With my younger sister always vying for our parents’ attention and affection, the walks I took with my father to visit friends and customers, or just to go shopping, were the only times I had him to myself. He’d never tell me where we were going, what we were doing, or why. There were no lectures or fatherly advice. Instead, holding hands, we would simply walk and talk together. Now I see that our walks were his way of showing me his world—a world he shared
only with me. I can trace my love of travel and exploration directly to these walks with my father. He showed me the wonders of our neighborhood beyond our apartment and away from the street where we lived. This lead me to introduce my own son to the world so that by the time he graduated from high school, he had visited six continents and lived on three. Those walks are also the reason why, to this day, I love to walk briskly. Walking now with my son, our gaits in sync., I wonder do I walk the same way my father did?
Blizzard of 1947: I was five years old when the great blizzard of 1947 buried New York City in 26.4 inches of snow. This was the first time my dad invited me to tag along with him. My mother bundled me up with only part of my face uncovered. We walked down three flights of stairs and opened the door to a world transformed. Cars were covered entirely with snow so that I could barely make out their outlines. With no traffic, the only sounds were the scraping of snow shovels and the yells of boys throwing snowballs at each other. Walking in the middle of a scarcely passable street, through still fresh snow, we stopped at the foot of a mountain of plowed snow towering above me. I let go of my father's hand and walked towards the gigantic pile. I was so young I’m no longer sure of my intent but I continued walking into the snow until my dad hastily pulled me out. I no longer have any recollection of how far we walked that day, or of the way back home.
Visiting Customers: My father worked as a bill collector in East Harlem. In an era before credit cards, many people in the neighborhood bought on credit, my dad’s job was to go from customer to customer to collect their next installment. He was also a freelance salesman working on commission. He would ask customers if they were interested in buying furniture, shoes, or haberdashery at each house he visited earning a 10% commission that was added to the price of whatever they bought. After being robbed and beaten one too many times, my father retired as a salesman. But to keep earning a little money, he would call on old customers to convince them to buy from the stores he represented on Third Avenue in the shadow of the tracks of the elevated subway line known as ‘The El’. Some of the buildings we visited had once been luxury apartment houses with marble steps, wide hallways and grand apartments. They had long since become tenements, subdivided with each bedroom rented separately, but with a shared living room, bathrooms, and kitchen. Whenever we visited one of these apartments, the occupants would gather around and listen to my dad’s spiel as we sat together on the communal couch. While making his pitch about how he could get them a “good price”, he’d point to me, implying that buying from him would help his children.
The Card Players: We’d often visit a certain dry cleaning store, where there’d always be the same four men sitting smoking and playing cards — briscola with a traditional Italian deck of forty cards. The suits are different and more colorful than on modern playing cards, with swords instead of spades and real clubs depicted on the cards. The idea of the game is to win as many tricks as possible. You signal to your partner what type of card to play, low or high value, or trump to better your chances of winning. I used to think that this was the only thing they ever did in the store. More likely, my father timed his visits to when his friends would be there. As they played, the dealer would lick his thumb as he dealt out the cards tinged with blood. One of the players had active tuberculosis with blood in his saliva. Yet, none of them seemed to notice or care. Dad never joined in but stood with me at his side watching them play, holding a cigarette, chatting with his friends in some dialect, as I cannot remember picking out any words in standard Italian. I used to play briscola with my friends. Except our signals were in English. The game is part luck and part strategy. My friends and I enjoyed the banter — what today we’d call 'trash talk' — that was part of every round. Trash talk was most likely what my father heard, in a language, that I could not understand.
Strawberry Shortcake: After a walk, my father would sometimes take me to a ‘luncheonette’, a kind of simple diner, close to where we lived. The luncheonette was long and narrow, with booth seats upholstered in vinyl against the wall and a row of chromed stools facing the counter. Urban renewal had turned this luncheonette into part and parcel of the new buildings around it — high-rise, low-rent apartment towers known as 'Projects' in New York City. We usually came during off-hours when there were few, if any, customers. The waitresses, in their white uniforms, would always make a big fuss over me. Not only was I a cute kid, but I also had a mass of black curly hair that helped make me the center of their attention — this at a time when women spent much time and energy to get the curls I had naturally. These waitresses used to say I was a little version of Eddie Fisher, a 1950s heartthrob singer, and Elizabeth Taylor's fourth husband. We always sat in a booth with my father across from me, my legs not yet long enough for my feet to touch the floor. Dad always ordered the same thing for us, strawberry shortcake with ice-cold milk for me, and his with black coffee. Out it came — a mound of sliced strawberries in the era when strawberries still had flavor, served on shortbread and covered with homemade whipped cream. Delicious. Over the years, I’ve tried many versions. If strawberry shortcake is on the menu, I’ll order it. Yet none of them ever taste as good. Is it the berries or the whipped cream, or that my father is not seated across from me watching me devour it with not a sound to be heard but that of us eating?
Lost in the Bronx: A friend of my father owed him money. To get it, he needed to go to the Bronx. Our neighborhood was my father's world. The rest of New York City was terra incognita to him. He never went with us to visit my mother's family, or to beach excursions at Coney Island with my aunts and cousins. The only places I can recall that we all went together, for fun or as an excursion, were to the formal gardens in Central Park or Jefferson Park — both within walking distance from our house. On a cold winter night, I set off with my father to get his money. Getting to the Bronx was easy. Just hop on a subway, and in two stops, you were there. The streets in the Bronx are not set out in a grid as they are in most of Manhattan. We walked for blocks and blocks but Dad could never find the address he had on a scrap of paper clutched in his hand. To me, it seemed like we kept going round in circles, while I got colder and my father's Italian more colorful. Or so I assumed since I had no clue what he was saying. We never found his friend’s building. As for the money, he never mentioned it again.
Last Walks: My father had his right leg amputated below the knee. He spent the last few years of his life living with five other men in a convalescent ward of a hospital on Welfare (now Roosevelt) Island in the middle of New York City's East River until he died alone at seventy. When the weather was fine, I’d push his wheelchair, his legs covered with a blanket, along the paths of the island, which was not then covered in housing as it is today. We’d stop at an unobstructed south-facing view of the Manhattan skyline and its bridges. The last of these walks took place two weeks before he died. We stopped at our favorite spot, my father smoking a cigarette, me at his side, my hand on his shoulder, silently gazing across the water at the City he first came to in 1905, when he was sixteen years old — the same age I was when he died in 1959.
Bio: Michael De Rosa is a writer from Wallingford,
PA, recently retired as a professor (emeritus) of chemistry at Penn State Brandywine. Interests are travel, photography, and birding. The writer published, “lil sis & BIG BRO” in Memoirist and an essay “Walking Through the Seasons” in Academy of the Heart and Mind.