The apartment we would live in was upstairs, in the same building where my paternal grandmother Leopolda lived, in lower Manhattan, in New York City’s “Little Italy” sector. Grandma Leopolda shared an apartment with my Aunts Maruca and Victoria, as well as Victoria’s two little daughters, Chiqui and Judy.
When we got out of the taxi, we went directly to my grandmother’s apartment where I was exposed, for the first time, to some of the “luxuries” of modern life in the U. S. I marveled at the fact that they actually had a telephone in the apartment, and for the first time in my life, I watched television. The television set was housed in a wooden cabinet, it had a rabbit ears antenna perched on top, and the images were, of course, in black-and-white. Every so often, the screen would fill with “snow,” and someone would have to turn a button here, another there, or fine-tune the position of the antenna.
If I’m not mistaken, the first show that I watched was the “Howdy Doody Show,” a children’s program in which a cowboy-suited marionette, after whom the show was named, bantered merrily with his equally cowboy-suited human companion who went by the name of “Buffalo Bob.” Little did I then know that some day in the distant future, I would reside in the city where Buffalo Bob came from.
Over the next few days, I discovered all sorts of interesting and new things about our own apartment and about the building in which we lived. First, I discovered that we did not have to go shopping for milk, butter, or eggs every day because our apartment was fully equipped with an “ice-box,” a cabinet in which we would store those products and in whose upper compartment we would place a large cake of ice to keep them cool. That was totally new to me.
Totally new to me was also a certain way of shopping. I discovered that instead of going out for certain products, they would be delivered to our door. That was the case with the cake of ice that kept our ice-box cold, and it was also the case with the fat, thin-necked bottles of milk that our milkman would deposit in front of our door, after picking up the “empties” that we were returning, the money that was left for him, and the note indicating how many bottles we wished to receive the following day.
The “domestic” part of my Mulberry Street education was completed with two more discoveries. The first of these was the toilet, a marvelous contraption that would flush away bodily fluids and solids at the lowering of a lever. That was a far cry from the dark, somewhat distant outhouse that my family had in “El Coquí.”
The second of these discoveries occurred when, from a living-room window, I watched as a large truck pulled up to our building, the driver and his assistant connected a metal chute from the truck to a basement window, and then, they proceeded to dump a certain amount of coal down the chute. When I asked my cousin Chiqui what that was for, she explained that it was for a central furnace that provided us with hot water all the time and heating in the winter.
Over the next year, my family settled into a routine which began early in the morning when my mother packed my father’s lunch into his black, worker’s lunchbox and my father left for work. He worked at a small factory devoted to the production of luxurious, custom-made, picture frames. Shortly thereafter, my mother would take me to school, and then pick me up at the end of the school day.
When we moved into our Mulberry Street apartment, I didn’t speak English at all. Therefore, although I had been promoted to second grade in Puerto Rico, I was forced to repeat first grade.
As part of the routine into which my family settled while we lived on Mulberry Street, late in the afternoon, my two brothers and I would regularly visit my grandmother’s apartment to watch TV, since we did not have a set of our own in our apartment. One day, we were pleasantly surprised when, again from a living-room window, we watched a religious procession slowly go by. There were some nuns and a priest or two in the crowd, and someone carried a religious banner with one, five and, I supposed, twenty dollar bills affixed to it. Many of the black-clad ladies and gentlemen in the procession chanted prayers. With the exception of, perhaps, the money attached to the religious banner, everything about the procession was well-known to me since I had seen such processions in “El Coquí”.
The neighborhood all around our building was very nice and very quaint. I have fond memories of the sweet-smelling little fruit shops which would display their products outside, in wooden boxes cantilevered one above the other, and whose owners, not only didn’t mind, but expected, customers to squeeze the oranges. I have equally fond memories of the many little specialty shops in our neighborhood: the bakeries, the butcher shops, the sea-food shops, and the restaurants, especially.
The then-future-linguist in me also remembers the melodic cadences of the Italian language that was heard everywhere in our neighborhood. That part of me, together with the also then-future-writer hidden within, still recalls a major childhood discovery which allowed me to get to know my paternal grandmother, Leopolda, a little better and, at the same time, taught me an important lesson about communication.
Mulberry Street was about as far removed from the small town on a tropical island where I was born as, say, Greenland from Australia. At least, that’s how it felt during the first month we lived there.
In the gloom of my homesickness, I openly rejected the landscape of buildings joined onto other buildings, paved asphalt streets with bordering cement sidewalks, and the small patches of always cloudy sky gleaned from the crevices between high-rises. At first, I tried to imagine that the tall buildings were palm trees, that the patches of firmament were the vast, always sunny sky of the tropics, and that the soot-stained brownstones were really sugar cane fields, substituting, in my mind’s eye, the chimneys and rotating ventilators on the rooftops with multi-colored kites gently riding on the sea-borne currents.
By the second or third month in New York City, I gave up trying to transform the landscape, and focused on learning how to survive in “the Big Apple.” What helped me cope was, partially, the round-screened, ten-inch, black-and-white, rabbit-eared TV set that my grandmother had in the living room of her apartment, one floor below us, in the same building. “Howdy Doody,” “The Little Rascals,” and the early televised cartoons in which characters didn’t speak but were, instead, set to Fritz Freleng’s well-chosen classical music, were, in part, my early teachers.
Around one o’clock on a certain Friday afternoon, my mother took my younger brother and me downstairs to Grandma’s. My father was at work and he would not be back for another six hours. Grandma was my father’s mother, a stern, angular-faced, lean and tall woman with the husky voice of a former heavy smoker, which she had been.
My brother José and I proceeded to the living room, leaving my mother and grandmother alone in the kitchen. José turned on the TV, and he began watching cartoons. I wasn’t as keen on TV by then, so I sat on Grandma’s sofa where I began thumbing through a “The Phantom” comic book that I had brought with me. Subconsciously, I was also listening to the music emanating from the TV set.
I had read this comic book many times, and each time it further confirmed my love-hate attraction for the main character. I was impressed by the man’s grey body suit, his mask, and his jet-black pet leopard. They conveyed a sense of mystery. However, I was totally turned off by his boring adventures. I felt something similar for “Mandrake the Magician.”
Since my attention was neither totally riveted on the comic book, nor on the TV program, I could not help but overhear the chitchat coming from the kitchen, between my mother and my grandmother.
At first, all I heard was a quick succession of cupboard doors opening and closing, and a litany of the things that my grandmother was running short on: sugar… coffee… rice… beans… But then, something that my mother asked my grandmother caught my attention.
“Leopolda, do you think you’ll run into your friend today? What’s her name?
The reply was instantaneous.
“Maria. Maria Torelli. I probably will run into her. She always goes shopping on Fridays, around two in the afternoon. Like clockwork.”
I was not surprised to hear this, since I knew that my grandmother also always did her grocery shopping on Friday afternoon. What did surprise me, though, was the tone in my grandmother’s voice. She actually sounded cheery.
I was not used to hearing that tone in my grandmother’s voice. For as long as I could remember, her tone had been more associated with scolding. She was a cold woman, somewhat haughty, and definitely not given to shows of affection. I couldn’t remember one single occasion in which she had been affectionate with anyone— especially me.
Over time, I had come to fear her. It was not only because of her coldness, but also because of the power and authority that she commanded.
I remembered how, on one occasion, my father had had one drink too many, and he had left the bottle of Johnnie Walker in front of him, on the table. When he went to pour himself another drink, my grandmother said:
“Jaime, that’s enough. Put that bottle away!”
I was totally shocked! Living in a traditional Hispanic family where fathers are the ultimate authority, I could not believe that my grandmother had dared say such a thing to my dad. Furthermore, I was totally taken aback when my father sheepishly put the bottle away.
On another occasion, my aunt Maruca—whose temper matched only my grandmother’s— had an argument with Grandma over household expenses. It went back and forth, with my high-strung aunt becoming more and more hysterical, until my grandmother ended the dispute with an imperious:
“That’s enough, Maruca! I don’t want to hear another word out of you!”
On that occasion, I had prepared for the mother of all arguments, for pots and pans to go flying, for tears… but none of that happened. My irate aunt simply shut up and left the apartment. She did bang the door on her way out, but that was the extent of her reaction.
Such shows of sheer power and authority did not exactly endear my grandmother to my brother or to me. Therefore, we quietly managed to stay out of her way. Just in case.
In the kitchen, there was more opening and closing of cupboards, and more one-word reminders of the articles that needed to be purchased. Then, there was a lull.
It was my grandmother who broke the silence. Speaking to my mother, she addressed her by her given name.
“It’s funny, Gloria; the other day, Mrs. Torelli told me what a terrible shopper her husband is. He pays whatever the storekeepers demand, without ever haggling!”
In “Little Italy,” not haggling was either a sign of stupidity, or it meant that you were not from the neighborhood.
After a second or two, my grandmother added:
“That’s probably why she prefers to go shopping alone. I don’t blame her.”
I just couldn’t believe what I had heard! Grandmother had actually laughed when describing Mr. Torelli’s ineptitude as a shopper.
On the small, round screen, a black-and-white dog was being chased by a dogcatcher.
My mind began racing, perhaps goaded on by the fast-paced classical music on the TV. I was trying to logically sort out the parts of a problem that minutes before I had not realized existed. I sensed that if I could reason the whole thing out, I would reach some sort of earth-shattering conclusion.
Grandmother was constantly talking about her Italian friend Maria, whom she always met on her grocery shopping forays. And, she would gladly share with anyone who would listen, what her friend had told her. And yet, no one but my grandmother had actually met Mrs. Torelli, or, for that matter, seen the two friends talking.
At that moment, the thoughts were coming so fast, that it took all my will power not to blurt them out to my brother, who was still glued to the TV set. On the screen, an angry black-and-white dog was barking at a frightened dogcatcher, cowering in the limbs of a tree.
I continued reflecting on the subject.
One question had me stymied: How did Grandmother manage to do her shopping? She always returned from her shopping trips with everything that she needed. But how did she ask the storekeepers for what she wanted? I had to find out.
As for Mrs. Torelli… I’m sure that if I were a writer narrating this story, at this point I would write “a sly grin slowly —and deliciously— spread across the little boy’s face.” Because, indeed, that is exactly what happened, as it dawned on me that, quite possibly, the oft-repeated conversations with her friend had never taken place, and, even more earth-shaking, that Mrs. Torelli didn’t exist!
The significance of all this was mind-boggling. If my grandmother had invented an imaginary friend and the conversations she had with her, then my grandmother was a liar! And if I could prove that, and I told everyone in the family, then Grandmother would lose the authority that she wielded… and I would have proven that she was less than perfect!
As for a plan… that was the easy part. Ironically, it had been Grandmother herself who had given me the idea when she said ”
I probably will run into her. She always goes shopping on Fridays, around two in the afternoon. Like clockwork.” As much as I hated to go shopping, if my plan was going to work, I would have to make a sacrifice for the sake of getting at the truth. I would have to go shopping with her!
Still, the idea that my plan seemed so perfect worried me. Therefore, I decided to run through the different possible scenarios looking for difficulties.
Suppose that I did find Mrs. Torelli. I knew for a fact that Grandma didn’t speak any English, and she certainly didn’t speak Italian. Since I could safely suppose that Mrs. Torelli didn’t speak Spanish, then it was logical that the only thing both women could do was guess at what they were saying.
I was good at languages, and I had already picked up quite a bit of English. What no one else knew was that, living in Little Italy, I had also begun picking up some Italian. I was confident that, if I ran into Mrs. Torelli, I could better guess what she was saying than my grandmother. Then, I could verify how much of grandma’s narration of her conversations with her friend was factual. If any of it was not, I would expose her as a liar.
That scenario immediately brought up a possible obstacle. If I was able to prove that Grandmother was lying, who would believe me? It would be her word against that of an eight year-old!
Just then, my brother José broke out laughing as a bunch of dogs chased the dogcatcher, one of them with his net in his mouth. I knew that I had my answer: a witness. The grownups could argue that one child was lying, but two?
A second scenario was if we didn’t run into Mrs. Torelli. In that event, I would have to go shopping with grandma several more times. And if there was still no Mrs. Torelli, then Grandma would have to stop talking about her imaginary friend. The beauty of this was that, no matter what happened, Grandma would know that I had been the cause of Mrs. Torelli’s “disappearance.” Whether we met Mrs. Torelli or not, I would still get to teach Grandma a lesson.
I’m sure that I gloated. I was fast becoming a junior Machiavelli.
While all of this was racing through my mind, I noticed that the conversation in the kitchen had ceased. That could only mean one thing: that Grandmother had gone to take a shower. In fact, while I was absorbed hatching my plan, she had finished, and I could hear her moving around her room. I guessed that, at that moment, she was combing her long, black and grey hair. I knew that it wouldn’t be long until she grabbed her purse and headed out the door. I had to act fast!
“Hey, José!” I said to my brother, trying to sound spontaneous. “What say we accompany Grandma grocery- shopping?”
He replied without looking away from the TV.
“Why? That’s boring.”
Boring was his favorite word.
I had to think fast. So, I lied.
“You never know. Just the other day, she said that there was a man juggling balls on the sidewalk just outside the bakery.”
That got his attention. Little brothers are suckers for stories about jugglers.
Before he had time to think over my suggestion, I got up from the corner of the sofa where I had been sitting, I walked over to the TV, and I turned it off. Then, in a hushed, conspiratorial tone, I said:
“But remember; we’ve got to make it look as if we really both want to go.”
Just as I said this, I heard Grandma opening the front door. I yelled:
“Grandma, wait! We want to go with you!”
José and I rushed into the kitchen while Grandma held the door open, and our mother watched us, with a puzzled look on her face. We had never volunteered to go grocery shopping with Grandmother before.
“Are you sure you want to go, boys?” my mother asked, looking at each one of us in turn. I hastened to answer.
“Yes, ma. And we can help grandma carry the groceries.”
Unconvinced, Mother looked questioningly at my brother. After I jabbed his chest with my elbow, he replied, robot-like, and using the same words that I had just used.
“And we can help grandma carry the groceries.”
Although I know that our mother didn’t completely buy our story, she agreed to let us go. I suppose she thought it was a good opportunity for us to bond with Grandma and, most likely, she could use a rest from us, even if it was just for a little while.
Nevertheless, just before we left, my mother called us aside, and she warned us.
“I want you boys to behave. And don’t you dare ask Grandma to buy you anything! Obey her, no matter what she says. Remember that Grandma’s always right.”
She waited a second, making certain that the warning had been understood. Then, just to make sure, she asked:
José and I nodded our heads in unison. My mother, who had gone down on one knee to be able to look us straight in the face, patted down our hair and got up. All this time, José had been anxiously looking at the door.
Grandma went on ahead of us, with José thumping down the steps after her. I followed, at a more moderate pace.
Once outside, Grandma was content to let us trail behind her, until we reached the only street we had to cross. She waited patiently at the corner until we caught up with her. Then, like good little boys, I grabbed José’s and grandmother’s hands. As soon as we were safely across, we let go and held back while Grandma went on ahead.
“Attenzione, ragazzi!” a man wheeling an enormous cask of wine on a dolly suddenly yelled behind us. My brother and I jumped aside to let him pass. When he reached my grandmother, he didn’t have to shout. Somehow, though her back was towards him, she had perceived his approach, and she nonchalantly drifted over to the shop window of a hardware store, acting as if she were really interested in ball peen hammers or drill sets.
“Ciao, Giovanni! … Marcello! Dove stài, diavolo?… Ah, Madonna…!” The street was filled with sound.
Just then, someone shouted out at us from across the street.
“Hey, Leopolda!” an elderly woman was yelling. Grandmother stopped when she heard her name being called, and she turned in the direction of the sound. Suddenly, her hard features softened, and she smiled. She actually smiled!
I realized that this could only mean one thing: we had been spotted by the heretofore mythical Mrs. Torelli. So much for my theory that she didn’t exist! However, I still held out hope that I could prove Grandma had never understood a single word Mrs. Torelli had exchanged with her.
Surprised by this new development, José and I hurried over to Grandmother, and she grabbed our hands.
The woman who had called out to us had placed the single, paper shopping bag she had been carrying, on the sidewalk, and she was gesturing wildly at us with her arms. Over the roar of the traffic and the din of the market crowd, I thought I heard her shouting what sounded like “Aspetta! Aspetta!”
Then, she proceeded to cross the street, without a thought to the oncoming traffic. Somehow, she made it across safe and sound. To this day, I’ve never been able to figure out whether the feat was accomplished due to long practice in the streets of Rome or some other Italian city, or by sheer luck. However, something told me that this was not the first, or only, time that she had done this.
As she made her way across the thoroughfare, I noticed the quick, nervous steps she took, and the strange gestures she made at the pesky vehicles trying not to hit her. I couldn’t hear the actual words, but I saw her mouth off words at the inconsiderate drivers leaning on their horns or sticking their heads out their windows to offer her polite, gentle words of warning. Had there been less noise, I would probably have heard what she, and the irate drivers, were yelling at each other. The apparently colorful expressions would surely have expanded my Italian vocabulary considerably.
When Mrs. Torelli safely reached our side of the street, she hugged my grandmother, and she air-kissed her once on each cheek, while talking profusely. After the first kiss, my grandmother tried to break away from the embrace, but a second later, the women were holding hands like two schoolgirls.
Mrs. Torelli was a petite woman with short hair that had once been red but was now graying. She wore no makeup because she really didn’t need to; the pale complexion of her face, dotted with freckles, was highlighted by two permanent red blotches, one on each cheek, resembling rouge.
She wore dark sensible pumps on her feet, and on her legs, thick tan support hose. I honestly don’t remember what kind of dress she wore because I kept looking at the light spring coat that she was wearing.
What drew my attention wasn’t so much the fact that she was wearing a coat in the summer. I knew that many ladies her age (she must have been close to 80) suffered from abnormal cold in all temperatures. It was the color of her coat that surprised me. Although the rest of her attire was fairly sensible and conservative, her orange-red coat seemed completely out of place. I suppose that Mrs. Torelli had a fashion statement to make, and absolutely no one was going to prevent her from doing so.
Her blazing red coat contrasted sharply with the way my grandmother was dressed. She always wore seemingly-expensive white blouses with fancy embroidery on them, buttoned all the way up to her chin. The plainness of those blouses was offset by a gold medallion of Saint Christopher hanging from a gold chain from her neck.
She always wore skirts; tidy, plain-colored, and neatly pressed skirts, that ran the gamut from dark gray to medium-dark gray. Like Mrs. Torelli, she too wore black pumps and support hose, though hers was gray. As for the light coat that she wore, that, too, was… you guessed it: gray! Her sensible matronly handbag, however, was black.
Unlike her friend, though, my grandmother wore makeup. She used a base of some kind on her face, and applied the faintest touch of rouge to each of her cheeks. Imported, Spanish scented talc was her deodorant, and she liked to wear a Spanish cologne that smelled of fresh-mown hay.
Grandmother wore her hair, mostly gray, but streaked with the original jet-black, combed straight back, but held together —sensibly— at the nape by a rubber band. Beyond that, her hair cascaded freely over her shoulders.
As for their manners, they could not be more different from each other. Mrs. Torelli was hyperactive, moving around in a circumscribed space around my grandmother, pointing, touching her arms or her shoulders to make a point, and once, even jabbing her lightly in the chest. She talked incessantly, raising and lowering her voice, acting out actions and imitating other people’s voices, and occasionally, looking around surreptitiously when she was about to talk about a neighbor.
My grandmother’s demeanor was staid, measured, and even aristocratic. Her deep, hoarse voice rarely rose, but it did lower an octave or two when she thought the subject merited seriousness.
By this time, my little brother José was growing restless, and he twisted his hand in Grandmother’s to show his discomfort.
As I observed the two women side by side, a funny image came to mind. I was reminded of the illustrations in a children’s version of Don Quijote that I had read. The lively, chatty, and petite Mrs. Torelli reminded me of Sancho Panza, though she certainly lacked his scruffy beard and his pot belly. As for Grandmother… there was no mistaking whom she represented. Willowy tall and thin, somber of voice, measured in her movements, severe in her dress, and aristocratic in her manners, all she needed was a horse named Rocinante and a lance in order to strike fear into the hearts of even the most ferocious windmills.
Seeing that my brother and I were growing restless, and no doubt wishing to converse with her friend in peace, she introduced us to Mrs. Torelli so as to get the matter out of the way.
“Mis nietos,” she said in Spanish, looking down at us. Then, she mustered up what little English she knew and translated: “My grandchildren.”
Mrs. Torelli looked at us, patted our heads, smiled and said:
“Ah! I belli ragazzi!” Then, she forgot all about us and went back to talking to my grandmother.
José had, by then, grown even more restless and annoying. He doubled his efforts at trying to wrest his hand from Grandmother’s, and he began repeating, in a whining voice, “Grandma! Grandma!,” in Spanish.
Grandmother let go of our hands, and she said to both of us:
“You boys go look at that toy-store window. And don’t move from there!”
Saved from the long, and to use his favorite word, “boring,” conversation that would surely ensue, my brother rushed off to the window of a store behind us with a big sign that read “Giocattoli-Toys.” I hadn’t even noticed the store until then, but I sneaked a peek and saw the single model airplane, the single tricycle, the toy soldiers scattered all over the floor of the display window, and the gun-and-holster sets. From the dust covering everything, and from the fact that not a single toy was a recent model, I gathered that not many people frequented the shop, and that its owner was probably thankful for that.
I backed up a step or two, as if heading for the shop window, but I remained within hearing distance from the two women. The whole purpose of my coming on this shopping trip had been to hear their conversation.
My grandmother and her friend must have thought that they were finally rid of us, and they spoke freely, Mrs. Torelli almost exclusively in Italian, and my grandmother mostly in Spanish.
“Cara amica Leopolda. Come vai?” Mrs. Torelli inquired.
Grandmother responded at once, in Spanish, of course. She relied on the fact that many Italian and Spanish words are cognates, or similar.
“Bien, María. ¿Y tú?”
“Così, così, ” Mrs. Torelli replied, raising her eyebrows and turning down the corners of her lips, as if to say “I don’t know,” then twisting her right hand palm-up, palm-down several times as if she were flipping pancakes.
Grandmother correctly understood the gesture to mean “so-so.” Then she, in turn, asked her friend in Spanish:
“¿Vienes del mercado? ¡Parece que no compraste mucho!”
Mrs. Torelli appeared to understand that her friend had said “Are you coming from the market? It doesn’t look like you bought much!” Undoubtedly, she was aided by Grandmother’s quick glance down at the single, solitary shopping bag on the sidewalk, next to her.
In a flurry of movement, Grandmother’s friend repeated “Aspetta! Aspetta!” as she bent down, reached into her shopping bag and withdrew an orange. She handed the fruit to Grandma, who inspected it.
“¡Se ve rica!,” grandma exclaimed. Then, trying to make it easier for her friend to understand, she searched her memory and came up with an approximate English translation of what she had just said:
“Very pretty!” It sounded like “Berry pre-tea!”
When my grandmother tried to hand back the orange, Mrs. Torelli waved her off and reached into her shopping bag once more. Now, she withdrew two more oranges, which she handed to my perplexed grandmother. Mrs. Torelli explained:
“Tre belle arànce. Una per te, ed una per ognuno déi ragazzi.”
I had, by then, drifted even closer to the two women, taking up the position that I had previously occupied. Mrs. Torelli had no problem in reaching over and patting my head once again. Then, she herself praised the oranges.
“Sono buone,” she said, feigning to kiss the bunched up fingers of her right hand. Then, in a gesture of linguistic reciprocity, she thought for a minute and came up with what must have been the sum total of her Spanish. With a twinkle in her eyes, she exclaimed:
“‘Muy bueno,’ come si dice nello spagnolo.” She laughed.
Grandmother certainly understood the two words in Spanish that Mrs. Torelli had uttered, and from the number of oranges, she was able to piece together the message. Consequently, she protested vigorously.
“No, amiga; no. Gracias, pero yo voy para el mercado y puedo comprar.”
Without further ado, Grandma put the oranges back in Mrs. Torelli’s shopping bag. When she stood up again, she noticed the perplexed look on her friend’s face. She touched her forearm lightly and tried to explain, in English.
“I buy. In mercado.” She couldn’t come up with the English word for “market,” and so, she made do with its Spanish equivalent.
Up ahead of us, at that moment, an angry butcher stormed out of his shop and began yelling “Marcello!,” at the top of his lungs, first in one direction of the street, and then in the other.
Marcello, the delivery boy the butcher was calling, was across the street, still wearing his blood-stained apron and placidly chatting with a pretty girl.
The traffic between them hid the boy from his angry boss, who spat on the sidewalk and muttered something before going back into his shop. All I was able to hear was “Figlio della grandissima...!,” before the roar of a truck drowned out all the other sounds on the street.
When the vehicle had passed, I again turned my attention to Grandmother and her friend. I noticed that Mrs. Torelli had grown sad.
She let out a sigh.
“Ah, Leopolda… il mio marito Giulio amava le arance.” Her voice cracked when she pronounced the verb form “amava.” Obviously, powerful emotions were stirring deep inside of her.
Grandmother nodded. Maria Torelli continued talking.
“Ogni volta che andava al mercato, ne comprebbe alcune.”
Grandma continued nodding, and then she smiled.
At that moment, I was totally convinced that my grandmother had not understood a single word her friend had said. With my budding Italian, I had gathered that Mrs. Torelli had said: “My husband Giulio loved oranges.” “Loved,” she had said, in the past tense. Then, still referring to oranges, she had explained that every time he went to the market, he used to buy some. Again, both verbs referred to the past.
I had been busy that summer studying English grammar, and I remembered that “used to” was called “the imperfect,” that it was a past tense, and that it implied that something was no longer done.
I was puzzled by what I had just heard, and I tried to reason it out. It was possible that Giulio no longer went to the market because, perhaps, he was ill or he had difficulty walking. “Used to” would be correct in that situation. I further reasoned that if he could no longer go to the market, then he could no longer buy anything there. That, too, justified the use of “used to.” But something didn’t click. I asked myself just how likely it was that Giulio had stopped liking oranges? Mrs. Torelli had definitely implied that. There were only two possible explanations: Either I had not fully understood Mrs. Torelli’s Italian, or….
Just then, José walked up to us, tugged at Grandma’s coattail and, as was to be expected, he let it be known that he was bored. Grandma gave him a stern look, and he meekly returned to the toy store window.
Mrs. Torelli hadn’t seemed to notice the interruption, and she continued reminiscing. By now, she was speaking fast, and all in Italian. She appeared to have forgotten that my grandmother didn’t speak the language.
“Le piaceva andare al mercato,” she was saying. “Lui reporterebbe le cipolle, gli spinaci, le patate, e le carote per la minestra. Ha ottenuto sempre i tagli più belli di carne!”
Grandmother was visibly lost in the torrent of words. I was almost as lost. However, “cipolle,” and “patate” sounded like the Spanish words for “onion” and “potato.” “Spinaci” and “carote” were similar to their English counterparts, and everyone knew what “minestra” meant: it had something to do with a soup, like “minestroni.” When I put all of this together, I made an educated guess. Mrs. Torelli was still talking about Giulio, about the “mercato,” about vegetables, and about soup. So, I assumed that she had said that Giulio went to the market, and he bought onions, potatoes, spinach and carrots to make soup. That is, he used to go to the market, and he used to buy those products!
While I had been focusing my attention on Mrs. Torelli’s story, Marcello had returned to the butcher shop, and at that very moment, he was getting the scolding of his life. I heard loud voices coming from the shop, unpronounceable words I was certain were terrible curses, and then… quiet. Once again, I turned my attention to my grandmother and her friend.
“Yo voy a comprar arroz, habichuelas, carne y café,” Grandma was saying.
I couldn’t believe my ears! Here Mrs. Torelli was recalling what her late —deceased— husband used to bring home from the market, and Grandma was calmly telling her that she was going to buy rice, beans, meat and coffee! On this trip, I had expected to confirm my suspicion that Grandma didn’t understand what her friend said to her, but this…!
Suddenly, Mrs. Torelli remembered an important detail about her late husband, and she narrated it, in a dreamy voice.
“Lui amava il burro… il burro fresco…”
Grandmother stopped smiling, and in a grave tone, she proceeded to give her friend a piece of advice.
“Maria, a los hombres hay que ponerlos en su sitio cuando miran a otras mujeres,” she said sternly.
This was really too much! I burst out laughing at a joke —a quid pro quo, really— of which only I was aware. Mrs. Torelli stared down at me, offended. Grandmother ordered me to stop laughing, but not too harshly.
I controlled my laughter, but in my mind, I continued recalling the gaffe. Mrs. Torelli had stated that Giulio loved butter… fresh butter. I knew the words because I had seen an ad in a shop window showing several sticks of butter with the very words “Burro Fresco!” written underneath.
However, Grandma had translated the Italian into Spanish literally. In Spanish, “burro” means “donkey,” as it does in English, but it can also mean “dolt,” or, more modernly, “jerk.”
“Fresco,” in Spanish, certainly refers to freshness, but just as in English, that freshness, does not always mean “recently picked” or “recently made.” Think of the sentence “Don’t get fresh with me, young man!” Used together in Spanish, “burro” and “fresco” suggest something akin to “dirty old man!” That explained why Grandmother had reminded her friend that men need to be put in their place when they stared at other women.
The more I thought about it, the more I felt like laughing again. However, I decided that I couldn’t be that mean to Mrs. Torelli, and so, I held it in.
“Ma il caro Giulio… il carissimo…” Mrs. Torelli choked up, and she couldn’t go on.
Responding to another quid pro quo, Grandmother tried to show her solidarity with her friend by agreeing:
“Sí; todo está muy caro.” Yes; everything’s very expensive.
Before I could burst out laughing again, this time at Grandmother’s mistaking the Italian word “caro” for its Spanish false cognate —one means “dear,” as an adjective of affection, while the other means “expensive”— I noticed tears welling up in Mrs. Torelli’s eyes. This was no time for levity.
Grandma noticed the tears as well, and a look of concern came over her face as she said, in Spanish:
“Maria, if you guys are short of money, I can lend you some.” Then, she opened her handbag, and she began searching for her wallet.
Mrs. Torelli immediately stuck out a hand, preventing my grandmother from withdrawing anything from her purse.
“No, no, Leopolda. Ho uno qui,” she protested, pulling a dainty little handkerchief from her own purse. She dabbed at her tears, put away the handkerchief, and smiled wanly.
Grandmother stepped forward, and she actually hugged Mrs. Torelli. As she did so, she patted her back gently and repeated:
“¡Vamos!, ¡vamos, Maria!”
Mrs. Torelli felt that she needed to explain her reaction. Her exact words were:
“È giusto che quando mi recordo del mio amato Giulio…”
Grandmother showed her sympathy again, this time, by telling her friend that she knew Giulio was sad too, but they had to remain strong. She reassured Rosa that everything would turn out fine, for her and for Giulio. To make her point, she quoted an old Spanish adage: “God squeezes hard, but he never chokes us!”
Mrs. Torelli retained only two words from what Grandma had said; the two proper nouns, as a matter of fact. That became clear in her reply.
“Si, Giulio e Dio, insieme.” Yes, Giulio and God, together.
José had, by then, reached his limit. He approached us and whined: “Abuela, it’s late. Let’s go!’
As if to lend credence to his complaint, at that very moment, the church bell at nearby Saint Cecilia’s struck three o’clock. Both Grandmother and Mrs. Torelli were startled at the lateness of the hour.
When the two women took leave of each other, Grandma gave her friend an extra long hug. Mrs. Torelli picked up her shopping bag, and she went on her way. Grandma, José, and I, remained there, watching her walk away. Soon, she was just a tiny streak of bright orange-red, receding into the distance.
We walked on about half a block, and then Grandmother decided to stop at the butcher shop where Marcello, the fledgling Romeo, worked. The young man was nowhere to be seen.
Grandma waited patiently behind the customers who were there before her. When it was her turn, she called out “¡Oiga!, ¡Oiga!” until she got the butcher’s attention.
Ordering one, two or three pounds of meat or sausage was easy for Grandmother since those numbers are practically the same in Italian and in Spanish. In order to show what she wanted, grandmother would tap the glass-encased freezer-counter.
Ordering half a pound of something was a little more complicated, but not impossible. Grandma would hold out the index finger of her left hand, and then she would lay the index finger of her right hand across its very middle. Through lots of gesturing, she ordered, she haggled, and she paid. Then, we were on our way, once again.
The market we were headed for was really an open-air farmer’s market, which existed only on weekends. It was comprised of two or three city blocks, cordoned off to keep out vehicular traffic.
All licensed vendors were assigned a spot where they would exhibit their products in crates neatly stacked one on top of another. Some vendors had tarps over their stands to keep out the rain or shade them and their produce from the sun. There were no cash registers or fancy counters. You picked out what you wanted, the shopkeeper would wrap it up for you, and you paid him or her. They made change from the several pockets sewn into the front of their aprons.
Bordering this makeshift market there were many tiny, brick-and-mortar shops selling perishable goods that required refrigeration. The butcher shop where Marcello worked, if he still had a job, was one of those establishments. But there were others; at some, you could have your hair cut, or your picture taken. A few of the “real” brick abd mortar stores seemed to specialize in out-of fashion clothing, terribly ugly furniture, or, as in the case of the “giocattoli” store whose shop window José had examined so thoroughly, in dusty, outdated toys.
Almost all those shops benefited from the crowds drawn by the market, especially the butcher shop, the dry goods stores, and, of course, the Italian restaurants and pizzerias. On weekends, even the most customer-unfriendly of those brick-and-mortar shops willingly traded its week-day, hum-drum existence, for a more exciting one. On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, they, too, became part of “the market.”
As we neared the cordoned-off area, the smell of freshly baked bread wafting in the air, and the appetite-provoking aromas of pasta, spaghetti sauce, garlic, olive oil, oregano… and espresso! made my mouth water. Not quite as aromatic, however, was the run-off water which found its way to the curb, where it proceeded to wash forward heads of lettuce, apple cores, carrot-tops, and partially-eaten slices of pizza. Even less appealing were the dark, narrow, malodorous alleys we ran across whenever the seamless wall of adjoining buildings was interrupted. In their dark recesses, we could just make out overflowing trash cans, open dumpsters, and dark, feline forms, rummaging through the garbage.
The part of our shopping actually done in the market merely confirmed the abilities that my grandmother had shown at the butcher’s. It was uncanny how she managed to get exactly the items that she needed, in exactly the quantities that she wanted, and at exactly the price she thought reasonable. Shop by shop —and we must have visited at least five that afternoon— Grandmother pointed, yelled, haggled and paid her way, until she had checked off every single item on her shopping list. Then, we headed back home.
By the time we finished shopping, it was after five o’clock, and the vendors were closing up their stands. That led my little brother José to conclude that if we didn’t hurry, he would miss Howdy Doody.
When we returned to Grandma’s apartment, our mother greeted us with the news that Dad would be coming home a bit later than usual. So, she explained, José and I could watch TV a little while longer.
José couldn’t have been happier. He made a bee-line to the TV set, he turned it on, and he plopped down on the floor to watch the program, which was already in progress.
The year was 1951, and “The Howdy Doody Show” was all the rage among American children. The star of the show was a somewhat orange-skinned, string-operated marionette. He had red hair parted down the right-hand side, freckles painted on each cheek, and a gap between two of his front teeth. Many years later, I would realize that Howdy Doody was probably the model for Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Newman.
Howdy wore a red and white-dotted bandana around his neck, a checkered cowboy shirt, blue, non-descript pants, and shiny, light-brown cowboy boots.
The marionette’s human sidekick was an ex-radio deejay called “Buffalo Bob,” who, literally, “played to the gallery”; that is, to a group of thirty to forty children who sat on bleachers on the set, so that Buffalo Bob could lovingly refer to them as “the peanut gallery.” He would regularly work them into a frenzy, and use them as back-up singers in the stirring rendition of the show’s theme song, set to the very original tune of “Ta-ra-ra, Boom-dee-ay.”
Many other characters, both human and marionette, appeared on the show. The most annoying of these was Clarabell the Clown, played by Bob Keeshan. Apparently, Clarabell was mute, and he was incredibly clumsy. When he wasn’t busy tripping over something, he would go around squirting water on everyone from a seltzer bottle. So much for what today would be called “sensitivity for the speech-impaired.”
I wasn’t a big fan of the show. Buffalo Bob seemed too glib, too much of a cheerleader, too much of a salesman. The program’s humor was (pardon the pun) … puerile, a throw-back to the slapstick of vaudeville. Furthermore, the show’s Western theme totally turned me off. Judging from the popularity of “The Howdy Doody Show,” I must have been the only kid of my generation who had never liked Westerns or cowboys.
Aside from not being interested in Howdy Doody, I had a lot of other things to think about at that moment. I had to figure out the best way, and the most appropriate moment, to expose Grandma as a liar.
As I sat there, I heard her moving about the kitchen, putting away the groceries, and giving my mother a thorough report of Mrs. Torelli’s financial difficulties. I only caught the tail-end of her narrative.
“I think they’re having serious money problems. But Maria is too proud to admit it or to ask for help. I wish there were something I could do for her.”
In the living room, I decided that I had heard just about enough. Grandma had actually called her friend proud…. My haughty, aristocratic grandmother, who had never accepted that her ancestors had lost all their lands, and that she was as poor as any sharecropper! And now, she was concerned about a stranger’s financial situation. Concerned, for Christ’s sake!
I knew that this was the perfect moment to reveal my discovery.
I rose from the sofa, ready to burst into the kitchen and prove that everything Grandma had just said was false. However, when I saw my brother José lying in front of the TV set, I realized that there was still one more detail of my plan to take care of.
I remembered that my younger brother had not actually heard the conversation between Grandmother and her friend. Therefore, it was clear that I had to prepare him for the upcoming confrontation by revealing my secret to him first. After all, he was going to be my star witness!
With that in mind, I walked over to the TV set and turned it off. Then, I just stood there, waiting.
“Hey! What’cha do that for?” José protested.
I lost no time in replying.
“Listen, man; I’ve got something really important to tell you.”
José waited, wondering what could be so important as to warrant turning off Howdy Doody.
I was about to blurt out my story —my great discovery— and to let my brother know just what a liar our grandmother was, when something odd occurred. I had doubts concerning what I was about to do. It was as if a cement curtain had suddenly fallen over my thoughts. My mind went blank.
“What I wanted to tell…,” I began.
Mrs. Torelli had cried when she thought about her late husband!
Little scenes, like movie clips, from Grandmother’s conversation with her friend managed to pierce the concrete curtain and further disorganize my thoughts. My resolve was wavering. I was, as they say, coming unglued.
I tried to continue where I had left off.
“… to tell you…”
Grandma had hugged her.
Her friend had offered us oranges.
Grandma had tried to lend her money, even though she was as poor as Mrs. Torelli.
“… that… that…,” I stuttered before finally blurting out:
“That Howdy Doody is stupid, that’s what!” I wasn’t totally aware of what I had just said.
“That’s the important thing you had to tell me?’ José asked, furiously. Then, he got up and turned the TV on again.
As he plopped down on the floor again, he directed the ultimate insult at me.
“And you’re even stupider!”
I went back to the sofa and sat. I wasn’t angry at my brother. I had the not-unpleasant feeling that I had just learned an important lesson, even though I couldn’t put into words what it was that I had learned.
When the next commercial break came, José got up to go to the bathroom, or to get a drink of water, I don’t know which. As he passed by me, he reiterated:
“You’re even stupider than Howdy Doody!”
Even that couldn’t dampen my new-found elation. I knew that I was smarter than Howdy Doody. Way smarter.