Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Nan's Two Birthdays

Cuccia family s/w corner 75 St. & Ave A @ 1906

My grandmother Nan Rode’s four-room railroad flat faced York Avenue in the front and a backyard in the rear. Leaning out her front window, I could watch my world pass by. Leaning out the rear window, I could see Yorkville as it was long ago. In the backyard was an old two-story house surrounded by five-story brick tenements. The house, built around 1890, looked like it had fallen out of the sky and plopped onto a stray witch. Somehow, it had escaped the tenement explosion in Yorkville in the first two decades of the 1900s, a frenzy primarily triggered by speculation about the underground IRT subway coming to 86th Street and then proceeding farther north. (The speculation, of course, ultimately proved true.) As buildings rose around it, the old house, with its worn porch and crooked chimney, just sat there. I enjoyed this relic from the past and imagined it there in June 1906, when my grandmother was born in her family’s apartment only eight blocks away, at 1403 Avenue A. Above is a photo of my great-grandmother, Giovanna Cuccia, with family members sitting in front of their fruit stand at the southwest corner of 75th Street and Avenue A (later named York Avenue in honor of Sargent Alvin York, a World War I hero). Giovanna, third from right, is eight months pregnant with my grandmother. 

It looks like a normal old photo, but it led to a bona fide miracle: the month after it was taken, Nan was born and she had two birthdays, July 23rd and July 28th. I learned this astounding fact at age 10 when I went to my grandmother’s house to see what was up.
Nan & me 1955

“Hi, Nan.”
“That's it?”
“I said hi.”
“Where’s my ‘Happy Birthday?’”
“I wished you a happy birthday on the 23rd and made you a card. It’s right there on top of the TV.”
“Today is my birthday, too.”
Involuntarily, my head started shaking. I was used to my grandmother’s inquisitions but I didn’t understand this one.

“Nan, I don't get it.”

She explained.

Nan was delivered in her family’s apartment by Saveria Palermo, a midwife from Yorkville, on July 23rd, 1906. But Saveria was lazy, and when she filled out the Board of Health birth certificates the following Monday, July 30th, she used the same date, Saturday, July 28th, for all the babies she had delivered that week. That’s why Nan had two birthdays, July 23rd and July 28th.
Lazy Midwife filled this out

Neither Giovanna nor my great-grandfather, Antonino Cuccia, knew English, so they never fixed the certificate. But they always celebrated Anne’s – Nan’s --birthday twice. She was the baby in the family and a spoiled brat. She told me this with pride.

Anna Cuccia, 1913, Communion at St. Monica's

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Friday, July 17, 2020

Flam & Flam

My Uncle Jack and Aunt Anna were having marital problems in the late 1930s. Their fighting hit a new high in their East Harlem apartment when Aunt Anna found half her house money missing from the flour tin. She chased Uncle Jack out of the house with a ladle full of dog crap, down the stoop and up First Avenue to the entrance of the Willis Avenue Bridge. Jack ran to the Bronx using the roadway’s passing lane.

After catching his breath, Jack not wanting to waste a good trip to the Bronx, continued walking north up to Yankee Stadium where he caught a doubleheader with the Cleveland Indians. DiMaggio went 4 for 7 with two walks and five RBIs. Jack spent $2.75 of Anna’s house money on Franks, beer, a ticket, a pennant for the kid, a program and a five cent pencil to keep score.

When Jack got home, Anna had put a chair against the door locking him out. Unfortunately, she also locked out her son, John, who after begging his mother to no avail to let him in stayed with my grandparents on 104th Street in their new East River Houses, Housing Authority apartment.

After much consultation with everyone on their block, Jack and Anna decided to get professional help from Flam & Flam, a 106th Street law firm, famous in the neighborhood for resolving family crises when folks were broke. After discussing their plight with Freddy (the brains in the outfit) and telling him they had one dollar for a divorce, Freddy rocked back on the legs of the library surplus chair and thought it over, then he popped a hand off his bald head.

“I’ve got it! A house divorce! It’s the rage in Philadelphia. When couples want out, but can’t afford it, the courts can grant a house divorce (no they can’t). You live together, but you’re not married (you are). You can tell everybody you’re divorced, but by a tiny technical thread you’re not really divorced. So I only have to charge you a dollar. Give me a dollar.”

Stingily, Jack gave Freddy Flam a house money dollar. Anna watched the money change hands thinking about kicking Jack’s ass right there in Flam & Flam’s office.

Anna buried Jack in Calvary Cemetery in Queens in 1978 after 13 years of conventional marriage and 37 years of house divorce thanks to Flam and Flam.