When your mother-in-law pushes aside Elizabeth Street, the acclaimed novel by Laurie Fabiano, and says “She didn’t get it right,” it’s time to pull up a chair and listen.
Christina Randazzo tells great stories that span decades but her most compelling tales date back to her growing up in the 1940s in New York City’s Little Italy. That was a time when everyone “knew each other’s business” and news about the neighborhood was carried by voices, window to street.
We talked in her Tuscan-themed kitchen in her home in Connecticut.
Maria: How was your Little Italy different from the one you read about in Elizabeth Street?
Christina: Mine was families, aromas, feeling safe. In Elizabeth Street, the book, the focus seems to be on the Mafia. I never saw any of that.
Maria: Okay, so what was it like for you living on Elizabeth Street during the late 1940s?
Christina: I grew up at 149 Elizabeth Street across from a garage and the Knickerbocker Ice Company. All day long men would shout out ice orders for restaurants, fish markets and produce shops. In the summer we played in the street, games like “Stoop Ball” and “Kick the Can.” When it got too hot we would go by the ice company and they would break off small ice chunks for us kids. We’d eat it like ice cream to cool off. There was a candy store downstairs, but that’s where the numbers were played so we were never allowed to go in there.
Maria: You mentioned aromas—what were some of the aromas, sights, and sounds that stand out to you from that time?
Christina: I remember Saturday nights, kids playing jump rope and roller skating in front of the building while the men sat outside, smoking and looking at the girls. We were always on the block. Around the corner it was bumper-to-bumper with push carts—young and old men singing in Italian, selling vegetables, fruit, fish, calamari. If you didn’t like the price you went to the next guy. My father had a bakery shop on Mott Street. His friend owned a pizzeria and a flower shop. Oh the aromas!
I was small so my father built a wooden platform behind the counter at his bakery so that I could see over it to sell bread—just on weekends and after school. He gave me a metal staff. I’d hit the floor, “toon, toon,” and he could rush up from the basement if anyone gave a hard time. My father called me a helluva sales girl.
Maria: It sounds like it was a great place to grow up, so much color and so safe…
Christina: Well, yes, everyone knew each other so there wasn’t going to be any nonsense. One day we were playing outside and we found money, then more money; suddenly it was like a trail that led to a basement courtyard where there were laundry lines between buildings. The money trail stopped just above the basement steps where below it was pitch black. We showed my father who told the men. He said, “Go to your mother,” and the men went down. We never heard anything, we never saw anything, but something happened. Still, we don’t know who they found.
Maria: No police just taken care of —that must have been shocking though. [Silence, smoking, time to change the subject] Where did you go to school?
Christina: My sisters and I walked to St. Patrick’s across the street. I remember the year of my First Holy Communion. Sister Monica was our teacher and she would always say to us, “I just want to live long enough to see you all get to make your communion.” On the day of the ceremony we stood inside the school in line, each child on a metal step, as she checked our veils and ties. We were quiet, preparing to lead the procession into the church across the street. She stood on the first landing as she said a prayer. Then she stepped back and her heel must have caught in the hem of her habit because she fell backwards hitting all the way down along those metal steps. She died instantly.
She landed and her face was deadsmack in front of me bleeding profusely. The other nuns came running. “Run to the rectory! Get the priest!” We were in blood splattered communion dresses. The last thing I remember was the priest taking out his beads for last rites. We went to our communion, walking ashen down the center of the church. There was crying. I was shaking.
Maria: That’s horrifying. I’m so sorry. What a nightmare for you, all those children, all the parents waiting in the church. What happened afterwards?
Christina: We preserved the dress. It would have been sacrilege to wash or throw it away with the blood of a nun who had made a request of God and he had granted it right down to the eleventh hour.