CXXX. Under the Sun

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.

Ocean City Boardwalk, 1990s

Ocean City Boardwalk, 1990s

Row of Victorian Homes, Ocean City, 1990s

Row of Victorian Homes, Ocean City, 1990s

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.

—Samantha Mozart

12 Responses to CXXX. Under the Sun

  1. My Dear Friend,

    Reading your article has given me much joy. I have the book from Gay Talese, Unto the Sons, and even though I haven’t started reading it yet, because of other pressing priorities, I look forward to the time when I can sit back and lose myself in it.

    I am privileged to be able to travel to Italy, and I travel there as often as I can. I also have acquaintances in Southern Italy, which in many ways has not changed. It is still the friendliest part of Italy, although the Italians are friendly all over Italy. Southern Italy is the heart.

    I enjoy eating a pizza at one of the local pizza bars. I don’t care where you go, the pizza is fantastic and no one can make pizza like the Italian people. I love it. But they are excellent Mediterranean cooks that can cook anything wonderful.

    I agree with you concerning their open hearted way of meeting people. Whenever I am invited to a home, the first thing they want to do is feed me and don’t forget the expresso. I believe they drink expresso throughout the day. That is a habit that I have taken from them, but I start drinking my expresso in the afternoon.

    The Italians go on vacation from August 1 to August 20 or 21st every year. It is always refreshing to see them playing with their children and to hear the laughter and excitement in their voices when I am in Italy during that time.

    It is because of this warmheartedness, this reckless way of engaging in life that I have chosen to live out my life with my home in Italy. I look forward to it and rejoice when the time comes and it is time for me to cross over into my new home.

    Now I am busy learning the language. I took a Greek course at the university and not Latin. How I wish today that I had chosen the Latin course. However, I am making progress with the language, and I look forward to spending 12 to 16 weeks or more next year in Italy.

    So thank you so much for this beautiful article. It made me homesick, and I haven’t gotten there yet. You drew me in and for a few minutes, I was living the dream which is the desire of my heart.

    Sending you greetings and a big hug out of Grosskrotzenburg, Germany.

    • sammozart says:

      Dear Patricia,

      I thought of you when I was writing this. Thank you for telling me that I drew you in, for I could not have achieved that had it not been for my Italian-American friends and Gay Talese who drew me in. My association with them has been and continues to be the heart of my life, and so I do envy you your focus and smart planning to live out the final years of your life among the Italians on the Amalfi Coast. One day a little boat may draw up to the shore and you will see me stepping out. Most of the Italians I have known — grew up with outside Phila. and worked for in L.A. — were of Southern Italian descent, although I have known Northern Italians as well, as I said, and some friends whose ancestors are from all over Italy. My friend Martha, whose dog I “Wallie-sit” for, is one of those.

      Family is primary in Italians’ lives — family and eating, it seems.

      You will love Gay Talese’s book, and, yes, its detail of subject does require intense focus; it is not a book for a light reader; but it was fascinating, a book which you will have no trouble with, and I couldn’t put it down. Plus, Talese’s writing is so lucid he leaves no question of his meaning and paints a vivid landscape.

      An Italian tradition Gay Talese describes and I just love, wish we could do more of here, is the passeggiata, the evening stroll around town or round and round the piazza, men arm in arm, and women arm in arm. They just stroll and chat. You may have seen this — or engaged in it.

      Too, I have heard that the Italian language is not easy to learn because of the nuances of meaning. I did study Latin and Spanish, and a little French, so that might make it easier for me — or more confusing due to retrogressive learning. I have wanted to learn Italian, though, especially since reading Liz Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love.”

      You will also like Frances Mayes’s “Under the Tuscan Sun.” Her prose is a step down from Talese’s, yet she is poetic and paints a beautiful portrait of Tuscany and surrounds. She talks about the Italian August holiday, the daily siestas and the espresso bars — plus, she prepares recipes from her and her husband’s garden. She is a gourmet cook, who coincidental with you, grew up in Georgia.

      What you tell me here about your Italian experiences is so interesting, Patricia. Thank you for sharing. A big hug to you.

      I could go on, but … another time.


      • patgarcia says:

        Yes, the language is difficult but I am making progress. I too have French at the University. Italian and French have some similarities so that I am actually experiencing a revival of my French. What I learned is coming back to me quickly. I have an Italian tutor here and some Italian friends that are helping me because Italian is such an expressive language.

        La passeggiata, the evening stroll, is something that they still do and when I am there, I look forward to walking and talking and window shopping arm and arm with good friends. I had the privilege of taking my girlfriend with me in 2012 before she left Germany to go back to the USA to get married. She was so happy there. We walked arm in arm and shared so many things that I’ll never forget. That can only happen in Italy. In fact, she didn’t want to return to Germany.

        No doubt it will be a big change for me and a big challenge. A new country, a different language and learning new friends. Each of the European countries are different and adjustment is the key word. I look forward to the adjustment.

        If you ever decide to visit Italy after 2016, please let me know. You will be very welcome in my home. I am not sure whether I will settle down on the Amalfi Coast. I am looking into Erice, Matera, and somewhere outside of Rome, maybe on the country side. Erice is wonderful because it is in Southern Italy and I believe I would feel very comfortable there. But the region around Rome or Tuscany is also tempting because I want to be able to continue with my music and be near an airport because of my writing.

        We will see, but regardless, wherever I choose to live, you will be welcome.

        Thank you for your lovely response and please forgive me for spelling espresso incorrectly. I was writing from a different computer yesterday evening and because of tiredness was having difficulty using it.

        Have a nice evening my dear.
        Ti abbraccio. ( It means hugs to you in Italian)

        • sammozart says:

          Yes, I believe it was Frances Mayes who said the Italian language is so expressive, Patricia, creating for some, difficulties in learning. And then I thought of Italian opera, and thought, yes, the Italians speak like they’re singing — they’re always singing.

          No doubt your friend was very happy there. And, so you know of la passeggiata; this would do me good, evening strolls rather than TV or movie time.

          Well, wherever you decide to settle, Patricia, I will be most happy to visit (I need a bestselling book first). Thank you for the invitation. Who knows, I may wind up visiting Tuscany after all, fulfilling a dream.

          Re espresso — my finger always goes to type expresso and I have stop and correct it. I understand.

          Ti abbraccio (literal translation, “I embrace you”?)


  2. Susan Scott says:

    Thanks for further elucidation Samantha! I’ve never read Talese … will seek him out.
    Here’s to camels, wide open spaces, blueberry scones and more delicious food! xx

    • sammozart says:

      I had not read Gay Talese, either, Susan. But, then, I read “A Writer’s Life” and “Unto the Sons.” I’m usually not into American journalist/authors of that generation, that genre — more into the earlier Romantics. But Gay Talese is one of the best writers I’ve read in a while. I just ordered his 1995 book, “Writing Creative Nonfiction: The Literature of Reality,” since that kind of writing is mostly what I have published, for $4.00 from Amazon, used, including shipping.

      I intend to publish my magazine stories in a book soon, so Talese’s Creative Nonfiction book will serve as supportive research to let me know what I did and didn’t do, and what I might need to change.

      Here’s to …!


  3. Susan Scott says:

    A wonderful post thank you Samantha!
    What is tutti Italian – last paragraph?
    I smiled at your mention of how you liked being fed by the Italians in yr earlier years. This would have made a deep impression on me too. Anything or anyone associated with food has a place in my heart and stomach.
    I enjoyed this post for its history. And it is so true that we cannot expect others to have the same sense of fervour or loyalty about leaders, war etc… you described the honour among Italians so well. It makes better sense to me.
    Thank you!

    • sammozart says:

      Thanks for commenting, Susan. I always appreciate your thoughts.

      “Tutti Italian” means all things Italian. Tutti is the plural of the Italian word tutto. All things that I read, books and periodicals, throughout the winter and spring were about all things Italian, including conversations and emails with our friend Patricia. My entering into this world came not from a conscious thought; it just happened spontaneously, one thing leading to another. “Tutti” is most commonly seen, for us non-Italians, in musical composition notations; for example, there is a solo and then all the voices join in.

      The Italians feeding me and my working with the Italians was the heart of my life. Italians still feed me: my friend Martha, for whom I “Wallie-sit,” often feeds me — with veggies and herbs she has grown in her garden. In fact, she gave me the starter herbs, pulled from her garden, for my herb garden.

      I did not describe the honor among the Italians. Gay Talese did, so aptly. I simply repeated him, though culling a few words from a 600+ page book, deciding what to include and what to leave out, was not easy, especially since I have combined two stories here. Gay Talese is one of our best writers. He spoiled me for writers whose books I read to follow. He writes with such lucid detail; I never had to question the meaning he conveyed. And his research is impeccably thorough.

      Anyway, I could go on — perhaps eating and discussing my fervor for Talese’s memoir/history. Next time you visit the U.S., we’ll eat blueberry scones and sit on my porch and watch the Camels.


  4. Robert Price says:

    Very excecellent!!!


  5. Gwynn Rogers says:

    It is funny, as looking at your picture of Ocean City and seeing the Strand sign, I immediately thought of Hermosa Beach and the Strand there. It is fun remembering old times. I enjoyed hearing your story of long ago! Memories seem to always stay close to one’s heart!

    • sammozart says:

      How quickly you read this long piece and commented, Gwynn. Thank you.

      Yes, well, a strand is a strand. And, frankly, it is my love for Ocean City that drew me to Redondo — something about Redondo reminds me of Ocean City; even Hermosa does a bit. You know, this year they started having summertime concerts on the beach in Hermosa.

      It is interesting how memories telescope time. Why, it was just last week that I dated Len D’Ignazio. Oh, wait — that was lifetimes ago. I’d like to go eat at his family’s restaurant. It’s not that far away from me, about an hour. Maybe one day soon.