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About Arlene

Scenes from My Life On Hemlock Street: A Brooklyn Memoir by Arlene Mandell

A Real Italian Dinner

Edith Parisi, my best friend on Hemlock Street when I was twelve years old, lived in a six-room apartment with her mother, father, and three younger brothers. Her father and uncles were “in garbage collection.” Years later I learned that those words were code for the Mafia. In Brooklyn you learned early not to ask too many questions, like why the guy who hung out at the corner candy store and never worked drove a shiny Cadillac and wore a diamond pinky ring.

Because she was the only girl, Edith had to do all the ironing and a lot of the cooking and cleaning too. Vinny, the oldest of her three brothers, was a horrible boy who tried to look under my dress. Once he tied an empty tin can onto a stray cat’s tail and threw rocks at it while the cat screamed and ran in frantic circles.

One afternoon, after I helped Edith shape meatballs to put in the huge pot of tomato sauce simmering on the stove, her mother invited me to stay for dinner. First we had a salad that was just dark green leaves with oil on it. At my house the salad always had bits of cut up tomatoes and cucumbers and mayonnaise dressing. I took one bite of the bitter salad and tried not to make a face. I saw Mrs. Parisi shaking her head and Vinny smiling his evil, pointy-toothed smile.

Then came a huge plate of spaghetti and sauce with one meatball balanced on top. They sprinkled some smelly cheese on top of their food, but I said “No, thank you.” I’m what my mother calls a picky eater, and even when I like what I’m eating, I get filled up quickly. So I cut my meatball in eight tiny pieces, then ate them one at a time. Then I ate about twelve strands of spaghetti and placed my fork neatly on the side of the plate, which I read somewhere was considered proper etiquette.

Mr. Parisi poured himself another glass of the dark red wine he made from the grapes in their backyard. I could smell the sour fumes. “In this house,” he began in a mean voice, “we expect everyone to eat everything that’s on their plate.”

Vinny snickered and Edith examined her fingernails. I knew there was absolutely no way I could swallow another strand and I also knew that no one in that household ever answered Mr. Parisi back. I’d heard about his famous belt and how little it took for him to remove it.

I thought about fainting dead away, like the fragile heroine in some vile situation, but my chair was wedged tightly between Edith’s and her little brother Dominick’s. So I couldn’t tip it backward and I certainly wasn’t going to fall face forward into that heap of spaghetti.

Then Mr. Parisi laughed, and his big belly bounced up and down. And then everyone else at the table laughed. “It’s all right, Arlene,” Mrs. Parisi said. “Your mother told me about your delicate stomach.” Then they all laughed harder than before.

I never ate supper at Edith’s house again, even though Vinny made it a point to invite me every time they had spaghetti and meatballs. Years later when I heard he had been arrested for beating someone senseless, I wasn’t in the least surprised.

© Arlene Mandell, 2009

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Welcome to Hemlock StreetBlock PartyBuilding the Ferris WheelCrossing Pitkin AvenueThe KissInvisible BabyAunt Minnie's Second WeddingMurder Inc. • A Real Italian Dinner • Sleeping with Nettie SachsDuke Snider Breaks Our HeartsCherries in the SnowMy Thirteenth SpringNo Room of My OwnDeeply in LoveHangin' Out and Makin' OutResolutions Made and Broken