March 10, 1959   no responses

The Bronx

Nonna, Baby Michael, Me, Cousin Viola, Aunt Mary & Uncle Nick

My Aunt Mary was a life force in my childhood. Well no one called her Aunt Mary. We all called her Titsie!  This was a corruption of Tzia, Sicilian for aunt, but as a child I pronounced it TIT-ZEE. Unbeknownst to me, this was a great joke. Aunt Mary had a great pair of knockers, as Bette Midler would say, so TIT-Zee was an appropriate malapropism. She wore Lana Turner-tight cashmere sweaters, jungle red lipstick, and was the spitting image of the great Italian actress Anna Magnani. She spoke English with gusto in a thick Sicilian accent.

My aunt was a consummate cook and I have never tasted a better meatball than the perfectly round ones she made. My Polish mother came close since she was under her tutelage and was ordered by my father to cook Italian. Aunt Mary prepared full meals every night for her husband, whom I called Uncle Nick. Sunday dinner at 1pm was the main event for all the family: macaroni, with meatballs, sausages and braciole followed by roasted chicken with rosemary flavored potatoes and escarole sautéed in garlic with lemon. Dishes were cleaned up, dried and put away. The table was cleared and re-set with mixed nuts; finocchio, espresso and store bought Italian pastries. Then we would start all over again in the evening with sandwiches made with the leftovers.   We never went out to an Italian restaurant. Why would we? Indeed, I don’t remember my aunt ever going out to eat. Nothing came up to her standards.

Famous Italian Star Anna Magnani

On a cold November weekend in 1959, my parents had yet another one of their bitter fights so my Dad and I were stayed with my Nonna on Beaumont Avenue in the Bronx.  Aunt Mary and Uncle Nick lived upstairs as was typical of Italians in a average middle class Bronx tenement building.

That Saturday night, Titsie looked at me knowingly and asked if I wanted to go to the movies with her. In those days, one never checked a schedule for movie times. You just went to the theatre and walked in and caught the film in progress. You stayed till the movie started over. Hence the phrase: “This is where we came in.”

It was a chilly, damp eveing as we drudged up the gray dirty snowy streets of Fordham Road. I was dressed in a red/black checkered wool plaid winter coast, my aunt in chartreuse overcoat and colorful kerchief. She puffed on her Camel cigarette like the “little engine that could” going up the steep Fordham Road hill. My aunt didn’t just inhale; she sucked the smoke in like a vampire and made a lip smacking popping sound as she exhaled. She did everything with gusto.

We crossed under the Third Avenue El as the subway cars careened and shrieked around the tight corner of the Sears & Roebuck Building. Up the hill we went passing many small emporia: a haberdashery that sold ladies lingerie, a hosiery store with nylon stockings in neat little cardboard boxes, a cigar shop and pawn place with those three golden balls hanging over the doorway.


We stopped first at the Valentine Theater on Valentine Avenue. Last Train from Gun Hill was playing. It was as a Western but I was confused since I knew there was a Gun Hill Road in the Bronx so how could this be a Western? As my aunt looked at the lobby cards, I looked longingly up Valentine Avenue to Jahn’ s Ice Cream Parlor, hoping my aunt would get the hint. They were famous for their “kitchen sink” ice cream sundae. “Too much shoot ‘em up,” she said sounding eerily like an Italian John Wayne.

Right up the block was the RKO Keith Fordham, a huge movie palace. My aunt said she didn’t like war movies so we didn’t get to see South Pacific. Past the army recruiting station, over the Grand Concourse with Krums famous Candy Store and the Loews Paradise, rounding the catty cornered huge Alexander’s Department Store for a few more blocks to the second-run little movie theatre, the Lido. And lo and behold, guess was playing that epochal night? Auntie Mame!

My aunt paid her 75 cents adult admission and my 35 cent children under 12 admission – no popcorn, too expensive!  We walked in as Mame Dennis was “hung” over in bed with her attendant nephew Patrick. Auntie Mame is an iconic movie for gay men starring one of the actresses in the homosexual pantheon of divas, Rosalind Russell. Roz was a hard-hitting actress, strong, tough almost masculine in her drive with acid wit. His Gal Friday behind her, her Mama Rose of Gypsy was still to come.  How did my Aunt Mary know to take me to see that movie out of all the others? Maybe it was just coincidence or maybe Titsie just knew best.

Roz as Auntie Mame

How ironic and momentous was this? Almost like Oedipus meeting the Sphinx and receiving his fateful knowledge. Little Anthony, gay boy in the making – sitting in a darkened movie theatre next to his Italian Neorealim Aunt – watching Rozalind Russell as Auntie Mame. Was this the crossroads where it all began?

“Live! Live! Live! Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” “This is where we came in”, Aunt Mary announced as she bundled up her coat and marched up the dark, dark aisle of the Lido. Out we went into the cold, the Jerome Avenue El to our right, farther right was the original Loehman’s where once my Aunt dragged me into a communal dressing room to try on a prized acquisition.

Dazed, blinded by the snow, over the Concourse and through the turf of The Wanderers, we went down the sloping hill of Fordham Road. I slowed down like a puppy on a leash that does not want to go home as we crossed Valentine Avenue. Then my Auntie Mame gave a shove to the left as she dragged me around the corner to Jahn’s. Sitting at a booth, we shared a hot fudge sundae. She looked across the formica table, stared me deep in the eyes and said: “I’ma your Aunt Mary, don’ta you forget it.” How could I forget it? I would remember what she said to me again in 1972 when she took me in for three years to live with her and my Uncle Nick when I went to graduate school. We didn’t have the “kitchen sink” that night; I had everything else but…

Life is a banquet and I have lived my life every day like my Aunt Mary – braving the elements to see a movie, standing over the stove watching the sauce bubble, savoring the leftovers, snatching up a bargain with brio and shouting Aha! And inhaling life and exhaling with a gusto.

 

Live! Live! Live!

 January 1, 1958   no responses

On Beaumont Avenue in the Bronx in my Nona’s dark tenement parlor sat a rose pink convertible loveseat. The diminutive but massive piece of furniture was upholstered in a flamingo, shiny hard fabric with interwoven silver threads. It was boxy in shape with two large armrests. I could set my plate of pastina with melted butter on one side and my glass of milk with Bosco on the other. It was manufactured by the popular New York City based, Castro Convertible Company and featured a “feather lift” mechanism.

In the 1950’s, you couldn’t escape their commercials on the local channels that catered to the NYC’s lower middle class, all of whom had limited living space after the war. It was the perfect answer to a family living in cramped quarters.Bernard Castro, the founder, filmed his 6 year old daughter Bernadette with his 16mm camera. She daintily demonstrated how easy it was to open –“so easy a child could do it”. An Italian looking young girl dressed in a white nightgown would lift, snap and drop. “You just take it and pop it straight up.” As if my magic, the “Castro Convertible Girl” with her little pinky, would gently slide it up, out and over. When it was time for bed, I became the ten year old “Castro Convertible Boy” and would emulate little Bernadette, gracefully flipping open the bed. Sometimes I would close and open it several times as I sang the jingle:

“Who was the first to conquer space?
It’s incontrovertible!
That the first to conquer living space
Is Castro Convertible!”

During the day and before bedtime, Nonna would preside from her mauve throne munching tiny brown salted nuts as she watched a wrestling match on the Dumont or listened to Carlo Buti on The Italian Hour on the Philco. Sometimes I would sit next to Nonna, fitting so snuggly close that I could smell her black dress redolent of camphor balls as she crocheted lace doilies and antimacassars. But at night, the pink Castro convertible was mine. I loved my couch set with its harshly wrinkled white cotton sheets that I somehow never wet even though I did that often in my own bed at home. My little twin bed sat directly in front of the TV so I often fell asleep watching over and over again, “La Strada” and ‘The Tales of Hoffman” on The Million Dollar Movie as the “Star Spangled Banner” played and the sign off signals appeared. The gray dull glow encircled my dreams until finally Nonna would stomp in from her bedroom and snap it off in a huff saying “Who do you think I am?  Con –the- Edison!”

In the 1960’s, I often spent weekends alone with my Dad and Nonna. My father would first drop off my mother with my brother and sister in Brooklyn to spend the weekend at my other grandmother’s house. I would wander the Arthur Avenue neighborhood by myself stopping in at the church for some holy water, visiting chickens at the live poultry market and tasting samples at the numerous grocery stores. I would go shopping with my Aunt Mary at the stalls at the Retail Market and witness her interrogations and negotiations with the butchers, produce vendors and dry good merchants. I sometimes tagged along with my Cousin Viola (who looked a lot like Bernadette Castro), when she went to her CYO meetings in the Mt. Carmel Catholic School basement.

I explored the nearby Bronx Zoo countless times, especially the Monkey House, where my mother joked that I was born. I used a special “Elephant” shaped key that you stuck into a box in front of a cage to get the story on the animals pacing back and forth inside. I knew the place inside and out. I even ventured on my own to Freedomland, an amusement park, making multiple bus and train connections to get there way off in Pelham Bay. At Freedomland, I would mail letters to myself via the Pony Express Office from Little Old New York to San Francisco while watching the drama of firemen putting out the great fire of Chicago. Exhausted from my journeys, I would flop into my little bed and watch Perry Mason and Sea Hunt with my Aunt Mary who would often stop down from her place directly over Nonna’s.

One big weekend my uncle Carmelo, my father’s older brother whom he had not seen in 30 years, moved to America with his entire family from Sicily. They were staying with Nonna before moving on to Chicago. My cousin Vito was my age and spoke no English but somehow we communicated as I showed him around. We sort of looked alike and all of the neighbors thought we were brothers. We shared many Saturday nights in my bed giggling as we watched Sonny Fox and I couldn’t help notice his pee-pee was different than mine. Let’s just say it was European.

In the 1970’s, Nonna decided to finally to move in with my Aunt Mary who had moved away to Queens several years earlier. “Titzie” and Viola had purchased a brick mother/daughter house in Woodside. Nonna was always welcome to live with them but she refused to move from her beloved neighborhood. Besides she was a very proud and fiercely independent Italian matriarch, widowed now for 50 years. However, the area was changing and she was no spring chicken anymore. So, when I told grandma I was moving into my first apartment (after just recently getting my MFA) she offered me to take whatever I wanted from her place. She was moving to Queens. It was the excuse of helping me which would save face, the precious “bella figura”. Nonna had always been so good to me, me being the first grandson and little prince. When I was in graduate school, she had even bought me my first car, a brown Toyota Corolla for $2,450.

So with my friends, I packed up the entire contents of her home including a beautiful art deco wall mirror and bedroom set, the Dumont TV, the Philco Radio Console, five and dime store dishes, sheets, towels, pots and pans, an old toothbrush and an old pair of flesh colored pantaloon panties. Huffing and puffing, it took four of us to move the Castro Convertible sofa to the van, It had a bad center of gravity making it difficult to maneuver. Like Tony in “Saturday Night Fever”, I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge “in reverse” to Park Slope. It was a hot July afternoon and we sweated lugging the sofa up to my new 4th floor walk up on Garfield Place. We had to force it around several tight corners, stopping on each landing. It almost broke the banister we wedged it in so tight.

This is the only picture I have of the sofa. It is a morning after shot taken in my Park Slope apartment alcove but it has many clues. If you look closely you can see Carnevale decorations hanging from the ceiling. I still have part of my “Close Encounters of Third Kind” alien costume on with makeup. You can see a votive light on the radiator on the right that I had lit for the previous evenings afterglow romantic encounter of the first kind. Note the empty wine cups on the Phico TV and the green knit cap. It belongs to a leprechaun sleeping exhausted in my bed across the way.

 

I set it with pride of place in the triple exposure bay window alcove overlooking Seventh Avenue. You could see the Statue of Liberty from it, far out in the bay. I often read the Sunday Times there, resting a mug of coffee on one arm and the crossword on the other. It was also a perfect place to seduce an unsuspecting date. I would suggest sitting there for the view, get us wine and then sit down right next to him so close. Eventually an arm went around his shoulders and soon thereafter I was demonstrating the sofa’s “feather lift” mechanism.

The couch saw many parties, hosted numerous trysts and slept overnight guests of my roommates, Loretta and Fran. If that couch could talk! I swore one night it opened up by itself because in the morning it was magically agape. We all swore no one of us had touched the bed but there it was, open as silent witness to god knows what drunken revelry. The morning after one wild Carnevale party we discovered a guest had thrown up all over it. There he was asleep, not on the sofa, but propped up behind its backside. Since he was from India, we called him the “Bombay Bomber.”

Right before the 80’s began, I moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan into an L shaped studio of my very own on West 83rd Street. Fran had already moved out and Loretta had gotten married so the place in the Slope was just too big for me. Once again my friends helped me move.

Down the stairs went Nonna’s huge art deco mirror, Dumont TV and Philco phonograph console. The double bed with Nonna’s yellow chenille bedspread went too. It didn’t dawn on me till a few years later that it was the very bed I was conceived on back in 1947. If my parents only knew what had happened on it since! When it came time to move the Castro sofa out, we got it down to the third landing and once again, it got stuck around that tight bend. This time however try as we may, we couldn’t get it around the corner. So with much sadness we hauled it back up and put it back in the alcove. I was going to leave it behind for the next tenant.

Before we pulled away, I ran upstairs, and like Madame Ranevskaya in Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, I took one last walk around. It was broom clean and ready for the newcomers. But there in the sunlit bay window sat my now faded pink Castro Convertible Sofa. I sadly approached it and with a flick of my wrist, I lifted it up and popped it open. I lay down on it and looked up at the water rust stained ceiling. Like spotting the likeness of the Virgin Mary in a tree bark with my eyes half closed from squinting from the sun streaming in from west, I imagined seeing in those stains  the faces of Nonna, Viola, Vito, Aunt Mary, Fran, Loretta, monkeys,  myriad lovers and the “Bombay Bomber.”

I jumped up startled when I heard my best friend, Michael yelling my name up from the street. I must have gone out like a light for a minute or two.  I sighed, looking down at the pink convertible and like the angelic Bernadette, the “Castro Boy” closed the sofa for the last time with one last effortless, graceful motion.

Who conquers space with fine design?

Who saves you money all the time?

Who’s tops in the convertible line?

Castro Convertible!

 

Carnevale 1978

Me as the Alien, Loretta as the White Rock Girl and Bill Donavan the 6 foot Leprechaun

 December 31, 1954   no responses

New Years Eve in the 1950’s was a family affair. No one went out to a fancy restaurant or got loaded at a bar.  Being Italian, it was mandatory that we spent it at Nonna’s house at 2350 Beaumont Avenue in the Belmont section of the Bronx.

Festivities started around 8pm with everyone gathering in my grandma’s house. When I mean everyone I mean 25 family members.   There were no friends over since everyone was considered family even it you were not! So friends were called cugino or cousin.  My cousin Viola to this day calls me “Cuz”.

The adults sat on the chairs and sofa while the kids sat on floor as we played TombolaTombola is the Italian version of Bingo with 90 numbers. My grandmother was the caller and collected all the bets.  We played for coins and yet we all played like high rollers. Nonna called out the numbers in Italian and she was strict about the rules!  My dad called her Mrs. Mussolini. Each number though had a phrase that went with it and my Nonna shouted these out with glee. The women would sometimes laugh at some of the numerals. There were many in-jokes most of them dirty which as a kid I never got. Years later I figured out one of them was sessanove which is the number 69 and the phrase was Sotto sopra or upside down – Ahem.

Meanwhile my Aunt Mary was in the kitchen preparing pizza. She had made and kneaded the dough during the day. As we played Tombola, that sexy, great sour smell of yeast, throughout the tenement.  My aunt being Sicilian of course made pizza in that style with a one-inch thick sponge-like delicious crust topped with a judicious helping of tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil leaves (unlike today’s customs of smothering the crust with globs of crap). Of course I burnt my mouth on it since I was greedy to taste and couldn’t wait for it to cool off. “Pizza Mouth” my cousin Viola shouted at me as I downed some 7-UP..

Around 11pm I gave an unwanted performance on the saxophone that  my Uncle Nicola gave me for Christmas. Everybody cheered and applauded – that’s what family is for. As midnight neared the excitement built as we gathered around the Philco television to watch the ball drop at Times Square and hear Guy Lombardo play “Auld Lang Syne” – live from the ballroom of the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel.

The countdown started in English and in Italian: 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1!

We all hugged and kissed and we opened all the windows to let the fresh breezes of the New Year in. We ran around banging on kitchen pots with wooden spoons to chase out the evil spirits. All of us danced out into the hallways still banging and clamoring on our pots as we climbed the tenement stairs up to the roof. We tossed over some old trinkets and clothes to symbolize out with the old and in with the new. My father tossed over some firecrackers too.  It was “heads up” on street level below!

By 1 a.m. everybody was home. I was staying over. I snuggled up on my grandmothers “Hollywood” convertible sofa.  I bit of basil was stuck in my tooth. Yum it tasted good as it dislodged as my tongue played with the hardness on the roof of my mouth – “Pizza Mouth”!

The next day after Mass everyone would be back for a big afternoon dinner. Coats were piled high on Nonna’s bed and the fire escape was filled with white boxes tied with string containing pastries and cannoli. I gave an encore performance on my sax.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!   -  BUON ANNO!

Click here to see all the rhymes connected with Tombola

 July 1, 1953   no responses

In the 1950′s, when you walked into any tenement building in the Bronx, you were greeted by the rich aromas wafting from landing to landing of each family’s Sunday afternoon feast:  the fiery tomato sauces of the Sicilians; the beefy, peppery briskets of the Jews; the sweet potato pecan pies of the “Negroes”; the pungent cabbages of the Irish; the pulled; savory pork of the Puerto Ricans; and the garlicky kielbasas of the Poles. From the laundry rooms, filled with huge apothecary like bottles of bleach and bluing, pungent smells floated up of clean sheets that mixed in with sour/sweet rot of garbage left over night in the basement before the morning collection.

Each morning I woke up in our Belmont neighborhood to an aromatic miasma of hot yeasty breads just baked in coal ovens at Madonnia; of glistening salty sea-air fish being laid out on chipped ice at Randazzo’s; of ripe cheeses, salami and baccala at Teitel Brothers and luscious slightly over ripe peppers and melons at the stalls at the Arthur Avenue Retail Market.

As the 6am Angelus bells rang out in counter point to the sound of trash cans thrown down by burly garbage men, my Nonna brewed hot espresso and munched on biscotti encrusted with almonds.  She would dunk the hard, hard biscuits in the thick dark sweet froth and chomp and chew like a dinosaur.  Sometimes she made American coffee in a coffee pot where the brown brew bubbled up and percolated up into a small glass knob signaling it was done. Instead of gnawing on the indurate biscuits, Nonna sometimes whisked a raw egg into her cup of “café Americano”.  She always offered me some and laughed loudly when I made a pussy face and refused. Afterwards she would take a basil leaf out of the icebox and rub her gums and teeth with it; a sort of Italian mouthwash or “Pepsodent”!

It was a hot, hazy, NYC humid summer Sunday and we were all going to Orchard Beach in the Bronx. Orchard Beach was a mirage, an oasis, a miracle. Robert Moses struck his staff into the land along the Long Island Sound and the waters parted to reveal a beautiful white sandy beach with Art Deco pavilions, promenades, and wooded cooking areas. The master builder, Moses has delivered us from the heat and given us all a municipal city beach to rival any in the Hamptons or Jersey Shore, – “the Bronx Rivera.”

On Sundays in the 1950’s, all the stores were closed except for the drugstores and bakeries which usually closed right after the noon mass. As my mother and I left the Church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, I dunked my hand in the holy water font and secretly sprinkled an Old Italian lady kneeling and praying the rosary. My mother, catching me, tugged my ear and pulled me along. Our first stop was the candy store to get the Daily News with its rotogravure in color. We then went to Addeo’s for lard bread before we waited on the long line at Artuso’s Pastry Shoppe to pick up the cannoli.

At 11am, we packed into my father’s car: Mom, Nonna, Aunt Mary & Uncle Nick, and my cousin Viola, their daughter. It was already 90 degrees, the air thick and sticky. Still the ladies wore sun dresses below the knees and I never saw my Uncle Nick without a white shirt & tie. My grandmother always wore black since the day she was a widowed in her twenties. I jauntily had doffed a white sailor hat with battleship gray swim trunks and white “guinea” tee. On my pretty feet were brown sandals over white socks. I loved their smell of musty, tannic leather.

Dad and me at Orchard Beach

This was no ordinary trip:  it was an excursion, a safari. Napoleon in all his glory did not travel with so much of an entourage and supporting camp. My Aunt was chargé d’affaires undiplomatically ordering us to carry the supplies down two flights to the curb: picnic hampers containing real dishes; utensils and all the makings of a full dinner; boxes filled with pots and pans; linens, lids, graters, cutlery, colander, and wooden spoons; blankets, umbrella and an ice cooler layered with bottles of red wine and 7-Up.

My Dad pulled up the car to the front of our place at 2350 Beaumont Avenue, singing along to Rosemary Clooney’s “Botcha- Me!” on the radio. My grandmother rode up front like Lewis and Clarkes’ guide, Sacajawea, eyes straight ahead. I sat in the middle so I could play with the radio, dialing back and forth, forth and back till I got a swift slap on the wrist from Nonna. Aunt Mary (or Titsie as I called her), sat in the back and I could see her jungle red lips in the rear view mirror, glowing like the devil from the “Hell Hole” ride at Coney Island. Somehow Uncle Nick sat back there unflummoxed and never sweating next to Mom and Viola.

Passing between the Bronx Zoo and Botanical Garden on Fordham Road, we joined the exodus of other Sunday drivers to Pelham Parkway, leading directly east to Orchard Beach. Dad maneuvered us into the gigantic parking lot holding thousands of cars built for the wave of post WWII new car owners.  He was a New York expert and knew all the ins and outs of the city. He had figured out exactly where to park the car so it would be in the shade at the end of the day and not hot as all hell in those days before air conditioning.

Dad, our Virgil, guided us to the groves all the way up to the left. It was emptier there almost like Parnassus, secret and cool under the leaves of the umbrella-like trees. We reached a picnic table with a stone grill in the shade under the dabbled light of the afternoon sun. Mom was out of breath and Nonna enthroned herself on one of the wooden green, canvas chairs I had to carry. We unpacked the entire larder under the direct supervision of Titsie. My Uncle Nick quickly found a bottle of wine to slake his thirst. My Dad, now like Prometheus, made a fire out of some mysterious materials of I don’t know what.  My Aunt set the dented, aluminum pots on the grate and started to re-heat the sauce she had made on Saturday morning, simmering with contents of meatballs, sausages, pork chops and bracciole.

Getting antsy, I started to pester my cousin Viola to take me to the beach to wade in the salty waters. Never in all of our excursions did my grandmother, Aunt & Uncle ever venture near the sand or go into the water. Finally Viola gave in and took me down the hill to the crescent of sand that had been conjured up by Mr. Moses.  At the end of the path, I took off my sandals and put on little white rubber bathing booties. The last time at the beach I started to scream at the top of my lungs when my bare feet hit the hot sand. I hated the scorching heat on the flat of my feet and the textured grittiness of the sand between my toes. My father had to carry me from the boardwalk all the way down to the beach where the sand was moist with the lapping, cool waves of the Sound. This time I was ready as I strode down the Sahara in my rubber shoes that Mom had bought me at Alexander’s on the Grand Concourse. Like young Prince Moses I arrogantly kicked sand on people’s blankets, carrying my tin pail and shovel like scepter and orb.

Viola was like an older sister to me. She often told me the story how she held me up (like the cub in The Lion King) a few days after I was born to admire her new “Cuz” and how I peed in her face! We were close ever since. Viola (in her bathing cap) and I frolicked in the water. I splashed her when she wasn’t looking and she screamed how cold it was as I gleefully laughed in delight.  I made a few sand castles surrounded by moats. I loved to fill them with the water scooped up from my pail and watch the water swoosh around the towers. When I started to nudge her to buy me an ice cream from one of the vendors walking the beach, she announced it was time to go back. “I have had enough of you!” She dragged me like a puppy straining on a leash, not wanting to return home after its walk.  My sandals were so hot from lying out in the sun. I dunked them in my pail of water to cool them down before our trek back up the hill.

Like an Impressionistic picnic painted by Manet, our sylvan area had been transformed: our table being set out with crisp white linens with china, silverware and glasses. The white smoke from the grill circled around the area as the sunlight magically streaked though, keeping the gnats and flies at bay. In the distance a man (or was it Pan), was playing the mandolin and softly singing “Santa Lucia” which blended with a nearby family’s laughing like satyrs at a dirty joke told by someone’ s uncle. We joined them in contagious mirth. The pot was boiling as my Aunt threw in two boxes of Ronzoni macaroni. We never called it pasta. It was either spaghetti or macaroni, no matter the size. I helped stir them round and round the steaming, bubbling cauldron under Titsie’s watchful eye. I foolishly burnt my tongue trying to taste a shell to see if it was done. “Strunzo” my aunt said curtly with no pity.

She doled out the steaming “macarone”, the amounts based on ones status and sex, Nonna and my Dad getting the biggest heaping plates. She ladled the wine dark tomato sauce over them and with a flick of the fork, sprinkled cheese lightly all over the mouth-watering mound surrounded by the savory meats falling apart in their tenderness.  We never called it parmesan; it was cheese. It had been my mother’s chore before lunch to grate the wedge of cheese since she was Polish and “couldn’t cook” or so covertly said my Aunt in Italian behind her back but I understood. I noticed one of Mommy’s knuckles was scraped from trying to get the last bits grated. My Aunt would not tolerate any waste.  Uncle Nick mixed the red wine with 7-Up in small clear glasses as I passed them all around. My Mom didn’t want wine and drank only the lemon soda. She wasn’t feeling so well that summer.

After dinner, the heat of the day brought out the loud humming chorus of the cicadas. After we cleared up and scraped off the plates and flatware, we all found spots to lay back and laze. I fell asleep on a wool red & bIack plaid blanket. On my back, squinting up, I spotted a seagull circling above searching for the scraps it knew we would leave behind.  Dad and Uncle Nick, smoked panatelas and got out the cards to play briscola and drank lots of wine sans 7”Up.

Mom and Me

 After a couple of lost hours, Titsie heated a pot of espresso and set out the demitasse cups with tiny doll house like silver spoons to match. The herbaceous smell of licorice filled the air as the Anisette was used as the sweetener in our café. The clear syrupy liqueur drew gnats and flies bombarding us like kamikaze pilots. A huge bowl of mixed nuts of pecans, walnuts and “nigger toes” (Brazil nuts) was placed on the tablecloth now spotted with red wine stains like a Rorschach test. I loved the freedom of being able to toss the shells into the woods until Uncle Nick told me to stop. My Aunt, like Ariadne, cut off the pink & white twine and opened the virginal white boxed filled with cannoli. My chest was covered in white confectionary sugar as I picked out the candied fruit (or spit them out if I had missed any). Nonna slapped my hand again.

At the end of the day, a golden haze started to stream in from the west as we packed up everything carefully. We rinsed everything off at a spigot at the WPA Building restrooms. Even though the car was in the shade it was damn hot. We opened all the doors and waited for it to cool down. Uncle Nick lit up on one last Camel. Some boys set off Roman Candles on the beach and we all clapped as the Technicolor streaks were reflected on the rooftop of our dark shiny car. I skidded across the front seat and cried out as my bare sunburned thighs hit the blistering vinyl. Dad turned on the radio and of course, I started to race through the dials. He made me stop when the Four Aces were singing:

“‘Heart Of My Heart’, I love that melody

‘Heart Of My Heart’ brings back a memory

When we were kids on the corner of the street

We were rough ‘n ready guys

But oh, how we could harmonize”

Dad started to sing and we all sang along except for Nonna who was looking out for Indians.

“‘Heart Of My Heart’ meant friends were dearer then

Too bad we had to part

I know a tear would glisten

If once more I could listen

To that gang that sang ‘Heart Of My Heart’”

We inched along through shaded arcade of Pelham Parkway. When we arrived home, Dad gave Viola and me a nickel each and we ran back to Artuso’s for Italian ices.  We never called them “Italian” ices, there were ices! What else? There were lots flavors but I was a purist – Lemon Ice was king.  The ice was so cold a pang of pain shot up my nose and like an aardvark I licked the last tart lemony drops from the bottom of the small white paper cup. With sticky hands we returned home.

Mom put me in the bath tub to rinse off the detritus of a day in the sun, sand and salt water. I left behind a gray dull ring of baby oil in the tub as the final particles of sand washed down the drain.  After she toweled me down, Mom lay down on Nonna’s full sized bed with white heavy cotton sheets she had to be ironed after washing. I was so sleepy; I made no usual scene when I was asked to go to bed. I slept in a Hollywood bed in the parlor. As I drifted off, the gray flickering light of the DuMont television was my night light and the Burns & Allen Show theme song, “Just a Love Nest” was my lullaby that was given over to some boys in the enclosed courtyard crooning Doo-Wop like love sick alley cats.

That night, I dreamed of seagulls, castles, and forests with witches chanting a wordless song.

This would be my last golden summer living in the Bronx.  We would move to Brooklyn and join Ralph and Alice leaving Marty and Molly behind. In a few years, Aunt Mary & Uncle Nick with Cousin Viola would move to Woodside, Queens not far from Archie and Edith. Nonna stayed behind like a bit of black anthracite coal firmly stuck in the good earth. In 1974 the Goldbergs moved to Co-Op City and my grandmother moved in with Aunt Mary. She gave me the entire the contents of her house for my first apartment. I guess with time and aging, the glowing diamond underneath she had always hid was finally released by the burning of the Bronx.

I would never be alone nor “Prince of the City” again.  My brother Michael would be born that fall in September. Ah the 7-Up without wine!  I would become the big brother having to set an example. “Don’t you know any better, you’re the oldest? You big ciuccio!”

I return to the Bronx often. I stop at Beaumont Avenue hoping to see Uncle Nick sitting on the steps puffing away, cursing “somma-bitch” under his breath as Aunt Mary calls him inside to do some chore. I imagine I hear my grandmother in black yelling at the TV screen as some histrionic wrestler throws his opponent down Slam! on the mat. My cousin Viola takes my hand and we go roller skating at the Parish Hall. I hear my father pull up in his car to pick my mother up for a ride to City Island, singing along with Eddie Fisher, “Oh Mein Papa.”

I enter the hushed church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and stick my hand into the Holy Water font held by a life size marble angel. The angel and cool baptismal water transport me to the beach, the water lapping up to my bare feet. Outside again, looking up, a pigeon nests next to be big church bell. It is 6pm, the final Angelus rings out and the startled bird flies high, circling the spire.

I smile to remember the seagull – now lifting me up up over the tree tops, looking down on Belmont, circling round and round, trying to go home again. I hover over the mean streets of Arthur Avenue, spotting some kids rapping on a corner of a street besides a heap of black plastic trash bags; swooping down for a Lemon Ice; pecking at a bite of prosciutto bread; snatching up some discarded candied fruit or nuts; sipping an espresso – all my Proustian Madeleine’s – reminding me, trying to re- capture those idyllic days of family, smells, tastes and sounds; music and the laughter; of the warmth and love of time lost…of golden days…

“Golden days in the sunshine of our happy youth

Golden days full of gaiety and full of truth.

In our hearts, we remember them all else above,

Golden days full of youth and love.

How we laughed with the joy that only love can bring

Looking back through memory’s eyes.

We will know life has nothing sweeter than its springtime,

Golden day, when we’re young,

Golden days”

*************

Click here to hear

“Golden Days, sung by Mario Lanza in the 1954 movie, The Student Prince

that I saw with my Aunt Mary at the RKO Fordham..