When I was a little boy I lived in the Italian quarter of the city of Newark, NJ, which is directly across the river from Manhattan Island. Newark became home to many of the Southern Italians who migrated here in the late 1800's. I came along at the end of and era, before the Italians moved one by one to the suburbs. It was a time when all my Aunts and Uncles lived close to one another. I saw the last of the ice delivery trucks bringing ice to families who still had not got their electric "Ice Box." I saw the last of the horse drawn vegetable carts, the horse being so much more interesting than the vegetables. I saw the last of penny candy, before preservatives and harmful food dyes. I could walk all over that city and never have to worry about being harmed. My mother didn't worry either, but if she only knew how far I traveled as such a little boy, she would have fainted.
I lived in the city owned Projects that were built over what was the older more run down houses Italians used to own. Still I was living in the middle of miles and miles of Italian people in all directions. I loved the idea, that I could see members of my family on the street at odd times during the day. Uncle Gerald might drive by in a car with some of his teenage friends and sound the horn, or I might see Uncle Richard playing basket ball with his friends. My Aunt Dee would walk home from work and pass by the "second court" which is how I always described where I lived. She would literally stop traffic with that walk of hers. She was not only young and beautiful, but really just naturally sexy as hell. Picture the dark good looks that God gives some people instead of money. I would see all the Italian city boys with their greased back curls, some dangling like a water fall on their forehead, stop dead in their tracks just to get a look at her from the rear, which was really the most fascinating part of that walk of hers. Her gait was absolutely hypnotic. She had seven brothers who lived right down the street in a house that is still known in my mind as "grandpa's house". For that reason, those city boys knew not to do anything but look. It was a time when everyone knew not only their neighbors, but who they were related to as well.
Sometimes I would go for a walk with Grandpa who was long and tall. His friends called him "Slim." That was his other name. Everybody seemed to have and "other name. My dad, Joseph, was called "Jo-Jo." And my mother Mary, was called "Tilabet", some anglesized form of her maiden name Cileberto that my father made up for her when they were children living next door to one another. Grandpa used to like to slap me on the back of the head at odd times for some reason, which I always found rather odd, if not terribly annoying. "Hey big feet!", he would yell when he saw me. My mother and father would tell me he did all that because he liked me. Sometimes we would go to the bakery to buy bread for the family, then perhaps go to the meat and cheese store to buy ricotta cheese which our family called "Pot Cheese," to be used to make Ravioli for his family of 7 boys and 3 girls and their children. I was his first grandchild, my father, his second child. While he spoke Italian to the store owner, who was most likely an old friend, I would be at eye level with the cow tongues and cow stomach (tripe), and the pig's feet in the deli case. I stood there in silent horror wondering what the hell that stuff was doing mixed with the food! There were words like "cold cuts" which I always thought was "cold guts" and American Cheese which I figured was made by the Americans, not us Italians. Grandpa liked to walk and I guess I take after him in that respect.
In the summer there was and Italian Festa which we called "The Feast," celebrating the feast Day of Saint Gerard in a section of the city known as the First Ward, near St Lucy's church which our family was attached to for some reason, even though other churches were a lot closer to where we lived. St Lucy's Church was then a grand and ornate Italian Basilica. St. Gerard was the Patron Saint of all those people who came from the Province in Italy known as Avelino. Specifically from the city in Avelino known as Caposelle. My great grandparents, on my father's side, were from Caposelle, as was my great grandmother on my mother's side. I loved this feast, which was really just a street fair and a big block party. The food was fantastic, as were the smells of sausage, garlic, onions and peppers, being fried in olive oil on large open air grills. People strolled by in the cool of a summer evening as fireworks were shot into the air overhead. My favorite delight was something my family called Zeppelas, which is an anglesized form of an Italian word I am sure the people on the "Boot" (Italian Peninsula) would never understand. They were a form of a sticky sweetened dough, dropped in a 55 gallon drum filled with boiling olive oil. They were plucked out of the olive oil when golden brown and rolled in powdered sugar. Eaten warm, they are absolute heaven.
The high point of the feast for me was in the day time when the statue of St Gerard would be carried aloft in procession through the streets on a litter born by twelve men. The Saint would rock to and fro on the shoulders of those working men with thick shoulders and burly forearms, some of them I was related to in one way or another. From the carved and painted wood Saint were hung long and wide, colorful silk ribbons, which flowed in all directions, like some grand coat of many colors. The ribbons were there so the people in the streets who gathered to see the procession, could pin dollar bills on them. It was a novel way to collect money for the poor or what ever the church needed the money for. I would be lifted high up in the air, or made to stand on one of my uncles shoulders, so I could pin the dollar very carefully on the ribbon, with my uncle or dad shouting directions from below. I loved doing this and being held so high above the crowd. I could see all the Italian faces from there smiling, many people I recognized as friends of my dad and grandpa. I could see the round faces of the older ladies with their grey hair and flowered dresses, all those people who spoke English in a way that made the words bounce out of their month in broken Englsih like they were made of rubber. They did not speak smoothly like my mother and father. The Saint would be carried in procession back to St. Lucy's, followed by people saying prayers or shouting hello to someone they hadn't seen in a while. To me it was a grand and glorious time when all the world was happy and joined together. This is one of the reasons I like Rome so much. It constantly reminds me of those times.
In Trastevere, the section of Rome with the winding cobbled streets, that have not been moved or redirected since ancient times, I happened to arrive at one of it's main squares just before the people in that neighborhood were going to re-enact their yearly procession of the Virgin Mary from the church of Saint Agatha. St. Agatha was a Christian martyr who had her breasts cut off without the benefit of anesthetic, because she would not renounce her Christian faith. There is a rather large graffic painting behind the alter of this Baroque church, which depicts the scene in all it's gory detail. One has to marvel about the quality of faith back then, and also the 500 years of parishioners who were witness to Agatha's torture, every Sunday while attending Mass.
I had arranged to meet The Prince in front of St Agatha's. He has become a loyal friend and frequent companion. He is a Robert Downey Jr look-alike who thinks he has come sort of claim to the Spanish throne. I think he mentioned that he was 546th in line for it, should some catastrophe befall all those in line ahead of him. He certainly has a royal, if not rumpled baring, so I allow him this one fantasy. He has some idea that I am going to help him find a wife. It doesn't dawn on him that I might not be very good at is particular thing, since after all these years I do not have one of my own. He is still only 27, so I figure he still has a few things to learn about people. In America the 27 year olds are still trying to be 17 years old. The Prince thinks he is middle-aged! But I can tell you finding someone else a wife is really a lot of fun. All my Roman friends have gotten in on the act as well.
The Prince's idea of dressing casual is a suit and an open necked shirt. We make quite the pair, with me in my shorts and loud Hawaiian shirt. Dressed in this fashion, we gathered with the throngs of neighborhood people in front of St. Agatha's church. There were the older Italian women all round us, dressed in their flowered summer dresses. The Prince bemoaned the fact that there were not enough young people at this event. He is afraid that all these traditions will disappear one day. I got there early so I could get a good spot up close to the entrance of the church. I was one of the first people there, but I tell you these old Italian ladies will elbow their way right into heaven. I have never seen anything like it. Little by little, I was pushed back by one short little Italian "la momma" after another, until I had enough! I refused to move another inch and forbade the Prince, with his courtly manners, from letting one more old lady in front of us, sad eyes or not. They are ruthless!
One by one the people went into the church door, but no one was coming out! In true Italian fashion the show got on the road about an hour and a half late. There was such a frenzy, the old ladies were elbowing one another by now. Many got in front of the barricade designed to keep them out of harms way. The police were there to tell them to get back, but they just give that blank expression and did what they wanted, and the police just gave up. Old ladies have a lot of power here.
Finally the church door opened and the first of the processioners came out. The first held high a silk banner on a horizontal pole, suspended from a vertical pole. On this banner was an image of St. Lucy. When the crowd saw it, there was a large round of applause, me thinking that Italians everywhere are a big fan of this particular Saint. Then came a silk banner with St. Agatha on it, and there was another round of applause. The Prince pointed out the Mayor of Rome who was next to exit the large bench green church door, along with some officials in white military uniforms. With the Mayor (Sindaco) in attendance I got the picture that this was more than just a passing neighborhood event. The line of people coming out of the door seemed endless all in different colored robes, that went from the shabby to the fabulous.
Then came the moment I was waiting for. The statue of the Virgin Mary, on a litter borne on the shoulders of 12 men, who too were in robes. The litter was quite heavy and very ornate dating back I assumed 4 hundred years, to the Baroque era. The statue of the virgin was under a carved and gilded wood canopy complete with naked flying babies (puti) on the top. From the information the Prince was gleaning from the crowd, the statue of the Virgin Mary, with a complete look of serenity on her lily white face, is dressed in a different color dress every year by the women of the parish. This year, the dress was snow white silk, festooned with metallic bits that sparkled in the late afternoon sun, which presented quite a stunning affect as it came out of the darkened church and caught the first rays of light. The crowd went wild as they say and for some reason I was happy I battled the old Italian ladies just to see it. The men were visibly straining under the weight of the litter. There was sort of a bottle neck created by the old Italian ladies who decided to stand in front of the barricade. The police unceremoniously pushed them back. There was a great compression of meat and clothing. It was a small miracle that the men did not lose control of the canopy, which if it tipped over, would have sent a few of those women unexpectedly in front of St Peter himself. God watches over the dumb and ignorant, so after much straining and grunting, the litter was able to turn the corner and the procession was underway.
Experiences like this are priceless and I began to feel sorry for all those people who could not spend just a tiny part of their life in Rome. The monuments and the Vatican are one thing, but it is the life in the streets that excite me so much. I watched the Virgin Mary rock back and forth on the shoulders of the men, who were working men, but more conservative than those I remember carrying the litter of St. Gerard so long ago. At that moment I wished I had my entire Italian family here with me. The Prince was afraid his people would loose the traditions that have already disappeared from my own. My family and those miles of Italians who once lived all in a bunch, now live separate sanitized lives in front of their TVs, hiding in their middle class homes. They barely visit one another. It just isn't right somehow. We should never have let all our customs go.
The canopy with the Virgin Mary under it, made it's way down the narrow cobbled streets on a predefined route, stopping in front of this church and that church. There are hundreds of churches in this tiny section of the city. Some hidden away and only opened for special occasions like this one. The huge doors of each church we stopped in front of, opened their 2 and 3 story high portals, so each person that passed by, had a clear view of the alter. One church was more beautiful than the next. The litter would pause for a moment in front of each open door, the Mayor would say a few words, that would end with the words "Viva Maria!, Viva Maria!" The crowd that filled each street from side to side, would repeat those words and they all applauded afterwards. While we walked, songs would be sung in such beautiful natural harmony, you would think it had all been rehearsed, but it wasn't. It went on and on like this until day became night, and we could follow no longer. The Prince was faint with hunger and I was dying of thirst and reluctantly I stopped following the procession until the canopy and the Virgin Mary faded from my view, only to enter the realm of memory, one memory begetting another, in endless procession.
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