I’ve been going to Perazzo’s all my life, from the time when it was family-owned and catered to Italian families, until a few years ago when it was privatized by a corporation.
I saw the relatives from my father’s side of our family pass through like my wino grandfather, Luigi. At that wake, I saw my father, who said he hated Grandpa Luigi all his life, crumple to his knees and cry like a child to see the old man in his coffin. Grandpa Luigi, with his six days of stubble, his wino breath and penchant for cursing the saints, could make the flowers wilt. Still, he had once been a boy, the son of a tavern owner in Naples who used him to challenge grown men to drinking bouts. And he’d win.
His decision to reform himself as a young man, marry my grandmother, Anna, and come to America was wise and he sobered up. But the massive influenza in Europe at that time obliterated his entire left-behind family. That made him hit the bottle again, big-time, even though he had his own family.
There was Gennaro (my pop), Uncle Al, “Cigars” for short, because he’d been smoking since he was a kid. There was Freddy, who hung out with Al in all the Greenwich Village bars. And there was Jimmy, who actually got through WW II’s “Battle of the Bulge,” with that quiet thousand yard stare, returning to Long Island to start a family. And there was Armando, who was running numbers for the mob in the Bronx. And last, there was Aunt Olympia, the only girl. She married a man named Nick Rossi. He was tough as nails and scared me; but fortunately, Aunt Oley had a great sense of humor and put a smile on his face. She once bought Uncle Nick a new chandelier as a Christmas present. He said he “loved it” then to the men, “Let’s play some pinochle. We’ve got plenty of light.”
Meanwhile fifty years back, Grandpa Louis sunk so low as to have his kids do “piece work” for glove contractors. They woke at six. Before they went to school, they had a cup of espresso and a crust of bread then “pulled ends” (tying the loose threads) of the gloves sewn by the contractors’ human machines. Grandpa would take the “piece work” to the contractors, take the money, and get loaded. And then there was little left to buy food or pay rent. They’d move every couple of months to another cold water flat. One day my father got the boys together and said, “Let’s go to the contractors and tell them not to give the old man the money anymore. We do the work. We should take the money.” The brothers were in unanimous agreement.
And so it was, that in a classic overthrow of the Alpha ape, they did it! And the Alpha ape got incensed when the contractors denied him the cash. He got so mad he chased my father onto the fire escape of their Carmine Street apartment with an ice pick. But the brothers outnumbered him and took the pick from his hand, warning him, “You’re not the head of this family any more. From now on we take the money. You can live, eat, and sleep here. But if you steal our money, we’ll throw you out. A mixture of rage and futility sobered the old man up. But he swore his revenge to my father and brothers, who told him to shut up or go. This was my first memory as I walked into Perazzo’s, which had been spruced up, including a menorah inscribed in a glass pane, and the absence of Christ’s bleeding face.
To continue with Grandpa’s tale, he had neighbors who liked to get him drunk so his boozing didn’t stop. But the money stayed in the family that thrived and grew up. Still, my grandmother had to hide bottles of wine under the sewing machine cover so Luigi wouldn’t find them. When my mom and I came on Friday night from my music lesson, she made her classic pasta fagiole. At some point, Luigi would ring the bell off the door, walk in loaded, drink about six glasses of water and began cursing. Freddy or Al would tell him to knock it off. They’d walk him to the bedroom as he cursed the saints and Virgin Mary; he literally cursed himself to sleep. But one fateful night when grandma was playing bingo with her friends at the kitchen table, fate took pity on her and she fell on her bingo card as her number was called. She died from a massive stroke. Luigi cried like a child then.
He was really alone now. He moved a cot that one of the brothers used to sleep on into the kitchen and listened to his little yellow Emerson play the operas from the Met and sob. The brothers would bring him one meal a day and one pint of wine. That was the deal. I was in my early teens by then and would visit him occasionally. His wino breath, I must say, and six days growth of beard was a knockout. It’d bring tears to my eyes when he inevitably gave me a big wet kiss. Yet I felt he loved me in his sad way. I would stay about half an hour, then try to say goodbye in my pidgin Italian and I’d get another wet kiss, and feel the tears dripping from his eyes. It was very sad.
Then, one freezing, snowy night, one of the local precinct’s tough Irish cops called my dad and said, “Is this the Mazza household?” “Yes,” my father said, knowing who it was. The voice said, “Look. We got a Louis Mazza here. Found him in a doorway on Houston Street sleeping. You wanta come down and pick him up?” We lived in Brooklyn by then, and my dad had a car and glove business. He took my grandfather to Saint Vincent’s hospital where he survived the fall onto the concrete pavement but died of pneumonia and exposure to the cold and snow eight days later. In nomine patri, figlio, et spiritus sanctus, amen. And away he went to Perazzo’s.
“So that was that,” I thought, leaving Perazzo’s corporatized funeral parlor on Bleeker Street. In the low music, I even caught a snatch of Miles Davis. Jesus. And there was Aunt Eleanor’s picture above her open coffin where she slept in eternity. There were many pictures of her with her son, Rick, and grandson, Rick, and with her deceased husband, my uncle, Freddy. Cousin Rick had passed two years earlier from scleroderma, a disease which shrinks muscle tissue, literally eats your guts out. Aunt Ellie’s picture was in one of those electric montage frames, in which stills fade in and fade out endlessly, including scenes of Uncle Freddy’s marriage to the still lovely, brave, Eleanor, passed at 92, legally blind, and with a touch of cancer, may she rest in peace as well.
Unfortunately, when her son Rick got sick, his wife left him and took their two kids with her and remarried. Her son, also named Rick, was now a successful oral surgeon living in Connecticut. He had a lovely blond wife and a blond sister just as pretty. At some point, I was asked to meet a middle-aged, well-preserved, blond woman whom I assumed was Rick’s mom, and my cousin Rick’s ex-wife.
We were introduced, and she was very cordial. But I knew cousin Rick would not give agree to an annulment of their marriage, even though it pissed off the church. He wanted to keep his kids, his rights of visitation, and pay his child support (from a pension he had as a Con Ed supervisor). Fortunately, he and my Aunt Eleanor lived on that, and money she made working in the dry cleaner’s store on Sixth Avenue and Bleeker, near a small pocket park I played in as a young kid. But as she aged, the blindness and loss of her son took her strength away. I received the phone call from her grandson Rick. “Jerry,” he said. “Yes.” I said. And he said, “I’ve got some bad news for you.” “Aunt Eleanor died? Oh my god,” I said, “I’ll be there,” and I was.
Back when Perazzo’s was an Italian funeral parlor, we were summoned to it often t. I saw most of the Mazza family go through there, even my own father, when I was a successful advertising man. Today, at 75, I am retired but zoomed down from the Upper West Side on the A-Train to West 4th Street, just a hop, skip and jump to Perazzo’s on Bleeker St, Your family funeral parlor.
Speaking with Rick about his grandfather Rick, I stood mostly in a room of strangers, old people from the neighborhood who knew my aunt and cousin Rick. I looked for the flowers I’d sent and paid $126 bucks for but couldn’t find them. Screw the small stuff. After, an hour or so of chatting, I said my goodbyes and walked to Sixth Avenue with all its bizarre shops, furious uptown traffic and characters. I intended to cross the village (east to west) and take a different subway uptown (the 2 or 3 train). I took in all the sights of quaint shops, a bustling schoolyard, small restaurants, tourists and the hulking ghost of what once was St. Vincent’s Hospital—thanks to Mayor Bloomberg, Christine Quinn, and the vulture capitalists.
The venerable hospital was now being torn down by indifferent construction workers. Most all my uncles, my father and I had been born there, when it was sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy for the poor over its hundred and sixty years of life. Edna St. Vincent Millay was named so for being born there. St. Vincent’s also took with it the major AIDS clinic in New York City.
On the way, I had also passed St. Joseph’s church where they buried Philip Seymour Hoffmann, who had recently died of a drug overdose, after playing in all those wonderful movies he made. What a cross section of faces I saw.
But what I was hooked on was that drug of nostalgia to make me feel good about the pain I felt for my second son Michael, breaking his arm a few days before he was slated to go into the Navy. He had been working and waiting to go in for at least a year. But he’s healing quickly now. My wife and children are anxious to see him begin a life and live out his dream. As fate would have it, my mother-in-law in South Dakota is quite ill with cancer. When it rains, it pours.
After leaving Perazzo’s, I started my walk, but then stopped near the Bar the Next Door to see if its owner was around. My oldest son plays some great guitar jazz there on a weekly basis on Sunday nights. A man was sitting on the steps of one door smoking, chewing a big cigar. I asked him if he knew of the jazz club. “I’m looking for it. My son plays in it,” I dumbly said. “The only jazz club I know of,” he responded, “is the Blue-Note, around the corner.” I answered, “They never call, they never write.” “He laughed and chewed and puffed on his cigar, blowing out smoke, not a thought in the world it could kill him. When I got home, my son Peter called to see how I was feeling. I told him to wait for the full story. And here it is, at least a piece of it. The rest lies down the road in life’s dream.
Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer and life-long resident of New York City. An EBook version of his book of poems “State Of Shock,” on 9/11 and its after effects is now available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. He has also written hundreds of articles on politics and government as Associate Editor of Intrepid Report (formerly Online Journal). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.