Moving to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, was a big deal for our family. We went from a five floor apartment dwelling without an elevator, a bathroom that was shared with fifteen other tenants, a public payphone which provided the only outside contact, outside of walking, to a luxury two bedroom, one bath apartment, complete with a phone jack and a modicum of privacy. It was definitely a move up the social ladder even though we still had to climb a flight of stairs to get to our apartment. The building only had two apartments, the downstairs occupied by best friends of my parents, with whom they grew up with, Jo Jo and Millie.
By this time my mother had taken a job with the phone company, as an operator, to help pay for this wonderful upgrade. When my mother was at work, I usually stayed with Millie. I was five years old and started school, so Millie would only have to watch me part of the day. During these times, it was safe to walk back and forth to school. That the school was only up the street made it even better. When I’d get home and into Millies apartment, she was usually washing her windows. In fact, that’s all I ever remember her doing, sitting on the sill and cleaning the outsides of the windows. She seemed obsessed with having clear, shiny glass. There were many a day when she asked me to hold her legs down so she wouldn’t topple out while she cleaned. I’m not sure if she really would have fell out, or if she just wanted to have me share in her cleaning experience.
When my mother arrived home from work she’d get me from Millie, and we would climb the stairs to our apartment. There my mother would put on a record, usually Frank Sinatra or Johnny Mathis, and prepare dinner for my father. It was a simple, uncomplicated life until, of course, my grandparents and my uncle moved from Manhattan into their own brick house in another part of Bensonhurst. When I say house I don’t mean a detached dwelling surrounded by green lawn and a white picket fence. In fact, the house was attached to other houses and was surrounded by concrete and enclosed by a black wrought iron gate.
But, they had one thing that every Italian yearned for and that was a basement. Italians love basements because that’s where they spend most of their time. It also allows them to keep their fine furniture in another part of the house, of course encased in heavy plastic, so they would have something to show off to all their friends and family. This basement, which was accessed from the front of the house by six concrete steps, and a heavy duty storm door built with single thick panels of glass that were opened and closed by turning a knob, was complete with a kitchen, a dining area, a living area, a toilet and small sink, and a sub basement that was really a wine cellar, where my granfather and uncle stored their homemade wine.
Now I say everything was simple until this move came about, because now, each and every Sunday, we were expected to have dinner at this house no matter whatever else was going on. Which, really, nothing else ever was happening because everything had to do with family. And between four aunts, one uncle, brothers, sisters, and cousins, we had enough occassions to share no matter what the day of week or time of year.
I never really minded going to my grandparents and uncle’s house. My cousins were only a couple of years older then me and we’d always do things together. And, I learned alot from my cousins.Being that I was the oldest son of two in my family , I really couldn’t learn anything from my brother except how I could find the best ways to torment him. And, in Italian families, your cousins are, more or less, your sisters and brothers. They just live somewhere else. My aunt’s and uncle would treat me the same as they treated their own offspring. We were a small army with my grandfather as the General. But, in this army, there was always the underlying motivation to do and become better then everyone enlisted. That’s a subject my parents were discussing one evening as they sat up in bed, smoking their cigarettes, deciding the best way to upgrade their living situation. I remember it distinctly. It was the middle of winter, and I had come into their bedroom complaining that it was too hot to sleep. In this apartment, like most others, the heat was generated from large, iron, radiators usually underneath or by a window. And,often, it would get so hot that you’d need to open a window.
Which is what my father got out of bed to do. Dressed only in a tee shirt and boxer shorts, he leaned over the hot grill and banged on the sides of the window, trying to budge it open. Then with one intense heave, the window jerked loose. But the next thing that followed nearly scared me out of my superman pajamas. My father unleashed a blood curdling squeal and began to hop around the room holding his crotch with both hands. As it happened, when the window popped loose, the sudden movement caused his penis to drop out of his shorts and land on the steaming hot radiator. When my mother saw what happened she laughed uncontrollably. My father, still moaning, ran into the bathroom and ran cold water on himself. When he finally emerged from the bathroom, clasping his crotch, he said, ” That’s it, we’re moving.”
To be continued…