Crossing Ocean Parkwayby Marianna De Marco Torgovnick
Growing up an Italian-American in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of New York city, Marianna De Marco longed for college, culture, and upward mobility. Her daydreams circled around WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) heroes on television—like Robin Hood and the Cartwright family—but in Brooklyn she never encountered any. So she associated moving up with
Growing up an Italian-American in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of New York city, Marianna De Marco longed for college, culture, and upward mobility. Her daydreams circled around WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) heroes on television—like Robin Hood and the Cartwright family—but in Brooklyn she never encountered any. So she associated moving up with Ocean Parkway, a street that divides the working-class Italian neighborhood where she was born from the middle-class Jewish neighborhood into which she married. This book is Torgovnick's unflinching account of crossing cultural boundaries in American life, of what it means to be an Italian American woman who became a scholar and literary critic.
Included are autobiographical moments interwoven with engrossing interpretations of American cultural icons from Dr. Dolittle to Lionel Trilling, The Godfather to Camille Paglia. Her experiences allow her to probe the cultural tensions in America caused by competing ideas of individuality and community, upward mobility and ethnic loyalty, acquisitiveness and spirituality.
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Crossing Ocean Parkway
With a New Afterword
By Marianna De Marco Torgovnick
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1996 Marianna De Marco Torgovnick
All rights reserved.
On Being White, Female, and Born in Bensonhurst
The Mafia protects the neighborhood, our fathers say, with he that peculiar satisfied pride with which law-abiding Italian Americans refer to the Mafia: the Mafia protects "the neighborhood" from "the coloreds." In the fifties and sixties, I heard that information repeated, in whispers, in neighborhood parks and in the yard at school in Bensonhurst. The same information probably passes today in the parks (the word now "blacks," not "coloreds") but perhaps no longer in the school yards. From buses each morning, from neighborhoods outside Bensonhurst, spill children of all colors and backgrounds—American black, West Indian black, Hispanic, and Asian. But the blacks are the ones especially marked for notice. Bensonhurst is no longer entirely protected from "the coloreds." But in a deeper sense, at least for Italian Americans, Bensonhurst never changes.
Italian American life continues pretty much as I remember it. Families with young children live side by side with older couples whose children are long gone to the suburbs. Many of those families live "down the block" from the previous generation or, sometimes still, live together with parents or grandparents. When a young family leaves, as sometimes happens, for Long Island or New Jersey or (very common now) Staten Island, another arrives, without any special effort being required, from Italy or from a poorer neighborhood in New York. They fill the neat but anonymous houses along the mostly tree-lined streets: two-, three-, or four-family houses for the most part (this is a working-class area, and people need rents to pay mortgages), with a few single-family or small apartment houses tossed in at random. Tomato plants, fig trees, and plaster madonnas often decorate small but well-tended yards that face out onto the street; the grassy front lawn, like the grassy backyard, are relatively uncommon.
Crisscrossing the neighborhood and marking out ethnic zones—Italian, Irish, and Jewish, for the most part, though there are some Asian Americans and some people (usually Protestants) called simply Americans—are the great shopping streets: 86th Street, Kings Highway, Bay Parkway, 20th Avenue, 18th Avenue, each with its own distinctive character. On 86th Street, crowds bustle along sidewalks lined with ample vegetable and fruit stands. Women wheeling shopping carts or baby strollers check the fruit carefully, piece by piece, and bargain with the dealer, cajoling for a better price or letting him know that the vegetables, this time, aren't up to snuff. A few blocks down, the fruit stands are gone and the streets are lined by clothing and record shops, mobbed by teen-agers. Occasionally, the elevated train ("the El") rumbles overhead, a few stops out of Coney Island on its way to "the city," a trip of around one hour.
On summer nights, neighbors congregate on "stoops" that during the day serve as play yards for children. Air-conditioning exists everywhere in Bensonhurst, but people still sit outside in the summer—to supervise children, to gossip, to stare at strangers. "Buona sera," I say, or "Buona notte," as I am ritually presented to Sal and Lily and Louie: the neighbors, sitting on the stoop. "Grazie," I say when they praise my children or my appearance. It's the only time I use Italian, which I learned at high school, although my parents (both first-generation Italian Americans, my father Sicilian, my mother Calabrian) speak it at home, to each other, but never to me or my brother. My accent is the Tuscan accent taught at school, not the southern Italian accents of my parents and the neighbors.
It's important to greet and please the neighbors; any break in this decorum would seriously offend and aggrieve my parents. For the neighbors are second only to family in Bensonhurst and serve as stern arbiters of conduct. Does Lucy keep a clean house? Did Anna wear black long enough after her mother's death? Was the food good at Tony's wedding? The neighbors know and pass judgment. Any news of family scandal (my brother's divorces, for example) provokes from my mother the agonized words: "But what will I tell people?" I sometimes collaborate in devising a plausible script.
A large sign on the church I attended as a child for me sums up the ethos of neighborhoods like Bensonhurst. The sign urges contributions to the church building fund with the message, in huge letters: "EACH YEAR THIS CHURCH SAVES THIS NEIGHBORHOOD ONE MILLION DOLLARS IN TAXES." Passing the church on the way from largely Jewish and middle-class Sheepshead Bay (where my husband grew up) to Bensonhurst, year after year, my husband and I look for the sign and laugh at the crass level of its pitch, its utter lack of attention to things spiritual. But we also understand exactly the values it represents.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1989, my parents were visiting me at my house in Durham, North Carolina, from the apartment in Bensonhurst where they had lived since 1942, ever since the day they had wed: three small rooms, rent-controlled, floor clean enough to eat off, every corner and crevice known and organized. My parents' longevity in a single apartment is unusual even for Bensonhurst, but not that unusual; many people live for decades in the same place or move within a ten-block radius. When I lived in this apartment, there were four rooms; one has since been ceded to a demanding "landlord," one of the various "landlords" who have haunted my parents' life and must always be appeased lest the ultimate threat—removal from the rent-controlled apartment—be brought into play. That summer, during the time of their visit, on August 23rd (my younger daughter's birthday) a shocking, disturbing, news report issued from "the neighborhood": it had become another Howard Beach.
Three black men, walking casually through the streets at night, were attacked by a much larger group of whites. One was shot dead, mistaken, as it turned out, for another black youth who was dating a white, although part-Hispanic, girl in the neighborhood. It all made sense: the crudely protective men, expecting to see a black arriving at the girl's house and overreacting; the rebellious girl dating the outsider boy; the black dead as a sacrifice to the feelings of "the neighborhood."
I might have felt outrage, I might have felt guilt or shame, I might have despised the people among whom I grew up: in a way I felt all four emotions when I heard the news. I expect that there were many people in Bensonhurst itself who felt the same rush of emotions. But mostly I felt that, given the setup, this was the only way things could have happened. I detested the racial killing; but I also understood it. Those streets, which should be public property, belong to "the neighborhood." All the people sitting on the stoops on August 23rd knew that as well as they knew their own names. The black men walking through probably knew it too—though their casual walk sought to deny the fact that, for the neighbors, even the simple act of blacks walking through "the neighborhood" would be seen as invasion.
Italian Americans in Bensonhurst are notable for their cohesiveness and provinciality; the slightest pressure turns those qualities into prejudice and racism. Their cohesiveness is based on the stable economic and ethical level that links generation to generation, keeping Italian Americans in Bensonhurst and the Italian American community alive as the Jewish American community of my youth is no longer alive. (Its young people routinely moved to the suburbs or beyond, and were never replaced, so that Jews in Bensonhurst today are almost all very old people.) Their provinciality results from the Italian Americans' devotion to jealous distinctions and discriminations. Jews are suspect but (the old Italian women admit) "they make good husbands." The Irish are okay, fellow Catholics, but not really "like us"; they make bad husbands because they drink and gamble. Even Italians come in varieties by region (Sicilian, Calabrian, Neapolitan, very rarely any region further north), and by history in this country (the newly arrived and ridiculed "gaffoon" versus the first or second generation).
Bensonhurst is a neighborhood dedicated to believing that its values are the only values; it tends towards certain forms of inertia. When my parents visit me in Durham, they routinely take chairs from the kitchen and sit out on the lawn in front of the house, not on the chairs on the back deck; then they complain that the streets are too quiet. When they walk around my neighborhood and look at the mailboxes they report (these De Marcos descended from Cozzitortos, who have friends named Travaglianti and Pelliccioni) that my neighbors have strange names. Prices at my local supermarket are compared, in unbelievable detail, with prices on 86th Street. Any rearrangement of my kitchen since their last visit is registered and criticized. Difference is not only unwelcome, it is unacceptable. One of the most characteristic things my mother ever said was in response to my plans for renovating my house in Durham. When she heard my plans, she looked around, crossed her arms, and said, "If it was me, I wouldn't change nothing." My father once asked me to level with him about a Jewish boyfriend, who lived in a different portion of the neighborhood, reacting to his Jewishness, but even more to the fact that he often wore Bermuda shorts: "Tell me something, Marianna. Is he a Communist?" Such are the standards of normalcy and political thinking in Bensonhurst.
I often think that one important difference between Italian Americans in neighborhoods like Bensonhurst and Italian Americans elsewhere is that the others moved on—to upstate New York, to Pennsylvania, to the Midwest. Though they often settled in communities of fellow Italians, they moved on. Bensonhurst Italian Americans seem to have felt that one large move, over the ocean, was enough. Future moves could only be local: from the Lower East Side, say, to Brooklyn, or from one part of Brooklyn to another. Bensonhurst was for many of these people the summa of expectations. If their America were to be drawn as a New Yorker cover, Manhattan would be tiny in proportion to Bensonhurst itself, and to its satellites, Staten Island, New Jersey, and Long Island.
"Oh, no," my father says when he hears the news about the shooting. Though he still refers to blacks as "coloreds," he's not really a racist and is upset that this innocent youth was shot in his neighborhood. He has no trouble acknowledging the wrongness of the death. But then, like all the news accounts, he turns to the fact, repeated over and over, that the blacks had been on their way to look at a used car when they encountered the hostile mob of whites. The explanation is right before him but, "Yeah," he says, still shaking his head, "yeah, but what were they doing there. They didn't belong." The "they," it goes without saying, refers to the blacks.
[As I write this essay, I am teaching Robert Frost: "What had that flower to do with being white I The wayside blue and innocent heal-all? I What brought the kindred spider to that height, I Then steered the white moth thither in the night? I What but design of darkness to appall?—/ If design govern in a thing so small." Thus Frost in "Design" on a senseless killing and the ambiguity of causation and color symbolism. My father: "They didn't belong."]
OVER THE NEXT FEW DAYS, the TV news is even more disturbing. Rows of screaming Italians, lining the streets, many of them looking like my relatives. The young men wear undershirts and crosses dangle from their necks as they hurl curses. I focus especially on one woman who resembles almost completely my mother: stocky but not fat, mid-seventies but well preserved, full face showing only minimal wrinkles, ample steel-gray hair neatly if rigidly coiffed in a modified beehive hairdo left over from the sixties. She shakes her fist at the camera, protesting the arrest of the Italian American youths in the neighborhood and the incursion of more blacks into Bensonhurst, protesting the shooting. I look a little nervously at my mother (the parent I resemble) but she has not even noticed the woman and stares impassively at the television.
WHAT HAS BENSONHURST TO DO with what I teach today and write? Why did I need to write about this killing in Bensonhurst, but not in the manner of a news account or a statistical sociological analysis? Within days of hearing the news, I began to plan this essay, to tell the world what I knew, though I stopped midway, worried that my parents or their neighbors would hear about it. I sometimes think that I looked around from my baby carriage and decided that someday, the sooner the better, I would get out of Bensonhurst. Now, much to my surprise, Bensonhurst—the antipodes of the intellectual life I sought, the least interesting of places—had become a respectable intellectual topic. People would be willing to hear about Bensonhurst—and all by the dubious virtue of a racial killing in the streets.
The story as I would have to tell it would be to some extent a class narrative: about the difference between working class and upper middle class, dependence and a profession, Bensonhurst and a posh suburb. But I need to make it clear that I do not imagine myself as writing from a position of enormous self-satisfaction, or even enormous distance. You can take the girl out of Bensonhurst (that much is clear); but you may not be able to take Bensonhurst out of the girl. Upward mobility is not the essence of the story, though it is an important marker and symbol.
In Durham today, I live in a modern house, surrounded by an acre of trees. When I sit on my back deck, on summer evenings, no houses are visible through the trees. I have a guaranteed income, teaching English at an excellent university, removed by my years of education from the fundamental economic and social conditions of Bensonhurst. The one time my mother ever expressed pleasure at my work was when I got tenure—what my father called, with no irony intended, "ten years." "What does that mean?" my mother said when she heard the news. Then she reached back into her experiences as a garment worker, subject to seasonal "layoffs": "Does it mean they can't fire you just for nothing and can't lay you oft?" When I said that was exactly what it means, she said, "Very good. Congratulations. That's wonderful." I was free from the bosses and from the network of petty anxieties that had formed, in large part, her very existence. Of course, I wasn't really free of petty anxieties: would my salary increase keep pace with my colleagues', how would my office compare, would this essay be accepted for publication, am I happy? The line between these worries and my mother's is the line between the working class and the upper middle class.
But getting out of Bensonhurst never meant to me a big house, or nice clothes, or a large income. And it never meant feeling good about looking down on what I left behind or hiding my background. Getting out of Bensonhurst meant freedom—to experiment, to grow, to change. It also meant knowledge in some grand, abstract way. All the material possessions I have acquired, I acquired simply along the way—and for the first twelve years after I left Bensonhurst, I chose to acquire almost nothing at all. Now, as I write about "the neighborhood," I recognize that although I've come far in physical and material distance, the emotional distance is harder to gauge. Bensonhurst has everything to do with who I am and even with what I write. "We can never cease to be ourselves" (Conrad, The Secret Agent). Occasionally I get reminded of my roots, of their simultaneously choking and nutritive power.
Scene One: It's after a lecture at Duke, given by a visiting professor of German from a major university. The lecture was long and I'm tired but—bad luck—I had agreed to be one of the people having dinner with the lecturer afterwards. I settle into the table at the restaurant with my companions: this man, the head of the Comparative literature program (also a professor of German), and a couple I like who teach French. The conversation is sluggish, as it often is when a stranger, in this case the visiting professor, has to be assimilated into a group. So I ask the visitor a question to personalize things: "How did you get interested in what you do? What made you become a professor of German?" The man gets going and begins talking about how it was really unlikely that he, a nice Jewish boy from Bensonhurst, would have chosen, in the mid-fifties, to study German. Unlikely indeed.
I remember seeing Judgment at Nuremberg in a local movie theater and having a woman in the row in back of me get hysterical when some clips of a concentration camp were shown; "My God," she screamed in a European accent, "look at what they did. Murderers, MURDERERS!"—and she had to be supported out by her family. I couldn't see, in the dark, whether her arm bore the neatly tattooed numbers that the arms of some of my classmates' parents did—and that always affected me with a thrill of horror. This man is about ten years older than I am; he had lived more directly through those feelings, lived every day at home with those feelings. The first chance he got he raced to study German. I myself have twice chosen not to visit Germany—but I would understand an impulse to identify with the Other as a way of getting out of the neighborhood.
Excerpted from Crossing Ocean Parkway by Marianna De Marco Torgovnick. Copyright © 1996 Marianna De Marco Torgovnick. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author
Marianna De Marco Torgovnick, professor of English at Duke University, is author of the acclaimed Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives, also published by the University of Chicago Press.
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