You can take the Italian away from Arthur Avenue, but you can’t take the Arthur Avenue out of the Italian. Contributor Christian Galliani shows us just how strongly some people feel about their sausages and seltzer.
It was 11:00 pm and I was waiting for my father in the garage of my parents’ apartment building so we could hit the road for a 1200-mile journey. I looked through the smoked rear window of his white Chevy Blazer at the various contents of the kitchen cabinets he had emptied out and stuffed into the car. He walked in, ever the Italian dandy in his cabbie hat, leather jacket and slacks—a cross between Errol Flynn and Tony Soprano.
“Ready”? he asked.
“Let’s do it,” I responded.
My parents had “mutually” decided to move to Florida after living in Washington Heights for 32 years. My mother was in her element in the Heights. She was self-employed running a day care center, had cultivated many friendships, was the president of her co-op board, and knew every smidgen of gossip in the neighborhood. So when the old man got it into his head that he wanted to retire on a beach, away from the noise and bad weather, my mother naturally gave him the stink-eye. But after six months of pleading, cajoling, nagging, and threats of divorce, she relented and acquiesced—albeit kicking and screaming.
He was literally sitting on a couch, waiting for their apartment’s closing, which had been delayed, while my mother flew ahead to meet the movers in Florida and oversee the grand unpacking of more than 30 years’ worth of hoarded Italian Baroque tchotchkes, desk mallards, six sets of flatware, entirely too much leather furniture, and what seemed like thousands of dresses. The night she arrived in Florida, she called my father 19 times in one hour to complain of various issues with the apartment, voice screeching and an octave higher each call, to which my father would invariably reply: “Call the super.”
We got in the SUV, and I noticed that the seats were at a perfect 90-degree angle due to the groceries and various flotsam and jetsam pushing up against every surface and virtually spilling out of the car. “Really, Dad?! I can’t go 1200 miles like this.” I pleaded.
“Hwhahtssamatta? Be a man! When I was in the army, the seats on the jeeps didn’t move, we had to adjust to them!” he said with disdain.
I vainly tried to push the angle of my seat back to a more comfortable setting, but a box of canned peaches was wedged against my back. He turned the key, and the car emitted the sound of a goat choking—AH AHAH AH AH AH—but wouldn’t start. “Hmmmmmmmmm,” my father muttered through a quizzical frown as we exited the car and raised the hood.
“Dad, did you have the car checked out before this trip?” I questioned while rubbing my temples.
“No, I didn’t have time, I had to buy sausages on Arthur Avenue,” he said in his dismissive tone, usually reserved for telemarketers.
“You … went … to …” my voice trailed off, as my eyes became slits. Sarcasm failed me.
For years my parents frequented the pork stores on Arthur Avenue at least once a week. Food was a powerful tie to the old country, and Italian culinary tradition ran strong through my house. It had survived my family’s three emigrations: first to Buenos Aires, then to New York, and now, it seemed, to Florida.
While I crawled around in filth under the truck in a useless effort to get it started, my father broke my angry reverie with a suggestion. Opening the rear hatch of the SUV, methodically stuffing a case of sardines back in, he produced a bottle of seltzer, his staple refreshment. *Spshhhhhhh.* My father twisted off the top and carefully washed the corroded battery terminals, muttering that this had happened to him last week when he went food shopping in Jersey. I rolled my eyes and got in the car. It worked, and for the rest of our trip, the car wouldn’t budge unless we started it with a drink of seltzer from Arthur Avenue.
We left the garage and drove off into the cold, bleak February night as the lights of Washington Heights faded into the distance behind us. If Torquemada’s backbreaking seats weren’t annoying enough, we had only two CDs: Dave Brubeck and the Gipsy Kings. By the time we reached Pompano Beach after 28 hours on the road, I had heard “Take Five” and “Bamboleo” no less than thirty times apiece.
That morning, my father, mother, and I had breakfast on the terrace overlooking the most beautiful ocean view I had ever seen. The silver light of the sunrise shimmered on the placid water, casting long shadows from the palm trees. This place was alive with color and light. It was 80 degrees in February and the humidity was sweet in my nostrils. Six months later, my father died from a sudden onset of pancreatic cancer. Looking back, I am glad I was able to ensure he got his wish.
I was jarred out of my trance when my father commented that the weather was gorgeous. My mother sniffed and said curtly, “It’s windy.”
My father looked at me out of the corner of his eye, smiled, and retorted: “Call the super.”