It May Be Carroll Gardens, but It’s Home

Maybe you can’t go home again, but me? I got a direct order

from on high to return to a place I didn’t even know existed. I know that

sounds nutty and worse, grandiose, but there is little doubt that my mother, my

daughter and I were led home by a series of events so bizarre, they fall into

the “You’re kidding me, right?” category.

It began the day after my daughter Jess graduated from

college. On a Sunday, she was in cap and gown drinking punch on the lawn at

Wellesley College and the next day she was in jeans running for coffee and

bagels in Brooklyn for the director of a movie, A Brooklyn State of Mind . That Jess had graduated cum laude is not what put her ahead of

the pack of kids begging for the slave gig. What nailed the job for her were

her two real qualifications: She had a car and she spoke fluent Italian. (The

star of the movie, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, needed an interpreter, and the

small-budget movie needed an extra driver, an extra car, an assistant for the

director and a gofer-all of which they got in one kid.)

Assignment 1: The film was being shot in Carroll Gardens in

Brooklyn and Jess was sent to find the best eats in the neighborhood. After

working her way through several pastry shops, a bunch of Italian delis and a

few Zagat-rated “I” for cheap restaurants, she hit upon a tiny place called Ferdinando’s

Focacceria, on Union Street. The little neighborhood joint (sorry, bistro)

hadn’t changed its décor (except for adding some almost-wood paneling) since it

opened its doors in 1904.

Because she was working about 20 hours a day, and earning

about 75 cents a month, she couldn’t actually go to Ferdinando’s herself, but

she told Maria about it, and she went. So did the crew. Real serious Sicilian

food, an owner, Frankie, who spends most of his time complaining, a waitress

who takes no crap from nobody. Perfect. It became the crew hangout. And, for

whatever reason, Jess took to driving past the place after shooting wrapped

each night, sometimes as late as 2 in the morning. Hardly the compulsive type,

she nonetheless turned the “good night drive-by” into her nightly ritual.

It was a good summer-she had her first movie job, she got to

call Danny Aiello (who also starred in the movie) at home, she went to

Bulgari’s with Maria. The world was O.K. Except that my mother, Jess’

grandmother, Florence Barbera Stasi, had gotten very ill. The diagnosis was

dire, and Jess was heartbroken. They are bonded. Against my wishes the year

before, Jess had used up her savings to fly home from school in Rome to visit

her. I’d sometimes walk into the hospital room and find them curled up together

in the bed, fast asleep, “watching” the soaps.

The doctors warned the family to prepare for the worst, but

Jess refused to buy it. My mother, however, started to get ready. I realized

that when she declared, “I’m redecorating my whole apartment.” Not wanting to

hang the crepe, I did have to say, “Er, Mom, don’t you think that it’s probably

not the right, er, time?” She looked at me like I’d gone nuts. “Why?” she

screeched. “I’ll be dead before the bills arrive!” This is what I was dealing

with.

Jess, on the other hand, just kept saying, “When Gram gets

well, we’ll take her to Ferdinando’s.” Right.

When the movie wrapped, Jess started hanging out at the

restaurant and became fast friends with the owner, Frankie. She begged him and

he promised that as soon as she could afford it, he’d rent her one of the two

upstairs apartments. “No matter who else lives there,” he exclaimed in broken

English.

At Jess’ urging, my boyfriend and I finally went ourselves.

It’s hard not to love the place. Frankie pulled up a chair and sat down with us

for dinner. The kid was right-my mother, a great Italian cook herself, would

have loved it.

Here’s where the weird part begins: One day-and don’t ask me

how-the impossible happened. Mom’s doctor at N.Y.U. called me in and told me

that, well, yes, it seemed that my mother’s cancer had spontaneously

disappeared. Somehow. It didn’t surprise my mother in the least. All she said

was, “Lucky I didn’t charge up a storm at Jennifer Convertibles. I’d be mad as

hell at myself.” Oh.

It was a while before Mom was strong enough. But finally

Jess got her wish and we headed out to Ferdinando’s to celebrate. On the way,

Mom kept saying, “Who ever heard of Carroll Gardens? What kinda name is that

for Brooklyn? Is this Queens?”

Frankie, who’d become a family friend by this time, began

our celebration by complaining. Then he brought out the specialty of the house,

panelle-little chickpea pancakes. My mother was thrilled. “I haven’t had these

since I was a little girl,” she said. “We lived upstairs from a restaurant and

this man, Don Paulino, used to give us kids raw chickpeas, too.”

Frankie smacked his head. ” Gesù Cristo Maria! Don Paulino! He taught my father-in-law to make

panelle!”

My mother gave him one of those scary single-raised-eyebrow

looks that all Italian women develop immediately after giving birth. In case

you have never encountered it, a raised eyebrow means, “Don’t screw around with

me if you know what’s good for you.”

Frankie was in the hot seat and he knew it. “Really?” she

said very skeptically. “His place was on

Union Street, where I grew up.”

Frankie looked scared. I thought the poor son of a bitch was

caught in a lie and was about to discover the Wrath of Flo. Instead, he said,

“This is Union Street.”

Now my mother looked

scared. “Really? We lived at 151 Union Street. We had the upstairs apartment.”

Frankie got teary. ” Signora ,

this is 151 Union Street.”

We sat in stunned

silence. Even my Jennifer Convertible-less mother was speechless. The whole

Barbera clan had lived in the very apartment my daughter was trying to rent!

Frankie got up and took

an old photo down from the wall and handed it to us. It was taken of the

building in 1935-when my mother lived there. Her apartment windows were front

and center. The shades were pulled tight. “Look,” my mother said, pointing at

the windows. “My mother made us pull the shades every afternoon after school.”

“Worried about fading the furniture?” I asked.

I got the one-eyebrow look. “No!” she said, like she was

talking to morons. “A man-a gangster-was once shot dead in the hallway. She

didn’t want us to see when the gangsters would walk around outside.” She took

the picture from Frankie and he started to cry. Then she broke down, and then I

did, and then everyone-from the Con Edison guys at the front table to the

Caribbean family in the corner-were bawling like babies. Frankie even pulled

out the private grappa stash and we drank until we couldn’t walk.

Why didn’t my mother know that she’d grown up in Carroll

Gardens?  Because back then it was known

simply as Red Hook. Before tenements became co-ops, row houses became town

houses, and joints became bistros.

Gentrification, like a cultural mugger, almost stole my

heritage.