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Brooklyn Sundays

November 13, 2011

When I think back to the Sundays of my childhood, it is Brooklyn that fills my thoughts. Not all of Brooklyn, of course, but one small railroad apartment on the second floor of 1322 Bay Ridge Avenue that we’d visit, the home of Sal and Mary Laporte, my grandparents. It was during these visits that I learned about my Italian heritage. Most of what I know about the food, language, and customs came from all those Sundays in Brooklyn.

My mother had not only married a non-Italian, but someone from New Jersey, for heaven’s sake. I suppose these Sunday visits were a necessary part of the deal for my father, not that he minded once he sat down at my grandma’s dinner table. That alone was worth the drive.

Part of my memory is the drive itself. We didn’t go to Manhattan much other than several trips in to see the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall. Traveling to Brooklyn in the back seat of the old Ford with my sister seemed so exotic. We would look out at the piers as we traveled along the Hudson River on the way to the Battery Tunnel. At that time some of the fences along the docks erected during World War II to prevent the viewing of strategic shipping were still there, and I remember craning my neck trying to peek between the sections to get a view of the big ocean liners. The strange yellowness of the light as we passed through the tunnel and the sound and feel of the tires on the cobblestones as we exited into what seemed like another world became permanent images of that journey.

My grandpa would “reserve” a parking space right out in front of the building by placing his beat-up garbage cans in the street and then standing guard on his stoop so no interloper could sneak in. When we’d pull up, he’d greet us, cigar jutting out from his big smile showing his single front tooth. Grandma would be upstairs cooking, and as we were ushered up the steps, she’d come down the hall to deliver her smothering hugs with her apron on and a wooden spoon in her hand.

backyard at Bay Ridge Ave.– a young Bobby and grandpa (with ever-present stogie)

My cousin Bobby (taken in by my grandma as a boy after his mother died) would pop in from his daily duty of hanging around the neighborhood and sometimes pull me aside into his tiny room to show me some teenage treasure of his (a switchblade, a Cadillac hubcap he’d “found”) or tell some story of his latest adventures. I learned most of the curse words I knew from these sessions. Soon my Uncle Mike and Aunt Josie, who lived downstairs, would come up, and the adults would gather in the kitchen area to talk.

Certain features of this apartment added to the unique ambiance of the place. The one tiny bathroom off the hallway had a tub with legs (how strange!), and the toilet flushed by pulling a cord that hung from a wooden water tank fastened to the wall above the bowl (how cool!), both of which I hadn’t seen anywhere else, at least until I saw the movie The Godfather years later. The rooms were arranged in a single file row from front to back with sliding partitions to separate them. I thought it was the neatest thing to walk from the dining room in the back through the bedroom to get to the living room in the front!

In that living room there was a TV. How it was that my grandparents had a TV and we didn’t was a source of great consternation for me, but I was mesmerized by the experience of watching it. It was a large cabinet affair with two items of great curiosity on top. One was a large black ceramic panther that always fascinated me for some reason. The other was a decorative light in the form of a fish tank; the heat of the bulb inside would make an inner carousel painted with fish rotate against the outer glass wall, giving the appearance of fish swimming. I sometimes wonder what happened to them and always have my eye peeled for the like whenever I’m at a flea market.

The TV itself was rigged up by my grandpa to be a “color” TV. If they existed at all at that time, I’m sure they would have been outrageously expensive, so grandpa had taped a square of transparent plastic over the screen. The upper third of the plastic was bluish, the bottom third greenish, and the middle a mottled assortment of yellows and oranges. This sometimes matched the shows so as the orangish cowboys rode along the greenish plain under the bluish sky, it made some sense. Usually the interior scenes were fairly bizarre, though; if the character was on the ground, he’d appear seriously ill as he lay beneath the sky blue ceiling of the room.

The main event, however, was the food. This would begin around noon and continue on and off until coffee and desert time around seven. In between, plentiful courses were served in the warmth of the old-fashioned dining room, foods that resonated with the sound of Italy: braciole, prosciutto, provelone, pasta e fagioli, rigatoni. These courses would be separated by adult conversation and kids going off to play or nap to return again for the next round.

First came the antipasti, a table full of all kinds of delectable finger foods, cheeses and olives and crusty bread. Then the part I loved best, the pasta with steam rising off the huge platter along with extra gravy bowls full of red, rich, aromatic tomato sauce. My taste expectations for pasta were set here, seldom to be met elsewhere until I got married; my mother-in-law’s gravy turned out to be almost an exact match! Then there would be meat dishes accompanied by vegetables and followed by salad. Grandpa presided over the whole operation, wine bottle by his side. These meals were legendary, and we would all stuff ourselves to the point of near exploding amidst the loud and animated conversations liberally peppered with Italian curses swirling about the table and the unmistakable feel of family bonds.

As the day drew to a close, coats were retrieved and goodbyes were said, and we headed back through the dusk to my other world on the Jersey side. I would often nod off in the back seat, dreams fueled by the tastes of my forefathers, safe in the knowledge that the next Sunday visit would bring this all back again. I did not think about the inevitability of it ending some day, though this is as it must be.

I miss the old Sundays in Brooklyn, for they capture that irreplaceable time in my life when the connections to family roots were so strong. I cherish the memories, and I am thankful that I can look back and see where I came from and recognize those parts of me that are indebted to Sal and Mary, Brooklyn, and pasta that was nothing short of paradise.

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