Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Brooklyn: A Big Family Dinner

 

I am participating for the first time in the Yeah Write Speakeasy Challenge Grid.  I don’t usually like to provide a set up for my stories, but it is worth noting that the story takes place in 1971 and while I could not take notes (for reasons which will become apparent), the dialogue is almost verbatim, as the memory of this day is seared in my brain.

Your comments are appreciated.
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I fell in love with a second generation Italian girl from Brooklyn. I met Vicky during our freshman year in college and she invited me to spend the summer with her family in Brooklyn. To the old-timers in her family, my staying at Vicky’s house, without our being married, was an “infamnia”; not allowed. But we were inseparable so, we made up this story about how I needed a job to pay for school, and jobs were scarce in Indiana. Vicky’s dad said I could stay there, so long as I slept in her brother’s room.

I take a taxi from the airport to a neighborhood known as “Red Hook”, in south Brooklyn.  I meet Vicky and her Aunt Mary on the corner of Court Street and Second Place.

We start walking toward Vicky’s brownstone and a man from the corner candy store runs outside and anxiously says, "Mary, are you ok?" Mary responds, “Yea, it's ok, he’s Vicky's boyfriend. He's an ‘American’.” I ask Vicky what this was all about and she explains, "In this neighborhood, the Italians watch out for each other and you are a stranger". "Ok, I say, "...but what's this about me being an American?” “Well…” she says, “...anybody who is not Italian is an ‘American’, especially a blond guy like you."

That night, the family was having a big dinner at Aunt Mary’s to celebrate Vicky being home from school.  I was nervous about meeting the family, especially Vicky’s Uncle Salvatore, Aunt Mary’s husband. Uncle Sal was Sicilian, a tough guy who worked on the docks.  He was a big shot in the Longshoremen’s union and the dock workers called him “Mack”, because he was built like a Mack Truck. I was particularly nervous because my hair was almost down to my shoulders and I was an outsider, especially now that I learned that I was an “American”.

We open the door to Aunt Mary and Uncle Sal’s apartment and say hello to about half a dozen cousins, aunts and uncles and we hear a lot of commotion coming from the kitchen. As I later learned was the custom, the women did all the cooking, serving and cleaning up. They were making lasagna, veal cutlets, eggplant and spaghetti with clam sauce and yelling about what needed to be done next. And Aunt Mary was the loudest, as she barked orders.

Uncle Sal was standing in the dining room, impatiently waiting for dinner. After we were introduced, Uncle Sal stares at me for a minute and then looks toward Aunt Mary and says: "My wife...she's a fuckin' ball breaker, ain’t she?” My mind was racing, how do I respond? I say, “Yeah.”, not wanting to contradict him.

As the women were starting to put the food on the table, Uncle Sal insists that he and I sit down and eat. I politely suggest we wait for the others. But, he commands: "Eat.", and we start in on the lasagna.  Aunt Grace sits down and glares at Uncle Sal and me, “Men are gavones” she declares. Vicky laughs and whispers in my ear: “That means ‘people with no manners’”. Uncle Sal doesn’t care what Aunt Grace has to say, but I’m worried about the impression I am making. I had already managed to call Aunt Mary a ball breaker; I don’t need any more screw ups!

By this time, almost everybody is sitting at the table. Vicky's cousin, Joe, breaks the ice: “I got a new Caddy. It's a beauty. It even has ‘climax control’.” I choked down a laugh, not quite hiding my reaction.

To recover, I suggest Joe might take us for a ride in the Caddy.  Joe looks at me incredulously, “What?  Are you fuckin’ crazy? I have a parkin’ space on the street, which is good ‘til ‘Tursday’, when the garbage men come!”

I’m completely confused! I look over at Vicky and she explains that Joe has to move the car when the garbage men come on Thursday, so he doesn’t want to lose the space before then.  I lean toward Vicky and whisper, “What’s the point of having a car, if you can’t use it.”, and Vicky just rolls her eyes.

Vicky's cousin, Jimmy Boy, comes in late. He gives Vicky a big hug and a kiss and shakes my hand. “Hey, how yous doon?” I respond “Good to meet you Jimmy”, not wanting to call someone, “Boy”, who looks to be about 20 years my senior.

Everyone laughs.  Aunt Grace scoffs at me: “No! He's Jimmy Boy. JIMMY IS HIS FATHER!” I look at Vicky, puzzled again, and she explains that “Boy” is the Brooklyn version of “Junior”.

Aunt Grace, after mocking me about Jimmy Boy, asks me if I want ice cream:  “We have vanilla or ‘chawklat’.”  I respond, “I’d like some ‘chocolate’, please.”, using, what I am about to learn, is an “American” accent.  Aunt Grace snorts, “Oh, listen to him...how high falootin’ he is!”

As the women start to clear the table, I get up to help to help pick up the dishes. Uncle Sal scowls at Vicky, “What, is your boyfriend a fag?” Vicky offers an off-handed defense: “No, Uncle Sal...you know that American men help with the dishes!” Jeez, I thought, “I can’t catch a break!”

After dinner, we say our goodbyes and walk back to Vicky’s house. I said to Vicky:  “Man, I’m so embarrassed: I came across as the 'American gavone'. Especially with Aunt Grace, who took more than her share of shots at me.  And I’m still cringing over Uncle Sal’s "fag" comment.”  Vicky snickers and says, “You did fine, the family likes you. Even Aunt Grace. That’s their way of saying you’re part of the family.  And Uncle Sal was just having some fun with you.”

© Lumdog 2012

26 comments:

  1. Everything about this cracked me up...from the "American" comment to the razzing by Uncle Sal, "climax control", everything. I can see this all taking place. And I know the car situation in the neighborhoods. You DON'T move it for nothin'. My husband, helpful by nature, made the same mistake as you getting up. He was similarly told (although not called a "fag") and now sits and talks with my dad and uncles. We women have our own time in the kitchen...cooking, laughing, talking and cleaning up. It's just the way it is and you portrayed it perfectly!!!

    Fantastic story, Lumdog! You must have more!

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    1. Thanks so much Gina. Yes, I could write a book about this family. I actually cut a few other remarks out of this to fall within the word count.

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  2. This was great. We were visiting a friend in Chicago and same thing with the parking spot. I had to beg him to give it up to take us to the airport.

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    1. Yeah, the parking thing is so crazy. Thanks for your comments.

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  3. Oh what a beautiful story! But seriously, what's the point of having a car if you can only drive in and out of a parking lot! :P

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    1. Jamie, thank you so much. I left a comment at your place but it hasn't shown up.

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    1. Thank you. Stressful but interesting to go through. A real culture shock!

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  5. Sometimes it can be really tough trying to make a good impression.

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    1. Thanks Jack. Yeah, I struggled, and I guess I came out ok.

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  6. Thanks for letting us be a fly on the wall here! Sounds like something out of the movies ;)

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    1. Thanks Stacie! I hadn't thought of this, but, I might send this to my filmmaker son.

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  7. Love your hilarious details in this. I could picture the scene unfolding. I cracked up after the ball breaker comment and the guy who won't use his car because he has a great parking spot. And it was funny how you couldn't win in the manners department, either being rude for going along with bad manners or insulted for your good manners.

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    1. Marcy, thank you for noticing those details and the fact that I was in trouble either way in some of those situations.

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  8. Oh, man. You were dealt a rough hand, friend. Great story!

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    1. Larks, thanks for your words of support. They were all very nice people; the differences in culture were just overwhelming!

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  9. When I visited NYC, the cost of parking blew my mind! I can completely understand not moving the car until you had to.

    I loved this slice of life!

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    1. Thank you TMW! I think "slice of life" is what I like to write about the most. Yeah, with the cost and hassle of parking, you could actually decide it's best not to use your car at all!

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  10. Like a scene out of the Sopranos. Well told. You made the scene come alive. A different culture in the heart of 'America.' Nice.

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    1. Thank you Stephanie. I love the Sopranos!

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  11. Thanks for a hint of a culture I've never experienced. I like hearing it from somebody who's actually experienced it, even if it was as the 'American.' :)

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    1. Thank you for those comments. I think you need the "American" point of view to really see the cultural differences!

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  12. You can't fake this stuff - this took us into every dining room in Brooklyn on a Sunday afternoon, even bringing back some memories.

    Great work!

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    1. Thanks BT. Yeah, even if I couldve made this up, I would have ruled it out as being implausible!

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  13. That's a great story... glad I got to read it.

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    1. Thanks Ted. This may be my most favorite writing.

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