2014.06.18 A slice of growing-up-in-the-Bronx life


In his column a few weeks ago, David mentioned my propensity to chop, chop, chop when I make dinner. It’s true. I tend to make meals with a lot of ingredients that taste (and look) better in smaller form. 

I like a lot of variety, too. So, while David could contentedly eat lettuce leaves and a peeled carrot and call it salad, I will chop whatever we have on hand—carrots, green onion, hard-boiled egg, toasted pecans—and then scrounge around for other delectables—dried cherries and crumbled corn chips, perhaps, to add to the salad greens. His attitude seems to be, “Let’s get this over with,” while I linger over the preparation and subsequent consumption.  

I also spin my lettuce dry; he’s content to eat his salads wet. He’s probably even a little contemptuous of me and my lettuce spinner. When he puts away the clean dishes, he almost always places the salad spinner at my spot on the table. He claims he doesn’t know where it goes, but I think it’s just a passive-aggressive move: “I hate this spinner and I don’t care where it goes; you spin, you deal with it.”

I grumble, but I know how hard I am to live with...what’s a salad spinner at my spot on the table when I’m such a picky person?

I wash my bananas before peeling them, for example. And oranges. And pineapples. That’s a habit developed later in life that I picked up from Liz Stella. I had never before considered the amount of pesticides or microscopic who-knows-what left on your hands after touching those fruits—or contaminated by the knife you might draw through them. It gives me the heebie jeebies now just thinking about it. I often think it would be instructive for people like David if I could make visible the residue an unwashed banana leaves on your hands—kind of like those red tablets you chew that show the plaque on your teeth.

I don’t know why he doesn’t like to chop or spin or wash. I can’t blame his parents; he grew up in a proper household. While I, on the other hand, grew up in not quite holy hell, but in a fairly lawless environment in the Bronx. My mother worked full-time to take care of five kids, four after my oldest sister Barbara left home to join the Air Force, and then three when my sister Linda moved in with her boyfriend. My mother worked in Manhattan, at least a 45-minute subway ride and then a 15-minute walk home.

She was a switchboard operator for various car dealers when I was growing up. I can still hear her say “Midtown Chevrolet and Pontiac” in her melodious voice before cutting her off to say I was home, or hungry, or to complain that my brothers wouldn’t help me clean up. She worked for Steuben Glass in her later years, clearly a cut above what I recall as exhaust-filled car dealerships; she must have worked in close proximity to the mechanics. I remember her saying how they used Coke to wash the grease off their hands.

Her position allowed for more parent-child contact than your average latchkey kid would have gotten in those pre-cellphone days. She checked in with us regularly after school and even when she frequently said, “Hold on,” I always felt connected. But, still, we were left to our own devices for much of the time, especially in the summer. We did things our way, developed our own methods. Maybe that’s why I cling to the things my mother did teach me or show by example—like peeling carrots: trim the ends first and then peel, a method I still can’t convince David to adopt even after 32 years of marriage.

We had episodes of no phone service at all when my mother couldn’t afford to pay the bill—directly related to the astronomical bills my sister Barbara’s collect calls generated. Did she really call collect from Germany when she was stationed in Wiesbaden? As a result, periodically during my high school years I’d have to cross Tremont Avenue at night to the truly spooky side of the road where the train tracks lay, to the phone booth where I’d call my friends on a dime—and then they’d call me back when my time ran out. I spent far too much time in that creepy phone booth. I should have been home peeling carrots.