Yesterday's Magazette

4 – The Breadwinner of The Family

The Breadwinner of The Family




By Toni Giarnese

My Aunt Phil (second from right in above photo) was the breadwinner. This was pretty unusual back in the 50’s for most women, especially those in immigrant Italian families with a tradition of mancisimo. She lived in New Jersey with her husband, Pete. Aunt Phil earned her money the hard way. She was a ward boss and the precinct bookie.

Aunt Phil conducted her business at the corner bar and from the kitchen of her four-story brownstone, six steps up from the sidewalk of a leafy tree-lined street in Trenton, not far from her cronies in Philly. The town houses, sidled up close to each other, were barely separated enough to let whispers of air feather through the shadowy interiors. Only thin ribbons of light were ever able to illuminate their farthest recesses.

Neighbors shared the narrow communal alleys, nodding to each other as they passed from the street to their back doors. Nods and acknowledgments through the fences traveled across the backyards and sun-scrubbed concrete patios. Life leaked its little mysteries through the hexagonal wire spaces of the fence up and down this little sliver of Italy, neatly transplanted into this garden of opportunity in New Jersey.

Behind each building there was a small grassy plot with its requisite grape arbor. Alongside the back fence tomato plants embraced chiseled wooden poles. Basil, parsley and oregano spilled out onto the walks and an occasional gooseberry bush laden with green globes spread its branches around the edge of the garden plot. Discarded wooden barrels that once held the makings of wine were placed strategically around the plants.

Clotheslines stretched from yard to yard strung taut and festooned with large bleached undergarments of indeterminate sex. There, on a handkerchief of green, Uncle Pete, in his checkered peddlers cap, held court like the ancient ritual of his ancestors. Gentlemen friends resembling each other dropped by to smoke cigars and drink homemade wine.

The regular visitors snacked on pigs’ feet and read Oggi while others played cards under the grape arbor or dozed in the shade of a solitary fruit tree. Within the framework of this tender ceremony a passerby might overhear soft gravely voices, at times gentle, stern, or melancholy. All the exuberance of la vita Italiana was enclosed by the nondescript chain link fence that surrounded the townhouse and its scrap of land.

While the men swapped stories out back about the old country, Aunt Phil was manning the phone and the stove. As she put on the first pot of sauce to cook early in the day, her kitchen would begin to come alive with the aroma of garlic and olives. At the far end of the city, the dew was still glistening on the racetrack and the ponies waited for their turn to warm up with the trainer. As the sauce started to simmer, the phone began to ring and Aunt Phil nimbly penciled numbers on the sheets of paper and stacks of pads. She had carefully arranged them on the red-checked oilcloth that covered a wooden plank set on sawhorses which served as her workstation and cooking island.

She kept impeccable records of bets placed, payoffs made and debts owed. On a corner table that turned, the TV was prominently displayed and always on, live races and bawdy announcers blared unceasingly. By midday the sauce was glistening and the pasta waited in the pot. Alone, in 2s and 3s, the men came, the Aviglianese, Abruzzese and Sicilgiani who did business with Aunt Phil. Occasionally a well-groomed swarthy Piemontese appeared but generally her visitors were steelworkers, men in hardhats and steel-toed boots with union connections. They filed in and headed to the basement where they found each other. There they sat companionably and enjoyed the family-style feast served by Aunt Phil.

Amidst the laughter and food, serious business was conducted, accounts settled. Cousin Lenny stood at the door like a sergeant-at-arms while the bottles of grappa and whiskey were passed around the table. No ice. No mixers. Just straight liquor in shot glasses and jelly jars shared by men with ruddy faces and the love of fast ponies.

By late afternoon, the house became quiet; the men had left as they had come, in small amiable clusters. Kitchen chores completed, Aunt Phil discarded her apron, secured her paperwork from the day’s take and checked in with Uncle Pete. Like the powerful but unassuming Japanese wife, Uncle Pete’s role was quietly understated. During the day he politicked, massaged egos and did the background work that accompanied Aunt Phil to her evening destination, the saloon on the corner.

As ward boss, she was responsible for delivering the vote to her capo di familigia and she brought her public persona to meet with her constituency in the cool dark booth in the rear of the bar. Lit softly by hanging lamps, a hushed respectful undercurrent of conversation among the scattered patrons was punctuated occasionally by the ring of the phone or a shaft of light from the street illuminating the shadowy interior of the saloon.

Aunt Phil’s precinct was home mostly to honorable men. Sure, it had its array of pickpockets, thieves, gangsters and assorted criminals, but she made her way among them with grace and confidence. The job description was simple and straightforward. Aunt Phil delivered the votes with grim determination and reliability.

Business couldn’t be done without a bottle and throughout the evening the vin santo and jugs of wine came to the booth and the bar’s dozen tables with regularity. People came and went some with hat in hand, others with demands. Aunt Phil would talk, cajole, negotiate, and reciprocate. Her sharp eyes, sometimes squinting to see small print or read a face in the dim light, were steady and unwavering as she spoke to the men at her private table. They would wait, composed, for her response.

Aunt Phil minced no words; most of them wouldn’t pluck a hen without consulting her first. When her business was done, she would head up the street toward home. In the 4th floor front bedroom her children would hear her footsteps as she reached the landing outside their door. The El train rumbled by and the glare of the streetlight washed the bedroom walls with a grainy splash of yellow. Aunt Phil, ward boss and bookie, gently tucked the blankets around them.

She touched each curly head, made the sign of the cross in the air and left a blessing with her children.

“Ti’amo, ragazzi, a domani.”
(“I love you, children (boys and girls), until tomorrow”. )

*Toni Giarnese lives with her sweetheart of thirty-seven years in a Connecticut hill town, far from her humble Italian roots. She went to school every year of her life. As both student and teacher, she was equally challenged, terrified and humbled. Of late, however, she coaxes blooms from her flowers, tinkers with kitchen gadgets and socializes in sweaty gyms. Recently she took a class with Lary Bloom. Now she is a writer and currently working on her next author bio.

1 Comment »

  1. Your colorful memories contrast with my blond Minnesota beginnings. Thanks for the vivid picture of life Italiano style. And here’s to Aunt Phil, a woman before her time and of our time.

    Comment by McClaren Malcolm — February 22, 2008 @ 7:48 am | Reply

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