by Joe Eliseon
The story you are about to read is true. The names and addresses have been changed to … well, actually, the innocent don’t need protection, do they?
In 1921, when my grandfather, grandmother and infant aunt were about to emigrate to this country from Sicily, my grandfather intended to go to New Orleans, where he had a substantial paternal uncle. But, before they left, my grandfather received a letter from his wife’s brother – let’s call him “Sal” – asking them to pass through Boston for a visit. My grandfather wanted to hasten to New Orleans, but he yielded to his wife, who wanted to see her brother. My grandfather and his little family arrived in Boston late in 1921. As these things go, he died there in 1975, never having set foot in New Orleans.
My favorite story about grand-uncle Sal comes from a time before he moved to Boston, when he lived for a short while in Brooklyn, NY. At the time, Sal spoke almost no English; he had almost no idea of what was going on around him. Sixty-nine years later, I lived in Brooklyn, spoke English better than most, and still had no idea of what was going on. But here’s the story.
Sal was living with the family of an uncle-by-marriage named Gianelli. His uncle had a son named Pete, Sal’s cousin. Pete was the rambunctious sort, a fellow of whom the authorities take notice. At one point, Pete was serving a 30-day sentence in the King’s County Jail for some minor offense, the particulars of which family history does not record.
Visiting the imprisoned, we should recall, is one of the corporal works of mercy. Being a good Christian, as well as a loyal kinsman, Sal wanted to visit Pete in jail.
His cousins set out to teach Pete enough English to make the visit. “Look,” they said to him in Sicilian, “when you come up out of the subway, you go straight across the street to the Jail. You walk up the stairs, you go in the door and, in front of you, there will be a big, tall desk. At the desk, there will be sitting a police sergeant. He will ask you four questions in English.”
To answer the four questions, they coached Sal phonetically.
“First, ‘What is your name?’ You answer, ‘Sal Torrone.’
“Second, ‘What is your address?’ You answer, ‘146 Forsythe Street.’
“Third, ‘Who do you want to see?’ You answer, ‘Pete Gianelli.’
“And last, ‘What is he to you?’ You answer, ‘My cousin.’”
All the way on the subway train to the jailhouse, Sal recited to himself the four answers over and over: “‘Sal Torrone, 146 Forsythe Street, Pete Gianelli, my cousin; Sal Torrone, 146 Forsythe Street, Pete Gianelli, my cousin; Sal Torrone, 146 Forsythe Street, Pete Gianelli, my cousin ….”
Finally, he arrived. He came up out of the subway, crossed the street, walked up the great, granite stairs and through the huge jailhouse doors. There in front of him, as described, stood the big, tall desk and, behind it, sat the big, tall Irish sergeant.
“What’s your name?” the sergeant barked.
“Sal Torrone,” Sal answered.
The sergeant scribbled. “What’s your address?”
“146 Forsythe Street.”
The sergeant scribbled again. “Who d’ya wanna see?”
The sergeant scribbled a third time. Then he ran his pencil down a column of the day book sitting on his desk, found what he was looking for and said in a more conversational tone, “Sorry, bud. He’s already had one visitor today. That’s his limit. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
“My cousin!” Sal declared, immensely pleased with himself.
The sergeant shook his head. “No. I said Pete Gianelli’s already had his one visitor today. That’s it. Come back tomorrow.”
Puzzled, Sal realized that something had gone wrong. But what? Perhaps the sergeant had not heard him. All Sal could do was say it all again, but louder this time, clearer. “Sal Torrone!”
“What’re you, deaf?” the sergeant asked, matching Sal’s increased volume. “I told you, he’s had his visitor. Get out of here and come back tomorrow!”
“146 Forsythe Street!” Sal shouted.
“I told you, no!” the sergeant shouted back. “Now get the hell out of here!”
This man must be deaf, Sal thought. “Pete Gianelli!” he screamed.
The sergeant stood up, pointed a threatening finger at Sal and screamed back, “You’re asking for it, Mack. I told you to get your ass out of here! If you say one more word, I’m throwing you in the jug!”
“My cousin!” Sal thundered.
True to his word, the sergeant motioned to two burly officers attracted by the commotion. They grabbed Sal and dragged him into the cell block. The Jail’s hard brick walls echoed plaintively, “Sal Torrone! 146 Forsythe Street! Pete Gianelli! MY COUSIN!”
Sal spent the rest of the day cooling his heels in the drunk tank. As the sun set behind the towers of Manhattan, several of New York’s finest hustled Sal out of the cell, shoved him through the jailhouse’s doors and threw him down the granite stairs. Sal picked himself up, dusted himself off, and paused to consider the day’s events.
“But what happened?” he asked himself. “What did I say?”
He reviewed his dialogue with the desk sergeant. “Sal Torrone,” he mused. “I know that’s my name.”
“One forty-six Forsythe Street,” he thought. “No, nothing wrong there. That is definitely my address.”
“Pete Gianelli.” He stroked his chin. “What could be wrong with that? That’s Pete’s name. I know that.”
Then he slapped his thigh in realization. “My cousin!”
They were the only words he didn’t know, the words his own kin had drilled into him. “Those bastards!” he fumed. “This is their idea of a joke. I spend the day in jail and they’re laughing their heads off. ‘My cousin’ must be some kind of English swear word.”
Outraged, Sal turned toward the massive Jail, raised his right hand and flipped the building the bird, shouting the only vile English oath he knew, “MY COUSIN!”
And to this day, that’s how my family employs the term.
(c) 2016 by the Author. All rights reserved.