I grew up on Avenue B, in what is now a hipster epicenter. There are boutiques, art galleries, and hip little restaurants where there once were hosiery stores or dry cleaners. I had dinner at a restaurant on the site of the grocery store next to our apartment building. It’s weird to sit in the backyard of a chichi joint where pasta is $30 a plate, look up, see the windows where I grew — and not see clothing on a washline. But it was weirder to go out and pay $30 for pasta. I felt vaguely guilty, like I was going out and spending $30 for air when I could breathe at home for free.
I can’t criticize the food options there now though, considering what was available when I was little. It wasn’t considered ‘ethnic cuisine’ — it was just dinner. Maybe on TV or in the Midwest, families ate hotdogs, but in our apartment, the culture (and menu) remained in 19th century Sicily, where anything could be considered a food source and you grew your own when you could.
And we did. In a New York City apartment…we had…livestock.
We kept chickens and rabbits. They lived in a cardboard box on a high chair between the refrigerator and the stove, wondering where they went wrong until they got big enough to merit the attention of my father, the butcher. Periodically, he’d take out a very impressive cleaver and sharpen it while suggesting that I go outside and play for a while.
I hated it when he took work home.
I sympathized with the animals we had because, like them, I wondered how the hell I got there, too. My earliest dreams weren’t that I was a fairy princess, but that I had been left in the hallway by a wandering band of middle class gypsies, perhaps the ones who came to the door and sold us the Encyclopedia Britannica. I wanted a TV family, where Grandma spoke English, and meals weren’t culinary roulette timed to obscure Sicilian feasts, like snails on the feast of St. John the Baptist. My mom would fill the kitchen sink with water, toss them in and start the marinara while they crawled out of the sink and up the wall, making a break for the cupboard (The chickens could have told them that didn’t work). My brothers’ snail races only increased my distaste for food that left a trail of slime.
What I didn’t understand about these strange meals was how celebratory everyone else was about them, especially about cappozelle — a whole roasted sheep’s head. Imagine happy faces around a table while mom sets down a skinned animal’s head, eyeballs staring, teeth in a death’s head grin. I worried about Little Bo Peep’s headcount.
Naturally, my brother Vinnie stuck an eyeball on a fork and chased me into the hallway and outside. I hid behind the counter of the dry cleaners next door. When people on the block saw Vinnie running around waving an eyeball and looking for me, they’d say, “Ah, the Maidas are having sheepshead again.” It took my mother months to get me to the eye doctor across the street because I feared some weird eyeball karma.
My dad laughed when I said that it was looking at me, but by kid logic, it made sense. I was its only ally. Everyone else thought a flayed, roasted animal head on the table was awesome. I thought it was a case for Child Protective Services, if we’d only had a phone. My dad would reminisce, while sharpening his knife, how as a young man, he would go into the back of certain restaurants in Little Italy and place his order without saying a word, making a fist with only his pinky raised, and a quick flip of his wrist; half a sheep’s head, a salute to his parents, his grandparents, and to all the condatini who cobbled a meal together from odds and ends.
It was wasted on me. I just wanted a hot dog (a similar collection of odds and ends but in a neater package). I watched my mom scoop out the brains and my brothers tear into a roasted jawbone like Vikings, all but tossing bones on the floor. I had a peanut butter sandwich. My appreciation for my roots would come later, remembering how the remains sat like a deconstructed Georgia O’Keefe painting. Then again, maybe my family was ahead of their time, considering the artsy environment the neighborhood is now.
But I’m still not paying $30 for a plate of pasta. And don’t’ get me started about THAT.