Thursday, July 14, 2005

"Mommy, where do stereotypes come from?"

mom, joey and cheech

As I pored over the vintage photos of my mother, this one made me laugh out loud. Taken in 1943, it features her in a fur coat (gee, what happened to the "we were so poor" stuff?), flanked by Joey Vannera and "Cheech". Joey was clearly an upstanding citizen, fighting for his country. "Cheech" on the other hand... I'm not sure if he worked in waste management or was about to go "psssst!", open his coat and try to sell me the letter "R", like that sneaky guy on Sesame Street.

The photo was taken on Central Avenue in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. These days, it would be wise not to venture down to Central Avenue unless you're in full body armor, carrying an Uzi. Both of my parents grew up there and at the time it was a mecca for Italian immigrants and the home of Murder, Incorporated. As kids we'd love hearing stories about the old neighborhood, and always giggled when my father talked about his school days at "Fourteen Holy Martyrs". Those Catholics. Sure know how to lift the spirits! (Parental Celebrity Sighting: He actually went to school with Jackie Gleason!)

When my parents were married, they bought a house in Brooklyn far from Central Avenue. But every other Sunday we'd go back to have that ginormous Italian gastronomic marathon known as "dinner" at my father's parents' apartment. It was on the third floor of a rowhouse above my grandfather's barbershop. My cousins and I loved the barbershop because we could sneak down there and peek at the dog-eared Playboy magazines.

The neighborhood was still decent in the 60s, although it was not uncommon to see women, their ample arms and bosoms supported by pillows, leaning out of upper floor windows screaming at their kids. They weren't necessarily angry, they just screamed. (My mother, fancying herself several cuts above the women she grew up with, refused to scream for us. Instead, she'd stand outside our house and clap her hands as loudly as she could manage. We would collapse in fits of laughter but NEVER respond to it.)

Occasionally my father would drive my sisters and me past a daunting old building surrounded by a brick wall with a barbed wire necklace. The message was that if we didn't behave we could wind up here, at the House of Good Shepherd, the "home for wayward girls". Or better yet, he'd threaten us with Johnson Avenue... and drive us slowly past its silent slaughterhouses. (Note to parents: Dramatic threats of drawing and quartering do not prevent your children from going hog wild as teenagers.)

As the years went by and the neighborhood began to deteriorate, our relatives moved out little by little. By the early 70s no one remained...well, almost no one. My father's Aunt Mary, emotionally destroyed when her son went missing-in-action during World War II, refused to leave. She thought her son would come home one day and wanted to be there to greet him. She died waiting.