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Growing Up in the Coney Island Slums, Here Italian Americans Called Italians “Guineas”

I left Vallemaio at the age of four. My young parents and I settled in Coney Island. There was a lot of space available there for people willing to live in a slum, a whole hour away from "the city" by subway. The neighborhood was a hearty blend of ethnicities, all mixed with the vestiges of a carnival culture. Besides that, it was a war zone.

In 1969, my father Angelo and mother Onorina bought a house in Coney Island. My parents had come over to the United States just ten years before, but then we'd returned to spend four of those years in Italy. I still had the traces of an accent from my first language, the dialect spoken in Vallemaio, a village of 600 people in the mountains to the south of Montecassino. My mother's family spoke a variant of the Napoletano dialect with its beautiful freight of Latinisms and 18th-century Spanish words. My father Angelo, also from a very small mountain village – near Palermo – had come to the U.S. already having heard of Coney Island and so, after some sojourns in the traditional Italian enclaves of Camden, New Jersey, Upstate New York, and Bensonhurst Brooklyn, we came back to this tough but vigorous neighborhood.

 I remember the day we arrived, November 11, 1969. I remember cracking open the door of our station wagon with the fake wooden side panels and feeling fat snowflakes on my eyelashes. My eyes stung as we made it to the creaky front door. The house was a tall wooden structure, on West 15th Street, just two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, with faded yellow siding, three stories, five apartments, the first floor just for us. Who knows how far from Italy this place must have felt for my two young parents, in their early thirties. This roomy, rickety house and its huge yard quickly took on the feeling of home, or maybe a headquarters, becoming the scene of many screaming matches, beatings, dreamy days with my books, lovely moments with my best friend, crazy games with the street kids, lots of good, rustic food, and a long line of shell-shocked relatives coming over from the old country.

We lived in an apartment that was essentially a row of 5 huge rooms. First was the gloomy, wood-paneled living room. The three windows facing the street were hung with my mom's idea of beautiful curtains, heavy, ivory colored cloth with huge lime green embroidered flowers. These curtains succeeded in blocking out the blue-white glare of the Atlantic sunlight and created the murk within. Next was the kitchen, big enough for a table for 12 and with enough shelf storage for a small restaurant. A door on the side went out to the yard. Another door led to three bedrooms you had to walk through until you reached the brightly lit back room with its own door to a large garden. When my grandfather Domenico DiMambro came from Vallemaio a few years later, he worked that garden, and we had more tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and string beans than a little kid would ever care to eat. My brother and I, not much the gardeners, used to dig in the dirt to find Coney Island relics, old beer bottles from the 1930s, combs, rancid leather changepurses that still clicked, and moldy bouquets of newspapers. To the side of the garden were three "shindies," probably my father Angelo's pronunciation of "shanties." These were made of cinder blocks. The first two were already there when we moved in and full of cans of paint, plaster, and tools. The last one my father built himself. He was a housepainter and a handyman of sorts.

coney islandSuch was the space available to people willing to live in a slum about 1 hour away from "the city" by subway. At night, we could hear the long wail of the subway trains as they rounded the curves on their way to the last stop, Stillwell Avenue. We also heard wafts of screams from the amusement park by the ocean, and in the winter you could actually hear the flute-like sound of the wind through the roller coasters and ancient ferris wheel. Children and young people of all ages joined gangs, seems we had a gang for every taste, 16th-Street Boys, the Danbees (my sometime friends), Homicide Inc., Black Pearls, Homicide Juniors, Girl Homicides. Very few of these were truly dangerous, but you still had to be cautious walking out beyond your own block. Once I was surrounded by a gang of Homicide Juniors, maybe about 15 kids of between 6 to 10 years old who tore at my clothes and backpack until I was picked clean.

What was great about Coney Island, though, was the space, the beach, and the endless food. I am still amazed when I think of the bounty available there on our piece of property. A neighbor's beautiful cherry tree spread its branches over the low fence separating our properties. I could pick its amaretti cherries in early summer. I loved the dark, glossy trunk of the tree. Sheets of morning glory, with the delicate blue trumpets, hung over the other parts of the fence, as did honeysuckle, with the small, curved, pale yellow flowers. I loved dribbling the single, clear drops of nectar onto my tongue. Out the kitchen door, you walked under an arbor made of 3/4-inch plumbing pipes. This structure held grapevines that produced endless bunches of green grapes every September. You could fit about 6 chairs and a table underneath.

The neighborhood was a wonderful place to explore, too, with its hearty blend of multi-generational Italian families, Irish and African Americans, Puerto Ricans and their "social clubs" pumping out salsa most nights, and survivors of the carnival culture of old Coney Island. I loved communing with the old timers, foreshadowing my rambles on the slopes of Vallemaio later on.

In the winter, when the amusement park closed down, I would sometimes visit Don Simone, a dignified elderly man with a white handlebar moustache whose job was to throw the huge wooden lever on the Cyclone roller coaster. I would sit in his dark bungalow and with the disgusting shot glass of syrupy liquor he always conferred upon me. I was about ten at the time, perfecting the art of the social visit, and he not knowing what to offer me but the sickly sweet aperitif. Or I would go upstairs to visit short Max, the Irish boxer in his 80s, whose apartment was full of wrinkled sepia tinted photos of himself in his prime, holding up his dukes – Max smoked cigars and dwelled on all the wrong that had been done him in his life and declared who he was gonna knock out next, including my dad. I liked his fire. I wished I could knock out my dad all the various bullies lurking everywhere.

nonna due

La nonna dell’autore e un’amica di famiglia

Then there was someone we called Auntie Mary, or Zi’ Marì, a very wizened woman in her 90s who lived on the top floor. I would run up and bring her milk and groceries, and sometimes a small bottle of Red Rose whiskey. She had been a saloon girl down by Surf Avenue in the 1920s, when "the world came to Coney Island and Luna Park." Zi' Marì taught me card games like gin rummy, how to shuffle smartly, and how to cheat with a smile. But she always won, and would cackle when she slapped down her hand – "Ya can't beat me, no way." I had no interest in the game, and could never master her hijinks, preferring the cold logic of chess and checkers, or the infinite variety of Brooklyn street games, like Cocolivio and Skelly. These games just felt old and I could just imagine boys with knickers bending down in the street just like me, flicking a weighted bottle cap across the skelly court, and then standing up to let a car go by.

I just relished Zi' Marì's bright apartment, her flowery dresses, her sharp, tapered fingers, and her endless stories of young men, music, and all the money she used to have. Little lights marched across my imagination, lighting distant saloons in sepia, ships on the high seas with oak paneled gaming rooms, and days of yore along the pine-slatted boardwalk by the sea. It was like many movies in one, told so sharply by this sharp little woman. She had none of the bitterness of Max, or the dripping melancholy of Don Simone, who had gotten too big a dose in Buenos Aires at some point. Zi’ marì had used up all that alleged money long ago for cruises, dresses, and other things I had no notion of, and now paid us $60 a month for her rickety, sunny apartment, utilities included. There were no photographs in her place, thank God, and her fridge was as clean and white as an ice cream truck. I often meditated on her long white hair, her shining gray-blue eyes, her pure, high voice without a crack or a whine.

Apart from these oases of historical knowledge and peace, Coney Island in those days was a war zone, in which kids of different ethnicities menaced and sometimes seriously injured each other. I got away without the concussions, broken bones, and stitches that some other kids had sustained, but it was no picnic for me either. The biggest kid on the block was Rick. He loved to beat on me, and on all the younger, gentler kids, like skinny Irish Paul, whom he sent to the hospital for a month with a deep gash to the side of the head. Rick had been jealous that Paul would go out to the boardwalk with his old shoeshine box, and Paul made the mistake of telling us all how much money he made. Rick took the box and smashed the metal shoe pedestal onto Paul’s skull. While Paul was in the hospital, Rick shattered and burned that shoeshine box in one of the empty lots on our block.

One of Rick’s favorite pastimes was whacking me in the shins with a thick stick as I walked home from school or the beach.

"Dance!"

The only defensive strategy I knew, which I'd learned from facing down my father's sudden rages, was to try to show no reaction to the stinging pain. Just as my father would calm down faster if I didn't flinch under the burning whack of his belt strokes, so I hoped that Rick wouldn't get any additional sadistic pleasure from his dance game. I'm not sure if this ever really worked, because Rick would just pursue me down the block for as long as he could get either some laughs or horrified stares from other kids. Sometimes, at night, I would survey my body and see bruises on my shins from Rick, and matching bruises on my thighs, hips, and forearms from my father. Whether I was in the street or at home I could never let down my guard.

Fighting back against Rick or against my father was unimaginable. Most of these attacks occurred when I was between 8 and 11. At that time, Rick was already a stocky, muscular teenager and my dad worked at manual trades, so their strength was immense. I was scrawny, bookish, with a mop of curly black hair and ill-fitting pants always a size too big. Eventually, I managed to hold my own with these two and with many of the bullies I encountered in Coney Island, each getting theirs in their own time, but I didn't know my resilience at first. Most of the time, I just walked around scared.  In Rick's case, though, things went a bit differently.

Some time after the last "dance" episode, I was on my way home and Rick was sitting on the low step at his front door. He had a stick in his hand, as usual, and there was a puddle of dirty water on the sidewalk. Rick was just kind of swirling that water with the stick when he saw me coming by. He decided he would splash some on my pants. My instinct was to run. This time I formed the idea in my mind to do something dramatic, something definite. Although Rick was much taller than me, he was sitting on a low step, so that his face was just about even with my chest. I couldn't believe what my mind was telling me to do, but I did it. I walked towards him, reared back my arm and punched him in the face as hard as I could. This was an exhilarating moment and I thought it would be like on TV, a game-ender. The bad guy would be devastated, demolished, destroyed. This was the iconic punch-in-the-face, the way all altercations were supposed to conclude.

ragazzo

L’autore da ragazzo con la nonna

Rick just looked at me calmly and snickered. He loved this moment because now he had complete license to beat me bloody. Before he arose, though, I reached back and punched him again. Again, he just smiled. I have to say, despite what happened next, there was something delicious in the percussion of my knuckles on his fleshy face. I had so rarely in my street life had the chance to truly punch a person right in the face. Rick's smile was creepy, and his glistening green eyes maniacal. He got up slowly, and as I backed away he took two long, loping steps and stood in front of me. My back was to a car, and my front door just a few feet away, past our garage gate, but I didn't run. I didn't want to run. I was shocked and mesmerized by the power of this moment; the ground we stood on, our arena, was hard concrete, cracked in places, with embedded pebbles and bits of glinting granite. This was our stage, our Coney Island, where we kids fought our way to sometimes horrible conclusions.

Rick began to methodically pound me, and I remember this in slow motion under that white coastal sun, little stars floating off to the edge of my vision like shimmering flies. First he punched me hard in the stomach with a left uppercut. When I instinctively doubled over, he pulled my head down with his right hand and led my face into his knee. I felt a hotness between my eyes and got dizzy, the roofs of the houses across the street dipped like ships in a storm. I fell back and to the side. He began a series of slow, powerful blows to my jaw, my neck, my back, and whenever I got too low to the ground, he'd kick me up and punch me some more. His technique was slow, logical, and devastating, and I think as a chess player I knew that – just knowing how strategic he was, was somehow more painful than the blows themselves, because it offended my intellectual vanity, because dumb Rick was smarter than me at something. How utterly humiliating.

At one point, I found our two cheeks right next to each other, his smooth and hot, almost lovely, and mine streaked with snot and blood. I was breathing hard, saliva dripping in long lines, tears popping out of my eyes, but I still found enough focus, enough ferocity, to turn on his soft face. I took a huge bite. With desperate, mindless strength, my teeth sunk deeper and deeper, gripping and tearing, and even as I fell downward, I pulled his skull down with me, and felt it thunk on the ground. In a dark flash, he was gone, running into his house, bleeding very heavily from his cheek, yelling, "Ma! Ma!" There was blood trailing over the sidewalk, on his front step, and spattered on the bottom of the white wooden door. I viewed the carnage. I didn't feel triumphant. I felt a profound sorrow – and fear. I ran home, too.

Soon our two tribes came streaming out onto the sidewalk, mostly women. At this time of the day, the men were either sitting in their shaded gardens, already drunk, at work, or simply gone. At different points in my life, my dad was all of the above. The two brigades faced each other. On their side, 2nd and 3rd generation Italian-Americans, flowery house dresses, hair rollers, furry white slippers, and face cream, on ours, old country apparel, modest dark-colored skirts over the knee, white aprons, headscarves, and dusty black shoes. Even the body types were different. They were taller, fleshier, lighter skinned – from watching too much TV my mother would say. Our team was shorter, stockier, darker, and more sinewy. There were about 15 women on each side. There were older sisters, grandmothers, moms and aunts, some breathless kids, and in my case, a couple of kinky-haired cousins from Sicily.

My maternal grandmother stood in front. She was wearing the dark blue canvas skirt of Vallemaio women. Her shins were tan, full, shiny. She was about as tall as I was, something around 5 feet high, with fleshy shoulders and small powerful hands. She had freckles and her salt and pepper hair was arranged under the small, triangular headscarf. I couldn't see her eyes, but I knew how arresting they were, jade green with little brown flecks, and always shining.

Such was Leonilda, in her fifties, having lived a whole life in a small mountain village, having followed her husband unwillingly to this strange place, L'ameriga, standing in my defense. I was inspired and awed. I knew she hated Coney Island, and America, with its inexplicable rudeness delivered in an indecipherable language, the oversalted, oversugared, saturated foods, with the gangs and creeps all over the streets, and that infernally dirty and dangerous subway. I knew she managed here by staying out of the way, by cooking, by baking, by going to the beach with her short, squat, loud friends, and by praying endlessly to the gaudily retouched saints on her little cards with the gold tassels. In the context of Coney Island street life, she was a kind and retiring woman. But there she was, as ghetto as the best of them, squaring off, arms crossed on her chest. My heart beat with pride, and with worry for her safety.

The shouting began. On our side, dialect Italian, what the hell is this? – ma che caspita? what kind of animals allow a little boy to be beaten so severely? – bestie! where is your honor? vigliacchi (cowards) go inside and fix your hair, lazy amerigani on welfare! On their side, "go back to your country!" "guineas!" "learn English!" "stupid immigrants!" I was surprised by this brand of insult – There we were, all Italians, reduced to this. So this is what it was to be American, this elusive sought after identity? to be able to look down on people from your own country? I looked at Rick's tribe and wondered, "will that be us soon?" I actually really liked some of them, who, on other days would teach me games, crafts, cooking, English. But now we were down to it, a huge street drama, and I knew what side I was on.

Amidst all the yelling, one voice that no one in the neighborhood heard very much gradually became audible, that of my grandmother. There was a small interval of silence. She stepped into the space between the afternoon armies, slammed a foot on the ground and yelled, hoarsely, "Facka You!" I thought, proudly, ah hah, so she did speak English after all! This was one of the most glorious moments of my childhood. It was just too funny, too extreme, and coming from the short, vigorous, lovable woman with her headscarf, what could you say after that? After a moment, everyone started talking again, but simmering down. We filtered back into our homes, muttering, as we often did, about this curious illogical place, l'ameriga, but for once, English was neat, eloquent, and highly comprehensible. As for me, I just felt a big weight lifted and looked forward to my visitations with the kindly old spirits of Coney Island and to the street games with my friends up the block.

 

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