"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, July 6, 2020

Nothing Was Woke In Wooster Square When Frankie Grillo Returned–But Even Though The Goombas Got It, They Didn’t Want It

Wooster Square, New Haven, was second only to Mulberry Street in New York as the place to be for Italian Americans at the turn of the century. While their numbers might have been fewer than the communities of Philadelphia and Providence, their influence was no less.  Italian Americans, largely from Sorrento and Amalfi, punched over their weight.  The Cannizzaro Cement and Gravel works was responsible for sidewalks and foundations from East Rock to Bayonne; and the unofficial political sway of the Paluzzos and Garrafas assured calm on Long Wharf, complaisance in Bridgeport, and outright obedience in New London.  No other Italian-American family could claim such importance.

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New Haven, of course, long before the Italian immigration, was pure blood American.  There were Puritan settlements there long before the Revolutionary War and Anglo-American properties were extensive thereafter.  John Davenport, whose name is still found on a Yale College, was one of the first founders of New Haven, and his Puritan heritage provided the moral context for the new city.  Puritans were not just restricted to Boston and Salem but spread throughout New England, and their rigorous religious and moral determination felt throughout the Colonial period.  When the floodgates opened in the late 19th century, and tens of thousands of destitute immigrants from Southern Italy  arrived on Ellis Island and were given access to the bounty of L’America, Puritan America was only an afterthought.  The new Americans were Catholic, dark, short, and determined

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These new immigrants were the first real Americans.  The Anglo-Irish who had come before them were, even though poor, of assumed right by dint of language and proximity  to King George; but the new Italians were having nothing of it.  Their own European history and their descendancy from Garibaldi and Ancient Rome and Greece meant far more than the temporary ascendance of bog Irish potato-famine refugees.

After the waves of Southern European immigration from 1890-1910, life on Wooster Square – named after a Revolutionary War patriot – was unmistakably Italian.  Over the years Grand and Olive Streets became just like streets in the towns of the immigrants’ Amalfi and Sorrento homelands.  In the pasticceria, salumeria, butcher shops, shoemakers, and grocery stores, everyone spoke familiar dialects, asked about cousins and great aunts, and felt as settled as they could be in their new country.

Italians were more settled than any other immigrant group.  Italians were among the last to leave Manhattan for Queens and Long Island, resisted the Chinese influx from Lower Manhattan into Little Italy in the 60s, and still have footholds in what they considered their particular piece of New York.   As late as the 70s the Arco di Garibaldi, a private club on MacDougal Street for influential Italian Americans, was the place to be if you were a Santucci, DiLoreto, or Dino – men of stature and recognition from whom everyone sought counsel and favor. 

Wooster Square was no different.  Il Segno dell'Imperatore was smaller but of no less prominence in the Italian American community in New Haven than its more well-known counterparts on the East Coast. It was the de facto center of life, the court of first appeal, unofficial city hall, police headquarters, and seat of first responders. When the early Italian immigrants to New Haven sought help, support, and retribution at Il Segno and were never disappointed.

Over the years the Italian community in New Haven became less extra-judicial and more engaged with the system, but it never totally depended on it.  The Mafia had been there when they got off the boat and were still there in time of need. It was the familiar hand of Italy extended to them in the New World.

At the same time, these new Italian Americans embraced the principles of Thomas Jefferson like no other.  In fact it was exactly for ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ that they came to New Haven.  They knew that however variable and uncertain their economic affairs might be, there would always be opportunity.  Everyone in America got hit but got up off the canvas to fight again.

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It was no surprise that these second and third generation Italians were militantly conservative.  Why, they said in choral unison, should anyone be given a handout when they scratched and scrabbled their way to acceptance and prominence?  Why did black lives matter any more than Italian, Irish, or Jewish ones 100 years ago?

Families had not changed in millennia; so that attempts to reconfigure the model of the Holy Family and realign its sexual poles could only be anti-historical and illogical. Religion was fundamental, not marginal.  Patriotism – i.e. respect for the principles of the Founding Fathers, derived from Plato, Aristotle, and Sophocles and the thinkers of the Enlightenment – was an expression of unity, dignity, and communal respect.  Family was not an arbitrary construct but the core of human society.

Frankie Grillo grew up not far from Wooster Square.  His parents had moved away before he was born, but not wanting to abandon their own parents, sisters, and brothers, bought a house in West Haven not far from Savin Rock.  His father was a metal worker and had found good employment at a steel finishing plant in Ansonia, his mother took care of him and his three siblings, and the larger family got together on Wooster Square most Sundays.  Auntie Angie brought he lasagna, Leona the antipasto, fritters, and ham pies, and Honey the fixings. Nonna’s apartment was small and inconvenient, but the children wanted to make do.  Their own children were already a part of a much more American world, so the closer to home relations were kept the better.

While Frankie’s brothers and sisters hewed to the hearth and never moved out of Southern Connecticut, were only two generations removed from the factory floor where their grandfather worked, and were still solidly middle class, Frankie’s parents had left the New Haven area and put some real distance between them and Wooster Square; and if his mother had any say about it, they would never return.  She wanted nothing more to do with dialect, grottos, and ricotta pies.  She was an American, she said, and wanted no more parlors, reek of garlic, priests, or lathe-operating brothers-in-law in her home.

So Frankie was the first of the Grillos to have left Wooster Square heart and soul. He and his sister did visit on Easter and Christmas, but alone; and because of their mother’s disloyalty never had good seats at the table, were talked to politely, and never had a clue as to what was going on.  Who, they asked each other in the car on the way home, was Billy Two Steps, Teresa Palumbo, and Lloyd Moscowitz?

What made Frankie Grillo return to Wooster Square after so many indifferent years was surprising to most, but not to him.  While at college, he had been influenced by Dr. Rev. William Harbor Siffert, Yale chaplain, anti-war activist, civil rights campaigner, and social justice advocate.  Yale at the time was still very conservative, Old Blues still very much in residence, summers on the Vineyard or on Nantucket the thing to do, and Wall Street the preferred place to work; but Frankie, one of the first Italian Americans to be admitted to Yale and perhaps because of his ‘difference’ was seduced by Siffert’s exceptional morality and Utopianism.  Frankie, like his mentor, was destined to do good.

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At Sunday dinners – Frankie still went across Grand Street to eat and spend time with his cousins on Wooster Square – he began to share his Yale-inspired notions.  Of course there could have been no two worlds farther apart than Wooster Square and the Yale Old Campus, but Frankie had been too taken with Harbor Siffert’s passionate secularism to notice.  His relatives, as much as they lived in a world far removed from his new, blue, WASP one, would be open to modernism and the progressive hopes for the future.

Yet as hard as he tried or as craftily insinuating as he could be, he made no inroads.  There was no sympathy there for any progressive cause.  Americans had taken slaves as the their ancient Roman ancestors had.  Women had always been subservient to men.  The environment was nothing more than God’s context for the life he created and so be it.  History had repeated itself over and over for more than five millennia so why shouldn’t it for millennia more?  It wasn’t that human nature was to be mistrusted.  the problem was that it could be trusted to express itself in the same, predictable, venal, territorial, and self-protective ways. Given all this, pass the eggplant made perfect sense.

His cousins were all police, fireman, nurses, EMS providers, shopkeepers, and hoteliers.  They had always been Catholic, had gone to parochial schools, gave generously at the Offertory, and went on occasional summer religious retreats.  The sense of the rightness of ambition, enterprise, individual freedom within a respected social context, and love of the country which made prosperity possible espoused by his cousins was hard to chisel away. His wokeness, his commitment to progressive change and his belief in virtue and higher social value had no resonance in Wooster Square.

Of course his relatives were far more socially, morally, and virtuously evolved than Frankie could ever be.  They had lived the principles of Hamilton and Jefferson and had not merely debated them at a Yale seminar.  The tenet of government by the people was not just academic posturing but at the heart of self-governance.  Equality for all was an intuitively understood, fundamental principal of democratic individualism and not an engineered, enforced notion.  The goombas of Wooster Square were moral light years ahead of Frankie Grillo.

His aunt, the Gertrude Stein of the Wooster Square set was too polite and respectful to disinvite Frankie to her Sunday meals, but marginalized him by degrees.  She gave him a seat at the end of the table, a hurried additional place setting done with courtesy but irritability, and more than anything a collective deafness to his liberal hectoring.  Eventually he got the picture.  Wooster Square was not woke and would never be.  He was not wanted but should have paid attention.  He might have learned something.

The ‘other America’ was what liberals called Wooster Square - in other words, ineducable, beyond the political pale, morally retrograde, and hopelessly ignorant. Of course as far as Wooster Square was concerned, it was these so-called ‘progressives’ who were leagues off the mark and who had no clue about America, Americans, or American history.  In their determination to revise American history, they rushed right past it.  Wooster Square was progressive fly-over country, hardly worth a second thought, supernumerary, and insignificant.  When people are not in the streets, yelling and screaming, protesting, looting, and toppling, they are not so easily noticed.  It is not so much that the people of Wooster Square are the silent majority, they are the confident, principled majority.  Protest is not necessary when fundamental principles are there for all to see.

So the Black Lives Matter hysterical winds will blow themselves out, America will go back to its roots, Wooster Square will once again be open for business, and the toppled statue of Christopher Columbus will be restored to its rightful place right in the center.

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