39. Asbury Park
The Westside South of Asbury Avenue
The nicknames of people were fascinating - strange appellations in an odd kind of cropped Italian: Zep U Mort, which, according to grandma meant, dead snake, because the guy looked like a dead snake (this was obviously something she and her sisters, as children, used to say about this man). There was U fookeest, a fireworks-maker who accidentally blew himself up in his basement (Foo is obviously from fuoco, the Italian word for fire; -keest is -isto, which signifies a profession, like the -ist in pianist).
There was Ockee argen (Occhi d'argento), which meant silver eyes, because he had blue or gray eyes; Mamooch (Big Mama); Pepinu Caca'd (Joe the Shit, so named because he walked funny, as if... well, never mind); Giuseppe' U Paneteer (Joe the breadmaker); Speezeca, a bowlegged old fellow who would say, "Hi ya, girlie," to all the young girls and pinch them); Gaetan' U loong (Guy the Tall, the loong is actually an English word - long). A Macaroonod (the lady macaroni-maker).
Then there was Madame Bavenga (A.K.A. Queen Rosie). She was said to be the girlfriend of a gangster. She had a scar on her cheek and was always done up in the most elegant clothes and jewels. Her boyfriend owned a nightclub near the RR tracks. She had a carriage, a talking parrot and would always be at the head of the church parade.
Castellucci's Alley (between Dewitt and Borden Avenues) was a "lane of ill repute." Supposedly, there was some kind of brothel there, but many people - such as U Camoorch (the butcher) and Rafael' U Calabrese (Rafael the Calabrian) - used to go there to drink the Chief's wine. The Chief was a fat man who lived on Borden and made good wine. He also made good spaghetti, and friends of his would often partake of his meals. One day, when he was unsuccessful at hunting rabbits, he caught an old cat and added the cat to his sauce. After his friends had their meal, he told them what he had done and everyone was pretty disgusted.
My great-grandfather (Lodevico Mochello ) acquired another piece of property, at the northwest corner of Springwood and Dewitt. My grandfather (this is Danny DeVito, Sr. were talking about now) bought it and turned it into Danny's Luncheonette." He kept the place for years and still had it when I was a child. I have only a single, very vague recollection of the joint: a lunch counter, a few tables, a juke box. I seem to recall it being dimly lighted (like an old-fashioned saloon) and having a wooden floor.
Sometime in the early 1940s, my family moved out of Springwood and into the house on Second Avenue. I never saw much of Springwood Avenue when I was growing up (in my teens I once bought a suit at Fischer's). However, I did have some relationship with the a few streets of the area just south of Asbury Avenue. From Kindergarten to grade 5, I attended the old Mount Carmel School. This building is a carry-over to the old days of the Mount Carmel Italian parish.
old Mount Carmel School. Today it is the Faith Baptist Tabernacle.
Entering the building, you faced a wide (wide-in-my-memory) black-and- white-flecked granite stairway that led to the spacious basement (which was used as a chapel years before). The basement acted as a lunchroom and auditorium. A stage flanked the north side of the large room. A small room off basement was the kindergarten. Every so often, we'd have "Hot Lunch." That was when they'd serve hamburgers and hot dogs and everybody would file downstairs and have a great time. The aroma of the cooking food would waft through the whole building and make everybody hungry.
Above the basement stairs ( when you entered the building) was a banister that edged the front of first floor hall. A slight turn to the left (away from the top of the basement stairs) put you at the bottom of the narrow main stairway. I recall a lot of dark wood. These steps took you to the first floor. Each floor had flour classrooms, two on the east side of the hall and two on the west. Each had a narrow cloakroom. Both floors were identical. On your way up to the second floor, you crossed a landing beneath the arched front window. A tall painted statue of the Virgin Mary stepping on a snake stood in the corner.
There were two large playgrounds, one on the east and one across the street on the south (a large, incongruously placed building is on the latter lot now). Grades one through four used the east playground. Across the street, on Prospect Avenue, was Bockie's, luncheonette. Bockie and her mother, Genevieve, ran the place (they always called me cuz because we were related, by way of my great-grandfather's first marriage, I think, or something like that). Bockie's was a narrow place, with the lunch counter on the left and cases of small toys and other items on the right. I recall that an old wooden phone booth rested in the rear of the place. Bockie's was the first destination of most kids after school. The fat French fries were terrific.
On certain holy days, the whole school would march down Prospect Avenue over to Mount Carmel Church, about four blocks away, on Asbury Avenue. We would pass old stores and houses (I get a kind of "Italian village" feeling from my recollection of this walk; in retrospect, it all seems almost like a set designed for a movie). Pine Street south of the church descends slightly (I recall cobblestones, but maybe I'm wrong). I remember that beyond an arched entrance to someone's old-world backyard patio you could see a life-sized bronze statue of two nude men wresting. The nuns told us not to look, but everybody did and got a kick out of the slight. One kid said that he thought the two men were fighting over a pair of underwear.
I have numerous stories from these years at the old mount Carmel. My uncle Danny (DeVito), who attended this school from grades one through eight, has hundreds of funny tales (he was always much more sociable than I was). My cousin Fred went here too, but switched over to the new Mount Carmel School when it was built (behind the church), in 1963. I went over the Bradley School that same year.
I really believe that exposure to this "old world" has left me with a sense of - I'm not sure what to call it - a sense of the Baroque or a certain feeling for a particular kind of antique call-it-what-you please. Not that it's a feeling that I dwell on; it's just there for "assimilation" whenever I meet up with it. It's a small "other corner of the world."