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Coming of Age

My family came to Newark, New Jersey on the Portuguese Mayflower in 1925. On paper, we were one of the first families of Newark’s Little Portugal, the Ironbound section, but somehow through a series of mishaps, scandals, tragedies, and just plain stupidity, we were always broke and just this side of the law. The Ironbound was Newark’s other side of the tracks, its Lower East Side. Locals referred to it as Down Neck because of its location at the neck of the foaming Passaic River. It was where the character of Tony Soprano was born and raised and if you saw War of the Worlds with Tom Cruise, the street where the church gets destroyed is Ferry Street, our main street and that church was, and still is St. Stephan’s. I check on it every time I go back to Newark to go shopping at the Portuguese supermarket, Seabras, with another mandatory stop at Teixeira’s Bakery for some Portuguese custard pastries, pasteis de nata.

           For a time, my best friend was Egghead Payne. We were in Mr. Blonsky’s class in 7th and 8th grades at Lafayette Street School but didn’t talk to each other until one day in the playground. I was throwing my Spaldeen high bouncer against the wall and it got away from me. Egghead was walking by, handed it to me and presto: best friends.  

  Egghead’s hair was buzzed short, and his head was perfectly round like a melon, but Melon Head Payne was just too much trouble to think of and say, and Egghead just seemed to go with Eugene. His grandmother called him Egghead once, and it stuck. I never called him that, since that would have been mean. He had brown skin, the color an old football, sad brown eyes and even features so symmetrical that he looked like a cartoon character: The Adventures of Egghead. His plummy lips were always slightly parted, somewhere between a sneer and a smile so that you always saw his small, bright, even teeth. He never laughed out loud but if he thought something was funny, he hissed through his pretty teeth and released a little puff of air. Our friendship ended in a big, ugly public way with a resounding slap across the face on the steps of the Church of Our Lady of Fatima, June 1961.

 The Ironbound was ethnically and racially blended then in a way that didn’t cause any disturbances—yet. Our block was all white but there were black families on the next block. Being on the wrong side of the tracks was the grease that made it all seem to work on our narrow streets, but the tribes never occupied the same building. Though it was built on a grand scale, Newark was now just a tired old city in its work clothes, trying to make it through the 20th century in one piece. The trains screeched along the tracks, the factories pounded out their essential widgets and flanges, belched their smoke. There was a layer of grime on everything and on some humid summer days, an easterly breeze sent the fumes from the nearby slaughterhouse our way. To me and Egghead, it was all we knew, and it was paradise.

           After school we often went to a dusty pocket park near Penn Station to play stickball or read comic books. I read Batman and The Green Lantern out loud using different voices, Daffy Duck, Bullwinkle and Walter Cronkite. Egghead liked Cronkite the best, it was my attempt at the voice of authority and when I used it I felt better. If I was Daffy too long, he nudged me.

           “Cronkite. Do Cronkite.” I basked in the steadfast trust of Egghead’s big brown eyes. For a time, it was the safest place in my world and, for a time, I was the safest place in his world.

Newark’s Penn Station was an Art Deco limestone beauty with vestiges of its former glory. It was the gateway to the Ironbound, the dividing line between Uptown and Downtown and once you crossed through it you were in different world. On weekends we liked to play in Penn Station’s echoing chambers. We pretended to be waiting for trains and looked impatiently at the imaginary watches on our bare, bony wrists. I tapped him on the shoulder as if he were a stranger.

“Excuse me, sir. When is the next train to, um, Chattanooga?”

“Chattanooga Choo Choo! Chattanooga! Chattanooooga!” Egghead loved saying this.

I found a copy of Theodore Sturgeon’s novel More Than Human on top of one of the garbage cans on the platform and this magical find, with its lonely heroes and their superpowers, showed me there might be another dimension beyond the train tracks.

Sometimes we walked uptown, where the big department stores and big movie theaters beckoned. We went to the movies every week. I had a paper route, so I always had a little money and Egghead never had any, so I treated him, which was OK with me. He was like my little brother, though he was a year older than me. When we saw North by Northwest at the Paramount, I was amazed that Cary Grant wore the same glorious blue/grey Saville Row suit for three days straight, something I would attempt with less success when I grew up. Coming home from the World War II comedy The Imitation General, starring Glenn Ford, we passed the construction site for the new Prudential Building and stared into its crater.

“Did the Germans bomb Newark?” Egghead asked.

“Yes. But only uptown, I think,” I answered because I thought it might be true.

Richard Beymer was the star of every movie at RKO Proctor’s main theater: West Side Story, Five Finger Exercise, and The Longest Day. Did they just keep his name on the marquee and rearrange the words underneath it every week? My father went one flight up to the Proctor’s Penthouse Cinema, where he could see racy foreign films with Brigitte Bardot and Marcello Mastroianni.

Our Lady of Fatima, our first Portuguese church, was completed in 1958 and despite my parents’ impenetrable objections, I was one of its first altar boys, a job I took very seriously. The first born, I was a golden-haired baby then a dirty blond boy, blue-eyed and tall. The church started a Boy Scout troop and I had to lobby my parents to join that too. I had three pretty sisters: Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria.

I didn’t look like the typical Portuguese boy or like anybody else in my family. I had the long, sad face, moist eyes and coloring of a bodega Jesus painting and was voted most pious looking two years in a row. I was often pulled out of school to work funerals where my sad Jesus face got me good tips from grateful undertakers.

Lafayette Street School was two blocks away from my grandmother’s house, where we sometimes lived, depending on our finances. Whenever the Newark Evening News, New Jersey’s best newspaper, wanted to do a story about the city’s cultural diversity, they would send a photographer to our school because we had an exotic mix that included Italians, Poles, Lithuanians, Irish, Puerto Ricans, Blacks, Galician Spaniards (Gallegos) and the last survivors of Newark’s once lively Chinatown, the Eng cousins. Immigration laws had just been eased and more Portuguese poured into the neighborhood. We were called “Pork Chops” because it was the closet-sounding pejorative a pinhead could reach in a pinch.  Those Irish, Polish, and Italian residents who resented the Portuguese invasion called us “Zekes.” I’m not sure how they came up with it, probably in some midnight, white hooded cabals, but when we overheard it murmured behind our backs, it stung. We could refer to ourselves as Pork Chops, but we never, ever used the Z word.

My tiny, iron-willed grandmother was forced into an arranged marriage as a teenager and had to flee Portugal with the husband she hated to escape his gambling debts. He looked like a monkey, beat her and their four daughters later, she divorced his sorry ass when she was twenty-seven. This left her a dangerous, fallen woman, often whispered about by the genteel fishwives of the neighborhood. Whenever she went to church, she wore a wide-brim charcoal hat and with her head held defiantly high, jaws clenched and nostrils flaring, sailed majestically down the aisle like the Queen Mary of Fuck You. When she was tired of a subject, she would imperiously snap, “Ponto. Final!” (Period. The End.) And that was that!

With her daughters to raise, she worked at a suitcase handle factory, did embroidery, and took whatever piece work she could get. Like most immigrants, she was very thrifty and through a combination of hard work, determination, and some mysterious lucky breaks, she eventually bought the biggest house on the block, formerly the mansion of a family known for their hot dogs. It was three stories tall and built on a grand scale, with spacious rooms and high ceilings. The blooming garden was filled with roses of every color, all kinds of vegetables, fig trees and a grape arbor. Ever enterprising, my grandmother turned the two upper floors into a rooming house for single immigrant men who filled the factories and ditches of the neighborhood. My handsome father, fresh from Portugal and the Merchant Marine, was one of them and that proximity resulted in my parents’ turbulent marriage.

My father wasn’t modest about his looks, and his cocksmanship was legendary. My grandmother told me that he was once stabbed in the left buttock by a husband who came home too soon as he tried to scurry out a bedroom window. He worked in a leather tanning factory during the day and was a bartender at night. He sometimes didn’t come home for a few days at a time. In the evening he often went out in Italian suits from The Swank Shop on Ferry Street, and it was my job to polish his selection of size 10 Florsheims. With his baby face and big brown eyes, he was charming and popular out in the world, but he had a violent, unpredictable temper. He once pounded the kitchen table so hard that a full soup tureen flew into the air and hit the ceiling. I was afraid of him and tried to avoid him the little bit of time he was home. When he wasn’t around, I was the man of the house.

My mother was a compact, wiry bundle with sparkling, lively brown eyes, and the long expressive face of a great comedienne. She read classic novels and loved British films, anything with Alec Guinness and Trevor Howard. She had the willful temperament of a Bronte heroine, and my father was her Heathcliff, her reach for the stars of passion. She was hooked on his bad boy sizzle and he on her unconditional love. Though she was often confined to shabby, small second floor apartments with four kids, her adventurous heart was running along the misty moors, chasing her Heathcliff with her wooly, wild hair cascading behind her. Her sharp tongue and love of language united one sweltering Fourth of July when non-stop firecrackers turned our beloved dog into a whimpering, quivering mess. My mother ran to the window and shouted to anyone within earshot: “Why don’t you take those firecrackers and shove them up your mother’s ass!”

Despite all the troublesome elements, a palpable current ran between my parents, and they made each other laugh. It was only when I saw La Dolce Vita as an adult that I understood my father’s short, hectic life. He wanted to be Marcello Mastroianni splashing with Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain, not work in a factory and be saddled with four kids he barely knew.

Egghead envied me for having a father on hand, no matter how temperamental and inattentive. His father was in North Carolina with a whole new family. His mother lived uptown in the Stella Wright Homes, the Projects. She had nothing to do with him. Egghead was sentenced to living with the smoldering, short-tempered Miss Irma, who was nicer to me than she was to him. And she wasn’t very nice. Egghead called her Auntie. After the second time I met her, he confessed that she was his grandmother, but she didn’t want that known. She hoped to be able to snag gentleman callers and being Grandma was not a selling point.

At home she was a big scowling woman in a grimy robe and a head rag watching very loud television, eating Ritz Crackers with margarine and Nilla Wafers. She never cooked and sometimes shared a Swanson TV dinner with Egghead. No wonder he was always hungry. She noticed me looking at her and said, “What you lookin’ at, Bright Eyes?” Like my grandmother, she liked to say disparaging things about his parents to anyone who would listen.

“Damn your mama and her goofballs. She left me holding the bag,” she would mutter and let hang in the air.

Sometimes in the evening, I saw Miss Irma on Ferry Street, stuffed into a shiny dress with her ample cleavage overflowing, probably heading to a bar in her spiky heels. She topped off the whole ensemble with an elaborate copper-colored wig—Oh, Miss Irma! I wondered if, in their nighttime personae, Miss Irma and my father knew each other.

September 16, 2022 19:24

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