Travel, especially air travel, can be so disorienting. Just when I had almost recovered from an acute case of culture shock after flying from Sicily to Switzerland, a few days later we hopped on a plane again in Milan and—voilá! We found ourselves in…”Little Italy,” New York City’s version of the Old Country. My brain wasn’t prepared for so much confusion, especially being the sleep-deprived father of a precocious little principessa. (I wonder if culture shock has ever been fatal?)
This was not the first time that I’ve experienced reverse culture shock upon my re-entry into American society—and yet I’m still always caught off guard when my own culture “shocks” me. But that’s exactly what happens, and it’s a very enlightening phenomenon when you’re able to take an objective look at your own cultural reference points after being detached from them for a long period.
Case in point. We were standing at the curb in Manhattan, waiting for a bus somewhere near City Hall Park with a dozen or so New Yorkers (I assume they were locals, anyway). I was a little anxious, because I didn’t know the bus routes and wasn’t too sure if I could buy a ticket on board. It was hot, my baby was cranky, and the last thing I wanted was to get on the wrong bus and wind up in Queens or Brooklyn or god forbid, New Jersey. We were tired of walking, we were hungry, and we wanted to go up to Little Italy for lunch. (Yes, that’s a whole other discussion; we had just flown in from “Big” Italy, so why were we keen to encounter the American version?)
A few minutes later the bus pulls up and parks, but the doors don’t open right away. None of the New Yorkers seemed bothered by this, which I found a bit unsettling. In Rome, the people would be banging on the doors and calling the driver’s wife and/or mother all sorts of colorful nicknames within about 4 seconds.
So now the driver pushes a button and gets up from his seat. The door opens, and he slowly walks towards us while a steel platform begins to emerge from the undercarriage. All the while the locals are still just standing there patiently, and I’m looking around for the Candid Camera. That’s when I spot a woman in wheelchair, which I hadn’t seen due to my own petty concerns. But I was oblivious, pushing my way past everyone, including the woman in the wheelchair, to get onto the bus with my baby. My wife immediately noticed the odd looks coming my way, but it took me a few more minutes to figure out what was going on.
So exactly what was going on then? Well, it seems that in New York, other passengers are not allowed to board a bus until the wheelchair passenger has been secured into place by the driver. The amazing thing about this rule is that people actually obey it without protest.
I started to think about how back in Rome I always complaining about the cafoni who cut in line and push their way onto buses that are already stuffed beyond their capacity. I can’t count the times that I’ve said swear words under my breath pointed in their general direction. What an awkward surprise when I realized that in the U.S., I was now the cafone. Really? Had I been so conditioned by all of my time living in Rome? Or is it just human nature to adapt to the culture that surrounds you?
Which brings me back to Little Italy.
The Old World meets The New World on Mulberry Street
Eventually we worked out the bus route, I got over my self-loathing, and we found ourselves on Mulberry Street, which is about all that’s left of Little Italy. These three blocks of nostalgia are frozen in time, calling to mind images of my great-grandfather who must have passed through here at some point. (My ancestor, Giovanni Zullo, quickly moved on to Chicago, but the ship’s manifest said that he was meeting some cousins in New York first—probably to drop off some salami and prosciutto.)
Although visually evocative, in reality this small strip of Italian-American history is little more than a continuous string of identical “Italian” restaurants, broken up by the occasional discount bodega selling cheap Chinese products. We spotted a place called “Caffé Palermo,” which had a loud sign outside claiming, and I quote, “The Best Cannolis on Planet Earth!” Upon spotting this declaration, an incredulous look appeared on the face of my Sicilian wife, who was at once intrigued and appalled by the impudence of this restaurant’s proprietor. So of course we sat down at a table to investigate.
Jessica immediately got up to survey the pastry case, while I attempted to distract our little bambina. Then one of the old guys from the neighborhood wandered over to my table to strike up a conversation. At first it was the usual banter: where are you from, what do you do? He told me that he grew up in the neighborhood and lived there his whole life, recounting its history as well as the recent uncomfortable changes.
“In da old days, dey were all Italians, ya see, but each block had its own identity. Mulberry Street here were da Sicilians, Mott were da Calabresi, and over on Baxter were da Napolitani. And if you was Sicilian, your mamma better not catch with a girl from Mott Street…and vice versa. Dat’s how it was back den, capish?”
Yeah, I “capished.” His story pretty much squared with what I heard my grandparents say about the old Chicago neighborhoods.
“So it’s not like that anymore?” I asked.
“Naah. Everyting’s changin’. Hell, there’s more Chinese ‘round here than paisans these days.”
He shrugged and puffed out a long sigh. “Dey got all da money. My brother-in-law was selling a building he owned last year…right there, just down da block. He wanted a million bucks for it, even though it was worth ‘bout a million and a half. None of da Italians ‘round here could afford it. A month later, a Chinese guy shows up and offers him two million. Cash. In a suitcase. What da hell’s he supposed to do?”
Just about then my wife comes back with a piece of New York cheesecake.
“That looks good,” I remarked, “but what happened to the best cannolo on the planet?”
“Cannolo?” she huffed, “I didn’t see any cannoli up there! There was a soggy pastry filled with frosting or something…how can they call that a cannolo?!? First, they didn’t even use real ricotta. Second, a cannolo must be filled only once it’s ordered, NOT two days before!”
I winced. I didn’t want offend our new friend standing four feet away. I need not have worried. My wife was speaking Italian, and as it turns out, our “Italian” friend didn’t understand a single word of the language. Yes, things in the old neighborhood have certainly changed. I said goodbye to him in Chinese and we were on our way.
The Great Melting Pot
Perhaps 100 years ago the Italians played the role of the unwelcomed Chinese, displacing the Irish, Germans, or other assimilated communities. I can imagine some Dutch-American in the summer of 1914 lamenting to his drinking buddies, “The neighborhood is really going to shit now that all these Italians are moving in!”
But it sure didn’t take long for the Italians to integrate. By the second generation, they were already speaking only English at home and firmly embracing America with both arms. My grandfather was born with the name Vincenzo, but somehow it became James and then Jimmy before he started attending the public school. What’s more, he excelled at baseball, a sport that his Old World father Giovanni probably never understood. He was a high school superstar, and was even offered try-outs by big league teams. Would’ve been a helluva shortstop for the White Sox, but his mother had passed away and The Great Depression was in full swing, so he gave up his baseball aspirations to go work his ass off in a factory to help support his 10 brothers and sisters. Those old school Italians were a tough bunch, and weren’t going to let anything stop them from realizing The American Dream.
Despite the changes, I still enjoyed my brief visit to Little Italy in New York. And on some level, I think that the original Italian immigrants that lived there three or four generations ago would have had a certain respect for the current Chinese “invaders” in their neighborhood. This country is all about opportunity. That’s all you’re promised, a fighting chance, but it’s a lot compared to most other places. So now the Chinese are sacrificing, living in difficult conditions, saving their money, teaching their kids English, and celebrating the possibilities of life in a free country. Good for them. And I’m sure their cannoli can’t be any worse than the ones at Caffé Palermo.
To appreciate what Little Italy once was really like, it’s worth a stop at the Italian American Museum on the corner of Mulberry and Grand (155 Mulberry Street). I passed through briefly, but would love to have spent more time there. They also have cultural events in the evenings, usually Thursdays; music, movies, festivals, etc., that celebrate the Italian-American experience. If you live in the New York metro area, or are planning a visit, check out their website for the full schedule of events.
Many cities around the U.S. still have areas with strong Italian-American roots. Besides New York and Chicago, there are great neighborhoods in Boston, San Francisco, and Philadelphia where some of the traditions are still (more or less) maintained. Even the place that I call “home” in Palm Beach County, Florida, there is a seasonal influx of Italian-Americans from up north every January through April. It’s a wish of mine to someday help bridge the sizeable gap between the current Italian-American community, and Italians living in Italy. Most Italian-Americans today do not have a realistic view of modern Italy, only having been exposed to the homesick stories about The Old Country told to them by relatives long since deceased. Which is too bad, because there is much to offer one another somewhere in between the similarities and the differences.
Then again, who knows? Many Italian-Americans might not wished to be associated with the rude cafoni pushing their way onto the bus, stepping over children and people in wheelchairs. And those are the ones just visiting New York, fresh off the plane from Milan. Yes, amici miei, that would be me…