La Dolce Vita on 13th Street

Article excerpt

WE all come with dreams and often they must fade, fragile flowers left over from childhood - a sweetness small and solitary and so very much each his own. The Italians understand this - they sing their dreams, and laugh and cry over them, and they die clutching them. And they catch the light in your eye when you talk of yours. They take your hand and draw you in and for that moment you are all children again, eager and believing.

When I was small I wanted passionately to play beautiful music. I managed to prevail on our country church to let me play Bach on its organ and my head swam with the glory of those chords reaching up to God. But then very sensibly life took charge and made me a housewife with five children and I learned that after diapers there were bigger problems. Sometimes there seemed little left of me for me.

I did somehow join the college orchestra viola section, and those two hours a week were like a small shining in the dusty chores of housework. My instrument and I were perfectly matched - it deserved me as much as I deserved it - a hulking, stolid crudity hacked out of kitchen firewood, and I could easily have smashed it over the nearest chair. When I went to get it repaired at De Luccia's violin-maker shop on Thirteenth Street in Philadelphia's Italian section, I was caught up in the whirl of entrancing impossibilities. I hung over the beautiful instruments in the shop that I had no right to own, nor ever would. De Luccia's brother, Gennaro, made priceless violas - I had seen one once and deep inside me, I wanted something so lovely. I thought of the poet I had read - and the yearning line - "some late lark singing in my heart" ... a dream - my wistful, small dream.

And then, abruptly, out of no possible expectation, the check came, an unbelievable breathless amount stamped on the scrap of green paper. It was for me. There were no claims on it. I thought of Thirteenth Street and luminous hopes, De Luccia's Shop with its wonders of loving craftsmanship and Gennaro's viola. Suddenly they were all there for me. I put on my hat and with check in hand, I went in on a hot Tuesday night in July.

Shapeless, sweating women were drowsily fanning themselves on the marble steps they had spent all morning scrubbing. The vegetable cart was dropping by a bar and its horse munched on his feed bag and listened to the political arguments of his loud-voiced master in the bar. Petunias and geraniums spilled in a shining brightness over the rusty balustrade of a roof garden. At the corner a butcher was talking to his cat while it nestled between plump hanging cheeses and succulent steaks. Farther down, the Venus Adonis Restaurant had its doors open for coolness and pungent smells drifted out tantalizingly. Somewhere a hurdy-gurdy was playing plaintively from a rented room.

The bakery I always stopped at was enveloped in a warm fragrance of melting brown sugar, hot raisins in butter, and crusty loaves turning richly brown in the oven. The saleswoman, her hair piled high in a bubble of dyed brown, was speaking Italian with a kind of womanly tolerance to an elderly man clutching his package of rolls. She stopped, smiled at me, and with a motherly pat shooed him out the door.

She hustled back to the counter and steadied her tilting hair. "And where are the children?" she demanded. "Always you have the children, and the Model A, such a beautiful car, no? Didn't you bring it? Eh! You wouldn't sell it? Such elegance, no, you couldn't." She patted some cookies back into place and looked at me closely.

"Ooo, I see. It's just you tonight, something special, no?" She smiled and going to the casement she brought out a cannoli - a confection of pastry and cool custard drenched in dark chocolate syrup. "When it's just you, it's not too expensive, no? Fifty cents, see."

I paid out the 50 cents and she watched me critically as I crunched into the fragile melting delight. …