Carole Ann Moleti
There is something about Italian men and concrete. I’m not talking about the Mafia, cement shoes, and all that. But perhaps, that too is a perversion of the love affair with concrete inbred with the passion for bitter red wine in a bottle covered with straw, or concocted in the basement from homegrown grapes.
The complex chemical reactions that transform a bag of cement mixed with water and a binder into concrete could not have been understood by the men who made their living in the trade, before the advent of ready mix preparations. They learned the science by trial and error, feel, odor, and probably the taste of the soft mixture that hardened like magic into their prized creations.
I grew up in The Bronx, New York when ethnicity defined you. Sure it was bigotry but “What are you?” was a question I can remember being asked many times. My best friend Marianne “was” Irish and my mother’s best friend Elaine “was” German. That dictated everything about your family-where you lived, the food you ate, and the way you celebrated holidays and family events.
Traditional Italian wakes consist of three days in a funeral parlor for visitation periods, broken up by returning to the deceased’s home for meals of antipasti, lasagna, eggplant parmagiana and biscotti the visitors bring to console the bereaved. That’s where I learned it is advisable to have a concrete liner placed in the grave to protect the coffin, and its occupant, from insects, vermin, and floods.
My first experience with Italian men and concrete was when I was about ten. Our neighbors, the Randazzo’s, owned a fish market on Arthur Avenue, the "Little Italy of The Bronx." All the work on their house was done by men “right off the boat” as my father said. They didn’t speak English and Frank Randazzo stood outside ordering them around in Italian, with as many hand gestures as words.
One day, the walk up to the Randazzo house was being replaced. The laborers, shirtless, bandanas tied around their heads, wore shorts, dirty white basketball socks pulled up to their knees, and heavy work boots. As they bashed the hundred or so feet of concrete with sledgehammers, the blazing sun darkened their already swarthy complexions. Sweat glistened on muscular arms and backs; the veins looked like worms poking through the skin, so distended from effort I remember thinking they’d burst.
After piling debris in a truck for disposal, they built a form and mixed the cement by hand, in a washtub. It began with one bag; some sand, some water, and the foreman Miguel stirred, added some more water, a bit more sand, and stirred again. He followed no recipe, like when Grandma Clo made strufuli or meatballs and didn’t use a measuring cup or spoon. She knew the proper consistency the mixture must have and kept adding, and tasting, until she got there.
Miguel took an occasional break from his broad strokes, bending his head down into the basin to examine the progress, while the other men stood watching, sweating, and waiting. When he was satisfied, Miguel grunted orders to them in dialect, and they dumped the basin into the form, scraping out the remains with shovels. The laborers smoothed the cement mixture with trowels, flattened the top by running a wooden 2x4 over it, carved in a groove and expansion joints, and imprinted a perfect set of fine lines on the finished surface. Miguel watched, admonished and corrected them, while he prepared the next batch in the basin. And on it went.
The sun was going down when they were done and the mess cleaned away. Frank Randazzo stood guard to make sure none of the kids stepped on the smooth gray expanse or scrawled their initials in it. The final act of love was a gentle sprinkle from the hose to keep the concrete cool and moist and help it dry and cure properly.
I was too young to appreciate the physical attractiveness of Miguel’s body, especially those powerful arms, and the passion with which he worked his magic. But maybe that sensuality was why I stood transfixed, when, sometime later that summer a bungalow was being jacked onto a foundation next door to the Randazzo’s. The tiny house had already been raised onto concrete blocks and the laborers had prepared the form.
I sneaked over to the alley between the Randazzo house and the one being worked on to steal soda, since my mother only let us drink it on special occasions. The "soda man" left refillable bottles of Coke and orange Fanta there and would come back every week, pick up the empties, and leave fresh cases. There was even a bottle opener built into the wooden crates!
Frank and his wife Mary had so many grandchildren they never missed a bottle or two, as long as I put the empties back. But that day, I got so involved watching Miguel, that Mary Randazzo caught me chugging a Fanta.
“Thatsa no nice,” she said, waving her finger, and I looked down, embarrassed. But I didn’t leave and her grandchildren Ann, Maria, and Tony joined me so I had my fill of soda for the rest of the day with no guilt.
Miguel mixed the cement in a wheelbarrow this time. When deemed ready, he spit into his hands, hoisted the handles, and grunted with effort, pushed it up a ramp fashioned out of boards propped onto concrete blocks, and dumped it into the wooden enclosure. The others smoothed the concrete mixture like cake batter in a pan while Miguel returned to his alchemy.
I don’t remember those men taking any breaks or drinking anything. I also don’t recall them paying one bit of attention to us, even when we asked why Miguel spit into his hands. They only had eyes for their concrete.
From time to time during my life I watched my father, grandfather, or husband mix cement to patch something, or to do a small project. They tried to honor the legacy: read the directions, measured, and cursed when the consistency wasn’t right or the new concrete cracked. Sometimes, they would allow us to carve initials into the wet concrete, if it was around a fence post or in an inconspicuous spot.
All those memories had been banished by other concerns, along with the knowledge of how to winterize a fig tree, the nuances of tomato plant culture, and winemaking. Divorced from one Italian husband, and remarried to another, it all came back to me when it was time to have our cracked walkway replaced.
John undertook a search for a contractor that took longer than finding a daycare center for our two-year-old son. He disregarded the Greeks and called several from the yellow pages. They all used drills to break the old concrete and huge cement trucks delivered ready mix. But the forms and the finishing were still done by hand.
John obtained addresses of past work and went to visit each one. I had no idea there were so many things to consider when choosing concrete-different colors, textures, strengths, and types of expansion joints-but John examined each sidewalk and quickly ruled out the crooked ones, those with asymmetrical lines, and colors too light or too dark. It came down to price and availability.
I suspect that P. Valenza and S. Valenza were brothers who had a falling out over mixing techniques because when asked if they were related, there was no coherent explanation. The tie breaker was Biordi. Price wise, Phil (really Felice), won out over Salvatore, and Biordi was out of the ballpark.
Felice reminded me of a much older Miguel. He barely spoke English and even though he had to be within a sledgehammer’s strike of sixty, still moved with the prowess and authority of a Roman god.
I didn’t stick around to watch this time. With a newborn and toddler my priority wasn’t cement mixing. John supervised, and not on the sidelines. And that night, he performed the ritualistic sprinkle and guarded the new walkway from marauding children.
I did remind him that, in the good old days, he had joked to Uncle Leonard about carving “JV loves CM” into a corner of the new sidewalk while we stood admiring the uniformity of color and the symmetry of the lines. And his uncle had looked at him with the threat of death in his eyes. But when it comes to an Italian man and his own territory, there is no joking allowed.
“No one is going to ruin my concrete,” John snarled.
The temperature extremes that take New York City from the consistency of a baked apple to a frozen Popsicle, and back, are tough on concrete. We had more work done a few years later, and this time Biordi was the price winner. But they used a plastic expansion joint that had not been fully disclosed during the extensive contract negotiations and John still hasn’t gotten over that strip in the driveway.
About two weeks after the job was complete, I interrupted a contractor spraying red, yellow, and blue paint on the sidewalk to indicate the location of gas, water, sewer, and electric lines. Trying to avoid spending time in a hospital nursing my husband back to health after a heart attack, I spoke to the foreman who was not very polite (as Con Edison contractors are wont to be).
“I’m here to put a new gas main in, lady. We’ll fix what we break up.”
The company was named Hallan so I knew they didn’t understand the bond between an Italian man and his concrete.
“My husband is Italian and his brand new sidewalk is very important to him. I suggest you don’t disturb it.”
The guy must have thought I was threatening him with Mafia retaliation instead of trying to explain a cultural difference. He went from not being polite to downright nasty: threatening to turn off my gas without any notice if I didn’t cooperate, letting my whole family blow up if there was a leak, and all sorts of other terrible things. Then they dug a hole in the street and left the boulders in front of my house for about another month before they returned. John was upset about that mess and the orange sawhorses, sporting an expired permit, around the hole. But I assured him that he would be much more troubled if I had allowed an Irishman to break up his concrete.
Mr. Hallan returned a month or so later and all I had to do was stand outside with hands on my hips and smile while offering the sweaty men some water to drink.
“We'll just turn off your gas for a little while, ma’am, while we snake the new main in. Then we’ll be out of your way.”
They did all the work in the street, perched a crooked valve cap over the new gas main, and still didn’t fill in the hole or remove the boulders. Another team came about two weeks later and hauled away the pile of rocks. The third crew dumped a pile of tar into the hole, tamped it down with their feet, and left a crater that makes a nice birdbath after a rainstorm. Thank God they weren’t patching the concrete.
That winter an ice storm deposited about three inches like a glass casing over everything. Temperatures plunged into the single digits. I was well aware that using salt on concrete erodes the surface, creating unsightly pock marks. We sprinkled sand and kitty litter on the sidewalks and driveway but it was still treacherous.
The United States Postal Service motto states:
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
But it doesn’t specify ice. The mailman wouldn’t go up my front steps, threw it on the sidewalk, and it blew into the bushes. Then Mayor Bloomberg decreed that enough was enough and the City would ticket anyone who didn’t get out with an ice pick and clear their sidewalks. I got to work with a tool from the shed that resembled a half moon on a broomstick. As the sun peaked at mid-day, it softened the ice just enough that a firm thrust downward would enable me to chip it away, thus creating a path for pedestrians and sissy mail carriers.
It took two days, but I prevailed. Never mind that my carpal tunnel syndrome flared from the repetitive motion injury and I had such back and neck pain I required several emergency chiropractic visits. Or that I had spared us getting a fine. I could have just gone out and dumped a bag or two of ice melt like everyone else. But instead of a backrub, I got in trouble with John because I left white stroke marks on the concrete.
I figured they would fade like they did after the Fourth of July when the kids set off bottle-rockets and Chinese firecrackers. The gunpowder stained the sidewalk and John almost had his heart attack. I was more worried about the kids losing a finger or two, or maybe getting arrested, but he didn’t care about that either. My marks never faded and anger simmers in John's peaceful soul like the molten core of Mount Vesuvius.
Yes, Italian men and concrete. Over the last week a neighbor has been replacing one segment of his walkway. He examined the site, every night, to be sure the excavation was perfect and the form symmetrical. They don’t have Roman gods like Miguel anymore, who can be trusted to do the job right.
After it was done, the neighbor, a full-blooded Italian who also makes his own wine, guarded the 3 x 3 foot patch, in a tight fitting tee shirt, belly hanging over his belt, with that defiant look in his eyes, warning any child, cat, or miscreant not to mess with his concrete. He lovingly unraveled the garden hose and depressed the nozzle, dispersing a gentle sprinkle over the hallowed ground.
Carole Ann Moleti lives and works as a nurse-midwife in New York City, explaining her love of the paranormal, urban fantasy, and space opera. In addition to professional publications, Carole writes memoir, review and commentary, and opinion pieces that focus on political and women’s issues. She has been practicing being Catholic for her whole life. But her first love is science fiction and fantasy because walking through walls is a lot less painful than running into them. Visit her blog at http://360.yahoo.com/caroleannmoleti.
Photo by Carole Ann Moleti.
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Essay and Photo Copyright © 2008 Carole Ann Moleti. All rights reserved.