Hidden History

The Smell of America

When an Italian patriarch crosses the Atlantic, the family he left behind clings tight to the enticing promise of New York.

The Smell of America

Ever since he was a five-year-old child, my uncle Michele gets this same strange sensation every once in a while. It’s both an image—the blue sky, seen from the street up, through the skyscrapers—and a sensation, an intense combination of excitement and longing. That’s the thought of New York crossing his mind. It’s purely bittersweet, and leaves him rather shaken. The way he describes it makes me think of the bewilderment that comes with trying to remember the details of a dream.

My uncle is a fifty-eight-year-old man who dropped out of medical school to pursue his love of politics. He now works for an insurance company and is running for mayor of his hometown, Sant’Angelo dei Lombardi, population 4,500, in the mountains of Irpinia in southern Italy, an area often mentioned as one Italians know about but would never be able to locate on a map. He is a passionate man, but I wouldn’t call him sentimental. Any mention of New York, however, hits a soft spot.

“I don’t think there is a person in the world who’s more nostalgic about New York than me, and I have never been there,” he says, laughing at himself.

He asks me if I’ve been to 691 Union Street in Brooklyn.

On the first remotely warm day of the year, I leave my apartment, which is located along the borderline of gentrification in what realtors call Prospect Heights and real people call Crown Heights, and walk down Union Street towards Park Slope, crossing Seventh, Sixth and Fifth avenues.

The storefront of Caramello, a gelato shop located on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope
The storefront of Caramello, a gelato shop located on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope.

Park Slope is teeming with its typical excess of joy: woolen hats and flip-flops, a jungle of beards, checkered shirts everywhere, a woman whose t-shirt reads “We <3 dogs.” I walk past kids playing, cute dogs, shiny happy people probably talking about kids, dogs or gluten-free delights.

691 Union Street is in the heart of hip, family-friendly Brooklyn. Disappointingly, scaffolding hides the entrance, but at least the house number is there, on the glass pane in the front door.

A man walks out of the building. Hundreds, maybe thousands of times, my grandfather, Nonno Peppino, walked out that door, too. I try to picture him, painting an image in my head from the photos I’ve seen of him in New York. Like all dapper men in photos from that time, he looked like a movie star, smoking a cigarette with his sunglasses on.

He moved to New York in 1961. On a warm October day, he said goodbye to his beautiful Italian wife—my grandma—and their two children, my uncle Michele, age six, and my mother, age eight, and left from Naples’s harbor.

In Sant’Angelo, my grandfather’s hometown, America was still seen as the land of opportunity, but it was difficult and expensive to make it on the other side of the ocean. Not many people managed to migrate there in the 1960s. But with the help of my grandmother’s brother, who had moved to New York years before, my grandfather was able to get a work contract and, with that, a visa.

“We had reached the dream,” remembers my grandmother, now a belligerent eighty-one-year old woman with the unmatched mastery of the practical arts, such as cooking up a storm.

Giuseppe Cetta poses next to a nativity and Christmas tree in his apartment, Brooklyn, circa 1961-1967
Giuseppe Cetta poses next to a nativity and Christmas tree in his apartment, Brooklyn, circa 1961-1967.

Despite his Hollywood-like attitude in photographs, Nonno Peppino wasn’t a movie star. He was a tailor. The small town he called home didn’t have much work for him, so he decided to take the opportunity to see if the grass was truly greener in America. If that were the case—as everyone around him expected it to be—his family was to join him there soon.

His daughter Ida, my mother, who was seven and, like all little girls, very attached to her father, remembers that his departure triggered a condition of wait that went on for years. “My wait was the wait for dad, who was coming to take us to America,” she says.

My grandma, my uncle and my mother waited, imaging their lives in a place they got to know through pictures, immigrant stories and the frequent letters my grandfather would write (one every other day).

“I was going to enter by boat, like in one of those black-and-white documentaries, sailing along the Statue of Liberty. There could be no other way to enter America,” says my uncle Michele, who still uses “America” as a synonym for “New York City,” as do many Italians.

He remembers once seeing the Raffaello, one of two main Italian ocean liners, in Napoli’s harbor. It was enormous, even more so compared to his nine-year-old size. He was sure he was going to board it one day, because only something that big could take him to America.

“America allowed for big dreams,” says my mother. In hers, New York only existed by night. “I imagined this tall city, full of lights and people running around,” she says. “And I kept hearing of trains that went underground and couldn’t imagine them—I asked myself: aren’t people scared?”

My grandma, too, was eager to leave, and tried to imagine being part of the busy crowd, reassuring herself that she was young (only twenty-eight when my grandfather left) so she was going to adjust, work hard, and make it. She had detailed plans for her and her husband: “We’ll work, we’ll make sacrifices, and we’ll buy [a house] of our own, with a little garden, the gliarda“—yard—”as they [Italian emigrants] call it. Then on Saturday we’ll go grocery shopping.”

The house they would inhabit in America had plenty of details in her children’s minds, too. My mother imagined it “like in the movies,” with cute curtains, a big kitchen, a garden. My uncle dreamt of a brownstone: “I always thought I was going to live in one of those houses, with those steps,” he says. He was most excited about the steps, and could see himself playing on them, or on the sidewalk outside the house, with his new American (!) friends.

Giuseppe Cetta, New York, circa 1961-1967
Giuseppe Cetta, New York, circa 1961-1967.

Often enough, packages from New York would come in the mail, full of wonders of all sorts. Chewing gums, dark chocolate, vitamins—a teaser from the land of plenty.

“Everything had a different taste, and it also had a different smell,” says my mother. America tasted like Ginger Ale and 7 Up, unfamiliar flavors she didn’t really like at first.

The smell though, was sweet and pleasant, a blend of chewing gum and new clothes. “That was the smell of America and I liked it. I was convinced that, arriving in New York, I would have found that smell,” remembers my uncle. It’s a smell that he has never found anywhere else, and he still stores American chewing gum in his desk drawer when he finds some, so that upon opening the package, it smells like America.

Packages from America were full of actual treasures too. To his playmates’ envy, my uncle had colorful, plastic toy guns that looked like they came from outer space. My mother had a Kodak camera of her own. She once wrote to her dad asking him to send “pants to dance the twist,” and not only did she receive those, but got the most incredible pair of black and golden flats too—highly coveted by her friends, who were also exposed to this American dream.

“For my elementary school friends, I was the girl who was to move to America,” says my mother.

On Union Street, my grandfather shared an apartment with three other friends to save on rent and send home enough money to support his family. Park Slope was a cheap option at the time. It was a bad neighborhood, “full of junkies” and rioting youth, remembers Rose Lauro, fifty-seven, an Italian-American who was born there in 1956.

The front door of what was Nonno Pepino's house at 691 Union Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn
The front door of what was Nonno Pepino’s house at 691 Union Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn

“It was ‘South Brooklyn,’ it never used to be ‘Park Slope,’” says Lauro. “It only became Park Slope when yuppies moved in.” The house she lives in, three stories with a basement, a patio, and, until a few years ago, the only pool on the street, was bought by her parents in 1961 for $9,000. Her mother, Bessie, has been offered up to $2.8 million to sell. She won’t. At eighty-two, she says she’s simply spent too much time there to leave.

South Brooklyn might have been a bad neighborhood but it wasn’t necessarily dangerous, says Lauro. If you lived in the area “no one was going to mess with you.” She misses the sense of community: “Everyone knew each other. It was like one big family.”

Giuseppe Cetta with his flatmates in his apartment, Brooklyn, circa 1961-1967
Giuseppe Cetta with his flatmates in his apartment, Brooklyn, circa 1961-1967.

Bessie Lauro remembers the men hanging out at clubs and playing bocce ball, and says picnics were very popular among the Italian families. “They used to get the trucks, everybody piled in and they went on all kinds of picnics. That was their celebration: they all used to get together, bring food and everybody ate there.”

I wonder if Nonno Peppino was one of those picnicking Italians. Somehow, I can’t picture him that way. I like the image of him a little more glamorous than that.

He would write home funny stories of domestic mishaps. He had to cook for himself and take care of house chores, something he considered a “sacrifice” (he was, after all, a southern Italian man). He worked as a tailor in the Flatiron District. The work was good, but life wasn’t too exciting for my grandfather. He didn’t know much English, and America was tough; a place where, he said, you’d speak to your relatives on the phone instead of seeing them every day, and work sometimes seemed to be all that mattered. He missed his family and “didn’t like it too much” over there, remembers my grandma, who wasn’t, however, put off by his lack of enthusiasm and pushed to join him there regardless.

Giuseppe Cetta in his apartment’s kitchen, Brooklyn, circa 1961-1967
Giuseppe Cetta in his apartment’s kitchen, Brooklyn, circa 1961-1967.

Despite all the excitement his family had built up about it, Nonno Peppino was hesitant to finalize the move. He went back home twice, for two months every two years, to assess whether anything had changed and if there was any chance for him to find enough work back there. That never seemed the case, and in November 1964, before boarding his plane to JFK Airport, he finally decided the way forward for his family was America. The preparations started and a date was picked: it was going to be in June, the end of the school year.

The following school year was finally going to be in America, something my mother, a diligent student who went on to teach literature and history, had dreamt of for years. She had seen a picture of an older cousin who lived in New York wearing a school uniform with a hat. A hat! “So for me, America meant that I was going to have that hat to go to school, which for me meant great luxury,” my mother says.

On February 4th, 1966, Nonno Peppino, thirty-nine, suffered a heart attack in his apartment and died. His family, by then deep in preparations to leave Italy, received the news two days later.

With my grandfather died the fantasies of America. They were bid adieu and became memories of a time that never was.

Once it was clear that she was not going to move there, my grandma lost all interest in seeing America and now says she’d much rather have gone to visit other places, Berlin topping the list. Thirty years ago, she even turned down a free trip to New York.

“The American dream got stuck in my throat,” she says, with a hint of sarcasm.

She stayed in her hometown and, though alone, managed to support her kids all the way through university. My uncle is pretty certain he will never see New York either. He is the most attached to his childhood dream, which is, paradoxically, why he never pursued it. “I am scared I won’t find that New York I have in my mind, my New York,” he says.

While he is irreparably drawn by all things New York—movies, stories, news—he knows seeing the city would somehow disappoint him. “When I see Fifth Avenue on TV, that there are Italian shops, I don’t know Gucci, Bulgari…that is not the Fifth Avenue I imagined. For me, as a child, Fifth Avenue in New York was like Gardaland [a famous Italian amusement park]—the most beautiful thing one could see.”

“The fact that I didn’t go then, it’s like that trip was closed forever,” says my uncle.

“Over there, Dad was waiting for us, and so how do I go there now, knowing Dad is not out there?”

As for my mother, she did finally see New York, more than forty years after it was supposed to become her city. What surprised her the most was the light, because she had never been able to imagine New York in the daylight. She loved it, and wondered if she would have had a happier life there.

She went to 691 Union Street too, which she found nicer than she expected, perhaps because it is a lot nicer than it was. Nonno Peppino wouldn’t talk too much about his house or neighborhood, but his family’s image of it was influenced by the thought of it as temporary, that a house he had without them couldn’t be all that nice. She had seen a picture of my grandfather’s room from the inside and, standing in the street, tried to figure if any of the windows might have been his.

A man rides his skateboard through Park Slope, an area now teeming with bikes, skateboards and other alternative modes of transit
A man rides his skateboard through Park Slope, an area now teeming with bikes, skateboards and other alternative modes of transit

She loved seeing New York, but perhaps my uncle was right, because it was disappointing too. Standing outside of what once was her father’s home “was a coming to terms in a way,” she says, “because dad…he wasn’t there.”

But my grandfather was here, once; close enough to where I live now that I can walk there on a sunny day. I have never met him, but I think he is somehow the reason I don’t feel lost in this city that I want to call home. My mother once told me that, when she thinks about me living here, on the other side of the world, she finds some strange sense of reassurance in thinking her father was here before me.

I do, too.

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Ben Hancock is a journalist from Richmond, Va. He earned degrees in journalism and French at West Virginia University, during which he was a staffer for The Daily Athenaeum and a college fellow at the Poynter Institute. Last May he graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and now lives in Brooklyn as a freelance journalist.