‘. . . I have been assured that they can conceal themselves on almost bare ground, in a manner which until witnessed is scarcely credible. The country is every where scattered over with blackened stumps, and the dusky natives are easily mistaken for these objects.’
Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle
Many local Italian-American men hung out all day long in Little Italy in the 70's and 80's, more than anyone might have realized. Shift workers, plaster and metal craftsmen, men between jobs, retired city workers or just plain gangsters, they may have been outside because their wives and children were cooking or bathing in their small apartments, or they may have got tired of drinking coffee in their social clubs, rented storefronts that the neighborhood men took refuge in.
They had a way of making themselves invisible, mostly near street corners where they ‘kept an eye on the neighborhood.’ You might walk three blocks thinking that the sidewalks were deserted while there were actually guys around being inconspicuous. Like Tasmanians pretending to be tree stumps in a barren landscape so that they would not be captured by European settlers sweeping across the island to imprison and exterminate them, these urban dwellers uncannily found architectural elements, columns, doorways, trash cans, light posts, awnings or railings to disguise their presence.
As I got to know some of the Italian men on the street, I realized that many had a kind of street smarts sharpened by their interest in women. They had ways to check out a woman’s availability without exposing their interest. Sometimes I thought that maybe they just had an extra sense informing them how recently a woman had had sex, how many minutes, hours, days, weeks, months or years it had been since she had had a sexual satisfaction.
Of these men I write. There were three I became friendly with — Joe, Lou, and Sal.
Joe C. worked evenings as a dispatcher. He spent a lot of time with Mike, the refrigerator man who had a storefront across the street from 86 Kenmare and provided used appliances to landlords downtown. Joe and I spoke sometimes on the street. He had an athletic body and was proud of it. ‘Feel my thigh,’ he boasted, ‘as hard as a rock.’ It was. At the time my knowledge of anatomy did not include awareness of the ilio-tibial band, connective tissue on the outside of the thigh that steadies the body and compresses the vastus lateralis muscle when the lower leg is kicked out. It is a structure that feels as hard as a rock on almost everyone.
Joe liked to tease me. He would engage me in conversation up to the point that he would somehow cause me to blush, and then he would end the encounter smirking and complimenting himself. For years our relationship consisted of this ritual.
One day I saw him run into Mike's store and back out again swinging a baseball bat and screaming as he crossed Kenmare. An African-American man in sweats jogged by. A crowd gathered as the dark-skinned jogger turned around to confront Joe, grabbing the lid of a garbage can to use as a shield to defend himself against the bat. At that time there were garbage cans out in front of most of the buildings.
I kept a safe distance away watching from between two parked cars as the jogger danced like a boxer. More than a match for Joe, he was a true athlete executing marvelous feints and admirable foot work, avoiding Joe's swings, and saying ‘Let me go.’ From my safe distance I called out, ‘Let him go. Please, let him go,’ a few times. All of a sudden, as though a bell had rung to end a round in a boxing ring, Joe brought the bat down to his side and walked away. The crowd dispersed quietly and the jogger ran on. Later Joe told me that his unleashed dog had been bothering the jogger and that he was angered when the jogger slapped the dog's snout with his fingers.
With a few exceptions, African-Americans were not welcome in the neighborhood. Like the jogger, they risked being harmed for just being there. Well-dressed black teenagers and the occasional worker were safe if they were known.
The last time we ran into each other, he began his usual tease. I had no idea why I did what I did, but I said to him, ‘We’ve been flirting long enough, Joe. Let's f—k.’ I didn't feel desire for him, nor did I want to be lovers with him, nor did I expect him to accommodate my suggestion. I still have no idea why I challenged to him at that moment.
He stepped back and paled. ‘I can't do that,’ he said. ‘I'm a married man, Don't you see my ring?’
He had never before said anything about being married. Maybe he had married recently and maybe I felt that his flirtation was half-hearted. For whatever reason, I had crossed a line and we never spoke again on the street. I suppose that from that point on if he saw me coming he made himself invisible.
Rumor has it that the character De Niro played in Mean Streets (1973), John ‘Johnny Boy’ Civello, was based on Joe's older brother. He had first been warned to stop committing petty crimes in the neighborhood and then was found dead one morning in a car parked on the street. As the story goes, older men in the neighborhood gave the go-ahead to the younger men to kill him. Vigilante justice was common and commonly agreed upon.
Many residents here still remember the stink bomb thrown into the storefront of 226 Lafayette to protest that a methadone clinic was moving in. The Italian neighbors just east of Lafayette were angry because Virginia Admiral, having just converted 226 Lafayette into artists’ live/work co-op floors, rented the empty storefront to the clinic. She saw it as a good interim tenant, and she carried through with her plans despite the neighbors’ objections. John Zaccaro was also angry. It was the first of many conflicts and arguments between Virginia and Zaccaro, in most of which, it seemed to me, Virginia came out ahead.
The roadbed of Lafayette Street just south of Spring Street was one lane wider in the early 70’s, and there was very little car traffic. Many late afternoons through twilight, and sometimes into the night, boys played hockey on skates in the street. I remember watching them from Virginia’s kitchen window when I first came to New York, not thinking anything about it, not ever imagining that kids playing sports in half-deserted streets would ever disappear from the neighborhood.
On the night of the stink bomb, a car drove up to the boys. The driver, a neighborhood man, rolled down the window, and told them to take their game to a different street. No questions were asked and the bomb found its way to its destination.
They say that you can sometimes still smell that stink bomb near the front door of 226 Lafayette.
Lou Lou M. could also have been a partial inspiration for Johnny Boy in Mean Streets.. His family had run a successful restaurant on Hester Street for many years, so he grew up as a sort of prince, cushioned from the harsh realities that poorer men encountered in their youth. He smoked, drank, and gambled and had both a sense of entitlement and some yearnings towards the better things in life. He was a lover of the arts, in particular of sculpture. As far as I knew, he didn't have a job.
His face was narrow and ruggedly handsome, his jaw strong, his hair straight and black. A good subject for a portrait, he sat for me a few times so that I could practice portrait drawing. He was a good conversationalist and never said anything inappropriate, nor did he ever bring up the subject of sexual relations.
As a boy he was obsessed with horses, and his father had tried to accommodate his interest. By the time I met him he was in his fifties. He seemed to me to be a hollow man without direction or purpose, despite an underlying spirit of nobility which would sometimes shine through. Because he was tall, dignified, and handsome, there was a sense of the tragic in his bearing.
Lou's mother had been a good cook. For many years she worked in the kitchen of her family's restaurant. Illiterate, she had a box of recipes that friends and family had written down for her on 3‘ x 5’ cards. She would shuffle through the cards in her box and recognize a recipe not by the words in the title line, but by the visuals, the color of the ink, the character of the handwriting, the size of the blocks of text, and even the accidental food stains on the cards, Then she would have someone read the ingredients to her out loud while she cooked.
Lou shared with me his mother's recipe for marinara sauce. It is very simple, The garlic must be cooked with great sensitivity for the recipe to be good, and the sauce must be cooked in a well seasoned iron skillet.
As a young man, Lou happened to find his mother's bank books and he saw how much money she had saved. Over the years the amount of money that he gambled and lost was equal to the amount he knew that she had saved. The bookies took bets on credit. Gamblers who didn't pay were sometimes killed to be made an example, so his mother always paid his debts. She ended up with no savings at all.
One day, Lou wanted me to see a replica of a sculpture of a horse's head he had just hung in his apartment. I was on my way somewhere with Teva and her friend, an African-American teenager named Chuck when Lou invited us to visit. His apartment was three blocks away. I wondered if he was willing to walk side by side with an African-American male in the neighborhood he had grown up in, or if he would be afraid that neighbors might insult or intimidate Chuck? So I asked Lou to meet Chuck first.
We all walked together and got to Lou’s place without incident. He had acted with nobility, I thought. It was his way.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Andrew Marvell. 1621–1678
“No. No. No. No, No. No. No, no, no, NO, no, no,” I said to myself. I stood on the first floor landing of the staircase of 86 Kenmare watching a 40-somethingish man with garments from the dry cleaners slung over his shoulder throw open the front door of the building and rush in. He ran across the lobby and hurried up the stairs past me and into an apartment on the second floor. I had never seen him before. He isn’t that good looking, I thought. What are you afraid of? What is all the fuss about?
Recently divorced, I found out. Named Sal. He was Lucille’s son, staying in her old apartment that she no longer lived in and was probably holding on to for the grandchildren, teenagers in Queens. Sal drove a big delivery truck for a living and paid $800 a month in child support.
We became friends slowly. He spoke honestly about his life and in particular about his sex life. He was initiated at summer camp before he was a teenager by a girl counselor a few years older than he was. In High School he had sexual relations with a woman teacher and considered himself lucky to be one of the boys that she trusted. When he was at the height of his virility, he had one serious fist fight with his father, apparently a common and inevitable rite of passage for most of the young neighborhood men.
During the time that I knew him he was definitely making his sun run as fast as possible. There were modest boasts about his adventures, like having sex with four women in one day. He might be delivering rolls of fabric and might just sell a few rolls from the top of the pile and report the rolls stolen. He had complaints, like being angry that his son took the car without asking and was stopped for speeding. The trunk was loaded with machine guns. Fortunately, the cops didn’t open the trunk.
A recent disappointment was his having courted Megan, a tenant in Apartment #1. She finally agreed to go out with him. She dressed up for the date, but he was a no-show. A wise guy friend of his had got into trouble and Sal had no choice but to help his friend out. After he stood up Megan she would never have anything to do with him.
One late afternoon in fall, 1981, I returned home after the first day of classes at Parsons School of Design where I had been hired to teach a figure drawing class in the Illustration Department. Sal saw me pass by Patrissy’s and called to me. I drank a beer with him and a man in a suit. We talked a bit and I described my eager students. I joked that I had one very cute student in the class but that he was probably homosexual. Not funny, Sal told me later. “Did you have to say the word ’homosexual’ in front of that guy?‘ he asked me. “He’s close to a senator. You embarrassed me.”
I apologized and decided that when in Rome it would be best for me to do as the Romans do. I was careful from then on.
I liked him. I liked him very much, even though he was ordinary in every way. He was of average height, muscular but a little pudgy. His nose was neither long nor short, neither hooked nor turned up; his hair was dark but not very dark, neither straight nor curly; his eyes not bulging, not deep set, neither large nor small; his ears not poking out and not hovering too close to his head; his lips neither full nor thin. His skin was light, but not as light as, say, a Norwegian’s. He was clearly Mediterranean, but not on the dark side. His voice was a light baritone. He spoke like everyone else in the neighborhood, with the same inflection and New York accent. He used the same phrases and made the same grammatical errors that you might hear on the street. His morality was par for the course. If you could take all the men who then lived in Little Italy and feed all of their particulars into a computer and crunch the numbers in order to come up with the average man, and if you were then to actually make a mold and make a copy of Mr. Average Italian-American Man, you would probably come up with someone just like Sal.
One afternoon he laid out some lines of white powder on his kitchen table. His apartment, like mine, opened to the kitchen. As soon as you entered the door you were already at the table. I felt safe being so close to the door, even though I trusted him and had no fear of him or misgivings about him. He used a little card to push the powder into four narrow lines a few inches apart and about three inches in length.
I knew what the powder was, but I had never had any. I snorted a line through a short straw. He had three lines. He began to boast. Amazing, I thought, he could strut like the neighborhood men even when he was sitting in a chair at a small kitchen table doing lines with a neighbor.
He began a monologue. “I was friends with De Niro when he hung out down here. He wasn’t really one of us. He wasn’t Italian. He was a kid from 14th Street.’
(I thought, ‘Yes, Virginia told me about the apartment on 14th Street, but I can't let him know that I am friends with De Niro's mother.’)
Sal continued, ‘He was younger than me. I watched out for him. We both liked the same woman. I married her, but I wish he had. He married a n——r.’
(I nodded my head forward a little, lifted my eyebrows slightly, and swallowed in slight shock. I made the sign of the cross in my mind. “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I failed to defend my friend’s family. I am remaining silent. I am not objecting to the use of the N-word.”)
Sal’s monologue continued. “He never paid me back all the nickels and dimes I loaned him. And he made that movie about the neighborhood with Scorsese. He shouldn’t have done it.”
“Do you mean Mean Streets?” I asked.
“Yes, Mean Streets. It was a bad movie. They shouldn’t have made a movie about us.”
“But it was a work of art!” I exclaimed.
“It wasn’t art,” he said. “It was the truth. No one should tell the truth about this neighborhood.”
Days passed. I desired him and my desire increased each day. I had a feeling of being lifted up when I saw him, of walking on air and of somehow being displaced. It was a pleasurable feeling.
I was teaching at Parsons twice a week in the afternoon and working the evening shift as a proofreader in a type shop on 27th Street. I always took a taxi home at 2:00 am. One night Sal came around the corner just as I got out of the cab. We walked in the front door together and straight to his apartment. The bedroom had no door, just a doorway. We undressed, embraced, fell on to the bed and joined bodies silently. As we climaxed I felt a tremor of intensity equal to the subway’s vibrations that sometimes come up from under the building. When the tremor became shivering shudders I realized that it was Sal lying on top of me quaking and trembling. I imagined that California had split off from the continent, had floated out to sea, and was drifting north. My out-of-body tectonics ended when Sal’s tremors stopped.
He got up and stood at the foot of the bed, naked and relaxed. It was easy for me to admire him. He was beautiful in his plain body and perfect in his imperfection. He said, “I knew that you would taste good.”
As we dressed, he said, “Some girls get scared when I come, but it’s always like that.”
At the door we kissed goodnight and I said, “I am so glad that we happened to meet tonight by accident. Aren’t we lucky?”
“It was no accident, Minerva,” he said. “I’ve been following you around for two months.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
At dinnertime one night I was going up the stairs carrying groceries on my way to cook dinner in my apartment. Sal stopped me and we sat at his kitchen table for several minutes and had a few lines of cocaine.
I went up to my apartment and began to chop vegetables. All of a sudden a wave of malaise overtook me. A darkness like I had never felt before surrounded me. Emptiness and hopelessness ground away at my soul. It was unbearable.
“Oh my God, this must be depression,” I said to myself. I tried to shake it. “Hold on. Don’t let go. There are many joyful things in life,” I told myself, but I couldn’t bring any joy into my consciousness. So this is what my great-aunt felt when she killed herself. This is what my mother felt when she lay in the bathtub refilling it with hot water as the water cooled for hours on end, for days and weeks and months until she swung into a manic phase, and what my sister has fought all her life.
The next time we passed on the stairs, Sal stopped and said in an adorable man-child way, “How about a little pick-me-up?”
Without thought, without hesitation, without joy, I dissembled. “Oh, Sal,” I said, “ I want what every woman wants — a relationship.” But it was a lie. I did not ever again want to feel the depression brought on by the white powder. A self-protective and deep cunning took over my responses, framing my words and making me say just what would drive a man away forever and extinguish any interest that he might have in me.
I was still crazy about him.
Not long after that he was arrested in front of 86 Kenmare. A neighbor described the event:
He never came back to the neighborhood. The Feds must have had so much on him that he turned state’s evidence and disappeared into the Witness Protection Program.
A Divine Satire
When I stand at the Golden Gates of Heaven waiting to hear if I will have to spend time in Purgatory before entering, St. Peter will open his book and review my life, balancing my sins against my virtues.
He will say, ‘I see that you left the church when you were 13 years old, that you masturbated regularly throughout your life, and that you had a period of promiscuity after your divorce which included some sexual experimentation with women and more love affairs with Arab men than Christian women are generally forgiven for, exceeding your quota by two. These sins are mitigated somewhat by the fact that you were faithful to your husband for 14 years despite your desire to commit adultery, and also by the fact that your husband was probably homosexual, although no one really knows if he was or wasn’t, not even here in Heaven.”
St. Peter will continue, ’Because you eschewed the lesbian way of life and because the Arab love affairs took place before 9/11, you have been forgiven those sins. Moreover, your grandmothers in Heaven have pleaded that you be allowed in. I see that they were both pious Catholic women who were faithful to their husbands during their marriages, throughout their husbands' illnesses and as widows.
“Interesting,” St. Peter will say, “ it appears that every one of your deceased female relatives is in Heaven, even your great-aunt Minerva Primm McNair who committed suicide in 1906. She was a Protestant, poor girl. After Durkheim's classic study on suicide, Protestant suicides like her were allowed in Heaven because, through no fault of their own, they had not had the privilege of a Catholic upbringing.
‘Wait a minute. I see here that Gothamist called you a ‘bike-hater’ in 2013. Attitudes like that could land you in Hell. And your record on political correctness is dismal. It's not just what you said out loud and what you published in emails and letters to the editor, Your innermost thoughts that we could divine from up here were very often politically incorrect.’
St. Peter's iPhone will ring. ‘Yes Sir,’ he will say. ‘Yes Sir, I will, Sir. Yes, I will tell her that, Sir.’
He will smile and say to me, ‘That was the Great Padrone in the Sky, the one that you call 'God.' He wants to thank you for your having written favorably about His Chosen People, the Italians. And your political incorrectness is forgiven because He often heard you singing Rozhinkes mit Mandlin to your grandchild Olivia when she was an infant. He says that you may proceed directly to Heaven immediately, if you wish. But we always offer lapsed Catholics like you one last carnal experience before entering Heaven if we think that they have remained Catholic at core. Would you like to perform one last carnal act?”
’Sounds good,‘ I will say. ’Gladly.‘
’What'll it be?‘ he will ask.
I will say one word, ’Salvatore.‘ and before you know it, Sal and i will be rolling around in a cloud, the epicenter of tremors that shake the Heavens. We will tremble. California will chug towards Alaska. While we vibrate to the music of the spheres with shivers and shudders and quakes, California will smash into Alaska, the Gates of Heaven will swing open, and I will sprout wings, gain a halo, flowing white robes, and even a little gold harp. I'll fly away through the Golden Gates to Eternity where I will be at one forever with the heavenly apparitions of my grandmothers, Mary Elizabeth Walsh Wharton and Louise ‘Lulu” Gervaise Coiteux-Cotty Primm.
Meanwhile, St. Peter will be shaking his head as he closes the Gates. ’Sal, again,‘ he will say to himself. ’What's that guy got? He seems awfully ordinary to me.‘
copyright © 2015 Minerva Durham