I was in school for the full day when my mother began working part-time as a secretary for our family doctor.
Everything would change when summer arrived; I spent hours next to her on marble floors listening to the doctor and mother talk, watching patients in the waiting room, and coloring in a book.
The office was right next door to our church, the one with high ceilings and very detailed designs, double doorways, long red drapes in the windows, and when you walked in through the front door, the floor sloped down to the altar like a huge theatre. Mother sent me over to talk to the Sister if she noticed her in her chair, on the side of the monastery connected to the church.
Most of the day, I sat cross-legged on marble floors, scribbling in magazines, drawing hair on models, and cutting out my own paper dolls. I listened to my mother on the phone with patients and pretended the paper dolls were patients too. It took a few weeks, and I was bored, and my Grandmother began watching me until mother returned from her job. At least I was home, with Grandmother who lived upstairs.
Grandmother never let me play alone when I wanted to go out in our yard, so I spent hours sitting next to her on her cold linoleum floor; a homemade cooling system, and stared at her feet as she pumped them back and forth on the black metal grate of her Singer Sewing Machine. I loved Grandmother, and her heart was as big as the entire city.
She would give me cookies with stripes from Woolworths, make homemade cocoa in the morning, and both of us would dunk old Italian bread – watch as the edges began to turn brown.
Quickly before the piece of bread sank, I lifted it out of the cocoa with my little spoon. If we ever had leftovers, they were fed to the blackbirds where Grandmother stood at the window of her back porch, and I climbed up onto a radiator resting on my knees. Grandmother opened the window and began squeezing the food with her hands, then picked it apart into smaller pieces to fit a bird’s beak.
We had leftovers every day, and every day I heard Grandmother’s call, “birds, come birds,” and did they ever come, at times filling our entire back yard. She would say, “Eat birds, eat,” then her hands began to clap, and a smile crossed her face. Grandmother loved to watch the birds eat; she was so pleased to give the birds her leftovers.
Most of the time, the birds were tossed stale bread from Perrecas and Grandmother had to wet the old bread to make it soft for a bird’s beak. That bread would be as hard as a brick by night, you had to eat it all before the sun went down, but it was her favorite from the baker on Jay Street. If Perrecas ran out of bread, she would purchase bread from the bakers who ran a shop next door; the two families never did get along.
She tossed soft Ritz Crackers and anything from the night before stored inside her refrigerator for our trip to the back porch.
Mother felt being with Grandmother was the safest place I could be, but she felt guilty having her watch me every day, and she told Grandmother I needed fresh air. She explained I would be going to my Aunt’s home a few days a week where I could play outdoors with my cousins.
Their neighborhood was different; wider streets, bigger porches, and a museum only four of five blocks away. Oh, I cannot forget Suicide Bridge, where people would jump – I never wanted to get near the bridge, but when you are with older kids, you tend to follow or return to an empty house. At home, I was told to stay on our side of the city block and never cross the street.
Mother warned me about the Candyman who took little children in his car, and they never returned. One night I heard Mother on the phone with neighbors. She was worried about a car parked along Avenue A, a man was sitting inside, but he never opened the door or looked like he was waiting for someone. I guess he could have been a Candyman.
So there I was waving up to the window, goodbye, three days a week to Grandmother and spending those days with my cousins. When I was there, we explored the neighborhood; it was new to me. We were doing things my Mother would not approve of, but my oldest cousin told me we wouldn’t get caught; she said, “Just don’t tell.” You see, her mother left the house, and so did we; crossing Suicide Bridge, getting lost inside the museum, and making banana sandwiches on American bread for picnics in the park.
We even went to the public pool on hot, humid days. I never paid much attention to the whereabouts of my Aunt, assuming she went shopping or to the beauty parlor to get her hair colored and waved. She was a pretty woman, but it must have taken a great amount of time to look perfect.
One afternoon, on our walk back from the Schenectady Museum, a dog leaped in front of me and bit my stomach. The owner came out of her front door and onto her porch; she started ranting about her dog, “he doesn’t have rabies.” What was rabies? I thought. No one seemed concerned, only the old squatty-looking woman, her hair standing up straight, her voice raspy as if she smoked all her life. “You have nothing to worry about, little girl, nothing at all because the dog doesn’t have rabies. My dog is clean, no rabies.
Did you hear me, no need to tell anyone, a clean dog, and no rabies,” she continued to holler, and I was the one bitten by her dog. We all began to walk faster, and I was holding my stomach, and I started to slow up to peek at the teeth marks; a small amount of blood oozed from each one. I never cried in front of my cousins or their friends. My hand cupped my stomach, and I looked down at my shirt. I did not want to look, but I did, and when we made it back to the backyard, all the kids had to peek.
“You promise never to tell, never!” demanded my oldest cousin. “If you say anything, we will all be in trouble, and we won’t be able to go to the museum, so promise.” Her face lost a softness of a child, and her voice was stern, and for a moment, I pictured her Mother standing in the yard without all of her makeup.
“I promise never to tell, cross my heart, but do you know what rabies means?”
She stared into my eyes and never answered. Instead, she dashed toward the house, calling out, “inside, white ice cream.”
Pure white ice cream was all it took for me to forget about some dog’s teeth. At my Aunt’s house you would get the best white ice cream on the planet; although I kept asking her where the ice cream came from so my parents could buy it, she never answered. She treated it as if she made the ice cream herself.
Every night I would be back in my neighborhood on my own front porch playing with my paper dolls, smelled those Seven Sisters, clusters of red roses on twisted vines, and I watched as neighbors walked past the house, waved, smiled, and knew many were heading to Charlie’s, a neighborhood grocery store.
One night the older girls from across the street were squealing over this new thing called a hula hoop. You had to keep it at waist level or even higher – up under your armpits the longest. One night Mother brought one home for my friends and me, and we struggled for hours to get the hang of it; moving our hips, feet, shoulders, and what looked like fun ended up a chore.
It was not long when I decided I would take baton lessons with my friend; she was the expert, but I caught on. I would never be like her tossing fire into the air and catching it with her chin. The baton would fly toward the sky, twisting and turning as my eyes followed, and just in time, I reached out, caught it, and began twirling it at the right moment, like the other girls. I wanted to fly, but now I had something that could.
We were not fussy. While we ran across loose dirt and small stones, the boys rode their new bikes, circling us in a figure eight.
They busted up our game, ran over cans, and then took off with one of those Mickey Mantle cards flapping between the silver spokes of their American Flyer.
As children, we yelled at the boys, not knowing it was some kind of flirting. I detested it when their feet hit the brake and splattered dirt over our clothes, on purpose, as they tipped their bike backward. Boys loved to cause trouble: One night, they decided to disturb a couple who were necking in the back seat of a car.
Teenagers called kissing, necking. So the boys were on their bikes laughing at the steamed-up windows, knowing they could sneak up on the couple, and one at a time, they removed a couple of Grandmother’s tomatoes from her garden and without a bike, soft-footed, approached the car.
All three boys flung the tomatoes splattering the windshield, and as fast as their legs could carry them to the bushes lining our home on the corner.
The car door opened, out came this hood: A hood was someone who looked like Elvis, but they were the tough guys in the neighborhood, and under one of the street lights, you could see him adjusting his pants and with his hand, running his fingers through his hair, waiting for someone to move.
The boys grabbed their bikes and took off like a bat into the night, hiding between the garbage shed and our yellow garage. I think that was the last time they tossed tomatoes at a car in the middle of the night.
Well, tomorrow I will be with Grandmother, and I think she said we were taking the bus downtown and I knew she would buy me something special.