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                                               A New York Story

                             Charles DeLisi and Noreen Vasady-Kovacs 

Preface

New York is a city of intermingled extremes: wealth and poverty within a few hundred yards of one another; greed, offset by extraordinary generosity; political corruption coexisting with enlightened genius-–and public schools that are among the best and worst in the Nation, embedded in an intellectual culture that is as deep and diverse as any in history. Nevertheless, the essence of New York is simple: it is first and foremost the city that enabled upward mobility for tens of millions of immigrants, enriching their lives, and  in so doing contributing immeasurably to the greatness of our Nation.

Our story is a paean and an expression of thanks – to New York in general, and to the Bronx in particular. It’s a story of the American experience: of hope, struggle, and promises fulfilled; of an environment with opportunities diverse enough to match the equally diverse skill sets of its population.

We spent our formative years in a physical environment that no longer exists, but in a culture that nevertheless persists in the deepest sense of the word. It continues in its countless contributions to civilization, in its sense of community, and in the hope and promise it provides for those who now call the Bronx their home.

“I know the Bronx has been maligned and completely misunderstood by outsiders, but what’s kept the Bronx so great is that there is a community” Danielle Jackson, quoted by Sam Roberts, N Y Times, March 14, 2013

  

                                      Charles’s Voice

Introduction

It was a windy January day in 1972. The old DC-2--used as a flying command post during the Second World War--banked left, and dropped for its final approach to the airport. From a distance, the landing strip jutting out from the edge of the mesa looked like a small patch of land, far too small to accommodate the limited maneuverability of a twin-engine prop, especially in windy weather.

A short time later I stepped off the plane into a bright, clear, but very cold morning, wearing a cotton sports jacket with no over-coat or hat. Before I left New Haven Connecticut, I thought even that would be too warm for the deserts of New Mexico. But I wasn’t in the desert; I was in the Jemez Mountains, 7200 ft. above sea level. I had arrived at my destination, and I was a long way from the Bronx, in more ways than one. Six months later, I would say farewell to the Northeast, and move with my wife, Lynn, and our beautiful 11-month-old daughter, Jacqueline, to those magnificent mountains, 2,000 miles away in another world, to start my career. 

As I sorted through some memorabilia a few days before leaving, I came across a picture of myself as a boy in early grade school.  I had a curious sensation: the boy seemed to be a stranger. Except for shared memories, we were so different from one another. And yet we were profoundly connected. My years in the Bronx shaped who I had become, and influenced my views on virtually everything.  Like so many others of my generation, I grew up under very simple economic conditions, but very favorable social circumstances.

The Neighborhood

My parents met because they lived in houses within 50 feet of one another, on East 231st in the Bronx. My own marriage was a bit less constrained, but only a little. Although I was born in the Bronx, I married Lynn Moskowitz, who was born in Brooklyn and raised across the Hudson. Jacqueline, the older of my two children, grew up in the Northeast, but married Clayton Cheever from the Rockies.  And my son Daniel, born in New Mexico and raised in the Washington suburbs, married Koko Matsui, who was born, and spent her formative years, on the other side of the Pacific.

This anecdote is of course a variation on a common theme: it’s both a symbol and a concrete expression of the inevitable evolution driven by education and technology. On the one hand, it reminds us of rapidly increasing globalization and the healthy mixing of cultures that accompanies it. On the other hand, powerful social transformations that contribute to the geographic fragmentation of families, elicit conflicting feelings and nostalgia for an era that can never return. In an important and very concrete sense Thomas Wolfe was right: no matter how deeply felt, no matter how rewarding the experiences of the past, you can’t go home again. In another sense, our past is always a part of us, and when we view it from a perspective that only age can provide, we can come to “...know the place for the first time.”[1] Speaking for ourselves, and I expect for many other New Yorkers of our generation, we’re home, and in many ways it’s the most fulfilling part of our lives.

The neighborhood of my youth was middle class, nearly 90% Roman Catholic, and approximately 75% Italian-American. All four of my grandparents were born in Italy. I take great pride in the contributions of Italy to Western civilization, but I’ve often thought, and I really believe, that the greatest gift my grandparents gave me was an American birth—though I doubt that they had much of  a choice.

My father’s father, Carmelo DeLisi, was a tough, strappy Sicilian from the town of Marineo, in the hills of suburban Palermo.  His wife, who died shortly before I was born, was from the adjoining town of Corleone, which until a few years ago I thought was a word that Mario Puzo had coined.  Some time after arriving in the United States, Don Carmello bought a house in New Rochelle, a New York suburb in Westchester County. He sold it during the Depression, and he and my grandmother moved to the North Bronx with their five young children—three boys and two girls.

Their new home was on a street that was largely undeveloped and heavily wooded. The houses were all single family, roughly 1400 sq. ft. of heated area, on approximately 2400 sq. ft. of land. My grandfather cleared an empty lot behind his house and converted it into a picnic area and playground, with swings, a sandbox, picnic table and a brick oven. I’m pretty sure the brick oven, which was used to bake and barbeque for outdoor family feasts, was more important to me than the swings.

In the 1920s my mother’s father, who was a tailor, bought a house directly across the street.  The loan on the house was eventually forgiven, at least in part, in an effort by the Government to help families survive the depression. When my parents married, they moved in with my maternal grandparents. My father died when I was four, just as the Second World War was ending. I continued living with my grandparents, along with my mother, until I graduated from CCNY.  

My maternal grandfather, Carmine Colameo, was born in a mountain town on the Adriatic side of the Apennine’s, almost directly east of Rome. He loved gardening and knew how to make the most of soil. That love and skill defined our small lot in the Bronx. We had two gardens: flowers in the front of the house; tomatoes, basil, and other herbs in the backyard. The driveway was laced with trees and well maintained shrubs. And then there were the fig trees---hard to protect from the cold and the birds---but the figs were so enjoyable and so worth the work---especially since I didn’t have to do it.

Childhood Friends

For a neighborhood with only single-family homes, we were rich in children my age. Along that standard 1/5-mile stretch into which NYC divides its streets, we had a core group of 6 boys spanning an age range of not much more than a year, and a comparable group of girls—all living within a few hundred yards of one another.

Some of the woods were partially cleared, and we used them for baseball. They were relatively small areas, but if we walked just two more blocks, we came upon the edge of a forest—or at least it seemed to be a forest[2]. The “forest” was filled with interesting animal life—deer, foxes, rabbits and such. I absolutely loved to explore those woods. It was also around that time—I was probably seven years old---when I first heard of calamine lotion.

The boys formed a true clique; each member interacted easily with every other member. We were held together by friendships among our parents, and by sports and street games---and we moved spontaneously in and out of each other’s houses. Although most of us were Italian-Americans, last names played little or no role in group acceptance. We did recognize the difference between names that ended in a vowel and those that didn’t, but none of us seemed to care. Sports were probably the single most important unifying and differentiating factor. And of course soldiers returning from the war had a strong common bond that easily transcended ethnicity.

I doubt that our neighborhood was fundamentally different from many others in Brooklyn and Queens.  If I were to speculate about the most basic cultural difference between our neighborhood in the Bronx and, for example, Woody Allen’s neighborhood in Brooklyn, I would not place ethnicity ---Italian as opposed to Jewish --- at the top of the list[3]. It’s that Brooklyn was Dodger territory, and we of course had our heroes at the Yankee Stadium, a team that thrashed the Bums in World Series playoffs. We often mocked the way they spoke in that other borough, not recognizing that we all sounded equally strange to non-New Yorkers. So we had what appeared to be prejudices, but they were of a different sort—more of an esprit de corps than a prejudice. My strong attachment to a baseball team would soon, however, come into conflict with other values that we were regularly taught in school.  I still remember how surprised I was when in late elementary school when one of my uncles pointed out that the Yankees were the only all-white team in baseball. I never felt the same way after that, even when they recruited Elston Howard a year or so later.

Our clique remained stable for around 6 years; from the time I was in kindergarten until the 5th grade. It included two of my first cousins who lived across the street. I was especially close to my cousin Edward. He was my football punting partner, and my partner in exploring the wilderness of those wonderful woods, where we walked, named, and occasionally carved out trails. I can’t help reflecting on the difference between that period of my life, which was unstructured, and which left us free to explore and daydream, with that of my grandchildren, in which nearly every hour is preplanned, and the small amount of remaining time spent with friends is arranged by play-dates.

When change started, it progressed relatively rapidly. I watched with sadness as the woods were cemented over and replaced by houses--and with even greater sadness and a feeling of deep loss as the families of my friends moved to “the Island”, and my father’s family returned to Westchester County.  By the early 50s, the DeLisi house was overflowing: each of my father’s sisters had married, remained with my grandfather, and started a family. It was livable only because my grandfather, who was a building contractor, had expanded the house by half. But I guess he had been in the Bronx long enough, and the entire group – aunts, uncles, four cousins and grandfather--moved simultaneously, abandoning our neighborhood (and me) to buy their own homes in White Plains and Mamaroneck, within a few miles of one another.

 Loss is, however, part of life, as is the growth and renewal that follows. Other families moved in. I made new friends within a slightly expanded geographical area, and the relationships turned out to be richer and deeper. But more about that later. Here the story is of earlier years.

Neighbors and Family Networks

My father’s premature death would no doubt have been much more traumatic than it was, if I hadn’t been surrounded by relatives. My father’s family had first cousins on the same street, with a few more two blocks away. My mother’s first cousins lived 3 houses from us. The sister of my mother’s father was married to a Verini (I never knew his first name, he was always called il Zio[4]) who lived two houses away. Il Zio’s brother, who was my best friend's grandfather, lived next door to him, and had a married daughter living just up the street. I can barely wrap my head around the interconnections, even now. Most important of all, my mother’s younger brother returned from the war and assumed a central role in my life.

My Uncle Tom returned, largely unscathed and twice decorated---a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. We all lived in the same house. He went to college, like millions of other returning veterans, with support from the GI Bill--that extraordinary piece of legislation that created a great society years before the word entered the lexicon-- and completed a masters degree in chemistry. The five of us lived together until the late 40s, when he married and had a daughter---so, for a while, 7 of us lived in the same house. Although that’s crowded in comparison to the way I now live, I don’t remember feeling uncomfortable or cramped. In fact, I felt good about having a new aunt who took an interest in my schoolwork, and in some of my other comings and goings. In addition, a brother-sister bond developed between me and cousin Barbara, even though she’s 8 years younger than I am.  It’s now more than a half-century later, and we remain extremely close.

In the early 50s, Uncle, my Aunt and Cousin moved into their own home in Yonkers. When they moved, my Uncle left a number of his books. Even the most elementary were not yet accessible to me, but they were on my bookshelves, and some would eventually play a role in my development.

During the years when my Uncle lived with us, and even afterward, he’d occasionally ask provocative questions about common natural processes, which were beyond my ability to answer. Why did the soda flow up the straw into my mouth when I sucked on the straw? I was in early grade school, and didn’t have a clue--and attaching labels like “suction” didn’t help. I knew it wasn’t magic, but it certainly seemed that way. After a while, he’d explain it to me. I didn’t fully understand his answers, but the questions stayed with me. I also had a few questions of my own, and they weren’t always easy for him to answer. Once, after hearing "I don't know" a few times in a row, I asked him if my questions were annoying. Without missing a beat, he said "of course not, how else are you going to learn?" And I said, "I don't know."

The world was full of curiosities. My grandfather made wine every year, and every year I watched him as he transferred the fermented wine from an oak casket to large bottles. The procedure was simple: one end of a tube was placed in the barrel, he sucked wine into the tube just once, and the rest was spontaneous—wine moved continuously on its own up the tube from the barrel, and then down into the bottle where he had placed the other end of the tube. I somehow thought it had to be related to the uphill flow in the straw, but those thoughts were only momentary. My world was still that of stickball, and stoopball, and punch ball, and roller-skating; of childhood skirmishes and of athletic competitions between our “gang” and the Ganley gang around the corner -- and of all the other activities that were made possible by living in a wooded neighborhood with relatively little automobile traffic.

Grade School

I attended the same elementary school as my mother, her sister and her brother. The City’s schools were named with a flare that’s usually reserved for shipyard factories. Ours was Public School (PS) 68.  I have fairly clear memories of all my grade school teachers. Some were perceptive and dedicated; others were not. My 5th and 6th grade teachers fell into the latter category. They had no impact. Others, however, had a deep and lasting influence on my life, which I’ll get to later.

My 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Bolding, appeared to have a unique educational philosophy:  she taught during the morning, and left the afternoons unstructured. She had a large supply of National Geographic Magazines, which she distributed freely. There was some interesting content, but by the 5th grade I had developed a strong interest in physical science, and I put the unstructured time to good use, reading and trying to puzzle through what I read. I’m not so sure that the free time served other students as well.

PS 68 had one male faculty member: Mr. Cox, my 6th grade teacher.  He remembered my mother from three decades earlier. but when I graduated two years later, I had the feeling that I was at best vaguely familiar to him. I guess I didn’t inherit my mother’s looks.

My most memorable school experience that year was a class trip to Yankee Stadium. My hero, Mickey Mantle, hit three home runs, one from the left side of the plate, and two from the right. I can still see that left handed hit, with the ball bouncing forcefully against the upper right field deck, not far from the bleachers.

My second grade teacher, Mrs. Williams, was African-American. I don’t think it mattered to anyone; I know it didn’t matter to me. She was a tall and soft-spoken woman, with a gentle personality. She must have been an effective teacher because I can still remember specific sections of the curriculum, particularly my first exposure to nutritional concepts, and to elementary arithmetic operations. Mrs. Williams had two sons; one of them, Keith, was in our class for a brief period. He was quiet, just as I was, but I don’t remember much else. Some time during the next few years, Mrs. Williams left the School. When I was in late elementary school, I met her on the subway on my way to Manhattan.  She remembered me, and was friendly and interested.

The City

In those early grade school years our class made yearly trips to Saks Fifth Avenue--just before Christmas break--to sing, to see a puppet show, and to generally enjoy a unique experience. Some of those songs had lyrics intended to emphasize that skin color didn’t matter. 

                                    

 Mr. Cox remembered the woman on the right, but forgot the kid on the left

The particular choice of words used by the composer might not be considered politically correct today, but the message was clear and powerful.

By and large New York culture was accepting and diverse, and while it wasn’t entirely free of racial and ethnic prejudice, our educational environment was proactive in minimizing it. The great Oscar Hammerstein reminded us that prejudice has to be “...taught, before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight.” New York, however, did better than to just discourage racial prejudice; it also taught us how to accept diversity. It was proactive.

But I’m oversimplifying a bit. The contrast between what our school system tried to teach, and the obvious bigotry that ran rampant in some Southern States produced its own type of biased view, which I recognized only for the first time many years later.

Late in Graduate School, I started to develop a serious interest in the biological sciences.  I took no biology in college, but I did know a little about the scientific revolution that was occurring in a new field called molecular biology—mainly from discussions with friends in the field, by reading Scientific American and by attending, from time to time, a lecture whose title caught my attention.  On one occasion, I attended a Medical School lecture by a distinguished visiting biochemist who had just made a breakthrough. The audience was packed, and the introduction was appropriately glowing. Then the talk began. This eminent Caucasian male scientist had a southern  accent--and for a split second I was bewildered. I felt embarrassed by my Rorschach-like reaction, but it was nevertheless an educational moment. I recognized something about myself, and that recognition helped  to correct a foolish, though previously unconscious, prejudice. Nevertheless, considering the diversity of its population, New York probably had the most accepting culture on the Planet.

I was no stranger to Manhattan. My grandfather worked in the garment district, and he would occasionally take me to The City on weekends. I remember him explaining the lay out: a grid with streets running east/west, and avenues north/south. I quickly learned the names of the avenues, almost all of which were numbered, and since streets were also numbered I always knew where I was. The one exception, which I didn’t realize until my late teens, is that “Sixth Avenue” had ceased to exist several years before my first visit. In any case, I quickly became comfortable with the idea of traveling to Manhattan, often to museums, on my own or with a friend.

I remember my amazement when I first entered Radio City Music Hall. There was something discordant about seeing an ordinary, albeit enjoyable movie—it was Peter Pan--in so magnificent a structure. I was used to our neighborhood movie houses, which were so tiny and plain in comparison; I couldn’t imagine anything else even approaching Radio City in shear grandeur. But I hadn’t yet seen the Roxy.

That was New York: progressive, exciting, celebratory--and simultaneously regular and chaotic. It was becoming part of me, though I didn’t fully realize it. In fact, I couldn’t appreciate how fortunate I was, because I had never been anywhere else. Leave aside that New York  was the only city in the Nation with three baseball teams—and I don’t think the importance of that can be exaggerated—we had, collectively, the best set of museums in the World, and the combination of the Bronx Zoo and Botanical Gardens was unsurpassed for  its coverage of plants and animals. The Gardens were especially beautiful --- and scented with aromas that provided a welcome contrast from the odors of the contiguous Zoo.

The Epiphany

The early years of elementary school are often a time when self-discovery begins. Some children begin to recognize that they excel in sports; others become aware of an interest  in music, art, or poetry--and some discover science. As a population we have an enormously diverse set of interests and talents; the genius of the New York educational system is that it enabled the discovery of those talents, and supported their development.

I first discovered something important about myself when I was in the third grade —and the circumstances remain crystal clear. Miss Pizzatello, our teacher, had a book collection in the back of our classroom; she called it a library. The books covered science, mythology, and short American classics--perhaps other subjects as well, but those are what caught my attention.  I had been reading fairy tales for some time, and mythology came closest, so I read those books first, to some extent interspersed with 19th C classics by New York writers like Washington Irving and W. B. Aldrich.

One day, probably by chance, I picked up a science book, The Earth, Moon and Sun—or a title that was very similar. It changed my life. Before I read it, I saw the world in a way that might best be described as a child’s version of a famous New Yorker cover by Saul Steinberg. My local neighborhood loomed large, and my perception of distance beyond that shrank very quickly. The book changed that view dramatically. The Earth was little more than a spec in a large solar system, and the Sun itself, which dwarfed the Earth, was just one star among an uncountable number of others, many of which were much, much larger than the Sun. I can’t remember who the author was, and I remain impressed that he conveyed perspective so vividly: after reading that book, the psychology of size and distance was qualitatively different.  In some non-trivial sense, my local world seemed insignificant.

That remarkable book also changed me in another way. The effect was indirect and did not have the same immediacy. I excitedly told my closest friend Vincent about it. A short time later I was surprised to learn that it didn’t interest him. That was my first conscience inkling of a fundamental difference between me and a friend.  My neighborhood was so homogeneous that I guess it never occurred to me that there were differences in attitudes and ideas waiting to emerge—after all, we were united by the same games, the same movies, the same foods. There was some variation in tastes, but they were basically superficial.

That primitive understanding of a genuine difference stayed with me and grew: that idea--however vague at the time--of nuanced but significant differences embedded in an almost universal similarity. Years later the concept, human polymorphism—expressed for example by variability in resistance and susceptibility to disease across a population--would become one of my professional interests. At eight, I was still years away from understanding either the word or the concept.

Miss Pizzatello’s library had a couple of other astronomy books—with titles like The Moon for Sam, The Stars for Sam maybe even the Saint’s for Sam.  I couldn’t go very far with the science books at PS 68--there were too few--so I joined the Public Library, which had its nearest branch about a mile away from my house. I was allowed into the children’s room. That kept me occupied for about 6 months. Shy though I was, I convinced the librarian to allow me into the adult section.

Astronomy led naturally into some simple mathematics and physics. I can’t remember what I was learning in school, and what I was learning on my own. I remember learning about atoms, electricity, magnetism and energy from Mrs. Bush, my eighth grade science teacher. She was a kind and remarkable woman who also taught music and art, and took a very personal interest in some of us.  But I had already -- at least a year earlier, maybe two--read about atoms and molecules, gases, the atmosphere and the concept of pressure. My interest in mathematics was also developing. I had read most of McCormack’s Plane (Euclidean) Geometry—which was one of the books my Uncle had left --in the 7th grade. I had another one of those epiphanies. I didn’t have the words to convey it, and when I try now I’m not sure how close I can come to describing what I felt. It was something about absolute truth. Geometry sat at the right hand of God.

Another moment of discovery occurred in late elementary school. We had a plumbing problem in my house. One of the toilets wouldn’t flush. My grandfather emptied a large bucket of water into the bowl—and I was surprised by what happened—it flushed. My grandmother’s sister was married to a plumber who made a quick house call to repair the toilet. I asked him about what I had seen, and he drew a picture: bowl plus siphon (he probably didn’t call it that—just a pipe that went up and then down) plus water. It was enough to give me a sense of what happened when the large bucket of water was thrown into the bowl.

And then it slowly started to come together: the straw, the wine tube, the flush. They had something in common. A pressure difference drove the fluid. I still didn’t understand it deeply, but now it was no more magical than gravity[5]. The magic of my childhood was disappearing. It would, however, soon be replaced by a deeper more profound and more beautiful magic: an awareness that the world is not what it appears to be, that our understanding has barely penetrated the surface of nature’s secrets. As a species we’re still in early childhood, distracted by stickball and stoop ball and especially by global “skirmishes”, with barely enough time to exercise the imagination required to understand a profoundly mysterious Universe.

We often hear criticisms of today’s teachers. I’m sure, however, that just as in any other profession, quality varies—some are inspiring and dedicated; others are just counting their days. But that was true even when I went to school. My 5th, 6th and 7th grade teachers were entirely mediocre. Others were extraordinary. Miss Pizzatello provided an environment that allowed me to develop, and she was helpful when she saw my interest in science emerging. Mrs. Quinn, my 4th grade teacher, introduced us to poetry. To this day I derive genuine enjoyment from poetry, some just from the sound of reading out loud; some from a philosophy powerfully expressed. Mrs. Quinn also had a wonderful sense of humor, an attribute that is missing in our too often overly serious approach to life. My 8th grade teacher Mrs. Bush was perhaps the most unusual of all. I found her explanations crystal clear, and she had that rare gift of knowing how to stimulate and encourage.

Independence

My growing interest in science not withstanding, I wasn’t much of a student. I was strongly drawn to what interested me most, and pretty much ignored assignments by my teachers unless they happened to coincide with my interests. That trait of independence never left, and it’s been a continuous thread in my professional life--sometimes beneficial to my career; sometimes not. But with the exception of my first year after graduating from college, when I was torn between the social and physical sciences, I never had to think hard about what to do next—I just followed my instincts and enjoyed the next step.

My independent nature expressed itself in other ways, which in retrospect are almost comical. Sometimes I’d cut lessons that were required to prepare for Confirmation, one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church and therefore extremely important for salvation. I believed what I was told about creation and why we existed, but the constant repetition was more than a restless and curious mind could manage. Although I tried not to be presumptuous, for that would be a grave sin against the Holy Ghost, I hoped that I could rely on another Sacrament for forgiveness: I always confessed the cuts, did the usual penance of  five Our Fathers and ten Hail Mary’s, and resolved “to sin no more”. But my usually excellent memory soon lapsed. Fortunately, the priests weren’t allowed to know my identity, and couldn’t discuss my inveterate sinning with the nuns.  I was Confirmed with everyone else in my class, and almost without incident. 

Almost,  because I asked my Uncle (my mother’s brother) to be my godfather. In order to take on that awesome responsibility—leave aside that he was already a father to me in almost every way--he had to be confessed. He tried, but a cranky Father Nodo (or maybe it was NoNo) quickly ejected him from the confessional. My uncle hadn’t attended mass in at least a decade—that’s more than 500 mortal sins! Anyway, the head priest, Monsignore Bassi, finally confessed him.

That episode undoubtedly cost me some loss of innocence. I had naively thought Christianity was about forgiveness and redemption. I remain deeply committed to that philosophy of forgiveness, and to the Christian ethic more generally. But apparently not everyone in the Church shared it. Years later I recalled the incident when I first read Chaucer’s description of the Parson in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales: “...if gold ruste, what shal iren do? 
For if a preest be foul, on whom we truste, 
No wonder is a lewed man to ruste; 
And shame it is, if a prest take keep, 
A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep.”[6]

In today’s Catholic Church the confessional fiasco would never have occurred, since self-confession is the norm. This shift in practice is consistent with the idea that individual conscience is the final arbiter of religious interpretation, constrained of course by a moral compass provided by the central message of Christian parables: love, forgiveness and redemption.

In spite of the godfather episode, the Church had me hooked. I was deeply religious, and the only tangible impact was that I switched churches. Instead of attending the “Italian” church, Our Lady of Grace, I attended the “Irish” church, St. Francis of Rome. And barring the occasional illness, I did that every Sunday without fail until late in college—when I finally started to ask informed questions.

So forced group activities didn’t come naturally. I must have been conflicted even about regularly attending mass, but that was easily resolved by wanting to avoid eternal fire, which we learned about in detail worthy of Dante during the religious instructions[7] that were required for Confirmation. On the other hand, mouthing the words to the Star Spangled Banner, which our public school class sang every morning, had no such punishment—and that’s what I and some other boys sometimes did, mouth the words. And I loved to sing.

Singing was an integral part of my early childhood. Music was common in my house. My mother had studied piano, and when I was three or four, she bought me a Victrola. Someone, I don’t remember who, gave me a couple of records: the Blue Danube and Swan Lake. I used to love just lying on the floor and listening, and feeling and being moved without moving. And then there was my grandmother. To this day, I remember her as the best untrained soprano I’ve ever heard; she sang as she did her chores, and I sang with her—popular songs, Italian songs, religious music. I enjoyed singing—but at some point, and I don’t remember why or exactly when, it stopped. Maybe it was when she stopped.

For the next 50 or so years, although I was a lover of music of all kinds,  I was only a listener. My tastes in music seemed to be somewhat more varied than those of most of my friends, who were oblivious to anything written before they were born. I found great satisfaction in different forms for different reasons. What was most on my mind, however, were the lyrics of songs we grew up with. I could identify with many those lyrics, and they were often beautifully reinforced by simple melodic lines and a rhythm that made remaining still virtually impossible. Singing, however, inexplicably disappeared, only to remerge, apparently by chance, a half century later.  There’s little about my life that I regret; that half-century of lost participation looms large, but I've now begun to continue where I left off (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCc5pxaCMxOEE2ztGSIueTvg).My voice is weaker but the pleasure is undiminished.

A New Friend of a Different Kind 

By the eighth grade the neighborhood dances started. I think it was the girls who initiated them. I don’t remember; I know it wasn’t me. But those summer months just before high school, and the almost weekly dances, are unforgettable. We quickly paired. The group decided that I was for Joanne, the cousin of my second closest friend, Jimmy . I was passive—but strangely enough, not the least bit resistant. Joanne’s family moved to Long Island that fall, and for a while we exchanged SWAK letters. If we were a few years older, we might have fit the roles of John Travolta and Olivia Newton John.

That was also the summer I met Ken. He lived around the corner, not more than a couple of hundred yards from my house. He was a year younger than I was, better read, and the first person I met who shared my love of mathematics. He also loved music, but only if it was composed before he was born—he was the perfect complement to my other friends. We became best friends almost immediately. We walked and talked for hours—about theology (we were both still Roman Catholic), politics, science, and art—just about everything. And most importantly, we both played handball.

Ken’s father was a cabinetmaker, and extremely talented and intelligent. He almost always knew the answers to scientifically based questions. I still find it incredible that someone without a high school education understood the thermodynamics of refrigeration. Ken’s mother was probably one of the neighborhood’s favorite people: a caring woman who reminded me of Peggy Wood in I Remember Mama.

Ken also had a sister Noreen, six years my junior and pretty much in a different world—or so it seemed.

 

                          

Standing in my driveway in the Bronx; just before entering college.

Another Life

After I graduated from the eighth grade, I received further training before assuming a position as a staff scientist in the Theoretical Physics Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. 

My transition from PS 68 to Los Alamos, actually didn’t happen quite as quickly, or as smoothly as the previous sentence suggests. The intervening years had their share of struggle, rewards, frustration, fulfillment, joys and personal tragedies. Those are stories for another place. There is one period, however, that is worth mentioning, because it illustrates how even the independence that I valued so much, had a price, although one which was well worth paying. 

During my graduate school and postdoctoral years, I published a fair amount, in a number of different areas, all in influential journals. Nevertheless, my style and approach were a bit outside the mainstream, and I was warned by my post-doctoral advisor, Don, that I’d probably have difficulty finding a position unless I changed course.  University departments are structured into specialized niches; e.g. a chemistry department has groups of faculty in physical chemistry, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry and so on--and they generally recruit only in a specific subspecialty in a given year (the other way to recruit, which I sometimes did when I eventually became a Department Chair and Dean, is to hire the very best applicant, irrespective of subspecialty). I ignored the advice, realizing that Don was probably correct, but I was nevertheless optimistic. In my second year as a post-doc, I must have sent out 70 applications, and received at least 71 rejection letters. I was reminded of the Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown is on the job market, and in the midst of other rejections, he finds a letter saying something like, “We understand you’re on the job market. Thank you for not applying to our firm. It suits our needs entirely.”

In the end, however, I received three offers and chose Los Alamos National Laboratory. It was my first position as an independent scientist, and it was in a legendary Lab. Persistence through all the frustration had paid off. Los Alamos was just about what I expected in every way but one. In spite of my third grade experience, I was still New York centric. All geography more than a few hundred miles from New York was a blur. New Mexico: desert. And so I arrived with only a light sports jacket.

I was invited to Los Alamos by George Bell and Walter Goad, brilliant theoretical physicists who had made substantial contributions to national defense, but who had turned their attention to biology. That fit well with my own growing interest in the subject. George was especially interested in immunology. Mathematical immunology was not a discipline: the words mathematics and immunology probably never even appeared in the same book. But George, who was Deputy Division[8] Leader at the time, believed that some areas of immunology could benefit from mathematical analysis, and he was willing to chance appointing a small group of physicists to start a program. He also believed, correctly as it turned out, that at least some immunologists would welcome our interest in the subject.

My B.A. was in history, and biology wasn’t a requirement, so I skipped it and some other courses that were required for a B.S. degree, opting instead for additional humanities and social science courses, mixed with enough mathematics and physics to qualify as a physics major. Even though I had picked up a fair amount of biology late in graduate school and during my post-doctoral years, immunology is a specialized area and I knew next to nothing about the subject.  The little I knew was the result of casual conversations with Lynn, and with a friend of hers who was a Ph.D. candidate in immunology. Nevertheless, when George asked if I’d be willing to devote some time to it, I said yes, in part because he left the details unspecified: I could frame the questions, and I was also free to spend half my  time pursuing other interests. So in August 1972, I boarded a TWA jet for Albuquerque along with Lynn--who had just received her M.D. and was looking forward to delivering medical care to people in the boondocks --and Jacqueline.

We bought three of acres of land in Los Alamos County, and built a house that faced the Jemez Mountains to the west, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the North. The Jemez were green all year round, and densely populated with Spruce, Pine, Aspen and other types of indigenous trees. The Sangre de Cristo chain is the southern most part of the Rocky Mountains. It was in full view from our living room windows, and in keeping with its name, its base glowed a reddish-orange at sunset. The ruggedness and depth and openness of the terrain, set against a majestic blue sky that lacked even the slightest hint of smog,  was like nothing I had ever seen, nor have I seen anything like it elsewhere. In addition, the Lab 

 

                             

 

Our home in Pajarito Acres, Los Alamos County. In some ways the mix of rugged mountains and rolling hills is not unlike parts of Sicily

was teaming with talent, and George was an inspirational leader. At 6’5’’, lean and muscular, he was physically impressive, and had been one of the world’s greatest mountain climbers. Walking up a hill with him, even though he was nearly two decades older than the rest of us, was another new experience (he walked; we ran to keep pace).

I was, however, still a New Yorker, or at least a Northeasterner.  Our families were in the East, and New York--especially the imprint of its educational system--was a part of my entire being. In addition, Lynn still had a residency in front of her, and Albuquerque was inconvenient.

I published a dozen research papers in the next 30 or so months, several in biomedical journals. They caught the attention of some members of the community, and I was invited to spend two years at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda Maryland, just outside of Washington DC. The NIH Campus was populated by hundreds of world leaders in every specialty and subspecialty of cell and molecular biology, and the various Institutes housed what was arguably the most influential group of immunologists in the world. NIH was the biomedical omphalos.

I jumped at the chance to move. In addition, Washington was an exciting town, and deep inside me there was a urge—not quite articulated—that I could someday become at least a small part of that excitement. For now, however, I was entirely focused on science.  And although I didn’t know it,  the NIH version of tenure and full professor equivalency were just a few years off. 

In the midst of this medical Mecca, where learning and finding collaborators required little more than standing in the halls and listening to conversations of passersby, I had no difficulty making the transition from physics to biomedical science. I never returned to Los Alamos, but remained in contact with George.

I moved three more times after leaving Los Alamos, and throughout my career developed strong professional and personal ties with colleagues who were very different from the friends I grew up with--but those relations, too, were long lasting.  Among the great gratifications of a scientific career is collaborating with, and competing against, unusually talented people from all parts of the planet, who are at the top of their game—it’s something that team sports and science have in common. A deep admiration and bond develops by witnessing close up, achievements whose difficulty you’re acutely aware of, because you’ve struggled to achieve something similar. Of all the scientific relations I’ve had, however, the one with my former boss, George Bell, stands out for its depth, mutual respect, and scientific impact. That story, however, wouldn’t start to unfold for decade after I left Los Alamos, and it’s for another place and time.

Back to the Bronx

Ken and I both married when we were in graduate school. On one occasion, Lynn and I visited him and his wife, Ülle, in Cambridge; then we lost contact. Twenty-five years later, Lynn invited him to my 50th birthday, but he declined. I subsequently learned his story from a mutual friend. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature from Harvard, spent a few years on the Rutgers faculty, and then entered the Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology at the University of Michigan. When I reconnected with him shortly after my 50th, he was a practicing psychoanalyst, one of the leading experts in the world on male homosexuality, and living happily with a partner in Anne Arbor. After that we remained in contact, and we even co-chaired a conference The Future of Human Nature, sponsored by Boston University.

 

                  

Noreen, 1972, shortly after I saw her at Ken’s wedding. I wouldn’t see her again for well over 2 decades

Ken returned to New York in the late 90s, and on one occasion when I was also in New York, we visited Noreen. I hadn’t seen her in decades, even though we subsequently learned that for a few years we lived in neighboring towns on the North Shore (Port Washington and Roslyn), went to the same supermarket, and bought our Sunday morning bagels and lox at the same deli.

Noreen was happily married to someone named Frank Vasady-Kovacs. They lived in an impressive house with their one son, Laszlo. Frank was a successful attorney with a Harvard MBA. As his name and his son’s name suggest, he was also a true Hungarian. Now here comes the stereotype, but like many stereotypes it has an element of truth.

The first word that most physicists associate with Hungarian is “brilliant”. It’s no accident that the first three faculty appointments I made when I became a Department Chair at Mount Sinai Medical School were Hungarian. I wanted the Department to get off to a quick and innovated start, and that’s exactly what happened.

I won’t use a word to describe the second association; I’ll just tell a short story. When I was at the NIH, a prominent immunologist, Tibor, invited me to give a seminar in his Lab. I think I made it through the first 3 minutes before the arguing began. Nothing personal. It was just Tibor’s way of letting me know that his experiments were more rigorous than those I was analyzing, and that he wanted to collaborate with me. I accepted, his Hungarian personality not withstanding, and we became good friends, and published some interesting work together. So Noreen was in bed with a Hungarian, and my childhood friend--the expert on interpersonal relations who was a curmudgeon from the time he was 12--didn’t quite know how to respond to Hungarians. Noreen didn’t have that problem.

The Reunion

One weekday morning a little over a decade ago, I was in my office musing, as I often do, over research progress by my graduate students, when my assistant buzzed me: “someone named Archie DiStefano’s on the phone, and he said you’d know who he is”.  I’m always reluctant to put quotation marks around an expression I heard more than a decade ago, but this is one of those rare occasions when the words remain in my mind unchanged and undiminished by time. Archie was one of the expanded group of friends I made when my childhood clique so disappointingly disintegrated, and new families entered the neighborhood. We had become extremely close. He was a tall, slender, good looking teenager, a sterling student, and often played handball with me and Ken. More importantly, he and I had the unusual distinction of being the only two boys in the neighborhood who attended church Novenas[9] for the express purpose of trying to pick up girls, although we also pursued other strategies. Archie was very personable and outgoing--the perfect complement to my reserved nature.

We had been out of touch for several decades. His son was a law student who was doing a report on legal issues raised by revolutionary genetic technologies, and had come across my name in a news article.  We reminisced for a while, and brought each other up to date. He had become a lawyer, and spent most of his career as an FBI special agent.  During the next several years we met from time to time in New York.

In 2009 several of us from our old neighborhood in the Bronx met in Manhattan, and spent the afternoon and evening together. I flew in from Boston, where I had been living for nearly two decades,. Ron, who had quarterbacked our football team, flew from California with his beautiful Russian bride. Not much of a trip for Ron. He joined the Air Force when he graduated from college, learned how to fly jets after vomiting a few times, and had a career as a commercial airline Captain, not infrequently living out in real life some late teenage fantasies. Tony, his closest friend, and also a friend of mine, had dropped out of high school and joined the Marines. He retired as a sergeant from the NYC police force after a tragic accident, completed his education, and now lives in Florida, teaching counter terrorism. Another close friend Tony, who lived in a house that was built on the land once used by my grandfather for outdoor family gatherings, was a mechanical engineer living across the Hudson. Jimmy was the only member of that original clique. He was living in Pelham, had 16 grandchildren and had retired as a mid-level manager from Proctor and Gamble. Ken and his partner Gary were also there.  I was surprised to learn that Noreen was disappointed that she wasn’t invited.

I remained very close to Archie until his tragic death from brain cancer a short time ago. He lived a year from the time of initial diagnosis. It happened to be the kind of cancer I was working on as part of an international collaboration, and I knew his time was limited. It’s difficult to express how helpless I felt. Archie remained a devout Catholic until the end. We had two masses said for him during that difficult ordeal. Even though I’m not a believer, I know those masses brought him, his wife and children the comfort that remains beyond the reach of modern medicine.

With two exceptions, Noreen being one of them, I have no idea what became of any of the girls. The other exception is Evelyn, a beautiful Irish-Italian blond who became a practical nurse. During the 1950s, girls—even those coming of age in the most progressive city in the Nation—were rarely encouraged to pursue advanced degrees.  And that was probably even more true of Italian American girls.  Nevertheless, our neighborhood—our little village-- provided a deeply nurturing environment for everyone, and there are many ways to live a rewarding life. So my informed hope and expectation is that they have all, without exception, benefited the way we have, as the result living their formative years in that unusual neighborhood. 

Sicily

About a year after the reunion, Ken published a novel and I traveled to New York to celebrate with him, his partner Gary, and Noreen (Frank had died a few years earlier). We had dinner together at one of those off-scale Italian restaurants that can only be found in New York and in some select Italian cities. It was a pleasant evening. I went back to the Marriot Marquis in the theatre district where I often stayed, and the three of them returned to Ken’s.

In the spring of 2011 I was invited to give the keynote introductory lecture at the “Mediterranean Forum for Health Care Quality”. The Italian Minister of Health was also slated to speak, as was the Minister of Economy and Finance. It seemed to be a big deal and I was flattered—the only problem was that I knew only slightly more than nothing about  health care quality.  However, they asked me to talk on the implications of the genomic revolution, which I do known something about, and the meeting was forward looking, so I accepted. In addition, I couldn’t resist the idea of speaking at Symphony Hall in Palermo. What I didn’t know is that I would be speaking to a couple of thousand people who, by and large, didn’t speak English. I had never been to a scientific meeting that wasn’t in English, but this one was open to the public and the press. Although I was a bit taken by the prospect of a non-English speaking audience, with a large representation from the general public, my presentation was translated in real time, and I knew enough Italian to at least make some introductory remarks. The audience applauded spontaneously at my awkward attempt at an Italian introduction, and then I broke out into English.

Since I was invited to stay for 3 days, and my only responsibility was that one-hour talk, and some newspaper and television interviews, I was asked what else I would like to do. I indicated that I wanted to see where my grandparents were born. The president of Catania Medical School made his limo and driver available, and the Mayor of the town was waiting with a welcoming committee, including the police chief, the head physician, the pastor, and of course the owner of the best pastry shop in town. When I left, I made sure to take the cannoli.

I was surprised when the librarian showed me my grandfather’s birth certificate, but not my grandmother’s. That’s when I learned that Corleone is not a fictitious name. I had just a tinge of anxiety because my grandfather, the youngest of 3 brothers, was sometimes referred to as Don (and he always sat with his back to a wall at restaurants)[10]. In any case, I returned happily to Palermo after a 20-course meal, during which the Mayor asked if I’d accept honorary citizenship. I said yes after I convinced myself that I could summon up the will to diet for a year before the actual event. By then I’d be hungry again.

In the spring of 2011 Lynn and I, who had divorced several years earlier but continued to live together,  separated permanently. Although it was probably the most painful point in my life, it was another experience in which deep loss was followed by renewal and growth.

I returned to Sicily in late August 2011 to become an honorary citizen. I asked Noreen, Ken and Gary to join, which they did. I had been to Sicily twice before, and to Italy many times more. I thought I was long past some of the preconceived notions I had when I first visited decades earlier, but not quite.

 Italian American’s tend to be conservative. My mother’s family is an exception: solidly Democratic, and in the case of my uncle, fairly far to the left. Ditto: my son, my daughter and me. My father’s family, by which I mean my cousins, is solidly Republican, probably Santorum-like. The same highly conservative views are firmly entrenched in just about all my childhood friends. In addition, most of them had gone to Catholic Schools, and they retained religious convictions that were absolute, with the same lack of doubt that I had when I first encountered mathematical proofs that followed rigorously from a few intuitive axioms. These observations about Italian-Americans have not escaped the notice of many people who do not have Italian roots, and in some vague way, misinform their notions about Italy.

There’s an interesting and well-studied sociological phenomena that describes persistence of attitudes across generations in high density ethnic communities. It applies to many immigrant groups. People from some region of the world move to America, remain cloistered for a period, and pass on to their children-- and with some diminution, to their children’s children-- the attitudes of the region from which they emigrated.  What many people see when they think of Italy based on what they know about Italian-Americans is not the Italy of today, but the Italy of a century ago. I’ve barely grasped the changes myself. When I hear “south” I think “poverty” and “conservative” (here in America, as well as in Italy), and to some extent the views retain some validity, but they’re diminished by time—and often substantially.

What impressed me most about Marineo/Corleone, leaving aside the warmth and graciousness of the town’s people, and the loveliness of the hills overlooking the sea, was how far to the left of center it was. I spoke at length with some of the teachers. The IT infrastructure of the grade schools was surprisingly good, the people of the town well educated and engaged and—like the rest of Italy, had definite socialist leanings. Other clues to political persuasions became apparent during the evening festivities, which were held at a magnificent villa in the hills on the outskirts of Palermo, where we stayed as guests. A small but enjoyable example is what happened when I started singing Bella Ciao[11] (the only song that many of my Chinese and Russian students know in Italian). The Mayor joined in[12], and before long an entire group of people were singing it. I was just as surprised as they were that we all knew the words.

Aside from the town’s progressive leanings, the citizen’s didn’t seem to be closely tied to the Church, although religious festivals play a very special role[13]. Marineo has 8000 people, and one church that holds a couple of masses on Sunday—so the arithmetic is not hard to do. 

In addition, the economic conditions in the town, and more generally in Sicily, were much better than I had expected. Palermo has a number of attractive shopping malls, with no scarcity of shoppers, and the restaurants are numerous and well attended. The apartments in Marineo are, by and large, spacious, solid, well maintained, and surrounded by a complex mix of rocky peaks and rolling hills. They are routinely passed on from one generation to the next--and that, in addition to a low birth rate, no doubt contributes to the economic well being of the region.  But this is all part of  another story, and I want to get back to Noreen.

 The rest is actually pretty simple. In September 2011 I asked her if she’d consider moving to Boston, and she accepted. When I reintroduced her to my family, she was home; she was instantly part of it. They loved her. We were one—it couldn’t have been more natural. Although I’ve spoken of several epiphanies, there’s one that I haven’t mentioned yet, because it happened only recently—but it’s more important than any of the others. It’s the experience of being deeply loved by an extraordinary person. And when I think of my own feelings, here’s what I hear. http://picosong.com/nu9H. It came late but it was worth the wait.

Some Lessons

Life teaches many lessons, some complex, others easily stated. Here are a few that are easily stated.

Changes in life and environment can be inevitable or voluntary. Recognizing those changes over which we have no control, and embracing them, offers the opportunity for growth, renewal and a more rewarding life.

Find at least one deep friend, but try to develop several more. You needn’t form, and probably shouldn’t form, the type of clique to which we belonged as children, in which every member sees the world the same way. The common link is mutual respect and an ability to recognize the many perspectives in which the world is seen.

 Don’t hesitate to follow your interests, even if you stumble repeatedly. Becoming accomplished at anything requires thousands of hours of practice. Persistence is one of the keys to success, and persistence is easy if you love what you’re doing.

We’re fortunate to live in a nation, and we were especially fortunate to live in a City, in which people of every ethnicity and economic group are represented. Embracing human diversity, and understanding the different ways in which people see the world is one of life’s greatest satisfactions. It’s also one of the signs of an educated person, and a key to success in the broadest sense of the word.


[1] An extended quote conveys the idea in a more relevant manner:  “…the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding, The Four Quartets

[2] Google maps shows the high rise, well landscaped housing complex that replaced it occupying no more than ½ square mile. A contiguous area, Seton Falls Park, remains. Together they were about ¾ the size of Manhattan’s Central Park, but considerably less urban.

[3] The lack of strong ethnic distinctions is borne out by relatively frequent inter-marriages. Lynn and I are an example. Her brother also married  an Italian-American and her sister married a Japanese American. The ratio is not much different among marriages of my first cousins, which include Jewish and African-American spouses.

[4] The Uncle

[5] The situation has since flipped a bit: I think I understand the siphon, but I know I don’t understand gravity.  

[6] A rough translation: ...if gold rusts, what shall iron do? 
For if the priest, in whom we trust, is foul, is it a wonder that a layman yields to lust? And shame it is, if priest acts on foul thoughts, a shitty shepherd, and clean sheep.

[7] Here again—and unfortunately—a belief (hell-fire) was being conveyed as a fundamental truth, even though it bore no rigorous or unambiguous relation to Catholic scholarship, or to the requirements for being a Roman Catholic.

[8] A Division was the largest administrative unit of the Lab, just as a college is the largest administrative unit of a university.

[9] Prayers to obtain a special favor.

[10] This is just a joke--we rarely ate at restaurants.

[11] Bella Ciao, is a sad but vibrant song that was popular with the socialist/communist anti-fanciest movement in Italy during WW2.

[12] The Mayor, by the way, has impressive social skills. I was not surprised when I learned that he was recently elected to the Italian Parliament.

[13] Such situations, in which observance separates from theological belief, are of course not unusual, and they appear to be increasingly common. At the risk of making too fine a point, my atheist son is the President of his Temple.

 

Noreen’s Voice

 

Parents

My mother, Anne, grew up in Czechoslovakia (her parents were Hungarian and Austrian) and came here at aged 16 alone.  I always marveled at her courage and strength to make her way in a land where she knew no one, didn’t speak the language, didn’t know the food and probably had almost no money.  My first trip abroad, at age 24, where I didn’t speak the language confirmed what I always felt.  She was the go to mother on the block because of her innate common sense and kindness to everyone; even the animals knew to go to her if something was wrong. 

My father was born in London of Russian parents, grew up in an orphanage, but had the good fortune to apprentice with a fine cabinetmaker in London.  He came to the U.S. when he was 15, spent a few years in a boys' home in Vermont and lived hand to mouth until being old enough to get a  more permanent job.  My parents met in NYC and married in 1937 and he was drafted into WWII and sent overseas.  He had a sister living in West Virginia where my mother went to live (as she was pregnant with my brother) and where my brother was born.  My father returned from the War and they moved back to New York City.

Early Memories

My earliest memory is of watching a street fight taking place under a lamppost on Park Avenue, in Harlem,  from our apartment window.  My next memory is of being stung by a bee while sleeping in my carriage outside our house.  These two events illustrate the change in my life (I was 3) over a few months’ time in 1950.  We moved from Harlem to The Bronx—a glorious place with deep woods and not only bees but also deer, rabbits, snakes (which my mother once mistook for my brother’s belt and put through the washing machine wringer) and an actual hermit (he was the uncle of one of the kids from around the corner) who lived in a shack undisturbed just because he wanted to, unpaved roads, small houses and lots of kids.  Life was joyous, free and safe. 

 ( 

Landscapes

We lived in a tiny semi-attached house that was originally for two families, most of the houses had multi generations living together.  My room had been the kitchen on the second floor, it didn’t have a door and eventually my father built me a closet.  It had one window overlooking the alleyway and in the summer I would sleep half on the window sill to catch a breeze.  Our neighbors across the alley, Vinnie Avioni (he was a teenager and so exciting) and his parents lived upstairs with his grandparents downstairs,  still had their kitchen opposite my room, so we’d talk across the alley when it was too hot for anyone to sleep.  Ken’s room faced the back and from his window you could see Charles’s house.   I can still picture his mother standing in the side entrance doorway.  The Avioni’s had a grape arbor for making wine, a monkey and a fig tree. As so many others in the neighborhood, the fig trees stood in winter like sentries wrapped in their roofing tar paper with a tin (had to be tin) bucket for a head.  But—in summer the figs were sweet and the trees luscious green and fragrant.

My father hand crafted fine furniture in the furnace room in our basement.  As early as I can remember, he taught me how to chisel, sand and plane, stain and polish wood, and use both hand and power tools like a radial arm saw and drill press.   I think my love of mathematics and the desire to be an architect came from designing and building that furniture with him.  I still have the beautiful breakfront we made together.   These tiny houses were filled with activity and crafts that had been passed from one generation to the next and yet you were never more than a room away from someone else in your family.

The woods across the street, across the Avenue and several more within a few blocks, offered endless days of adventure no matter what the season. They had swampy areas with strange plants, enormous rock outcroppings for great cowboys and Indians, open fields for baseball and just beautiful places to lie down and look at the sky and clouds and dream.  Only one of these great neighborhood woods remain, Seton Falls Park.  I visited it a few years ago and was so happy to see it basically unchanged, if anything it had been improved without destroying the magic.  There were even some young children playing on Dick Tracy rock, just as we did more than half a century before. 

It seemed we were never indoors, except for Saturday morning cartoons.  PS 68 was “up the hill” and in winter, we had several big snowfalls a season then, sleigh riding was king no matter how cold.  The “hill” ran for several blocks and so we just flew.  Since not everyone had a sled, we went double decker—I’m not sure which was better being crushed on the bottom or flying off the top.

Summers were at Orchard Beach.   There were no seatbelts, let alone laws governing them, so as many kids as could fit in our car that’s how many went to the beach.  Fortunately my mother loved the beach and she was the only mother who drove.  In winter, frozen hands covered by frozen wool (no insulated fabrics yet) mittens, frozen feet and ears.  It never really mattered; we were out with our friends.  This freedom came with responsibility—rules had to be followed.  I can remember deciding if breaking a rule was worth the beating with a wooden spoon—it wasn’t really a beating, just a good paddling on the backside.  Often I chose the wooden spoon.  I guess I believed even then that life was meant to be lived.  Later that philosophy got me into some trouble, but in the end my choices to “live life” served me well.  

Culture

The neighborhood was almost all Roman Catholic, about 75% Italian-American and the rest a mix of German, Irish, Swedes and us, the only family that had mixed parentage, and not a trace of Italian.  Like most everyone else, my parents were immigrants and working class.    We were the only family that had almost no other relatives living in the United States, but we were surrounded by loving, wonderful people.

Our neighborhood was diverse, but without age or ethnic exclusions—we were one community.  I had never heard the word “bully” growing up.  We fought and then made up, without the “benefit” of parents interfering, refereeing and supervising.   When 5 o’clock came it took only one mother on the stoop calling dinner time for us all to go home.  It was a place where your next door neighbor made you a birthday cake just to make you feel special or a grandmother brought you into her bedroom to listen to her opera records and tell the stories of her childhood or one of the father’s drove a gang of us around in his army-type jeep just for the fun of it, or the policeman who lived around the corner brought all his (confiscated fireworks on the 4th of July to our block. 

Eating out was almost unheard of.  Every Thursday was spaghetti night at every house on the block.  Since my mother was not Italian, she learned to make sauce and meatballs  from Charles’s grandmother.  It’s still the recipe my brother and I use.  Most any kid in the neighborhood’s first experience in a restaurant was upon high school graduation.  BUT—we had Sorrento’s.  The local Italian pizza place.  The pizza was so good we would lick up the cheese that slid off the slice onto our napkins and would eat pizza as often as we could scrape the money together for a pie.  I’m not even sure anything else was on the menu or that there was a menu. We never even called it a restaurant, just the pizza place.  One summer Carvel opened (it has just been invented) just across the street from Frank and Al’s, and that creamy, cold delicious treat became a nemesis.  Did we get ice cream from the truck or wait until after dinner for Carvel?  

In retrospect, everyone  seemed care free and happy.  I think it may have had something to do with America not being at war and with plenty of money to spend on education, infrastructure and the future.  Even though the Cold War was heating up, we were not shooting at anyone.  (We just had to hide under our desks in case of a nuclear attack.) It has been many decades since we are not shooting at someone somewhere in the world.  There is so much talk of our violent society and the need for individuals to own guns, but no one is making any connection to our violent American foreign policy and the resulting cost in dollars and lives and the impact on every facet of American life, but that’s a topic for another time.

Twenty-five cents was the currency.  The Spalding ball (25 cents) was your most important possession.  It was used for stoop ball, stick ball (along with a broom handle) and just plain catch.  If you hit it into the sewer playing stick ball, you had to go into the sewer to get it—rules are rules.  The broom handle was great for prying up the sewer cover; it seems the little notch on the cover was just the size of the broom handle.  Saturdays after TV cartoons were spent at the Wakefield Theater (to the great delight of every parent).  For twenty-five cents you left the house at 10:30 to walk to the movies by 11 to be at the front of the line.  Doors opened at 11:30, you stopped to buy ten cents worth of candy and then the matrons in uniform with flashlights filed us into our seats.  Each seat in each row being filled consecutively.  The curtain went up at noon.  Newsreel, then 12 cartoons, then 2 feature movies.  We got home around 5.  What a gift!!.

Twenty-five cents was also my weekly allowance and the cost of a chocolate malted--perfect.

Church was 9AM every Sunday, with Sunday school after.  My friend, Teresa, lived in the only apartment building in the neighborhood and that was because her mother had 4 sisters, so each sister and her family lived on a different floor and Teresa’s grandparents lived on the first floor.  Sunday meals started after Mass and ended somewhere around 8PM.   The table was banquet sized and I can no longer count the number it sat, but that meal was obligatory .  More than 50 years later I rediscovered never ending meals in Sicily.  Her grandfather also kept homing pigeons on the roof.  I felt almost one with those birds—the cooing, the smell, and fluttering of wings, being high up on the roof transported me to another place where I could almost fly.  Watching his pigeons gave me a respect for them that most New Yorkers understandably don’t have.  They’re not really flying rats.

Childhood was spent on the “block”.  We graduated from board games on the stoop, potsy and doing tricks on the “hanging bar”, which was a part of a pipe rail fence, and playing doctor in the garage to more serious stoop ball, stick ball, roller skating and riding bikes, hide and seek and ring-a-leevio, Johnny on the Pony, etc.   We were very progressive, as there were no girls games and boys games, and for some reason almost none of the girls played with dolls.  We did play “dress up” though and there was one boy who liked to dress up as a nun and I can’t remember any one being hurtful or bullying him for that.  In fact it added to the realism of playing school.  One great day they repaved 231st Street (where Charles lived) and it was thrilling.   Since there were few cars, we could careen on our bikes or skates down the whole block,  right across Laconia Ave where I lived, without stopping. 

Everything we needed was in the row of stores a few blocks away.  There was a pharmacy, two small food stores (no supermarkets yet), a bakery, the shoe repair and most importantly Frank and Al’s, the candy store and soda fountain for Lime Rickeys, A creams (better known as egg creams) and the chocolate malted.   We could walk to the live chicken market, pick our own chicken and get fresh eggs.  It was still the time of the fruit man, milk man, bread man, soda man, crystalline (a form of bleach) man and ice cream man driving their trucks around the neighborhood and calling out their arrival or ringing a bell.  We really knew good food—forget fast food.  It would be many years later before I would become an active feminist---but I don’t believe I would have been so politically correct as to call them bread people or milk persons, they were the bread man, etc.!

Most of us went to public schools, the rest to Catholic schools.  Of course we were just short of the distance for a bus so we walked or sometimes rode in the bread truck driven by one of the father’s (he was a bread man).  The smell was intoxicating.  We had teachers that were well educated, smart, inspired and inspiring.    Fortunately for us, it was the time before women had choices of careers beyond teaching or secretary or bank teller.  That’s not to say the men teachers were any less committed.   It was my science teacher, Mr. Mandel, who recommended me for the SP class for junior high school which compressed 7th, 8th and 9th grades into 2 years.  I was on the NYC math team, was a really good student, and 13 years old and going into sophomore year of high school the next September, being accepted at Hunter College High School,  and then…

My interests changed.   Boys were no longer stick ball teammates and it mattered how they saw me and not whether I could make a two sewer hit or not.  Since so much revolved around St. Francis of Rome and Our Lady of Grace churches, the Friday night dances there (which of course followed the mandatory hour of religious instruction), became a mainstay.  Even though they were closely monitored by the nuns and priests, many admonishments were given out “to make room for the Holy Ghost” during those slow dances. Almost every week someone had a party at their house.  

 Ken, his Friends and Boys

My brother was always thoughtful and caring.  I really liked being with him and his friends-- Charles, Archie, Pat and Danny.  We built igloos, had snowball fights, went sledding in the winter, and they taught me to swim by drowning.  One of them, Charles DeLisi, was always somewhere in my thoughts.  I first met him when I was 8.  I still picture him standing in our kitchen, hands in pockets, in a white tee shirt with a shy smile. They would be at the house playing cards or chess or in the basement creating horror radio shows on a big reel to reel tape recorder. They wouldn’t let me join in but let me listen from the top of the basement steps.  I think they enjoyed scaring me. They let me be the “dummy” [1]when they needed one for whist or another card game.  Later on I actually played cards and Monopoly with them and they taught me chess—that way it was always certain that one of them would never be the loser of the day.  They never chased me away, nor did they  ignore me.  It was our neighborhood.

The Move

In 1960 Charles learned from my mother that my father came home from the barbershop one day to announce we were moving to Westchester County, probably not more than 15 miles away.  So he knew before I did that we were moving.

A move more profound than moving to the Bronx was moving away from it.  That was the end of Hunter College High School.  By this time my father’s custom designed furniture and antique restoration business was very successful.  We moved the summer before I started the 10th grade, I was 13.  I never saw where we were moving until the day we moved.  I was horrified when we arrived. 

We moved to an apartment in an small upper middle class town with lakes, lots of open spaces (manicured lawns, not the woods I knew and loved) and a high school with tennis courts.  In my experience, only movie stars had tennis courts and swimming pools.  I started 10th grade the week we moved.  It was total culture shock—the first sentence spoken to me by a classmate who somehow knew I was from the Bronx was the question “Where do you keep your knife?”  Obviously the “city” was a dangerous place they had never been, even though it was 30 minutes away by train.  I still thought of trains; they drove expensive cars.  That was the beginning of the end of me. When I was a senior, I was one of the youngest students in the entire high school and instead of being one of the best students, as I had been, I barely graduated. 

I’m sure my parents thought this move would save me from the dangers of the deteriorating Bronx, instead it put me on a downhill trajectory that took 10 years to turn around.  The town was divided economically between the professionals and successful businessmen and the working class.  There was no neighborhood, no oneness, only sides.  One side was competitive and out for themselves, the other unambitious  and already defeated.  The “rich” kids were afraid of me and my city background and their parents were no better, so I guess I gave them what they wanted—the “riff raff”.  My parents had little to no control over me and didn’t seem to know how to get it.  I defied everything and everyone, even my beloved father.  Ken was off to Cornell and never really came home again.  So I did what any red blooded American girl would do, I got married at 18.  He was a sincere, good hearted and decent 22 year old man.  Charles, who remained my brother’s friend, met Bruce and agreed.  (Speaking of Charles, we would cross paths and have near misses over the next 55 years. ) That marriage lasted 4 years.  I hadn’t changed—I was still unsettled and unhappy and when I realized what a mess I was making of Bruce’s life, I divorced him.

Frank

The next 3 years were spent slowly gaining back some self respect.  I met and married Frank, he was 15 years older, European, educated, generous and kind. We were together for the next 34 years and in love until he died in 2006.  I was able to learn and grow again.  I had a paralegal practice, ran an alcohol and drug abuse center and continued volunteering. Although both Frank and my Father encouraged me to pick up my education where it left off, I decided on the “living life” mode of having my time free to be the wife, mother and individual I wanted to be.  We travelled, skied and sailed almost at will and most importantly maintained a close connection to our son, Paul..  I learned about other cultures, literature, art, food and wine.  I don’t think a year went by without a foreign visitor spending weeks or months at our home.   It was also the haven for Paul and all his friends.  They ate with us routinely, came on vacations with us, sailed and skied with us.  The door was never locked and often his friends were there when he wasn’t.  It was just what I wanted—it recreated the comfort of our Bronx neighborhood.  I encouraged him to spend most of his time outdoors, have friends he could just drop in on (no play dates for him), value those friendships, be free to go where he wanted but be responsible and smart (although I could never bring myself to use a wooden spoon) and always have respect for his family, his home and himself.   I’m proud to say we succeeded.  He is smart, successful and has a beautiful family of his own and to my great joy he is passing those same values on to his children.  

One day Charles stopped by with Ken to see us.  Charles was living in Boston then, but unbeknownst to both of us, he had had house in the neighboring town on the North shore for several years. When Charles left, Frank said half jokingly and half seriously “look out for that guy”, that was around 1997.  (Add music I Wish You Love.)

Ken and Charles

My brother, Ken, who graduated Cornell, went on to Harvard and years later to the University of Michigan, remained friends with Charles.  Each time they re-connected, Ken would fill me in.  I learned from Ken that Charles graduated City College, went to NYU, Yale and became a world renowned scientist, a professor, a Dean and mentor to hundreds of doctoral students, many of whom went on to become famous scientists themselves. He has received honors and recognition not only from the U.S., but from around the world. President Clinton at a White House Ceremony honoring him, described Charles as “…scientist, entrepreneur and teacher...in the truest sense, a humanitarian, a man whose life's work has been life itself.” Charles embodies all that was astounding about growing up in the 1950s in New York, a city that offered the best education in the country, freedom to think and just to be.  He is, however, still Charles from around the corner to me-- kind, gentle, shy and humble.

In the winter of 2010, Ken published his first novel, and Charles flew in from Boston to celebrate with him and his friends. That evening Ken, his partner Gary, Charles and I had an enjoyable dinner together. Ken, Gary and I went back to Ken’s apartment, and Charles returned to his hotel, and left early the next morning. The trip seemed rushed, and I was somehow disappointed.   It wasn’t clear to me why.

About a year and a half later he called Ken, and said he was planning to stop in New York on his way back to Boston from Rome. He and Ken had been to an upper East-side restaurant several years earlier, and Charles wanted to try it again.  I had an apartment in the City near the restaurant but I was at my house on the Jersey Shore that weekend, and wasn’t sure I’d be able to meet.    I did recommend an “upscale boutique hotel” in the neighborhood since it would be too late for him to return to Boston after dinner.  I decided to change my plans to be able to see Charles.  When I asked him about the accommodations the next day, he searched for words, and I realized there was at least one way in which he had changed.  When he didn’t stay at a luxury hotel near the Theater District, he’d stayed at the Essex House on Central Park South.  He was a long way from home in that so-called “upscale” boutique hotel (but not quite as far from the Bronx), and didn’t quite know how to say it.

We spent the next day walking through the Park, and just talking. In the 34 years I was married to Frank and the 5 years since he had died, I didn’t want nor thought I needed another man.  Even my son’s putting me on Match.com didn’t work, I just took myself off.  Then POOF.  I couldn’t get enough of Charles.  All those years of having him in the back of my mind, sharing a common childhood, living within a mile of him and not knowing it, shopping at the same places, just seemed to be the perfect mosaic of a life to come.  Again a song came to mind (All Time High).

The next thing I knew we were in Sicily. During the ceremony celebrating Charles’s honorary citizenship the Mayor called out “Signora DeLisi”. At first I looked around. Then realized he meant me, and he handed me a large bouquet of flowers. After that people would occasionally ask us questions about our family. “How many grandchildren do you have?” We told the truth: 6. Charles had 4 and I had 2, we just enjoyed not telling the rest. When did you meet? “55 years ago”. They were impressed.  It took 3 months from that dinner in New York for me to move to Boston.  Leaving my son and his family, his in-laws, my friends and all I did in New York was hard, but I haven’t spent a moment regretting my decision.  “Living life” is still my path.

Concluding Thoughts

To come full circle has been a gift. Perhaps Charles was always the love of my life—but life got in the way and probably for the better. I was too young, too out of control, too helpless, too inexperienced to do him any good, to be a constructive and helpful partner.  It is only now that I believe I can be his true partner.  (I have to say that I owe that to Frank, strange as it seems.) It took one night of being with Charles for me to understand what happened to me when I was 13 years old.  I could never find the answer as to why I turned my back on everything positive and stopped moving forward. Charles helped me find the answer--I was painfully lonely and somewhat afraid.  Moving from the Bronx didn’t improve my life, it destroyed it.  Charles’s quiet and non judgmental conversation, bringing up the happy times of youth and connecting the dots of my life allowed all the pieces to fall into place.  I will forever be grateful to him for that—as well as for a million other things—and I will never be lonely again.

It’s so easy being with someone who knows where and how you grew up.  So many questions don’t have to be asked, let alone answered.  The things that influenced your maturity are apparent.  Our first visit to his family (mother, aunts, uncles, cousins) was coming home.  I felt I knew all of them my entire life and they knew me.  In a way that’s what being from the same place means, we did know each other.  How wonderful.  I loved them all.

When I think of the Bronx, I think of all those woods with their collections of birds, animals and plants, the homing pigeons and my mother’s rose garden on a plot probably not larger than 3 feet by 5 feet, and those experiences led to a lifetime of enjoying nature.  Unfortunately, most people never saw nor could imagine the Bronx that way.   Our then unstructured daily life is sadly gone from children today.  It seems every moment of their lives is  accounted for and managed.  When do they day dream?  When are they free to imagine and make believe?  Will they learn to be individuals who think for themselves?  We raced home from school to get out on the street until supper time.  In the summers we ate and then ran out again until it was so dark you couldn’t see—hide and seek was especially good then.

My childhood in the Bronx gave me what I needed to be a successful wife, mother and citizen—a non-prejudiced compassion for your neighbor, the love of being free and the knowledge of how little it takes to be a “community” in your home, your neighborhood and the world; how easy it is to share and to open your door.

Although the surroundings of our old neighborhood have changed in physical ways--a large multi-family, multi-building complex and supermarket were built on what used to be woods; all the roads are paved, and Laconia Avenue is now a busy bus route -- it is still, in many respects, pretty much the same neighborhood.  When I visited it a few years ago, a new ethnic enclave had moved in with seemingly the same aspirations of a better life as my parents’ generation had.  Many of the postage stamp sized gardens were still there with lovely flowers, the houses were maintained (even though they were now nearly 90 years old) and it seemed the pride in the neighborhood had not diminished.  It was only sad to notice that the streets were no longer the playgrounds. 

 

We hope that new generation will be as rewarded as we are and will look back with contentment and satisfaction on a life well lived.  The two of us went our separate ways taking the benefits of a free and secure life with us, but then so easily returned home. 

[1] A “dummy” is needed when playing a four hand card game with 3 players.   The dummy just plays the cards the player sitting opposite instructs.

 

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Charles DeLisi | Reply 24.01.2015 22.29

Yes I remember John Tully. I graduated in 1955 Jerry Vale's younger brother was in my 4th grade class. The only person I'm still in touch with is Alan Johanson

Joe Ravo | Reply 21.09.2014 03.26

I went to PS68 in the 50s. My dad's whole family, my cousins and my brother and 2 sisters went there. John Tully was the principal. Remember him?

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24.01 | 22:29

Yes I remember John Tully. I graduated in 1955 Jerry Vale's younger brother was in my 4th grade class. The only person I'm still in touch with is Alan Johanson

...
21.09 | 03:26

I went to PS68 in the 50s. My dad's whole family, my cousins and my brother and 2 sisters went there. John Tully was the principal. Remember him?

...
03.01 | 17:40
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