playing out on any given day. Vendetta in Italian refers to a feud between families or clans that arises out of a slaying and is perpetuated by retaliatory acts of revenge; a blood feud. What does this have to do with religion and church you may wonder. Well the old-time Italians were not beneath praying for misfortune to befall a rival. They rarely prayed for someone's death, after all that would be un-Christian. Maybe just a case of excruciatingly painful boils, thank you Lord.

I am an Italian-American and I accept that with all it entails. As a people we are complex and certainly not perfect, but looking back on my childhood, growing up in my Italian family, I really wouldn't have it any other way.


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

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Bowling for Memories

Before HDTVs, multiplex cinemas, and smart phones, there was bowling. In the 1950s, bowling was really coming on strong, although they peaked in the 1960s, with about 14,000 across the country. They even televised early bowling matches with pro-legends like Carmen Salvino and Dick Weber. Bowling was popular because it didn't require any special equipment, was relatively cheap, and something families could do together. It was also a popular activity for first dates. The rapid growth of television put a lot of neighborhood movie theaters out of business, and in their places sprang up bowling alleys. Our alley of choice was Lucky Strike Lanes on Atlantic Avenue and Crescent Street.

Lucky Strike was an older bowling alley that looked run down compared to the newer, modern alleys being built. It was so old that for a while they had lanes set aside for Duckpins, a form of bowling that uses smaller pins and a smaller ball. This was the game that Rip Van Winkle is reputed to have invented, and I wouldn't be surprised if Rip rolled a few games at Lucky Strike. When we first started bowling there, they still had pin boys who would climb up on a ledge behind the bowling pins and manually reset the pins after each frame. Most of them were not boys but hard drinking men who probably couldn't get any other work.

Lucky Strike had a snack stand and a bar that sold beer and soft drinks. I think beers were fifteen cents a glass, and every few frames someone would holler out "beer frame", and whoever had the worst score that frame was shamed into buying the next round. You would think that, understandably, after a few beery games like this, that scores would begin to decline. The lanes were so old though, that after tens of thousands of heavy balls rolling toward the pocket, there was an indentation worn into the wood such that any ball drunkenly flung down the alley would settle into this groove and voilĂ , a strike.

At some point we formed a team and even got a sponsor, a neighborhood Hoffman soda distributor. Our team shirts were a cream color with the sponsors name written in green letters on the back. (Yes, that's me at left at around age 16, before my back gave out.) We couldn't afford to buy our own custom-drilled balls so we had to use whatever house balls were on the racks. It was a bummer if you got there and somebody had already claimed your ball. Eventually I found a ladies' ball that fit me pretty well, and I could always be sure of finding it since it was a lovely lavender color. We rented shoes for fifteen cents; no extra charge for the fungus. We had a couple of good bowlers, but most of the teams in the league were comprised of older men who bowled us under the table.

When the nicer lanes appeared, sadly, Lucky Strike closed its doors. Guys wanted to take their girls to the gleaming chrome and neon palaces opening in Brooklyn like Maple Lanes on 60th Street and Gil Hodges Lanes in Mill Basin. Games were only a quarter back then, so for around five bucks you and your date were good to go for a night of entertainment including bowling and food. We would often go with groups of guys, and sometimes a few girls would join in. It allowed us to mingle with the opposite sex without the pressure of going on a "date".

My granddaughter likes to bowl, and the alleys today are great with kids. They have ramps to roll the balls down so they have enough speed to make it to the pins. They also use bumpers near the gutters so kids don't throw gutter balls. They are fabulous places with indirect lighting, full restaurants, automated, electronic scoring, and not a pin boy in sight.


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

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Meet Carmine and Millie

As a kid I realized things at home were tight, so I always tried to hustle a buck. For an eighth grader with no experience, jobs were hard to come by. I would shovel snow or run errands for people in the neighborhood for nickels and dimes. My Aunt Mary and Uncle Nick had a small dressmaking business on Jamaica Avenue in Brooklyn. Diagonally across the street on the corner of Miller Avenue stood a store that sold fruit, cold cuts, bread, beer and soda, and a few household necessities. I guess it would be called a deli today, but in the Fifties we just referred to it by the name of the owner, as in "Go to Carmine's and get me a container of milk."

Thanks to a recommendation from Aunt Mary, I started working at Carmine's after school and on weekends. Carmine was an older man who never wore anything but pizza-man undershirts and dirty khakis covered by an equally dirty apron. He had a perpetually sad, basset hound expression on his face, but the gentlest disposition of anyone I ever met. Carmine's wife had passed away in childbirth, and the child she delivered, Millie, helped her father run the store. I guess as Carmine got older, lugging heavy beer and soda cases up and down the stairs became too much for him. Also, he wanted to compete with another neighborhood store who began delivering groceries to homes in the area.

I rode my bike to work since it was too far to walk from my house. I used a big wagon to deliver the orders that Carmine would pack into brown bags. The amount of the order was written on the side of one of the bags, and Carmine would give me some singles and loose coins in case I had to make change. The area I delivered in was a cut above where I lived, and most people would throw me a quarter for the delivery. Once I pushed a loaded wagon up the steep hill that was Miller Avenue and delivered to an older woman living on one of the poshest streets in Brooklyn, Highland Avenue. She gave me what I thought was a dollar tip and I shoved it into my pocket. When I got back to the store, I pulled it out and it was a ten! I thought about going back to ask her if she made a mistake, but then I thought about where she lived and where I lived, and the ten stayed in my pocket.

When Millie got to know me, she would sit me down on the bench outside the store and just talk. She was a large, rather homely looking girl of maybe 25, and she seemed lonely. She would ask about my family and friends, what I liked to do, did I date girls, and who my favorite movie stars were. I didn't think much of it at the time, after all, chatting with Millie was a lot easier on a hot day than shlepping cases of beer and soda down to the cellar. Carmine rarely bothered us during these little chats. I sensed he knew Millie was lonely, and that somehow these talks with me eased things a bit. Carmine even softened up and let me work the cash register, something I could tell he was loath to do. It infringed on his status somehow as the store's owner and proprietor.

One thing I always wanted to do, but could never convince Carmine to give me the nod on, was to work the cold cut slicing machine. In the deli business the guy who slices the cold cuts is the top dog. Knowing how to adjust the slicer for different thicknesses of baloney, and to have those slices fall gently into your free hand while you pushed the slicer with the other is like a choreographed ballet. Carmine was a smart man and probably saw a trip to the emergency room in my future if I ever got anywhere near that machine. I would console myself with a trip to the basement where I would drink warm beer from the bottle. Carmine never let on that he missed the bottles, but I figure he just included them in my employee benefits package.

While at work I was free to eat and drink as much as I wanted. I probably ate the equivalent of my weekly salary, since I could really put it away when I was a skinny kid. Every Saturday that sweet old man would pay me in cash, and fill a bag with cold cuts and fruit for my mother. I'm sure those little extras helped us out a lot in the weeks when my father had a bad run at the race track. The Boy Scouts teach the concept of "giving back" to the community in recognition of those who may have helped us along in life. There were so many people in my life like Carmine who had faith in me or showed me a kindness...I have tried my best to pass it forward.


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