Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Mayor of Union Street

I think one of the reasons I enjoy traveling to Italy so much, apart from the obvious beauty of the place, is that I feel very comfortable around Italians. The men and women I saw on my trips look just like the ones from my old Brooklyn neighborhood. I am not referring to the younger Italians who live in the cities, who look so slim and elegant in their fashionable clothes, but rather the older, country people who inhabit the streets of every small town in Italy. Their brown faces, mended sweaters and the way they gesture with their hands when they talk is so familiar to me.

In my old neighborhood, every block had an old Italian man the residents referred to as "the Mayor" who sat out on his stoop 16 hours a day observing. Among his most important duties were to keep any balls we kids hit into his vicinity, yell profanities in Italian at any kid who was fast enough to retrieve a ball before the Mayor could scoop it up, and rat out any kid who did something bad to the kid's parents. The Mayor was under contract to DiNoboli to smoke only their smelly cigars. The stubs of unfinished cigars would be stashed in the mailbox to be smoked another day. The Mayor's uniform was a simple one: gray cardigan sweater over a white shirt, worn trousers held up with suspenders or a safety pin, scruffy slippers and sometimes an old cap.

Neighbors called the Mayor Zio Nicola or Zio Antonio or some other Italian name, Zio being a term of respect in Italian that translates as uncle. He acknowledged their greetings but rarely smiled unless the greeter happened to be an Italian woman. Then the Mayor became the soul of chivalry, tipping his hat if he was wearing one and exchanging pleasantries in Italian...a regular Marcello Mastroianni. One of the Mayor's favorite pastimes was playing briscola, an Italian card game that involved communicating the contents of your hand to your partner without the other players catching on. Apparently the rules called for wild gesticulating and much cursing. Home made Italian liqueur was frequently served to fuel the debate.

The old Italian women on my street were fixtures too, with their black dresses and grey hair in buns. They rarely went indoors for fear that the other Italian women would talk about them. We used to make money running errands so they wouldn't have to leave their posts on the stoop. In the summer they loved the shaved ices with flavored syrup that were sold off a push cart. Since it would be undignified for them to negotiate this transaction in person, they would give us the money, usually wrapped in an old lace handkerchief, and we would do the deed. Our reward was a few pennies, or if they were feeling generous, they would treat us to an ice and then pump us for gossip about what was going on in our families.

These were displaced people who came to America from Italy and tried to fit in. Many insisted their children learn American ways and they encouraged this by never speaking of their lives in Italy or conversing in their native tongue except among themselves. Their children and grandchildren were poorer for this. My wife's grandfather, Vincenzo Salamo, was the Mayor of Union Street in Park Slope. He would take in all the neighbors' empty trash cans and pick up paper bus transfers which were good for a free ride back then and hand them out magnaminously to people on the block. 

In Italy I saw people in small towns sitting in small groups and talking animatedly. If I closed my eyes I could have been standing on Rockaway Avenue or Fulton Street listening to a spirited debate as to whether Naples or Sicily was the superior birthplace. Viva Italia!     


Children's Craniofacial Association

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