Phil in Bensonhurst
During our trip to NYC, we had people go in teams of three to get to know some legendary neighborhoods around Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. Phil, Shauna, and Shane went to Bensonhurst and this is what Phil, so poetically, had to say about it.
The Verrazano Bridge kisses the forehead of Bensonhurst, teasing it. It spans the narrows and connects Brooklyn to Staten Island. The Verrazano is the Italian cousin of the French broad in the harbor with the torch. Bensonhurst sits in her shadow like the neighborhood boy who never left the neighborhood; nice but not too wise.
We had met in front of the hotel, clandestine as a European Novel: The Cook, The Waitress, and The Bartender. It is mid-morning and the walk down to the Delancy Station is quick in the current of the Lower East Side. She’s from Upstate; but no stranger to the city. He’s from Chicago and can move at a city’s pace. I am not yet in Brooklyn; but I will be soon. I walk fast.
The F train comes out from under the river into the sunlight of a morning. It’s elevated this far out in Brooklyn where the graffiti tags are worn and faded. This is not my neighborhood, not my Brooklyn. It is as odd as going to your friend’s elementary school. Everything is distinctly familiar but oddly out of place. The proud brownstones are pockmarked, whitewashed, two story brick houses standing shoulder to shoulder as we cross Ditmas Avenue, where Marco works at DiFara’s Pizza. The shop is on the corner, down the street from the Ukrainian Social Club, and Marco’s granddaughter darts and around and tends to the old man. Normally, I would get off the train to stand in his shop, lean on his green linoleum counter, next to the humming coke box, and watch him. We are pizza people, the Waitress, the Bartender, and myself, and for me Marco is the Dali Lama. His dough is crisp and perfect; the edge is crimped in because of the shallowness of his Baker’s Pride Oven. He cuts bouquets of basil with safety scissors. None of his moves are sudden; each one is measured. The dough on the back, marble topped table visibly responds to the life in his broad hands, his flour speckled forearms. The old man lays it on the wooden peel and absentmindedly picks around its side as if he were straightening the corners of his bed. Only for a moment. His ladle move was fast; his sauce bright red. He was deliberate with the large pieces of fresh mozzarella. With each piece of cheese the intensity and speed increased. His pizza is perfect harmony. I see the shop from the window of the moving train as we went deeper into Brooklyn, into Bensonhurst.
We pick the stop at Avenue N because it’s closest to a legit Italian Market. It’s been there for sixty years, and the son of the original owner took over the day they started construction of the Verrazano Bridge. His daughter, in her thirties, was behind the counter when we walked in. Her cheeks were rosy from standing behind the store’s line of cold display cases. Her hair was tucked into a Yankees ball cap. She wore a yellow sweater under her white butcher’s coat.
“Can I help you?”
We are foreigners. We have come from Austin, TX to stand in the middle of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and Jane Goodall it to the best of our abilities.
The Waitress’ tableside manner is legendary. She and the Butcher’s Daughter greet each other with the secret language of immigrants’ children.
The shop has green, gallon, olive oil cans lining the wall. Ten pound cans of Tomatoes. Pastas. The checkered linoleum floor was scuff free. The Bartender moved carefully with a kind of reverence. Behind the wall of cold display, over the Butcher’s Daughter’s shoulder, worked an Abbot and Costello duo – table slicers whirling. They mutter to each other in Italian as they work in the stark white kitchen that dominated the shotgun grocery on Avenue N. The Waitress and the Butcher’s Daughter stand at the register, still clasping both hands together in a greeting minutes old.
There are two bowls with fresh mozzarella balls soaking in them. The mozzarella is the size of the Butcher’s Daughter’s fist.
“Yours?” I am respectful and awed in my question.
She shrugs and smiles at the same time.
“It’s beautiful,” I tell her, my eyes lingering on the salt brine bath. It is the Mediterranean, or at least a quart of it, and the mozzarella archipelagoes float buoyant as a school of whale. She reached in like Calypso and plucked out a ball. She turned her back to us only for a moment and gave each of us, and the young mother who had entered the shop, and was buying l/4# prosciutto, a thick wedge of still damp cheese. The wax paper was blotted with brine.
The salt on the cheese tasted like the ocean, like the sea, like a strong, old god and sea monsters. It tasted like the trip home from Troy, when Odysseus couldn’t find his ass with his elbow.
The body and the cream of the cheese was more like Persephone, whimsical in her femininity, sexy with her crush on Orcus. I looked up to see the Butcher’s Daughter smiling at me from under the brim of her cap. The little girl in the stroller gurgled happily around the mozzarella.
She had told us which train to take to get to sweet shop on 18th Avenue near Christoforo Columbo Boulevard. Alba. She told us it was a real neighborhood shop whereas her shop, well, its just place people might come. She smiled and blew a kiss to the little girl in the stroller as the Mother rolled her out into the neighborhood.
There was no one on the street for blocks. It was quiet in a way I had never before experienced in Brooklyn. There was no traffic, no commerce. There was no one. The three us walked past a rusty synagogue book ended by a Key Foods and a Nail Salon. Across the street, three blocks up, were a clutch of aqua-netted beauty school girls smoking, still wearing their protective black smocks. The Waitress began counting the number of people using walkers.
The Verrazano knuckled out into the skyline, a smooth arcing line against the decaying 1950s neighborhood grid. There were plenty of shops windows covered with brown paper from the inside, some covered with plywood from the outside. We walked past a bodega that advertised the world’s best coffee and Santeria on the same placard.
Everything looked far away but close on Avenue N. Manhattan cut across the landscape jagged like Arizona. In this part of Bensonhurst, it seemed like even Staten Island was too far away in the shadow of the bridge.
We stopped and went in to the bar.
LGM: Local Gin Mill. Old Man Bar.
The old man behind the bar has a white tuft of hair slicked back from his high forehead. He has Popeye forearms and a round belly. There are a couple of neighborhood guys sitting at the bar, sipping high-balls in 8oz glasses. It is dark except the light coming in from the street window. The arcade game faces away from the bar, back in the corner, and the guy sitting on a stool, feeding it quarters, is kicking its ass. The barman is in his mid 50’s probably went to elementary school with the four regulars: the two guys at the bar watching TV., the guy playing the arcade game, and crazy Tommy going in between the two, unable to keep still.
We order Bloody Marys.
The Barman and the Bartender exchange greeting much like the Waitress and the Butcher’s Daughter.
“You want it spicy?”
The Waitress flutters her eyelashes from behind her eyeglasses. “I’ve always like it spicy,”
The three of them share the best kind of laugh: the laugh that is had at a bar at noon, when you drink the last Bloody Mary of the morning. Frankie, the barman, handles the ice with delicate respect as he bare hands the cubes individually into the squat glasses. I walk into the back courtyard and call in a cheese delivery.
The yard is as wide as a family room, deep enough for ping pong or air hockey. The building across the astro-turfed rectangle had some kind of vine trellising up its surrounding chair link fence. There are white metal chairs lining the side of the yard. There are potted plants and end tables with little beanbag ashtrays. The bar is under two stories of someone’s home. Or two families, at least. And kids. There was a big wheel. The clothesline was empty.
I call in the cheese order like a hit. I call into the shop and talk haltingly in foxhole Spanish with the Guatemalan King of Prep. I realize quickly that I am in the backyard of the tenants, the people who live above the bar, the family on the block. I ended the call as quickly as I could. I straighten the chair I was sitting on and try to leave their backyard pristine.
A regular, crazy Tommy, is chatting up the Bartender and the Waitress. Frankie, the barman, is talking to one of the guys at the bar, their conversation full of low tones.
The Bloody Mary is strong. The mix is good, though missing horseradish. There is a good bite of black pepper and the Tabasco is not out of control. Frankie rests his knuckles on the bar and asks us where we’ve been so far and smiles when we talk about the Butcher’s Daughter. It’s obvious from his reaction that she is a neighborhood girl, and he’s known her since she was this high. All the guys in the dark bar smile in the same way. They all know her from back when. It is that kind of neighborhood, and that kind of bar.
A younger guy, in his late forties, walks in off the street and takes a seat at the elbow of the bar.
“Mike, where you been?” Frankie is already mixing Mike’s drink before the question is out of his mouth, before Mike’s ass has hit the stool.
Mike says he’s been at the hospital. Frankie’s tone changes immediately. His voice lowers and he asks with real concern, “How’s your Mother doing?” Frankie gets even closer to Mike as he serves the drink, and knocks the bar twice with his ham fist for good luck. Mike is being stoic and Frankie appreciates it; Frankie reaches across the bar and squeezes Mike’s shoulder.
We finish our drinks and walk back out into the neighborhood at half past noon, sunlight only beginning to breakthrough the overcast day. The three of us walk back down the Avenue, past the hamburger stands and barber shops, to the train station.
The vegetation has claimed the brick sides of the elevated station. There are a few clumps of people on the platform waiting to head into the city and no one on the other side, waiting to go deeper into Brooklyn. We ride two stops, the length of the neighborhood, and get out two blocks from where Gotti used to walk the neighborhood in his bathrobe, hoping to play the insanity card in the upcoming trial.
The little courtyards in front of the small multi-family housing have small porcelain statuettes of saints and virgin mothers under Italian and American flags. A rabbi stops to observe as we ask directions from a neighborhood guy, sitting on the stoop, pie-eyed. Slurringly, the neighborhood guy is helpful and kind. He points us in the right direction and we begin walking past more housing to 18th Avenue.
18th Avenue has Italian flags arcing its breadth, the length of the avenue, as far as I can see. There are Italian social clubs and Kentucky Fried Chickens. Societa Figli di Ragusa & Dunkin’Donuts. There are more people on 18th than there were on Avenue N. There are families and children and old people and a few hipster Manhattan exiles. We walk down the Avenue towards the sweet shop.
The sign hanging over the doorway is small, with light blue cursive print. “Alba” is all it says. The mosaic on the vestibule floor has a world map. Only New York and Sicily are colored in. The window facing the street is wall to wall, floor to ceiling, packed with pastries and cakes.
The chocolate is dark and the iced, layered cakes shined in a way that Lou Reed might appreciate. The powdered sugar seems to have fallen like a Bolivian snow. The white crème icing is the color of a negligee.
The shop has a high ceiling and a counter that goes all the way around the large space. Large enough for a six by six obelisk of scones and biscotti in its center.
Four women wove back and forth, from one side to the other, bagging sweet things as they passed, a flutter of wax paper. The oldest and most matronly of the four, a solid chess piece of a woman, stood next to the cappuccino machine, on the North wall, behind the raised marble barista counter. The couple at the counter is sipping espressos in paper cups, waiting for their lemon ricotta cake to be boxed. It is Wednesday afternoon, after all; this is when they come for the lemon ricotta cake. The ricotta comes from Sicily.
“Signorina, Signorina” the youngest of them
calls after the mother hen.
The Mother Hen moves fast, at a clip, around the horn of the counter to the register. The young girl, with dark mascara and Sophia Lauren lips, had maybe made a mistake.
“Volete una sola?” She clearly believes I am on the verge of making a mistake. I order three cannoli instead of one. The couple with the espressos nod approvingly.
The Matron at the cappuccino machine makes my cappuccino while continuing her conversation, in Italian, with the lemon cake couple in their porkpie hat and bouffant hair. She has a satisfied flick of her wrist when the espresso piece takes hold in its place. She flicks the kitchen towel from one shoulder to the other, unfolding her story, steaming my milk. Lemon Cake Couple laughs, as does the Matron, and I find myself smiling goofily, caught in the hilarity of the moment.
The young girl disappears into the back kitchen. Moving the way a daughter might when called out by her Mother in front of the entire neighborhood.
The Waitress and the Bartender find me at the barista counter, leaning the way I might have at DiFara’s, my elbow cool on the marble. The hum of Marco’s coke box has been replaced by the Matron. She sings to herself, the way my father used to, a clutch of loose opera phrasings.
The Mother Hen is sacking a large, round loaf for a par of neighborhood girls clearly running errands. I did not need to know Italian as the Mother Hen handed over the round to the young teens.
“Say hello to your Mother, alright?”
“Si, Signorina.” In unison. They’re twins, I realize.
“Mind your Mother, alright?”
We walk out to the corner with our coffees and cappuccinos, cannolis and some kind of dense sponge cake drowned in rum, in a tiny bread pan. The waitress held the small cake out of the pan, letting the shower of rum fall back in. The Bartender and I stood transfixed. The Waitress had seen this very dessert on a travel cooking show, just the last weekend, and now was going to eat it herself, on a Brooklyn street corner.
Maybe it is the street traffic, the gypsy cabs and metro busses. Maybe it is caffeine. Perhaps it is the lingering sound of Italian ebbing into the America of Brooklyn, but my heart raced as I watched the Waitress hold reality to imagination’s promise.
This is Bensonhurst, remember, an Italian Neighborhood in the shadow of an Italian Bridge. Their night sky ended on one side with the blue stars of the Verrazano, with the Southern most tip of Manhattan jagged in the far distance. This is the place where mafia dons ride out their exile. Sardina is never far away from Bensonhurst.
And so, of course, the thick rum cake moved the Waitress to tears, salty with appreciation, salty as Lot’s wife. The bartender and I ate cannoli, the cream of which was comforting, lingering, with enough body to move me, and seductive enough for me to want to me moved. The Bartender and I handled the cannoli like stogies, and stood on the corner like old men, and talked about how nice the weather was, and watched as the Waitress did the most Italian thing of all.
“You have got to try this. Now. You have to get this in you.”
The Bartender went first. The Waitress served him, of course. His knees buckled a little as he telepathically sang a love song to the Waitress.
I looked at Brooklyn all around me before she fed me, too. I looked at the second story rooftops, the forest of 20th century TV antennae. I listened to neighborhood guys sitting at fold out card tables in front of the Social Clubs. I could still taste the salt from the Mozzarella. The cappuccino foam was still in my moustache.
The drunken piece of cake was light and springy. Amazingly vibrant. Punch drunk, perhaps. The dark rum was strong. It was the drink of sailor’s and sailor’s sons, of generations of seafaring merchants, wayfaring homebodies.
The marriage of the two, of course, is the whole story. Either alone are towered damsels or drunken merchant marines. Together they are the thing of legend, of love stories. Together they expose the starfish left behind in the low tide. Together they chart the stars in the night sky. Together they are Penelope and Ulysses, who still have a two family building in Bensonhurst.