My friend Joanne called me three or four days ago and told me there was a mouse in her kitchen. She said he was hiding in the basket where she keeps all of her pasta and grains. “Can’t you find something to catch him in?” I asked, and Jo said, “No. I’m afraid.” I said I would come down and catch him then, and she said, “Really? Okay!”
Jo lives way down east near Avenue D on 3rd Street in one of the old tenement houses still standing and unmolested by change, with the kind of pretty hand-carved wooden doors that so many buildings used to have in New York. It was very cold outside and steam poured from the manholes in the streets. I avoided patches of ice as I walked, thinking of something Jo told me recently. She told me how her grandfather, who had a horse-drawn ice wagon once upon a time, would cross the Brooklyn Bridge in the winter and chop ice out of the frozen East River for his customers. When she told me that, it made me think of Nick the Iceman. He was an Italian fellow who delivered blocks of ice to e.e. cummings for his icebox when cummings lived on Patchin Place in the Village. My friend Loren MacIver was there a few times when Nick the Iceman came, and they all liked him so much that e.e. wrote a poem about him, which Loren read aloud to me from a book one night. The poem was called Nick the Iceman, and as Jo told me the story, I could imagine so clearly how it must have looked, her grandfather still young, jumping down off the wagon with his pick axe on the shore of the river, with the great anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge behind him like a cathedral as he wrapped the chunks of river ice in burlap. And my hair stood on end, knowing in my heart that Jo’s grandpa was Nick the Iceman. There was something utterly thrilling in that notion, and my heart raced when I asked her, “Was his name Nick?” And Jo said:
“No, it was Pasquale.”
Sunlight poured in through the windows of Jo’s kitchen and I emptied out her basket of pasta and grains. The mouse was nowhere to be seen, but he had chewed a hole in a bag of oats she had in there, and when I lifted it they spilled onto the floor. We sat and talked about how fast time rushes by, given the fact that we first knew each other almost 25 years ago when we both worked for the coffee wagons in Lower Manhattan. For a long time we fell out of touch, but I always remembered some of the stories she told me back then. Her family had an Italian restaurant called Scarola’s for many years, with the first pizza delivery service in Brooklyn.
Back then she still had one of her Italian grandmas living in Brooklyn, and one day she told me that her grandma had called to say that her record player had just quit on her. The turntable would not turn. Jo went over to look and saw the turntable not turning, and her grandma said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with it, but I’m thinking maybe it needs a new needle.” I remember laughing together about that, standing at my coffee wagon down by the US Customs House at the bottom of Broadway. I thought it was the funniest, most innocent thing I had heard in a long time, and I still think so now. Jo told me about the big, hand-drawn map of Brooklyn on the wall of the restaurant that was used for finding the locations of people who had ordered a pizza. She said that as a kid she would go along for the ride sometimes. The delivery van had an oven in it to keep the pizza warm and swirled on its sides, the painted name: Scarola’s.
One day Jo called me on the phone and told me about something that had just happened. A few days earlier she found a perfectly good little charcoal cooker out on the sidewalk with the trash. She brought it home and put it on the fire escape. The weather was still nice so she decided to cook a rack of ribs on it. She lighted some charcoal and went to take a shower. Suddenly a herd of firemen came banging on her door and there she was in the shower, truly in flagrante delicto because her crime really was blazing, out on the fire escape. She threw some clothes on and let in the firemen. One of them noticed her last name and asked if she was related to the Scarolas of Brooklyn, where he grew up, and when she said “Yes,” that seemed to do something and all his gruffness fell away. He saw Jo’s ribs marinating in a bowl on the table and said, “Aw, geez. Sorry. But ya know you’re not s’posed to cook on the fire escape, right?” He had to say it even though growing up in Brooklyn he would remember a time when everybody cooked on their fire escapes, the way anyone of a certain age who grew up in Brooklyn would remember Scarola’s.
Jo told me that if I want to know about the restaurant I should meet her Uncle Angelo. I found a New York Daily News story from September 27th, 2000, written by longtime staff writer Bill Farrell with the headline: SCAROLA'S, A NABE JEWEL, CLOSING DOORS. And there was Uncle Angelo, born right upstairs, talking about the place, telling how a certain monsignor and a gaggle of priests came so religiously to eat every week for so many decades you could set your watch by them. Jo said we should go find him some night. She said he still hangs out at the Melody Lanes bowling alley in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
31 January 2010