By Joyce Caruso Corrigan
Columnist Charles Caruso passed away on August 6th, only a few hours after Pete Hamill did. No doubt these two newspaper men, products of New York City’s most competitive Catholic schools (Brooklyn Prep and Regis, respectively) are sharing off-color Jesuit jokes at their favorite watering hole: that great Lion’s Head in the sky.
Holiday time in the Village with Dad seemed to us a snow globe of the special amiability of his beloved ‘hood. Small, safe, old world and—given a little shake—filled with surprises. One December in the early ‘80s we were saying goodnight outside Dad’s Morton Street apartment; we were such a big, loud crowd that theatre icon Charles Ludlam, who was trying to pass us, had to step out onto the street. Dad apologized with that easy charm of his (he could be equal parts Bing Crosby and Che Guevara) and the famously irreverent Ridiculous Theatre founder made a deep, flamboyant bow, wished us Merry Christmas, and disappeared into the night. Dad lived for those Village moments. He loved the kinship between our last name and the word “chiaroscuro” as he appreciated the light and dark sides in himself and others, and in books, movies and myths. It was why even strangers gravitated toward him.
There was a big bad city, above and below, but Dad’s Village seemed sheltered by a supernatural benevolent force. When he got on in years, and took several tumbles on the cobblestoned streets and broken curbs, there was always someone to help him get back on his feet. Sometime in the ‘70s, with two divorces and a newspaper career in flux, he moved to the Village to work on his novels. It was out and about where he’d find not only material for his books but a new family. “Everyone at the bars he frequented became instant relatives, young and old,” recalls my sister Carla. “They’d light up when he would walk into Gil’s, Minetta’s, and, in the last years, Rafele.” Female shopkeepers especially loved him, as he was an unrepentant flirt. “On hot days he’d bring popsicles to the laundry women on Bedford Street.” Morton Street neighbor Lucy Herbert remembers coming home from medical treatments to funny encouraging notes on her door. “Charlie and I loved sharing meatballs and vino at Cornelia Street Café. During one bad health period he left a copy of Proust with the note, “This will help with insomnia!”
For three decades running, he and his sister Helen, now 85, never missed their Friday dinners in the Village. “The beauty of it was we could always just wander around and find a table for two, and it was never a bad meal or a bad time,” says Helen. Dad and my son shared November 30th as a birthday and for many years we’d have double celebrations at Minetta (pre-McNally), and invariably Dad would give my son a book by Mark Twain or Winston Churchill, both born that day too. Matthew Broderick could often be found huddled in the corner with his playwright mother Patricia; one time Sarah Jessica Parker came over to chat with my then four-year-old son who, it turns out, is super gregarious like his grandfather.
After dinner, Dad would always march us around to jazz clubs like the Blue Note or Village Vanguard, and somewhere along the line he befriended the legendary Annie Brazil who we’d go see at a supper club on Bleecker Street. His idea of downtown “clubbing” was being a faithful member of the Salmagundi Club, the Shakespeare Society, and the James Joyce Society.
“We’re just getting the knack of life when we die,” is one of his recent one-liners from his “Caruso Quips” WestView News column. My sister and I had to laugh about how true this was; not only did two beautiful young women we’d never met show up at Dad’s funeral service, but the family plot where he’s buried in Calvary Cemetery in Long Island City has the perfect panoramic view of Manhattan. He positioned himself to look out, for eternity, on the city and the locals he loved.