© copyright 2013 by Sara Jacobelli
I grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut in New England-style “three-deckers.” The first and second floors consisted of identical small two bedroom apartments, and the top floor was an attic rental consisting of a make-shift kitchen, a tiny living room, an even tinier bedroom, and walls sloping claustrophobically inward. All three units shared a common driveway, a narrow cement yard, half a dozen metal garbage cans, and a front porch known as the stoop. The stoop was where neighbors congregated, watching the world go by, drinking beer, gossiping, and yelling at their kids playing in the street. Several generations of Italian, Irish, or Polish families often shared the clapboard three-deckers. The top floor was reserved for newlyweds who, once they had a baby or two, would get to move downstairs to one of the larger apartments. When the children were grown, a widowed grandma would often move back upstairs to the attic apartment where it was likely she herself had begun married life. Privacy was at a premium even for families; the lives of the residents of all three floors were always intertwined.
We rented the second floor of a ramshackle 1920’s three-decker on East Main Street for most of my childhood. The first floor usually housed people like us—families with several kids. The top floor saw a series of young couples through the first precarious years of their marriages. My mother, who rarely got excited about anything, was always uncharacteristically optimistic about the future of the third floor newlyweds; while they unpacked the shiny new toaster and coffee pot from their wedding shower, she was busy planning their lives.
“They’ll have their own restaurant someday,” she’d say as the new bride, fresh out of high school, shuffled down the stairs early in the morning to her waitress job at a downtown diner. “He’ll make foreman,” she’d comment as the new groom headed off to second shift at Sikorsky Helicopters or Remington Arms. “They’ll buy a little house someday, with a real yard, for the kids.” She’d plan these happy lives while ironing and listening to the radio. “I hope they don’t have too many kids, that will make it harder. . .” her voice would trail off before another happy life strategy would occur to her and she’d say something like, ”She should go to Father Reilly over at St. Charles. He doesn’t ask if you practice birth control.”
All of my mother’s friends went to the discreet Father Reilly. He was the most popular priest in three parishes, much of his influence because of his practical sympathy for his overburdened flock. “It’s not a sin if he doesn’t ask,” my mother would add eagerly, alternating gulps of coffee with a drag on a Lucky Strike. “Remember that when you get married,” she’d remind me, brushing the bangs out of my eyes.
But my mother’s faith in her church and Father Reilly irritated my know-it-all atheist big brother. “Oh mom, why do you care about those Stanleys and Stellas upstairs? And how can you believe in that brainwashing? The Catholic church is merely designed to exploit the poor, ignorant masses.” Nicky would roll his eyes and go back to his book. “They’ll probably end up like the Benedettos anyway,” he’d declare. “Oh , Nicky, don’t say that!” Mom would get upset.
The Benedettos weren’t a strong argument for the comforts of religion. They were a devout neighborhood family with nine kids, and each year another baby on the way. All the kids went to Catholic school, but they were always hungry. The skinny big-eyed boys and girls, dressed in tattered hand-me-downs, would go door to door asking for odd jobs for food or money. Once I let a few Benedetto kids in the kitchen door and my father almost killed me; they ate everything we had that was remotely edible, including a whole box of a dozen chocolate (and certainly blasphemous) Devil Dogs.
By the time I was seven years old I was a cynical veteran of several of my mother’s “young couples.” I knew that by the end of their first year of marriage, the wife would be swollen with pregnancy, looking tired and irritable, taking two busses to get to work. The husband would start drinking too much and have trouble keeping jobs. There would be yelling about his losing a paycheck in a poker game and spending too many nights at Paolo’s, the neighborhood bar just two doors away. I could hear these couples upstairs. Their evenings began with a few high-balls and giggles but soon became drunken quarrels indistinguishable from my parent’s frequent shouting matches. Life was lived in our three-decker at high decibels.
I also knew that the novelty of my running upstairs three or four times a day to visit the newlyweds would soon wear thin. At first I was precocious and funny to the young bride and groom. We’d play gin rummy and the husband would say, “What a character!” But when the daily demands of their own baby set in, and with another on the way and no money or privacy, I became just another noisy intrusion into lives that seldom had any peace.
One day my brother and I prepared to watch the much awaited partial solar eclipse. I was dismayed that you couldn’t look directly at it, that you had to look through a piece of cardboard with a hole cut in it onto another piece of cardboard. “You can go blind if you look at the eclipse,” Nicky, Catholic debunker and now astronomer, warned ominously. I thought of stealing a direct look at the celestial maneuvers but was too chicken. Everyone in the neighborhood stood in line in our driveway and looked through Nicky’s cardboard contraption, including Tony Riccio from the gas station across the street, Bruno from the butcher shop next door, and all the Benedettos. Even the young couple from the third floor who were fighting lately and ignoring all of us came down for a look at the heavenly oddity. The world darkened.
I suspected my brother was exaggerating about the going blind hazard presented by the eclipse, but the next day I saw a picture of a teenage girl wearing sunglasses on the front page of the New York Daily News with the caption, “I May Be Blind But I Still Love the Beatles.” She lost her sight by staring at the eclipse, the paper claimed. But there she was with a big grin on her face, even though she’d been blinded. What was there to smile about if you were blind?
A few weeks later our current young couple, Vinnie and Barb, moved out. Rumor among the adults was they were Getting Divorced. Barb, who had gained weight and looked much older than when she’d moved in just a year before, took her brand new baby girl and went back to live with her mother over on the West Side. Barely twenty, she was already un-married.
I don’t think she was nearly as disappointed that her romance hadn’t survived as my mom was.
Partial Solar Eclipse in New York City, May 9, 1967
Photo Credit: “The Beatles”, by Richard Lopez 1. CC License NonCommercial. Flickr.