After dinner I would lie on the bench with my head in my mother’s lap. She would run her fingers lightly through my hair and over my scalp. Then she would pass the close-toothed, two-edged steel comb through my hair, looking for head lice. I brought a few home from school almost every day. It was a fact of life; the combs were prominently displayed at our local five and dime store. It was pleasant to lie there, her fingers caressing my head, listening to her stories, in Italian of course, and answering her questions about my school day. She kept a small metal bowl on the bench by my head. When she found a bug she crushed it against the inside surface of the bowl with the flat of her thumb nail. I could hear the crunching sound in my ear by the bowl.
We were poor but I never knew it. Everyone on our street lived as we did. Some owned their little row houses; usually these were families with adult children who had quit school at sixteen to find jobs. We lived in my uncle’s house on the second floor, in the two front rooms which had been converted into a small apartment. It included a bedroom overlooking the street and a small kitchen. The apartment was warm and dry. We had enough to eat, with plenty of pasta, vegetables and fruit – an excellent diet after all.
My uncle Charlie, a widower, had five adult daughters. His daughters slept in two double beds in the back room overlooking the yard. Their father slept in the room between their room and the small bathroom that had been carved out of the landing. The girls had to go through his bedroom to go to the toilet, or to leave their bedroom for any reason. They married quickly. We shared the toilet, eleven adults in all. No one lingered.
My motherless cousins were fond of my mother. They appealed to her against their father’s unreasonable decisions. She taught them how operate a sewing machine, enabling them to find work in the sweatshops, easy work compared to the seasonal farm work they were used to. They also came to our apartment to smoke. They would not smoke in my father’s presence either, but he didn’t care. He ended the charade one evening when he entered our smoke filled apartment where they had hastily put out their smokes. He bummed a cigarette and lighted up with them.
It’s possible to see how we lived in those days. To do so you must go to the Tenement Museum in lower Manhattan. It consists of four adjacent houses in a block long row, built in the 1880’s to house immigrants. Three years ago Margie and I joined our friend Joe Greene for a tour of the Museum’s rooms. The rooms have been left as they were in the 1930s, shabby and worn but made safe for tourists. We gathered in the Museum’s first floor reception area while we waited for our guide.
“Here’s what we will see,” I predicted: “a central staircase leading to the second floor, a left turn to the back apartment, a right turn to the apartment overlooking the street, a toilet in the hallway between the two apartments. In the kitchen of the front apartment will be a sink with a drainboard. Next, along the wall will be a small table bearing a two burner gas stove. There will be an ice box which looks like a small fridge. There will be a small cot between the kitchen table and the opposite wall. In the bedroom there will be a double bed flanking the two front windows overlooking the street. There will be a free-standing folding screen about six feet tall delineating a space between the double bed and the wall. In that space will be a three quarter sized bed. A couple of free-standing armoires will complete the picture.”
As we climbed the stairs I felt like the holder of a lottery ticket whose winning numbers were clicking into place. Everything was as I predicted. The toilet was in its place in the hallway between the two apartments. The kitchen lacked only a dried codfish soaking in the sink. There was the cot my brother Steve slept in. It was tough on Steve when visitors stayed late. My brother Frank and I slept in the three quarter bed in the front bedroom, separated by the folding screen from my parent’s bed. There was a large, scarred armoire. I turned to Margie and Joe, “You owe me a fancy lunch.”