By Joe Albanese

Long ago it must be I have a photograph Preserve your memories They’re all that’s left you.

Bookends by Simon & Garfunkle

How I recall an afternoon when I was in Atlanta, Georgia. Waiting for a bus, a man spoke to me and, noticing my lack of a Southern accent, asked where I was from.

“Born and raised in Manhattan,” I said, opting to tell the truth. Somehow, saying I had been born in Rangoon and reared in Bangkok just didn’t sound right.

“Really? Why, I wouldn’t have taken you for a New Yorker,” he said, not bothering to cover his surprise. “You don’t act like one.”

Meaning exactly what? I didn’t mug him?

But there you have it. I was born on the Lower East Side . . . Little Italy to be exact. That’s what it was called then before it became fashionable and chic to declare Prince Street as being “SoHo”.

No fancy galleries or boutiques where Cher would shop. West of Broadway was the factory section of town. Garments were made there (house dresses and blouses) and the printing industry was primarily located in that spot. It was an active area only from 6 AM Monday to 4 PM Friday’s. After that, the streets were totally deserted. In fact, it was where you would take your child to learn to drive a car. There was nobody to hit or traffic to bump into.

The people were honest, working class and quite proud of it. We didn’t lock our doors and the wash was hung from a clothesline. Mothers watched from the window and if a child was caught doing something wrong, he was yelled down to by any mother available. And when your own Mom got word of your misconduct, you were scolded again. It paid to be a good kid.

Shopping was an experience. Groceries were purchased from: the neighborhood store (for condiments and various sundry items); the cheese stores on Grand Street; bread came from La Rosa Bakery on Elizabeth Street (in the same building where the Scorsese family lived. Whatever happened to them?); meat was also from Elizabeth Street – a distant cousin who ran Albanese Meats (which is still around). Grand Street had dessert shops. And, as far as fruits and vegetables are concerned? There were stalls that sold them all up and down Mott Street. It wasn’t until the early sixties when, on what is now LaGuardia Place, a supermarket graced our neighborhood – the Grand Union. Imagine buying anything from soup to nuts in one store? Pioneer followed on Mott Street right off Spring Street (they called it the T Bone for some obscure reason). The locals were thrilled at the ease and convenience but none of us realized it was the beginning of the end for the local storekeepers who were our friends.

Shopping was a high priority growing up. On Saturday’s my mother and her sisters from upstate New York (“the sticks” as they were laughingly called back then) went to Fourteenth Street to shop at S. Klein’s On The Square. Complete with an electronic sign announcing the wares (I learned to read from that sign. The first word I recognized was “sale” although, Lord knows, I never got one). For “fancy” occasions, they bought their dresses at the S. Klein annex on the next block which was a “tad bit more expensive”. Ohrbach’s was also on 14th Street before deserting it for a spot opposite the Empire State Building. All the soap operas (filmed in New York) would proudly declare, “Fashions By Ohrbach’s”.

On Sunday’s, the blue laws dictated that the shops must be shut (and they did not open up until Alexander’s Department Store on 59th Street declared it would be open on a Sunday to give Christmas shoppers an extra day shopping in the late 1970’s. They were fined $100 and made a fortune that day).

So, we would go to Hester or Orchard Streets. Their Sabbath was on a Saturday (and they were dutifully closed). So, Sunday meant going to Norfolk Street or such where the clothing was tailored. I recall my Mom buying a dress for my Confirmation there. First, they fitted her. Then, they gave her extra material. With that in hand, she went to Simco Shoes (or A.S. Beck, I forget which) and they used the material to match her up with a pair of shoes and a matching handbag. Then, with the material still in hand, she went to one of the millinery shops where they found a hat “just that shade” and hat pins that matched the coral pink color she had chosen for the occasion. Try doing that today via

Of course, no Sunday would be finished without going to the Lowe’s Delancey to see a double feature and then popping in next door to Ratner’s for their cheese cake. Believe me, Sara Lee didn’t stand a chance.

Yes, I am sure the swells on Park Avenue looked down on us but we were happy and quite nice people. On Sunday mornings, we awoke to Church bells – remember them? St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Mott, St. Loreta’s on Elizabeth near Bleecker, Transfiguration in China Town (where the nuns would take us and show the statues with almond eyes and explain how the plaster saints were icons and not actual depictions). It was Mass and then the women made Sunday dinner. It was always macaroni or spaghetti (I don’t think anybody called it “pasta”). Homemade tomato sauce, basil (basilico – generally grown in flowerpots on the fire escapes), sausages, meatballs (polepette), and a thin steak that was sauteed and then tied with string (braciola). The meats were to “give some flavor to the sauce” but food was never wasted!

The families sat around the table and talked. No television (and we were the envy of the building as we had a 21inch RCA Victor Black and White model), no radio (AM. WMCA for popular music. WNEW for the classics I’ve grown to love like Ella Fitzgerald). No telephone calls. In fact, the telephone was used for emergency or to call Grandma to see if she was OK.

Sunday nights was Ed Sullivan. Presented live. As a very young child I remember playing on the living room floor but drawn to the lively music I heard. My father pointed to the screen and said, “See? They can’t shoot him from the waist down because of the sinful way he shakes and dances.” Years later I realized I had seen Elvis (but not his pelvis).

In the summer, we sat on the rooftop (tar beach it was called). I remember seeing the beginnings of what was the World Trade Center as it slowly soared to the heavens threatening to take away the Empire State Building (also in plain view but north, not south) and it’s glories.

Picture taking was a tricky thing. Kodak cameras (I have my Dad’s old models as keepsakes) required flash bulbs (one shot per flash) and film that you had to load into the camera in the dark. I believe you got something like 12 shots per roll and prayed that at least half of them were good ones. Black and White film (cheaper) and color (Kodacolor) the more expensive option. It was a very costly matter and you chose your shots wisely but never opted for a second shot of the same subject.

They were developed in the corner Drug Store and, yes – censorship ruled supreme. Only a newborn baby could be photographed au natural.

Our drug stores sold greeting cards (15¢ to a whopping 35¢). You looked at a card in a plastic casing, turned it around for the number (which also contained the price) and then found the card in the drawer below the case.

Such things as condoms were sold under cloak-and-dagger conditions and not publicly displayed (or spoken of either). Up to the mid-seventies, you had to ask the counter person for a prophylactic (or “Trojans” as the streetwise guys would call them). There was a drug store off Sixth Avenue (and heaven help the wag who called it “Avenue of the Americas”) near 12th Street where a grandmotherly type of woman ran the shop. You don’t want to know the look you got if you asked for them, no matter how many “please” and “thank you’s” you added.

It was a life and a lot of the past is, sadly, lost. Photographs were never digital and the cloud was the thing in the sky you hoped would not rain on you. No one could store digital pictures there. Pity but that is why God gave us memories.

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