Mulberry Street, in New York City’s “Little Italy” sector 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.
[From THE OTHER ISLAND, By: Jaime Martínez-Tolentino]