Growing up in the Village in the twenties and thirties was probably no different than growing up in any other small town in New York City. The depression took its toll on everyone and the N.R.A. [National Recovery Act] was going to be our salvation. We kids knew no other president but Franklin D. Roosevelt and no other mayor but Fiorello La Guardia, who read the comics on Sunday morning radio in a squeeky, comical, falsetto voice.
If the Village was special it was because it was our Village. We were poor and probably didn't know it. Most families struggled to make ends meet. Many had to work long hours, six days a week, and often mothers supplemented the family income by doing piece work, such as embroidery, at home.
Families and relatives lived in close proximity. Many shared the same houses, which were mostly two family brick and stucco dwellings. In our case grandpa and grandma lived on the first floor and our family on the second floor. Next door was uncle Joe and only a few blocks away were the other relatives. We children were all born at 111 Wayne Street [67th Drive] and all attended P.S. 87.
The streets and the school yard were our playground and the equipment was cost free. We rode scooters made from fruit boxes and played stick , stoop, and hand ball. Oh, did we play hard from morning til night in that interminable heat. Our refreshment was sucking pieces of ice that we chopped from the ice-manís truck,while he, Angelo, made his deliveries.
Most of our neighbors were Jewish as were most of my playmates. Our mothers exchanged recipes and I knew what it was to eat Jewish rye, pumpernickel, salami, kosher pickels and challah bread spread with schmaltz, a specially prepared butter made from chicken fat. I remember being called into our neighborís house on Friday night . Mrs. Handin would say, “Machew, come, please light the stove.” For that little chore I received a penny [unsolicited]. That wasn't too bad when you think an ices was two cents, an ice-cream cone was three, and you could buy two pickels for a nickel at Schreiberís delicatessen, a couple of blocks up on 67th Drive.
Now when it came to cooking and baking Mom was right up there with the best of them. I don't remember her opening any cans. Mostly everything was prepared fresh. The sauce was made from fresh tomatoes and things like pasta, olives, and anchovies were imported directly from Italy. Mom made her own root beer and candy was made from grapefruit rind. Come to think of it, there was always an aroma of something cooking in our house as was with our neighbors. These were great aromas of garlic and onion and simmering tomato sauce, which cooked for hours, especially if it was ragu. In the summer you could smell the cooking from the street.
I can still hear the rythmic tapping of the knife on the cutting board, presumably chopping onion or some other ingredient. It was a prelude to what soon would be something cooking. Why is everything so sterile now? Today its almost an embarassment for someone to smell cooking in your home. We employ sweet smelling aerosols to remove the aromas. How sad.
At this point I would be remiss not to mention grandpaís garden. All good Italians had gardens. It was an annual ritual, and consisted of tomatoe plants, basil, parsely, and other vegetables all surrounding a grape arbor. Uncle Joe made sure there were a few mint plants to supply the leaves for his mint juleps. He would sit under the grape arbor and sip his drink with such gusto, enjoying the flavor of his mint more than the drink iself. Naturally, I'd always get a taste.
Grandpa also had two fig trees, covered with old carpeting and linoleum in the winter and uncovered in the Spring. I had him confused for a while. As the figs started to ripen I would pluck them off and devour them on the spot, unwashed. He thought the birds were getting to them until one day he caught me in the act. I was embarassed and scared, not knowing the consequences. But much to my relief, he found it amusing and let it go at that. He was a kindly old man and this act of benign forgiveness caused me to turn away from the life of a fig thief.
Saturday night and Sunday was fun time. The relatives would get together, roll up the carpet, exposing the linoleum underneath, and dance to the music of an uncle playing the guitar.
But, we had fun. And it didn't cost anything. The women made the dough, baked the pizza [Sicilian style] and we drank wine [moderately] made by grandpa Tasca and his friends from the neighborhood. The revelry usually continued into the wee hours of the morning with the men playing cards well into the following day. They never moved from the table, except to relieve themselves and have a cup of espresso.
Shopping was no big deal. All the stores we needed were all around us. Sam, the butcher, was right across the street. Most of our meat was bought there because it was kosher and my mother knew it had to be fresh. There was Lupchik's meat and poultry market on Pulaski street. For fruit and vegetables we had Savignano, who parked his truck in the middle of the block and waited for people to come out and make their purchases. Italian bread was delivered from Corona and once a week, on Friday, naturally, the fish man arrived with his basket of assorted catch. Last but not least was Parisi's chicken market at the end of 75th Street bordering the railroad tracks. You could pick your chicken live, feel it for meatiness, and if satisified, it would be turned over to the “terminator,” who would kill it, remove its feathers and gut it, all within fifteen minutes. Chicken has never tasted as good.
Our lives were basically normal in the sense that we had relative happiness, mixed with tragedy and misfortune. People got sick and died. Infants, in many cases, did not survive diseases like meningitis, diptheria and polio. As such our mothers were not going to wait for one of those dreaded diseases to strike us. They took matters into their own hands, doctors be damned, and pinned a lump of camphor to our underwear. Others did the same using garlic. A sore throat was treated with argyrol. It was horrible! Constipated? No problem. We were introduced to an enema made of soapy warm water. It worked. Boy, did it work! For a chest cold we got a mustard plaster and somtimes cuppings. If problems could not be resolved by Mom or Grandma, then the doctor was called in. He charged two dollars.
Nature has a way of playing tricks with memory. The bad things are suppressed and the good things, the happy events are clearer and easily recalled. Nothing gives more proof of this than army life. Ask any veteran. This was the case with my growing up in the Village. I remember mostly the good things. For this I am grateful to God.