Those unfamiliar with Syracuse believe it to be either a small college town or sprawling farmland featuring more cows than humans. There is little wiggle room in people’s minds. The notion that Syracuse is big enough to have suburbs is met with universal skepticism. The other response when mentioning Syracuse to outsiders is, “Its a suburb of New York City, right?” Most people outside of New York State believe that every region is within spitting distance of The Big Apple. I can understand that.
I did not travel to Manhattan until I was 24 years old. You must understand that in my youthful mind the place was a frightening hellscape! (But I jest…that was intentional hyperbole for you proud NYC-haters.) The more likely explanation is that it was simply too expensive for our family and we truly didn’t give the place much thought.
North Syracuse, New York
The village of North Syracuse is a suburb about six miles north of Downtown Syracuse. As children, we knew not to conflate our village with Syracuse’s North Side. The Italian, Irish, and German immigrants who lived there wouldn’t let you confuse the two places. The North Side was where my parents and both sets of grandparents were raised. The aforementioned nationalities comprised about 90% of the population, with Polish families accounting for most of the remaining 10%. I may or may not have memorized an unfortunate number of Polish jokes for a kid my age.
My maternal Italian side of the family lived on The North Side throughout my childhood (Oh, Nimmy and Papa—I miss you dearly!) There were delis, a few bakeries (Columbus Bakery being our family’s choice), pizza joints, Italian restaurants, and more Italian restaurants. It was also the location of Papa’s home away from home—the Italian American Athletic Club (IAAC for short.) During my visits to the IAAC, I did not witness anything remotely athletic, unless you include poker games or eight-ball. I can’t rule out the possibility that high-stakes sports betting took place—that’s athletic, yes?
Life in the 1970’s and 1980’s
Life in North Syracuse in the 70’s and 80’s was simplistic. I rode my bike around the neighborhood, played tackle football with no gear (until I realized unnecessary pain was not for me), and struggled through pick-up basketball games. Highlighting mu basketball career was a spectacularly humiliating bank-shot in the opposing team’s hoop when the coach unexpectedly inserted me into a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) basketball game (my usual role on the CYO team was to keep the bench toasty.)
I also played tennis for hours and hours at the local high school. The courts were free and Al W., my friend since kindergarten, always gave me a run for my money and then some. He was also one heck of a wiffle ball player! Without realizing it, music-making became as important to me as any of life’s necessities. My personal version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs included two-octave chromatic scales.
High School and Music
In high school, my days began with forty minutes of practice time in the cramped sheet music library adjacent to the band room before first period. Not intending to become a professional trumpet player, my goal was to master assignments and move up “The List”, ostensibly a weekly ranking of students by instrument and performance quality. I now realize there were likely an array of teacher mind games at play behind the scenes.
Music’s grip on me was sneaky. Achieving high grades in my coursework was not terribly difficult—trumpet was always freakin’ hard! I practiced a LOT and rehearsed with passion. Individual and ensemble improvement brought me tremendous joy. Soon, a group of like-minded friends emerged. We spent rehearsals and all of our free time together and I cherish these people to this day. Listing names would make this post even longer…but you know who you are and I thank you for being such a special group of humans!
The marching band traveled each year on overnight trips…Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and finally Orlando (Non-sequitur: I HATE Disney.) On these journeys, I had the time of my life—during the day. However, once bedtime arrived, Me and Anxiety were rudely reunited. “Me and my shadow, strolling down the avenue…”
I had never slept away from home without my family and I always had a bedroom to myself. For reasons still unclear to me, sharing a hotel room with my band friends made me incredibly uneasy. Was it latent homophobia—four teenage boys to a room? Was something deeper at play? I honestly don’t know.
My feelings were not rational, but physical. Things were even more unsettling when we were welcomed by “host families.” Who were these people? Their homes seemed like a foreign land with unfamiliar decor, scents, foods, and definitively different degrees of cleanliness from which I was accustomed. My unease inevitably left me with little to no sleep. Similar to my first airport experience many years later, I pretended to be just fine.
The surety that I would soon return to my own home rendered the nervousness endurable. It also enhanced my mood that our Cicero-North Syracuse Northstars Marching Band racked up a boatload of trophies during these annual excursions. (Go Northstars!)
Nimmy and Papa
Growing up, our family food consisted of pizza and other Italian-American staples, with a smattering of traditional American fare…burgers, chicken, and the like. Nimmy’s ziti was the best…We lived for it! To this day, I attempt to recreate her heavenly sauce. Intuitively thinking ahead to her inevitable passing, one Saturday was spent following Nimmy around her kitchen with a small piece of paper. I transcribed every ingredient and sleight of hand. Her lack of reliance on measuring utensils forced me to be creative with my detailed notes. There were Handfuls, Pinches, Nimmy’s Palmfuls, and About This Much—not exactly standard units of measure.
Papa helped me complete my recipe sheet with the precise portions and exact cuts of meat that comprised the base of Nimmy’s flavorful cauldron. Papa had a different approach to the way he handled things. On one shopping trip, I remember empathizing with a hapless butcher who questioned Papa’s opinion regarding the quality of a particular chunk of pork—we left the place with at least a half pound of free meat and an apology from the store manager.
Today, armed with a deteriorating piece of paper, my family and friends play the role of celebrity food panels as I edge closer and closer to recreating Nimmy’s sauce and her famous meatballs. When the garlic first strikes the hot olive oil, my reaction is Pavlovian.
During our family’s larger gatherings, we would sit around the long table with Nimmy and Papa, extended family, and their multitude of friends. I never really knew the names of the colorful characters at dinner, but I felt a sense of warmth and belonging. The table was adorned with the aforementioned ziti, as well as meatballs, sausage, pork, beef, lasagna, salad, and Italian bread. Ricotta pie and Italian cookies completed the feast.
Seafood was not on the menu. These Italians were from regions of Southern Italy where rustic meals were the norm—Puglia and Basilicata. The adults drank the only wine I had ever seen—red wine with its omnipresent wicker, encasing a carafe-shaped bottle. Canadian Club whiskey made a guest appearance from time to time. Nimmy drank Manhattans.
Meals at Home
It is tempting to stretch the limits of my veracity and describe all family meals as joyous feasts, but that was not the case. My mother cooked for us, but youthfully choosey tastebuds, hectic schedules, and changing family dynamics put an end to her efforts. She did, however, continue to make a killer chicken noodle soup when one of us was sick and her homemade apple pie, soft and abundantly seasoned with cinnamon, was unbeatable.
As we got older, tensions arose with increasing frequency. “Help yourself” became one of our most popular menu options. Not until adulthood did I become aware of our family’s dire financial circumstances. There is something about the fact that we were poor, but did not realize it, that makes our family dysfunctions a bit more palatable, and certainly not worth rehashing. Besides—this blog is meant to be inspiring!
Please enjoy Part 2 of this post for more about how unexpected experiences change us. It focuses more on travel and other twists of fate. Hopefully, you can relate!
In My Unexpected Life: Travel, Food, and More, I will share stories, thoughts, and ideas to entertain and maybe even inspire others to engage with new food, travel, and more…no matter how big or small those experiences may be.
If my intentions do not produce the desired result, that is okay—please enjoy the blog!