THE OLD WORLD IN THE NEW
One possession all immigrants carried and kept, usually for the rest of their lives, was the memory of home. You could, and can, be a good American and not change the way you celebrate, or mourn, or sometimes even the language you speak. One celebration, transplanted in 1926 from the old world to the Lower East Side, is the Feast of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples.
If for one day each March everyone in New York is Irish, for these ten days in September everyone is Italian. On the night I joined the huge, slow-moving crowd in “Little Italy”, recognisably Italian faces were far outnumbered by African-Americans, Chinese and Indians. But the strings of coloured light and the blaring taped music, the shouting and laughter from the game booths, the miniature populations of religious figures for sale and the cooking smells were instant Napoli.
The festival is primarily about eating. The length and breadth of Mulberry Street people were jammed eight or ten deep at stalls where Italian sausages sizzled and sweating men and women, faces lit by the barbecue flames, forked them into lengths of Italian bread. Or they waited for zeppoles, piping hot doughnuts scooped out of vats of boiling oil and shaken in bags of powdered sugar.
Those who preferred to keep inching forward could patch together an ambulatory feast of pizza or scungilli, wine or beer, and an Italian ice. In passing, they might try to win a giant teddy bear at a shooting gallery, and be soundly jeered if they failed.
Little Italy’s established restaurants were doing brisk business, too.Many had demarcated makeshift terraces, setting out tables and chairs on their patch of street. No one contested the right-of-way of the waiters hustling trays of minestrone and platters of veal parmigan from the restaurants.
The light from the festival petered out in the courtyard of a Catholic church which tonight looked out on the back of a pizza stand and a body piercing concession. In the shadows on the right, the ill-assorted members of a brass band teetered on folding chairs, playing loudly but not well. On the left, dimly lit by a crumpled garland of Christmas lights, was a stone grotto and its plaster Madonna. Old women were pinning dollar bills to the statue’s white linen robes in neat overlapping rows like feathers on a bird. On the last day of the festival this Madonna and the image of St. Gennaro, both plumed in cash, would be borne aloft in procession to the uncertain music of the brass band, just as they would be in the villages from which the parishioners, their parents or grandparents,came.
For details of this year’s festival:www.sangennaro.org