Archive | City Matters

The Church of Harriet the Spy: All Grown Up

Early this morning was lovely—clear, bright, and cool enough to merit a light sweater—so I kept wandering after I fetched my Americano. The old Italians were beatifically sipping espressos on their stoops; the neighborhood dogs seemed especially glad to be alive; even the Polish ladies managed thin smiles. It was so lovely that I felt unexpectedly melancholy about being on my own. No family with whom to somersault into the day, no strong arm through which to link my own. So I did what I always do when I feel blue: I wandered some more.

After a bit I stumbled upon a bagel place I’d never noticed before. As soon as I entered I knew it’d been a misstep. Junky mid-’90s music was blaring; the countermen looked like they’d gone from clubbing to schmearing with nary a wink of sleep. I ordered anyway. As a New Yorker, I consider it my civic responsibility to monitor all iterations of the city’s signature baked good.

Ahead of me in line stood an older couple who looked even more nonplussed than I felt. Both were clad head to toe in cheerful pastels that clashed boldly with their sour expressions, and the obvious care they’d taken with their clothing–neatly pressed and perfectly matched, right down to their socks–seemed obstinate rather than fastidious. Overall a fascinating fuck-you lurked in all that Sunday finery. When I leaned in to catch their conversation, though, they clammed right up, so I had to content myself with sneaking tiny looks at them as I inspected the shrilly tinted doughnuts on display. The man’s eyebrows and mustache were so bushy and grey they inhabited a century of their own, and she wore a pout so pronounced that the effect was more of a sulking bulldog than of the coquette she once might have been. Both sported the ornery bulk of people who weren’t going to modify their diets no matter how they’d been advised. I imagined they’d been together for at least 50 years, if only because they were too stubborn to part ways. Continue Reading →

The Church of Italian Men: The Creature

En route to the coffee shop this Sunday morning, I was about as cross as I ever get. My 12-year-old car had been making a noise so ominous that I’d been forced to hoof it through the rain, and my cute umbrella was nowhere to be found. To make matters worse I was uncharacteristically nursing a hangover, which not only made coffee essential but the walk to fetch it pure misery.

Suffice it to say I’d not had the greatest Saturday night. It’d been the stuff of which Cathy Comics, rather than French movies, were made, and my hangover stemmed as much from the company I’d kept as from anything I’d actually imbibed.

So it was a morning when no one would’ve dared claim I was looking my best. Puffy-eyed and sallow, I was wearing the same matronly blue dress I’ve worn nearly every morning this summer—in my defense, dresses with pockets are very hard to come by—and my unbrushed hair stank of other people’s cigarettes and bad perfume. Nonetheless, as I passed the local pasticcera, one of the Italian fellows loitering under its awning looked me up and down, let out a low wolf whistle, and winked. Instantly I felt a million times better.

I’ve never been offended by that kind of male attention, never thought it compromised any of my deeply felt feminist principles. True, I don’t dig hustles or the you-like-what-I-like-so-I-like-you narcissism that passes for modern courtship. But a guy who just puts it out there without telegraphing his desire as a threat? Fuggedaboutit. That’s old-school Brooklyn in the very best way. More to the point, that’s Italian men.

To be clear, I don’t mean “Italian-American” men. I am referring to the men who were born in Italy rather than the ones who have an Italian grandmother. I am referring to the men who bolt espressos rather than Dunkin’ Doughnut coffees to keep their hearts beating. I am referring to the men who mostly speak in grunts, hisses, and explicit hand gestures.

I had one of those boyfriends. He was tall and broad-shouldered with long, ropy arms, old-soul eyes, and tanned, rosy skin. I met him not far from the Long Island beach house my friends and I rented one summer. He was working construction as a literal WOP—that old derogatory acronym for an Italian guy without papers—and when I walked by his site he whistled through his teeth. I looked up to find him nodding his head. “Principessa,” he said. Or at least that’s what I thought he said. I was distracted by his slow, sexy grin. Continue Reading →

My Muppet Critics

Some mornings, I go down to the coffeehouse and drink an Americano with two guys who’ve lived in my Italian-American neighborhood for 70 years. For roughly 60 of those years they’ve been best friends in the vein of Frick and Frack, Tom and Jerry, Felix and Oscar. I call them the Muppet critics because they really are just like the old grumps on The Muppet Show. Whenever I hang out with these guys, they argue about everything from the true point of the Civil War to the relative merits of Godfather Part III to which of them is aging worse. Outspoken as I normally am, with them I mostly clutch my coffee and my sides since I’m laughing so hard I’m afraid everything is going to split. They’re good eggs—gruffly kind, street-smart, devoted to the neighborhood and their wives. They were protective and practical when I was going through my miserably drawn-out breakup. (“Eh, you want us to beat him up, Lise?”) They religiously watch the NY1 show on which I appear. (“Your red lipstick needs to make a comeback, doll.”) They problem-solve my issues from weird car noises to money woes to difficult colleagues. They tell amazing stories about back in the day. They pour over the newspapers and debate the major controversies of the day. Then they razz each other some more.

This morning one of them told a joke he’d heard from “a real Jewish guy.” (Our neighborhood borders on the Chasidic section of Williamsburg.) The joke went like this: Abraham and Yosef were imprisoned in the same cell for 25 years. When they were finally released, they walked out of the building, single file. Abraham walked ahead. Yosef trailed behind him, shouting, “Abraham, I forgot to tell ya….”

The gold standard, these two.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy