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
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
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
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
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