This Saturday started as many before. The aroma of Nana’s over-perked coffee accompanied by a hint of fresh donuts from Presti’s Bakery. I launched out of uncle Nick’s and uncle Angelo’s double bed, dressed and entered the kitchen where my sleeping partners and two other uncles, Jimmy and Mikie were perched. My grandfather was inexplicably absent but my omni-present grandmother was there pouring the second cup of coffee for her four sons. After a kiss for gram, she asked, “Carlootch, you want-a caw-fay?” With an enthusiastic yes she proceeded to half fill a cup with coffee, add three teaspoons of sugar and top it off with milk. How about this, I’m sure I thought, coffee, donuts and conversation with my uncles. Couldn’t get much better. Unfortunately, within minutes they dispersed. Uncle Nick had to “meet a friend” – some girl; uncle Mikie left to check-up on Miattz and Tatootch; uncle Jim went to hang out on the corner; and uncle Ang had to go in for a half day.
Well, here I am 9 years old and my buddies abandoned me. No problem, I’ve got cousins within walking distance to frolic with and a grandfather that could find work for me at any time. After helping Nana clear the cups and saucers, I hinted about meeting up with my “cugini.” “First, you-a go to-a Mike’s.” She handed me a fifty-cent piece and instructed me to get one pound of mortadella. “Okay,” I responded, not letting on that I had never been allowed to go to Mike’s by myself. “One pound?” I asked, and with a nod she affirmed. I turned and skipped down three steps, out the back door, clutching the coin so hard sweat was already starting to ooze from my pores. As I turned to head out I caught a glimpse of gramps sitting on his bench enjoying a Lucky Strike. In great English he asked where I was going. “Gram wants me to go to Mike’s and get one pound of mortadella.” Nodding, he tells me to stay out of the street and watch for cars. Turning to re-establish my heading, I see uncle Mikie and Tatootch planted on the stoop of the back house. After a similar inquiry on my destination I asked uncle if he was coming. “No, but I’ll be here when you get back.” With that I took off on my journey. As I cleared the rear of Tatooche’s house I approached the La Monica house. “Hey, Carlootch,” I hear from the heavens. Startled, I realized Mrs. La Monica was speaking from her kitchen window. With a smile and a wave I continued and was instantly greeted by Mr. Donatelli who lived next door to the La Monica’s. “Eh, whatta you do?” “I’m going to the store for Nana.” “You watch-a da machines.” Now I can spot the store. One more house then I have to cross 123rd street. I remember opening my hand to assure myself the fifty-cent piece was still there. Mrs. Scuteri, who lived on the corner of Alexander and 123rd was outside in her front yard. We exchanged hellos as I neared the crossing corner. Because it was Saturday, traffic was sparse, although I’ve never crossed alone before. Slowly stepping off the curb I recall every word Sgt. Smith told us in our school assemblies about crossing the street. Look both ways. Left, right and left again.
Assured of my safety I scurried across to Mike’s. Three steps up to the sawdust strewn floor, I ordered one pound of mortadella from Mary, Mike’s wife. “Nice-a to-a see you Carlootch, where’s Mikie?” I explained he stayed home and that I came by myself. With incalcuable speed she wrapped and tied my request, and handed it to me at the cash drawer. I gave her the coin, she returned some change and said, “Ho-kay, you be a good-a boy and watch-a for da machines.” I retraced my steps including looking both ways when crossing 123rd. As I sauntered back to Nana’s, I saw Mrs. Scuderi smile and retreat into her house, Mr. Donatelli nod with a sheepish grin, and I heard the window in Mrs. La Monica’s kitchen close. Entering the yard of my grandparents I’m greeted by Miattz, Tatootch, uncle Mikie and grandpa, all smiling and nodding at one another.
It has taken me over five decades to determine what the journey really meant. It was my first lesson about independence despite of the fact that my trail to the store was marked by adults “miraculously” stationed at one hundred foot intervals.
Thank you, all.
By Carlo Orlando©