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

Friday, July 23, 2021

Yale And Goomba New Haven–Diversity Was A Saturday Night Thing

Frankie Carbone grew up in New Haven.  He had long since moved away from the Wooster Square tenement his grandmother had lived in for years, her third house in the neighborhood since coming to America from Italy in 1900.  Wooster Square had always been Italian – or more specifically Sorrentino.  The food, the accent, the festivals, the feasts, and the masses were little different from those his grandmother remembered as a small child in Amalfi.  Wooster Square was so much like Amalfi that except for the cold, the old people thought they were there.

Image result for images st gennaro festival new haven

When Vincenza Carbone and her older brother Enrico arrived in New Haven they were met by her uncle and cousins who had emigrated a few years before.  Vincenza lived with the Ciccis in a small one-room apartment on Olive Street.  Enrico was quickly put to work sweeping floors at the barber shop, and Vincenza, still only a girl of eight, helped her aunt and cousins at home.  Hard work, family, church, and respect were the few items within the circumference of her life.

Once the Carbones got established – relying on the Mafia to keep protection rackets, Irish cops, and employer abuse within moderation, repaying their debts, and keeping their noses clean – life gained routine and predictability.  Wooster Square was a bit of Italy, an enclave of the Old Country, even more so because Americans had hemmed in the old Italians so completely that except for the Wooster Square laborers who lined up for the city bus to take them to the factories in East Haven, no one left.  Lunch pails in, lunch pails out, 10-hour days on the factory floor, sweeping up metal shavings from lathes, drills, and presses making hardware, tools, and firearms.  Vincenza never went to school, spoke only Italian, and as soon as she was old enough, was hired as a helper at the local bakery where she sifted flour.

When she was fifteen she was married to a tradesman – a shoemaker of 25 apprenticed to his father who after years of his wife’s parsimony, a generous camaraderie, and his skill, had bought the shop.  His son had been attracted to the young Vincenza, by now a beautiful, healthy girl; and although he would be marrying the daughter of common laborers, he could not help himself.  She would be a good wife, he insisted to his father, a good mother, and a woman who would make the whole community proud.

Image result for images beautiful italian girls early 1900s

Not long after their marriage, the family moved to West Haven where Vincenza’s husband had bought a dry goods store; and there Frankie was born.  By that time the family had become passably American – Frankie spoke English, went to the New Haven public schools, graduated from Webster Hill Trade School, and went on to be a roofer.

New Haven is two cities – Yale and rest – and the New Haven Green separates them.  New Haven was first settled in 1638 by John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton; and Yale, founded a number of years later in 1701, was one of the first universities in America.  Many of Yale’s residential colleges were named after important American historical figures such as Davenport, Timothy Dwight, and Jonathan Edwards. 

Throughout its history and up until the mid-Sixties, Yale was always a place of privilege, attended by the best New England families, most of whom were of some renown.  The university, thanks to its legacy program which expedited admission for the sons of alumni, Yale retained its very English, early American, and prosperous character; and thanks to the original mission of its founding fathers – to be a place of academic excellence, religious principle, and social integrity – Yale both retained its upper class character and it’s reputation for intellectual excellence.

At the time that Frankie Carbone was of college age, Yale was very much still Old Guard, and its administrators, professors, and especially students were completely removed from the affairs of New Haven.  There were no boys admitted from New Haven high schools, and certainly no roofers.

Yale in the late Fifties had begun to come under increasing pressures from New Haven to invest more in the city - not only in infrastructure, but in human resources as well. It wasn't enough, City officials said, for Yale to hire the men and women who served the elite; it was important for them to recruit talented New Haven students for Yale's undergraduate body itself. The time had come for New Haven's Italian-Americans to stop serving strawberries, and to eat them.

To most Italians of Wooster Square Yale was only a place of basements, kitchens, and boiler rooms.  Admission was not only out of the question, but unthinkable.  Yale was still a place of uniform gentility with no Jews and certainly no Italians.  To Frankie Carbone it was a fortress, an old New England redoubt which did not only not admit Italians but was dismissive of them.  Every time he crossed the Green from his neighborhood, he knew he was an outsider.  Everything about him – his hair, skin coloring, clothes, demeanor, and walk-  shouted goomba and wop.  Go back across the bridge.

Yalies, tired of their weekends at Vassar, Smith, and Holyoke, and wanted some real pussy – hot, dark, wiry-haired poontang from Olive Street – not fluffy blonde bush from the North Shore.  Not surprisingly there were girls from Wooster Square who were quite willing to go out with them, perhaps not to give it up on the first date, taught as they were by their grandmothers to give just enough to keep a man’s interest but to keep their corsets laced. These goomba nonnas of course had no idea what was what north of the Green, and their granddaughters dreamed only of sailing in a white, Anglo Saxon moonlight.

Marilyn Flacco met Brent Hetherington coincidentally – a chance encounter, as she told it to her friends – on a park bench on the Green.  He was so charming, so unbelievably attractive, and so rich; and one thing led to another and soon he was inviting her to spend the night with him at the Taft.   He of course had been only trolling when he picked up Marilyn.  It didn’t take much with these Wooster Square girls unlike Vassar girls who checked family pedigree as carefully as a Hebrew manuscript in the Dead Sea scrolls.  They wanted to be wooed by someone of superior wealth, charm, and intelligence, but such a man was hard to find and harder to catch given the narrow, crowded milieu in which they lived.

Marilyn politely demurred at the offer of a night at the Taft, but ended up giving most of it up in his Trumbull College dorm room anyway. “I can’t believe I’m really here”, she thought to herself as she kissed him and looked out the window at the College’s Gothic spires, manicured courtyard, and ancient window tracery.  Shortly after what had been a marvelous, romantic adventure for her but only a Townie interlude for him, he left her on the curb.

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It didn’t pay to get involved with one of them she told her girlfriends, sobbing, missing him, but angry at how she was so shamelessly treated.  “Never again”, she said.  “Never”, but before too long she was there again on the same park bench this time hoping for a boy with manners to go along with breeding.

Frankie Carbone offered some solace to his cousin, Marilyn; but despite his warnings about two different worlds, to her he always sounded as romantically clueless as the losers on the afternoon soaps.  “As much as Harold tried to convince Bettina that Parker was wrong for her, she could not resist his charms and became pregnant with his child.”  She wanted nothing to do with Frankie’s preachy hectoring.  Yale might be a fortress, but its walls could be breached.

As fate would have it one day while he was repairing the tiles on the roof of Branford College, through a window in the college across the narrow street, through the colored panes of 18th century glass, and in a dimly-lit room, he saw his cousin under one of the upperclassmen he recognized from behind the steam tray at the college cafeteria where workmen were provided lunch.

Having given up on Yale, she went to Southern Connecticut State Teachers’ College, got her certificate, and moved to Hamden where she taught second grade.  She married a tiler – a goomba sandwich, Frankie thought, with him on the roof and Bobby Squillacote on the floor – and lived modestly well with two kids.

In his later years, Frankie Carbone found himself, like a lot of retired people, spending a lot of time on social media.  A surprising number of those who were born and raised in New Haven never left, and a hardware store owner with particular roots in the old Wooster Square community started a social group for sharing New Haven experiences.  Before long he had enlisted a surprising number of members, most of whom still lived in the New Haven area, but many who were part of a large diaspora. 

People wrote in to share recipes – fried cutlets, eggplant parmigiana, pasta fazool, corn fritters, lasagna, veal and peppers, and every other familiar Southern Italian dish that nonna used to make.   Comfort food and nothing out of the ordinary or north of Naples.  It was a celebration both of Wooster Square tradition – the dishes really had not changed much since Frankie’s grandmother’s day – and also an admission that fewer Italians had left the neighborhood than had wanted to.  Few from Wooster Square ever made it across the Green, up College Street, or even out of New Haven.

Image result for images chicken cutlets frying

There was nothing wrong with one’s place, was there? asked Frankie.  Nothing wrong with the old neighborhood.  “Who remembers Fanucci’s on Vine Street?”, wrote one member of the New Haven social media group; or “Who remembers Mrs. Petrucci’s sixth grade homeroom?”.  No one from the Square had ever heard of St. Marks, St. Paul’s, Groton, Andover, or Exeter, the exclusive New England schools where one prepped for Yale.   No Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Gstaad, St. Tropez, or Rimini.  One home, not two, a bass boat and not a cigarette boat or yacht.  Chicken cutlets, not foie gras, foraged sea grasses, and roasted pileated guinea hen. Better to not even know about these things than to wonder what they were or what it would be like to have them.

Image result for images st paul's school nh

Such was the uniqueness of Wooster Square – it remained.  It got upscaled in parts but never completely gentrified; and most importantly it never lost its evocative memory.  It was still a place to return to, greasy cutlets and all.  Who of the St. Grottlesex crowd could say that?

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