Lessons From the Past: An Immigrant Work Ritual

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Manning the restaurant meat slicer during one of her chaotic mornings

Like many other young people of my generation, I was taught to go to work at an early age. My indoctrination to the world of work wasn’t really difficult: a very part time gig in my family’s restaurant, manning the dishwasher during a slower period in the mid afternoon.

Not being sure in the beginning as to why I was being put to work in the first place (I had school work to do, you know), I slowly got into a rhythm of what the business was like, even for just a few hours a week in the “back of the house.”

It was here that I learned respect for those that lived and breathed hospitality, and the nature of the chores they had to do. While many of the restaurant’s customers came in from their office jobs in pressed suits and ties, I more identified with the working style of my family, and the restaurant’s other employees: grinding out physical labor, at times on the run, for shifts of varying lengths.

It was an ordinary day for my father to spend 12 hours in a hot kitchen, on his feet, attempting to coordinate dozens of different entrees out to the dining room at the proper time.

Dad was a younger guy back then, and could easily handle the workload. The real respect was formed for my grandparents, especially my grandmother, who continued with this type of physical labor into their seventies and eighties.

Nonna’s schedule, at that age, bordered on the ridiculous. Her typical day went like this:

5:30 AM – awake time.

6:00 AM – hop into a cab, or take the bus (she never drove a car) to the restaurant to prepare for the day.

6:15 AM – fire up the ovens, stove top, grill, etc. When the oven was preheated, in would go a whole turkey. For the purpose of making turkey sandwiches, mostly. She did this just about every day.

6:30 AM – once the turkey was in, prep would start for various soups, sauces, salads. To the right of the stove was a steam table that would hold vats of soup that she prepared every day. Deli meats were readied on a meat slicer, and she would respond to calls from early morning vendors who knew she was there.

8:00 AM – time to unlock the front door, to receive her “fans” – mainly older, retired gentlemen who liked an early morning cocktail or two. Now, she would start tending bar for customers, pivoting back and forth from the bar to the kitchen to make sure all systems were go with the oven and stove.

There were times, when I was the restaurant’s main bartender, I would come in the morning to find an already full bar. I had mixed feelings about that, as now I had to juggle serving customers and prepping my space for the day. But my grandmother’s fan club was always a priority for her: so I had to keep my lip zipped.

11:00 AM – when I came in around 10 o’clock, she was free to focus on just her kitchen duties. The turkey was cooled and ready for slicing, soups just about done, grill clean and ready to go. Sandwich and salad area prepped and pristine, soon to be enveloped by the lunch hour chaos.

Photo courtesy Pexels.com

At this point, I was to drive her home for job number two: prepping even more food for the restaurant at the house, as well as a different dish or two for dinner for my grandfather, when I dropped him off that night. It wasn’t unusual for her to receive visitors during the day, entertaining them while making a cauldron of lentil soup that I would pick up later on.

From the early morning hours to the evening, she was all about the work: interrupted only by the occasional prayer or counting of rosary beads. She embraced the simplicity of her life, and when all was said and done, the work – the feeding and nurturing of family and customer alike, with the adoration of the “fan club” (men I came to know, respect, and share a few laughs with myself) – was what made her happiest.

I can’t come close to matching the work ethic of these amazing people: but on days when I think of them and attempt to model their way of getting after it, it’s those days where I wind up feeling my best. I believe that, no matter the circumstance, they were proud of their family. Although they’ve departed, I’d like to think I’m doing all I can to make them proud still.

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Why I Love That Chip on Tom Brady’s Shoulder

Featured photo by amny.com

As a fan of the New York football Giants, my opinions of Tom Brady ran the gamut from mild distaste to unwavering suspicion (think: Deflategate).

Brady, even with his success, could be viewed (albeit rarely) as an unfortunate figure: with two crushing Super Bowl losses to New York, fueled by game saving Eli Manning passes that could be described as nothing less than miraculous (check out the freakishly accurate throw to Mario Manningham in Super Bowl XLVI).

Even with those two unlikely defeats, last week Brady secured his seventh Super Bowl win in 10 attempts. To label him the greatest of all time is making an understatement.

With his successes comes my growing admiration: even as a Giants fan, I recognize Brady’s humility and praise of his team’s efforts to buoy that success. Even better, he knows he’s an older guy that needs to work even harder to sustain the levels he’s reached.

Photo: foxnews.com

At 43 years old, he is the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl game.

That’s the reason I’m now fond of Brady: not much younger than myself, he lives and plays with a certain fire. Never satisfied, and still with a gigantic chip on his shoulder.

If you’re a man, in your 40s or 50s, and not inspired by Brady’s exploits, you should see your doctor and have your testosterone checked.

The chip on his shoulder, formed by being drafted out of college in the sixth round (even now, it sounds ridiculous), has never been worn down by the swells of his success. Even behind that smiling face and “aw, shucks” demeanor, you know his attitude looks to burn through the most competitive foe.

As someone that has experience with chip on shoulder syndrome, I can relate. The chip in me formed as a middle schooler, overweight and an easy target, and segued into a Stallone inspired workout regimen and steely resolve into fighting shape. That chip has never wavered, and into my late 50s, I still pursue the ideal of what will be the best physical shape of my life.

There is no other alternative than to go down fighting. With Brady, you can just sense his never quit mentality.

With as much as I hold my example close to heart, to be fair, it’s a small one. I have family, relatives who were crucial in setting the table of prosperity that we sit at now, to give the most credit.

Picture this: your father, a successful businessman, and your mother, a healer, pull you from your home because of outside criminal threats. Mayhem and violence.

You leave your home country, landing by boat to the bleak skies and bitter winds of New York City. We’re not in sunny Sicily anymore.

In your previous life, you had relative luxury – even with staff to help you keep house. In the new land, you are nothing: in some eyes, less than nothing. You now have nothing. The tables have turned. You are now the servants.

That’s how, as a child, my grandmother’s story started. The nucleus of my grandfather’s story isn’t vastly different. For them to survive – to hell with the concept of succeeding – they needed a chip the size of a boulder to plant on their already weary shoulders.

They had them. And they made it. Through sheer force of will, with the strength of their backs and resolve, they built lives, businesses, communities, and a deeply appreciative family.

To say my grandmother and grandfather were ferocious competitors in the game of life would be yet another understatement, on the same level of calling Brady a decent quarterback.

No matter what type of shit storm they had to persevere through – and there were plenty of them – they never stopped moving forward. They were, as I’ve often said, relentless.

Watching Brady meticulously call audibles and throw passes last Sunday, to keep a lightning fast Chiefs defense on its heels, I didn’t think of comparing future fortunes of two unrelated, underrated underdogs: whether a late blooming college player, or the immigrants that spent so many years working to shape our own destinations.

The conclusion I came to draw is undeniable: with the team I always had around me, I was set up to win big games my entire life.

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Our “New” Normal Might Look a Lot Like My “Old” Childhood: a Post Lockdown Opinion

Although the exact quote escapes my memory, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni referenced a colleague or friend who said something along the line of “feeling silly about past complaints of waiting in a crowd, for an exorbitant amount of time, for a table at a busy New York City restaurant.”

The reference went on to mention that, in these strange times, what a pleasure it would be to waste your time waiting like that once again.

It’s funny how all of us have taken for granted the mundane moments of perceived inconvenience: a long grocery line, or a crowded restaurant.

Or even worse, taking for granted the good stuff: a hug from a friend or loved one. That meal out, once the wait was over. The anticipatory buzz of the crowd right before a concert or performance.

With a viral pandemic has come a lot less of what we had, but perhaps more of what we need. As the curve flattens, and cases keep declining, the new anticipation and buzz will be looking to the future, how we should navigate it, what some are calling a “new normal.”

To me, that normal could look a lot like the mid 70’s, seguing into the decade of the ’80s: what I perceive to be simpler times, less convoluted lives, and the return to focus on what’s important, rather than the unessential.

A Better Life with Less?

If you’re like me, you’ve been driving less. No commute, and making trips that are only absolutely necessary.

Speaking of trips, there may be less travel overall. Although my wife and I had targeted 2020 for an initial trip to Italy, and canceled a March trip to the west coast of Florida, I wonder aloud: will we stay closer to home now?

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A favorite northbound road trip

Less car travel should mean less traffic. Less road induced stress. Easier trips when taken. Less pollution, with cleaner skies. A renewed appreciation for the road trip, as it’s being taken less frequently .

There should be less brick and mortar recreational shopping. More thought put into what we do buy. Less consumer consumption, and jostling hostility during silly holiday sales.

I know this may be just a crazy dream, but how about a little less political strife? Maybe a little more listening to your fellow human being without judgment and angry rebuttal.

While we’re on the subject of more, what could we expect more of?

Much of it, as far as I can see, looks like a throwback to a well spent youth.

What There Should Be More Of

There should be more gratitude. If virus related death or illness has not yet invaded your inner circle, praise your good fortune. Praise the fact that when your feet touch the floor in the morning, you will have another day.

If prayer is your thing, participate in more of that. It can only help.

When there is a return to normal, if it’s possible, I predict more heart, more affection. As an Italian American, it destroys me to not be able to hug family and close friends. Kiss them on one cheek, or both.

I’m not wired this way, and my guess is you’re not either. I can’t wait for my first rib crushing hug from a friend when it can happen.

There’s going to be more genuine communication. Maybe this is showing my age, but I find myself picking up the phone more to talk, rather than just shooting over a text or a social media update.

In the same vein, more neighborhood socializing is becoming prevalent, as we go outside with any opportunity to leave the house, weather permitting.

We’ve been sitting on a neighbor’s concrete backyard patio recently – properly distanced, imbibing in a drink or two, sharing recent family news or well recalled memories.

If there is a throwback to the old days, this point would be it. In a neighborhood rife with Italian immigrants, the tight knit social network was the end all, be all of their American lives.

On a sunny morning or afternoon (yes, here in the Northeast, they are becoming more frequent!), my wife and I will spend time on our back deck. Thank God for the deck, and the music that accompanies it. Music lovers to begin with, we’re listening much more than we used to, complimenting the isolation situation.

Music is the language of sanity during times of strife and stress. Enjoy more, more, more of it, absolutely guilt free.

More time outside equals more movement: whether you prefer a walk around the neighborhood, running, yoga, or simple play, it’s all good. If music is the language of sanity, movement and exercise is the translation.

There is a trend already burgeoning toward growing more of your own food. As an article at reuters.com recently noted:

People around the world are turning to gardening as a soothing, family friendly hobby that also eases concerns over food security as lockdowns slow the harvesting and distribution of some crops. Fruit and vegetable seed sales are jumping worldwide.

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My son and I in front of my grandmother’s massive vegetable garden – seems like a lifetime ago.

Watering and mowing the area around the numerous fruit trees and vegetable gardens at my grandparents’ house is a cherished memory. If growing food is a trend, well, the Italian immigrants were the original trendsetters. Pears, cherries, corn, peaches, zucchini, tomatoes, beans, basil – back in the day, we had it all.

Apparently, this way of life is making a long overdue comeback.

Where some of us may be looking to grow our own food, the concrete trend we can point to is everyone is now, for better or worse, cooking their own food.

Restaurants, surviving on a pivot to providing optimum curbside take out and delivery service, may finally open soon. But a 25% occupancy may be all that’s allowed at first, to enhance social distancing and safety protocols.

I wonder aloud, yet again: when the openings happen, how many of us will show up?

Do you really want to sit at a table, being approached by a waiter who needs to pull down his N95 mask to say “May I take your order?”

I don’t know about you, but I may be waiting awhile to inhabit my favorite restaurants.

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Pan fried meatballs in our kitchen, just like the old ladies used to make.

We’ll basically keep doing what we’ve always done: cook the majority of our meals ourselves, in our own kitchen.

While no slouches in the kitchen to begin with, we’ve taken our normal cadence of food prep to another level – especially my wife, whose furlough from her job has given her an abundance of time to take it there.

The constant activity in the kitchen is the thing that most reminds me of my childhood: one Sicilian or another would always be in the kitchen cranking out dishes that would provide calories, sustenance, and most importantly, the comfort and connection we craved.

That sense of connection is needed more now, to carry us through uncertainty that we face.

When we’re in the kitchen together, the outside world is banished.

Aromas permeate the house that bring back the cooking sessions of my childhood, where I was just an observer.

They bring back the conversations with my grandmother, memories of great aunts and uncles now gone. The stories told, lessons learned.

It’s relaxing, energizing, comforting. Just the tonic we need to bring us through the pandemic age.

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The Family Ties That Bind, and the Greatest Grilled Cheese Ever

 

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Aunt Carmel, center, with my great grandmother Maria, and family friend Maria Commis

If you’ve been with me on this journey somewhere over these 130+ blog posts, you’re intimately familiar with my thoughts, and the specific love and admiration I have for all things family.

You’ve met the individuals who I consider the titans of our little tribe, many of them more than once: my Nonna, who arguably is the reason I started putting my fingers to a keyboard. My great aunt, also my godmother, dubbed the “Last Sicilian.” You’ve met Dominick a number of times, as well as Mariano and Antonio.

All amazing people, with equally amazing stories, that I feel compelled to share with you.

But there is one glaring omission: one that has gone for far too long and needs to be rectified.

This sin of omission happens, perhaps, for the lack of key memories. This family figure passed away when I was just a boy, not even yet a teenager.

I called her Aunt Carmel, but Carmela Tagliarini Prezio was my great aunt, my grandmother’s sister, who came here with her sisters as part of the immigration wave of Southern Italians and Sicilians to this country.

Between around 1880 and 1924, more than four million Italians immigrated to the United States, half of them between 1900 and 1910 alone—the majority fleeing grinding rural poverty in Southern Italy and Sicily.

My “Aunt Carmel” had such a giant personality and family care taking instincts that she had a chance to supplant her sisters, my grandmother and godmother, as being my favorite. She just left us a little too soon to find out.2386CD98-AD99-461C-8DB6-E6ED78E53819

Her story (and their story) emigrating to the wintry slop of New York from sunny Sicily, is a dramatic one. Although I believe the connection between Italians and organized crime is an overblown stereotype perpetuated by Hollywood cinema, a true crime story was happening in Sicily to drive my grandmother’s family out.

My great-grandfather, Calogero, was running a warehouse for the government in Sicily. The local branch of organized crime targeted him as a revenue source, which he had no interest in complying with. The situation became more extreme with a warning gunshot to my great grandfather’s foot, and the future decision was made to flee Sicily when they could.

Aunt Carmel was like many other Sicilian immigrants: hard working, entrenched in her faith, and centered around family. There were mighty struggles, and good times, throughout her life. Her husband, Anthony Prezio, carved his path as one of our family’s first entrepreneurs (and restaurant owners) after holding a series of jobs.

If you’re familiar with immigration history, many of those that came to America (Irish and Italians included) were offered only the most menial, sometimes dangerous, manual labor jobs.

For some Italians, the only way for upward mobility was to start a business, in an attempt to control their own destiny.

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Celebrating life and love with family

My connection with Aunt Carmel was a close one, as the family was tight knit, living on the same block on the same street, as many immigrants were to do. My grandmother lived directly across the street, so us kids would bounce back and forth between houses as necessary.

The most consistent memory of my aunt was as I was coming home from elementary school for lunch, stopping at her house to be fed. Since my parents and grandparents were working outside the home, Carmela invited me into her’s for many wonderful meals.

Her specialty  was a toasted cheese sandwich: not a grilled cheese, mind you, but a cheese sandwich made crunchy and melty within an actual toaster oven. Fantastic.

Being the spoiled child that I was (remember, I had more than a couple of Sicilians to provide meals, making sure I was well fed) I remember asking her if we could have something else after a long succession of lunch time toasted cheese.

Looking back on my adolescent complaint of “toasted cheese, again?”, I would love to travel back in time, just to have one more of those sandwiches.

But the sandwich is only symbolic, wouldn’t you say?

To my younger self, that sandwich meant comfort, safety, security. A place to turn where there was nowhere else to go, however temporarily.

Carmela, along with her sisters Rose and Nicolina, represented all that was right with the world. Whatever trivial matters could go wrong in the life of an adolescent me, they were the port of refuge that provided that comfort and security.

And that was the ladies. The men, once they came home, reinforced it all.

It’s said we are a country divided, here in 2020. It’s thought very few of us can be trusted, and we’ll need those sources of comfort and security to believe that, as in the early 70’s at Carmela Prezio’s kitchen table, “all is right with the world.”

More than that, reflection on the generosity, faith, and kindness they all displayed instill in me the belief that we aren’t really divided at all: just a little lost, and trying to find our way.

Aunt Carmel passed away when I was only 12 years old, so our relationship never really had a chance to blossom fully, but we are kindred spirits even now as she enjoyed writing her thoughts down as much as I do. And her sisters were the gift to me that kept on giving.

It’s with the memory of their guidance that I use to find myself, each and every day.

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A Portrait of Relentless

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During the countless cups of coffee and morning chats on our back deck, it seemed that my wife and I always had company. It was rarely our kids, who were either in school or sleeping (if the weekend), but a boy named Cooper.

Cooper, at his best fighting weight, was anywhere from 36 to 40 pounds of pure muscle covered with a coat of black fur. A terrier mix, he was a pup that my daughter (with my wife) rescued from our local Humane Society.

My daughter, who was 11 years old when she picked Cooper out of a line up of dogs waiting for a home, selected him because he stood at attention, wagging his tail with his head cocked while looking at her.

“Look at him, Mom – he’s such a good boy,” she would say that day. It was to be the first of many Oscar caliber performances from our new pet.

We Called Him “Houdini”

He was our best friend, but at times his own worst enemy. At his weight, he was a small canine, but with the heart of a lion. Relentless, a savage protector of his family and property. If you came within 500 feet of my house, you heard the warnings.

He was a master escape artist – hence the nickname – somehow squeezing through closing doors and slipping off leashes. Swift, cunning, bold and misbehaving. We’ve never seen a pet quite like him.

He was an anxiety ridden, aggressive alpha male who let you know he was in charge, whether in the house or yard.

img_1545His stories of misbehavior and destruction will entertain us for years to come. The infamous Christmas Eve rampage, where he ate an entire tray of baked cookies while shredding a barricade of wrapped gifts (all of which were on a dining room table) is deserving of its own special holiday post.

Although he created his own special brand of trouble, nothing but unconditional love spilled from that massive heart for his large network of family and friends.

Relentless Until the End

Cooper’s life was a never ending search for food, looking for trouble, and chasing bunnies. We had hoped that the end of his story would be like a movie script ending – he would lay on his bed space one last time at night, and not wake up with the morning sun.

But that wasn’t Cooper, he was too relentless to just lay down and quit. If he was finally going to lose a fight, he was going down swinging.

For years, Cooper roamed and ran through our large back yard. He played with our kids img_1382as they grew, tirelessly pursued lightning quick rabbits, and ran to my wife when she called him, sprinting through the grass and up the deck stairs to get the treat she had for him.

On his last day, before the final trip to the vet, I carried him to the back yard for one more roam. Nearly blind, his walk was a stagger now, his sessions of sprinting a memory. As I allowed him a few minutes on the land that was the kingdom that he ruled, a large rabbit stood nearby, standing guard.

The rabbit didn’t move, or flinch. There was no running. I looked at him with curiosity. It was as if he could tell that Cooper couldn’t see him, couldn’t initiate the chase – the chase that our friend ran with ferocious passion for 16 years.

I imagined that the rabbit stood stationary as a silent salute to a foe who could no longer compete. A salute of job well done. Life well lived. A race well run.

This was Cooper.

Cooper was born May 2003 with the original name, ironically enough, of Moxie. After unsuccessful stints in two previous homes, he was adopted with love by my daughter Gabrielle on May 12th, 2007. Her Mom paid the adoption fee. From that day, he continued to keep us on our toes until his peaceful passing on April 5th of this year.

We will never be the same.