A recent casual conversation about Italian restaurants and neighborhoods triggered a whole chain of memories for me. I entered Fordham’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in September 1969 to begin a Ph D program in theology. GSAS was on the Rose Hill Campus in the Bronx, fronting the wide and busy Fordham road and about a half mile east of the Grand Concourse where one could find the subway line that ushered one to the delights of Manhattan.
Across Fordham Rd from the campus was the grid of small streets that made up the Bronx’s own “Little Italy.” Arthur Avenue was its commercial center and Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church and School, three blocks to the west, was its spiritual center. Or maybe it was. I never really investigated, but I knew that some kind of power emanated from the rectory. Some time in the first semester, for reasons I no longer remember, I borrowed a car and, wherever I was going, my way led through Little Italy. To my shock and dismay, I discovered that each block was one-way only, with a stop sign on every block and the direction changing at every corner. One didn’t actually drive through Little Italy, one zig-zagged through, turning left, then right, then left again. You get the idea. If you’re lucky, as you leave the area, you’re able to get back onto the directions you were originally going. But only if you’re lucky.
The next day I joined a few of the older grad students in the Student Union Building (which would later be bombed in an anti-war action) and asked about the odd traffic pattern of our neighborhood. One of the guys, who had been working on his doctoral dissertation for a long time–some people seem to make it their life’s work–chuckled.
“Some time ago,” he said, “the Monsignor who ran the parish got tired of having cars race up and down the streets near the school, endangering the children, as he claimed. Well, he knew whom to speak to in his congregation and that someone knew whom to speak to down at Borough headquarters. And maybe there were several somebodies in-between, links in the chain. Any way, months later the signs went up.” That was my introduction to Little Italy, Bronx style.
At the time, Fordham had no graduate student housing. A lot of the students in the Theology program were priests and found accommodation in local rectories, usually in return for priestly services rendered. The Theology department had been accepting women students for about three years when I was admitted and, not surprising, many of the women students were members of religious congregations, as I was myself. There were not a lot of convents nearby, none with rooms available. Besides, women religious don’t slot easily into the house of another community, not like priests do in rectories. So like our lay companions, we found roommates we hoped would be compatible and apartments as close to the University as possible. Three very proper, rather staid sisters from the midwest found an apartment in controlled housing where the manager made great efforts to keep the renters truly integrated and diverse. It was there that they met the Fuck family, another story for another day. Other available apartments were in Little Italy. Naturally we patronized the local restaurants.
One of our favorites was a cheap, red-sauce spaghetti house, where we often ate after the late afternoon class. The portions were large and the pitchers of beer were cheap. I never saw any signs of the local guardians there. It was clearly a student hang-out, not of much interest to those who kept the neighborhood running and in check. But one of our group got her hair cut at the local beauty parlor. If she made a Friday afternoon appointment, she said, she was sure to be there when the local “bag-man” came in. He spoke briefly to the woman owner and then they both went into the back room. He came out with a small shopping bag and she with a smile on her face. Everyone in the shop pretended not to notice, even though the proprietor sold numbers quite openly all the rest of the week.
One night in early spring, that first spring, a group of us went to a more up-scale restaurant in the neighborhood. We were celebrating some event that I no longer remember. We were seated around one of the large circular tables and about mid-way through our meal when the door opened and four men in black suits and shirts entered and took their places at another round table farther back. They were followed by two burly men, also in black, who didn’t join them but took chairs on either side of the door. Those two were clearly “packing heat,” as my husband might say. No one seemed to pay any attention, but I noticed two men at another table stand up and leave. We finished our dinners.
My doctoral dissertation director loved to take students to another restaurant on Arthur Ave. Everyone there seemed to know him and he loved to tell students that it was the restaurant where a notorious mob assassination, the one later immortalized in The Godfather, took place. Apparently the movie had filmed the scene in the same place it happened. Or so he said. Whenever we went, the place was quiet, even dignified.
After two years I took and passed my qualifying exams, so I was in the Bronx for the duration, as we all said during World War II. But my roommate had changed her mind and, further, we had found ourselves no longer compatible, so I was in need of new digs and new roommates. I was given a very tentative offer by a group of three women whom I already knew and liked–a tentative offer because all they had was an alcove off the living room, less privacy than I might want. They were smart, funny and very friendly people. One or other of them was often the center of our lively social get-togethers. When I weighed the lack of privacy against who and what they were, I didn’t hesitate. It was a decision I never regretted.
My new roommates said they knew where to get a bed frame with springs so I bought a new mattress and an unfinished three-drawer chest and moved in. Theirs was the middle flat on the very western limits of Little Italy, not far from the Grand Concourse, where a couple of Jewish delis served the best blintzes I have ever eaten. Our flat was owned by an Italian couple, who lived on the top floor with their two kids. They were charmed by the fact that they had nuns in the middle flat, even though we were no longer in the traditional habit and looked like the harried grad students we were. If someone lived in the small flat at street level I never met or saw them.
The flat was sparsely furnished, mostly from street furniture or hand-me-downs from other students when they finished at the U and dismantled their own flats. Nothing matched. Everything seemed right. One small round butcher block table in the kitchen, however, came with a story and a warning.
When their foraging of the street furniture had not produced a kitchen table, Kay and Maureen, the original renters, had asked Ralph and Annette, their landlords, to keep their eyes open for one. Ralph owned a commercial cleaning company that serviced banks and office buildings. A few days later he had arrived with his crew, toting the maple table up the flight of stairs. When the women asked about it, Ralph laughed.
“The guys at the office building will never miss it,” he said. “They watched us carry it out and rearrange the others in the dining room to cover the space.” He looked up at them with a big smile, clearly expecting the women to share his delight. They hoped their dismay didn’t show on their faces. He loved to stop in at the flat on his way home from work. I think he liked the idea of shmoozing with the nuns. He’d sit at the table and run his calloused hands over its smooth surface until his wife banged on the radiator and shouted, “Ralphie, come home.”
That was the story. The warning was: never, never, never let Ralph know that you need something.
Was this part of the life lived in Little Italy, if only on its very edge? As time went by, we dulled our consciences and patronized the grocery and other shops on Arthur Avenue, even if we suspected that much of what they offered had “fallen off some truck.” The prices were irresistible to us, trying as we were to live on graduate student stipends. We also came home at night through Little Italy streets, especially if we were alone, glad that some authoritarian force kept petty crime away.
But we could not be sheltered from all the crime that tore up the Bronx in those early seventies. If we were on the eastern fringe of Little Italy, we were also on the northern fringe of the South Bronx, which ended at Fordham Rd. The police cars that cruised the neighborhood had four stars on the door and four officers inside. But I was the victim of an attempted mugging only once and passed only one crime scene with a dead body. I also had only one accidental run-in with a gang, the new threat in the area. But that’s yet another story.
From the large windows of our front room, I watched the neighborhood change. The very week I moved in, an African-American couple bought the grocery and greengrocer’s shops across the street. Several months later, a bodega replaced the luncheonette on the corner and one could buy religious statues, incense and herbs where once newspapers and candy were available. The grocery store owners quickly became an active part of the neighborhood. They would have two sons during my time there, with large hand-printed announcements in the window marking each event. The same owner would come to my aid when I literally ran into the gang. During the cold months, he would carry boxes of groceries to fifth floor apartments from which old Italian house-bound women couldn’t afford to move because of rent control. In the warm months, those same women would sit out front on stools, gradually making friends with the young Puerto Rican mothers who were rocking their babies in large perambulators.
So change was happening. But on Tiebout Avenue, if you discounted that one murder and the gang movements, it was happening pretty smoothly.