My grandma believed that birds were the souls of the dead. She would throw out bread soaked in water for the sparrows, grackles and stray pigeons from the nearby coops. She also believed in olive oil as a universal cure and that certain people possessed “the evil eye.” When she walked around our house in Queens with the rosary beads wrapped around her fingers she prayed in a dialect that sounded like typewriters at high speed.
Our house in Jackson Heights was a block from the Roosevelt Avenue el with its periodic rumble of above-ground subway cars. The trains shook the ground and made speech impossible. The kids I grew up with were Jewish, Italian, and Irish. The Irish boys who dominated the parochial school at Saint Joan of Arc church were a rowdy bunch. They joined up with Italians like me while the Jewish boys for the most part kept to themselves and at times valiantly and physically defended themselves against slurs that horrify us today. All that is changed now. History moves fast. Visit the neighborhood today or watch the recent PBS Special on Jackson Heights and find the most diverse neighborhood in the city or even the world, from Latinos to South Asians, Chinese, Muslims, Koreans and others. Nothing looks the same except the el, and only a vestige of the European base remains.
My grandpa made wine every year in the basement, and my three uncles would turn the press with an iron pipe to his admonition spoken through a Di Nobili cigar. “No squeeze!” Squeeze too hard and the wine will taste like seeds and stems. The oak barrels of red Zinfandel were stored in a wine cellar which also held cheeses and fresh green olives smashed with a hammer and left to marinate in brine. The olives were forever bitter. My uncles called Grandpa “The Boss” and gently poked fun at the old world ways instilled in that Sicilian town where he grew up. And when I developed an interest in family and asked why he’d come here, he had a simple answer: “There’s nothing over there!”
The neighborhood that produced both John Berryman and Don Rickles – that master of insult comedy – always had something special, something I can’t define, an intensity and a history that provided a matrix for the diverse groups of today. Our house was a short walk to my grade school, Public School 69, it’s playground a stage for the formative drama of our lives. On the way to school I would pass the public library, and one day I wandered inside and did something that changed my life. By chance I picked up a young reader’s version of The Trojan War and read the book while standing. I read it again without moving from the spot. Mesmerized by the story of the wooden horse and the terrifying victory of Achilles over Hector, I became a believer. Now those final lines of The Iliad are with me always: Thus was the funeral of Hector, Tamer of Horses.
There were two supper clubs within a few blocks of our house. The nearest was The Orchid Room, next door to the library and owned by a Columbo family capo named Sonny Franzese. As kids we would hang around near the door as the long black cars pulled up and out stepped our role models, the dapper men in dark suits guiding women in furs and diamonds under the awning and into the club. One night Franzese and a younger man were talking in the main room. A shot rang out and the young man fell to the floor with his cold pistol in hand. The story went that Sonny drew his pistol from under a five-hundred dollar suit and fired before the assassin could pull the trigger. The body was immediately dragged out to the street a block or so away. The blood was cleaned up and everyone played dumb when the police arrived.
A few blocks west was a club called The Blue Haven. This was one of the places in Brooklyn and Queens where Lenny Bruce started out, appearing under his real name, Lenny Schneider. On “amateur” nights Lenny would get up from the audience as if he’d never performed before and do his act, most likely impressions. He was twenty-five at the time and would eventually became famous for social commentary and his legal battles for protected speech now freely granted to today’s comedians.
We moved out of that neighborhood when I graduated high school and returned for brief visits or funerals for those who stayed behind. My oldest uncle, at 97, one of those who made the wine, still lives on 78th Street, a half-block from the el track that imparts the neighborhood’s flavor and defining look, that rumble from overhead subway cars and the striped sunlight filtered onto the street below. When I was seven the uncle took me to my first baseball game and from the bleachers I witnessed the crowd going wild when Joe DiMaggio, nearly close enough to touch, made an over the shoulder catch that looked so easy that he could do it in his sleep.
Here in Vermont with the squirrel proof bird feeder outside the window and the suet cake dangling from the maple tree beyond the reach of any bear, I sip my coffee and study the Jackson Heights of chickadees, doves, titmice, woodpeckers and the Cardinal who lights up the show with his cameo visits. So who are these birds? Is that noisy Blue jay tearing at the suet cake my father? Who are those grandpas, grandmas, aunts and uncles chomping on black oil sunflower seeds and holding innocent conversations while parts of the world are, in Lenny Bruce’s favorite phrase, in the toilet?
I write this as the Liar in Chief with his Mussolini scowl now clogs the midtown of my city with a security zone at the base of his tower. Swat police armed like old Hamlet, cap-a-pe, head to foot, keep their index fingers on the triggers. He’s from Queens so I know the type. Go low and he’ll go lower. Ah what to do, write a letter, send a tweet, call your congressman and leave a message, post a cartoon with his hand up Liberty’s gown? I grew up with people like him who’d whack you with a Louisville Slugger and then play dumb. Who, me?
Still, this is the hand I’ve been dealt and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”