Friday, August 29, 2008

The things you remember

It's funny the things you remember. I was just at the bank depositing a check preparatory to paying the last of our ridiculously outrageous real estate tax bills. While I was at the bank I got a couple of hundred dollars in twenties. I'm pretty modern about paying with credit cards for most things but Linda is somewhat less so. We go through an outrageous number of twenty dollar bills around here.

I can remember when a twenty dollar bill represented one-third of my pay for a sixy hour week at Harry's Potato Market. That was before I claimed to have another job opportunity after my first year of high school and Harry raised my pay to $1.20 an hour. Of course that was cash pay, so there were no outrageous taxes taken out of. And the job carried some fringe benefits. I got all the fruit I had any desire to eat, and I could take home all of the spotted fruit Mom had any desire to make into pies and such. And I sometimes got to accompany Harry on his trips with that old truck to deliver boxes of produce to various little stores and restaurants in Norristown and Bridgeport and Trooper and Plymouth Meeting. Harry would talk to the owner and I would carry the box into the back. Sam, or was it John, told me about a time when a box fell off the back of the truck on Airy Street and spread fruit all over the road as they went up a hill. "Don't look back," Harry said, as they roared away.

Whoa! A hawk, a redtail I think, just made a kill down by the bamboo grove where I mowed yesterday. And there he flies away. That garter snake who's been hanging around in the garden must have gotten complacent travelling toward the creek. He forgot there is no high grass now. Well, he won't be wriggling long. It's surprisingly rare that I see a hawk on the ground - maybe ten or fifteen times in the thirty years we've been up here in Collegeville. Nature photographers must be supernaturally patient people.

Anyway, back to Harry. Another fringe benefit of my job at Harry's was watching Harry and the other characters who came and went at the Potato Market during those late grade school and early high school summers. Harry was a Sicilian of a kind they don't make anymore, or, if they still make them, you don't see them in this country any more. Or maybe I don't hang around in the right places anymore.

Several of Pop's friends were Sicilians. Lardy and Chink, I think, were Sicilians. Louis Hop was also a Sicilian, but he was an altogether different kind of Sicilian, and he wasn't really one of Pop's friends, he was a neighbor. Reds and Tommy were also Sicilians, I think, but they weren't Pop's friends either, they were business associates.

Reds was also an albino, a very exotic person in 1950's Norristown. I only saw him a couple of times, and that was when I happened to be with Pop on a trip to town when Pop visited him to drop something off or pick something up. Reds talked about coins sometimes after he and Pop had finished comparing their lists and doing their calculations.

Reds talked about coins as investments, not coins as spending money like the ones in the big bowl Uncle Joe Sky had in the middle of the dining room table as a centerpiece. Uncle Joe would tell me to dip into that bowl and take a few of those coins when I went to his house with Pop. I knew I wasn't allowed to dip into that bowl when I went by myself to visit Aunt Lucy. Aunt Lucy made the best waffles, and she would make those waffles anytime if you just went in and said hi and sat down at the kitchen table and talked with her while she stirred up the batter and heated the waffle iron over the gas. She was funny, Aunt Lucy, and interesting to talk with; but mostly I remember her waffles. She put lots the Caro syrup on top of the waffles on her plate. I liked to put a little pool of syrup on the side of my plate and just dip each bite of waffle in it.

Much later Pop said Reds was one of the smartest guys he knew and he wished he had the money back then to invest in coins the way Reds told him to. Pop had a pretty good coin collection but he just put it together by looking at all the coins he got in change. Sometimes he got a lot of change. When I asked why it was so dark in Reds' apartment Pop told me Reds had to stay inside with the shades drawn because too much light bothered his eyes. He also told me Reds had no hair anywhere on him when I asked why he had a bald head and no eyebrows. Another time Pop told me Reds had no pores, so he couldn't sweat and had to be careful about getting too hot.

Pop's friends, the boys he called them, were a diverse lot. I think the three Jiggses, Frankie, Chollie and Louie, were Neapolitans. Cappy was a Mundelaise, and Worm's people were Bolognese, I think. Butch and Doc's people were Marche's, like our people. The Count's people, I think, were Roman, from Rome that is. None of us thought of ourselves as Roman Romans. We were Italians in those days. Sicilians were Italians too, but they were a different kind of Italian. We went to Holy Saviour church. The Sicilians had their own church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Have I mentioned that I'm a pure Marche' from all four grandparents. That's pronounced Mark with emphasis on the M and the K and a little "eh" on the end. I could have joined the Marche' Club, but I never did because Pop never did. He had a long standing grudge about the Marche' Club from the time he returned from the Navy and they denied him a little disability payment he should have gotten by virtue of Grandpop A's membership. Sam and Jas could have joined the club as well if they wanted, but Marianne couldn't have - no girls allowed. Not that it matters anymore; the club is gone. Our generation is the last to have enough pure Marches to make a local club.

Grandpop L, a club member in good standing, had a little joke he told about Marche's that Mom translated for me. "What's worse than a dead body in the living room?" "A live Marche' at the door." I guess it works better in Italian. The idea is that you're going to get be able to get rid of the dead body a lot easier than you're going to be able to rid of the hardheaded Marche'.

Grandmom L, who was a Marche', used to occasionally refer to Sicilians as "Le Chiboudeys," when she was going strong with Mom and Aunt Mary M at the kitchen table. Or she would call them "Shockeys." But she only talked about them like when her daughter-in-law Aunt Nancy wasn't around. Shockey was just an Americanization of Sciacca, which was the village most of the Norristown Sicilians came from. Pop or his buddies would call one another Shockeys or Napolitans or Mundelaise or Bolognese all the time as in "You Shockeys are all alike" so that wasn't interesting. The fact that Grandmom L might refer to a Sicilian as a Shockey wasn't anything special.

But Chiboudeys was clearly something different, something interesting, especially because it was accompanied with that little hand flip Grandmon L gave when she smiled in that way she only did with Mom and Aunt Mary when she thought us kids weren't watching. It was a broader, purposely transparent version of the smile Mom would have on her face when she would say "This is delicious," about some dish she had taken a couple of little tastes of. I don't think Hillary Clinton ever met Grandmom L or Mom, so she must have learned that smile from someone else.

That hawk is down there again and he has something else. A mouse. It must be good hunting in the newly mown field. I have never seen a hawk on the ground twice in one day.

Mom dodged my questions about Chiboudeys for a long time. And when she finally did tell me what it meant the explanation made no sense. Mom said Chiboudeys meant "onion eaters." That made no sense because Mom had also told me once that they were so poor in the 1930's that Grandmom L would sometimes only have an onion to put in Grandpops lunch box as a substitute for a piece of fruit. So there was a clear case of a pure Marche' biting into a raw onion with his lunch sandwich and yet mom's claiming Grandmom used "onion eaters" as a secret epithet that made them all laugh.

Mom uncomfortably dodged when I presented her with this obvious inconsistency and she would never visit the issue again. It's a terrible world. A world in which a mother will lie to her own son.
And I still don't know what "Chiboudey" meant.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Re: redtail hawks

They are very cautious little creatures. The only time one ever came near me was when my camera was home (of course). I suspect the secret to their survival is something in their genetic code that tells them to avoid anyone who is carrying something.

One day I had nothing on my person, and looked up to find the hawk sitting on a branch about six feet over my head. It just sat there very calmly looking at me and didn't mind me moving about or talking. It was as though it knew that I couldn't hurt it.

The next time I came through with a camera, the hawk just kept circling high overhead.