They all lived within ten tight blocks. Joe knew their little brothers, who tagged along and tried to play. He knew their sisters, who played rotation basketball at the hoop past left center field. (Well, he knew the sisters by sight: Joe never said five words in a row to anybody's sister.) He knew all their houses, and who slept where. He knew their mothers, and where they shopped. He knew what their fathers fished.
On the left, past third base, was the boys' bathroom. Joe spent a lot of time in there, playing cards. Joe was good at cards. But that was like baseball: he wasn't just playing. Joe and Niggy Marino used to box the cards -- fix the deck -- or they'd play partners, and kick each other to signal for discards: five kicks meant to throw the five, two for the deuce, etc. By the time they finished, their legs were black-and-blue. But they went home with a few extra nickels -- money from the patsies. Poor Frank Venezia! He played all the time and never caught on they were cheating him. But that was Frank. He just thought he was lousy at cards.
Past the outfield, past the basketball and tennis courts and the open swimming pool, Columbus Avenue cut the playground off at an angle. Nothing was exactly square in North Beach -- a neighborhood of odd intersections and acute hillside corners -- because Columbus sliced through the street grid diagonally, from the office buildings downtown, north and west to Fisherman's Wharf. Columbus was the hub for Italian San Francisco, and the boys' window on the ways of the world. On Columbus, at the corner of the playground, they'd catch the F-car downtown -- Stockton Street, all the way to Market. After school, kids rode two for a nickel.
A block and a half up Columbus lay the expanse of Washington Square, the gran piazza, like a carpet of green spread in front of the great Sts. Peter and Paul's Church. The Italian Cathedral of the West was at that time only five years old -- Joe had seen the whole thing built. But its massive twin spires, the solemn gleam of the grand marble altar, even the bright modern classrooms for the School of Americanization, were designed to bear witness eternally to proud Italianità and the achievement of his parents' generation. On the grass in front of the church, the men of the community gathered every afternoon for coffee (maybe a little wine) and argument -- though Joe's dad seldom made an appearance. Giuseppe DiMaggio wasn't much for talk.
Near the church on Columbus stood the other institutions of the grown-up world: there was the Valente-Marini Funeral Home (you could pass from your christening at Sts. Peter and Paul's to a coffin -- hopefully not too fast, but all within a couple of blocks). Up the street, there was the community hall, Casa Fugazi, named for Commendatóre John F. Fugazi, a banker and one of the early Italian-American prominenti. At Columbus and Stockton stood the Bank of America, whose founder, A. P. Giannini, was most prominent of all prominenti. On Columbus, too, there was the library -- but no one Joe knew went to the library. The boys were more interested in other cultural sites on Columbus, like LaRocca's Corner, where the wiseguys played cards all day over cups of LaRocca's homemade wine. (Prohibition was an approximate science in North Beach, and Vince LaRocca, Ciccio's uncle, was "well connected.") And nearby were the nightclubs, the Lido Cafe and Bimbo's 365 Club, with their showgirls -- tall gorgeous girls, who'd come from all over...though not from North Beach. No Italian family had showgirls.
From Columbus came food for the neighborhood tables -- from Molinari's big new deli, and Caligari's bakery on Green, just off the Avenue. On Columbus at Green was the Buon Gusto Market, and off Columbus, on Powell, there was Celli's, where they made the best pasta and let you buy on credit. In Joe's crowd, there were months when everybody ate on credit -- say, before crab season began. Clothes, same way: without credit, you'd wear your big brothers' stuff forever. Every family ran a tab at Tragone's, on Columbus, for clothes and shoes. You could get the shoes cheaper at Gallenkamp's, on Kearny Street -- but that was all the way downtown. (And it was some kind of Kraut chain, strictly cash-and-carry.)
Copyright © 2000 by Richard Ben Cramer
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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