I was born on the kitchen table of a cold-water flat in a Mafia-ruled, Italian immigrant neighborhood on the Brooklyn waterfront, with close family ties and blood on the streets.
New York, and its stepchild, Brooklyn, absorb the dreamers who cross The Pond, and those who were untimely ripped from their homelands in Africa. There, in the forge of the city’s unforgiving streets, immigrants grow tough and self-reliant. Some change their clothes, their habits, their manners, and their language, to assimilate. Others don’t, and are looked upon as ignorant. And some, those inheritors of the Pond-hopping gene, join restless tribes of nomadic strangers who channel-surf the country, searching for the American Dream, the better job, the better climate, while family ties unravel and cultures are lost. Until memories of forgotten friends, and family bonds, become the dream.
I’m told that all my relatives and my parents’ friends were gathered in the living room, awaiting the news of my arrival from the kitchen. I greeted them with lusty screams.
When Dad handed out cigars and told them it was a girl, he said they were only mildly excited. There were lots of girls in our family, but apparently boys were better.
As I grew, I came to understand that the kitchen table was the center of all things important to my extended family. Like the campfire in tribal communities where people gather to hear their stories, told by a wise senior, we gathered around the table to eat, of course, and there were lots of courses on the table, and to hear the stories of our people, as told by my father.
For instance, there was the time two men stood in a face-off in the courtyard of our apartment houses, and the older man, the father, armed with a pistol, threatened to shoot the younger man, the lover.
“You ruined my daughter!” the older man screamed. “And I’m a gonna kill you!”
Ruined meant they slept together, unmarried. Cause for execution of the male, and suicide of the woman. Well, it was a different time. My older brother, Anthony, at three years old, was sitting between them, playing in the dirt.
“You no gotta the nerve!” the lover taunted.
The father raised his gun.
Dad ran between them, scooped up Anthony, and kept running.
The father shot the lover in the leg. That seemed to satisfy the rules of vendetta and was the end of their quarrel.
Oh, there were other stories Dad entertained us with around the table. Below our second-story apartment there was a pool hall where the local Mafia gang hung out. The piano played until two, maybe three o’clock in the morning and my parents couldn’t sleep.
“Why didn’t you tell them to stop?” I asked as a child.
“Are you kidding, Jeanie? You don’t tell the Mafia what to do,” Dad explained.
One night, the gang got word that a Chicago gang was headed their way to take over the territory. Our gang was waiting. Dad said that he and Mom heard the rounds of Tommy guns all night. The police discreetly stayed away.
“The next morning,” Dad told me and my brother in his inimitable Brooklyn accent, “there was bodies all over the place! It made the Valentine Day massacre look like a picnic in the park.”
Then there was the famous ferry outing around manhattan attended by the the whole extended family where a heavy-set man sat on a bench was catered to by other men who complied with his every wish.
“Who’s the big shot?” Dad asked a friend jokingly.
“Al Capone,” he was told.
Such were the stories of my people.
And I miss them, and the old neighborhood with its close, support system.
“Aye,” my grandmother, who lived in the next apartment said, “here they kill, but they don’t rob.”
She had a point. The Mafia protected the neighborhood, and no one who valued his thumbs, or other precious parts, would dare rob a resident or assault a woman at any hour of the day or night. As I said, “Close famiglia ties.” The gang even strolled to church on Sunday mornings, dressed in suits and ties, with their glamorous women, which they traded like baseball cards, draped on their arms.
I miss it all.
The family table has given way to McDonald’s drive-up window. Old family photos and time-worn stories are all that remain of my roots. My relatives are scattered like leaves across the country, where family and ancient cultures unravel and are left by the side of the road. Telephone voices are our only connections. The Brooklyn streets have changed to accommodate new immigrants and African Americans who migrated from the prejudiced South to the prejudiced North. It’s impossible for the old immigrants to go home again, in the sense of culture, but I’m sure the newcomers will also assimilate, and probably lose their own culture, given time. It’s a difficult trade.
Even the gnarled tree in the courtyard where Dad made a swing for me has ben cut down, I’m told.
I felt bad for the sturdy tree of my youth, and I wrote it a poem. it doesn’t rhyme, but I’m not a poet.
I am old now, and in the dreams of my dying cells
I feel the chainsaw’s teeth bite deep into my core
The dream is prelude. But those who wield my death
Are like leaves themselves that unfold at birth
And feel the sun, the wind, the rain of their lives
For a brief season, and then are snapped off at the stem
When they come to slice me down in measured layers
My tangled grip of roots in earth will still hold the
Memories, like dreams of what used to be
Such were my Brooklyn roots. Hold onto your family and friends. In the end, they’re better than a McDonald hamburger and fries.