When you were thirteen, your paternal grandparents Nonnina and Nonno already seemed ancient, having been married fifty years. Now you’re older than they were then.
But you remember ...
Three things hang on their walls: a gruesome crucifix, a framed wedding photograph, and a billy club. The crucifix displays a bloody nearly naked Christ whose mouth twists in agony, or anger. The wedding photo shows Nonnina and Nonno looking younger, of course, but strangely not that much younger, actually looking bloodlessly pale as if they’re cast members on the set of Nosferatu — she a wispy 4-foot-11, he a towering oaf in a tux. On a hook on a wall adjacent to the tub-like kitchen sink hangs the billy club, about a fourth the size of a baseball bat, a hunk of hickory engorged with a dull brownish-purplish color, like an old bruise, or an unconfessed sin, or shameless — no sin at all, merely an artifact from Old Country parenting, Nonnina once whispering to you in conspiratorial confidence that the billy club had served mostly as a threat, that its use was rare because Nonno giving the evil eye to your father and your uncle Tony when they were your age and your younger brothers’ ages was usually enough to get them to stop misbehaving or to stop whatever they were doing that displeased him, the brutish king in his cramped castle. At thirteen you’d already fallen in love forever with words, with the virility and virtuosity of language, but the words mostly and usually from Nonnina haunt you, as does that billy club. And you wonder why it’s still there on the wall by their kitchen sink, decades after it served its purpose, or purposes. And most haunting: the mental image of your fearless father afraid, or worse, at your age.
You remember the springtime subway rides from Queens to the once-a-month all-you-must-eat Sunday afternoon dinners at Grandmother’s house even though it was also your grandfather’s house but you and your younger brothers always called it Grandmother’s house even though when you’re with her you don’t call her Grandmother, you call her Nonnina, just as you call your grandfather Nonno, and even though it isn’t a house, it’s a claustrophobic four-room Greenwich Village apartment in the same six-floor walkup tenement in which both your parents grew up in the 1920s and ’30s, your mother two flights up, your father four flights up.
Just a half-block from Grandmother’s house, you get off the subway at Fourth Street and Avenue of the Americas, which is never called Avenue of the Americas, it’s always called Sixth Avenue, and when you get to street level you notice the Waverly Theater right there next to the subway entrance, showing Village of the Damned. Instead of heading straight to Grandmother’s house, you and your parents and brothers stroll throughout the neighborhoods showcasing bearded men and short-haired women on corners howling political poetry thick with themes of ban the bomb and end capital punishment; artists displaying their work for sale — portraits, landscapes, abstracts, caricatures, colors bold and muted; playgrounds with muscular middle-aged men engaged in marathon handball competition, their back-and-forth palms-stinging rallies a sweat-drenched choreography; and younger, shirtless mostly black men providing basketball athleticism as least as entertaining as the uptown pros; and nearby Washington Square Park chess and checker boards occupied by deep-thinking chain-smokers dressed in anything from Bowery rags to snazzy suits; old men in sleeveless T-shirts, gray fedoras and spit-shined Florsheim shoes, cigarillos dangling from their lips while playing bocci ball; and dressed-up families entering or leaving hourly masses at St. Joseph or Pompeii churches. And you walk by the NYU campus and wonder if you’ll be the first in your extended family to attend college. One minute you’re confident that you will, the next minute you can see yourself dropping out of high school, following in your father’s footsteps. You remember ...
Entering Nonnina’s building you feel like you’d been slapped, hard, as if by a bully with bad breath and body odor, but it’s tenement odors: stale tobacco, stale perfume, stale coffee, stale farts, stale sweat, decomposing rodents and feral cat piss. And you’re drenched as if you’ve been dunked in the East River, by odors of sour milk and rotting meats and vegetables coming from the mostly uncovered dozen or so thirty-two-gallon metal garbage cans stored under the ground-floor stairwell like so many poor souls and bad seeds awaiting deportation. You and your parents and two younger brothers ascend four flights slowly and steadily, like a team of indoor mountain climbers, one behind the other, sometimes changing the lead climber at each floor’s landing, the stairwell emitting a cold fleshy metallic odor not unlike the subway smell. And you arrive at Nonnina’s as if victorious, deserving of the food and drink and comfort and attention that await like well-earned rewards.
You remember the warm welcoming hugs and kisses on cheeks upon entering Nonnina’s house, and you remember Nonnina’s fussiness and her fusty smell and Nonno’s powerful lingering smothering embrace, those few seconds seeming like minutes in which you feel loved and protected and trapped in a space that barely accommodates everyone. You remember ...
And then you feel showered — or buried alive — by aromas that are the result of Nonnina and Nonno having risen at dawn to begin the art and craft and plain hard work of a home-cooked creation, making the marinara sauce from tomatoes and garlic and onion and herbs bought first thing that morning from the next-door grocer, hand-making ravioli and stuffing them with ricotta, rolling out the lasagna and shaping the ground beef and bread crumbs and herbs and spices and egg batter into baseball-sized meatballs and preparing the fusilli, which your little brothers call curly spaghetti, and sausages — both mild and spicy, slicing the mushrooms and zucchini and carrots, washing the broccoli and spinach — and by the time you arrive all of it either baking or boiling or frying or simmering — aromas thick with multigenerational trans-Atlantic Neapolitan affection. You see the billy club still there in its usual place, never mentioned but there it is, far too small to be an elephant in the room, it’s just a piece of dead wood that nobody but you seems to notice, but it bothers you, it mocks you and frightens you. You remember ...
Nonno pours sweet vermouth into five small glasses, although “pours” is an exaggeration. None of the adults is much of a drinker and you at thirteen are included for the first time. Nonno has given maybe six drops in each glass, but in his froggy-guttural voice he toasts to family and to good health as if each of you held overflowing goblets. You don’t feel adult so much as a kid getting away with something. It’s a thrill, your first alcohol buzz.
On the kitchen table, an extravagant antipasto is already displayed — lettuce and celery and black and green olives and sliced tomatoes and cheeses and chunks of ham and salami and anchovies and artichokes — all of it tossed with a delicate drizzle of olive oil and red-wine vinegar. Your father advises to save room for the real food, but everyone digs in and soon helps themselves to seconds.
At dinner, Nonno will patiently try to teach you to twirl each bite of spaghetti with your fork in tandem with a tablespoon, a technique you’ll never master, you don’t see the point, although you enjoy watching him and your father eat that way. Your little brothers will have ginger ale; the adults, and you for the first time, will have tumblers of ginger ale mixed with splashes of Lambrusco, a cheap, sweet, luscious red table wine. You will sneak extra Lambrusco into your ginger ale throughout the long and loud meal punctuated by lively commentary ranging from city rent control to the Long Island housing boom, from who in the building recently dropped dead to who’s in the hospital, from the latest laughs from I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners to the latest episode of The Untouchables and the shame of Italians portrayed as gangsters, from the glories of the FDR era to how the dashing young Catholic president and his glamorous wife and cute kids are so stunningly photogenic, and anything contained in the New York Daily News, whether the latest goings on of Dick Tracy or Tricky Dick Nixon.
After dinner you and your brothers will be set free to go back downstairs and roam the neighborhood on your own for a half hour or so in the cooling air of dusk. You’ll pass by bustling bookstores boosting the Beat writers, and bars and clubs and street corners exhaling sounds of jazz sax and folk guitars and African drums, sounds that make you want to hear more, a lot more. You remember ...
When you and your brothers return to Grandmother’s house, on the fourth-floor landing just outside her triple-locked door, for just a moment or two you swear you hear your father and Nonno shouting at each other, their baritone voices sounding like emotionally charged gargling, but when you enter everything seems normal and you wonder if you imagined it, knowing that you didn’t, knowing your father has his union-protected job as a freight elevator operator because Nonno worked the same job at the same place sixteen blocks away for forty years; knowing, too, your father planned to ask Nonno for help with the down payment on a house in the far-flung suburbs, closer to your Uncle Tony and cousins. You remember ...
There will also be dessert; or, more accurately, desserts: custard pastry called Napoleons, frosted pound cake and raspberry-filled sugar-dusted cookies. While your brothers drink milk, you’re included among the adults for the first time in getting served strong, bitter, black coffee sweetened with teaspoons of sugar, another thrill for you, although not quite the thrills of vermouth or wine-laced ginger ale. You remember ...
There will also be rounds of poker — five-card stud or five-card draw, dealer’s choice. Nonno dumps a jumbo jar full of pennies on the kitchen table and everyone will divide up the coins. Nonno and your father take turns dealing, with five-card stud calling out the cards, commenting on each player’s prospects: pair of aces — looking good; another diamond, possible flush; four of clubs for a pair of nothing, etc. You and your brothers love the poker games, love when you get the last card you need for a winning hand, and then pulling the pennies toward you; love listening to the back-and-forth competitive kibitzing between your father and Nonno; loving it one moment but the next afraid it might have a hostile edge to it.
When it’s time to leave there are more hugs and kisses on cheeks, even more than before, and another can’t-escape embrace from Nonno. Your team of indoor mountain climbers makes their descent to the Fourth Street sidewalk — more fun than the laborious ascent — and then there’s the short walk to the subway entrance next to the Waverly Theater showing Village of the Damned, and then the next descent to the subway tracks.
After the drowsy rumbling ride back home to the three-room apartment in Queens, your father closes the bathroom door behind him, and despite his running water in the sink and flushing the toilet, you hear his familiar emotional gargle of a shout, this time posing a question — or a request ... or a demand: “God up in Heaven: When will you take them!?”
Your big-canvas nostalgia and deep-dive reverie aren’t ruined — not ruined at all — but certainly marred some — marred by a billy club’s mute ghost and by a perverse prayer roared through running water — straining your memories, staining them like soaked-in can’t-get-out bloody blobs of marinara on your all-grown-up Sunday-go-to-Nonnina’s starched white Van Heusen shirt.
Decades later you’ll read in Bob Dylan’s memoir that the then-virtually unknown singer-songwriter was living right there on Fourth Street, same block as your Nonnina, in that spring of 1961. That’s so cool, you’ll think, as you remember the sidewalks teeming with teenagers, older folks, young couples — some of whom are same sex, some of whom are racially mixed — all strolling along to a bluesy harmonica-heavy soundtrack, each and every person inhaling a carnation-and-musk-scented early spring breeze of live and let live, of personal and creative freedom.
Or so you like to remember.