August 15, 2014 — The writer sits down beside me, a small round table laid with wine and cheese between our easy chairs. He leans towards me and he begins chatting, telling me long, enthralling tales of his experiences growing up in Ocean City, New Jersey, and the history of his family and the Italian people, since before the Etruscans, in evocative detail, indeed since the first human set foot on the Italian boot. He does not miss a stitch.
The writer isn’t really sitting beside me, but it feels so. He is noted American author and journalist Gay Talese, and he is relating the Italian saga in his book, Unto the Sons. I wanted to read this book after reading in The New York Times that Gay Talese and his wife have a home in Ocean City, and that he, nine years my senior, had written in this book about his growing up there. In his Ocean City Victorian home, he writes from a third floor room: my ideal. In 1974, I considered moving to Ocean City, to live there year-round and write.
Talese writes stories about his growing up with his Italian immigrant tailor father, his mother, from an Italian-American Brooklyn family, and sister, living above his father’s tailor shop and dry cleaning store in Ocean City and how Joseph Talese, the father, came to emigrate to the United States in 1920 from Maida, Calabria, situated in the foot of the boot: Giuseppe Garibaldi’s unification of Italy in 1871 had rendered Southern Italy economically depressed, therefore many young men came to America for jobs, sending their money back home to the wives – called white widows due to their husbands’ perennial absence – and children and parents they had left behind in their dusty villages.
Back in the dusty villages in The Kingdom of Southern Italy, in the foot of the boot, they were surrounded by water. Thereby vulnerable to constant invasion, writes Talese, the mafiosi arose to serve as bartering intermediaries between the inhabitants and the invaders.
Italians and Ocean City have always held a special place in my heart.
Prohibitionist Methodists founded Ocean City, on the next barrier island south of Atlantic City, in 1879 and to this day it remains a dry town. You have to drive over the bridge across the bay to Somers Point to buy liquor. At the north end of Ocean City, where the island broadens, is an area called The Gardens, where the Italian families have their homes.
In my childhood, I vacationed in Ocean City often with my family. Our family owned a home at the south end of the island before I was born. Although my family, and I later with my friends, vacationed in the central and southern parts of the island, I always liked The Gardens and the Italians, down from Philadelphia or year-round residents. Often I found myself drawn to walk up the boardwalk to the quiet north end and The Gardens, felt drawn to the Italians and their openness and warmth, so different from the reserve of my Anglo-Saxon family; drawn to that part of myself I had yet to meet and come to know. To one so shy in those days as I, the Italians were people with whom I felt comfortable, people with whom I could express myself openly; they accepted me without judgment.
I have worked for Italians in several jobs. Those were the jobs I liked the best. I liked working for the Italians. They treated me like a family member. When I went to their homes, they fed me. And I like to eat. Of course, one company where I worked for Italians was a food distribution and catering business. That was in Southern California. That was nearly 30 years ago, and one friend and mentor, an Italian-American, remains my treasured friend.
When I was a teenager in the late 1950s, my classmates and I spent summer days in Ocean City, lying on the beach at 9th Street or 14th Street, slathered in baby oil and iodine or riding the waves, and evenings strolling the boardwalk. We’d stay at Victorian-era rooming houses, the kind where we shared a room for $6 a night each, and the bathroom with the claw-foot tub at the end of the hall. On the boardwalk we ate T-buns – toasted cinnamon buns – and listened to rock ‘n’ roll on the jukebox with the heavy bass. We ate most of our main meals at The Chatterbox at Central Avenue and 9th.
In Ocean City I met and dated a guy named Len D’Ignazio (D’Ignazio pronounced with a long “a”, Len had told me), a good-looking blue-eyed Italian with curly blond hair. I liked Len. He was a nice guy, easy to be with. His family had a home in The Gardens, and his family owned a restaurant, D’Ignazio’s Townhouse, in Media, Pa., west of Philadelphia.
My parents had divorced a few years earlier, so my mother would come pick up my brother and me from our home outside Philadelphia, where we lived with our father, and often take us to D’Ignazio’s, where they served the best Italian food I have ever eaten.
I asked Len how his family could be Italian and he have blonde hair. He said his family was from Northern Italy. In revisiting these memories I wondered about Len. So, I researched him online. I think he is dead. Apparently he died in the 1990s. Life is short, even when you live long. D’Ignazio’s is still there, in Media, has expanded into neighboring buildings and has won awards.
One summer for a few weeks during my teenage years, my aunt, uncle and grandmother rented a house in Ocean City. My uncle loved to ride the waves, as did I. The surf was peopled body-to-body one day, so when a huge wave suddenly arose, I had no time to maneuver my raft (air mattress), and my raft and I rode right in on the back of some guy riding his raft. Every evening while my aunt was preparing dinner, we’d relax on the upper deck and my uncle would proclaim, “The Ocean Bar and Sea View Grill is now open.”
It has been a decade since I’ve visited Ocean City; I shall return.
My uncle loved Italy and the Italians, too. During the Second World War, serving in the U.S. Army, he was among the Allies who landed on Sicily and then crossed the Strait of Messina onto the boot, “picking the helmets off the heads of the dead,” he said, on their way north. He often spoke fondly of Palermo and “Napoli” and “Milano.” After the war he went back two or three times, vacationing with my aunt. Later, he painted with oils paint-by-number Italian landscapes, which my aunt hung on their living room walls.
During the two world wars, the Italians were known to be terrible soldiers, soon tiring of battle. Gay Talese writes that Italians don’t see the reasoning of killing groups of strangers, against whom you have no personal vendetta; for Italians it’s a one-on-one thing, a personal blood feud. Talese makes the point, too, that Italians have prismatic vision; they are able to see all sides. I, too, have prismatic vision, one way I relate to Italians.
Back before the First World War, many young Italian men left Southern Italy with their wives and settled in Paris where they raised their families, their children when grown often marrying the French.
Later, when King Victor Emmanuel III and the Grand Council replaced Mussolini on July 26, 1943, the attitude of most Italians was, “Well, whatever.” The Italians welcomed the Allies then; the mafiosi, many imprisoned under Mussolini, now freed, opened the way for the Allies to cross Sicily. Many mafiosi were connected to relatives living in the U. S., many, naturally, were members of the American Mafia. Southern Italians arriving in America were taken under the guidance of a patrone who connected them with jobs, attorneys, doctors, friends and relatives – the familiar “I know a guy….”
I found it interesting to note, as Talese writes, that those from impoverished agricultural Southern Italy, upon arrival on the U.S. East Coast and speaking no English, were likely to be discriminated against and attacked, so settled into ghettos. Originally, Greeks inhabited Southern Italy, until when, generations later, the Italians booted them out. Therefore, it would be natural to designate Southern Italians as being actually Greek. Whereas, those from industrial Northern Italy were broadly educated, more sophisticated, spoke more than one language, and when they came to the U.S., assimilated quickly, felt comfortable traveling alone across country and often settled on the West Coast – where I worked for their descendants.
Nonetheless, the Italians didn’t connect me to this story. Wanting to read about what it was like to grow up in Ocean City, I got more than I bargained for – a fascinating history of Italy and the Italians and how they got to Ocean City. I had no idea that I was in for an encyclopedic history, a history Talese derived from his father’s stories, from his ancestors’ diaries and from extensive, intensive research – a book that reads like a novel, all 600-plus densely typeset pages, that held me spellbound. I have read a number of books since I read Unto the Sons last winter, yet this one stays with me. In fact, I inadvertently engaged in reading tutti Italian, winter into spring. I don’t know why I did it; I just did. I read Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany, which made me wish I were younger and could go buy my own ancient villa there, as Mayes did, and from which I derived some really good and economical Tuscan peasant recipes. It’s like I’m preparing for an Italian journey that I don’t yet know about – or maybe that was it, seen through the magical pages of books. Some things come spontaneously, stepping out of the cobalt blue shadows of the sun. They radiate in electric white light standing before you for a moment in time, and they never quite leave you.