Where the Men Went
Italian men belonged to clubs, a place outside the home to meet male friends, to relax, eat, and drink. Friday evenings were the busiest. One Friday, Dad took me to a club owned by my uncle’s dad, an elderly gentleman who lived with his family in the three-story home above. A large, heavy green door opened from the street directly into the smoke-filled room. (Grandfather came into my mind as the familiar smell of stogie cigars floated out onto the sidewalk). Inside were tall, unmatched stools surrounding a small semi-circular bar. A shelf above the bar held a variety of glasses and cups of different shapes and sizes, most likely donations from members’ wives; on another shelf below were jugs of unlabeled red wine. A small cellar window on the street side let in some light; the rest came from tethered bulbs strung around the room, some covered with green metal shades. The smoke circled the lights and swirled around a single ceiling fan like a fog. Under each light was a round table circled by wooden folding chairs. There was a couch in the distance where some sat to read the Italian newspaper. “Hey Pete, how are you?” They knew Dad. The men were scattered about, drinking at the bar, at tables, drinking while standing around, elbows flexed, large calloused hands with stogies held between the first and second, nicotine-stained fingers lifting glasses …big men… smoking, laughing and talking. They wore dark green and brown, dirt stained work clothes. Red handkerchiefs hung from back pockets. Carlo, the landlord, served them dark red wine from the shelf, or cold beer lifted from the ice in an old Coca-Cola cooler. He poured his homemade wine into squat, compact, open glasses, some of them old grape jelly jars. “Fatto in casa,” he would say. Homemade wine. What wonderful smells: stogies, newspapers, beer, wine, simmering sauce and roasting meats. There was the smell of the workingman, a mixture of sweat, cement, leather, earth and smoke. Hardy and gruff, these were kind men, eager to help a boy to soda and food.
“You like-a this place?”
“Yes.” “Uwanna somthin’ to drink?’
“Whata you like?”
“Sure, sure.” “Carlo, Cokafa the boy.” And Carlo reached into the cooler with his large mitt, pulling out a dripping, ice-cold Coke and flipping off the cap with an opener attached to the cooler. Later in the evening came the food, an abbondanza of pastas, meats, pizza, soffrito, and tripa cooked by the owner in a small kitchen on a small stove. The men ate, drank, talked, played cards and games like Boss and La Morra. They enjoyed each other’s company. With arms pumping and hands turning, they spoke Italian with emotion and passion. Conversations sputtered and restarted without missing a beat. They laughed. It was what Italian men did on Friday evenings after a week of hard work. Pleased that their week was over, they were now happy to share with their friends the time and relaxation well-earned. There are remnants of those clubs; commercial establishments in VFW halls or church basements. Even upscale restaurants serve the same things, now in good glasses and on fine china. I smile when I hear that someone has discovered “a place with great food like my grandmother used to cook, or that they served in the old clubs.” Food, drink and company nurtured friends who were as important as family. How fortunate.