Remembering the South Bronx…and good food on Arthur Avenue.

I spent quite a good amount of time in the

notorious South Bronx, as both the High School and College I attended  were within its somewhat vague boundaries. During the years that I spent

most of my time there, the late 60’s and early 70’s , the South Bronx was in a state of decay and was rightfully considered a pretty dangerous part of the City. Those that specialize in New York history cite a number of reasons for the decay and increase in crime. White flight, landlord abandonment, major changes in demographics as well as the Construction  of the Cross Bronx Expressway have been cited as major contributing factors.The reason that the  Cross Bronx Expressway was listed is that when it was completed in 1963, it had basically cut through the heart of the South Bronx,displacing thousands of residents and businesses. In addition the already poor neighborhoods saw property values drop even more because of their proximity to the Expressway.

Anyway, enough of the history. The bottom line is that by the time I was in HS, ( Cardinal Hays) and College( Fordham), the South Bronx was in decay and it was not a very safe place to be.

I remember a World Series game played at Yankee Stadium when announcer Howard Costell made the now famous statement that “The Bronx is Burning” on national television.He was referring to a rampage of arson that was sweeping the South Bronx. To validate his point , the TV showed an aerial shot of the area around the stadium. Uncontrolled fires could be seen everywhere . My High School was in walking distance to Yankee Stadium. You get the picture.

I quickly found out that if I walked directly from the subway station to school , without wandering off the beaten path, things were reasonably safe. However, taking any other route could be risky.Another not very good idea was being anywhere after dark. Even those areas that were relatively safe during daylight hours became questionable. One time in the early spring, before Daylight Savings time kicked in, I was walking back to the subway station after school baseball tryouts. It was somewhere around 7pm, but quite dark already. Out of nowhere, I was jumped by about 4-5 guys. I never got a good look at them and didn’t have much of a chance to defend myself. They pounded me pretty good and stole the few bucks I had in my wallet. Then they pounded me a bit more, because there was so little money in the wallet. I was very blessed ,in that they only used hands , feet and sticks to beat me up, there were no knives. It served as a good reminder…I knew better… yet risked walking alone, after dark in a rough part of the South Bronx. I never did it again. The subway ride home that evening was pretty interesting: I was bloodied and bruised up and others on the subway car that I was in shied away from me. I couldn’t blame them. I did have a Transportation cop come up to me to see if I was ok. Of course he wanted to take a statement, etc, but since I didn’t really get a good look at anyone, I was pretty useless. He did administer some first aid and cleaned up my face a bit. This was a good thing because Mom would have freaked out if  I had showed up at our apartment looking bloodied. I was able to dodge that bullet by telling her that I had run into the outfield fence trying to reach a ball during practice. Yes, I lied.

However, I don’t want to paint a totally dark picture of the South Bronx and my experiences there.There were definitely some very bright spots. 

For one, both my HS and College were within walking distance of Yankee Stadium! Less than a mile from Cardinal Hays and about 2.5 miles from Fordham University! I tried slipping out of High School one day to attend a game at the stadium…but, I got caught.( I actually did another blog about that wonderful incident ).When you were caught red handed by the Dean of Discipline at Cardinal Hays, you rarely made the same mistake twice.However, in College, when skipping out on class was quite easy, there were many a day when I was seated in the Bleachers when I should have been in class.

…and of course there was Arthur Avenue, the neighborhood that many considered the REAL little Italy of New York. It was only a minute walk from the University and what a treat it was to go there.No matter how potentially dangerous the areas around Arthur Avenue, this famous street remained safe. It was well known on “The Street” that it would not be very healthy to  bring trouble to this neighborhood.

It almost felt as though you were in another city, far from the notorious South Bronx. For me…. it was the food! Walking to Mikes Deli and getting one of their signature Italian sandwiches on crusty Italian bread was close to heavenly! Two other places that I remember; Mario’s ! Five generations of family have run this outstanding restaurant. Francis Ford Coppola wanted to film a scene from “The Godfather” at Mario’s, but was turned down because the owner wanted to be known for his food and did not want to be associated with the Mob. I believe this decision was reversed after Mario passed away and the restaurant did appear in an episode of “The Sopranos”. The food? to die for! (no pun intended). Then there was Borgottis Ravioli and Egg Noodles! Definitely the best hand made pasta I have ever tasted. Yes, Arthur Avenue was, and still is, in many ways the real Italy of New York. How lucky was I to attend both a High School and a University that were in walking distance?!

Oh, one more thing… this whole area  was part of what was, and still is known,  as the Belmont  neighborhood of the Bronx. Any of you old enough to remember Dion and the Belmonts? Yep… they were from this neighborhood and went on to become an extremely successful group in the pre-British invasion era! Dion himself, transcended the “Doo-Wop” sound and became a somewhat legendary performer.

It is my understanding that ,other than Arthur Avenue, which has remained essentially unchanged, The South Bronx/ Belmont continues to be a very high crime area, though there has been some valid attempts at gentrification of the neighborhood.My memories of this area are so mixed. Sometimes I remember the fear and anxiety I had walking to and from the train station to school. At other times I am holding a magnificent sandwich from Mikes or sitting in the Bleachers at Yankee Stadium. Quite the paradox….. but, such is much of life, eh? 
Don.

What If?

“Regrets, I’ve had a few……”

Sorry Frank, I have had a boatload.  

Everybody does it – drive themselves crazy with the dreaded “What if” thoughts, going over and over in your mind how things would have been totally different if only you had made a different decision, a different choice, usually in years past. These are the demon thoughts that keep you up at night, and even though only madness lies at the end of this particular tunnel, they are also tantalizingly, masochistically enjoyable on some level, like knowing going on that ride or to that movie is going to scare the crap out of you, but you do it anyway. 

History as we know is filled of What if? Moments; there is a regular parlor game industry devoted to revisionist tellings of the factual past.  What if someone had insisted on the bubble-top on that limousine in Dallas? What if good ol Mary Todd had decided on another play to go to instead of the one at Ford’s Theatre? Granted these are epic What Ifs, that indeed would have changed world history, but we each in our own lives have mini versions of the same thing. If you take a moment you can observe those moments in real time.

Like that guy over there checking out his portfolio online on his lunch break, slowly shaking his head in disbelief at his stupidity for selling that stock right before it shot through the roof, or bemoaning missing buying Amazon at $ 14 a share when he had the chance. Those decisions, made differently, would have substantially changed this guy’s life, or the value of his portfolio at the very least. 

Then over there sitting on the stoop, that forlorn looking kid watching that pretty girl from class flirting with another guy; another guy who made the decision to take his shot and ask her out, not like our hero who decided it would never happen so decided not to ask at all. Bad decision; now he gets to watch the consequences of it. 

Or there, the Manager that opted for the rookie reliever in the bottom of the ninth, to give him some experience, the one hanging his head between his knees at the sound of crack after crack of the bat, telling him his young reliever was getting shelled, and the game was lost. What if he had just gone with Mariano like he always did? 

It’s as small as zigging when you should have zagged; deciding to turn right at that crossroads instead of left and like in that Larson cartoon, driving into “the middle of nowhere”.

When I think back, there are some doozies that I can recall from my life. I remember after college I enrolled in Grad School to get my Masters so I could become a History Professor, but that became a financial strain to the point it I had to decide if I should give up that dream and go to work to make some money or keep paying tuition I didn’t have to get the degree. I choose to go to work. Stupid. What if I had stayed, gotten that degree, gotten a nice cushy Professorship in some Liberal Arts college, taught a few classes, wrote a few books, retired early with a pension. What if? 

In the mid 80’s I decided to put in for a transfer from my Advertising office in NYC to a satellite office in the Mid –West. I often think back and ask myself “what if we hadn’t left New York? “ What if we had stayed in Brooklyn? To be honest there are some What ifs you can’t answer easily. I really don’t know what would have happened, but I do know I wouldn’t now be writing pieces about the city I miss from my childhood, I would still be there, not missing anything. Guess that qualifies as pretty good answer.

What if I hadn’t gotten a scholarship and gone to college, but instead enrolled in the Police Academy like I wanted? Talk about life being different. I would have been a New York City cop, tried to stay alive, did my job, and retired with a pension after twenty years. Of course I could have also been dead a lot sooner too; funny thing about What Ifs?.

Like I said though, all these thoughts go no great distance, and can drive me completely nutso, so I don’t dwell on them very much anymore. But there is one that I think about often, It is kind of the Grand Master What if? question. And I think of it every time I think of my Mom. And it is simply this:  what if she had made a different decision early in her life, when she was nineteen or twenty. You see, long before meeting Dad, she was a successful businesswoman in the city; she had attended Hunter College in Manhattan, and gotten a job as a secretary in an uptown office. But more than that, she also was a model; she did print ads for companies advertising their office products; she would be sitting at her desk, typing away with the very latest in typewriter technology, with some ad copy below.

 She was a naturally beautiful young woman; dark hair, eyes, that pink lipstick she loved so much; she killed wearing a business suit and high heels, I mean she was on her way! As such of course there were more than a few gentlemen interested in her (probably one of them her boss). At a time when most young Italian women who lived in the Village (at the time I think she lived with her brothers and her Mom on King Street), were not at all what would be considered “professional” women pursuing  business careers. And when she wasn’t at the office she was at the studio posing with the newest model wall telephone from the Bell Telephone Company (somewhere in box upstairs I have two or three of the ads she showed me years later when I didn’t believe her when she told me about her life before marriage). I mean she was just Mom to me; when I realized she was a complete, accomplished, and successful independent woman with a whole other life before her, it blew my little mind for a while. And then I felt proud of her, and then thinking about what she gave up to marry Dad and have us, I also thought….. Geez What If?

What if she had politely turned down the chance to cook dinners in a small apartment,  do laundry, mop floors, shop for dinner on a budge, change diapers,  raise two boys…, and basically run the household single handed….what if she had decided she didn’t want that paradise of a life? What if she had thought to herself “No thank you, I think I will stay making money and appearing in print ads in the newspapers and LOOK magazine, and continue wearing tailored suits, and pink lipstick, and having all the attention and praise I deserve, I think I am just fine the way I am”…….What if that is what she thought when given the choice?

Talk about a What if? The fascinating thing of course about this one is that the answer to What if she had stayed on her own chosen career path, well that would mean I wouldn’t be writing this, now wouldn’t it? 

There would be no me.

Yea, that’s one helleva What if? thought. And of course it was only when I learned of her previous life did that thought occur to me. If she had just been another young woman in the neighborhood waiting for someone to ask her to marry him, then it wouldn’t be a thought at all. But she wasn’t that. She was so much more. 

But she didn’t. That What if? Never happened, like all of them didn’t and don’t. I am glad for my sake (I guess) that she made the decision she did, but I feel bad about it sometimes. I am sure in the end she thought it was all worth it, and she made the right choices for herself; I am sure she was confident in the path she chose.  But it is a great mind game I play every once in a while, like I am watching her from afar as she went on to even greater successes, more model work, maybe her own agency one day, living that life that would have been so very different than the one she had. Selfishly of course, I am happy she decided that there was something more important than all of that success. 

I am glad she decided to be my Mom.

-Rob.

2021, You weighed a ton! 2022, we welcome you! (with a lot of anxiety)

My guess is that most of us are not sorry to see 2021 in the rear view mirror. It was certainly quite the year for many.Personally, 2021 brought me a very serious bout with Pneumonia and, to start the year, a diagnosis of prostate cancer. Fun times.

However, I’m not sure I can honestly say that I am happy to see another year pass. As I get older, I’m so much more aware that the  vast majority of my years are behind me , not ahead of me. That makes one reflect a bit, no? Yes, it was a bad year for me, but It also was a year of life… a year of love, and yes, even a year of some laughs. So, as much as I was not a big fan of you, 2021….. you sure seemed to pass all too quickly. Another year gone… A year older……2022, take your time , won’t you?

Of course, none of us have a clue as to what 2022 has in store for us. I’m certain that there is much apprehension. Why wouldn’t there be? Things are not exactly running smoothly in the world and in our country are they? Covid, new variants, crime, natural disasters, shootings, inflation, shortages… the list goes on. The obvious question most of us are probably asking ourselves is: “ Will things get better in 2022?” …. I sure hope so.

Another emotion that hovers around me at the  close of 2021 is a strange sadness that the “holidays” are over. I say “strange” because I’m not a kid anymore. It’s been many, many years since I was a child experiencing the excitement of the season. It’s even been many years since, as a parent, I witnessed the joy of my kids during this season. However, it must be the lasting effect of that sadness that I felt as a kid that lingers, though there  really is no tangible reason.

As a kid, the last family gathering of the holiday season was held at my Aunt Marys house in Queens, NY. Our cousins Robin and Lorraine enjoyed this day with my brother and I.
As with all the other Italian family gathering,the adults spent the majority of the day having fellowship around the dinner table. After the main course, there was the pastry and fruit and nuts… later in the evening the cold cuts and the sandwiches and maybe a bit more wine.

For the kids, it was play time ;We would head upstairs to one of the upper two levels of the brownstone for games, such as hide and seek ,tag and many other made up games. We dreaded hearing these words;

“Boys, it’s time to go….”

This was it…. the “time to go” on New Years night signaled the end of this wonderful season for us.

The goodbyes were somber; it would be awhile before we were all together again, and worse yet, tomorrow reality set in with a return to school. I dreaded that, as I never liked school in my young years. 

The ride home in Dad’s Desoto took us down Queens Boulevard to the midtown tunnel. The Boulevard was quiet on this New Years night. Few cars joined us on our way back to Manhattan. Obviously, this is an odd, unusual feeling for any part of New York City and it only added to the depressed feeling that was setting in.

Once we exited the tunnel, we would inevitably see a few Christmas trees already discarded in the streets, many of them with some stubborn tinsel bravely clinging on to the bitter end. This sight always brought me lower. And the Streets! These very streets that only a week ago were alive with excited shoppers and revelers were now dark and quiet. Even the street lights seemed to be duller, sorry to see the happy crowds gone.

Driving down 7th or 8th avenue, we noticed that there were still a few apartments with Christmas lights blinking in lonely fashion in their windows, but all was quiet. I don’t think Rob and I exchanged two words on the way home; we were lost in our own thoughts and apprehensions.

When we reached the apartment, the entire neighborhood appeared to have undergone a transition from celebration and festivity to resolved inevitability.
After dad opened the door, we silently walked into the darkened living room. The Tree was still there , on the entertainment center, but we didn’t bother to turn on the lights.

The Holidays were over, you see.

So what should I , and perhaps what should all of us do, as we head into a new, somewhat uncertain year. Perhaps I should concentrate on the things I know that I can do.

As we mentioned above, things are not great in our world today. It’s filled , sadly, with people who feel unwanted or unloved . People who feel that they don’t fit in because they are not “like” everyone else; IE , those  with Autism, those with physical disabilities, those with Dementia, etc.

Perhaps in 2022 , I can notice these people more? Maybe I can be more attentive to those around me who feel marginalized by our very self centered, fast paced society?Invite those that never get invited…. notice someone who never gets noticed. Just smile at them and speak to them?

Maybe, just maybe , If I can do this. 2022, no matter what it may hold, will be a god year.

Don.

The Panettone

The New York Times recently published an article in the Food Section about a bakery in Italy that had been named as one of the top ten Panettone makers in the whole county. It is called Pasticceria Giotto and it is located on the outskirts of Padua. It is also inside a prison. Yes, one of the most revered makers of this most revered Italian Holiday bread, is housed in a prison, and the bakers, the  ones that make the magic, are inmates. Around this time of year, millions of these wonderful sweet breads are consumed throughout Italy and Western and Southern Europe. Its popularity reaches across the globe. 

The beginnings of the Panettone date back to the Roman Empire, and first mentioned in a book written by the personal chef to the Pope and the King. And from those auspicious beginnings, when it was only available to the rich and powerful, it grew in popularity and spread to other regions, and other enterprising bakers and by the end of World War II it was affordable and available to everyone, and it became Italy’s leading Christmas confection and it remains so to this day. And now a very talented group of inmates are making some of the best available. Besides learning the craft of the baker, it also teaches them responsibility, gives them pride, and now has made them mini-celebrities in the Baking world. I say Bravo! Buon lavoro!!

The reason that article caught my eye and my imagination is that Mom used to make a Panettone around the Holidays every year, and as a kid, it was for me a highlight of our eating experience for the season. I mean come on, anyone can fry dough and put powdered sugar on it, but very few can make a good Panettone. It takes a long time to make a proper one. It isn’t just baking, it’s a kind of lovemaking. And the end result is confectionary ecstasy, something downright religious. It was and always will be the cornerstone of Italian baking, and the real measure of an Italian baker.

I would start bugging Mom early on in the season, asking when she would be making it. She would smile, tell me soon, and leave me dangling. I couldn’t wait, not just to watch her make it, but to savor its glory when it was all done. The whole season of course is a time of continuous expectation and waiting for a kid. Waiting for company to arrive, waiting to open presents, waiting for Christmas morning, all very greedy, but there nonetheless. But waiting to bake; that is different. And finally after weeks of waiting, Mom would mention quite casually to me that the coming weekend, she would be making a Panettone. Now the real waiting began; waiting for the process and waiting for the payoff. I would count the days and accompany her on her shopping trips as I always did, but now keeping an eye out for those ingredients I suspected were necessary for this so important endeavor. 

And then the day came, and I would take my seat across the table from Mom as she set the stage for the first kneading. As I mentioned the Panettone takes  more than one kneading session, and before even getting to that stage, the dough has to rise properly. But the real show came when it was time to knead the raised dough for the first time, it still smelling of the yeast that gave it life. 

I loved to watch Mom make it. She would knead the dough with soft determination; it was hard work, the dough needed to be nudged quite a bit. I watched as a whisp of hair fell to her forehead as she worked the dough, the glint of her wedding ring appearing, then disappearing, pushing, pulling, her hands forging the blob into shape; the unruly undefined flour mixture was slowly transformed into a silky satiny body of perfect uniformity. This is the alchemy of Baking; you create order out of chaos, beauty out of random ingredients. I stared transfixed as the body of it started to be enlivened by the tender yet firm nurturing of Mom’s hands and her almost inherent, divine determination to make this years Panettone the best one ever. I didn’t dare make conversation while she worked; she hardly looked up. Her eyes fixed squarely on the dough in front of her; once the process started, there was total commitment. 

My job was to knead in the raisons when it was time. Of course my hands were so small the raisins kept falling out of the dough, and I knew Mom would need to re-do everything, but I wanted to be a part of this process, this creation. And Mom did too and she included me every time, raisins on the floor or no raisins on the floor. Then there was the anticipation of putting it in the oven. How many more times did it need to be kneaded? I would wonder, isn’t it ready yet? I was dying to have a slice of its freshly baked wonderfulness!!

And eventually that time would come and off it went on its final lap to glory into the oven. The apartment would fill up with the heady aroma of butter, and sugar, and flour, and yeast, and raisins and citrons and My God….what a smell! That smell is wedded together forever for me with the smell of the live Christmas tree that fought for dominance of the air. But you couldn’t eat the tree!! 

When it was time to take it out, I gazed in awe as it stood tall, with its dome glistening. It had to set before anyone could try a piece. When it was time, I watched as Mom took her trusted knife and cleanly cut down from the dome to the base, in one fluent motion. And with that first slice, the revelation that indeed magic had been done. The knife cut through smoothly, the body firm but spongy, and the slice slowly tilted and fell without loosing a crumb. This important occasion was one of the only times that I was allowed to drink Coffee with my parents. It had to have milk in it, but even Mom and Dad couldn’t deny that only one beverage should accompany a well made Panettone, and that was a cup of Coffee. I slathered my slice with sweet butter, and raising it to my mouth, bit down and slowly savored that first taste, and Boom! Well there you go…. you go and find words for that kind of perfection. On second thought, don’t bother; there aren’t any.

I haven’t made a Panettone in a while but think I will give it a go again one of these days. I remember the first time I made one, when Mom and Dad were visiting Les and I in Brooklyn, and Mom said how good it was; I remember that feeling of pride; she was probably just being gracious, but I liked hearing it  anyway, especially from a Panettone Master like herself. If it came out half as good as hers, and I don’t think it did, that would have been enough. At the end of the visit, I remember her saying the next time, the next year, we should make one together again, and I loved the idea. 

That never happened, life has a way of changing our plans, but in my dreams it did. 

And if there were a place you could choose to spend eternity, for me one of them would be in the kitchen with Mom……making a Panettone. 

-Rob.

Thank you to my wonderful Italian parents for the Christmas memories: New York State of Mind.


This entry is a thank you to my parents for the beautiful Christmas memories that they gave me ( and my brother) as kids in New York.
My parents are no longer with us, but I hope that they can hear this. They are in a much better place today and I look forward to a grand reunion one day, But,  Mom, Dad allow me to thank you now. Sadly,  when you were here with us, I probably didn’t thank you enough. I was too focused on myself and all the joy associated with what you did. I rarely stopped to consider the huge effort you put into it.So, on this quiet night, a few short days until Christmas,with just the Christmas tree lights twinkling… allow me to thank you.Thank for the anticipation and excitement you created! Halloween was barely over and you guys were already getting us excited  about Christmas! 
Poor Santa! he had barely finished his Thanksgiving dinner and he was already getting “letters to Santa” from Rob and I! You made a big deal out of us making our list of what we hoped to get for Christmas. You gave us special paper to write on and made sure the notes were addressed to the proper location at the “North Pole.” You never let us doubt for a moment that Santa was real… that you believed …. and therefore , we believed. Up until the moment we had to say goodbye to both of you, so many years later…. I was convinced that you believed. I have my Polar Express bell today…. and I still hear it ring.I’m hindsight, one of the things I so appreciate is that you taught us not to be greedy…. not to ask for too much . I remember you telling us that there are many children around the world that had much less than we did and we needed to think of them. It was a small thing then…. it’s a huge thing when I think of it today.Thank you for that wonderful night of purchasing and decorating our small tree. It was always one of the best nights of the year for us. The walk with dad on a cold New York evening to buy our tree, ( a live tree, or course. Dad would have it no other way) and the anticipation that gripped us as we walked back to our small apartment. The tree was small because the apartment was small, but to these two small boys, it was magnificent. Thank you for allowing us to place the ornaments haphazardly, as small kids would do. You always said they looked beautiful. Thank you for allowing us to set up the manger scene and then taking the time to remind us of what Christmas was all about. As we were finishing up the tree, the amazing aroma of Moms homemade Zepollis came wafting from the kitchen. You aremissing out if you have never tasted a Zepolli made by the loving hand of an Italian mom. How we loved to enjoy them after the tree was done. The evening was complete only after the Zepollis were consumed and Dad had turned off all the lights in the apartment. With only the tree lights twinkling and the New York skyline barely visible from the kitchen window, we would sit as a family and treasure the moment. In the background, Dad would put on Frank Sinatra’s Christmas album. A classic that my wife and I still listen to today…… and have passed the tradition along to our kids, who listen with their families today. I hope the tradition lives on. With Frank gently crooning “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas “, my brother and I would drift asleep on the floor in front of the tree. What an evening. Thank you so much for that precious memory that will stay with me until my time here is done.Thank you for the wonderful night you would take us “uptown” to see the tree in Rockefeller Center. The beautiful tree… The ice skaters on the rink below the tree, the carols wafting from the speakers… magical! Then, eating roasted chestnuts from the brown paper bag from the street vendor .. a taste and aroma that will last with me forever. Then, the beautiful walk up 5th avenue to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where in hushed, worshipful whispers, you again reminded us of the “true meaning” of Christmas. Thank you.……. And Christmas Eve! the majority of the family in our tiny apartment to celebrate and laugh and eat. What a feast you put out! The anticipation and excitement growing in us by the moment as  Uncle Joe tracked Santa’s progress for us… falling asleep would be difficult tonight! The kiddy table where we sat with our cousins while at the adult table, our parents, Aunts and Uncles would tell stores and laugh and ask us if we had been good during the year. In my minds eye today I see that table ,I hear the laughter, I hear the “Saluds!!” as the wine was poured. Today, most of those chairs at that table are empty…. those seated there long gone ….. But, in my heart … they are all still there….. laughing and eating and asking if I had been a good boy. (Hmmmm, was that a tear I just felt? ) Thank you for that night.Christmas Morning!! oh, how can I ever say thank you enough? The excitement as we woke you to come watch us open the gifts that Santa brought us!!There were “only” two or three gifts each, but to us , it was extravagant. Everything we had asked for in our letters to Santa. The letters in which Mom had reminded us to not be greedy. Mom/ Dad, in hindsight please don’t think that it went unnoticed that you guys rarely, if ever, exchanged gifts. I now know how tight money was and the only thing that mattered to you was seeing your kids happy. Good lord, Thank you. I remember Dad saying on many a Christmas mornings “ who needs gifts when you have family”.I hope to God that I have lived that sentiment.So, even though your seats at the adult table are also empty…. you are still in my heart…. I hope I was a good boy this year…..and yes, Mom… I still believe.Thank you.

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Remembering more long gone….

Put back on those walking shoes, we still have a few more spots to visit and pay tribute to what came before, back in the day. 

When we left off we were on Fifth Avenue just north of Washington Square Park. This time we will walk East to one of the more vibrant streets in town, namely St Mark’s Place. Walking East on 8th Street, and passing through Cooper Square, St. Mark’s Place is still a destination street in this part of the Village. And thankfully some favorite places, like Trash and Vaudeville have survived, but unfortunately the list of beloved places lost to time is much longer. One of my favorites from the glorious 1970’s was the Grassroots Tavern. It was located at 20 St. Mark’s Place, and it for many was a home away from home. In fact the owner had that in mind when he opened the place and  used to saying that he wanted you to feel you were walking down into your living room, a warm and comforting place to share good times with friends. Apartments in the area were (and still are), pretty small, one bedrooms or studio apartments; invite four or five friends over and you are pretty crammed in. Instead, the Grassroots beckoned. And it did feel like home; large space, comfortable seating, a long bar, and let us not forget the three dollar pints of beer! I remember one time when we were there at a table enjoying a pitcher with friends, in the front door walks a guy in a bathrobe and slippers. He nonchalantly walks over to the pay phone (yes a pay phone on the wall), and makes a call. Turns out he got locked out of his nearby apartment, so what does he do? Easy, he walks to his neighborhood tavern to make a call for help; thing was he didn’t even look too out of place, and after a shrug we went back to our beers; It was that kind of place. 

Further East on the corner of First Avenue and St Mark’s Place once was the infamous St. Mark’s Bar and Grill, a small place but full of character, and grit. I remember the first time I went in there, I wasn’t  getting the feel of the place at first, so playing it safe I ordered a Bud. I was a bit surprised when the Bartender went to the cooler behind him, picked out a six pack of Bud cans, and pulled one off for me. As he set it down in front of me (no glass of course), I knew I liked the place; I would go back many times thereafter, and always regretted missing by a couple of hours, Mick, Keith, and the rest of the band, shooting the music video for their song “Waiting on a Friend”. Come to think of it, years later, I missed them again, when they played under a false name at the Palladium, formerly the Academy of Music on 14th Street (another treasure long gone), in preparation for a tour. We used to go to the Palladium a lot; saw Blondie, The Talking Heads, even the Clash there, but of course had no interest in this unknown band called the Cockroaches; they were handing out free tickets to on the street outside the theater. Can you imagine, me saying “No Thanks” to the guy trying to hand me a free ticket to what turned out to be a rather intimate concert with the Stones! Lord I don’t like to think of that often. 

Anyway back to the streets; heading back West on West 4th Street, arriving at what looks like just another NYU Dorm building between Mercer and Greene, but back in the day was the location of one of  the most important and popular music venues in the Village – The Bottom Line. The place hosted an array of musicians from Carl Perkins, to Lou Reed, from Dire Straits to Miles Davis, from the Ramones to Dolly Parton. We went often as it was affordable, and comfortable; the stage was in front of long tables so you could order drinks through the performances (which sometimes was a bit problematic, as no one was ever cut off when they had one too many). Two concerts stand out in my memory that Les and I attended with friends. One was Kris Kristofferson and his band who played for hours, and on one of the breaks, he came to the table to share a beer, say hello, and thank us for coming, before getting back on stage for the second set; a very real person besides being a masterful songwriter, he played the Bottom Line many times, and we made sure to see him every time, but sharing the beer made that visit special. 

The other was a concert by…..ok who remembers…..Brewer and Shipley? Ok maybe the names don’t ring a bell but I bet these lyrics do:

“One toke over the line, Sweet Jesus,

One toke over the line

Sitting downtown in a railway station

One toke over the line”

Ahhh….now you remember. Well they were semi regulars as well at the Bottom Line; a folk duo that, like Dylan, have never stopped touring. The thing about them was, and who knew if this was for real, but if you went to see them a second time, they would recognize you, or at least claim they did. They made you feel like you had just dropped into their recording session, when they were just having fun strumming some songs. Another place that exuded comfort and togetherness; performers just didn’t do one show and never come back; they made it a regular stop every time they were in town, so you really did feel like you got to know them. Miss that place big time.

Ok time to move along, back to the heart of the Village, to 59 Christopher Street where back in the 70’s (and 60’s) stood the Lions Head Bar, another very special spot to spend some serious time in. It left us in 1996 but for decades was the home to writers both successful and unknown (count me in that last group). I would love to go and nurse a beer and just watch and listen to the conversations happening all around me. And it wouldn’t be long before someone pretty serious walked in. Even after attaining literary fame, the likes of Pete Hamil, Jimmy Breslin and Norman Mailer still called this spot home. I wasn’t the only one of course; to be honest most times the place was filled with wanna-be writers (or should I say writers who hadn’t been discovered yet!), who wanted to soak up the atmosphere, both for pure pleasure and some unstated hope that something would wear off on them; maybe that chapter that was giving you trouble would suddenly seem so simple to resolve, that character’s lines would miraculously flow freely, the resolution of the central conflict of your story easily solved, all by the third or fourth beer and a healthy belief in the power of a place. The wood paneled walls were covered with framed covers of books and plays written by some of the very people in the room. I remember a special time the door opened and in walked my old English teacher at Stuyvesant, Frank McCourt (or as I always knew him Mr. McCourt), I was surprised but I don’t know why I should have been; he would of course go onto great acclaim as the author of Angela’s Ashes, and other memoirs (including one about being a teacher at Stuyvesant High School – Teacher Man). I remember years later, after the place has closed, the regulars, if there were any left, would still go by on the anniversary of its closing day –  I remember reading in the NY Times, on one of those occasions, Mr. McCourt called it “….the only literary and journalistic bar in the city”.

And I felt a pang of sorrow when he added “…and we haven’t got anything like it.”

Indeed we don’t. 

Back East a bit for one more stop that packs a double whammy of loss. 

Making a right onto MacDougal Street from West 8th,  we stand on the sidewalk in front of 176 MacDougal, former home of Shakespeare’s, a favorite restaurant/bar that had a great run, and was extremely popular in the 60’s and 70’s. Interesting beers, and a menu with some classic English fare (I loved the Shepherd’s Pie), as well as really good “Bard Burgers”, the Hamlet with sautéed onions and cheddar, or the Guildenstern with mushrooms and Mozarella, all  served up in a warm, personal, and welcoming atmosphere; Everyone knew the names of the waitresses, the bartenders, even the busboys.

And right across the street was an outpost of the famous Capezio Dancewear company. This one was Capezio’s in the Village, and I worked there for a number of years back then. I don’t know what possessed me to apply to work there, as I knew nothing about dancewear or shoes, but it turned out to be a really interesting and exciting place to work It had a reputation in the show business world and it was common to see some very well known people stroll in, looking for something they could only find there. I worked in the basement, in the Shoe department, and besides making some really good friends (including my future wife whom I sold a pair of shoes to), it was fun rubbing elbows so to speak with some high power stars (I shared that story in a previous post). Anyway, each day after the store closed at 8PM,  exhausted by nine hours of  “how does that feel?”, and “ let me get you another color to try”, I along with the rest of the staff strolled a couple of yards across MacDougal and went to Shakespeare’s for burgers and beer.

Both are gone now, memories since the mid 1990’s but that cozy little block of the Village is filled with the ghosts of good times past. 

So many places gone; they take a bit of you when they go, that’s why you are drawn back, and living in the Village, where everything good and bad was so concentrated, it’s no wonder that on one block you could count more than one place you miss. As if more proof of this was needed, backtrack back on 8th Street and turn up Sixth. Within two blocks of the corner of West 8th Street and Sixth Avenue, were three iconic Village establishments: Balducci’s, the gourmet food emporium with an aroma alone that was enough to convince you to make sure you perused every shelf of goodies, The Captain’s Table, a seafood restaurant that was both affordable and surprisingly good; it was a another solid, reliable date night place, one where I didn’t need to be worried about being embarrassed that I didn’t have enough money to pay the bill. And of course there was the famous Trudy Heller’s on the corner of 9th and 6th, that campy, seductive music venue where Go-Go dancers gyrated, and the music ranged from Rock to Disco-Funk to Cabaret style reviews; it was almost impossible not to have a good time there. I am told I did many times, but truth be told my memory of them is a little fuzzy; big surprise.

You see what I mean? That is one block……just one…..

Not too many neighborhoods were so rich and vibrant, all these places provided the backdrop to my life, and even though they are gone, they still do. 

-Rob

Christmas, Darkness and Strange Emotions.

Christmas, Darkness and Strange Emotions

So it’s late … …. very late. I’m the only one awake.

The Christmas Tree is up in the room where I am sitting….. the Christmas tree! where in the world did did that year go? Time is moving too fast…. way to fast.

I’m looking at the lights on the tree and the memories come flooding from everywhere… New York, Virginia, Connecticut…..Oklahoma… everywhere. The place where I grew up… and then the places we raised our own family. There is anticipation and fun and laughter and lights and songs and …. it’s the Christmas season. It came so fast! I wasn’t ready… it just came!Its here….. and so many memories flood the room.

My wife is asleep on the sofa and my cat is asleep on the same sofa.They look to be at peace… content. … comfortable. This makes me happy. However, I would like all my family to be here….. that’s  not going to happen….. though I wish it would..I miss our family being together for the holidays.Family was such a huge factor in the joy of the season.

Late nights with the tree lights softly glowing seem more “silent” than at any other “late night times”during the year, don’t they? Not sure why that is, but for me, it always has seemed that way. When I was a small boy, growing up in Greenwich Village, late at night, I would lie awake ,just listening to the silence. The soft glow of Christmas Tree lights could be seen vaguely from our room. They added to the silence. Even the bustling of the New York streets appeared to quiet down a bit… strange. The silence is, and always has been,  a paradox for me. I love it in moments such as I just described…. when simply the soft glow of the moment puts me at peace, and I feel safe. Then, there are other times when silence brings about anxiety in me. I can’t even properly describe or explain exactly what the anxiety is about… I just feel it. It can be oppressive and debilitating. I find that I long for sounds of activity; the sound of cars on the normally busy road in close to proximity to where I live. When that road is silent, even on a holiday, something seems “off” and ominous to me. I have no idea how to explain this, as I have a difficult time understanding it myself. Sitting here now, I think of the feeling I had as a kid in our New York apartment.The sounds of the city;the cars ,trucks and sirens… the crowds of people passing under our third floor window; someone’s radio blaring from the floor below us…. all gave me a feeling of safety and well being. However, the silence associated with a Sunday afternoon, when the city slept, always made me uncomfortable, and anxiety grew. Strange eh? I enjoy taking a walk around our neighborhood here in Texas from time to time. When activity is low, when there is that “silence” in the air…. I feel nervous… anxious. Yes, very strange. All these emotions ,triggered by a quiet, dark room, with small Christmas lights on a tree as the  only illumination. 

Ah, the darkness! that,again, has always been a paradox with me. Sitting here with the tree lights softly twinkling and my wife and cat sleeping silently close by is comforting, restful and reflective. However, there still are those moments when the darkness fills me with anxiety and nervousness. As a child, I was always afraid of the dark. My overly active imagination filled my small room with a disturbing variety of monsters silently stalking me. Mom had a night light in my room…. but it didn’t help. As a matter of fact, many times the shadows cast by the small light made it worse. Today, I don’t worry about the monsters so much, today other things haunt the darkness, especially when coupled with silence. I am a “worrier” by nature…. anxious and nervous about many things. Late at night or in the wee small hours of the morning, laying in a darkened , silent room…. my mind becomes my enemy. I reflect on how quickly life seems to be moving; I wonder where all the years have gone. I worry about the kids and grandkids…especially when they are going through those inevitable times of trouble. I feel anxious/ nervous when my wife is not home, especially when she leaves for work in the pre-dawn hours; when it’s dark. I don’t feel at ease. 

At  this time of year, I reflect quite a bit on when our kids were little…. those warm, loving, precious Christmas memories. Though they are wonderful memories…they make me sigh, as I wonder how those years passed so quickly. I listen for their sound as they rummage through the fridge to get snacks, I listen for them trying, unsuccessfully, to keep the TV low so as not to wake “the parents”…. and all I hear is silence…Yes, the night makes me nervous…. when the silence is not my friend.

However, on this night, as I am writing these thoughts, I am ok. It’s dark, but the Tree glimmers reassuringly. it’s not quite silent…. the TV is on very low. … and , as I said, my wife and cat are sleeping calmly close to me. I’ll enjoy the feeling for the moment… when the silence and the darkness are my friends; though I never can forget that they are very fickle friends that can turn very quickly.

Don.

Remember that place in the Village….?

So this is another walk, another “Ghost” walk. But this one isn’t about people that aren’t there anymore, those shadows that include those living or not, that still inhabit a place, just because of how much of a bond there was there. No, this one is a slightly less metaphysical one, a walk that highlights all the dear remembered places that are long gone. For the most part, what has replaced these very unique gems, is nothing to write home about, much less make an impression that will last for longer than it takes you to pass by. The places I speak of were totally of their time, some spanning lots of time, and they made an indelible mark in my memory. 

So, let’s begin by walking down Greenwich Avenue towards the West Village. It doesn’t take long before I see our first gem of a ghost. It sat on the Avenue just off of 7th Street and it was called Chez Brigette. It only had eleven tables and it laid to rest the idea that you couldn’t find good French food in the city at the time that was both delicious and reasonable. Their Provencal Omelet dusted with herbs was all that you needed to make you a believer. I think I only made it to one of those eleven tables less than a handful of times, but each time was special. Unfortunately it left us only memories in 2008.

When I hit Seventh Avenue, I make a right and head further downtown. There on the Avenue, on a triangle of land between West 10th and West 4th, sat the Riviera Café, a warm and welcoming place for good breakfasts and better burgers. It was one of my favorite places to nurse a beer and watch the wonderful cavalcade of characters that made up the neighborhood walk by the large windows. It was also a place for relationships; to make them, to end them; it was that kind of place; the darkness of the back room invited serious conversation and whispered promises. It was unique, certainly its notable location was, and I am sure many others have warm memories of it. It had a good run; its tombstone reads 2017.

Continuing south on 7th, I come to Grove Street, where for 55 years number 88 7th Avenue was the home of The Pink Tea Cup, probably the only place to get authentic soul food in the Village. Mammoth portions served up day and night; fresh baked Biscuits, Collards, Sweet Potatoes, Pork Chops smothered in onions, and of course Catfish, beautiful fried Catfish. After a long night of partying, many revelers would head to the nearest diner for a Cheeseburger Deluxe; but man they were missing out big time. Nothing beats fried Catfish at three in the morning. The place became famous, and many stars could be found wolfing down the wonderful cuisine, but alas it too succumbed to the “new” neighborhood, and closed its doors in 2009.

When I cross 7th Avenue I make the transition from the West Village to Greenwich Village.

And if I continue down the Avenue, eventually I come to Sheridan Square, and back in the day one of the best reasons to go to Sheridan Square, besides the wonderful Sheridan Square Bookstore, was Jimmy Day’s. It was another regular of mine, one of the few places to get Prior Dark on tap, a divine Czech beer long gone now too. Whether at one of the cozy booths, or a round table in the front room, or for that matter the horseshoe bar, I spent hours there with friends, eating delicious burgers and the best onion rings in town. In the 70’s it had an all day brunch as well – your first drink, three eggs, ham, beans and coffee all for only $ 3.25. And yes it was also a place of romantic confession and adventure, you could hide in plain view; like the time I looked over at the next table and realized Dustin Hoffman was enjoying his burger just as much as I was enjoying mine. It was a wonderful spot mourned by hundreds of Villagers that made it a regular stop two or three times a week. When it closed it left a hole in the neighborhood that has never been filled. 

Onto Barrow Street I go and head West. On Barrow, between West 4th and 8th Avenue there used to be a place called Sandolino’s. Packed at four in the morning, they too featured breakfast all day and all night long; the Mushroom Swiss Omelet was simply one of the best in the city, and the accompanying Corn Bread was a meal in itself. The also offered up huge sandwiches (Tuna was my favorite), and it was one of those places that became an everyday tradition. By that I mean every time I would meet my friend Mike after his classes at NYU, we always headed to Sandolino’s; and every  Sunday morning, Les and I would head there for breakfast. Thinking back I am amazed that we were able to eat those wonderfully filling (read huge) breakfasts and from there we would walk up Hudson to spend the day with Mom and Dad in the Projects and then eat a huge meal of Spaghetti and Meatballs. No way I could manage that now, but I digress. Sandolino’s was another that when it closed finally, you simply couldn’t believe it, couldn’t understand how such a purely perfect place, could shut its doors but it happened. 

Next up, one of the most interesting places in the whole city: Chumley’s. A former speakeasy at 86 Bedford Street, it also had a secret courtyard entrance on Barrow Street. There was no sign to tell anyone passing by there was a bar there, and that of course was intentional given its beginnings. In fact we have the term to “86” something (or to cancel it) from this very spot. During Prohibition when, let us say some “not by the book” Police officers would get wind of a raid on the Speakeasy and (being on the place’s  payroll), they would contact the bar and tell them to “86” their customers – send them out the door at 86 Bedford as the Cops were coming in from Barrow Street. In its day it was a favorite of the literati, from Hemingway to Miller, from Fitzgerald to Salinger, from Bradbury to Steinbeck; they all drank (and presumably) wrote there. We loved sitting at the small bar that was directly in front of the entrance from the courtyard; drinks were cheap, the crowd was always interesting (as were the bathrooms!), and whomever was behind the bar was a fountain of endless stories of the place’s glory days. It too had a really long run, but closed in 2020. Anytime someone was visiting from out of town and wanted to be taken to a spot that personified the Village, this was “go to” place. It will never be replicated. 

I head back East on West 4th, coming to Sixth Avenue, I look at an empty storefront just south of the Waverly Theater. Back in the day, it was the site of The English Pub, one of the few places at the time to get dishes like Bangers & Mash, and Shepherd’s Pie, classic heart warming comfort foods from across the Pond. I guess I don’t need to mention the drink menu as they had beers only to be found right there or five thousand miles away: Speckled Hen, Tetley’s and Fullers. Pure Heaven. What a perfect night; we would go to the movies at the Waverly, and then a few feet away, enter that cozy place and grab a stool at the small bar or head back to the dining area. Again, good food, great drink and all very affordable. I think it became a Blimpie’s years later, and as much as I like Blimpie’s, the block seemed empty. 

I continue East towards NYU and beyond. There was a regular hangout of both students and those in pursuit of good cheap food, cheap pitchers of beer, and delicious hamburgers. It was called Adam and Eve, on Waverly between University and Greene Streets. Dark and welcoming, as you entered there was a long bar/food banquet to your left, tables and booths scattered about the huge room. I remember getting in line, ordering my burger, stepping further down, ordering a pitcher of Harp, and carrying all to a scarred wooden table. I would sit with my friends for hours, only  getting up to hit the john or to order  another pitcher- back then you could smoke inside so you didn’t even need to “step outside” for a moment; it was like the coffee houses of old, where conversation was king, and your company was your comfort. People of all ages (they were not particular about carding anyone), enjoyed the atmosphere and its important place in the mosaic of the neighborhood. I see nothing there now. 

Time to head through the park and up Fifth for two more on my Ghost tour. Coming to 12th Street and looking at the SouthEast Corner, I remember the huge 40 foot Iguana that used to grace the roof of the Lone Star Cafe. It started out as one of the few places to hear Country music in the city; It attracted big names like Willy Nelson, and Roy Orbison. I went there when it also opened up to other forms of music and one of my fondest memories is heading to the bathroom, after more than a few beers, and being asked for a light. I reached for my lighter and held it up to the tall dark haired guy, not realizing he was the reason I was there that night – Willy DeVille of the band Mink DeVille, thanking me for the light, turning back to head to the stage; the bathroom could wait!! That kind of thing makes you remember someplace for a long time; that and the super pretty girl who greeted you at the door, and actually became my girlfriend. Oh and the Iguana, can’t forget the Iguana. 

And straight up from there on Fifth was a branch of the chain of Beefsteak Charlie’s, home of the 

endless pitchers of beer or sangria, bread and salad bar. It was a go to spot for taking a date, when you wanted you take your girl to a “real” restaurant, instead of a bar, where you could get a full dinner for two for under twenty bucks. Of course there was that strange thing about the lighting being so low you couldn’t actually see what you were eating; think a couple of those Prime Rib plates may have held something quite different. But after three or four watered down pitchers of beer, who cared?

I think I have to stop. Sometimes I get so sad to think all these wonderful places are gone. And there many more I didn’t get to on this walk, so I may have to take another one. I didn’t even hit Little Italy, two miles south of the Village, or Chinatown, a little beyond that, or Hell’s Kitchen, or well….you get the idea. And remember these are just the “watering holes” that I remember so well; there were scores of stores and businesses that left their mark on the city and my heart that are just Ghosts now as well. 

But the city, like my heart, is large enough to hold both it’s past and it’s present, it’s promise and it’s failure; it is larger than any one person’s memory or perception, and that’s the point; every city has good bars and restaurants, what makes these memories worth remembering at all, is that it was New York City, and I and my friends were lucky enough to live there at the right time.

-Rob

Remembering “Little Italy.”

Remembering “Little Italy”

There is a section of Manhattan Island in New York known as Little Italy. I grew up in what was known as Greenwich Village, a part  the city with a rich and colorful history. While little Italy was part of the Village,( The west village to be exact), our apartment was not in the section known as Little Italy. we were, however, fortunate enough to be in walking distance of this gem of a neighborhood, and it occupies a very sweet place in my childhood  memory.

In 1950, about one half of all the New Yorkers living in  this neighborhood were Italian American. Italian was spoken as much, if not more, than English. Most of these Italians were decedents of the immigrants who came here in the 1880’s . The neighborhood was actually a slum in those days and very much looked down upon by other New Yorkers. BUT! enough of the history and back to the memories;and this neighborhood had a lot of fun memories for me. (There is actually another wonderful Italian neighborhood in The Bronx, Arthur Avenue, which is very close to the University that I attended. It also holds wonderful memories… perhaps another blog)

Walks to Little Italy in the west village were quite frequent for our family, but my fondest memories of were those when there was a family gathering or major holiday on the horizon . Mom and Dad would not even consider preparing a good Italian feast without purchasing the key ingredients from the many small shops in Little Italy. The home made Italian sausage, the pastas, the fruits and vegetables, the fresh fish, the heavenly pastry, Biscotti and cookies…..all absolutely delicious!

As a side note, the word “ pasta” was not really used that much in our family when we were kids. “Macaroni”was used as a pretty generic term for all “pasta”. Most of the time, when speaking of pasta, my parents were pretty specific. IE: Spaghetti, Rigatoni, Lasagna, etc.

But, I digress… the fresh baked Italian bread was always a must have for all good meals. A trip to Little Italy invariably found us standing in line at Zito’s bakery. Located on Bleecker Street, this small shop was home to some of the best tasting Italian bread that one could imagine. To this very day, I don’t believe I have had bread as good as what I remember getting at Zito’s.
I remember Dad telling us over and over again that “Frank orders his bread from here and has it flown to wherever he is… did you know that?” (Frank , of course, being Frank Sinatra.) There were no other “Franks” in our vocabulary. Yes, my Dad had a brother Frank, but when he referred to him it was “My brother Frank” or “Uncle Frank”. When “Frank” was used with no descriptive words before or after, we knew it was Sinatra, hands down, case closed. There was even  an old photo of “Frank”, signed by the Chairman of the Board himself, displayed in the bakery window, thus my brother and I had no doubt that Frank got his bread from Zito’s. God bless him, but Dad did find it necessary to repeat this historical fact every time we visited the store, but we didn’t mind, it was Little Italy, after all.

Dad and I were in line one day to pick up some of their incredible bread. I can’t remember if it was Easter or Christmas, but it was fairly cold. In New York, it could be cold on Easter , so the cold weather conditions do not make Christmas the only possibility. It really makes no difference  as Zito’s  was a “must stop” for all holidays. On this particular day, the small place was packed, with the line stretching out of the front door. I must have been about 7 years old and was busy being a kid, looking all around at the people and the treats behind the glass display case. Not paying a bit of attention to my surroundings , I got separated from Dad. I know that I have shared with you that I was not a very brave kid… basically afraid of everything and anything.I looked around frantically for Dad and only saw a multitude of strangers….. so I did what all brave seven year olds do; I started to cry. A nice lady with white hair standing behind me knelt down next to me and hugged me while asking what was wrong. Through my tears, I told her that I had lost my Daddy.She told not to worry and led me to a chair, handing me a delicious, freshly baked roll. ( Old school Italians solve everything with good food) . I remember her clearly saying in slightly broken English) “Eat ,you feel better”. The roll was great, but I was still panicked, certain that  I was now a lost, homeless child struggling to survive in the City. About that time, I looked up; standing there with wide eyes of disbelief was Dad. He looked at the nice lady and asked what happened. She told him rather harshly that he had left me alone and I was frightened. I gave dad a stern look of agreement.

He looked stunned.

“Left him?” he said , “I was right in front of him in line….. He was holding on to the back of my jacket!”

As she patted me gently on the head, she went back to her place in line , giving dad a strong warning;

“Well, you agotta be a carful.. He’s just a little boy!” I loved her broken english. It reminded me of my Grandma ….and my fresh baked roll was really tasting good right now.

Dad mumbled a soft “ Yes Mam” ( dad would do nothing but respect an older woman) and then turned and glared at me.

The roll was suddenly losing its flavor.

“What happened?”, he asked,” You were right behind me! I was right in front of you! You could see me!”

( I guess I really didn’t look that hard when I thought that I “was lost”.)

He had a large bag filled with baked goodies and asked me: “didn’t you see me at the case paying for this? Didn’t you hear me talking to the man behind the case?”

Dad glanced sideways and noticed the nice older lady giving him a hard look as he questioned me. He kept his voice as calm as possible as I shook my head in answering, “no”.

“You weren’t paying attention again were you?”  He asked quietly, ( I had a tendency to not “pay attention”) 

I nodded a reluctant “yes” and then asked Dad if he wanted a bite of my roll. If it had not been for the watchful eye of “older lady” he may have jumped out the window. Instead he dropped his shoulders in defeat, gave me a quick hug, took my hand and led me to the door for the walk home. I looked back at “older lady” as we left the store and she looked pleased.

That is just one memory of Little Italy…. there are many more.

One of the highlights of the year for us was the Feast of St. Anthony. Every year, St Anthony’s Church, also located in Little Italy, would hold a wonderful street festival commemorating this important Saint. Other cities had their own festivals, but of course, I remember the one held near Houston and Sullivan streets in lower Manhattan. As a kid we always went as a family, taking the nice walk from our apartment to the Feast. The streets around the Church were filled with food booths, games and gifts .My favorite food to enjoy at the fest was the sausage and peppers. The aroma of frying Peppers and Onions, coupled with the grilling Italian Sausages wafted up into the atmosphere for miles around the feast. When you started to get a whiff of the Sausage and Peppers, you knew you were almost there. It seemed like every other booth was selling Sausage and Peppers, and ,as with Pizza, everyone had an opinion for  the “Best” booth to go to. I liked any and all. Crisp on the outside, soft on the inside fabulous Italian bread , filled with the finest fresh Italian sausage, literally swimming in fried Peppers and onions!! Many a good shirt was ruined trying to eat this delicacy “neatly”.

Which brings me back to one more funny memory. It is funny only in hindsight… at the time, not so much.

We were at the feast  as a family; Mom, Dad, my little brother( probably only about 5 years old at the time) , and me. I was at the awkward age of around 12. I liked being there, but felt a bit “un-cool”. All the “cool guys” were there by themselves, no parents in sight. Some even had girl friends with them. I wanted to be like them. These were the guys from “Little Italy” itself. They dressed cool, they combed their hair cool, they talked cool and the girls they were with were beautiful to my young eyes. They definitely looked at me as a dorky, very “un-cool” outsider. It was all about “the neighborhood “ back in that day. Either you were from the neighborhood… or you were an outsider. So, Dad decides it’s time to get our sausage and pepper sandwiches, which was great with me because I loved them. We went up to one of the booths that were selling the wonderful, aromatic, sandwiches and placed our order. Mom usually ate only  about a half of one, giving my little brother pieces of the fantastic bread. Sandwiches in hand, I notice a group of the “ cool ones”, guys and  girls, standing close by. I immediately try to look tough and cool as well, most definitely to no avail.I take a bite of the large sandwich and at least half of the oily,grilled onions escape from the sandwich and run quickly down my shirt. Group of “Cool ones” breaks into uncontrollable laughter. Dad rushes me a handful of napkins and I make a quick, though embarrassing cleanup…But the damage was done. I spent the rest of the time at the feast that day trying to make certain we stayed out of sight of the “cool ones”. Tough day.

In the face of this little adventure, you can see that not all memories of Little Italy were totally pleasant, but as I reflect,  I can’t help but smile because the sights, the sounds and  the aromas are all still very vivid and that contributes to making the memories of Mom and Dad vivid as well.

I have not been back in a very long time. I understand that Little Italy has become “Very Little Italy”. The area has diminished, the neighborhood much smaller. Even the number of Italian Americans living in the area has diminished greatly. I probably would not recognize it….. but that’s ok… because the memories have not diminished at all.

Don.