Category Archives: Memories of Childhood and Life

The Show

Last January 6th, The Feast of the Magi, which is also known as Epiphany or Little Christmas, my wife and I are guests of some people in Coventry, Rhode Island who get together each year to celebrate the Feast Day, and the end of the Christmas season.

Little Christmas is the name we gave it when I was a kid growing up in Kingsbridge, a part of The Bronx, the only place I know aside from The British Isles which is distinguished by the definite article in its name.  I used to think Kingsbridge was a place filled with Catholics, Irish, Italians, a German or two and, even, maybe, someone not from one of those places.  I loved it for a lot of things, and remember them all.  But, my favorite memories were the smells from all the different kitchens, big ones, little ones, all kinds, ; which, I long believed, were all Catholic kitchens.  Because, even though St. John’s, which was the church and school I went to, was right next door to a Protestant Church, I never ever saw anyone enter or leave that place.  You are looking for a church to go to on a clear Sunday morning in Kingsbridge Fifty, sixty or so years ago, and you ask me or any of the guys I grew up with, and your will hear us all say, “St. John’s.” No one I knew knew of any others. Until I am about 14 I think the only kind of people there are are Catholics, and the only kind of food, no matter from where, is “Catholic” food.

Anyway, at the little thing in Coventry, a lovely name for a place, there were all kinds of folks.  We got there early because we came down from Nashua, and grabbed a hotel room nearby, so we could stay a bit longer than a half hour before having to drive home in a snowstorm.

Our host and hostess are really nice people.  She has her picture next to the word “homemaker” in the dictionary, even though she has a bunch of letters after her name, so the place was filled with lovely decorations in every room, more lights than Rockefeller Center and the smell of good old fashioned homemade, tried and true stuff wafting through the house from the kitchen and making me hungrier than a whale after a two thousand mile migration swim.

Thus it was that after the greetings and smiles and stuff, I grab a plate of good old food, pausing to let my nose enjoy itself, and wander into the room where the guys are sitting.  An old Jimmy Cagney movie, one with George Raft looking like he had his hair painted on, was playing background noise…more or less…for the conversation going on; a conversation about baseball.

We were at this place last year, so I probably sit in the same spot  where I sit now and listen to the baseball conversation; which conversation is probably the same one  as last year’s was I began to think.

I am not at all complaining, because I find such conversations fascinating; conversations which I have listened to and sometimes taken part in in places from The Kingsbridge Tavern and Toolan’s  in Marble Hill, to a place in Singapore called Raffle’s where I spent a few nights talking baseball with some cops from Australia a thousand years ago.  They are probably all the same, generally, guys talking about players and teams, averages and plays, managers and pitchers, and balls and strikes.  There’s a lot more of course, but that would fill a book.  And has.

I sat and listened for about a half hour, talking a bit with one of the wives who wandered in and probably felt like she was on Mars.  With her I do not talk about baseball,  because, frankly, I am a little afraid I might not measure up.  There are guys sitting beside me and standing around who can probably tell you the hand span of every manor league pitcher from 1898 until yesterday. My only claim to baseball history is I grew up in The City when Micky, Duke and Willy played there, and I saw Ted at bat.  What he did and when he did it, though is lost in King Solomon’s mind.

I forget what I talk to the nice lady about, but she tells me she remembers me from the year before, and I am scared, because I draw a blank, like one of those old maps filled with empty spaces and bad guesses. I practice smiling, and punctuating her conversation with eyebrow raises and smiles and “Uh, huhs” and big nods while she talks about stuff.  I get comfortable when she talks about the stuff on her plate, and what she likes about the spread.

Then she leaves and I go to the kitchen to fill my plate again.  The kitchen is a place I like.  It’s full of food.  I cook, and can ask food questions; things I know about, like herbs, and spices and sauces and stuff. There’s one or two guys there mining this or that dish and I go over to them to talk the”game”.  But, they know about what’s in front of them about as much as I know about pitching, or stealing a base.  They can use a serving spoon though.

The hostess is there too, making sure no one lacks for anything, and she gives me a short tour of the “field”.  I am happy for this, and try to ask a few questions about the things I see and how they got to be what they are.  She is happy to answer, and for a few minutes we go on about ingredients, and what was handed down from who, and  timing and staging.  I feel like myself again, warming to the topic.  But, then, the front door opens and another family tumbles in.  the Woman of the House goes off to welcome them. I am alone among the pots and bowls and dishes; alone but for those two guys from the other room, now talking batting averages.  They don’t even know I am there.

I look deep into the big bowl of mulled cider and see a darker mulled me looking back.  Then I nod and wander out.  You know, I think to myself as I wander into the parlor, which is nearly empty, and survey the Christmas Village spread across the top of the piano, I would love to have been a chef in a big deal place.  I look down at the little town and remember those times I fed a crowd; when I made it to The Show.

There were a couple of times like when we had about a hundred over for burgers, dogs and games at the Upper Biscayne Clubhouse.  They were great fun.  But I remember, back in the ’80s, when I cooked a meal for a couple of hundred people a couple of times.  It was a Seder celebration back when bunches of Catholics were getting in touch with their Jewish roots.  I am on the Parish Council then, and since I have such fun doing a couple of big deals at the house, I think it would be even more fun to throw open the doors at the parish.

I make a connection with the banquet manager at the Park Plaza in Boston, and he introduces me to the Executive Chef.  It is a highlight of my life when I meet him, and I regret I did not get his John Henry on a hambone or something.  What I do get is twelve boned legs of lamb that look like beach balls, and the fixins’.  All of this is gratis when I tell my friend upstairs in his banquet office it is for a church dinner.

It is from a top shelf hotel, so it is all top shelf stuff!  I do not think to ask him for the china, silver and glassware but I wonder what would have happened.  I mean they probably have freight cars full of that stuff.  On the way home, back to the parish with a trunk full of the goods I feel sorry for it because it’s going on plastic.

The first thing I find out is that we never cook all of that stuff in the one chicken oven at the Parish.  We need something on the order of a Bessemer furnace.  God rest her soul, my friend Barbara Keegan, who should have been, could have been, a D.I. at Quantico, orders up the kitchen at Bishop Guertin High school, and we are good to go.

The day, when it comes, goes off without a hitch; well without too many of them.  Barbra, now straightening out heaven’s kitchens, is on the lamb.  I am up at the parish polishing the plastic, setting the tables, preparing.  When the time comes I drive down there and remove six legs, place them in the back of the car and deliver them, like six pizzas, to the gathering wandering Israelites.

It is not too shabby, if memory serves.  Some folks even eat the bitter herbs.

But, I find out one thing.  Ham is a big deal in New England for Easter dinner.  There are quite a lot of folks who never eat Lamb.  This I cannot figure in a religion whose Savior is referred to as The Lamb of God.

My apple pie disappears, though.   And the Charoset which I make at home the night before.  I keep two of the beach balls and give four away.  Easter dinner is  big deal at our house that year.

I try the same thing once more, but, fewer people show up.  The next year someone suggests ham, or even turkey.

And, I ask to be traded.

The photo above is of my grandson, Joe, getting ready to steal second.  He’s twenty-one, soon, and a damned good cook.











Kevin In The Morning

The voice on the other end of the line is deep and has a thick very authentic Brooklyn, New York accent.   “Hi, Kevin, ” I say.  and he booms back in his inimitable fashion, “Pete!  How Ya doing?”

How long has it been?  Five years? Ten years?  More?  I am not sure.  But, really, no time has passed.  We are together by phone, and nothing has separated us.  He mentions the time we arrested John Yancy, a black dope peddler, in Harlem one cool evening, and he carried him down several flights of stairs, dumping him in the back of the car, and, as an ominous crowd gathers, urges me to “Get the hell outta here!”  That was back in the late ’60’s when cops were getting shot not too far away, and two white guys “kidnapping” one black guy did not look like something which should be done without a battalion of black clad troops and a few tanks.  But, what did we know?

I remember the sunny afternoon on First Avenue when he clotheslined some guy running away from us and I, chasing him, stepped on his head just as he hit the ground.  Someone else scooped him from the street, threw him into the car just pulling up, and we all piled in on top, driving off while the well dressed folks stopped and gaped, trying to figure out what had just happened to their world. It took about ten seconds, after we’d been watching and waiting for about two hours.

Today, they’d have roped off Midtown and evacuated all the people.  helicopters would be all over the place, sirens day and night, searchlights, stun grenades, smoke bombs.  After a day or so the guy would give up, and MSNBC would break down the set and go off somewhere else for continuous coverage of another disaster, catastrophe, chariot race or what all.

What did we know?

“Where are you?  What are you doing, now,” I ask.  He’s down in Georgia, Brunswick, GA, to be exact, the only Catholic surrounded by Baptists for miles around.  “I gotta be careful on Sunday, Pete,” he says.  “I gotta be careful going out to mow the lawn and have a beer.  All them eyes on me.”  I give him the name of another fellow, another Irishman, another Catholic who has to be careful in the same way down there, and tell him to get in touch.  This guy is from Indiana, a Bobby Knight fan, an old prosecutor.  They’ll get along I say to myself.

This guy got his picture on the cover of some magazine years ago after he made a big deal case.  His boss was on the cover, too, which is strange because his boss didn’t think the case was the right kind of thing to spend time on.  Matter of fact, no one but him and one lone guy in the IRS wanted the case made.  Until it was made.  Then the defendant pays a $500,000.00 fine from their petty change account, and walks out the door.  See what I mean?

What did he know?

Then Kevin says something serious to me.  “I was working for the Children’s Court, Pete.  The judge down here was an ex-FBI agent.  I couldn’t take it anymore.  All these kids coming in raped by their uncles, their older brothers, and nobody’s doing a damn thing about it.  You know?,”   He says, “I wanted to grab a few of them and give them a beating.  I had to leave.  There was one girl who kept having kids, one a year.  She gives them up for foster care, but makes a living out of the money she gets when she’s pregnant.  And, no one does a thing about it.  Don’t talk to me about foster care, either.  That’s a racket, and no one cares.”  As he talks I’m thinking about another guy I used to know in one of the sheriff’s offices up here in Cow Hampshire, from some place like Alabama originally; another good guy.

The first time I meet him is in this big office in the new county courthouse, not too far from the county jail, and he’s surrounded by boxes and boxes of smut; evidence in a case against a guy who…; well I’ll leave all that alone. He tells me that his office sees this kind of stuff more than anything else.  He’s sick of it and wishes he could get lost in a nice murder case, or some boat owner smuggling dope in from a mother ship off the coast.  But, there’s only one other detective in the whole department.

Back in the present, I’m listening to Kevin going on about life down South; about him and his wife Judy, and his little dog; about how he goes for walks along the beach, and talks to the folks he meets, and nets shrimp from the shore.  “Pete, they’re the biggest juiciest shrimp you ever ate!  They’re great!”, he rumbles.

I’m smiling as he says goodbye, and we promise to call and stay in touch, and love each other forever.  I have a picture in my mind of Kevin about forty years ago in the middle of some street in Brooklyn where we spent four days and nights back then waiting for a shipment of heroin from Spain to leave the dock so we could follow it and arrest the rats who smuggled the stuff here.  There’s Kevin in the morning.  It’s early, and it’s cool and the sun is bright, the sky is blue and clear.  He has a football in his big hand, and the rest of us are down the street.

What did we know?

The State of the Nation II

You may remember a picture I posted here about a year and a half ago, an old shack in the snow, a tattered flag in front and my caption about the place still being open for business.

A lot has gone on since then, some of it good, but a lot more not so good if you ask me.

We have a well spoken ditherer in charge of the store, slim, deep voiced and pensive to a fault; calm to the point of somnolence, nearly on the cowardly side of  recollected response to problems, and timid where boldness is required. It might be expected that someone who spent much of his professional life as an “organizer”, who had hope and change as his strong horses, would be able to do more than, in response to his own cry that “Yes, we can!”, wave weakly and say, “A moment, please, while I give this some more thought.”; or, “It is, after all, our own fault.”

And so, it seems to me again, that what business we may do within the neighborhood is being taken from us, or we are letting it go to the friendly and not so friendly competition, while many of our customers drift away, and our suppliers cheat us of goods needed to keep body and soul (a much disputed concept in itself) together or abuse our trust and bring ruin on places of beauty through carelessness, incompetence or laziness .

In that vein I offer you this photographic metaphor of the State of the Nation, a building which stands alongside a road in the close to failed State of California near the headwaters of the Sacramento River; the Golden State you may recall.

I was not near enough to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama or Florida, or I might have offered a photograph of some oil slimed sea birds, hundreds of docked fishing vessels, angry citizens, closed motels or miles of goo gobbed beaches for your meditation on the matter of  the current state of affairs in these Untied States:

We are experiencing difficulties, and awaiting a decision on whether or not we need to do something.

Gray Morning Memories

It’s a quiet morning here under a cloudy sky; dull and bluish gray like an old lady’s hair.  I’d say, ” like my own hair,” only that’s white.  My grandmother, my mother’s mother, had the same color hair as this morning’s sky.  Funny that I’ve never thought of Nanny (that was the name she had from my brother) as having sky colored hair.

Nanny also had crippling arthritis in her hips.  Long before there were such things as hip replacement surgery, Nanny spent most of her day sitting in a chair in her living room, a heavy blanket on her lap, rosary beads in her hand, praying.  She had a view out of a small window to the west, towards Riverdale, a neighborhood in the Bronx.  She lived in a small apartment on the top floor of a four story walk-up  at 3411 Fort Independence Street.  The street was named that because of a Revolutionary War era fort on the height above her street.  That was named Cannon Place.  Years later I moved into my first apartment on Cannon Place.

Just a few houses north of Nanny’s apartment house was an old colonial era home, still occupied, in which I was told General George Washington spent some time while retreating from New York.  It was a dark looking thing lourking under large trees, scary.  I figured Washington had good reason to retreat if he’d spent time in that place.

Nanny walked, when she walked, with a limp on both legs, a kind of rocking shuffle.  She’d get up slowly and take the few steps from her chair to the kitchen for a cup of tea.  The kitchen was the most airy room in the little place, with a stove and oven, yellow enameled metal in one corner and a table, white enameled metal in the center.  It had two windows, one looking west toward Riverdale, on the other side of whose hill was the Hudson River.

The other window looked South, down on Bailey Avenue and toward the island of Manhattan and the low hills of Inwood Park, the southern end of the Henry Hudson Bridge was anchored.  It spanned the Harlem River where it joined the Hudson.  I spent a lot of time on, under and around that bridge and in that park.  From both of her kitchen windows you could see and hear the IRT elevated trains which ran along Broadway from 242nd Street all the way down to South Ferry at the very end of Manhattan.

I used to think Broadway was the longest street in the world.  I knew New York was the biggest city.

On Sunday afternoons when we were small, our mother would send my brother Tom and me up to Nanny’s house for a visit.  She could not come to us, so we went to see her.  She lived with my mother’s sister who was our favorite aunt.  She also was our only aunt, my mother’s younger sister Violet, who never married.  (That may be the subject of another story, someday.) I have never come across another person named Violet since.

Riri was how we knew her.  Again, the name was given her by my brother when he was learning to make words and couldn’t get his mind around the grown up sound of Violet.  I have no picture of Nanny to share, but this is a picture of her two daughters.  My mother, Nell (Eleanor) is on the left, and Riri is on the right.  She was younger and smaller, and quite pretty, don’t you think.  All in all, she was a lady, delicate, petite; made of china and silk, and quite out of place in the world which was to come very soon after 1937.

That’s my mother’s printing on top of the snap.  Riri was just about thirty I think in the picture and the summer of 1937 would make it about six months before my parents got married and about a year and a half before Tom was born.

Tom and I walked up to Nanny’s house from our own each Sunday afternoon for a few hours visit.  She and Riri had stocked the house with some toys, the kind little boys would like.  Soon the whole living room was covered with battalions of soldiers and their gear, tin tanks, trucks and cannons while the great battles of the very recently completed war were played out on the old well worn oriental rug.  I remember one old metal P-51 Mustang fighter; the wheels would fold up into the wings with a reliable snap.  It was our whole air force, bombing and strafing the front lines and flying high over and into enemy territory, the Land of the Rising Sun and the Third Reich at the same time, to cripple the enemy at home.  Both of those places were located in the bedroom off the living room behind the curtained french doors where Nanny and Riri slept on metal framed beds.

That old tin plane must have flown a million miles in my imagination.  The enemy soldiers we defeated became very good at falling from the tops of beds and bureaus when they were shot by the advancing Americans.  There were only Americans in our armies.

I have the mantle clock in my basement now that was in another room at Nanny’s house.  It sat on an old highly polished wooden Victrola the size of a small chest of drawers.  Riri would tell me of the music she and Mom and my uncles played at their parties a long time ago.

Both it and the clock never uttered a sound while I was there.

I liked looking at some of the pictures hung on the wall of the living room. I remember two very well.  One was of a Native American looking off into the distance, an heroic pose.  The other was the one which captured my attention and held it for what seemed hours as I sort of entered it and imagined what might be going on.  It was a copy of course of a painting of the Grand Canal in Venice.

The photo below is of a painting by a fellow named Guardi, I think, which hangs in the Art Institute in Chicago.  It is of the Grand Canal, of course, as it looked on a day in the late 18th Century, and on every day I saw it.  Nanny’s Grand Canal is every bit as grand in my memory of it high on the wall of her living room. When I walked the past painting in the museum I stopped short and became the young boy I was once long ago and am, somewhere, still.

The Grand Canal, I'll Know It When I See It

We’d leave Nanny’s house before it got too dark to walk home.  On the way out the door she or Riri would give us a quarter each, a great sum of money with which to by a Pepsi cola and some candy.  We tumbled down the creaky wooden flights of stairs and on the ground floor  looked up to see both of them up there looking down at us smiling.

I haven’t been back except on days like today before the snow starts to fall and the light, as you can see, is bright in Venice where all of my memories live.