ELLISON STREET: AN ITALIAN/AMERICAN MEMOIR (Pt. 2)
My summer months of school vacation were spent on the streets with my friends. From early morning until dinner time, and then again after dinner, we would move through the neighborhood from one friend’s house to another, from our local playground to our favorite pizzeria, from the delicatessen to the bakery. We traversed a rather limited geographic area, always aware of the fact that by crossing certain streets we would be entering foreign territories: Jewish or Polish, Puerto Rican or African American neighborhoods. Most often this was not a problem, especially if friends we were with lived in those neighborhoods. At times in the city’s troubled racial history, however, such border crossings became problematic.
The specific landmarks of my world began with my friends’ houses located on my street and later with those located beyond my street. Next was my elementary school, Samuel A. Lattimore Public School No. 11, always referred to simply as No. 11 school. During my entire time as a student there, I never learned who Samuel A. Lattimore was or why he was important.
(He was a professor of chemistry at the University of Rochester, dying in 1913.) Webster Park, the public park adjacent to my school, was also part of my home turf. Next came the neighborhood around my Catholic parish church located on Clifford Avenue, St. Philip Neri.
After my house, school, and church, followed an array of small shops, stores, and hangouts that I frequented including Chuck’s Delicatessen on Bay Street, the Columbia Italian Market in the Goodman Plaza, Savoia Bakery on Clifford Avenue, the Bay and Goodman Pizzeria at the corner of those two streets, and the Sully Branch Library near my school.
These establishments were interwoven into my life in a seamless and almost invisible fashion. There were nights when my father and I would be returning home in our car from some errand and we would stop in front of Chuck’s Deli. My father would send me in for four items: milk, bread, L&M cigarettes, and a six-pack of Genesee Cream Ale (a local Rochester beer). I was too young to purchase cigarettes or beer, so Chuck would come out from behind the counter and walk to the door to see if my father was waiting in the car. They would wave or nod to each other. Sometimes Chuck would come out to chat with my father. In any case, I was allowed to purchase the cigarettes and beer for my father.
My first paid job was at Chuck’s. I was thirteen years old, too young legally to work. Chuck paid me cash to cut up all the empty cardboard boxes that accumulated after their contents had been emptied. I also stocked the shelves but was not allowed to use the large meat slicer behind the counter where people ordered various salumi. That was too dangerous. I remember one incident when a woman at the front shouted for me to bring her a bar of Fels-Naptha. I had no idea what she was talking about and didn’t even understand the words she was uttering. I made my best guess and ran up with a package of paper napkins. She just stared at me with disdainful eyes as Chuck quickly moved from behind the cash register to fetch the soap.
I have heard many theories about where U.S. soft drinks are referred to as pop and where as soda. They say that soda is used in the northeast. Well, whatever the experts say, in Rochester, it was pop. We weren’t allowed to drink pop at my house, but I had ample opportunity to imbibe on the streets. My brands of choice were Orange Crush and Grape Nehi. Returning the bottles got you a two-cent deposit refund.
There was one establishment that I knew very well from the outside and frequently passed as I walked up and down Bay Street but was forbidden to enter by my father. This was the Valguarnera Italian Social Club, at 606 Bay Street. The Valquarnera, as everyone called it was a typical social club found in many Italian/American communities. Frequented mainly by men who paid a small dues for membership, it was a gathering place for social interaction among Italian/Americans living in the neighborhood. Some clubs were dedicated to paesani coming from one specific region of southern Italy. The Valquarnera in Rochester, for example took its name from Valquarnera Caropepe, a mountaintop village in Sicily. But for the most part membership was open to all Italian Americans in the community. Such an establishment would have a bar for coffee (and other beverages), tables and chairs for card playing, music, and maybe enough space for family ceremonies and celebrations. In their earliest days, these clubs provided refuge against anti-Italian/American prejudice. They were places where new immigrants could have English documents translated into Italian and receive free advice on legal, immigration, and financial matters.
As with many such clubs, the Valquarnera in Rochester was a two-story structure. My father’s concern was less about what went on downstairs, than with what might be going on upstairs, most commonly illegal gambling. I had to walk past the Valquarnera whenever I was sent by my family to pick up a pizza from our favorite pizzeria. I would approach the front door slowly to observe the Italian men standing, seated in chairs, or reclining on the stoop. It was always a humid summer night. They would be smoking and laughing and joking with each other. They had seen me pass by on many occasions – just another kid from the neighborhood. Each time I did, one of them always looked directly at me and silently gave a nod of his head.
When I was sent to the Bay and Goodman Pizzeria, I carried additional instructions from my father. I could enter the front of the shop to pick up and pay for our pizza, but beyond that I was not allowed to go. While waiting to pay in the front, I would always peer into the deeper, darkened, forbidden space beyond. Lit by various neon beer signs was the bar, some tables and chairs, two pool tables, a few pinball machines, an Italian flag on the wall next to a black and white photograph of the Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano (who was also on view at the Valquarnera) and a vending machine for cigarettes. The few slowly moving overhead fans descending from the tin ceiling did little to alleviate the heat and smoke. There was loud talking in Italian, various dialects, and English. One could hear laughing and an occasional threatening outburst. Sometimes I recognized an adult neighbor from my street and would give him a discreet wave.
There was one common bond that I shared with my friends every summer. We knew nothing about summer camps that some kids attended each year — outdoor camps with sunny days and cool nights lasting weeks, located in beautiful natural settings like the Adirondacks, Catskills, Finger Lakes, or the Berkshires. Camps where kids went swimming, hiking, horseback riding, and canoeing. Where they sat around a campfire at night toasting marshmallows and telling ghost stories. Most of these camps were named for the various tribes of Iroquois Indians who once inhabited the region and about whom we studied in school. Camps named Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Mohawk, Onondaga; located on clean lakes and in unspoiled forests. Regarding summer camps, the inside joke in our neighborhood was that the only camps we were familiar with were boot camps and prison camps.
No house on Ellison Street had air conditioning and Rochester summers were hot and humid. It seemed impossible to escape the stifling summer heat, especially when trying to sleep at night. I often escaped in the dark to the chaise lounge on our front porch with my transistor radio to listen to Joe Cullinane broadcast the games of the Red Wings, Rochester’s minor league baseball team. On particularly hot evenings, my father would run an extension cord from inside the house to a small black and white television set placed on a table in our backyard. The flickering light from the television created specters throughout the branches and leaves of the large elm tree in the center of our yard. Mixed with the sound coming from our television would be the sounds emanating from our neighbors’ televisions also placed outside due to the heat but not always tuned to the same channel. This nocturnal soundtrack was further punctuated with familiar voices speaking Italian to create a symphony of light, language, and shared experience.
From my earliest age when I was allowed out on my own, my weekdays and nights, and weekends, had me traversing an area of the city from Ellison Street, to my school and park on Webster Avenue, to my church on Clifford Avenue. When I graduated from No.11 school in the 7th grade, my geography widened with the start of 8th grade at East High School on Culver Road. There was no middle school in Rochester at the time. A student progressed directly from 7th grade elementary school to 8th grade high school, and the discrepancy between an 8th grader and a 12th grader was a fearful prospect.
My immediate family was bolstered by my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and numerous cousins; followed by the parents of all my neighborhood friends; and finally, by my inner circle of friends with last names like Amore, Antonucci, Cassetti, Castellano, D’Amico, Ferra, Gaitere, Garbarino, Infantino, Mancini, Rizzo, and Serafine. This extended phalanx of relationships, both familial and communal, provided my life with its order, routine, ritual, tradition, comfort, security, safety, and friendship. There was always someone to turn to in a time of need.
My brother was three-years older than me. I was behind him through elementary school and high school. When he started school, I was too young to attend. This caused a great consternation in me. We would have breakfast together and then he would grab his books and walk off up the street leaving me alone on our porch. My mother would temporarily try to distract me, but ultimately to appease me she had to place a small table and chair outside on the porch stocked with paper, pencils, crayons, and picture books so I could “play” at being at school. All the while I kept an eye up the street for my brother’s return.
Occasionally my father, who was a sheet metal worker, was called for jury duty downtown. On such occasions he would dress in a jacket and tie. Because the courthouse was downtown, my father would leave his car at home and take the local bus – the “Bay to Morton” bus – as the line was called. My father’s normal workday ended around five o’clock. But when he had jury duty he often returned earlier. As with my brother, I would peer down to the end of the street around the corner of which was the bus stop. I would wait and suddenly my father would appear dressed like a businessman or some such important person with a newspaper tucked under his arm. He appeared so different from the man I knew who usually returned home wearing oil-stained gray or khaki work clothes and carrying a lunch pail.
Ellison Street was filled with deciduous trees like elms, oaks, and maples. The autumnal palette was comprised of rich reds, yellows, oranges, and umbers. On sunny days, the colors seemed to radiate a kaleidoscope of warm, bright light. Somewhere, somehow, a negotiated settlement between the natural beauty of Ellison Street and nearby urban blight had been agreed upon.
In the early days of autumn one of the most solemn rituals of my house took place: the burial of our fig tree. And in this ceremony, there were always only two celebrants: my grandfather and me.
Behind our house my grandfather maintained a large garden separated into two equal parts by an old wooden garage. Long before I was born, the garage caught fire and its inside walls and roof were charred black. It always amazed me that it was still able to withstand the heavy weight of the winter snows. Now inside were found only an odd assortment of tools, various garden supplies, and the bicycles belonging to my brother, my sister, and me.
In the section of the garden to the left of the garage, my grandfather planted a young fig tree. It grew slowly but very early began to produce wonderful, sweet fruit. With the coming of the cold weather each autumn, my grandfather called me out to the garden to help him bury the tree beneath the ground. There it would safely pass the frigid months of winter, to be resurrected again, only with the arrival of the warm spring air.
In preparing the tree for its winter rest, my grandfather and I worked very much as a team. We each knew what had to be done and how and when to do it. First a hole was carefully dug around the base of the trunk to reveal the network of flexible roots below. Then, using my smaller hands, I would remove the dirt from between the individual roots so that we could clearly see how they were growing and which way they were bending. With this accomplished, we could turn our attention to the upper part of the tree. Its limbs were supple enough to fold gently upwards and together as if we were closing an upside-down umbrella. While I held the limbs in place, literally hugging the tree, my grandfather began to wind a coarse twine around them and to secure it with a solid knot. After this, large pieces of burlap, acting as a kind of burial shroud were also wound around the limbs and secured with the twine. All of that was the easy part that we did almost by rote and without speaking a word to each other.
Next a narrow trench was dug from the hole at the base outwards along the ground. Its length was to approximate the height of the tree. Finally, we were ready for the most difficult part of the procedure. Ever so slowly and carefully I began to push the tree down towards the trench. My grandfather would scrutinize closely the movements of the roots below, occasionally lifting one root up and over another to allow freer motion. He would also watch me carefully, making sure that I applied just the right pressure and nothing more. It was here that I learned many of my first words in Italian, simple expressions like: aspetta! fai piano! basta così. Each year I felt a greater tension and resistance on the tree’s part, and I wondered how much longer my grandfather would be able to assert his will over it. Was it even necessary to do this, I often thought to myself? But I never asked that question out loud.
At last the tree came to rest along the trench, partly underground and partly on top. Additional pieces of the heavy twine were now thrown across the trench and the tree and staked into the ground on either side. The last act in the burial rite was to fill in the original hole and then to cover the tree with a heavy blanket of leaves and mulch. When the job was complete it did indeed appear as if we had buried a person (someone roughly my size).
The most interesting tree in our yard, however, was the huge Dutch elm that stood in the center, its limbs extending far into the neighboring yards. It was a tree that my grandfather had brought back to life and in a very real way it belonged to him and through him to me.
Many years earlier, when my grandfather was still a young man, the tree had been struck by lightning during a violent thunderstorm. The thick trunk was cleaved into two parts almost to the ground with the angle of the tree shifting from the vertical towards a lean of forty-five degrees. My grandfather was able to prop the two halves of the trunk together and to bind them to each other with a porous cement mixture that replaced large areas of shattered bark. The tree continued to live, but now along one face of the trunk one saw nothing but a flat area of white cement. Into this cement, while it was still moist, my grandfather spelled out in 1arge, clear, block letters his last name, the letters stacked one atop the other and running in a straight line down the entire length of the trunk. Into the center of the letter O, which was at eye leve1, he inserted a small mirror.
No other tree on Ellison Street could compare with this one! As with the fig tree, my grandfather seemed able to impose his will onto nature. The sprawling Dutch elm continued to flourish and to dominate all the other trees in the area but it was a tree that my grandfather had saved, it bore his name and reflected his own image back to him. Through that tree my grandfather stood rooted to a place. He belonged.
As a young boy it was against the letters on this tree that I was measured by my grandfather. I would stand straight, heels together, my back against the cool cement, while he marked off a season’s growth. It took several years, but eventually I too was able to see my own reflection in the small mirror of the trunk.
With the coming of autumn, the annual task of winemaking also arrived. As with the care and tending of our fig tree, this was another ritual presided over solely by my grandfather and me. In my grandfather’s cellar were two sixty-gallon oak barrels. They were old and well- seasoned. I never learned where they came from or how he managed to bring them into the cellar. They were much older than me. There was also a large wine crusher with a crank that fit over a smaller wooden barrel. The crusher was a fearsome looking machine with large interlocking teeth from which extended a curved cast iron handle ending in a smooth wooden grip. A V-shaped hopper, somewhat like a large four-sided funnel sat atop the smaller barrel.
I was never involved in the chemical (or alchemical) formula for making the wine that some people called “dago red,” (although not in our house.) I knew nothing about yeast, nitrates (or lack thereof), or what mixture of grapes my grandfather purchased each year from vineyards in New York State. I was simply the “muscle.” My job was to crank the crusher to extract the juice from the grapes. In fact, I was most excited when the slatted wooden crates of dark grapes arrived each September with their colorful labels pasted on the ends: scenes of dark grapes hanging on vines, Bacchus-like cupids, and Italian peasants in vineyards from the Finger Lakes, Chautauqua, and Naples, N.Y. My grandfather always stacked the empty crates in our backyard along the fence. They would remain there until winter when my brother and I would construct forts with them in the deep snow.
The wine that my grandfather produced each year was divided into large glass gallon jugs and distributed to my parents, and a few select relatives and neighbors. In my house we would keep the large jugs down in our fruit cellar. At dinner time, I would descend to the cellar with an elegant pressed-glass decanter and pour enough wine from the jug into the decanter for our dinner. Depending on the year’s “vintage” the wine might taste slightly fruity. It had a shelf life of maybe four months if kept cool during a Rochester winter. And towards the end of its life it could still be used as red wine vinegar. The southern Italian way was never to waste anything.
During the crystalline days and frigid nights of winter some of the most dramatic changes took place on Ellison Street. Winters were long and hard, and life everywhere moved at half speed. Storms appeared with tremendous suddenness and ferocity, covering the ground with colossal drifts of snow that resembled photographs I had seen of huge sand dunes in far-away deserts. With this tremendous blanket of snow came the most all-pervasive and profound silence that I have ever known. Ellison Street became another world, a world of white silence appearing forever detached and isolated from all other worlds. It was a silence both frightening and exhilarating.
Days moved through their ever-shortening cycle with increasing speed and urgency. And at dusk, seconds before the total blackness of night, when only a soft, purple glow remained low in the sky, life around me seemed to stop completely and I often felt poised between two vast and different worlds. I always paused from shoveling snow at just that moment and simply watched the arriving darkness and listened to the unending silence. Many times, I saw my grandfather standing inside our house at the back window watching both me and the softly fading evening light. I would look at him and past him into the warmth of the house. Sometimes he beckoned for me to approach the window ledge. When I did, he would open the window a crack and silently hand me a drink of water or some hard candies to moisten my mouth.
It was always a struggle for my mother to rouse my brother and me from our warm bunk beds each morning for school in the winter. Breakfast was simple: a small glass of orange juice, a large cup of warm milk laced with some espresso, and two slices of toast or biscotti that we would dip into the caffè latte mixture. Finally, it was time to bundle up for the walk to school: winter boots, leggings, jackets, mittens, scarves, and hats. Our mother would escort us to the door and, after a moment’s pause to assess the weather conditions, we would step out into the Rochester winter. There were no school buses. We walked, often stopping to pick up friends along the way.
Outside I always imagined that I was on a military expedition. I had been sent out to mark the trail to our destination for others to follow. And because the new snow that had fallen in the night was still untouched by human boot, and the birds were still sleeping in their nests, silence was all around me. The only sound was that of my boot cracking the frosted top of the new, clean snow with each step I took.
Ellison Street snowstorms required shoveling every day and night. Between shoveling, school days, and homework, there was ice skating and hockey. On Saturdays I would wake very early in the morning and meet my friends on the street for the walk to Webster Park and the public ice rink near our school. We each carried a large duffle bag with our skates and hockey pads inside, and a hockey stick.
The ice rink in summer was the basketball courts. But when winter arrived, boards were erected along the perimeter of the courts and pipes were laid to convert the courts to an ice rink. There were distinct timed periods for public free skating, speed skating, and hockey. Most often the free ice time for hockey was very early in the morning. Next to the rink was a small building we called the Shanty. In the warm months one could play ping pong, shoot pool, have a drink from a vending machine, or attend a club meeting about seasonal activities and how to sign up for YMCA basketball, Little League baseball, or Pop Warner football. The Shanty and ice rink were in the shadow of my school which I could see in the distance.
Winter on Ellison Street also meant the Christmas season and no house remained undecorated or exempt from the celebration. This was the time when all things natural and man- made conspired to transform the street into an enchanted nocturnal garden comprised of a clean, thick blanket of new snow illumined by the bluish light of the moon and by an endless array of colored lights strung across the porches, around the trees, and along the fences of Ellison Street. It was always a sight of beauty, wonder, and excitement for me.
Winter had its own rhythms, rituals, and traditions. Every house on Ellison street would be decorated in some fashion for the holiday. Sometimes the working adults like my father would also decorate the homes of some of the elderly Italian couples who lived alone. My father, brother, and I were responsible for the exterior decorations on our house. These consisted of strings of colored lights attached around the roof line and across the railing of our porch. But more than that — a painted life-size Santa Claus with sleigh and eight reindeer that my father had made from wood. This latter ensemble, for realism’s sake, had to be placed on the roof of the porch (not on the front lawn).
My father installed a hoist attached to a strong limb of the large elm tree in the front yard close to the roof line of the porch. That allowed my brother and I to hoist the separate pieces onto the roof of the porch with my father awaiting their arrival precariously perched on the icy surface. It was a dangerous procedure, and my mother would occasionally peer out from behind the curtain on the porch window to make sure we were all safe. The soundtrack to this evening’s work was always the same. Up and down Ellison Street could be heard the scraping of snow shovels.
Like any metropolitan city the size of Rochester, there was a lively downtown area that everyone visited during the Christmas season. The oldest and most prestigious department store in the city was Sibley’s, located on East Main Street. At Christmas time, everyone flocked to see the famous display windows that fronted to the street. There were scenes of Santa’s workshop, carolers in an English village, people dressed to go skiing in the mountains, cozy interior tableaus of families seated near Christmas trees with fires in the fireplace. Sibley’s display windows changed with the seasons, but none were as popular as the Christmas scenes.
Beyond the display windows was the marvelous cafeteria inside Sibley’s made up of curving, serpentine counter that snaked back and forth upon itself, matched with swivel high- backed stools. From the cafeteria to the Magic Corridor leading to Toyland, to the bakery, to the sporting goods and clothing departments, Sibley’s was like entering an elegant fantasyland. As I walked through the store, holding my parents’ hands, they often glanced down at me, as if to enjoy the expression of wonder on my face.
Perhaps my parents were aware that in exploring the downtown heart of the city at Christmas, I was witnessing something quite different from the more closeted and restricted domain of my local Italian/American neighborhood. It was exciting to watch people move with such speed. To see illuminated theater marquees and neon lights. And to hear people hailing taxi cabs – to even see a taxicab! To experience the city as a bright, vibrant, living, organism of people, lights, traffic, noise, and energy was to remind me both of where I came from, and where I might travel in the future.
Christmas Eve was the culminating holiday of the year that brought everyone in my extended family together for a traditional celebration both secular and religious. For my cousins, brother, sister, and me this was the most anticipated holiday of the year. It surpassed all other holidays for fun, excitement, mischief, and family solidarity. It was the summa of all holidays.
Each year one family house would be chosen to host the Christmas Eve celebration. Regardless of whose house was selected, all my aunts and uncles contributed to the preparation of the food, drink, music, decorations, gift-giving, and game-playing for young and old alike. It was always both an Italian and an American Christmas. The Nativity scene and Santa Claus, angels and elves, turkey and lasagna, traditional Italian stories of old-world Italy, along with new American favorites. What was most revealing each year was the sense of generational continuity and growth so evident from the newest babies to the oldest, most respected elders.
Regardless of the location, the Christmas Eve menu followed the Sicilian tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes. There were some exemptions and adjustments to this tradition since not everyone in the extended family traced their origins to Sicily. But the tradition related both to southern Italian customs, Catholic traditions of abstaining from eating meat during Advent, and replacing meat with a menu of various fish, eels, squid, octopus, shrimp, mussels and clams.
At midnight, we would all go off to the nearby Catholic church of our host for midnight Mass. After returning, we would satiate our longing for meat with a sausage roast with green peppers, fresh garlic and olive oil. This would be followed by an endless array of fruit and sweets including gelato, cannoli, biscotti di mandorla, panettone, American Christmas cookies, almonds, chestnuts, chocolate, and candied fruits; ending with various dessert wines, digestivi (Averna or Grappa), and espresso. By the end of all this religious and secular celebrating, my cousins, brother, sister, and I would join up with our numerous counterparts of the same age and scatter throughout the house to play cards, games, open more gifts, or trek once more outside through the newly fallen snow. This camaraderie and intense attachment to, and affection for our cousins, would grow with us all as we had our own families and continue unabated throughout our lives, to be handed down to the next generation of the family.
David Gariff is senior lecturer at the National Gallery of Art and adjunct professor of art history at The Catholic University of America. A specialist in modern art and the art of the Italian Renaissance, he has taught art history at the University of Wisconsin, Cleveland State University, Trinity University, and the University of Maryland, College Park. David is Italian American through both his mother (from Calabria) and his father (originally Garifi) from Sicily.