Act like you fit in

On my friend Mick’s first day of kindergarten, his father gave him some good advice: “Act like you fit in.” I guess even back then, his dad knew that Mick was an artist and a gentle sweet soul who’d have a rough time navigating a sometimes hostile world. Funny how his advice seems really valid now to us. I’m looking at boxes and stacks of books and a guitar case, thinking about how we’re finally close to reversing the moves made by my father and my mother’s parents decades ago to the United States.

The Spartan Woman and I were driving around the other day doing some errands, and we talking about people we know who’ve become expatriates in Italy. And in a way we felt a little, I don’t know, pleased with ourselves that we were raised in New York in immigrant families and communities. “If I had to pin down my nationality,” said TSW, “I’d say New Yorker.”

But that’s almost too easy. After being in Italy almost six months, and after two years of pandemic-driven isolation, we’re realizing that our New York doesn’t exist any more, except in pockets where recent immigrants live and work. Still, whether New York has morphed into something different, we’re still a different breed from Those People Out There and we’re proud of it. Growing up in New York makes you—us—citizens of the world. And that has prepared us for our little adventure in reverse immigration.

Here’s how. I’ve told you about Holly Street before, where I grew up. The street was populated by a mix of recent European immigrants (Italian, German, Irish, Scottish) and old-time Staten Islanders. The Spartan Woman has an immigrant past, too—all four grandparents were born elsewhere, her paternal grandparents from in and around Palermo, Sicily, and her maternal grandparents from Sparta in Greece. Combine that with the local dialect, where Yiddish syntax influences how we speak English, and you get a native New Yorker of a certain age. Our certain age.

And while the immigrants’ native lands change, it’s heartening to know that our kids had similar experiences. Their friends from childhood into adulthood either came from or are the first generation of people who came from Argentina, Slovakia, Chile, and the Caribbean. Oh, Italy too—it’s Italy’s lasting shame that each generation seemed to send some of their best people away.

I could bore you with an autobiography here—my high school, Brooklyn Tech (left), for example, was a hotbed of recent immigrant kids from around the world. But it’s enough to say that growing up around here meant we literally had the world at our feet. (Please let me be snarky here—these trustafarians that we saw colonizing Brooklyn pre-pandemic. Can they please go home now? Gentrification is bad enough, but do they have to turn this city into the suburbs they crawled out of?) I knew Polish, Dominican, Greek, Russian, Chinese, and Jamaican kids, among others.

But I won’t. Back to fitting in and if we do or not. When I think of a permanent or long-term move to Italy, I’m grateful for the good training I had for the jump across the pond. One side of my family was made up of recent immigrants who hadn’t yet been assimilated into America. And TSW grew up hearing Greek and eating the Greek-inflected food her mom cooked. We both were used to a tight family structure and traditions that carried over.

The result? We’ve had it easier than the classic expat with no Italian background or citizenship. But even for us, it’s not always smooth sailing to become integrated into a country where you didn’t grow up though. I may be fluent in the language and get most of the social norms, but I didn’t go to Italian schools. I didn’t serve in the Italian military, for which there was a draft when I was of draftable age. So I’m missing the backstory, as journalists like to put it. (The guy on the right—my dad—had the opposite experience. He went to Italian schools and served in the army, and moved to the U.S.)

Whatever. We made our choice, now we have to live with—through?—it. I don’t know if I’m trying to convince myself or not, but being here temporarily in my native city feels strange these days, as though those five months here and there made me miss some development and it’s impossible to catch up. I can’t wrap my head around $30 cocktails, bad espresso in expensive restaurants, and the crazy drivers in unstable trucks.

Plus, the pleasures of living in Italy are undeniable, especially if you’re semi-retired and don’t have to deal with actually going to a workplace. Cheap, delicious food, the aperitivo hour (happy hour on steroids), easy access to kilometers of breathtaking hiking trails, good friends. Okay the bureaucracy sucks, but tell me where it doesn’t.

Cheap drinks may not be enough to convince someone to move to Italy. But they make dealing with the bureaucracy less painful.

I just wish I could take with me my fast Internet connection, Flushing’s Asian food courts, and my daughter’s dachshund, which we raised from puppyhood while Liv was in school. Hope she’s not reading this in case I plan a dognapping…

Our pre-Thanksgiving country life in the big, big city

I could whine, but I won’t. I was driving to a Trader Joe’s one recent morning. It’s on the other side of Staten Island—just another boring day in New York’s outer boroughs, right? As I approached a traffic light, the light turned yellow, then red. A law abiding guy, I came to a stop. But in my rear view mirror, I saw that a Honda Accord was tailgating. Thankfully, the driver didn’t smash into my car, but he or she plainly objected to my stopping, so the car whipped around my car and charged through the light. Luckily, no one was coming through the intersection.

But I avoid most of that by not going out much, or at least not to that side of the island much. Instead, we’ve stuck to our neighborhood. Unlike whole swathes of this island and New York City in general, it’s just beautiful. We’re surrounded by parks and woods and, a little further away, the harbor and a historic fort. So we can take walks that resemble those sun-dappled pharmaceutical commercials.

Today we went for a hike. Being a little lazy and wanting to maximize the pup’s off leash (shhh!) time, we drove to Allison Pond down the hill. There’s a pond, no surprise. But behind it are acres of woods. The pond was named after the daughter of George A. Outerbridge, an engineer who owned the property and designed the Outerbridge Crossing that connects Staten Island with Perth Amboy, New Jersey. One of the many Staten Island oddities is the bridge’s name. Looking at a map you might think that the bridge is so named because it’s out there, near the southern tip of Staten Island and, really, New York State. But no. It was named after its designer, Outerbridge, and instead of calling it the Outerbridge Bridge they had to use the word “Crossing,” a word that about 10-15 years ago came into vogue in the names of shopping malls.

But I digress. Take a look at the gallery below. This is November, and the light on sunny days is beautiful and golden. It’s such a contrast to what I usually think of November, gross windy rainy days and the only outdoor colors seem to be black, brown, and gray.

Here and below, click on photos to enlarge.

YESTERDAY’S AFTERNOON WALK WAS slightly more urban. We took Lola to her usual morning place, the Snug Harbor Cultural Center. I’ve probably posted dozens of photos of the place to Instagram/Facebook and bored everyone I know. But the place is really special. And it’s where our neighborhood here began. Trader Robert Randall traded what became the area around Washington Square for acres of land on Staten Island’s north shore. He established a home for retired seamen on the land fronting the Kill Van Kull, the strait that separates Staten Island from Bayonne, New Jersey. He built a beautiful campus full of Greek Revival buildings, and the establishment was self-sufficient, with its own farm, livestock, chapel and cathedral, dormitories, and sadly, a cemetery. The land uphill of the home became Randall Manor in the 1920s—where we live in New York.

The old guys were shipped to South Carolina some decades ago, and hungry developers wanted the land for condos and the usual horrors visited on this island. But Jackie Kennedy Onassis, among others, campaigned to save the historic buildings and beautiful grounds.

Today, it’s a art center that boasts studios for artists, museum spaces, and a gorgeous botanical garden that includes one of the few Chinese scholar’s gardens in North America.The administration does what it can with a severely limited budget. A few years ago a visiting cousin from Switzerland was shocked at what she saw as neglect of a beautiful place. It’s better now, if not up to Swiss standards, and Greg, the botanical garden’s chief, does an incredible job of rotating plants through the year.

So most mornings we walk Lola through the grounds. We have dog friends, and so does Lola. The Harbor in general has a low-key hippie vibe that fits in perfectly with that part of the island, which boasts a historic district and scores of gracious 18th and 19th century homes. It’s been cold the past few mornings, so we’ve waited until the sun warms things up a bit. The reward has been this golden light that makes me look like a better photographer than I am.

A tale of two siblings

I’VE BEEN WATCHING A social science experiment unfold over the past few decades. Yeah, I’m old. But the subjects of this experiment were older and have recently passed away. I’m writing about my father, Nuccio (formal name Antonino) and his slightly older brother Ignazio. It’s heartbreaking that we lost these two wonderful souls in the space of just a couple of months, but it’s given me a chance to don my political scientist hat and reflect on the lives they led. [Post continues below the photo.]

Versione italiana, clicca qui.

Two bros, on the street where they grew up, Corso Calatafimi Palermo, 2003

FIRST, THE CVs. Ignazio, born October 1928 in Palermo, Sicily, and a resident until his recent death. He was a widower, married to a great woman named Elena Beghin, who came from Treviso in the Veneto, within bike riding distance of Venice. The other was my father, Nuccio, born March 1930, also in Palermo. He emigrated to the United States in 1955 and was also widowed, married to my mom, Angelina Ancona, born on the Lower East Side of New York City. Nuccio lived in Brooklyn, then Staten Island, and finally moved to Eastern Pennsylvania when he retired. Ignazio lived in the same neighborhood all his life, bar a stint in the Italian army.

The two brothers might as well have been twins. Looking at photos of them from the mid-’50s, Elena told me she couldn’t tell them apart. (I can; Ignazio had angled eyebrows while Nuccio were rounded.) Ignazio was studious and high-strung. Nuccio was a party animal, not so studious. As a boy, he was tasked with guiding his brother back to bed when he sleep-walied around their apartment . As a result, my father was always a light sleeper. Their voices were almost identical—Ignazio, who was an army radio operator, spoke passable English, making the voice resemblance even stronger.

The two brothers each had three children. You can almost say that we kids came in pairs. So, my cousin Giorgio and I are only a little more than a year apart. My sister and Giorgio’s sister Assunta were born the same year, as were my brother Chuck and our cousin Loredana. Both brothers worked in electronic factories, too, serving in various foreman/supervisory capacities. They made enough to support their families, and weren’t rich but never were hungry. Both families lived a middle-class existence.

I’ve established that these dudes were remarkably alike. So how were they different? Simple: Ignazio stayed in Italy, and Nuccio left. And it’s fascinating to see how that affected just about everything in their lives. I’ve been tracking these two over the decades, as first unconsciously, but in the past couple of decades I thought more methodically of their parallel lives as a sort of horse race. Who led a more comfortable, spiritually richer life? Was there a winner? Can you even call the race?

I’ll get to the verdict straight away. Ignazio started out in a more precarious place materially, but all things equal, he ended up ahead. And it’s entirely due to how the United States and Europe treated their populations over the year. In fact, I’ll go further and say that Nuccio was far ahead early on, but the lack of worker protections and a comprehensive healthcare scheme in the U.S. eroded his lead decades ago.

LET’S START AT THE BEGINNING of the race. Both brothers served in the Italian army in the 1950s, but my father was discharged in 1955. That will serve as our opening shot.

Nuccio married my American mother and moved to New York. I was born shortly after, and we lived at first in the same neighborhood my mother called home, Brooklyn’s East New York. My father first worked in a shoe factory, and then, happily for me, found a job at a small, family owned toymaker. After obtaining U.S. citizenship in 1960, we moved to a little Cape Cod house on Staten Island. My sister had come along by then. The house was what was called a starter home, with an unfinished basement and attic. My parents were constant home improvers. The attic became terrific big bedrooms for my sister and me Patios were built and expanded. A huge garden supplied a lot of our vegetables.

Nuccio in sunglasses, with his brothers-in-law and my maternal grandfather on the right, sometime in the 1950s

Materially, we weren’t deprived of anything. My mother was really good at controlling the budget and my father got a better job after the toy company. (I was proud of him, but at the same time hated that I wouldn’t be a test subject for the toymaker’s new products.) The used cars eventually gave way to new, bigger models. And our backyard kiddie pool turned into a bigger one that we could actually swim in, so our childhood summers were basically spent in water and outdoors in general. It was a good life, and my father, while working hard, was living a version of the American Dream throughout the 1960s, into the early and 1970s.

Meanwhile in Italy, Ignazio was still in the army and he and Elena were a number, They had a kid but kept it on the down low because he wanted to stay in the army; Palermo at that time wasn’t a good place for a young guy to find a good job, In fact, the early 1960s, once he hung up the uniform, was a time of writing letters to employers and friends of friends who might help him get a job. The young family lived with my grandparents, which was not an easy situation for my aunt, who was used to the personal freedoms enjoyed by young women up north. Finally, at some point Ignazio got a job at a factory run by the Italian state telephone monopoly, and the family moved to apartments of their own, not far from where the two brothers grew up,

The two brothers during the last time they saw each other in person, November 2003

At this point, for my American friends, I should describe apartment living in Italy, Most Italians don’t live in freestanding houses; they live in apartments in cities and towns. But the dwellings aren’t transient places where young adults live while they save up for a house in the ‘burbs. They tend to be bigger than most New York apartments, which multiple bedrooms, baths, and terraces. A lot of them have doormen and gardens. Italians tend to be more social in their daily lives in general, with outdoor bars and spaces frequented as an integral part of daily life. You can almost say it’s the Italian Dream, except Italians are too realistic to think of everyday life as a dream; they believe that they’re fully entitled to what they have.

So at this point, the brothers are evenly matched. But not for long. Ignazio’s wife worked for some years too as the kids got older. They had family living in the same apartment complex who could keep an eye on them. They bought their apartment when it went up for sale; they accrued a nest egg. Regular raises and a new national healthcare system solidified these gains. One of Ignazio’s kids went to the local university, which was free to attend, except for fees and living expenses. He got a degree. In Italy, homeowners don’t pay real estate taxes on their primary dwelling. In general, Ignazio and his family were part of the general rise in the standard of living for most Europeans. He retired with most of his pre-retirement income, and was able to help his kids out.

My uncle Ignazio and his wife Elena, Palermo, 2003

Meanwhile, Nuccio saw his wages stagnate, like a lot of American workers did. The new cars became nearly unaffordable. My sister and I did go to college, but we went to the city university because our parents couldn’t afford to send us away Nuccio actually was subjected to a salary cut while the family-owned company he worked for sold its Soho headquarters for millions; he was eventually forced out and retired on Social Security with a small nest egg. It was a humiliating end to a lifetime of work. My parents sold their house in Staten Island and moved to a much cheaper one in the Poconos. Still, they had to pay hefty real estate taxes, largely because of the decentralized way schools are funded in the U.S. Life for my parents was much more of a struggle than it was for his brother, in general.

My father and me during a FaceTime session last year

Ignazio was part of Italy’s highly rated national healthcare system. Nuccio and his wife got Medicare, which they had to supplement with Part B insurance. My father, dutiful as always, was left paying a huge hospital bill for my mother’s terminal stay,

Every now and then my father would express regrets that he left his homeland. His English was never great, and I think that, along with a general fear of new environments, held him back. He did tell me once, “Maybe I would’ve lived better over there. But I made my choice with you and your mother, and I did my best to make sure we had a good life.”

You can make your own judgment about this tale of two siblings. There are lots of variables, and the big one is how being an immigrant in the U.S. shapes the life you lead. But I also believe that it says a lot, and nothing great, about how a guy who worked hard all his life and did all the right things, found himself in much worse shape as he got older. He had to leave the home he raised his family in, and ended up living in a much harsher environment just to make ends meet.

A Seinfeld kind of life

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]

This winter I went swimming

(with apologies to Loudon Wainwright III)

This winter I went swimming 
This winter I wouldn’t have drowned 
I held my breath and I kicked my feet 
And I moved my arms around
I moved my arms around

We’ve been back in New York for a few months, which has been bad for the waistline. And so it was time to get back into some kind of shape. The holiday season was blissfully over. No more béchamel, truffles, cocktails, cookies, pies, wine, more cocktails, more wine. No more avoiding the pool because, you know, I had things to do—like visiting a friend on the Upper West Side for cocktails and seeing friends who were holed up in a Times Square hotel for, you guessed it, cocktails.

I’ve had a YMCA membership before Kid no. 1 was born, some 35 years ago. I used to hit the pool at 9:30 pm every weeknight. I was in my twenties and super fast. The pool, in fact, was filled with people who were super duper extra fast, all young like me. We’d goad each other to go faster. I learned how to do flip turns. “You should make it snap more,” one of my partners counseled. I did. I kept it up for years, which was relatively easy to do when you’re young and didn’t have to get to the office until 10 or so. And as the kids grew up, I started going less and less, in spurts more than a steady routine.

I love the water. Unlike the experience of some friends of mine, for whom swimming was a structured, oppressive series of lessons in an indoor pool, swimming for me always meant freedom and escape. I learned to swim at the beach. My father was a really strong swimmer, and when I was only four or five, he’d sit me on the beach and tell me not to move. Then he’d swim way out, waving to me and calling me. Then it was my turn. I learned by riding the waves, and soon being buoyant was as natural as breathing.

Later, we had a backyard pool and my siblings and our friends spent most of our summers in it. We played elaborate hide and seek games that involved swimming stealthily underwater to evade who was “it.” In high school, I took swimming instead of gym a couple of times. Mostly it was to avoid the Marine drill-sergeant gym teachers and the stupid militaristic calisthenics. But it soon turned into a soothing respite from Brooklyn Tech classes. Most of the class (gym classes were single-gender) would play pool volleyball unless the swimming coach decided to actually teach a lesson. But I was nearsighted and hated games like that. And I realized that I could just be a loner, and float around the deep end. I’d make sure to get high before class and spend a very pleasant hour mostly underwater pretending to fly.

As a college kid, I’d go upstate with friends to explore swimming holes. We’d jump from cliffs into ice-cold pools of water. One drop was about 35 feet and, well, you can’t slow down once you step off the ledge. Didn’t stop us though. Those beautiful swimming holes—I barely remember where they were—were a great foil to a series of boring summer jobs.

So it was back to the Y pool this month. Only now, not having a regular office job means I can go to the 11 am lap swimming session, where I’m actually one of the younger people in the pool.

I’m sometimes alone in the lane, which is great. But more often than not, I split the lane with Chris, a retired fire captain about my age. Chris is tall and lanky, and he gets to the deep end with what seems like five strokes. He’s just so quick and quiet about it. He told me he was a high school swimmer and has been swimming in the Y pool since he was three years old.

I was inclined to hate Chris. Early on, I heard him talking with someone about how Trump was driving liberals crazy. They were giggling like little boys who snuck a frog into a girl’s lunchbox. I avoided talking to him or even really acknowledging his presence. Eventually, though, we got to talking, starting with the usual “want to split the lane?” question. And I found out that he’s a curious and smart guy and somewhat of an amateur historian. We still avoid politics, and that’s okay. Can you say “cognitive dissonance”?

Going back and forth in an indoor water tank does get tired, but I do things to make it interesting. The Spartan Woman gave me an Apple Watch a couple of years ago and I can wear it in the pool. It’s got a workout tracker for swimming in a pool, so I’m always tracking how much I swim in how many minutes. My baseline distance is 1,000 meters; I figure that that’s pretty good for an old guy. If I can do it in a half hour, so much the better. Besides, with the watch, I don’t have to count laps, which always tripped me up. I always lost count before.

It’s pretty amazing what swimming a few times a week will do. I have muscles again; they seemed to go into hiding once the summer swimming season ended. I’m incredibly relaxed post-swim, especially if I spend some time in the sauna afterward. And it gives me an excuse to get out of this little prison of a home office.

I can’t wait for the summer.

Somehow I forgot to write a single word

Okay, I lied. I’ve just been too busy to write here. Besides, life wasn’t all that interesting. Wake up. Walk the dog. Have breakfast. Work. Watch MSNBC because The Spartan Woman is an addict (I’m trying to cure her of this habit, or at least limit it to an hour a day, since they just keep repeating the same thing all day, just with different people).

Walking the dog ain’t bad—the Snug Harbor women and their dogs (all female, too).

We’re up on the mountaintop in Umbria for awhile now, and we had to open the house and get things going again in general. Plus, cobwebs. So I’m going to just update with some random stuff.

First, the Empire Outlets on Staten Island. You may remember my rant about the Wheel of Misfortune, er, The New York Wheel. Well, what a surprise, the Wheel is dead, its part gone to auction, a detritus of lawsuits in its wake, and the Empire Outlets. The thinking was that tourists would finally have a reason to get off the Staten Island Ferry, head for a $30 ride on the wheel, and then go shopping. European tourists, in particular, see clothing and tech stores here as an insane bargain, since the Euro is trading at about $1.12 and Euro sales tax can be 20 percent or more.

If you build it, will they come?

Italians, in particular, go nuts for stores like Abercrombie and Old Navy, hence, the outlet mall. Of course, being on Staten Island, you gotta wonder, since the mall lost its main draw, the Wheel. We’ve watched the construction of the mall with a combination of amusement and horror. The part that faces the street looks like some weird robotic contraption, while the public spaces—outdoor—aren’t too bad. There’s a big underground parking lot for Staten Islanders to drive in and, this is important, NOT HAVE TO STEP FOOT ONTO THE STREETS OF THE DREADED NORTH SHORE. That’s where diversity lives, not to mention that’s where the Wu Tang Clan burst out of Shaolin (aka Staten Island).

Not quite ready for prime time.

Next up: Memorial Day. We spent it with the kids and our friend Marsha. And we grilled Beyond Meat burgers, which are scarily like chop meat. Not having eaten much meat for most of a decade, it definitely felt a little strange. Not that it stopped us.

So real. Surreal.

Then off to Umbria. We shop around for airfares, not having any particular loyalty to one airline. The Spartan Woman is long limbed and so insists on flying premium economy, and we’ve had decent experiences. The roster so far: Alitalia, Norwegian, Iberia, and Lufthansa. Do not take Norwegian. Premium on the 787 “Dreamliner” is fine, if you manage to fly on one. But Norwegian’s flights are invariably late and they love to cancel flights. Plus, the engines on those planes had problems, so they’ve pulled some out of service and have used chartered, old, disgusting, do not do this, aircraft. The other three are fine. Alitalia’s Premium is pretty cosseting, Iberia cheerful and fun, Lufthansa kind and generous when it comes to drinks and food.

The friendly skies of Lufthansa

So here we are. The two of us speak a weird mix of Italian and English to each other, and have done fun stuff like taking the car for an oil change and getting the brush cleared. We take walks, watch Turkish shows on Netflix, and take walks. Did I mention that we take walks? I work, too, in a cool office with a view of the mountains. Non c’è male…(not too shabby)

Polish dulce de leche and a serendipitous wedding

I haven’t written much since we’ve been back in New York—and I haven’t posted what I wrote. Too busy with the usual stuff, work and (ugh) taxes. Truth is, it’s been kind of dull, except for good things like seeing the kids and having the dog around.

But this past week was different. Nope, not talking about the Mueller report. This is about me, remember?

First up: The Spartan Woman had to go to a teacher’s union meeting near Wall Street. She’s retired, but they keep the alums in the fold. I tagged along, having nothing better to do and wanting to get out of the house. I used to work in the neighborhood, so I have my favorite walks. One of them took me to Eataly, where I used to enjoy a mid-afternoon espresso with one of my deputies most days. It may be a semi-pretentious temple of Italian gastronomy, but they actually make good coffee there and it’s not ridiculously priced. Then I walked through the Oculus, which I love in spite of the $4 billion price tag. The passageway under West Street took me nearly out to the river, where I started to head downtown along the Battery Park Promenade. The harbor’s my thing. After living on a mountaintop, the crush of people on the street is a bit much.

One of the few places to get a decent espresso in the city.

So I walk, and I see a tent. There’s a party going on, apparently thrown by the I Love Poland Yacht. People have gathered, but it’s not a huge crowd. “Help yourself to the buffet,” someone told me. I was tempted, but I wasn’t into sausages, sausages and huge balls of stuffed cabbage. But the drinks stand called me. “Some vodka or beer?” Yes, please, the vodka being herb flavored and delicious over ice. A young woman was walking around with a tray, while kids were getting helium-filled balloons. “This is a traditional Polish pastry,” the woman said. “It’s filled with something like dulce de leche.” Thus fortified, I continued my walk and saw views like this:

New Yorkers sometimes forget that they live on a beautiful harbor.

The next day, we walked the Avenue. We live a few houses up from Forest Avenue, the neighborhood’s commercial strip. A few months ago, I walked up and down it with one of the kids, who, looking around, said something like “When did this go all Brooklyn on you?” It’s true–we always had bars, but now we’ve got cafés, cool restaurants, including my favorite local Syrian place, hipster barbers, a bakery that has a gelato stand when it gets warm…you get the idea. We stopped in for breakfast at the On Your Mark Café, a breakfast and lunch place that employs people with special needs. The servers are super-attentive and food’s decent. I’m not a breakfast person but I couldn’t resist the chocolate chip pancakes, made with chocolates the organization makes next door in its chocolatier.

Chocolate, the breakfast of champions

The best adventure, though, was on Friday. I was heading into Manhattan to have lunch with an old friend who was in town the same time I was. We’d been missing each other for the past couple of years when it came to being in New York at the same time. The bus to the ferry was slow and I started to hustle to get the 11:30, just to have a little walking around time in Union Square. But another friend, Joan, intercepted me. “Want to see a wedding on the boat?” she asked. What? Her son was going to tie the knot on the next boat. I guessed that that explained the young woman running around the terminal in a wedding gown. We went over where the other guests were hanging out; I saw another old friend and a former co-worker from 20 years ago.

Making a vow or two.
Meet Gary and Joan, parents of the groom

We boarded, went downstairs and, yeah, this was an official wedding, with a bridal party decked out (and sporting similar retro sneakers). The officiant gave a little speech, saying he didn’t have many profound things to say, but that we were all gathered there because of love. “And that’s a good thing, right?” Right.


My hometown

I caught up with Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway show on Netflix the other day. It must have been a great experience to be in the theater with him. But it wasn’t too bad on the flatscreen. I was pretty amazed with the whole thing, especially his stamina and the details he remembers about his childhood.

That brings me around to the headline of this post, and it’s the title of one of Springsteen’s songs. He manages to imbue Freehold, New Jersey, with a mythical status. The Catholic Church and school, the Ford factory, the bars, his father, working men in general. I started to wonder why so much of my childhood is a blur. “He’s a poet,” said The Spartan Woman. He can mythologize his memories. Of course, in my mind, it came back to me, me, me. Am I just insensitive by not thinking too much about where I came from? Brain damaged by some of my old habits? Was it all just too long ago? Wait, Bruce is older than I…

I think part of the difference, apart from the obvious disparity in artistic ability, is that Springsteen came from a small town that was pretty well self-contained. I may have grown up on a hill on Staten Island, but our neighborhood was always part of a bigger whole: the island in particular, and New York City in general. So we, or at least I, didn’t have that sense of local-ness. Sure, we had our candy store and deli and bars, and there were places we kids went in the woods, at first for innocent play, and later for not-so-innocent partying, but we always knew that we were part of a really big place and that it didn’t just belong to us. Or at least it seemed when I first compared my memory to Springsteen’s.

Then again, Springsteen early on in his show says he made it all up. It’s his magic trick. And while he exaggerates, there’s some truth to his perceptions.

In any event, it got me thinking about the peculiar place I grew up in. It’s gotten a bad rap, often unfairly. Sure, there are jerks like the cast in MTV’s Jersey Shore and a lot of it is a badly developed wasteland of high ranches and strip shopping centers and bad Italian-American restaurants. But it’s also where the first tennis games were played in the U.S., where prohibitionists established a colony where they could be uplifted by concerts and lectures. It’s where the Catholic Worker Dorothy Day chose to live out her last days, and where Hair composer Galt McDermott lived and brought up his family–right in my neighborhood, in fact.

So I’m trying to remember details, if and why it’s a special place. I’m not going to get into a sweeping mythology like Springsteen does, but my Staten Island friends and relatives will probably agree that it’s quirky and molds its inhabitants—at least those with half a brain and some ambition—in certain ways.

Now, some geography, which shapes a place’s destiny: Compared to the rest of the city, Staten Island’s got a certain natural beauty that’s lacking in much of the city, from the Lower East Side to the high-rise sprawl of Queens. We’ve got hills, a whole chain of them from the northeast tip throughout the central spine. The master builder (and destroyer) Robert Moses met his end on Staten Island. The man who rammed destructive highways through outer borough neighborhoods didn’t do his due diligence: He drew a highway straight through miles of woodland and, coincidentally, one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. That neighborhood, Todt Hill, rose up, enlisted celebrity aid, and put an end to his fevered highway dreams.

The hills are one thing; the other big feature is, for want of a better term, its island-ness. There’s a certain sense of isolation, of self-containment. (Like Freehold? Hmm…) Island dwellers around the world feel it. You know in a way that you can’t get lost. Go long enough in one direction and you’ll hit a natural barrier—the water. It’s what makes Manhattan Manhattan, too. Look across a crosstown street and you see where the land ends and the Hudson or East Rivers flow. You know you’ve got limits. When I first started to drive around in Umbria, I was disoriented because I could go for hours in one direction and not hit the water. I had to learn how to tell where I was by looking at the mountains and hills.

Staten Island is defined by its island-ness.

On the micro level, I grew up on one of those hills. Staten Island, like everywhere around it, was originally made up of small towns. Our was Dongan Hills, now grandly called Dongan Hills Colony, to distinguish the hilly part of town from the plebeian lowlands. Back in my childhood, though, it wasn’t full of McMansions, it was a place with some old colonial-type houses, the odd farmhouse, and a bunch of new houses that gradually took over from the thick woods. And those woods were where we kids spent most of our time outside. We knew every footpath, probably dating from the Native Americans who lived there hundreds of years ago. We’d just go hiking, or play hide and seek, or imagine we were partisans in the hills resisting invaders.

Meet Joe. He’d love to have a beer with you.

Back on the street, it was a hill full of recent European immigrants, from Italy, Ireland, Germany, and Scotland. We got used to hearing people with accents—my own father spoke, and still speaks with an Italian accent and often wonderfully fractured syntax. They brought their habits across the ocean with them. The guy across the street, a big man named Josef, was a devoted practitioner of the European aperitif hour. At about 6 every evening, he made the rounds, checking into his friends’ and neighbors’ houses, accepting a drink, or a bite. We saw it as totally normal that Joe would drop by. Later on when I was a teenager coming home from some revelry, he returned the favor. He’d be sitting on his screened in front porch late in the evening, with a cooler full of beer. “Anthony,” I’d hear, “come over for a nightcap.” He’d offer me a weiss bier, something light he’d say, and we’d sit around and talk about…I don’t know, honestly. It didn’t matter; it was always a grace note to a night of fun.

And then, my parents’ house. It’s funny to hear how my cousins remember it. To us, it was just where we lived. But my parents were the young ones in my mother’s extended family, and we were, relatively speaking, the hipsters. While my aunts and uncles strictly oversaw their kids’ interests and habits, we were like wild animals, free to do what we wanted to do. My poor cousin Noel had to play the accordion; I got a guitar and Beatles sheet music. My parents had a New Year’s Eve open house and invited everyone they knew. It was a big raucous party spread throughout the house, with people dancing downstairs to Motown on my sister’s dance floor (my father built it for her, complete with barres along two sides). After midnight, my father would channel his father and fry up sfingi, or what Neapolitans call zeppole–fried dough to soak up the night’s alcoholic overindulgence. When I turned 16, my parents gave me what would probably get them arrested now, a pizza and beer blast, complete with a keg. They invited all my friends and our extended family. (They also gave me a gold watch, which I soon lost. Nice things are mostly a lost cause for me.)

So, was how we lived a product of the geography that surrounded us? I think so. We liked to think of ourselves as special, or at least different. And the hills and self-containment of the island back that supported that feeling. Maybe it was just that back then, a few decades back, people were just more interesting, and not mere manipulators of what’s on the screen in front of them. We had to move around in the space we were in, or we’d die of boredom. Or, I like to think, we had more of an opportunity to wander and to dream, and to imagine the kind of person we’d like to be and the life we wanted to live. And the surroundings, as well as the tolerance shown by parents and other figures of authority, let us do just that without much interference.

Hey, maybe we’ve all got an interesting life story to tell, if only we stopped to think about it. Whatdya think, Bruce?