THE TENANT

A recent photo of my house on the left.
It seemed much larger and prettier 60 years ago.
Where’s our little garden out front? 😔

My childhood home was a brand-new two-family brick house in The Bronx. It was the end house of a row of ten attached houses that looked exactly the same: each house was the mirror image of the one next to it. We were fortunate because we had a corner house which meant one side of the house was unattached, giving us a bit more property and providing access to our backyard via a walkway from the front. All the other homeowners gained access to their backyards through a door in the master bedroom or from the basement.

We lived on the first floor – my mother, father, sister Rosemarie and I – and always rented out the top floor. Over the years we had many different tenants ranging from an older couple and their unmarried daughter to newlyweds from our church. Almost all our tenants were people we knew; very few were new faces via word of mouth or people answering an ad posted in the local grocery store window.

Like most Italian families, we made good use of our large basement. We converted it into a comfortable open concept living space complete with bathroom, kitchen/dining room, TV area, a laundry and sewing room for my mother and workshop for my father. It was where we ate all our meals, did our homework, watched TV and basically hung out.

The basement had an iron girder running along the ceiling which supported the framework of the house; three floor-to-ceiling iron posts were positioned approximately10 feet apart and were attached to the girder. The cement floor was covered in a light-colored linoleum and the kitchen/dining area was painted a cheery yellow and white. One day my Dad came up with the idea to drill two holes about 20″ apart in one section of the girder. Using an indestructible S hook, he attached a wooden chain swing to the girder for me and my sister to play whenever we were unable to go outside. Pretty clever of him and great fun for us! When not in use we simply took the swing down and stored it away.

We only used the first floor for ‘formal’ entertaining and sleeping. There was a nice living room, a kitchen, dining room, bathroom and two bedrooms – the master for my parents and a second room shared by Rosemarie and me. The design of the second floor which we rented was very similar to the first floor with the same number of rooms and basic layout. With my mother’s permission, and only when my parents were home, certain tenants were allowed to use the laundry room in our basement. Mom was very circumspect as to who she allowed into our basement and not every tenant passed muster.

My parents rarely left me and my sister alone during the day and never at night; however, one evening they had a wake to attend and our tenants were not at home to watch over things. Our parents were reluctant to leave but Rosemarie and I pleaded with them to let us stay home by ourselves; after all, they were only going to be gone for an hour or two.

My parents finally relented. They didn’t want us thinking they were treating us like babies so, without our knowledge, they asked our good family friend John Barbato who lived across the street to keep an eye on the house. John was a retired NYC cop and when he was asked to keep an eye on something you can bet he took his task very seriously.

After Mom & Dad left, Rosemarie and I settled down in the basement to watch TV; all was quiet and we weren’t the least bit uneasy about being left alone for the first time. We were watching our favorite show, Dr. Kildare, gazing into Richard Chamberlain’s dreamy eyes, when there was a sudden commotion out in the backyard. We heard running down the stairs, a dog’s loud barking, banging on our door and a man’s gruff voice. We clutched each other’s hands and huddled close together on the couch in fear. Then we recognized the voice of John Barbato shout out “Rosemarie! Nancy! Are you in there? Is everything ok?”

Relieved but still rather apprehensive, we peeked through the back door window curtain and saw John brandishing an official police flashlight. He had a concerned look on his face as he reined in his skittish German shepherd ‘King’ who was literally chomping at the bit. King was always friendly around us but in his frenzied state we decided it would be wiser to keep the chain lock on the door. Opening the door just enough for John to see us, we asked what was going on, if everything was alright. John, apparently reassured to see us safe and sound, immediately tried putting on a nonchalant face as he pulled King away from the door with a “Quiet, boy. It’s ok.”

“Oh, hi girls” John replied breathlessly. “I was just taking old King here for a walk. You, know – getting our nightly exercise – and just stopped by to say ‘hi’. You and your folks watching TV?”

John was not a good liar; Rosemarie and I knew right away this was not an ordinary social call. One look at our friend with his agitated guard dog and a huge NYPD flashlight that could knock someone out in a single blow was not normal behavior for John. We told him our parents were out for a while and we were fine. He seemed content and with a self-conscious chuckle said “Well, ok. I’m right across the street if you need me. Goodnight, girls.” John instructed us to close the door and secure it with the deadbolt, which we did. Then he was off, King huffing and puffing at his side.

Rosemarie and I looked at each other as if it to say “What was that all about?” We returned to watching TV, both aware that we were sitting just a bit closer to each other than before John and King showed up. I couldn’t help asking myself one question: if John thought our parents were home and we were all peacefully watching TV together, why did he shout out our names and ask if we were ok? 

Less than an hour later, Mom and Dad returned and asked how our first evening alone was. 

“It was fine” Rosemarie replied, “except something strange happened with John. He and King came by looking all nervous and asked us if everything was alright. We talked with him for a few minutes and he left when he saw we were ok. He reminded us to lock the door with the deadbolt.” 

My father didn’t even take off his coat. He went straight upstairs to use the phone which was odd because there was a phone right there in the basement. A few minutes later he came back downstairs and said he had to go talk to John. When Dad returned, he looked agitated and Mom quickly announced it was late and shooed us off to bed; we didn’t even get to watch the end of our show! From our bedroom Rosemarie and I could hear our parents talking but we couldn’t make out what they were saying.

The incident with John and King was forgotten until four days later when the third house down from us was broken into via the basement door. Items were stolen but worse than that – the woman living there had been assaulted. That scene with John and King at our basement door came rushing back to us. That was when my father admitted that John told him he was certain he saw someone sneaking around the back of our house the night my parents were out. If there was someone lurking around our house that night, they were gone by the time John and King arrived. Who knows; maybe someone was scared off when they heard John and his agitated dog approaching.

Fortunately, the woman who had been attacked was not badly hurt and was able to give the police a good description of her assailant. He was quickly apprehended and the revelation of who he was shocked everyone, especially my family.

The intruder was our very own upstairs tenant.

NAR © 2022

Me (L) and Rosemarie on the original front steps,
Palm Sunday 1955
What our swing looked like.

WHAT A HAM!

P.S. 78.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the abbreviation, P.S. stands for ‘Public School’, a tax-supported US school providing free education. That’s where I attended kindergarten. I was there for only one year but some things about that year I will never forget. 

My mother would walk me to the red brick building every morning and greet me every afternoon when school was over. Mom was the no nonsense type and it took us less than 15 minutes to walk to school. It wasn’t much fun during the cold or nasty days but then Mom got her new Ford Fairlane 500 and going to school got a whole lot better.

Sometimes we’d stop at the Post Arrow – a mini amusement park/restaurant right on the corner that catered to regular folk by offering simple items such as hot dogs, burgers, sandwiches and ice cream. I’d get ice cream and go on a couple of rides; it was a magical place. My family always ate our meals at home but once in a while Dad would get a craving for a hot pastrami sandwich on rye bread and we’d zip up to the Post Arrow.

Being just a small kid, a place like P.S. 78 could be intimidating with so many other older and bigger kids but after a while, just like everything else, I got used to it. My classroom was on the first floor and I can still picture it. Low bookcases just tall enough for a bunch of munchkins hugged the walls all around the room. Short round tables which seated 4-6 kids were strewn about and there was a giant chalk board on the right side of the brightly painted room. Old metal casement windows took up one full wall while the other walls were covered with drawings, the alphabet and numbers. But the pièce de resistance was a vintage upright piano diagonally opposite the classroom doorway positioned catty-corner as opposed to being flush up against a wall. Today we would say the room had a very feng shui feel about it and the angled look of the piano was extremely appealing. Back then we just thought it was a happy room to be in.

We kids loved that classroom and felt comfortable from the very first day. Our teacher’s name was Mrs. Merchant; to this day I have no idea what her first name was. Mrs. Merchant was tiny in both height and weight; she always wore dresses with sweaters, had short wavy salt and pepper hair and wore glasses. It was impossible to tell her age; in the eyes of a small child she could have been anywhere between 35 and 65. She was a very sweet, patient woman who clearly enjoyed teaching kindergarten. She would play the piano during song time and she’d often read a book and play the piano simultaneously, making the stories pop to life. We’d all sit on the floor near the piano, our eyes glued to Mrs. Merchant as she dramatically read to us while she played.

There were so many wonderful times in kindergarten. Mrs. Merchant focused a lot on music and singing; I’m sure that was where my love of music first began. We would have musical parades around the classroom every day, each child playing a different instrument, and once each week one of the kids would perform for the class.

I remember every detail about one of my performances – my song, my little dance and most of all my costume. I was a little pig. 🐷

My mother, ever the creative seamstress, bought a child’s pair of pink one-piece Dr. Denton footed pajamas with a rear flap for “easy potty time” (if you don’t remember Dr. Denton pjs, you’re really missing out on something!). Mom brought home some pink felt from the shop where she worked and used it to make little pig ears and a curlicue tail. She covered one of my plastic headbands with felt and attached the ears to it. My piggie nose was made from stiffly starched fabric covered with felt; Mom cut two little holes on each side for the string which she tied around the back of my head keeping my piggie nose in place like a mask. For the tail she curled a length of a wire clothes hanger, covered it with felt and sewed it to the little rear end flap on my pjs. I was told I looked absolutely adorable but sadly, no photos were taken of that momentous occasion – at least none that I’m aware of.

I was always a “ham” when it came to performing and never shied away from the opportunity to entertain. Even as an adult at our fabulous choir Mardi Gras parties I would be front and center serenading everyone with one standard after the other. Gimme a mike and I’ll sing you a song! 

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to record and upload a few of my stories for a prominent UK broadcasting corporation. I even had the chance to sing during one segment but I’m pretty sure that didn’t make the headlines. Let’s check the News. Nope, nothing there.

My dream was to be a professional singer; I think I’d look pretty good sprawled on a piano a la Michelle Pfeiffer! Instead, here I am happily entertaining you with my stories. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll surprise you with a song.

Once a ham, always a ham! Stay tuned. 🎤

NAR © 2022

BLIND HEART POURED OUT

A PLAY IN ONE ACT

The setting is Sunrise Senior Living, a retirement home in upstate New York. Julian Vega, approximately 30 years old, has just arrived to pay an unexpected visit to retired Monsignor Patrick Bannon.

Receptionist: May I help you, sir?

Julian: Yes, I’d like to see Monsignor Bannon if he’s available, please.

Receptionist: Monsignor has just finished lunch and is in the library, his usual afternoon pastime. Please come with me.

[Julian follows the receptionist down the hall to the library.]

Receptionist: There he is in his favorite corner chair. Enjoy your visit.

[The library is a comfortable room with paneled walls, Persian rugs and floor-to-ceiling shelves of books. Light classical music floats softly through the room. A tray with a tea pot, cups and a dish of cookies sits on the table to the right of the Monsignor. An empty chair is on the opposite side of the table and an open book sits on the Monsignor’s lap. As Julian approaches, he notices the elderly priest’s book is in Braille. Julian speaks softly.]

Julian: Excuse me, Monsignor. My name is Julian. I’m sorry to intrude on your private time but I was hoping we could talk. I have some important information.

Monsignor: Ah, I thought I heard someone heading in my direction but I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage. Do I know you?

Julian: No, you don’t know me but I’ve heard about you and knew I had to talk to you.

Monsignor: Well, it’s nice to meet you, Julian. Please make yourself comfortable. Help yourself to some tea and cookies.

Julian: Thank you, Monsignor. I’m fine.

Monsignor: So, what’s on your mind, Julian? You’re not from this area, are you? I detect a familiar accent.

Julian: I moved up here about six months ago; I’m originally from The Bronx. Quite a change of pace but I think I’ve finally found a place where I can settle down.

Monsignor: That’s good to hear, son. We all need to find our way home. And what a coincidence! I was at Holy Rosary Church in the Bronx for years! But please, you didn’t come here to listen to me ramble on about myself. How can I help you, Julian?

Julian: Well, you’re right about finding my way home. I’ve been a drifter most of my life. Times have been tough for me and I could never catch a break. My demons followed me everywhere I went, constantly reminding me of my sins and failings.

[Monsignor Bannon closes his book and carefully places it on the side table, a sign that his attention is fully on Julian.]

Monsignor: Please continue, my son. I may be retired but I will always be a priest and anything you tell me will stay right here.

[Monsignor pats his chest to indicate his heart. Julian hesitantly begins to unburden himself.]

Julian: Well, I’m not really sure where to begin.

Monsignor: Wherever you feel comfortable, son, but I find the beginning is usually a good place.

[The priest feels around for the handle of the teapot and begins to pour out a cup of tea for both of them. Julian immediately comes closer to help but the Monsignor raises a hand to stop him; he’s learned to do this and many daily routines instinctively over the years since he became blind. He hands Julian a cup of tea, raises his own cup to his lips and waits for Julian to speak. The two sit in silence for a moment before Julian starts talking again.]

Julian: My mother was from Puerto Rico. She and her large family settled in The Bronx where her father did manual labor and her mother took in laundry. My mother would help with the washing and ironing of clothes. They were dirt poor; my mother and her siblings never went to school. My mother did some house cleaning for women in the area. Her family was very devout and went to church every Sunday. When my mother turned 17, she was offered the job of laundress at their church. She eventually became the cleaning lady for the rectory and brought home every dime she ever made. She was good and decent but that all changed in 1970 when my mother was 20 years old.

[Julian stops talking and looks out the window. The monsignor tells him to take his time, gently encouraging him to continue. The old priest knew Julian was going to tell him something of extreme importance.]

Julian: My mother became involved with an Irish priest at the church and they began an affair that lasted seven years. That’s when she became pregnant. She told the priest that she was carrying his child but he refused to acknowledge his responsibility and told my mother he would never leave the church for her. It was her word against his and my mother knew no one would believe her side of the story. She was humiliated and desperate. She fled to Ossining to find her good friend Anita from Puerto Rico.

[Upon hearing those words, the Monsignor sits very still, makes the sign of the cross and rests his head in his hand. He waits for Julian to continue.]

Julian: Anita lived with her mother in the tiniest of apartments and worked in the kitchen of nearby Sing Sing Prison. She provided a home for my mother and I was born in that apartment. Several times my mother tried calling my father, the priest, with no success and finally gave up. Eventually Anita got a job for my mother in the prison laundry; I was raised by Anita’s mother.

[Julian places his cup on the table and both men sit quietly for a moment. Julian continues.]

Julian: I was an angry kid with a big chip on my shoulder. I was always getting into trouble, disrespecting everyone and everything. For years I heard whispers about the Irish priest at Holy Rosary Church who knocked up my mother and tossed her away like yesterday’s garbage. All the voices in my head screamed at me to get my revenge. How different our lives could have been if only he’d been a man and did the right thing. So, one day I went back to The Bronx, right back to the church where everything fell apart and found that Irish priest. I called out his name and when he turned, I threw bleach in his eyes. Do you remember that day, father, when you saw the face of your son, my face, for the first and last time?

[Monsignor Bannon weeps silently, his head bowed. Julian continues.]

Julian: I heard your screams as I ran out of the church. I didn’t know or care where I was going; I made you pay and I just had to get away.

[The two men sit crying, shoulders heaving. The Monsignor reaches for the box of tissues on the table, offers one to Julian and takes one himself. After a long period of quiet, Julian continues.]

Julian: But I was punished for what I did to you. As I was running from the church, I was hit by a delivery truck. I was thrown like a ragdoll, my body shattered. That was 15 years ago and my life has never been the same since. While in rehab I discovered a hidden talent; I’m an artist and I spend hours painting every day. When I was finally discharged from rehab, no one would hire me. I found small jobs like being a messenger and selling newspapers in subway stations. I felt like I was being cursed, chastised for what I did to you. I came here today because I knew it was time to make my confession to you. I pray you can forgive me, father.

[The Monsignor extends his hands and Julian reaches for them.]

Monsignor: Julian, there’s something you must know. Please walk with me in the garden.

[The Monsignor reaches for his white cane and the two men make their way to the door. The Monsignor holds the door open for Julian.]

Monsignor: Please, let me hold the door open for your chair, Julian.

Julian: How did you know I’m in a wheelchair, father? I never mentioned that to you.

Monsignor: When you lose one sense, your other senses become heightened. When you first arrived I didn’t hear footsteps but I knew you were approaching because I could detect the almost imperceptible purring of your wheelchair. I also knew who you were the moment you began to speak. I only heard your voice once 15 years ago but I have never forgotten it. It’s very true that God moves in mysterious ways. It was His wish that we re-connect, that you find your way home and that we become whole together. Julian, I forgive you for what you did to me all those years ago but there is something vital you must know and you need to prepare yourself for what I am going to tell you.

[With great urgency, Julian grabs the Monsignor’s hands. The priest can feel Julian’s tears as they fall onto his hands.)

Julian: Please, tell me what I need to know.

Monsignor: Julian, your mother and I never had an affair and I am not your father. When you returned to Holy Rosary seeking your revenge, I had only been there for a couple of years, taking over the position of the former priest who had been reassigned. His name was Patrick Gannon, not Patrick Bannon – a very easy mistake to make. I never even met your mother and had no idea why you attacked me. Now it has become crystal clear but I carry no hatred in my heart for you.

[Julian is shocked by this revelation and sits dumbfounded staring at the man he believed was his father, the man he thought betrayed his mother and destroyed his life.]

Julian: My God, Monsignor! How can you forgive me for such a horrible act? You’re blameless in all of this!

Monsignor: Julian, no one is blameless. Being blind has taught me to see with my heart. It has made me a better person, a better priest. I see goodness in you. God brought you here for a reason – not just for you to clear your conscience but to give you back your life. Sometimes it takes years of pain and hardship but there are things in life we can’t comprehend. We can only try to accept them and see what good can come from them.

Julian: I’m sorry, Monsignor, but I don’t understand what good can come from my assaulting you all those years ago. You’re an innocent man. Please tell me what you’re talking about.

Monsignor: Several weeks ago the art instructor here accepted another assignment and the directors have been searching for a new teacher ever since. The job pays well and includes room and board but so far they haven’t found anyone. I’ve been here long enough to have some sway. Julian, I’m sure you’d be welcome here as art instructor if you’re interested.

[Julian begins to weep again and the Monsignor places his hand on Julian’s head.]

Julian: I will never be able to repay you for helping me this way.

Monsignor: Julian, my son, I feel no need to be repaid. I have had a good life. You’re the one who has suffered for too long, physically and emotionally. Yes, it’s ironic how this all unfolded but God has a plan in mind for all of us and I learned many years ago never to question His plans. I see things more clearly at this moment than I ever have before. Come with me. Let me introduce you to the directors. I’m sure God will open their eyes and minds to the great possibilities that lie ahead.

[The Monsignor places his hand on Julian’s shoulder. Julian reaches up and covers the priest’s hand with his. Together they leave the garden.]

NAR © 2021

MY DEAREST FRIEND

Known to everyone as Baby Mary, she was my dearest friend for three fleeting years, from age four to seven. Nearly six decades later and I can still picture her heart-shaped face the color of warm caramel framed by waves of chocolate-brown hair, her wide eyes glistening shyly.

At the time my family occupied the corner house of a row of two-family homes on Eastchester Road in The Bronx. Baby Mary and her large family, the Romanos, shared one house. She lived on the ground floor with her parents, maternal grandmother and older brother. Her aunt, uncle, cousins and paternal grandmother lived upstairs. We were just three houses away – close enough for little girls to run giggling back and forth multiple times a day. We spent all our time together, busy with important little girl things.

The residents of Eastchester Road were immigrants; they were not partisans but adhered devoutly to their Italian heritage and love of family. They were proud to be living in the United States and strove to become citizens; some passed the test, others didn’t. We delighted in celebrating all the traditional Italian holidays and festivities. Christmastime was a veritable light show, everyone in friendly competition for the most impressive decorations.

I was fascinated by Baby Mary’s mother and grandmother. They did piecemeal work from home, sewing little bows onto ladies’ panties. Their hands moved like quicksilver as they sat in their crowded living room watching soap operas and sewing. I rarely saw Baby Mary’s father; he worked in New Jersey in his cousin’s shoe repair shop and only came home on weekends.

At the age of five Baby Mary and I started kindergarten. Every morning my mother would walk us to school and pick us up in the afternoon. The best times were when she came to get us in her car. My mother was one of the few women in our neighborhood who had a driver’s license. We would gleefully hop into her Ford, begging she take us to Carvel for ice cream. Sometimes we’d stop for gas and my mother would complain about the price being 30 cents a gallon, calling it highway robbery.

When it was time for us to go to first grade, my parents decided to send me to a different school. It was the first time I was going to be away from my dearest friend and we were heartbroken. We would run to meet each other after school and we played together as much as possible but it wasn’t the same. And our trips to Carvel were few and far between.

One day after school Baby Mary didn’t run to meet me. I looked up and down the street but she was nowhere in sight. My mother brought me inside and told me the saddest news I had ever heard: the Romanos moved away that day. She explained that they went to live in New Jersey where Baby Mary’s father worked. I cried for days and couldn’t understand why she had to leave; now I felt so lonely. There was no one to tell my secrets to, play with my dolls or happily share ice cream. I had to see my dearest friend, even if it was for an occasional visit. I pleaded with my mother to drive me to New Jersey but she never did. There was always some reason why we couldn’t go. When a young couple moved into the Romano’s house it was as though Baby Mary never existed.

Years later I learned the truth: Baby Mary’s father was in The States illegally, a fugitive hiding from immigration authorities. He had committed a terrible crime before fleeing to America. He was apprehended in New Jersey and deported; the whole Romano family returned to Italy. I never saw or heard from Baby Mary again. I think of her often and wonder if she ever thinks of me, her dearest friend.

NAR © 2020