Throughout, she is willing to revise and add complexity to her own narratives. In an epilogue on her father's death, for instance, she reflects that, although she felt that she was rebelling against him in ""crossing Ocean Parkway"" -- marrying Jewish, going to college, and moving out of the neighborhood -- he may have been more of an ally than she had thought. He protested when she skipped grades in school, yet he also gave her books, took her into the city, and was a model of gender rebellion -- pulling down the shades so the neighbors couldn't see him doing housework. Torgovnick's scholarly background and life experience inform her readings of both American culture and her own past; she has found an essayist's voice that is very much her own.
Categories of Interest: Select All. Bensonhurst is no longer entirely protected from "the coloreds.
Italian American life continues pretty much as I remember it. Families with young children live side by side with older couples whose children are long gone to the suburbs. Many of those families live "down the block" from the previous generation or, sometimes still, live together with parents or grandparents. When a young family leaves, as sometimes happens, for Long Island or New Jersey or very common now Staten Island, another arrives, without any special effort being required, from Italy or from a poorer neighborhood in New York.
They fill the neat but anonymous houses along the mostly tree-lined streets: two-, three-, or four-family houses for the most part this is a working-class area, and people need rents to pay mortgages , with a few single-family or small apartment houses tossed in at random. Tomato plants, fig trees, and plaster madonnas often decorate small but well-tended yards that face out onto the street; the grassy front lawn, like the grassy backyard, are relatively uncommon. Crisscrossing the neighborhood and marking out ethnic zones—Italian, Irish, and Jewish, for the most part, though there are some Asian Americans and some people usually Protestants called simply Americans—are the great shopping streets: 86th Street, Kings Highway, Bay Parkway, 20th Avenue, 18th Avenue, each with its own distinctive character.
On 86th Street, crowds bustle along sidewalks lined with ample vegetable and fruit stands. Women wheeling shopping carts or baby strollers check the fruit carefully, piece by piece, and bargain with the dealer, cajoling for a better price or letting him know that the vegetables, this time, aren't up to snuff. A few blocks down, the fruit stands are gone and the streets are lined by clothing and record shops, mobbed by teen-agers.
Occasionally, the elevated train "the El" rumbles overhead, a few stops out of Coney Island on its way to "the city," a trip of around one hour. On summer nights, neighbors congregate on "stoops" that during the day serve as play yards for children. Air-conditioning exists everywhere in Bensonhurst, but people still sit outside in the summer—to supervise children, to gossip, to stare at strangers.
It's the only time I use Italian, which I learned at high school, although my parents both first-generation Italian Americans, my father Sicilian, my mother Calabrian speak it at home, to each other, but never to me or my brother. My accent is the Tuscan accent taught at school, not the southern Italian accents of my parents and the neighbors.
It's important to greet and please the neighbors; any break in this decorum would seriously offend and aggrieve my parents. For the neighbors are second only to family in Bensonhurst and serve as stern arbiters of conduct. Does Lucy keep a clean house? Did Anna wear black long enough after her mother's death?
Was the food good at Tony's wedding? The neighbors know and pass judgment.
Any news of family scandal my brother's divorces, for example provokes from my mother the agonized words: "But what will I tell people? A large sign on the church I attended as a child for me sums up the ethos of neighborhoods like Bensonhurst. But we also understand exactly the values it represents. IN THE SUMMER OF , my parents were visiting me at my house in Durham, North Carolina, from the apartment in Bensonhurst where they had lived since , ever since the day they had wed: three small rooms, rent-controlled, floor clean enough to eat off, every corner and crevice known and organized.
My parents' longevity in a single apartment is unusual even for Bensonhurst, but not that unusual; many people live for decades in the same place or move within a ten-block radius. When I lived in this apartment, there were four rooms; one has since been ceded to a demanding "landlord," one of the various "landlords" who have haunted my parents' life and must always be appeased lest the ultimate threat—removal from the rent-controlled apartment—be brought into play.
That summer, during the time of their visit, on August 23rd my younger daughter's birthday a shocking, disturbing, news report issued from "the neighborhood": it had become another Howard Beach. Three black men, walking casually through the streets at night, were attacked by a much larger group of whites. One was shot dead, mistaken, as it turned out, for another black youth who was dating a white, although part-Hispanic, girl in the neighborhood.
It all made sense: the crudely protective men, expecting to see a black arriving at the girl's house and overreacting; the rebellious girl dating the outsider boy; the black dead as a sacrifice to the feelings of "the neighborhood. I might have felt outrage, I might have felt guilt or shame, I might have despised the people among whom I grew up: in a way I felt all four emotions when I heard the news. I expect that there were many people in Bensonhurst itself who felt the same rush of emotions.
But mostly I felt that, given the setup, this was the only way things could have happened. I detested the racial killing; but I also understood it. Those streets, which should be public property, belong to "the neighborhood. The black men walking through probably knew it too—though their casual walk sought to deny the fact that, for the neighbors, even the simple act of blacks walking through "the neighborhood" would be seen as invasion.
Italian Americans in Bensonhurst are notable for their cohesiveness and provinciality; the slightest pressure turns those qualities into prejudice and racism. Their cohesiveness is based on the stable economic and ethical level that links generation to generation, keeping Italian Americans in Bensonhurst and the Italian American community alive as the Jewish American community of my youth is no longer alive.
Its young people routinely moved to the suburbs or beyond, and were never replaced, so that Jews in Bensonhurst today are almost all very old people. Their provinciality results from the Italian Americans' devotion to jealous distinctions and discriminations. Jews are suspect but the old Italian women admit "they make good husbands. Even Italians come in varieties by region Sicilian, Calabrian, Neapolitan, very rarely any region further north , and by history in this country the newly arrived and ridiculed "gaffoon" versus the first or second generation.
Bensonhurst is a neighborhood dedicated to believing that its values are the only values; it tends towards certain forms of inertia. When my parents visit me in Durham, they routinely take chairs from the kitchen and sit out on the lawn in front of the house, not on the chairs on the back deck; then they complain that the streets are too quiet. When they walk around my neighborhood and look at the mailboxes they report these De Marcos descended from Cozzitortos, who have friends named Travaglianti and Pelliccioni that my neighbors have strange names.
Prices at my local supermarket are compared, in unbelievable detail, with prices on 86th Street. Any rearrangement of my kitchen since their last visit is registered and criticized.
Difference is not only unwelcome, it is unacceptable. One of the most characteristic things my mother ever said was in response to my plans for renovating my house in Durham. When she heard my plans, she looked around, crossed her arms, and said, "If it was me, I wouldn't change nothing.
Is he a Communist? I often think that one important difference between Italian Americans in neighborhoods like Bensonhurst and Italian Americans elsewhere is that the others moved on—to upstate New York, to Pennsylvania, to the Midwest. Though they often settled in communities of fellow Italians, they moved on. Bensonhurst Italian Americans seem to have felt that one large move, over the ocean, was enough.