When I call into the gravestone shop to buy a loaf of bread, Jimmy the mobster’s son is doing a book signing. He sits between a sad-faced angel and a serene virgin, and as he poses for photographs the gold of his cufflinks and his eyeteeth glint in slick accord. Two old ladies from the neighbourhood have dropped in to see him; it has been so long, they both complain. The years have gone by so fast. Jimmy’s father, dead twenty years now, was a gentleman, they say. That he was a caporegime in the Genovese crime family only made him more of a gentleman. And now his son has written a book! His father would be so proud.
‘That guy’s father would be rollin’ in his grave.’ That’s what they’d said up the block in Jerry’s, the butcher’s shop, about the mobster’s son and his memoir, a couple of weeks previously. In Jerry’s, the local men gather for their daily conversations. Go there for your meat, and you get to listen to their stories; you’ll have to, because you don’t get served until the story has been told. Some of what’s talked about is commonplace—the leaves are clogging the gutters, the grandchildren are hogging the television, the doctor is droning on again about cholesterol. The rest of what’s recounted sounds like it constitutes vital evidence for a federal trial. But keep your nose out of it. This is the neighbourhood. And in the neighbourhood, you buy your meat at Jerry’s and you buy your bread in the shop where the not-yet-dead are commemorated in marble and bronze.
Louie sells the gravestones. He’s done so, from this corner shop, for over forty years, and when his daughter wanted to set up a bakery and couldn’t afford to rent a place of her own, he gave her a corner beside Our Lady of the Sorrows in which to stack her prosciutto rolls and her homemade baguettes. They sell out by lunchtime most days. The bread they sell everywhere else around here is processed; leave a slice on your kitchen counter for a fortnight and it still won’t go stale. Wonder Bread, they call the processed stuff. At least Louie’s bakery is honest about being a graveyard-in- waiting.
Louie’s proud of his friend Jimmy. He’s had posters of Jimmy’s book in the shop window for months now, and he’s hosting this book signing today; he’s invited all of the people who remember when Jimmy and his father used to live around here. There are six people here; seven now that I’ve dropped in, looking for bread. ‘We’re sold out,’ Louie says, but Jimmy says, come over here and say hello. ‘I don’t remember anybody like you being in this neighbourhood when I was here,’ he says, when I walk closer to his chair. Maybe it’s a compliment. Maybe he’s a charmer. Or maybe it’s a comment of the kind that they’re always making up in Jerry’s: that this neighbourhood is filling up with people who don’t have roots here. Who move in here and open up shops and restaurants that look a little like shops and restaurants used to look—the tin ceilings, the old cabinets, the gilt-framed black and white photographs on the wall—but which are not the same. In the vintage clothes shop across from Jerry’s, the mannequin in the window wears a housedress, in a heavy cotton, which is maybe fifty years old. It’s deadstock. It still has the original tag.
Jimmy the mobster’s son was a mobster himself for a while. He did what you have to do; what a mobster has to do. I sit down with him for a minute, and he opens his book to the first chapter, and he points across to a pretty brown-haired girl on the other side of the shop. That’s his daughter, she’s a schoolteacher nearby. And this guy he’s castrating with a bottle in the opening chapter is the punk who messed with Jimmy’s little girl. But Jimmy doesn’t do things like that anymore. Neither, I imagine, does the punk.
Jimmy’s grandparents came to Brooklyn from a village south of Salerno, he tells me. He points to a photograph of his grandmother, standing on a street I think I recognise, a fire hydrant behind her, her white hair clipped back, her face weathered and unsmiling. She wears a dark shawl over her shoulders; she wears a shining pair of boots. Her dress is of a heavy cotton, striped and long-sleeved. The pockets bulge.
I tell Jimmy about the village I stayed in one summer, south of Salerno, a village where the narrow streets climbed a hill overlooking an old monastery, where the old women sat outside their houses on kitchen chairs from early morning, watching and commenting on every creature who passed by. The widows wore black headscarves, black dresses, black woollen tights, even in the midsummer heat. I do not mention these details to Jimmy. He’s never heard of the village I stayed in. He signs for me a copy of his book, and he thanks me for coming. He smiles. Do I want a photograph, he asks. That’s okay, I say.
‘We’ll have bread again on Monday, sweetheart,’ says Jerry, and he pats me on the shoulder as he shows me to the door.