Mulberry Street (3/3)
Just then, José walked up to us, tugged at Grandma’s coattail and, as was to be expected, he let it be known that he was bored. Grandma gave him a stern look, and he meekly returned to the toy store window.
Mrs. Torelli hadn’t seemed to notice the interruption, and she continued reminiscing. By now, she was speaking fast, and all in Italian. She appeared to have forgotten that my grandmother didn’t speak the language.
“Le piaceva andare al mercato,” she was saying. “Lui reporterebbe le cipolle, gli spinaci, le patate, e le carote per la minestra. Ha ottenuto sempre i tagli più belli di carne!”
Grandmother was visibly lost in the torrent of words. I was almost as lost. However, “cipolle,” and “patate” sounded like the Spanish words for “onion” and “potato.” “Spinaci” and “carote” were similar to their English counterparts, and everyone knew what “minestra” meant: it had something to do with a soup, like “minestrone.” When I put all of this together, I made an educated guess. Mrs. Torelli was still talking about Giulio, about the “mercato,” about vegetables, and about soup. So, I assumed that she had said that Giulio went to the market, and he bought onions, potatoes, spinach and carrots to make soup. That is, he used to go to the market, and he used to buy those products!
While I had been focusing my attention on Mrs. Torelli’s story, Marcello had returned to the butcher shop, and at that very moment, he was getting the scolding of his life. I heard loud voices coming from the shop, unpronounceable words I was certain were terrible curses, and then… quiet. Once again, I turned my attention to my grandmother and her friend.
“Yo voy a comprar arroz, habichuelas, carne y café,” Grandma was saying.
I couldn’t believe my ears! Here Mrs. Torelli was recalling what her late —dead— husband used to bring home from the market, and Grandma was calmly telling her that she was going to buy rice, beans, meat and coffee! On this trip, I had expected to confirm my suspicion that Grandma didn’t understand what her friend said to her, but this…!
Suddenly, Mrs. Torelli remembered an important detail about her late husband, and she narrated it, in a dreamy voice.
“Lui amava il burro… il burro fresco…”
Grandmother stopped smiling, and in a grave tone, she proceeded to give her friend a piece of advice.
“Maria, a los hombres hay que ponerlos en su sitio cuando miran a otras mujeres,” she said sternly.
This was really too much! I burst out laughing at a joke —a quid pro quo, really— of which only I was aware. Mrs. Torelli stared down at me, offended. Grandmother ordered me to stop laughing, but not too harshly.
I controlled my laughter, but in my mind, I continued recalling the gaffe. Mrs. Torelli had stated that Giulio loved butter… fresh butter. I knew the words because I had seen an ad in a shop window showing several sticks of butter with the very words “Burro Fresco!” written underneath.
However, Grandma had translated the Italian into Spanish literally. In Spanish, “burro” means “donkey,” as it does in English, but it can also mean “dolt,” or, more modernly, “jerk.” “Fresco,” in Spanish, certainly refers to freshness, but just as in English, that freshness, does not always mean “recently picked” or “recently made.” Think of the sentence “Don’t get fresh with me, young man!” Used together in Spanish, “burro” and “fresco” suggest something akin to “dirty old man!” That explained why Grandmother had reminded her friend that men need to be put in their place when they stared at other women.
The more I thought about it, the more I felt like laughing again. However, I decided that I couldn’t be that mean to Mrs. Torelli, and so, I held it in.
“Ma il caro Giulio… il carissimo…” Mrs. Torelli choked up, and she couldn’t go on.
Responding to another quid pro quo, Grandmother tried to show her solidarity with her friend by agreeing:
“Sí; todo está muy caro.” Yes; everything’s very expensive.
Before I could burst out laughing again, this time at Grandmother’s mistaking the Italian word “caro” for its Spanish false cognate —one means “dear,” as an adjective of affection, while the other means “expensive”— I noticed tears welling up in Mrs. Torelli’s eyes. This was no time for levity.
Grandma noticed the tears as well, and a look of concern came over her face as she said, in Spanish:
“Maria, if you guys are short of money, I can lend you some.” Then, she opened her handbag, and she began searching for her wallet.
Mrs. Torelli immediately stuck out a hand, preventing my grandmother from withdrawing anything from her purse.
“No, no, Leopolda. Ho uno qui,” she protested, pulling a dainty little handkerchief from her own purse. She dabbed at her tears, put away the handkerchief, and smiled wanly.
Grandmother stepped forward, and she actually hugged Mrs. Torelli. As she did so, she patted her back gently and repeated:
Mrs. Torelli felt that she needed to explain her reaction. Her exact words were:
“È giusto che quando mi recordo del mio amato Giulio…”
Grandmother showed her sympathy again, this time, by telling her friend that she knew Giulio was sad too, but they had to remain strong. She reassured Rosa that everything would turn out fine, for her and for Giulio. To make her point, she quoted an old Spanish adage: “God squeezes hard, but he never chokes us!”
Mrs. Torelli retained only two words from what Grandma had said; the two proper nouns, as a matter of fact. That became clear in her reply.
“Si, Giulio e Dio, insieme.” Yes, Giulio and God, together.
José had, by then, reached his limit. He approached us and whined: “Abuela, it’s late. Let’s go!’
As if to lend credence to his complaint, at that very moment, the church bell at nearby Saint Cecilia’s struck three o’clock. Both Grandmother and Mrs. Torelli were startled at the lateness of the hour.
When the two women took leave of each other, Grandma gave her friend an extra long hug. Mrs. Torelli picked up her shopping bag, and she went on her way. Grandma, José, and I, remained there, watching her walk away. Soon, she was just a tiny streak of bright orange-red, receding into the distance.
We walked on about half a block, and then Grandmother decided to stop at the butcher shop where Marcello, the fledgling Romeo, worked. The young man was nowhere to be seen.
Grandma waited patiently behind the customers who were there before her. When it was her turn, she called out “¡Oiga!, ¡Oiga!” until she got the butcher’s attention.
Ordering one, two or three pounds of meat or sausage was easy for Grandmother since those numbers are practically the same in Italian and in Spanish. In order to show what she wanted, grandmother would tap the glass-encased freezer-counter.
Ordering half a pound of something was a little more complicated, but not impossible. Grandma would hold out the index finger of her left hand, and then she would lay the index finger of her right hand across its very middle. Through lots of gesturing, she ordered, she haggled, and she paid. Then, we were on our way, once again.
The market we were headed for was really an open-air farmer’s market, which existed only on weekends. It was comprised of two or three city blocks, cordoned off to keep out vehicular traffic.
All licensed vendors were assigned a spot where they would exhibit their products in crates neatly stacked one on top of another. Some vendors had tarps over their stands to keep out the rain or shade them and their produce from the sun. There were no cash registers or fancy counters. You picked out what you wanted, the shopkeeper would wrap it up for you, and you paid him or her. They made change from the several pockets sewn into the front of their aprons.
Bordering this makeshift market there were many tiny, brick-and-mortar shops selling perishable goods that required refrigeration. The butcher shop where Marcello worked, if he still had a job, was one of those establishments. But there were others; at some, you could have your hair cut, or your picture taken. A few of the “real” stores seemed to specialize in out-of fashion clothing, terribly ugly furniture, or, as in the case of the “giocattoli” store whose shop window José had examined so thoroughly, in dusty, outdated toys.
Almost all those shops benefited from the crowds drawn by the market, especially the butcher shop, the dry goods stores, and, of course, the Italian restaurants and pizzerias. On weekends, even the most customer-unfriendly of those brick-and-mortar shops willingly traded its week-day, hum-drum existence, for a more exciting one. On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, they, too, became part of “the market.”
As we neared the cordoned-off area, the smell of freshly baked bread wafting in the air, and the appetite-provoking aromas of pasta, spaghetti sauce, garlic, olive oil, oregano… and espresso! made my mouth water. Not quite as aromatic, however, was the run-off water which found its way to the curb, where it proceeded to wash forward heads of lettuce, apple cores, carrot-tops, and partially-eaten slices of pizza. Even less appealing were the dark, narrow, malodorous alleys we ran across whenever the seamless wall of adjoining buildings was interrupted. In their dark recesses, we could just make out overflowing trash cans, open dumpsters, and dark, feline forms, rummaging through the garbage.
The part of our shopping actually done in the market merely confirmed the abilities that my grandmother had shown at the butcher’s. It was uncanny how she managed to get exactly the items that she needed, in exactly the quantities that she wanted, and at exactly the price she thought reasonable. Shop by shop —and we must have visited at least five that afternoon— Grandmother pointed, yelled, haggled and paid her way, until she had checked off every single item on her shopping list. Then, we headed back home.
By the time we finished shopping, it was after five o’clock, and the vendors were closing up their stands. That led my little brother José to conclude that if we didn’t hurry, he would miss Howdy Doody.
When we returned to Grandma’s apartment, our mother greeted us with the news that Dad would be coming home a bit later than usual. So, she explained, José and I could watch TV a little while longer.
José couldn’t have been happier. He made a bee-line to the TV set, he turned it on, and he plopped down on the floor to watch the program, which was already in progress.
The year was 1951, and “The Howdy Doody Show” was all the rage among American children. The star of the show was a somewhat orange-skinned, string-operated marionette. He had red hair parted down the right-hand side, freckles painted on each cheek, and a gap between two of his front teeth. Many years later, I would realize that Howdy Doody was probably the model for Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Newman.
Howdy wore a red and white-dotted bandana around his neck, a checkered cowboy shirt, blue, non-descript pants, and shiny, light-brown cowboy boots.
The marionette’s human sidekick was an ex-radio deejay called “Buffalo Bob,” who, literally, “played to the gallery”; that is, to a group of thirty to forty children who sat on bleachers on the set, so that Buffalo Bob could lovingly refer to them as “the peanut gallery.” He would regularly work them into a frenzy, and use them as back-up singers in the stirring rendition of the show’s theme song, set to the very original tune of “Ta-ra-ra, Boom-dee-ay.”
Many other characters, both human and marionette, appeared on the show. The most annoying of these was Clarabell the Clown, played by Bob Keeshan. Apparently, Clarabell was mute, and he was incredibly clumsy. When he wasn’t busy tripping over something, he would go around squirting water on everyone from a seltzer bottle. So much for what today would be called “sensitivity for the speech-impaired.”
I wasn’t a big fan of the show. Buffalo Bob seemed too glib, too much of a cheerleader, too much of a salesman. The program’s humor was (pardon the pun) … puerile, a throw-back to the slapstick of vaudeville. Furthermore, the show’s Western theme totally turned me off. Judging from the popularity of “The Howdy Doody Show,” I must have been the only kid of my generation who had never liked Westerns or cowboys.
Aside from not being interested in Howdy Doody, I had a lot of other things to think about at that moment. I had to figure out the best way, and the most appropriate moment, to expose Grandma as a liar.
As I sat there, I heard her moving about the kitchen, putting away the groceries, and giving my mother a thorough report of Mrs. Torelli’s financial difficulties. I only caught the tail-end of her narrative.
“I think they’re having serious money problems. But Maria is too proud to admit it or to ask for help. I wish there were something I could do for her.”
In the living room, I decided that I had heard just about enough. Grandma had actually called her friend proud…. My haughty, aristocratic grandmother, who had never accepted that her ancestors had lost all their lands, and that she was as poor as any sharecropper! And now, she was concerned about a stranger’s financial situation. Concerned, for Christ’s sake!
I knew that this was the perfect moment to reveal my discovery.
I rose from the sofa, ready to burst into the kitchen and prove that everything Grandma had just said was false. However, when I saw my brother José lying in front of the TV set, I realized that there was still one more detail of my plan to take care of.
I remembered that my younger brother had not actually heard the conversation between Grandmother and her friend. Therefore, it was clear that I had to prepare him for the upcoming confrontation by revealing my secret to him first. After all, he was going to be my star witness!
With that in mind, I walked over to the TV set and turned it off. Then, I just stood there, waiting.
“Hey! What’cha do that for?” José protested.
I lost no time in replying.
“Listen, man; I’ve got something really important to tell you.”
José waited, wondering what could be so important as to warrant turning off Howdy Doody.
I was about to blurt out my story —my great discovery— and to let my brother know just what a liar our grandmother was, when something odd occurred. I had doubts concerning what I was about to do. It was as if a cement curtain had suddenly fallen over my thoughts. My mind went blank.
“What I wanted to tell…,” I began.
Mrs. Torelli had cried when she thought about her late husband!
Little scenes, like movie clips, from Grandmother’s conversation with her friend managed to pierce the concrete curtain and further disorganize my thoughts. My resolve was wavering. I was, as they say, coming unglued.
I tried to continue where I had left off.
“… to tell you…”
Grandma had hugged her.
Her friend had offered us oranges.
Grandma had tried to lend her money, even though she was as poor as Mrs. Torelli.
“… that… that…,” I stuttered before finally blurting out:
“That Howdy Doody is stupid, that’s what!” I wasn’t totally aware of what I had just said.
“That’s the important thing you had to tell me?’ José asked, furiously. Then, he got up and turned the TV on again.
As he plopped down on the floor again, he directed the ultimate insult at me.
“And you’re even stupider!”
I went back to the sofa and sat. I wasn’t angry at my brother. I had the not-unpleasant feeling that I had just learned an important lesson, even though I couldn’t put into words what it was that I had learned.
When the next commercial break came, José got up to go to the bathroom, or to get a drink of water, I don’t know which. As he passed by me, he reiterated:
“You’re even stupider than Howdy Doody!”
Even that couldn’t dampen my new-found elation. I knew that I was smarter than Howdy Doody. Way smarter.
[From THE OTHER ISLAND, By: Jaime Martínez-Tolentino]