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James Costa: Milieu of my youth is rapidly disappearing

Recently, I received a phone call from Joe Giambra, co-editor of Per Niente, a magazine dedicated to the Italian culture in Buffalo during the early 1900s. When he asked if I’d be interested in writing an article, my first thought was: What can I possibly say about that? I had always thought of myself as an American, despite the fact that I was one generation removed from my grandparents. Although my parents were fluent in Italian and English, they spoke only English at home, not only because it had become most natural to them, but because, like many other parents of the time, they wanted their kids Americanized.

Back in the 1930s and ’40s, the city’s half-million people were largely segregated according to ethnicity: Polish occupied the East Side; Irish lived in South Buffalo; Germans in the Fruit Belt; Italians on the West Side; and Humboldt Parkway and Hertel Avenue were primarily Jewish.

Stoking the embers of the past, I tried to recall growing up in the area bounded on the south and north by Seneca and Eagle streets, and on the east and west by Spring and Chicago streets.

I do remember thinking, as a child, that young people spoke only English, and automatically spoke only Italian when they got old. Thinking now more deeply about the cultural milieu I was raised in, I realize how rapidly it is disappearing. Hucksters no longer hawk their vegetables in the streets, and the junkman’s sing-song cry, “rags-a-rags” is a dim memory.

I recall festive weddings in the back rooms of taverns, where peanuts, beer, wine, pizza, macaroni, cannoli and cookies only began to fill the menu, and where the accordion played merrily while the old folks danced the Tarantula or sang “Chena Luna.”

I doubt there are many bedrooms left like my grandmother’s, where a crucifix hung over her bed and candles flickered before a statue of the Madonna to protect her soul. Superstitions shielded her against worldly harms, like throwing salt on the stairs to ward off the malochio, the evil eye of a visitor whom she suspected of malice.

I remember widows in black shawls hunched over pews in St. Columba’s Church, their rosaries clicking in their shriveled hands. Headaches, like my mother’s migraines, were cured not with pills, but by anointing the forehead with oil and the sign of the cross.

The world of those Ellis Island immigrants is largely gone, and the memories still carried by their descendants are rapidly fading: tomatoes for making sauce drying under gauzy curtains in the sun on Myrtle Avenue; dough pounded into bread or pizza on kitchen tables; fish soaking in barrels on sawdust floors, alongside others holding olives, beans and pickles; cheeses, pepperoni and salami hanging in the window of Bonadio’s store on Swan Street; crates of grapes turning into bottles of wine. Games like bocce and morra grow moribund, while stogies, those acrid, little, twisted cigars, are already history.

Rapidly disappearing, too, is the silent language of the hands, such as my mother’s angry knuckle-biting when I was bad, the swipe of the backhand under the chin to show disdain and the obscene slapping of the inner elbow.

That I recall all this and so much more surprises me. With the passing of my generation, little if anything will remain of those traditions. It’s the story of a culture dying in the arms of another, an evolutionary process called assimilation.