By Joe Albanese
“Life is not so short.
But that there is always time enough for courtesy”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
“You’re acting all American, American, American
But you were born in Italy.”
Renato Carosone (Tu vuo’fa’ l’Americano)
They’re doing away with bullying! Good!
As wonderful a time and place as the Lower East Side (let’s narrow it down to Little Italy) was in the fifties and sixties, somehow bullying became one’s favorite sport if you disregarded stickball and hopes of becoming the next Joe Pepitone.
Television and movies (arch-rivals though they were) taught us what was right and how to be. Stereotypes were created and viewers either at home or on the Rialto bought into such concepts.
Children in front of a grocery store on Prince Street selling cans of dried goods – circa 1950. From the author’s personal collection.
Men were “tall, dark and handsome” and women were “five foot two with eyes of blue” as they were the fairer sex (they said it, I didn’t).
Take my family for example. In keeping with the times, my parents had two children (I guess the new math hadn’t introduced them to the 2.5 children ratio yet) – a boy and a girl.
My Dad was handsome and standing at 5’ 9” he towered over Mom who was a pretty woman standing at 5’ 3”. My sister eventually grew to be 5’ 2” (which she thanked the gods for as it meant she could wear high heels) but, by the time I was 11 or 12, I had reached my full height of 6’ 2 ½”.
No problem as we were all healthy, right?
When my Dad, Mom and sister walked down the street they looked so darn cute together. Then you spotted me – referred to as anything from “a sore thumb that sticks out” to “whose kid is he?”.
Naturally my poor Dad had to put up with the brunt of verbal abuse (which was what some called bullying fifty or sixty years ago) and tried to be noble about it.
But the regional mayors (you know – those people who sit on stoops or in front of local shops and know every bit of business about everybody in the neighborhood) had quite a lot to say – all of it trying to pass as humorous but tormenting both my Dad and me.
It got to the point where Dad would ask me to sit down on the rare occasion when a family photo was taken of us. I guess he didn’t want me to cast a shadow over the rest of them (or him).
For the record (and as we didn’t have an ice man), I am the same height as my Mom’s father. But that didn’t stop the taunting and teasing – something which hurt both my Dad and my pre-teenaged-angst self.
And then, one Sunday morning, it all changed.
It was August. Hot. Air conditioning was something for movie theaters and department stores, not local shops. So, we relied on fans which did nothing more than muss elaborate beehive hairdos and move the humid air from one side of the room to another.
But, heat wave or not, some things remained a certainty.
First, on Sunday you went to Mass. One hour was obligatory sitting in a blessed but oven-like chamber (causing quite a few priests to lecture us with, “If you think this is hot, then you had better repent and confess your sins. Hell is a lot hotter than this.”). Then it was my duty to buy the Sunday papers at the store on Houston and Mott Streets that was open until the High Mass at 11 A.M. let out.
We couldn’t live without the Sunday papers – especially the funnies. Dick Tracy on the front cover, Dondi on the back one and Little Orphan Annie, Winnie Winkle, Brenda Starr and Steve Canyon and all in full color (and most with blue-black hair).
The second necessity (following Church, of course) was the Sunday meal. No leftovers or Grub Hub for us. And, with no concession to the lack of cool air, everything had to be lovingly made and cooked requiring both the stove top and the oven.
Macaroni, gravy (you probably call it “tomato sauce”. Whatever, I can promise you it did not come in a jar.), meatballs, sausages and a Duncan Hines cake baked for dessert were mandated as if it would be a criminal act not to spend several hours sweating over a hot stove during the dog days to prepare them.
So, after Mass, I was walking back (on the shady side of the street which made it a whole 2º cooler) with the Sunday News tucked under my arm when I noticed all the curtains in all the windows moving.
How could this be? There were no breezes that could blow them. Yet, billowing they were.
A closer inspection showed that a hand was slightly pulling them back while a fruitive but shadowy face looked down at the street below.
Each neighborhood had a local saint. Prince Street (between Mott and Elizabeth) had Saint Gandolfo (the name of the Pope’s summer residence, which I am positive is air conditioned, is San Gandolfo) and his statue resided in one of the many social clubs on the streets. Men drank espresso in them, played cards, listened to the ball games on the radio and, in general, “hung out”. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, their wives cooked, cleaned, cared for the children, etc.
But on this particular Sunday, something was amiss. All the men had abandoned their Bicycle deck of cards and hair-straightening-bitter espressos and were standing around a woman. They were talking loudly and glowing – and it wasn’t from the humidity either.
As their wives stole glances from behind the curtains, below they saw a woman dressed in a large, floppy, straw hat. And that was the most modest thing she had on.
Her dress was low cut (at a time when women still wore bras that could probably be compared to armor) and her skirt was tight and just short enough to show a fantastic pair of legs – legs that were suntanned brown and not clad in nylon stockings.
The men, my Dad included, were smiling at her while they spoke to her rapidly in Italian. She seemed to find them delightful and laughed at everything they were saying to her.
It must have been the wide brim of that straw hat that kept her from seeing the daggers being shot out at her by every wife watching from the windows (while praying their gravy wouldn’t burn). Sunday or not, I’m sure I even heard a few whispered “puttana’s” thrown in for good measure. Tammy Wynette might stand by her man but an Italian housewife not only stood there but would curse out the competition as well!
“Hello Daddy,” I called out, hoping to save him from one the few marital rows he was sure to go home to instead of spaghetti and meatballs.
I swear he was so busy looking at her well-endowed chest and curvy figure that he didn’t hear me, so I called out to him again hoping I could catch his attention and drag him away from this Lorelei.
“Oh!” My father said, talking to me but looking at the woman. He fussed a bit and then introduced me to the homewrecker as his son.
The woman looked at Dad and then me and said something in Italian to the men causing them to laugh at me.
Now, I was already sensitive enough about my appearance (a steady diet of macaroni and meatballs did not make one svelte by any means) and now this harlot (remember, I just came from church) was saying something about me. Me! And she was wearing a skirt tight enough to show her bloomers underneath! This, might I remind you, was quite a few decades before Victoria’s Secret.
“What did she say?” I demanded of my father who also joined in the laughter.
He proceeded to tell me, in Italian which I did not understand a word of prompting me to say, “In English, Daddy. Tell me in English.”
“Oh?” He said, his face beaming. “You are so tall and I am so short that Senora Ponti says I should call you ‘Daddy’.”
“Oh yeah?” I fumed. “Is that what . . . wait a second. Senora Ponti . . .?”
Yes. It was Sophia Loren. Carlo Ponti (her husband) was there too but when you look like Sophia Loren did . . . who noticed him? They were driving by looking for locations for a proposed film with the windows of their car open (I told you America was not air conditioned then) when the men spotted them and called out to the Ponti’s (OK, they called out to Senora Ponti) in her native tongue. Offering them an espresso from an imported Moka pot, they stood in the baking sun and spoke to their fans. Imagine. No camera phones to capture the moment but no one on Prince Street that day ever forgot it.
And that was our father-son miracle. From that hot August day onwards, he called me, “Daddy”.
Where once he would stand a few feet away from me so as not to let people calculate the distance in our heights, now he did everything but glue me to his side hoping that people would notice the difference.
“Oh?” he would smile and then regale them with the story of what his friend, Sophia Loren, had to say about it.
So, for the next ten years or so, I was “Daddy”. In fact, when he was waiting to go to the hospital as he was having what turned out to be a fatal heart attack, he looked at me with, for the first time, fear in his eyes and said, “Daddy. I’m dying.”
Yes. He did go to his reward (and on a Sunday). He left behind Little Italy, his family and a love that knew no boundaries. And his son, “Daddy”. No one else can call me that but he earned the right. And, if you don’t believe me, ask his friend Sophia Loren.