Poems, Part One

 

pig on spit

The Beggar and the Baker

The beggar stood before the brazier
Drawn by the essence rising
From the crackling spattering piglet
Skewered turning hissing

He had in one hand a petty coin
The other, a piece of bread
The petty coin sufficed to buy
Of that pig not a shred

He held the bread above the vapor
Rising from the roast
Hoping thus to lend some flavor
To his bit of toast.

He raised his bread to eager lips
The baker cried, “Stop thief
You’ve got to pay for what you’ve taken.”
The beggar gaped in disbelief

A guardsman came to arbitrate
But he too was perplexed:
“This matter is beyond my ken.
I’d rather judge be vexed.”

They made their case before the judge
Who listened with reserve
He eyed the beggar, transfixed the baker:
“The law, it must be served.

It’s clear the bread some flavor gained
He must be paid in kind.”
He dropped the coin so that it rang:
“Your payment, Sir, the sound.”

The Good Old Days

My father came in 1912
My mother in ’13
The left a stony stingy land
To find their dream

My mother in a sweatshop
My father in a ditch
They worked extremely hard
They never struck it rich

They were exploited
Denied of much they wrought
In Sicily, they’d worked
Just as hard for naught

I hope that we shall never see
Those good old days repeated
What seemed a rosy golden age
To cheaters and the cheated

 

roma

A European Education

The best fare to Naples in ’55
The Roma of the Achille Lauro Line
A hundred-sixty dollars bread and vino,
A cabin shared with two men from Montclair
I chose a one way ticket a gesture
Like Cortes who burned his ships in Vera Cruz

We departed in a squally springtime blow
And were battered by heavy angry seas
Casualties were light a broken arm (not mine)
Glassware china some ill-digested meals,
Forgotten when the Azores came in view
Glistening a floating forest wrapped in rain
Accessible only to oared lighters
Which danced out to meet our swaying ship
And madly bobbing, collected cargo
Ragged sailors performed routinely
Miracles arcane to us who lined the rail
Hand and eye recalling skills inherent
To heroes on Homer’s wine-dark sea.

 

MESSER FRANCESCO DATINI IS DUNNED

Forgive this letter Messer Francesco but
Six months have passed. We did our part as pledged
The mason Goro, Gerini Niccolo and I
Worked on the loggia two months and twenty days
“The glory of Datini’s name.” you said
And we agreed, “the finest house in Prato.”
It puts Palazzo Medici to shame

Agreed, the costs were more that we proposed
Who knew the Turks would close the Straits
And raise the price of lapis lazuli
Azzurro trasmarino!, we didn’t stint
The Fiorentini make do with blu of alemagna
As do you merchants in your cheapest cloth
The Fiesolani have held the line:
Azzurro fino! And mark the cornices:
Gold leaf throughout while others stoop to silver
And we employed four men throughout the work
You know what they demand these blessed days?
Why even slaves cost more than a white mule
Again, thanks to our friends, the infidels
Old news to you Messer Francesco you swore
To drop that dirty trade if you were spared
The plague is done, commemorate your vow

So pay these sixty florins, good Francesco
Don’t wait for plagues to force you to what’s just
Your notary, Ser Lapo Bucci, is of like mind:
To fix this matter quickly out of court
The time he’s wasted on this business, he said
He could have found the road to paradise.
I have served you well, and would serve again
If you would pay us for the loggia’s work
With all respect,

A. Gaddi, Dipintore

 

borgo

Villa Vivalda,1998

From detritus

Our petty theft of cherries from the tree
Evoked the crickets’ earliest cri, cri
Reproved, we scanned the garden for the pair
Of Falerini who from earth and air

Brought forth cabbage, chard, empty cocoon
Lettuce, trilobite, carrot, cardoon
Celery, scrap of bone, artichoke, leek
Fennel, basil, foraminifer, beet
Radicchio, arugula, amber, quartz
Parsley, zucchini, scallion, shallot, shard
Strawberry, raspberry, ammonite, kale
Spinach, snail, handmade rusty nail
Radish, alabaster, oregano, thyme
Prokaryote (from primeval slime)

Screen Shot 2017-10-15 at 7.48.06 PM

Falerini earth and air
“That zuccone IS beyond compare”

To detritus

We plumbed Etruscan tombs in Chiusi
We wandered Todi’s dark viuzze
We sought the verities in Pienza
In preparation for Firenze

Leonardo, Botticelli, Giotto
Brunelleschi, Cimabue, Lotto
Piero, Pintoricchio, Pitti
Foppa, Antonino da San Gallo
Caravaggio, Figlio di Nessuno
Biccio, Baccio, Anonimo, Masaccio
Ferragamo, Scarpa che Scricchiola
Attribuzione Scuola D’ Ignoti
Mimmo, Memmo, Cossa, Tura, Piombo
Daddi, Gaddi, Dosso Dossi, Duccio ….

Screen Shot 2017-10-15 at 7.42.18 PM

Falerini Falerini
Winnow  scarify  rend us
Fold us in your nimbus

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 Hans Road SW3 London 1956

Some  of the subject matter in this piece appeared in an earlier one. I have added new material throughout. I tried to break the original piece in two: Perugia and London, but the segments proved to be Siamese Twins.  So I started in Perugia then moved on to London which is where the story ends.. Hence the title, Hans Road SW3 London 1956.  EPSON MFP image

The Universita per Stranieri di Perugia was housed in the Baroque Palazzo Gallenga Stuart in Piazza Fortebraccio.  The sunshine sharpened the sculpted detail around the windows with bold shadow.  Within, the rooms were serene. The walls were faded to a watercolor wash, the wooden trim, painted gold, was patinated with age, and the ceilings were frescoed. The windows were deep and tall.

“Le bombe americane caddero pocchi metri dalla Cappella degli Scrovegni!” 

His voice quavered and his jowls trembled as he looked upwards in fear and supplication, remembering how closely an American air raid in World War II came to destroying Giotto’s Chapel in Padua.  Professore Cristofani taught art history in the large room set up with a projector and a screen on the wall behind his desk and to his right.  He held a long slender, crooked wooden pointer in his right hand, a cane cut from the windbreak of a nearby field.  He was old and  frail, unsteady on his legs and unable to negotiate the stairs leading to the second floor classroom.

He would instead enter the room via a secret door, hidden behind a trompe l’oell panel which revealed an one-person elevator.  Signor Neri, the school’s genial Neapolitan factotum, would have snugged Cristofani into the elevator on the first floor and then run up the stairs in time to extricate him and lead him to his desk. Then Neri would retreat to the rear of the room to man the slide projecter.

It was very cold for April. We sat in the unheated classrooms in our warmest clothes.  Professore Amorini, our teacher of elementary Italian, wore a heavy winter overcoat. The cold was a small adversity that bonded those among us who were living out their dreams.

We were part of an entering class of about three hundred students, which was divided into sections according to native language:  English, German. Spanish and French.  The French sections included exotic nationals whose second language was French.

The  advanced students, many of them teachers of Italian in their home countries, spoke only Italian amongst themselves.  They met in smaller rooms, Rococo jewel boxes, where they studied sintassi, fonetica, etruscologia, arte, letteratura, corrispondenza commerciale, glottologia!  We dilettantes fell back into our native languages once outside of the classroom.

The English speaking students included Americans, Canadians and native English;  many of the South Africans, New Zealanders and Australians were transient, on their spawning run to the mother country.  Some would linger in Italy, seduced by its pleasures.

After class, we more casual students would gather in the outdoor cafes.  The back room of the shabby Bar Centrale was a late-night hangout until it closed at midnight; then we took our beers onto the Cathedral steps until the carabinieri chased us.  We talked novels, poetry, films and politics.  We sang folk songs.  Me, folk songs?  Temple University was in the middle of a ghetto!  I was reinventing myself.

The English were identifiable by their accents.  Gina Mallet’s was extravagantly refined.  It attracted some of us, it put others off.  Diana Beames, an attractive Australian, spoke more precisely in Gina’s presence.   I began to shed my Philadelphia adenoidal twang.

Gina was five-feet two inches tall, compact, with short curly hair;  she leaned forward when she walked, pumping her arms.  She was awesomely articulate, combative, conservative, bigoted, enchanting unless you hated her.  Winston Churchill was her hero.

Gina’s mother sent a proof copy of a portrait Gina had sat for just before she came to Perugia. The photograph was somehow necessary for her participation in that season’s coming out Ball, the last to be presided over by Queen Elizabeth.  At the Ball the Queen would kiss the hands of the daughters of Peers;  the other debutantes kissed the Queen’s hand.

She looked angelic in the photo:  “Angeli, non Angli.” said Pope Gregory in the Sixth century when he saw the first blond, fair-skinned British children  brought to Rome.

Gina, when facing off a group, was like D’Artagnan holding off a host of swordsmen, tossing off witticisms as she whirled.  She was not angelic.  She was merciless, but fortunately, with epee, we were unharmed.  In later life, as the Toronto Star’s drama critic, and then as its restaurant critic, she drew blood.  She was brilliant, she could be nasty.

Over the years Margie and I would see Gina every five years or so: once in Manhattan, and once again in Toronto after she settled there.  When we lived in Philadelphia and later in Moorestown, she stayed with us, enroute, whenever she visited her friend Hilary, who had married a rich farmer in western Pennsylvania.

At the restaurant in Philadelphia, Gina would pull me into the chair next to her.  Margie and I would trade smiles.  She’d knock off a bottle of wine by herself, becoming tipsy, becoming testy.  How did she get away with it?:  by the force of her personality and the unbroken flow of her speech. Margie and I just listened.

In Perugia, in 1955, my felt hat had caught her attention.  No other student wore a fedora.  I had creased and crushed the crown in Philadelphia, like a mobster’s, and, coincidently, like the hats of some British aristocrats.

We were an unlikely couple, not that it was ever much of a romance.  Mostly we did things with the crowd, of which she was the leader. She organized a picnic to the countryside which proved a disaster for the lone Italian who joined us.   “Un picnic?  A fare che?”  “A picnic?  To what purpose?”  He came in his best suit – light grey that season –  and elegant shoes.  We went to Spoleto with the class on a Saturday;  on another occasion, Gina, Diana Beames, Warwick, the New Zealander and I went to Assisi on our own.

In Perugia we’d end up at the antique Bar Medio Evo for a hot chocolate.  I walked her home one night, to her toney pensione, the Casa Carloni.  The maid served meals at a nicely appointed table, and the students were fined if they spoke English.  They’d drop their fines into the bowl on the table.

We smooched in the first floor entry, just inside the stately front door, on the broad, shallow steps, but we couldn’t close the deal.  I wasn’t a masterful lover and she was not the sophisticate she appeared to be.   She was seventeen.  I was twenty-four.

I had to go to Sicily for three weeks.  By the time I returned, Gina had only three weeks left in Perugia.  “Where’s your hat?”  I had given it to my cousin in Sant’Anna who had admired it.  He wore it when he tended his sheep on the mountain, in his sleeveless home-made sheepskin vest, with his legs bound in rags to thwart the brambles.

The hat no longer suited me.  I was never the dead-end kid Gina envisioned.  She was annoyed, but we took up where we had left off, but no more smooching.  “Come to see us in London.” she said before she returned to England. harrods

I arrived in Hans Place on Christmas Eve, disheveled and dirty, fresh off the train, having sat up for thirty-six hours.  The Mallets were about to go to a Chinese restaurant, a Christmas Eve family tradition.  “Just in time,” said Arthur.  “Wash up and join us.”  Mr. Mallet was unflappable.

Next morning Mr Mallet, Gina and I walked to St Paul’s Church (Knightsbridge) for Christmas services;   Afterwards Gina went home to assemble the Christmas dinner.  Arthur and I visited friends who had restored a little house in a nearby mews.  We had champagne. Before noon!  I had never drunk champagne .

I settled into Lynn’s bedroom;  Lynn, Gina’s older sister, had earlier sailed to the States, working her way across on a freighter.  The Daily Express ran a front page story:  “The Deckhand Debutante.”

“Aren’t you afraid to put your twenty year-old daughter on a ship with nineteen sailors?”

“Not at all,” said Arthur, who was a Royal Navy veteran of World War One and World War Two  “With one man in a lifeboat, I’d worry, but not with nineteen men on a freighter.  They will be very protective of her.”

The Mallet apartment was in the Harrods building, above the store on the fifth floor:  seven rooms with a  foyer that was a room unto itself.  Lord  Beveridge, architect of the British welfare state, lived below us, in the building’s one other apartment

I was treading for my life in deep water, all because Gina had taken a fancy to my artfully-crushed felt hat. I followed Gina’s lead in all things.  I had already learned to eat in the Continental way, my fork never leaving my left hand, the knife always in my right. We Americans cut our meat holding the knife in the right hand. Then we drop the knife and switch the fork to the right hand in order to spear the morsel and lift it to our lips.

I trolled the authors in the Mallet’s library:  Evelyn Waugh, Trollope  and Angela Thirkell;  Mrs Mallet had reviewed many of Thirkell’s novels for the New York Herald Tribune. During the week, Gina and Mr Mallet went to bed early.  Isabelle and I talked.  She was an American who had lived in England since the 1930s.  She had much to talk about.  In the mornings Arthur went off to his office and Gina went to secretarial school.  Isabelle worked in her study.

I’d wander through Harrods for an hour.  I window shopped on Bond Street, vowing someday to own a Herbert Lock hat.  I roamed the Burlington Arcade and  I ranged Sloane Square.  I’d go to the USIA Library to read back issues of Country Life or The Field.

I’d stop at a Lyons cafe for a cup of tea and a roll.  I craved bread because it seldom appeared on the Mallet table.   Gina and I would get a loaf when we went to Soho to buy the ingredients for an Italian meal.  In the crowded, disordered Italian shop –  a salumeria –  Gina showed me her favorite Soho landmark, the fattest orange marmalade cat I have ever seen, strategically positioned near the cheeses.

Arthur Mallet 1898 – 1970

Windsor Castle.  May 5th 1898   “I’m delighted at the good news and congratulate you and dear Marie warmly on the birth of a second son.”  V.R.I  Victoria Regina Imperatrix. (A telegram Queen Victoria sent to Bernard Mallet, Arthur’s father.)

A newspaper cutting:  “The Baptism of the infant son of Mr.and Mrs. Bernard Mallet (Extra Bedchamber to the Queen) took place yesterday afternoon in the Chapel Royal, St. James’ Palace.  Princess Henry of Battenberg (Princess Beatrice, youngest daughter of the Queen) … stood sponsor in person (godparent).  The other sponsor was Mr A. Balfour, M.P.” (Member of Parliament , and future Prime Minister.)

“A pretty little ceremony, the picturesque choirboys in their red and gold gowns sang very well,,, Altogether a successful little function giving the little man a good ‘send-off.”

Arthur attended private schools before he entered the British Navy as a  young cadet just before World War I.   He was wounded at Gallipoli in 1915  when he was seventeen years-old.  He returned to action and fought in the battle of Jutland in 1916.  He served again in World War II, in Brooklyn, as liaison to the American Navy where he arranged the transatlantic crossing of Vanderbilt’s large yacht, which the Vanderbilts had donated to the English Navy.

The 1920s found him in New York City where he worked on Wall Street.  He returned to London in the 1930s to begin his business career.  When I met him in 1956 he was director of a group of hotels which included the Mayfair in London and the Metropole in Brussels.  He was a gourmet;  so were Isabelle, Lynn and Gina.  In the 1930s, the Mallets lived in Provence during summers, close to the sea for fresh fish, close to the vine for good wine.

At Hans Place in the evenings,  Mr Mallet would remove his suit jacket and his shoes to don a velvet dinner jacket and velvet slippers. His necktie remained at his collar. We’d have sherry in the living room while Gina, the family cook, prepared the meal.

“South African swill,” Mr Mallet called it.  It was the sherry served in his hotels.  Good stuff.  The Mallets never failed to praise Gina’s meals. She was good.  One Sunday she roasted a leg of lamb:  “What an extraordinary joint,” said Mr Mallet.

Once a month Mr. Mallet flew to Brussels to attend a meeting at the Hotel Metropole.  He said one ate better in Brussels than in Paris.

Arthur’s older brother, Sir Victor, was a former Ambassador to Italy and later  to Sweden.  Like Arthur, Victor had been baptized in the Royal Chapel, but by the Queen herself.  Sir Victor and his wife came to dinner once but I never met him.  He didn’t like young people at the table, so Mr. Mallet gave Gina and me money to eat out.

In the evenings, Arthur sometimes sat at his elegant little handloom on which he did Bargello.  I told stories about the village in Sicily.  Gina went to her room to practice typing.  The phone rang – it was on the far side of the room – and Mr. Mallet rose to answer it. “Hello Harold.”  Isabelle stood up and made a motion for me to follow her out of the room.  It was Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister. He and Arthur had been schoolboys together.

I made a stupid joke once about King Edward V11.  Arthur’s face darkened for a moment.  I still remember his brief look of displeasure and I am ashamed of myself.

Isabelle McDonough Mallet 1900(?) – 1976

Isabelle was an American born in Brooklyn.  She had been a book reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune before she married, specializing in English novels. She continued to review British writers for the Tribune even after she moved permanently to London.

She first married Seaton, the father of her son who was later killed in a training accident while In the RAF.  She divorced Seaton to marry Arthur Mallet with whom she had two daughters, Lynn and Gina.

I shall here quote portions of a long letter Isabelle wrote from Stonington, Connecticut months before she died.  It is a good example of her disjointed conversational style:

“Oh dear, dear Carlo, how many times I dreamed of getting this letter started.  Of course your contributions to my happiness in hospital was deeply appreciated. Inside and out  – I always love the Sicilian lore, like your way with words and the whole story of the Perrones as translated by Lynn (Lynn had lived with my parents in Philadelphia for three weeks when she was between apartments) is an especially glowing chapter in Mallet lives —but what happened first that the painkillers they gave me nearly polished me off, sent me up around the wall of any of the customary locations you can fill in.  So I came out with a long lasting case of nerves which affected  my literary style and mood.  I kept telling Gina I wanted to write Carlo when I was in snappy mood, but the mood didn’t come, and when it finally arrived, Gina lost your address, she does things like that —in between being an angel which she would hate to be called, and making bookcases to enclose our ever-expanding library, and getting ready for the advent of the Twins, their mother  and their beautiful sister, Gina loses vital statistics.  ,,,,  I wish I could see all of your family in the village (Moorestown, NJ) you live in.  Wish you and Margie had known us when we were down in Shillingford (England) too.  Then you would understand a bit what Badger has done to our lives, Arthur’s first ship he served on in World War 1was the H.M.S. Badger.  Before World War II we had a very large boathouse and lots of very not grand boats.  We had a very small Badger and canoes (which didn’t count) and an enormous fat noisy river boat called the Sour Puss after me, it was christened one Sunday afternoon when we were all hung over and not very polite to each other.  Before Dunquirque, our fleet started disappearing. Dunkirk-Break Down the river they went at night.  Sour Puss was sighted at Dunquirque time being very useful indeed, fussy and chugging about and bossy.  On the English side, not the French.  If she hadn’t had that name, she would not have stood out in our memory.  Anyway, after the war, there weren’t any more boats on sale in Harrods fun-boat department, so we got just one Badger, a splendid wooden boat which was all things to all men.  The family pet.  Now we have H.M.S. Badger III, it is a pretty little sail boat, the boys and Gina found it.  When the Blessing of the Fleet takes place and the tall garlanded ships go out to sea, you can see if you have good eyesight the H.M.S. Badger III racing right along  with them darting in and out of the picture, always just on the verge of being swamped.  We were all water rats, my family and us and my son-in-law Robin isn’t. I think it’s kind of him to let his children come all this way to be taught how to race in small frail craft in a rough sea.  He really is a very good egg, much nicer when he was in America though, he learned the language and got over his initial surprise and shock. But no more so that my father—this is a very disconnected letter, you just have to fish for clues— but my father brought us up to believe that England was the home of high excellence and a special breed of charm and dignity, etc. and then he got to England and found out that the English entirely agreed with him on every point—but whereas he believed they were superior to other mortals, they knew it which enraged him.   …Dear me, I have so much more to talk to you about but since the boys arrive Wednesday I felt I had to get started somewhere, and will write again when there is space to sit down, the boys have learned to cook at their coeducational boarding school, that is an item in their lives which Arthur would have approved of hugely, too.  They are funny, tell me more about your family, forgive long drugged silence, love to you and yours, Isabelle.”

A letter from Gina Mallet, 11 April 2009:

“Caro Calogero,

Thank you so much for sending Ma’s letter to you from Stonington.  I heard her voice again….I glad to know she was so cheerful after the original operation.  ..the hospital did indeed send her round the bend with far too many pain killers and I had to call a shrink etc…and threatened a law suit on Time letterhead!   And the lawyer totally agreed with me and I wound up having him tear up the total bill….

But it was bad thereafter because within far too short of time, the cancer returned, to her spine this time….She was so gallant but it was a losing fight as it had been since Dad died….She was cut adrift ….and it was good that she had a last summer with the boys but even so, they were almost too much for her….Patrick was amazingly intuitive and wonderful while Mowbray was bewildered….Obviously I think of her often and still puzzle over her life because if she had been able to escape the female role as it were, she would have found something fulfilling to do,  Dad could live in his skin happily but she couldn’t, she was always striving toward something but the world in which she lived wasn’t the one where she spread her wings….Many American women’s stories of that era are stories of frustration….I’ve come to think….because they were encouraged to expect more that society was willing to allow….I’m always sorry she never wrote a novel about being an American in England but she was inhibited by circumstance….Not a rebel at heart.  And not too very confident in her self.  Her tendency to overanalyze often tripped her up.  Lynn is very like her in that regard.

England was terrible for her….she had inherited Harry’s, her father’s ambivalence about England.  From NYC it seemed perfect.  Once he ran into the real thing, he had many, many reservations….and she as you know did too….Harry liked Seaton her first husband a great deal more than he liked  Dad because Seaton was not so unapologetically English, Seaton was more self conscious and aware of of other’s reactions to him.  Seaton died young, sixty! I recall, devastated first by world war I and then by Ian’s death,,,,he was enchanting….

I’ve been invited to speak at a slow food event near Hilary this June.  Maybe we can meet once again for lunch in Philadelphia…that would be great.”

The Times

Lynn Mallet Jackson 1935 – 2012

In his eulogy, Patrick Jackson quoted something I wrote about his mother who had been a guest at my wedding in 1960.

“We received this remembrance from Carlo Perrone, Lara’s Godfather and who was one of Mum’s oldest friends”:

“We were married in a small Episcopal country church in 1960,  The bride’s family sat on one side of the church, the groom’s on the other;  the Protestants sat on one side, the Catholics on the other;  the Republicans sat  on one side, the Democrats on the other;  the Anglos sat on one side, the Italians on the other.  Lynn sat among the Italians, a beacon shining above a sea of dark heads. By then Lynn had entered my family’s folklore as ‘La bella Inglese.’  She was at home in the meanest settings; her home was a haven to all that washed ashore.”

Gina Mallet 1938 – 2013

Gina Mallet

Susan Ferrier Mackay..  Special to The Globe and Mail:

“Gina Mallet, influential theatre critic, food writer and restaurant reviewer, was a force majeure in both her chosen areas of writing.  Talented, highly opinionated and known for her outspoken reviews, she was never concerned over ruffling the feathers of an on-stage ego or a renowned chef.

A positive review could ensure a full houses for a theatre production.  A negative review could damage box office takings and reputations.  Actor Peter Hutt recalls a review of George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance in which Ms. Mallet referred  to him as a ‘useful prop’.

Ms. Mallet’s writing garnered her a 2005 James Beard Award for her book, Last Chance to Eat.   A perfectly seared goose foie-gras she deemed the holy wafer of haute cuisine .”

A few  of Gina’s friends gathered at her apartment in Toronto to commemorate her death, to savor the piquancy of her life.  I sent them my description of the youthful Gina as D’Artagnon.

The Mallets enriched my life.  I gave little in return:  my Sicilian stories; my sympathetic ear to Isabelle’s discontents;  and a well-worn panel from an old Sicilian farm cart.

sicilian cart

The fragments of paint left on the panel are bright and – unusual for these cart relics – the scene depicted is also deeply incised:  Saint George, England’s patron saint, on horseback, is slaying the dragon with his lance. The dragon symbolizes the Devil.  Saint George, who symbolizes Christianity, is saving England from the Devil.

Isabelle had hung the panel on the wall behind the grand piano.  Gina appropriated it when her parents relinquished the Hans Place apartment.  The panel followed her to New York City, to Los Angeles and finally to Toronto.  Her niece Lara, my godchild, inherited the panel after Gina died.  It decorates her home in Palm Springs, California. The panel is my lasting legacy to the Mallets.  The rest is words.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roma 1957, Part One

My four month stay in London came to naught: The London School of Economics rejected my application once they received my undergraduate grades from Temple University. I had six glorious weeks with the Mallets in Hans Place followed by two and a half months of misery in a garret in Notting Hill Gate, in a house inhabited by Turks. The occasional dinner with the Mallets at Hans Place gave some relief. Gina and I went to the movies twice. We went to a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Continue reading

My Cousin Pip

pip

Weekdays my father would rise early to wait on the street corner for the trolley car that trundled him to the ferry boat that brought him to Camden, New Jersey. Crossing the wide river lifted his spirits: the expanse of water, the tugboats maneuvering the big barges, the ships anchored in mid-river. He washed windows for the RCA Victor Company, in one of those vast buildings that was mostly windows.  He could see a patch of river from one side of the building. Continue reading

Image

The Middle Years, Part Two

childrenhouse

The other half of our twin house had been chopped up into apartments but the tenants were stable.  An old man and his much younger wife, somewhat simpleminded it turned out, and their mentally challenged little boy – a sweet child, lived on the first floor.  The old man spent much of his time washing his ancient but still gleaming car which he parked at the curb of his house.  A young veterinary student, his wife and two large, ailing dogs lived on the second floor.

Mr. Jones and his wife lived alone in the house to our right.  They had lived there for more than forty years.  We recognized no others on the block.  On Sunday morning the children and I would sit on the front porch to read and watch the people going to mass –  many older whites, and many well scrubbed black children.  The influx of black children into the neighborhood had made St. Francis’s school viable again.  “Them Catholics!”,  sneered four-year old Stephen.  Where did that come from?

A shooting in one of the many bars along Fifty Second Street near Market Street, a busy but rundown commercial area:  one dead, two wounded.  Hey, that was fifteen blocks away. 

I’d get my haircuts at John’s, an old Italian barber on Baltimore Avenue near Forty Seventh.  Next door to him was a small Jewish delicatessen whose grandmotherly owner scooped the butter out of a wooden tub.  Down the block was an old ice cream parlor where we’d sit on bent-cane chairs at glass topped tables.  The shop was deserted on week nights.  How did they hang on?

Margie’s job at EEF provided cultural fringe benefits for the whole family.  Each year the Eisenhower Foundation (EEF) brought twenty-five fellows to the United States for six month fellowships.  These were men and women in mid-career, not students. They came to the United States to observe how Americans practiced what they did in their own countries.

margie-at-eef

Margie was one of three officers who planned their professional programs, sending the fellows to their opposite American numbers all over the country.  EEF encouraged its staff to invite the fellows to dinner while they remained in Philadelphia;  home hospitality, the American way of life..  EEF paid us paid $3.50 per head, $7.00 per couple to entertain them.

That was enough to buy pasta, the chicken, a head of lettuce (NOT iceberg!), and a bottle or two of Gallo Hearty Burgundy wine.  A French fellow pronounced the Gallo Burgundy as good as the table wine he drank at home.

One bitter February night Margie and I drove to the airport to meet Solomon Uwaifo, an electrical engineer from Nigeria.   He emerged from the plane wearing a tropical linen suit.  I lent him the sweater I had been wearing under my heavy coat and we rushed him to his hotel in center city.

Next morning I accompanied him to the department store where he bought warm clothes. He was awed by the profusion of goods in the store.  Solomon, who had a wife and six children. was not impressed with the black women he saw in the store.  He said Nigerian women were more beautiful. Toward the end of his six-month stay, he said he had seen some good looking women.

An armed robbery on Fiftieth and Walnut Streets. A high-speed police car chase on Market Street toward Cobbs Creek Parkway.   That was many blocks away.

We socialized with Margie’s coworkers.  Not with Hampton Barnes, the Director, who was affable but not a friend. Every year he invited his staff, their spouses and the departing fellows to dinner at his estate in Glenmore.  He was properly segnorial but genial.

Hampton was an acquaintance of the men – Thomas McCabe of Scott Paper, Thomas Watson of IBM, Thomas Gates, Secretary of Defense under Eisenhower. – who had spurred the founding of EEF in 1951, to honor President Eisenhower.  They had considered erecting a statue but when they consulted Mamie Eisenhower, she told them Ike would hate a statue.  “Give him something to foster international relations,“  she said.

A shooting in a bar on Fifty-fourth  and Walnut Streets:  one patron dead, one policeman injured.  That was a long ways off.

The old man next door died suddenly.  His wife, his son and his car disappeared  just as quickly.  The first floor was chopped into two small apartments, soon occupied by college students.  One of them had fancy hi-fi equipment and I had to remind him about the noise.  Meanwhile life went on.  Fernanda was happy at Friends Central School, and eventually Stephen went there too.  We continued going to Cape May for our summer vacations, at first for two week stays, then three weeks, then four.  I’d join the the family on weekends and for the final two weeks.

At the Free Library, the hierarchy decided that I’d make a good administrator.  I was flattered but had mixed feelings about the turn away from books.  To broaden my experience, they asked me to run a neighborhood branch for a while.  The branch was in a tough part of the Cobbs Creek area, about twenty blocks from our house.  Except for the reference librarian and the children’s librarian, the staff was made of people from the neighborhood.  They made it easy for me.

I won over the high school kids, mostly girls, who came evenings to study and to do their homework.  But their presence attracted unruly boys who  were  at times disruptive.  When blandishment failed, I came down hard, especially on their leader.  On one occasion, I threatened to call the police.  They left the library, defiantly upending a chair as they sauntered out.  One of the girls called me aside:  “Watch out for so-and-so, (the leader); he carries a gun.”  Later that year, so-and-so joined the Army.  “How come?” “ I asked.  “Better than going to jail.”

Dorothy Guinn, a circulation desk assistant,  had a son was an art student at what later became the University of the Arts.   I suggested we display Mike’s paintings on the library walls.   We hung about thirty paintings and drawings,  The show was a mild success –  mostly relatives and friends, but nobody bought a painting. I admired a painting several  times.  Dorothy asked me if I’d like to buy it.

“I’ll give him forty dollars,”

“That’s too much.” she said.   “Give him twenty-five.”  My son now has the painting.   I left the Cobbs Creek Branch after nine months.

A police car chase down Baltimore Avenue.  The stolen car crashed into a row of parked cars at Fiftieth Street.  Close, but who knows where the car  came from.

My next assignment was in the The Library for the Blind whose head librarian was out on longterm sick leave.  The “books” consisted of thousands of  LP records packed in sturdy black, mailing containers.  Two of our women  sat at the phones, taking requests.  The women would type up an address label and they’d hand it and a copy of the phone order to one of two young men who collected the LPs from the stacks.  They’d affix the address labels and place the ready-to-mail containers on book trucks to await the post man.  We had a few patrons who came in to browse among the Braille books in the stacks.  At day’s end, we’d send somebody to check the dimly lit stacks for stragglers.

Jack was often a straggler.  He was a fourteen year old, the son of an Australian war bride whose husband had abandoned her.  He was a brilliant student at the one of Philadelphia’s elite public schools.   He was a voracious reader.  His mother said she had to check under Jack’s  blankets at night to make sure he wasn’t hiding a book to read into the wee hours.

We received a request for Dr. Spock’s book, which in Braille takes up fourteen volumes.   The reader was a twenty-two year old Catholic mother who had had two sets of twins in twelve months.  She made all the Philadelphia newspapers.  Our women who spoke to her on the phone said she was a delight, always upbeat.  The grandmother of the twins, who sometimes called the library said she was exhausted. I left the Library for the Blind when the regular librarian returned from sick leave.

My next assignment was as  head acquisition librarian for the entire system:  the Central Library, the Regional Library ant the forty branches.  I supervised twenty three people.  I was now dealing more with budgets and people than with books as intellectual artifacts  The books were merely items to be ordered, received, processed and distributed by the tens of thousands.

A purse snatching on Fiftieth and Springfield Avenues. The woman held  on to her bag and her assailant knocked her down, breaking her arm.  Some young punk.

Next door first floor back, a one bedroom apartment, was rented to a woman with six children, the oldest eleven, the youngest less than a year old.  We seldom saw the mother;  someone told us she hung out in a bar on 52nd Street.  The eleven year old daughter, a sweet tempered child, went around with the baby on her hip.  She kept her siblings in line as best she could.   The children would appear on the adjoining porch at meal times, gnawing  on uncooked hot dogs.  Their father showed up occasionally to spend the night., surreptitiously, so as not to endanger his “abandoned” wife’s welfare status.   He would remove his car’s battery and carry it into the house,.  He must have lived in a tough neighborhood.  Did he know something about our street that we didn’t know?

Our uneasiness turned to alarm.  Two years had past.  We felt besieged but we continued at our jobs; we visited relatives and friends; we attended concerts in center city.  On weekends, I sought out interesting activities for the children.  We never entertained a neighbor in our home, no neighbor ever invited us into their home.

We’d sit on the front porch to eat ice cream. Three or four little faces would appear at the railing separating our porches. Should I buy ice cream for them too?  Where would that lead?  We stopped eating ice cream on the porch. One night the father of the children came slinking in as usual, but in the morning they were all gone, for good.

Two men, in their forties, moved into the second floor apartment.   They came to our door and introduced themselves, first names only.  They were well-mannered, well-spoken.  They’d be running a mail order business from their apartment.  They seemed nice.  Sometimes they’d sit on their front porch to have a cigarette.   A comforting change, but Margie and I had already lost hope.

Jack Brown, of Marquis Publications, one of the many publisher’s representatives who regularly came to call, told me about a job at a new County College in Pemberton, New Jersey.   I applied, I was interviewed and I got the job:  Acquisitions Librarian and Bibliographer.  I would work with faculty members to select a new book collection, across all disciplines.  Arnold Toynbee would have been daunted, but at my price, I wasn’t a bad choice.

A loud crash.  The house shook.  It was one o’clock in the morning.  I leaped out of bed and ran to the window.  Margie sat up, frightened:  “What is it?”  Someone, a drunken driver, still slumped in his car, had smashed into our parked car.  The impact drove the car across the sidewalk and into the front of the house.  A total loss, the car, not the house.

the-crash

I called George Funderberg of Urban Developers.  George had sold us 911; maybe he could sell it when the time came.   George had reinvented himself since we last saw him:  he was now a fair-skinned black (what he had always been), with an Afro hairdo, a colorful dashiki shirt and a toothy smile.  He was turning the neighborhood over again.

I commuted to the college during our final year in Philadelphia.  Enroute I’d identify towns that might serve our needs:  schools, schools schools.  I’d stop to examine the town on my way home.

I’d ask the librarian about the town’s schools, about housing, about taxes.  I’d walk up and down Main Street.  On Saturday or Sunday, Margie and I would return to the best prospects.  Moorestown towered above all towns we visited:  excellent schools, tree lined streets, attractive houses, pretty neighborhoods, healthy Main Street, EXPENSIVE. We chose it. We’d be the poorest family on Main street instead of the richest on 47th Street.

We were wakened by a splintering crash and our bedroom turned white from the glare of a spotlight that swept over the house fronts.  We heard thundering footfalls on the stairs next door.  A police raid:  the two nice men next door were producing illegal drugs.  They were taken away.  A policeman stood guard at the demolished front door all night long.  We remained calm – in a few months we too would be gone.

An afterward:
911s47th
911 in 2016, forty-eight years after we bought it in 1968. Wow!  Should we have stuck it out?  No!

THE END

The Middle Years, Part One

Marian Oliver urged us to move into one of the West Philadelphia neighborhoods surrounding the University of Pennsylvania.  The University was offering low interest mortgages to its faculty and staff to encourage their migration into these moderately blighted areas.  We were not eligible for these mortgages but we were impressed by the progress made thus far.  Marian told us about the area’s Lee Elementary School which the University had ‘adopted’, putting in place, for example, a two-track system that allowed bright students to proceed at a quicker pace.  The school had a roughly 50/50 mix of black and white pupils.  “Call George Funderberg,”  said Marian.

George was part owner of Urban Developers, a realty firm that had contributed materially to the rehabilitation of Powellton Village.   He was a sun-tanned Ivy League type with closely cropped hair.  He wore tweed sport jackets, button-down shirts, khaki suntans.   He drove us around and it became obvious that Powellton Village was out of our price range.  “No matter” said George.  We cruised the fringe neighborhoods that were showing signs of new life.   He showed us  911 South 47th Street, mid-block between Springfield and Baltimore Avenues.  We bought it.

911 was a three storey, brick Victorian twin house with a front porch.   It had a Mansard roof,  a big back yard, ten rooms with nine feet ceilings, tall windows and original chestnut trim throughout.   It cost us nine thousand dollars, cheap even for 1968;  cheap because the neighborhood was a frontier, on the tipping point between abject deterioration and gentrification.  We bet on gentrification.

We turned the third floor into a three room suite for Huna.  She could scarcely afford her apartment in Wynnewood any longer.  And the train and bus ride to 911 S. 47th from Wynnewood would have been punishing.  She was spending so much time with us anyway; why not make it permanent?  Margie and I had discussed Huna’s old age early in our marriage.

Margie’s maternal grandmother, Israela Headley, had ended her days living alone in a modest rented room.  Israela’s husband, Ben Headley, had been the most successful businessman in Swedesboro New Jersey.  Israela and Ben had raised six children generously, sending them to the best schools.  Yet Israela ended up in a rented room.  Huna never forgave herself.  Neither did her brother Bob.  Nor did Margie forget.

Giving up the Wynnewood apartment freed up more that half of Huna’s income.  Now she could pursue her “extravagant but not wasteful life style” which included regular visits to the hairdresser.  She’d wear a loose fitting satin bonnet in bed to preserve her hairdo between visits to the beauty salon.  The little kitchen we had installed on the third floor proved to be mostly superfluous;  Huna took all her meals with us, except for breakfast.  Breakfast was hers alone with the the New York Times, another of her few extravagances. Her sitting room held the only television in the house.  We gathered there evenings to watch the popular shows, with Stephen flopped across Huna’s lap.

Huna continued to lunch with Helen Hires at the Union League Republican Club. Russell Hires was dead but widows could use the Club’s dining room, and bring guests. Every three or four months Mrs Hires – Aunt Helen to Margie – invited Margie and me to join them for lunch at the League.  Margie always ordered soft shell crabs, or fried oysters and chicken salad.  She and I would be the only Democrats in the room.  Huna thought I had influenced Margie to change parties; not true, Margie had decided on her own to vote for JFK.

betty-shumanHuna and Marion Shuman

It turned out that 911 South 47th was one of only two single family dwellings on our street;   The other was an old couple who couldn’t afford to move away.  All the other houses on the block had been chopped up into small apartments, many of them for Penn students.  There were no playmates for Fernanda and Stephen.  They’d find friends, we knew, once the school year began.

Two of the Deeney children – there were seven of them – came to play with Nanda and Stephen.  They lived in a small house on a side street behind our house.  The children had met at the fence separating our back yards: four little Irish faces staring longingly at the jungle gym I had set up in our yard.  The Deeney children attended Saint Francis Catholic School.  They had little in common with our children.  They had never even read Beatrix Potter, said Stephen.   The friendship petered out after two visits; no rancor, just mutual boredom.

In bad weather, Nanda and Stephen played in Stephen’s vast second storey bedroom which looked out over the backyard.  It had been a second floor living room, with it’s own fireplace.  The children turned an old book case into a toy house which they populated with the Potter family.  The family was made up from Nanda’s collection of stuffed lambs.  Sometimes the Potter’s boisterousness spilled into the real world: “He hit me, for no reason!”

We visited Philadelphia’s historic sites:  Independence Hall, Carpenter’s Hall, the First National Bank,the Betsy Ross house,  the statue of William Penn atop City Hall.  In Washington Square we stepped onto the grass to better read the plaque on a stone monument: we were standing on the site of a mass grave of Revolutionary War soldiers, who had died of sickness and plague.  Nanda stepped back onto the path.   Stephen found a stick and began to dig.

Helen Hires moved to Arkansas to be near her daughter.  Huna missed her: she missed the gossiping –  but not Helen’s snide remarks about Mrs. Shuman’s legs.  Huna missed the lunches at the Union League, the prerequisite trips to the hairdresser’s, the hats and matching gloves  She came down the stairs once, dressed for lunch.  Stephen  looked up and said:  “Huna, you look like you’re thirty-five years old if you don’t look at your head.”   Huna laughed.  She wasn’t looking for romance but she said it would be nice if she had someone to take her out to dinner, or to the theater occasionally.  She was a football fan. I took her to a University of Pennsylvania football game.  Penn was her husband’s alma mater, but Penn State was her team.  She liked a winner.

Margie and I attended the our first meeting of the neighborhood family association.  We were the only parents in the room.  The rest were landlords who had long ago converted their houses into student apartments.  Their chief concern was Penn’s plan to build a high rise student dormitory in the area.  Margie and I did not speak up and we attended no more meetings.  Then we learned the Lee School was troubled.

Marian Oliver’s information about the Lee School was outdated.  Yes, for three years its two-track system had proved very effective.  Then black parents noted that most of the students on the fast track were white:  de facto segregation!  School officials should have predicted that the better prepared children of professional parents would have gravitated to the fast track.  Before they could tweak the system, the protestors swept it away.  White parents pulled their children out of the school:  if the needs of their children were not to be met, why should they keep them in?   The mix of students jumped to about 80/20, black to white.  Behavior problems crept into the classrooms and into the school yard.  Margie and I were not willing to put our children into that environment.

Others, caught in the same dilemma, were sending their children to Friends Central School which was a long way off.   A station wagon collected the children in the morning and it delivered them in the afternoon.  Nanda was accepted in pre-first. We were pleased because Friends Central School was Margie’s alma mater. We found a nursery school for Stephen at a nearby Presbyterian church.   I would drop him off in the morning and Huna would pick him up at noon.  Finding weekend activities for the children was challenging and wide-ranging.

I’d drive them to the Narberth playground on Saturdays. Narberth is a suburban town near Huna’a old apartment complex in Wynnewood.  We had used the playground whenever we visited her.  The playground was located in a park-like setting, yet we could walk to Narberth’s main street for ice cream cones..

Sundays were cultural, to be spent in Philadelphia institutions: The Academy of Natural Sciences, the Franklin Institute, the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the Art Museum.  We attended children’s programs at these sites whenever we could, but mostly we returned to our favorite exhibits:  the medieval armor hall on the second floor of the Philadelphia Museum; the dinosaur skeletons  at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Nanda and Stephen were titillated by, drawn to the Egyptian mummies in the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania: the mummies grinned out from thin leather-like lips.

Nanda made friends with Sarah Mendelson, one of her classmate at Friend Central School.  Sarah’s mother became Margie’s lifelong friend.  One evening in April we and the Mendelsons attended a celebration at the American Swedish Historical Museum in Philadelphia’s League Island Park.  The celebration included a typical Scandinavian meal in the tastefully rustic dining room –  we drank mead.  A Scandinavian folk dancing group performed before dinner.  After dinner we found ourselves outdoors in the darkness, holding hands with about fifty other guests.  We sang, shrieked, and danced around a huge bonfire whose flames and sparks rose forty feet into the sky. It was Walpurgis Night. We were sorcerers and witches celebrating the coming of spring, an exuberant release from the grip of a long winter.

911 So. 47th was doable

We loved our house.  We furnished it with family stuff, well-worn, loose-jointed old  furniture that had funneled down to Margie over the years:  the Edwardian dining room chairs, a china cabinet, the Jacobean table, the chipped sideboard, the Victorian love seat, two carved side chairs, the upright piano, Aunt Ethel’s pretty little Victorian desk, several end tables, Aunt Bridey’s tiger-walnut desk and  several photographic portraits.   One of them, hand-colored, depicted Margie’s father, aged two, sitting on a painted rocking horse. He looks a lot like our Stephen at two. The miscellaneous furnishings fell into place, finally at ease in a compatible setting.  We gave a housewarming party which we combined with a celebration of Huna’s seventieth birthday.

the-clanThe clan, 1939

They all showed up:  Uncle Bob and Aunt Hope, Uncle Bill and Aunt Aneta, cousin Alberta came and so did Aunt Ethel, the lone representative of the Ridge family.  She and Margie were the last of the Ridge line.   Uncle Harold came, the black sheep of the Headley uncles.  The Shumans came –  Helen Hires was not there to make snide remarks about Marion’s legs.  We put out plenty of ash trays and Bourbon whiskey.  They drank highballs throughout dinner and nonstop coffee from our wedding gift urn.  No wine.  Grace Washington came to maintain order in the kitchen, just like old times.

margie-at-the-apexMargie at the apex, 1932

Huna was radiant, at her prettiest and gayest.  She caught my eye and raised her empty glass:  “A little dividend, please.”   I reached for the bottle of Old Grandad.   Margie too was radiant for these people had constituted her adoring universe when she had been her mother’s late and only child.  They were fond of me too;  I was the proximate cause of their convocation.  Uncle Bob took me aside to thank me for taking in Huna.  When he died five years later, Aunt Hope gave me his Chevrolet.  Yes, our neighborhood was troubled but we would persevere.  We were pioneers.  Others would follow.

END, PART ONE

Minetta Memories

I met Lynn Mallet in Perugia, Italy, in 1955. We met again in New York City in the late 1950s. Her apartment became our crowd’s salon; Lynn presided.

Lynn, Margie Ridge and Joe Greene went to the Amato Opera House to hear Lynn’s friend, Gene Buie, sing the lead in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto. As he was singing, Gene backed into a lighted candle – the stage was cramped – setting his flowing sleeve ablaze. He swatted the burning sleeve with the palm of his hand until he smothered the flames. He didn’t miss a note. Lynn, Margie and Joe had risen from their seats, intending to join the faint of heart who were edging toward the theater’s lone exit. The danger past, they returned to their seats.

Lynn wrote this memoir in 2005. For the young, poor and free spirited, New York City in the 1950s was still a friendly place.

minettasign

by Lynn Mallet

I stood on deck as the towers of Manhattan rose ahead of me, that wonderful skyline of the 1950s; solid but fantastical and not yet overwhelmed by architects inspired by a box of children’s bricks. Not exactly a huddled mass, I was returning to live on the island of my upbringing, having attained my majority. But I was an immigrant all right, if not toting a bundle, at least bearing suitcases containing the basics of a new life: clothes, books and letters of introduction from my ex-employer in London. Barely any money, I was to spend a few nights with a friend of my parents on East 57th , my grandparents’ Brooklyn flat being too small to accommodate me, but I was warned that this was a very short-term offer.

I disembarked from the bowels of the Liberte on this sparkling September Friday almost drunk with excitement. By nightfall I had a job. “Start Monday,” they said. I had to confess I had nowhere to live. “Start Monday week,” they said. Life seemed more unreal than ever. How was I ever to find an apartment I could afford on $60 a week? A Saturday night party produced a suggested encounter with a young man of someone’s acquaintance. He was said to be just the one to pilot me around the realtors of lower Manhattan.

Phone calls were made and Monday morning found me in the drugstore at the corner of Sixth and Eighth, sporting an unlikely flower for identification. My Virgil appeared, and undaunted by my unpromising circumstances, steered me through the busy streets. Our first two forays were greeted with scornful snorts, the lady at the third agency at least allowed me to sit down. She also curled her lip. “Not much we can do with that money,” she said sternly, riffling through an uncoordinated mass of papers on her desk. Suddenly she stiffened. “Stand up’” she barked. Startled, I complied. “Well, honey, you might just fit!’ she declared. “$42.38 a month! If you want it sign here. Don’t bother to read it – it gives all the rights to the landlord and none to you. Standard New York lease. And thus I entered 5-7 Minetta Street.

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The reason for her interest in my size became immediately apparent. Forunately, although tall, I was thin. The apartment was not one of those more bounteously endowed in the ‘front building’ (No. 5) but in the tiny ‘back building’ (No. 7) Two floors up, at the top of the stairs was my front door, opening directly in a room approximately 12 square feet. Once inside, immediatlely next to the front door was another, faced by a further one about five feet away. This space contained cooking equipment: a stove and small icebox together with a battered tin cupboard left behind by the previous tenant and containing a glass dish, a bent kitchen fork and a handle-less saucepan. Through the further doorway was the bathroom. A small claw-footed tub was partnered by a lavatory and a miniscule handbasin and there was a window overlooking the courtyard behind Monte’s restaurant on MacDougall Street, where the staff sat in the summer preparing vegetables and seafood for the evening customers. All washing up was obviously to be done in the bathtub. (There was no sink in the kitchen) One year found me in it stuffing the turkey for a Thanksgiving feast, attired only in my underpants and butter. I was quickly driven to becoming expert at producing one-pot meals on top of the stove.

The living room, in the sense of room for living – abandon visions of anything grand – looked even smaller once a trip to the Salvation Army had added a bed, table and chair and I had unpacked my books and installed them on brick and board shelves. It had two windows looking west over the courtyard which separated Nos. 5 and 7. The courtyard itself contained the cliché ailanthus and a curious structure of stone and cement some three feet high. Nobody seemed to know anything about this, and being long before post-modernism struck, it never crossed our minds to view it as a (possibly failed) work of art. To the south the local funeral home boasted audible airconditioning (for obvious reasons). Every Fall a skirmish took place between us and the owner, she complaining of the leaves from our treasured tree falling on her roof, we, in riposte, erecting a large notice complaining that we had more formaldehyde in our beer than anywhere in town. (My) Grandad was not pleased. His career had been with the NY Education Department, and he knew his city backwards. No sooner had the news reached him than he burrowed into research, proclaiming, triumphantly, “ Dat building’s condemned, goily.” (He tended to call me ‘girly’.) It is both sad and funny to think that he is long gone, but the sturdy building still stands.

I was puzzled by the great festoons of wires which graced the ceilings of both buildings and it was not until I got to know some of my neighbors that this interior decoration was explained. It appeared that the apartments only had DC. The hallways, on the other hand, had AC. Canny residents soon cottoned onto how to abstract this exciting form of electricity from the halls, trailing it into their apartments and enabling them to enjoy the glories of record players and modern appliances. It was not long before one of these good neighbors set me up too, and a dense cobweb appeared on my landing. Eventually the landlords got round to updating and the rent rose to $48.63.

New York was far less homogeneous than it is now, the city being pock-marked with neighborhoods inhabited by immigrants from around the world: Germans lived in the upper East 80’s. Russians around the Bowery, the Lower East Side was heavily Jewish, and Chinatown was not far from Minetta, which was still part of little Italy. On MacDougall, the baker was from Naples, the butcher displayed the minatory notice “Carne di maiale si deve cuocere bene” and Italian was heard on the streets. Hawkers on Bleecker offered pizza and Little Necks, pried open on the spot. The greengrocer, across the Avenue, was a life saver, providing bruised vegetables at bargain prices. The only exotic note was struck by Mr Lee, our laundryman, two doors down, a refugee from Chinatown. I never found out exactly what any individual item cost: he worked everything out on an abacus and would produce sums completely irreconcilable with the garments under review. A sheet, two shirts, nightie, and cotton dress would be priced at $1.76; for a not dissimilar load the following week he might come up with $1.29. He was a lovely man, his English limited, his skin pale and blotchy from toiling over his vats and irons, his courtesy unfailing and his price unbelievable. I yearned to pay him more: it was difficult to resist the impulse to press extra money upon him, offending his dignity.

The neighborhood was enlivened by the presence of the Amato Opera House on Bleecker, the street along which I sprinted to the Eastside subway each morning in a gallant (and often doomed) attempt to get to work on time. I had friends who sang there, and we all enjoyed the somewhat idiosyncratic performances, accompanied by piano, while records were substituted for the instrumental interludes in Cav and Trav. (sic, read Cav and Pag.) We would debouch into the warm evening and head for San Remo’s, the local bar. A nearby restaurant boasted singing waiters, Texaco Opera was on the radio Saturday afternoons, and an aspiring prima donna neighbor carolled Forza: music seemed to be everywhere.

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During my five-year residence we had drama too. Gas leaking from her refrigerator did for one neighbor, resulting in replacements all round – and the rent soared to over $52, The phone woke me up one morning even earlier than the alarm clock and a brisk voice asked if I had heard anything the night before. Sleepily, I groaned that to my indignation my sleep had been disrupted by the usual firecrackers going off (it was close to Chinese New Year and who was waking me up so early after a troubled night? The voice laughed. It was a detective from our local precinct “You’re not much use to me,” he grumbled “I need witnesses. That was the police shooting a burglar on your roof.” Then a floating numbers game (sic, read craps game), rented an apartment in the front building. For weeks the milk arrived on time and was never abstracted. The day the Salvation Army bed died, I went upmarket and bought a Castro Convertible. I warned our super, Dick, of the arrival of this treasure and asked him to make sure it was left safely in the lobby until I got home, but when the day came, no delivery awaited me. Disheartened, I climbed the stairs and opened the door to find the sofa-bed in place, unpacked, assembled! Packaging nowhere to be seen. Our guardian angels had somehow gained access; when thanked, their response was on the lines of “Oh, shucks, it was nothing. Lady.” We missed them and their protection sorely when they moved on, having to stay ahead of the cops. Dick and his wife Marilyn gave birth to a cute but colicky little girl whose wails of distress rose through both buildings and volunteers took turns rocking her pram so we could all get some sleep.

One day we received a visit from an ancient lady who had lived there as a child and wanted to see the place once more before she died. And she solved the mystery of the strange lump in the courtyard. In her day it had been the well which supplied the water to 5 and 7, and was later capped and covered over to stop people falling into it. She was amazed at our stupidity in not having realized this: we in turn regarded her longevity and this glimpse into history with awe.

We celebrated the feast of San Gennaro, and we walked down into Chinatown, where a round-eye neighbor was studying Mandarin – he later taught me Chinese Chess. The Staten Island ferry for a nickel was the answer to those hot sticky days before air-conditioning – the office closed down when the mercury hit 90. We stood on the roof and watched Sputnik blink and bleep overhead. Summer weekends were occupied in pursuit of the perfect beach accessible by subway. Far Rockaway at 32nd was found to be ideal, and sandy, surfy days were rounded off with potato knishes and icy beer before the long ride home. Roamings around the heart of Little Italy meant pasta and lemon granitas.

In Winter, snow cast bright lights onto the ceilings, and during the storms the building streamed with rain, the wind howled and the tree thrashed around but never fell. In summer there was the invaluable draught, and tempting smells from Monte’s, where waiters tossed 99c plates of spaghetti bolognese in the direction of the tables with insouciant skill. It was cheering to think of Minetta Brook bubbling along below, to spring to life, so it was said, as a fountain in one of the grand apartment buildings on Washington Square.

Marriage finally moved me on. There was no way two people were going to survive in 7 Minetta. Further, the coherence of the neighborhood was fraying. I left just as the hippies began to move in: they had already set fire to two apartments in No. 5. Mr Lee had vanished, a joint called the Big Black Pussycat having forced him out. The shops on MacDougall were being replaced by nightclubs featuring Beat poets. I was sorry to go: there is nothing like the first “room of one’s own’”

And although I jettisoned the kitchen fork and the mutilated saucepan, I still have the glass dish.