Despite protests from his family Grampa Leo was confident that he could raise a family in New York. And so in 1955, when they were disappointed that their boat didn’t land at the Statue of Liberty, and saw that dominant skyline, they shared the same thought you did last time you circled JFK or LaGuardia waiting to land; before submerging the Hudson from New Jersey in the Lincoln Tunnel; or from a rooftop in Brooklyn or Queens at summer’s sunset: LOOK! You’re alive in one of the world’s largest cities. The quintessential American city, pulse of light and energy, distraction and focus, extremes and differences; Rome of the New World with an Empire State Coliseum, first monument to man. The city bears its state’s name. It is, and has always been, the largest city in America.
Squeaking and trombone-blowing buses; flurries of pigeons nibbling chicken bones; Five Points; labyrinths in the Village; dollar fifty Papaya Dogs and twenty dollar reubens; fourteen dollar fresh ginger and clementine cosmopolitans with bow tie pasta of fiery merguez for twenty two or a salt-cod casserole with peas and potatoes and cream for twenty six; taxi cabs with digital ads, or the older ones with rolling banners, or the oldest ones without ads on top; Lady Liberty on Liberty Island, which you haven’t been allowed to walk to the top of since 9/11, although by your time it will probably reopen, or it may stay closed and I will be an old-timer who got to stand in her crown and see the world beneath his feet: “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp! Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” And Leo entered it like a phoenix.
He and the Italians and Poles and Jews emerged from the mire of their Continental existence and defined the new Capital of the World. Where huskers and hobos and shirtless dudes and busty babes in window banners welcome you into Broadway and Prince boutiques, and big sunglassed tourists vaunt Gucci, Prada, and Chanel bags. While the halal man scrapes his griddle, chops lamb and chicken, and the smell mixes with that of roasted peanuts, you pass and inhale but dissuade yourself from street meat unless you can’t afford the scallop and crab paella.
So you return to Brooklyn or the Bronx or Queens or…gyulp…Staten Island. Whitman would’ve creamed himself if he had known the bumps, groans, hiccups, heaves, jumps, leans, shakes, and sighs of the day and night subway. Some lines come more frequently but it’s better than the cars that purr through tunnels and down crowded streets honking for the moron taking a left to move over already. ‘Ey, come on already, oven baked thin crusted pizza from (which?) Famous Ray’s, though we all know to get the best pizza in the city you have to go to DiFara’s off the Q on Avenue J. Ol’ Man DiFara holds the balls of Mutz, pronounced index and thumb pinched together, and breaks the curds. If you ate at one restaurant daily, you would not make it through all for eight years, at which point you could begin again and enjoy the new restaurants that had replaced the ones shut down while we took our time the first round.
It helped that New York had the largest Irish community outside of the Motherland. Seven children, and nine altogether when the came from Limerick, where Mary McGwiggin, for fifteen years kept her virginity, which is not a bad record, in that vicinity.
Middle height, with arms long and light, elfin ears and casual distrust in his squinted eyes, Leo look like a troublemaker. By early adulthood, most of his interactions conveyed resentment to interlocutors. His mild character, like me mammy’s, was quick to anger, and his genetic predisposition to dipsomania did nothing to alleviate his spleen, which as an older man, showed in the threaded blood vessels in his ruddy nose. This spleen, through DNA, produced my mother’s fiery rages, which, in the words of Tristram, were wholly untempered by a more frequent and a more convulsive elevation and depression of the diaphragm, and the succussations of the intercostal and abdominal muscles in laughter, to drive the gall and other bitter juices from the gall bladder, with all the inimicitious passions which belong to them, down into their duodenums. Yet, Grampa Leo was by no means uneducated. From rural roots he had been bible-reared, and he studied at Kings in Dublin. But in Amurica, he learned carpentry, working an immigrant’s work week. Work hard so your children can live better. The American Faust trades money for love.
And so dear reader, you may have asked what makes this story worth reading? How many hundreds of immigrant families debarked the day my mother was born in the humid July heat of 1955? Elvis Presley had recorded his first footage; McDonald’s had been born; Churchill resigned; West Germany became sovereign and Austria free; Lolita was published and the world population was about 2.7 billion. The United Nations had been established ten years before; Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated forty-one years prior; Napoleon had been defeated a hundred and forty years ago; Genghis Khan began his rise seven hundred and forty-nine years earlier; and Stella’s birth was eighteen hundred and ninety-one years after Nero threw Christians to dogs after they accused him of burning Rome. Surely you must realize how insignificant my family’s story is.