Eating Without Stealing: Useful Survival Strategies East Harlem, NY 1953–1971
Birth of a Salesman
Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.
—Winston Churchill (attributed)
I was born in East Harlem in 1953. Until about 1960, Italian East Harlem was one of the Naked City's worst ghettos and the Belli (pronounced “belly”) family one of the poorest families in it. Following the race riots of 1964, the lawlessness, looting, and arson fires that decimated poor neighborhoods in cities all across the country came to East Harlem, too. Every other tenement house in our neighborhood was a burned-out ruin, and if you were fortunate enough to live in a tenement that wasn't even smoke-damaged, you can bet the building was in some other advanced state of disrepair. We lived—my mother, father, older brother, sister, and I—in a rundown apartment on East 119th Street. The small, airless rooms strung along a narrow hall like boxcars in a rail yard, baking in summer, freezing in winter.
Generations of lead paint peeled from the cracked plaster. The kitchen/bathroom was at the front of the apartment. The so-called Venetian blinds were broken before I was born and hung at all angles. The frosted glass on the bathroom door had also fallen out before I was born; one panel was covered with scrap plywood, the other with a sheet of banged-up metal. There was no seat on the toilet, no working tub or shower. I took what we colorfully called a “whore's bath” until I was 18 years old, using a sponge or washrag at the kitchen sink, head under the faucet.
Smokers stubbed out their cigarettes on our cracked linoleum floor. Bedsheets were never changed or even washed. Rats, mice, roaches came and went at will. Actually, mice were considered a blessing because if you had mice, the rats went on vacation. Arguably, the rats' living standards exceeded our own.
I can hear you asking: Where were my parents in all this mess? Well, my father was a “molder” in a factory somewhere downtown, one of his two jobs. Even now, I'm not exactly sure what a molder does. We didn't see Dad much, though he had a thousand eyes on Vinny and me, courtesy of his friends and family in the neighborhood. Dad had a girlfriend around the corner; my parents' relationship was very complicated. In 1955, my mother, Emma Anita Lemorrocco, developed multiple sclerosis, just 12 years into their marriage and two years after I was born. Up until she got sick, she and my father had lived in the north Bronx for 10 years, and even had a convertible car. But after her disease set in, my parents fell into poverty and had to go back to East Harlem. Mom's disease was only going to get worse, and then she would die—as she did a full 18 years later. There were no medical treatments for multiple sclerosis and no such thing as full-time home care or Meals on Wheels. No costs were cushioned by the taxpayer; the family took the full hit. It was a hard way to learn the art of living with chaos and few resources, the value of sacrifice, but this knowledge has served me well in my profession.
For nearly two decades, the chaos in my family was complete: hour-to-hour, day-to-day, year in, year out. For the last five years of my mother's life, she was a helpless quadriplegic and received the Catholic Last Rites every few months. Every time I have the flu and find myself confined to bed for a few days, I can't help but imagine what it must have been like for her to be immobilized in pain for all those years in an infested tenement in the highest crime area in New York City with three kids to raise.
Because Mom was sick at a time when there weren't any social programs to help her, the awesome weight of her care fell directly on the family, mostly on my big sister, Camille, and the occasional generosity of others. My father worked a second job, in the evening, delivering prescriptions for a local drugstore that's still in business. Dad didn't come home until after 11 p.m., but he slept in our apartment every night (he and I shared the “big bed”) and he always paid the $42 monthly rent on time. But mostly we didn't see him. My mother never seemed to be angry with him, maybe because she just didn't have the energy, or maybe because she had the three of us kids to worry about.
Mom was confined to the one tiny, dim bedroom at the front of the apartment and a metal hospital bed kindly left behind by the Dominican Sisters (the bed became the couch after Mom died). She had a spoon hanging on a string from the bed and she'd use all her strength to knock the spoon against the metal frame to scare away mice or call for Camille. She kept her purse under her pillow and never spoke above a whisper. I had to position my ear very close to her mouth to hear her speak, but I confess I generally failed to follow her instructions. I hardly ever went to school, for instance.
I preferred to hang around Jefferson Park with one eye out for the truant officer. Like other hardcore truants, I had a system for keeping my parents in the dark about my attendance record: I used a pair of tweezers to extract the school's “cut slips” through the daisy window on the locked mailbox door. I thought I was doing the right thing, taking the long view. By my logic, I was going to be a New York Yankee; what good was school going to do me? At-bats were what I needed.
Once in a while, some of us would carry Mom downstairs in her wheelchair on a weekend afternoon so she could sit on the sidewalk in the sunshine and watch the world go by. When I saw someone drop a dollar bill into her lap, I thought for a serious minute about putting a “Please Help” sign inside my cap by her chair on the sidewalk, but I knew it would make her cry. Maybe I did it once or twice; it pains me even to try to recall. The humiliations of those days were so many. I was so young and it takes time to learn about morality in even the coziest of childhoods.
On that afternoon, Mom's disability offered an edge that, however distasteful, could allow me to feast on pizza and candy for a week. Edges, improved chances, are the stock in trade for a high-performance salesperson. I was, then as now, ever alert to moneymaking opportunities—though I do remember missing one big one. That was the time I got hold of, (1) a Bell & Howell movie projector my father had bought in better times, and (2) some porn films belonging a neighbor kid's father or uncle. We got the idea to project the movies out the window onto the building across the street just as the old ladies left the Bingo parlor. Their shrieks were priceless, but in retrospect we realized that we could have made serious change showing the movies in my apartment. Sometimes fun is a better reward than money. Everybody knows that!
My beautiful dark-haired, dark-eyed sister Camille—who everybody agreed was a prettier version of the heartthrob Italian-American singer, Connie Francis—cared for our mother and the rest of the family with almost no relief for 14 years, much of the time while also working the night shift as a telephone operator in midtown, near Grand Central Station. Camille had no childhood, none, and she nearly didn't survive it. But that's her story to tell.
Among a hundred other things, Camille was our main source of entertainment. We and all the neighbors called her Lucy, comparing her to crazy Lucille Ball, especially in that episode where Lucy has a job putting cherries into chocolates on an assembly line and everything gets out of control. Camille was always overwhelmed and having to improvise—using a bath towel for a tablecloth, that sort of thing—and always with a brave smile. We certainly had no money to go to the movies, and our cheap black and white television set was nicknamed Alaska because the screen was so snowy you could hardly make out the picture. A cockroach unlucky enough to squeeze into the back of the set only to be fried on one of the red-hot cathode ray tubes within was therefore called a Baked Alaska.
Camille was every bit as creative in her bid for all of us to survive as I was, particularly in her approach to discipline. Over and over I saw her choose to do the right thing even when that was the most difficult thing, to say no to her own needs and desires so that I could have or do something. She did everything she could, not only to keep me laughing, but also to keep me inside the apartment after dark, when she was working the midtown switchboard. In those days, the big hotels in Manhattan still had to place calls through a central operator. Whenever Camille got a celebrity dialer, especially a ball player, she poured on the charm and asked politely if they wouldn't mind speaking with her little brother before she completed their call! The possibility that someone like Mickey Mantle might call (he hung up on me) was often enough to keep me indoors at night; I always knew which ballplayers were in town. The Mets' Donn Clendon also hung up on me, and so did Sal Mineo, but there were two players on Sparky Anderson's Big Red Machine from Cincinnati, the pitcher Clay Carroll and the outfielder Bernie Carbo, destined to be a superstar, who took a shine to me and my brother and had us out to Shea Stadium for every game the Reds played against the Mets that year. We sat with the players' families and I felt so self-conscious about my duct-taped clothes and shoes and glasses that I did my best to clean up. Ultimately, I stopped going. I just couldn't stand to sit there looking as I did.
Every bit as much as I adored my big sister, I idolized my big brother Vinny. I dogged him everywhere he went, and I fed on his passion for Yankee history and stats. Vinny was handsome, with an air of movie star danger—sculpted black hair, blue eyes, and perfect features—that stood in contrast to his mild manner. He was the local stickball champion, a thrilling “three-sewer man”—meaning he could whack a pink rubber high-bounce ball, the famous Spalding (properly pronounced Spall-DEEN) the length of a city block. Vinny was so incredibly shy that he would routinely hide under the bed (or in the too-big-for-their-apartment cedar chest we got from the son-in-law of the Alibertis down the hall) to avoid the girls who followed him home, to my regular benefit (more on this later). In later years, I came to appreciate that Vinny spent far more energy developing my baseball skills than his own considerable talent, saving money he made working in the printing department at Lord & Taylor to buy me gloves and bats and such.
On my most self-pitying days, I actually used to think I had it rougher than my brother and sister because I had never even seen Mom walk and had known only poverty and chaos. I didn't have many good memories to draw upon. And I knew that Camille and Vinny were heartbreakingly obliged to place their time and most of their hope for the future in me. They were sufficiently older than me to serve as substitute parents and, like good parents, they were willing to sacrifice for my benefit. But really, they were just kids, overwhelmed, ill-attended kids who had so little to begin with that it was impossible for them, purely by virtue of self-sacrifice, to break the cycle of poverty and despair in which we lived. In truth, the only thing my brother and sister possessed to sacrifice for my benefit was their dreams. I'll always be grateful to them.
Vinny had dreamed of going to college. He even went so far as to enroll at Bronx Community, but he never attended a day of classes. I was in the room when Dad told Vinny he had to leave college to get a job and help pay for a home health aide to be there when the Dominican Sisters were not, now that Camille had gotten married. Camille's good thing put additional pressure on Vinny, but he was so happy for her, he was never angry with her, just with the situation. I remember how crushed he was by Dad's words. His silent acquiescence was heart-rending and he never pursued that dream again, or any other. Instead, he became even more attached to the hope that my major league success would bail us out. Hope, however, pays no bills. I don't put much stock in hope.
Vinny was a great brother and he died too soon, just 60 years old, a doorman in a brass-buttoned suit in a nondescript building south of Gramercy Park in Manhattan. He was much beloved by the building residents and the circle of friends he maintained from the old neighborhood. We all miss him.
With little actual time to spend with us, my father, Carmine Belli, took a creative approach to our discipline. Because of his multiple jobs, he knew he had to tolerate a certain amount of craziness from us kids—boys—simply because he couldn't be there to do anything about it. In all honesty, he admired our spunk, our creativity. Dad was a nice-looking man, with a dark complexion and an early shock of gray hair. Never an athlete, he nevertheless encouraged both his sons in their pursuit of major league stardom in the can't-hurt way that people buy lottery tickets. Dad was not a churchgoing man, either, and didn't give us grief about all the girls visiting the apartment, so long as no one got pregnant, which, miraculously, no one did. Dad would begin whistling as soon as he came into the tenement hallway and before he started to ascend the stairs, loud enough for us to hear him and giving us maybe 45 seconds to disengage before he came through the apartment door. His family was all up in the Bronx, in Morris Park, and of little help to us from day to day, though we did go up and visit them sometimes. We called it “going to the country.”
Although my mother came from a huge family of 16 children, only one of her siblings, Carmella, regularly helped us out. I don't know why she was the only one. Probably the best answer is that the rest of the family was scattered around East Harlem and struggling too, to put it mildly. My mother's mother had serious mental issues and a potty mouth that only became more and more embarrassing for everyone the older she got. I had cousins and in-laws on her side who were locked up, institutionalized, in gangs, on drugs, you name it. There were no drugs or crime in the Carmine Belli household, however, I assure you. There were plenty of teenaged girls and shadowy characters, but no drugs or crime. Remember the thousand eyes I said our father had on us? We never knew when we were being ratted out at a distance, and we knew where our father drew the line.
For instance, Mom had a sister who worked at John's Bargain Store and was always offering to throw a few extra things in the bag for us without ringing them up. My parents never allowed it. That set an example for us kids. If my father didn't give me a quarter or a dollar in the morning, I didn't ask why, I just carried on the best I could. We never stole. We asked, we cajoled, we pretended, we cried, we denied, we borrowed (we repaid), we went without. We made do. In truth, I'd say we welcomed the constraints demanded by morality—they placed some limit on the chaos and let us know that in some desperate way we were loved.
My Dad's mother would sometimes make the two-bus trip down from the Bronx on Sunday, bringing dinner, maybe even a homemade pizza. She spoke very little English but she was loaded with radar (thanks, Grandma!) and always found ways to make herself completely understood. For example, Grandma didn't like this one gal, a social worker who'd become infatuated with Vinny. So Grandma served her a plate of spaghetti topped with two meatballs and a sausage link arranged so as to leave no doubt she knew what was going on between them. She always made her point.
For years my Aunt Carmella appeared at our apartment door with a few groceries after working the night shift at the phone company (Carmella helped Camille get a job there, too). Our immediate next-door neighbor, Mary Aliberti, was also incredibly kind to my mother. She was a single mom and a super-old-school Italian. She and my mother were about the same age and Mary had plenty of her own hardships; she was living in East Harlem, too, after all. But Mary attended to my mother's every need when my sister was unavailable. I've never gotten over the sight of it: a stranger voluntarily cleaning my mother's urine bag and bedpan. After a sponge bath, Mary would fix Mom's hair, help her put some lipstick on, encourage her to look at her pretty face in the mirror. Her compassion made a lasting impression on me. Her son, Sam, was also kind-hearted. For instance, he bought me a pair of gloves one day so I could get into a big snowball fight in progress, one of countless generosities by the Aliberti family towards me, and a quality that left a lasting impression.
Any act of generosity makes both people feel good and that's reason enough to do it. That's not generosity's only reward, however, because generosity isn't limited to gifts of material things...