In Search of Thirteenth Avenue
The boy trudged down the cold, grey city street toward the Hudson. His parents urged him on as his ears, bright red from the cold wind, ached and throbbed. The New York snow, in its grey-yellow decay, made ugly sounds beneath tattered galoshes. The wind cursed them, spitting stinging gusts at their faces.
The three began the last leg of a long journey westward from the 8th avenue subway station at 42nd street toward Hell’s Kitchen and the westernmost extreme of Manhattan where dad plied his trade as a wholesaler in an ugly storefront in a neighborhood known for violence, racial tension and squalor. “The Kitchen” was the setting for West Side Story; it might as well have been the Wild West.
The ears were now numb, toes too far away to feel. The tiny family, their dreams of happiness often juxtaposed with nightmares of reality, seemingly small and powerless against an imposing cityscape, immigrant pioneers and strangers in a strange land, emerged unto 10th avenue where tall buildings gave way to a panorama of promise that persistently played in the young boy’s mind.
The Hudson was in view, indifferent and pale, a prelude to the steep and distant New Jersey coast. Pennsylvania Railroad trains rumbled beneath the streets, their locomotives emerging for a fleeting moment at 11th avenue like leviathans breaching for air just before plunging under the river on their way west and south. Their journey captured the boy’s imagination.
The last Y-Axis of New York’s Cartesian grid was 12th avenue. The boy knew this because he’d played by the riverside and on the crumbling piers that once berthed majestic transatlantic liners. He deduced that on the other side, the first roadway would be 13th.
And so began a lifelong fascination with distant horizons. Having spent his entire young life in New York and its orderly arrangement of thoroughfares, the boy logically deduced that the entire world was made of concrete and correspondingly organized.
The wind stopped for a brief moment only to change direction, staging an ambush at the corner of 10th, stabbing repeatedly, and making a last ditch effort to impede progress. A few more steps. Dad fumbled with the lock. The door gave way to the sound of a hissing radiator and the smell of warmth.
Finally, in the relative comfort of the shop on 41st Street and 10th Avenue, the boy pressed his face against the glass and peered westward toward the river. He envisioned avenues being longitudes and streets latitudes, stretching full circle around the globe and re-emerging somewhere east over Brooklyn. And because of that, his first adventure was one of mind and imagination. He’d spend countless hours by the window and on the sidewalk, peering westward into the distance in search of Thirteenth Avenue.
Gus owned the greasy spoon across the street. A proud Italian immigrant from Naples, he wore a soiled apron and stank of honest sweat. His ambition to be a restaurateur in the big city had long ago given way to the low-brow demand of Hell’s Kitchen’s denizens. A certain sadness spoke from his old, wrinkled brow as he toiled over a smoky grill flipping burgers and slinging hash. To hear him go on about Naples and the beauty of the “old country,” a reference to Italy and only Italy, as if there were no other old country on this fair earth; it made one wonder why he ever left in the first place.
Truth be told, Gus was a proud man, an honest man who believed in hard work, family, and all that lets us sleep the sleep of the righteous. Not one to be pushed around, Gus once leapt over the counter at a gun-wielding robber, plunging a knife into the hapless bastard’s neck while loudly cursing in Italian. The son who was in the cellar, grinding meat, ran to help, repeatedly swinging a Louisville slugger at an imaginary baseball suspended between the now-victim’s terrified eyes.
Gus and his son were, in today’s vernacular, “old school,” that is, men that ignored laws, favoring self-defense and the preservation of honor. To cross Gus or his family meant vendetta; a lifelong vow of revenge. And so it was that these old timers would rather die than live with dishonor. These men were a far cry from the spineless sheep the boy would encounter later in life.
The boy dashed rabbit-like across the avenue on an errand that would repeat itself many times each day; he was sent for coffee. Coffee with an overabundance of sugar and too much cream. The parents drank the brew to fuel energy, to stay awake, to get a sugar rush.
Breathless after the sprint, the boy pushed in the door as the little brass bell announced his arrival. “Hey Bambino! Come say hello to Gus!” The old man liked the boy. He reminded him of his youth and the way he ran alongside bicycles in Naples. Gus rounded the counter, wiped his greasy hands and reached out to pinch the boy’s cold, red cheeks. “Ouch!” Gus laughed a deep belly laugh. “Here. Mozzarella, may-ka fresh by mia moglie, my wife. Try. Try.” The boy squirmed as Gus pushed the cheese into his face. He chewed and smiled. “Good, eh!” “Look sonny, I’m a gonna make you an Italian one of these days. You can’t be Portorrican, they are lazy drunks and stupid. Except your papa and mamma. They are good. I tink dey are Italian. You have smart eyes. I’m a gonna haf to give you a real name. Listen to me. You are Giuseppe. Capish?” The boy just smiled, handed him the crumbled paper with the coffee order and walked to the back where the kittens were. He loved the kittens, black and white and purring while they suckled on the mother who gave him a look that only cats can give. Slit eyes that can slit throats. The boy reached in. The mother hissed. He quickly reached again and grabbed the nearest one. He stroked it and marveled at the life within. Gus bellowed, “Giuseppe, take the coffee while it’s hot. Get atta here. Say hello to your mamma but pay me first!!”
Coins clattered on the counter and the boy pushed the door only to run into Willy the wino. Stinking drunk and filthy, yet jovial, Willy was looking for a warm place to collapse. The boy cried out “Willy, get out of the way.” Willy tried to kneel down to hug the boy but fell over. Not knowing what to do, the boy ran back inside to find Gus. Gus was already on the way, a look of disgust clouded his face. “Willy, get atta here. You scare away customers!!” The drunk looked up, staggered to his feet, and broke out in his usual song: “On the outside lookin’ in. On the inside lookin’ out. I’m stuck in the middle and I…….” He forgot the lyrics and started to mumble. Willy was tolerated. He was an old wino, a panhandler, and a joker, a nuisance yet harmless. This was his block. Each block had a stray dog, a wino, and a crazy person. Everyone seemed to have an obligation to care for them. Perhaps this was socialism, perhaps just decency. Willy earned his keep once in a while when he was only half-drunk, hauling garbage, shoveling snow, or scrubbing the toilet. His favorite job was in the storeroom where he could pilfer bread, cheese and other foods small enough to fit in his trousers. A pat down routine began when Gus wised up. The son, Gino, hated blacks and wanted to put Willy in the meat grinder but Gus wouldn’t allow violence against a helpless wino, even if the wino happened to be a moulinyan, an “eggplant,” the Italian equivalent of the N word. Willy never realized it, but he’d been breathing thanks to Gus.
Gus dug into his pocket and pulled out a couple of quarters, throwing them on the sidewalk. “Willy, take de money. Buy a bik bottle of wine and go to the train tracks where there is steem. Get atta here or I tell Gino to punch your face OK?” Willy spun around, reflexes like a much younger sober man, and snatched the coins, smiled a toothy yellow smile, rivulets of frozen spittle forming on his raggedy beard, and said: “Thanks Gus, you is my father.” Gus bellowed, “You black sonofabitch, if I have black son I keell him, keell his mamma and keell myself. Get atta here. Go. GINOOOOOOO!!” Willy began to quickly shuffle away. He was drunk not suicidal.
The boy dashed once again across the busy avenue, dodging cars and watching for trucks. He was already street smart in his own way. Mom and dad were not worried that he would be run over flat by an eighteen wheeler rumbling northward up tenth avenue. Safe on the other side, the boy glanced back. The impotent winter sun was low in the sky over the high plateau of the Jersey shore. He paused, breathed in the frigid air and squinting his eyes against the wind, gazed out beyond the river at the washed out yellow half-orb setting in the western sky. The sun had left the city, and its last lingering light now shone ever so briefly and perhaps mockingly over Thirteenth Avenue.