Sunday, December 21, 2008

Oh Brothers, Where Art Thou?

My brothers, John and Frank, have neither email nor Internet connections in their homes. Can you believe it?
by Charlie Leck

I want to tell my brothers that I went visiting today. I got on Google Maps and zipped back to Leland Avenue in the Bronx – exactly to the spot where I used to play stickball in the street when I was a little kid who had been shipped into the city to spend some time with his grandparents. This seemed to happen with some regularity and makes me wonder if someone wasn’t getting me out of his or her or their hair.

Well, anyway, I wanted to tell my brothers that I selected “street view” on Google Maps and I found myself standing on the corner of Leland Avenue and Gleason Avenue, peering up the street toward Westchester Avenue. I could see the 5 story apartment building in which my grandparents lived. There was the little corner grocery where Grandma frequently sent me to buy ice cream for her and to pick up “a number” in hopes that it would be a big money winner on that day.

And there was the street in which I played stick ball with the city kids, who regarded me as somewhat of a freak – a hick from the country who could hit a ball harder and further than any of the other kids my age. I was bigger than they were, too. I guess it was the country air. Maybe, truer, it was all cases of Coca Cola I lifted and moved around in the old store in Chester. There was great competition among the neighborhood kids to get me on their particular team.

I had no regrets about being sent into the city. I loved the atmosphere and I loved being with my grandparents. I would fall asleep at night on their sofa bed and, in the distance, I could hear the rumbling sounds of the elevated train that ran above Westchester Avenue. Sometimes my grandma and I would board that train and go to some extraordinary places – the Bronx Zoo, or Jones Beach, or to Battery Park and the Statue of Liberty, or to Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s amazing and huge department stores. I was astounded that we could go anywhere in the city by boarding one of these marvelous trains. I was determined to learn how to navigate around on them and I did. It gave me an enormous feeling of freedom and adventure. The 125th Street Station seemed to be the hub of the world! From it you could go anywhere.

The little rural town in which I lived out in New Jersey seemed so dull and abnormal after a week or two in the spectacular Bronx.

More than once, my grandpa took us to dinner at an Italian restaurant a few blocks down Westchester Avenue and each time explained to me, in a whisper, that it was owned by the mob and that the guys having dinner together in the corner were “made men.” The food was like nothing I’d ever tasted and I left nothing of the big plate of pasta and crusty bread that was served to me.

One time, a big, burly, dark-haired man rose up from the corner table and came over to our table. He had a huge laugh and he slapped my grandpa on his back and leaned over to kiss my grandma’s cheek.

“Hey, Frank – Paisano! How you been?”

My grandpa pointed at me and introduced me to Uncle Carmine. His hand engulfed mine and he gripped it hard and shook it vigorously. With his other hand he slapped my cheek so hard that I felt the sting. He laughed very hard and shook all over as he did.

“Another Bohemian, no? Un bel ragazzo, si?” Uncle Carmine said. “Egli assomiglia a sua madre. How is Milly?”

He pulled up a chair and joined us at our little table.

My friends in Chester didn’t have the foggiest idea what it meant that my Uncle Carmine was a made man. I didn’t either, but I couldn’t wait to tell my buddies at home.

“I had dinner with my Uncle Carmine DeLeggio. He’s a made guy! Big and tough! And he carries a gun underneath his jacket.”

“Oh, go on! You ain’t got no Italian uncle!” They weren’t so impressed.

I thought about that and realized it didn’t make sense. We had not a single Italian in the family. My grandpa had to explain to me that we just called Carmine an uncle as a matter of respect for his lofty position in the gang. “It’s the thing to do.”

My grandpa could take me to the ball park from that same train station up on 176th Street and Westchester Avenue. They were wonderful trips. We’d go see a ball game in Brooklyn, in the day time, with the sun shining on green, green grass, and then we’d stop for ice cream at a special Italian place he knew.

“The Waps make the best ice cream,” he’d tell me. “I think if I had to do it again, I’d be an Eye-talian,” he’d laugh at himself. “They’re the best. Except, the Germans make the best beer and the Irish make the best whiskey. We Bohunks, we got the best women, though!”

So, my brothers, today I went back in time. I returned to the corner in that neighborhood and looked it over and faintly heard the sound of the broom stick connecting with a rubber ball and I saw the ball soaring way out over the row houses on the west side of the street. My teammates were screaming and hollering as I jauntily rounded all the bases. A train was clacking along on the elevated rails up on Westchester Avenue. Uncle Carmine was walking down the avenue, on his way to visit Grandpa, and he cheered loudly for me.
"Ehi, guarda il bambino!"

Oh brothers, where art thou?

Had you the right connections you could have gone with me – for just those few magical moments I spent there today, in my youth again and happy as a clam as I ended the day in the arms of my grandma!

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