The Feast of San Gennaro is noisy, caloric, more crowded than the #4 at rush hour…and wonderful. Everybody’s smiling. Everybody’s got a ‘Sang-a-wich.” Everybody’s taking selfies with cops, vendors, waiters, street signs, stuffed animals, strangers, food, and police barricades stenciled with “NYPD.” If garbage cans had better signage they’d be photo ops, too. Tourists are eating their first cannollis, and suddenly understanding why Clemenza wouldn’t leave them in the car.
It’s great when a New York neighborhood tradition continues. Anyone who thinks it’s just another street fair missed the processions with parishioners carrying the image of the Saint, flanked by musicians, and led by a priest. (Let me know when they start sacrificing animals at the First Avenue Street Fair.)
True, years ago, commercialism at the Feast was less important than venerating the Saint. But the neighborhood still poured the same amount of zest and sheer over-the-top, baroque Italian sensibility into it.
Then, as now, during processions, the bearers of the Saint’s statue paused for special devotions, prayers, songs or blessings. However, they had, I’m told, a show-stopping finish: A heavy-duty rope stretched across the street to pulleys on both fire escapes. A little girl in a white dress, a pair of wings, and a harness, was attached to the clothesline and pulled carefully across…an angel “flying” over the participants — the first zipline. My Dad mentioned, in passing, that his sister Angie was the angel one year. The context was similar to “my family moved in 1925, the year after your aunt Angie climbed Everest on a pogo stick. Where’s the TV Guide?” It was unremarkable to him.
She was perfectly safe, of course. Anything less was a desecration, with severe consequences. The smooth running of the Feast allowed for no mistakes or problems. (Back then, complaints about the “carbon footprint” of the feasts would probably be greeted with a carefully but forcefully placed “carbon foot.”)
New York’s interest in Italian-Americans always peaks in October, around Columbus Day. But if people only knew being Italian isn’t all zeppole and grilled sausage…
Some realities of being an Italian American native New Yorker:
Many of us don’t know any good Italian restaurants. As Martin Scorsese once explained, “If you ate at an Italian restaurant you were insulting your mother.” The “Kiss of Death” was probably invented by a son whose mom found out he was eating at Italian restaurant instead of home.
Our cooking ability can cause contention. Cooking is in our genetic makeup. When we get cut? Marinara. Even my Dad, useless for most home related activities (he used a hammer to install a globe light fixture, with the usual results) could make me chicken cacciatore for lunch during grammar school. My mom stopped it after the third time she saw the kitchen. He left so many splatters of tomato sauce — on stove, walls, and ceiling — it looked like a crime scene. (If he had a school of cooking, it would be called “arterial.”)
Our tastes often run to the baroque. Four words: Christmas in Dyker Heights…enough flashing lights and whirling figures to spark a grand mal seizurem with enough wattage to be visible from the moon.
We’re not creative when we name kids. A friend told me about driving around Bensonhurst and seeing a group of young girls hanging around the high school after classes. He leaned out the window and yelled, “Hey, Gina!!!” They all turned around.
When it comes to names, we’ve got four: Paternal grandparents, maternal grandparents; lather, rinse, repeat. My family has six Salvatore’s and five Virginia’s because my Father’s parents almost put Zero Population Growth out of business. We needed to have Big Sal, Sal Blue Eyes, Mr. B’s Sal, Charlie’s Sal, and the rest just so we’d know who was who.
We’re not all in the Mob. But if we knew someone who was, we wouldn’t tell you.
I love the Feast all the more because of what it represents about Little Italy, and every neighborhood facing gentrification. It’s a message to the developers and their luxury clientele, dismayed by the crowds and tumult of an annual event that predates their arrival by 88 years. The Feast reminds them, when they capitalize on the history of a neighborhood, that the original residents are the curators of that history, and not like Mickey Mouse and Cinderella characters wandering Disneyland. They aren’t props to enhance the experience of the “Little Italy” theme park. This is how they make their livelihood, venerate their saints, celebrate their heritage, strengthen bonds with neighbors, relatives and ancestors, and create new memories for their children. It should be respected, even celebrated.
E non fatemi parlare su questo.