“Yo, Francesca, heads up!” Marco yelled.
I started as the Spaldeen bounded toward me yet caught it without thinking.
“Hey, you sure you don’t wanna play?” he asked.
“Nah, that’s okay.”
“Awww, come on…..you’re the best pitcher on the block.”
“No thanks….tomorrow, I promise.”
I bounced the ball a couple of times feeling the smooth familiar rubber before tossing it back to him.
“I’m holding you to that, you know,” he said over his shoulder as he went back to the game.
A sudden warm July breeze blew through the trees that lined the narrow street. The stickball game was in full swing, and the younger children played hopscotch while their mothers watched from the comfort of their apartment stoops. Stickball in our neighborhood was a daily summer ritual. I watched each batter step up and strike out in turn. Some of girls giggled as each of the boys failed in a vain attempt to emulate his favorite Dodger. As much as I loved those lazy summer days, they wouldn’t be the same without Alberta. She was my best friend but had moved at the beginning of June. I had other friends, but none of them understood me like Alberta. We had the same interests, we grew up together, and we were practically sisters, not that I needed another. I had an older sister, Marie, a younger sister, Giovanna, and a brother, Anthony, who was just shy of a year. We lived in a small two bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. It was cramped, but it was home much like the neighborhood was home, much like the block I spent the last eight years on was home.
My family had come to America from Sicily in 1944. I was 6 and spoke very little English. My father strongly believed that America truly was a land of opportunity and that I could be whatever I wanted to be. He did not want us to forget our heritage, but he did want us to embrace our new American culture.
My parents usually spoke Italian at home, and while we were allowed to speak it as well, they preferred that we spoke English. The only time I spoke solely in Italian was when I spoke with the older neighbors, which was quite often as our entire block consisted of families from Italy. The world seemed to be changing very quickly, yet the neighborhood never seemed to change.
The afternoon wore on. The girls went inside one by one to help their mothers prepare dinner. The boys continued to play stickball, arguing about the rules every so often. I sat on the stoop and watched. Alberta and I used to play stickball with the boys, but ever since she moved away, I rarely played anymore. I looked up at the cloudless sky, missing Alberta and feeling a bit sorry for myself. My thoughts were interrupted by a gravelly voice.
“Excuse me, lassie. Is this 248 Warren Street?”
I sat up and saw a tall man with wiry hair and a coarse beard the color of sunset. A short woman with auburn hair and a plump figure stood next to him. They looked tired and worn-out, much like the bags they were carrying. I saw a young girl, standing quietly behind the woman. She looked to be about 14, the same age as me. She looked very much like the woman, only thinner and younger.
“Yes, sir. This is 248 Warren Street.”
“We’re new in the neighborhood. My name is James Ryan. This is my wife, Mary, and my daughter, Margaret.”
“Ryan,” I thought to myself, “isn’t that an Irish name?”
“Ryan……” I murmured aloud.
I introduced myself and watched as Margaret looked around, craning her neck upward to see the brownstones. The stickball game continued, the boys oblivious to the strangers amongst us.
“We’re moving into the second level of this building. Do you live here, lassie?” Mrs. Ryan asked.
My heart sank. The second floor was Alberta’s old apartment. I didn’t want anyone else living in that apartment but her. It was going to be different having a new family living in my friend’s house, especially an Irish family. Our neighborhood suddenly seemed different. Even though Brooklyn was a collection of different cultures and nationalities, the neighborhoods were almost like the Greek city states we learned about in history class. I watched as the Ryans walked up the stoop, talking to each other in what sounded like English, but like no English I had ever heard.
Margaret turned and looked at me curiously, almost as if she were studying me. I stared back for a moment. She quickly ran after her parents into the building.
“So much for making a good first impression,” I thought.
That night at dinner, my father asked me what was wrong. I said nothing and continued to twirl the pasta around my fork. I felt angry because the Ryans were living in Alberta’s old apartment, yet at the same time, I felt a bit sorry for them because the new experience was probably overwhelming. Over the next several days, I saw the Ryans quite often. They would stop and chat with me sometimes, about superficial things like the weather, where to buy the best cheese, what the neighborhood was like. Mr. and Mrs. Ryan were talkative and seemed nice. Margaret was rather shy and rarely spoke, but she seemed nice too.
On a beautiful Friday morning I awoke to the sounds of the street below. Mrs. Caprilli haggled with the vegetable man like she did every day, Mr. and Mrs. Tortolli from two doors down argued like they did every day. I watched as the curtains on my bedroom window danced with an unseen partner. Marie’s shrill voice beckoned me from the kitchen as the smell of the oatmeal she had overcooked wafted into the room. I quickly dressed into my favorite blue dress and old saddle shoes. My father sat at the kitchen table reading ‘The Brooklyn Eagle’. My spot at the table had the sports page and the comics laid out for me.
“Thanks, Pop. Hey, are we going to go to that game?”
My father frowned and shook his head. He wanted to see that Dodgers game too. It had been a while since we had last been to Ebbets Field, and the game I asked about was against the Giants, whom we both detested.
“Scusate, sweetheart. Maybe the next one, maybe the next one,” he said.
Apologies were one of the few things my father still said to me in a mix of Italian and English. I read the sports page while I ate and saved the comics for after breakfast. I was lying on the floor reading them when my mother called me to the kitchen.
“Francesca, please run down to Vanello’s and get some salami and cheese, okay?” she said, handing me $5, which was more than enough.
Some days she would let me go to the pharmacy to get an egg cream or some candy afterward. This was one of those days. I shoved the money in my dress pocket and headed down into the building, passing the second story apartment. I walked out into the street where children were already playing. The trees made their familiar shadows on the sidewalk as I walked to the market on Court Street. On the way, I heard my neighbor, Mr. Pretto whisper something to Mr. and Mrs. Abruso, who lived down the block. It was about the Ryans, and it did not seem complimentary from the tone.
I continued walking and finally reached Vanello’s market, its faded gold lettering gleamed in the sunlight. I looked through the window and saw the butcher Mr. Vanello carving a slab of meat. Salamis decorated the front window like icicles hanging from an eave. I opened the door, and the little bell rang.
“Buon giorno, Miss Francesca, what can I get for you today?” Mr. Vanello bellowed.
I asked for a small salami and a piece of fresh mozzarella, two tomatoes, and a bread. After I paid, I was left with fifty cents, more than enough for an egg cream and change for my mother. I chatted with Mr. Vanello for a short while about the Dodgers. When the little bell rang, he ran off to help the next customer. I turned and saw Margaret standing in front of the glass meat case, looking puzzled.
“My mother sent me down to get some pigs feet, sir. Do you have any?”
Mr. Vanello smiled and removed the feet from the case, wrapped them in brown paper and handed them to Margaret. She came over to where I was standing, looking at various jams on the shelf.
“Oh, hello, Francesca.”
I smiled, pointing to the pigs feet. “Is your mom going to make something with those?”
Margaret blushed, “Crubeens. It’s a traditional Irish dish. I hate it.”
I laughed, “I’ve never heard of it. I know what you mean, though. I hate it when my mother makes caponata.”
Margaret looked confused.
“It’s like a hot vegetable salad.”
“I hate vegetables.”
“Me too,” I said.
We said goodbye to Mr. Vanello and walked out into the warm sunshine. I asked Margaret if she would like to go to the pharmacy with me and get some candy. She said she couldn’t because she didn’t have any money. When I told her it would be my treat, her face beamed, and she could not say yes quickly enough. We walked down to the corner of Baltic and Court Street to the pharmacy. The outside of the building was a bright eggshell blue with a faded Nehi soda sign hanging in the main window. I held the door open for Margaret, and she gasped when she walked in. On the left stood a shiny silver counter and a long row of stools. Across from the counter sat two red naugahyde booths. The ceiling fan hummed, nudging the hot air down upon us. Mr. Frederico, whom all the kids called Mr. Fred, was at the counter wiping a glass, his apron carrying that one stain that never seemed to go away. He nervously stroked his face when I introduced him to Margaret. He didn’t speak English that well and was nervous when he met anyone new. Margaret smiled when he called her Margarita.
Instead of getting candy, we each ordered a soda and talked for what seemed like ages. We talked about our families, our friends, the countries from where we came and those we left behind. Margaret was from Dublin and left because her father wanted a better life for his family.
“I really miss all my friends and family.” Margaret said.
I told her about Alberta, how I missed her, and how she and Margaret would have liked each other. It was the first time since Alberta moved that I didn’t feel sad when I talked about her.
We walked home leisurely enjoying the day. It turned out that we had many things in common. We both loved to draw, read, and play outside. Then Margaret said one thing that made me smile. She wanted to know about baseball, about the Dodgers.
“It is a sport that is part of America, and I want to learn about it. After all, I am an American now.”
I told her how the game was played. I told her about the Dodgers, my favorite players, what it was like to go to a game, and how a hot dog at Ebbets field was probably as close to a perfect meal as you could get. She was excited and asked if I would take her to a game. It occurred to me that maybe we weren’t so different after all.
We arrived home a bit tired but happy. On the way, Margaret had mentioned that she was Catholic and asked if I went to church.
“I am Catholic too. My family and I go to St. John’s Cathedral on Clinton and Kane.”
“That’s where we will be going too.”
“You’ll like it, but watch out for Father Giovanni. He’s a real stickler and doesn’t like it when people show up late for his mass. I guess he doesn’t want anyone to miss any of the boredom.”
Margaret laughed, “That’s funny. Well, I better go up. Will I see you tomorrow?”
That night at dinner I told my family about the Ryans and my new found friend.
“Oh, yes, I saw them. They’re the Irish family who moved into the building right?” my father said.
“Yeah, they’re really nice. And guess what, Pop? Margaret is a Dodger fan thanks to me. She said that her dad really wants to learn about baseball and root for the Bums,” I smiled.
My father was silent for a few moments. A faint smile came to his face,
“Hm. Maybe we can invite them over sometime. Go to a game maybe. I bet they aren’t so different from us.”
The summer drew to a close, and school would be starting on the Tuesday after Labor Day. The last Friday of freedom as we called it was upon us. The Dodgers were playing the Giants at Ebbets. As much as I wanted to go to that game, I wasn’t upset when my father asked Mr. Ryan to go with him instead.
Margaret and I sat on the stoop listening nervously to the game. It was the bottom of the ninth, and the Dodgers trailed 2-1 with 2 men on. Hodges stepped up to the plate. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Margaret make the sign of the cross. Red Barber’s voice blared from the radio, “here’s the windup…the pitch from Maglie….” The sound of the crack of the bat told me that Gilly had homered. Cheers came from every apartment on our block. Margaret and I shouted and danced.
My father and Mr. Ryan returned a while later. I could hear them halfway down the block carrying on and reveling in the game. They were so happy that they stopped and bought gelato for us from Cardascia’s. As dusk began to settle in, Margaret and I sat on the stoop laughing and talking and dribbling gelato down our chins. It was a great day, in fact, it actually turned out to be a great summer. Alberta was gone and I missed her, but a little less since I had met Margaret. Sure, Margaret wasn’t Italian and spoke with an accent. Sure, we had many differences, but I liked her. She was my friend. During that summer of 1952, my block had suddenly become a bigger world, and my world has been growing ever since.