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Archive for April 1st, 2007

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In 1951 my first wife and I took a cold water flat at the foot of MacDougal Street just after it crosses Prince and as it is about to merge with 6th Ave coming in at an angle. Our flat faced the front, the 6th Ave side, on which there was a small paved triangle formed by the three streets, containing a few benches and a half dozen saplings.  The building in question was just below the points of the arrows in the two images but that is not the building that we were living in. It has been replaced by one of those white brick atrocities that looks awful lot like a public toilet to me.  The building we were in was probably a hundred years old or more when we moved in and was made of sun-dried brick from upstate New York. As you can see from the satellite shot, the saplings have grown into considerable trees.

map-prince.jpg

hybrid-prince.jpg

We thought of our location as the south end of Greenwich Village but nowadays it would be the north end of SoHo, being just one block south of Houston. The neighborhood was pure Italian (except for us). On August nights, when it was too hot to sleep, this little triangle would fill up with old men from the neighborhood who would sit there all night long re-fighting the Risorgimento: “yada yada yada Garibaldi”, “yada yada yada Mazzini”, “yada yada yada Cavour.”

Our flat, which was on the third floor, consisted of two rooms, a kitchen and the main room plus a toilet.  The kitchen contained an ordinary gas stove, with two kerosene burners attached to the side which provided the general space heating, a hot water heater and a deep sink, which served all sorts of purposes for us including being a bathtub. There were two entrances to the apartment, one in the kitchen that faced down the hallway and the other into the main room, which was sealed shut, so the entrance to the apartment was the kitchen door. There were old-fashioned transoms over both doors and the one in the kitchen was often left open to provide ventilation. This doorway looked down the hall to the doorway at the rear flat, at the head of the stairs, which was occupied by the Savarese family.

All of the other occupants of the building were old-time Neapolitan socialists who had fled Mussolini around 1933. Mama Savarese had had a heart attack a few years earlier and never left the little flat.  On weekends, huge boxes of produce would appear in front of her door, having been delivered by local merchants, and several of her children and their children would converge for happy, noisy family gatherings. Despite her limited arena Mama’s scope was wide and she ruled with an iron hand. Every evening Papa would tiptoe up the stairs and very quietly open and close the door and two minutes later we could hear her haranguing him. I’ll have another tale about him and his sons at some later time.

One afternoon there was a loud thumping (knocking is much too tame a word) at our kitchen door. I opened to see two nuns, one short and stocky the other tall and lean, peering over the shoulder of the shorter one. The short one, sounding rather like a Marine DI asked “Are you Catholic?” Intimidated by the tone, I actually apologized, “No, I’m sorry, I’m not”. They both studied my face for a couple of seconds and decided I was telling the truth.

They then proceeded to the Savarese’s flat and “knocked” on their door: whumpa, whumpa, whumpa (I am always reminded of the scene in Ivanhoe where the Black Knight bangs on the castle gate with his full armored fore-arm).
Mama Savarese: “What do you want?”
Short nun: “Are you Catholic?”
Mama: “No, I’m-a no Catholic”.
Pause
Short nun, suspiciously: “Are you sure you’re not a Catholic?”
Mama: “Yes, I’m-a sure!”
Tall nun, in a sing-song tone such as you would use with a child: “Sister doesn’t believe you.”
Mama: “I don’t care I’m-a no Catholic.
Short nun, pushing her luck: “Do you believe in God?”
Mama: “I believe in-a God, I no believe in-a priests, I no believe in-a Church, I no believe in-a Pope…”
As Mama continued to rage and rant, I heard four heavily shod feet drumming retreat down the stairs.

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