On Thanksgiving morning, when I was a young lad growing up in Brooklyn, I would dress up as a hobo and go begging. No I wasn’t poor…
Children would dress up on Thanksgiving morning, in raggedy clothing and blacken their faces with a burnt piece of cork to resemble hobos. We would go from house to house yelling, “Anythin’ f’ Thanksgiv’n?” and if we were lucky, we would be rewarded with coins, or piece of candy or (ugh) a piece of fruit.
This custom practiced mostly in Brooklyn was called “Ragamuffin Day. It resembled trick and treating on Halloween. Ragamuffin parades, harkened back to European traditions, and gave a chance for the poorer immigrants of New York City to march through the streets in extravagant costumes, begging for change. Popular myth would have it that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade originated in a similar fashion when its immigrant store employees wished to celebrate their newfound American-ness with a European-style parade. Of course, the idea really came from store executives.
On this Thanksgiving morning in 1957, I made the rounds around the block in black face, old dirty clothes and my father’s crumbled gray fedora. I rang the vestibule door bells and yelled out, “Anythin’ f’ Thanksgiv’n’?” I knew exactly which bells to ring so I could accumulate the biggest stash of goodies and be home by 11 am; an A&P paper shopping bag bulging with Snicker, Milky Way and Charleston Chew candy bars. I threw all the apples away in the corner trash basket. I ate three full sized nickel candy bars so I didn’t have to listen to my mother yell at me to save room for the big afternoon feast. “Your eyes are bigger than your head!”
“You’re late!” My mother yelled as I threw my tatter all’s on the floor, ran to the bathroom and quickly wiped the burnt charcoal and chocolate from my face. I put on my good Easter Suit, snapped on a satin silk tie and secured it in place with a fake gold tie clip. We were all going to my Polish grandma’s house in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn for Thanksgiving dinner.
At noon, Dad led us to our DeSoto as we walked down the stoop steps of our brownstone. We were all dressed up, looking like a family of ducks following their mother. I precariously carried two boxes of the holiday pies while holding, my brother Michael’s hand and Mom struggled with my bundled up, crying baby sister, Karen. Mom sidled across the front seat and Michael and I took the back as I placed the pies boxes between us, marking my territory. My father, one hand on the wheel and one hand fiddling with the radio dials zoomed across the Gowanus Expressway to the Belt Parkway to the Fort Hamilton Parkway Exit.
At this exit, before they built the Verrazano Bridge, there was an actual decaying dark brick fort out in the Narrows Bay built for an impending British attack in 1812 which never happened. Off of Fourth Avenue, in Fort Hamilton Park, a huge black cannon with very large cannon balls still stood silent watch over the harbor. A left at St. Patrick’s Church at Fourth Avenue took us to grandma’s house at 345 96th Street.
My grandmother lived on a quiet street lined with London Plane trees. These are the kind of trees that drop big puffy seed balls in the spring and whose bark you can easily peels off in sheets which I did. Wide enamel cherry red painted slippery steps led up to the front door of a two family attached two story dwelling. The door to the right was Mr. Russo’s, the Italian landlord who lived on the first floor. Grandma did not get along with the Russo’s; so they were to be avoided at all costs. Actually Grandma didn’t like anybody, a true Krotki trait.
I pressed the doorbell on the left repeatedly. It was a doorbell that rang out clear like the knife sharpener man’s bell; it would make Quasimodo proud. My Uncle Joey flew down the steps yelling “Stop ringing the bell!” Its lucky Grandma was hard of hearing. He peeked through the curtained glass panes of the front door, making sure it was us – we could be burglars, you know. He let us in. Even from all the way downstairs, a wafting warm aroma of roasted turkey swept over us and up to the wintery sunlit skylight. Another steep set of narrow steps got you up to the second floor vestibule where there was always a small aluminum trash can. A swinging door led directly ahead into the kitchen while a French Door with white lace behind the glass panels led off right into the dining room. Since this was a holiday, we were allowed to use the French Door.
Everyone was already there: Uncle Joey the youngest of the seven siblings; my bitter Aunt Laura with her Italian husband, Uncle Cy, a Frank Sinatra looking Lothario; their always taciturn son Glenn; my bachelor Uncle Eddie who along with my favorite Uncle Joey lived at home with my grandmother; my divorced heavy set but baby-faced Uncle Larry still bereaved over the desertion of his wife, taking their son (my cousin) with her to Florida and my barrel chested Uncle Phil, the oldest, also bereft of wife and child (and another lost cousin). They were all drinking Whiskey and Rye over cloudy ice cubes, washed down with good old cold Brooklyn Rheingold beer. They were feeling no pain.
My deeply religious grandmother Josephine (who my mother was named after) wore a gray and pink housedress with turquoise floral apron over it that she had both bought at Mays Department Store on Fulton Street in Downtown Brooklyn. She always wore her hair in a tightly coiled bun held together with big black hairpins, looking like an older Irene Dunne in “I Remember Mama.” She went to mass at St. Patricks’ every morning and a large Infant of Prague statue loomed on her bedroom dresser. She changed the baby Jesus’s attire to match the liturgical calendar. Like the savory cabbages glumkies she always made, grandma would run sweet and sour. Sometimes giving me some “car fare”(a quarter or two) or making a sharp remark in Polish if I did something she didn’t approve of (like picking my nose without a handkerchief).
I put the light green Ebingers boxes of pies tied with brown twine on the huge buffet in the dining room. Baby Karen was deposited on Grandma’s double bed in a nest of winter coats looking like the Infant of Prague on its side. Michael tore around the apartment playing airplane till my Grandmother gave him a whack to stop which provoked lots of his crocodile tears. It was perfectly accepted for a relative to discipline a child. “A child should be seen and not heard.”
I then went directly to my Uncle’s Joeys’ Hi-Fi Player that I was enthralled and obsessed with. It played such bright clean sound on long playing records not like my primitive portable 45 rpm player. I poured through all the albums that I knew by heart: Show Boat, Sing Along with Mitch, and Piano Rags by Joanne Castle. I gingerly took out two black disks, being careful not to get my finger prints on the grooves. I blew off some errant dust and put two LP’s on the changer: Lester Lanin’s At the Tiffany Ball followed Jackie Gleason’s Music for Lovers Only. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” segued into a lively Twelfth Street Stomp. I raised the volume. My mother yelled out to shut “that shit” off since dinner was ready. I made it louder for a second before I abruptly lifted the needle off in spite.
We all proceeded to the formal dining room which was only used at Christmas and Easter. The table was set with a white damask linen tablecloth and an ecru crotchet lace overlay; the best china was laid out. Uncle Joey had wiped each one of them with a damp dish cloth after taking them from the dusty big China closet with glass doors that stuck and never did quite close. Uncle Joey had also polished the silverware the week before They were stored in a mahogany box lined in lush hunter green felt that looked like Alexander Hamilton’s case for dueling pistols. Mogen David wine gleamed dark blood red in the clear silver lead crystal goblets. The sliced White Mountain Bread from Ebingers was set out on a cloisonné tray that ‘Ole Blue Eyes,” Uncle CY had gotten from his stint in Korea. The White Mountain bread left powdery blotches all over my suit that I tried to wipe off with water which made more of a mess – like dirty sleet after a city snow storm. My grandmother frowned.
Everybody knew where to sit by instinct. We all stood behind our chairs till Grandma finally took off her apron and sat down. Thanksgiving was the only time we said “Grace”. But before my eldest Uncle Phil could start, my father yelled out “Grace Kelly” and we all laughed. Uncle Phil started over in earnest tone, “Bless us O Lord for these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty through Christ Our Lord.” “Amen!”, we all yelled out like the start of a baseball game.
The first skirmish of courses started – soup plates were passed in military precision to Grandma who ladled out her Duck Soup from a huge Liberty Blue Staffordshire soup tureen. She had prepared the soup days before – a Polish Catholic version of Jewish Chicken Soup but much darker and thicker almost nut brown with great chunks of carrots and celery congealed to Carolina Rice. You had to lick the spoon after the initial slurp, to savor the savory reduction, coating an unusually large soup spoon.
At the last slurp, Aunt Laura, Uncle Joey and Mom cleared the soup plates in an assembly line from dining room, to kitchen to sink. Uncle Joey then brought in the behemoth sized turkey. He walked the platter slowly around the table showing it off like a rabbi with the Torah on the High Holy Days. With great pomp it was placed before Uncle Larry who took out a gigantic ivory handled knife and pronged fork that he got from Japan. As he had been an army chef in Hawaii during WWII he carved with expertise and histrionic brio. The Arnold’s stuffing oozed out of the bursting sewn up cavity of the bird. Grandma got the “Pope’s Nose”; the legs went pride of place to the eldest uncles, Uncle Joey and Aunt Laura snagged the burnt wings and Ma and I grabbed the white meat.
In military parade review, out marched the platters – a bounty of side dishes all from my uncle’s fruit and vegetable store in Sunset Park: a mountain high bowl of steaming buttery mashed potatoes (it was my job to mash them and I always bruised my hand in exuberance) – a tray of cold cranberry jelly mold (Aunt Laura had cut her finger when the using the crusty old can opener, opening both ends of the tin, pushing the quivering shape out) – tangy thyme laced parsnips and creamy rutabagas with pearl onions – roasted sweet potatoes (or where they yams?) layered over with charred mini marshmallows – boiled-to-death string beans with almond slivers – gray-green garlicky Brussel sprouts and finally earthy pungent buttons of mushroom caps stuffed with bread crumbs that my Mother had made. Half the dishes circled clockwise, the other half counter. We passed around a precariously filled-to-the-brim boat of turkey gravy which we slathered over everything, spreading out over the entire plate like the Johnstown flood. We filled our thick water glasses with ice cold Key Food Golden Apple Cider poured from a glass gallon jug with a little side handle that I always got my thumb stuck into.
Silence descended like the truce at the WWI trenches on Christmas Eve. We devoured the meal in less than a half an hour. There was a collective groan of satiety when my Uncle Larry gave a big sigh and rose up to toast Grandma and saying it was the “moistest” turkey she had ever made (he said this every year). We all clapped as she looked over her family like a stony, silent Indian chief. My fey Uncle Joey went to the Hi-Fi and put on record of the famous band leader, Art Mooney. The needle plunked down on “I’m looking over a four leaf clover” and we all sang along even my quiet Cousin Glenn, “that I over looked before. One leaf is sunshine; the second is rain, third is the roses that grow in the lane. No need explaining, the one remaining is somebody I adore. I’m looking over a four-leaf clover that I overlooked before.” My brother and I fought over the wish bone. I won.
When the song was over, like revelry, everyone rose from their turkey tryptophan stupor. Uncles Phil and Eddy put on their over coats and left quickly racing down the steps to go the Jolly Pigeons Bar & Grill to pick up some other kind of Thanksgiving bird. They would not stay out late: Uncle Phil had to be at Hunts Point at 3am to buy wholesale for their fruit and vegetable market and Uncle Eddy had to open up the store. Uncle Larry kissed Grandma on the cheek saying “Night Mama” as he left in sweet sadness. My father went to the parlor opened the top of his pants, stuck his hand under his belt, laid his head back and the couch and fell asleep. Uncle Cy joined him in the parlor watching the Rose Bowl on TV.
With all the men gone or asleep the cleaning up was left to the females; scraping, rinsing and washing the dishes as I helped to transfer the food to smaller bowls, sealed with Saran Wrap. Grandma never gave us any leftovers. They were always kept for the return of her beloved prodigal sons. Art Mooney and his Orchestra continued on the Hi-Fi with “If I knew you were coming Id’ve baked a cake, baked a cake, baked a cake. If I knew you were coming Id’ve baked a cake.” Uncle Joey would sing out the refrain: “Howdya do, Howdya do, Howdya do?” and we all joined in. Michael sat on the kitchen floor, getting in our way, coloring in his Mighty Mouse book. Grandma like a retired general, went to the front sun room, sat in her rocking chair, eyes closed, praying the rosary, davening and murmuring like a Tibetan monk, asking forgiveness and mercy for her wayward family.
The tablecloth now looked like a tapestry camouflage of mottled brown gravy stains; sanguine cranberry Rorschach blots, a barrage of bread crumbs and gangrenous vegetable smudges. Aunt Laura laid a smaller yellow art deco cloth over it all, hiding the battlefield. Uncle Joey put the trash out in that ever present garbage can on the other side of the kitchen door. Silence descended.
The whistling teapot startled us with its load hissing noise and signaled it was time for dessert. Dessert was a ladies delicacy. Hot boiling water was poured from teapot into dainty teacups with a tea bag of A&P “Our Own Brand” tea. There was a little string attached to the bag that I liked to keep dunking and dunking till Grandma gave me rap. She would pour the hot, hot tea from her cup onto the saucer and blew across the top to cool it down before sipping. Grandma used Carnation Evaporated Milk in her tea, a vestige of the Great Depression and WWII rationing. Like weary veterans we sat around the now empty vast dining room table with the faint cheers of the Rose Bowl filling the quiet background. It was in a way a most holy and serious rite.
On the table lay the pies, pumpkin and pecan displayed on crystal cake stands, mixed hard shelled nuts in a pewter bowl and fruit in a large cornucopia Italianate painted bowl. Aunt Laura served Uncle Cy still watching the game, a piece of each pie topped with a dollop of freshly made whip cream. I made a mess cracking open the walnut shells and making them into little soldier helmets on my finger. With little dessert forks, we took tiny nibbles of the pies, groaning as we took our last bites. Grandma opened up a bottle of her favorite liqueur, Cherry Herring Brandy. She gave me sip from a rose colored etched with gold cordial glass. It tasted like Smith Brothers cherry cough syrup. No one ever touched the fruit.
Baby Karen crying from the bedroom, signaled the festivities were over. In a quiet armistice, the table was quickly cleared and everything put back where it belonged in its stasis of everyday living. Hugs all around and nary a kiss was espied on the cold Polish border of our family mores.
It was dark out now. It was same feeling of amazement I always got when I went to a wintery movie matinee, entering in the bright clear afternoon sunlight but coming out into darkness. We all slept on the way home as Dad somehow stayed awake, driving. He opened up his side window so the chilly night air whooshed back to my seat and rushed through my hair. I then rolled mine down too and stuck my head out pretending I was a train engineer. “Close that window,” my mom snapped.” You’ll catch cold of the baby!” Michael woke up as we slowed down and went up the steep incline of Park Slope’s 10th Street. There was parking on the right side of the street right so Dad didn’t have to get up early the next morning to move the car to the other side.
Karen was quickly laid down in her blonde wood crib. The rest of us got into our pajamas. My mother made dad a sandwich and he gave me a bite. We sat down to watch The Wizard of Oz on CBS, channel 2. Of course it was in black and white. It wasn’t till my Uncle Joey took me the following month to the Sander’s Movie Theatre off of Prospect Park that I realized that when Dorothy opened the door she stepped into the glorious lollipop Technicolor Land of OZ.
“There’s no place like home”
After it was over, we all went to sleep. I said my prayers and went to bed. I was hungry again so I reached under the bed where I hid my Ragamuffin Day goodie bag and pulled out an O’Henry bar. As I was eating, I noticed some charcoal under my fingernails, left over from the morning so I licked it off with some of the chocolate from the O’Henry. I chuckled, “Anythin’ f’ Thanksgiv’n’?
I couldn’t sleep. Something was troubling me. Maybe it was my parent’s conversation I overheard the other day. They were talking in whispers. I caught fragments of words – moving – upstate – house. I didn’t know it then but like a movie, they were changing the scenery of my life. The following year we would move upstate to Newburgh, NY to a real house. My life would in a way be like Dorothy’s story but only backwards. I was now living in my beloved OZ, a New York City of vibrant neon lights, magnificent bridges, roaring subway trains and crazy characters. I would soon be dropped down the following year into to the drab, gray, dull suburban black and white existence of the suburbs, a Kansas where everybody looked like everybody else, acted the same, got around in cars and there was no Ragamuffin Parade.
The outside street light cast a cool white light into the bedroom. Snow flakes flittered against the window pane. An ambulance car siren wailed in the distance and I swore I heard the clanging of a Brooklyn trolley car way off from Flatbush Avenue. My father started snoring until my mother gave him a quick jab. Sweet sister Karen gurgled, and my brother gently rolled over on his side, facing away from me. With all of my family gathered around me, I still I felt so alone in my bed in a vastness of tumbled sheets. I hummed “I’m looking over a four leaf clover.” Maybe there would be four leaf clovers in Newburgh; I looked up to the ceiling with its rusty water stains and mottled light and pulled the covers up to my chin, and like Dorothy I started to whisper to myself over and over: “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like, there’s no place, there’s no, ……. .”