When I “lost my job” a few years ago, one of my deputies very kindly packed everything up in my cubicle and shipped it to me using the company’s cash. It was a terrific gesture, and to make it complete, he handed in his resignation the following day. Good work, JW. (He now covers the White House of Mad King Donald every now and then for a large media company, which shows that being good pays off sometimes.)
I took a look at the boxes back then, put the lids back on and promptly forgot about them. Back then, I was too busy wandering the city, riding the new Second Avenue subway, and meeting friends in bars (remember?) to deal with the detritus of too many years.
But now we’re in purge mode, with an eye to escaping KD’s failed state eventually. And The Spartan Woman found the boxes and suggested very nicely that I scan what I need onto a backup disk and discard the hard copy. She also found a trove of family photos from when our kids were little. We switched to digital cameras early on; I’d been given one in the late 1990s. It was a terrible, low-resolution thing, but it got me used to the idea of saving pixels, not paper. So I thought that spending some hours with the scanner and the laptop was a splendid idea, because doing so keeps me in my back of the house refuge, which is equipped with decent speakers and is out of the hearing range of HGTV/MSNBC/Guy’s Grocery Games.
Reading the magazines was a forced trip down memory lane, to use a cliché. I was an editor, so I don’t have tons of article clips, although when I did act like one of the peeps to report and write, I think I acquitted myself pretty well. What I do have in abundance are editor’s notes. I was the editor in chief of a scrappy little magazine (and later, website) for lawyers who worked in companies, nonprofits, etc. Basically it was a business magazine in which we inserted lawyers to make it relevant to the audience. It worked occasionally.
While scanning, I realized that I said the same thing multiple ways, and smirked at the different ways I snuck noncorporate messages and anecdotes into a business magazine. After a couple of years, I became bored of the sacred Editorial Calendar, with the same features turning up the same months year after year, so I made the editor’s note about me, me, me. I’d write about a personal experience and somehow make it relevant to the articles in the magazine. I’d also make fun of business jargon, slipping it into asides to see if our copy editor would notice. (She did, and was in on the joke,)
We—okay, The Spartan Woman—has also unearthed a trove of photos. I knew they were in the basement somewhere. But from 2001 or 2002, with some earlier scanned stuff, our family photos were mostly digital. There’s a whole analogue couple of decades that I’d been missing. So finally I got to remember how our kids looked when they were little. We have a lot of them—TSW’s dad was a photographer and he’d toss me a few rolls of film every now and then and the mailers to have them processed. So taking photos of dinner parties, kids just being kids, etc., vacations are there. Now I’m wondering whether to scan them, like I scanned my father-in-law’s photo scrap book and a bunch of pictures from TSW’s childhood.
This all has just a little to do with the usual subject of the blog, which is about showing what real life in Umbria is like, and our experience straddling that green Italian region and life on the periphery of New York City. I’ll get back to that soon. But we’ve been trapped in NYC by the Covid-19 pandemic and frustrated in our attempts to leave. Still, I guess that getting ready for a big change inevitably brings up memories. Gotta say, as I looked at what we did at that little magazine, I respected the craft and passion we brought to subjects that feel irrelevant to me now. And those kids were super cute, no? (They still are.)
Let me explain: I just spent $104.57 on vegetables. Wait, we also bought a half-gallon of milk and some already grated pecorino cheese (sorry, Letizia). Going to Gerardi’s, a farm stand and garden center about 1.5 miles from our Staten Island home, was the day’s big adventure. And really, more than a hundred bucks on vegetables and fruit? And not a lot either; in Italy, the total would have been €45, or about $50.
It’s so boring here right now. Stripped of restaurants, culture, and even demonstrations (things are quieter since the curfew ended) it’s just mind- numbing tedium here. It looks like a few neighbors have fled to shores and mountains. It’s not as though we hang out much with them, but when they go, the street starts to feel abandoned and lonely.
Should we join them?
Last year at this time, in the Before Times, we’d already been on our Umbrian mountaintop a few weeks. The pool was open, I’d been to Milan and back on business, and we’d already seen friends and gone to see friends running a triathlon on Lago Trasimeno. We’ve had stuff to do here, which is one of the reasons we’re still in New York. We’re trying to whittle down our belongings, in case we flee for good anytime soon.
The other reason is, of course, the coronavirus. We’ve been under lockdown here, and as of today (late June), we’re still avoiding most contact with the outside world. And Italy’s been, well, you know. (With a few exceptions, though, it’s stopped the virus’ spread.)
But our region—Umbria—has been relatively unscathed by Covid-19. I left just as things were getting serious in Italy, but Umbria, a region of about 900,000 people, has seen 1438 cases, with 78 deaths so far. By contrast, we live on Staten Island, population approaching 500,000, with 13,783 cases and 1,031 deaths from the virus.
I was amused when our friends said “thank God you’re back.” Sorry folks, but supposedly crazy Italy has a superior healthcare system. It’s commonly rated one of the top in the world, despite inadequate and unequal funding and Umbria’s is among the better regional systems. I know, this doesn’t jibe with the stereotype of impetuous, disorganized Italians not getting their act together, but in healthcare and other areas, the image doesn’t coincide with reality.
Umbria’s relative success is down to some specific factors, like lower density, no really big cities. But early on, as soon as the first cases were reported up north, Umbria’s doctors and immunologists got together with the University of Perugia and came up with a comprehensive testing and tracing regime. And the small number of cases meant that the hospitals weren’t overwhelmed. Compare that with what’s happening here, not so much in New York, but in the U.S. generally. So I think our odds of getting the virus and getting good treatment are better over there.
Now, it’s mainly down to logistics. Both the U.S. and the European Union have closed their borders between them. And it looks as though the EU will continue to bar Americans when it lifts more restrictions July 1. But we’re lucky, having both blue (US) and maroon (EU) passports. We can go back to Italy as citizens. The problem, however, lies in finding flights and the flying itself. The US is fine with our leaving, but Italy has specific requirements even for returning Italians. Because of the abysmal US record people coming from the US are subject to a 14-day quarantine. That’s even for returning Italian citizens. The Italian consulate in New York even put up a helpful FAQ on its site to tell us what to do.
I look for flights, just to see what’s out there. Alitalia’s flying from JFK to Rome, but its fares are crazy for premium economy. Don’t judge; we need the legroom, extra baggage allowance, and being treated semi-humanely. Iberia, which we’ve taken and enjoyed (especially when they upgraded us to business class unexpectedly and for free) only has codeshares with British Air—they’re chronically late and like to lose luggage—and American (yuck). Und so it looks like it could be Lufthansa, which is less cosseting in the airport (no priority checkin) but wonderful aloft.
UPDATE: We booked with Lufthansa, which then in an incredibly stupid move, cancelled our flight over to Europe, while rescheduling the flight to New York, and asking if that was okay. Um, no, idioten, why would I keep a returning flight when I can’t get there in the first place. Idiotic doesn’t begin to descibe it. Thank you Trumpistas and your lax Covid-19 policies, you’ve made the U.S. a pariah nation,
So here we are. We’ll probably go back, even if it means two weeks of quarantine. Hey, we’re used to it. While stuck at home there, we’ll have more land to wander around on, maybe we can get the pool opened and, it’s a change of scenery. Actually, better scenery. I’d come back to get this house organized and to see friends and family; Covid-19 and an addiction to MSNBC’s endless coverage meant we accomplished neither goal.
Of course, there are our true masters to reckon with: two charming young women, our daughters. We haven’t seen them hardly at all since March, except for hasty drop offs of food and laundry and FaceTime sessions. They think we should be sealed hermetically until someone comes up with an effective vaccine. They’re probably right, at least on some level. They have Italian passports,too, so if they want to visit us while we’re socially distancing somewhere else…
I wrote this awhile ago, before the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, which are infinitely more important than my musings. But I wanted to get the post off my plate.
You’re a New York City boy/You’ll never have a bored day—Pet Shop Boys
Just like you, I’m bored. Nothing much is happening today. I woke up, made coffee for The Spartan Woman and me. We sat at the kitchen table with our laptops eating breakfast and occasionally commenting on what we read. Every now and then we share a video. Okay, I share a video, much to TSW’s annoyance if she’s in the middle of a good crossword puzzle. Eventually, I got on the exercise cycle for about 40 minutes of hard pedaling.
Every now and then I bother someone via text or FaceTime. I do miss a good newsroom, with its cast of characters, so I need to get out there virtually. I was chatting with one friend, and she said I should write about growing up, especially since nothing really is happening while we’re in our state of forced hibernation. Specifically, she thought my high school days were interesting enough to write about.
This is the second post that I’ve started at someone’s prompting. But I’ve been thinking about this one for awhile, and it’s not just Dimitra saying I should do this. It’s also Netflix’s fault/credit. Have you noticed how many of its series take place in high school? “Sex Education” is a hilarious twist on the usual high school standard stuff, with the groups of jocks and freaks. The fascination is international: Check out series in these languages—Danish (“Rita”), Spanish (“Elite”) and Italian (“Baby”). I’m sure there are more.
So of course, given my solipsism, plus the fact that there’s nothing much going on right now [um, wrong!], these shows make me think of my high school days. They weren’t like the TV shows, or, I think, the experiences of normal people. I had the pleasure (I really mean that) of going to a New York City special high school. Not only that, I was there during the early 1970s, a time that now seems both relatively trouble free and dangerously gritty. The schools are Brooklyn Tech, LaGuardia art school, Bronx Science, Hunter, and Stuyvesant. They have entrance tests, which have become a flash point in New York’s ongoing ethnic and racial battles, and they produce graduates who share certain traits. You could probably boil these traits down to a certain kind of smart-alecky attitude, a combination of street smarts and verbal aggression, and a warped sense of humor. These kids aren’t the privileged types of private school. They’re more interesting. Yeah, I’m prejudiced.
I went to Brooklyn Technical High School. The school is in Fort Greene, and Fort Greene in the 1970s was not Spike Lee’s’ joint, or today’s gentrified place of stately brownstone and cool but expensive restaurants (remember “restaurants”?). Some of the neighborhood brownstones back then were nothing more than facades held up by scaffolding, with the rest of the building burned to the ground. There were lots of those. Tech’s building itself (up at the top, and an artist’s image from my yearbook here) is huge, a city block or nearly so and sits a few blocks east of the Dekalb Avenue subway station. The four blocks from the station to the school could occasionally be dangerous, but weren’t too bad. We were strongly discouraged from venturing east of the school.
My entering class was the first to include girls. This was a big deal. A lot of the crusty old teachers were not having it, and Tech brass had to adapt stuff like locker rooms and gyms. EDIT: On the other hand, if you scan the yearbook photos, you’ll notice that there were a lot of black and Hispanic kids. New York City back in then was a more progressive city in a lot of ways, and the special high schools compensated for neighborhoods and ethnic mix, instead of a supposedly impartial entrance test, which, as we know, favors kids from wealthier zones and whose parents can pay for pre-test coaching.
The school’s mission was to train engineers in practical areas. One shop class took place in a big sand pit. The kids in one program worked on prototype planes and rockets. Others designed appliances and cars. The school really failed in training me to do anything useful but how to think; I followed the amorphous “college preparatory” track. I wasn’t really interested in the tech bit; if pushed I probably would’ve followed the industrial design track because I like to draw and design objects and maps. (I also had 3 rigorous years of French, which came real handy during trips to Montréal and Paris; I decoded signs for my father as he drove through Québec on a summer vacation. Being Tech, we were given a French kids’ science textbook, which taught me, among other things, the parts of a car and basic animal anatomy.)
Brooklyn Tech back then did not have the usual social structures of a typical American high school. Sure, there were jocks, but they weren’t a big deal. Nor were there cheerleaders. Maybe it was a reflection of the times; we didn’t, for example, have any proms. It was too uncool. If you have to break the population into groups, maybe you could say geeks vs socially adept kind of intellectual, with a sprinkling of jocks. And, being the ’70s, there was a strong druggie influence. Often, the druggie types would, as in a Venn diagram, overlap more than a little with the intellectuals.
I took a full year to get used to the place. I traveled between boroughs to get there, which was fine. I was thrilled to be part of New York fucking City. I had a couple of friends from the outset. The father of one of them ran a small ad agency. We played hooky one day and took the subway to Midtown and, much to my surprise, dropped in on his father. Dad was not shocked at all, showed us around the place, letting us talk to the artists, and gave us lunch money. Or maybe he took us out—my memory’s a little fuzzy and I was just so happy that I was going to get away with our little trip.
Gotta say, that day was an eye-opener. And going to Tech got more interesting after that. Suffice it to say that I partook of a lot of what that period in history had to offer to teenagers. One summer, my father got me a summer job in a machine shop, and I spent it talking to socialist old machinists while getting their breakfasts and making parts on a lathe for cameras bound for space missions. The shop was in Soho, and I would gobble down a sandwich and go for a walk, checking out the art galleries that were there before the Eurotrash and boring rich took over the place. I put the proceeds of that summer to a Gretsch electric guitar and Fender amp. I was ready….
…which meant playing in pickup bands at parties. One of them was in a Victorian house at the end of Staten Island, the home of a kid who was an illegitimate son of a South American diplomat. The house had secret passageways leading to various party rooms. You’d have to squeeze past people to go from room to room which led to numerous hilarious, sometimes erotic cannabis-fueled encounters. Since I knew kids from all over the city, I spent a lot of time on the subway on weekend nights, traveling from, say Far Rockaway to Greenpoint for a party and then back home. It really was paradise. Sometimes my best friend at the time and I would just walk around talking making stuff up, like teenage boys do. (It usually goes like this: “Would’t it be cool if….?”) I have a vague memory of our fantasizing that the school was a giant space ship and we somehow controlled what went on, like benevolent rules, a combination of Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, and Captain Kirk.
We Techies had a regular group from the Island, and we had our traditions. In the morning, we met for bagels and tea or coffee at this coffee shop a few blocks from the school that had a mirrored back room. Imagine the possibilities, considering our often-altered states. After school, we often met at another place owned by a guy named Tony Rana. He was a hip guy in, I’d guess, his thirties, who didn’t mind a bunch of obnoxious and usually stoned teenagers hanging around. He was a kind of counselor and facilitator and once hosted our holiday party, even contributing some booze. He’d be arrested for that now. (Years later, he opened a deli in my neighborhood and actually recognized me.)
I was a good student and although I didn’t work very hard, I managed to maintain a 90-91 average and stay on the honor roll. It kept my parents happy and mostly unconcerned about my extracurricular activities. Once, though, I was sloppy and left a couple of half-smoked joints in my shirt pocket. My mother found them. “How does it feel to be a statistic?” she asked me, and grounded me for a week or two. She said that for now, she wouldn’t tell my father. The poor woman apparently didn’t know that my dad was watering the pot plant in my room. (He told me that I wasn’t taking proper care of it, and that he couldn’t stand to see a plant mistreated.)
I did have some good times in class, although I confess I don’t remember much of my time there. One lesson I’ll always remember virtually verbatim was this, in what was supposedly a speech class taught by Robert Schreier, a guy who drove his old Mercedes-Benz convertible across the Brooklyn Bridge from the West Village every schoolday. We spent most of the class times dissecting commercials and decoding press releases and politicians’ statements. I guess you could say it really was a class in semiotics. His rap went something like this:
“You do realize why you go through years of school don’t you? It’s to get you used to being bored and to do things you don’t like doing. You boys, you like to play basketball, don’t you? So, in gym class, do they let you just play? Noooooo. You have to line up. Your ex-Marines gym teacher says ‘today you will learn how to dribble.’ Instead of tossing a bunch of balls out and letting you practice, you’re in this line. One, maybe two of you at the front of the line have to practice in front of everyone else. Those who aren’t good at it will be humiliated, both by the teacher and your classmates. Most of you will be bored, having to stand there watching. If you weren’t into. basketball before, many of you will now surely hate it.”
I took his little sermon to heart and told myself that I would figure out how to live without ever being bored. I kinda figured it out (this lockdown period notwithstanding). I tried my best and thank you, Mr. Schreier.
Day 3,756 of the Great Lockdown. We’ve ground the last of our backyard winter wheat to use for pasta, and bartered hothouse tomatoes for Lenny L’s eggs. We still have some zucchini and beans from the last rationing quarter. Queen Ivanka says that the virus should disappear on its own by the summer solstice; so far, average winter temperatures of 37 degrees C/98.6 degrees F haven’t had an effect on its spread. But we’re not allowed to say that.
Sorry about that. But it’s feeling endless, no? We alternate between days trying To Do Things, and crashing all day in the living room eating peanut butter and mango preserves on graham crackers while HGTV shows preach the virtues of family time in open concept homes.
On Sunday, one of our busy days, we made umbricelli—Tuscans call them pici (pronounced “peachy”). You make a basic pasta dough, with or without eggs depending on who you ask, then take little bits and stretch them out by hand. It can take a long time to do. But then again, do I have anything better to do?
I had some pasta dough left, so the same lump turned into tagliatelle. Only Daughter No. 2 had our pasta machine, Fair’s fair: We’re holding her dog hostage. So I got out The Spartan Woman’s heavy, really heavy, marble rolling pin. The thing could be a murder weapon in a Hitchcock film. And I cut off pieces from the lump of dough and rolled them really thin, the old-fashioned way. Gotta say, it worked pretty well. We took the thin sheets and cut them into tagliatelle. I will confess that the first batch ventured into wider, pappardelle territory.
I could have used some truffle purée that we’ve got in the cupboard to go with the pasta. But there were a half-dozen zucchine/zucchini (see my screed about sex-changed food here) in the fridge, and if we didn’t use them soon, they’d go bad. Problem is, tagliatelle and sautéed zucchini aren’t a natural pairing. Plus, we had some cooked navy beans that had to be eaten soon.
So, never to pass up an opportunity to be decadent, I realized that I could concoct a zucchini cream, and the beans would love to come for the ride. I sautéed all of the squash, then added the navy beans. On the side, I put together a quick béchamel. Then I took the béchamel and about two-thirds of the zucchini/bean mixture and threw them in the blender. With some seasoning and a little nutmeg, we had a smooth, creamy, and decadent sauce to go with the fresh tagliatelle.
Need a recipe? You’re in the wrong place; this boy cooks by instinct. But okay, I’ll try. You don’t have to make the pasta; you can buy tagliatelle or fettuccine or even pappardelle. If you do want to make your own, you’ll need, for two servings, 2 cups of Italian “00” flour, or low-gluten cake flour, 2 extra large eggs plus a yolk, and a little pour of olive oil. Double the recipe for four people.
Make a well in the flour and crack your eggs and egg yolk. With a fork, work the flour and egg together. And pour a tablespoon of olive oil into it. Work the dough for about 10-15 minutes into a smooth ball. You can also throw it all into a food processor or mixer and let the machine do the work.
Then, using either a pasta rolling machine or a rolling pin, roll the dough in batches into this sheets. Bolognese grandmothers say they should be translucent; paper thin is what you’re aiming for. A “4” setting on your pasta machine should be enough. Then fold and, either using a sharp knife or a pizza cutter, cut into strips.
For the sauce: Dice 4 zucchine/I into 1/2 inch cubes. Sautéed with good olive oil and a pat of butter. I added two smashed but whole cloves of garlic and a splash of white wine. When the squash is almost cooked, add a can of navy beans, or a cup of beans that you’ve cooked.
On the side, make a cup of béchamel. Or avoid it by heating a cup of heavy cream; your choice. The usual formula is one tablespoon of butter, one of flour, and a cup of milk. Cook the flour in the melted butter, then add milk slowly, whisking all this time. Bring nearly to boil. Turn the heat off when it’s thickened and season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg if you like that.
Blend most of the squash/beans with the béchamel. Cook the pasta, add the zucchini cream, toss, serve. Drink lots of wine.
It’s Sunday night, and I am drinking a Bronx cocktail. Gotta support the outer boroughs, even if my support takes the form of getting slightly drunk. Really, what else is there to do?
I took a month off from writing. A big gig ended and a little one paused, so it was time to stop doing what I’d been doing for some 35 years. I kept thinking of stuff I wanted to write, but never did anything about it, and I left a couple of more political drafts for the blog incomplete. I have to say, it felt great not to have any work deadlines, and not to either edit someone else or deal with an editor’s comments.
So, it’s been more than a month since the last post. What’s happened? The curve in New York flattened, and this week in Italy, some of the restraints on gathering and movement begin to be phased out. It’s a gradual thing. You can visit relatives, but not friends. You have to wear a mask. Stores open in a couple of weeks, restaurants and bars in June. Maybe. Speriamo (let’s hope). And perhaps we’ll get to Italy eventually.
Meanwhile, here at HQ, we try to keep to some kind of semblance of normalcy. We can’t go lap swimming or acquasizing, so we bought a cheap exercise bike. We take walks, mostly early in the day so that we don’t run into too many people. Otherwise, we don’t go out. I draw—I treated myself to an Apple Pencil that works with my iPad. And now I know how rusty my guitar playing has gotten. I have to get those calluses back, pronto.
Like some of you, we’ve been cooking. The Spartan Woman and I have our own zones of expertise. She bakes, I don’t. She produces bread, this addictive muffin-y thing made from beans and oatmeal, and brownies. I am the risotto king of Staten Island, and besides my own repertoire, I’m really impressionable and cop ideas from others. For our Sunday afternoon dinner today, for example, I copied Lidia Bastianich after seeing her PBS show and put together a risotto of pears, Grana Padano (it’s like Parmigiano-Reggiano, but a little milder and from north of the Po River), and leeks. What do you think?
I’m too tired to write out a recipe, but do this. Peel, halve and grate the pear. Clean and chop the leeks. Proceed as normal with the risotto—I used vegetable stock and didn’t add saffron, because I thought that the pears and leeks would get lost. I added the pears halfway into the cooking, which takes about 25 minutes of stirring and adding hot stock. At the end, some butter and Grana Padano, and a swirl of balsamic glaze. If you don’t have that last ingredient, either skip it, or put some balsamic vinegar in a pan and reduce by half. But do it before you start on the risotto; risotto does not like to wait around. The leftovers, by the way, became terrific arancini, or rice balls, the next day.
We went to Sardegna (or Sardinia, if you insist) last night. Not physically, but with food and wine. Our neighbors in Umbria came from that island a few decades ago, so we figured if we can’t be around them, we can channel some Sardinian food. I made a seafood dish, fregola with clams. Fregola are toasted beads of pasta that look like pearl couscous, or acini di pepe pasta. But toasted. I made a loose tomato and herb clam stew, and cooked the fregola right in the clam broth. Some of The Spartan Woman’s homemade sourdough, a chilled bottle of Vermentino from Sardinia, and we had Saturday night dinner. To mix Italian regions, we watched some of the series Gomorrah on Netflix. If you haven’t seen it, put it on your list. It’s good; it’s a gritty drama about the Neapolitan Camorra crime cartel. The series is based on a book by the same name by the great and courageous writer Roberto Saviano. He’s under police guard as a reward for his efforts to uncover corruption in Italy.
Speaking of wine, where would we be without Honor Wines? I’m really trying to minimize in-person shopping, like everyone else. I could get online to one of the bigger liquor services, but Staten Island’s North Shore has become a sort of laid-back hipster heaven lately and I like to use local merchants. We have cool restaurants, brew pubs, breweries, and wine boutiques. Honor isn’t far from my neighborhood, and a friend of mine has been praising them for a few years. So I gave them a call, and it’s like calling on an understanding therapist. The first time was a little formal, with me asking “do you have…” and “how about something with more body?” This month I let Lorie pick for me, besides the wines I liked from the last batch. Here’s the result; I’ll report back soon, but she sent whites from Catalunya, the Languedoc and the Italian province of Friuli, which borders Slovenia. The Vermentino is the bomb, gotta say. It’s unusual. A touch salty, with some body, and it feels like a wine whose grapes hung out in the hot sun. Sorry–I reviewed restaurants for a decade and never mastered the wine writers’ vocabulary.
Otherwise, we’ve been doing what y’all are doing. I bother people with FaceTime sessions because I get tired of texting. We watch Andrew Cuomo every day—his updates have become our version of FDR’s fireside chats. My former ferry crew got together for a FaceTime cocktail hour, and The Spartan Woman’s side of the family got together for a virtual reunion.
For now, I’ll spare you my thoughts on The Thing, and how the U.S. has dealt with it.
During this lockdown, I have a couple of daily routines: walking the dachshund in Snug Harbor in the morning (maintaining social distance, of course), Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s briefing, and Staten Island Advance food writer Pamela Silvestri‘s morning Facebook video. Pamela speaks from her kitchen just up the street from us, and talks about grocery shopping, which stores have what and which ones have early morning shopping for old people, and what Staten Island’s restaurants are doing to survive. She’s full of good, local information, and for us shut-ins, it’s a lifeline—that’s her in the screenshot.
Pamela also grew up in the same neighborhood I did, so we have that bond. It was an interesting place, and almost everyone I know of a certain age went on to have an interesting, non-mainstream for SI life. I bumped into Pamela a couple of times recently (six feet or more apart, it almost goes without saying), and both times she’s put in a request. She wants me to write about Holly Street and our immediate ‘hood. Pamela’s childhood home was on this little curvy road that snaked up the hill that Holly Street crossed, but I’ll grant her honorary citizenship.
So, Pamela, here you go. I’ll try to remember some interesting bits without getting too encyclopedic.
My first memories of the street and our house were as a three-year-old. My parents bought the as-yet-unfinished house, and my dad drove us in the old Pontiac to the construction site. It may have been raining; it’s unclear. I remember being impressed by all the trees—I was a Brooklyn baby at this time—and I can picture the wooden skeleton of what was to be a small Cape Cod style home. It was surrounded by woods and the street was a narrow patchwork through the woods. There were some older houses, but I don’t remember them.
We moved into the house in March 1960; the sale price was $16,500. It was a rainy day; my nervous young parents, both 30 years old with two kids, loaded the car. My baby sister, three months old, had a car seat. I was piled onto the back seat with all the groceries. I probably whined a lot; I remember resenting having to sit surrounded by cans and bags and Ronzoni spaghetti and macaroni boxes.
The next day was sunny. I have a distinct memory of taking a stick and stirring what looked like smooth brown melted chocolate—there was no garden yet and the house was surrounded by clay-like mud. It was paradise.
I’ll go faster now. We became part of the place; grass and trees were planted; flowers and tomato plants bloomed. Holly Street was a big steep hill and probably because of that, seemed like a self-contained universe. We ran free as kids, with no supervision. We hiked through the woods, we had elaborate tag/hide and seek games, we rode our bikes everywhere. There was no traffic so we got good as scooting down hills at automotive speeds. My dad put a speedometer on my bike, and it was normal to go down the hill at 30 mph. No helmet. I survived.
Remember, this was in New York City. An outer borough, to be sure, and it shows how rural the island was back then, with about half its current population.
Right: My mom and Noodles the wonder dog out in front, 1970s
One of the things that made the block special, besides the geography, were its residents. I don’t know how typical it was of Staten Island or the city at the time, but there were lots of recent, postwar European immigrants. My dad, for one, from Palermo, Sicily, the year before I was born. Mr. and Mrs. Tait across the street hailed from Scotland. Marie Mastroianni two houses away came from Naples. Sultry, with huge eyes, she was our version of Sophia Loren. There was Mr. Young, our neighbor’s father from Ireland. He had a strong brogue and would chase us with a stick if we wandered into his yard. That’s all I remember of him (anything to add if you’re reading this, Barbara? ) All of this meant that what might have been exotic to others was normal to us. And you can throw any accent my way and I’ll understand what the person is saying. (It also gave my sister and me a good feel for mid-1960s European camp, and I got a ride in a fast BMW long before they became luxury SUVs for people who don’t know how to drive.)
A later entrant was Paul Guglielmetti, a builder. He constructed four houses on a huge plot that were shockingly modern at the time. He came from Lombardia in Italy, the region that’s been hardest hit by Covid-19, and in his own house dictated a strict aesthetic. No crystal anything. Straight lines, modern lighting fixtures. I remember lots of big circles. I liked to babysit for their kids because the house was fun to be in for a kid used to less of a, um, refined sense of design.
About that big plot: We got our first taste of 1960s environmental activism with that chunk of land. It was forest for the first few years that we lived there. There were paths through the woods that probably dated from pre-European days, when the locals called the island Aquehonga. We played in those woods and knew every tree, every twist in the path. There was an old derelict well and it was our meeting place when we played hide and seek.
Sometime in…1964? 1965? a builder bought the site and filed plans to build garden apartments. The neighborhood was shocked. Was it zoned for them? Back then, a builder could probably get away with it even if it was. Men of honor, you know? The grownups had frantic meetings. They managed to get a restraining order but it expired. Fierce men showed up in trucks. A bulldozer appeared. It was summer, I think, and our mothers gathered up the kids. We were instructed to go block the tractor. We ran down the street. Some of us threw rocks at the tractor. The guy threatened to call the cops. We spread out so he couldn’t move. Some of us, probably aping what we saw on TV news accounts of civil rights demonstrations, threw ourselves on the ground. “Now come on, kid, you don’t want to be arrested.” We were all between 7 and 10 years old. Someone threw a rock. They left, vowing to return.
They did, and destroyed the woods, mowing down every tree. We continued to harass the construction guys. They laid down some foundations before a final court order stopped them, but the damage was done. The land stayed that way for a few years, weeds growing everywhere until Paul G built his mini-Lombardia.
Back to the people (and thanks for sticking around if you’ve come this far). I’ve written about Joe across the street. His full name is Josef Irlinger, and he comes from Berchtesgaden in Bavaria. Joe has converted what was Mr. Murphy’s colonial house into a cozy piece of his native land. He’s retired and still lives there, and being retired means he’s had more time to turn the place into a great hangout. Joe kept up other European habits; every night at about dinner time, he made the rounds, visiting a bunch of families. For us, it usually meant offering Joe a glass of wine and maybe a taste of what we were having for dinner. We called him Seppe (everyone who visited our house was made an honorary Sicilian). If I’m driving near the old place I’ll drive down Holly Street, hoping to see Joe. (We have a VW, and he usually looks at the car and says, “I approve.”)
Back before the city paved the street, eliminating its patchwork quilt of asphalt and dirt, it barely bothered to plow it after a snowstorm. That meant sledding during the day for us kids (my dog would leap onto my back and ride down the hill but he never deigned to pull the sled up the street). At night, though, it turned into the Alps. Joe (left, with his wife Louise, or Luisa, as he calls her) would ski or pull out his toboggan; someone would distribute hot toddies. We’d be inside, sometimes in bed, listening to the chatter and laughter as these hard-working people finally got to enjoy themselves.
I’ll leave you with that. This has gone on long enough. I’ll scare up some more memories for another post, ok, Pamela?
First off, thanks everyone for getting in touch. I’m okay, even if I was in the COVID-19 infested Italy only three weeks ago as I write this. And I was even in the terrific city of Milan while in Italy, visiting colleagues and getting a dose of big-city life. It seems so long ago now. Because of my possible exposure to the virus, I’ve stayed home for the most part this month, doing so before it became the thing to do. Even when I was in Umbria I stayed home a lot because 1-it was winter and didn’t exactly encourage wandering and 2-it’s just a nice place to hang out in.
Number 2 is what I’ve been thinking about a lot. The European Union has closed its borders to non-EU citizens, and the U.S. State Department put out a notice discouraging Americans from going abroad. But hey, I’m an EU citizen, too, and a big part of me would rather be there than in New York. Nicer weather, for one thing.
But I’m not. And instead of views out to Monte Subasio, I’ve been looking at way too much TV. One of the things I’ve caught, besides the perpetual “reno” of HGTV, are reruns of Seinfeld. Remember that? The joke was that nothing ever really happened. They just talked and obsessed about themselves. People popped into Jerry’s apartment, they said funny things, and occasionally they went to the diner to say funny things. It’s just like us under this kind of house arrest. Only we don’t say much that’s funny and the local diner only does delivery now.
So, like millions around the world, on s’amuse, as Judy might say. We had a cocktail hour the other night. A virtual one, with my ferry posse. Back when I was a respectable citizen with a day job, I rode the Staten Island Ferry to work every day, usually taking either the 8:30 or 8:45 boat from St. George. A bunch of us met in roughly the same place nearly every day, breaking the peace of the unsuccessful silent zone. Our ringleader was John Ficarra, former editor of Mad magazine. Besides him, we had a recording engineer at an advertising shop (The Romantics’ “What I Like About You” is one of the songs he engineered), a lawyer, one of John’s editors, a video advertising guy, a couple of social workers, and an HR woman at a publishing company. That was the core, anyway—others dropped in and out as our work schedules changed.
Anyway, we’ve had a text chain going for awhile. Sometimes it’s a can-you-top-this of witticisms, but it’s a good way to stay in touch. Peter found out that you can take an Apple Messages multi-person text thread and convert it temporarily to a FaceTime video session. Since we all have iPhones—no Android bottom-dwellers among us—we could have a virtual cocktail hour, almost, but not quite as good as the in person one we have every few months.
Here’s the evidence. Props to Lenny for the most glam drink, a blood orange martini. Do this: squeeze a bunch of blood oranges. Combine the juice with vodka and a dash of limoncello. I want one now.
Today is particularly grim, being the first day of a stricter lockdown in New York, and a nasty day outside, rainy and cold, so no solitary outside exercise walk.
Italian doctors predict that people under lockdown will, at the end of it (should that ever happen), gain between 4 and. 8 kilos, or about 9 to 18 pounds. Lord knows we’re just as guilty as any. But first let me show you what we’re missing by being here. This is a photo of our Umbrian friend Angela, who’s just picked a huge bunch of wild asparagus in the hills outside her parents’ home:
We’ve been indulging in less wholesome food experiences. One type, and I know this will bother a couple of our friends, is to experiment with fake meat. We haven’t been eating meat for about 10 years now (though I confess that I stray when I’ve had a few glasses of wine or I’m at a friend’s house). It feels a little odd, to take some ingredients and torture them into something they’re not. The Spartan Woman has become pretty good at taking gluten, nutritious yeast, and jackfruit and turning them into a fair approximation of boneless pork ribs. Basically, she’s making seitan, whose use, according to Wikipedia, has been documented to the sixth century. Here’s the result:
Meanwhile, we’ve been looking at what modern technology has been up to. We’ve had Beyond Meat hamburgers, which are scarily like real hamburgers. You can also get “sausages” and the hamburger “meat” in bulk. Have nothing better to do for Sunday dinner, I decided to attempt what we call Giovanna’s roulé, an Umbrian meatloaf our dear departed Perugian mama used to cook for us when she was with us and we were staying with her. She’s take ground beef and sausage meat and make a dense round loaf, and braise it with onions, wine, and broth. I used the Beyond products, and came up with this:
It was good, but I’m wondering: Are these gateway drugs back to being carnivores?
[Image at the top: The Spartan Woman’s bread, baked just because she could]
[I wrote this a couple of days ago and it already seems dated. I thought I’d post it anyway to show how quickly events have overtaken us.]
I got home a couple of weeks ago, ending the popular series “500 hours of solitude (give or take).” My blogpost output in New York falls drastically, not because it’s a less interesting place, but because, I will admit, I lead a boring life here. Call it the uneventful life of the New York native who didn’t move to the city to live out some fantasy of a glamorous life.
So, first off, I’ll come out and say it. I’m a klutz. Call me butterfingers. Remember when people said that? I was reading something on my dear sweet iPad Air 2, a model that first saw the light of day in 2014, when I dropped it onto a hard tile floor. It wasn’t the first time that I’d dropped either a phone or iPad, but this time it was serious. At first things seemed to be ok, but then the screen turned into a series of gray stripes. Once the icons flashed and I thought, great, it’ll self-heal. But the was only a momentary letup in its slide to oblivion.
I’m also a geek, and when I’m here, I tend to obsess over stuff like computers, iPhones, TV streaming services and the like. I suppose it’s just another way to fill these boring days. Sure, I’ve had work to do, but I am a master of procrastination.
Okay, you say, why not go out and do something? Good question. Since I did return from the walled country of Italy, I’ve been trying to do the right thing and self-isolate as much as I can. Screening while traveling back was nonexistent other than being asked if I’d been to China. But I was in Milan for a couple of days, traveling back and forth from Perugia on crowded trains. So I figured I’d do the right thing and lay low. Plus, jet lag hit me hard and I’ve been semi-narcoleptic, waking up at 4 a.m. and needing a nap by lunchtime.
The Italy I left was about a month ahead of the U.S. in terms of Covid-19 craziness. Whole areas of the north were under lockdown and it was only days before all of the north, then all of the country was ordered to stay home just a few days after I got back to New York. It was all people talked about, and I was unnerved by how unaware people in New York seemed to be about what was going to unfold.
I almost wish I hadn’t left. As a journalist, you want to be where the action is, and a whole country of 60 million people basically staying home is definitely the kind of phenomenon you want to witness. Thanks to social media and everyone having a smartphone, though, it’s been easy to see what’s going on there. Italians have adapted with some sadness and, as you might expect, with a fair amount of style and humor.
Some of our friends are lucky enough to live in the country. Angela and Debora, for example, live across the Chiascio valley from us, in a hamlet of Valfabbrica called Poggio S. Dionisio. Their incredible off-the-grid new house abuts some woods, and Angela, who grew up surrounded by forest, is an expert forager. The first days of staying home found her wandering around to pick wild asparagus, which, after a warm winter, is now in season. Here’s one day’s harvest:
Others have taken refuge in books, cooking, drinking. They’re allowed to take walks, but have to maintain a 1 meter/1 yard distance from others. At first restaurants and bars (more like all-purpose cafés in the American context) were at first allowed to be open from 6 am to 6 pm, but they’re all shut down now. Italians can buy food and medicine, but there are rules. Angela tells me that at the local supermarket, only 1 person per family is allowed in, and there’s a limit of 25 people in the store at any one time. The writer Beppe Severgnini has a piece in The New York Times that describes things pretty well.
Did anyone notice that I’d changed what’s in parenthesis in the headline? I didn’t, only realizing the change when I scrolled through the blog. Both phrases say the same thing—give or take, versus, more or less—but the change was completely accidental. Hey, where’s my copyeditor?
Anyhow, so much for solitude. After a drive to another town, then Angelo driving me to Perugia, then a bus trip to Rome’s airport, then a 10 hour flight and 40 minutes to our house and a few hours’ sleep, I’m sitting across the table from The Spartan Woman with cappuccinos and her homemade bean-oatmeal muffins. [Update: I’m finishing this up a couple of days later, jet lag having temporarily eaten my brain,]
I didn’t see any signs of coronavirus worries until I hit Rome’s airport, where every now and then you’d see someone with a mask. When I got in line to check into my flight, an airline rep came up to me to ask me if I’d recently been to China; presumably if I’d said yes I would’ve been tested. I was preoccupied anyway, my periodic allergic cough having returned at a most inconvenient time. Luckily a visit to a pharmacist took care of that; he gave me this great cough suppressant in lozenge form, so I wasn’t hacking all the way to JFK.
The scare is already seriously changing how we live. American Airlines has cancelled flights to Milan, while Perugia’s terrific Journalism Festival has been cancelled. Also cancelled is Geneva’s auto show, one of Europe’s big industry get-togethers. In AA’s case, a flight from New York to Milan never took off because the flight crew refused to board the aircraft.
Back in Italy, at least for me, the last couple of days were such a whirlwind that it didn’t occur to me that I was alone most of the time. I realized at some point that our home insurance had expired, so a few WhatsApp exchanges led to my attacking the bancomat (ATM) in town and running off to our agent to pay in cash. Okay, so, cash, old-fashioned, right? Then the policy is called “Generali Sei a Casa Digital” (Generali–the company–you’re at home, digital). I had to sign a half dozen times on an iPad. Go figure.
Then I rushed home to change and take the organic Prosecco from the fridge to go over the hill to our friends Letizia and Ruurd for dinner. Letizia runs a cooking school, her specialty being updated Umbrian classics made with the best ingredients. The couple also run a bed and breakfast, the classes and inn both bearing the name Alla Madonna del Piatto. Both trained entomologists and former academics, they tossed it aside for life in the hills outside Assisi. In one way, it wasn’t a big stretch; Letizia grew up in nearby Perugia. Ruurd’s from the Netherlands and is a multi-talented guy; among other things, he took all the photos in Letizia’s cookbook Kitchen With a View. You should buy it.
It was an adventure getting to their place at night. Being a city boy, it’s taken me awhile to get used to driving around the Umbrian hills, especially when it’s dark. We native New Yorkers orient ourselves by buildings and by knowing where our islands end and the water begins. You can’t really get lost, plus, you know, streetlights. Letizia’s place is way up a winding road, and it took awhile to figure out how to get there with the car’s navigation. Now I can do it easily in the daytime. But at night, without those cues, not to mention streetlights, I had to keep checking my onboard map, which has been known to lead me through fields.
It was a terrific night, with a couple they know, Augustino and Rossella, who live not too far away in the countryside outside Foligno. We talked about food, families, where we live, ingredients, how to make polenta properly (there are actually pots with motors that stir the stuff for you), beer and the incredible dessert wine we were Letizia’s biscotti into—Passito di Sagrantino.
All good things end, and I woke up the next day at 8:30, late for me, with a whole bunch of things to do. Closing the house is more involved, plus I had to pick up a couple of things at the supermarket for friends. And, er, I wanted a bottle of that Sagrantino dessert wine. That night I had my final solitary bachelor’s dinner—farro spaghetti with fennel, spring onions, chili-spiked anchovies, and bread crumbs. Basically, it’s what was left in the fridge.
So…yes, I survived 23 days mostly alone. I spent far less time by myself than I thought I would. Living in Italy means that you have a lot of interactions with people—neighbors, shopkeepers, friends, barristas, etc. I’d get into conversations just walking up the road to get some exercise. We have neighbors up and down the road, and if they’re driving, they’ll usually stop to say hi. Then there’s that inter webs thing. I used FaceTime a lot, probably bothering The Spartan Woman, and we’d just go about our business chatting over an open connection. “Phone calls,” if you can call them that, are free with an Internet connection now.
We’ll be here for awhile. I just hope we can get there from here later this year…
It was Sunday afternoon into evening. I had some stuff to do in the city, including laundry, so I loaded the clothes in the car and off I went, beseeching my late father-in-law, the patron saint of parking, for a spot up the street. Joey came through, So I loaded the machine (it’s a combo washer-dryer, felicitously called a “lavasciuga” in Italian–say “la-va-SHOO-gah) and then decided to take a walk,
I was really hoping to do something bad, like have a drink or a hot chocolate, which here is more like downing a warm slightly more liquid dark chocolate mousse. But I didn’t, and maybe because I was distracted. The sky seemed a little more dramatic than usual. I snapped a shot to catch that, and went on my way.
I did the obligatory back and forth—su e giù in Italian—on the Corso Vannucci, watching some Carnival silliness. When I reached the end of the Corso, things were looking fine, as you can see below.
Soon it was time to walk back, maybe see some friends in the ‘hood. Now the sky went from interesting to wow, it that for real? I never saw the buildings turn quite that color, either. Usually they get golden, then sorta brown, then black.
And then, it was breathtaking—another favorite Italian word of mine: mozzafiato,
I wasn’t the only one who noticed. I looked around and people were stopping everywhere to take pictures, selfies, or just look around. It was one of those collective moments of appreciating beauty, on a late Sunday afternoon as a warm winter draws to the end.
P.S. I checked out Facebook when I got home, and it seems like everyone I know who’s on it posted a shot or talked about the sunset.