November 20, 2009 | Italian

Little Italy, the Bronx

I look for work in the Bronx.

I’m still trying for an Italian job. Today I wrote to the Italian Trade Commission on the Upper East Side asking for (uncompensated) work. I really, really, really want to be surrounded by Italian full-time. A language exchange thing just isn’t going to be enough hours for me.

Arthur Avenue in Little Italy, the Bronx

Next I headed north, to see if I could get work in the Bronx’s Little Italy. On the way there, I got a little concerned about my subway car because almost everyone had gotten out, so I got out, too, and waited for a fuller train. Eventually I reached my destination, the Fordham stop, and walked about 10 minutes to what is supposedly the only remaining real Little Italy in New York City.

On Arthur Avenue, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, I walked around taking photos, checking out the shops, etc., not really knowing where to go. I think I saw more sausages than I have seen cumulatively in my entire life.

Along the way, I kept seeing firemen going in and out of the stores buying food, presumably for a firehouse lunch or dinner. So I walked up to a couple of them, who were holding overflowing shopping bags, and said, “I’m guessing you know this neighborhood pretty well.”

They conceded that point.

I told them I was trying to learn Italian super fast. I said I was a writer and that I wanted to offer to work for no pay, or volunteer someplace, where people would speak Italian to me. They said I could go into any of the restaurants around there and started rattling off suggestions as I scrambled for paper.

The Goods, Arthur Avenue


Then an older fireman with authoritative gray hair came up to us. When the other two told him what I was looking for, he said, “Come on, I’ll introduce you,” and we all four went into a large interior marketplace I had walked around already, with multiple stalls and stores, called Arthur Avenue Retail Market.

Arthur Avenue Retail Market, the Bronx

We ended up at Mike’s Deli, where I was introduced to the proprietor, a big Italian guy named David. The fireman told him briefly what I was doing.

David addressed me in Italian, asking, “È sposata?” (Are you married?)

This wasn’t quite how I had expected the conversation to begin. “Sì. Perché?” I asked. (Yes. Why?)

He explained that the best way to learn Italian is with an Italian boyfriend. I know that, but it is not an option in my case.

Anyway, he said he thought he could find a use for me where I could also learn Italian. Excellent! At that point, I thanked the nice firemen, who went off with all their piles of food.

David said I seemed mature and responsible. I conceded that point. He then cut up some cheese and called over one of his employees, telling him to hand it out to customers. He said about 50 percent of his customers speak Italian, and so does he, and so do some of his employees. He said, “You just hand out the cheese and say, ‘Assaggio?’” (Taste?)

I said, “Your customers won’t mind my speaking Italian to them?”

He shook his head. “No, it’ll be like it would be in Italy if you were interacting with people there. If they don’t speak Italian, they just won’t talk to you.”

David of Mike's Deli in Action

All of this conversation, by the way, took place with him high above me from his perch behind a counter, with food hanging down and partly blocking my view of the top of his head. I couldn’t hear him all that well. He is incredibly high-energy. He kept answering the phone and running around, but I waited patiently for him to come back, and then we arranged that I could come back tomorrow at 10 a.m. and hand out cheese.

I walked around the neighborhood a bit more, then I headed off to midtown Manhattan, to the steps of the main New York Public Library building at 42nd Street. There I met my new conversation partner, whom I’ll call Marco and whom I found through a Craigslist posting for conversation exchange. He is small and lively, with a vigorous shock of black hair, great manners, and a great sense of humor.

Coffee in Bryant Park

We decided to get some coffee and sit in Bryant Park to talk. His head almost exploded when I tried to buy my own coffee. Which is stupid, because he is not making any money, is here to learn English, and can’t work here, and is staying in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to save money, and is in any case way younger than I am. I did not make a point of it, however.

We installed ourselves at an outdoor table and spent two hours on conversation, pronunciation, vocabulary, etc. Early on we settled that I would speak in Italian and he in English, but I think we’re going to have to work something else out shortly, because we both need listening comprehension, too.

Among other things, I learned that “to burp” in Italian is ruttare. Which sounds mildly obscene. He said he can’t believe Americans burp on the street, like while standing at the semaforo (traffic light). He said this behavior would not be acceptable in Italy.

We were both shivering by the end, but our meeting really couldn’t have gone better. I’m sure we will meet again.

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