Within Close Range: The Great Chicken Debate

Whether going out or eating in, food either consumes Nonnie’s thoughts or busies her hands for hours each day, managing laborious feats and four-course, Italian feasts – piping hot dishes of handmade manicotti or tender, breaded cutlets, garlicky vegetables, hot rolls, vinegary salads and sweet desserts.

Second helpings are always encouraged at Nonnie’s dinner table and praise for the cook, expected – as well as a little too vehemently rejected.

The three greatest mis-steps at this Italian table?

One: cutting spaghetti. Either twist it or prepare for a gentle cuff on the back of the head from Papa.

Two:  if all diners are not seated at the table while the food is still visibly steaming… Nonnie will burst several blood vessels.

And three:  never…EVER… say you’re not hungry. Utter blasphemy.

We like to rattle her with unexpected visits and ravenous appetites, watching her forage through the refrigerator and freezer, brimming with outwardly unidentifiable, but doubtlessly delicious leftovers, sealed inside ancient Tupperware and old Cool Whip containers. Happy to see us, but perceptibly agitated that she can only offer what she sees as barely acceptable fare, each serving is dished up with a generous dollop of misgiving.

I’ve never known anyone as good at cooking as Nonnie, who complained about it more.

So it’s little wonder that while visiting in Florida, the moment Papa announces we’re having dinner out, a palpable – near frenetic – excitement  electrifies the apartment.

Following the proclamation, Nonnie spends most of the day in her housecoat, in a walk-run, making sure everyone’s dress clothes are pressed precisely, her hair is maintaining its proper “do” beneath a sea-green hair net, snack intake is severely monitored, and her sisters, Camille and Rose, are consulted and updated (via long distance) on EVERYTHING.

For Nonnie, dining out is the equivalent to an audience with the Pope.

For me, such an event proves far more predictable than papal. More “Holy Cow” than Holy Spirit.

And it most definitely means Italian – old school – with its enticing smells and curtained nooks, smartly dressed waiters with thick accents, and an animated maitre d’ who greets everyone like family. It means trompe l’oeil walls of rural Tuscan scenes, rich, red fabrics draping doorways, and rolling dessert carts filled with cannoli and tiramisu.

From well below the mouthwatering chaos, I watch the loaded serving trays — piled high with pastas and soups, roasted chickens and fresh seafood — pass deftly overhead, with a “Scuza, Signorina!”, until a hand on my shoulder gently guides me out of the busy traffic and into a chair in front of a round table covered in linens and complex table settings.

A fast-moving figure from behind casts a well-aimed cascade of ice water into one of the two stemmed glasses set at eye-level before me.

Tempted and tormented by big baskets of breadsticks and freshly baked rolls, my hand’s gently spanked away from a second helping.

“You’ll spoil your dinner,” Nonnie scolds. (When what she secretly has in mind is a bakery heist for tomorrow’s breakfast.)

Excitement rises with the arrival of the menu which ignites imaginations and appetites.

Wherein the problem lies… with inexplicable regularity, when presented with an abundance of choices, Nonnie almost inevitably orders veal.

The choice seems harmless, but it’s enough to make family members cringe and Papa’s blood boil – not because baby cow meat is one of Nonnie’s favorite things to eat, but because every time she orders veal (whether Marsala or Picante, upscale joint or neighborhood favorite), she usually ends up taking only a couple of bites.

One for eternal optimism.

The other, raging cynicism.

Then raising her head from her plate and, wearing utter disappointment as a mourning veil, complains meekly but unmistakably.

“This isn’t veal… This is chicken… I’m sure this veal is chicken.”

And like clockwork, another battle in Nonnie’s tireless crusade to unmask poultry dressed in calves’ clothing begins, prompting children to slip lower in their seats and adults to start commenting about the day’s weather; while Papa bows his head and sighs with exasperated disbelief.

He and his wife then begin a short-lived, but emotionally escalating and frustrating exchange that will end with Papa vowing to never take Nonnie out to a restaurant again, and Nonnie looking self-righteous, misunderstood and miserable, as she rummages through her dinner-roll-filled-handbag looking for a tissue.

The drive home is what I imagine floating in space is like.

Silent. Solitary. Dark.

Except for the lights emanating from the dashboard (most particularly, the green turn signal arrow which Papa habitually leaves blinking) which let me know other life forms still exist.

A few days pass, then Papa announces we were going out to dinner.

Again. (Sigh.)

Nonnie’s excitement rises anew…

Until the waiter approaches her with his pen and pad in hand, and with all eyes anxiously upon her… she orders the veal.

And Papa ends up swearing that it’s the very last time he’ll ever take her out to dinner.

A vow he’ll repeat until the day he dies.

Nonnie, however, will work tirelessly in her quest for veal for decades more.

Within Close Range: The Car Ride

Much of my early views of Florida are seen above a sea of car upholstery, through rolled up windows, where the only things visible are the tops of Palm trees and passing trucks, condos and clouds, and Nonnie and Papa’s heads hovering over a wide expanse of leather stretched across the latest Cadillac’s cavernous front seat.

Here, conversations are muffled, and occasionally in broken Italian, so young ears can’t possibly understand; and elevator music-versions of Rock ’n Roll songs play softly; where Papa’s cautious, half-mile-to-execute lane change regularly causes the turn signal to remain blinking.

It must be an audio-visual black hole, oblivious as he is to both the flashing green light and the constant clicking for miles on end.The sound of it lulls me into a stupor, until Nonnie finally notices the signal of perpetual motion and snaps at Papa to turn it off.

A few miles pass and all is peaceful, until the car begins to fill with a terrible smell.

I turn to my cousin, John, who’s holding the backseat’s cigarette lighter, with a smug yet sorrowful look on his face, as the smell of flaming follicles slowly wafts through the well-sealed compartment.

“What’s burning?!” Nonnie shrieks, “Something’s burning! Jimmy, something’s on fire!”

Papa pitches the lumbering Caddy to an empty parking lot at the side of the road, unrolls the windows, and orders everyone out of the car. Nonnie stands there mumbling and grumbling and shaking her head while he makes absolutely sure nothing else has been set on fire.

Throwing John one, last incredulous look – Papa orders everyone back in the car before signaling his return to the road. Where, for the final miles to the restaurant, I lose myself in the smell of burnt hair and the click of the sedan’s left blinker.

Within Close Range – Florida Days, the teen years

Florida Days: the teen years

Driving from the airport to Nonnie and Papa’s new winter retreat – The Claridge, a 16-story, oceanside condominium in Pompano Beach, Florida – it’s clear things are going to be much different than in Hallandale, where their old apartment used to be.

Gone are the 1950s neighborhoods with small, tidy bungalows and low-rise, pastel-colored apartment buildings. Gone are the small, neat streets with big, American cars and the quiet, inland canals with their 90 degree curves.

Modern high-rises now loom along the crowded coastline, casting long shadows over old neighborhoods struggling to stay relevant. Mostly replaced by “The Strip”, a popular stretch of beach along Ft. Lauderdale’s A1A – and the only route from the airport to the new condo.

Where nubile, bikini-clad, beer drinking college students on spring break have flocked and balanced precariously on the fence between adolescence and adulthood for generations.

Having to navigate through the hoards of unruly, unkempt, half-naked youth makes both Nonnie and Papa mumble and grumble – a lot – but I’m mesmerized by this uncharted world, this untamed, southern gateway to my teen-dom; which Gina and I are slowly cruising past in the back seat of a tightly sealed Cadillac filled with the sounds of Perry Como and the smell of Jean Nate.

The further The Strip fades into the distance and the closer we get to Nonnie and Papa’s, the older the demographics skew; until a stone’s throw from this modern day Sodom and Gomorrah, beers and bikinis are completely overcome by beer bellies and Platex bras.

The upside to the new zip code is the bigger apartment – which means a happy, across-condo relationship between Nonnie and Papa and Gina and I. Like the apartment in Hallandale, this guest room has a separate door to the outside world (or at least to a main corridor), and much to our teenage delight, the next door over leads to an unused stairwell, Marlboro Lights, poorly rolled joints, and late night escapades with New York girls and their East Coast drinking games.

Gone are Nonnie and Papa’s halcyon Florida days of total authority and complete control. These are the carefree days of baby oil and B-52s, getting stoned in the sauna and drinking beers on the beach.

Of convincing Nonnie to hand over the keys to the Caddy, rolling down the windows, turning up the radio, and inhaling the salty air, the Florida sunshine, and the sweet smell of being newly licensed.

Of boys on the beach noticing us and Nonnie – through binoculars from her balcony sixteen stories up – noticing them, noticing us.

These were the Florida days of pushing boundaries, especially ones poorly guarded.

I blame Gina.

Mostly.

I’d never have the guts to go beyond the Claridge’s pool gates if she didn’t first get that glint in her eyes, which always urges me to follow.

Down to the beach.

Well past dark.
Well past curfew.

Who knows how long Nonnie has been pacing in front of the newly identified escape route, but we’re barely through the door before the tirade – which nearly lifts her off her tiny, bunioned feet – begins.

She cross-examines, reprimands and threatens expulsion; then leads us to Papa waiting in the living room, leaden and pacing.

Looking angrier than I’ve ever seen him.

Louder than I’ve ever heard him.

When all is said – which isn’t much – he turns his back and sends us to bed.

Things are now different between Papa and me, not being who he wants me to be.

When Gina and I un-eagerly make our way to the kitchen the next morning, the first thing we see is a newspaper article with the headline, “Girls Charred on Beach”, scotch-taped prominently on the refrigerator and Nonnie, fiddling with something at the counter, with her back to us, sighing and tsk-ing, but not saying anything.

She spent the remainder of the morning behind closed bedroom doors on a call with her sisters, Camille and Rose, filling them in on two of life’s latest disappointments; heralded, at times, in a pitch so high, dogs throughout the 20-story building begin to bark.

This leads to quieter Florida days, when solo visits mean I’m more observer than observed; studying Nonnie and Papa in their well-aged routine of marital indifference.
Wondering if I know what a happy marriage looks like?

Watching the old ladies down by the pool; with their straw sun hats and bad romance novels, their games of Canasta, endless cigarettes, and overly suntanned skin… wondering if they were ever truly Young?

When Papa returns to Chicago to tend to the store, it means hours of Gin Rummy, alone with Nonnie, on the breezy, but sheltered balcony, way above the Atlantic ocean; where 8-track cassettes of Liberace and Lawrence Welk teach me tolerance, and the importance of a wickedly good game face.

Happy to see the rainy skies. Happy to stay indoors and in our nightgowns.The condo is especially quiet on days like these. No washing machine or television reminding us of other things. Other lives.

No dinner out or big meal in.

We barely move. Rarely talk.

Occasionally, Nonnie disappears (while I practice the art of the shuffle) and returns with a plateful of sweet, powdery pizzelle and cold milk, or calzone, cheesy and crusty, and hot from the oven.

Delicious Florida days of doing nothing.

Within Close Range: Florida, the early years

Florida Days: the early years

The first apartment Nonnie and Papa buy to escape Chicago’s meanest of seasons is in Hallandale, on Florida’s east coast. It’s a small, but airy, two bedroom built at the corner of an inland canal; brightly decorated in yellows, greens, blues and whites, and perpetually shaded from the Sunshine State.

A peculiar land of tropical scents and strikingly unfamiliar sights. Far removed from the only place I know, home.

Put to bed too early, I lie in the back sitting room-turned-bedroom for hours on end, tossing and turning on the hard and lumpy sofa-bed. Listening intensely to the unfamiliar sounds of apartment living, made especially audible by the glass-vented door in my room that opens onto the building’s exterior hallways.

My slatted portals to this unknown world.

The sounds of the apartment people returning from the pool, the shops, the grocers; of doorbells ringing and little feet skipping, and hugs and kisses and friendly greetings. Of moist, ocean winds, carrying the scent of orange blossoms and creeping jasmine, algae, brine and fresh oiled asphalt.

Breathing in the ladies’ perfumes as they stroll past the open vents, I’m fascinated by how to their laughter bounces against the cement walls of the nearby stairwell and how happy words instantly disappear with the slam of a heavy car door.

Murmurs from the television in the living room add to my apartment-living symphony with its familiar sounds and flickering lights that seep through the bottom of the door, casting short, cryptic shadows on the thickly carpeted, recently vacuumed floor.

Comforting is the knowledge that Papa is in his chair in the room next door. Feet up, arms folded high across his belly, and a large RC Cola at his side. Grinning at Clem Kadiddlehopper, or growling at the Chicago Bears.

Lying in the still and unfamiliar dark, after Papa finally turns the television off, the inland water’s slow, buoyant motion, lulls me into a deep, scented sleep.

Waking in the morning to mist creeping through the vents, I linger on the lumpy mattress and listen to the apartment people as they begin their days, until wooed by the sounds of those stirring, I stretch toward the clanking of kitchen utensils and the smells of breakfast cooking on the other side of the wall.

Oh these, my Florida days.

Of sand slipping away beneath my feet at the edge of the ocean and seashell hunts as the sun dips low; of Nonnie’s bunioned toes and skinny, seagull legs dipping into the foamy waves, but never past her ankles.

These early days of sunset walks along a stretch of beach that leads to a lighthouse and a tottering, creaky wharf where Papa likes to walk.

And I like to walk with him.

Where fishing boats have funny names and a tiny gift shop, in a weather-beaten shanty, sells orange gumballs packed in little, wooden crates.

Which Papa buys for his Pie-Face.

Of bright, green lizards skittering across pastel walls, and pats on the head by terrycloth clad men playing cards in the shades of umbrellas. Where suntanned women with their giant bosoms and ever-blooming swim caps wade in the shallow end, with big, dentured smiles for the little one visiting Lenore.

Oh these, my Florida days.