Yes, it’s true. I speak fluent Italian ...
... but only if you ask me to say one sentence.
Here’s the Italian phrase I can say: “I love this country. It gives a man a chance.”
Yeah, I know what you’re saying: “That’s English.”
Maybe it is. But it’s what I heard a lot of Italians saying when I was a kid. And since so many of them had just gotten off the boat, I figure it had to be an Italian phrase.
Yes, that’s what they said. And there were lots of them. In fact, back in my old neighborhood in New York City being Italian was pretty much the norm.
Of course there were Germans, Poles, Norwegians, and ... Hm-m-m-m. Come to think of it, guess I must speak German, Polish and Norwegian too. That’s what those folks said too.
Or maybe they decided that as long as they were here they might as well learn the language, pay their taxes, and become part of the group. I suppose that would make sense. You know what they say: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
Yes, there were a lot of Italian immigrants in New York City when I was a kid.
As I mentioned in an earlier column, they got off the boat just aching to become part of America, which to them meant going to work as soon as they set foot on our soil. Many of them were so eager to get started they stayed right there in the city.
You know something? It must be hard to save up passage money, sell the few things you own, pack a suitcase or two, clean up the kids (and the husband), say goodbye to your native land, your native language, and all the familiar faces and places you’ve known since a child, travel 5,000 miles across the seas to a new land, and start from scratch.
I don’t know if I could do that. It must be tough, really tough. Leaving everything behind. Facing a future where success or failure is a matter of what you can do with your own two hands. I admire anyone who has the guts to do it.
I’ll say something else for those Italians. They knew how to make the American Dream come true. They knew that it takes three things:
One, get a visa.
Two, work your butt off.
Three, become an American.
In that order.
If anyone were to ask me what most characterized the streets of New York City during the days I’m speaking of — the 1930s, the depth of the Depression — I would say it was the pushcarts.
Pushcarts were everywhere. I don’t think a single day ever went by in my quiet little Staten Island neighborhood when at least a half dozen pushcarts didn’t come down the street, quietly rolled along the asphalt by olive skinned immigrants selling something or other.
You might call those days the don’t-bother-to-go-shopping era. Didn’t have to. Whatever you needed, you could be sure that sooner or later some enterprising ex-Italian was going to come rolling it down the street and right up to your door.
There were carts brimming with vine-ripened tomatoes; crisp, fresh celery, lettuce and cabbage; carrots and potatoes fresh from the soil; apples you could smell on a sunny day as the cart rolled by; and pears and peaches so perfectly ripened, so luscious, so juicy, so dripping with goodness that it makes my mouth water just to think of them. Whatever happened to them?
If you could wear it, you could buy it off a pushcart. I think I was 10 before I ever wore a pair of pants, a shirt, or even underwear that didn’t come off a pushcart.
There was a pushcart that came along about once a month, trundled along by a tall skinny guy who did shoe repair. He had everything on that cart he needed to fix shoes so that they looked like new again. No machines either.
Everything was done by hand. You should have seen that old guy handle an awl as he pierced the rim of a sole before he hand-stitched shoe and sole together.
I say no machines, but he did have a couple of simple ones that he operated standing up and pumping a foot-operated treadle. They were fitted with brushes and polishing wheels that spun as he pumped away, polishing up the like-new shoes to a high shine.
What did it cost to have a pair of shoes repaired? Heels, 35 cents. Half soles, 75 cents. Full soles and heels, a little under a buck. All done by hand. A work of art.
There was one always-smiling man who came around who didn’t have a pushcart. Didn’t need one, I guess. Not in his mind anyway. He was the scissors grinder. He carried a two foot diameter grindstone and its heavy four-legged trestle right on his back.
What amazed me most about him, I think, was the distance he covered. We changed neighborhoods on Staten Island one time, moving about four miles or so.
And yet here he came, same guy, same 150-pound burden, same smile, same careful work, all the way over in our new neighborhood.
For a dollar he would sharpen every pair of scissors and every knife in your house. Didn’t make any difference how many there were. One buck, that was it. And were they sharp!
One day my dumb brother Frankie was doing something in the kitchen and Mom told him to cut it out. Frankie — not my favorite brother — thought he was a card. He opened the drawer in our metal kitchen table, took out a carving knife that wouldn’t have cut butter that morning, and sliced it across Mom’s backside.
He cut her half an inch deep! Both cheeks!
It wasn’t exactly easy to: (a) get Mom to the hospital, or, (b) explain to the doctor what had happened.
Some pushcarts I just loved: The popcorn vendor. The hot dog vendor. And most of all, the hot roasted peanuts vendor!
There was even a man who came selling shoelaces. Never forget him. Can hear him now, singing out, “Two pairs for a nickel!”
Oh, I forgot. There was one other Italian phrase I picked up from those immigrants with their pushcarts and their big grins.
“God bless America!”