"THE LIGHT OF BROOKLYN"
At first the only light would be the final ivory beams of moonlight, blurred by my still sleepy eyes, and then came the traffic lights of Washington, DC, flashing yellow because it was too early for traffic. Maybe dawn's first light or the roar of a truck or my parents' whispers in the front seat of the car would eventually fully awaken me, and then I’d remember with a rush of excitement that we were headed for New York—Brooklyn to be precise.
Brooklyn, where the talk was tough and the hearts were tender, where bagels were soft and pretzels were hot, where porches were "stoops" and baseball was "stickball'' and where the "yard" was no half acre—Hey, what half acre? Who you kiddin’?—it was a fenced lot behind an apartment building, just a short drop off the fire escape steps.
Trips to Brooklyn, where I was born, were filled with so much. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and the cousins who taught me the games of the street like stoopball, stickball, and fire escape jumping, and, when I was a little older, dance steps that were almost suggestive enough to get me expelled from school back home in Virginia.
I could always find a cousin to ride with on the subway to Ebbets Field or Yankee Stadium, or to rate lemon-ice shops, or to pick up a “slice” on almost any corner. The reunions with relatives, all of whom spoke at the same time at staggering volumes in a combination of Italian and Brooklynese, were festivals of laughter, lasagna, cannoli, chianti (which you took at least a sip of no matter how old—or young—you were), and stories of questionable origin and veracity. But I ate and I sipped and I played and I listened…and I believed it all.
We'd arrive in Brooklyn at mid-morning. Daylight always exposed the city's scars—overflowing trashcans, multi-lingual graffiti, and odors so distinct you could taste them. But none of that bothered me, because I chose to delight in Brooklyn’s charms—the gesturing people, the corner candy stores, and the sense that every resident of every block was part of a family.
The corridor to the old first-floor apartment where my mother's parents lived on Noll Street was always dark. I'd knock on the door and listen for the comforting sound of Grampa's slippers scuffing across the floor, and then I'd hear his asthmatic cough and his familiar wheeze grow closer. Grampa unlocked the door, and the apartment light cut through the hallway's darkness.
The thin little man with the sleeveless undershirt smiled. He spoke sparingly because his English was still awkward despite his years away from Italy, and the effort to speak was especially great on days when the asthma was bad. But the smile on the well-creased face was genuine, and so was the surprising strength of the hug. Then he would return to his seat at the table next to the window where he would smoke, sip vermouth, cough, and call out in an Italian
rasp to friends who walked by. If the asthma was bad, he would just wave. But everyone stopped at the screened-in window to say, “Buongiorno” or “Buona sera,” or just to tip their hat.
I would stare at Grampa—his little chest heaved as he sat there. I knew of no one else like him, no one so frail yet so essential to everyone and everything. There were never any easy, involuntary breaths, only what seemed like conscious efforts to suck in air. Often, his Italian words would come in barely audible snatches, but no matter how noisy the room, when Grampa spoke, people listened. He could start my parents and aunts and uncles talking by uttering just one throaty syllable. But then he could stop an argument with one gesture and a stare.
Despite the visible strain of every breath, Grampa was steady with his hands. He would take a pencil and make strong delicate lines freehand on any nearby piece of paper—a napkin, shopping bag, or the back of an envelope would do. I would watch him as he looked upward at the cracked ceiling, his mind creating a distant picture, and then his pencil would duplicate that private vision. Sometimes it took a few minutes, sometimes many, but he would eventually motion for me to come closer to him. He would then give me the drawing—a clown or a cathedral from his beloved Italy or a young boy on a bicycle—and he would smile, his face a roadmap of lines, hug me, and dismiss me with a kind look or a squeeze on the shoulder.
When the asthma wasn't bad and his stamina was good, he would make paper puppets for me, clever ones with sharp faces and clothing drawn in detail. He would cut out the arms and
legs and magically arrange threads so the puppet parts would move. Sometimes he'd play with me by being the puppet's voice in Italian. I couldn't understand the words, but I understood the affection.
Grampa combed his straight, thin hair with a tortoise-shell comb about three-inches wide and three-inches long. His clothing hung in an old wooden wardrobe where he also kept mints that he shared with me. Sometimes before he went to bed at night he would leave a stack of coins on top of a piece of paper with my name on it so I would find them in the morning when I awoke. They were mine to keep and to take and to spend at the corner candy store.
Grampa was the first of the Brooklyn family to die. I was eight. We had been to Brooklyn for Christmas, and a few days after returning to our home in Virginia, we received the phone call. We traveled back to Brooklyn by train instead of car. The train smelled musty, and the frost on the windows allowed me only a few glimpses of the water, tenements, and towering buildings that comprised the East Coast landscape. My mother, whose name was Bianca, didn’t speak or cry during the entire trip, staring straight ahead, saying a rosary quietly. My father sat with his arm around her the whole way.
When we entered the little Brooklyn apartment, my beautiful Aunt Anna stood in the doorway, and my mother, the youngest of her family, wept openly in her sister’s arms. Aunt Anna kept repeating through her own tears, “What will we do, Bianca, what will we do without Papa?” Their brothers, my Uncle Joe (actually “Giuseppe”) and Uncle Gig (actually “Luigi”), discretely dabbed at their own red eyes as they attempted to console their mother, my wailing Nana Emma.
Years later, Nana described Grampa’s death to me, struggling with her English:
"You Grampa, he’s a-sitting on his chair by his window, and he say to me, ‘Emma, where are you?’ I say, 'I’m-a right here, Michael. But why? Can you no see me?' He say, 'But where? Everything is dark, Emma, I no see nothing.' You Grampa, he’s breathing so hard, so I run out of the house; I looking for help; when I coming back inside in one minute…he's-a dead."
Confusion and loss and the resignation that life somehow moves on through death flashed across her kind, round face as she reached for my hand.
I continued to go to Brooklyn until almost everyone else had either moved or died. But I was growing up a child of the suburbs, and for a time over the years, Brooklyn became a world apart, a world where apartments shrank, sky disappeared, and some family stories became too awful to believe…even though they were true. Then there was the car ride—it grew longer as I grew older and there was definitely no more thrill in starting the trip in darkness. Especially when I knew it would end that way too.
But today, when I walk those wonderful streets, despite the changing scenery, I can see him and all the people of those early Brooklyn years…the people and places who still bring light to